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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: June 2007

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.

(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.

(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


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.

# a random poem generator
while ( <> ) {
  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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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