Tomato, to-mah-to

Mark’s inaugural post underscores a weird point: pretty much any caucasian American family can creditably pass for a Czech family.  There’s really no particular Czech ‘look’. Sure, there are a few Slavic archetypes that recur over and over again, but there are more than enough exceptions and outliers to muddy the waters.

Any time I meet a friend or family member at the airport who is getting off a connecting European flight, I like to look at each person coming out of the gate and guess whether they are a Czech traveller returning home, or visiting from somewhere else and visiting. Then, I crane towards them and try to make out an identifying language, to confirm whether I’ve guessed right or wrong. Generally, I’m wrong. And most often, it’s the phyiscal posture of ‘Boy, I’m glad to be home’ or ‘Whee, I’m visiting Czech Republic’ tells me whatever I’m able to figure out.

Priorities, and birds with ears

Bob Dylan, on money, 1962:

If I had a lot of money what would I do?” he asked himself, closed his eyes, shifted the hat on his head and smiled:

“I would buy a couple of motorcycles, a few air-conditioners and four or five couches.”

Asked to list his likes and dislikes for a British teenybopper magazine around the same time:

Miscellaneous Dislikes: “Hairy firemen, toe-nails, glass Mober forks, birds with ears.”

Earl 'Ska' Campbell


Jamaican music has the strangest stories of any genre I’m aware of.


Ska was a genre of music that predated reggae by several years and was basically the Jamaican equivalent of big-band jazz. The aural calling card of ska was an insistent ‘oom-pah’ upbeat played by horns. Apparently, the ska sound was largely indebted to one Earl ‘Ska’ Campbell, who did the oom-bah upbeat thing better than anyone else. His epigram:


“It’s said that his style was so taxing to his structure that the first time Ska Campbell got a solo, he died shortly thereafter.


‘I think he really did die a few months after the Skatellites fell through. What he did just became obsolete and no one needed it anymore. He had to try something different, but what he did just about killed him.'”




Ska sample here.


One designer/artist I never hear an awful lot about is Lyubov Popova, in spite of her work and pedigree (student of Malevich, collaborated with Rodchenko and Stepanova, etc). 

This is a textile design she made in gouache and pencil in 1924.


In all fairness…

mcescherI didn’t mean to suggest in my last post that Czech is somehow any more insane than English. My fascination with aspects of Czech is the way that there’s often an underlying logic applied (as in the Island vs. Not Island example), but the logic turns out to be sort vague and applied in a half-assed manner. Many aspects of English, meanwhile, make no pretense towards logic whatsoever.

1. Our irregular spellings. Widely despised, mocked, railed against. Interestingly, it turns out that we have one man to blame for these. His name was William Caxton. In the early days of book printing in the late 15th century, England was lagging behind much of Europe in the field. Also, the English language was in flux with individual regions speaking their own highly individualized dialect. Caxton was the first prolific English printer; he also happened to hail from the part of England with all the awful ‘th’-y and ‘ough’-y spellings. Hence, he managed to codify the language, but in all the wrong ways.

2. Past-perfect-subjective-purple-monkey-dishwasher tense. Really, our past verb tenses are insane (‘would have had I known’, etc) and the part of the language that seem to inspire the most dread in foreign learners. (I used to work at an agency that had quasi-mandatory English lessons, and the ashen expressions of my Czech co-workers as they emerged from the teacher’s office after trying to learn past conditional led me to dub her ‘the dentist’ and her office ‘the dentist office’. That was fun.) Why not just have an international standardized, simplified version of English? When you consider how many conversations are happening every second in English among two non-native speakers, and how much time is wasted tripping and bumbling over these tenses, it really seems massively cruel and wasteful. And it seems to me that you could fully express yourself if you just used past perfect for everything. “I would have come earlier if I had known you were thinking about coming’ doesn’t express much more than ‘I would came earlier if I know that you thinked about coming’, which is basically the same sentence transposed into Czech grammar.

Nerd time: Czech language fun facts

mcescherHere’s a puzzling and quirky aspect of Czech, in case you haven’t yet gotten around to learning the language yourself. I imagine this becoming a kind of fun ongoing series in this blog.

Fun Fact #1: Island vs. Not Island

Generally, the preposition do is used when you’re going to a place (‘jedu do Ameriky’). But, if you’re going to an island, you use na instead (‘jedu na Hawaii’).

Now, if you go to England, that takes the do preposition (i.e. the non-island one). But New Zealand takes the na one (the island one). Even though they’re both islands and New Zealand is bigger. I asked about this and was told that it’s because England is considered more important. Hmm. Seems like kinda a weird subjective measure to base the language on, doesn’t it? If New Zealand somehow became more important on the global stage, would they award it the do preposition?

Only a Dan

Most of the time, being named Dan is annoying because it sounds too much like ‘Damn!’ and other grunted exclamations, such that you’re constantly whirling around in response to false alarms.

However, one enjoyable thing about it is that you can substitute it with almost any song lyric and the results are fun. (For example: ‘LET’S DAN… put on your red shoes and Dan the blues’.) Even works for riffs (Zeppelin, Heartbreaker: ‘Dan Dan Dan Dan-Dan Dan…’). Probably the best is ‘Stand By Your Man’. Not only do you get the deeply stirring (for me) chorus of ‘Stand by your Dan’, but there’s also the profoundly wise line at the first verse: ‘After all, he’s only a Dan.’

Words to live by. If your name is Dan.

Dirty silkscreen


A few years ago, I took a silkscreen class. I think the most interesting image that came out of it is actually this photograph of my half-cleaned screen. I like it when interesting visual things come about by random chance like this.

The image on the screen is a photograph by Malick Sidibe.