Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolve II

Last New Year's I was naked in the Mojave. Well, for brief intervals, anyway, topping of a five-or six year streak of being in somewhat random places as the ball dropped. This is my third New Year's in California, and I'm spending it in Santa Cruz for the second time.

I'm of two minds about this--I want to travel more in 2010, and went farther than seventy-five miles from my house...maybe four times in 2009. That trip to the desert, my brother's wedding, and maybe two trips to San Francisco. So obviously I was a bit of a homebody.

But at the same time this year has definitely been the year I carved myself a home out of Santa Cruz--domestically my life is a lot less cluttered and a lot more ecstatic--so why would I have gone anywhere when I was building this? Still, there's so much left to see, and I have to make at least some of it a priority.

So part of me is sad that I don't get to go anywhere, but part of me wants a quiet New Year's in the town that is now my home.



I had planned on using this space to talk about resolutions, but I'm at the sort of stage in a new venture or two (and some old ones) where it almost seems profane to discuss them. Nevertheless, the semester break lasting until the 26th and my housemates all being gone for a while has lent itself to a certain amount of reflection, and a certain seeking of discipline.

I am making deals for productivity, happiness, and fitness, and concessions to rest and time off. What else do people do?

(oh fine for some reason I've battened onto this list of books to read. Maybe in 2010, maybe over a longer period. I'm already pleased to have found Malamud's short stories, having only read "The Natural." Very very much like a Fuks who had gotten out of Europe before the sorts of horrible things Fuks wrote about.

OK, so not really like Fuks at all, but sort of an alternate-universe one in some strange way. But when I'm typing I'm not reading, so I'll to that.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Tale of Barbara of Mníšek (II/II)

     Sixty years later she took lively interest in whether Franz Josef was going to marry Elisabeth, and asked every person who went through the woods about it. "She'll be unlucky with him," she claimed, "she should stay in Bavaria; pretty dresses aren't everything. I'd rather walk in these," and she pointed at her own clothes, which were already quite shabby and tattered, even having patches in places, for it had been eighty years since the time she had died. Once, when she met the forester of the time and told him about young Elisabeth's misfortune, the forester, perhaps from allegiance to his lord and employer, dared to express doubts, and at that she supposedly smiled and said: "Just so you know, young man, today your cows won't yield anything," and quickly disappeared into her cairn, and truly that day the forester's cows did not even produce a liter of milk and the forester decided: "Better not to argue with her and anger her." When, almost fifty years later, Elisabeth was assassinated, she was still walking about in her veil, and saying: "My words have come to pass; she should have stayed in Bavaria. She shouldn't have gotten on a boat or had her twenty-five year old son...” She feared the Prussians, and even hated them when they invaded the country; she said that no such thing would have been possible under Maria Theresa.

     When Kaiser Franz Josef died and the world war ended, Barbara of Mníšek sat by the stream and pondered what was next. According to some she was supposedly quite angry that everything was over and failed and she said that it would never have happened so under Maria Theresa; according to others she merely pointed at her clothes, which were even more rotten and tattered, but that she wished for a republic. She stopped travelers much more frequently than before, especially at twilight, and asked about what was going on in the world, for news of the world, and how the money was holding out. When anyone told her that there were carriages without horses going along the highways, and others along rails that were similar, but much longer and shrieking with steam, she would shake her head and say that no such things were possible under Maria Theresa. She would sometimes hear rumbles and roars over the forest, which seemed to be getting more frequent and more terrifying in recent years, and she would ask people what sort of huge birds they were; those had not existed, as far as she could recall, under Maria Theresa at all. "Those are aeroplanes, which fly under their own power," someone particularly daring told her, and she just shook her head and sighed. In recent years people in and around the village claimed that Barbara of Mníšek went through the woods with something strange on her shoulder, some sort of stick or rifle, basket or something, and that her skirts were so shabby after a hundred and seventy years that they were almost disintegrating...

     But after the second world war her cairn collapsed in the woods outside of Mníšek. In its place today there are only a few stones overgrown with moss, wild brambles and raspberries. Barbara has lost her grave. Still, though, poor Barbara of Mníšek was quite the prophet. Birds now come to rest on the wreckage of her cairn and feed themselves from the wild bushes.

     God only knows if she still appears to anyone in the ravaged forests today...



Elisabeth of Bavaria. Her assassination is a sad tale of how extremely tight corsets can keep you from realizing you've been stabbed in the heart.

The Tale of Barbara of Mníšek (I/II)

     In the game reserve behind the valley which leads the stream, there is a glade in one spot and in it a stone cairn overgrown with dark moss--a grave in the forest. The mossy initials B v M, which stand for Barbara of Mníšek, are carved in one stone, and a date of 1770. It is said that back then, when there was no glade but just the deep and thick forest, that this was where the eighty year-old Barbara of Mníšek died, she who was a friend of the Empress Maria Theresa, as she was walking with a stick or a gun. Barbara loved the forests to her last moment and spent her afternoons in them. The chronicler tells us that Barbara of Mníšek died that year in a castle in a soft bed, because her legs had become paralyzed and she was only buried in the forest under a cairn because she loved the woods and had left instructions to that effect in her will. But the circumstance that the chronicler scarcely mentioned, but the people of these days heard from their ancestors (which their ancestors had told them) and which has remained in the knowledge of the village down to the present day: that the tale of Barbara of Mníšek's death was fraudulent. Barbara of Mníšek had been buried alive under her cairn as a punishment, since one of her ancestors had a hand in the assassination of Count Waldstein, and that mistake had terrible consequences for the whole forest and mainly for the people who went walking in the reserve.

     Storms used to come up in the woods even when the day was clear and cloudless all around, and something wildly flew among the trees, whistling and moaning and following and frightening wayfarers. But when Maria Theresa died ten years later and her son Josef II. took the throne, a man of letters was said to have appeared in the village, perhaps the teacher from the newly-founded one-room schoolhouse, who had heard enough of these terrors in the woods and said that he would stop it. One day he set out for the cairn. What he did there no one knew, but the next day he proclaimed in the village that Barbara of Mníšek's haunting was at an end. That she had been sent from this world once and for all, and that no one should believe in her or think of her any more. And they say it was true that the strange storms in the reserve ceased, at least those when elsewhere it was clear, the normal kind remaining, and the terrifying flights and whistling ceased as well; all was quiet. Nevertheless, people in the village soon began to miss Barbara of Mníšek and, almost as if they could not say goodbye to their ghost, they began to claim that Barbara of Mníšek was only calmer, but that she still existed in unspoiled nature, and they especially made that claim once the man of letters was gone, half-chased out of the village, since he bothered the people about the scholarly progress of their children and interrupted the field work.

     Barbara of Mníšek then came out of her cairn on peaceful strolls throughout the forest, and stopped the forest creatures, talking with them about various things, such as edicts of tolerance and the fact that Maria Theresa was dead and that her son would soon spend all the money which she had wisely saved during her reign in the state's coffers, and that he was even abolishing seminaries and monasteries. Some of the stags tossed their antlers and said it was the end; but the deer, as a rule, only smiled and spoke their own minds. That Josef would not rule for long. Barbara nodded her head and said "I think so too, I think so too," and proclaimed under her breath that she would cause it as well. "All these novelties that are going on now would not have been possible under the Empress," she would say bitterly, "the Empress used to usher in the new and abolish the old, but the nonsense he's doing, (by whom she meant Josef) she would not have done." Ten years later Josef died and soon the works of his reign went to nought, and then Barbara said: "So you see what I can do ," and disappeared, satisfied, back into her cairn. She predicted short reigns for his successor. When his successor died in two years, she again told people whom she met: "So you see what I am capable of," again disappeared in satisfaction into her cairn, and a frost passed over the backs of the people. When they executed the daughter of the dead Empress in France, she went about in a black veil and prophesied the end of the world.


Random Fuks; I just translated this today. Once again, double your money back if you've ever read this before. It's...sort of usual for him, at least sort of usual for the Fuks who's not writing about Holocaust-era Czechoslovakia.

Poor (textually-un-named)Leopold II.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter Hexagon

I really should have started with this one if I'd been planning this in any form, since the asterism known as the Winter Hexagon (or, alternately, the Winter Circle, I believe) is the key to the late-fall to early-spring skies.

Fortunately for the part of me that's lazy, the Winter Hexagon is relatively well-known, so people with much better production values throw together jpeg overlays.

I like this site this site Betelgeuse's misspelling aside. (And Saturn's not there at the moment either.

Southern skies in the evening. It's too big to be taken in at once--when Sirius is low in the sky, Capella will be reasonably overhead. Once you get the knack of it, you can start using it to locate some of the smaller constellations in the winter sky! Like those ones I already mentioned! Plus, it's got seven of the twenty brightest stars in the sky, so it sticks out a lot better than Lepus' ears.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

One Step Back, One Constellation Forward

What, then, if I have dug too greedily, and too deep towards the southern celestial pole? Why don't we back it up a bit. If I intend to show something more familiar, we'd better get out of constellations you can't see north of Las Vegas or Spain?

Plus I just sort of assume the location of Columba is a given to get one of those kites I keep babbling on about, and that seems unwarranted.

We'll need two reference points, one derived from the other. Orion, and from it, Sirius.

Here we see the constellation at the feet of Orion, nestled right up there underneath Rigel and Saiph, whose existence I had never been able to puzzle out until sometime this fall when I realized that OMG THERE'S A FLUFFY BUNNY THERE. This is Lepus. (wait, let me try that again. Lepus. No, wait, this Lepus, the hare, filling in the spot between the hopefully-familiar (Orion) and the Andrew's-personal-system (I drew a carrot! I see kites in the sky!)

Another picture without all the invisible and therefore meaningless in the field constellation boundaries and all the other lines drawn in is:

Both pictures have their pros and cons. This latter is more uncluttered (look, room for an eye!) but shows way too many little stars that won't ever show up under normal non-magnified viewing conditions. Once you pick up on the shape of Lepus (and I hope you do, it's not as random as this second picture makes it seem) it's hard to un-see.

The second picture also shows its proximity to Sirius, while the first relates it to Columba the dove below it. Now that I look closer, I realize I'm an idiot, and in my haste to make a Srsly joke, I ignored the fact that Sirius is not off-screen in the first pic, but is in fact the bright star below the clever text. Sigh.

Lepus peaks in January and February in the southern sky, about midnight now, but around ten at the end of January and eight at the end of February.

Photos "borrowed" from here and here. I uglied 'em up real good, though.


I've downloaded a paint program, Seashore for OSX, so now I can make lolcat macros about Czech translation some crude star charts indicating the paths I use to navigate the night sky!

So in a nutshell starting out at Sirius and knowing roughly where Columba is, we can construct those two kite shapes, the one of which centered on Columba points down towards Canopus. As earlier stated, you can't try this if you're above Latitude 37°18' north, and that's a theoretical maximum. If only I had readers. *shrugs*

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

Pursuant to the last post, Canopus' window of technical visibility has been creeping earlier and earlier. I chased it again today, setting out as the time crept towards midnight.

The skies were right, and as I walked down Almar towards West Cliff I knew that if I stayed up on the cliffs itself I'd be subject to light pollution from houses on three sides.

I knew a spot, however.

That's me on Christmas Eve of 2007, in a pair of shoes that have been worn out and tossed, a pair of jeans now raggedy, a bag lost in New Orleans in August of 2008, a shirt I don't even know what happened to, and a hat that soldiers on. My feet are in the same place I parked myself tonight, the sea-fig on either side blocking out the light to my sides, as I stared out at Orion and Canis Major and worked my way towards the horizon.

Binocular work is as physical as it is mental; once I'm situated, I'm not sure if the moves I make are grounded in a knowledge of the stars themselves or the knowledge of how far to increment my arms to get me to something I want to see.

The bright star at top left is Sirius; if you see the stars like I do, you can see a diamond shape with the "feet" of the constellation Sirius is in and a star in the constellation below it. In the "eastern" quadrant of the picture is Columba, the dove. See the descending line pointing down from the triangle of stars that forms the head, forming another kite-like shape? Follow that line, adjust a bit to the left...that's Canopus at the bottom. You can trace another line (not in green) back up to that diamond shape I mentioned.

No matter how clear it is, it's always foggy right off the horizon, just west of Carmel Point across the bay. Still, after a quarter hour, I could make out a bright star in the right spot, the same spot as last time. Second-brightest star in the sky, Sol aside. 22.5 miles farther south, and Canopus never breaks the horizon, and I get it twice in a month? I spotted it maybe a degree above the horizon, and, to add the cherry to my Christmas cake, I swear I caught an averted glimpse of it with the naked eye as I stowed my binoculars and headed up the stairs.

Merry Christmas to all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Can it be?

CHDKable camera, tripod en route from Vermont (early Christmas presents). I believe I have spotted Canopus nineteen minutes of latitude (22.5 miles) south of where it is impossible to see. Monterey Peninsula stops in time, and the fog held off for at least the forty miles across the bay to allow me to make it out--I used beta and eta Columbae as pointers.

If I can figure out the weather and the mechanics (should be in the same position four minutes earlier every night) I might even get a picture. I wouldn't hold my breath, but I am fairly elated for three in the morning.

(Just watch me find out tomorrow it was a boat or something. Seemed too steady for that; I got a good fifteen minutes of observing in.)

[Edit: I was going to teach myself how to calculate star transit times, but Wolfram Alpha seems to know how to do that. What I saw was in the right portion of the sky at the right time...]

Saturday, November 21, 2009


The stars you can see at night depend on the time of year and the time of night, of course, but also on your latitude. Burlington's at about 44°28' north, about halfway between the equator and the North pole. As you go south, you can see things closer and closer to the south celestial pole, within certain defineable limits.

Santa Cruz is at 36°59'--I'd been able to figure out it's farther south than what I was used to but I hadn't known the details until this morning.

Canopus, the second-brightest star in the north sky is theoretically visible from lat. 37°18', The existence of Monterey and the hills behind this probably wash it out, or did last night--I figured out I could get painfully close. I guess I should check out other locales (up the coast) which leave the south view as free as possible and check on some celestial mechanics.

On the plus side, I've never gotten better views of Canis Major, and I've been figuring out some of the smaller constellations around it. (Lepus and Columba last night).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

105 words, 11/15/09

The sun is low in the horizon blasting directly onto the eleven maples lining Gault Elementary: one block of peak foliage in the middle of November thousands of miles from (and a month later than) my formative autumns.

As I round the corner and my chin swivels up, my jaws close in astonishment, clicking together as if to grip this scene in my teeth, as though I am (it occurs to me) an expectant dog, trying to grasp the situation that has presented itself beyond my nose.

I keep a leaf to burn in meager re-enactment. Should I rend it with my teeth first?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


     You cannot yet say that the year is ending; there is a lot of life yet outside in the fields and meadows; the goats and cows are grazing hurriedly before they are locked away in the barn to impersonate the manger in Bethlehem; the white campion are still blooming, the Virgin Mary's tears, the ragwort still glitters of gold, and the cinquefoil is still of a mind to flower. As far as the ground is concerned, that is all prepared; it is all turned, plowed, and softened, and now takes in moisture and air, scents and aeration, sighing and disappearing into the loose topsoil. The morel still drips in the woods, the golden chanterelles slowly dry, white mushrooms draw unnameable fairy rings on the forest floor, and there are flushed old men everywhere hewing wood, collecting it, and tossing the fragrant firewood onto carts. Surprisingly, there are even more animals than during the summer; clusters of partridges whirr out of every furrow, the hare weaves through the woods, the wings of the grouse beat heavily, and the white tails of the deer gleam in forest clearings. So, as I have said, there is still enough life to it, but sooner than anyone expects it is gloomy twilight, lights glittering here and there, and an unaccustomed orphanhood settles over the world; a wagonload slowly scrapes towards the village and a lone man heads somewhere rapidly and silently, his hands in his pockets. The year is not ending, but the days are.


     It is a futile splendor; autumn is dark, but even so it is still well-outfitted. Were that not the case, the last colors of autumn could not blaze so pathetically; the crimson of the dogrose, and the rich red of the bunchberries, and the scarlet of the tops of the cherry trees, the dark yellow of the larch and the firm golden color of the fallen chestnut trees (look, the dark brown of the chestnuts themselves are peeking out from their ruptured cases). And without the darkness, the proper and most glorious light of autumn would not shine out so strongly; the light in the windows at home.

     It is said that nature lays itself down to sleep in the autumn. This nears the truth, but it lays itself down to sleep the way we do, dragging its feet, undressing itself with lackadaisical enjoyment, still of a mind to talk about what happened today and what will happen tomorrow, and before it falls asleep, it intermingles memories of time gone by with plans for the coming day. The summer foliage has not yet fallen, and the hard heads of next spring's buds already stud the twigs and branches. And now we can go to sleep, for even sleep is forward motion.


     Through all of this, I have saved for the last the true annual breakthrough of autumn. It is the discovery of one's own down blankets. It is the annual return to bed. You never sleep more gratefully and toss and turn less than when the days are short. All poets laud things, but I don't know if any one them would sing the praises of an ordinary warm bed instead of the bust and heavenly phenomena. Enough already has been written about dreams, but who as yet described the smooth comfort of the pillow and the faithful cupped hand of the groove underneath us as we sleep? Let us therefore add praise of human bedding to the praises of autumn, whether it be good for the sleeper, gentle for the infirm or strengthening for the weary; and may the hare find a good oven, the stag a dry hollow, and the sparrow a good nest under the eaves, amen.



Tuesday, November 03, 2009


     These are still golden and cerulean days, for there is nothing more golden than the November sun. But November's true hour is not in the break of day swathed in food or even the golden noon, but at twilight. Twilight, redolent of potato tops, the cool gloom which reaches out coldly for you, the thieving darkness, flickering with the light of someone's far-off fire. Homewards, homewards! How pretty are the walls, the lamp, the armchair and the books! You only really notice the glory and perfection of human dwellings in these long hours of darkness--how they glow! 1


     But there are such short days; another of autumn's gifts. The darkness comes on so quickly that you don't even notice it at first, and then you are already planted in it as in some dampening, thick matter, in which everything slows down, even time itself. People even start to live and speak more slowly; they do not think about exploiting advantages, pulling off any quick schemes or getting up to things behind anyone's back. They rest as though fettered, and the things they say to each other are somehow more private and softer than those they speak under the influence of the sun. I think that even if murderers and traitors were inside like this that they would be similarly enlightened. Devilish notions are just the sort that come up if people withdraw from the light into darkness to conceal themselves. But this darkness is not a mask behind which anyone can hide, but like a moss which grows over him. It is, if I may say so, the moss of timelessness, for timelessness is dark. It is for just this reason that people talk about serious and private matters at times like these. I think that the council of ministers should keep hours from time to time; they should assemble in the growing dark, lit only by the burning tips of a few cigars. One minister after the other would fall into a quiet melancholy. "Boys," the prime minister might softly say, "I've had it up to here with this politicking. You know, if we stopped lying once in a while and just said what we really wanted..." "Yes indeed," someone else might sigh, "I sometimes feel like governing is a hell of a responsibility. It weighs a person down. If only it just...worked without all these machinations and contrivances...if only people were more transparent..."

     "I think so too!" a third would say.

     "What we could accomplish if we all believed in each other!"

     "Yeah," a fifth would say, "but politics is such rubbish. If we just only thought more about our huge responsibility and less about politics..."

     "So," the prime minister would ask, "can I turn on the lights yet?"
"Not yet--we're doing such a good job!"



     It can truly drive a man crazy when a coal cart goes rattling down the street. Nothing clangs and rattles so terribly as coal; perhaps they have made it out of some sort of especially resonant wood, like primitive drums.2 Half of our municipal psychoses must certainly have their origin in a rattling coal cart. The pedestrian regards the coachman with a murderous hate without the slightest bit of effect, and the two stiffs up above jouncing along on the pile of coal, and looks to escape this clanking beast either ahead of it or behind it or around the corner (of course in vain), for wherever he may turn, he finds himself in the active radius of at least one coal cart with its coachman and helpers.
     This wild hatred of the city dweller vanishes in a trice, however, when he comes upon a coal wagon in the winter. Then and only then does it seem to rattle triumphantly, and clang righteously, boasting of its fully-laden nature--even the shovelers leap about somehow solemnly, as though the crushing din exhilarated them. And then the cart stands before your gates, the horses stuff their noses into the bags of oats, and exhale deeply, the two stiffs climb down and set up their lunch pails on the softened sacking, and the coachman spits magisterially and unloads coal with a wide, ringing shovel, and the coal is already rattling and drumming down into the cellar, the coal dust rising as though from a mine, and thank goodness is there ever a lot of it, that will do for me until spring, and that is coal for you, sir, black and shiny as pitch.
     But if you went out tomorrow and saw one on the street, you stare at that rattling coal cart with murderous hate; you'd flee before it, seething and spitting, that people suffered such a clangor on the streets! They should just ban them and be done with it!



1The Czech word for "they glow," září, is the same for the month of September, and etymologically created. It is my assumption that the coincidence is intentional. (Czech months are based on old Slavic etyma instead of being borrowings of the Roman months)
2 Čapek has an adjective here which is probably directly translated as "Negro (drums);" I'm cautious enough to bowdlerize it a bit but literalist enough to need to footnote it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

October, or On Animals

     Every season has its signals, on earth as well as in the heavens. Certainly the bird is a harbinger of spring, or indeed anything that flies; Cupid himself is winged in the spring, and all of the animals that bring in spring have wings, whether they are larks, swallows, butterflies, or, as stated, Love itself. Summer is the season of the elements, the sun, wind, water and earth, and therefore pertains to elemental beings, such as nymphs and rusalkas and vodníks and he bird of fire and the Noon Witch and the Wild Girl, ethereal, bare, nude creatures which cannot be conceived of in inclement or bad weather. And finally autumn shows itself in thickly-pelted beasts, covered in sorrel coats or those of chestnut brown, like the autumn leaves, like every ripened thing of autumn; it is the time of stags, fawns, boars, and foxes, the time when the men stop scaring the girls and start hunting hairy beasts instead. All Souls' Day signifies the mark which reminds us that the year is moving into a time focused on the home and hearth; like the souls of the departed, the imps of the home, pig-sticking, fire crackling, and books.

     I have never shot an animal as long as I have lived, but whenever I meet a squirrel in the October woods, or a fox or a stag and fawns, I have the feeling that I have somehow stepped into another world, into their world, for October involves them more secretly than any other time of the age. In summer coming across a buck is like coming across a pretty girl; may God keep you, girl, you needn't fear me. But coming across a deer in autumn is like coming upon a god or something altogether ancient; you hold your breath and stand still so as not to commit sacrilege; you are ashamed to give your astonishment its true name, which is reverence.


     I tell you, every stag is something like the stag of St. Hubert, when its stands, head raised, crowned with a massive and shaggy cloud of antlers, ears pricked up, frozen in noble watchfulness, it is as if there actually were something like a cross glowing atop its head. Yes, if I were a holy Christian man, I would certainly see a glowing cross there as well, but since I am a confused man of little faith, I see no cross, but some sort of large and unclear sign. O hunter, do not aim at the buck's forehead, for that would be a sin, aim for the heart instead, and fire, your heart constricted with horror and passion. Do not disturb the crown on that animal's head and do not break the symbol off its forehead; and when you hang those antlers on the wall, do it like a conqueror placing he stolen crown of a vanquished king into safekeeping. For even a stolen crown is an subject worthy of its own reverence.


     This did not happen to me, for my vocation can be described as being somewhat more puerile and uncertain--but there was this solid, firm man, keen as a knife and hard as stone, I tell you, there are few molded from such clay as this. So right in front of him in an October glade there appeared twenty, fifty, a hundred of the lightest and unhurried deer, with royally-antlered stags on guard; and there that man held his breath and almost trembled in awe or reverence and whispered that it was something out of a myth, something out of the past; he stood there so long and then left so quietly, more quietly than he would ever have trodden in a chapel or any holy place; and a good hour after this apparition he spoke in hushed tones like never before. I bear witness to you, that beasts in October have carry some great and godly secret with them.


     It is perhaps because of this that hunters, when they return from waiting, speak in exceptionally loud and boisterous tones, to shake off that strange and silencing magic. "Here's what happened," one cries at full volume. "A deer approached me, a hundred and fifty paces off; I watched it for an hour and I couldn't get a shot. God, boys, you should have seen it!" "And I had one for half an hour; right when I got to the spot it was right across the glade." "I had mine in the heart from seventy paces, but that's not much of a shot. What a time we had today. God, I wish I'd gotten the buck I saw yesterday!"

     Yes, for the most beautiful deer are always the ones that got away. Obviously St. Hubert saw his most beautiful buck, the one with the cross, from a hundred and eighty paces; know that otherwise he would have certainly bagged it and the burning cross on its forehead. Right in the heart.



[Seasonally appropriate. Outstanding. I had to skip about thirty/forty pages what with the months of inactivity, but I've gotten back on track. This thumb injury's been good for footnotes today, St. Hubert and the rusalka can be found on Wikipedia, I'm sure.]

Friday, October 30, 2009

Golden Land

     It is gold, red, violet, green. Again, it is golden, purple, blue and brown like brown ocher, sienna or sepia, the red of cinnabar, carmine, Venetian or Puzzuoli red, sulfur yellow, chromium yellow, Indian yellow, terracotta, mottled greenish-blue, yellowish green, blue, dark purple. Take a train through the woods of the Carpathians and stare like a madman at what October can do. When the sun is shining on it, the whole poplar burns like a yellow flame, the beeches spout their narrow orange flames into the sky; I don't know which plant burns the red of the forge. Gold, red, violet, green. Sacred, sacred, sacred! Our Father, who art in heaven--it is beautiful.
    It is sentimental, but I cannot help it; if one looks at nature in its sacred moments, the the other events seem suppressed and muted. The bureaucracy certainly does not look as nice as walnut leaves. When a government falls, it doesn't make the same sound as a chestnut falling out of a tree and plonk! its little eye peeks out from its green casing. And currency values do not fall as elegiacally and majestically as the beautiful golden foliage. Gold, brown, orange, red.
    Bless me, O beautiful fervor of old things. Face to face with nature like this, sir, and it awakens it you unusually conservative feelings (and do not try to deny it). May the durability of old things and pragmatic advice be praised. May what is not epochal and groundbreaking in humanity be praised, what is not yesterday's or tomorrow's, but what is eternal and unchanging. Namely: youth and maturity, rest, love, a good table, religion, heroism, sleep, and other old and wise matters. My handwriting cannot compete with you, O burning groves, but face to face with you I am content with my few gray hairs, my fatigue, and my strength. For everything is in order, as it has been for ages. Gold and green, white and black.
    And I will tell you, what it especially pretty now in October are the villages. They are bundled up in their golden and red apples, yellow lindens and chestnuts in a gentle and almost playful way. Red and gray roofs, and overhead some wise smoke. God, how grandly, how thoroughly the year proceeds in such a village! How firmly and sacredly each season nestles in here! Here with us in the cities a person scarcely realizes that things are transpiring, that things are changing. Spring and summer, autumn and all, they take on and put off an overcoat, put the umbrella in the corner, and take out their gloves. That is all. We have not stopped time, but we have concealed its tracks somewhat. We age, but without rhythm. Another year of life gone, but there were no four seasons; there was just the one year.
    Gold, red, cerulean, brown. Dried leaves. The enormous extravagance of nature, which shaped, crenelated, corrugated, and furrowed each of those beautiful leaves, and now it casts them off, crumbles them, and pulps them down. Then it begins to shape them, scallop them and furrow them all over again. That is as it should be. It's good when it is as it should be. Green, gold, and red. Dried leaves.
    There are still golden and violet flowers at the periphery, still tender and trembling honey mushrooms smelling sweetly in the damp clay, and the last apple still shines red on the branch. Lord, when I get old, when I really get old, give me the tenacity of flowers and fruit. Give me golden and violet blossoms, until I bloom in quiet and bright stars; grant that I bear solidly firm and red apples which will last through the winter. And when there is a new generation of growth, when the cherries are all eaten, when we've gotten to the last apples, they do wither, but they will await a new age, tough and dark. Let me once raise a few tough red apple trees that will survive to next summer, amen.
    Gold, red, broken brown. Lord, thank you for the beautiful course of the year.



[No one can say the man's not aggressively sentimental. Nevertheless, there's a niceness here. Perhaps it's a bit close to "Topsoil" in content, but these were originally published eleven years apart instead of two days.]

Thursday, October 29, 2009


     Humanity is never quite in step with nature. We think that the leaves fall and that is the end of it, with nothing but bare branches left over. But when we look at things over the course of time (several decades will suffice) we see what is left over on those bare twigs; what they have for character and personality. If we just start with the bark, which is purplish-read on the bunchberry, green on the broom, yellow on the willow, white on the birch, silver-gray on the beech, and on top of that we have brown, cinnamon, ocher, black, smooth, taut, shining, rugose, furrowed, scaly, sticky, peeling--every branch gives away what has grown on it, each has the character of the whole tree or bush. And that is not even mentioning the brachiation and the structure of the crown--the dictionary does not suffice to find us expressions for each growth pattern and composition of the branching. There ares forked branches and perpendicular ones and crooked ones and tenaciously thorny ones, firmly and tortuously affixed to larger branches, others lightly and fluidly sticking up as though teased out with a comb, or others shooting straight up into the sky, others spreading, others hanging down, stretched out, whip-thin or luxuriously thick, muscular or emaciated like a skeleton or resembling long locks of hair, flexible and fleshy, or hard and dry like dead wood. Every shrub and every tree does it differently, according to its cultivar and species, so even when the leaves fall we can still in due course regard the full and unceasing multiplicity of nature, and best of all when the frost comes.

     And I haven't even mentioned the roots, of which there is an amazing and peculiar distinctions in color and growth, what sort of hirsuteness, woodiness, offshoots and expanse; one cannot overvalue them enough and perhaps even the Creator looks upon them with favor and praises them, saying what a beautiful cluster of roots has this tree or that bush has. What a beautiful subterranean country there is.

     We look at this all in a very human way, which is to say fallibly, when we say that nature dies back in resignation, and similar nonsense. First of all, nature does fairly well for itself, because in the simple majority of cases it does not die at all, and second of all it does not give itself up to any such sentimental weakness as resignation. On the contrary, there is something resolute and active in it, as though its opinion was: Enough talk, we must prepare for this and mobilize all of or strengths to defend ourselves! It will not happen without sacrifice, we must give up all of our foliage, tighten our belts transforming ourselves, and stash our sugars, starches, and other chemical necessities into our roots. Let's go, let's go, whining and moaning will not help us at all, it could come upon us at any second, and it must find us with matured and capable wood to survive this, but also capable of blossoming and flowering when this damned winter passes us by. We've got to make hay while the sun shines, that is our motto.

     As you can see, if we describe something as autumnal, there is no resignation in it, but rather a stout exhortation.

     And one night a harsh and sudden gray frost falls. The bare branches suddenly gleam with an unaccustomed and beautiful clarity, which we have not yet noticed; how everything is at once frozen, severe, and austere, so much so that it is a wonder the do not ring out like iron bars or rails. Everything is prepared; each one of those bare, hard branches is an armored line protecting the life behind it. We call them bare branches, and meanwhile it is vegetation in a coat of armor.



(d64 gave me fifty-five lines to do today, and this piece was fifty-four. A decent coincidence.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


     It would be a beautiful thing if there were a map that faithfully captured the natural colors of our country. There would naturally have to be the dark green of the pines, the deep color of the spruce, and the light green blurriness of the leafy forest; but the soil would contribute most of the color as we see it now in autumn, freshly overturned, still unweathered, unbleached by frost and dryness. Such a map would of course largely correspond with a geological map, but it would not be so erudite and would serve to delight the eyes, for it would be beautifully colored and richly tinted like a work of art, which freely mixes all these clays on its palette, reliable colors that do not run.

     There is an orderly progression of colors from white sand to the thick black of the richest earth. Some places have whitish topsoil or a lightish gray, there are soils colored like milk chocolate, as if they were powdered or bleached dry, almost bluish, or like milk dripped slowly into coffee. Then there are yellowish clays with various hues of ochre and rust, blond and yellow soils, ruddy earth with streaks of Naples yellow or Indian yellow or burnt umber. The browns of course would have the widest range of colors, from the lightest straw to the darkest, richest sepia, from the sharpest tints to the rich reddish (almost chocolate-colored) hues, coffee brown, chestnut brown, the brown of burnt clay or the tanned brown of bread crusts, the dry and pale brown of shallow and stony topsoil, or the plump and juicy brown of loess or alluvial deposits. And finally scarlet earth, the reds from the color of rust to that rich red which toys with the violet, siennas of all intensity, the color of bricks burned in the oven, red edges or strata seemingly painted with blood or vermillion, as if burning with the color of the setting sun. Each region in turn, or even each village in turn has its own dominant color and its own shade of soil, and now that the harvest is brought in, the full map of cultivated land speaks directly to us.

     And think of everything that's been put into it: lime and heaps of black manure and ashes and powders; it is interesting that hundreds and hundreds of years of work cannot overpower or weaken the inborn color of the land. Humans have fertilized and overturned that thin little strip of topsoil for hundreds of years, covering it year after year with cultural accretions of labor, but a deep brown area stays deep brown and the yellow country stays yellow; the land will not permit itself to be re-colored; the ages cannot carry off its tongue, its hues. It cannot be done with the tractor or the spade, after light-colored wheat or dark-colored potatoes it resounds brown or yellow depending on its original shade. The ground is nowhere uniform; nations and cultures can bestride it and mix on it, but that which they tramp on cannot be taken away or intermingled on horseback. Perhaps that is why we like to talk about our native land; we want a piece of its constancy. Look about you, sir, what a solid and anciently-colored piece of work our soil is; it will outlast us.

     When one talks about the colors of autumn, let us not forget the beautiful and warm colors of the topsoil hidden by the plow. Even there are we a land richly blessed, endowed with a coat of many colors; we are an impression, so to speak, of all different types of soil, and all of the different geological eras have operated to bring about this small piece of land. People with their own shades and colors come off rather poorly, probably because they just got here yesterday, in geological terms. It will be a while yet before people look at the colored map of nations and states with the same joy as at a map of the soil.


[I rolled a d64 (you can also call it the "I Ching") to determine how many lines I had to translate today, and got #64. Hmm. Alternate title: "Čapek gets a new box of crayons."]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Autumn or Planting

     Let's say that you have a little place among the meadows and forests, your cabin, bungalow, weekend place or whatever you call it; and around it you have a plot of land that you can call your own; or let's say that you don't have anything of that sort yet, but that you'd like to. In that case you should know that these autumn days are not the time in which the gentleman farmer stores things for hibernation, but it is quite the opposite. This is the time when the planter's blood is boiling, and only now does he begin to stick all sorts of bushes, saplings, trees, stems and bulbs into his staked-out plot. Spring is the time for flowers, while autumn is the season when the gardener deals with the pith of the matter and plants the future bushy crowns by way of digging holes in the ground and placing little bits of roots which one day will be a lush shrub or a hundred year-old tree; then he shovels the earth back on, tamps it down with his foot, and gives it a decent soaking. Then it becomes nature's turn to show what it can do.

    Yes, a currant here in the shadow of the wall, and a dark lilac over there; those lilacs always seem to go near pumps in the country. That'll be a whole row of lilacs, and it is impermissible to have their blue and purple clusters and not have the golden rain of broom and forsythia. Syringa, Laburnum, don't those names already sound like the peal of morning and evening bells? And you have to plant a sweet mock-orange over here for its sent on spring evenings, and the afternoon sun will sparkle off the white flowers of the Deutzia or the Spiraea; and nothing is more beautiful during a spring shower than the pink calyces of the Weigela, ardently and richly burning in the thick red foliage. Yes, we've got to have all of this, and maybe a Rosa rugosa and a vermillion flowering quince, and heather, yes, for what would life be without heather? That'll do for starters...

     But no, there's more than spring, after all; don't you want to have your beauty in summer and autumn as well? Just keep digging your holes, O gardener, you have to put a cotoneaster here and a barberry with its little red globules; here a little poison ivy will glow wonderfully in the autumn twilight, and a Tatar maple will look like the burning bush over here. Now we're getting somewhere; just dig on, gardener, to make sure there will be at least a little color for the winter, and make holes for the golden and coral-colored stalks of bunchberry, for the green stems of the Japanese yellow rose, and here, by the brook, for the lavender and golden stems of the willows. And you cannot do any more; the year is short and there are only four seasons in it.

     Wait, what's that weak little twig? Well, it's Prunus sachaliensis, a cherry from Sakhalin; and you had better find a big place for it, for this little twig will be a shrub thirty meters tall. And this tender little stalk, that's a Hisakura cherry, which will grow so big that you'd think you could sail along the sky on the rose-colored clouds of its blossoms, and this one over here will be a bird cherry as tall as a dome, a cherry from your childhood garden.

     And that's everything, isn't it? Well, praise be that the plot of land is now planted. The forests loom around dark and deep, the trunks of the white ash wave in the high distance, the golden crowns of the oaks are heavy and dense as granite in the autumn sun; but the gardener planting his saplings does not notice them at all; he looks at his staked-out plot, where a few thin sticks straggle up gauntly through the grass, and whispers to himself in profound and almost blessed satisfaction:

     "Well, it's not so empty here any more!"



[I love fall, or its nearest equivalent here. Skipped ahead thirty pages and am now re-situated chronologically. We'll see where this goes.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Trash Fiction Break!

I've been rebuilding the Cussler collection that I think has been twice disbanded. The fifty-cent paperback rack in the lobby of the library has been key. Only the Dirk Pitt adventure novels and the NUMA files novels are counted; he and his *ahem* co-authors are getting away from me with the Oregon Files and the Isaac Bell nonsense

The Dirk Pitt Canon:

(X) The Mediterranean Caper
(X) Iceberg
(X) Raise the Titanic!
(X) Vixen 03
(X) Night Probe!
(X) Pacific Vortex (2009! Finally! Also it's freaking terrible)
(X) Deep Six [I'd forgotten I'd read this]
(X) Cyclops [Ditto--though it involves a shootout on the moon!]
(X) Treasure
(X) Dragon
(X) Sahara
(X) Inca Gold
(X) Shock Wave
(X) Flood Tide
(X) Atlantis Found
(X) Valhalla Rising
(X) Trojan Odyssey
(X) Black Wind
(X) Treasure of Khan [Sure the Mongols stashed a bunch of stuff in Hawaii!]
( ) Arctic Drift

Kurt Austin adventures (with Paul Kemprecos)
(X) Serpent
( ) Blue Gold
(X) Fire Ice
( ) White Death
(X) Lost City [dastardly French arms magnates? Haven't we seen this before in Africa?]
(X) Polar Shift [Magnetic Polar Shift. Awesome]
( ) The Navigator
( ) Medusa

Maybe I've read Blue Gold or White Death? The other three have come out since I did this the last time, and everyone should know I'm not paying anywhere near full price for these babies.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A fragment

     Getting to the Faculty of Art from the dormitory by tram is a little complicated. A few clarifications: I am (technically) a trained linguist (degree and all, I’m afraid) and, as I assume most people to be, somewhat obsessive-compulsive about particular things. Therefore, the perceptive reader (read: not blind) will be forewarned of the three following themes: (1) My exceeding height. (2) My love/lust for etymology, the compulsion I have to examine words for meaningful components. (3) In spite of (1) and fueled by (2), my love of the tram network of DPMB (Dopravní podnik města Brna, the Brno municipal transportation authority).

     Sure, it’s relatively easy, even at seven-thirty in the morning, with a few hours of sleep under your belt, to make your way down to the nearest No.1 stop. This is Výstaviště, the Exhibition Center, though “center” is perhaps not the best rendering. The word itself is immediately from výstava “exhibition,” and the suffix –iště “place, location.” Výstava is from the root /stav/, an old suffixed causative of the verb /sta/ “to stand”, prefixed with vy- “outwards/up,” with the prefix vowel lengthening in nominalization, a process I believe is peculiar to Czech and Slovak in the Slavic languages. The amusing thing (well, amusing to me) is that the suffix - iště is also originally a derivative of the verbal root /sta/, cognate to the Indo-Iranian suffix –stān “place of.” So, the whole thing is the set-up place, the made-to-stānd-up-place-of-standing, or, to torture the metaphor, the Upbuiltistān of southwest Brno.

     “Exhibition Center” it is then.

     However, that line one stop, with its eminently mineable name, is but the first step and the first tram line, unless you want to stay on the one and go to the main station or all the way to the other end of town and its hinted-at suburbs, in this case, Řečkovice. Even four, five, six months in, the end-points of any given line remain nebulous, hypothetical, existing only in electronic letters, and, more prosaically, on placards and maps. A single stop in the direction of Řečkovice gets us to Mendlovo náměstí ([Monk/geneticist Johan Gregor] Mendel Square.) Note the fairly common placename náměstí “square”—a long-i neuter noun originally from the prepositional phrase na městě “in the city” (there’s some funny initial vowel lengthening again) and also note the Czech possessive adjective suffix –ovo (neuter). At Mendlovo, Mendlák in the slang of the town, you must exit the one, cross the street, and pick up a five, six, or seven heading north and east, conjoined for the upcoming stretch of track. The three stops here: Nemocnice u Svaté Anny, (the hospital at/by St. Anne) Šilingrovo náměstí (should be parsable as Šilingr Square) and then down a street that used to be the walls around the old town to Česká (Czech [street]), the transport hub at the north end of the city center.

     From there, off the second tram line of the day, it’s about a three-block walk, if you remember where we were going in the first place, but the lazy step is to transfer one more time to the twelve or thirteen, up one step to Grohova (ulice “street” is implied, which is feminine, hence the feminine ending –ova); Groh Street. From there the faculty of Art is half a block away, and you can stagger to class, if you bothered going in the first place.


This is from a handwritten fragment from the winter of 2004-2005, probably written in my dorm room in Vinařská or at the Yellow Bar. It brought back some associations, although this whole process was already becoming obsolete when I started walking up the hill, not down, and either walking the whole way or just taking the bus (the 20? 21?) the back way. I've made some minor emendations, including the last sentence, which was an attempt to give a bit of closure to the whole thing. Its incompleteness aside, I thought I'd rescue it from its spot folded up inside some Slavic book on my shelf and see if it triggered anyone else's associations.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Few Droplets

     If it has been raining so much and continues to do so, I will add a few droplets to it. Besides, that might make it stop; if it only lasts five minutes I’ll set my writing down and go for a walk.


     I noticed years ago that during all the larger storms they always announce a disturbance or depression over Iceland. Beautiful weather has something to do with the Canary Islands, from where “regions of high pressure” trundle along as a rule, but rain and sleet and cold always come from Iceland; it is clearly the specialty there. No one ever announces a depression over Kardašova Řečice in Southern Bohemia or a region of low pressure over the district offices in Trutnov; it just goes to show you that even after the handover of power we remain dependent on foreigners, at least so far as the weather is concerned. As for Iceland, it must be a strange place, for (according to Otto’s Encyclopedia1) it is a land with “a coarse, cold, and damp climate,” but also a “comparatively mild” one; they suffer from tapeworms and asthma and in the past they banned love poetry by law2 which seems sensible enough; their main industries are sheep, fish, volcanic eruptions and rain.
     Of course it just started raining again.


     This year the harvest will be bad on account of the terrible rain; otherwise it would be bad on account of the prolonged drought. But prolonged drought is better for the farmers, because then we suffer from “catastrophic climactic threats” and especially “hail the size of pigeons’ eggs,” (the size of pigeons’ eggs only being referenced in this context) whose result is the forbearance of certain taxes and “speedy relief from the responsible agencies.” We didn’t hear anything this year about the size of pigeons’ eggs on account of all the bad weather; repeat it a hundred times and you will feel the sweltering heat, the piercing sun, the oppressive humidity of an incoming storm. The farmer carefully looks up at the sky, the chickens already having hidden themselves, and sees the booming heavens, the downpour beginning to splash and spray, and suddenly “hail the size of pigeons’ eggs” will ring down. But that has simply failed to happen this year.
     Besides, the sun just came out once more. I’m going outside for a bit.


     The summer solstice is a time when children from country schools take excursions to Prague. I met at least a dozen such excursions today at the very minimum. The children are all holding hands and not even looking to the right or to the left, as they have a horrible fear of getting lost; getting them across the street, for instance, is a very tricky maneuver indeed. These little country moppets are quite agitated, and the children do not let go of each others’ hands even at night (for the world is an evil place), and I haven’t even mentioned the country trousers yet; neither long or short, but the famous “trousers you’ll grow out of,” and the little girls pattering around like mice with supernaturally large umbrellas, and the teacher bringing up the rear with an umbrella and his overcoat over his arm, counting his charges at every corner. It is a wonder one female teacher did not burst into tears when she sat her group down in pairs by the National Theater and suddenly realized she had three girls too many. How it happened and what she did with them I have no idea. But nothing is more touching than when it is raining quite steadily and the bridge looks like it has been swept clean of people, and one of those children's crusades is straggling along it with soaked hair and dripping umbrellas and numb hands, just to see “the great city, whose fame…”
     God, it’s started raining again!


     "And the Lord sent rain down onto the earth. It rained unceasingly for six moths. The waters rose and inundated the earth forty cubits above the highest summits." That is the description of the flood in a variation of the Bible from Turkestan. The prophet Noah also built an ark in this version; but when all the animals were going on board in pairs, the devil caught the ass by the tail and held him. The ass stomped and brayed and would not go on. "Come on, come on, you devil," the prophet shouted at him. At that the devil dropped the ass' tail and dashed for the ark. "Wait," said the prophet, "who called you?" "You did," the devil replied. "You just said 'come on, come on, you devil,' and that is me, after all!" So Noah had to let the devil on the ark, and that's how the devil escaped the flood. Now you know why the flood--in light of the devilishness of the world--was completely unnecessary.

     There is a relevant detail to this story which the Bible has left out: that it really smelled in the ark, on account of all the filth from the animals. That angle on things surprised me and utterly convinced me. Noah even prayed to God about it. But the Allah of Turkestan, instead of creating the broom or the shovel, created the dung-beetle instead, which removed all of the filth in question. Since then God has left it among us, to get rid of the mud and all kinds of unclean things.

     It rains no more. I'm going out.



1 [Otto's Encyclopedia was the largest Czech-language encylopedia. Of course Čapek had access to a copy; I'm sure it was his Google/Wikipedia.]
2 According to this site, the Gray Goose Laws forbade, among other types, "poems praising a woman." In an era more conducive to blood feuds and blood money, I suppose this made sense. However, it also says such laws were frequently ignored, which also makes sense.]

Monday, August 17, 2009


I managed to post "Sunday" on a Monday, and I managed to post Pentecostal only two and a half months after actual Pentecost. (May 31st). Whoops; this is a little delayed, isn't it? I hope this isn't one of those projects that fall through the cracks; I seem to have a lot of those.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


     When I, a heedless child, was instructed in the highest secrets of the faith—namely the Holy Trinity—by Mr. Bret the catechist1, it was not at all strange to me that there were three personages of God; for me there I simply recognized three gods in heaven the way I recognized three gods on earth—the notary public, my father, and the chairman of the parish council, having chosen those three among other the others for their physical size. It was something else that bothered me: what exactly did the Holy Spirit do and what was its purpose? The business of God the Father was clear to me—the creation of the world is a tangible work, after all. God the Son was at least a man, and had once been a child, and I could color his clothes with the most beautiful red and blue colors in the Bible stories I had. I just didn’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit; I didn’t know what he looked like and I couldn’t define exactly what his function was; he seemed to me a little undervalued and occupied by internal affairs, without a defined and practical sphere of action. I maintain that everyone had the same problems with the Holy Ghost.

     Since that time I have not made much progress in matters of religious expertise, having instead been forced to turn to more humanistic concerns, and it is still a question of spirit which makes my head spin. For even we people know full well how to value material work and control over matter; we know how to love out hate human leaders, saviors, and the shapers of the church; but our stance on the mere soul which does not do this or that is uncertain, diffident. The human spirit concern our very faith in humanity, but does not have a defined sphere within it; we regard intelligence or education as some sort of honor or adornment, but not as a worthy goal or sense of living. Not long ago a survey of pedagogues resulted in a distaste for impractical education, which supposedly was poor preparation for a useful life. Yes, the spirit, which does not serve strictly practical needs, seems somehow useless and poorly regulated; we esteem it but we do not know what to do with it. It is the same with the Holy Spirit; it rules nowhere, but makes everywhere sacred. It cannot be measured by the results of its work; its sphere is everywhere.

     For that reason we should celebrate the human spirit at this year’s holidays, that tongue of flame and universal language; the spirit, which did not create this world and does not lead it, but sanctifies it; a spirit wholly impractical and unfettered, useless, unregulated by defined limits. It is difficult to define the function of the spirit, of education, of culture; we know that we cannot find it and we cannot sow a field or grease a wheel with it. It may be more personally valuable for us to recognize it in the actions of the law than in music; it will clearly be more fruitful to manufacture nails than read verses, and it is certainly more useful to cultivate turnips than to cultivate atomic theory. Culture is indefensible on practical terms, but that was the case millennia ago, when people composed useless music, verses and paintings and enumerated the stars and wasted their time in hundreds of similar ways, as we do today. Education too is indefensible except by saying that whoever that exciting tongue of flame descends upon recognizes through some secret fashion that it is all worth it, that it is worth more than any sort of useful or profitably or popularly-regarded deed. In its ultimate sense the spirit serves nothing else at all besides humanity; it does not exist for any other reason.It does not nourish anyone, or lead anyone anywhere, but it grants one thing: a life of value.



1 Mr. Bret the catechist--teacher of religion and friend of the Čapek family in Úpice, who is also mentioned by [Karel's brother] Josef Čapek in his autobiographical writings and by [their sister] Helena Čapková in her autobiographical work Malé děvče [Young Girl].

Thursday, August 06, 2009


     I don’t know whether it is an atmospheric effect or an acoustic one or something else, but the fact of the matter is, that (though I never know what the day is or the date, usually figuring this out from the masthead of the newspaper) on Sunday mornings I usually feel some special pressure right when I wake up, a disinclination to rise, an overall weakness of will and a simple insufficiency of enthusiasm for any task or type of work; you could also call it indolence, sloth, spleen, or just plain boredom. Normally I am vexed by confusion about this sudden depression for a little while until I finally say: “Oh, it’s probably Sunday.” And it always is.

     So, as I have said, I do not know where it comes from, maybe it is some atmospheric pressure or magnetic disturbance or something. It is possible that something in the universe just does not work on Sundays, by which the daily order of things is disrupted. It ought to be scientifically ascertained if the trees or grass grow on Sundays, or to test if it is an empirical fact that it rains more on the red days on the calendar or is hotter than usual; if spiritual activity is dampened, if the dogs stink particularly badly and the children are more vexing, to see if it is always windier outside, if more people drown, if there are a larger number of automobile accidents, actors performing worse, the trains and trams run badly, problems with digestion and beer and handwriting are worse than at any other time. It is possible that there are periodic cosmic interruptions on Sundays and holidays and that one wakes up on Sunday with a tangible foreboding that something is not in order. There is the hidden trouble.

     Or perhaps it is an acoustic phenomenon; one awakens and does not hear the vast and wide hum of human endeavor; the result of which is that something seems lacking. Is is as unnerving as a mill that ceases to turn. That explanation is a simple one and consequently it cannot be correct, for I wake up with a catastrophic feeling on Sundays in completely foreign cities, even alone in the mountains, and if a storm cast me on a deserted island without so much as a Friday I would still wake up one morning with a terrifying feeling that something was not in order and that I didn’t feel like doing a thing. “Aha,” I would finally say, “it’s probably Sunday.” And indeed it would be.

     I maintain that weekends, excursions, and all human holidays are just desperate attempts at flight from this Sunday depression; people think they have to fatigue themselves to forget the crushing burden of holidays. Woe to them; for Sundays find them at the feet of St. Jan’s, in Divoká Šárka4 and at the stadium of Sparta. Better served is he who confronts the streets of his town face to face or passes his Sunday at home, lounging around as though he has the flu. Well then, in cities people show that it is possible to bear Sunday afternoons after a fashion—actually, there is almost something exalted about it, for the girls are prettier and on top of that you get to read the Sunday papers. Well into the afternoon a true Sunday state blooms, as the city shrugs off its somnolence and people come into the street whom you never see at any other time. There are thousands of people who only exist on Sundays; old women, widows, orphans, mustachioed men, uncles and aunts, nuns and grandmothers, strange people who look like they were put away in the wardrobe thirty years ago and let out on Sundays so that the moths do not eat them. They have strange, washed Sunday faces; pale, long-nosed, whiskered, ginger-haired, freckled, and doughy, dressed somewhat poorly, as a rule, but the clothes are clean; there is something old-fashioned about each of them, even anachronistic; other than on Sundays, you only meet these people and these sorts of clothes at a third-rate funeral. Towards about four or five o’clock you meet whole families who only exist in public on Sundays; on normal days you meet families with unpleasant little boys screaming at every step, with little girls peeping out from the edge of their mother’s skirts, with a mother swaying like a ship, and with a father smoking a cigar in a holder and criticizing the state of the roads and the construction. I swear to you that this is human nature on Sundays, which is exactly the same in Rome, Paris, or London, and which returns the whole world to an indestructible and horrible thing: into a small town. The town dweller does not flee from the city and its uproar, or the small town and its boredom, its slow pace and its slothful disorder. This suppressed small town, hidden during the week in shops and work floors and houses has Sundays and holidays to itself to dominate the streets; these aren’t walks, these are a manifestation. We are here. We, the old maids, the fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts. We the anachronistic. We the eternal.



1 [Svatojanské proudy (St. Jan/John's rapids/streams) no longer exist, having been dammed downstream and turned into a reservoir. Pictures survive, of course. Divoká Šárka is a large park and nature preserve in the northern outskirts of Prague.]

Monday, August 03, 2009

Uproar At The Edge Of Town

     It changes endlessly, and that is the truth; sometimes it glistens in the rain or almost rings under the sun; sometimes there is frost or fog or snow and sometimes there are the most strange and beautiful clouds overhead that it is almost unbelievable; but all in all they are still the same roofs and chimneys (and the occasional chimney sweep) with the same windows, with servants (sometimes different ones) shaking dustcloths out the windows, and the same yards and the neighbors’ children—in short, these are just the sort of things you can see out of any window. It is probably the same for you.

     And in addition to these daily sights there is another view, an auditory one, if I might put it that way. The same sounds come in the window every day; you scarcely note them as they happen, but you know that if they did not come at their appointed time that you would notice something lacking and begin to listen intently. This is why Sundays and holidays are somehow oppressive, because that daily aural backdrop is different; suppressed and thinned out. The world is not so full or so real on those days. How could you not recognize the sounds of your part of town? I know them so well I know nothing of them as they happen. Hammer away, carpenters, shaping the timbers of a new row of houses, you are no bother; rattle on, coal carts, roar and shout, heavy motors straining up hill; and you, airplane, droning overhead—it does not touch me. What sort of new and unaccustomed sound would there have to be to summon me to the window? The bugle and bass of country musicians would do that; I’d jump up and go look and the old man blowing into his horn. Or the sounds of cows and heifers and the high-pitched calves, that beautiful, husky, the thirds and fifths of the mountain pastures. Or a song for seven singers. In any of those events I would leap up from my work and tear over to the window to see where—where—

     Suddenly I hear a boom. It is ten-twenty in the morning. So what does that boom imply? Maybe the soldiers are drilling down in the fields; perhaps it is a mortar or a detonation, as they call it, but the soldiers nearby have already finished drilling and are headed home singing, “oh, you will regret, you will regret this, my love.” Well, it could be the trams clanking, or the boards pounding over at the construction site; perhaps they have torn down some scaffolding. A number of loud noises have already fallen into this beloved daily din at the edge of town. Whooo, whooo, wheezes the powerful locomotive; and hear the iron squeal on the bumpers. And that freight truck tries to brake as it hurtles noisily downhill. “Hey, hey,” the coachmen might shout, “why did they load on so much?” And I know that other sound, that is the children whistling as they go to school. The barking of a puppy. The clanking of a steamroller. The sonorous clacking of bricklayers laying. I don’t have to get up from my work; repetition has already brought these sounds here into my space, and so much the better, for they are so extensive and vibrant.

     At ten-twenty there was a gas explosion in an apartment a few blocks away. It was a proper boom, but before I could evaluate it, is disappeared into this living, bustling, crashing polyphony at the edge of town as though it belonged there, as if it had already been written down beforehand in the sheet music.

Boom. One strike of the drum to keep the beat.



Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Confindence and nativizing

An interesting article in its own right, but most striking for me for its first line.

That continuum of confidence, of retaining the foreign or arrogantly nativizing it, pretty much sums up large chunks of my life.

(via languagehat)

Čapek seems to be on hiatus until further notice. I've got other fires to tend.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

via Raminagrobis

There is nothing new under the sun.

The Recency Phenomenon, as applied to cell phones.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Beyond The City

     I say this from my own experience: the city is a bad place, unhealthy and entirely injurious to humanity. I do not even mean the dust, smoke, bad air and other horrible dangers to both health and morals that lie in wait for the man on the street. I mean the unhealthy and truly terrifying fact that the city-dweller cannot ordinarily see the moon and the stars. The true autochthon of the center of town cannot see the Big Dipper or Polaris on account of the streetlights; and because of the buildings no one knows whether the full or new moon is shining; even if they did know, to them it would be six of one and a half-dozen of the other.

Big Dipper, Vermont, June 2006

     As far as the stars are concerned, their astral and planetary influence on human destiny is strongly in doubt, and as far as the influence of the moon is concerned, educated people only recognize its important to the extent of the tides, the palolo worm,1 the growth of certain plants and bacteria, and perhaps also on sleepwalkers, poets, lovers and cats. I, however, am not concerning myself with these effects; I am concerned with the fact that if a denizen of the streets lifts his eyes from the ground, he cannot see the twinkling of the stars in the sky, and cannot see the face of the moon. If goes out on the threshold of his building, he does not even meet his nearest neighbors Venus or Jupiter. He is not permitted to direct his steps by the moon. He doesn’t even know if the night sky is black or white. He lives in a starless cavern like an olm,2 but he does not realize it. The olm probably does not realize it either.

     The man on the streets lives in the city, and sometimes in a very large one, but he does not live in the universe, for he does not live under the stars. He lives among a million people, but not among a million stars. His world ends in Vysočany or Bubeneč3 instead of ending at Arcturus or the Milky Way; it’s really quite a small little world, for it does not go on into infinity. It doesn’t even matter if you study the star charts or can differentiate Altair from Albireo;4 it is more important to just be able to convince yourself whenever you want that the stars are still up there and that the cosmos exists. The man on the street has to go all the way out to Zbraslav5 to spot the universe; but the man at the periphery is in the universe as soon as he stands at his own door and looks up. If people met at night under the stars instead of under lamps, I think that they would not be easily able to talk about politics or the terrible state of things; it’s easier to talk of love, of the next day, and of other quiet and serious things under the stars. Under the stars you can go crazy or fall in love, but you can’t get really aggravated. Secret astral influences do exist; the stars have a powerful influence on a person who looks at them, but they have no influence on someone who reads the glowing advertisements for the Lyon Works6or reads theater reviews at lunch. A man under the stars is a participant in the grandiose glory of the world; he is crowned by those stars themselves.

     The effect of the moon is more profound. I don’t even mean the splendor of the moonlit night, the supernatural beauty of the Ottoman crescent, or the silver palaces on the moon7; I have the lunar phases and quarters in mind. A man who lives in the street conducts himself by the calendar; he knows it is the first or the fifteenth or the seventeenth, by which he is fatigued by everything brought to him by the merry-go-round of time. His time is not sacredly and lightly inscribed in the phases of the moon. His life is not divided into heavenly quarters, and does not consist of light and dark periods. When he pays his rent on the first it is no eternal recurrence of time as it is when the moon is full. The time between two full moons is more profound and solemn than the time which comes between the first and the last. Time for a man of the city is a mere date, is it just a number and in no way a heavenly phenomenon; it does not come from eternity, which is the time of the universe. A man who sees the face of the moon lives not by the ticking clock on the wall, but by the secretive timepieces of the planets; consequently he measures time, by very long feet, if I may say so.8

     The last time I moved I intended to move alone to a wild and abandoned part of the city, but instead I found that I had moved much farther away: out to the moon and to the vicinity of the stars.



1 ["The worm lives in the shallow waters in the coral reefs. During its main breeding season , which occurs on the second or third day after the third quarter of the moon in October or November, the worms produce segments which are engorged with sperm or eggs . These segments break off at sunrise, rise to the surface, and release their gametes into the sea . The local villagers and fishermen collect these segments in large quantities as it is a popular delicacy. The gelatinous mass of worms is baked or fried and then eaten." (courtesy here. Mmmm. "Mblalolo" in the original, which is fascinating to me, as it does not seem like a permissible syllable onset a Malayo-Polynesian language. [EDIT: Fijian has a prenasalized "mb" permissible as an onset; not sure about the "l," though.]
2 [The olm. Sure, I could have said "salamander, but it's actually a close translation, and of course, I love little words I rarely see used.]
3 [Both of these are districts of Prague, recently added (1/1/1922) as of the time of the writing, and therefore suitably remote.]
4 [A suburb of Prague at the time. I think Čapek would find it funny that it is now one of the outermost districts of Prague itself, the city proper having grown significantly since the 1920s.]
5 Arcturus--the clear, reddish star in the constellation of Boötes, hurtling through the cosmic abyss at a speed of 500,000 kilometers per hour [see, the real footnotes are just as ridiculous as mine--Andrew]; Altair--one of the stars in the summer constellation of the Eagle; Albireo--the name of the topaz yellow and sapphire-blue double star forming the southern end of the Swan or the Northern Cross, one of the three significant constellations of the summer sky.
6 A former silk merchant on Železná Street in Prague [Thank God for these footnotes, because if this needed to be explained to citizens of Prague in the 1920s, I and Google couldn't do a thing about it]
7 [The original says "Ottoman half-moon," and I love Čapek too much for a [sic], but am also too pedantic not to point that out. I have no idea what he means by "silver palaces," that's for sure.]
8 [Originally "by very long ells/elbows," the word for the unit of measure "ell" being exactly the same as the part of the body, instead of just being etymologically related as in English.]

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How Houses Smell

     I don’t mean any consecrated odor, steam from the washing or even the stink of the kids’ diapers. I live in a young neighborhood which is growing with the ringing of hammers, the clatter of scaffolding and the strokes of the carpenter’s axes, and if you bound my eyes and led me through the city I would know my way by smells: there is an old street, those are new buildings, still partly uninhabited, there is an unsold house, while the foundation on that house is caving in. For the building smells of the man, gives our the odor of the matter from which it has arisen, and it takes decades before odors settle, and the dry, dusty stink of accidents hang in the air.

     At first it reeks of barren earth; the cold, damp, sepulchral breath of the bedrock below wafts up from the dug foundations. But there are already piles of bricks set up around, and well-baked bricks have an odor almost like that of bread; the dry oven sighs out of them, and the hot, mealy dust drifts off of them. Then the slaked lime blows in, which stings the eyes and sticks in the throat, and there is also the cold, raw smell of the mortar, which hangs coarse and close. The smell of new construction is cold and raw like the air in a cave, and campfires and good lamps will be needed to make this into a dwelling.

     Then the boards go up and the scaffolding rises, to let the wall-builders up and to change the smell, for the odor of wood is solid and good; wood smells of home, of ripeness, and its pitchy, sunny exhalations cover the lime reek of the plaster and the muddy smell of concrete. And let us not forget the sourish stench of iron, girders, pipes, and wires, together with the oily fetor of lacquer; or even the smoky reek of charcoal smoke used to cure the walls. And here we have the rank and file of carpenters and joiners as they raise the timbers, lay the floors and install the windows and doors; wood prevails and its resinous, balsamic odor drifts out of the clangorous construction. To that are added the smells of turpentine, varnish and oils, the stink of coats of wallpaper pastes and paint. And finally the well-scrubbed building sighs lightly and smells of soap like a boy fresh out of the bath on Sunday; the cool emptiness and strange hollowness of new construction exhales out the open windows.

     And a new building does not lose its own odor right away; just as new clothes smell of the textile factory and new shoes of the tannery, the house smells for a long while of the building site. Sir, it is a lng time before people feel at home in it; the building yet hems them in like some temporary enclosure, not yet grown around them like the shell on a small, it comes out strongly here and overpowers over there like new clothes. It must be extinguished somewhat to render it fit for people; you could say it must ripen for a few years. It only becomes a full, real house when it stops being a new building; then it becomes not just the work of the builders, but also of the people who live in it. From the laundry in the cellar to the smoking chimney it sings of humanity and warmth, until one day when men come with picks and shovels, and it smells, for one last time, of the grist mill, the meal, ripeness and its own special desiccation, reminiscent of the scent of hay and rotting wood.



Friday, April 24, 2009

It bears repeating, but the Čapek I'm posting? I'm pretty sure you're the first people to read it in English. Ever. Same as last year.

So too, with this Fuks I've just started the second draft of.


     "It was long ago, very long ago, when I sent a letter from Prague to Daniel Potocky, lover of food and drink, to make time on Saturday and Sunday and come out to see me at my cottage. I wrote the letter with deliberate ambiguity, and yet urgently, closing with the remark that he certainly would not regret coming. And I sketched out a little map of how to get there once he got off the highway at Benešov.

     I imagined he would brag about it to Jána, who was his intellectual superior many times over, and he did. She called me at the neighbors’ cabin, for they had a telephone. I didn’t even have electricity there, relying on flashlights and oil lamps for light.

     “He was excited,” Jána divulged to me, “to see what I would make of it. Why he was invited. I told him it seemed like you were preparing a feast—you know how he likes to eat—and that you wanted him there for mysterious reasons.”

     Jána had never studied psychology; she was a chemist at the medical examiner’s office, but she had always had interesting insights into people’s personalities. What she had told Potocky about my letter seemed wise.
That memorable June Saturday was unusually hot and humid, as were the days preceding it. People complained of the humidity and torpor, the swimming pool was full of people, and they had even started to run out of beer and soft drinks. “If only it would rain a little,” people said, looking longingly at the sky whenever it started to cloud over. But no rain came. I had no beer or soft drinks at the cabin, just ordinary water, ten bottles of wine, two bottles of Greek cognac, a bottle of middling whisky and an exceptional banana schnapps. I also had three bottles of vodka, four tins of tomato juice and plenty of pepper. “If I mix him drinks,” I thought that Saturday, “he’ll be done. Sooner than I want, and I can’t have that today. He’ll just drink wine, which he can easily stand.” Before his arrival I looked over the glassware and the things for dinner. Then I went into the attic of the cottage, where I had a sort of study, which contained a low round table and a comfortable armchair, and I readied the pistol.


There's your hook. Unfortunately ninety-eight percent of it still only exists in my handwriting. If you liked it, ask me where I am with it round the summer solstice.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Painting of Martin Blaskowitz has a first draft. I first put pen to paper on June 4, 2008, almost eleven months ago.

It took longer than the first book I did, which is probably as it should be.

"And I don't know what I'm feeling right now, but it's intense. I just walked around the block without really registering it. My hands were shaking, and an eye was twitching a few pages from the finish. It' I won't be at all surprised if no one has the same experience reading it, thinks it's ho-hum or predictable or whatever...but still. I took that text word by word, and performed some act on each of those components, and then wrote it all down. I owned it...but it's doing a good job of owning me."

I wrote that three and a half years ago and five or six projects ago.

I owned this one too, and they all do a good job of owning me. I need a nap.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I've been translating a set amount (40-42 lines) of the most recent Fuks novel I've been working on daily, with only five days off, since the third week of March.

I have two more days worth of work to do and I'm done with that, and am really at a stage (well, I was at this stage before I started this book, if not before) where first-draft translating, though excellent mental practice, is not what I need to be doing.

I must confront the fear that that is really all that I am capable of, that the neatly-defined first-draft step is all I have the patience for, that I will do nothing but swim in paralysis at the massively branching possibilities of editing. Writing this post is hopefully a decent start.

[EDIT: Not _much_ life-spanning melodrama is intended here, merely an articulation of something I've been dealing with for years--that I have more fun writing a first draft than subsequent drafts, but first drafts aren't exactly disseminable. Or even legible.]

Spring Storms

     There are two kinds of spring storms: the first kind are those that occur in nature with rumblings, sheets of waters, hail, rainbows, and other ancillary phenomena through to the victorious birdsong at the end. The second kind of spring storm is that which has already begun to take hold in the winter, when the heads of the household begin to notice that they need to paint and knock a hole in the wall here and fix this up and make sure the stove is in order and plane this, hammer that, add a little more mortar to this, seal, lacquer, upholster and the like. There is an astonishing array of professions who wait to come into your home with stepladders and scrub-brushes and screwdrivers and mallets and putty knives and tubs and a bunch of other implements, with whose help they will turn all the wood in your domicile upside-down. Vast and elemental is the destructive power of human ingenuity.

     As far as I can tell, this storm of work is most often unleashed in human accommodations in the spring. I have no conception what all of these professionals do in the winter; perhaps they give themselves over to their victorious invasions and strategies of the year before. It starts out very innocently as a rule; one man comes to your house to have a look around and tells you they will begin work in a week or after the first of the month. Well, nothing can wait a week’s time or until after the first; two or three days later you start to grumble that that darned man should just come and start already. In this manner you are adroitly brought into a state of impatience, and you await an invasion of unfriendly forces as though it were a divine blessing. When you are well and truly worked over, your bell rings at seven o’clock in the morning and some skinny guy at the door proclaims that he is there to work. And he starts to work up a storm with the help of some hammers, chisels, and other tools.

     All of the other professionals have been waiting for this moment, and the varnishers and joiners and glaziers and painters and paperhangers and installers all rush in and begin to quarrel about who is in the way of whom. Don’t get involved, keep your hat on and let them sort it out amongst themselves; from this moment on you have become an insignificant, even unnecessary creature in your own house who isn’t even worth the energy to be told off. The already-named specialists suddenly each to each demolish something else; you have to recognize that they have the matter in hand. A half a day later your apartment is leveled to the ground, and when lunch-time comes they sit victoriously amongst the ruins, eating head cheese and talking about things in Unhošť or Strančice.1 In spite of your dismay at this man-made swath of destruction you are a little excited that it has gone so quickly. “So,” you say ebulliently to these resting men, “you’ll have it all back together by tomorrow, then?”

     But to your surprise: the day after tomorrow instead of this terrible invasion there’s only one man there fiddling with something in the middle of the ruins. The day after that is a Sunday or a holiday and you are resigned to stew in peace on the rubbish heap which once was your place of residence. Them comes a strange and protracted stage when it is a “work in progress,” though this is not at all visible, the dust and filth waxes, the scraps of wood and the splinters, bread crumbs and other sorts of chaos, out of which a new reality does not appear. The following stage is one of mute despair: you come to the realization that the items in the world will never again be put back in order, the situation is clearly helpless and that you cannot expect better days.

     And one day quiet surrounds you, the stepladders and buckets and hammers are gone, and you come out into your reborn living room somewhat cautiously, like a farmer surveying his fields after a storm, to determine the damages after the elements have been unleashed. Well, the farmer says, a man has to find some good in this; this is broken, and that’s a little knocked-down over there… and finally he says to himself, with the indestructible optimism of the human race: “Well, it could have been a lot worse.”


1 [Central Bohemian towns well outside of the Prague metro area now, let alone eighty years ago.]