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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: 2007

Lights out

Our voyage through life doesn't pass through completely uncharted territory. We are gently guided by numerous sets of traffic signs, whether they come from social conventions, friendly tips or civil laws. Every now and then, however, Life the Prankster flips the switch and for a moment lets us grope in a complete darkness, leaving only starry skies of our instincts to guide us on. These moments are sort of like the bubbles in a freshly opened bottle of champagne. Not the same substance as the wine itself, but giving it its fizzy feel.

My friend Helen threw a post-Christmas party today and as I have never visited her spacious home in the country I decided to plunge into the slowsands of rush hour Beltway and after traversing half a circle on it at a dazzling speed of a continental drift, I was disgorged into Maryland back roads. The traffic drastically abated and the bright city lights were replaced by country shadows from which a reasonably skilled mathematician could deduce wilderness. After some trial and error exploring brought about by poor house numbering, I entered a dark and wooded driveway leading to a spacious house surrounded by cars.

I parked my little Honda by a mighty oak whose robustness was heralding the good old days when banks actually screened their mortgage applicants and house builders had a solid understanding of right angles. However majestic the house was, there was still no number on it nor any other indication that this was my rightful destination. The runway lights have a way of disappearing when you need them most. Doubts started to nibble on my mind. What if I am at a neighbors' house, I wondered. What would I say if I barged in on a big family reunion and had to explain my rose bouquet to a consortium of aunts and uncles in the middle of a home-made Cupcake Fest? Or worse, what if I entered a secret operative meeting of the Russian Mafia? I walked around the house for a bit, but haven't seen any signs of armed bodyguards, vicious dogs, brawny adherents of jujitsu or piercing laser beams. Concluding that the house is occupied by reasonably peaceful people, I entered.

There was no one in the hallway, but I heard muffled noises coming from the guts of the house and I pushed onward. The next room was half taken by a lavishly lit Christmas tree jammed with trinkets in a silent celebration of rush hour beltway and standing next to it was a Steinway piano which I ended up playing about three hours later. Encouraged by the fact that no one has shot me yet, I plodded on. The adrenaline rush injected into my blood stream made me briefly consider a career of a jewelry thief. This is how pilots must feel when they land in poor visibility conditions and just hope that the runway is actually there.

But two rooms later I ran into a well dressed elderly couple who confirmed that this was indeed my friend's residence and beckoned deeper into the maze of the house. The lights on the runway blinked on and all was normal again.

Tea Party

Ron Paul's supporters are a creative bunch.

While most campaigns spread their fund-raisers evenly over time, the Paulinators (or Paulites) chose to dump most of their hard earned dough on days associated with events they felt had a great symbolic value. Exploding in one day, these Money Bombs became their fund-raising trademark. Other candidates tried to emulate them, but their grassroots could not provide the same level of self-organization. Equivalent to ideological Theme Parks, they forever changed the landscape of the American electoral politics.

The first Money Bomb commemorated the movie "V for Vendetta" which itself was loosely based on exploits of Britain's rebel Guy Fawkes. In the movie an anonymous hero fights against a deeply inept government and at the end succeeds in blowing up the symbol of the corrupt ruling class - the Houses of Parliament. The surprisingly successful November 5th drive brought 4.2M to Ron Paul's coffers.

Out of the many suggestions for the second money bomb, the Boston Tea Party emerged victorious, because it highlighted the insidiousness of taxing people through inflation. War with Iraq is a good example. Rather than transparently increasing the taxes to pay for the military expenses, the administration chose to nominally decrease the taxes, yet the massive debt which it incurred crippled the dollar so much that it lost half of its value against Euro. The lost value of the weakened currency is a form of a tax which we all pay, whether we wanted it or not. That was the central theme of the Tea Party, which at the end raised 6M dollars - the world record for a one day fund-raising effort among all the candidates.

The DC branch of Ron Paul MeetUps chose Garrett's Restaurant and Railroad Tavern in Georgetown for its Tea Party festivities. The geographical location prevented the participants from dumping tea in the Boston Harbor so they dumped at least symbolic pork packages from benches onto the floor to symbolize the displeasure with the increasingly inefficient and overgrown government.

People appreciate when they are treated like adults. They don't like to be told which drugs are good (tobacco, alcohol) and which are bad (marijuana, crack), or which military regimes to support (Pakistan) and which to overthrow (Iraq). And as more and more tax money are disappearing in the giant maw of this administration - whether by greed or by incompetence, more and more tax payers are getting tired of bankrolling the foreign policy extravaganzas. And that's pretty much what was on people's minds as they sat on the pub's floor and wrapped their little mock packages of disposable pork.

tea

Walking the walk

Men are genetically equipped with exactly one kind of walk - one standard way of lugging their body mass from the point A to the point B. And whether they carry a six pack of Samuel Adams or freshly inked draft of the Declaration of Independence in their hands, they strut down the street with the very same swagger. Women, on the other hand, are a completely different ball game - they have as many walks as snowflakes have shapes. Similar on the outside, but astonishingly different under close scrutiny.

A friend of mine graduated from Georgetown University's Nursing Program, so together with her boyfriend we went along to celebrate her educational victory dance. The ceremony was held in the Gaston Hall - a massively paneled auditorium, resplendent with warm wooden tones and ornamented in detail that would make King Arthur's most discerning knights quite comfortable.

We had an excellent view of the stage which the nurses in the making had to negotiate for their badge of accomplishment - a little pin which they got in lieu of a diploma. From our vantage point we saw their whole voyage: climbing short stairs on the right, then carrying themselves across the stage and having the pin pierced into their lapels. One after another, the new blood of the medical industry displayed an amazingly varied spectrum of ways to cross the stage. Here is how they did it:

assuredly - like a mighty battleship on its first mission
aggressively - as if they had an unfinished business with the dean
deliberately - as if they were measuring the distance
gingerly - as if the stage turned into a mine field
eagerly - as if the pin was made out of marzipan
gracefully - like dandelion spores wafting in a draft
hurriedly - as if catching a bus that was just about to leave
mechanically - like a well controlled robot
menacingly - as if the pin was to be bullied into obedience
flailingly - as if their future depended on their wingspan
solemnly - like princesses on their way to the altar
choppily - as if the stage was a heaving sea
tentatively - as if not sure if any of the faculty was to bite them

Pages and pages from the Ode to Locomotion were streaming in front of our eyes, until there were no more ways to cross the stage.

In one of the numerous talks, the class valedictorian praised the varied student body which "recruited from all walks of life". She could not have been more right about that.

Virginia Straw Poll

Straw Poll is a little pre-election get together where the participating campaigns toss their world-shattering ideas around, prune their argumentative trees, sharpen their ideological claws, size up the opponents' crowds and get the rare chance to sport the new ties with party' emblems. Straw polls are like a rehearsal dinner before a big wedding. The actors are all there, the speeches are almost fine tuned and there is plenty of artificial sweetener on the table.

As the Republican Party of Virginia held their straw poll in the spacious conference hall of Hyatt hotel not far from where I live, I took this opportunity to see what democracy looks like before it is put in the oven. I have to admit that locating the oven took me a little extra time, because a concierge, confused by too many concurrent conventions, sent to me to the 3rd floor, where I found only an empty room bedecked for a large banquet. I loitered around until I glanced at the door - of course! - what Republican in his ultra-right mind would hold a straw poll in a room bearing a golden plaque that proudly announces "Kennedy Suite".

After a quick elevator ride I found the correct auditorium already packed with anxious supporters - from venerable veterans who were still nursing their tender memories of the Nixon fiasco to young and perky Romney supporters with carefully greased hair, who were feverishly discussing how it felt to shake Mitt's hand. All this zest and ostentation was neatly tucked into sober brown drapes emblazoned with an obligatory elephant and a "Republican for a Reason" sign. The candidates were not present themselves, but their representatives were whipping up their oratory skills in order to outreagan each other. The connoisseurs of the English grammar would have been flummoxed at how many times you can mention Ronald Reagan and a given candidate in the same sentence.

As I stood there in the back, it felt like perching on a steep cliff overlooking a long valley of electoral politics and I marveled at its strange landscape: the dense thicket of caucuses and primaries, some open to all, some only to party members, some proportional, some winner-takes-all; the strange critters roaming its floor - the base delegates, the super delegates, the district delegates, the bonus delegates; the media tribes worshiping their pre-approved darlings; the opaque foliage of endorsements flitting high above the ground - whether they came from the New York Times or the Montana Union of Self-supported Nutcracker Manufacturers.

This fine system was designed in times when states wielded much more clout than they do today so little customization was in order, But today, what with most power being gradually transferred to the centralized federal government, it might make more sense to dispose of this political jungle and implement a simpler and more direct system: list all the candidates on one ballot and let people in a perfectly transparent process decide who they like.

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Czech it out (at your own risk)

Yesterday, I was having a dinner at a friend's house and one of the guests there asked me how difficult it would be to learn Czech.

Well, if this question ever makes it to your consideration plate, let me give you a friendly warning. Czech not only conjugates verbs, but it also declines nouns and many other lexical denizens that stumble into its path - adjectives, pronouns and even numerals. For nouns there are seven cases, which are used in different contexts with different verbs. Here is an example of the whole shebang (English version is in parenthesis).

1. Toto jsou DVE MLADE ZENY (These are TWO YOUNG WOMEN)
2. Bez DVOU MLADYCH ZEN (Without TWO YOUNG WOMEN)
3. Verim DVEMA MLADYM ZENAM (I trust TWO YOUNG WOMEN)
4. Vidim DVE MLADE ZENY (I see TWO YOUNG WOMEN)
5. this case is reserved for addressing
6. Mluvim o DVOU MLADYCH ZENACH (I talk about TWO YOUNG WOMEN)
7. Jdu se DVEMA MLADYMI ZENAMI (I go with TWO YOUNG WOMEN)

You might think: no big deal - I will learn seven endings for singular and seven for plural. But there are in fact several categories of endings. How many exactly? Well, 6 for masculine nouns, 4 for feminine and 4 for neutral. Are you still interested?

Let's move to verbs then. They have their little suffixes too.

1 sg. MLUVIM (I SPEAK)
2 sg. MLUVIS (You SPEAK)
3 sg. MLUVI (He/She/It SPEAKS)
1 pl. MLUVIME (We SPEAK)
2 pl. MLUVITE (You SPEAK)
3.pl. MLUVI (They SPEAK)

How many different patterns for conjugation there are? Well, nobody really knows because it is kind of difficult to draw a line between patterns and irregular cases. But count on more than 10 for sure. So, as you see, learning Czech might turn out to be trickier than snacking on a pomegranate.

But if none of this discourages you, go ahead - learn this language. It may be difficult, it may have the largest number of grammatical exceptions per capita, but it is also beautiful, playful and dizzyingly expressive.

Run, Ron, Run

Ron Paul's Veteran's Day rally was set in a beautiful historical district of Philadelphia. Independence Mall, the cradle of the American democracy, was a fitting backdrop for the campaign that pleads the return to its values. And seeing a white van with the Ron Paul Revolution logo on its chassis parked next to the National Constitution Center had a highly symbolic value of its own.

The fact that a crowd of several thousand gathered on a lawn in front of the Liberty Bell Center, in clear defiance of the livid skies on a cold November afternoon speaks volumes about the strength of the message being disseminated. Many times during the main speech did the forest of signs and banners spring up, but the longest ovation followed when Ron Paul suggested that the power and privilege to do good should be transferred from government to people, who can disburse it more effectively.

Example: After the Great Chicago Fire in 1971, much of the restoration effort rested upon the shoulders of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. It is difficult to argue what would happen if the Federal Government took the charge instead, but the grim lessons of Katrina suggest that perhaps it was better that it didn't.

The point is really simple. You keep more of your money and you control where the money goes. If you want to support Darfur, for instance, you channel your money there through private charities - whether they are operated by Bono or by the Catholic Church. That way you make sure the money gets where you want it, rather than be diverted to other noble purposes, such as sending tons of weapons to Iraq (where they mysteriously disappear), designing new super stealth bombers or building bridges to nowhere in Alaska.

It is a result of human nature that any social structure that attempts to control everything gets eventually bogged down in its own administrative and bureaucratic quagmire. It grows into such complexity that its mere size prevents it from functioning properly. Pouring money into it is like pumping water into a leaky plumbing. Some will get to the final destination, but gallons will get wasted, too.

I once witnessed (and was a victim of) an attempt to control everything - it was called "communism". The party apparatchiks would tell you what to read, where to travel, which regimes to support, what to believe in and even what phrases to use in your writing (for instance the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was always to be referred to as the "brotherly help" and no other wording was permitted). For a while it worked, but at the end the system failed miserably.

Simply put, there are functions for which the government is well suited and some for which it is not. Foreign policy, fiscal and monetary issues, national defense - sure, but the rest should be decided locally - by states, by towns and by individual people.

It is good that at least one presidential candidate is aware of it.

philly

Social Insecurity Number

People (much like crustaceans) leave their shells only when they perceive there is no danger. That is why they may seem shy or even stand-offish at first, but all they really do is reconnoitre the terrain.

Obviously, the speed with which people can convince themselves that they are safe varies. It all depends on how quickly they can establish the sufficient level of comfort. Some people judge character quickly, and they can open up relatively soon - as they get comfortable faster. For some, it takes much longer time to get to know you. They prefer a baby step approach. A sudden gesture - and they run away, sometimes for ever.

It is like when you get stranded on a deserted island. If you have eyes to see, you need just a few days to get familiar with your surroundings. If you are blind though, it may take you a few weeks. Slowly, gesture by gesture, smile by smile, response by response you feel your way around the unknown social territory.

But even people who are socially blind (or gravely short-sighted) will eventually get to know their island. It will just take them a bit longer, for they are using different sets of senses.

Strong Dollar

Sometimes it is illuminating to reread old news.

2003 (December)
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Monday, President George Bush told reporters, "We have a strong dollar policy which is good for the economic vitality of this country."

2004 (December)
(WashingtonNote) "The policy of my government is a strong dollar policy," Bush said. "We believe that the market should make the decisions about the relationship between the dollar and the euro."

2005 (January)
(ExpressIndia) Asked if he was concerned about the fall of the US dollar, Bush told USA Today in an interview: "We have a strong dollar policy in this administration. And I'm confident foreign investors will find America a good place to invest."

2006 (December)
(New York Times) As the dollar fell over the past two weeks, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. played his role, saying that "a strong dollar is clearly in our nation's best interest."

2007 (October)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that he believes in a "strong dollar policy" and that a trade war with China is not in the U.S. interest.

While all this macho talk went on, the dollar weakened, weakened and then weakened some more. When measured by euro, it slid from 1.19 in 2001 to 0.68 in 2007. In about 6 years it lost half of its value - ironically on the watch of a team of the most vocal monetary cheerleaders in this part of the Galaxy.

If a man on the street talked like this in the face of an obviously uncooperative reality, he'd be called a clown. But in the executive branch the same statements earn you an epithet "a person of character". Especially when you shield yourself with frequent references to a divine being.

If a man on the street bought an expensive flat screen TV, even though he was deep in debt, his wife would hit him with an ironing board. If an administration which is in deep debt embarks on an expensive and poorly justified war adventure, it gets re-elected. Go figure.

I read somewhere that no nation achieved greatness by driving its currency into dust. George Bush clearly thinks otherwise. For his own sake, I hope that he will be able to plead insanity when history judges him.

dollar

Executioner's Song

One thing puzzles me about the capital punishment. Why is it the governor who has the right to stay the executioner's hand?

He has usually very little technical knowledge of the case and zero emotional involvement. I think it would be fairer if it were the closest relatives who would have the right to grant clemency. After a trial and a sentencing, the next of kin would convene and decide if the sentence can be commuted to a prison term.

Because, frankly, if a mother of a victim, or a brother or a spouse can find it in their heart to forgive, than no government in the world should have the right to execute the perpetrator.

Grim Reaper's business is always very personal. And declaring a war by a parliament should be viewed from the same vantage point. Such an act should always be automatically linked with a draft proposal. Because, frankly, no cause is worthy of a war, if people declaring it are unwilling to send their own sons and daughters to the front lines to defend it.

No Table Manners Required

Do you ever get tired of being pampered at restaurants?

If the answer is yes, visit Detenice, a small village near Mlada Boleslav, about 40 miles northeast of Prague. Their old brewery adjacent to a modest castle has been remodeled as a medieval tavern and decked out with all the requisite necessities: flickering torches, rough hewn wooden tables, brick arches with a thin veil of soot, nonchalantly strewn straw, and exotic weaponry adorning the walls. But when you start interacting with the personnel, you realize that they added a little twist - a significant part of the experience is a deliberately raw treatment which you get throughout your visit. The waiting staff in the middle ages was obviously ill versed in politeness. Or so the menu warns you.

Be prepared to be served with a jovial: "So, what do you want, yokels?". And if you dare order a Coke, the busboy is likely to roll his eyes and retort: "Ehhhh, suits you well, but your teeth will fall out, buddy". We also saw a guest at the next table who ordered an extra beer. The lackey in worn out clothes caught his request and stopped dead in his tracks: "What? Another beer? I'm gonna get me a pitchfork and teach you about another beer" and indeed, he grabbed a short wooden pitchfork lying by the tap and prodded the guest gently on his rump. But at the end he did fetch him another mug filled with the goldish Pilsener.

If you think no one in their right mind would like such treatment, think again. Buses of tourist agencies, many with foreign license plates, are lining the parking lot and if you don't have a reservation, forget eating there on Friday or Saturday night, despite the gigantic size of the tavern.

Apparently, a little mock roughness sells quite well.

krcma

Is there something I should know about?

Sometimes I get a nagging suspicion that life is orchestrated.

Yesterday I was in Prague, sipping coffee with a friend of mine, totally oblivious to the fact that the last train to my hometown leaves at 9.11p, two subway stations away from the place where we were sampling the fine products of Columbian plantations. When we descended to subway, and we did take the stairs by two, we saw the train leave right in front of our noses. It was 8.59 and there was no point waiting for the next one. I summoned all my brain cells for a quick family meeting and in 10 seconds decided to resurface and run the two subway stops to the train station, my coat and backpack included in the project. I cut the parting speech to 3 seconds and shot upstairs. It was lightly drizzling, but there was no time for complaints and I started trotting down the street towards Wenceslaus Square, where I took a brief rest in the form of a brisk walk.

I disappeared into the underpassage and reemerged for the second leg. The drizzling intensified, but I was way past the point of no return. Thanks to my soccer training I ran into the station at 9.09 with my tongue dangling out like a towel ready to be thrown. I knew this time of day the line at the ticketing office would be small and I'd probably have an extra minute by the time I reach the train.

Indeed, when I approached the window, no one was there. Sadly, not even a clerk. The office has been moved to an underspecified place somewhere on the right of the main hall. I couldn't believe my luck. For 30 years that office had been there. I bought my first ticket home at this window! And now when I needed it most, they moved it. I ran up and to the right, but found only international departures. A lady behind the counter pointed me back to where I came from. It turned out that when I dashed into the building, I passed just by it.

I asked 2 people standing in the line whether I could cut in, which they did, yielding to signs of desperation emanating profusely from my demeanor. When I got my ticket, I noticed that clock just turned 9.11 and I still had 200 meters to go. As I darted through the main hall, I heard announcer that the train to Hradec Kralove finished boarding and is ready for departure. I flew into the tunnel and as I turned to my last staircase I heard station master's whistle. I ran up to the platform and spotted the train. I caught its last standing second. As I searched for the door it moved. In 0.2 seconds I chose my door, yanked it open and leaped in. By that time the train had attained the speed of a walking businessman. The conductor asked me whether I was crazy. I thought about it and said that I wasn't.

This was the most amazing case of supernatural timing I was ever part of. Ten minutes ago, I was more than a kilometer away. And after a sequence of runs and walks and leaps and searches, I made it just in time. If I was two seconds late, the train would have been moving too fast. If I was two seconds early, the train would still be comfortably standing and what kind of story would this be if it didn't end up with jumping into the moving train.

Sometimes life feels like a reality show that Gods on the Olymp are watching from a covered balcony for their divine amusement. I am not sure which of them were betting on me, but as I slumped into my seat, I thanked them sincerely.

Off the Beaten Path

Tourists are like a lava flow - always barrelling along the path of least resistance. In Prague they usually erupt at the Prague Castle, they cascade down the Old Castle Stairs to Little Quarter, then cross the centuries old Charles Bridge into the Old Town and end up at the astrological clock, drinking overpriced beer and buying trinkets from Russian or Ukrainian peddlers.

But those looking to find more about the Czech way of life would be ill-advised to stay on the beaten path. From the cobble-stone pavement you won't see more than meticulously restored facades of medieval houses. But if you peeked inside, you'd find modern faxes and superfast internet routers purring happily in commercial and government offices and revealing little of the days of yore. And strings of western shoppes on the ground level aren't helping either. They give out about as much information about the Czech culture as the Sunday Night Football Wrap-Up on ABC. But if you hop on a bus in Prague's Eastern District and ride 30 minutes to a little town named Prerov nad Labem, you will not only get a pitcher of beer for a fraction of its downtown price, but you will actually learn about the life in a Bohemian village at times when Czechoslovakia was still a fetus growing restlessly in the tummy of Austria-Hungary.

The open-air ethnic museum is really just a well preserved and carefully labeled part of the original settlement, all in all about 20 cottages and barns, each presenting one facet of an era long forgotten. To add color to the experience, individual rooms feature mannequins involved in various contemporary activities - playing cards at a table, cooking meals, washing clothes or just chatting on a bench.

So if you get tired of endless displays of digital cameras and Russian fur hats, leave Prague for a few hours and take a trip to the world of washing boards, flail harvesters, dovecotes, granaries, cribs, grindstones, ploughs, tile stoves, ferules, birch twig broomsticks and utensils, implements and appliances we don't even have the name for. At least not anymore.

skansen

Bused Around

Common wisdom has it that airports are built to showcase air traffic. But even common wisdom gets addled at times. For a proof, call your travel agent and arrange for a flight through the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, serving the needs of Paris, its many suburbs and the Labor Union of French Busdrivers. Yep, that's right, within the limits of this lofty futuristic structure pilots play the second fiddle to the magnificent men behind the big steering wheels.

Here is a short play by play of your typical transfer at Paris: you land, you step out onto the tarmac and you board a bus for an enjoyable ride whose main purpose is to awe you with Louis XVI style rotating beacons and wind cones. After a healthy dose of concrete sightseeing and at least one round of unnecessary backtracking caused by the utter lack of the left turn opportunities, you get disgorged at your arrival terminal. If you have good decryption skills, you can look up your departure terminal and start plodding through a maze of passageways whose entertainment value is second only to playing advanced Sudoku. Finally, you descend to a basement, not unlike the one you came from, and join a livid crowd of nervous looking passengers, who are tapping their feet in assorted dance rhythms of the world and look about as comfortable as a bunch of helium balloons at a cactus auction. Unfazed, you board a bus again and are on your way around the terminal building. During the loopy ride you get to revisit some familiar landmarks and you may or may not pass by the gate where the bus to your plane is already boarding passengers with less strained itineraries. After arriving at the connecting terminal, you step through a metal detector looking contraption, which scans your brain for any signs of Anti-Bus propaganda, and then assume your place in the line for your final bus ride, the one which you saw boarding 25 minutes ago. You board the bus and see yet another batch of people arriving at the terminal from even later flights. If you get lucky, your bus will wait for them - with you in it, squeezed between two gentlemen from the Farthest East imaginable.

I am not sure who devised this grandiose, if slightly twisted, apotheosis of bus traffic. My guess would be that the airport blueprint was conceived by a Platoon of Dancing Dervishes after an all drinks paid night in La Guinguette Pirate. But if you get high from riding buses, Paris Airport should definitely be featured prominently on your list of fixes.

Seeing Is Believing

Seeing a politician live is worth reading thousand political manifestos. They can disguise their souls in carefully polished speeches, but body language always gives them away.

This Thursday, Ron Paul was giving a lecture on Foreign Policy at the Robert Tuft Club in Arlington, not far from where I live, so by 8pm that evening I was standing in a tightly packed banquet room of Boulevard WoodGrill, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the most enigmatic figure of this presidential campaign.

On the surface, Ron Paul looks like an archetypal un-president: humble, with a boyish and fragile smile, soft-spoken. You'd expect to find him feeding the birds in a park, rather then running for the most powerful office in the known Universe. But underneath the veneer of a frail man there beats a passionate heart of a surprisingly tenacious warrior. Those who underestimate him will be surprised. His mild manners may seem at odds with your stereotypical image of the Commander-in-Chief as an energetic guy with a massive jaw-bone, but his simple message is finding an increasingly receptive audience.


  • the federal government has outgrown its original blueprint to the point of loosing functionality, local affairs have to be managed by local people rather than by an army of centralized bureaucrats

  • democracy should be exported by an example and free trade rather than by use of military force; keeping an excessive force overseas drains away the resources that are needed at home

  • frivolous spending leads to massive debt and severe devaluation of the currency, the current fiscal policy slowly erases the middle class

Ron Paul's lecture was delivered off-the-cuff which gave it a pleasant air of authenticity. He spoke passionately and with conviction, yet his tone never slid to being pompous or self-serving. His arguments were clear and well grounded in logic and common sense. Most importantly, he obviously spoke his mind - a welcome respite from other Capitol denizens who constantly check and double check the effect their utterances might have on the constituents. In this presidential campaign, Ron Paul is the one who put candid back in candidate.

In short, if I met this guy on a train I would never guess he was a politician. And that is a rare compliment inside the Beltway. I'd probably think he was a gardener. One that has a rose named after him.

talk

The Beauty of Imperfection

Germans are very punctual folks. And they love soccer too. Yet few years ago, when given a choice to equip soccer balls with tiny electronic devices that would help referees make correct calls, they rejected it. Somehow, we want our choices to retain their human dimension, however error prone it might be. Fans, especially the beer chugging variety, also want the decisions to remain debatable. So a little wrong call here and there is not only acceptable - it is actually highly desired.

Perfection is a beautiful thing, but it has one blemish: when there is nothing to improve, it can mean only one thing - the end. Perfection is sterile, bionic, cold and devoid of life. It feels like a computer generated laughter. Just think of all the faces on glamour magazines at the supermarket check out lines. Would you like to live with them on a daily basis? I wouldn't.

One of my CDs is a live concert which begins with a rock rendering of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. In the passage building up to the grand Finale, someone in the audience succumbed to the magic of music and forever marked the soundtrack with an ecstatic, primordial shriek. When I heard it at first I thought: "what a debasement of this beautiful piece". But I grew so accustomed to it that I miss it when I listen to a different performance. That mini geyser of joy accentuates the music, it gives it warmth and authenticity.

So wherever there is a blemish - there is a sign of life. All those scratches and scars, all the dents and coffee stains - those are the signs of having been through things, of having lived. Otherwise our existences would be like a carefully waxed car that is only taken for a cautious Sunday drive and for the rest of the time it is kept in the garage conserved in its permanently perfect state.

The Wolf in Snake's Clothing

You know that situation when you talk about someone (usually your boss and usually in less than a flattering tone) and just as you get all riled up by your fervent diatribe, that someone unexpectedly appears as if out of thin air. I think English handles that situation with "speaking of the devil". In Czech, we say: "We about a wolf, and the wolf behind the door" (yeah there are no verbs in this saying; and, frankly, it does sound a bit weird even in Czech, but that's how sayings are).

This Sunday, I went for a hike in the Shenandoah Park with two friends from the office. Shortly after we hopped on the trail, one of my friends spotted a little spoor with flattened grass leading into the underbrush. I remarked - jokingly of course - that it was probably pressed by a giant anaconda, which broached the general subject of snakes and we entertained ourselves by recalling our various experiences with serpents of all kinds. I have personally seen two rattlesnakes in the West, but none on the East Coast yet. I even expressed an opinion that there are no rattlesnakes east of Mississippi. But the proverbial wolf was already listening.

On our way back, we ran into one. Almost literally. A nice specimen of Timber Rattlesnake was lying on our trail. Although with snakes you never know - maybe it was standing there. I can never tell the difference. Anyhow, as were approaching it, I was so immersed in deep philosophical conundrums of human existence that I forgot to pay attention to the trail traffic and nearly stepped on it. I stayed my foot only about a yard away from the snake's body. It appeared motionless, apparently trying to catch a late summer tan. At first we all flinched back, but curiosity soon got the better of us. We pulled out our cameras and showered the sucker with a spate of paparazzi treatment.

I am sure that gave him something to brag about at the nearest Snake Snack Bar.

snake

Evergreen Marseillaise

In all cultures and at all times, it has been the youth that was the bearer of changes, always eager to wave the flags of revolution and always willing to sacrifice the status quo for a more progressive milieu. After all, the future is primarily theirs, so it is natural that they should decide what ideas will populate its political balcony.

In November 1989, about 20 years after the Soviet tanks crushed the fledging democracy in Czechoslovakia, I was standing at Prague's Wenceslaus Square and I could not believe what I was seeing. After years of standing silent, and reluctantly enduring the staged manifestations of the ruling establishment, the historical square was abuzz with the new blood. Thousands of college and high school students went out in full force and they chanted for freedom until their cautious parents came along. And then in a few short weeks the communism was over. Thanks to the generation that never knew the futility of fighting the Soviet occupants. Thanks to the kids who never got their fingers burned on the regime's insidious stove.

Any time I come to a Ron Paul event, I notice that I am one of the older folks there. Ron Paul may be a doyen of this campaign, but his supporters are some of the youngest, and also the most passionate and caring elements of this presidential pre-season. And in some cases the prettiest ones, too - an attribute whose persuasive potential should not be underestimated. Sure every now and then you get an occasional conspiracy nut thrown in, but the message of the demographics is clear: the new generation is getting fed up with the political Status Quo. If there is a web site rigged for younger audiences, Ron Paul is there. Whatever the format may be, from .mpeg to .aiff, his is words resonate through the hallways of all the new media - Facebook, MySpace, MeetUp, YouTube, independent blogs.

It is mind-boggling that a man who is a constitution stickler and an advocate of ideas put forth by founding fathers centuries ago should be regarded as a radical, but large throngs of twenty-somethings drawn into his orbit speak volumes about the revolution he represents. Perhaps, it is a testament to how far this country has strayed from the ideas upon which it was once built.

Blast from the Past

If you feel that your inner British accent doesn't get enough exercise, consider attending your local Renaissance Fair.

Maryland hosts the second largest festival in the country, and since I never saw one first hand, I convinced two of my friends to take an hour long trip from DC to a leafy grove near Annapolis, which has been permanently morphed into a charming Elizabethan village. We left our car in a large meadow moonlighting as a parking lot and stepped through a gate emblazoned with a coat of arms into the age of artisans, dancers, jugglers, merchants and witches. Into the age devoid of electricity and sub-prime mortgages. Into the age of story telling and axe throwing.

Of the latter I partook myself, and I can vouch that no amount of time spent in front of a computer screen playing Doom can match the simple pleasures of launching a robust hatchet towards an unsuspecting chunk of solid wood. You almost feel obliged to utter a deep guttural scream as you dispatch the lethal implement. And during its flight, just for a second, you get to feel like Mel Gibbson in Braveheart, or like a complete fool - depending on your hurling skills.

And if you ever get tired of endless shoppes catering to "upwardly noble", you can always wander around and wonder. How are these brittle vultures made out of mussel shells supposed to survive the journey back? Do all these men in tights feel comfortable? How do the rock climbers feel attacking the ramparts? Why doesn't the fashion industry make better use of wench grade cleavage? Is it legal to protect your property with a slingshot and a crossbow? Where did schoolboys learn the proper etiquette of being knighted?

As you muse on these mysteries, you'll come to the village center: a stadium like arena bedecked for a bout of well staged jousting. This is the true heart of the Fair, with knaves running around the court and picking up tossed weaponry and with fair ladies announcing the results from a balcony. We were sitting behind a group of very properly dressed young ladies who were quite enthusiastic about one particular group of knights. They made their rooting preferences clear by tireless chanting: "H-R-E! H-R-E!". If you didn't know where you were, you'd think they were enjoying a homecoming football game. I was curious what is this H.R.E.? It was revealed to us only at the end of the festivities when one of the girls screamed at the top of her lungs: "Holy Roman Empire Rules!". How simple.

So what makes people wear preposterous costumes and trinkets and indulge in obsolete pastimes? I guess life is short and we long to be part of a larger context. We eagerly identify with our cultural roots and make them part of our existence. In doing so, we hope to extend our modest life span by a few centuries. And in a sense it works. The renaissance fair is like a pain killer for our mortality.

fair

Behold the Future

Spammers are a resourceful bunch. They figured that most email applications display the most recent (read the ones with the "highest" date) arrivals first and in their effort to beat hundreds of other spammers, they started postmarking their e-mails by higher and higher years. When I opened my Junk folder today, I was surprised to find few specimen coming from as far as 2038. Since the opportunity to peek into the future is rare, I would like to share a few of these emails in the hope of shedding some light into the direction in which the western civilizations might be going in the next few decades.


Date: Mon, 18 Jan 2038 17:59:59 -0800
From: "Hookup Tonight"
Subject: SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT: Get Some Tonight...

I guess the oldest profession will never die. But on the other hand, it is encouraging that carnal matters will still be attended to in the old fashioned way in 2038, rather than having them delegated to a sequence of virtual reality skits unfolding in some superfast mainframe. "Hal, what are you doing?"
---

Date: Mon, 18 Jan 2038 19:03:35 -0800
From: "Bill Consolidation Specialists"
Subject: Extra cash before your next paycheck

What? A paycheck? I thought we'd just have a magnetic strip in the back of our head recharged by our employer's taser gun.
---

Date: Mon, 11 Jan 2038 14:32:06 -0500
Subject: Learn to make money using google
From: "Google Business"

Note to myself: Buy some Google shares (sell around 2038)
---

Date: Tue, 15 Sep 2037 08:15:32 -0800
Subject: Im bored, can you help me?
From: "Lisa"

No way! Lisa is bored in 2038? With all the trips to the Moon and back, with all the hunky pleasuring androids parading in front of her, with the plethora of 3D smell enabled movies? "Pirates of the Caribbean 37" anyone?
---

Date: Sat, 12 Sep 2037 13:13:52 -0800
Subject: NEW Kind of Oreos : Cakesters - the Soft Snack Cakes!
From: "Oreo Cookie Samples"

Oreo cookies may outlive the civilization as we know it. Once in the future, aliens will wonder what kind of people left the OREO cookie jar behind.
---

Date: Thu, 27 Aug 2037 20:03:46 -0800
Subject: $1000 Busch Gardens Gift Card!
From: "EliteGiftGroup"

Gosh - what an opportunity! The way the inflation is going, I'd say $1000 might buy the whole lollipop in 2037.
---

Date: Sun, 23 Aug 2037 16:58:46 -0800
Subject: Come join our web cam
From: "Cam Girls!"

Luring guys with a web cam? What is this? A den of naughty historians?
---

Date: Fri, 21 Aug 2037 08:26:27 00100
Subject: Money is available
From: "Grant Funding"

That is comforting for the global financial systems. I wish I could forward this message to the Bear Sterns Hedge Funds.
---

Date: Tue, 21 Apr 2037 16:41:57 -0500
Subject: 10k Scholarship Deadline is August 15 - Apply Now
From: "10K Scholarship Giveaway"

Man - there used to be a time you could apply for a scholarship like a year ahead. Now you have to apply NOW for a scholarship that will take place in 30 years? What are they going to do with it then. Try to decipher it by a team of scholarly egyptologist?
---

Date: Wed, 6 Mar 2030 22:13:17 -0800
Subject: Speak Your Mind
From: "NPD - Speak Your Mind Survey"

What? People of the future will speak their minds? Scary! And I thought that the Golden Age of Political Correctness would last forever.

Square Roots of Grass

On the surface, Ron Paul is still far away from a first-tier candidate. His official land line polls are roughly on par with the numbers that a WhiffleBall Bat might garner in the Most Favorite Sporting Equipment Competititon. Below the digital surface though - when judged by the number of Internet support groups - he ranks among the best. I was curious about how real the grassroots support for him really is, so I went to one of the improvised MeetUp groups event that was held at the Marcey Park, a leafy grove on the outskirts of Arlington, not far from Potomac River.

When I got there, I immediately spotted lots of Ron Paul bumper stickers and about 15 square looking individuals chatting among the picnic tables and getting ready to grill some bratwursts. The fledgling activists assembled from all walks of life - starting with a political science student and going all the way to a professional stock trader. Some of them were quiet, you could see they'd be more comfortable in a public library, engrossed in a comprehensive study of Affordable Health Care, and some were not, like that guy with a heavy Southern accent who seemed to have been raised in the firm belief that a hearty pat on the back is the best way to introduce your political platform. There was even a pair of twin brothers who had some Czech roots. A true hodge podge. But I also noticed a complete absence of posers. That was a good sign.

The happening had a distinctly underground character. I imagine this is how meetings of early Christians must have looked like. Little structure, but lots of ardor. I mean, here they were - a bunch of amateurs on a Saturday afternoon - and instead of watching football, polishing their cars or complaining about the sorry state of politics, they came to help a guy who is still a very very long shot - and all that just for the good feeling that one day in the future - should Ron Paul make it - they would be able to tell their offsprings that they were there at the very onset of his revolution.

When the bratwursts were successfully consumed, I made a trip to HomeDepot with a guy who volunteers at Ron Paul's headquarters, and we bought some tape and a roll of Tyvek. When we returned, we made a few signs and posters using makeshift stencils. The results - due to highly uncooperative paint - looked rather amateurish. I would imagine that Don Quixote would be very comfortable in our midst - hacking the cardboard with his sword and brandishing the spray-paint cans theatrically.

But when we were finished it occurred to me that the home made feel of our little Tyvek propaganda, when contrasted with picture perfect and mostly prefabricated signs of wealthier candidates, sends a very unique message: "This presidential hopeful has what it takes to inspire people rather than paid staffers."

revolution

No Flipper Left Behind

As the sun slowly sets over the prairie of the current White House administration - three landmarks are casting particularly long shadows: Iraq, Katrina and Countrywide. The last may seem bush-league for now, but as the housing industry sinks deeper into the quicksand of frivolous lending, the US largest mortgage company may soon become the new Enron, falling pray to the dark side of the housing boom that it helped to create. It wasn't always that way though.

There was a time when people were earning their living by producing something other people might need rather than pushing paper around and speculating in the Bubble Du Jour. Of course, riding the coattails of the housing mania was much easier and even advanced condo flipping didn't really require many skills beyond giving your John Hancock.

There was a time when people researched their investment. The times when due diligence entailed more than clambering onto a jolly bandwagon rolling down the street. Times when "buy low, sell high" was the first comandment of prudent financial management - the rule to be later quietly replaced by "buy high and hope there are more suckers waiting on the sidelines".

There were times you had to put money down to buy a house. You had to show that you are serious about your purchase. But as the need to lure more people into the growing Ponzi scheme arose, the lending standards were loosened, then loosened some more and finally completely abandoned.

There were times when real estate agents were knowledgeable professionals providing guidance through the legal jungle of buying a home. The times when their trade toolkit included more than a pair of faded pom-poms and their pitch wasn't reducible to a single mantra of "housing prices only go up". But arguably, it is hard not to cheer for overpriced market when your comission is the percentage of the closing price.

There were times when banks carried the risks associated with loaning money. The times when they were the primary holder of the debt, which made them think twice about who they loaned to. These days, however, they just collect a fat commission and then they package the debt into bond-like securities, which they sell around, mostly to unsuspecting foreign investors. That of course is a mighty incentive to loan money at all costs.

There were times when invisible hand of free markets weeded out business people making bad decisions. The times when men took responsibility for their bad decisions and learned from them. But these days, when the music stops, and the schemes are starting to collapse, the big investment bankers come knocking on the government's door with pleas for a bailout. Like a bunch of little boys crying "Mommy".

But make no mistake, the powers that be are listening. It's not that they want to bail out the poor homeowners who could just walk away from their $0 money down mortgages and feel very little pain. They want to bail out the Wall Street denizens and the hedge funds that hold all the toxic debt. Why? Well, there is nothing more heart wrenching than seeing a major campaign contributor in distress. Plus in deciding who will be bailed out, more red tape will be created, which means more government jobs. And if in the process an environment for corruption is created, so be it. Sure we could spend the money on Universal Health Care or educational programs, but hey - this will be well worth it. After all, nothing spells "freedom" like supporting irresponsible behavior.

Nice noise

Silence and Noise shared an apartment. Noise was very helpful around the house and did his best to be a good roommate. He drilled the holes for the bookshelves, he cut the wood logs with a chain saw and he sang country songs while washing the dishes. Silence grew restless at his acoustic output and after few months of uneasy cohabitation, she decided to leave. She packed her few belongings into a small handbag and entered the living room where Noise was watching the Airplanes Take-Off Special on a large plasma TV screen. "I cannot live with you any more", said Silence. Noise didn't seem to comprehend. His robust face was wrinkled with thinking, "I am sure we can work it out. I would like for us to get along..." Silence stopped him with an instinctive motion of her palm: "No, we can't." Noise started pouting his lips in disbelief. "But I don't understand." Silence sighed. "I know - you never do". Then she placed her keys on a glass coffee table and left.

Without slamming the door.

silence

New York, New York

There is a Chinese proverb which reads "Heaven doesn't say that it is high". And that's what I like about New York. It doesn't have to claim to be cosmopolitan, because it is. Unlike many wannabe metropolises, New York doesn't stake its claim on worldliness with nervously tapping feet, but rather with its legs kicked high on the table. It doesn't peer into the mirror to see if the worldly jackets fits right, rather it flings it non-chalantly over its shoulder and whistles a dirty French ditty as it saunters down on Broadway.

A friend of mine teaches at Cooper Union so this weekend I got to sink my teeth into the Big Apple again. For our entry point, we chose the Holland Tunnel, whose entrance, as usual, was clogged with a yawning clump of cars digesting the distance just traveled. As we approached the booth, taking a welcome visual relief from the unremitting turnpike view, I noticed a speed measuring gun that was pointed at us and a big display board that was showing our speed: 25, 24, 23,... Strangely as we came to the complete stop, the digits froze at 15. I looked down at the pavement to make sure we were standing still. We were and yet the stubborn board kept clocking us at 15 mph, which frankly is the fastest I have ever been standing. New York can be a strange place and the laws of physics don't get much respect around here.

I suspect that the city treats the laws of physics with the same casual air with which it treats its metropolitan jacket - it flings them right over its shoulder. In this borough you can see kids with tiny bronze rings in their noses selling you gutted butterflies dipped in a saucy simmering substance that you would hesitate pouring into your car's engine, you can hear languages that do not exist anywhere else on the earth, you get to walk through a green dream of a concrete jungle called the Central Park, you will have to squeeze your body into subway cars filled with passengers whose cumulative volume exceeds that of the car itself and of course if you take a long walk south, you will hit the place which has its own set of the Laws of Physics - the Wall Street. That black hole of all reason where financial cowboys saddle the jitters of greed every day and where investment bankers wear hairdos that look like expensive scaffoldings for their mental castles albeit their actual investment advice may be as useful to your financial well-being as 10 lbs of slide rules.

As we were standing at New York's tunelly threshold, still as a frozen doornail, I wondered if my friend stands to get a traffic ticket for standing over the posted speed limit. "I am sorry, Your Honor, I will never ever stand that fast again." But that's just the kind of city New York is - you are on the go even if you are standing.

Blue Cross anyone?

Michael Moore sure knows how to stir up the hornets' nest. But there was one aspect of his latest movie "Sicko" that I wished he had accentuated a bit more: Why is it that the insurance companies HAVE to make a profit?

Let's look at the simplified cash flow of the insurance companies. Ideally, they would take some money in the form of insurance premiums, keep a bit to pay for their administrative expenses (rents, salaries, office supplies) and the rest should be disbursed to providers of medical care. And if it turns out that there is a surplus of money flowing in, rather than reaping the profits, they should lower the premiums.

Now don't get me wrong. I believe in profits; they are the best incentive for innovation. McDonald's or Intel wouldn't function very well on a non-profit basis. What motivation would they have to deliver better chips? But insurance companies are not supposed to be the innovators. They should deliver specific money to specific doctors. As effectively as possible. The physicians should push the frontiers in this business. But pushing can be really difficult when some of the funds that were intended for doctors driving the medical innovation end up in pockets of bureaucrats driving expensive sports cars.

By letting the insurance companies turn up profit, even in situations when sick people are denied treatment, we are effectively saying this: "We, as a society, believe that it is more important for the insurance executives and major shareholders to get that new spiffy motor boat than it is for some person in the Middle of Nowhere to get adequate medical attention."

I find this implied attitude puzzling. Especially in a country that bills itself as predominantly Christian.

cross

Three takes

I survived the poetry phase of the writing class I am taking this summer so now I am floundering in prose. For this week assignment we were asked to choose a memory, a snippet from our past, and tell it in three ways.

1. First person - present (as if it were happening now)

Daylight is slowly streaking in. So is my consciousness. Sounds of streetcars help usher in a new day. Their ringing seems suspended in the air, like an invisible hand offered to a lady descending a stage-coach. I realize I am not at home. I see books I never read, I see unfamiliar walls at unfamiliar distances. My reasoning is slowly emerging from its nocturnal eclipse, one by one its internal circuitry comes online, the velvet curtains of slumber are pulling up. I think I just heard a voice. Was it the door that creaked? The setting is gradually coming back to me. The apartment belongs to Helen, a woman I barely know. After a great evening with my friend Theresa, she let me stay in her boyfriend's bedroom, while Theresa crashed in hers. I am also beginning to recall that she mentioned that her boyfriend might be coming back in the morning. Thank God, the world is starting to make sense. The person at the door is a male indeed.

I try to form a coherent sentence, preferably one that might have some explanatory potential. Composing a speech while looking for socks can be demanding though. My memory sputters reluctantly into functionality - his name is Robert. Then I notice something that makes me question my liberation from the dream world. The person at the door is holding a gun. I also notice that the gun is deliberately pointed at me. This guy is really protective of his girlfriend flashes through my mind. As I try to take stock of the situation, I hear a firm request for an identification. I refocus. It is the police. But the gun is just as real as it was a moment ago. They are very curious who is the owner of this apartment and who am I.

I get up. I make a brief introduction and lead them to a living room hoping to find traces of Helen. Theresa is gone, she mentioned she had an early train to catch, so it is up to my orientation sense to find Helen. Where could her bedroom be? The place looks different in the daylight. I look around like a confused monkey looking for a banana heap. I see slim wooden furniture, a rug on the wall depicting a mountain stream, a sofa with a sliding heap of fashion magazines, but no sign of bedroom doors. Time is canoeing through the scene. I try not to act too suspicious, but my obvious failure at finding Helen is enough reason for the policemen to keep their guns ready. Finally she emerges from the depths of the apartment, as if an invisible wall somehow opened. She looks as confused as I am. But somehow I feel that this is a turning point.

2. Third person - past (as if it happened to someone else)

Joe spend an entertaining evening with his friend Theresa and her friend Helen. The conversation flowed like champagne and soon they all found themselves on the a.m. side of midnight. Theresa had an early train to catch from a nearby station, so she decided to stay at Helen's place, a spacious apartment in a high rise building in one of Prague's western districts. Helen mentioned that her boyfriend Robert is out on business and Joe was offered an accommodation in his bedroom. Up to this point nothing extraordinary. A friendly meeting and makeshift sleeping arrangements. The real twist began to take shape in the morning when Theresa left for her early train.

She didn't want to wake up the whole floor so she closed the door rather timidly. As a result the bolt didn't fully engage and while she were speeding downstairs the door wafted open. It probably felt that it had the same right to yawn like everyone else. At around 7 a.m., a neighbor noticed the gaping door on her way for fresh milk. That still wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary had she simply closed it. But there is one thing which made her think twice about doing so. As luck would have it, that same high rise complex witnessed a homicide couple of weeks ago. One of its Ukraininan tenants got into a dispute with the Russian Mafia and the disagreement was settled the Soprano way. Needless to say that the gruesome murder left the tenants rattled and highly suspicious of any irregularity. The ominously open door scared the neighbor and she called the police.

Two officers arrived shortly and entered the apartment, their guns drawn and their eyes scanning the interior for trouble. Helen just moved in, so she didn't have time yet to build a reputation of a solid neighbor. The apartment looked a bit tentative and that made the policemen proceed with extreme caution. Their shoes squeaked on the hardwood floor. They searched the hallway, the kitchen, the living room - but still no sign of life. The layout of the apartment lead them to Joe's room next. Carefully they opened the door. Joe was about to have a morning of his life.

3. First person - past (as if it is recalled from memory)

Staring down the business end of a gun is quite a unique feeling. You are scared and curious at the same time. You feel like a fish released into a kitchen sink. You feel like standing naked in the middle of Times Square. You feel out of place. And you wish you could call Quentin Tarrantino and offer him a great directing opportunity. Or at least grab a video cam and preserve this moment in its dripping urgency.

That is what I experienced firsthand few years ago, when I had to crash at a place of a distant friend. Due to some wheelings and dealings of the Prague underground, which happened to take place in the same house, I was awoken by none other than the Czech police that morning. The vigilant protectors of the law were alerted to an open door to my friend's apartment and caught me in the middle of regaining my consciousness. I will never forget that wake-up call. The ring seat view of their fine weaponry. The sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere and stubbornly continuing to drive against the flow of traffic on a busy highway. To make things worse I didn't even have a proper id on me. Since in the Czech Republic I don't usually carry my passport around, I had only my expired Czech driver's license to prove my identity. That made for an exchange of some deeply puzzled looks on the part of the officers. While they questioned me, I started wondering what kind of matresses they used in Czech jails.

Fortunately everything was explained. My friend Helen entered the scene like Deus ex Machina and saved the day. After it became clear that she is the rightful owner of the apartment, that her offer for me to stay didn't involve any extortion and that we didn't hid any dead bodies in the closet, the policemen turned the blind eye to my expired ID. When I heard the door close behind them, I thought that was the full stop after the whole story. But Helen added a little cherry on top of this tart. We were sipping coffee and exchanging our own stories of the morning when she slapped her forehead as if she just remembered something. She went to the kitchen sink and opened a little cupboard underneath it: "Good that they didn't snoop around too much - they might have found this" - and she pointed to two bags of something that looked like prepackaged hey to me. But it was marijuana. Good Lord, that was the last time I set foot in that house.

Moral of the story: Kids, it's ok to stay with your friends, but if you have to stay with friends of your friends, please, look under the kitchen sink before you brush your teeth.

Of people and tones

Recently I noticed that I prefer smaller companies. Anything larger than party of four is as appealing as last week's lettuce. And I think music is to blame for it.

Most chords consist of three or four tones and there is a reason to it. Too many tones have trouble resonating with each other. Harmony rests in simplicity of ratios. And with people it works the same. A dialog, a pas de deux, is the purest form of consonance. Three or four people can still conjure up a rich and pleasing harmony. With upwards of five people, the personal character of the conversation disappears: there are too many voices to pay attention to, too many sensitive topics to avoid, too many viewpoints to inspect and before you know it the discussion turns into a trivial sequence of sound bites. Depth is replaced by breadth.

People are indeed like tones. Some sound well together and others don't. Certain people have chemistry, others rub themselves the wrong way. It is not a judgement though. If two tones sound dissonant, there is nothing wrong with either of them. You just should not put them together in a chord. At least if you are on speaking terms with your ears. Take E for instance. It sounds well with G# or A or B, but not so well with D#. Yet D# is a perfectly decent tone. Try it with F or with G# and you'll be thrilled. That's the magic of chemistry.

Note that despite the fact that D# and E are in a clear disaccord, they both sound well with G#. In this regard, human relationships are no different. I have two friends who can't stand each other, yet I love them both dearly. On the other hand, I share common friends with many people I am not terribly fond of. It is almost like a magic. Perhaps we should stop calling it "chemistry" then - "alchemy" might be a more suitable term.

But the thing about alchemy is that you can't really learn it. It is more an innate ability. Kind of like a musical ear. Sometimes I know I won't function well with some people as soon as I see how they hold their glasses. Or how they clap their hands. And other people just scratch their head, and I know right there that a lasting friendship is in the offing. I can almost hear that mellow sound of hitting a major sixth chord.

I once spoke with an old communist - a Leon Trotsky type - who spent most of his life teaching the History of the International Workers' Movement. I told him I had doubts that we all could be brothers, as Marx and Lenin would have us believe. I think it is important that people treat each other fairly and respectfully, but friendship should be reserved for special people. Just like harmony is reserved for special tones. What good is friendship if there is no element of discrimination in it? The old communist thought that this idea smacked of a bourgeois decadence and western elitism and he was very concerned about the lack of revolutionary zeal on my part. But communism has lost its battle long time ago and I am sure one of the reasons for its well deserved demise was its disregard for harmony. Yes, people should be treated equally, but not too equally. Making arbitrary friendships is unnatural and eventually unsustainable. Have you ever tried playing in A major, while accompanying someone whose instrument is tuned in E flat minor? It doesn't work. And a society built on such music is doomed.

colors

All Star Game '07

Baseball is more riddled with curses than a drunk sailor staggering amid the bunks of a nuclear submarine.

Everyone remembers the epic end of "the Curse of the Bambino" in 2004 at the expense of the Yankees and the Cardinals. Or the unraveling of "the Curse of the Black Sox" a year later. These were removed and laid to rest once and for all, although Chicago did not get off the witchcraft hook just yet - across town the Cubs are still plagued by "the Curse of the Billy Goat". But if wizardry is your cup of tea, shed no more tears for the untimely demise of the Big Curses. After watching this year's All Star game, I think there is a new kid on the block. And he seems to be just as vicious and forcible as the Old Bambino.

National League hasn't won the All-Star game since 1997. That is a losing streak of 10 - try flipping ten heads in a row - a strong indication that the Gods of Baseball have vested interest in this game. Plus, after Alfonso Soriano's resuscitation effort in the ninth, the National League lost only by one run, much like last year, a further evidence that dark forces of netherworld are afoot.

Now what exactly went wrong in 1997? The Marlins stared down the Indians in the World Series - that much we know. But could it be that Livan Hernandez smuggled a few jars of home made voodoo potion from Cuba, which then leaked loose and turned on its Masters? Or did the Cleveland Indians spend several jolly midnights shoveling through a pet cemetery to dig up some fish and in the process forever rob the National League of a home-field advantage? That much we can only guess.

It was an exciting game nonetheless and the Cardinals' fans had two genuine opportunities to sigh deeply during its course. First, when they had to watch Dan Haren open the game for - ouch! - the American League. Yeah, the same Dan Haren who left the Birds' Nest only in 2004. And then at the end, when Albert Pujols, one of the League's sharpest harpoons, was left idling in the dugout, although the bases were loaded, half of St Louis was on a prayer alert and the helm of the boat rested in the hands of the man who knows his lethal power best - Tony La Russa.

For the most part, the Cardinals' skipper was submerged in a brooding mood from which he rarely emerged. If I was a Wall Street Journal reporter, I'd say he was trying to form an opinion on Collateralized Debt Obligations during the game - but I would be gravely amiss. He was merely standing on the prow of an ill-fated ship and peering through the perplexing fog, like Captain Ahab pursuing his All Star whale.

I can only hope that when he comes to DC next month, he and his boys will have more reasons to be merry.

Ron Paul on ABC

Today George Stephanopoulos invited my favorite Republican candidate Ron Paul on his Sunday morning show.

Ron Paul is not your garden variety presidential hopeful. If you believe that bone-structure is an essential qualification for the White House, you may not like him. Paul doesn't flaunt a killer smile around like a big club and his hair is probably not going to flow very appealingly in the "chopper wind". His speeches are not prefabricated from easily digestible sentences and his unit of expression is a paragraph rather than a buzzword. I don't agree with him on every issue (his pro-life position for instance), but I do admire his integrity and backbone. He is a man who says what he means and means what he says. That's the kind of man I want in the Oval Office.

He is a also man who understands that inflation is a cowardly way of taxing your citizens. He knows that waging a war is not an acceptable way to get cheaper oil. He knows that a nation with porous borders is extra vulnerable to parasites. He understands the inherent risks of fiat-currency. And he reads his constitution.

Whether that will be enough to win the heart of the mainstream voter remains to be seen - he does seem to be a bit off-the-wall for that. He may be a darling of the Internet, but on the ground he is still regarded as a "long shot" with poll numbers hovering around 1%. That is sad, because I don't see another viable alternative - certainly not on the right. With the remaining candidates it is "business as usual" and that phrase has recently acquired quite a pungent attendant odor. At least here in DC.

A friend of mine told me today that 20% of Americans believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. According to the National Research Council, only 47% of our fellow citizens know that the Earth takes a year to go around the Sun. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 31% of Americans do not know who their vice president is. With these kinds of stats, democracy may become a lethal weapon. Much like an otherwise peaceful watermelon when it is thrown into the path of a speeding automobile.

paul

Soccer heals heels

Some time ago I hurt my heel. It wasn't an unbearable pain, but it was pestering enough to suspend my tennis and soccer activities for a while. The dull tingle was constantly lurking in the background, like a crouching puma - ready to pounce should I make a wrong step.

Finally, the ache subsided and I could return to the soccer field, where our little Czech team played a pick up game against a group of guys from Latin America. I didn't even have to look at their passports - they were hollering at each other like a bunch of macho cowboys from some melodramatic Argentinian telenovela. Diego! Fernando! Manuel!

One of them was a little mercurial forward whom his teammates called "Little Mexico", although a friend of mine dubbed him "El Meat Grinder" for his pitbull ferocity and undying verve. He used his legs to argue, and he argued like Cicero. Little did I know that I was soon to receive my own personalized autograph from this accomplished orator.

In the middle of the match, "Little Mexico" decided to check the quality of the Czech anklery and stepped on my foot. Scratch that. He jumped on it. He assaulted it as if my ankle personally stole his girlfriend. My foot took a little bit of offence at that and puffed up like a huffish teenager. I could barely take my cleats off after the match. But as I hobbled to McKeever's for our after-game drink, I realized that my previously vexing heel pain was completely gone. Erased. Or more precisely - overridden.

Apparently, my body is not able to process more than one source of pain at the same time. This makes sense. I am a guy and guys are notorious for not being able to multitask. How could we expect more from our pain-processing facility. While we were downing Pilsen beer, it occurred to me that there is a general principle at play here: we could drive one infirmity away with another. Maybe I could have this idea patented and start my own medical practice!

"Oh Jeff, you have a liver problem? Let me kick your shin and give you a nice bluish bruise? There! How is your liver doing now?"

"You sprained your ankle, Mr. Jones? Worry not. Just go home, have some cup cakes, make sure you flush them down with plenty of beer, maybe a few apricots creamed with mustard, a glass of warm milk and top it off with one or two pickles and I am telling you - your body will be so busy handling your upset stomach that you won't even notice you have any ankles, much less sprained ones."

One Poetrick Pony

Having to write a poem is kind of like having to kiss a girl. Neither should be done on cue.

This summer I decided to take a writing class, since I think that my ability to express myself in English is still sorely lagging behind my Czech. And although I expected the class to be slanted towards prose, the first two meetings were devoted to poetry. So here is what I coughed up.

This week's assignment was a poem written as a dramatic monologue.


UNFAIR AFFAIR
(a reflection of a disgruntled mirror)

how did i end up with this kinko job
making endless copies of reality
for every little twerp and snob

i want to play with my reflectees
tweak their shapes and colors
i want to squirt dijon on powdered noses
put whipped cream in a razor's path
i want to tie yellow ribbons around biceps
and stick my tongue at prissy girls

instead i am stuck on this scaly wall
and when the darkness obviates my duties
i wonder who is the fairest of them all

And here is one from last week that was supposed to be based on a list.


TWO IF BY SEA
(principles of soporific accounting)

just before i fall asleep
i hardly ever count my sheep

instead i enumerate the quirky birds
migrating across the sky of my memory
magpies with their shiny trinkets
a stork carrying a yellow binky
cardinals just tried their bunting
a siege of herons on the lam
never have too many egrets
can you spare a drinking swallow
a pair of seagulls on a dam
some cuckoos toiling round the clock
and eagles from the golfing course
sometimes i can see them all

my thoughts falling back into a chocolate sea
like silver dollars craving its murky floor
like tired birds on their southbound trail
like buds on the dangling tongues of dreams

right before i fall asleep
i can feel the ocean seep

night

What is a Word's Worth

Prose is solid, poetry is liquid.

Although the distinction is not always readable, prose is more bound by the principles of causality, which gives it a nearly crystalline structure. It is also more rigid and tightly wrapped in grammar. Poetry, on the other hand, behaves like a fluid. It is much freer in its motion and more flexible. In fact, I claim that you can randomly rearrange its lines and you'll still end up with a pretty coherent piece of art.

As an example let me reshuffle Wordsworth's poem "By The Sea".

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;

The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder -everlastingly.

Dear child! dear girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

Now we'll randomly permute (reorder) the lines.

You can do that either by hand, or better, by deploying a short script like this one which will do it for you.

#!/usr/bin/perl
# a random poem generator
while ( <> ) {
  chomp;
  push (@poem,$_);
}
$n = @poem;
@ary = (1..$n);
for ($i=0;$i < $n;$i++) {
  $ran = int(rand($n-$i));
  ($ary[0],$ary[$ran]) = ($ary[$ran],$ary[0]);
  $line = -1 + shift @ary;
  print "$poem[$line]\n";
}

OK. Here is the perturbed version. Note that the lines below are really the same as the ones above.

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,

Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
The holy time is quiet as a nun
The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:
God being with thee when we know it not.

A sound like thunder -everlastingly.
Dear child! dear girl! that walkest with me here,
And doth with his eternal motion make

Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:

So there. Poetry is like a kaleidoscope. You tilt it a bit, the pieces tumble around and you see yet another beautiful image. Prose is much more linear and thus less amenable to such chicanery. Just take a chapter from your favorite novel and read the sentences out of their natural order. See?

And the variation above is not the only possibility. Do you know in how many ways you can permute 14 lines? You better sit down for this one. In 87,178,291,200 ways. Yeah, that's right, upwards of 87 billion, courtesy of Mr. Factorial. Think of every human being on the planet composing 14 poems. And that includes infants, your cynical boss and all the professional wrestlers.

Take that William Wordsworth!

Beerbellied Warblers

June is probably the best month to canoe on the Shenandoah river. Nature is still young and crisp, the water level, not yet massacred by summer droughts, is pretty decent and trees are wearing the most expensive model of foliage, the kind you'd normally wear only to an opera. The green is almost aggressive. I imagine that this is how vane tigers wear their hunger.

The river rarely disappoints, certainly not on a glorious Sunday like this. You get to float on its inner lakes, you get pushed around in little rapids, you may need to drag your boat across shallow platforms whose bottom is meticulously paved with smooth flat pebbles and whose surface is pocked with puny ripples so it looks like a cheese grater, but in return you get to navigate through narrow channels ornamented by wildly ramified tree roots. Wherever you go, overarching tree branches are eagerly leaning over the restless stream as if they never saw a flowing water. And your canoe is cutting through it like a hot knife through a block of transparent butter.

You get to see interesting critters, too. We spotted bald eagles circling over the river corridor, catfish lazily shadowing its floor and tons of turtles getting their tan on isolated tree stumps. We also heard songs of indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers competing in a chirpy hit parade. But arguably the most interesting species showed up on a rocky ledge behind the Compton Rapids. There we made a landing and stumbled upon two bulky creatures whose stolid beady eyes were slowly drilling into the horizon. They had two legs, two upper limbs and a substantial swelling in the midriff area. If they were surrounded by nuts, instead of beer cans, I'd say they were overgrown squirrels. Seeing their hairless skulls, I could have also guessed bald eagles. But neither would be correct, for we were clearly looking at an entirely new species. Since every now and then they issued deep burping sounds, as if they were singing birds, marking their territory, I decided to classify them as Beerbellied Warblers.

After we left, I thought we'd never see this species again, but I was proved wrong. Three miles down the stream we detected a loud TV broadcast. Soon we approached a log cabin and there we espied our third warbler of the day. It sat on a cheap lawn chair in front of the porch, beer in its hand, and appeared to be listening to a Nascar race streaming full throttle from within the cabin. I am not quite sure why people are mesmerized by watching other people drive, but why would anyone LISTEN to someone who is watching other people drive is completely beyond me.

But don't panic - we are in the canoe, so if you think that second-hand noise might be hazardous to your health, you can always tune in to the river itself. If you listen carefully, you may catch its Rhapsody in Green. Stop paddling and the whole valley turns into a huge symphonic orchestra with a white water brass section and the rustling strings of leaves. And while the golden trumpets of the Sun may be blaring, the disciplined river floats you down, never betraying its bankless loyalty to the Sea.

canoe

Kinoautomat

At 1967 World Expo fair in Montreal, Czechoslovakia caused some stir with one of the first interactive movies called "Kinoautomat" - a black and white film that periodically stopped and asked audiences to choose between one of the two possible continuations of the story. For instance a scantily clad woman gets locked out of her apartment and knocks at her married neighbor's door - will he let her in? Or that same neighbor under a severe time constraint is stopped by a police - should he just pay the fine or step on it and induce a car chase? Well, you decide.

Sadly, shortly after the movie was made, the Soviet tanks crushed whatever little freedom Czechoslovakia had and the revolutionary movie, a brainchild of Raduz Cincera, was labeled as "reactionary" and put to ice for more than 30 years. Fortunately, on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, a Prague movie theater "Svetozor" (in the middle of Wenceslaus Square) decided to resurrect the original project and return it onto the silver screen. Thanks to a tip from a good friend of mine, I too got to see the movie that so far I only heard about. Armed with a little TV remote, I had seven opportunities to steer the course of the narration. The screen split, you got to see few seconds of either possibility, then short suspense as the votes were tallied, the loud disappointed sighs of people who didn't get their plot-building wish fulfilled and off we went! Onward to another branch of the plot diagram.

Now I am not advocating that all movies should come with 128 possible endings, but a little variation could revitalize the all too predictable movie industry. Say after 60 minutes you'd get your first choice and then 15 minutes before the end your second. That is four endings altogether. Sure, it would entail a bit more of creative writing and some extra footage, too, but imagine the throngs of curious people that would go and see the movie multiple times just to enjoy all the variants: the happy end, the tragedy, the scene nobody really figured out, the surreal finale,...

Take E.T. for instance. How many children's hearts would have been saved from a severe stress if the little critter had really stayed, as beseeched. Or, if it turned into a Teenage Ninja Turtle upon being kissed. Come on Hollywood, throw us some bone.

Memory Lane

Not all places are created equal. Some are more special than others.

Returning to the glades of your childhood is always calming no matter where you are returning from. Kind of like when you reach for those velvet bass tones on a piano. This is the land whose visual replica entered your memory uncontested by life's later experiences. This lack of perspective magnifies its images, makes them seem more relevant.

My special place is a little trail crossing the mountain ridge of "Jestrebi Hory" in Northeastern Bohemia. It is about 3 miles long and connects a little mining village called Radvanice on one side of the range with a small town of Male Svatonovice on the other. For the first two miles the road winds up slowly through deep spruce forests, sometimes a dirt road, sometimes a mere path, then it crests and the last mile is a steep descent to Male Svatonovice, cutting straight through groves and meadows without so much as a hint of a mitigating serpentine. Because of its sharply divided up and down phase, hiking the trail feels a little bit like climbing from one side of a big horse to another. But it is worth the thousand feet of elevation, because nowhere else do hills roll as delicately and non-threateningly as here. Plus, as an added bonus, you get to see a string of quaint little chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary at the foot of the trail.

I must have gone that way at least several hundred times. It was my route of choice from my grandparents house to the train station in Male Svatonovice, where I would catch a train to Hradec Kralove. On this very trail I once loitered with my first love Monika - an affair that her dad rewarded with a lengthy lecture about the inappropriateness of two teenagers roaming the woods alone. This is the trail which I often climbed with my grandpa on our way to a soccer match. He was already in his seventies, but still pulling like a Sherpa. And once, after a Christmas Eve dinner, our family decided to go to Male Svatonovice for the Midnight Mass. It was one of those dark nights when a wintry mix froze over, so when a large contingent of dressed up relatives set out on a 90 minute pilgrimage through dense woods, it encountered a terrain that was more slippery than an eel's back. For kids it was an endless stream of mirth though. I don't even remember which we lost more often, whether our way or our balance.

My favorite Czech writer Karel Capek was born in Male Svatonovice. He celebrated this charming region in many of his writings. He called it the Giant's Garden. When you cross the town square, on your way from the church to the train station, you see his statue in the shadow of a huge maple tree - a reminder that it is the people rather than spectacular scenery which renders places special.

capek

George Bush in Prague

Shortly after I landed in Prague for my semiannual visit, George Bush followed the suit. Stalker!

Last time he was in Prague was in 2002, so his visit caused quite a bit of hoopla. Beefed up security forces inundated the city, their hackles raised and their steel eyes scowling suspiciously at everything from loose cobblestones to highfalutin summer clouds. But the high alert was well warranted. Antiglobalizators and left-wing elements were out in full force, waving their Cold War mind sets and the nostalgia for the old times right under the American president's nose. Seeing the red communist flags with hammers and sickles parading through the city was a bit scary. I haven't seen a sight like that for more than 15 years and I hope I won't see it again for at least that long. Communism is usually hazardous to your economy.

But Bush's visit had also comical aspects. During a personal meeting, Vlasta Parkanova, the Czech Defense Secretary, gave the Prez a small package with a CD inside it. You'd think the CD contained some highly classified information about the location of prime Al-Quaeda operatives. But you'd be wrong. The CD contained a song, in which Mrs. Parkanova, in her own voice, expressed her support for the American plans to install an anti-missile radar on the Czech territory. The lyrics to the song was written by her friend, country-singer Jan Vycital, who probably scribbled it on a beer coaster in one of Prague's numerous pubs. The music, paradoxically, came from an old tune named "Good day, major Gagarin", with which the Marxist bootlickers once welcomed the achievement of Soviet space science. The author of the music was so ashamed of its use as a red propaganda that he publicly renounced any authorship rights, so the chipper melody could squirm itself into George Bush's private CD collection without any copyright issues. This kind of thing can happen only in the country of Jara Cimrman.

Since Bush stalked me to Prague, I decided to stalk him right back. I recruited a friend of mine and we spent most of Tuesday roaming the city, hoping to bump into the presidential cavalcade. Its whereabouts were held secret, of course, but we thought the choices were limited and we got them covered: the Prague Castle, the Radio Free Europe building, the US Embassy, KFC. I am sure he visited them all at some point - but our timing was off. Although we saw hordes of anti-Bush guerillas, there were no signs of the presidential caravan itself. Around 3 p.m. we gave up.

Shortly after that I was sitting on a bus, heading for my hometown, about 70 miles east. The bus was suddenly stopped by police and I noticed that we had to give the right of way to a large caravan of black limousines. Yes, those kinds of limousines. Through the busy intersection near the central bus terminal, not more than 20 yards ahead of us, the President of the United States was being chauffeured to the Prague Airport in his bulletproof armored vehicle.

This only goes to show that God eventually grants you all your wishes - but He does so on His own terms.

Crossing the Border

When Czechs graduate from High School, they have to pass the so called "maturity exam", which is a harrowing oral examination in four subjects inflicted by a posse of formidable pedagogues. For many people this is where the border between childhood and adulthood lies. This is the first time in their life that a major obstacle needs to be surmounted; their first collision with the wall of responsibility; the first stamp in their passport. Everyone's memory is long emblazoned with this experience and you could infer the level of its intensity from the fact that the chair
on which one prepares for the exam is called the "sweat chair".

As my nephew recently passed his maturity exam, the family headquarters
decided to launch a celebratory trip to a small restaurant ensconced in rocky hills not far from my hometown. I was looking forward to this trip since places that abound in rocks and boulders are featured prominently on my destinations all-star list and any restaurant that lies more than 3 miles away from the nearest paved road gets the special yellow marker treatment. My excitement was further doubled when I learned that instead of a watch dog, the restaurant is guarded by a wild boar named LadyBug. What a naming prowess! Had they had a pet elephant, I bet they would have called it "Puffy". But that's really besides the point, for during our visit, LadyBug was fast asleep and highly negligent of her guarding duties.

When we arrived at the trailhead the clouds that were hanging low stooped
even lower and became a fog that embraced our path with pervasive curiosity. It's not like we could not see anything, the visibility was fine, but the misty veil made all colors come out as an amalgamation of green and grey. All the other colors simply stepped aside and blended into the background. The forest itself was filled with a raw light whose texture was so palpable that our hike resembled fumbling in a maze of invisible cobwebs. Thanks to the subpar weather, there were few souls on the trail, and I would not be the least bit surprised if we ran into assorted trolls, elves, gnomes and fairies. The countryside had suddenly turned into a scene from the Lord of the Rings.

On our way back, as we pushed through the thicket and underbrush on a barely visible spoor, my sister remarked that this is how it must have felt in the 1950s when people were sneaking through the Sumava Mountains and crossing the border into nearby Germany. Thousands were fleeing the prospects of communism at that time, and their escape hatch often lead through the deep woods on our western border and alongside routes known only to local smugglers. Our descent to the car did feel like crossing the border indeed: we were passing from a dreamy movie set into the prosaic reality. And that's pretty much what teenagers do when they pass their maturity exam in high school.

rocks

Siblings are forever

When we were about 12, me and my sister invented a new hobby: cooking poisons. We'd snoop around our parents summer house and collect all kinds of venomous substances: berries, mushrooms and plants we hoped were unhealthy, pellets of farming fertilizers, household cleaners and chemical strippers, decaying fruit and anything past the expiration date, preferably with a mold on it. Then we'd pour it all in an old paint can and bring it to boil over a little bonfire we'd made in the garden. I am not sure whether we strived to completely wipe out the Earth's rat population or whether we were hoping that magically, as a by-product, we'd synthesize a purely organic carpet cleaner. But fussing around a smoking fire like a pair of tribal charmers is always fun and nothing brings kids together like watching a bubbling kettle containing potentially the most lethal toxin known to mankind.

My sister is two years younger, has two kids now and a business selling cutting tools from abroad to Czech masons. As we were sitting by her pool and grilling something that looked like a Shish Kabob with some exotic rice seeds in it, I remembered our poison cooking days and realized that siblings have a very special position in our life. They represent an element of constancy. We share memories with them that go waaaay back into the past. And from that past they weave along like a red thread providing a portable reference point - the origin of the coordinate system onto which our life is plotted.

All your other peers are transient in a way. You can renounce your close friends, you can break up with your girlfriend, you can divorce your wife. But there is nothing you can do about siblings. So you really only have one choice - to cherish and cultivate this relationship, this phantom umbilical chord. Because if you poison it, there won't be any spare siblings to pull out of the hat.

Dwellery

There are many architectural marvels to admire in Prague: the Old Jewish Quarter, St Nicholas baroque church, St Vitus cathedral, Vysehrad Castle, the Charles Bridge... you need a substantial vacation time to see them all. And whether you are a Gothic Arch aficionado or an Art Nouveau buff, Prague has something to offer you. But there is one style which gets consistently the short shrift - the style representing the 40 years long period of communism.

You may think that walking across an Old Town Square with its astronomical clock and an assortment of churches from different epochs will give you the comprehensive Czech experience. But you will be missing an important stone in the mosaic - a truly authentic one. To see it, you have to take the subway line "C" to Haje or "B" to Nove Butovice. There you will find a sprawling artefact of communism known as "sidliste" - the word usually translated as a "block of flats" or a "housing project". I think neither translation does it a justice. This architectural sore-thumb deserves a word of its own. And since the Czech term is derived from the verb "sidlit" (to dwell), I'd like to propose the term "dwellery".

A dwellery is a maze of drab looking concrete high rises, often indistinguishable from one another and resembling more a rabbit hutch than a human abode. Houses themselves were knocked up on the cheap, with corners cut, doors failing to fit, faucets dripping and swaths of cheap Formica gracing the inner space. Each complex usually has a playground, sometimes a cultural center and almost always a pub. Try to find it.

The pub is the magical Stargate. Don't be shy. Have a seat, boldly fold your hands on the plastic tablecloth and look around. You will see young ladies discussing the latest dating strategies over a cup of coffee and simultaneously displaying their impeccable chewing techniques with their bubble gum. You will see construction workers cursing the ruling political party, whichever it happens to be at the moment. In the corner you may also see a bunch of old geezers bad mouthing the notoriously corrupt national soccer league. But don't even bother looking at the menu. When the waiter comes, order Beer and Goulash. Bon Appetit!

Now you know how it feels to be an average Czech.

dwell

Governments will be Governments

As I watched the evening news in my hometown in East Bohemia, I realized that no matter where in the world you are, the governments always display the same propensity for inefficiency and the same insatiable tendency to multiply. And whether you are in Peru, East Timor or in the Czech Republic, they always seem to attract the same kind of people: the kind that puts ambition over passion, the kind that can spend minutes in front of a mirror, rehearsing the most professional looking ways of sitting in front of the cameras, the kind that can produce elaborate, multiple component sentences which, despite being riddled with greek-based words, have about as much content and meaning as the transcript of Larry King's interview with Paris Hilton. But make no mistake, these people are not fools. They just figured that printing money is much easier than earning and managing it.

Unlike private companies whose personnel growth is continuously trimmed down by the forces of fierce competition, governments fatten up largely unchecked and the only exercise they get is an easy jog around the block every four years. But before you write them off as obsolete and half petrified structures that stand in the way of the true progress, consider these two simple facts.

fact 1: less and less people are needed for production of goods
fact 2: there are more and more people

Clearly, there is a contradiction here. On the one hand we procreate at rates that would easily warrant an emergency session of the Rabbits' Security Council, on the other hand, mostly through technological advances, we have less and less work for our fellow men. And what are all those extra hands going to do? Come on, services and health-care can absorb only so much. So here is to inefficient governments! Our knight on the shining white stallion, our miracle sponge that can suck up labor from a virtually unlimited amount of life forms, intelligent or otherwise. And to start with a concrete example of becoming inefficient, here is a suggestion for a set of new guidelines governing the simplest home improvement task - the replacement of a burnt out light bulb.


1. Download in duplicate all the necessary forms, instructions, manuals, evaluation questionnaires and coupons for anti-wrinkle cream; download some unnecessary forms as well (these do not have to be downloaded in duplicate)

2. Please check your Bulb Replacement Status carefully. If you are Married, Screwing Separately, you may need to file Form 56329128323B.

3. Set up the Committee for the Prevention of Unauthorized Repair, the Independent Council for Monitoring the Flow of Family Money, the Alcohol Induced Stupor Clarification Panel, the Alternating Current Regulatory Board and the Flippant Task Force staffed with fully licensed light switch operators.

4. If you have no job, no income and no aspirations, you may be qualified to use the LightBulbEZ procedure. If that is the case, just unscrew the old bulb and replace it with the new one. Otherwise, please continue.

5. Check the desired power output; consult your findings with the local standards, make sure the new light bulb complies with all the federal regulations, in particular with the alternative minimum wattage.

6. Place underneath the light bulb the smaller of the following: a collapsible support table or a construction crane with a horizontally extended jib.

7. Turn the electricity off and step on the table you placed underneath the light. Raise your hand so the bulb you are holding is suspended just beneath the base. Don't move.

8. Enlist 15 volunteers or interns who will grasp the edges of the table on which you stand, lift it so the bulb in your hand will slip into the socket. They will then slowly rotate the table with you on it until the light bulb rests tightly in its spiral.

9. From the orientation of the spin, infer whether the bulb had a right handed screw thread or a left handed one; write a 15 page report about your findings following the guidelines of the Equal Screwing Opportunity Subcommittee; send a copy of your manuscript to every agency that might need it; if in your opinion a given agency won't need it, send them also a translation of the report into French, Danish, Russian and Urdu.

Olfactory Clock

Early morning is terra incognita for me. I have never been an early riser. "Early" may be a good descriptor for a British nobleman, but I'd personally prefer "humanly". In my world, the act of getting up ranks #14732, just behind a non-emergency knee drilling, and waking is a slow and painful process that involves much cursing and once in a while hurling reproachful looks towards the alarm clock (I wish I could hurl my shoes instead, but there are never any within easy reach).

If I have to I may be up and running by 8am and sometimes I am up as late as 3am. But that's about it. What this planet feels like between 3am and 8am is largely a mystery to me. Are there any moonstruck mushrooms dancing underneath my windows at that time? I wouldn't know. It is one of those things I try not to be too curious about. After all, it could be hazardous to my health.

Today I had to pick up a friend at the airport, however, and since the red eye from California was supposed to deploy its landing gear around 6.25am, I was forced to drag my senses through a largely unknown morning territory. After a long time, I was to be reacquainted with the part of the day that polite people do not discuss in public. And what a strange world it was indeed. Songs of birds I didn't know existed. But above all, I detected a very different set of smells. Some familiar and some new, it smelled like a brave new world out there.

Already when I was a kid, I noticed that different periods of the day had different characteristic aromas. I remember that behind my grandparents' country house there was a huge cole-seed field from which different smells were emanating at different times. A crisp fragrance in the morning, a rich deep bouquet at noon, and a mystifying incense in the depths of night. And in my mind I thought I could tell time just by smelling that field.

Some wine connoisseurs have so finely tuned taste buds that they can take a small sip of Pinot Gris, roll it on their tongue for a second and tell you not only all about the soil whence it came, but also about the year in which it was made. So I imagine you could train your olfactory sensors just as precisely and use the powerful nose processor instead of a watch. You'd just step outside, take a deep breath and - "oh yeah, it must be 4.37pm".

Just my 2 scents.

gold

101

There are two kinds of clean water. First the kind that started in a river - full of impurities, contaminants and nasty little microorganisms; the kind whose every single molecule had to jump through an elaborate monkey trail of filtration, reverse osmosis and carbon treatment before becoming potable drinking water. And then there is water of mountain streams, the kind that never had any carnal knowledge of organic or inorganic chemistry, the kind that was born from tiny waterfalls and remained pristine and sparkling on its way to you.

There are also two kinds of nice people. First the kind that is born from mainstream, the average human ilk full of its dark thoughts and selfish interests. The kind that reaches a higher moral plateau only through years of schooling and grooming and Mom's attention. And then there are people who are nice naturally. People who do not need etiquette lessons. Their mind is like a sunflower that turns after Sun, paying little attention to the dirty soil in which it is rooted.

My grandfather was like that. He was a simple carpenter, without as much as high school, but his plain view was always more refreshing to me than convoluted manners of other people. He never meant ill to anyone, never retaliated. And it's not because he was so finely raised, it is just that the concept of malevolence was completely foreign to him. I never heard him say a bad thing about anyone. Plotting and scheming wasn't in his dictionary.

He was born on May 16, 1906. He would be 101 today. By coincidence, 101 is also the opus number of one of Beethoven's best piano sonatas, No. 28 in A major. The sonata that is the purest creation among its 31 sisters. A private pool of distilled sunshine.

Mind your body

A friend of mine decided to introduce me to her new beau. For the venue, she chose the widely publicized yet highly controversial exposition named "Bodies" - a ringside seat to the actual human body, cut by a team of dedicated professionals at every imaginable angle and displayed in a mind boggling detail. I thought she had made this choice for a reason - it must have been a subtle hint to dissect her suitor's mind in a similarly methodical manner. After all, when it comes to men, second opinion comes always handy, especially when you've already had some exposure to bad apples. So as we were walking past the dismantled components of the human anatomy, I was kicking his mental tires, trying to look for any signs of ulcers, tumors, fractures and undue wobbling.

The exhibition itself was definitely not for the faint of the heart - or any other organ for that matter. But if you are more curious than squeamish, go for it - you will be amazed at how our plumbing and wiring really looks like. Alveoli. United Muscles of Mastication. Inner ear. Kidneys. Spine. All in plain sight and in authentic rendering. My favorite object was the complex and intricate network of arteries of lower limb. A standalone maze of its own, which was masterfully recreated by injecting blood vessels with some kind of colored polymer and then having the remaining tissues dissolved. There was also a very instructional view of two pairs of lungs, side by side: one that belonged to a smoker and one to a non-smoker. The difference was sobering. Layers of tar build-up were so permeating that many a puff buff wasted little time and tossed their cigarette pack into a conveniently located glass container.

The exhibit devotes a significant space to each major system - digestive, respiratory, nervous, reproductive, you name it - but it also shows how neatly they all fit together. And that is the most lasting impression of the whole show. Human body is but a large puzzle.

And so is human mind.

puzzle

American Idol for President

Excitement never ends. Just as one media circus approaches its grand finale, another one is slowly kicking into higher gear. American Idol 2007 is in its final rounds, while the presidential election 2008 is like a tea water just before it starts bubbling.

I realized the other day that the format of American Idol's is surprisingly well suited for weeding out the overgrown field of presidential candidates (btw, methinks that in this word, the prefix "candid" is just a very wishful thinking). Instead of deploying the usual arsenal of a conventional campaign, such as mudslinging, backbiting and wasting taxpayer's money, why don't we send the candidates through the filter of an Idol-like competition. All the presidential hopefuls would enter a series of thematic discussions and at the end of each round the audience would eliminate the worst performer. Of course, the rounds wouldn't be dedicated to BeeGees, rock'n'roll or country, but rather to international law, fiscal policies and taxes. Trying to pinpoint the winner is quite difficult, so why don't we simply eliminate one loser at a time.

And I'd include a round of singing too. Or some sort of a talent competition - just to winnow away the starched ironing boards. Because, and that's just my empirical observation, people who cannot relax and, every now and then, actually laugh at themselves are more prone to bad decision making than the looser crowd. I think it is because stiff behavior usually implies stiff reasoning, and in today's complex world, I would rather have a leader with fluid mind.

Last but not least, consider the financial benefits - no expensive campaigns, no platitude stuffed ads, no shady money from dubious entrepreneurs. Just couple of months of quality prime time TV and the new President would be born. And for all the saved tax dollars we could build something really useful - like a giant man-made white sand beach in North Dakota.

Lithuanian Samba

Jazz is the slang of music.

While the mainstream language, in its effort to prevent misunderstanding, tends to uniformity and constancy, slang yearns for variation, for ambivalence and for novelty. No time to button up for dinner, just grab your grub and roller-blade away. Where linguists tiptoe around balanced sentences, logic and well-starched vocabulary, slang dives headlong into murky waters, into poorly lit districts, slinking around like an alley cat, prowling for shiny things, munching on someone else's trash, pilfering phrases from other tongues. With its T-shirt flailing like a pirate's flag, slang criss-crosses the high seas of pop-culture, jumbles jargon and jive, quickly hires buzzwords and fires them at a moment's notice. Its flamboyant lifestyle makes sure that the central body of language never petrifies, never looses a steady stream of fresh blood.

Music is also a language, a form of communication bound by the rules of harmony instead of grammar. And jazz is its slang, bubbling impatiently on the hot stove of shining brass, bending the creaky tonal skeleton to its limits and smearing the beat borders in the perpetual rebellion against the rhythmic status quo. Jazz is like a hyperventilating sponge, brazenly pushing new tones and simultaneously absorbing their fleeting dissonances in a syncopated flow of diminished chords. Not constrained by harmonic bigotry, jazz is accepting and tolerant and always eager to morph and merge.

This Sunday I took a friend of mine to the International Jazz Jam held in a restaurant called Blues Alley. Even in a bustling Georgetown, you'd be hard pressed to find a jazzier place. Its seating area is toned to warm brown and its stage is set against a coarse brick back wall that musicians can bounce their minor sevenths off of. Although we came to see a Norwegian trio Solid, at the end of the night it was the Dainius Pulauskus Group from Lithuania that completely stole the show. Grafting traditional folklore harmonies on an African tree trunk proved simply irresistible.

You'd really have to be rhythmically illiterate not to start tapping your feet to their voracious percussions. The tireless pelting of cymbals alighted on our ears like a spring rain eating itself into the grass. You could hear a modern blues as well as a medieval shepherd's song majestically floating in the open harbor of jazz. And right there before our eyes, in a magical rite of Spring, branches of an aging tree beflowered with white petals.

springsomeone else's

Happy Birthday, Katrina

The Spanish director Louis Bunuel once observed that we are what we remember. Indeed, it is our memory what gives our judgement a sense of perspective. Our own recollections define the props on the stage of our mind, some twisted into caricatures of the real events, some blown out of proportions by anxieties, some meticulously trimmed like little bonsai trees for all to admire.

However, how this whole system works is completely beyond me. There are certain things which simply won't register. Like do you write "occasion" or "ocassion"? I must have looked this word up kazillion times before I got it somewhat right. Or so I hope. On the other hand, other bits of information just kick the mental door open and jump right in - uninvited, almost against my will.

When Rick Wakeman recorded his "Return to the Center of the Earth" (a daring attempt at an epic rock cantata), he commissioned its vocal parts to several artists. Some of them known, some of them less so. When I read the cover, I noticed that my favorite piece (Ride of Your Life) was sung by a female singer named Katrina Leskanich. Interesting name I thought...

As luck would have it, shortly afterwards I was returning from Baltimore with a friend of mine and radio played "Walking on Sunshine" - one of those perky songs that can single handedly brighten your day. Especially when the volume is turned up to a generous level. My friend remarked that this song was recorded in the 80s by the band named "Katrina and the Waves". Hmmm, I said to myself - there cannot be two Katrinas in the small world of rock'n'roll.

I googled around for a bit and indeed: it was the same Karina Leskanich who lent her voice to Wakeman's Masterpiece. And as I was reading her bio, I noticed that she was born on April 10th, 1960 in Topeka, Kansas. An information of absolutely no use to me. But as I read that line I could almost hear a snap inside my head. Somewhere in its perplexing maze, bunch of neurons loitering about decided they had some extra synaptic capacity to spare and made a connection. Instantaneously, I felt that date imprinted in my permanent memory. So from that day on, whenever April 10 comes along, I know that somewhere on this planet the woman who gave us the Sunshine is celebrating.

Happy Birthday, Katrina.

Marta Kubisova in Washington

If I were a girl, Marta Kubisova would be my role model.

In 1968, at the age of 25, she was one of the most popular Czech singers, letting fresh air into the stagnant mainstream of local pop music and well on her way to become a national superstar. In Czechoslovakia, 1960s was the period of political thawing and arts enjoyed an unprecedented freedom throughout most of the decade. Vaclav Havel, Milos Forman and Milan Kundera were all offsprings of this process. The year 1968 was its absolute peak: the press and media were no longer censored, non-communist civic organizations were springing up like mushrooms after rain and, for a few months at least, the freedom was palpable in all aspects of life.

In the Summer of that year, lyricist Petr Rada and composer Jindrich Brabec wrote a song for Kubisova that reflected the changes in the political climate. The song was titled "A prayer for Marta" and its beginning roughly translated to this:

May the peace stay with this land,
may anger, envy, fear and spite pass away,
now that its governance returns to its people...

But this little Marseillaise came a little bit too soon. Gorbachev was only 37 then and the Soviet Empire was ruthlessly ruled by the tzar Brezhnev. He understood very well what this little fire could do to his house of cards and basically overnight sent in a huge army to put it out. On August 21st, while the radio, in its last hours of sovereignty, played "Prayer for Marta", tanks from the Warsaw Pact countries were rolling on the cobblestones of Czech cities. For many people this audiovisual bit became a haunting memory.

The progressive wing of the communist party was dispelled, civic movement banned and media "normalized". The Soviet occupation itself was conveniently renamed and for the next 20 years exclusively referred to as a "brotherly help". In those days Kubisova hesitated very little on which side of the barricade she wanted to be. And the communist regime never forgave her for that.

While the vast majority of Czech and Slovak artists decided to cooperate and to acknowledge the "brotherly help" in order to secure whatever little place in a plastic sun the system was willing to allot them, Kubisova never bent her back. Unwilling to hop and skip on stages draped in red and adorned with effigies of Marx and Lenin, she was banned from public singing and accepted non glamorous jobs far away from the limelight many of her former colleagues enjoyed. But she would rather sacrifice the best years of her singing career than become a lackey of the regime that lived off of a foreign military force.

In the meantime her Prayer became the symbol of fleeting freedom. Even though it had completely disappeared from the public broadcast, just like all her other songs, the nation patiently waited for its return. Summers passed, starlets on the pop-scene shone and faded, five-year plans were being designed and re-designed and life dragged lazily along. At the end, the wait lasted 21 years.

In November 1989, as the Berlin Wall crumbled, the conservative wing of the Czech Communist Party (pretty much the same faces that were once installed by Russian tanks - only 20 years wrinklier) finally lost their grip on power. The center of Prague filled with people and the petrified regime didn't dare to send in troops to disperse them. From a balcony overlooking the historic Wenceslaus Square, standing alongside a dissident Vaclav Havel, Marta Kubisova finally got to sing her Prayer again - to a crowd of 250,000. Not many singers had the privilege to perform for an audience of such proportions, but it was a privilege well deserved. Ironically, it was mostly older people who had tears in their eyes. The younger ones barely realized what had just happened.

I was glad that the Czech Embassy invited Kubisova to Washington. In a world of cheap thrills and instant gratification, it was a pleasure to see someone with courage, depth and personal integrity.

marta

Season Opener

After the winter break, watching the opening game of a new baseball season always feels like meeting an old love. The seclusion erases all the silly tiffs from your memory and time irons out the little wrinkles. Yet, despite being out of sight for so long, she never loses the special place in your heart. You open the door to the closed chamber and smell a delicate perfume. You spot the box of matches still lying by a candleholder. As if the mere sight of the green outfield brought instantaneously back all the precious moments, the familiar faces, the tension of pivotal plays, the exuberance of victories.

This season's opener was extra special because the St Louis Cardinals starred in it as the reigning champions. And as luck would have it, they were pitted against their NLCS rivals, the New York Mets. The new Busch Stadium could hardly wish for a better way to kick off this season. In fact, with the extra perspective, last year's NLCS looks more and more like the true World Series, while the little tiger hunt that ensued keeps slipping in the ratings...

There were several new names in the line up, but the heart of the team remained intact. Carpenter took the mound, flanked by Pujols at first and Rolen at third as his knights of honor. Unfortunately, the Mets defense behind Tom Glavine was flawless and the red sea in the bleachers soon parted with their hopes for a victorious opener. Down 1-5, the Cards could have equalized - Molina in the 6th and Rolen in the 8th had bases loaded for them - but Lady Luck was still hibernating somewhere in northern Iowa.

Playing cards (or "greasing cards" as a local idiom would have it) is one of favorite national pastimes in the Czech Republic, right next to picking mushrooms in the woods and second guessing the Czech National Soccer Team coach. On any given day you can see people in local inns and pubs absorbed in a bridge-like game known as "mariash". And the old card players - who always play for money - have a time-tested adage: "prvni vyhrani z kapsy vyhani" (the first victory drives the money out of the pocket). So maybe this loss wasn't all that bad after all. We'll see.

Calling All Slavs

Panslavism was a mild mid 19th century movement attempting to unite all Slavic people in a defense against various overly expansive European Empires. The first Pan-Slavic congress was held in Prague in the revolutionary year 1848. It was meant to give wings to young Slavic nations, but - due to some unplanned rioting - for Czechs it actually meant subsequent tightening of the Austrian rule. The next century, plagued by the prolonged illness of communism, took away some of its allure. The vision of a Slavic "melting pot" was too frequently abused by the Soviet Union. But old ideas never really die: communism eventually fizzled, but pan-slavism is alive and kicking.

At last according to the Slavic Cultural Festival Committee (SCFC) of the George Washington University. This venerable body channeled the efforts of several Slavic embassies into an afternoon filled with the authentic spirit of Eastern Europe. The University square was besieged by a platoon of booths and stalls offering a peek into traditional crafts and pottery as well as samples of local cuisine and photographic travel baits.

The culinary component actually made me realize that I needed new glasses. As we were passing the Russian table I saw a mound of wild strawberries, which I assumed were freshly picked in Siberian woods, and transported here by one of those bulging Antonov planes that my brother-in-law is mortally scared to fly on. I just could resist - so I persuaded Leona that for the next 15 minutes the coolest place to be is in the line winding patiently towards the sweet ambrosia. We found the end of the line and waited and waited and then waited some more, and when we finally snailed to the table - bummer! - the cone of strawberries had mysteriously transmogrified into a heap of minced beet. But hey - the accompanying pirozhki themselves were worth the wait. And with the spring seeping through the cherry blossoms, nothing short of a major asteroid hitting the campus could dampen our mood.

The podium had quite a few tasty morsels of its own: a Russian ensemble with a bass balalaika that was so big you could smuggle ironing boards in it; a group of acrobatic Ukraininan dancers with uncanny ear-to-ear smiles that looked as if they were painted on their faces; a little girl choir whose affected and animated choreography had a slight problem with timing, so most of their gestures were launched into the surrounding space with a humorous one second delay; and best of all - a Byelorusian version of Michael Jackson - a guy in black pants and a worn-out reddish frock, who held a small piece of a paper (apparently torn out from an old notebook) and often consulted it to brush up on lyrics.

But most of the time, the podium belonged to folklore. To dances that originated in Ukraine or Croatia, yet looked so similar to the ones I used to see in Moravia or Slovakia. That itself clearly showed that there was more to the idea of pan-slavism that just similarity of languages.

slovak

Truth likes to straddle

Being mired in the midst of a discussion about Creation versus Evolution feels like reliving a busy day at the battle of Verdun. Two sides with their argumentative horns firmly locked, all you are able to register is cantankerous soldiers dug deeply in their trenches, nervously clutching their verbal howitzers and guarding every inch of the precious intellectual territory with serrated bayonets. The only good news is that you have a choice whether you want to flounder in the mud from which Adam was created or in the mud through which some rebellious fish once clambered onto the land (which it subsequently populated with our grand grand ancestors).

But truth is that truth is rarely belligerent. It waltzes gracefully between valleys of extremes like Ginger Rogers on her high heels, lightly tapping the ice covered mountain ridges. It takes a conscientious effort to follow her tracks without slipping - the everyday struggle to interpret the marks on the slick slope properly, to pay attention to the terrain, to quickly react to any loses of balance and stability. Sadly, for many people this is too much of a bother and they rather give up and tumble down into the comfortable valleys of extremes, where they wallow in seeming happiness and are exempt from all thinking duties ever after.

But back to the topic.

Today I boiled some eggs for breakfast. Although in general I am cooking impaired, eggs I can do. I placed them gingerly in bubbling hot water and after the appropriate time period I fished them out. When I cracked them open, however, I couldn't help wondering how they came to be this way. They certainly didn't evolve by themselves - for it was me who put them in the boiling water. On the other hand I didn't create them out of nothing. Neither did I use any supernatural powers. I prepared them using time-honored principles of thermodynamics.

So you see I have a problem now - should I credit my breakfast to evolution or creation?

St Patrick's Day in Chicago

Chicago pampers its Irish enclave.

Scores of St Patrick's proteges parading down Columbus Avenue would know a thing or two about it. And they return the fondness with a ravishing array of wall-to-wall irishness: bandwagons bedecked with shamrock, cows on wheels and a monster shopping cart, fire trucks from times when stamps were a dime, cuddly little leprechauns scampering along, king on a white horse and his men flying their royal capes like cheeky banners, chipper ex patriots tossing their hats and beads and garlands around, marching bands puffing with bagpipes, girls with curls tapping their jig shoes on the pavement littered with green frills, tipsy lads in fake miters stomping onward, weightless floats on the go... The parade seems endless.

As luck would have it, on the day of this parade I ended up in Chicago with a colleague of mine. The morning sky looked a bit sullen, almost as if God had just done some serious dish washing, but by noon the Cloud Master and his band of chimney sweepers did their gig and the rest of the day was served on a blue platter. The parade was so captivating that we decided to exploit a poorly guarded intersection and joined in. For a few minutes we turned Irish and it felt as if we stepped into another dimension. Needless to say - one with much greener pastures. All of a sudden we were part of the river flowing down Columbus Avenue.

And speaking of rivers: it turns out that the proliferation of green in Chicago is not restricted to the Land. The city dyes its river too! On our way to the parade, we were dazzled by its Technicolor richness - a giant waterlilly pad painted by a jolly Dali. I don't know what Celtic magic they cast over its waters, but it looked supernaturally green.

chi

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Today at 2am, our homes were quietly invaded by millions of invisible thieves; by imaginary burglars who sneaked long plastic tubes into the gas tanks of our watches, clocks, cell phones and other time-displaying devices and siphoned off 60 minutes from our well deserved weekends.

I think the daylight saving time is overrated. Probably outdated. Possibly inhuman. Hey, this is the 21st Century! If farmers in Kansas need to spend more quality time with their yellowing corn, they can easily get up an hour earlier. And if outdoor fiends crave more daylight for their escapades, they can follow the suit. But why torment us, the unsuspecting public, with the bi-annual spells of inclement time, during which we turn into listless zombies and spend the day in the state of suspended consternation. Not to mention that all the appointments and dates that are missed exactly by an hour. And that's just us, humankind.

How about badgers, burrowing in the vicinity of the highway system, who are brutally awoken from their sleep an hour earlier by the precocious morning rush hour? People are at least prepared for this shock by media or neighbors or both. But badgers are completely taken by surprise. Nobody ever tells them. As you probably know - colloquial badgerese may be well suited for everyday repartees like "grrrrghh, get off my territory" or "wrhaouuugh, I am really really hungry", but their growls and gnarls don't really carry the meaning of "my dear fellow badgers, please, be aware that the silly two-legged creatures are on that daylight saving thingy again".

So enough with this foolishness.

And while on the subject of time tampering, something else irks me too: the institution of time zones. It seems that whenever I cross some 15 degrees of longitude I have to engage in a wrestling match with my wristwatch. And anytime I see a time stamp on an e-mail, I have to perform some completely unnecessary arithmetics to figure out when it was actually sent. And I am not even going to go into how it feels when you jog around the North Pole in small circles. Then all these fancy time zones get outright confusing.

And what for? Just so we can all have our 9-5 jobs no matter where we live? Well, so some of us would have 3am-11am jobs and some of us would have 1pm-9pm jobs. Big deal. Locally, you would get used to it quicker than you could say "tick-tock".

Can't we just all agree on the Greenwich Mean Time and enjoy the pleasures of the whole humanity being on the same page? Say there is a World Cup Soccer final in Berlin at 6pm. I want to be sure that if I turn my TV on at 6pm, I will see some serious kicking. And if 6pm happens to be in the wee hours of my morning, so be it. I can live with that.

Time is smooth and elegant. So why put unnecessary crimps in its fabric?

Brother from My Hood

This planet is really bizarre.

So I come from this little town in the Czech Republic called Hradec Kralove. It is fairly modest by European standards. I bet even most Germans wouldn't be able to locate it on the map. It lies at the confluence of Labe and Orlice, preening its inconspicuity like a suburban girl. And since Prague hoards almost all the tourists, you hardly ever meet a foreigner there. Certainly not a person of color. The population is almost exclusively Slavic.

Now today, as I parked in front of my building, I noticed that there is this black guy looking at my car and then slowly approaching me. He says: "I noticed you have a CZ sticker on your bumper. Are you from Czechoslovakia?". I said I was, and he volleyed: "Well, I spent 5 years studying in Hradec Kralove."

Amazing.

Hradec does have a regional pharmaceutical college, but its international reputation is roughly equivalent to that of the Boondock County Community College, so you could count the Americans who ever studied there on the fingers of one hand. Especially those of a different race. Yet, somehow I was lucky enough to bump into one of them in front of my very place in McLean, Virginia. What are the chances? I'd be less flabbergasted if I stumbled upon a two-headed dog deeply engrossed in the Wall Street Journal.

And I know he wasn't lying. He knew how to pronounce the "R" with an accent mark. That's like a secret sign. Only people who spent considerable time living in that part of the world would know how to tame that phonic beast.

hradec

Good Luck, Little Miss Sunshine

Some movies are dazzling, and some are warm. Some will awe you with perfectly timed special effects, and some will simply touch you with their hand. Like Little Miss Sunshine.

It is one of those movies that make you feel like you are sitting by the window after a few days of hopelessly overcast sky and then all of a sudden you can sense the sun leaning against your sleeve. You can nearly tell the moment when it brushes its golden whiskers against you.

I almost forgot that movies can be well thought out. In the era when most comedies derive their giggles from cheap shots and crude behavior, it was a relief to be able to laugh at consequences of actions rather than actions themselves, and at circumstances that were unusual but not far-fetched. As if they were lifted off life itself using a thin film of a beauty mask. How else would you come up with the woefully honking car, with the motley crew of dysfunctional characters and with the myriad of delicate gags?

Still, I was pleasantly shocked when I spotted Little Miss on the nominee list for the Best Picture Award this year. Light Muses don't always get the recognition they deserve, although writing a funny script is just as difficult as writing a dramatic one. But comedies rarely make the cut. As if the mere presence of a pack of dark and unshaven characters staring at the grisly bottom of their existences made a movie more statuette worthy. It will be an uphill battle, but until Sunday evening, I am keeping my fingers Banbury Crossed, because a healthy doze of hearty laughter is just as redeeming as two hours of intense reflection.

So hop in that van Little Miss Sunshine and go for it. All the way to California

Euphorbia Tirucalli

When I was a kid, a Zoo was all the rave. That was the place to be: an emporium full of furry critters, muscular serpents, colossal hippos and exotic sounding birds. In those years, a botanical garden seemed like a second hand farm where they merely grew rare plants, savannah grasses and trees with non-traditional foliage, you know, something to feed the hungry herbivores at a Zoo.

Motion is overhyped when you are a kid. So being firmly rooted in soil can hardly hold a candle to all the trotting, jumping, slinking, scurrying, galloping, swimming, crawling, loping, anteloping, darting, flying and all that goes on behind a Zoo's walls. Even later, when I learned that the two places served two distinct biological communities, I still viewed botanical gardens as quaint sanctuaries, suitable only for compulsive gardeners, specialty farmers, horticulturalists, rose stalkers and, in general, people who didn't get animals.

But I wised up a bit since then and these days I acknowledge that flora can be as intriguing as fauna. And to prove the point, I convinced a friend of mine yesterday to go and visit the United States Botanical Garden - a small complex of buildings nestled at the feet of the mighty Capitol. The winter was still in session, so on our way there we had to traverse the snow covered National Mall glazed with a slippery coat of ice. But once we entered the maze of mostly warm climactic zones, we could laugh at the snow squall outside through the glasses of several interconnected greenhouses.

As we floundered through their many closets, the botanical labyrinth changed its verdant attire several times: from a frilly samba skirt of the fern habitat, to rough aprons of the cactusarium, to the evening gown of the orchid pavilion, in which beauty rerendered itself in a lavish display of meticulously wrought jewelry. We discovered a starched tie of the Devil's Tongue and a prickly plant that resembled a nest of rabid socks. We traversed a suspended catwalk winding around the canopy of a rainforest like a halter top. Still, my favorite article of nature's clothing was a relatively inconspicuous cactus-like shrub labeled as a Milk Bush (Euphorbia Tirucalli).

It is a very peculiar plant. It doesn't have any leaves, just a dense array of thick and succulent twigs. The pulp of the bush produces a poisonous viscous liquid that has been used to treat cancers. The funny part is that - according to the Nobel Prize winning American chemist Melvin Calvin - this "milk" can also be converted to gasoline. The Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras has been experimenting with it since the 1980s. Can you imagine - growing gas on trees? Take that OPEC!

I just hope that when the Democratic House looks for inspiration and fresh new perspective on the energy crisis, they won't take the name of this plant as an imperative. Despite the Capitol being just a stone's throw away from the garden, there are other respectable authorities that can be milked for ideas. In the meantime, we should heed the lesson that botany teaches us: if you look for oil too hard, sometimes all you get in return is a small puddle of poisonous latex.

bush

Atomic

In my previous life, I must have been a Norwegian. I don't see any other explanation for my completely irrational affection for the Nordic culture. Writing of Knut Hamsun, paintings of Edward Munch, and especially music of Edvard Grieg have always been very close to my heart. And although my physical body longs for warm seas and palm laden islands, my mind has always been at home in the land of cross-country skiing and pensive fjords. I guess that's why the destiny chose to drop me off in the Czech Republic, half way between the Mediterranean and Scandinavia.

I am also not completely averse to jazz, so when I learned that a progressive Norwegian quintet "Atomic" is coming to town, I marked my calendar with an indelible, 100% permanent, acid rain proof, dog bite resistant, extra durable red highlighter.

The venue for the concert was a bit unusual - an Ethiopian restaurant "Twins Jazz" in downtown DC. But from the moment when five strapping, unevenly shaved Vikings took the stage, it was clear that the aroma of African spices will mix with Scandinavian harmonies just fine. The texture of music was sinewy, as if it came straight from the drying fish-racks in Trondhjem, but its raw thirst for life made a blazing mark on the club's atmosphere. The temperature was definitely more Ethiopian than Norwegian. And when the trumpet and saxophone joined forces in long sequences of nearly disharmonic yelps, time became tiled tighter than the staves of the wooden church in Borgund.

Sometimes, when the pianist, Magnus Broo, served his musical mountaineers a smorgasbord of seventh chords, it felt as if they all hopped on a rickety sled and in a mighty jolly fashion tranced their way to the bottom of the fjord. Snow or no snow. And I could have sworn I caught a silhouette of Edvard Hagerup Grieg, sitting cozily in the corner of the bar and chuckling mischievously.

Can't beat Kant

A friend of mine recommended this book about human soul, so I started reading it. At first it was intriguing - human psyche is indeed a universe of its own. But after a few pages the arguments started to loiter, going in circles and kicking the same cans and musts. Phrases like "moral imperative", "unobstructed flow of love", "larger frame of reference" flitted copiously around the narration in an ill-fated attempt to rustle up some new-agey metaphysics. But they weren't anchored in authentic experiences and soon I reached a point where I could not take it any more. So in the middle of chapter II, as I aborted the self-uplifting mission, I realized that when it comes to discussing morality, the fewer words, the better.

In 1822, shortly after finishing his Missa Solemnis, Beethoven scribbled in his diary the following quote from Kant: "Das Moralische Gesetz in uns und der gestirnte Himmel uber uns" (the moral law within us and the starry heavens above us). There! Just a hint, a parable, a glimpse of a beautiful lady caught from a speeding train. In one simple sentence Kant captured it all: like the Universe itself, we know the morality is out there somewhere, but we have little hope of ever understanding it. Forever hidden in the vast reaches of the soul, it stretches through our inner space without an obvious center of gravity.

Dealing with morality has always been a tricky issue. The consequences of our actions are not always obvious and sometimes not even immediate. Yet since antiquity people have worried about them. Critical reflection became part of being a human. You always have to wonder what trace you are leaving behind. Unless you are a member of some well connected cult, of course, in which case you are eternally exempt from all the worrying duties by the powers vested in the rubber stamp that is attached to your leader's forehead. But the rest of the human race does keep pondering what is the origin of that undertow which draws us towards right behavior. That nearly subconscious nagging feeling which redflags all our wrong doings, and given enough time can turn our attitudes around like a strayed oil tanker.

Maybe Kant has the answer to that. Maybe our morality comes from watching the starry heavens. From bathing in its quiescent timelessness. I bet you 50 pounds of Sugar Coated Enron Proceedings that hard core criminals and fraudulent accountants never lied underneath the night sky, wondering what there is and letting it plow their crusting conscience. They may have lied underneath the oath...but hey - that's not quite the same.

Watching the starry heavens nurtures our sense of continuity in time. And with it the respect for our forefathers and for the past in general. For it is the past that nurses the balancing consequences. And I think that's all that is needed. A link to the living past, to the unwavering statistics of generations. Sometimes when I walk around the old Czech castles, amidst stones assembled centuries ago, I can almost feel the taproot in my spine stir.

And I'd like to think that Beethoven felt the same way. It cannot be a coincidence that the Credo motive of his Missa Solemnis bears an uncanny resemblance to his earlier canon "Gott is eine Feste Burg" (God is a mighty fortress). And that is the verdict of the most in depth treatise on morality that I know of.

castle

Re: Volver

When a friend of mine gently steered me into going to see Pedro Almodovar's new movie Volver, I thought I would be victimized by yet another chick flick - being chained to a theater seat for ninety minutes, and watching "personas apasionadas" exchanging lovey-dovey looks and hurling themselves off the rock periodically. But I was wrong. The main characters of this movie were females, all five of them, and without a man you can't really kindle any kind of church approved romance.

In fact, the only male character got killed about 10 minutes into the movie, which was good, for his sleaziness was starting to make me feel uncomfortable with my own gender. Consequently the rest of the movie was kind of like what the world would be without men, and rather distressingly, it wasn't all that bad. No overinflated egos pumping the air, no lengthy exchanges of learned bullshit, no sign of firearms or automatic weaponry of any kind, no professional wrestling.

After you subtract the main story, which I think was just a red herring, the movie was really about coming to terms with one's festering past, about the deleterious effect it can have on one's present and about courage it takes to face it and overcome its old grievances -- all nicely wrapped with Almodovar's colorful cinematography and occasional tongue in cheek.

The flagship of the cast was undoubtedly Penelope Cruz - untamed and untamable lioness, proudly tossing her brunette mane around, yet not losing as much as a single eyelash of her natural femininity. Like a majestic liner on the waters of a small Spanish town, she plies her way towards the final destiny. Taking care of her business, networking with villagers when necessary, and dealing with her peculiar family (which includes finding her long deceased mother underneath a bed, alive).

This may not be the best movie of the year, but if you want to get a reprieve from the Hollywood canon, a peek into a different culture and a fiesta of female acting, this could be your ticket.

Not Crying over Spilt Milk

Every now and then my guardian angel gets a little bored, so - just for fun - it grabs me by the collar and pulls me through the looking glass to the other side. To the side where you find yourself lost in the middle of a strange town at 4am, standing ankles deep in a puddle of water while being ungraciously rained on. To the side, where you wake up on an Indiana farm with a dog sleeping underneath your blanket. To the side, where roads are flanked with hyperventilating trumpet blowers. You know, just to experience a little lapse of sanity.

Yesterday, when I came back from a grocery store, I parked my car in its usual spot and started unpacking my loot. I took a gallon of milk and set it on the trunk of my car, grossly underestimating the disaster making potential of its gentle slope. Indeed, while I was fishing inside the cabin for the other kitchenables, my milk got all fidgety and decided to go for a short slide. At the edge of the hood of the trunk, however, it must have realized that milk jars are ill-fitted for breaking and its frolicky and innocent slide took a sudden and painfully literal plunge. A second later I heard a dull thumping sound, as its plastic body cracked open and its white contents splashed all over the black asphalt.

When I looked at what happened, I saw an image that was surreal, daring, quaint, beautiful, and apocalyptic. A mangled container lying on the ground, a deep gashing wound tearing across its midriff and a blazing shape of white sea contrasted against the dark surface of the parking lot.

But, not to get too artsy-fartsy, the episode had a practical aspect, too. What do I do with the sprawling lagoon? It was unseasonably warm yesterday, no rain in the forecast, so I was well aware that if I just walked away, the decomposing milk would soon start smelling pretty badly. Being a good citizen, I went home, got a bucket of water, a mop and few paper towels and did whatever I could to minimize damage. I think I managed to soak up at least two thirds of the original spillage, but I have to tell you this: sponging an asphalt patch for milk is one of the most unusual experiences you can have on this planet. I hope someone was watching. Nothing they can ever show on Comedy Central would beat a hapless guy, fussing around the parking lot and mopping up spilt milk.

milk

State of The Springfield Address

Mister Burns, Mayor Quimby, SuperIntendent Chalmers, citizens of Springfield:

We enter the year 2007 with large endeavors underway, and others that are ours to begin. Halibarton crews are preparing to install a new high capacity 40 inch beer pipe to Moe's Tavern, Marge Simpson made an appointment with the TallTuft Parlor to completely restyle her blue hair, Apu's convenience Kwik-E-Mart is to be transformed into a Web_2.0 front end for Kwik-E-Bay and Ned Flanders is going to launch a far-reaching faith-based diddly-doodly spiritual initiative. In all of this, much is asked of us. We must have the will to face difficult challenges but also determined enemies -- most notably the Shelbyville radicals -- who would like to bring an end to our prosperity.

My fellow cartoon characters, our military commanders and I have carefully weighed our options against Shelbyville. We discussed every possible approach - a Dandruff Shampoo embargo, enlisting Kang and Kodos, the Space Mutant Siblings from the Halloween episodes, even disrupting their reception of the Itchy and Scratchy show. In the end, however, I chose invasion by back roads because it provides the best chance for success. Many in this chamber understand that Springfield must not fail in Shelbyville, because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching. I have full confidence that our brave troops under commandership of the weathered Vietnam veteran Seymour Skinner will make us all proud.

For all of us in this room, there is no higher responsibility than to protect the people of this town from danger. We've added many critical protections to guard it from within: Mr Burns' vicious dogs underwent a voluntary teeth abrading and Barney has solemnly vowed to abstain from drinking and publicly regurgitating. But many individuals who terrorize our school children are still at large and on them we declared a war.

Our success in this war is often measured by the things that did not happen. We cannot know the full extent of the attacks that I, Eddie and Lou have prevented, but here is some of what we do know: We found two jars of peanut butter and a toothpaste in Dolph's school bag, we averted Kearney's plans to blow up Groundskeeper Willie's shack, and we have discovered and confiscated a secret stash of disrespectful stickers in Jimbo's locker. Last but not least, we have placed Nelson Muntz in a mandatory speech therapy program that will cure his grating "Ha-Ha" cackle.

Next, there is the matter of earmarks. These special interest items are often slipped into bills at the last hour -- when not even Kent Brockman is watching. Captain McAllister's new and overpriced nuclear steamboat, Disco Stew's SuperSonic Karaoke Machine and Chief Wiggum's extra greasy I Can't Believe It's Not Lard pork chops are not projects prerequisite for this town's well-being. Yet, they're treated as if they have the force of law. The time has come to end this practice. I have personaly appointed Fat Tony to take care of that.

A future of hope and opportunity begins only with a growing economy -- and that is what we have. We're now in the 41st month of uninterrupted job growth, in a recovery that has created 9 new jobs in the greater Springfield area alone. Unemployment is low, inflation is low, and Homer Simpson's self-esteem is low. This economy is on the move, and once we figure out where it is going, we'll send our troops to bring it back.

Spreading opportunity and hope in Springfield also requires public schools that give children the knowledge and character they need in life. Five years ago, we rose above partisan differences to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, preserving local control, raising standards, and holding those schools accountable for results. Today, we admit that Bart Simpson fell through the cracks of this system. But we do not give up on him. His sister Lisa, Mrs. Krabappel and reverend Lovejoy offered an additional tutelage with the hope that by the year 2011, Bart will be able to completely avoid division by zero.

Tonight, I also propose a new initiative to help more Springfieldians afford their own health insurance. It is on them that Dr. Hibbert will perform any and all operations which two dimensional geometry allows. For those few who will not be able to obtain sufficient coverage, alternative care packages through the offices of Dr. Nick Riviera will be made widely available.

It's also in our vital interest to diversify Springfield's energy supply. We must continue changing the way Springfield generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause from Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and restrict the use of old and inefficient internal combustion engine cars. (D'oh! from Homer Simpson.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes. (Loud burping from Mr. Barney Gumble).

Tonight, I ask the Town Hall to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we've done and reduce gasoline usage in Springfield by 20 percent in the next 10 years. Professor Frink has proposed a new public transportation system based on a Blubber Train, and starring Otto Man as the Chief Locomotive Engineer. Before the train is assembled and carefully drawn, however, I expect y'all to make full use of the laws of Cartoon Physics. Yes, your car will go if you just hop in. No need to fill up. Mark my words. Say NO to your pet guzzlers. And if you are science impaired, go run through your attic and dust off those bicycles, tricycles, walkers, stilts, go carts, pogo sticks and flying carpets.

Extending hope and opportunity in our town requires an immigration system worthy of Springfield -- with laws that are fair and borders that are secure. I am happy to report that with our new legislature Pedro the BumbleBee Man will no longer be illegally alienated. And with our new defence fence, no ill-meaning Shelbyvillain will be able to sneak into our midst.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in the 18th season and going strong. This is a decent and honorable TV series -- and resilient, too. We've been through a lot together. We've met challenges and faced dangers, and we know that more lie ahead. Yet we can go forward with confidence -- because the State of our Town is strong, our cause in the TV Broadcasting is right, and tonight that cause goes on.

Journey to the Center of a Mind

Meeting new people, especially those of the opposite sex, often feels like being jettisoned into the middle of a lush rainforest.

At first, your sensory defense lines are overwhelmed with the flood of information. You recognize the basic environment, but you barely have time to register its bibulous vegetation, the valance of palm trees or the rampant foliage incessantly bidding for sunshine. You catch a scintilla of sky bashfully drizzling through the overarching canopy, but you are too busy just trying not to trip up against the serpentine roots.

And then there is the question of safety always simmering on the back burner of your processing noggin. In a jungle, you can never be too careful. Even human minds, however civilized, can host a number of venomous reptiles, predators, parasites, leeches, even piranhas. So you gingerly walk around, subconsciously scanning the shrubs for any slinking shadows, while watching for that tip-off shudder of sprawling ferns.

After a while, as it is becoming clear that nothing nasty is going to bite you, you grow more comfortable with this neck of the woods and start noticing its peculiarities. The trees endemic to the forest. The idiosyncratic traits which make us unique and special. Personal gestures, the tone of laughter, the tilt of the head. And you also realize that the original cacophony of animal sounds was but an intricate mesh of calls and signals and you start distinguishing the individual voices. The instruments in the pastoral symphony of survival.

Swinging on lianas of conversation, dodging prickly thorns of faux pas, you venture deeper and deeper into the forest's understory. Here and there, you may need to climb a tree. Occasionally you sink knee-deep in the mud. You pause to catch a glimpse of a parrot. Smell the fragrance of a blooming Candle Bush. And whether you find a wild orchid at the end or a disgruntled spider is largely of no consequence for the journey itself is well worth a few scratches.

So this is roughly what you are up against as you sip your favorite tea with a long-haired blonde creature, whom you never saw before and who were born in a completely different country. And you look into her sea-colored eyes and all you see is the jungle of neurons firing wildly in their synaptic cacophony.

forest

Pea in an iPod

Well, I did drop a pea into an electronic device. However, not to be harassed by the Association for Factually Accurate Blog Titles, I have to admit up front that it wasn't an iPod but an HP printer. Although it did cross my mind that I could drive to an Apple store, buy an iPod and reenact the whole scene with it.

So if you can stomach a story about a pea in an HP, read on. Otherwise, read off. Oh, and if you are a princess, make sure your chair is amply padded.

Once upon a time, yesterday actually, I was searching the Net, while munching on a bowl of fresh peas. I know that men are not supposed to be doing two things at the same time and I know that the fine print of my fine printer's manual clearly states that "consuming legume in the airspace directly above the printer, up to the altitude of 40,000 feet, is strictly prohibited". But I am a guy, so brazenly disregarding the well-meant admonitions of the Hewlett Packard manual writers, I kept on snacking. My fingers were habitually craning the green cargo into my mouth, until one freedom loving little renegade squirmed itself out of their grip and got away.

I looked down at the floor, but couldn't see it. I searched all the usual hiding places. No show. Hmmmm, I wondered if peas had any natural predators...

In my apartment, I am generally pretty tolerant to disorder, but food items being on the loose - that's where I draw the line. I don't want to become the McDonald's to any kind of microorganisms. Plus it's not healthy for bacteria to eat fast food. Anyway. After few minutes of intense fine-tooth-combing I found the green fugitive holed up in the output slot of my printer.

I assumed the position of a lying marksman and evaluated the situation. The pea was about half way in, crouching in the middle of the ramp leading to the paper tray and looking rather confrontational. It was well aware that my fingers couldn't reach it and it waited for me to make the next move. I don't like to embarrass myself in front of an obviously inferior life-form, so while I was trying to come up with a plan, I wondered how long it would take before it starved itself or died of a kidney failure.

I also considered tilting the printer, but I didn't want to damage its delicate and rather mysterious innards. What if all my documents would then come out with letters upside down? So after a while, I took the stick from an EskymoPie bar and tried to push the pea forward into the tray. Bad move. The stick caught against some internal snag, tightened up considerably and when it was finally released, all its pent-up energy catapulted the pea straight out like a rocket.

Now, I am not making this up. Once out, the little projectile ricocheted off of my glasses and zipped right back where it came from, except this time it ended up all the way in the back, firmly lodged in some guiding groove.

That really did it for me. Without regard for consequences or well being of the printer, I grabbed the whole contraption, turned it upside down and started shaking it and spanking it and vigorously tapping its bottom with my palm. I imagine that this is how shamans in Central Africa deal with a paper jam in their tribal copier. But it worked out surprisingly well and the delinquent pea was soon coughed up onto the carpet.

This little situation made me think about the underlying physics. How did the vertically dropping pea end up in a horizontally oriented aperture? After consulting this matter with experts on kinetics, the verdict is in and it may shock you: the fifth force.

I hereby postulate that besides gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong, there is another force in this Universe, which I will tentatively call "the witch force". This force directs the motion of matter into regions of least probability and acts predominantly on small round objects, although I suspect that it can handle unround objects as well (couple of music sheets that have disappeared behind my digital piano recently would certainly know a lot about it). The quantum nature of the "witch force" has not been established yet, but its strength is clearly proportional to the object's value and inversely proportional to the time available for the searching operation.

If you don't believe it, please, conduct the following experiment: take 10 marbles, stand in the kitchen corner opposite to the stove and try to throw the marbles into the narrow gap between the stove and the wall. None of them went in, right? See? An inadvertently dropped blueberry of an average IQ can find that gap in less than 3 seconds

Purgatory

(jabberwocky)


fearless spiders crawling up the hand that holds the steering wheel
sleepy bus of my mind packed with shards of tongueless dreams
encased in the semi-transparent membrane of early morning
angry tongues of shower lash out into my slumber
a key on a single-stranded gossamer filament
breezes alongside the mossy stones
the pavement of the past
another slim chance
for the top

well

I'd like to buy a vowel

My friend Robert may look like a mathematician, but underneath the academic facade lurks a business acumen of a shrewd entrepreneur.

This Saturday, as we were waiting for his daughter to finish her morning classes at an elementary school in Edison, NJ, he asked me whether it is true that the sentence "put your finger through the throat" has no vowels in Czech. I answered affirmatively, for in Czech the letters "L" and "R" can sometimes moonlight as vowels, generating words that seemingly consist of consonants only. His face lit up instantaneously: "Maybe we could start a business selling the vowel starved Czech people some Es, As, Is and Os".

What an idea! I wonder what the customs officer at the airport would think if he opened my bulging suitcase only to find it stuffed with assorted vowels. Although I suspect Robert was thinking really big and considered building a 70-inch underground vowel pipe from some vowel infested country such as Italy. Or maybe he wanted to build a vowel recycling plant, wherein words like "oaza", "ouha" or "auto" would cede their vowels to their less fortunate brethren. And with some black magic, I am sure we could use the facility to transmogrify selected consonants into vowels as well with no additional costs to the plant's shareholders. I mean you can pull it off even in your own garage. Just unscrew that unsightly appendage from Q, tack it onto F and you have O and E already. The possibilities are endless.

So hey, if you have some extra venture capital lying around underneath your mattress, consider investing in the budding vowel industry. Here are some examples of vowel-deficient, yet grammatically correct and complete sentences for your business proposal. I am sure your local Czech will be happy to pronounce them for you - they will make a cool audio for your presentation:

Strc prst skrz krk.
(Put your finger through the throat)

Pln skvrn, vlk strhl smrk z vrb.
(Full of spots, a wolf pulled a spruce off of willows)

Scvrnkls ctvrthrst chrp?
(Did you flick away a quarter of a handful of cornflowers)

I hope this little sample convinced you that the Czech language can be quite frivolous. As frivolous as any of the silly walks Robert's daughter made me invent on our way to the Chinese Igloo Tea House, and just as chunky as the tapioca pearls that were sneaking up my straw when I fished at the bottom of their Green Apple Bubble Tea.

Music of the Spheres

When I was in college, I noticed that math majors were more prone to play a musical instrument than any other science majors. And I think there is a reason to it. Math is to sciences what music is to arts. A far out cousin from the platonic Universe.

Almost all sciences refer to the material world that surrounds us. They have no problem describing a lake. A physicist will tell you what are its thermodynamic properties, a chemist will point out impurities in the water content, a biologist will draw your attention to the plethora of Latin named microcritters in it. But mathematicians have trouble relating to the lake. Their cohomologies, integrals and Hilbert spaces are ill suited for the splashy medium. Mathematics has no concrete object to describe. Its domain is, almost literally, the pi in the sky.

Similarly most of the arts have no problem dealing with the lake. A writer can conjure up a story of a drowning fish, a painter can revel in the blue palette of its glistening surface, a filmmaker can dreamily pan from one shore to the other. A musician is ill equipped to deal with the lake though. His art speaks to listeners' emotions directly, rather than through references to familiar objects. Just like a mathematician, who appeals directly to readers' abstract reasoning, rather than to specific empirical associations.

As a payment for their high speed connection to the real world, most arts and sciences are bound by numerous external constraints. A writer may need to carefully research the 15th century French haute couture for his latest medieval novel. A physicist may need to introduce an ad hoc friction coefficient or a cosmological constant to make her theory agree with experiments. Musicians and mathematicians, on the other hand, have only rules of inner harmony to answer to. They are the supreme rulers of their Kingdom in the Air.

I think that music and mathematics are the strangest crafts our species has developed so far. But at the same time the most intriguing and very similar in spirit. Watching the action of the modular group on the rotational hyperboloid of one sheet is as intriguing as listening to Canzona da Ringraziamento from Beethoven's 15th String Quartett. In either case, it feels like peeking into God's windows.

spheres

Balooney Tunes

At midnight on the New Year's Eve, I gazed at hundreds of colorful balloons snowing down from the ceiling of the Kennedy Center's majestic foyer. It was in perfect sync with the spirit of the evening, for the last concert of the year featured a symphonic version of Britney Spears extravaganza. The conductor obviously didn't want to burden the blurry consciousness of his congregation with any inexplicable harmonies of Rachmaninov, let alone Stravinski. So while we held on to the funny paper hats we found on our seats, easily digestible pieces by Rossini, Suppe and Johann Strauss bounced lightheartedly between the auditorium walls and their carbonated melodies fizzed effortlessly into our minds like garlands of an expensive champagne that were being poured into slim wineglasses just minutes before midnight.

As the motley aerial parade descended upon the buzzing crowd, I saw in each balloon one floating memory of the year that had just passed. Of the year that had suddenly been confiscated by eternity. But I was grateful that we humans can reflect upon our past and see cheerful balloons in the restless wake of our lifeboat. Imagine how dreadful a New Year's Eve must be for computers: at midnight they look eagerly back and all they see in their memory are long sequences of 0s and 1s. Yikes!

Having been pleasantly eased by the champagne, I decided then and there that every year I would choose one among the flitting balloons as my favorite memory, one especially mirthful souvenir of the mind: (drum roll) ...and for this inaugural year 2006, the Balooney Tune Award goes to: The Trip to Sloane's Wedding.

Here it is.

In March I took a flight to San Francisco to attend a wedding of my friend Sloane. The ceremony took place on the Muir Beach, about 90 minutes northwest from the Oakland Airport. I arrived there at 1am (4am of my biological time) and rented a car. I was staying at a small hotel whose office closed at midnight, so Sloane checked me in herself and arranged for the key to be left under a stone in front of the room. As I hit the coastal highway, I encountered some mist, which was soon upgraded to a fog, then to a dense fog and before I knew it, I was plowing through an Extra Thick Double Cheese Hand Skimmed Superfog that must have been imported from a heathery moor around some Scottish castle. Guessing which way the road would turn was lots of fun and I also noticed that the reflective markers in the middle of the road were spaced out so you could just barely see the next one. After about ten minutes of testing the stamina of my car's second gear, I decided to pull over, step outside and enjoy the outlandishness of the moment.

So there I was, a stranger on the West Coast, thrown upon a narrowish road precariously perching over the ever-hungry Pacific Ocean. In the headlights of my car, I could see a moist pavement, occasionally decorated with fallen boulders and hastily mended with splats of asphalt, attempting to patch up the bites inflicted by frequent landslides. The ocean itself was distinctly unpacific and its grumbling stomach was bellowing nutritional innuendos so voraciously that I got an impression that it hadn't had a freshly tumbled compact sized car with some meaty stuffing in it for days, if not weeks. It felt like being on a different planet. There wasn't a living soul for miles around, not a car in sight, not a bird in the air, only the hardworking fog and me, wondering what exactly was I doing there at such wee hour and whether the key to my bed was still lying under the stone.

So that was the most surreal moment of 2006. The balooniest tune of my year. But 2007 is already taking its coat off in the hallway, and I am sure it will have many balooney tunes of its own. Days filled with amazement and adventures. After all, it will be the Year of Bond. James Bond.

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