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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: March 2009

Girls from our Kindergarten

"Times they are a changing" - croons Bob Dylan in one of his better known songs. And the Times have plenty of company in this regard. Nothing on this planet is really immune to the virus of change. Sometimes in ways that are unexpected, sometimes perplexing and often farcical. A Czech folkrock band AG Flek summed it up nicely in the refrain of one of their songs: "At the end, time turns everything into a joke".

I grew up in a small totalitarian regime once known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Life behind the Iron Curtain was uncanny and full of bizarre realities that were mostly derived from Soviet Empire's acute sense of Insecurity: information censorship, exit visas to travel abroad, ubiquitous net of informants, forced attendance in "demonstrations", etc. Even though the only form of public resistance in vogue then was beating the Russian Ice Hockey Team on occasion, the Czech Communist leaders were well aware that theirs was a Potemkin Village and routinely displayed more signs of paranoia than a two inch steak at a shark family reunion. Their obsessive fears became the dominant force of the political system, especially after the Russian invasion, and eventually spilled into all areas of social life, including pop music.

The bearers of Stalin's torch took no prisoners. Not only they banned those that openly criticized them, such as Karel Kryl, Marta Kubisova or the Plastic People of the Universe, but as their ideology petrified, they looked distrustfully upon anything that depicted lives of colorful and emotionally rich people as opposed to bloodless starched zombies of the "socialist realism". The state sponsored art had to be populated with trouble free marionettes singing odes to the Five Years Plan and to the brilliant leadership of the Party. Period.

One victim of the tendency to weed out anything controversial was content. It was watered down beyond the grayest boredom. Songs tasted like raw tofu. In those years, Britney Spears, had she been born and let into the country, would sound unfathomably profound in comparison. One of the pinnacles of the socialist insanity was a perky but almost comically inane song named Girls from our Kindergarten (Holky z nasi skolky). Its lyrics, consisting in large parts of reciting rosters of little girls names, was guaranteed to offend no one. Certainly not the vigilant cultural apparatchiks who were guarding the ideological purity of art from their well upholstered offices. Over the years, this song became a symbol of meaningless kitsch of waning communism, the market bottom of substance, the audio version of sickly sickle, a musical travesty ridiculed by many. But times - oh boy - they kept a changing.

The local Czech community in Northern Virginia organizes a semiannual dancing party, where they play many songs from the 70s and 80s, including the Girls from our Kindergarten. This spring, some twenty years later, I realized that the little opus had morphed into a time paradox. Youngsters, who were barely born when the song was written, were hopping and popping to its rhythm, completely oblivious of the contempt their parents would bestow upon it. It was like watching a bunch of kids playing soccer with a Styrofoam bust of a formerly formidable dictator. Like a falling feather of a vulture which does not quite stir the same fear as the vulture itself, the song had lost much of its offensive aftertaste. Its emptiness had been gutted and replaced with the stuffing of personal memories. The vulture turned into a turkey.

Time has an amazing ability to suppress bad associations and emphasize the good ones. The injustices of the Brezhnev era have been forgiven, the sterile feel of Formica forgotten, the memories of sneaky brainwashing have fizzled out - all replaced by a nostalgic medallion: a musical compact filled with the taste of ripe raspberries, the sound of cascading creeks and the smell of your high school sweetheart's hair. Yes, even the life behind the Iron Curtain had its cherishable moments.

There is a reason people so often talk about Good Old Times. Human memory likes to retouch the reality. That's why the Victorian England is often portrayed in an idyllic manner although I have little doubt that experiencing the Industrial Revolution first hand must have been a living hell - what with the scarcity of toilet paper and the complete lack of Reality TV.

Every so often, the invisible hand of Time takes a lipstick and puts a smiley face on a few bad apples from the past. I am not sure how appropriate it is to put lipstick on the Girls from our Kindergarten, but without this act, the life on this planet would be much less fun.

Artificial Vitamins

I read somewhere that consuming vitamins in the form of synthetic pills decreases your ability to extract them naturally from fruits, veggies, hot dogs and other healthy food groups. I am not a nutritionist but it does make some sense. Imagine an Idaho farmer who realizes one day that potatoes are raining from the sky. I bet you a wagon of French Fries that in a few years he wouldn't know a thing about planting spuds and growing them naturally in the fields. Why bother when they rain from the sky, right? Apparently, our internal vitamin farming is subject to the same principle.

Sometimes, I suspect that art galleries play the role of artificial vitamins to our aesthetic senses. They do present us with plenty of unique visions, dizzying perspectives, shocking angles and unexpected choices of colors, but at the same time they give us a false sense of abundance. They make it seem like pulchritude is something easily canned and all we have to do to get it is ask for a can opener at the gallery's ticket office. This in turn diminishes our ability to perceive beauty in our natural environment. Leaving the gallery we feel we got enough, we turn our senses off and let our imagination slowly atrophy despite the fact that we are bombarded with spectacular combinations of shapes and colors each day. And I do not just mean the blazing sunsets you can see on tacky postcards from places blessed with ocean adjacency.

The other day I was driving to Bethesda at night and had to make a stop at a T-intersection near MacArthur Boulevard. As I looked around, I noticed a poorly lit slope overgrown with wild bushes right next to me. If I returned there during the day, I'd probably found just a boring patch of sketchy turf with a couple of garden variety shrubs, but the magical lighting of the night turned it into an oasis of wonder. My whole field of vision was besieged by blue gray hues, reluctantly revealing the woodcarving texture of individual grass stalks. Hints of thicket were barely salvaged from a creamy chiaroscuro; pale and steamy as if they just poured out of Rembrandt's latest cookbook. It was a sight whose subtle features were on par with strokes of Claude Monet's brush.

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a photo he took from his balcony after an early March snowstorm. It was nothing tourist brochures would rave about - just a shot from his balcony, showing an unkempt stretch of a wild ravine. But it had an inner dynamics that immediately reminded me of J. M. W. Turner's best canvasses. The trembling flux of nuances. The contours bent by invisible motion. The destitution of bare trees huddling against the voracious elements, their branches madly intertwined in a gale of survivalist instincts. An intriguing conspiracy of black and white.

The point is that you can find truly breathtaking sights everywhere - even outside the art laden walls of air-conditioned rooms with hardwood floors and stately chandeliers. I am not trying to subvert the gallery lobby here - every now and then it is refreshing to see the world through someone else's eyes. But do not forget that the key to the grandest show on Earth lies in your own eyes. Use it or lose it.


Are you a Gifter or a Trinketeer?

Sharing information liberated our species from the daily grind of repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Ever since our brow ridged forebears found a way to verbalize the directions to the best raspberry fields in the neighborhood or tell each other which parts of the woods to avoid, what with a saber-toothed tiger swallowing half of the tribe, prehistoric man found himself firmly seated on a bullet train to civilization. Being able to build on the wisdom of previous generations proved a crucial evolutionary advantage that lifted our species high above those still floundering in the conceptual mud of applied baboonism. Since then we have moved on a bit, the saber toothed tiger is extinct and these days we get more fear from the stock market or airplanes, but the free flow of information is still the primary driving force of progress. Swapping recipes for a Collard Greens Soup or places where one can procure inexpensive modular furniture make us more productive and more competitive, although direct personal experience hasn't been completely deprecated - a finger firmly pressed against a burning stove is still worth 1,000 reruns of ER.

When it comes to transmitting knowledge, we were not created equal. Some do it more efficiently than others. But regardless of our communicative prowess, I noticed recently that most people dispense information in one of two very distinct ways: there are those that tell because they want YOU to have certain information and then there are those that tell because they want you to know that THEY have that information.

The first group treats knowledge as a gift that is to be given to others. And when you interrupt them for clarification, they gladly corroborate, because their primary goal is to impart that knowledge.

The second kind treats knowledge as a trinket that is to be worn and shown off like a golden earring. And when you ask for clarification, they usually brush you off as if you were trying to steal their precious jewel.

If this planet were a beehive, gifters would be its worker bees, tirelessly pollinating our minds, while trinketeers would be the sterile drones that enchantedly listen only to the music of their own buzz.

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