Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Solid Fifteen Minutes

On the Monday following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami I had a mercifully brief exchange with a guy who shops regularly at the Nanaimo music store I work at part-time. He's not really the brightest fellow, and did reveal once he was a crack addict for fourteen years, but I've always found him personable enough. On my bus that day, however, after saying good morning to me when boarding at his usual stop, our encounter unfolded like this:

"What about all that in Japan, eh?"

"Yes, it's awful, a terrible tragedy," said I.

"At least they've got the problems, and not us," he responded.

"Er, what? Eh?" I answered, incredulous, genuinely believing I had either spectacularly misheard him, or had entered some alternate universe moments before he said it.

"I really hope we (meaning Canada) don't send a bunch of money and troops and stuff, as they would never help us if it happened here," he said. Passengers then started to look around at him with frowns and genuine anger in their expressions, but no one spoke. He was oblivious, of course.

Beyond wishing to rid the world of this moron by lethal injection at that very moment, I hardly knew what to do or say in response. I blathered something about the world community always needing to rally around any nation in distress, then had to jump up to get off the bus and head for work. I couldn't stop thinking about his remarkable outburst all day.

Anyway, on a similar theme, the mighty satirical publication, The Onion, today included a quite fantastic piece in their weekly emailout that I simply had to share alongside my own personal episode: 

EARTH—Following the recent earthquake and tsunami that tragically took the lives of an estimated 20,000 Japanese citizens, the planet Earth was afforded a good 15 minutes during which its inhabitants behaved like actual human beings, sources reported.

In the quarter-hour that followed news of the massive natural disaster obliterating entire towns and killing or injuring thousands of innocent men, women, and children, social scientists around the globe reported rare—and in many cases unprecedented—occurrences of individuals feeling genuine empathy for their fellow humans, recognizing the evanescence of life, and experiencing a deep sense of awe and humility toward the overwhelming power of nature.

After the 900 seconds had passed, however, this behavior reportedly ceased. "Though its duration was incredibly brief, in this span of time the entire human race was able to temporarily forget all its petty political interests, narcissism, greed, and ironic detachment for a few moments and behave like real people with compassion and respect," social scientist Dr. Robert Westbrook said of the short-lived burst of basic decency. "There is no evidence of any significant bickering, lying, preening, or self-involvement during this period. In fact, it appears that all 6.7 billion human beings simply stopped for one quarter of an hour, became filled with genuine emotion, and said, 'Oh, no, those poor people,' while keeping their baser instincts in check."

"That they instantly went back to being needy, solipsistic whiners does not change the fact that, for a fleeting moment, the world was a wholly humane and gentle place," Westbrook added.

According to experts, immediately after the 15 minutes were over, the vast majority of the Earth's people seemed to move on from the harrowing, incomprehensibly tragic event, and have spent the subsequent time attempting to get ahead in their careers, ignoring the plight of those desperately in need, thinking solely of themselves, and acting how they generally act at all times throughout their lives.

A sizable number of human beings around the planet were reportedly able to negate the sympathy and goodwill they had just exhibited toward Japan by moments later getting into an uninformed argument about the efficacy of nuclear power, making a crude Godzilla-related joke on their Twitter or Facebook page, or telling themselves they didn't even know these people so it wasn't really worth getting too upset about.

"In those 15 minutes, the thought of making light of the events in Japan did not even cross a single human being's mind, yet evidence shows this restraint expired sometime between the 15:00 and 15:01 mark, when certain segments of the population began to speculate that the disaster was somehow 'payback' for Pearl Harbor," said sociologist Karen Perkins, adding that within seconds deep heartache and grief quickly segued into trivial and barely related political debates. "By the 15:30 mark, millions had told themselves that the Japanese were a somewhat robotic and unemotional people who would recover just fine; by the 15:50 mark, 1.8 billion people were already thinking about lunch; and by the 16:15 mark, all but 0.8 percent of the world had moved on completely."

According to Perkins, the exceedingly rare occurrence of the human race simultaneously feeling a moment of tenderness and selfless concern for others only has a handful of modern precedents: Similar behavior occurred for 22 minutes following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for six minutes following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, and for slightly under four seconds after news first broke of the trapped Chilean miners last year.

Experts calculated that in order for everyone on Earth to act like a good person for 30 minutes, 1,000,000 human beings would have to die in a volcanic eruption or flood. For an hour of worldwide charity and altruism to take place, statistics suggested that an entire ethnic group would have to be genocidally murdered in a single afternoon on live television.

In order for people to be decent and caring for an entire day, there reportedly would have to be only 12 survivors left on the planet, though by the next morning they would likely begin arguing, slandering, and killing each other for resources.

"We should be encouraged by the fact that the world was able to come together like this at all," Perkins said. "Even though, in the end, it only lasted a few minutes longer than it takes for the average person to shower."

Still, a minority of scientists disagreed with the conclusions drawn by their colleagues. "Frankly, I reject this notion that it takes tragic events like [the earthquake] for the people of Earth to act like real human beings for once," MIT sociology professor Samuel Lark told reporters. "After all, most modern research suggests that acting like a callous, unfeeling, vain prick is exactly what being a human being is.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Stereophonic Bird Tennis

Whenever I catch a bus downtown I take the opportunity to read, so as normal yesterday morning had my head buried in a book while waiting for the bus to arrive. (In this instance, it was Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian's highly entertaining collection of diary entries, entitled The Celestial Cafe.)

I was joined at the bus stop by two young girls; I presume they were sisters. The younger one was about eight-years-old, her sister maybe fourteen. The latter was chewing gum for Canada and staring intently at her cell phone from the moment they turned up. I smiled, they smiled, then I returned to Murdoch's amusing musings.

From somewhere in the distance behind us came the hoot of an owl. The little girl immediately became animated, excitedly looking up at her sister with imploring eyes, chirping: "Wow! That's an ow-ul! An ow-ul!" The sister didn't break her cell phone-brainwashed gaze for even a millisecond, retorting: "Yeah? So? What's the big deal?" "But it's an ow-ul!" whimpered the little one, clearly crushed at her big sis' lack of enthusiasm for, and connection to, the real world.

Then from above us to our left came the unmistakeable drumming of a woodpecker. I looked up to see a beautiful Northern Flicker atop a lamp post. Here's one, but in its more familiar setting of a tree: 

A couple of seconds after the drumming ceased, more drumming came from my right! Then the left again, the right, the left, the right, for several cycles until it stopped altogether. "What on earth are they doing?" I wondered, all but dizzy from the sterephonic bird tennis.

The bus stop I wait at is situated pretty much bang in between two lamp posts on the opposite side of the road. Although I couldn't see it, what I was hearing clearly indicated there was another Northern Flicker on the lamp post to my right. In drumming back and forth like this, it seemed obvious they were communicating with each other, but what were they saying? All I knew was that it was delightful, and an encounter with the natural world I had never before experienced. I immediately called Susan (on my incredibly basic, purely functional cell phone) at work to blather about what was going on.

The bus arrived. The young girls boarded. The small one looked crestfallen and tossed aside. The teen was still chomping on her gum and gawping like a moron at her effing cell phone, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her sister was still with her. I wouldn't have been so surprised if she'd turn around and asked her who she was and why was she following her. I also boarded, sighing (for the ten billionth time this year) in resigned despair at the all-immersive portable communication/entertainment technology of the digital age.

This whole scenario had occupied just three minutes or less.

Having spoken to my bird expert friend, Jon Carter, this morning, I know now that the Northern Flickers were defining territorial bounds. He explained it was two males at the probable edges of their respective territories, informing the other that there will be a right ol' tear-up if they should overfly the mark. They apparently choose to drum on metal lamp posts simply because the sound is so much louder, therefore more threatening. And there I was hoping the little buggers were discussing how ironic it is that as cell phones have evolved they've actually made human beings less communicative. 


Sunday, March 13, 2011


Jumpers for Goalposts: 2011-12 Premiership Edition

It's not April 1, is it? After stumbling over this snippet of ridiculousness in the football gossip section of the BBC website this morning, I had to double-check my calendar in case I had unknowingly been in a coma for three weeks:

Tottenham's shirts for next season could contain computers that will reveal how tired the players wearing them are.

I used to love football. Like, really love it. Today, not so much. One of the many reasons for this is because I don't really care how tired the players of Tottenham or any other professional club get when kicking an inflated bladder about. It's their 'job,' for which they are paid more in a week than I will be for a lifetime of, you know, actual work. 

Tsk. Whatever next? Boots that supply them with vitamin supplements by osmosis while simultaneously auto-Tweeting their every kick of the ball? Again, I say tsk.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

And in direct contrast to Attila...

Ha! No sooner do I post about a book about a "gentleman" bank robber dishing out blooms to tellers and leaving baked goods in the vault than I read this is today's news:

"COPENHAGEN - A Swedish bank robber forgot to cover his tracks and left three bottles of urine behind after hiding inside a bank vault in Copenhagen for three days.
The 27-year-old man and his accomplice used the bottles to relieve themselves after sneaking into the vault on a Friday in May and remaining there until the bank opened again the following Monday.

While inside, the robbers emptied 140 safety deposit boxes of at least $500,000 in cash and jewelry. But Prosecutor Frederik Larsen said Wednesday they forgot to take the urine when they left, "so we were able to get their DNA samples from the bottles."

The evidence helped prosecutors win a 21-month prison sentence for the Swede on Tuesday. His accomplice is still at large and the loot hasn't been recovered."

How ironic it is, don't you think, that in robbing the bank they were taking the piss*, yet they actually forgot to take the piss. Brilliant!

* An English and Antipodean expression meaning not only to mock or ridicule, but also to take unfair advantage of or take liberties with.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jack & Attila

I've always read a lot, usually having a couple of books on the go at any one time, but during a recent enforced period of downtime I positively devoured a mountain of them. From Charles Bukowski's hilarious Post Office, to a comics biography of Martin Luther King by Ho Che Anderson called, perhaps unsurprisingly, King, to the first of three volumes of Nanaimo's history by Jan Peterson, it was books for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not forgetting second breakfast, elevenses, supper and midnight snacks.

Of all the books I enjoyed, however, two in particular really bowled me over. So much so, in fact, that it appears I need to tell you about them right here, right now. So I will. I'm thinking anyone reading who is clued into the book world may have heard of this first one, as it has quite rightly received a lot of attention. Published last year, it is a veritable page-turner called Room by Canadian-Irish author, Emma Donoghue, and it is magnificent. 

On the first page of Room we meet Jack as he reaches his fifth birthday. Shortly thereafter we learn that he has lived his entire young life to date in just one room. Why this is is slowly, harrowingly revealed as Jack narrates the story in his deeply endearing way, in a remarkable language dreamed up by Donoghue and executed with faultless consistency.

I don't actually read a great deal of fiction, preferring history, travel, memoirs and so forth, but this book - a gift from my friend and Fascinating Rhythm boss, Steve - had me hooked from the first page until I put it down, emotionally drained, having read it in, I believe, three sittings.

The thing about Room, at least for me, is that it provokes thoughts on subjects one wouldn't as a rule consider. The story and general concept - so simple, really - have indelibly stuck in my mind, so I'm finding myself pondering such as my relationships with the inanimate objects in my home and workplace. I've been thinking about how I might survive if presented with a similar situation to Jack and his mum's plight, especially in light of the mild claustrophobia I suffer from. And I've been thinking about how the intensity of the bond between mother and child would be unimaginably amplified in this imponderably awful scenario. I've also been mulling on my own sense of spatial awareness, how I occupy my place in this world. All of this and more has stemmed from entering the beautifully realized, yet cramped and highly stressful world in which much of Room is played out.

Really, I cannot recommend Room highly enough. I have never read anything remotely like it and, however much you read, I guarantee you won't have, either. As if I haven't said enough already about why you should immediately buy and dive straight into Room, here's a brief teaser video that may seal the deal: 

My second book choice for today could hardly be more different: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, by Julian Rubinstein. A true story published in 2004, this is a fantastically entertaining account of the life and criminal activities of Attila Ambrus. Before continuing, it is probably best to give you the bizarre synopsis/overview, as laid out on the back jacket of my Canadian copy:

"Attila Ambrus was a gentleman thief, a sort of Cary Grant - if only Cary Grant came from Transylvania, was a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper, and preferred women in leopard-skin hot pants. During the 1990s, while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest, Ambrus took up bank robbery to make ends meet. His opponents: a police chief who learned how to be a detective via dubbed episodes of Columbo; a deputy so dense he was known only by his Hungarian nickname, Mound of Asshead; and a forensics expert-cum-ballet teacher who wore a top hat and tails on the job.

Part Pink Panther, part The Unbearable Lightness of Being, part Slap Shot, this uproariously funny, exuberantly praised book tells the remarkable story of a crime spree that galvanized a forlorn nation and made a nobody into a somebody - a tale so outrageous it could only be true."

Although I appreciate the above reads like a plot outline for a Wes Anderson movie, the whole darned lot of it is true. Yes, even Mound of Asshead, who is routinely referred to throughout the book as 'Mound.' At times, it's hard to believe it all really happened as you stumble into crazy situation after crazy situation in the company of Ambrus - the loveable rogue pictured above - but therein lies the joy of this book. Rubinstein writes with such panache and obvious affection for his subject and his preposterous faux-gangster lifestyle that, even in the darker times - and there are plenty - it's difficult to stop smiling due to the utter lunacy of the story.

Set against a backdrop of the dramatically shifting political climate of 1990s Eastern Europe, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is not only a book about a unique, complex and fascinating character, but also an examination of what can make a folk hero, as Ambrus became, and remains, in Hungary. How could anyone not fall for a bank robber who would hand the tellers roses as he emptied the safe, or - for reasons only he knows - leave a loaf of bread in it before he fled with the loot? 

One of the true joys of this book is tripping over the scores of laugh-out-loud sentences that work even out of context, even when the subject matter is dark, simply because of the ridiculousness therein:

"Among those who took their lives in 1993 were twelve of the thousands who had been lured into a failed Ponzi scheme to raise and sell ringworms."

"Right, here he was, then, in a bad wig and a spot of trouble."

"And they were hot on the trail of the priest who stormed a money van with an ex-judo champion and made off with more than 50 million forints ($470,000)."  

"Hungary's tourism minister proposed as his office's new marketing campaign: 'The Russians came. The Mongols came. The Turks came. They took everything. Come to Hungary and see what's left.'"

"Back in his cell he yapped so incessantly that his cellmate, Killer, who signed his letters to his wife in blood, finally threatened to stab Attila if he didn't shut up (which worked)."

"He began to run as best he could on two twisted ankles toward the Danube, where his first sight across the river was Parliament, spread out on the bank like a big, proud turd."

Anyway, there you have it. To reveal any more might spoil your fun if you decide to hunt down Rubinstein's fabulous tome. As you should.

Although admittedly not terribly curmudgeonly on this occasion, Captain Curmudgeon will return in due course with more musings on whatever takes his fancy. Thanks for reading and have great day.