Sunday, April 28, 2019

Of Mice and Men

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy ! 
- "To a Mouse"  by Robert Burns 

Another ski season!  George, my best friend in Pardubice, Republic of Czech, sent me his recent Toastmaster speech, titled “Of Mice & Men”, my favorite novella and play by John Steinbeck.  I featured him in my blog “Silver Iron”, a top skier in the authentic Orlicky Half Marathon Cross Country (XC) event in 2012.  

His venture this time, he fell more than once in the Hervis Jizerske 25, completing a circular loop, both thousand meter level ascending and descending trail.  I asked him about snow conditions and he answered it was perfect. Sounded like the trails were overcrowded with fellow racers, which brings me to the Burns poem. Anything can happen suddenly to upset your expectations, however perfect a plan you have made.  I wrote to George “But You made it!  Bearing pains and cramps.”  Steinbeck quoted Burns poem and used it as a title of his novella. 

Krkonose!  The top Czech mountains and National Park in northern Bohemia and the source of River Elbe, bordering  Poland. George told me about Giant Krakonos (Rubezahl in German) that inhabits and tricks men in a friendly manner, symbolized in wooden carved statutes along the mountain paths.  I loved the sound of Krkonose. It must be a lovely summer resort as well.  The town Nachod, the birthplace of Jan Letzel, the architect of the Hiroshima Dome, sits at its foot.  I visited the Jan Letzel College of Architecture accompanied by Toastmaster George in 2005.

I have loved both Burns and Steinbeck ever since I was a student.  While traveling in Mexico after retirement, I met a woman who was completing Burns’ works. When I visited her house in Los Angeles, she showed me part of her research papers before she died. Regarding Steinbeck, I had visited his Salinas home a long time ago. I also visited the National Steinbeck Museum built in 1998 in Salinas. Traveling to Monterey, California on business, I took the time to visit Cannery Row to Fishermen’s Wharf.  Both literary giants have inspired me greatly.

George also seems enjoying running with friends to keep him physically fit for winter sports, the source of his stamina.  Go-go-go George! 

Of Mice and Men
by Jiri Pscenicka

My dear toastmaster friends. Some of you may remember that about a month ago Eda and I took part in Orlicky Half Marathon. A cross country-skiing race on a windy day and in a bit tricky snow conditions. Well we both had falls there, traces of which remained for some time on our faces. Perhaps some of you said: „Is it wise for men of their age to do such things? Well, George is an old fool, but Eda is a respectable doctor, he should know better!“ Our answer would be: But we LOVE cross-country skiing!“

My next love affair with cross-country skiing happened just 6 days later. Hervis Jizerská 25, a race in which I took part a year ago. I considered the race in the Jizerské Mountains much easier than the Orlický half-marathon. So my expectations were high. Last year I was too shy, I started almost from the end of the field and I overtook many skiers during the race. I finished even in the first half of result list (which never happened to me in the Orlický marathon), so this year I planned to start from the front. „More assertivity, George!“ I said to myself.

To prove my assertivity I placed my skis in the fifth row from the front. And OFF we went! Well, my first impressions from the race were promising. I was not overtaken by many people and when we came to the first uphill part, I said to myself:“ Jolly good show, George! Your choice of ski-wax was good“. Some people were sliding backwards, some already had to use herringbone, but my Silver Swix Klistered skis slided beautifully up the hill!  So, full of hope, I eagerly moved forward. But on the 3rd km it happened. A girl fell right in front of me! And when I was avoiding her, I fell too. I managed to get up quite soon. But I felt an excruciating pain in the back of my left thigh. „ Oh dear, it must be spasm! I went to the right side of the track trying to massage it. It did not help. So I limped very slowly forward cursing myself that I had forgotten to take with me Nutrend Magnes Life solution which is supposed to help against spasm immediately.

On the 5th km there was the first refreshing station. I drank ion drink there and asked the volunteers: „Have you got something with magnesium? I have a terrible spasm in my left thigh!“ They did not, but they offered me kitchen salt instead which should also help. A girl brought it in a big open box. I grabbed it in my left glove and put it in my mouth. Ugh! A terrible taste. But I was too shy to spit it out, so I went on. And then I said to myself: „George, you old fool, you should have taken salt first and then the drink!“ I salivated profusely for the next 10 km to the second refreshment station to get rid of the unpleasant feeling in my mouth. And there I asked: „Just the drink, no salt, please!“ 

After the fall my ordeal was to limp for 22 km to the finish. I moved a bit like Vladka on her scooter. The weight of my body was mainly on the right leg, the left one was flapping behind. Luckily, I had two ski poles and two arms to push me forward. And also, the circuit of 25 km race was oriented in anti-clockwise direction, which meant that most bends were to the left, when the body weight is on the right ski. But crowds of people were now overtaking me. At the start we had a snowfall, but later the sky cleared up and the sun was shining! From the upper parts of the course between Čihadla and Hřebínek we could see rolling hills down below. „Po modrém blankytu bělavé páry hynou, lehounký větřík s nimi hraje!“ (* See translation below), I recited loudly to other skiers. But nobody was interested in poetry. They just panted heavily overtaking me. (Well, if they were Germans, Swedes or Norvegians, that might be an excuse.) I noticed one thing which made me afraid: A lot of girls kept falling even in very easy downhill parts. They usually screamed, threw about their arms and fell on their buttocks. At one time I saw three of them on the ground and had to do slalom to avoid them. Well, there was only one sharp bend to the right before the finish. And I fell there, as could have been expected. But I got up quite quickly and finished the race. A girl at the finish slipped a ribbon with a massive glass medal round my neck. But I was unable to loosen binding on my left ski. Somebody had to do it for me.

Now you must be thinking: „Did old George also hit his head apart from his buttocks in the race? Why did he call his speech „Of Mice and Men“, when he talks about skiing?“ Well, it is purely for educational purposes.  „Of Mice and Men“  is a novella by American author John Steinbeck. But he himself was inspired by a poem „To a Mouse“ by the Scottish bard Robbie Burns. In it he says: „The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.“ That’s exactly what happened to me! Expecting triumph I met with disaster! Great Expectations gone with the wind! 

Oh, George, don’t be so hysterically histrionic! Your fall was not a disaster, it was just a minor mishap! No broken bones. You were able to finish the race. You should be grateful to God for getting away so easily. Yes, I am grateful to God for that, I know I might have finished much worse off. And here is the question again: „Was it worth it?“ My answer is: „Yes, it was. I love cross-country skiing.“

* In his speech, George recited Karel Hynek Macha (1810 - 1836), Czech's romantic poet in his native language (I took as his curse). This poet was a young judge. I asked the meaning in English. He gave me the following answer.

"In the azure vault of heaven the blanching mist are dancing. In light dissolving zephyrs tattered,
And on the far horizon scattered white cloudlets over the placid sky go glancing."

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Chapultepec Park, Mexico

Anyone recall Mexico Olympic 1968, the year the Japanese women's volleyball team lost the Gold Medal to the Russians; the expression ”Wonder Women from the Orient” became popular?

My first visit to Mexico City was 1958, and my stay was for one month. There was an Industrial Fair and I was to sent to man the show booth and President Lopez Mateos (48th) dropped by. There was no subway running then. The subway opened almost with the 1968 Olympic. I used un-peso coche to commute to and from my hotel and the Fair venue at Chapultepec Park.  Anyone could share a taxi just pointing the finger up and the fare was just one peso along the Paseo Reforma.

The 700 acre (cf. 850 New York Central Park) Chapultepec is full of lush, sprawling green trees, serving as the city lungs that replenish oxygen to the citizens. 

Chapultepec means grasshopper’s hill in Spanish. The summer house built for the Spanish Viceroy in early 1800 served as a military academy, then became a Castle, later designated as the UNESCO World Heritage site.  Short-lived were Emperor Maximilian, brother of the powerful Franz Joseph, Austrian Emperor, King of Hungary, resided here with Empress Carlota.  Why was Maximilian in Mexico after the Mexicans chased out the Spaniards?  Because of  French intervention. Mexico borrowed money from Europe, England, France and Spain to achieve independence. Strapped for funds and having to pay interest, Mexico asked for a moratorium, to which Napoleon III refused, then invaded Mexico. I opened a history book and found there was a call for a return to monarchism in Mexico.  France accepted the moratorium with the condition that Ferdinand Maximillian be accepted as Emperor. After his downfall, Maximillian could have gone home, but he stayed and was shot to death. His last words, Viva Mexico, Viva Independence.

Maximillian's accomplishments while he was in Mexico include building Paseo de la Reforma just like Champ-Elysees in Paris, and preserving serene Jardin Boda in Cuernavaca, 30 km west of Ciudad de Mexico. He had a special interest in botany.