Archives for: April 2009
Ruhevoll, the slow movement of Gustav Mahler's 4th symphony, is one of the most tranquil, serene and profound musical pieces. Like a patch of river grass, its vast slowly undulating fields of strings filter some of the purest spiritual streams sprung into motion by man. Yet into the middle of this highly reflective contemplation Mahler planted a short, and almost unbelievably trite theme whose gaudy inanity seems to be completely out of place. It feels like overhearing a cheap carnival music from a merry-go-round on your walk through a Country Fair. But it gives the whole symphony a very human touch, its Ferris Wheel of perspective. As if you practiced yoga on a train and looked out of the window for a moment after your exercise and saw a bunch of drunks staggering back from their inn and some important aspect of life just glimpsed in front of your eyes, but before you could distill it into a thought, it was gone from your memory. And the train was indifferently speeding on, already miles away.
I like things that do not belong. They are the loose bricks in the wall of our perception, purveying a view into a different spiritual garden. They let us know that there is more that our point of view and provide sometimes sobering and sometimes intoxicating vistas into other contexts. Like chords from a different scale that give a jazz piece its tension, but won't destroy its intrinsic harmony, like diamond rings on a finger of a harlot that provide a subtle link to her furious past, they hint, but do not override.
That is why I admire the kind of surrealistic paintings that are perfectly ordinary except for one odd not belonging element. A case in point: the locomotive engine steaming out of a fireplace in Rene Magritte's Time Transfixed. If I was a filmmaker, I would shoot a completely realistic spy thriller, which would feel like your regular James Bond flick, except for one short moonlit scene in which a troupe of zippy chipmunks wearing purple grass skirts would dance across an ancient stone bridge. It would be but a fleeting image and the movie would afterward resume its regularly scheduled plot as if nothing had happened - the bridge itself being blown up to pieces by evil terrorists a few car chases later.
Cities have their magical places that do not belong, too. In the Washington, DC metropolitan area one such place is undoubtedly the Great Falls Park. A short rugged stretch of the Potomac River, where the impatient waterway cascades down in a series of frothy chutes and waterfalls, hurling packets of liquid vertigo off their cliffs. All you have to do to witness this spectacle is take the Georgetown Pike away from the Beltway and in less than 15 minutes you'll find your senses gorging on what appears to be a miniature copy of Colorado. It is a sight I would never expect within the limits of a major world city. A place perfectly out of place.
In the moral desert of the Beltway politics filled with dunes of dry lobbyists and politicians drifting on top of oily deposits of think tanks and slick lawyers, the Park provides an Oasis of lush and green life, a refreshing panorama of unspoiled wilderness. Stern gray rocks stand still and unwavering like immutable pillars of the Gothic Cathedral of Turbulence, while the playful river releases all of its wild dogs to chase the rabbits of gravity down its meandering path. If you look into the churning waters, you can see the droplets of their saliva swarming rapaciously in the air. Compared to the ephemeral trade of spin doctors, they give off a sense of transcendence and selfless eternity. Like grains of sand falling through an infinite hourglass.
Introduction to Psychoentomology
Insect does not usually come to mind when we ponder the subtle intricacies of psychological disorders. We don't fancy locusts being torn by existential issues and if we see a bug standing on a ledge just outside of our high rise hotel bedroom window, the chances are it is not going to jump off - unbearably haunted by memories of impoverished larvahood.
In the family of sciences, psychology - the science of mind, and entomology - the science of insect sit at the same table. But despite the universal cross disciplinary emphasis these days, the combined science of psychoentomology is yet to be born. And it is pretty obvious why. Insect is simple. Insects' ganglia just do not fold into those mysterious recesses where mind can go so terribly haywire. Or so I thought.
A friend of mine has never been to the Great Falls Park, so this weekend I took her for a short trip there. As is appropriate for a conversation with a young lady, we successfully avoided the subject of bees and butterflies, until the mysterious clockwork of kismet sneaked it right back on our conversational menu. I have never seen insect display such wide range of bizarre behavior as that afternoon on the banks of the Potomac River, and specimens of stalking butterflies and lascivious bees were at the forefront of it.
It was just behind an information kiosk, on a short trail leading to an overlook, that we nearly stumbled upon a Red Admiral resting on the ground with its wings tightly folded. That would not make for an entertaining picture, so I placed my palm in front of the butterfly (which, shockingly, did not fly away) and with the spreading motion of my thumb and index finger communicated to the primitive creature what it is to do with its wings. To the astonishment of my friend, it did. The wings opened to us their chromatic splendor. I felt like a Dr. Dolittle.
The butterfly was so enthralled having me as a personal wing trainer that when we took off it decided to tag along. At first it looked like a random flitting, but soon it became pretty clear - we were being stalked! I have always had a nagging suspicion that all that fluttering from one flower stalk to another gives butterflies all kinds of wrong ideas. But there it was, doggedly following us and demanding more wing exercise. What if it was going to trail me all the way to my place, I thought. In a state of incipient panic I started paging through consequences of having a finicky double wing for a roommate. How much time in the bathroom would it need in the morning? Should I pack my fridge with boxes of nectarine juice? And last but not least - the question most gravely weighing on my mind was: Do butterflies snore?
Fortunately, such concerns became moot, as we had managed to shake the clingy bugger off - a feat we deemed was worth celebrating by ingesting a well done hot dog. We were sitting comfortably on a large stone, fully focused on munching, when my friend put on a startled expression, clearly visible on the backdrop of a mild facial discoloration, and hurriedly tossed her hot dog aside, a telltale sign that either she just remembered that she forgot to turn her hot water faucet off or that some unauthorized life form was crawling up her leg. It was the latter.
After a brief hesitation, she rolled up her trousers with the precision of the cardiac surgeon and we found a jolly bee sauntering audaciously across her calf. Contrary to its instincts, however, the bee had no intention to use the sting. It turned out to be just a little bee pervert. Its mission was apparently confined to getting into my friend's pants, most likely due to some crazy and wild Bee Hive Sorority bet.
As we were pondering the best course of action, the bee was trying to look inconspicuous, like a little honey smuggler caught at the border by the Food and Drug Administration patrol and had the zoological order of Hymenoptera been blessed with better developed lips, it would have undoubtedly attempted to whistle. But my friend did not lose her composure. One flick and the intruder was making a beeline for reality. No harm, no foul. My slowly brewing urge to commit insecticide was abating.
So there. If you still think that the lack of vertebrae makes for dull behavioral patterns, go visit the Great Falls Park. You never know what crawling basket case you may discover under the nearest rock - maybe a schizophrenic ant, a centipede with a foot fetish or just a fly with the compulsive buzzing syndrome.
Miracle of Life
An old, stately maple tree grows just outside of my bedroom window. It is half Guardian and half Peeping Tom. The first thing I see every morning when I wake up is one of its many branches craning its neck to peek inside. But when the storm hits, those same branches come knocking on my windowpane, warning me of an impending doom. In winter, they quietly brood like fishing poles angling for the Sun; in Summer, they flit like strings of tinsel adorning car dealerships just before the Labor Day sale.
Couple of days ago, the branches were completely bare, looking desolate and lonely, keeping their promises to themselves, like gray skeletons of optimism. But then, almost overnight, as if goaded by an invisible bugle, little shiny flags of leafs appeared, springing impatiently from their ambush. Before I could have realized the winter had just expired - the branches were besieged by the Green Army. And just like every year I was left gazing at them and puzzling where did all those soldiers of photosynthesis come from.
When I was a kid, I thought that all the green mass was waiting in hiding underneath the bark. One year in early April, I even perpetrated a horrible crime of tree mutilation and cut one of the boughs to see what was inside. But I discovered nothing but a light brown wood and some pulp. Absolutely no sign of green. Where on Earth does it come from? Please, understand that this is not a trivial matter. That's several pounds of foliage per tree we are talking about. One day just a suspicious bud, and the next morning - Kaboom! There may be a Latin name for it, but I call it (rather inadequately) the Miracle of Life - the stuff that leaves you wondering for the rest of your life: tulips sticking their red heads out of the bulbs, bamboo shoots bamboozling bookish botanists, ducklings pecking their way to freedom and much much more.
These days we get way too easily flummoxed by the Material Maelstrom continuously stoked by the Mainstream Media - bailouts, bankruptcies, toxic loans, financial meltdowns, even the Pirates of Somalia chip in. What a pity that we don't pay more attention to simpler aspects of our existence. Maybe this whole Great Recession is a subtle hint that we should reevaluate our priorities and realize that a tree can be as complex and shiny as a brand new SUV and that taking kids to a public park is as entertaining as showering them with pieces of plastic made in China.
Amazing Tax Time
Americans have two opportunities to experience a labyrinth: corn mazes in the Fall and tax returns in the Spring. If you love to be completely and literally amazed, prepare for your annual April 15th showdown with the Dark Forces of Obfuscation. You will not be alone. The byzantine structure of the infamous form 1040 would baffle even Theseus with an industry length ball of thread.
Passing through narrow passages of terse instructions only to learn at the end that you need to fill out yet another form that is a maze in its own right is but a start. Move on and you'll soon get sucked into multiplying lines upon lines by seemingly random numbers, into juggling obscure credits and trying to sort out all the supportive documentation on the floor of your living room. And if you think you are still on top of the game, try to comprehend some of the arcane deductions that the instruction manual has to offer - here I quote from page 34: "Attorney fees and court costs paid by you in connection with an award from the IRS for information you provided after December 19, 2006, that substantially contributed to the detection of tax law violations, up to the amount of the award includible in your gross income". A rare jewel.
Taxes should not be a rocket science. We are not trying to cure cancer or synthesize a truth pill for politicians here. This could be a simple matter: you add your income, apply a percentage (which could even be progressive), write a check and be done. And if Uncle Sam wants to sponsor certain activities, he can do so directly. For instance why subtract charity contributions. If the government wants to promote charitable donations, which is what this is all about, they can match every dollar from private funds with 28 cents from federal coffers and that's it. There is no reason to burden the Tax Code with it.
And 1040 is only half of the story. The disbursement of the collected funds is another puzzling labyrinth. Theoretically it is our representatives who decide about the distribution, but I wish we had a more direct way of controlling the flow of money.
There are items in the federal budget that are vital - like fixing highways, maintaining Defense and Foreign Ministries, helping people in distress, sponsoring educational programs or protecting nature. Say two thirds of your return would cover that. But many tax revenues are currently being wasted on inefficient bureaucracy or poorly designed social engineering projects. Now imagine that there was an extra line on the 1040 that would ask you what to do with the non-vital third of your taxes. It could read like this (just a sample):
- Support Biotechnology Labs
- Bail Out Merrill Lynch
- Build a Bridge from California to Australia
- Invade Somalia
- Support the National Gallery of Arts
- Establish a Museum of Corn Derivatives in Kansas
- Fight Global Warming
- Send a Platypus to Moon
Furthermore, imagine that citizens themselves could submit suggestions what to include in the ad lib portion of the budget. Many people have ideas that bickering politicians would never even dream of. And this one line would allow other people to hop on the bandwagon of their choice and make it happen. Compulsive fitness junkies could vote for a nationwide system of bike paths, curious people would fund research in nanotechnology, prima ballerinas could redirect portion of their taxes to exchange programs with Moscow's Bolshoi Theater.
And hey - the Wall Street Bankers could even pay for their beloved bailouts. From their own pockets!
Oh, the sweet thrills of science fiction.
Unreasonably Cheerful Vultures
If I hear the phrase "get the credit flowing" again, I think I am going to give my porcelain throne a hearty hug. Just about anybody and their dog agrees that cheap credit and irresponsible lending lead us into this mess, so how can the encore possibly get us out of it?
I wonder how often they call for increased "flowing" at the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. We are like a barely rehabilitated slot machine addict who is lobbying the City Council for the new Casino. Like a bulging alumnus of McDonalds who makes a beeline for the triple burger the moment he is let out of the gates of a Diet Camp. "Oh yeah, we need to get those calories flowing again". In many regards credit is similar to calories, indeed. We need both of them in healthy doses. But we don't need to get them "flowing" again. Rather, we need to watch them. Very carefully.
Neither do we need to prop up the banking system. We need to scrap it and build a new one. From the scratch. The whole underlying culture must change if we are to avoid a financial heart attack. Sure, credit is great, especially for bankers who make cool profit from its creation, but you cannot borrow your way to prosperity. Running humongous deficits is an insidious form of taxation, since the decreased buying power of the debased currency will be felt for generations. Instead of rekindling the credit fire, we'd be better off living within our means and focusing on energy, education, transportation and developing cutting edge technologies. We need to leverage our superior University System, not the balance sheet of Goldman Sachs.
65 million years ago, an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula and the resulting climactic changes wiped out the whole Dinosaur population. Few months ago, it seemed that Wall Street behemoths were facing similar fate. After the subprime asteroid hit the underbelly of their balance sheets, many of the corporate dinosaurs have been lurching on the verge of extinction, some falling to the ground with their stubby legs up.
But I am afraid Obama may have just squandered a great chance to rid the system of the corrupt and greedy cabal - of the financial predators who love to gamble with other people's money. He could have said good bye to geniuses whose over-reliance on linear models and just plain unfettered greed created this catastrophe. But instead he is inviting various seedy characters back to the table. And the vultures of hedge funds are getting ready for the banquet of their life. There are plenty of carcasses in the housing and banking industries to munch on and should a bone get stuck in their fine throats - no worries - the sumptuous junket will be waited on attentively by wretched US taxpayers. And their children.