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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Entitlement

It is always tempting to claim that right now is the worst example in history of something. People have never been more rude than right now. The streets have never been more dangerous than right now. Kids have never been weirder than right now. Usually these statements are ridiculously false, particularly here in the Good Ship North America, where war and real suffering is something that happens to other people (or, at worst, a very small percentage of our own). Even complaints about traffic are probably lies, if you look at the average time to get from A to B. Sure, maybe you commute two hours to work, but it would have taken a medieval peasant two days to trudge the same distance. Whatever your personal bugbear, I guarantee at some point in the past, it was worse.


So having dismissed all previous claims that today is the worst time in history, I'm going to make a new claim: I think that we have never felt more entitlement than right now.


Historically, I'd imagine that emperors and royalty felt pretty strongly that they were entitled to all the good stuff and none of the bad, that other lives were theirs to do with as they wished, and if they wanted to plunge their nations into war just to win a bet, well, so what? However, they were a minority. I'm sure the people they ruled over didn't live and breathe with the idea that they were entitled to anything, much less everything. Even something as basic as daily bread was mystical enough that we have a prayer for it in the Bible. Talk about setting your standards low!


But today... boy, are we entitled to things. Ignore the enormous list of "rights" and civil liberties that we take for granted every day (and freely discard the second even the ghost of a threat peeks over the horizon). Rich people feel entitled to grab for more and more, stepping on the backs of wage-slaves to claim it. Workers feel that every penny of profit a company makes should get divided equally between them. Professionals who get paid kick-ass salaries feel their paycheques should be bigger, their hours should be shorter, their offices bigger, their pens fancier, and their coffee more expensive. Fans deserve unlimited amounts of time from the people they adore. Fame entitles you to skip queues and circumvent life's little rules to get your own way.


This little commentary was inspired by Wil Wheaton. He was recently staked out at a party he was attending so that when he exited, he was surrounded by rabid and eager people thrusting 8X10 glossies in his face to be signed. They didn't just have one picture each, either, but stacks of them. So intense was the press that they cut him off from his friends, like separating a lone wildebeest from the pack before the hyenas fed. He signed a couple of things and tried to get away, and a woman followed him for two blocks, calling him bad names and threatening to besmirch his reputation. (I'm paraphrasing: "calling you a fucker on Twitter" would be more faithful to her diatribe.)


Were these people in the right? I sure don't think so, but they felt entitled to have their hopes fulfilled, and when you take away something a person feels entitled to, they get furious. It wasn't that Wheaton walked out early on a scheduled signing; he was ambushed by stalkers just because he was in the public. Sure, he's a public figure that owes his career to his fans, but being a fan entitles you to nothing. More accurately, it entitles you to the exact same thing non-fans get: the ability and freedom to share in the body of work someone produces.


Don't get me wrong: plenty of famous people think they're entitled to more than they really are, too. I think most of us get pretty smug about how all the things we have (or want) are ours "by right." We deserve them, cause we're just so darn special. It's an attitude that can only lead to bitterness: if you think you're entitled to your high paying job, soon you'll think you're entitled to a higher paying job. It's an endless cycle.


Thinking you're entitled to something doesn't make it true. Now, I am not Mr. Sunshine (in fact, I believe a few people used to call me "Sunshine" sarcastically), but I truly believe that if everyone could just stop thinking they were entitled to everything they have and more, our Good Ship North America would be a lot happier. There would sure be a lot less arguments and screaming matches.


Then maybe I'd be able to get all the things I deserve. It's about time I got my due!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A sampling

More notables from high school.
Pat, a stocky fellow whose stock-in-trade was coming up to you in the halls and crying “Heart punch!” while ramming a ham-size fist into your chest. No one knows where he came up with his peculiar battle-cry, though you can’t deny it was unambiguous. While in computer class with him, I demonstrated to his absolute confusion that I was well aware that an I-beam is a steel girder was. How could I, a child whose dad had never worked a day on construction, know the engineering secret of Steel Girders? Smugly, I just told him I was very well read. I did not enlighten him as to the TRUE source of my knowledge: namely, that Spider Man swings down and catches a steel girder in the opening credits of the 70s cartoon. Said girder has the cross section of a capital I, so I concluded it must be an “I-beam.” If Pat’s reading this now, my secret it out: I am a nerd.
Pete, a blond and beaming young man of dapper demeanour. I worked with him for two years at the local SAAN. We got along beautifully. He had real class and, unlike almost everyone else in town, never taunted anyone that I ever heard. Years later, we bumped into each other at a gay bar and shared an awkward moment of consideration. "So... are you?" I finally asked, gesturing at the patrons around us. "Yeah," he admitted. "You?" "Sorry, no," I said with a shrug. "Just here with a friend." I flatter myself when I say that I believe he looked a little disappointed.

Dave, the most hyperactive man in the world. Through four years of high school, I did not see him sit motionless once. He was always drumming his heel on the floor. You could feel the subsonic vibrations throughout an entire classroom. His bladder was equally hyperactive, or he had a cocaine addiction, because he went to the bathroom four times every class. You rarely saw him without his trademark beverage in hand, grape cola.
Cammy, an ex-pat from Winnipeg, who never really fit in with small town life. She’d been a cheerleader in her former life and tried to rouse some school spirit in our apathetic hearts. No dice. I think two girls showed up for try-outs, and certainly no guys did: it was a well known fact that being a male cheerleader would buy years worth of daily beatings. Cammy was no airhead, though. She regularly got among the highest test scores, but could always be counted on when the tests came back to go trooping up to teacher’s desk to point out all the instances where the marking was wrong and her answers were right. She probably got hundreds of bonus marks that way in her career. Cammy was invariably the token person in the class who asked for more work when she got done early. I’m sure she’s out there as I type, over-achieving her way to success.
Another Chris, not to be confused with the Crazy Chris of my last post. This Chris was a well-meaning boy who had no skill for scholastics. In computer class he could often be seen leaning well over so as to more easily copy the program of the students in front of him. We were given two months to work on an assignment whereby we selected, read, and critiqued poetry. When it was pointed out to him that the assignment was due TODAY, he pulled out a notebook and pen before cheerfully asking us “Does anyone know any good poems?” He had, alas, a body odour problem, and we dealt with it in the mature, kind manner all deviations were dealt with as teenagers: we nicknamed him “L’oignon.” Poor guy. I hope he eventually forgave us and was not driven to do something unfortunate from a bell tower with a high-powered rifle.
We had one other fellow who had a French alias as well, “Pamplemousse.” He was so dubbed because of his nearly perfect spherical shape. Oddly, neither boy was French and we didn’t live in a particularly francophone town, so I have no idea why we leapt for French nicknames when an insult was looked for. Perhaps we perceived the French to be somehow snooty, but that’s only a guess: the motivations of the teenage mind will be forever opaque, even to themselves.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A word about Chris

All of the following is true. It is always tempting to exaggerate for comedic effect, but in this case, it really isn’t necessary. This character writes himself. If you read about him in a book, you’d think “No way, this author doesn’t have a clue.” Well, maybe this author doesn’t, either, but this dude is real.
Let’s talk about Chris.
He was mentioned in my last post regarding his improvisational skills with Bunsen burners (yes, he did indeed make a small-scale flame-thrower). I will not include his surname; not just to protect his identity, but because if he looks anything like he used to look, he could break me in half without even trying.
Our boy Chris was a skinny kid. Then he moved away for a couple of years around grade 6. While gone, he apparently was given the Super-Soldier formula, because he came back brimming with muscles. He was far away the strongest kid in high school, and it wasn’t “big farmer bulk.” No, it was all “cover of Muscle Mag” ripples. Intimidating, and his behaviour really made it worse.
Chris was the son of the local mortician/funeral home owner. He had a coffin in his bedroom with one of those life-size bodies you could mail order from Fangoria magazine... at least, that’s where we all hoped he got it from. Another half-size body dangled from the ceiling in a classic hangman’s noose. He slept with a machete between his mattress and box spring. For kicks, he would dig graves for upcoming funerals with a shovel. By himself. For anyone that’s ever buried a pet or dug a fence hole, you will have a vague idea of just how much effort it is to dig into Manitoba clay to any depth beyond about 15 centimeters. Chris went down the full six feet.
His van was hand-painted with designs that I can’t specifically remember, but definitely made me look away. The grill was threaded carefully with long coils of rusty barb wire. For the most part he was friendly enough to talk to, but every now and then he’d look into or through you, and you knew - you just KNEW - he was thinking what you might look like without your skin.
A couple of incidents truly stand out. The first happened in a classroom, about five minutes before class started (the teacher was gone, still filling up with coffee in the staff room). Chris had acquired a butterfly knife somewhere (perhaps from some mugger who’s neck he’d twisted) and was standing near the front of class practicing with it. Whirl, whirl, snap, the blade is gone. Whirl, whirl, snap, the blade is back. He was really very fast with it. It was hypnotic, and kind of hard to follow.
Then another kid walked into class, blithely unaware of his surroundings, and Chris stabbed him in the chest.
Now, obviously he had the knife blade tucked safely into the handle, but the rest of us sure didn’t know it. Half of us surged out of our seats in shock. The “stab” victim just stared dumbly at the hilt of a knife jutting out of his chest. Dead silence pervaded, then Chris chuckled a little and went back to flicking the knife around. Our hearts slowly returned to normal speed.
The second big incident was on the sidewalk in front of the school. Chris had a dark trench coat on. A cop car drove by, no big deal, and Chris took a wide-legged stance facing the side of the police car. Then with dramatic slowness, he reached into his trench coat, withdrew a dull black pistol and leveled it at the passing police cruiser.
You can’t imagine a more sudden reaction. The cop car laid on the brakes with a squeal, leaving a twenty-seven foot skid mark (yes, I measured it after the fact, I was a compulsive nerd even then). Two officers came surging out of the car and bundled a passive, mildly amused Chris into the backseat before tearing away. We thought we’d never see him again.
Of course the gun was a fake. Back then it was easy to find realistic looking pistols without that tell-tale red plug in the muzzle. Probably the cops knew it was fake, too, but it did occur to us kids that in Chicago or New York, a move like that might have gotten you shot, not just arrested.
Chris was back after a one day suspension to continue to scare and entertain us, by the way. That’s about all such an offense warranted back then. Ah, how times have changed.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

High School Reunions

This coming weekend, so I'm told, is my twenty-year high school reunion. The organizing committee finally tracked me down (I'd managed to hide from them for the ten-year event). I suppose I can thank Facebook for their newfound ability to grab you no matter where you lurk. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me but I'm not going.

Maybe it's my robotic, unsentimental nature, but I fail to see any point whatsoever to high school reunions. Why would I want to get together with a hundred people I didn't much care for twenty years ago? Are we supposed to reminisce about all the "good" times that came along with high school?

Granted, high school was awesome. Never since in my life have I had such a surfeit of free time, disposable income, ready access to friends, or a pleasant, parent-free environment to hang out with said friends. It's a pretty sweet deal. You get sent to a (mostly) clean and (hopefully) safe building for seven hours a day, and every person in town you like HAS to go as well. They called it "education," but it's really "mandatory hang-out time."

With lunch and breaks, you were guaranteed nearly two hours where you had no responsibilities at all. The rest of the time you got to screw around in class and play around with way better toys than the ones in your own house. We didn't have gas lines and bunsen burners at home, that's for sure. (And a good thing, or the fire department and I would have been well acquainted. I'll never forget the time Chris <surname withheld for legal reasons> turned copper tubing into a make-shift flame-thrower. That sucker really roared.)

The only problem was that every person you DIDN'T like had to attend as well. I've often said the world would be so great if it weren't for all the people in it, and high school was no different. For every friend, you had five enemies and twenty people that wouldn't notice you if you were on fire (a serious risk; see my above observations on Science class). That is not a good ratio, although I suppose it does adequately prepare you for life in the real world.

What lures can a high school reunion offer? Are they going to let us do all the old fun and weird things again? Will we be able to dissect fetal pigs, play with bunsen burners, drop sodium tablets in water, or lock Jeff <surname withheld for legal reasons> into the sousaphone case? (Sorry, Jeff.) I doubt it. So other than drinks and bad food, what does that leave?

Why, the people, of course. Basically, though, going to a high school reunion means spending time with your friends (yay!), your old enemies, and the whole mass of people you can hardly remember and barely remember you. People I never knew can stay that way: the world is already filled with strangers, and I'll never have a chance to meet even a tiny fraction of them, so why focus on the ones with whom I already share a common past? As for the enemies... well, twenty years is a long time to hold a grudge, so either you look like a  petty jerk for even remembering the juvenile torments, or you swallow your bile and shake hands, grinning at the moron that pulled your gym shorts down and pushed you into the girls' change room. "Ha ha," you say, teeth gritted, "I'd forgotten all about that." Only you haven't. The scars are still with you, and the image of Todd <surname withheld for legal reasons> tied to a tree as the wolves slowly circle haunts your dreams (in a good way).

That leaves friends. I already keep in touch with all the people I liked in high school, so I don't need the old gymnasium as an excuse to talk to them. We do live in a global village; if you want to find someone, it's easy, and with Skype, email, on-line chats, texts, etc, if you aren't still in touch with someone, odds are it's because at least one of the two of you doesn't actually want to be.

Conclusion: waste of time, money, and mental effort.

However, the news has made me nostalgic. The next few posts will be dedicated to reliving the past. Ah, the glory days.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Royal visit

With William and Kate strolling around Canada, of course it is a natural time for Canucks to bitch and moan about “parasites” and “unnecessary royal baggage.” Royals are all a bunch of amoral degenerates. The monarchy is completely useless in the modern era. It is an institution with no relevance anymore. Worse, it wastes public money. No one voted for the Queen or any of her brood; it’s undemocratic and perhaps even a shade tyrannical, to still have them around or be imbued with even the slightest influence on public policy.
What a load of shite (to borrow a British expression).
First, let’s talk about voting. No one voted for the Queen, that’s true. No one EVER votes for a Queen. (Except in Phantom Menace: Queen Amidala was elected. Does Lucas even know what a Queen is?) So what. Are we really that thrilled with our elected leaders? When was the last time you saw a name on a ballot that truly filled you with respect and admiration? Aren’t most elections a matter of holding your nose, closing your eyes, and marking the least objectionable scuzz-bucket with an X? I propose that raising a child from birth to the idea that it is their job to govern is more likely to produce a leader worth following as it is to have a bunch of middle-aged white lawyers clawing at each other to hold the top spot. Think about it for a minute. If you use a “rule by birth” system, you get rid of lobbyists and special interest groups. No more annoying election ads (tell me THAT doesn’t convince you, if nothing else does). But maybe it scares you to have someone hold that kind of power over you when you don’t have a say in when they lose their job.
Hopefully you’re never in a court, then, standing before a judge. They don’t get elected, the last time I checked, and they sure hold a lot of power over your future. All it takes is one accusation and a pissed off judge, and you could be in for a lovely time in the Big House. The same goes for cops, teachers, bureaucrats, tax auditors, and a bunch of other people that can have a significant impact on our lives. So the idea that only democratically elected individuals should have power over us isn’t even a real concept in our society.
As for the royals being “degenerates” or otherwise immoral, I refer again to my above comment about the quality of our current crop of political leaders. Graft, bribery, infidelity, broken promises, lies, racial slurs, misogyny, abuse of power, slush funds... the list goes on and on. Whether personal or professional, there really is no area of life that our public leaders haven’t, on occasion, screwed up - forgive the pun - royally.
It may be true that the monarchy is a waste of public money. So are a lot of things. Are we going to get rid of them all? How do museums help us in our day-to-day struggles? Monuments are pretty useless, too, but we aren’t going to topple every statue and arch, are we? In terms of relevance, the monarchy is a living link to our own history and heritage, much more vibrant, dynamic and modern than any painting, document, or plaque could possibly be. If we want to truly understand who we are, it is important to know where we’ve been, and it would be foolish to toss aside an ancient institution for no gain and much potential loss.
Does everyone remember Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall pretending to the Queen addressing Canada? “Without me and the French, you’re just... Americans,” she (he) says. Do we really want to take a chance that he (she) was right?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Right wing hate list

This week our boy Flaherty announced that if you are a Canadian arts group that receives public money, you'd better prepare for a lean year. Why is it that fiscal conservatives never have a problem slashing the part of the budget that has to do with the arts community?
Most FCs (fiscal conservatives) joyously throw money at heavy industry, manufacturing, construction, and banking, but suffer violent shakes if asked to contribute to playwrights, novelists, or poets. I think they collapse entirely if a dance company shows up with an outstretched hand. “Are you okay? I just wanted to shake your hand.” <Gets up groggily.> “No, I’m fine, I just thought you wanted a grant.”
They were behind the Wall Street bailout. GM and the other failing car manufacturers had to be saved, else jobs would be lost and the economy sink even further into depression. Tar sands in Alberts get millions of bucks in subsidies. Huge corporations get tax rates and cuts that a middle class family would kill for. (“Honey, guess what? I killed a man and now we only have to pay ten dollars in taxes this year!” “What would we get if you killed TWO men?”) But aren’t artists tax-paying citizens too? Aren’t theatres and publishing houses industries as well?
Every one of the FCs is fine with a CEO making 10 million bucks a year, but balk at a world-famous novelist like Neil Gaiman receiving a $10 000 speaking fee. Compare this to Donald Trump, who has pulled in as much as 1.5 MILLION for a single speaking engagement. Now who would you rather listen to for an hour? Frankly, I’d rather play audience to the homeless guy on the corner talking to his own hat than be trapped in a conference room with Trump for an evening.

(Maybe all FCs are secretly failed artists and bitter about it. Can anyone else think of a crazy right-winger who was a failed artist? Hint: he's famous, dead, and had a funny little moustache.)

Of course it isn’t only arts funding they traditionally seek to slash. They suffer similar reactions to scientific research that isn’t directly translatable to immediate profit. Drug research is great, but curing cancer? Meh. Space exploration is right out (at least until they discover the moon is actually a big silver balloon filled with oil).
You can be forgiven for thinking that FCs have a personal grudge against the planet. They revel in the opportunities to strip mine, deforest, poison rivers and oceans, or dump garbage pretty much anywhere not already covered in crud, all in the name of job creation and maintaining a “competitive economy.” Even if pursuing environmental benefits creates jobs, they never seem that keen on the idea. You get the impression if they could instantly remove all trees from the planet for a 500% return on stock investment in the third quarter, they’d leap at the chance. I think Mr. Burns from The Simpsons sums up their attitude best: “Mother Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she’s losing. Well, I say, hard cheese.”
Hard cheese, indeed, mostly for our grandchildren, though our short-term portfolios will never look better. If the FCs have their way, it will be a generation raised in a barren scorched earth, and the only source of entertainment will be watching the flood waters rise.