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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: March 2008

West Pocket Revue

Today I made a startling discovery: my pocket is dreadfully uneventful.

I have a cell phone which occasionally moonlights as a camera and takes photos. Maddeningly, one of the control buttons is on the outside and every now and then it goads the camera into action while it is still lodged deeply in my pocket. It does so especially when I drive and the fabric presses on it from random angles. Upon reviewing about 10 recent photos featuring 10 completely dark rectangles I came to the conclusion that the social and aesthetic milieu in my pocket needs some serious reviving (and much better lighting conditions).

In the run up to the Second World War, there was a small avantgarde group of comedians in Prague called "Liberated Theater" and one of their first productions was a burlesque show titled "West Pocket Revue". So I thought I'd pay homage to their creative endeavors and start carrying strange objects in my pockets, so I could actually capture something meaningful when my cell phone camera goes off.

All I have to do is populate my pocket with a few miniature figurines and start monitoring their social life. So many choices. Should I go for buccaneers or exotic animals? Or maybe I should carry both - in a sort of reenactment of "The Pocket of Dr. Moreau". Or maybe I should focus on a documentary genre instead and do a National Geographic Special. I am going to call it "Little Shiny Objects I Found on a Sidewalk and Their Place in the Ecosystem of My Pocket".

Bet on Tibet

Doctrines that are not afraid to expose themselves to a bit of imperfection always seem more impressive than those that avoid any hints of potential fallibility and cling to whatever petrified dogma they profess. In words of wise and hoary sages: admitting a weakness is a sign of strength.

Today when I was reading TIME's article about Tibet, I came across the following snippet: "Always stressing that the Buddha's own words should be thrown out if they are shown by scientific inquiry to be flawed, the Dalai Lama is the rare religious figure who tells people not to get needlessly confused or distracted by religion".

There! What a refreshing attitude in the world where most ideological leaders still protect their immutable answer to everything, despite the fact that a static view has as much chance of reflecting the ever changing world as a car with a locked steering wheel has of negotiating a winding mountain road. Emboldened by their lack of understanding of physical world, they keep making pompous absolute claims only to be forced into embarrassing backpedaling by their own contradictions. And whether they come from a hard line communist, an Islamic fundamentalists or a senior worshiper in the Sect of Extreme Honey makes very little difference. Dalai Lama, on the other hand, dares to sow rare seeds into his spiritual field. The seeds of doubt.

Doubt is the artery that brings oxygenated blood to our mental tissues. Without it, we become intellectual zombies. Doubt is the backdoor through which emergency escapes can be made. Doubt is the inner skeptic kicking the tires of our principles before we really buy into them. And by that I do not mean the crippling doubt of pathological overanalyzers, but the healthy feedback loop which corrects the action, without stifling it. Sure we could all put on a make up of a happy face and drive off the dealer's lot with whatever car the salesman pushed on us, but it would be to our own detriment.

Sadly, many people choose to do just that anyway. They give up on personal responsibility and stop questioning the consequences of their actions. Replacing their own judgment with a giant reference to some divine abstract entity may be convenient, but the plastic veneer of unapologetic complacence they get in return will never quite substitute for a living conscience.

Another gem of the article came a few paragraphs later, in a passage where Dalai Lama admits directly that "even without a religion we can become a good human being", stressing that our deeds and demeanors themselves should determine our passage through the Pearly Gates. Once again, such tolerance is in sharp contrast to the world's major religions, whose tenets promise you sizzling hell if you even consider going to the church across the street or across the strait or - God forbid! - being spiritual on your own terms. In the jurisdiction of fiercely burning stakes, the individual actions are obviously relegated to playing the second fiddle. Choosing a specific embodiment of the divine authority is seen as key to your salvation and all the spiritual luminaries make sure you get the word - with sword if necessary.

In the past, some especially clever members of the clergy even made a little business of downplaying the virtues of proper behavior and started selling the so called "indulgences" as if to make a point: "you can really be a little bit bad, but hey - as long as you pay us some money your ticket to heaven is guaranteed". I wonder whether their descendants realize that guarding jealously the license to safeguard our moral well being doesn't really behoove an institution concerned with spreading the message of an omnipotent and loving superbeing. To an impartial observer, any such propaganda sounds more like a shtick of a desperate car salesman.

Despite all the fireworks, none of these churches really makes a convincing claim as to why you should choose them and not the one next door. Why are all of them so geographically localized and not universal? Doesn't it stand to reason that the All Powerful [fill in your favorite deity] would make His presence known to all people throughout the world which He himself created? Why should people who weren't exposed to the given religion be damned just because no missionaries visited their neck of the woods yet? I don't see what is on God's mind any more than a fly landing on my sleeve sees what is on mine, but I cannot believe that He would not care about how we manage the world he gave us to live in.

Imagine that you have two gardens and you consign them to two managers. One takes good care of the garden, waters the flower beds, prepares compost and mulch, prunes trees every year - he is so busy that you hardly ever hear from him. The other one barely fulfills his duties, but he keeps constantly pandering to you, calls you often to ask how you are doing, puts your name on a big billboard overlooking the garden and sends you a birthday card every year. Which of the two gardeners would you give better marks to?

I do not think that God is vane and I do not think he is all that hooked up on being worshiped, but I bet that he cares about how we tend to His garden. So my money in this regard rides on the wisdom of the ambassador from Tibet.


Spring Ahoy

Yesterday gravity borrowed one of my glasses and when I got it back, one and half eye blinks later, it was all shattered to small uneven pieces. With each unwholesome shard I picked up from the floor, it became clearer and clearer that not even a formally binding UN resolution would make these stick together again. When things break, some irreplaceable quality is lost forever.

Unlike ordinary matter, the living tissues have the ability to overcome breaking through the magic of healing. They have a way of turning big wounds into smaller wounds and eventually into tiny little scars, mere lipstick imprints on the skin of our memory.

Every year, when the Rite of Spring drizzles into town, time seems to put a new coat of paint over all old grudges, whether they were caused by unreturned books or unrequited loves. Broken branches of yesteryear sprout new off-springs and stern looking schoolmarms of tree trunks open their pinkish parasols as they attempt to smile. But don't strain your eyes too much. Nature likes to change at night when all you can hear is an occasional cricket and maybe a drawn out yawn of the French horn ushering the Finale of Stravinski's Firebird Suite. Much like the arrival of Spring, healing is an invisible carnival.

Life can be a vast ocean and our wounds are just tiny little footprints in the wet sand of its shoreline. Every Spring a new wave washes ashore and one by one licks them into perfect oblivion.

Tales from the Swamp

Wall Street breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Its arch-nemesis, a man who cast his nets far and wide into the teeming waters of the Financial Empire got ensnared in a little web of his own. In the most overreported story of this year so far, the New York up-and-coming Governor Eliot Spitzer stepped down after showing up on the customer side of a high profile prostitution ring. The backdrop of a thick smoke billowing from the American financial engine against which the bust occurred will surely give conspiracy nuts plenty to mull over in years to come. Only days before he was caught with his pants down, Spitzer penned a Washington Post article titled "Predatory Lenders' Partner in Crime: How the Bush Administration Stopped the States From Stepping In to Help Consumers" in which he implicated the White House in the promptly unraveling housing debacle.

But Spitzer was not the only one who stepped on a shaky moral ground recently. Shortly after the ill-fated governor handed an upscale "escort" $4300 for temporarily "abandoning" her ethical principles and lending her body to his inferior desires, Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve Bank extended over $400 billion in easy credit to Wall Street "financiers", who temporarily "abandoned" their time tested lending standards and made their funds available to inferior causes. I am not sure what exactly would constitute "financial prostitution", but pushing teaser-rate zero-money-down mortgages to borrowers with income documented on a beer coaster and then selling the debt as investment grade securities to foreign investors comes pretty close. No wonder that when the winds of fortune reversed and the pyramid scheme ran out of stone cubes, the banksters found their balance sheets rather scantily clad. So scantily in fact that they conceived a brilliant idea: let's turn the Fed into a pimp and the US taxpayers into naive johns.

There is a big difference in this analogy though. And I don't mean just the magnitude of the "payment" involved. While Spitzer took responsibility for his actions, publicly apologized and stepped down, financial maestros keep remarkably silent about their transgressions - that is if you don't count the incessant whining and calling for government intervention. And you certainly won't see the Wall Street Journal pillorying the fat cats for their gambling, after all theirs was a great business model - if it works out, we keep the profits, if it fails, Uncle Sam will bail us out. How convenient. Maybe if they returned some of the billions they collected in bonuses and fat fees for deals they knew were doomed, the liquidity of the whole system would somewhat improve, no? But I am not holding my breath for any apologies here, let alone money.

There is one more aspect in which the two tales differ: Mr. Spitzer's lapse, however much it hurt his family, will affect the wallet of an average Joe Sixpack only marginally if at all. Wall Street's love affair with greed is a different story though. Bear Sterns employees and shareholders already saw their wealth severely decimated when their stock fell from $57 to $4 in just two trading days. In the greater scheme of things, the mortgage debt implosion and subsequent maneuvers attempting to camouflage the solvency crisis of truly biblical proportions are affecting all of us. We the taxpayers will have to shell out the money for the profligacy of Wall Street wizards. It is not that gold, Euro or oil are moving up these days, it is the greenback that is moving down, because there is more and more of it, proportionately to the speed with which chief Bernanke wiggles his credit wand.

Only history will sort out who got screwed up more, whether the wretched call-up girl or the American public. In the meantime - we better step carefully. There are some unseemly critters still lurking in the banking swamp.


Numbers Get Number And Number

Billion is a baffling number.

There are 6 billion people scattered all over this world. Imagine they'd all come together for a big family reunion. How much of a crowd would that be?

The standard police estimates postulate that one person needs about 5 sq feet of space, so after punching few unsuspecting keys of your calculator, you realize that all your fellow human beings when summoned to one place would fill out a square of roughly 35 x 35 miles. That's your garden variety major metropolitan area. Quite a crowd, huh?

Now imagine each of these individuals would donate $2 per month to a common cause. That's the kind of money we are burning in the Middle East. According to a new book by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, the US government is spending $12 billion per month on its ill conceived war there. And what have we got to show for it? Hmmmm, let's see: in 2003 a dollar bought 1.1 Euro, now it is worth half of that and dropping every day; crude oil used to be 20 bucks, now it costs 5 times as much; more people hate us now than they did 5 years ago and - in the most important department - we lost more human lives in this war than we did on September 11. That is a pretty poor return on investment.

Twelve billion per month is a pretty numbing sum if you think about it. You could build five medical centers with this kind of budget. Yet, the current administration thought the money was better spent fighting some third world nation which possessed neither WMDs nor links to Al Qaida. That is before we got there. I am sure the future generations who are being saddled with this debt as we speak will appreciate the removal of a toothless Arab dictator and the amount of goodwill that has been squandered in the Iraqi desert.

Now let's look at it from yet another angle - for $200,000 you can get a pretty decent college stipend with all expenses covered. That means every month we could have saved 60,000 minds from being wasted. In a few years we could have educated a whole generation and regain our edge in science and technology. But wait - I see a problem here - with an electorate well versed in critical thinking, this administration or its likes would never make it to the White House in the first place. There - now it all makes sense.

Minijungle of Madagascar

My cactus has developed a drinking problem. Any time I water it, the water starts gathering at the bottom of its draining bowl - often up to half an inch. But when I go away and come back half an hour later, it is gone. Through the physics of capillary action or through some hitherto unknown black magic, the cactus will lap it all up like an obsessive camel. It must be some sort of strategic evolutionary defense mechanism set off by the fact that I water it at intervals whose irregularity would make the random number generator blush with envy.

This is only to illustrate that I am the Inspector Clouseau of gardening. Some time ago I bought three plants. A pot with three bamboo shoots, a pot with some kind of a three-stemmed bush, and a pot with about a million stalks of what I am going to call - for the lack of botanical sophistication - Savanna Grass. At first, I killed two of the three bamboo shoots, which experts tell me shows innate talent for plant mismanagement. As a confirmation act, I managed to reduce the three-stemmed bush to its possibly unknown one-stemmed variety. Sadly, the remaining stem is trying to take revenge on me and tarnish my horticultural reputation by growing up in a crooked and crazy-straw like manner.

The Savanna Grass story is even more self-incriminating (and possibly worth a movie deal). In a few short weeks, the pot vegetation hair likeness index was downgraded from Howard Stern to Homer Simpson. Apparently, the myriad stalks could not handle the systematic drought I subjected them to and all perished except for one lone soldier who stubbornly held its own on an increasingly decimated battle field. For a little while, I truly pampered that surviving stalk - stopping just short of grating pieces of candy onto its soil - but eventually my incompetence pulled the plug on its heroic fight and it retired to a better place as well.

About a year ago, one of my Czech friends visited Madagascar and she brought me back a sealed plastic pouch filled with various local seeds. With my gardening credentials, it is not surprising that the pouch lay dormant in the uncharted corner of my coffee table until a random act of spring cleaning brought it out into the daylight. The brown seeds were huddling there like a swarm of hibernating bugs, just begging me to turn them into promising and exotic looking seedlings.

Immediately, I caught whiff of the sweet smell of redemption and decided to resurrect my reputation and grow a miniature replica of the Madagascar jungle in my living room. I placed about a third of the pouch's content on a wad of cotton wool and set them on the inside window sill. If they successfully germinate, they will inherit the orphaned pot from the Savanna Grass. Till then I am tiptoeing around my window, anxiously awaiting what green monsters will crack through their little protective shells. As of today, there is a tiny offshoot sticking out of one of them. I am keeping my green fingers crossed.


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