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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: February 2007

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."


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.


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.



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.


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.

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