The Other Football

Argentine Footballers Celebrating After Scoring Against Poland

Yesterday, I watched the World Cup match between Argentina and Poland. Unlike most viewers, there are a whole lot of teams I like. I realize that the United States is still new at this game and can be upset by the likes of Liechtenstein or Moldova. A generation from now, I suspect that what we call soccer will be more prevalent, if for no other reason that parents won‘t want their sons growing up brain-damaged like Herschel Walker.

In yesterday’s game, I liked both Argentina (as I’ve visited their country three times) and Poland (because I’m Eastern European myself). Argentina won the game 2-0, but both Argentina and Poland advanced to the quarter finals. I think it was because the sum of the team members’ jersey sizes was a prime number.

The announcers kept talking about how surreal the end of the game was because so many teams were still in play, irrespective of their win/loss standings. Also considered in the standings were scores for remembering to say “please” and “thank you”; the number of syllables in the first stanza of their respective national anthems; the teams’ overall dental hygiene; and how well the teams could pronounce the name of the country they were in. (I think the latter is something like “Catarrh”, no?)

Argentina dominated the game, but the poles had one real hero in their goalie, Wojciech Szczesny. (Gesundheit!) For the entire first half, he batted away everything the Argentinians could throw at him, including soccer balls, off-color epithets, and one extremely rusted steam locomotive. Only in the second period did two goals get by him.

The Star of the Polish Team: Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny

Although soccer football does have its problems, such as the higher mathematics involved in calculating who gets to move on to the quarter finals and the treatment of draws. In American sports, there are a lot of stops and starts to allow for advertisers to plug their products and services. Soccer football games stop only for injuries, and then they add a mysterious number of make-up minutes after the regulation ninety minutes. I guess Americans will just have to get used to all that intensity and uncertainty. The rest of the world seems to have.

Chain of Chance

The following is adapted from a post I made on the late unlamented Blog.Com on August 14, 2009.

I had not read one of Stanislaw Lem’s (1921-2006) novels for a number of years, remembering only that I always enjoyed them for their quirkiness and imagination. A few days ago, I picked up one of his books at random: It was Chain of Chance (1975).

Picture to yourself a series of murders or suicides of a seemingly random group of people. What they have in common is all are males in their fifties who were athletic in build, and all were visiting a spa in Naples, Italy. The victims consisted of both Americans and Europeans. Sent to investigate what happened in a washed-out American astronaut who calls himself Adams after one of the victims. He attempts to set himself up as a guinea pig doing what the average victim did and trying to see what happens. There were some strange occurrences, such as the collapse of a woman in a large shop where there are no visible employees on the Naples-Rome highway.

At the Rome airport, “Adams” survives a terrorist bomb blast and saves a young French girl’s life. Suspected as being in with the terrorists, he calls in his embassy; and matters get straightened out allowing him to proceed to Paris.

There he meets with Dr. Philippe Barth, a French computer scientist who served as a consultant for the Sûreté, the national security service. The story then suddenly sags as “Adams” describes in exhaustive detail what the victims had in common, what they did, and so on. I thought to myself at this point that perhaps I had picked up the first loser by Lem, but it took only a few pages for the author to recover and pose an ingenious demonstration.

At the Paris Orly airport, “Adams” begins feeling strangely demented and suicidal. In the nick of time, he handcuffs himself to some solid furniture and begins to take notes of what appears to be a series of attacks, culminating in unconsciousness.

I will not divulge Lem’s brilliant ending, except to drop one hint: There is a close tie-in with the subject of The Futurological Congress (1971), which remains my favorite of his books. One more clue. Here is the thinking of one of the people attending the security meeting with Barth, a mathematician named Saussure whom I think is a stand-in for the author:

Man wanted everything to be simple, even if mysterious: one God—in the singular, of course; one form of natural law; one principle of reason in the universe, and so on. Astronomy, for example, held that the totality of existence was made up of stars—past, present, and future—and their debris in the form of planets. But gradually astronomy had to concede that a number of cosmic phenomena couldn’t be contained within its scheme of things. Man’s hunger for simplicity paved the way for Ockham’s razor, the principle stating that no entity, no category can be multiplied unnecessarily. But the complexity that we refused to acknowledge finally overcame our prejudices. Modern physics has turned Ockham’s maxim upside down by positing that everything is possible. Everything in physics, that is; the complexity of civilizations is far greater than that of physics.

In the world of speculative fiction—and I regard him as more properly a writer of this rather than science fiction—few could approach the Pole in his inventive mind, humor, and psychological acuteness. Among his works that I have enjoyed are the following, all of which are still available in good English translations:

  • The Investigation (1959)
  • Return from the Stars (1961)
  • Solaris (1961), which was made into a great Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961)
  • The Futurological Congress (1971)—my favorite among his works
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973) and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973), published in Poland as a single work
  • One Human Minute (1986)

I see that I have read quite a few of Lem’s work—and at the same time, not nearly enough.

“View with a Grain of Sand”

View from a Window

Here is a marvellous poem by the Nobel Prize winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. It is called “View with a Grain of Sand.” Never before have I seen a poem about things written from the decidedly non-human stance of the things themselves. See what you think:

View with a Grain of Sand

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.

Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn’t feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is no different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it is finished falling
or that it is falling still.

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn’t view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.

The lake’s floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
Its water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural.
They splash deaf to their own noise
On pebbles neither large nor small.

And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.

A second passes.
A second second.
A third.
But they’re three seconds only for us.

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.
But that’s just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,
his news inhuman.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Days

Château de Amboise, Where Leonardo Is Buried

King François I of France invited Leonardo Da Vinci to move to Amboise, where he lived in a splendid house within walking distance of the Chåteau de Amboise. Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski wrote a poem musing on Leonardo’s last act on the Loire in France.


He lives in France now,
calmer and much weaker.
He is the jewel in the crown. Favored
with the monarch’s friendship.
The Loire rolls its waters slowly.
He considers the projects
he left unfinished.
His right hand, half-paralyzed,
has already departed.
His left would also like to take its leave.
And his heart, and his whole body.
Islands of light still
stand sentry.

“Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

Polish Poet Adam Zagajewsky (1945-2021)

We lost another great poet last year when Adam Zagajewsky died in Kraców, Poland. He is one of a handful of Central and Eastern European poets whose work I have come to love, poets like Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Anna Szymborska, and Boris Pasternak. This is one of my favorites among his works:

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

The translation is by Clare Cavanagh.

“Lot’s Wife”

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Every once in a while, the Nobel Prize Committee makes a correct choice, and Polish poet Wisława Szymborska is certainly one—one of the few in recent years who is deserving of the honor. Here is a poem entitled “Lot’s Wife,” about a woman who, while fleeing with her husband Lot from the destruction soon to overcome Sodom, was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back:

They say I looked back from curiosity.
But I could have had reasons other than curiosity.
I looked back from regret for a silver bowl.
From distraction while fastening the latchet of my sandal.
To avoid looking longer at the righteous neck
of Lot my husband.
From sudden certainty that had I died
he would not even have slowed his step.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Alert to the pursuit.
Suddenly serene, hopeful that God had changed His mind.
Our two daughters were almost over the hilltop.
I felt old age within me. Remoteness.
The futility of our wandering. Sleepiness.
I looked back while laying my bundle on the ground.
I looked back from fear of where next to set my foot.
On my path appeared serpents,
spiders, field mice, and fledgling vultures.
By now it was neither the righteous nor the wicked—simply all living creatures
crept and leapt in common panic.
I looked back from loneliness.
From shame that I was stealing away.
From a desire to shout, to return.
Or just when a sudden gust of wind
undid my hair and lifted up my garment.
I had the impression they watched it all from the walls of Sodom
and burst out in loud laughter time and time again.
I looked back from anger.
To relish their great ruin.
I looked back for all the reasons I have mentioned.
I looked back despite myself.
It was only a rock that turned back, growling under foot.
A sudden crevice that cut my path.
On the edge a hamster scampered up on his two hind feet.
It was then that we both glanced back.
No. No. I ran on.
I crept and clambered up,
until the darkness crashed down from heaven,
and with it, burning gravel and dead birds.
For lack of breath I spun about repeatedly.
If anyone had seen me, he might have thought me dancing.
It was not ruled out that my eyes were open.
It could be that I fell, my face turned toward the city.

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Perhaps Szymborska’s beloved and much beleaguered Poland was that Sodom, unjustly punished by history for being positioned between two ogres that alternately and in combination devoured it for no good reason.


The Phantom Lands of Eastern Europe

Map of Galicia

If you’ve read any of the literature of Eastern Europe, you will see names of provinces and whole countries that you have difficulty in locating on a map. Names like Galicia (not to be confused with the Galicia region of Northwest Spain), Bukovina, Volhynia, Moldavia, Moldova (this one’s currently a country in its own right), Wallachia, and Silesia—just to name a few.

Most are pawns in the endless historical struggles between Russia, Poland, Germany, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Balkans. Most of the time, they were absorbed into an adjoining larger country (such as Wallachia into Romania), or split between countries (such as Galicia going to Poland, Russia, Austria, or the Ukraine). Only Moldova, the former Moldovan SSR ( Soviet Socialist Republic), is an independent nation today—at least for the time being.

Much of the problem is in the shifting borders affected by the partitions of Poland and the vagaries of fortune of the Ukraine, which was in recent history a political football between Poland, Germany, and Russia.

When one thinks about it, there are only a relatively few countries in the area that have maintained their independence, albeit with constantly shifting borders and political affiliations, over the centuries. Germany and Russia are two examples of relative stability, with just about everyone else being stretched, shrunk, or absorbed multiple times.

Much of the Eastern European emigration to the United States, Canada, and other Western countries is a result of this constant instability. It would be difficult for me to walk down certain streets in Los Angeles without encountering the children of immigrants from these phantom lands of Eastern Europe.