A Mad Biker's Ongoing Tale

Thursday, September 19, 2013

50 years in from the delivery of Brother Martin’s historic Dream and we’re still trying to get it right. Everybody claims they know how Brother Martin would feel if he could only see us today, that he would shake his head and declaim “No, not there yet. But we have made important strides.”

But can we agree on why we’re not there yet?

Brother Martin - the singular Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. - dreamt aloud of a Table of Brotherhood, where men, women, boys and girls of all cultures sit as equals. But in society at large that’s about as close to being true as Donald Trump is to being charismatic.  Here’s the most shocking part: liberals are just as culpable as conservatives in keeping the Dream at a far remove.... if not moreso, since they pretend the opposite.

Imagine this social snapshot at your dinner table. You’re White as rice, surrounded by your friends and colleagues, all having a delightful time. Then one of them says it: that wonderful word that polarizes society. The one we can’t write or speak in mixed company without presuming we’re all 5-year-olds incapable of spelling. This causes uproarious laughter from a third of your guests, who give in kind. Though you blush crimson, you and the other two-thirds are highly entertained. Then a daring soul among you decides to join in the fun and utilize the word himself - that’s right, a white guy, your buddy, who cracks a grin and offers a “nigger please!” - invoking brotherhood in a clear effort to join the fray. But this brings the same people who laughed at the same jokes two seconds earlier to turn on the hapless loner with bitter invective. Kind and fraternal, to mean and spiteful in two seconds flat.  You then join the chorus, and ask him to leave your table.


How did we get to be so patronizing towards other cultures? Tell me what me this has to do with equality and unbiased brotherhood.  Tell me why there are huge sections of this country who bask in this patronizing sycophancy. No wonder there are so many Blacks and Latinos who join the Republican party. Those who do have cahones the size of Texas, ‘cause both parties are disgraceful when it comes to those mislabeled “race” issues. But if the Democrats think someone should be a member of their club and that someone elects not to join, the Dems close ranks and ostracize, belittle and condemn. Can’t a brother get a break?

Just today CNN.com ran a homepage story on the use of the dreaded “N-word” - with video. We all hear the word in our minds when the media describes it, or worse, when they bleep it out, knowing full well we can’t censor our own thoughts. We laugh at the routines by the “right” comedians who use the word and who knows? You all probably rap along to the word when you’re driving alone in your cars. Every act of alleged bigotry is captured in detail, with the bleeps and asterisks dutifully applied by our watchdog media. Grown adults, even professional pundits and politicians, are saying “the N-word” instead of the word itself. .... and euphemizing any word that anyone can find offensive. We’re allowed to say and write and listen to these words as long as they’re bleeped out in some form, but we all know what these words are! In the 21st century, this is what passes for professional, mature behavior.

This political theater is misleading. My friends and family, and the musicians I follow, are of all colors and some reside in hardscrabble neighborhoods. Where are all these liberal champions when I go visiting there? When I attend the annual West Oak Lane Festival, why can I count the White folks in attendance on my fingers? There are hoards of brow-beaters who cry foul when anyone dares to step out of line, but they won’t step outside their lilly-white comfort zones. Those comfort zones are filled with diverse populations who have allowed themselves to be assimilated into the larger Anglo-European-based American culture. If you don’t fit into that zone, they’ll champion you in the media. But believe me, they won’t give you any face time. They won’t come to visit.

The inconsistency is astounding. The hypocrisy is stupefying.

We should have blown the whistle on the fiction of “race” long ago. There is no “race” except the human one; pick up a book on anthropology and you’ll see. Race and borders are political constructs, designed to separate us from them. Our self-appointed moral guardians are exactly what they purport not to be. Concerned not so much with human rights as they are with the larger target of political statements, which offers higher dividends.

Used to be America was the physical bully in this world, that our mighty might made right. But now we are sanctimonious to beat the band. Now we bully with our bully pulpit, claiming the moral high ground again and again.

Take  Fox’s new sitcom Dads, torn asunder for alleged racism,  yet they use the same jokes found in Family Guy, The Simpsons (who always do it first) and Community. Legions of professional critics who feel it’s not enough to simply review a show, declare that “racism” is okay only when it’s animated, or spoken by Chevy Chase.  Could you imagine using that same argument at work? “Sure boss, I know what he said sounded like he was dissing your daughter’s sexual habits, but c’mon - he’s a cartoon” Critics even condemned Dad’s writers for giving a Latina maid an “offensive accent”  - obviously, they know no Latinas. I wonder how Rosie Perez and Sofia Vergara will react when they learn they’re nothing but backwood, minstrel hicks..... What about the actors in these shows? Are they collaborators or just plain stoopid? Maybe our moral guardians think the actors are hapless victims. Cue the chaste white man running to their rescue.....

Patronizing, belittling, horrid behavior. And we commemorate this as a tribute to Doctor King?

We lampoon Germans and French and Russians and their “offensive accents” on stage and screen; why isn’t that wrong? Why do the critics who decry Dads laugh at French jokes? And tell me what’s wrong with laughter, for God’s sake? Don’t we know the difference between mean-spirited and whimsical? There is real racism in this world! How dare we waste resources and feelings by bullying genteel people into submission?

Remember when John Lennon lamented how the powers-that-be keep us “doped on religion and sex and TV,” in his song Working Class Hero? So what’s changed? Seems to me we’re still getting worked up over nothing. Those with power manipulate us until we are one with them, thinking that we have changed them when in reality they have changed us. Substitute “morality, violence, sex and TV” in that line - society’s latest indispensable balms (don’t worry, it fits the rhythm) - and well, you do remember the words that come next, don’t you? We have become what we had rallied against.

This is not why we marched. I was born a year after Brother Martin enunciated his Dream, but I’ve been busy ever since. And I am friends with many who were in Washington that day. So I can tell you this: this is not what we fought for. We struggled for equality, for the right to address each other as persons sharing the same soil, the same neighborhood, the same country and planet. We fought to meet eye-to-eye, to clasp hands with mutual respect. I should know how to do this because my own family lines are blurred: African, North American and European - or Black, Red and White. I’m a child of the world, a living template of eastern United States citizenry, so I do know: We are equal. As my Cherokee side makes clear: we are  Si-da-ne-lv-hi. Family. One.

As Dr. King testified our job is to create a new reality, devoid of the manipulations. I’m still waiting for us to pay heed. We have achieved much in the last 50 years: more opportunity at work and at play and in the arts, in housing and banking and relationships. I dated interracially in the 70s and I remember well the icy stares, the lack of service at restaurants. In many ways, we have overcome. But until we can see each other as equals and not political bullet points, the truth is we have turned our backs on Brother Martin and indulged in yet another of the American stereotypes the rest of the world is keenly tuned into: our collective short attention span.

We must celebrate all that we are, and can be. We must learn to not only laugh at ourselves but at the grand, multi-hued fabric of society. We must be aware and courageous enough to dialogue, to embrace our differences and similarities.  Profound change is yet to happen. It takes much more work, mountains of courage and diligence. I know we are capable of getting there. But we must be honest about what has gone before and what still needs to be done.

If you want to be a hero, then just follow me: Be color blinded, but culturally minded.  Only then can you claim ownership of stoking the Dream.

posted by mark 12:50 AM

Thursday, April 17, 2008

First let me say how wonderful it is to actually be hanging my hat here in Philadelphia, so an ordinary bloke like me can actually get to watch the Democrat debate in the Constitution Center live and in person. My heart raced at all the well-known and “important” people in the audience, and returned to normalcy rate when I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to actually speak to any of them or get interviewed on camera. And I suppose autographing hunting from the two Most Holy Anointed Ones would have been good to show the grandkids someday, but my wife wouldn’t have been impressed. And neither would I. Obama made more than a few remarks about a grossly inordinate amount of attention being paid to unsubstantial and manufactured issues. I’d say autograph hounding each of the persons who may be someday be leading our nation is one of them.

Anyway – I’ve already heard several reactionary comments on the debate, both sides putting their spins on their boy’s or girl’s performance. (Sorry – should I have said “girl’s or boy’s?” Oh God : I must have a hidden agenda!!) I must say, I was surprised that the audience was so sedate. I’ve heard more chatter at public concertos – though the swarm on any given day at the Alamo would make these debate-spectator critters look like your average pub crowd.

Am I wasting your time talking about trivialities? Don’t you recognize a metaphor when you see one? Look, Obama made a huge mistake when he categorized and sectionalized a enormous slice of the American populace. I’m glad it was brought up as the first question. But didn’t the media hammer go beyond the boundaries of a reasonable arc when it dragged that and every other piece of garbage out there for almost half of the debate?

And when I say media I know there were only two men asking the questions, but let’s face it – they represent the whole. So let Obama answer the question about small-town bitterness. Move on. Somewhere along the line ask about Wright. (But maybe not right after the small-town bit.) Then move on. Let Clinton do her bit to talk about her involvement in Bosnia. Then move on. Yes, these were important questions about how the candidates view themselves and their presumed constituencies. But guys… 40 minutes of this prattle? The back-and-forth on the whole “Weather Underground” thing (didn’t they record “It’s Raining Men”? I love that song!) was…. Absolutely Nothing.

At least Hillary had the integrity to apologize for her remarks. Classy. Too many authority figures refuse to apologize for anything. Saying you’re sorry just makes you reachable, accessible. Obama did take ownership of his “mangled” remark, and that was good, but he didn’t apologize for it and instead tried to defend it, and that was bad, Why? Hillary was on the mark here: he is out of touch with a certain segment of the population. At least that’s my impression. Small-town folk have embraced religion and 2nd Amendment rights through good times and bad. So do a lot of urbanites. It’s got little, if anything, to do with politics. He had the chance here to really connect with rural Americans, and he squandered it.

I could feel his frustration at the constant attacks on his character during this interminable period of the debate. Now he knows how Hillary felt for lo, these many months. (Sorry – I just get a kick out of writing that phrase.) He comported himself admirably; shoot, as little as three months ago during the same sort of exchange Hillary’s eyes would flare up like lava bubbles and she’d be breathing the requisite fire to boot. I know when it’s me in similar situations I’d be ready to deck somebody. So hats off to Obama, there.

But the fact of the matter is that Hillary won this one. And she won it at a crucial time. She won it in the first half of the debate because she was not only feeling the confidence of her popularity surge, she is now not the one on the defensive. And for a long time she was. She’s learned form that – we hope. Obama could have gained points by not tying to justify his positions, or revealed more about his character by saying why he has made the decisions he has made. (Like the flag pin: sure, trivial. Buy why? McGain’s gonna grill him on that, so don’t you think he should have an answer he can tell the public by now?) Irregardless, ABC was playing lowball here. I think ol’ Georgie and Charlie were trying to give him the chance to say “You know what? My bad. I’m sorry.” Pity Obama didn’t take the bait.

When the debate moved onto weightier topics (And I swore I heard this huge sigh of relief from the audience – this first outburst, to presage their jeering of Charlie Gibson later in the night), Hillary won again. Both candidates were happy to address the actual issues they were running on, but I know Hillary got a kick out of being able to stand back and watch the other guy get beat up for a change – and get to throw a few choice blows herself.

When she spoke of an “affirmative action” for every young person she took the lead in painting a picture of a unified America, something Barack stopped just short of. Still, it was refreshing to hear a black candidate speak of the “poor white child”. Sometimes, though, it’s not just the poor who are disadvantaged. It’s the middle-class folk, as well. Hillary’s response sounded more inclusive.

Troop withdrawal from Iraq? Sure. Both candidates are pretty much the same on that; there’s a slight variance on dates, but nothing big here. Iran? Well, Obama’s willing to try more options than Clinton. But neither one want to give an inch on that oaf running the Iranian country. Similar strategies again.

Tax relief for the middle class hit a curious note. Why was everyone on the Kimmel-I-had-never-known-it-was-star-shaped-Floor talking about incomes of 250,000 or less? Show me all those people! ‘Cause I know they’re out there and I know a few personally, but they’re not representative of any America I know. Barack mentioned that 7% of Americans make less than 100 grand; I’ve read 15%. But either way, it’s certainly not the “middle” of anything.

Then Gibson goes on and on about the capital gains tax. Wait! The tax on market earnings? And how does that represent the middle class we talked about in the preceding paragraph? Although it was interesting how both candidates made ironclad pledges not to raise taxes below that hollowed “200,000 to 250,000” mark, then each immediately rescinded that pledge with their hemming and hawing over capital gains. Which tells me two things: (1) the tax situation in America is not and cannot be as simple as anyone, even self-professed beacons of integrity like Obama, make it out to be, and (2) …..er….oh, I forgot. It was going to a good point, though. Oh well.

Then guns. They both managed to play to both sides on this one. And made very rational explanations why. Which was very interesting, coming from Obama, because it’s the sort of thing he needed to say or at least allude to in during that interminable first half of the debate. They managed to straddle the fence with Israel, too – backing off from inflammatory comments that could have had unfair accusations of anti-Semitism hurled at them. But they didn’t embrace the country and the hardnosed policies of its government, either. Guess that’s proof positive that Obama has learned to play the game.

The real thing here that got to me is how what I had previously viewed as Obama’s greatest asset – his unwillingness to play the political game and his insistence on straight talk and, as he put it, “honest conversation” – played like a liability here. While he was busy talking about how much he wants to talk, Hillary was striking the familiar chords of all her years in the business – and I must admit she really came off as being able to handle any power-mad dictator or dire American crisis. She just sounded more forceful, more unwilling to compromise when perseverance is genuinely called for, and yes, more willing to fight for the entire team.

Of course, Barack’s strength is his willingness to fight with the team. Hillary do that? Not bloody likely. Before the debate, what had been my rock-hard faith in Barack was shaken by what I characterized in the initial paragraphs of my essay as insubstantial, by his comments on rural Americans and his lack of comments on Reverend Wright.. By how that played into the flag pin and his wife’s former lack of pride in America. The media spent an obscene amount of time hammering away on these questions, given the time constraints of the whole evening. (A few minutes each on Iraq? Iran? Gun control? Superdelagates? 40 minutes on pins and bitterness and pastors? Please.)

I was hoping that Obama would deliver a knockout blow, a rousing invocation to the best in all of us by calling from deep within the best in himself. This was not to be. And thus I am still on the fence.

In the end, one of our loveable hosts called upon some guy who was watching the debate on TV at Independence Hall 650 feet away. Muttered the inanity that this guy had an “interesting vantage point.”

Maybe I’m just old-school, but the host’s use of the word “vantage point” could only have meant that he commanded a smashing view of the outline of the Constitution Center’s roof from Independence Hall’s 2nd story or tower windows. The guy at the Hall certainly didn’t have much to say from his “interesting vantage.” How is it the debate coverage ended on this note?

Though it was a fitting ending, really, since it demonstrates just how unaware all of us can be. How easily distracted we are in our quest for what we perceive as the upper hand. Myself, I’m aware I need some sleep. It’s been a grand evening of fluff and substance, but now it’s time for solely the fluff that dreams are made of. I shouldn’t have any trouble finding solace in my dreams tonight. I wonder how the candidates will fare with that?

Good night.


posted by mark 7:17 AM

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

a reply to http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/16975596.html; "Whites as Blacks: Risky, rarely successful."

I never cease to be astonished at the views presumably intelligent people have. Neely Tucker of the Washington Post, and by extension every newspaper who carries Tucker's column, states their views in bold living color: "Whites as Blacks" (based on Tucker’s “memory” from the 1830s? That’s a neat trick.) The very phrase segregates, discriminates, is prejudicial. Tucker criticizes white actors who don dark makeup to play black characters or black people, but refuses to acknowledge that these are people playing other people. Not cultures - people. Tucker brings to mind critics of Obama who are ridiculously labeled "racist" and critics of Clinton who are likewise labeled "sexist." In fact, this epitomizes the racial stalemate Obama recently spoke of: we Americans have no idea how to treat people as people. Every face, every utterance, every gesture we make has to be scrutinized as a political statement, for its "objectionable-bility" factor. The result is innocent, honest, guileless folks are accused of doing the most deplorable things, when all they’re truly doing is being fully alive, and trying their best not to cave in to ignorant reactionaries who would name them otherwise. That’s what racist, and it needs to stop. Now.

posted by mark 4:10 AM

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Michael Nutter has it in for himself.

The entire city of Philadelphia has it in for him. I mean the bangers in the street, looking for a reason to put another person in the way or to get themselves out of the way or find the way; the teachers in the school system, looking for another reason to come to work besides their salaries and fat benefit packages; the teachers outside the system, in the charter and other alternative schools, looking for another reason to justify their existence 'cause no one's doling out any sort of government grant money cares a whit about the kids these schools serve; the politicians who fear daily for their existence when million dollar deals continue to be brokered for waterfront development, casinos and racetracks, while the City of the Brotherly Shove has proudly assumed the mantel of Killadelphia; the urban poor Black and Proud who were sold a bill of goods that by changing their name to African-American they would automatically get more respect, and instead have to deal with lip-service that continues to categorize them and refuses to treat individuals as individuals; to a "kinder and gentler" America represented in the mean streets where we all were told to respect other cultures and give them the freedom to call themselves names and celebrate their own violence and be proud of who you are because this new "kinder and gentler" America has to accept that.

Because look how well that turned out.

America is collapsing because we still don't have the barest clue of how to treat each other. Philadelphia is only the most telling community. We will collapse or we will rise up; Philadelphia is the testing ground, because whatever happens here the nation will follow. All of you non-Philly folk out there, don't fool yourselves: we are the 6th largest city in the USA. The rest of you may not think that much of us, don't think that we carry that much clout, but all national movements have to start somewhere.

If we can't contain this cancer that's quickly eating away at us, it will spread. The policies of the old guard did not work, who blithely ignored entire races and classes of people. The policy of the Politically Correct do not work, as entire communities are re-labeled and innumerable behaviors, speech, and thoughts have been categorized, censored and restricted.

This is the defining issue of our times. I will talk more on this in days to come. And for now, Michael Nutter must deal with this swiftly and well.

Or we are doomed.

posted by mark 3:38 AM

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The earth stood silent last Thursday, August 31st.

On that day James Monroe Still, Jr., one of the most notable, most human of all God’s creatures, was given a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. The wags of generations to come will regale in tales of his exploits, repeated and improved with each telling, and perhaps one day too, all the wags’ tongues will, too, be stilled. But his passing will forever alter the world, just as his life has already done, and for that reason the Earth and all the angels and deities that guard it will forever recall him with dignity.

It is my belief that every birth augments the world in some small way, just as every death diminishes it; but certainly all lives are not equal. Those are those who achieve pop cultural fame but their influence is meager and swift, and they add nothing to our eternal ballet. Eminem and Gable and Nostradamus come to mind. Then there are those who achieve no prominence of any sort, but their struggles daily define what it is to be human or American or part-of-whatever-country they happen to be born into. My dad squarely falls into the latter.

A man who defied Air Force generals, businessmen, thieves and most frequently his wife, he both invited defeat and created it, rolling with every punch, often flailing wildly and hurting those he loved the most – those who needed to be loved by him – but he always pulled it together and somehow, inexplicably, exceeded all expectations. When he failed he failed spectacularly, but he stirred all those ashes with a little spit and grit and produced victory from the bile.

A perfect example: the first man in history to gather the highest stripes together in one room, commanders from the four prominent United States military services along with their counterparts from nine allied nations, to annually discuss peacetime Mission Planning. This may sound dry and esoteric to you, but what it really means is trying to find ways to make the world a safer place. A no-brainer really, but one of those things that most people complain about while they wait around for the next guy to do it. Since James was in the Air Force Reserve at the time, he certainly had justification to twiddle his thumbs. But my dad is never one to rest on his laurels. A political independent, he had no agenda save that of wanting to provide a better world for the spouses and children of persons like him the world over, starting with his own wife and kids first.

On a more commonplace note, when he installed a wood stove in the house several years back, he took a blue pencil and a notepad and sequestered himself in his study for two days and one night. He emerged with a detailed blueprint of the insulated ceramic tiling that had to surround the stove in the corner of the den, a clever and artistic pattern. He had no education and no experience in the matter, merely determination to get it done. And he did.

My dad has never been the leading man, the Gable who gets all the glory. He’s not the guy who outwits the bad guys and achieves all his dreams in a two-hour movie plot. No, he’s the guy who keeps plugging away no matter what. By the same token, he’s not Gibson’s “Everyman”, the unsung blue collar hero. He’s been deeply flawed: a man of European roots and all-too-common prejudice, he never succumbed to racism, and always beat his demons back down to give a man – any man, or woman – the chance for the dignity he deserved.

Those of every color who think there is no difference between these words, take note. Prejudices are real, they exist, we all have them, and they can be defeated – day-by day. My father gave way to sexism and elitism and was crass and crude. But he was effortlessly charming and dynamic and tireless and despite his ever-increasing girth, eternally sexy. And most important of all, in the end, eternally noble.

There are few in this world like him that I have met. Who knows? There may be millions or billions and I have simply been ironically isolated from them. Or I may be, along with my two brothers, one of the few most blessed men on Earth. Don’t you see?

My father’s tribulations were hard-felt and often self-inflicted – or at least, self- aggravated. There were a lot of lessons learned for all five of us, a lot of love and anger spilled along the way. But in the end there was tremendous victory. My father pursued a steady stream of business opportunities in his lifetime – he founded many businesses, independently contracted with others, and occasionally even assumed a role or two as employee. He has been wont to call his never-ending search for success a failure, but this may be the only thing he’s said in which he is 100% wrong: his string of entrepreneurial ventures is a continuum that ultimately rested in victory. He never relented, never truly gave in to his baser impulses, never fell to his knees and cried “Enough!”

Through all the sins and doubt and sorrow that permeates the human existence, he stood tall and made it. He may not realize it, but he taught me not only how to be a man, but how to be a good man, a good person. Like any dad, his first thought was to his family. But always in the larger context of how a living soul should act toward the world, to render it a better place.

Why did I write this? To hopefully make you think about your own parents and family, your own loved ones, to hopefully help you think how to make your slice of the world a better place. A man recently told me that he was addicted to monetary fortune, that the more he made the more he wanted. And in a brief second of true confession, he admitted he regretted this. There are much greater things to aspire to, and money is the least of all.

I also write it to extol the virtue of a good man. Not a great man as the world sees it, but a darned good man. One whose love and virtue will forever grace the fabric of this Earth, for now and all days to come. Why wait to tell the world about him? James Still is a star!

posted by mark 12:05 PM

Saturday, September 17, 2005


posted by mark 2:01 AM

Monday, August 01, 2005

Are you ready for me? Posted by Picasa

posted by mark 9:31 PM

Thursday, December 16, 2004

A Santa by Any Other Name an interview with Swi?ty Mikolaj (Saint Nicholas)

The notoriously retiring Swi?ty Mikolaj arrives early, dressed in an ankle-length crimson cassock and matching mitre cap, his crosier grasped gently but firmly in his right hand. I have the impression he wouldn’t suffer this writer laying a hand upon the crucifix without a hardy fight. He snowy beard is regal. Of the four unoccupied seats in the room, he chooses the least conspicuous – a wooden chair with a worn cushion. His complexion is of a ripe olive, his eyes sparkle with wit and purpose. His time, I know, is limited; his steady gaze says as much. We begin.

What’s the first impression you hope to make to those whose paths you cross?
"Talk is cheap and rumors are even cheaper." I know that perhaps this isn’t the most elucidating way to start this dialogue, but let’s be forthright, shall we? Throughout the centuries I and the Holy Babe I eternally serve have been subject to the most damnable distortions. Most don’t bother me – truthfully I think nothing of the sort ever bothers Him – but I would be remiss not to, ah…. exploit this opportunity to its full end. Yours was a bad pun, by the way. "Paths you cross," indeed. (His brilliant eyes, every hue of the rainbow, shift skyward in an impatient appeal. I blush.)

Fair enough. So what are your origins?
There is truth in the assertion that I’ve been around a long time, but this doesn’t translate into a "Divine Birth." My parents were born in Lycia – claimed in diverse times by each of the Persian, Grecian and Roman empires – which grew in time to a collection of 23 city-states united under the virile democratic Lycian Union. That’s the heritage I was born to, in the Lycian city of Parara. At the moment we paid tribute to Rome; contemporarily, Lycia belongs to Turkey. I have since transgressed such unpurposed political boundaries. (Here Swi?ty Mikolaj shifts in his chair. If possible, he seems to grow in stature with this gesture.)

I speak of my homeland and not, directly, of me. But to understand a man you must first fathom his origins. What he inherits, and if he chooses to embrace or reject that inheritance, speaks far more eloquently than any department store biography. As for me, I was conscious of my religiosity from the earliest age. My noble inheritance could not have been birthed in a vacuum; a pilgrimage to each of Palestine and Egypt confirmed this simple truth. I therefore dedicated my life to sharing this vast endowment with all, and in doing returned the precious gift of my birth to my Lord and Savior. Lycia, like all regions in all times, had both rich and poor. To serve Christ and my fellow man I turned my attentions to the less fortunate among us. I gave to those who had not.

You say that very matter-of-factly. But isn’t it a point of fact your family was rather wealthy?
In my youth I met a family who ate a solitary meal per day, from an old kettle they kept in the center of their living room. They had no chairs to sit upon because they burned them to provide fuel for their fire. The passing of the centuries and our fabled accumulation of wealth has done nothing to appease the hunger of families like these. In fact, it has only grown. To such, all are rich. I gave only what I had. (It’s odd that pride never seems to taint his voice. But impatience? Yes, and frustration, resignation, even exuberance. His responses are rapid-fire. How one expresses all this without a hint of vocal pride is beyond me, but he does. His pride is wrapped up in even his subtlest gesture.)

Do you have a favorite memory? I heard tell you gave gold coins to a man who had lost everything and would have been forced to sell his three daughters to prostitution. Three gifts of gold in three successive nights.
Gold coins or brass ingots, what does it matter? One must give what he has to another who has not. I seem to be repeating myself.

Uh…. Apologies. I only mean to show everyone –
You only mean to perpetuate the legend. The fact is I am real. The Christ I serve is real. In every moment, thought is juxtaposed to motion. We are faced with what is, in our minds, the merest fantasy - unless we act. Something as innocuous as do I devour that last slice of pizza or leave it for one of my 12 starving guests, or do I change the channel from TV1 to TV2? Until we act all thought is only gossamer whimsy and naught else.

I went from house to house, city to city, bestowing gifts to those who needed them. I ask you, who does not need to be reminded daily that they are noticed… and loved? Children are the most unreserved in their expression of gratitude – and criticism. Thus as years progressed, they came to love me. I became known to them most of all.

Because you gave most to them or because they were most vocal in their response?
Both. Over time, both. After my aforementioned pilgrimages, I accepted my ecumenical calling and shortly thereafter rose to the post of Bishop of the Lycian city of Myra. When the Roman emperor Diocletian persecuted Christianity, he incarcerated me into the dankest prison. It was Constantine who rescued me – and indeed, all of Christiandom. Though I never approved of the many piercings he had.

Never mind. The march of time is relentless, fashions come and go, but I remain the same. My feast day is celebrated on December 6th and it is at this time I distribute presents to the children of the world who believe.

Why just those who believe?
Logistics. Those who believe and curry my favor in this country should leave a clean – I emphasize clean - shoe on their windowsills or by their beds. In other countries the receptacle of choice is different. Stockings, for instance.

Hmmm. Why the emphasis on a clean shoe?
Would you want to eat sweets from odoriferous footwear? As for the shoe, nothing is more elemental to one’s personal welfare. Sometimes I leave shoes for those who hitherto had done without. Sometimes they even leave sweets for me – which is deeply gratifying…. This naturally bears no relation to the fact that they may receive little from me other than a stern rebuke for their past willfulness. I am a fair man.

I see. There was a Pope Nicholas. Any relation?
(He bristles.) Of course not. By the way, there were five such popes. There were many Saint and saintly Nicolaii in this world. Surely there are others who share your name? I am the patron saint of Russia, however.

Russia? Do the Poles know that?
Very few. I find that highly amusing.

And what about Santa Claus? In Poland he is called "Gwiazdor," or Star-Man. Apparently the two of you have never been seen together. Any Comments?
(My attempt at humor falls woefully flat. He is neither amused not angered. But if this man wore something as modern as a watch I am certain he’d be studying it now.) Not to sound immodest but "I am who I am" – all allusions to science-fictions icons to the contrary. Children in Poland and throughout the world address their Christmas letters to me. For all of these I am held accountable and I accept this unflinchingly.

(I cannot refrain the skepticism in my voice. I soon regret that.) So you’re the "Fat jolly old elf," Clement Moore spoke of?
Young man, I take profound joy in what I do. I am truly blessed; all the more since it is my sacred trust to spread these blessings. However, this need not conform to your expectations of what "jolly" is or should be. The years bring change.

Uh, Right. So what you’re saying is…?
Don’t expect too many sweets this year. In fact your own tradition calls for coal, does it not?

So it does. Merry Christmas.
And to you. May God bless you with wisdom. Are we through?
(It is only after he leaves I notice the sweat stains on the pits of my shirt. It is later still I notice the white chocolate bar lying on the worn seat cushion. My favorite; how did he know?)

posted by mark 5:40 PM

Friday, April 30, 2004


Poland is about to join Europe. We don’t wish to startle, but we thought you should know.

It’s been a long time coming. On May 1st, the eyes of the world will be upon us. Hyperbole? Watch the financial markets and see if we exaggerate. This grand political and social experiment called the European Union, harbinger of the New World Order, is unprecedented in the annals of history - and Poland’s about to join the club.

East vs. West

You’d have to be living in a water closet to not know how contentious our joining the EU is. On both sides of the former Iron Curtain multitudes have gathered and marched in protest of what they see as doom for their way of life, raising salient points that cannot be ignored.

Small farms and businesses will fail, and prices and taxes (most immediately, VAT) will rise. Conversely, joining the EU brotherhood will bring both cash and a major house-cleaning to our beleaguered government - but how much of that will filter down to the common man? Impoverished Poles fear that the palaces of power will expand and leave even less for the little guy than he’s already getting.

“It’s a cliche, isn’t it,” retorts entrepreneur Agata Nieczerzk, “but such is the price of progress. Look around - 20% unemployment, dilapidated infrastructure, a grossly incompetent bureaucracy, too many people selling shoelaces on streetcorners. Poland needs to cultivate strong friendships and raise itself to international standards. Perhaps our greatest problem has been the stubborn belief we’re still under the Communist thumb.”

It’s precisely this state of affairs that strikes so much fear into Western Europeans: that we’ll siphon money, products and talent from their coffers – the resignation of Miller and his cabinet are the case-in-point. Brussels doesn’t see us as a source of stability. Perhaps the most flagrant sign of homeland troubles is the battle-line drawn by the Warsaw District Court against Poland Monthly, Rzeczpospolita and Wprost. The old order is fighting hard to retain its power.

Debate now rages at home on lowering the Corporate Income Tax (CIT) this year to attract foreign investors, and lowering the Personal Income Tax (PIT) next year to attract expats - which is, naturally, a further type of foreign investment. Hopefully it will also keep domestic job-seekers within our borders. Competition for monies and loyalties will be keen.

Redemption Song

Curiously, this great Modern European Republic still has no constitution. In one of contemporary history’s supreme ironies, the country, which has most hampered this process - is Poland. “Don’t be too quick to judge,” notes teacher Jolanta Kruszek. “Poland had the very first democratic constitution in Europe. So who would know better when something’s amiss? Who better to challenge the bully? The voice of Poland saved the day.” Indeed. Perhaps the long war of attrition waged by Poland’s bloated bureaucracy against its pure-hearted citizens is about to end.

Of course even while Poland was rapping on the EU chamber-doors, they and America were openly wooing each other. Despite threats from France to revoke our application if we didn’t desist from this “irresponsible act”, Poland stood firm, and now has a wealth of contracts with American firms. Oh... and up-to-our-waists involvement in “nation-building.”

Yet the EU isn’t the only game in town. The Vysegrad Group was formed within Central Europe in 1992 as a response to the European Union, with Poland as a charter member. But the EU is much more formidable, so today Vysegrad isn’t seriously pursued by anyone. Says IT consultant Adam Nowak: “As soon as the Communists left we opened up markets and dismantled state controls. Can you believe, in mere months there was a real feeling Poland was competing with the global economy! You still see it in small towns and villages today, tiny mom-and-pop stores selling everything from toothpaste to bicycle repair. Entrepreneurial spirit was everywhere.”

Where do we go from here?

Given Europe’s fractious history, it’s no exaggeration to say this polygamous EU marriage, ideal in theory and obstreperous in practice, has been forged from the fires of Hell. But from Hell march the most battle-worn, most tenacious, most idealistic of soldiers. Perhaps famed Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski said it best: “The market square of the word with all of its dangers is finally a more appropriate place.... than the king's court.” Give us open borders and free trade and in return we’ll give you the fiery Polish soul. In the end, that’s not a bad deal.

posted by mark 7:09 PM

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


Scene: fastened into his car seat, on the living room floor.

WHAT’S THIS? My foot? That’s nice. And that? My pants? That’s nice. Oh, there’s a device, plastic and shiny. It’s a nice color. Why, I think, I think I’ll call it “Blue”. Yes, blue. That’s a nice name for it. And I’ll name the device a “buckle.” Yes, nice buckles should be plastic and shiny. Look, there’s my middle. That’s nice. I’ll call it a “no-muck”. No, no, that’s not nice. I know, I’ll call it a “stomach”. Yes, that’s nice. Oh, my finger is in my mouth. You, yum. Very nice. Does the middle finger taste as good as the first finger? Why, yes, yes indeed. Very pleasant. And there’s Daddy. He’s nice. Behind him is a light, small and round, looking over him, over his, his..... “shoulder.” Shoulders are nice. I’ll call the ball a “sun.” Yes, that’s very nice. Very nice. I want the sun. Let me reach for it and maybe I can refract the light from my fingernails… wait, is there a fingernail on each finger? And why did I call them “fingernails?”. Oh well, that works. Wow, there’s one on each finger. But on each hand? Wow. How fascinating. How nice. And on my funny finger, too? Yes, there it is. I’ll call it a “thumb”. Is there a funny finger on the other hand, too? Wow, there is. And they’re opposable! Wow. How nice. Look, a dust mote. And another. It’s floating over the many intricate tapestries of time and space. And there’s my stomach again. Hmmm…. There’s my feet. Hey, Daddy’s feet. I’ll eat them. Ummmm, very nice. I’m tired of eating. I think I’ll “votit”…. No, “bomit”…. No, er…. I got it! I’ll “regurgitate” on his feet. Ah! Very nice. No, where was I? Oh yes, the sun. Wait, there’s the floor! What a nice color. Are there any more? Hmm, yes there are. And there’s mommy. Maybe I can eat her feet. Wow, look at that paper….. it has a nice design. Does my butt have nice designs? Mommy and Daddy must think so, they spend so much time putting paper on it. Hey, Daddy is tasting Mommy! That’s nice. Oh, my stuffed bunny. Nice. Colors are nice. Daddy is wiping his feet, but why? He’s taking away all the nice colors I gave him. Oh, now he’s reaching for me! Breathe hard, Zbyszek! Wave your arms and pump your legs. Give him that half-tooth goofy grin! He’s taking me, I’m rising. Oh, look there’s a dust mote on his nose. Wow. He’s squeezing me. Ah…….. how nice!

posted by mark 8:36 PM

Wednesday, January 07, 2004


posted by mark 6:14 PM


It's the small things, really. A meager smile, offered at the tiniest trifle: perhaps at the last leaves of autumn, cascading in the winds, or perhaps still the first raindrop from an approaching storm, or the last drop of a departing one. Her brisk, assured pace, which pauses to appreciate the passing procession of life. The slight tension in her calf muscles as she twists 'round at the calling of her name. The way her cheek refuses to blush at the way the gentlemen across the way stare - likewise at the hooligans across the way, too. Yet accompanied by an unmistakable change in her manner, a warmth which rises from deep inside that the gentlemen and the ruffians and anyone else even casually looking in her direction are sure to spot.

Much has been written in praise of the Polish feminine form - and many more volumes are yet to be filled. In these volumes, both actual and yet-to-be, two notes are consistently struck: that our Slavicbeauties possess a sheen unsurpassed. And this is coupled with an awesome and refreshing modesty.

In this slavering rush to deify, the woe-begotten male of the species is apt to overlook what he clumsily labels inconsequential. But though we say "overlook," we do not mean "unaware." Certainly all are aware - even the blushing bride-to-be is aware (ah, someday) - but generally in the most unconscious sense. These small things are adored by the practiced eye - and loved by the willing heart. And the willing hearts are legion.

Reyes Davies trotted over from Wales to find work and a spot of adventure; instead he found love. Christopher Millian from San Francisco found the same. Mike King from Angola, Sanjay Srikonda from India, Alain Morceaux from France, Dimitri Dovestvsky from Russia (don't blame us; we didn't name him), all made the same journey. Sure, their starting points were different but all ended up here: the Promised Land - not even knowing it was the Promised Land until all were under its spell. Even this author fell prey to the same idealism, though the normal order of work, then love, were reversed. For his Polish Queen he was willing and able to leave all that was familiar and comfortable behind.

Millian vowed never again to give his heart away, unless it were to Jesus. He had been down that other road before, and with the benefit of hindsight found it all too well-trodden: his fairytale marriage dissolved into a momentary condition, avowed romance into avowed silence (he entered the seminary after the dissolution), family togetherness into monthly palimony. One fine day an opportunity presented itself for him to make a difference and gain valuable teaching experience in Warsaw. Once here, the girls flocked to him, an exotic dark-skinned foreigner in their midst. Eventually, one of them stole his heart away. Thus he relinquished the others for the one call he thought he'd never hear again - that of true love. Without regret.

For all those expats who found love and marriage, there are more who are drunken as bachelor revelers at the wedding feast. Sean Anderson thought his rural hometown of Seeridge, Scotland, was too small to hold him and his dreams. A frequent story - though he escaped to Warsaw to find his particular fortune. His plan was to stay a year and then move on - but he's since had a change of heart. Or to hear him say it in his regal burr: so many ladies, so little time. The same for Tony Salan from Michigan and even the lovely Yukon maiden Barbara Peale. And Alec Milka is positively giddy with the serenity this Polish ocean brings: separated from his Bulgarian wife and pre-pubescent daughter, Poland has welcomed him with more than one pair of welcome arms. And he welcomes that.

Consider it this way. What would be the ideal evening out for a Polish beauty? A German girl would be dashing in her hiking boots and multi-hued stockings, especially as she both drank and cussed you under the table; at least she'd fling you over her shoulders and carry you home afterwards. The English lass would welcome the same competition - but it'd be she who'd wind up on the floor. The Spanish dame would be sure that every other man in the place knew exactly what he was missing. Both before and after drinking you under. The French lass wouldn't even consider drinking - or talking - with you unless you offered a national vintage. You'd hit the floor from exhaustion before you even worked your way through all the layers of garments covering the Norwegian damsel. As for the American belle, forgedaboudit! Beauty and modesty just don't co-inhabit thereabouts.

Ah, but the Polish matriarch is unconscious of her exquisite elegance. Uncompetitive, unafraid, inattentive to the others who, like her, are blithely content to be themselves and nothing more. Their loyalty is legendary, their devotion to both the traditional views of family and children as strong as their willingness to contribute to the same. They bring to the table intellect and career-orientation without sacrificing a whit of the loving wife and mother. In short, they are the renaissance woman both for the post-feminist and post-communist world, a force of fidelity and devotion without peer. They demand little but the same values they show their men: love, tenderness, wit, allegiance. These are rare and prized qualities, which must be treasured and amply appreciated.

But how? Well, certain principles apply equally to all women. First, listen. Truly listen and make conversation that shows it. Second, make her feel like she's the only girl in the room - no matter how big the room or interesting the crowd. Other than that, flowers are always a safe bet. Seven red roses if you're really in love - or any odd number. (why odd? As a fiddler-lover named Tevye once famously observed: tradition!)

On the communist-inspired (some would say "imposed") Woman's Day, flowers (tulips or legendary carnations, which are pretty difficult to come by these days) and quality chocolates should be enough. Same for Valentine's Day, which is approaching quickly. (You mean you haven't planned anything yet? Shame on you!) Take her to the best restaurant in town - or better yet, prepare a home-cooked meal. If that means buying a cookbook and taking a crash-course in the culinary arts, then do it, man! Just the effort will secure a place in her heart.

Birthdays are less important than Name Days once the lass passes 18 - but don't dare make the mistake of forgetting her birthday. Not if you plan to be around to celebrate the next one. As for Name Days and more importantly, Christmas - expensive perfumes, lingerie, more chocolate, and whatever meager amounts of gold you can hoard. And always tenderness. If in doubt, flowers are always a safe bet. Seven red roses if you're really in love - or any odd number. (Why odd? As a fiddler-lover named Tevye once famously observed: tradition!)

We can also tell you what never to get. This author once thought a big, glass-encased candle would add a luster of romance to their somehow-incomplete apartment. One day he sprang this pleasant surprise on his unsuspecting wife, only to be surprised himself at her gaping mouth, pale complexion and horrified eyes. Turns out it was a cemetery candle, for the tombstones of dead relatives. Caveat emptor.

It's not just the Polish women who are adored, you know. Terry Douglass hails from Ohio - but she found herself a man here and here they'll stay. British expat Helen Thompson similarly swims the Polish waters - marriage is a long way off in this sea of opportunity. And South Carolinian Saffron Ellis simply will never get enough of Polish men: she is evermore a confirmed bachelorette and Slavophile.

Sadly, not all is sugar and spice. Donald Blain escaped to Poland with his Polish-American wife, convinced that the Apocalypse is near and Poland the safest spot on earth. We at the Insider guess that's good - except for the unfortunate fact that he hates Poles. And Michael Blankowski came from London to start a business, achieved untold success, married a Polish beauty, left her in the Christmas season, and is diving headfirst back into the waters. His kind of "admiration" we don't need.

Yet despite the occasional sadness - both from crass opportunists and post-Communist realities - Poland is truly a wonder to behold and partake of. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the faces and hearts of its stout citizenry. We have mountains and seacoasts, magnificent lakes and vast forests, but it's those hearts which are the bravest, the most exquisite of all. Did we say "the small things"? Nay, we meant the large. The very large, indeed.

posted by mark 9:49 AM

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The snow patters upon your face, aided by soft movements of the breeze. The streets grow quieter as you head for home, until there is only the remote sound of flakes accumulating and the beats of your heart, furiously circulating warmth to chilled extremities. The brilliance of Gwiazdka, the first Christmas Star, paints everything in somber hues that bespeak of family, friends… and love.

So what the heck are you doing in Warsaw?

In this, our Advent season of impending EU membership, the numbers of expatriots trickling into Warsaw increase daily. We have wives, families and jobs… Poland’s our new home.

Or is it? Some of us have left all loved ones behind; in the cross-cultural smorgasbord that is Christmas, Hannukah, Ramadan and Kwanza, being alone can be oppressive. If you’ve recently arrived to pursue a new career, or your significant other has just skipped town, and the old familiar faces are a thousand miles away, then what do you do here in the City of Big Brotherly Love?

The obvious choice is to wait until Christmas Eve, then knock on a random citizen’s door. There’s an age-old tradition in Poland that the Christchild will appear as a stranger at the door on the eve of His birthday, and many families set an extra space at the table. Christianity has always leaned upon the image of Christ as the unlooked-for (and possibly odoriferous) stranger; in Poland they’ve boiled that perhaps unsavory notion down to a single annual event. So don’t be shy: the grandest spirit of all may be moving within you.

Polish Christmas fetes are unquestionably among the planet’s most family-oriented. Poles are exceedingly warm and loving, having learned to do so within a Communist-instilled-atmosphere of fear and distrust – an astounding feat. They learned to eat, drink and be merry in private, if not in secret, and those old habits die hard.

In my quest to find those covert celebrations, I’ve spoken to dozens of gracious souls. All advise the same: find yourself a family to break bread together. Locals may shy from the uninvited dinner guest, but many would be gratified to extend a plateful of pierogi and sledzie to the new arrival in their workplace, church, or - if you’re really lucky and have abounding interpersonal skills - neighborhood. And if you think you don’t know anyone well enough to wrangle a dinner invite or share a Midnight Mass, there are a number of organizations which will help you find some company. Uh, the platonic kind, of course.

Listen to Pastor Ed Broke of the Open Door Christian Fellowship: “My wife and I were in the military,” he relates, “and know about being away from family…. We open our church and our home this holiday season to anyone in need.” Warsaw International Church has the usual lineup of prayer services and carols, and also visit orphanages on December 7th and 14th “to celebrate the season with them. We welcome everyone! As Christmas gets closer, small groups will make plans for meals or a ride in the countryside.”

Rabbi Joseph Kanofsky can help you find food, friends and prayer all eight days of Hannukah, Alcoholics Anonymous conduct English meetings every day of the year. And the Safari Club aids Warsaw women in search of cultural and sporting enlightenment. The Canadian Circle also puts together a Christmas fest. If you like to run, walk, and/or socialize, contact the Warsaw Hash House Harriers or Warsaw’s Family Hash House Harriers, (though you better hear what an HHH is from their own lips) which are both planning Christmas get-togethers. The American Ambassador invites those with nothing to do to his home on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it helps if you’re an Embassy employee. And the British embassy has a dues-free pub open to all, which meets every Friday.

Naturally a few personal stories stand out: Mike McMillian hails from NYC and is a teacher at the International American School in Kabaty. “I’m different than most,” he confides, “I spend Christmas Day in isolation… internally preparing for the coming year, celebrating the call for harmony that is Kwanza, exploring that which is Divine in all peoples.” Mike is abundantly sociable and accessible, but Christmastime is his time to refresh and recharge... a welcome change from the commercialized bustle he left behind.

Grzegorz Semenowicz, on the other hand, is a recovering expatriot. Pure Polak, he’s lived most of his life in the UK. For now he’s back on homesoil, and a few years ago he and his girlfriend trekked to a village south of Kraków to spend the holidays with a family she knew. Greg was the only guy there.

“They cried all the time,” he laments. “It was a bit awkward.” I ventured that someone close to them must’ve died. “I guess so,” Greg continues. “I didn’t really want to ask, ‘Oh, now what?’ I mean, they would break the op³atek and then break into tears. And we were snowbound in that house for three days.” Ouch.

On another Christmas Eve, Greg was in a small hostel when a wayfaring stranger blew in with the wind a minute to twelve – the 13th person to join their merry band. “Some of the guests were terrified. I think they thought he really was the devil. But after a few hours they calmed down.”

Tom Melcher’s tale is best: he saw a talking donkey on a dimly-lit mountain village avenue. Midnight Mass – which has been virtually banned in the States because too many drunks kept crashing the party – in Poland is called Pasterka, or Shepherd’s Watch. While the congregations pray, the Holy Dove is said to descend upon our domestic animals and grant them power of speech. But only the pure of heart can hear them. Tom hadn’t been pure of anything that night, and had a local pastor in the States seen him at that miraculous moment, he may have barred the doors.

But if you’ve nothing else to do you may want to wander down to a live manger scene and give it a go. Sit placidly in the snow and… who knows? Or better still, maybe a talking donkey will come rap-rap-rapping at your door on the 24th. And start a discussion on how lonely it is to be stuck in Warsaw while all his donkey friends are home munching hay in Minnesota.

posted by mark 6:08 PM


By Mark C. Still

"Can you make people want to be in Warsaw this winter?"

Wow. Now that's a challenge, isn't it? Yet that's exactly what this Insider writer was presented with one cold, gray Varsovian morn. Who wants to cool their heels in this boring burg? City heat and low elevations blanket our fair city in the cold and wet but lasting snow is something of a rarity. However, the only legitimate reason for boredom is lack of imagination. And the only legitimate response to boredom is to nurture that imagination, by seeking out or creating thrills on your own. This is what Varsovians excel at; for here, anything is possible. Perhaps at no time more so than in the numbing, relentless cold of Polish winters. If you're looking for a welcome - and daring - break from this monotony, the world of extreme winter sports is waiting for you.

Warsaw is a perfect jumping-off point for diverse extreme adventures, tailor-made for our intrepid ice-veined legions. And right now that's just about everyone. How does ice-diving grab you? If that doesn't float your boat, you could take up ice-sailing. How about kiteboarding, ice-surfing, ice-biking or shovel racing? 200 Balling? Maybe permanent Polar Bear Club membership? And if these don't excite you, perhaps a heady mix of 'board, 'chute and tall Tatra peaks will. Let's take a closer look.

When the Insider first heard of ice-diving we thought it a silly way to create memories, if not contusions, but after we realized it didn't involve simpletons jumping head-first onto the ice we began to see the appeal. That is, if swimming in darkened water a hair's breadth above freezing, covered by miles of an impenetrable lid with only a tiny opening wide enough for a fat man to wiggle through is your idea of appealing.

Piotr Gadecki of Diving Center Nowa AMA spilled his water-logged guts on this, the most claustrophobic of sports. (His boss is Jacek Paradowsk, Poland's premier ice-diver, who literally wrote the book on the subject.) "AMAs" are Japanese chicks who dive for pearls - a risky venture by any means - but replete with the most romantic visions of death-defying. Think Bond girls. Got the image? Good. Now think Bond.

Nowa AMA operates a Centrum diving school, but organizes trips year-round to Mazury and the Baltic coast. Oh, and Egypt every February, for those who want to experience ice-diving without the ice. This month they're heading to ¸anskie Lake, where they'll book into their usual hotel, cut a triangular slice out of the 50-cm-thick lake ice (it's easier to climb out of the water if you have corners to pull yourselves up on), and set to work at creating their play.

Though the water is dark, it's also clear; lake waters settle in winter, clearing away all the murk. That's good. But it's so cold that the regulators - the breathing apparatuses - often freeze solid. And that's bad. But you get two of 'em plus two air tanks and all dives are in tandem with a AMA professional, so a potential textbook "buddy system" rescue is never far away. So that's good. Another buddy waits topside, holding the rope that's attached to both you and your veteran partner. That's very good. But that rope can easily sever on the edge of the ice-hole, and that's very bad. But you get a second line, an "ice screw"... which you don't attach to anything until after the first one snaps. Which is when you decide if you have a set of brass ones or your average garden-variety snowballs.

Naturally, any activity this risky requires licensure by certifiable...er, certified professionals. To this end the Insider asked Piotr why a diver wouldn't want to use that second line as a preventive instead of an emergency measure. "Where's the fun in that?" he replied with a Mephistophelian grin.

Cheers to the brass ones.


For (marginally) drier adventures, the Insider turned to Szymon Gruszecki, the publisher of Hiro Magazine ("Hero" spelled phonetically for the local yocals) - dedicated to extreme sports and "people who do outstanding things."

Maybe you've seen the clips of ice-sailing on Eurosport or ESPN: catamarans on runners, propelled by wind and enormous sails. With Poland's harsh monsoons, speeds of 100 km are not unachievable. (The world record is 170 km). Situated near Olsztyn Jezioro Âwi´cajty in Mazury is a prime locale, but you can accomplish the same 20 km NE of Warsaw at Zegrzyfskie Lake. And, yep - you need a license first. But it sure beats puttering around in a Fiat during rush hour.

Also on Zegrzyfskie are ice-surfers - whose windsurf boards are perched atop skates - and kiteboarders, who harness themselves to small parachutes ("kites") as they board. Gusts of wind and waves can set summer kiteboarders airborne for up to 50 feet and 30 seconds. Contrarily, lack of waves and breakable water below may make for less spectacular wintertime jumps, but that brings the Insider back to its original supposition about ice diving. And licensing? Heck, we don't need no steenkin' licensing.

Drive over whenever the weather is right; it's a big lake but easily accessible by car. Be sure to wave at the hookers stamping their boots near the exits, and the muscular Moscowites in their Mercedes concealed in the nearby trees. Or stop and offer them all a hot chocolate courtesy of the Insider. It doesn't get much more extreme than that.

The "crazy things mountain people do" are in a class by themselves (too extreme for you, Szymon?). The 200 Ballers take the fast way down the slopes, inside giant rubber balls. Or they fill burlap bags with hay and ride 'em bareback, a-whoopin' and a-hollerin all the way. Szymon assures that the speeds are nothing short of spectacular. City slickers who can't locate sacks of hay or huge inhabitable balls need not despair however: designer snow shovels, molded to hug the contours of the most thickly flannelled-covered derrieres, guarantee a ride to remember.

If none of these set your heart to pounding, you could try ice-biking - with either old-fashioned wheels, or those more creatively designed with skies in lieu of the former. Or snow-blading, which is essentially roller-blading on snow. These sports can be enjoyed right here in Wasaw, anytime there's snow near Welwetowa Hill in Kabaty, or in Park Szcz´Êliwicki. And don't forget to lay in a stock of Ace Bandages. All this is oodles of fun, but dangerous stuff nonetheless. Get proper training and protect your most valuable frozen asset, yourself.

If you want to feel that wild rush adrenaline brings, without dire risk to health and sanity, you could grab friends and bath towels for an extravagant dip amongst the ice floes. This qualifies you for lifetime membership in the Polar Bear Club. Although if you prefer to socialize over the bun warming... I mean freezing, bona-fide clubs can be found north and south. But even this, photos of overweight frolicers notwithstanding, can be dangerous if you're not in good health. Consult a physician before you actually take the plunge, and you won't have cause to regret the dip.

If all of the above still finds you victim to uncontrollable ennui, as a last resort follow our suggestion to strap on a chute and board, and take the most expedient route down a Tatra cliffside. Like they do in the movies... But, nah, nobody could be that crazy.

Could they?

posted by mark 6:07 PM

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Oh, please.

There's a lot of nay-sayers who diss these movies. To them I say, if you don't like the movies, fine..... it is not a personal attack by Jackson against your mind's creations. If the lot of you are such paragons of literary virtue, please band together and create your own movie series. It's always telling when the self-styled critics don't take the time to check their grammar, syntax and spelling in their bile-spewing "reviews". As if Peter Jackson and crew exist to please them. Same for all the people who complain OR praise that the hobbits are gay because they're loving and friendly. Again - get a life! Same for those professional critics who refuse to praise this film too highly because after all, it is ONLY fantasy. What elitism!

As if Peter Jackson and crew exist to please you. One of you whined about his "unhindered arrogance." Check yourself in the mirror, please!

Sure, I had disappointments. But not in the first movie: The extended edition (EE) of Fellowship was, I thought, a perfect movie. Nothing wrong. Simply took it's time in establishing all these wonderfully-drawn characters.

My overall compliant is in the casting: I know what Tokien wrote was a masculine, whitebread affair, but I have to wonder what reasons Jackson gave for turning away all non-white actors at the door. I hasten to add that despite the obvious prejudices of his tome, I think it is the greatest ever written. Jackson’s film, by contrast and comparison, is the greatest sci-fi/fantasy film ever produced. And one of the best movies ever.

The biggest letdowns were in Two Towers; I mean as soon as Aragon asked Legolas what his "elf-eyes" saw I knew something was wrong. What, Legolas need to be reminded he's an elf? Glimli was mere comic relief. It was dawn in the forest and Osgiliath while night raged on at Helm's Deep. And those Ents and trees were mightily unaware of things transpiring in their own forest, but once made aware moved frighteningly fast. Eomer's forces multiplied quickly - and at that, how many men were left in Theodon's kingdom, anyway, if Eomer took away so many? The Fellowship needs the Riders to tell them that a large funeral pyre is burning directly behind them. The Fellowship is again surprised that Merry and Pippin retreated to Fangorn; Glimi even wonders aloud why on earth they went in. Call me glib, Glimli, but maybe it was war and imminent demise? How did the Elves get through the Orc defenses? And why on earth did Frodo reveal the ring to the Wraith and suffer no repercussions? Doesn't that defeat the narrative of the rest of the film? How would Sauron then think that Pippin has the ring?

Many of these changes work - not better or worse than the movie, just different. And others lack narrative sense - just Jackson uping the dramatic tension bereft of logical cohesion. Directors do that.

But ROTK atones for most of these puzzzlers. I know the EE will provide more for us diehards. Most everything worked - and I have only seven minor complaints:

(1) Of course, Merry may have only believed that Sauron thought Pippin had the ring. But still, how did that help Frodo and Gondor? Shouldn't have Sauron's attack been larger and more immediate?

(2) Sauron IS the eye? It looked silly portrayed as a searchlight, then as a helpless orb casting about wildly for a means of escape as it toppled.

(3) The Army of the Dead looked like casting extras from "Pirates of the Caribbean". Something a little less Disney would have been in order. Their dialogue was Disney-esque too.

(4) Aragon never seemed to have that “king-making” moment; he seemed less to aspire to greatness than have greatness thrust upon him. I know this may merely be a cinematic difference from the book, but kings are supposed to inspire others to follow. Aragon did that in TT. Then again, maybe that was Jackson’s purpose: reveal this aspect of Aragon’s character in TT so he could deal with so many other things in ROTK.

(5) Boy, Elrond moved fast, didn't he? You'd think that if the elves could move as fast as they did in these films, and since they apparently didn't deal with Sauron in their realms as Tolkien described, they'd have been able to defeat Sauron in Mordor themselves.

(6) The Witch-King was easily defeated, huh? Makes you wonder if a battalion of women could have leveled the whole fortress. Then again, maybe women elves.

(7) Bilbo is replaced by an obvious fleet-footed, skinny double in the final scene. With a bad rubber wig, to boot.

None of these take away from my enjoyment of this movie.

Key scenes were missing, but again I hope they will be in the EE. These malcontents who complain loudly thought that the rest of the world would gladly sit through a four or five hour movie, and are dead wrong. If Jackson did that, his movies would not have made the money they did and would have died a quick death after the Fellowship, if having been green-lighted at all.

I heard many - including friends - who complained about the multiple farewells, but I think a film series of this magnitude needed them. Sigh - if only The Scouring of the Shire were filmed for the EE.

Fellowship was a character- and plot-driven movie. Two Towers action-orientated. Return of the King integrated these two elements seamlessly.

Peter Jackson made one for the ages, and I for one am deeply grateful for the wondrous effort. At least if the whiners had made a similar effort, I could then thank them for that. But instead they're content to damn others whose talent and ambition far outshine their own. Let them go back to their Internet role-playing games; I'm sure a lifetime of complaining about Jackson and whomever else they set in their crosshairs will make their lives very full, indeed.

Myself, I can't wait to watch the whole series in quick succession - again. Viewed as a whole, this series is peerless. And holds together exceptionally well. What, a long, strange trip it's been!

My deepest, deepest thanks to the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings - and to the world, which made this triumphant vision such a success.

-Mark C. Still

posted by mark 9:13 PM

Monday, September 29, 2003

It’s hard to describe the loss you feel at a friend who’s been there for you every step of the way. Through tears cried from pain and rapture, through teeth clenched at the ignorance of others and the stupidity of oneself, Johnny Cash was this to me. I knew he was ailing and I knew he would go, but when a three-word news link on my mail server made me aware that it had indeed happened, my pulse stopped. With crushing finality, I knew the world had lost one of its most sympathetic and comforting presences – and that for me, the daily search for reason which life demands became a little harder.

Johnny’s was the first voice I heard outside my family raised in steely pride for the common man, the repentant outcast, the habitual sinner – often all the same person. His was the tongue of everyman and woman, the voice of humanity. There was no sorrow he couldn’t understand, no soul he couldn’t penetrate, no joy he hoarded. He personified the Human Quest as the sagacious prophet who knew the Answer as well as a few hundred reasons to ignore it. And I was confident he’d run off with me at a moment’s notice to find a few more. His was the most human voice to ever grace, effortlessly, vinyl or disc. It was my voice, even when – especially when – I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. So it will ever remain.

There are a good number of musicians and songwriters who express the kind of unabashed sentiment that was Cash’s stock-in-trade. His pen is potent and legendary, having authored well over 500 alternately haunting and soothing tunes. Yet in point of fact many of the songs he made his own were written by others, especially in his later years… “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Highwayman,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Spiritual,” “One,” “Down There by the Train,” “Hurt,” etc, etc….. But it didn’t matter who wrote them, it mattered who laid them into your brains, embedded them into your souls. No one else sold them home with the kind of authority he delivered. He made you feel every word because every word was offered with utter conviction. Perhaps only Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams ever did the same…which is why their legions of fans have iconified, even deified, the two men. Cash belongs on that same plateau… as well as with Lennon and Marley. But none of them had that voice.

That voice…. Gift of the angels yet torn from the devil’s grasp. Cash made me know it was alright to make mistakes… even the big ones… as long as I didn’t allow those mistakes to take control of my life. Always fight, always help the ones who need it (‘cause they’re making a slew of their own mistakes), never compromise, never sell out, never give less than everything. I could hear it all in every syllable. What could be more rock ‘n roll, more unrepentantly independent?

Two of his best songs – “25 Minutes to Go” and “Mercy Seat” – are about the precious last few minutes of condemned men on Death Row…… horrifying ruminations. Cash immerses you in every bead of sweat as it carves a deep groove into their horrified faces. In the first, sung near age 30, he ends up swinging from the gallows, filled with rage and dread; in the second, sung near 70 years, his temperment is resigned and coolly defiant. At first. Or listen to “Hurt”… the song everybody’s currently talking about. Every note, every gesture, is filled with every second of Cash’s life. How anyone could sing, let alone record, songs like these is more than I can imagine.

His heart was big enough to take in all the ills of the world. His soul vacuous enough to indulge in all the ills of the world – and create a few of his own along the way. The Man in Black taught me about life… after my parents, this guy graced my soul with a resonance that I will take to my grave.

Nick Cave said it best: “God isn’t making any more” people like Johnny Cash. Williams, Rodgers, Lennon and Marley all left long ago. Cash was the last of the breed. Believe it – the world will never be the same. Kris Kristoferson once named him “the father of our Country,” and later solidified the Rushmore imagery by comparing him to “Lincoln with a wild streak”. Myself, I recall a line from “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” a melody he uplifted along with Kristoferson in the musical supergroup The Highwaymen. It was about a hero-worshiping lad who becomes a wizened cowpoke’s sidekick. Over the decades that follow he watches him age until at last he knows Death is rapping at the door. “To me he was one of the heroes of this county/ So why is he dressed up like those old men?”

The Man in Black’s face and voice betrayed his every thought and second thought, his every breath, his every heartbeat, his every tear and peal of laughter. They aged with him, towards the end at a startling rate. The body and all those physical trappings grew old, yes, but heroes never die. This desperado’s train finally arrived, and he rode it to all the glory he deserves. I just wish I wasn’t standing here on this platform watching it go. May we all aspire to be just a little bit like the Cash.

posted by mark 9:14 PM

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Life is funny, ain't it?

I didn't make the Burn this year, but I feel more connected to it than ever. It's not an exaggeration to claim that the Burn itself is indirectly responsible for my current situation: married, with family, in the Poland's capital city. Everywhere I go, every way I turn, I try to reconnect with the antediluvian energy that I discovered in such abundance upon the Playa in the blistering summer heat of 2001.

Witness this past July. I with my very pregnant wife, Gosia, returned to my small, blue-collar New Jersey hometown to bathe within the enduring warmth of family. I knew I would have been sorely remiss if I didn't look up some East Coast Burners to toast old memories and forge new bonds. I had been in communication with Taco Boy (who wore a Mexican fundamental upon his Grecian parts - and nothing else but a goofy grin) via e-mail since before the 2001 Burn, but we had never hooked up. TB, aka Ken, is the New Jersey regional rep, and he lives in a Victorian-era two-story which he restored himself. Fact is, after years of slaving over the high-sales insurance pitch and slowly nursing an inevitable stroke, he ditched it all (literally) for refuge on the Playa. He never looked back. He now finds and helps to restore homes fulltime for his Freehold hometown (a guy named Sprigsteen hails from there).

Ken didn't pause for an instant in treating the two of us as old friends. He brought the wine, we brought the food, we hit a local concert, and then he showed us around his stunning house - complet with player piano, a cylinder-phonograph, and much more. To top it off, our carrot-topped pal is more than a little Polski himself, who has been to the motherland and is probably the only Burner who will take me up on my standing invitation to come visit.

Then Gosia and I hit the shore points, did some other family touristy stuff, flew back to P-land, and wouldn't you know it? Last Tuesday the 27th, just as the latest Burn was gearing up full-throttle, had a baby boy! Little Zbyszek (ZBI-jek) Royal Still. Never have I been happier; man, I just LOVE being a daddy! It was the Burn that brought me out through Nevada and then, by linear extension, to Lake Tahoe, where I bumped into my Polish Queen - and the rest, as they say is history.

My life changed that summer of 2001. Profoundly, irrevocably. A reborn man made new friends, plumbed new depths, scaled new heights, and eventually found a new family and homeland. For a moment not too long ago I wished that we could had been there with you. But I realize I'm tickled pink being just where I am. Come on over and I'll pour you a glass of local vodka - then we can toast old memories and forge new bonds. Burn on, effendi!

posted by mark 12:37 AM

Monday, June 30, 2003

The following is an article I wrote for a local publication out in these parts. It is exactly 1200 words......

The sun radiated warmth that atoned for the previous week of clouds and rain. It's one thing when the weather forces you to retreat inside with a damp umbrella and soggy shoes, but it's quite another when it endangers your person. Micha³ had known what awaited him the moment he’d decided to be a bike messenger. Cycling was in his blood, and today's brilliance more than redressed the preceding days of somber hues. He rose high on his pedals and pumped hard down Marsza³kowska, basking in the sheer joy of it all.

That's when the diminutive "Mr. Bean" Fiat in front of him stopped for no apparent reason; Micha³ veered for the curbside but he was too far out to reach it. Besides, this curb near Plac. Zbawaciela was fenced. He rear-ended the Fiat and somersaulted with his bike completely over it. But the bike gods were smiling that day and he walked away, dazed and peeved at Warsaw’s infrastructure....

To say that Polish roads and highways are nasty is to miss the point; they’re loathsome. Waves of tar and dead Mafioso undulate along the edges and potholes are epidemic. Sidewalks are worse, their tiny blocks jagged and pointing every which way. Bike paths swarm with pedestrians, mothers with baby strollers, bladers and parked cars. For many, the streets are the only option.

Navigating the pockmarked byways would be relatively easy if it weren't for the legions of morally destitute motorists stalking them. Consider Adam Paskowski: "Taxis U-turn without notice or cut you off when they're hailed. Buses cut me off all the time.” Even pedestrians casually stroll from the curbside across his path, without notice or heed. "Once I hit a gentleman who was so big nothing happened to him – I wasn’t so lucky... I've had 15 accidents in the past 6 months." He has the scars to prove it.


"Froggie" always wore a helmet. That's what saved his life. One fine day in Centrum he hit a pothole and heard something snap. At the exact second he chanced a peek behind to check, the luxury car in front of him squealed to a stop. Froggy catapulted through the rear windshield and landed in the back seat amid a shower of shattered glass. Froggy survived with abrasions and a z³. 2000 bill for the windshield.

You win some, you lose some. Another cyclist, Maciek, was jaunting up Przycz?³kowa in Wilanov when a car ran the cross-street red light, slammed into Maciek, and kept on running. The driver remains at large while Maciek remains covered in plaster from his waist to his neck... Speed-demons fly at cyclists with spacecraft velocity when they go to pass the slower drivers content to maintain the speed limit. They’ll whiz by, only inches away, or come at cyclists head-on - depending on what direction they’re passing from. Even other cyclists can be treacherous, jumping out from the curbside in front of other riders or weaving wildly through pedestrians on the sidewalks.

Recently a police car cut this author off at an intersection though the author had the right-of-way. “I love to ride,” says Daniel Heinst, “But it’s too crazy here. I saw a bus force a bicyclist to the curbside and then to literally jump off his bike to keep from getting crushed.”

Bedy is a singular bike messenger, bedecked in dreadlocks and oozing charisma, and well knows what bus-drivers are like. “We call them teachers – they want to teach us (a lesson).” Once one dogged Bedy's rear as he crossed Rondo Waszyngtona. "I know bus-drivers, I know what's going on," he asserted confidentially. "So (at the next station) I asked him: 'Excuse me – what’s the problem with bus-drivers, pushing bikes to the curb and cutting us off? The driver (growled) back, 'If you'd been slower you would’ve died.' Oh yeah, he wanted to kill me."

Marta W³odarska is a casual cyclist who mostly confines her excursions to a park near Milan?wek, south of the Big City. "I don't like to ride in Warsaw anymore... too crowded and people don’t respect the bike paths." She was riding there one balmy Saturday when a dog abruptly darted in front of her. Marta went flying, coloring the ground with blood and bits of skin. The dog-owner colored the air with loud invectives against Marta for endangering her pup.

Yet amidst the mayhem there are amusing stories to inspire the most darkened soul. Messenger Bedy frequently races with his friends in the city, and one night a taxi driver impulsively decided to challenge them. Bedy broke out in front of the pack and when both were forced to stop at a busy intersection the cabby got out and grabbed Bedy by the shoulders.... Bedy's friends were close behind, all 15 of them. "What, " Bedy posed, "Are you going to fight us all? The taxi driver stomped back to his cab, yelling,. 'I smash you next time!' ” Then he continued his race with them but soon was left behind. "You should have seen him! Vroom! Eeech!," Bedy pantomimed while working an imaginary clutch. "No contest."

Kuba Baj is a former messenger who was challenged by a carload of hooligans shouting obscenities as they passed, then they stopped to pick a fight when Kuba shouted back. Though outnumbered four to one, Kuba was carrying his heavy Kryptonite bike chain and wasn't afraid to wield it, teeth grit and eyes blazing. The hooligans left. A colleague was once forced faced-down onto the sidewalk at Al. Jerozolimskie, alongside Marriott, by a grinning bus driver - only to bounce back up and obligingly remove two of the driver's front teeth. "He was a good driver after that... very polite."

Kuba, Bedy and more gather at Pl. Zamkowy the last Friday every month for the Critical Mass rally, which is a cry for much-needed respect from the citizens and government of Poland. The June rally saw no less than 1200 participants! The first thing the government should do is arrest and fine all those who put their need for speed above others' lives, and then use the money generated to fix the roads for all of us….. Hey, we're not saints. Many of us have run red lights and dashed between cars. So have most motorists. There's the tiny infractions we’re all guilty of at one time or another, and then there are the actions we take that endanger ourselves and others.

I wanted to interview some of the elderly folk I've seen tooling around the country - Babjis on their way to visit grandchildren, or indigent stiffs commuting to their z³. 5 per hour part-time job - forced to utilize the traffic lanes when even the most rudimentary dirt paths disappear. But as cyclist Arek Syrokomski says, “none of them are left 'cause they've all been run over.” He kids of course, but I would’ve liked to interview the old fieldhand I saw crawling down Route 801, gripping a long-handled hoe while eighteen-wheelers barreled past. When I pointed it out to the old man standing next to me at the roadside sklep, he shrugged as if to say that's life as it's always been.

Hopefully not for much longer.

posted by mark 2:42 PM

Monday, May 26, 2003

OK guys, this one's important to me. On June 7th and 8th the Polish voters are invited to descend upon the polling booths en masse and vote on whether or not they want to join the European Union. Let's not mince words here: we need this. But mere days away from the big event, there are still a whole lot of citizens who believe anything but. For those of you who are avid, unapologetic readers (Hi, Mom!), you know what I think of Poles: Honest, straightforward people, they are terrific friends, comprised of grit and integrity. But lacking a bit in the ol' "pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps" department. More willing to walk away and give up on whatever idea they have when they encounter an obstacle than to actually try to surmount it. So when I hear talk that the EU will be Poland's salvation, I tend to scoff. Many folks in these here parts are waiting... waiting for EU ascension, the next generation, the next crop of politicians, for time and somebody to make it right. Pinning all their hopes on the Magical World of Brussels is a fool's errand, unless they are willing to contribute heartily to the solution of everything that ails this fine country.

But ignoring the EU is more than foolish, it is perilous. Put simply, Poland will fall into the Middle Ages if they don't join the Family. It would be inevitable. The EU rivals the States in terms of political clout, culture, and standard of living. On the economic front, the Euro has gained mightily on the dollar and picking up speed every day. To the west of Poland lies the seemingly horizon-less EU Zone, to the east lay lands that are hopelessly enmeshed in the quagmire of Communism. Sure, the Wall fell, but Belarus and Ukraine authorities actually woe that fateful day. They want the old order back, and trudging uphill in this damnable vacuum has left them bereft of bread (the edible kind), bread (the convertible kind), will, law, and common sense.

After these two, what else is there? Moldova? Russia??? Please! No doubt Russia would like to have Poland as a willing ally (for once); Poland’s geographical position in Europe renders it as the Israel of Europe, which is why so many nations had invaded over the centuries. But Russia is no shape to provide assistance, to be a stable friend to anyone. What I'm saying is Russia is not trustworthy. Now Poles say that about... well, everyone, actually. But Russia and its enigmatic leader, Vladimir Putin, remain forever shrouded in mystery and unknown motivations. Yes, their economy is recovering. When you've hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up. But they could lose it all again tomorrow.

Interestingly enough, there's a large vocal enclave of Poles who think the same about Germany: That they are not trustworthy. And that they are the big power in the EU, masterminding a Fourth Reich which will dominate Poland anew without firing a shot. The enclave thinks even less of the French, but... well, they think even less of the French. That France's position in the EU is deteriorating, and Germany is coming into ascendancy. That France is openly bickering with just about everybody in Europe right now, to them only proves their point.

These Chicken Littles not only sound like crabby old men (they often are, though they have enlisted an alarming number of crabby young men to their ranks), they're dangerous. No one country will dominate the EU in setting policy for all member nations, no matter how much France may bellow, and certainly the European Parliament will not allow any member state to control another. (Not to oversimplify in this short essay, but does Texas rule the States? Is New Jersey or Nevada indentured to California?)

The state of the state here in Poland is rather dismal, no matter what the optimists and the apologists may say. Nobody trusts the established guard, nobody. Nobody likes our current crop of leaders, precious few trust the political establishment - and Brussels, my friends, is simply another political establishment. A vote against Brussels is, in many minds, a vote against our President Aleksander Kwas’niewski (Kvash-Neyh-skee) and Prime Minister Lesyck (LE-shik) Miller and the whole of Parliament. Worse, since so many of our politicos are lobbying heavily for EU ascension, a vote against the EU is a vote for the common man - or so the thinking goes.

But the common man will inexorably be crushed by the wheels of the 21st Century if they let this opportunity slip them by. The European Community is a juggernaut; Poland, as I have so elegantly put it many times on this page, is desperately poor. Sometimes I wonder what the common folk are waiting for to start the revolution? We need the influx of money the EU will provide, we need powerful friends in high places. Simply put, we cannot go it alone. At best, we would wither into nothing, a marginal country best ignored and avoided by everyone. At worst and far more likely, we will lay ourselves open once again to invasion - be it economically, culturally, or militarily (yeah sure, we're a peaceful "Global Village" now). We will lose whatever power we are gaining and we will fade into the history books.

Some argue that we should join NAFTA, strengthen our ties with the U.S. Certainly our government is doing just that. What with our commitment to troops to Iraq and our purchase of a fleet of American F-16 fighter planes. The windfalls of fat corporate contracts both here and in Iraq for Polish enterprises has commanded respect. But I emphasize that Poland is part of Europe, and one of the most strategic pieces of land in the Northern Hemisphere. An ally so many thousands of miles across the ocean, even a strong one, will leave us open to vicious attacks of all sorts from all sides. To extend my Israel metaphor, we will never gain the prestige Israel enjoys with American administrations and we will forever be marginalized. Nothing more than a pawn, ragged and threadbare, for the rest of the Powers.

The EU has money. Poland does not. The EU has physical and political infrastructure. Poland does not. The EU has intelligentsia, I'm very sorry but Poland does not. The EU has ballsy politicians (even the female ones) and is willing to risk and grow, Poland does and is not. The demagogues here like the right-of-right orthodox catholic priest Taduesz Rydzyk (Ta-DOOSH RID-shik) and SDL opposition party leader Andrzej Lepper (AAN-jay LE-per) are promising chaos, domination, homosexuality, abortion, and every other vice know to man if we join. Opinion polls list EU support near 80% but one polling agency admitted that only 5% of those they call even want to talk to the pollsters, and many in Poland's vast outback of poorer-than-poor villages aren't even being asked. As American ex-pat's Preston Smith's Poland Monthly puts it, a two day referendum may backfire on our elite. Those with no jobs and nothing better to do now have two days to make the two or four or ten mile trek to the polling booths. All to make a protest vote against the Establishment, whatever they deem the Establishment to be.

Look, I've gone on too long already. If Poles let this one slip us by, we will regret it for a very long time. Forever, in fact. 50% of Poles have to vote one way or the other in order for this to have any meaning, and if less than 50% vote the question of EU ascension will be kicked into Parliament. Then our ascension is assured. But with two days to do this thing, nobody is going to trust the "Political Elite" to do the right thing. Poles will come out in record numbers. They will vote.

And what they might vote for terrifies me.

posted by mark 5:24 PM

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Another Long Weekend has passed. This is the confluence of May 1, or International Workers' Day (the European version of Labor Day) and May 3 - Constitution Day, the commemoration of the 1791 signing of the Polish Constitution. Warsaw practically empties as everyone who longs to escape from the city's baleful grasp does, and I was faced with the rising urge to stay put in this lovely town for the duration. After all, aren't holidays about getting away from it all? How is it a welcome break from the same-old-same-old if "it all" comes with you? Just like Summer weekends back in Jersey, when I stared slacked-jawed at the onslaught of bumper-to-bumper traffic that issued from Philly just to "get away from it all." I scoffed aloud, every time.

I was wrong.

We left Warsaw a day later than most so we avoided the crowds; I came to the Polish countryside relaxed and ready to boogie. We spent our days on the outskirts of the Mazury Highland in the northeast corner of the country. Specifically we journeyed to Augustov, again managing to avoid the bulk of the Warsiavians since Mazury's fame is founded mostly on its large aquatic expanse ever westward. But the Augustov region is gorgeous, with deeper lakes and (I heard) clearer. We kayaked the lower third of the Czarna Hancia River, reputedly the prettiest in P-Land. It's narrow and insanely winding and blockaded by numerous fallen trees and dead Russians but more than a little pretty.

I’d been expecting wide, wild waters and sheer cliff walls but I can't say why. Anything "sheer" or granite-like in Poland lies southward, but still I marveled that the "spectacular" river my Lonely Planet guidebook promised measured all of 5 meters from bank to bank. But the subtle hues of the wide farmlands, cascading stalks of weedgrass, and the enormous Augustov Forest finally overwhelmed both Gosia and me. It was magnificent - subtly understated. The kind of country one could blink and miss with scarce memory to refer to in later days, the kind of country that demands pause and reflection.

From southeast on the Czarna we looped west into the Augustov Canal and an endless series of tolled locks until we again approached the city. After the second lock we set camp upon a lush idyllic point. It was everything two weary urbanites longing for the restful excitement of the country could desire. Except.... I was less than prepared. Y'see, I had brought along my one-man tent, no more than a wind tunnel really, because I was fairly convinced I would never have convinced Gosia to camp in this, the coldest region of Poland. The polar bears roam all year, and Gosia had worn a jacket all day to foil their razor-sharp cuspids. The nights, even in May, often approach or reach the freezing mark. But camp she did - which meant I was regulated to the campfire, which I kept ablaze all through the long night. I had no sleeping bag, no mattress, just my second skin. But I was so delighted that she wanted to camp and camp willingly I would have done anything to assure her a night of warm, uninterrupted bliss.

The next day, after two hours of sleep for yours truly, grabbed in somnolent handfuls, it poured. But a pair of young kayakers up from the University of Krakow befriended us and offered us several large, thick bright blue garbage bags to cover our large, swollen blue selves and kayak. The moral of this story is despite the bucketing rain and the lack of sleep, I was in Heaven. Take me home, country roads...

That night and the next day were spent with relaxing walks and relaxing meals. Even the trip back to Warsaw couldn’t ruin my mood. 120 of us headed back for the Big City that Sunday afternoon, and when the state-owned PKP train pulled in it was already full from points further north. In its unassailable wisdom, PKP sent a train that was exactly three cars long - and the first one was the engine. We crammed in toe-to-toe. Later 50 more hardbitten types crowded in and we were butt-to-butt. 50 more and we were elbow-to-kneecap. Two hours later we changed trains and basked in relative luxury. Sure that one was SRO, too. But we beat most of the crowds, tucked in our shoulders, and slid ourselves onto what passes for plush comfort out in these parts.

And here we are. You know, many fleeing Warsiavians’ idea of a vacation is changing the venue of where they chose to get drunk, and certainly the people who shared the guesthouse with us in Augustov were no exception. But many more go to enjoy the natural joys of this country… Poland is sublime, filled with delights to satiate the soul and drive off the demons of despair. Let the train company bureaucracy rot in hell, me and my wife are just fine.

posted by mark 8:14 PM

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The life and times of my big road excursion, pedaling 3435 miles from the Jersey Coast to San Francisco. And all points thereafter.