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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: February 2008

Barack vs Hillary

I think that experience is overrated.

For examples, we need to look no further than in the works of one Ludwig van Beethoven. He composed more than a hundred pieces in his lifetime, but let's take a look at just three pairs. They were not chosen randomly - in all of these the former sports more ardor and the latter more experience.

Leonore 2 vs Leonore 3
Piano Concerto 4 vs Piano Concerto 5
Symphony 3 vs Symphony 5

Nowhere can the maturing process be seen as clearly as in overtures to his only opera Fidelio/Leonore, of which he wrote four. Leonore 3 is really but a polished redaction of Leonore 2 and it shares most of its motifs with it. Its edges had been smoothed out, its orchestration expanded, its thematical texture pruned. That's all dandy, but a discerning ear will notice that the revision lacks some of the previous version's features: the formative heat of the forge, the mad rush of freshly born ideas, and there are fewer enchanted repetitions where the composers gets subconsciously intoxicated with his own creations.

Piano concerto No. 4 is like a white water creek - you can almost spot the rainbow trouts in the flow of its music. Its chords cascade down the keyboard with the playfulness of a mountain stream. Piano concerto No. 5 is much more like a meandering waterway. The ripples on its body are more majestic, but also a bit more premeditated. And there is a notable difference in the clarity of waters. If the Fourth was a river, I'd have no problem drinking from its crystal clear pools. The Fifth, however magnificent it is, doesn't possess that uncorrupted glitter of its younger brother, succumbing to the fate of all rivers: the longer they stay on the surface, the murkier they get.

Beethoven's Third symphony, Eroica, is one of the most revolutionary musical pieces of all times. No wonder the Viennese critics labeled it "the music for horses" after its premiere. I can only imagine how utterly horrified the musical establishment must have been when Beethoven abandoned the well manicured park paths of Mozart and Haydn and marched triumphantly through the gates of his own world. And being the Beethoven he was, he didn't enter it with a polite "excuse me", but rather with a resounding bang of his fists. In less than 50 minutes he charted out the course of musical history for the next one hundred years. He became the rebel.

There is a difference in tone between the Third and the Fifth: Eroica is like a war correspondent's letter from the battle front, while the Fifth is more like a well written memoir of a Vietnam vet. Where the Fifth imagines and reminisces, Eroica rouses and hollers. You can hear the field bugles, the confused and a syncopated racket of soldiers falling head over heels at the sound of alarm, the eagerness radiating from its every measure. And the inclusion of a funeral march (Marcia funebre) in lieu of the slow movement is an apostasy of its own. If you'd expect a muted sobfest, you'd be so wrong - there is no sniffling in Eroica, only clenched fists in the pockets and a promise that there will be consequences. The Fifth symphony was certainly written by a more experienced hand, but it lost the devastating impact of a youthful army embroiled in an unstoppable insurrection.

I noticed over the years that in all of the above pairs the concert goers seem to prefer the latter pieces. I guess they appreciate their well measured technical brilliance. But I miss the authenticity and brutal straightforwardness of their earlier brethren. That is why I would choose Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton any day. New blood over experience. Especially, when "being ready on day one" really means resuming business as usual.

Hot Lava

Too much processing is not good for your food, and it is not good for your music either.

Music is born as a mustang. Snorting wildly and jumping impatiently over the black keys of the piano keyboard. Proclaiming its independence of rhythm and breathing it at the same time. It is only in the pen of a musician's mind that it is tamed into a horse.

Too bad that in a studio project the discipline usually prevails and hot instinct yields to a cool reason. It is almost as if the moment a musical idea makes it to the surface of consciousness and comes into contact with oxygen, it start corroding. Slowly, barely perceptibly, it loses its primordial charm. It isn't a big deal, but you can sense it - it is the difference between trotting on a trodden trail of D major and darting across the wide prairies of harmony.

That is why every now and then it is good to see a live concert, preferably of a band that is not afraid to let loose and step on the unsecured tight rope of improvisation. The atmosphere completely changes. The music acquires the unmistakable smell of hot lava. The smell of Earth's core, the womb of human imagination where most of the art is born.

The flying carpet of fire.


Coat Czech

In many aspects, languages are like clothes. They are the verbal fabric nations put on their cultures. And much like their textile counterparts they accentuate tastes and likings of the people that wear them. They reflect the collective experience of their speakers. Living in a foreign country affords you an outside view of your own mother tongue so you can appreciate its different cuts and folds. In that regard, dabbling in linguistics is like watching the red carpet parade of celebrity attires on Oscars' night. You get to marvel at what is concealed and what is revealed.

When I juxtapose Czech and English, what strikes me first is the presence of "blind spots" - words that exist in one language but don't have a counterpart in the other. One Czech word that I don't find in English is "pohoda" - a completely relaxed state of mind - a mood you'd associate with sipping Chardonnay on a warm summer evening. Although it gets sometimes translated as "coziness", "good times" or "well-being", none of these suitors have the bouquet of the original. On the liability side, Czech doesn't have an equivalent of the phrase "I am uncomfortable", which kind of shows that being squeezed between the Germans and Russians sets your pain threshold much lower than in the rest of the civilized world. We are the folks quite comfortable sharing the backseat of Volkswagen Beetle with 5 other people.

Czechs handle everyday situations with slightly different phrases. When someone knocks at the door, we say "Further!" instead of "Come in", you ask a lady for a dance with "May I beg?" and when you try to squeeze by someone, you should say "with (your) permission" rather than "excuse me". You can bid someone a farewell with "Have yourself" (Mej se), which must have something to do with the fact that we don't say "How are you?" but rather "How are you having yourself?"

In some situations, Czechs use common words in a way which seems rather uncommon. For instance, large quantities are often described as "clouds" (as in "I saw clouds of people there"), while extremely low temperatures are referred to as a "scythe" (as in "Don't go outside, it's a scythe there"). When you are clueless about something, you may say "I've got no steam on that" and when you want to dismiss something or when you want to express disbelief or mild surprise, one of your options is "mushrooms" or "mushrooms with vinegar":

"Our neighbor just won a lottery!"

Czechs are also fond of their orchards as exemplified by expressions: "to catch someone plucking plums" meaning "catch someone red handed" and "did you fall off the pear tree?", which usually implies a severe lack of acumen. The rustic roots of the language can also be detected in the phrase that rebukes someone for going on the first-name basis too soon: "Excuse me, but we haven't tended geese together!". And speaking of animals, some have pretty descriptive names in Czech: "nasalhorn" (rhino), "giant fish" (whale), multitrunk (octopus), lazywalk (sloth) etc. On the flora side my favorite name is "seven-beauties" (daisy).

Sayings are a chapter of its own, and rather quirky one at that. As an example - when someone's elevator doesn't quite reach the top floor, we say that "it's splashing onto his lighthouse". That doesn't make much sense considering that the Czech language evolved in a landlocked region, but then languages are not supposed to be logical theories. Similarly, for the stress of forced cohabitation (whether induced by marriage or army service) we use the expression "submarine illness", despite the fact that the Czech submarine fleet is about as massive as the Banjo Section of the London Symphony Orchestra.

In Czech, people don't "bark up the wrong tree", they "cry on the wrong grave" instead. If you are about to give up - "you throw your rifle into the rye", if you are restless - "all the devils are sewing with you" and when you manage to outsmart someone - "you've burned out their pond". We also don't advertise reluctance with a phrase "when the hell freezes over", but rather "when it rains and dries out" or "when the leaves fall off the oak tree".

When a girl impresses a boy, she "falls into his eye", upon which his "calves catch fire" and he "gets slammed into her". When the girl finally wins his heart, we say that "she has tied him up with a cooked noodle", especially if she's applied than noble means to achieve that goal. On the other hand, if she breaks up with him, she'd boast to her friends that "she gave him the cleats", as if to suggest that he might go and play with his soccer buddies now.

In many aspects, languages are like people. They are similar to each other in basic features, but different in details. Juggling two languages in one mind is like a linguistic X-ray. You get to see what is hidden under the skin.

The Jaws of Perspective

Perspective is the magic wand that makes some objects small and some large, although in reality they are all the same size. It is a doubly edged sword though and tampering with it can be hazardous to your spiritual well being. Like fire, perspective is a good servant, but a bad master.

On the one hand, it adapts our viewing window so we can feel outright dizzy when the Giants win the Superbowl, although in the greater scheme of things it is as relevant to our lives as fluctuation of Basmati rice price in Eastern India. Yet this lack of gravitas doesn't prevent us from completely immersing ourselves in whatever little spectacle life (or Eli Manning) throws our way. It is perspective that recalibrates the perceived magnitude of events and lets us smell the roses however insignificant they may be.

On the other hand, perspective can play pretty nasty tricks on us when it blows relatively trivial mishaps out of proportion. So much so that it can completely jam our internal hierarchy of priorities. The grip of its jaws is relentless at times and its sharp teeth will crush all that is standing in its path. Perspective can turn a temporary distress into a little dictator methodically removing all other contenders for our attention.

The only antidote against particular aspects usurping the whole playing field of our mind is experiencing life on different scales. Interacting with people from different backgrounds. Only under a constant barrage of their assorted problems can we perceive the true magnitude of ours. Loosing perspective is a little bit like hiking in the mountains. One moment you are on a ridge and see all the surrounding peaks for comforting reference, and the next you disappear into a gorge or a narrow valley and completely lose your orientation. In such situations having a variety of friends is like having a personal GPS. Priceless.


International Day of Jerks and Germs

There is a reason why we exercise: our muscles need to be flexed, otherwise they atrophy. No, that doesn't mean they'll win a shiny cup, "atrophy" is just a scary word for becoming very lazy, dysfunctional and eventually non-existent. Lifting weights hardly ever qualifies as fun, unless you are a Rambo or a Rocky, but our bodies need to break some sweat in order to stay on top of their game. When it comes to muscle tissue, it is use it or lose it quite literally.

I think of germs as exercise machines for our immune systems. We have a sophisticated body police, but without having an opportunity to patrol some really tough neighborhoods where they would have the opportunity to fight shady and unseemly microcharacters, its alertness steadily decreases. Eventually, without sufficient stimuli from the outside, the immune system turns on itself and starts fighting phantom menaces, producing a whole range of pesky allergies. Avoiding germs is like trying to defend your country with an army that spends all its training days in bed. Our defense systems atrophy.

I also think that jerks provide similar service to our emotional responses. They keep us on our toes. They help us flex our social muscles. The vexations they inflict on us are like controlled brush fires, making sure our psyche never becomes a blazing inferno later on. Bottled anger has a way of blowing up or decomposing into stinky puddles of grudge, so jerks should be lauded for providing a safety valve for our internal pressure.

Living in an artificially sweetened world of Disney has its pitfalls. People lose the ability to resolve conflicts. The smallest hint of adversity short circuits their minds into a seizure mode and leaves them searching frantically through their playbooks, which - statistically speaking - have a fairly poor record of foreseeing life's little twists. Sometimes you may be able to put a band-aid of forced smile over a disagreement, but only a jerk can teach you how to handle it with aplomb.

Life is not fair - at least not on this planet. We have to choose whether we want to become finicky orchids growing up in a carefully controlled glass house, or hardy plants that can endure any whim of weather. If your only experience with adversity is sobbing in a movie theater after Johnny Depp gets his pinky toe brutally stepped on, you may be slightly underprepared for inclement weather. Viciously spraying your kitchen counter top with industry strength disinfectants and wiping out anything that has a strand of DNA in it won't help your natural defenses either. To some extent, jerks and germs are essential to our well being. They are our sparring partners in the great fight of life.

To recognize the hard work of these unsung heroes I would like to propose that February 2nd be declared the International Day of Jerks and Germs. On this day we'll seal off the area under the kitchen sink as a "demilitarized zone" and when asked how we are doing we'll retort "None of your bloody business, buddy!". That will be our tribute to the critters that keep our immune and emotional emergency response systems fully operational.

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