Lifestyle

Bambi and Thumper

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We were coming back from visiting our friends’ parents’ farm and my two girls were discussing the bull they had been within a metre of. Lilly, who likes making her younger sister feel like a sack of shit said, ”When a bull climbs up on a cow, that’s how they make a baby cow. You didn’t know that, did you Malina?” To which Malina responded, ”Well, you didn’t know that 7 + 3 is 10, so ha, ha.”

I laughed. Which was nice. Because eight hours earlier I had my 19th catastrophic heart-attack of the week when I was teaching them how to read. Let’s go back, and zero in on the exact moment Lilly broke her father by not knowing how to read the word ”Know”-

”THE ‘K’ IS SILENT. IT’S SILENT. I’VE TOLD YOU THIS A HUNDRED TIMES, NO, FIVE HUNDRED – WHY CAN’T YOU REMEMBER IT? WHY? WHY?”

Hold on, let’s go back earlier, as in a month earlier when my cousin visited from London with his five-year old daughter Caitlin. She pulled out a book the size of a brick and started reading it by herself. A kid’s book, yes, but nothing simplistic, definitely not Horrid Henry which is basically a virus in pulp form and only read by kids who are strung-out on Ritalin. Honestly, it’s seventy per cent bad drawings to the point where Horrid Henry’s parents are so ragged and straggly that by the end of the book they resemble HIV+ patients circa 1989. The remaining thirty per cent of Horrid Henry is made up of giant words written sideways and zero-dimensional characters the author essayed whilst overhearing a drunken conversation about The Simpsons. Sorry, where was I? Yes, Caitlin – so she’s reading like a prodigy, like she’s this miniature Salman Rushdie who got a sex-change and whitened his skin and somehow ended up on holidays in southern Poland.

And my daughters are listening to this, freaking out because they can’t read. They can speak two languages, but they can’t read in any of them. My daughters’ panic is nothing compared to mine, owing to the original sin of all parents in that I think the walking, talking, anthropoidal form of my semen has got to be blessed by genius. I’ve been showing them educational stuff on youtube for the last five years and this is how they repay me? By not being geniuses? By having my cousin’s child read like a Kashmiri Indian, Fatwa-suffering, world famous novelist while they sit there, shoulders hunched, breathing through their mouths – not my daughters any more, but a combination of Woody from Cheers and Dr. Zoidberg from Futurama.

In the following weeks, I decided to go hardcore. I decided to get all Roald Dahl on their asses – Fantastic Mr Fucking Fox – and each day we hunkered down to read a new page. I did this with the manic persuasion of a man who wants to make his children clever so by association he will appear clever and have something to boast about at cocktail parties other than he once burped the entire alphabet backwards.

This was a mistake of gargantuan proportions. Reading Fantastic Mr Fox has been the most anhedonistic period of my entire life.

My daughters, those two shining beacons of joy, my Butch and Sundance, my Mick and Keith, my Bambi and Thumper well, I want to fucking kill them. Why? Because they can’t tell a ‘b’ from a ‘d’. Because it takes them thirty minutes to read a sentence. Because they get confused by ”where” and ”were”, ”they” and ”the”. Because the English language is as sneaky as a serpent hiding in witch’s hat, home to stupid words like ”know” with its silent ”k” and its retarded silent ”w” that everyone forgets about – but my daughters shouldn’t forget about it, they shouldn’t.

And I scream at them, and threaten them because I’m not like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, no, I’m the evil thunderbastard music teacher from Whiplash, I’m a complete asshole of a teacher and after I want to kill them, I am awash with self-loathing and guilt, a tsunami of remorse floods the ventricles of my asshole heart and my kids are hating me, hating reading and it shouldn’t be like this, it shouldn’t, I just want them to be smart and happy and relaxed, but they won’t be unless I’m like that.

So I put the book away, we spent the day with our friends, we ate nice food and met a bull. I watch them. I can see they’re smart kids. It’s not them who has to learn. It’s me.

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We Are Men

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Did you hear the one about the Irishman, the Ukrainian and the two Polish men? It’s no joke though. We cycled to Czech where my father-in-law hosted us on a 230km round trip. A weekend like that, on the road, tired, hungry, the road stretching out before you, punishing yet inviting, and well, you’re going to get to know the men you’re with. What makes them tick. What makes a man.

And what is a man? The question intrigues me as the answer is never a fixed thing. Used to be a pair of testicles would suffice. But the definition evolves with knowledge and experience.

Being a man goes way beyond the celebrity endorsed entertainment model currently positing men as Superheroes and so seeks to infantalize us by denying our knowledge and experience. It creates a longing in us for the impossibility of…superpowers – invisibility, turning green, or in the case of Spiderman, the ability to shoot a sticky substance out his body over great distances and onto walls. Eugh.

Or else we’re told to follow the James Bond model which looks like fun until you realise it really entails being an alcoholic, state-sponsored executioner with 42 different kinds of venereal disease.

Mykola, Marcin and Adam are scientists and engineers and I think if a man can be anything he is a creator, a builder, a healer. Any fool can burn a barn, destroy a headstone or bully a black man off a train, but it takes talent to create. To conjure something from nothing – this being the act of magic.

To be a man is to create anything beneficial, be it a picture, a happy human, or a home. To be a man is to be a multifaceted thing, embracing his family while seeking solitude, a bon viveur who knows when to let the sadness in. Contradictory? Of course. A man should be. To simplify man is to reduce him. A man should embrace failure if he is to achieve success, be it in relationships or whatever he is striving for. Show me a man who hasn’t had his heart broken or loved the wrong woman and you’re not showing me a man. You’re showing me a picture in a magazine, a pretty-boy pin up for adolescent girls to cry salty tears over.

As Irish dramatist, Samuel Beckett says in Krapp’s Last Tape, ”Clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most…precious ally”. Poverty, failure, exile, loss, these all build man into a wondrous creation. To die without scars would be a truly awful thing. To fall off the bike, means you have gotten up on the bike and challenged the punishing road that is the future. To die without scars is to die without courage and this loyal readers is the essence of man.

We are all possessed by quiet acts of fortitude. Our lives are defined by them. Marcin Mykola and Adam are no different. For Marcin, the zenith of his courage was being present at the birth of his firstborn, a truly scary time when a man contributes nothing yet everything. For Mykola it was deciding to become a doctor, a career where you perpetually have to re-examine your levels of bravery. When I came to my father-in-law, his answer was the humble one I expected; he said he has never done anything courageous in his life – this from a man who acted in the face of Poland’s historical oppression and made his way out of Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Both however pale in comparison to his most courageous act; raising five children, four of them being daughters. Jesus, I’m raising two girls and if I don’t get my parade I’m going to be pissed.

Man.

He cooks. He cleans. A man finds poetry in the dirt beneath his feet. He lends his lungs to those whose are collapsing. A man fights his corner. He kicks up and kisses down. He shouts at the devil and finds god in the little things. A man hugs. Sings. He doesn’t whistle in the dark, he finds the light. He digs in the earth to create life and to bury the dead. He seeks heaven and he raises hell, he burns the candle down, he gambles, he gets sunburned and he has a stack of quips written on the cuffs of his shirt just in case.

He gets up on the bike, fights the pain and he gets there.

A Man is there.

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If I Could Change Just One Thing About The Poles

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What is the most self-destructive Polish characteristic? Is it the perpetual re-imagining of yourselves as victims of cataclysmic history? It certainly doesn’t help. If you live too much in the past, the future dries up. But there’s worse. Your propensity to follow to the death any shiny-suited seat-sniffing politician who’ll whore you out to the highest bidder, for a potful of dollars or yen? An Irish friend visiting here remarked on there being an absence of sheep. I wouldn’t be so sure on that I told him, but as bad as your docile subservience is, the worst trait among certain Poles I have met is Fuck You Economics.

Fuck You Economics comes in many forms. It is most obviously evident during business interactions when one side chooses to make a once-off profit over the other. They con, they scam, they take any advantage they can find, even if it means the other party will never do business with them again.

I’ve been on the receiving end of Fuck You Economics a few times here. Years ago, a theatre manager in Poznan told me I could only do a show at his venue if I paid him two thousand zloty up front. I say ‘theatre manager’; the guy was so shifty you could have put a hat on him and called him a weasel. Most theatres divide the takings, the performer gets 70%, the venue gets 30%. It’s called A Split and it happens after the show when the money is all counted. It’s very fair and it puts the onus on the venue to properly market the touring show/performance. This theatre manager in Poznan convinced me that’s not how they do business in Poland. I believed him, he got his easy money and a few weeks later I got an empty theatre.
Fuck You Economics, spiraling through Poland’s DNA, dictates that having found a sucker, you squeeze one big egg out of him, grab it and run. I doubt any alternative crossed the theatre manager’s mind. Build up a relationship with a foreign performer and have him coming with his show five or six times over a few years? Charge him an honest rate and help him put on an entertaining show, so everyone comes out feeling golden? No. Fuck You Economics means one side gets easy money, the other is left with shit on their bib.

It’s happened a few times since, albeit in smaller ways. It’s so prevalent here that no matter how vigilant you are, you’re guaranteed to get pinched at least once a year.

Fuck You Economics has many faces, some less overt, less surreptitiously bludgeoning, like the smiley face of the antique shop owner I used to go to. Threw a lot of business his way, I was what you might call ‘a loyal customer’ and coming from Ireland where such small businesses regularly reward good clients with discounts I felt confident enough to ask for a discount. A deal. You might be familiar with this concept. It’s when both parties come away from the transaction feeling good. Their heels click the pavement and buy themselves an ice-cream.

I gave the smiley-faced owner an offer on some furniture – ‘I’ll pay full price for the two most expensive pieces, but can you knock a few zloty off the third piece?’

His smile slipped through the cracks appearing in his face. He said No. The way an executioner says No. ‘Aww come on,’ I said. ‘I could go to other antique shops, but I always come here to you…’ It didn’t matter. He closed his eyes in such an awful way, as if to say, ‘how could you Mr Irish? How could you ruin the trust we had with your petty haggling?’

There is no haggling in Poland. There are no deals. There are winners and losers, gods and monsters and everyone’s looking to get their retaliation in first.

In Ireland we have a saying; ‘nobody wins unless everybody wins’ and sometimes I really miss that.

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Don’t Die Without Scars

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Get busy living or get busy dying. Some of you will recognise these words of advice from The Shawshank Redemption, the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novella and with this in mind, I took up an offer to go Wakeboarding. A mistake of gargantuan proportions I can tell you, most of which I will enumerate below.

I was joined by my friend Michal, his wife and 16 year old godson and we went to one of those great man-made lakes so plentiful in Silesia and which never fail to inspire me when I’m writing about serial killers and abductions. Michal knows his way around a wakeboard and along with the two dudes who ran the operation, explained how it works; you place your feet inside what is essentially a snowboard and try and keep upright as you are dragged across a mass of water while dangling from a motorized wire.

Most of you know how it works. But for me, who comes from a country where badger-throwing is a pastime for males between the ages of 4 and 70, it’s the height of sophistication. Michal went first and in that typically Polish way, was great, tracing his way across the lake in a manner reminiscent of Timothy Dalton in Licence To Kill, his wife, every inch the languid Bond-girl, watching her husband attempt a dazzling array of 360 degree spins, a glint in her eye as she imagined him slaughtering swathes of Putin’s elite water-cossacks.

His god-son then gave a good account of himself, before I was lowered into the water, where I contrived to get the waterboard and by association half of my body, stuck underneath the jetty from which we were launching ourselves. No Bond I, more like a crash-test dummy who has been magicked to life by a mad-scientist, albeit with the brain of one of the aforementioned Irish badgers who has been thrown way too many times.

They got me out from under the jetty and the motorized wire pulled me a good twenty metres across the lake before the inevitable happened and I splashed down with all the grace of a horse jumping from a plane. A wonderful moment, marked by naked panic, camouflaged by my unerring ability to consume mouthfuls of pure lake-water and convert it into concentrated snot which was then funneled out my nose and ears.

I repeated this trick on three more ocassions before my PRACTICAL SILESIAN WIFE turned up. Just off a 24h duty and reluctant to take part as she never wakeboarded before, but you where this is going, don’t you? She reluctantly decided to give it a go and in true Silesian wife style, was everything I wasn’t. There you go. When the Russians come, she’ll be the one fighting them off, holding a flame thrower while standing on the wings of a glider. I’ll be stuck in some Siberian POW camp, reciting pornographic monologues for the masturbatory benefit of my Legia Warsaw cellmate.

We said goodbye to Michal and his family and so they are still unaware of how, in cinematic terms, my wakeboarding experience went from Woody Allen to The Passion of the Christ. I woke that night at 2am with the worst case of muscle cramps known to an Irishman, even those who have consecutively thrown over 500 badgers. My bed wasn’t a bed, but a landscape of discord and agony and my entire right arm was awash with pain.

Pain. It flowered in my arm as a giant, angry scorpion, a queen who gave birth to millions of scurrying scorpions whose fate was to excrete venomous shards of broken glass down the right side of my body.

Four days later and physiotherapy from my neighbour Ola has helped. My PSW has lovingly administered therapeutic beatings so I’ve got to the stage where I’m crying only every other hour. But I am at one with my pain. I have grown into it. Perhaps this is why I can say what I have to say next;

The pain is good. Good in that at the age of forty-two, I am still getting hurt as a result of trying new things. Sure, there’s plenty of war-stories from my twenties and thirties, but there’s always a risk when you enter your forties, that life will get, you know, flat. Not in Poland, the land of unpredictability, where you never know what’s going to happen next. While this isn’t always a good thing, it’s never boring. I came here and subsequently choose to remain here because I have a fondness for the road less traveled. A rough road with thorns and you will get cut. The price you pay for adventure.

Get busy with life and collect your scars.

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The Black Triangle

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Such a title begs to be repeated. The Black Triangle. Shorthand for the Silesian region’s most silent killer, the name alone is that of an 18th century Penny Dreadful, some awful pirate narrative where men with enlarged lymph nodes and other bubonic disorders search for non-existant treasure at the bottom of a watery, dark tomb. It is not for me to rehash the miles of column inches detailing Poland’s shameful pollutant statistics. You and I both know about the causes and effects of airborne dust particles and I doubt at this stage that even the most gormless, right-wing bumpkin pushing a wheelbarrow in some village where the dogs bark out of their ass, doesn’t appreciate the villainous effects of the toxic particulate PM2.5.

We all know that Poland has failed to take any measure to combat this, despite being warned about it as far back as 2005. And who doesn’t believe that successive governments are beholden to fossil fuel interests and won’t offer any alternatives? Of course, we all also know what the alternative is – the nuclear option and it is here that both Ireland and Poland once again converge.

In 1979 the Green Party of Ireland successfully campaigned against the then Irish government’s decision to build a nuclear power plant in the south-east of the country and in doing so consecrated themselves as the keepers of Ireland’s ecological flame, this band of little priests, standing on the mount, exorcising all perfidious nuclear generated electrons. They won because the world was reeling from the Three-mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania only months before, and the entire country was crystallised behind an anti-nuclear strategy.

I’m sure this is ringing a lot of bells for Polish readers; the failed Polish nuclear program of 1990, where the nascent post-Communist government caved in to a public who feared the terrors of Chernobyl to be visited upon them. Yet had the Irish government of 1979 introduced nuclear power, my country would have the lowest carbon dioxide emissions in Europe and be the worshipped as the eco-model all others must follow. The capital costs of such a facility would long since have been paid off, we would have had the cheapest electricity in western Europe and wouldn’t have to import nuclear-generated electricity from Britain as our government decided to do in 2009, a coalition government, which, wait for it, was made up of the Green Party and the very people who marched against nuclear power in 1979.

So there you have it. A very Irish solution to an Irish problem. Not only are we content to export abortion to our nearest and dearest neighbour, but we also import their energy that we are too feckless to provide for ourselves. Sometimes, this son of an Irish Republican understands why the English sought to colonise us.

And what of the Polish problem? According to professor Wladyslaw Mielczarskiego from the Technical University of Lodz, the nuclear option doesn’t yet make financial sense – the costs of producing 1MWh of electricity from coal is 100 Euros as opposed to 140 Euros with nuclear power.

Added to that, no government wants to have it on their record that they green-lighted a facility which has the potential of turning into another Fukushima. Better to have the slow drip of 43,000 annual deaths than a once off big-bang effect.

Yet it is surprising how many Poles are in favour of freeing themselves from the tyranny of coal. I have talked to many who have signed up for home gas connections. Among certain sections of the community there are financial anxieties, but on average the annual extra cost for a typical household switching from coal to gas would be no more than 2000 zloty. The Polish people must prioritise then? Well, easier to write than to achieve, but this is where the good faith of both central and local governments comes into play. In Gliwice we have a sports/entertainment stadium being constructed. The EU refused to fund it as was deemed a financial liability and non-essential. 340 million zloty (somewhere in the region of 85 million euro) of tax-payers money is being sunk into an edifice that when no management company would take it on, was off-loaded onto the officials who manage the city’s sewerage facility.

340 million. With this Gliwice, one of the top six most polluted cities in Europe, could be one of the greenest. In the world.

But we have a stadium. And perhaps it will become useful. After all, we’ll need somewhere to store all the bodies if our Black Triangle gets any blacker.

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