Thursday, January 29, 2009


     It is true, they call spring enchanted, and no objections can be raised to that, as long as we mean it to praise these April mornings or May evenings when the lilacs and mock-oranges are in bloom. But if we take the term “enchantment” a bit more conscientiously, as it is defined in all the technical manuals (fairy tales, for example), enchantment depends on someone waving a magic wand or mumbling an incantation with the goal of creating a change in the immediate vicinity; and in the morning there is a glowing castle or uncrossable lake or some other unusual phenomenon of which there had not been the slightest suspicion before. True enchantment is never a gradual or patient process; rather, it happens with a sudden and surprising effect. To act slowly, painstakingly, to exert a great deal of time and work for something that was not there before, that is called creation; but the true and honorable enchanter just clicks the tongue or waves a wand, and it is done.

     There are no doubts that spring does not enchant in this strict sense of the word; the truth is we are never there when the first flower of the forsythia opens or the first March bud unfurls, but flower and leaf take their sweet time, and we must have an angelic patience with them. The grass does not grow overnight and the birch does not glitter with fair foliage between evening and night; it takes an awful lot of work before the thin sapling becomes the rustling crown. Everything has its long days and weeks of quiet preparation and imperceptible waxing of colors; and “enchanted spring” only suddenly occurs after a lot of hesitation and fuss.

     Winter works in other ways, and it does so according to all the classical formulas for enchantment. You wake up in the morning and have a look out the window, and suddenly where yesterday there was dark and hardened earth there is brilliantly white and fluffy snow; all at once the dirt of the whole world has transformed, it has a new pattern, new quiet, new structure—if someone had carried me off to Easter Island some Christmas Eve, it would not be such a vast change as when fresh snow has fallen.

     Or the frost comes on overnight, and in the space in which you had been accustomed to seeing your neighbor’s roof, silver ferns bristle and sparkling needles and white moss and fans of seaweed appear as frost flowers on the window pane. I say, let someone try to arouse in glass such interesting vegetation overnight! If this be enchantment, it is properly done, to contrive such an entirely new world.

     Or perhaps it is only hoarfrost; fallen in the harsh light of the moon, and now the whole world bristles in a terrible and sharp beauty and shines bleakly. What yesterday was a black and wiry tree is today an enormous tuft of marbled, shining coral; yesterday’s frightful and desolate thicket is now a wrought silver gate; the cobwebs on the old gazebo have turned into silver lace, the dried leaves are tassled with silver and the frozen asters on the lawn glitter like cut glass. Every pine or fir needle is marked with a glittering wand; the blackened leaves of the ivy are wreathed in silver filigree, the dry yarrow stalk bristles with the finest fringe of frost—and what can shall I say further, for you know it yourselves; you too have tried to lick the whitened branch and run your finger along the exceedingly beautiful tuftlets of frost. You too have seen the orchards bloom on Christmas morning with a frost so madly rich that no May can compare with its cherry trees and their fragrant blossoms; and you too have witnessed the sun shining through as the treetops rustle weakly, and the whole white show is gone: what to do, what to do, it is just enchantment, which never lasts. The truth is creation is a slow cooker, and no one will ever conjure anything like this by waving a magic wand, but it is, if we may say so, more solid and longer-lasting work.



Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Nick's most recent post is another keeper. It's all good, mind.

Pertinent quote for me:

"Instead, I have to engage in this carefully planned, supplied, and fought battle with my own ignorance, and when I achieve victory, I don’t really have anything to show for it, except some bullshit shot or print that demonstrates that yes, I have the technical capability to use this technique — but that has no other virtue. And I don’t even have anyone handy to issue me a fucking gold star."

Amen. In some areas the war against my own ignorance involves way more mental preparation than I feel comfortable bragging about, even when I'm quite proud, which is an interesting mental place to be. The never-ending Fuks project, say. Work that takes a lot of effort and generates a lot of pride results in...large amounts more work. (Cooking, too, takes more energy than I would have thought, but at least that work produces edible and often surprisingly tasty results.)

Still, as Nick says, know that I'm leveling.

more apt Borges

From the story Nick sussed out that I was thinking of with no more information than the collection it was in:

"In the preceding tale, I have tried to narrate the process of failure, the process of defeat... I reflected that a more poetic case than these would be a man who sets himself a goal that is not forbidden other men, but is forbidden to him. I recalled Averroës, who, bounded within the circle of Islam, could never know the meaning of the words comedy and tragedy. I told his story; as I went on, I felt...that the work mocked me, foiled me, thwarted me. I felt that Averroës, trying to imagine what a play is without ever having suspected what a theater is, was no more absurd than I, trying to imagine Averroës yet with no more than a few snatches from Renan, Lane, and Asín Palacios."

--"Averroës' Search"

The amusing part about being reminded up this story during the YLNT show and then having it identified for me later is that I completely forget the moment of connection--I don't remember what was said, I don't remember what part of the story (it wasn't the one above) my mind linked it to. I only remember jumping up and down on the street in disbelief when Nick picked it out. The process of failure, maybe, but defeat not so much, I like to think. Or if you're going to fail, at least fail amusingly?

Dash to San Francisco.

It's nice when I have someone else (in this case Nick) to write about hilarious adventures of which I took part, viz. here.

Went up to the City yesterday to see Nick and watch Monsters of Podcasting. Within the first ten minutes of meeting Nick's mother and sister I managed to lacerate two fingers in a botched attempt to open a bottle of fermented German elderberry soda (?!) with a lighter. Six hours of jokes about my being/not being accident-prone ensued. We showed up way too early, camped out in the front row laughing hysterically and got in some nice post-show words with Merlin and Adam from You Look Nice Today. And we all learned an important lesson about The Snuggie.

All that and I was even able to figure out my crash pad after that with only a half an hour of wondering if I was going to have to stay up all night wandering around.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not just about 2003 any more!

Here's a long-promised update. I can't do it right, but I can expand on promised blog posts from five years ago. Also, I'm closing the gap between the old and new blog for some reason. God, I love that mohawk picture.

My last seven January firsts:

2003 Orlando, Florida. (Capitol One Bowl--Auburn 13, Penn State 9. Boo.)

2004 Essex Junction, Vermont (Nate and I went downtown too early and ended up back in my father's basement. Classy.)

2005 Brno, Czech Republic (Fléda! Russian "champagne"!)

2006-Camel's Hump, Vermont (4,080 feet, lots of snow. May my hiking cohort rest in peace.)

2007-Burlington, Vermont (Six Pine St. party. Classic B-town.)

2008-Santa Cruz, California (Got engaged over the clock tower.)

2009-Mojave Desert, California (Kelso Dunes, an iron portal, fire, and song)

On Winter Research

     This time I am deliberately not writing about winter and its experiences poetically, but am instead approaching it from a purely scientific viewpoint; for we boys had lots of time to experiment with winter from a passionately scientific, technical viewpoint; we tried to ascertain what winter’s consequences were and what were its practical applications. Today’s younger generation does not get as much from winter, maybe just skis and hockey; their interest in winter is sporting rather than scientific. Only Papanin and his colleagues on the ice floes continue the sorts of practical testing of winter that every proper boy attempted in his day.1 From a technical standpoint it is possible to undertake a great number of experiments with winter, of which I shall name at least a few:

     It is possible to chase snowflakes with your hand and watch them as they fall; but no one has yet succeeded in catching one no matter how numb the hand gets.

     It is possible to test what flavor the frost has; I once tried this on the brass doorknob of the house and tore off a bit of my tongue when it froze to it;

     it is also possible to breathe circles or stamp your nose onto frozen windows;

     and also to write with your finger on windows and prove your creative or literary talent in this way.

     It is possible to lick icicles with the goal of ascertaining their taste and nutritive value.

     and also to knock them down with a snowballs or rocks to verify their fragility and their glassy voice;

     and lastly to test how they thaw, namely by secretly placing a piece of icicle into your father’s pocket.

     One can successfully try sliding according to the proper rules of motion (standing, sitting, on one leg, or even with a pirouette).

     Skating has also been tried successfully with twigs tied to one shoe, or even (entirely exceptionally) to both.

     On sleds one can ride facing forwards, on one’s stomach, or (normally with terrible results) while facing backwards.

     Packing snow or making snowballs depends on the type of snow; soggy snow must be greatly compressed in the palms, which results in a smaller caliber but higher potency; normal, malleable snow allows the use of snowballs of the largest size; dry, dusty snow is only recommended for use in attacking with loose snowy clouds.

     Shaking snow or other things from tree branches offers valuable experience in how quickly snow can get through one’s collar and into one’s shirt, and where it goes from there.

     Snowmen are important, and, for most people, their only attempt at figure sculpting,

     Whereas making snow angels in freshly fallen snow betrays an interest in one’s own figure and size.

     Footprints in the snow allow you to sign the world with the letters of your own name;

     you can similarly try signing your name another way, about which we will say no more.

     The creation of avalanches can be performed most effectively on barn roofs by throwing snowballs at them.

     And let us not even forget kicking a piece of ice along, especially when they're delivering ice to the bars; we sometimes even seem entirely serious adults engaging in this pastime on their way home from the office, and think that no one is watching them.

     Just look and see how pitiful winter sports appear compared to everything that winter offers the normal boy with a technical brain and thirst for knowledge!



1 Ivan Dmitriyevich Papanin—-Soviet polar explorer and participant in polar expeditions since 1931, and leader of a scientific expedition which examined the geophysical conditions of ice floes in the winter of 1937-38

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Literature in Finno-Ugric Linguistics

I occasionally dabble in translating things out of languages other than Czech and Slovak. College was an especially fertile time for that, what with the three years of Sanskrit I somehow managed to take, the ancient Greek, and my high school French and Latin not nearly so rusty as they are now.

German's been a lazily-pursued hobby of mine for almost ten years at this point. There's not enough time to pursue all the languages one wants to, and I mainly seem to be happy enough with an incredibly loose definition of "reading knowledge."

Occasionally I do something useful, and this is a parallel version of a German page on Finno-Ugric study materials I translated last summer. Thanks go to Prof. Laakso for her pleasant response to my enthusiasm. I'll never be a Finno-Ugrist, but I can at least try to help them out.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Crème de Menthe Bars, What Not To Do When Making

Now that I've apparently mastered my father's molasses spice cookie recipe, it's time to turn to that other family holiday stalwart, these bad boys.

I'd never really creamed butter by hand (had to do that for the bottom two layers), not had I made my own frosting. (<---lots of fun, though I think I have a headache from coming down from the sugar rush I got when I was sampling it.)

Things to do next time: wait for cake layer to cool more, to preserve frosting integrity.

Make more of the top layer, and wait longer to apply it.

Actually, that's about it (unless the cake/frosting is too granular from not enough processing, which I don't know yet.) The

We'll see what else I did wrong (not creaming the butter enough for the mint frosting? Might that be a little coarse?) later.

104 words, 1/21/09

My single-speed groans up the hill from downtown. I need to turn left at the top from the rightmost bike lane--I don’t ride in the left lane up that hill--I don't have the arrow and figure I'll go anyway. It turns green while I'm making a wide turn. A car follows me, haltingly. Lights flash. The one behind that is a cop.

My lights are on, but not my helmet. Didn't signal at the top of the hill, let alone the lane changes. I am already guilty of a dozen things when he drives on, pulling the car over.

Lucky me again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

103 words, 1/19/09

I hit the speed bump too fast and accidentally let go. I used to ride with just the bar until Mike gave me some old bar ends of his to lengthen my ride (the top tube's a bit short). Seventy cents, when you factor in the replacement Allen screw one of them needed.

These changed the architecture of the handlebars. When I went flying backwards from the ends, the straight bar played cleanup. It waited patiently to receive my hands, which knew what to do (without benefit of thought), curling two fingers per hand around just enough to catch myself.

Lucky, lucky me.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Prague in the Snow

     I don’t mean to get myself mixed up in the livelihood of Mr. Šimon, Mr. Stretti-Zamponi1 and the other graphic artists who earn their living on monochromes, dry-needle engravings2, India-ink aquatints of snow3, eaves, Charles Bridge and other winter scenes. I just want to make a single column out of snow—for alas it no longer suits me to make snowmen the way I used to. Snow forts were very beautiful too: we would pour water over the ramparts and allow it to freeze overnight, make snowballs in the morning and then wage war, with conquests and shrill cries everywhere. We fought especially fiercely with the boys from Sychrov4 for territorial, legal, and social reasons. Today, however, I cannot call upon even my greatest enemy (if indeed I have one) to draw up plans for a snowball fight. And that’s why I can only produce a column out of snow.


     When the snow falls, Prague suddenly turns into a quaint little town; overnight we go fifty or a hundred years into the past, all at once the Malá Strana is medieval, grandmotherly, baroque, nestled in the palm of your hand, more naive and antique. Out of nowhere you remember your grandmother and her seven pairs of undergarments, apples cooked in the oven, the smell of wood smoke, old rooms and flowered curtains. People are happy on the street, carving out their footprints in the snow as though they were tracing wreaths, crunching away as they did a hundred years ago. And the quiet, sir—such rural quiet—the Vltava does not even roar, the trams make no more noise than the Christ child, and no one would bat an eye if the automobiles started to jingle as if they were horse-drawn sleighs. O holy world! Suddenly the world of old things and old dimensions is here. Small-town magic. Antique character.

     Just so you know, the only real snow is the kind we get in the Malá Strana. That is why it lasts longer than elsewhere, and when it is all blown away on the other side (for they just get flurries, nothing at all to brag about) we still have it heaped in drifts, by the grace of God, with only footpaths through it. That is our domestic right. Just us and Hradčany.5

     But no graphic artist could depict how pretty a snowflake is resting in a girl’s hair or the sorts of tracks left by a blackbird or sparrow on a snowy roof. Those look like little poems written in Oriental script or calligraphy. An entire poem composed in a single row. I’d love to be able to translate it.


     Then, when the moon shines over everything, what happens then cannot even be described: Prague shrinks and makes itself tiny, scarcely even breathing: the snow sparkles like glass underfoot, the roofs press close to the earth, everything bristles with frost and it is so bright, so bright that you fear the darkness of your own core.


     And you, red spark in the stove, you emphasize the blue of the winter twilight with your ruddy companionship. How wonderful is that duet of glow and quietude!


     In the summer we see trees, clouds, water, and everything under the sun, but when the snow falls in the winter we see what we scarcely noticed in the summer—that is, the roof. Once a roof is snow-covered it is creditable, prudent, and above all, it is visible. Only then does human roofing fulfill its purpose. And we only see in the winter that our dwellings exist under roofs. The whole of our city is a city under roofs set up over our heads.

     Let us praise the snow for showing us the dignity of our roofing!



1 Jaromír Stretti-Zamponi (born 1882)—painter and graphic artist, creator of graphic designs with an old Prague themes, who published in 1914 a cycle of four colored prints called “Snow” depicting the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter) area.
2 Copperplate engravings (more rarely zinc-plate) made with a steel needle or a cone-shaped diamond nib.
3 Prints made without any engraving mechanism, but through the gradual deposition of material on the work surface.
4 i.e., from the industrial suburb of Sychrova in Úpice, where the author spent his childhood and adolescence.
5 [The Castle District, up the hill to the north of the Malá Strana and on the same side of the river as it.]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Chronology of Anterior Subluxations

#1--(Spring of 2003) The Progenitor. So far back in time (junior year of college) that I didn't even have a blog and Facebook was a year away. Basketball trip and fall. Hours in the ER. First time on morphine.
#2--(8/26/03) Separation of What Now?
#3--(10/22/03) See August 26...
#4?--(3/5/04) False alarm...
#4--(3/19/04) From hero to...
#5--(Third Week of July, 2005) Came out during forward crawl, self-reduced.
#6--(Fall of 2005) Drunken fall at co-worker's house, self-reduced.
#7--(3/14/06) Oh good.
#8--(12/12/08) No link unless I decide to get all cute and self-link.

Two days after a huge rollerskating fall left me with the biggest bruise of my life, I was finally (for once!) beating my housemate in a game of one-on-one and had the arm pop out as I went for a layup. We walked back to the house, got directions of the internet, then he reduced it for me. I'm actually doing rehab exercises, for a change. May the next one not exist, or at least be more than two-plus years away.

The Score So Far:
Basketball: 5
Drunken Stupidity: 2
Swimming: 1
Andrew: -8

Sort of a translation story.

Dusting off some old blogs, I found this piece which was a story a suitemate told that involved he and I (I'm "Tall," unsurpisingly), dealing with a package of German soup mix we'd come across. I attempted to filter them through Czech with a German-Czech online dictionary.

A quote: "I scientifically examined the package as Tall perused the various translations of Beutelinhalt."

It's probably tellingly recursive that I immediately set at figuring it out: (inner monologue: "Inhalt" is 'contents' and Beutel looks like 'bottle', only it was soup mix, so probably the whole thing together means 'Contents of package,' and then spent five minutes checking that out on google, and being proud I could read the rest of the instructions better than I could five years ago. No. Scratch the "probably."

Monday, January 12, 2009

From a potential cousin in Slovakia...

My potential cousin from Slovakia:

"Pamätám, že môj dedo hovoril, ze ma niekoho v amerike, dodnes dokonca pise listy tam. ale zabudla som, kde konkretne. vies, my sme veľmi hyperaktivna rodina..."

"I remember my grandfather told me he had some [relative] in America and even still writes letters there, but I forgot where exactly. You know, we're a very hyperactive family..."

a) This is quite interesting to me personally, as I hadn't anticipated Facebook would have genealogical applications.
b) It's good to know I at least have reasonably independent corroboration that it's a crazy family to be a part of. (I know, I know, that's true of everyone, but it's nice to hear that coming from a Slovak to a mere Faux-vak.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009


     Everyone says that there used to be more snow. Where the snow has gone I do not know, and the meteorologists have not yet explained it in the least. But the fact is that in some olden times there was snow like crazy (for example, Prague appears completely snowed in on Šimon’s etchings1) and in the old engravings you see sleighs in the Prague streets; every year as kids we employed snowballs, long toboggans and sleds and wrote figures in the snow and stomped out signatures and faces and built snowmen far superior to those of the current generation. That is a phenomenon as indisputable as camping by the river, fires, and other natural occurrences that enchanted our childhoods. What made it happen I do not know; but it is not, in short, the way is was. In any way.

     Recently I saw a snowman, right in Brno, I believe, and I wondered if the scales had not fallen from my eyes. Out of nowhere, a few steps from the tram lines, I met a pagan deity, blood brother to some prehistoric stone carving. Fat, gigantic, monumental, terrifying, and official: an idol, simply. A snowy god. Kids have forgotten the proper rituals (they do not bow before their god or bring it human sacrifices) but they have set up an idol anyway out of some atavism, the bigger, the better.

     A bit farther on I find an attempt at a ramp: only a few fingerlengths long and still sprinkled with sand, and every little kid comes running that way trying (in vain) to get a good amount of sliding in. And a bit farther on the street they endeavor to make a mild slope; and already it is full of sleds, one kid lying on his stomach on each one and straining to get five centimeters downhill. Well, it won’t work, there isn’t enough snow, it barely covers the uneven and frozen mud; but they kick at the earth, rebound, dig forward inch by inch in the eternal hope that their sleds will suddenly burst into motion and go—and go—hey, is that not the eternal dream of flight, that a bit of magical power bearing one effortlessly from place to place? Is that not at the core of the ancient fairy tales about the magical cloak, the seven-league boots or winged horses, that ancient myth of superb and enchanted flight? To be borne aloft! If not over seven mountains and seas at least down half a meter of road; to be conveyed instead of ordinary walking by a magic vehicle which runs under its own power, albeit one you have to help. To drag a toboggan or sled up a hill and then loose it downwards: this isn’t just sporting delight in movement, but a fairy-tale, wondrous delight, an instinctive dream of physical thrill. Kids are living mythology, children are the pagan prehistory of humanity. The oldest tradition in the world is being a proper kid.

     You see—scarcely had I begun to worship snow than gods displayed their agreement, for as I wrote—flake by flake—snow has begun to fall on the city. Truthfully, it is only a light and wet dusting at the moment; the first sparrow on the opposite roof is hopping through the snowy crust right up to the eaves; it would be difficult to make a proper snow diety out of this, and even harder to fly down the bumpy slope of Říční Avenue2 on some magic vehicle. But this thin white covering at least signifies that in these awful, corrupted and right gloomy times there is still a place for the pagan strength of life: for fairy-tale elements, telluric3 traditions, magic and wonder, that still remain-—nothing at all: for the snow melted before I finished this paragraph and it has again become dark and soggy wherever I look.
There can be no doubts: there used to be more snow, and the snow itself was better, more solid, more substantive than the flurries of today. Entirely right: où sont les neiges d’antan?4



1 Painter and graphic designer František T. Šimon (1877 to 1942) created a cycle of tinted engravings called “Prague,” published in 1911)
2 In the Malá Strana in Prague. Čapek lived at No. 11 for many years, and wrote many of his books there.
3 terrestrial, extending from our globe
4 [French] “Where are the snows of yesteryear? A verse from the “Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times” by François Villon.

I know my onions.

The first grocery store I ever worked at my father, ever the wag, called "Grand Onion" for "Grand Union," and he wasn't far off.

Like every other (well, each of the other two) food items, the English was cheerfully stolen from Middle French. Ah, the Norman invasion. Anglo-French (and Mod. French) oignon gives us our word, and comes from the Latin unio(n). Yes, it means "union, single thing," a reference to that big unified bulb.

Bah: unlike with quince (I hope) the allium spices have already been covered better in more excruciating detail than I ever would have bothered with. With quotes from Homer, and the Greek borrowings into South Slavic, and the connections between Latin cepa and many of the European words for "onion" [and English "chive"!], proceeding on to other pages on leeks and garlic (Old English gār.lēac "spear.leek") and cloves and going on into the cloves the spice and it's all just wonderful.

So wonderful I have nothing else to add and throw up my hands at my own modest efforts. I hope, at any rate, that the link provides as much fascinating clicking for anyone else as it provided me. Quick, I better distract everyone with a pre-prepared piece of Čapek.

102 words, 1/11/09

Everything is a story, every -ism and -ology and -istics just a framework we cast out into the data brought to us by our sense organs. We like sharing our stories with others and we like living in the same tales as the people we care for, especially things that hang together well, that are funny, and that are true, or a convincing approximant. Like matryoshkas they nestle inside each other from the largest-scale Weltanschauung down to the seemingly insignificant things we tell ourselves or our friends. You don’t have the whole world figured out? Sometimes inside jokes have to make do.

101 words; 4/23/07

The first split second he didn't believe the evidence of his eyes and the course of the subway bore him away. Curiosity and the urge to explore had brought him out that way in the first place. Could it really have been-- By the time he got to the end of the line, he had dismissed what he had seen, but as the days and weeks passed, he found himself returning all the more frequently to that one stretch of track. He stopped believing a thousand times, but tensed as the spot neared, straining for a second glance at the miraculous.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Toponyms in Produce; Part 2 of a Series.

Having hitherto discussed the etymological hyperspace of the quince to a somewhat alarming degree, I thought I'd move on to a slightly smaller morsel:

The shallot. (image cheerfully stolen from Wikipedia)

I've been cooking with these (oh, man, sautéed in butter with just about anything, going to be roasting some on Monday) and have enjoyed expanding my spectrum of allium tastes. (now if I could only see the benefits of leeks except for dissolved in soup). But I'm already digressing. I'd been made dimly aware that the word for shallot (and scallion) had been traceable to the name of a Palestinian seaport, Ascalon (modern Ashkelon).

It was only after the quince intruded into my thoughts that I realized that this had to be analogous to quince.

quince : Cydonian (apple) :: shallot : Ascalonian (?).

I assumed it would be 'onion,' A bit further research confirms this: Latin ascalonia (caepa) 'Ascalon (onion), late Latin escalonia. Early/Middle French escaloigne-->eschalotte-->échalotte, English 'shallot'.

I've yet to use them in salad dressing, but I hear that's a reasonable idea as well. What I'll likely try: chopped shallot, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, maybe a little mustard. I suspect I'll report back on the success or failure of this absurdly simple salad dressing when I'm back to discuss the proliferation of Lat. caepa/cepa "onion" throughout the languages of Europe. (French and English excepting.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

From New Year’s Eve to the Feast of The Epiphany

     As far as I can remember, people say each New Year that the last New Year’s Eve was more fun; why, this year was nothing, but last year’s, there was a party for you! Last year they said the same thing about the year before last, that year the year before that, etc. God, if this decline of New Year’s gaiety has been going on forever, how heathen and debauched must it have been in the youth of Wáclaw Wladivoj Tomek!1 Or during the reign of Maria Theresa! Or in the times of Boleslav the Cruel!2 But I think that even back then they said in a flight of New Year melancholy: “Why, last year with prince Václav, that was an even better one; now that was such a riot, oh, you just had to be there!”


     Everyone I speak to—not just skiers and chestnut vendors— says it should just freeze over already and start snowing. What sort of winter is this? Once it is winter, things should crunch underfoot and nip at your ears and you must slide on the ice and everything: everyone should have bright red noses, there should be icicles on the roofs and flowers of frost on the windows and beautiful heaps of snow along the walkways, so you can collect a handful and hit someone in the back or the back of the head (especially the back of the head). From this we understand that the human need for order has not yet died out, nor the inclination to have things be as they always have been. Humans have retained some firm conception of what is proper and belongs in nature, at least. In such vital matters as snow, we tenaciously remain traditionalists and do not want to see any climatic changes perpetuated. If we were to create the world, if that was in our hands, we would come up with assumptions just as firm as the one that says there must be snow in winter, and we would find a large amount of things that just had to be because they were supposed to be there. In every orderly and healthy thing there is some “has to.” In the republic, in parliament, in the army and in people. We gladly seek out some sort of tradition. The only thing is that tradition is not what once was, but what has to exist right now. Tradition, that is not last year’s snow or the year before’s, but the pretty and fresh snow of this year which just had to be there. I swear it had to; everyone says so.


     It is the ancient experience of occasional poets and columnists that as soon as they praise the snow it begins to thaw outside: as soon as they aver that outside it is black and wretchedly muddy, a blizzard begins to rage. It happened to me just now: scarcely had I written the previous paragraph than a few flakes began to fall outside, as though there had never been a blizzard. I don’t think we scribblers have any influence on it; I think the gods just want to prove that the news is never right. Just let a gambler bet that there is no snow, and lo, snow there is; let him bet that there is snow and lo, there is none. Perhaps there is some meaning in it; perhaps right when the editor writes in the paper that the situation is tense that it is not a whirling maelstrom nor a contorted jumble. Perhaps when the newspapers tell you it is a critical time, the time is not at all critical. Perhaps it is not true that that words of the ambassador Dr. Kramář have created a deep impression. Perhaps it is not even true that commissioner Švehla3 is negotiating with the populists, but the other way around. But if it is true, it is not the journalists’ fault, for it depends on the particular intention and arrangement of the gods that no one else be omnipotent.


     Just the other day I met the Three Kings once again, but there were only two of them, and the bigger one of the two was thin as a rail. Nevertheless they were staunchly singing: “We Three Kings Of Orient Are.” At every door. If they had admitted that “We Two Kings Of Orient Are,” they might have been telling the truth, but they would have ceased to be the true Three Kings and no one would have believed that they were “bearing gifts,” and wouldn’t have given them a thing. And listen, children, we adults do the exact same thing: we sing our political carols, “We, the greater nation,” or “We, farmers,” or “We, the Worker’s Party,” and so on. If we sang “We, the party secretary,” or “We, the high executive committee,” or something similarly honest, our carols would lose all their secret power and no one would give them the least bit of credit.



1 Nineteenth-century Czech historiographer.
2 Tenth-century duke of Bohemia; killed his brother and predecessor Václav (Good King Wenceslaus)]
3 Karel Kramář was the first prime minister of Czechoslovakia, and a member of the National Assembly thereafter. Antonín Švehla was thrice prime minister of the First Czechoslovak Republic during the 1920s

Monday, January 05, 2009

Von brigði

     Von brigði is the name of a remix album of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, a remix of songs from their first album Von. The name is a pun in Icelandic--Brigði means "alternation/changes", so its title means "variations on Von." Von itself means "hope," though, and Vonbrigði (no spaces) means "disappointment." It's been out for ten years, and no doubt many a critic has used the rhetorical maneuver of saying "name aside, it's no disappointment," but I'm going to do it anyway. I already had a soft spot for Von, and at least two of these remixes are made out of bliss.

     A structural note, at this point, on the Čapek. "From New Year's Eve To the Feast of the Epiphany" comes out on the sixth; "Snow" a week after that. Beyond that I'm playing my cards closer to my chest, though I've got enough to run with for a little while, and autoschedule guarantees that these next two will be out at the promised times. (Oh, and Dad, the autoscheduled first one was what caused you to believe I was back in Santa Cruz for New Year's. Also, hi Dad. Not something I ever thought I'd be saying here, but for what it's worth I am glad you're reading).

     Nick's new posts (to say nothing of the old) are a delight. I've enjoyed the opportunities presented so far this year, and would be nothing short of delighted for a reprise of a few of the tea-swilling insomniac nights of yesteryear.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Postmortem, Mojave Desert New Year's Expedition.

Notes from the field: (editorial remarks after the fact)

"Surfeit of oaty goodness." (probably not, actually. .75 cup/person/day you're willing to make oatmeal.)
"Extra propane" (nope, we had plenty, the first can just leaked)
"Fingerless gloves" (warm fingerless gloves. Preferably, mittens. I wore socks on my hand one night, by the Jeezum)
"Club soda" (just to be prepared. Someone asked. We probably could have brought it instead of the ten gallons of water we brought and didn't need.)
"Chairs." (No editorial comment; it's just a good idea.)
Sand Castling (maybe a bucket? We had a moustache sculpt-off anyway)
"Nooch." (someone actually had a bunch of nutritional yeast with 'em)

Cookies were well-received. TetraPak milk is bizarre but passable.

A list of what I brought for clothing and used: (three nights, though I would have made it stretch to four no problem)

5 pair underwear,
2 pair long underwear,
1 pair pants
4 pair socks
4 T-shirts
2 tops
2 light coats
1 jacket
3 hats
1 scarf
1 pair of shorts
1 pair mittens

Things I brought but did not use:
notepad (except for kindling once)
2 pair socks
1 pair underwear
1 pair of pants

Biggest "mistakes":

Bringing the bike bag: unwieldy, hard to get at, hard to get into, probably didn't even need it. The biggest hassle from a getting-at-things point of view.
Bringing extra pair of pants: maybe a mistake--I'm happy in one pair of pants until the cows come home, but what if I'd been spilled on or tore them or something? (Duct tape?)

Too Much Water: we used maybe six, seven gallons for two people for three days, and brought 17.5. We maybe should have been drinking more, and didn't use too much for bathing (ahem)--but we could have saved sixty pounds worth of weight or so.

We packed well, but man, did it take a lot of bedding for semi-comfortable sleeping. The last night I wore two pairs of socks and both pairs of long underwear and three shirts and a hat to bed on an air mattress with a blanket on top then a mummy bag then three more blankets on top next to another person. Which was comfortable and thought-free once we get it set up, which really didn't take that long. Backpacking cold-weather camping would be significantly harder, since it's impracticable to bring five huge blankets with you.

Ah, the post-vacation brain dump. Hopefully I'll need to tap into this resource again at some point.

EDIT: Holy hell we were at ~2500 feet? No wonder it was so cold.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

If I...

     If I awoke on New Year’s Day as the Lord God—no, wait, that wouldn’t work, the Lord God doesn’t sleep—then if I awoke on New Year’s Day as St. Peter, I would say: “What should I do this year for those confounded Czechoslovaks? They are such heretics, and sometimes entirely ungrateful, blast them; there must be some good in them, though. I think that their weather is too extreme; maybe that is why they are so cantankerous and stubborn. It is hot and stormy in the summer, so they grumble irritably; in the winter it’s so freezing that everyone can only think of themselves, acting icily to others. The climate does that. And so they don’t like anything; winter is too cold and summer too hot; if something is black, it is too black for them, and if something is white, it is too white for them; never in their life is anything just right. They are accustomed to this from this weather of theirs. Wait just a moment, you rascals, I’ll show you; I’ll give you a nice bit of summer, like they get by the seaside; I’ll give you mild winters (with snow, naturally, a little bit of snow is a good thing), and comfortable summers with sun and plenty of moisture—it would be deviltry if I didn’t alter it for you. If you were milder to yourselves, your weather would seem nicer; but if you won’t do it yourselves, I will do it for you. Let the Lord God help you in the New Year!

     If I awoke on New Year’s Day as prime minister, I would marvel greatly at this turn of events and stroke my chin at a total loss. (Aha, I would say, I have to shave.) When I got used to the miraculous change in my existence a moment later, I would stay in bed for a few more minutes, as I had done hitherto as an ordinary citizen, but I wouldn’t go back to sleep. I would ponder. “My word, we have the anniversary of the republic to celebrate this year. I know what; I’ll call the ministers together and say: “Boys, last year we presided over the monument to Austria; this year we have to preside over the monument to the Republic. Look, we have to put things together somehow; left and right wings are for the birds; the republic, it’s like—a circle; how can there be a left and right wing of a circle?” Then a number of other arguments would occur to me, but I would put those off until the ministers arrive; then I would get up, making sure—for luck in the new year—that I got up on the right foot.

     If I awoke on New Year’s Day as the Lord Mayor of the city of Prague, I would gaze a while into the far future and then I would say: “It seems to me that Mr. Čapek is right; they really should have started in with that green ring around our city.1 When I imagine those beautiful lanes...and the clearings for the children...and little groves here and there...well then, let’s get to it.”

     If I awoke on New Year’s Day as a millionaire and a man of the upper class, I would say: “It’s already ‘twenty-eight? God, how time flies! Ah well, this year I’ve got to do something with my money, got to set something up in someone’s memory or establish something so long as it’s worthwhile. It’s worth some thought, but the money will be there; we will take care of that.”

     If I awoke on New Year’s Day as a twenty year-old, I’d turn over to the other side and keep sleeping; I’d have lots to think about after New Year’s Eve.

     If I awoke on New Year’s Eve as my puppy, I would scratch myself a bit with my back leg (having some disorderly flea on the nape of my neck) and then I would say: “This year I won’t anger my master any more, I will go outside peaceably, I won’t scatter bones on the stairs, I will keep clean, I won’t sleep on the couch and I won’t run through every row in the garden.” For that I would receive a cube of sugar and be immeasurably overjoyed with life.



1 Karel Čapek himself had suggested the reforestation of the area around Prague and often returned to the concept of the “green ring” in his newspaper articles in the period around 1927. [Unbracketed footnotes are from my 1946 posthoumous edition. Bracketed footnotes such as this will be my own additions.]