Monday, January 08, 2007

Keep talking, sweetie, I got gamin' to do

A few days ago, I saw one of the most insane things I've seen in a long time.

This young couple, a guy and a girl, were sitting next to me in a Dim Sum place around midnight. The girl was chatting, gesturing, laughing, seemingly having the time of her life. The guy, I kid you not, was staring down towards his Nintendo DS and playing it constantly while the girl talked. The sound was absolutely on, if only slightly. Oh sure, he bobbed his head and smiled occasionally, but his eyes never left the game screen. I was sitting behind him, so I could tell he was playing some stupid racing game (and winning, it seemed, judging by the bobbly letters spelling "Winner!" popping up every few minutes) so there was no way in hell he actually understood a word the girl was saying.

Strangest of all, she seemed okay with the whole debacle. She kept chatting and flirting as if nothing was the matter. I mean, it was blatantly obvious she was into him, so much so that she clearly must have made a point to hide the desperation with which she was trying to get his attention. She kept smiling, making eye* contact (*eyebrow?) and looking at the guy with no hint of annoyance or surprise.

I swear to god my incredulous grin started to swell out so far, I had to cover my mouth to maintain any semblance of politeness. What the hell is going on here?

Well, as far as I see it, since the girl's deftness with her chopsticks suggested she wasn't blind, she's either mind-numbingly oblivious to the fact that her man is ignoring her or she's so desperate that nothing he does could throw her off the chase. The first option seems too ridiculous to be true, so it's gotta be the second, pragmatic option. Maybe the guy is some hotel-tzar's rich son or something, or maybe he just has a cock like a nightstick. I probably should have been a rude bastard and asked.

Am I losing my mind, or does this strike you as insane too? If this is normal, or a sign of things to come, then man, the kids mostly certainly aren't all right...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A great survivor rests in peace

I buried my grandfather two days ago in a small cemetery in Michalowice, Poland, in the suburbs of Warsaw. He had battled with weak veins and an even weaker heart for more than a year, and died suddenly while dressing himself on the morning of December 11th.

Bronek was an optimist and an extremely personable man who made friends easily and brokered peace with most people he met. He was a self-made businessman who succeeded despite living through the horrors of the Second World War, where he lost his father and brother, and later the scourge of communism which suffocated Poland for so long. He valued family above all else, and he always fought for those he loved. I usually saw him about 3 months of each year or so and we kept contact via email and Skype (if you don't believe that older people can grasp the intricacies of the internet, he'd have made a believer out of you!). I'll miss his warmth and intelligence but above all I'll remember his unquenchable thirst for life. He always joked how he felt young and full of ideas, despite being stuck in an old man's body. Truly, he was the kind of man deserving of many lifetimes, for you knew he could make every single one count.

I want to leave you with a story Bronek told me one of the last nights I saw him alive. It was during this past summer when my family flew in to visit him and grandma. It's a story he never told anyone else until that night, and I have recited it to the rest of the family since his death:

My grandfather was a teenager at the time the Second World War began. As a young adult near the war's end, he joined the underground Polish Army in an effort to resist the German occupation. Like all sworn agents of the rebel army, he carried a homemade Armia Krajowa card that would mean his death should a German officer ever find it.

One day, he was walking with several of his student friends and a few other men, 11 of them in all. They were stopped by a German convoy of trucks, and two officers jumped out. They fired a warning shot in the air and pointed their Lugers at Bronek and the others and yelled for them to climb into the open-top army truck they were driving. Bronek and the 10 others climbed in without incident, since to refuse would have meant death right there. As they sat in that truck staring at each other, every one of them knew they weren't going to survive because the truck was rolling towards the outskirts of town.

Eventually, the truck stopped at a military checkpoint and the officers got out to talk. Bronek looked around and noticed that the forest was about 150-200 metres away. He also knew that Lugers have an effective range of 100 metres, with accuracy starting to dwindle after about 50-75 metres. He figured if he could just climb out quietly and start to run directly away from the truck and get 100 metres away, he might have a chance. He gestured to the others to do the same, but they were too scared. He climbed out, making sure not to be seen, and started to run. Behind him, he heard German voices yelling "Shoot him!" "My gun is in the truck!" and such things, which bought him some time as he ran. Soon enough, he heard powerful gunshots ringing out, and even felt a few telltale whooshes barely miss his body. But he made it to the woods. He kept running for almost 10 minutes before turning around and realizing he hadn't been followed.

Decades later, he visited a cemetery for those executed by German occupation forces during the war. Sure enough, there with the exact date when it happened emblazoned on their headstones were 10 graves holding the remains of those others who had been in the truck with him that day. My grandfather was a traditional man, not the type to cry, but when he told me this story I saw the emotion welling up in his eyes. Maybe be felt some guilt about being the only one who survived, but mostly I think he felt powerless to prevent it. It was a terrible time in history that he managed to survive because of his wits and his strong will to live.

Rest in peace, kochany Dziadek. Bedzies zawsze pamietany, i zawsze kochany.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"We salute your war of terror!"

Phew, busy week. Just a quick ditty today: saw Borat recently. Let me put it this way: I think it's quite possible I squirted kidney bile through my left eye from the intense abdominal pressure caused by laughing too hard, for far too long.

Borat is shameless and belligerent, like a meth hooker throwing her rotted teeth at you in the street; it's angry and cruel like a Christian wielding a chainsaw at an abortion clinic, and god damn is it funny.

Sure, it's hardly an artistic masterpiece (I'd bet about half is likely staged) and you'll probably cringe like a baby and cover your face for a good half of it, but I think Borat may just be the finest execution of gallows humour ever put on film. Forget jokes about dicks in apple strudels a la American Pie - Borat shows you that dick, refuses to wash it for months, and then uses it to write its name across your face with apple crust while you sleep. This is the big leagues, kiddies.

The best scene in the movie is a play in three acts (you'll know it when you see it) that ramps up the insanity in perfect doses and finally ends with gleeful devastation in the festering cultural mecca of our time: the hotel-convention-hall business luncheon. My head is exploding just thinking about it.

Some critics are trying to label Cohen's movie as a grandiose experiment in intellectual irony, as if Cohen were some hipster university professor teaching a class about social norms and how they pertain to fart jokes. Having seen the film, it seems they're missing the point. Sure, there is plenty of fodder for the Mensa-lites to jerk off to here, but Borat is first and foremost a movie about human stupidity in every form, and expounded in every way, by a single, stupid man. The fact that Borat's missteps manage to reveal as much about our own idiocy as they do his is just a side-benefit. In fact, I'd bet the people who laughed the hardest at the screening I saw weren't laughing with Borat, they were absolutely laughing at him - and that's just the way Borat would have liked it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Paid slaves needed

What the hell is up with the onslaught of $25 writing jobs being offered everywhere? Do these people think we writers are all imbeciles - word-monkeys if you will - just begging for the glorious chance that someone will have the sense of charity in themselves to print our work for free? Or that $25 is a suitable payment for what's likely an entire day or half-day of work?

What's worse is there must be people out there willing to work for such pittances, since these types of listings are growing in number instead of going away (Craigslist, for example, is constantly swamped with these horrifying, yet strangely comical listings). To all you amateurs aspiring to become real writers, crap like this does not get your foot in the crack of any doors that are worth stepping through. Do you really think your contacts will respect you for surrendering hours of your time and effort to work for peanuts? Not a chance. They'll praise the day they met such a sucker and just go on shitting out their spare dimes into your hand. It pains me to think how badly these people are getting ripped off, and they probably don't even know it.

Just check out this listing off of Craigslist:

Research and editing company requires part time and full time writers for freelance work. Work is done from home, but you will be required to visit the office at Yonge and Bloor to pick up work and return materials. Good pay for the right candidate. Must have university degree; Masters preferred.

* Job location is Toronto
* Compensation: Approx $15/250 words

Let's see here, travel and MASTER'S degree wanted, all for the outstanding pay rate of $15 per 250 words? Now that's what I call return on your education investment - grad students, bow down in surrender! Those MAs sure ain't what they used to be...

Of course these penny-stories and slave-wage writing jobs are hardly bastions of literature or editing and so don't take away from the professional writers, it's just disheartening to see the craft of writing cheapened in such a grotesque way. For the love of god, demand more money for your work, even if you're just a kid with a funny story - your writing talents and ideas are uncommon and valuable!

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Charity Monster

That's it, I've had it with charity. The unholy onslaught of calls, soliciting and junk mail that started five months ago was born out of one simple, naive, good-natured mistake: I gave money to a charity. Now, I'm assaulted by never-ending calls and mailings from from just about every charity I've ever imagined, plenty I've never heard of, and dozens more that probably should never have even been brought into existence (The Foot and Hand Artists' charity? For chrissakes is this a joke?). This goddamn nightmare will never end.

Back in May I donated a frugal but well-intentioned $25 dollars to the local Kidney Foundation, probably out of a sense of existential guilt after having done a story on the life of a U of T student with two failed kidneys. I couldn't believe how miserable his life was. Believe me, just knowing about that stuff will scar you for life. Now, I'm not a rich guy - hell, some months I bet I make less than the local bag lady who picks old cigarette butts off the ground at the community tennis courts and tries to smoke them - but I figured if a modest donation once or twice a year could do anything to help people with failed kidneys find some help, or some peace, my pocketbook could handle it.

Then, as it turns out, the bastards sold me out. I get calls 2 or 3 times a week from all kinds of charities under the sun, and they all know my full name, middle initial, mailing address and even what hours of the day I'm likely to be at home (as a freelancer I often get back from interviews in the early afternoons and work at my desk). So let's add this up: for years I get sporadic charity mailings, maybe once or twice a year, and only the occasional cold-call by phone so infrequent that I really can't remember the last time it happened. Then, after finally donating to charity, I get multiple calls weekly, sometimes even two or three on the same day, who all seem to know every single detail handed over in my donation papers. Coincidence? I think you'd have to be an imbecile to not get suspicious.

What's worse is these people are VICIOUS. Here's an only-slightly-embellished example from a recent call:

Caller: Hello! Is Mr. (B) there?
Me: (Here we go again) Uh, yeah?
Caller: Mr. B., I'm calling from Children Without Assholes. Every year, thousands of children suffer terrible abdominal pains, agonizing intestinal scarring and in some cases, exploding asses. We're asking for a gift of $250 dollars to help these children, Mr. B. Can we count on your support?
Me: Um, gosh (250 bucks? Holy shit, are these people nuts?), I don't think I'm able to give anything right now, sorry. Good lu----
Caller: MR. B.! ARE YOU AWARE that these children live in constant pain where every day is a struggle, and without help that pain will consume them?!
Me: Yes bu---
Caller: DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA of the derision and humiliation these children suffer EVERY DAY, MR. B., have you ever IMAGINED what that is like?

At this point, even if I slam the phone down in disgust, my day has still been made a whole lot shittier in a very small space of time. Have I ever imagined the pain and suffering caused by debilitating illness or deformity? You bet I have sweetie, thanks for reminding me!

I get calls constantly from different charities and sometimes even from the same ones, in the same week. I made the mistake of giving $35 bucks to a wheelchair basketball association and they actually called me every single week thereafter for a month to ask for more money. Are these people insane?

It's gotten so bad, I've stopped picking up the phone completely. Since I give my cell number to my friends and the majority of my story contacts, I've decided that missing a few work-related calls here and there on my home phone is worth it to avoid the soul-crushing agony that hits me every time a charity hound catches my scent.

Moral of the story: don't give to charity. They will sell you out in a heartbeat, insult you on the phone and basically make your life a living, charity-dodging hell. Don't say I didn't warn you.