What I did on my vacation

Before I moved to Central Europe, I never really thought about the words vacation and Polish border fitting into a sentence together. But in fact, that sentence precisely describes what we’ve been up to for the past five days (and, by extension, why I haven’t posted anything here for several days).

It’s interesting how much moving here has changed my sense of proximity and orientation to this part of the world. When I lived in the U.S. and travelled to Europe from time to time, I used to think of Prague as an exotically eastern location, slightly beyond the outer edge of what’s known and familiar (known and familiar being, I suppose, Western Europe), a gateway to a mysterious land of slavic spires and Orthodox churches. Or something like that. Anyway, now that I’ve lived here for three years, Czech Republic feels overwhelmingly central, for better or for worse– as its best, cozily and conveniently in-the-middle-of-things; at its worst, boringly midwestern. So, within that new framework, driving to Poland spent somewhat like when I was in college in Minnesota and we used to drive to Wisconsin on beer runs. (For more on this European nations = U.S. states analogy, see this post).


Our five days were spent with friends in this renovated old hunting lodge just over the border (the first time, incidentally, that my three month-old son has been abroad), re-christened the Saraswati Hotel by its current owners, Raj and Kamila. Raj is an American of Indian descent; Kamila, Polish– I imagine that this combination must give them a pretty distinct pedigree among hotel proprietors in Poland. Gratifyingly, Raj told me that the lodge had been converted to Communist offices when they bought it, the upstairs subdivided into innumerable dinky offices that were promptly torn down. Leave it to Communism to bureaucratize even the most scenic of places.


Raj has also built a complete recording studio in a nearby farmhouse (shown above). This was visually interesting to me, in part because the structure itself so clearly retains the character of farmhouses found all over Poland and Czech- such that you could almost picture a babushka peeling potatoes in the main room- and yet was filled with state-of-the-art sound boards and pre-amps and general recording gadgetry. Also, there was this incredible-looking harpsichord sitting in one of the main rooms (shown poorly in this photograph, unfortunately):


The event was a week-long get-together among a bunch of musician friends, including a troupe of players from the Warsaw Opera. In fact, everyone there was an accomplished musician except for me and my family, who were egregiously freeloading off the creative vibes. Of course, the great thing about hanging out around musicians is that they’re constantly expressing their enjoyment of things in musical terms, whereas I can only express myself through sarcasm. I particularly enjoyed a surprise midnight baroque extravaganza staged for Kamila’s birthday. The weekend in general reminded me a tad of the Simpsons episode where Homer achieves his dream of working at a bowling alley but then has to quit for financial reasons: as he trudges back towards the power plant, his depressed bowling-addicted co-workers are heard in the background: ‘I’m depressed… What should be do?… I know: let’s bowl!’ followed by happy cheers and sounds of bowling. The vibe with the musician troupe had the same feeling, except with ‘Let’s make music!’ interjected at every opportunity.

Finally, there are a few interesting things to check out on the way:

1. Disused Poland/Czech border checkpoint. I love abandoned checkpoints. This one was fully operational as recently as 18 months ago, creating a thriving and pointless bureaucratic traffic jam. Since Czech and Poland joined the Schengen area (the mass of Western and Central European countries that have open borders) and closed their checkpoints, all that’s missing is some rusting girders and tumbleweeds. It was more romantic and lonely on way up when we passed through this point in the rain; unfortunately, I only got around to taking pictures on the way back when it was sunny… so, I converted them to black-and-white as a compromise:



2. Ještěd. This nutcase sci-fi observatory (pronounced ‘YES-shtead’) sits on one of the highest points in the Czech Republic, just over the border in Liberec. It looks just like something out of one of those 1950s visualizations of the future where everyone takes their own aircraft to work and talks on TV telephones.


Also, some pics of nice countryside on the Czech side of the border (a bit blurry, as they were snapped from a moving car):



Jewish Vengeance

Eli Roth BasterdI loved Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds — I think it was the first movie I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction where I immediately wanted to go see it again.  Not surprisingly, it is proving somewhat controversial — one friend reported that he and his mother walked out when they “realized that we were in for two-something hours of Hogan’s Heroes II,” and a number of people have noted that there is something a little uncomfortable about watching a blatantly cartoonish and unrealistic story of rampaging American soldiers capturing, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, even if they’re Nazis.  During Hitler’s big scene, I couldn’t help but think of all the frivolous Youtube homages that we’d soon be seeing based on it.

I think that one way of viewing the movie is as a thought experiment, “Under what circumstances would you approve of such behavior?”  I am pretty absolutist in my views about following the Geneva Convention etc., but it was difficult not to get caught up in the Basterds’ mission (and tactics).  And, without “giving away” the end, I will say that whereas for most of the movie I was thinking, “OK, this is silly but enjoyable,” by the end, when the Jewish Vengeance is delivered in an extreme and over-the-top manner that only Tarantino could provide (complete with an awesome meta-narrative about film-watching itself), I had a very unexpected reaction — I became totally exhilerated and ecstatic, nearly bursting into tears of joy.  It was an explosion of vengeful emotion that I had no idea I was capable of, and I’ve been hearing similar reports from other Jews who saw the movie.

This unexpected reaction has made me think about how little a role vengeance plays in the standard narrative of the Holocaust.  I’ve since been hearing stories about prisoners who were released from the death camps and then went around the countryside, marauding and pillaging, with the attitude that any nearby villagers were complicit in the crimes; I also heard a story, allegedly reported by the son of an American who was one of the first to arrive at Auschwitz, about how the prisoners barred the gates, and didn’t let the soldiers in until the prisoners had systematically murdered every single Nazi in the camp.  I have no idea if any of these vengeance narratives are true (and I’d like to find out), but if so, they are definitely not part of the well-established Holocaust victim narrative, and, like this movie, they raise some interesting questions about the limits of turning the other cheek.

Name days

Having whined about the Czech calendar and its non-Gregorian month names in my last post, it’s time to talk about the coolest aspect of the Czech calendar: name days. There’s a limited canon of accepted ‘normal’ first names (maybe 400?) in Czech; everyone who has a ‘normal’ name gets a name day, which is marked in the calendar. Thus, all the Jaroslavs celebrate together on one day; all the Petras on another, and so forth. Dan, I’m happy to report, is part of the canon, so I get a name day on Dec 17th where I get together with my friend ‘Big Dan’ and have a shot.

In terms of the stature afforded to name days, it’s basically halfway between a normal day and one’s birthday. Thus: name day = (birthday + normal day) / 2.

Petr Bokuvka’s post on this subject over at The Czech Daily World brought to mind two additional points on this topic. First, as Bokuvka points out, both Adam and Eve (Eva) celebrate their name day on Christmas Day (December 24th in Czech). An Adam I know here told me that this produces a dynamic where whenever an Adam meets an Eve here (there are lots of each), they immediately get to bond about the shared experience of getting screwed out of name day presents by Christmas, etc. Cool.

Also, Bokuvka pointed out something I didn’t know: weirdly, the Czech calendar has doubled up on Peter (Petr) by giving him two name days – one by himself on February 22nd and then another that he shares with Paul (Pavel) on June 29th. As I wrote in the comments section of his post, this gives you the opportunity to literally rob Peter in order to pay Paul, as you could skip buying the former a present in order to buy one for the latter… or, to take it even more literally, by stealing Peter’s present and redistributing it to Paul. Seeing as Peter gets two name days, he probably deserves it.


Do nothing day

gregory-xiiiMy favorite small residual thing about my birthday- once the day itself has passed, the festivities have ended, and the giant paper-mache birthing reenactment tube/slide has been disassembled- is easily being able to figure out what day of the month it is for the remainder of August. Because my birthday falls on the 7th, I get three-plus weeks of easy date calculation.

I wish that these powers also extended to allowing me to remember the names of months in Czech. This is one of my real downfalls when it comes to learning the language of my adoptive country. I even get a tingling ‘oh no’ sensation when the conversation swings towards some topic involving dates.

Maddeningly, Czech month names don’t stem from the familiar Gregorian etymological roots. I would be okay with this if it were a sort of pan-Slavic trait and other neighboring countries also didn’t have Gregorian-derived month names. But no: it’s specific to Czech. Even little buddy Slovakia, which shares about 95% of its language with Czech, has months that sound like January, February, etc.

Another thing that makes Czech calendar names hard to remember is that there doesn’t seem to be any handy mnemonic for keeping track of them. The names actually do mean things, like ‘falling leaves’ and so forth, but with the exception of Kveten (from ‘flower’, for May) the meanings are obscure enough that they’re no easier to remember than just learning the month name outright. Others have no meaning at all that I’m aware of and sound to me like lesser-known Soviet leaders: Duben, Brezen. Finally, they don’t have the feature of being grouped by name length – longer names at the beginning and end of the year, shorter in the middle – that I remember helping me to learn our calendar as a kid. Weirdly, the only naming convention that the Czech calendar shares with ours is similarly-named six and seventh months – Cerven and Cervenec .

Days of the week, blessedly, are much more intuitive and have personable, easy-to-remember names. My favorite is Nedele – Sunday – which means ‘do nothing’. Do nothing day. If you insist, Czech language.

Annals of less persistently being confused with more

Last week, we had a meeting with a client who predictably bleated ‘Less is more!’ at us while trying to explain his misgivings about the direction of the book we’re creating for him. I was tempted to point out to him that, actually, less isn’t more, it’s less and more is more, but decided to hold my tongue and nod, pseudo-enlightenedly.

I’ve blogged before on my feelings about this catch-phrase and my appreciation for Milton Glaser’s counter-proposal that ‘just enough is more’. The Polish Blues Brothers poster that Krafty blogged on is one piece of evidence in the case there is sometimes room for busyness in good design: it’s the jaunty details, the complexity, the sense of bustle and personality here that makes it such a winner. The same can certainly be said for this James Brown poster designed by Sergio Moctezuma at Tribal DDB that I discovered while researching type-only posters for an assignment I gave to my Prague College students. Like the Blues Brothers poster, there’s a visual generosity here that doesn’t often occur in the realm of high modernism. Of course, it also resembles the Blues Brothers poster in terms of its distinct blue cast and the evident love of hand-lettering.


Mailbag: Muluqèn Mèllèssè and Paradise Lost

Reader JS – despite finding the Muluqèn Mèllèssè song I posted ‘nice but not memorable’ – pluckily set out for his local Ethiopian-manned newsstand to get some information on the mysterious singer. Here’s what transpired:

I wrote the name of the song and the singer on a sheet of paper and showed it to the Ethiopians at the newstand. As soon as they cast eyes upon it, the two Ethiopian guys behind the counter broke out in beatific smiles and launched into a duet rendition of the song in close harmony. It was like a real-life evocation of those moments in musical theater where people break into song without apparent premeditation, but unlike karaoke in that it was done by people with strong musical aptitudes who apparently had been preparing for this moment for a decade or so.  (Like the Beatles blackbird.) The singer is some kind of  legend in Ethiopian music, who produced this masterpiece more than 20 years ago, before he renounced “profane music” for sacred music. These days he lives in Washington D.C., pumping out spirituals. They offered me a CD of his profane music on the house, but they will have to root around in their house to find it. In any case, I am now a hit at the newstand just for knowing someone who likes the song, I suspect they will start singing it whenever I walk thru the door, and I may have to pressure them to take my money in exchange for newspapers. I like ethiopians. Now if I could just learn to like Ethiopian food.

So, there you have it: he’s now living in D.C. and singing church music. Thanks, JS!


Meanwhile, regarding yesterday’s post on quiet visualizations of evil, occasional guest-blogger and Milton scholar (no, really) Grandjoe provides some context for the image of Satan On His Throne:

Here are the lines that go with the wonderful illustration by John Martin of the infernal conclave in Paradise Lost. I’d never seen it –thanks.

High on a throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat . . .

Given that “sat’ must be the most undignified word in the language, Milton’s choice of it so close the gorgeous fanfare that starts with “High” plays a practical joke on Satan and on us as well, who started out impressed. There are many other places in the poem where Milton pulls the rug out. Why? Stanley Fish argues that Milton lures us into Satan’s point of view, so that he can then snap us out of it into a realization of our own sinful sympathies with evil. But that’s too moralistic for me. I think that Milton just takes pleasure in pulling off reversals and other kinds of surprises. It’s fun. Mozart enjoys springing surprises too. There must be artists also who trick us.

Contra "The Gram Parsons Zone"


This post is the first in what I hope will become standard fare at Mock Duck – a polemic against a prior post by a different author.  My target is Dan’s “Gram Parsons Zone.” First, to be clear, I am entirely on board with the concept – it’s the use of Gram Parsons as a namesake that irks me.

I have actually had a very similar experience with Radiohead as Dan’s – I never really understood their appeal until, hilariously, I was asked to “jam” with some Radiohead fans who wanted to get together and play their songs.  I was given a list of 15 or 20 songs to learn on bass, which I did, and over the course of the next 2 years I got together with these guys five or six times to play them – often, their insane Radiohead groupie friends would show up.  (It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to being in a cover band.)  I thus became intimately familiar with Radiohead’s catalogue, and really enjoyed rocking out to it – but I was never able to escape that sensation that Dan describes of respecting them without every really wanting to listen to them.

What is it about Radiohead that is so “respect-worthy” but ultimately not quite as enjoyable as the constituent parts would suggest?  Part of it perhaps is captured in the refrain to one of their more popular early songs, “I wish it was the 60s/I wish that something would happen” – they seem to be peculiarly trapped in a sound whose time has come and gone.  The innovations they practice are no longer innovative.  Their dabbling in electronica seems forced.  And Thom Yorke, for all of his brilliance, just doesn’t seem totally convincing as a lead singer.  I don’t know – probably there is a counter-argument to each of these points.  But I think they are an appropriate namesake for this phenomenon because whether you like them or not, it’s hard to say how they really changed music – it’s more like they squeezed a few more drops of “innovative, Beatles-esque rock” out of a dangerously dry sponge.

Gram Parsons, on the other hand…along with Alex Chilton, Nick Drake and Lou Reed, he belongs, in my mind, in the Mount Rushmore of under-appreciated and wildly influential musicians of that era.  He invented an entire genre, practiced today by lots of horrible mainstream country musicians but also by some pretty good ones too like Wilco or Lucinda Williams.  And the first side of the Burrito Brothers’ “Gilded Palace of Sin” is one of the very greatest LP sides in existence, along with Side One of “Exile on Main Street,” Side One of “After the Goldrush,” and a few others (and, by the way, he was basically a member of the Stones when they were recording Exile, and a lot of its rootsy sound is thanks to him.)  (Indeed, a little known Parsons fact is that the Burrito Brothers released the first-ever version of “Wild Horses,” which Keith gave to them.)  “Christine’s Tune” and “Sin City” are one of the best one-two punches on any record, maybe second only to “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll.”  Considering how little music he released before his death in his mid-20s (a few Byrds records, a few Burrito Brothers records, and the two solo albums), the ratio of influence-to-released tracks is basically unparalleled.

In short, Parsons is way too influential and significant to be an acceptable namesake for this phenomenon.  Dan would probably counter that it is exactly because Parsons is so revered that he fits the bill – the whole point of the “Zone” is that you have to respect the musician/band and accept his/her/its place in the canon, etc.  But with Parsons, not only is he just too towering a figure, but also, I think that his cross-pollenization of country and rock, and all of the controversy this has caused, adds too many layers of complexity for him to stand in for the relatively simpler phenomenon Dan describes.  I have a friend who is an obsessive country purist, and he hates Parsons, because he thinks that he bastardized country, just as the folk purists called Dylan a Judas.  Likewise, lots of rock fans can’t get into pedal steel guitar, etc.  (I still remember how I first discovered Parsons as a teen through Evan Dando’s cover of “Brass Buttons,” and how I scrunched up my nose at the country stylings of the original.)  Whatever Dan’s particular take on this aspect of Parsons’ sound and influence, I think that it makes him too complicated a figure for the Zone in question.  Or, to put it slightly differently, I think that the reasons why Parsons “just doesn’t take” for Dan or any listener are unique to Parsons and his particular place in American musical history, and can’t stand in for a similar reaction to Radiohead or anybody else.

So how about “The Radiohead Zone” instead?  Admittedly it doesn’t have the same ring to it, but that’s just because Gram Parson’s name is so awesome.

Quiet visualizations of evil

The genius of Alfred Hitchcock is always being talked about in connection with his mastery of suspense: his ability to create scenes that are exquisitely creepy and psychologically intense without relying on gore and button-pushing (i.e., people leaping out from behind corners and screaming their heads off). I was recently thinking about artists who have been able to pull off the same feat with static images, creating visualizations of evil that don’t rely on violence to get the point across– be it actual violence, the impending threat of violence, or the psychic violence of people screaming or leering evilly at the viewer. What does evil look like when it’s atypically shown at rest?

The first thing that came to mind was the illustrations that John Martin created for Milton’s Paradise Lost. I first saw these in an exhibit at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum in 2002 and got a little chill out of the way that Martin uses darkness and space. Consider Satan On His Throne:


[Click image for larger version]

Martin pioneered the technique of mezzotint, where the artist essentially works on an all darkness-producing plate and scrapes away areas of light. Naturally, this is a great medium for producing images that are somber, obscured, nocturnal, or lonely. Here, the sinister device of those endlessly receding chandeliers creates a suggestion of massive space that’s only dimly revealed – it’s what’s implied and yet not entirely shown that makes the space so imposing. Consider, too, that Martin was somewhat hamstrung by the poem’s depiction of Satan as an ambivalent, not-entirely-evil character (many critics, including William Blake, considered him to be the story’s hero). Therefore, Martin doesn’t get to place a leering, vile devil on the throne (I would even argue that the picture gets both more scary and more relatable if you mentally replace the Satan figure with Dick Cheney’s lolling head and bulging eyes). Rather, what we have is a depiction of awesome strength: “He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep / Of Hell resounded.”

Incidentally, I love the device of the throne on top of giant granite ball. Does he simply fly in and land on top, or are there stairs running up the back side? And, if you look closely at the enlarged version, there are tiny human figures inside the throne– are these his evil assistants, more random denizens of hell, or prisoners of some sort? (Maybe I would know if I’d read the poem… but no such luck).


Last week, I came across this depiction of Moloch, a god associated with numerous ancient Middle Eastern and North African cultures, reaching out to accept an infant sacrifice as he was known to do from time to time. I guess this is sort of cheating by the standards I’ve set, in that the fact that a baby is about to be sacrificed creates a clear suggestion of violence… but I would say that the awfulness of this image has more to do with its unnaturalness, the frozen quality of the profiles, the unbelievable contrast between human characters and the god, and the amazing application of color.



The Surrealist artists in general and Max Ernst in particular were adept at creating dream-like spaces – often quite empty and depopulated – that give us the unsettling feeling that something unnamable has just gone very wrong. Ernst’s The Robing Of The Bride:

Toilet of the Bride

Ernst created a lot of pieces by collaging together bits of existing Victorian steel engravings, which had been the reigning illustration style for children’s books that were still kicking around in his childhood. So, there’s a whole other psychological dimension involved when you consider that these dreamscapes were often composed of reconstituted childhood images, such as as this illustration from Une Semaine Du Bonté:



Lastly, Egon Schiele wasn’t the least bit interested in depicting evil. He was just – among other things – giving vent to a smoldering vitality, sexuality and primitivism that had no acceptable outlet in the polite Austrian society of his time. But it’s pretty clear to me in retrospect that he inspired – both with his distinctive line quality and gouache-y water color – the Frank Miller  illustrations in the Dark Knight series that thoroughly gave me the creeps when I was 10, 11 years old:




The More Things Change…

This is the first in a short series of posts responding to some of Dan’s more recent posts, which I’ve been digesting today after a return from a 2-week trip with limited internet access.  Today’s installment: Sports Before Radio.  I was totally fascinated to learn about this past phenomenon (where crowds would gather to watch crude mechanical reenactments of baseball games), but my reaction is actually exactly the opposite as Dan’s — it seems strangely contemporary, as I am constantly tracking baseball games in almost exactly the same manner via the various cell phone/online real time depictions available from mlb.com, espn.com, etc.   Here’s a screen shot of one of them:mlb-mobile-pre

Eerily similar to the photos from Dan’s post, eh?  It’s often struck me that the information contained in these stripped-down depictions is hardly less rich than what you get in a televised game, where the footage is basically identical from game to game.  Think about it: if they replaced the live shots from whatever game you’re watching today with footage from some 1970s Phillies/Mets game, would it really be any different (other than the silly goatees being replaced by silly moustaches)?  I’m not talking only about the “action,” as in a ground ball to 2nd or whatever, but even the recurring and always-identical Kabuki-like dramas that play out, such as the pitching coach picking up the bullpen phone to get a reliever ready when the starter seems to be tiring, the identical ways that managers fight with umpires over blown calls, or the ways that batters use body language to indicate their unhappiness with a called strike three.  Indeed, when people who don’t care for baseball ask me how I can possibly spend time watching games, I tend to respond, “Well, do you ever spend any time doing absolutely or almost nothing at all?  That’s what watching baseball is for me.  It’s like meditation.”