Archives for: January 2010
Old things have a very special charm. They bear evidence of having lived. The little scars inflicted on their skin by Mother Nature are receipts that the toll for the passage through life has been paid. Whether it is the dent on your car's bumper, a monogram cut into the bark of a stately maple tree, a flaky wall in an abandoned alley, or a worn out instep of an old shoe - they all share unique fingerprints of passing events. What a treasure trove of clues for Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
Part of the appeal of old paraphernalia is our tendency to romanticize the past. That scratch on your motorcycle that made you so mad when it was fresh is now the last surviving memento of the party at which you met your sweetheart. That scar on your arm that hurt like hell for three weeks is now the climax, the punchline and the corroboration of a story to be imparted on your grandchildren. We are conditioned to discount bad memories so that history seems a bit rosier in the rear view mirror than it actually was when seen through the windshield. I have quite a few fond memories from my childhood - and hey - I grew up in a totalitarian regime.
Old things are umbilical cords to our memory. One of the things I brought with me to the USA when I moved here 20 years ago was my dad's old leather briefcase, which he used for carrying blueprints into his office in the 1960s, and which I used for carrying textbooks in college after I inherited it. Or rather after I rescued it from the trash. My Mom was appalled when she found out that I am taking that old piece of junk across the Atlantic. But I could not leave it behind - there were too many memories embedded in it. Every little blemish of its surface, every little laceration had a story to tell. A friend of mine had to sow it together 10 years ago lest it would fall apart, but I still have it. No new bag can emulate the appeal of having lived and the bond of having lived together.
When I am sightseeing I gravitate to old quarters that retain their authenticity (or authentitown as the case might be), which invariably leads away from the beaten path, away from the touristy routes inlaid with gleaming stores and freshly stuccoed palaces. My little expeditions through the looking glass of history often wind up in places where you can brush against a wall and grow curiouser and curiouser - did Franz Kafka once lean against these bricks when stricken with one of his depressive bouts? I hunt for secret nooks and inconspicuous recesses. And after I find them, they tease me to try and decipher their scars - those old fashioned memory cards, faithfully recording life as it bites along.
We the Corporations
Democracy is a great system but it has one serious flaw. Political issues have become so complex and multifaceted that it is virtually impossible for average voters to make informed decisions on their own - and remember that by definition most voters are average. Who can truly grasp all the ramifications of the Health Care Bill, or what kind of financial reform will be beneficial to our economy 10 years down the road? You'd have better chances understanding Lehman Brother's balance sheets. But even more importantly, who can see through the smokescreen of boilerplate soundbites and tell which candidate masters the issues best? You can't really make much sense out them without some sort of guidance.
That leaves the door to voters' hearts wide open for sly propaganda and interpretation games. The gray border between right and wrong is seemingly teeming with seamy teams. Either side of the aisle has no qualms kicking the opponents under the table, ripping their utterances out of context and framing them in all the putrid mud they can dredge from partisan bayous. In the world of high politics, truth counterfeiters work round the clock. Democracy was an easy trade to ply in times of Socrates or Washington, but in the era of talking heads and YouTube warriors practicing public governance may warrant some pretty steep information tariffs. Say that you want to take a stand against building an extra school in your district because there is no money in the budget. Your followers can paint you as an uncompromising fiscal hawk who will make sure that public funds do not get squandered on unnecessary projects. But that very same act will prompt your opponents to slice you to pieces for not having a clear vision of well educated population. At the end of the day, your political fate will depend on which side can spin your story more effectively, i.e. which side has more dough to do so.
It used to be "One man, one vote". A John Wayne kind of democracy. But running for public office has become so insanely expensive that it sounds more like "One dollar, one vote" these days. The merry-go-round of public opinion massage therapists, 30 second TV torpedoes, in house mendacity menders and assorted PR flacks requires dizzying sums of money. In the meantime, the underlying political competition has tacitly been reduced to one simple skill - reading the teleprompter. It is not clear whether we still have elections or whether the public offices are given away in carefully scripted auctions. I am not sure what Andrew Jackson's running for the office cost, but I am fairly certain he'd be mad as hell about selling democracy to the highest bidder.
The way our elected representatives waltz with waddles of money from Big Pharma, Military Complex and Wall Street makes you wonder what promises were whispered into their ear on the dancing floor. Scanning the long scrolls of campaign contributions stuffed with future pork and saturated lard could single-handedly push your heart into cardiac arrest, although citizen's arrest would be a more apposite course of action. With hordes of lobbyists swarming the corpse of democracy like a pack of hungry hyenas, you might think it is time to consider a serious campaign finance reform and limit the amount of money gushing into politics.
The Supreme Court, specifically its Republican appointees, would strongly disagree. In a close vote held on Wednesday, they rejected limits that up to that point were restricting corporate spending on political campaigns. Rather ironically, they cited free speech violation as the basis for their decision. That means our spendthrift campaigning habits will be exacerbated rather than mitigated. Rather conveniently this shocking charade happened two days after Scott Brown (R) won Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts and dealt the Democratic supermajority in Congress a lethal blow. Any legislative response to this travesty of judgment will now be as hard as finding a character witness for a recalcitrant donkey.
I think that "free speech" should be limited to entities that have mouths, lips, tongues, vocal chords and other accessories necessary for speaking. That would be human beings. Sure, constituents of private companies, from CEOs to janitors, can still say whatever they want. Just not as corporations. Corporatism is one half of fascism (the other half being nationalism) and I don't think we want to flirt with that historical beast.
Corporations are abstract legal entities whose purpose is to conduct business. Influencing electorate should be none of it. If for nothing else then for a simple fairness argument. Who could compete with Intel, Pfizer or Citigroup? Not charities, not civic societies, not local churches and certainly not private citizens. If this free speech is so important to them, then we should start taxing them in the top bracket - just like regular warm blooded Joes.
Corporations do not have the right to vote directly, so they should not have the right to vote indirectly (through the use of their money) either. Whose interest would they represent anyway? Do we want the Sheikh of Dubai or some Russian billionaire on the board of a multinational conglomerate to partake in our public affairs? And even if the foreign entities were surgically removed, many nagging concerns would remain. What if deep pocketed pharmaceuticals supported candidates going easy on their drug testing? What if AIG sponsored pro-bailout candidates? What if Microsoft wanted to strengthen its virtual monopoly through creative use of politics? How could we compete with their televised weapons of mass instruction?
Today, lobbyists have to deal with whomever we vote into the office. In the future, they could actually have a say in choosing the lot. And you can bet your health insurance premiums they wouldn't go for the principled and incorruptible types.
The Constitution of the United States begins with the phrase "We the People". Please, let's keep it that way.
Light Encounters of the Third Kind
Sometimes you get more than you bargain for.
When a friend of mine invited me to Prague to watch the New Year's fireworks I did expect to see some of the magic only light can conjure up. Little did I know that nocturnal Prague offers more than one way to encounter it.
Light Encounters of the First Kind: the Flashes.
As the fireworks took place over the Vltava river, we parked ourselves on the bank directly opposite a long ridge called Letenska Plan. Many photographers sought better vantage point there and positioned themselves alongside its many walking paths. Just before the show started, we could see their flashes go off in a mesmerizing display of ethereal coruscation. In a completely uncoordinated manner, hundreds of cameras strewn all over the slope flicked forth their electric winks and for a few moments the whole ridge resembled a field of polished diamonds glittering mystically against a faint reflected light of the historical Old Town. The Princess of the Night came to watch the fireworks herself and all we could see was the sparkling tiara in her raven dark hair.
Light Encounters of the Second Kind: the Fireworks.
I think the reason fireworks are so popular among virtually all cultures is that they combine two primordial fascinations of the human race - stars and explosions. Located at the opposite extremes of the variational scale, things that go boom are the ultimate agent of instantaneous and irrevocable change, while stars have always been viewed as an embodiment of eternal constancy. Merging the two opposite streams of temporal perception into one blooming garden of cosmic flowers is a spectacle that never disappoints. It is like watching the Big Bang itself, a two second recapitulation of a wildly evolving Universe. All rendered in bright colors and crackling sound effects.
Light Encounters of the Third Kind: the Decorations.
Under most circumstances I consider Christmas lights a bit of a cultural kitsch. Especially when they are overdone. But as we were walking back to the Wenceslaus Square, I noticed that juxtaposed to Prague's quaint and eclectic architecture they lost some of their saccharine aftertaste. The distant and ageless forms of masonry in the background compensated for the instant gratification aspect of the seasonal commerce around us. Together they formed puzzling symbiosis of transient and permanent elements. On the one hand, the decorations bound to disappear in just a few days and on the other, the churches and Baroque houses that will hopefully still stand in their places in one hundred years. It was like meeting of two civilizations - one coming from our world: vibrant, flawed and heartwarming; and another coming from a completely different world: towering, perfect and cool. From a world many light centuries away. Coming back for the smell of overpriced hot chocolate.
Calling all restaurateurs
One of my favorite Czech novels, Zdenek Jirotka's Saturnin, begins with an observation that all people can be neatly categorized according to how they react to a plate of doughnuts in a quiet cafe.
The first kind, lacking any imagination, simply stares at the doughnuts, not exhibiting any cerebral activity beyond the obvious ingestive ambitions. The second type looks at them as well, but cannot help pondering what it would be like if someone started bombarding the other customers with the displayed pastries. And then there is the rare third group. The people who consider the idea of flying doughnuts so palatable that they actually get up and make it happen.
For a while there used to be a little coffee shop in Prague, not far from the Central bus station, where you could buy "Saturnin's platter" and instantaneously become the third type of a person. The platter description specifically stipulated that its content can be hurled at will, which is why it cost about 10 times the fair market value of the presented doughnuts (1,900 CZK) to allow for damages to patrons' clothing, hairdo and self esteem. Dry cleaning and law suits don't come cheap even in Prague. As far as I remember, the place was called Cafe Imperial and although I never saw any airborne food articles swishing across its parlor, I did see that item on the menu with my own eyes.
I think the idea of a restaurant where any guest could pelt any life form within striking distance with assorted grub and chow could revolutionize the otherwise sedentary business. The stress release potential itself should make this concept worth considering. Imagine how many marital quarrels could be settled right then and there by a tactical low-altitude apricot pudding. Or how about Take-your-boss-to-lunch Thursdays? And then there is the eternal appeal of silent movie climaxes: think Charlie, Buster, Stan or Laurel staggering in a barrage of whipped cream and birthday cakes. Who wouldn't want to be part of that?
As coconuts, watermelons, whole pigs, frozen jumbo steaks and other culinary heavyweights might inflict damage well beyond the scope of civil law, I would suggest either rigorous separation of food into throwables and unthrowables, with bar area sparingly designated as a No Fly Zone, or the mandatory use of hard hats and bullet proof bibs for all diners. Nothing spells out romantic dinner like wearing a motorcycle helmet and protective goggles over a plate of long range Jarret D'Agneau Braise.
On special occasions, the restaurant owners might put together reconstructions of famous battles. For instance, the Battle of Thermopylae would be a memorable thematic extravaganza. Patrons would take tables on either the Greek or Persian side and start ordering their ammunition while a resident historian in a tuxedo and bow tie sketched out the contemporary milieu. Tense expectations would soon be ripped apart by the first salvos of kefalotyri and spanakopita. Impeccable formations of moussaka would violate the Persian airspace, souvlaki and gyros meat wreaking havoc on mideastern attires. Persians would immediately respond by launching their own artillery: catapulted Nan-e khoshke-tanur would be just the warning shot. Before you could say "check please", saffron rice-cakes are splattering on balding skulls, a pommegranate is discharged from a dark corner, rapid fire chelo kababs are blitzing the Greek tables. And should the outcome of the battle fall in doubt, either side could always whip out their ultimate weapon: surface-to-air baklava.
Possibilities to develop the budding industry of cannonical gastronomy are endless. Lobbing lobsters at waiters and waitees alike is guaranteed to satisfy the whims of the most discerning gourmets. The phrase "tossed pizza" would finally get an adequate content. Even Washington's stagnant political scene might benefit from new civic movements. Imagine throngs of working class activists picketing in front of the White House and angrily waving their home made cardboard signs: Immediately ban all Chinese cucumbers. Sign the Blue Cheese Non Proliferation Treaty! No more pancakes of mass destruction. Halt risotto testing now!
And while on the subject of restaurant ideas: the other day I was having lunch with a friend of mine, and we thought it would be cool if you could order your food and drinks at specific temperatures. You know how irritating it is when your coffee is too hot and your soup too cold. So your ordering would go something like this: "I'll have a bowl of minestrone soup at 135F, well-done steak at 150F and 29F strawberry ice-cream. Oh - and some water at 35F, please." I bet many people would appreciate that extra degree of thermal control. You could even entertain your party with the knowledge of the Celsius scale. "Oh waiter, I'll have that stake at 65 degrees centigrade." How delightfully decadent!
So if there are any intrepid restaurant entrepreneurs out there, have a go at either idea. Good luck and bon appetite at 98.6F!