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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: July 2008

Black Star

English folks brought us many cool things that begin with an S: steam engine, sandwich, smallpox vaccine, steel-ribbed umbrellas, submarines, seat belts, but the best of all - although in their own minds it actually begins with an F - is the game of soccer, the sparkling diamond among all sports, and an electrifying amalgamation of power, skill, coordination and strategy.

Every July, the local Czech community organizes a soccer tournament which usually takes places in the fields behind the Cooper Middle School in McLean. And every July it is a great opportunity to partake of the game's myriad of possible plays and lament over your own lost chances, not to mention other perks - the easy camaraderie of a shared cooler, the would be expertly opinions on European Champions League, and, of course, the intense exercise under the hot Washingtonian sun, which you can also think of as playing poker with dehydration.

This year I was playing on a team called Black Stars. One of my teammates was a black guy, who was new to a tournament. He showed up a bit late, and as he approached our tent, he nearly ran into me: "is this Black Stars?" - he blurted out. I put on my most offended expression and retorted - "don't I look like a Black Star"? He scanned my pasty white Slavic body from head to toe and from the way he pursed his lips it was clear that he had serious doubts about my claim.

But still I thought it was a great name for our team of misfits. We didn't do much shining, but we kicked around a lot. Much like our namesakes in the Universe.

Jersey Shore

Last weekend I came to the conclusion that it was much easier to dig a hole on a beach than in someone's backyard. Since the depth of this observation is roughly equivalent to that of the two miniabysses that I dug out in the process of empirically discovering it, I figured I should publish this piece of wisdom somewhere. Maybe in the International Journal of Applied Grave Digging. After all, no one has published it yet and that seems to be the going reason for issuing papers these days, the complete lack of academic merit notwithstanding.

My friend Robert lives in New Jersey and during my last visit one of his pet rabbits passed away of old age. Which, by the way, is just a coincidence - most pets survive my visit just fine. After I had my breakfast Saturday morning, I found Robert in the backyard, digging away at the grave. Robert is an excellent mathematician, but his grave digging skills are slightly sub par. I almost felt he'd be happier if he could jab the hardened soil with his compass and scoop it up with a protractor. I am a mathematician too, but in my army years I dug a Grand Canyon's worth of trenches, so my excavation technique has lots of experience under its belt. And I was not shy to flash it. My civil engineering prowess made such a lasting impression that I was treated to a trip to the Jersey Shore as a reward for my little graveyard shift.

Coming from a landlocked country, I never say no to the ocean.

There is something spiritually invigorating in throwing yourself into a cresting wave and being tossed around by the raw force of the water. Submitting to the raging elements and embracing them is like a shower for your soul. And, on the practical side, it is a pretty good preparation in case you are ever swept by an avalanche or run over by a bus full of screaming kids. Speaking of which: Robert's daughters soon demanded my attention and that is how I made my startling discovery. While I was serving as a cheap shoveling labor for their castle moat restoration project, I did notice that sand presents much less resistance to my digging efforts than rocky soil reinforced with wayward roots.

But poking around in the sand gets old pretty fast and in an effort to satisfy young minds' craving for new thrills, I created a game utilizing the ocean's unlimited supply of waves. Here it is. You wait for a tongue of a wave to splash onto the shore. As it retraces back into the ocean, you follow it on the bared piece of sandy bottom. The purpose of the game is to make it as far into the ocean as possible, without getting your feet wet. Of course, you might be tempted to go as far as possible, but remember the next wave is coming, so you want to give yourself plenty of time to escape. Once the water catches your feet, you are disqualified no matter how deep into ocean's territory you made it. So you have to carefully balance the trade off between going long and leaving yourself enough time to avoid the next wave.

Admittedly, this is not the most exciting thing you can do while babysitting kids at the beach, but it is fun enough and it will tide you over till the parents reclaim their off-springs and shower them with exciting new activities.


Birthday Shower

When it comes to irrigating the parched throats, Washington has more than a fair share of the world's drinkeries. Many of them are located in a little district known as Adams Morgan, which is well stacked with pubs and clubs and is therefore heavily frequented by partiers of all ages. You can choose from a wide assortment of watering holes from elegant venues, such as the Reef, where exotic fish will entertain you in rows of aquariums and turquoise tones fill the place with visual blues, to older and warmer places, like Madam's Organ, just across the street, where you can often hear the acoustic version of blues.

My friend's sister celebrated her 21st birthday today, so we thought that Adams Morgan would be a perfectly appropriate place where to introduce her to pleasures of unrestrained alcohol consumption. We took subway from Falls Church and disembarked duly at the Adams Morgan station, which is just across a bridge from the actual Adams Morgan. (by the way, what a strange word disembark is - embark sort of implies that you are getting onto some kind of a bark and only to be momentarily kicked away by the roguish "dis")

When we got out of subway, it was raining cats and dogs and pet iguanas, and for a while we stood stranded under the station's canopy. But when it became clear that there is no shortage of domesticated animals in the sky, we started to look around and spotted a CVS presumably stacked with a wide assortment of umbrellas. Well, our hopes were sort of satisfied by a kind of black, mildly dysfunctional and overpriced article Made in China, but after merely one exchange we were able to nudge it to reasonable functionality and felt adequately protected to brave the elements.

With renewed confidence in the success of our mission, we strutted onto the bridge. So far so good. Rain was coming down hard, but our umbrellas did a pretty good job at keeping it at bay. In our youthful folly, we assumed that above is the only direction water could get to us from. In good faith, we sauntered on when all of a sudden - whack! Not a droplet, or a spray, but a thick sheet of water slapped our backs. I turned around to see what had just happened and whack! Another wall of water hit my front. By this time I could see two narrow strips, about 5 square inches total, of dry textile on me - and the rest was completely soaked. There was no place to escape on the narrow bridge, and our garments became the mopping rags as puddle after puddle was being emptied into their fabric, courtesy of the aggressive drivers. Water was dripping from all the extremities of our clothes. To say that we were liquidized would constitute a bit of a stretch, but after we took few more hits from the watering a**-holes, we reached the liquidity level that many of the US banks would be quite envious of.

When a person is born in this country, he or she has to spend the next 21 years shielded from alcohol. As we were standing there on the bridge to Adams Morgan, wet to the bone, I though it was a proper celebration of one dry period that was just about to end.

Differentiation of Disintegration

There is disintegration and then there is disintegration. Auntie Nature(*) has myriad ways of breaking things. Today I witnessed two of the more extreme cases from the opposite sides of the spectrum: one spectacularly fast and furious and the other painstakingly slow but persistent.

(*) since a cousin of mine refers to Nature as "Mother", I feel I am legally entitled to use this epithet.

Not far from my grandparents' cottage there is a series of bizarrely sculpted rock formations known as "Adrspach Rock Town". If you are ever in Prague and want to take a breather from the overwhelming architectural drubbing, go visit the Giant Mountains. From the base town of Trutnov, the rocks can be reached via a short train ride that skirts the border with Poland and leads directly into their heart. Eons of subversive gnawing of elements eroded a massive chunk of sandstone into a Gothic labyrinth of tall rocky columns and one of the most spectacular natural landmarks of the Czech Republic.

I haven't been there for at least 20 years, so I persuaded my sis to go there for a little weekend jaunt. We took the road though, and before we got there, we witnessed a much brisker way in which the Nature can induce disintegration. In a shallow valley near our destination, a station wagon carrying assortment of furniture on its roof was approaching us in the opposite direction. One of the bookshelves was apparently tied rather recklessly and as the car swerved through a sharp bend, a hefty bookcase succumbed to the lure of the centripetal force and flew away, exploding into splintered shards not more than 50 yards ahead of us. If we were there a few seconds earlier, that same wooden missile would have taught us why the Czech roads are considered some of the most dangerous in Europe. Fortunately, the same force that launched the renegade piece of furniture from its cradle on the roof also instantaneously swept its carcass away from the road, so after we drove over the spot and I looked back through the rear window, the road was perfectly clear and the shattered wooden planks must have been resting quietly in the tall grass of the ditch.

As we walked among the sandstone spires few hours later and admired their grotesque shapes springing from the white sand, we were gently reminded that it is the slow and patient change that often creates the most marvelous and persistent wonders, in this case literally one grain of sand at a time. On the other hand, the quick and theatrical gestures that may dazzle you with their sleight-of-hand magic at first will frequently end up exactly where they belong. In the ditch. And that is true for the human affairs as well.


Night Prague Fauna

Shortly after college, me and one of my college buddies landed on the opposite sides of Prague; me in the so called "South Town" and him up there in the northern suburbs. In those years, we started a little tradition that we called the "Night Crossing of Prague".

It was pretty much what the name says. We'd set out around 11pm from one of our places, and then we'd cross the whole city on foot - a solid 10-15 miles hike, depending on our route. It was a unique way to experience the solemn charm of the sleeping capital, its depopulated streets and abandoned factory districts, the moonlit river and the silhouette of the Prague Castle and to quietly observe its nocturnal denizens in their natural habitat.

Another friend of mine has a night job in the Wenceslaus Square area these days, and since I was in Prague overnight and she had a little break from 1am to 2am, I took her for a short inspection tour of the Old Town to see how much has the fauna of the Night Prague changed over the years. We made a little round trip from Mustek to the Astronomical Clock, then to Prasna Brana and back. Just enough to get a good look at all the species that call Night Prague their home, whether indigenous or introduced. And things did change quite a bit from the days when most of the night traffic could have been attributed to a bunch of local drunks returning home from the cheap pubs, maybe few migrant workers mostly from Slovakia and here and there to an underground peddler looking for customers.

Our mini-expedition lasted about 40 minutes, but it featured variety of life that even tropical oceans might be envious of, and we were just skimming the surface. What lay beneath it, I dare not surmise.

In no particular order: we saw a group of jejune German boys who figured that their worldly sophistication is best manifested by pushing each other noisily into a row of low trimmed bushes; we saw a curly haired well tanned gentleman with a tie dangling loosely around his neck, who sat on a curb with a half empty bottle in his hand and appeared to have entered a highly meditative state of sorts, pondering whether the Universe is going to collapse on itself in 2012 or whether the hedgehogs are ticklish or possibly both; we saw a herd of ruminants besieging a fast food kiosk and paying homage to the art of Moravian sausagery by generously greasing their shirts; we saw a Mediterranean looking beau, obviously a proponent of global dilly-dalliance, who was severely under the influence of the belief that the surest way to seduce Czech girls is compulsive elbow pulling reinforced with a tirade rendered in an unknown language by a tongue equivalent of a submachine gun; we saw generic male tourists lying drunk on the cobblestones in front of the Tynsky Cathedral, we saw security gorillas cruising robustly through the crowd like icebreakers keeping the Northern Passage negotiable, we saw a bevy of dressed up Russian ladies who made me think that the fashion sense of a nation changes less rapidly than its political milieu, and finally we saw two Japanese tourists who were doing what Japanese tourists do best - wielding their expensive Nikons unsheathed like some magical Samurai swords and proving for the umpteenth time a corollary to Descarte's famous dictum, whose Japanese mutation reads: "Photo ergo sum" (I take pictures, therefore I am).

Fruits of Serendipity

In the mid 80s, just before our military service, we used to frequent a jazz club Reduta in Prague. Our favorite Chief of Staff there was one Laco Deczi, a trumpetist extra-ordinaire and a tenacious, distinctive man who always held his ground against the stifling regime. And since Deczi was born in Bratislava, with a bit of luck and about one dollar in your pocket, you could get there the complete three course Czechoslovak meal in one sitting: sipping an earthy Moravian wine in the heart of Bohemia while listening to the best jazz Slovakia had to offer.

I can still remember his ferocious playing, his blowing notes from the trumpet as if it were some kind of a brass snowblower and then seeing the notes swirl and whirl through the air like acoustic snowflakes eventually destined to melt on the windowsill of our minds. Deczi wrote most of his music himself and underneath the bluesy harmonies you could often hear a playful wink of the Slovakian folklore. Kind of like that deep and frivolous aroma you find lurking at the bottom of some well aged wines.

Sadly for us, later that decade Deczi emigrated to America and our guided tours through the Land of Sparkling Harmony ground to a complete halt. Over the years, we lost track of his musical endeavors, but when I ended up on the west shore of the Atlantic Puddle, I made several attempts to locate him. In vain. He always seemed to have been in a different corner of this highly multicornered country.

This weekend, there was a theater festival in my hometown, Hradec Kralove, and my niece dragged me out to see some ultra-hyper-modern play in which animals from Noah's times were discussing prospects of the imminent arc travel and few other selected aspects of their animalhood whose pertinence to the story at hand was rather unclear. After the play I felt that my cultural stomach was still a bit on a grumbly side, so I agreed to stay for a free concert that was part of the festival's festivities.

What good could a free concert be - thought I - anticipating a brood of clumsy youngsters whose aspirations would be limited to impressing local impressionable ladies. I was quite amused when one of my niece's friends (whose ilk I was fully expecting to see on stage momentarily) mentioned that it would be Laco Deczi. I thought that I must have inadvertently mentioned Deczi before and now I had become a target of an obvious practical joke. But it was Laco Deczi's concert alright. He was in Czechoslovakia celebrating his 70th birthday.

This goes to show that sometimes you go to the world to look for a rare diamond and after sailing the seven seas and crossing the seven deserts you find the precious stone in your own backyard. A windfall from the tree of serendipity.

Well, not to make this post unnecessarily long: it was a concert well worth skipping the Final of the EURO Soccer Championship for. Deczi's trumpet was as commanding as ever, and as the night descended on a small open courtyard, it seemed that all the people that gathered around the stage, all the leaves on trees, all the cobblestones in the old pavement, and even the wind breathing through the open space between the houses, became part of one giant organism. And the four magicians on an improvised wooden stage became its palpitating heart.

Laco Deczi - trumpet
Eric Meridiano - piano
Noboru Kinukawa - bass
Vaico Deczi - drums


Tiger's Clause

Out there in the vast reaches of the dating battlefield, there is a legion of self-righteous crusaders who'd make you believe that considering looks is a mortal sin and a symptom of pathological shallowness. But they miss an important point.

Looks do matter. And not only because our faces reflect our souls, so you can catch a glimpse of one's character and personality through their facial expressions. They matter for a more fundamental reason.

However chosen our species is in the greater scheme of things, we are still an integral part of Nature. And in our mates we look for the best possible combination of genes, so that the ever growing tree of evolution remains strong and doesn't self-destruct in a dead branch of poorly adapted affable morons. Do tigers look for a personable mate? Nope. They look for the sharpest colors and the thickest furs because those are indicative of a potential for the fittest offspring.

And tigers most definitely are not shallow.

Wild Flowers

Behind my parents' summer house there is an old abandoned quarry. For a while it was completely barren, its reddish gravel glowing like a scar from a distance, but various weeds started creeping in over the years and these days the place looks like one huge technicolor party of wild flowers. Surviving on a diet of ground stone may go against the Healthy Nutritional Guidelines of most Horticultural Societies, but despite the harsh terrain they managed to eke out a pretty decent living out there.

Now if you are a rose, an orchid or a tulip, don't take this personally, but I think that most cultivated flowers are spoiled posers. They flaunt their carefully manufactured colors the way cocky young men show off their brand new blazers. Their extravagant shapes beg to be admired and their sublime fragrances constantly crave attention. But the true beauty is hardly ever needy.

Wild flowers are much more personable. Their existence is independent of eager adulators and their modest design has been slowly honed by eras of evolutionary trial and error, a suit presided over by an impartial jury of bees and animals. Their coloring and morphology may not be as flamboyant as that of their high end sisters, but they exude familiar warmth and the spirit of home. The girl next door charm.

Sometimes when I idle at a supermarket's exit lane and my vision scans over the faces of numerous super models gracing the magazine covers, I am reminded of all the pampered glass house flora. And I wonder whether dating these over-shampooed camera-ready goddesses doesn't feel a little bit like going out with a sterile holographic image perfected by a concerted effort of an international team of renowned beautologists. And I am also curious whether they are really happy in their high insecurity cosmetic prisons. I suspect that the answer is no, for beyond the Mountains of Perfection lies the Desert of Emptiness.

Wild flowers on the other hand are genuine, simple, and yet not trivial. And those are the attributes I find most appealing in women, too.


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