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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: January 2009

Gator Raid

Everglades are the soul of Southern Florida. An immeasurable cobweb of sloughs and sawgrass marshes sprawling lazily in the heart of the ancient Seminole country; an enchanting tapestry that opens up for you if you can climb one of the Southern live oaks that take root in it. As far as your eyes can reach, you'll scope hundreds of acres of the most unique wetlands on this planet, deposits of peat and marl feverishly engaged in a pagan fertility rite; and where your eyes fail you, beyond the low horizon, you can still sense the natural wonders and tribal legends entangled in a mystical dance, their high heels skimping weightlessly over the cypress swamps and mangrove forests, spooking a puzzled heron here and there, and flailing their arms wildly while the restless wind whistles its Rhapsody in Green through the innumerable reeds. Technically, Everglades are a wide and slow flowing river, but in reality they are more a fusion of lakes and prairies, an illegitimate offspring lying low among the dense vegetation, a whispering voice embodying the fine balancing act between the silence and the noise, between the dry land and water. They are the moist skin of Earth sweating under the subtropical Sun.

Despite the fact that I lived 4 years in Georgia, I never visited Florida. I was about to several times, but something always got in the way. This weekend I finally got to break the curse and flew to Fort Lauderdale to meet with a friend. Obviously, one of the first things I wanted to see was the Gatorland. Observing the beasts in their natural habitat is much more thrilling than gaping at them in the controlled and demeaning ZOO cubicles. Everglades have no shortage of places where such encounters are possible. One of them is called the Everglades Holiday Park, a little outfit about 30 minutes from the airport, jutting into the Everglades from the end of Griffin Road.

The gators are nocturnal creatures and spotting them in a broad daylight is far from being foregone conclusion. When the captain huddled us into a small airboat, he warned us that we may come back empty handed. But even so, an hour long journey into the watery maze was breathtaking. The airboat glided smoothly along uninterrupted stretches of the elevation challenged countryside, took us behind the walls of tall grasses, over large plantations of sumptuously green waterlily pads and sometimes, guided by a maneuver that resembled a permanent skid, careened in wild turns into small alcoves filled with bladderworts and spatterdocks. As we coasted on, isolated islands of hardwood hammocks offered a fleeting glimpse of a raccoon or an iguana and also views of thick underbrush garnished with mosses, vines and parasitic filaments that looked like shredded veils, as if a throng of green brides just rushed through.

At the end, the captain found a small clearing and there we finally found them. Not one, but three large and one small alligators were swimming around us. We could have easily touched them, had it not been for the icicles in their mouths making it clear that there would have been chilling consequences. So we just looked at them in awe and tried to snap as many photos as we could. And they looked back at us equally lovingly, and some snapping was obviously on their mind, too.


Phantom of the Operations

Over the years, I came to believe that inanimate objects are not as lifeless as they would have us believe. I think that they are just playing "dead", in much the same way that we, humans, sometimes do when confronted with a bear. Such behavior has evolved as a way to survive interactions with stronger species. Sure, most of the time objects look perfectly comatose, but when no one is looking they wage their minimal lives at us with a devilishly wicked sense of humor. Let me support this hypothesis with some evidence.

Not so long ago a faucet in my bathtub started dripping. At first slowly, in that mild tick-tocking manner which you could use as a time measuring device or an instrument of torture, but over the course of a day this minor incontinence intensified into trickling and threatened to grow into a large scale emergency. I made a full-hearted effort to stop it, or at least curtail its intensity, but no matter what torgue or pressure I applied to the knob - whether I pushed it in gently or slammed it forcefully - the water kept leaking. I kept twisting it left and right and right and left, sometimes so vehemently that the knob must have felt that I am trying to teach it the difference between triple Salchow and double Rittberger, but I haven't elicited a single sign of improvement. After about 30 minutes, I finally threw my towel in (I had to, the water was everywhere) and called a plumber from the emergency service. And here comes the strange part. No sooner have I hung up that the faucet stopped dripping. The trickle had not weakened. It had stopped. Completely. As if it just waited for me to make the call. As if it relished the fact that now I had to call again to cancel. The timing was just too impish to ascribe it to a mere coincidence.

And it's not like this happened for the first time. For my graduation, for instance, I got this really nice Swiss watch. After serving my chronometric needs for several decades, the watch stopped functioning although I inserted two brand new batteries in it - not simultaneously, of course. Since it was a really expensive watch, I decided to pay a visit to a watchmaker. As I stood in the line, I was despondently watching the two little hands that had stubbornly stopped at 3.10 and remained there for the past two days. I waited patiently, and when it was my turn and watchmaker asked what was the matter, I leaned over the counter to point out the problem. It was then when I noticed that the watch resting on my extended palm was ticking like there was no tomorrow and showing 3.11 and counting. I felt like a major nincompoop!

If you think these are some kind of singular instances, let me demonstrate that objects can come alive repeatedly. In the hallway of my apartment I keep an old brown rug on which I usually place my shoes. I always put this rug on the left so it would not interfere with me opening a built in closet. But every so often, I mysteriously find that rug on the right. So I put it back on the left, forget about it, and after a few weeks I find the rug on the right side again. It happened already at least 5 times, and since this is a recurring phenomenon, I would like to propose several explanatory theories.

(a) This is a rare macroscopic instance of quantum tunneling in which the rug overcomes the energy barrier of my hallway and spontaneously moves to the wrong side

(b) I have contracted some exotic mental illness that manifests itself by selectively erasing my memory, specifically that part which is responsible for remembering that I move the rug from left to right

(c) the rug has some kind of nomadic ancestors, perhaps its daddy was a magic carpet, and it feels compelled to change its location periodically

(d) some of my guests have a warped sense of humor and move the rug to play practical jokes on me

(e) the rug is one of the mechanical kinds, which through some sort of electronic contraption moves around, like those auto-piloted vacuum cleaners

(f) the rug is alive and simply pulls my leg (perhaps it is its rugged way to protest being stepped on)

Well, you can think whatever you wish, but my money rides on (f).

Resonances of Life

It was one of the sharpest Sunday mornings I have ever seen. A crisp image on a frosted windowpane rendered with the cool precision that only early Winter can conjure up: a spire of a small whitewashed church on a hill aspiring to pierce the sky, gray cloud monkeys sliding down the invisible poles into the frozen puddles of dawn, and most importantly the Sun floating low over the ice creamy horizon like a frozen strawberry - a snout of a polar bear nudging its cubs from their slumbering malaise. The nearly complete silence was barely interrupted by a low drone of empty public buses, whose confused engines reverberated between the locked warehouses and closed manufacturing plants of Prague's periphery. It sounded like somewhere in the distance melancholy was brushing its teeth with a soft metallic brush. A deserted public park embraced its cold knees as invisible talons of time pounced through the thin air and came up empty handed each time - as if yesterday had long gone, but today hadn't arrived yet.

One of my Czech friends lives in a condo situated in an unfancied industrial district of Sporilov on the southern edge of Prague. It was on this Sunday that I left her building and walked towards the subway station, so I could catch a train to my hometown, where I was expected for lunch. A few days ago, Magdalena Kozena was singing Bach's "Erbarme Dich" on the Czech TV and as I walked through the stern concrete landscape of the unimaginative communist architecture, I suddenly remembered the bittersweet warmth of her performance. A curious motley mixture of sound bites, visual impressions and memories started tumbling in my brain, like unsorted socks in a running dryer. Maybe it was set into motion by nostalgia that I won't see my friend again for a couple of months, or that my vacation was drawing to an end. Whatever the case might have been - the resulting mental collage was breathtaking.

There are many aspects to life, but three important ingredients in our perception soup stand above others: the visual imagery, the immediate sensory input from our eyes; the music, which our memory sometimes plays on the background like a soundtrack; and the context of our life, the grab-bag of our recent memories and experiences. These elements alone, each in its own right, can pack a pretty good punch. But when we catch them riding on the same wavelength, they burst into a powerful resonance. Together, as a whole, they become much more than just the sum of the individual components. For one fleeting moment, they provide new and deeper perspective on life. They reveal both its grandeur and its futility.

First I noticed this phenomenon in my early twenties. At that tender age when shapes of opinions and attitudes formed in the nourishing chowder of the childhood start solidifying. I was gazing out of the windows of my parent's apartment towards a large factory behind the railway tracks. Its tall stack chimney was spewing swells of smoke, sending them horizontally across an overcast sky. My turntable was playing the first movement of Mahler's 9th and that simple image of a billowing man-made stalactite juxtaposed against Mahler's complex musical maze morphed into an instantaneous personal revelation. This was the first time it dawned on me that life was not going to be as trivial as it seemed up to that point, that it was a much more profound experience than any kid or even a teenager could ever imagine.

Admittedly, these resonances are fairly rare, but if your memory can play music well, you may encounter them often enough - perhaps a couple of times per year - depending on how colorful your life is. I remember coming home from some watering hole in Adams Morgan recently, and the whole complex where I live was submerged in a thick layer of warm fog, its street lights diluted by myriad of tiny soap bubbles. On the inside, there was some fog, too - I could feel each and every neuron of my sensory backroads wrapped in a gauzy sheath of fine inebriation. The alcohol content swimming in my bloodstream combined with the bagpipes from Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn and converted the surreal scenery into a pastel toned movie that flowed out of my blurred subconsciousness like a thick blood of a wounded Scottish warrior. I wish I could have submitted that movie for Oscars. It should have gotten at least one for visual effects and maybe a nomination for cinematography.

Another resonance happened on my recent return trip from Europe. We flew over Newfoundland, a rugged piece of land whose implacable mountains viewed from 37,000 feet underlined amazingly well the esoteric message of Brucker's 5th Symphony. That was one of the best musical meals ever served on an onboard stereo programme: timeless wisdom of a half-forgotten Austrian master projected onto flawless pastures of heavenly lambs. And that little crumb of soil below them - our stunning planet.

These are the moments when I wish I could hit the pause button. Moments when an unexpected resonance sparks the flash of cognitive lightning and illuminates the night sky of my understanding. Moments when the three elements conspire to create a perfect storm of beauty.


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