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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: August 2009

Of Bears and Czechs

There is an ancient lawyer joke that involves Czechs and bears. I forgot most of its plot, but the bottom line is that some Czech gets eaten by a male bear and when the joke's protagonist inquires about his whereabouts, a lawyer glibly answers: "The Czech's in the male."

Jokes aside, in real life you don't get to see Czechs and bears in the same environment very often. When we were planning the trip to the Rockies, however, we expected to find both. The bears - because the West is their natural habitat, and Czechs ...well ...because Czechs are really everywhere.

When I moved to New Mexico in 1996, my first local sightseeing expedition lead to an overlook over the Rio Grande river. It is not the busiest tourist destination in the world and from a distance I could see that there were only two people standing on its platform. When I approached to within an earshot, I immediately recognized where they were from. You never mistake the intonation of your mother tongue. There was no one else within sight. Only a sprawling desert, the two Czechs and some cactuses on nondescript nationality.

A few years later, I was waiting for my parents at the Auckland International Airport in New Zealand. I didn't expect many Czechs there, what with New Zealand being almost directly on the other side of the globe from Prague. But before my own mother showed up, I heard the snippets of the tongue she once taught me twice from two different sources. Czechs are ubiquitous. No matter where you go, there they are. Consequently, our expectations of running into a band of camera toting Bohemians in an area fraught with fetching destinations were quite high.

They deflated fast. We spent three days combing through Yellowstone, we ran into all sorts of weathered globe-trotters and all sorts of wild things, but at the end came out empty handed on both ends - no Czechs and no bears were readily available for sightings. So we packed up and headed south to the Grand Tetons. Within the span of 60 minutes, both landed on our plate.

We left Yellowstone through the Southern Gate and had to drive on a dirt road for about 5 miles because of a construction. Every now and then a flagman stopped us to let the cars from the opposite direction pass. During one of the stops a mama bear and a cub suddenly emerged from behind a mound of soil on the side and were clearly thinking about crossing the dirt road. I instinctively grabbed for my camera and also strived to roll down the window.

At times like these I usually turn into a spasmodic baboon. I managed to lock and unlock the rental car, side view mirror perplexedly whirred and various windows came down - except for the one through which we ogled the brown furry critters. For the bears themselves, however, my clumsiness must have been too much to bear. They must have sensed that my vividly animated antics had constituted an unfriendly behavior and decided to split before I would inadvertently squirt them with a hearty doze of windshield washer liquid.

A few consolation snapshots later, we are walking down the concrete dike of the Lake Jackson Damn and who do we bump into? A clearly audible group of Czechs. Two guys and two girls in their late twenties strutting jauntily alongside the lake's edge. This time I left my camera alone. I have enough photos of this species and I didn't want to fall into the dam's turbine while attempting to take a picture. We merely engaged in a short conversation and continued our journey south.

After this there were no further encounters of either kind. Nor were there any encounters of the third kind. But here is the strange part: all in all, we spent some 170 hours in the West. That's plenty of time for things to happen. Yet both encounters that we thought would be plentiful and randomly spread out over the whole trip happened within the same hour.

My favorite writer Karel Capek once wrote : "Happenings have a mysterious tendency to clump together". Encounters of Czechs and bears surely do.


Wyoming is a state of mind.

Imagine yourself driving through a seemingly endless stretch of land on a warm summer evening. You can see the extent of absolute freedom in the inviting palm of its high desert. You can hear echos of volatile centuries in deep wrinkles of its numerous canyons. Suddenly, warm air rushes in through an open window and injects smells of sagebrush and bunchgrass. On the outside, lazy shadows start grazing the prairie while the blushing Sun flirts with the horizon. KZWB 97.9 is blasting through the car stereo so vehemently that the stark mountains looming in the distance seem like a string of bass guitar amplifiers. If your senses can absorb all of this, then your mind has melted into the state of Wyoming.

Curiously, it is here - amidst massively robust features - that you develop affection and appreciation for how fragile our seemingly indestructible world is in the greater scheme of things. Wyoming is the place where you understand on a visceral level that this Earth actually moves through the outer space. It is here where you realize that we all stand on this chunk of clay and with it we are zipping across vast expanses of the Solar System. If our little planet were a cruise liner, Wyoming would be its bow. You stand there at night and if you raise your hand, you can feel the breeze of the entire Universe squeezing through your fingers.

One day we were returning to West Yellowstone deep at night. The sky was perfectly clear and so we stopped at a small rest area not far from the Old Faithful. There were no electric lights for miles and miles around. It was the pitchest black I have ever seen. And when we stepped out of the car and looked up, we nearly fainted. We saw a swimming pool full of sparkling diamonds. Myriads and myriads of shining stars. More than you could shake a telescope at. Fireworks frozen both in time and space.

There is a reason God put Yellowstone in Wyoming. It belongs there.


Augean Kitchen

According to the Greek legends, the sixth labor of Heracles involved cleaning up neglected stables of King Augeas, whose herds were as messy as they were numerous. Faced with a daunting, and seemingly impossible task, Hercules demonstrated both brains and brawn by diverting two nearby rivers, the Alpheus and the Peneus, into the stables and turned the scrubbing job into an exercise in Fluid Dynamics. The sheer volume and power of the merged rivers washed the filth away in a way no human effort ever could.

In general, I try to keep my kitchen reasonably clean. You probably should not eat straight from the floor, but anything lying on the counter can be immediately digested without harsh consequences. However, in less accessible corners you can still find niche markets for various hardy germs; you know the kind bred and trained in Germany. If you were a policeman, you could think of them as Organized Grime - the henchmen of Grease Mafia dumping their unwanted bodies. For a while I have been thinking about a large scale attack on this slowly slumping underworld - but you know how it goes, something always gets in the way.

One Sunday evening I noticed that plumbing in the kitchen was showing telltale signs of a well haunted house. The sink would not drain, water would start mysteriously appearing for no apparent reason, and from deep within the plumbing strange noises came, as if a small weasel got stuck in its guts and tried to gargle its way to freedom. Something was seriously amiss.

In the morning I called the office and told them of the problem. A young, mildly awake receptionist answered the phone. I stressed the fact that water appeared in the sink based on my neighbors activity and could overflow at any given moment, which clearly constituted an emergency. The receptionist promised to dispatch a maintenance man shortly. Little did I know that somewhere in the voluminous operational manual of my complex, a clause must have existed stipulating that no situation reported without yelling at 120 decibels per second be considered an emergency. Foolishly, I announced my predicament in a calm voice.

Consequently, when I came back from work, there was no maintenance sign on the door and upon entering the kitchen I found it mostly underwater. A lake of average depth of half an inch was glistening on the floor. The sink was full of water whose origin I did not dare to surmise. There was a minor puddle on the counter, too, leading to a place on the edge where, at some point during the day, a lovely waterfall must have cascaded down. I called again and this time it was personal.

Half an hour later a maintenance specialist showed up at my door armed with a long metallic spiral and a curious drilling device whose apparent purpose was to cram the rusty spiral down the clogged throat of the building's digestive system. And cram he did. He must have reached at least 15 feet into the piping. Deposits of viscous filth started appearing soon. I thought that kind of stuff accrued only at the bottom of Louisiana bayous. They could easily have contained a layer of crude oil. But at the end of the show, the handyman threw them all away. I guess those deposits were not FDIC insured.

But everything bad is good for something. After the guy left, I realized that the standing water did to my kitchen what the two rivers once did to Augean Stables. After roughly 45 minutes of truly herculean effort that culminated in a Hollywood style Lysol Finale, my kitchen was shining like a new penny.

It was still an early evening, so I went about my business and soon forgot about the ordeal. The apartment was dry and clean, the life seemed perfectly trouble free again. I went to bed around 2am and as I was making the final preparations for the tuck-in, I needed to get something from a kitchen drawer. So I went to the kitchen, and when I opened it, I could not believe my eyes - it was filled to the rim with water, which must have hid there in the afternoon on its way from the overflowing sink to the floor. Nothing stimulates your sense of bizarre like opening an innocent wooden drawer and finding two gallons of water merrily splashing between its walls.

It was like in one of those cheap horror flicks about a lake monster. When the miscreation gets finally slain, life goes back to normal, villagers breathe a sigh of relief and farmers return to their fields. In the closing scene, a camera pans over the lake's tranquil waters. Wolves howl in the distance. And then, in the last moment an ominous ripple appears on the surface. Curtain drops. The credits start rolling. And you go home, wondering if a sequel is in the works.

Rustworthy Words

Words are kind of like metals. They are susceptible to corrosion. Not the one caused by partying oxygen molecules, but the one caused by the chronic lack of substance. Every time a word is bruised by material emptiness, a bit of its essence goes to word heaven. Slowly but surely, they lose their color and over time even their structural integrity like untreated steel beams exposed to elements. If we let this process get out of hand, we may wake up one day and realize that our bridge to meaning has collapsed.

An example of a word that falls victim to mindless repetition a little bit too often is the word "community" - in particular when used in a self-reflecting mode. Sure, great communities do exist, but they have other things to do than paint themselves as such. They rebuild their infrastructure, plant trees, sing in a choir or play theater, organize soccer leagues, help their neighbors in need or just enjoy the sunshine. Self-praise has never really sounded very genuine and if you have to state your qualities explicitly, the chances are that something to be desired is left behind.

Standing next in the line of mouth fillers is the word "respect" - which in its purest form is very simple: it is an acknowledgment of people's right to pursue happiness as they see fit. Nothing more and nothing less. If you can, you may help them in this endeavor and if you can't, you should stand out of the way. That's what respect is. Sadly, more often than not, this word becomes a caricature of itself, an expensive perfume masking the lack of kindness and modesty. Respect is becoming a feather with which we stroke our swollen sense of importance, a sweet incense in a liturgical act of self-worship. People who toss the word respect around a lot are also the ones who will throw obstacles in your path, the ones who don't give a rat's tiny behind about your pursuit of happiness, and who will even stab you in the back with a salad fork when you are reaching for a dessert. But they surely will enunciate "I am so sorry!" afterwards.

In an ideal world, respect would be an unnecessary construct. People would be to mankind what individual cells are to human body. They would strive towards the collective good just as tissue cells in your body try to make it function as a whole, without pandering to their own petty needs. They get the job done in a completely selfless manner. And if they bump into each other along the way they just settle it as they go. Tickling one's ego can complicate things. Imagine how clogged our arteries would be if one respected bloodcell would say to another: "Excuse me, but I am not carrying this oxygen to the heart until you offer an apology for cutting me off".

But standalone words have company on the corrosion's hit list - phrases can be full of hot air too. If you browse through Internet personals long enough, sooner or later you are bound to traipse into the ground zero of spiritual vacuity, an area marked by the yellow police tape with the signature line of cookie cutter profiles on it in large black block letters: "I LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST". Alright, alright. Great. More power to you if you do. I can't argue with the pursuit of fullestness. What puzzles me a bit, though, is this: I know several people who live life to the fullest, and they never say so, they just do so.

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