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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: August 2010

Timing is everything

One thing which is both intriguing and scary about this planet is timing. And I am not talking about the stock market.

Imagine a hallway intersection where you run into a fetching girl with whom you strike up a short but not entirely unpleasant conversation. If you were there 60 seconds too early or 60 seconds too late she would never have crossed your path. The slightest delay precipitated by the tritest of causes would irrevocably alter the course of your happiness. Scary, huh?

Thusly we run through the pinball maze of chance encounters, dealing with the hands we were dealt and never knowing the hands we have just missed. But there would be little point waiting for that girl in the dark hallway to begin with. You can't ambush luck. The moving parts of the Universe arrange themselves into magic configurations only at the behest of the Random Queen.

When I was in Yosemite with a couple of friends recently, we decided to navigate a winding mountain road to the overlook called Glacier Point to catch a sunset illuminating the granite rocks across the park's main valley. Although the views were impressive, the weather was far from cooperating. Thick clouds were rolling indifferently by and seemed in no mood to let a single ray through, despite a number of nature enthusiasts who gathered on a rocky plateau in anticipation of a potential spectacle.

But then, as the Sun was just about to slip behind the westerly mountain range and many photographers were already packing their gear or even walking back to the parking lot, there appeared a prosperous break in the clouds and potent beams shone through. The scenery changed dramatically. The opposite ridge caught fire. The celestial cavalcade had arrived in ravishing plumage. Photographers hastily reassembled their tripods and started shooting like there was no tomorrow, knowing they have about a minute to record all the pixels of the unfolding pageant.

You had a choice of pointing the camera westward and catching the somber tones of cold rocks contrasting with the clouds that were bursting ablaze with scales of yellow, orange and crimson. Or you could point your camera eastward, where the cloud colorations were less showy, but as a bonus you'd snap the last rays of the reddish Sun nuzzling against the very top elevations of the opposite mountains.

Courtesy of some finely timed atmospheric engineering.


Ahab rehab

Sometimes I find myself uttering random and totally inconsequential sentences - the kind of stuff you could hear from a character in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland rather than from a supposedly rational mathematician. But I like it that way. Not only is it fun to watch people's reactions to such unsolicited buffoonery, but it is also a way to tease destiny out of its den, have it wave its magic wand and throw our lives off kilter a bit.

Last weekend I visited one of my friends in the Bay Area and when we were pondering what to do with a sunny California Sunday, I went for a volley and blurted out: "let's go whale watching". Not that I meant it, mind you. I could have just as easily suggested Lemur hunting, Formula One racing or synchronized felling of a Douglas fir. I really had no desire to see any marine mammals. It was just a lame joke.

In my world whales live in Alaska and New Zealand, so I was quite shocked when my friend pounced on the idea and suggested that we drive to Monterey and catch a whale watching boat there. Still struggling with the morning stupor, I drowsily agreed and that was what we ended up doing. I will never underestimate the entertainment potential of the Pacific Coast again.

As soon as we found a parking spot in the quaint Marine whose boat density reminded me of a rush hour Washington traffic, we made a beeline for a small pastel colored light house, whose vicinity we tagged as the most likely origin of sea faring adventures. And we were not disappointed. In less than 10 minutes we secured three tickets for a boat named Check Mate. We took that for a good omen, considering that two thirds of our party had Czech roots and the remaining one third was pretty good at chess.

No sooner had we made ourselves comfortable on the boat than the engine sputtered into action and we glibly maneuvered through a wooden maze of landing piers, across the harbor area, past a jetty invaded by seals and otters and off into the open sea - ready to hustle some cetaceans. As we were bouncing forth on sizable waves, I noticed that many of the passengers - whether they were bankers, insurance agents, car salesmen, or computer geeks - started to undergo subtle metamorphosis. Like in those B-rated werewolves movies, outcroppings of animal instincts have suddenly dented their behavior; tempestuous determination fumed from their nostrils and their normally smooth and relaxed demeanor stiffened to the point of predatory intensity.

Slowly but surely, our dickey mob were turning into Moby Dick chasers. That glint in the eye, that vengeful finger twitch, that deeply focused stare were all unmistakable signs that captain Ahab took control at the helm. Armed with digital harpoons of any conceivable make - from Olympus to Nikon or Canon - we were about to give our white whale a good run for the money. And since we live in a politically correct environment, I would like to point out that were prepared to give any whale a good run for the money - regardless of the color of its skin.

Meanwhile our skipper was doing his best at the bridge. With the help of his onboard sonar, he located plenty of humpback and blue whales for us to train our lenses on. As the gentle behemoths floated by and every now and then expelled a stream of water and vapor from their blowholes, as they playfully lifted their tail flukes into the air, we were throwing our optical spears at them, humoring our suppressed whaling fantasies in a flurry of clicking activity whose vehemence would put the Oscar's night to shame.

I guess we all harbor our inner captain Ahab in that thick and barely penetrable underbrush which the human psyche really is, regardless of sex, race, religion, tax bracket or baseball affiliation. Most of the time, he is snoozing there in benign dormancy, tucked in under one of our cerebral lobes, but the moment he catches a whiff of that salty sea air - look out! - Pequod's deck is but a thought away.

That kind of makes me wonder who else resides at the murky bottom of my soul: "Excuse me, Mr. Hamlet, are you down there?"

Mariposa Grove

How do we know that history actually happened?

Well, we don't, of course, but its plausibility is greatly enhanced if we run into contemporaries.

My grandfather lived to be 90 years old, so he told me a fair share of authentic stories going all the way back to 1930s and even earlier. He made history of the twentieth century appear very real and very personal although he did not participate in any major event. But he was flesh and bone proof that the past had indeed happened. The atrocities of the World War II, for instance, would seem like a mere source for Hollywood war scripts without the contemporaries still living among us.

California is known for many things: cool surfers, cantankerous movie stars, cute burger joints, cozy vineyards, crisp coastline - there is something for everyone. My favorite signature item is its Giant Sequoia tree - of which there are numerous groves scattered throughout the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

You can't overlook them. They are titans in every sense of the word. Their boughs and limbs are vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven's hairdo, while their furrowed bark is as rugged and unpolished as some of his harmonies. With diameters of 15-20 meters at the base, they lead you straight into a tree hugger's paradise. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the voluminous Greenpeace handbooks boasted that one fully grown specimen of this extraordinary tree can single-branchedly satisfy all the hugging needs of a busload of single environmental activists.

But Sequoias are also doyens of the arboreal realm. The breathing memory of the Earth's biosphere. Viewed from a distance, their arched tree tops look like woolen parachutes descending on a geological battlefield. With some veterans over 3500 years old, they have been contemporaries of Alexander the Great, Caesar, Genghiz Khan and all the warriors of the modern era.

We are supposed to show respect for our elders. In case of Sequoias, it goes way beyond respect. It is humbling to stand face to bark with a fellow carbon based life-form that grew up during founding years of the Roman empire, saw it reach its apex few centuries later and while still in early stages of its development, witnessed the sprawling Empire fall into inevitable ruins. Somewhere in its tree rings, there may still be traces of the ashes of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii some 2000 years ago. That is something that makes you take your hat down.

And bow your head.


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