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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: May 2010

Unexpected Body Czech

Sports are like jazz improvisations. The individual plays are specific and unique to each game, and yet they operate within a familiar framework of rules and similarity to previous games. The riffs and solos of a jazz quintet, while firmly grounded in classical tonality and previous listening experiences, also serve melodies and harmonies hitherto unheard and seemingly spewing forth directly from the frothy ocean of the musicians' subconsciousness. It is the uniqueness of perception, the patterns etched onto the surface of a lake with a wooden wand, which creates this magic. Like rare fish they briefly emerge and soon disappear. And the same is true for those magical moments in sports. They will never be seen again.

The improvisational aspect of sports, of course, is brought to you by the forces of randomness. That mystery coin toss lurking behind most of the plays is in fact large part of their allure. In physics, a heavy object always outweighs a lighter one. No exceptions. In sports, anything can happen. And we love it. The unadulterated surprise is the main asset they bring to the ping pong table of human entertainment, for nothing lifts our spirits like a good upset story. Think of the the US Olympic Ice Hockey team in 1980 or the Danish soccer team on EURO 1992.

Today, Czechs consummated their own version of the Miracle on Ice by beating the mighty Russians at the IHF World Ice Hockey Championship. The unfancied Czech side was mostly composed from young players recruited from the local league and featured about as much NHL talent as the Sarasota High School Marching Band. At the start of the tournament, it even seemed that a relegation from the A group might be in the offing. Czechs lost their games to Switzerland and Norway, two teams not exactly known for their ice hockey prowess, and back home many fans braced for an untimely exit. However, improved performance against Canada in the group and then against Finland in the Quarterfinals sent the Czech squad into the semifinal against all odds.

The last two matches featured two power plays that I will never forget. They were sort of mirror images of each other.

In the semifinal, the score was 2:1 for Sweden, and Czechs had just swapped a field player for a goalie. One of the Swedish defenders managed to grab the puck and send it towards the empty Czech goal. That puck slowly coasted forward and passed about 10 inches to the left of the gaping net, like an asteroid on a near collision course with Earth. At that point I realized that Gods have chosen their side. The funny thing about sports is that once the Gods make up their mind, there is no going back. The Swedes were still up by one goal, but 7 seconds before the end, Czechs scored an equalizer and after a victorious shootout advanced to the final.

In the final against their Russian archrivals, Czechs kept tirelessly withdrawing from their luck account, but contrary to all laws of physics the account got never overdrawn. They managed to come to the final third with a small lead so the mighty Russians lead by NHL prodigy Alex Ovechkin had to turn up the heat. And turn up the heat they did. Czechs could barely cope with their offensive. The climax came 90 seconds from time, when two Czechs were sent to the penalty box for fouls and Russians called off their goalie. You don't see a 6-on-3 powerplay in ice-hockey very often. Defending it is like building a circus tent in a category 5 hurricane. Russians soon scored and the lead diminished to 2-1. What ensued were fifty seconds of pure hell. But somehow or other, the score held. Gods never change their mind fifty seconds from the end.

As soon as the final siren blew, the Prague main square turned into a gushing fire-hydrant of cheering and celebrations. The team that was written off well before the tournament started won it all. In sports that happens.

For sports aficionados in my little hometown, this Sunday was doubly sweet. After 7 years spent in the soccer desert, a local team FC Hradec Kralove, advanced into the Czech premier league. The team whose games I used to go to with my grandpa when I was growing up will again bring the big names from Prague to my hometown's soccer pitch. Tak zdar, Votroci!

hockey

Idea is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Omniscient talking heads, especially the ones armed with a glimpse of an open economic textbook caught from a speeding train, trash capitalism a lot these days. But their sense of accomplishment is gravely misplaced. The idea of free markets is as good as it was in times of Henry Ford, it is just our recent malpractice which warped the concept to the point of travesty.

There were many bright ideas in the history of mankind that got off to a promising start only to be hijacked and molded beyond recognition by amateurs, zealots, inveiglers, shysters, con artists, charlatans, dilettantes, racketeers, saboteurs and crooks of any imaginable disposition. Just compare the teachings of Jesus with the burning stakes of the Catholic church, or tenets of Karl Marx with the political prisons of petrified Brezhnev's Empire. Just juxtapose the charter of the UN to its swollen bureaucratic underbelly or writings of the Founding Fathers to the agenda of the Junior Bush administration. There is no idea in this world that cannot be successfully abused.

Making a good judgment has never been humanity's strong point, although judging has been its favorite pastime ever since skills triumphed over instincts some ten thousand years ago. You would think that over all those ages we'd have learned how to protect ideas from their botched practical implementations. But we haven't. Lazy and superficial judgment is still humanity's bane, both on a personal and collective level. From Tea Party to Rachel Maddow, we are being aimlessly dragged through a landscape drenched in a polarizing rain of inane soundbites.

Where analysis is a dying art, only a few have the audacity to look under the hood and tweak things around. It is much easier to shoot ideas down without fully considering their potential. True, many are born imperfect and in need of improvement, some get corrupted during their lifetime and other ones are introduced well ahead of their time and may require some mindset adjustment to bear fruit. But the wisdom, effort and insight invested into separation of merits of an abstract process from its practical realization will pay for themselves many times over.

To toss out a good idea because it was poorly implemented is like throwing away a functional device which was merely fed an inferior input. Think of a brand new and perfectly working meat grinder that is being tested for performance. Now imagine that an incompetent lab technician crams some badly rotting meat into its orifice. Consequently, what comes out of it on the other end is a smelly unappealing mush that would make a pack of hyenas run away in panic. But wait a minute - you might think - that outcome does not necessarily mean that the meat grinder is intrinsically defective. Unfortunately, many geniuses think it does.

I can't believe it's not Gucci

Oops, those trees did it again. Same trick, different year. One night they go to sleep bare, sullen and leafless and the next morning they wake up all covered with a rash of bursting buds and even a few precocious green leaflets slurping up whatever the recuperating Sun has to offer. What an impressive mechanism Nature devised there. Every October and November trees shed their aging, dirty, brittle and yellowish foliage to have it completely replaced by a new, crisp and fresh collection some 6 months later. All perfectly timed and executed with the precision of Madonna's stage manager.

As I was watching this botanical spectacle unfold, it occurred to me that it would be tres cool if we could do the same with our accouterments. At night, before our bedtime we'd shed our old naturally biodegradable clothes and let them turn into mulch under our beds (whereto they'd be discreetly kicked) and in the morning, just before our alarm went off, we'd be sprouting new garments all over the body. Layer after layer, our skin would fabricate new items for our wardrobe, the outer epidermis morphing into shirts and pants, while the inner layers would supply underwear, skivvies, loin clothes, G-strings, H-strings, stockings, corsets, bikinis, long johns and whatever else we choose to fight the elements, predators and boredom with.

Oodles of time - normally wasted on changing clothes, tying laces, or zipping up evening dresses - would suddenly be released and available for spending on noble causes, such as braiding cooked spaghetti or ceremonial hanger hanging. What a wonderful world that would be. No worries about what colors to put on. Ever. And who knows, after a few million years of gradual progress, maybe we'd evolve enough to grow a pair of designer socks every night.

mclean

The Cycle of Youth

The most amazing thing about Spring is that every year it is just as amazing as the year before.

Let's face it, we humans get easily bored. The half-life of our interest could mount successful challenge to Fermium 257. Our mind is on the constant lookout for new thrills, hungrily scanning the never ending parade of shiny iPods, fancy lingerie, favorite TV shows, and last but not least, significant others. They all tickle our expectations, pamper us in their heyday, and then slowly fade into discreet oblivion. Even a movie with the most dazzling special effects imaginable will grow old on us if we watch it one time too many. But Spring somehow avoids this curse and its annual stage entrance never fails to go viral. Every March, it takes our senses hostage as it blooms into town, flooding our ears with chirping and tweeting, bribing our noses with fresh scents and bruising our retina with green lesions.

The reason for this seemingly perpetual motion is very simple: once the Spring is done with its alchemy, it takes a little Spring break and for the remaining 9 months you don't hear much about it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and as Nature's vivacious mood decelerates into the doldrums of Summer and pastel reflections of Autumn, images of Spring start wistfully peeking into the windows of our soul. But the long Winter burns them all to ashes, completely erasing the whiteboard of our memory. But by doing just that it unwittingly hatches a new Phoenix in its blank embrace. In the very nadir of our spirits, Spring detonates with renewed exuberance and fills us with a sense of wonder which perfectly matches the one we experienced the first time around.

Married people often complain about the boredom that has crept into their love lives. Looking at the divorce rate, a natural question emerges: Can the flame of romance be kept burning indefinitely? It occurred to me the other day that the mystical rite of Spring could be an answer to this question. It could provide everlasting fuel for the notoriously transient human emotions.

Suppose that every time you dated someone, you'd be legally separated and sequestered after 3 months of living together. No exceptions. Now, imagine the sheer joy of reunion after 9 long months. It would be like the first time all over again. Each year, you'd experience one full quarter of romantic fireworks that would make Romeo and Juliet blush with envy.

Lovely idea, isn't it? The catch is - of course - who'd be raising the kids for the remaining 9 months.

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