The guy in the red Civic

Today my good friend Jay Czarnecki (who has guest-blogged here before) joins us once again with some rambles of his own about rambling across the Maryland countryside in a red Honda Civic. Leave a comment for him and tell him what you think. Here’s what he has to say…

These days I have an hour-long morning commute to work, but since it runs from one Central Maryland suburb to another, I travel through open farmland for much of the drive. There are places where it is quite scenic, although the sharp boundaries between green pasture and gleaming white housing developments can be jarring. The ascendant real estate market has made it inevitable that most large tracts of land will eventually be sold to developers. I imagine that each successive generation of the land-owning family must make the choice whether to keep and pass on the land or to convert it into an exorbitant amount of cash. The growing number of shiny new single-family homes dotting the landscape like dots on a scatter diagram tell me which outcome has the upper hand over the long term. Sometimes I wonder about the owners of these old homesteads I pass by – often set far back from the road at the end of a long driveway – I wonder if they watch me from behind their windows as I drive to work, just passing through, clearly not of this place. I wonder if they curse me and my fellow passers-through for clogging up their backcountry roads, so clearly not designed to deliver commuters from one part of the state to another. Do they blame me for driving up the cost of living with my high-tech job until they are forced to cash out because they cannot afford the tax assessments? Or instead, do they smile upon me as the benefactor who turned their patch of arable land into a gold mine, freeing them from it. I confess I never thought much about this until I occasionally began to see one of these unseen people, outside, an old woman with a large-brimmed white hat – and of course this sighting changed how I perceived that particular place. Before it was just the farm with the winding driveway that I zipped past each morning, and the idea of associating it with a real live person or persons was a vague notion at best. Just like any other of the landmarks that pace my morning routine – the crooked barn, the brick house unusually close to the road, the mini-mansion with ostentatious pillars marking the entrance – you just don’t focus on the fact that real people live there. It’s not unlike the way you perceive other cars while driving: always the vehicle, never the occupant. It’s the white Chevy that is going too slow, or the green minivan that didn’t use it’s blinker before turning – until you hit one or one hits you, and the driver emerges and you discover that the green minivan is actually a fat man with a New York accent in an ill-fitting suit. Who would’ve thought? I suppose it’s the same for him looking at me and thinking, “This guy is the red Honda Civic?”

So I begin to spot this woman outside on her property, the one that used to be labeled in my mind as the ‘the farm with the winding driveway’, but now is ‘the farm with the old lady with the white hat.’ I see her walking, slowly, down the long gravel driveway (it looks to be a quarter mile long) toward the road, or sometimes heading back toward the house if I’m running late. There is a mailbox at the street, but it is early in the morning, too early for rural mail delivery. And I also begin to see an old man out there as well, and of course I make the logical leap that they are husband and wife. But oddly, they never are walking together: one is always a good twenty or twenty-five feet ahead of the other. So I wonder: why wouldn’t a husband and wife, who have toiled together their whole lives to reap the Earth’s sweet fruits from the soil, why wouldn’t they share their morning constitutional together, side-by-side? Are they estranged? After many sightings, I have a theory. One of them wants to give in to the inevitable and sell the land to a developer who will fill their fields with cul-de-sacs and ftwo-story Colonials while the two of them head south with their windfall to Myrtle Beach or St. Petersburg. The other can’t bear to let go and will never leave. They used to take their morning tour together, but this irresolvable argument has come between them and now they walk separately as if connected by a long unbending pole, keeping them joined forever but at a fixed distance apart. I wonder who is whom – which one wants to cash out and head south, and which one wants to stay and be buried in the family plot out back? I am tempted to stop someday and ask, but I never will. I’ve already been intrusive enough, clogging up their backcountry roads on my way to work. Besides, I know they’d look at me and say, “This guy is the red Honda Civic?”

Live from Mesopotamia

The war correspondent for the Rambles weblog is good friend and Renaissance man Jay Czarnecki. Almost exactly a year ago he filed a report from the front lines of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area just as the snipers were being put behind bars. He’s back this week with a timely report on developments in Mesopotamia, also known as… well, I’ll let Jay take it from here. What was it George Santayana said about history? I forget.

I just finished working my way through “A Peace to End all Peace” written in 1989 by David Fromkin and subtitled “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.” I had wanted to understand the historical antecedents for the various stuggles occurring in the Middle East, especially Iraq. I really was surprised to see how directly connected today’s troubles are to the post-World War I arrangements imposed by the Great Powers.

I use the phrase “working my way through” because it was a bit of a chore for a layman like me – but worth it. Although the book emphasized British political and diplomatic activities, it’s analysis was very even-handed. I would recommend it for the determined reader who has a hankering for both the broad sweep of history – and how random events or individual decisions can change its direction. For example:


– The ultimately disastrous Allied attempt to take Constantinople in 1915 came within a few hundred yards of victory. The Ottoman army was practically out of ammunition as the Allied navy steamed up the straits of Dardanelles. Constantinople was being evacuated, the treasury’s gold bullion dispatched to safety, and gasoline was stockpiled to burn the city rather than surrender it intact. The British Navy’s minesweepers had cleared all the mines that lay across the narrows – except for a single line of mines running parallel to the shore. With uncanny accuracy, the attacking naval force hit them, however, and a number of ships were lost. They still could have continued the next day, but the British commander deferred, thinking the way was impassable. You can view the immediate tragic aftermath in the decent 1981 film about the ensuing land battle, “Gallipoli,” co-starring a young Mel Gibson.

– In 1920, at a delicate time in the maneuvering over the land of Asia Minor, the King of Greece was bitten by a monkey and died of the resultant infection. The next Greek government aggressively pursued a war against the Turkish remnant of the Ottoman Empire – with devastating results for both sides. “A quarter of a million people died of this monkey’s bite,” wrote the British Colonial Secretary at that time, Winston Churchill.

Here’s another gem:


“[They] either were not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix…The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of the tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces…made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective and widely supported.”

No, that’s not from the editorial page of yesterday’s New York Times criticizing the Bush Administration’s approach in post-war Iraq. It is describing the British Empire’s struggles there in 1917 (it was then called Mesopotamia – the name Iraq made it’s debut in a few years later). And by the way, the book’s title comes from a quote by an officer who said of the post-war Peace Conference in Paris: “After the ‘War to end all War,’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end all Peace.’ ”

Guest Rambles from Maryland

My good friend Jay is, in addition to his many other diverse interests from military history to birdwatching, an amateur genealogist. He recently sent me a hot tip that the 1880 U.S. census is now online courtesy of the Mormon Church. It took 17 years for church volunteers to transcribe all the handwritten documents and put them online at FamilySearch, but you can now read about your obscure relatives or famous people like Frederick Douglass.

My friend Jay, in addition to his interest in genealogy, also happens to live in Maryland near the erstwhile sniper’s hunting grounds. I asked him what it was like these days, and this is what he wrote.

My wife woke me at 6:30 AM Thursday morning, crying. She had been watching CNN. I was expecting to hear her tell me about the next victim of the D.C. area sniper. Is this one closer to our home, I thought. Instead, she said “They caught them.” It was over.

I work in Rockville, but live near Baltimore, so the everyday impact of the three week reign of the sniper had not been as acute as it was for those who lived in Montgomery County and Bowie in MD, and Virginia along I-95. But it had certainly seeped into our mundane everyday activities. A low fuel gauge in my car would propel me into unfamiliar decision-making terrain. Where do I gas up? The characteristics that made my usual station preferable – easy access to the major highway – was now a disqualifier. I brought a brown bag lunch to work to avoid going out at mid-day. Intellectually, you know that statistically the odds are extremely low that you will be a target. And, normally, people take a measure of re-assurance at some subconscious level by rationalizing, often a touch judgmentally — oh, that bad thing will not happen to me because I don’t associate with those types of people, or I don’t go into that bad neighborhood, or I don’t engage in that risky behavior. But these rationalizations clearly didn’t apply here, and that is why your intellectual side fought a slow losing battle against your growing anxiety. The slow losing battle turned into an outright rout when the young schoolboy was shot and when the sniper put us on notice that he was coming after our children.

More generally, during the three week period, I caught myself taking grim stock of each day’s top stories. Killer on the loose. Terrorists re-grouping. Steadily increasing drumbeats of war in Iraq. Economy is down the tubes. Boy, remember the late 90’s? Clearly, the naive optimism (and, I daresay, smugness) of those heady days when the Cold War was a memory and we were ‘safe’ within our protective and speculative bubble was not warranted and a correction was due. And, excepting the tragedies that refocused us, that change in perspective is not unhealthy. It’s just that it seems the pendulum has swung way too far. Now every day we have to worry about threats to us from ‘failed states’ on the other side of the world and ‘failed individuals’ on the other side of Main Street who lash out at people going about their lives. I can’t express the relief that the culprits in the sniper shootings were caught. But that same day, the government announced now-familiar vague warnings based on intelligence concerning terrorist actions against American railways. One danger is removed, another takes its place.

On the Road with Wally: Travel Tips from India

Only 31 years ago this week, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were standing on the moon, representing our species on the moon for the first time in history. If you are lucky, some day you will get a chance to read about the moonshot in the best book about it yet written, Apollo: Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. In fact, it’s just one of the several books you can get at the newly-opened Paracelsus Bookshop (catchy name, eh?).

Actually, I overstate my case a little. The Apollo book is out of print now, but it is a great book, and one day it will be back in print and you will be glad I told you about it. Plus, there really is a Paracelsus Bookshop, powered by Amazon, ready to recommend only the highest quality paper-and-ink products for your high quality paper-and-ink needs.

It’s been a busy week here at Star Chamber World Headquarters, because we’re also launching the new Paracelsus Rambles weblog, powered by the friendly folks at Blogger.com. The weblog scene is very big and very entertaining, and if you haven’t heard about it anywhere else yet, then you heard about it here first.

Finally, and as if that weren’t enough, our correspondent from the field, Bendy Wally, has just returned from India, and we have secured for the Star Chamber the exclusive coverage of his trip. Don’t look for it anywhere else on the web, because you just won’t find it. And besides you only have to scroll down the page a little bit to find it here.

Continue reading “On the Road with Wally: Travel Tips from India”

Seize the Day

On the Road with Wally: Part 76
by Wally

You just never know what life’s gonna throw atcha…

I had been planning on going to the Klamath Falls rally for a while, and when my buddy Brian called and said he was going to be headed to LA that weekend, and would I like to go, the coincidence was undeniable. These rallies are basically just an excuse to ride to a specific destination to be able to stand around and chew the fat with other BMW motorcycle owners, drink some beer, and camp in an exotic location – like the infield of the Oregon Institute of Technology track.

So we took off on Friday evening, and made it over the Cascades and into Sisters, pitched our tents in the city park, and slept fitfully ‘till morning. We breakfasted in Bend, and made it into Klamath Falls by mid-morning. I pitched my tent, we looked around a bit, and then as Brian wanted to get back on the road, we motored out of town in a southerly direction. After lunch, we parted ways, and I continued on a big loop around Mt. Shasta, to point back at K Falls, where a BBQ Chicken dinner and the beer tent with all sorts of conversation awaited me. Unfortunately, I chalked up some Bad Karma points when a bird zipped out in front of me, and committed suicide on my right-hand turn signal stem. “Yuck – sorry Mr. Bird,” I muttered, as I slowed enough to allow his carcass to drop off.

I carried on, and after the next gas stop, the 1974 R75/6 was just not running right. I had been trying to keep my eyes and ears on the carburetor adjustment, since I was flitting about between 3000 and 5000 feet, and I’m trying to learn to hear the perfectly Zen spot for engine optimization. But it was just not happy; so I pulled over in Macodel at a Texaco/convenience store, parked it in the shade, and tried playing with it a little more. Left side was fine, but right side wasn’t even firing – I’ve got spark, I’ve got fuel, but it doesn’t want to run on the right hand side. Bah, humbug…perhaps it’s overheated – this is the longest and hardest I’ve ever run this bike…(not to mention the spooky bird incident on this side) so I’ll give it a break, and go get a drink.

As I’m standing in front of the drink cooler, I start to see an aura. Now, I’ve had three migraines in my past, so I recognize this for what it is. This is not a good development, I think, but I know I might be able to power through it with the wonder drug of caffeine. So I start scanning for the iced tea, but the aura has progressed to the point that I can’t even make out the drinks two feet in front of my nose. “That looks like beer, there won’t be tea in there,” I think…and the next thing I know, I’m lying on my back in front of the aforementioned beer cooler, there’s an EMT leaning over me, and I’ve got oxygen in my nose. The ambulance arrives a few minutes later, and before I know it, I’m again on my way to Klamath Falls, but this time in the back of an ambulance.

Grand Mal Seizure is the diagnosis. In the hospital, they give me a CT scan, and start me on a Dilantin drip. Nothing obvious shows up in the scan, but it’s obvious to me that something vigorous happened…by the next day my calves, jaw muscles, shoulders, and thoracic spine are all sore. I’ve since found a sizeable bruise on my left tricep, and a scrape on my right forehead. My memory was also gone for a while; it was tough to remember the answers to simple questions while I was in the ambulance. I end up (literally) across the street from the rally site, and after spending most of Saturday night in the ER, I am released to go crash (not literally) in my tent.

Any family history? Nope. Overheated? Well, it was a warm day, but nothing outrageous. Flashing lights? Not really – I had gotten out of the woods, and into the Klamath Basin by this point. Dehydrated – maybe, but both Brian and I had picked up water earlier in the day, and were making it a point to drink some at every stop. Canned meat? Maybe – I had a Reuben for lunch, which is unusual for me. My brother the doctor says I might never know the cause. But now I’m forbidden to drive for 60 days, I’m on a nightly 300 mg dose of Dilantin, and thankful that I work for Tri-Met, the local bus/light rail transportation agency, because it’s a lot easier to get around.

On the bright side, I took the train back to Portland, and it was a beautiful ride – all hail Amtrak. And I got a good salsa recipe from one of the emergency room doctors. And I’m learning how to be assertive in asking for rides.

I’ve had an EEG, which pointed to focal epilepsy in the frontal left lobe of my brain. I also had an MRI, which showed an anomaly in the right rear lobe of my brain. To the untrained eye, this looked big – I asked the doctor what it might be, and further tests have just added to the mystery. Non-vascular, but non-invasive – a benign tumor, basically. I have three options: wait and do more tests in six months, do a biopsy (which leaves me with a small hole in my skull), or do full on brain surgery and get it out (eeek! this involves me being partially awake). I’m doing the wait and see approach for now.

Do I think I’ll develop the confidence to ride motorcycles again? That’s a big question mark. Speaking of which – the 74 BMW is still down in California, at the local fire station. I’m planning on having a friend drive us down there this weekend, with the trailer that I just bought two weeks ago(!), in order to pick it up and bring it back. Then what happens? Who knows…

It just goes to show you that you never know what kind of curve balls life is going to throw at you. I am a lucky man – if I hadn’t been stopped, fiddling with the carburetors, I’d probably be dead. I’m really going to make it a point to appreciate life more, and be more loving, kind and positive to people.

I originally wrote this up in order to share with friends, just to be more efficient in my emails. Paracelsus convinced me to shoot for a wider audience. If you get anything out of this, go and tell your loved ones how you feel about them. Do just one thing you’ve been putting off for a while. Make it a point to enjoy the sunset tonight. And always remember: carpe diem.

On the road with Wally

Part 42: Signs of Soda
by Wally

We were one sunrise away from watching the reddish glow of the evening sun color the rim of the Grand Canyon, and one sunset away from the first light of daybreak over Zabriske Point, in Death Valley. We were smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada.

Not to say there isn’t much of anything in Nowhere. Au contraire. George had been enlightening me to the wonder of the alluvial plains that exist here in Nevada. With no rain to wash it all away, all the material that sheds from the tops of the mountains here falls to the bottoms. And stays there. It creates a nice, gradual, slope of residue, once seen (and identified), never forgotten. In fact, on the way out of Death Valley the next day, we were basically driving straight up the alluvial slope for 45 minutes, avoiding tarantulas that darted across the road. But that’s another story.

No, here in the middle of Nowhere there was two-lane blacktop, lots of sand, and some scrubby desert vegetation. (and probably Wile E. Coyote, although he was much too wily to be seen. Unlike Wile E. Tarantula — again, another story.) And Sky. Big Sky. Sky that made Montana jealous. Big, dramatic, desert but-it’s-lookin’-like-rain, and not wimpy pacific northwest micro-rain, but slam it down, cats and dogs, southern summer thunderstorm rain.

A Sky that was so dramatic that George pulls over and comments, “Man, will you just look at that Sky.” Which is one of the things that makes George a good travelling companion — he’ll stop and smell the sagebrush. We hop out and stand agog at the beautiful sunlight spreading through the high dark cumulus. Menacing, yet beautiful. Alone, we appreciate.

An unnatural sound clatters through our meditative silence as a lone Coca-Cola can rolls down the highway. We stand even more amazed, because we’re in the middle of nowhere, almost back to nature, soaking up the desert landscape, the gorgeous almost-sunset and are jolted back to reality by a singular token of civilization, intruding on the road-runner-esque landscape. Our heads both swivel comically to the right, as the can, seemingly out of nowhere, rolls down the double yellow line in the middle of the blacktop. It almost feels like we’re in some weird commercial, but lacking the requisite camera crew and pretty graphics.

Then an even more unnatural sound blasts us both from our left as an 18-wheeler thunders unexpectedly around the bend and thrusts itself into our view before our startled inhales are completed. Its mammoth wheels roll over the can, crush it, suck it up and around, crush it again and fling it out behind, a crumpled, flattened token of what was once the perfect shape, the wheel, the cylinder, the rolling reminder of civilization… now just a flat piece of aluminum on a lonely Nevada highway.

As fast as it came, the juggernaut is gone. We both stare dumbly in stunned amazement at the coincidence of us, the can, and the rig. A collective “Whoa” settles among us.

“Let’s roll”, sez George. I couldn’t agree more.

What I miss

by St. Frank

The other day I was walking back to work at lunchtime in downtown Oakland. This being California, it was sunny and mild, and I caught sight of a guy in front of an office building enjoying a cigarette. Now, as I said, this is California, so it’s a tough time to be a smoker…and it ain’t cheap either. At any rate, I looked at this guy as I hurried back to my job, and I felt a pang of nostalgia. I am an ex-smoker.

What I miss about smoking is just standing around, watching the world go by. It’s nearly meditational, as you rhythmically breathe in and out, all the while checking out the scenery. As a non-smoker, I’d look foolish standing outside a building, huffing and puffing and gazing mindlessly at people.

I also miss the rush or buzz you get from having waited a little too long between smokes. For me, this would have been something like ten minutes. But that first drag! You can literally feel the nicotine course through each vein and capillary as it goes about its business, feeding your body’s craving. You might get a little light-headed and let out a giggle, as passersby glance at you to make sure you’re not dangerous.

I miss the paraphernalia and routines: Getting ready to get out of the office to “burn one”; the smell of the sulphur from a freshly lit match. These things usually accompanied the first one of the day, or one of the ones you’ve waited too long for.

Mostly, I miss the camaraderie of smokers. Actually, it was less camaraderie than it was a Bunker Mentality. Yes, even a few years ago, being a smoker in California was about as popular as being a Young Republican at UC Berkeley. We knew we were hated, but that merely strengthened our resolve to smoke more! To Hell with the “Health Nazis,” we’d say, give me another Menthol.

Now I’ve turned the corner. Now it’s me casting disparaging looks at them. I have become the enemy; worse, I am an ex-smoker. I am reformed, so I preach to the unenlightened about the horrors of their pastime. I have recently become more of a danger, as I have entered to race in the Sea Otter Classic Mountain Bike Race in Monterey this March.

Still, there are those times…