Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Nothing to say?

So, I take a break, and you think I've nothing more to say. Bad you!

I know, I know, the worst malady that can hit a blog is it's author sort of fading away. Will it happen to me? Eventually, and undoubtedly, yes! Nothing lasts forever. But, there's still things for me to write here, fret not. I just may not have one every day. I spoilt you, I know. But that was only because I did not have an outlet like this one before. So, there was a lot of pent up opinions to vent. You just happened to be in the way.

So, a promise. While I certainly will never reach the frequency of posting I had just then, I will create new entries in reasonably regular fashion. For how long? For as long as I can't find an even better, and easier way of doing it.

The mind never sits still!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Gifts That Aren't

Have you ever received a gift that left you cold? Of course you have. Have you ever bought one for someone? Of course you have. There must have been times where you thought you didn't, but people can pretend so well, can't they?

More importantly can you tell in advance if your gift will make someone smile? Really smile. Of course, it is sometimes, you may even say often, difficult to guess people's tastes. Therefore, many a gift will miss its mark, some of them by a country mile, too.

What I propose to teach you here is not how to hit your target every single time. Such an aim would be foolish, and missing the mark by a country mile would have been me. No, what I propose to enlighten you with is how to avoid at least one particular kind of gift that is practically guaranteed to leave people cold, or at least not make them ecstatic after unwrapping.

But could anything be done to ensure a painful mistake is avoided? Well, if you do not really know the person all that well, and can't get someone to enlighten you, then maybe it couldn't. Take a safe bet with something considered a "staple" gift. It will depend on where you are, who you are, and who they are. Even if you do have to take this road, I still think there's something useful for you below.

Now, assuming you (think) you know the person well enough, and the gift needs to be "customised", what is the thing to avoid? Because, see, I obviously can't tell you what to buy. I don't know you, or the recipient. What I think I can say is what I believe should be avoided. And by that I don't mean the obvious stuff either. Of course you don't take and expensive bottle of wine to a teetotaller or a cured alcoholic! I'll try to be more subtle than that.

What I believe makes a gift special is pretty much twofold. One, and obviously, it definitely has to be something the recipient will find acceptable, useful, even nice to have. But that is not enough, not for me. A successful gift really has to be something the person really, really wanted. It also has to be something they probably wouldn't have got themselves. This, I believe, is crucial.

After all, isn't a pair of socks or a sweater a staple hated gift? And no wonder it is! Yes, both are useful. Yes, both are something we all need. But these are also the things we're most likely to go buy ourselves, and not consider a treat. A gift has to be a treat!

Caution needs to be exercised here, and discretion. Maybe a person really, really wanted that sweater but couldn't afford it. Maybe that pair of novelty socks was something that caught their eye, but their partner would have ridiculed them for buying them. You need to know the person! Don't go buying a Porsche to someone with the bank account the size of a small country, and the garage the size of a shopping mall. For one, they already have it. Two they probably could afford it, and would have bought it had they wanted to. Buy them that embarrassingly tatty and cheap home pint pulling kit they'd rather be dead than seen buying themselves, even if they think it's cool. Or, if your bank account is of similar proportions get them a fighter jet to act as a lawn ornament. No serious Croesus can do without one these days!

Of course, all this good(?) advice is if you want to treat someone you like, and want to make them smile. If you're just going through the motions go safe. Either get them something they can easily pass on to the next unsuspecting recipient, or something they, or their family, are likely to enjoy. Think a bottle of wine or some chocolates. If you're lucky they may even share them with you, so choose something you like. Finally, if you really, really hate them get them a pyjamas or a khaki colours sweater. It's as likely as anything they'll burn them in the back of their garden. Unfortunately, they may actually enjoy that last bit, but in gift giving business that sometimes just can't be avoided.

Good luck!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Complacency Killed The Cat

A lot of theories have been offered to explain exactly how and why the catastrophe struck in what used to be proudly called Yugoslavia. The Socialist Federal Republic of, that is. Not the ridiculous and puny attempt of the Federal Republic, now thankfully dead and buried. It is also most likely the case that many a theory of those has a lot going for it. One may even be true, even if I honestly doubt it. By now you should already have guessed what I am driving at. No? I don't believe you, but I'll tell you anyway.

Yes, I am going to offer yet another theory. It will most likely prove to be as faulty as the next one. Still, I believe there's a grain of truth in it. It may not be and be all and end all explanation, but the forces I'll describe surely played their part. You can think of it as my throwing in a few pieces of the puzzle I found under my bed. It's unlikely they'll all fit, but one might. For that one it may be worth reading on. I can only hope it doesn't turn out to be a dull piece of blue sky in a million piece puzzle. But then, even if it is, the puzzle wouldn't be complete without it, would it?

By now you must have got bored stiff of my introduction, all teasers and caveats but no meat, so to speak. You're ready to move on, and read something of substance. Don't go just yet, though. The show is about to start...

If, like me, you don't particularly care for suspense, I have some good news. If not, if you're firmly in the camp hating spoilers, here's your chance to stop reading this, and skip directly to the next paragraph. OK? Go now, and no peeking. Shoo! Good. Now that we're alone I can tell you a secret: it's complacence! That's what killed a place that seemed to have a bright future. Around a dozen years of complacency. Maybe twenty. Such a short time compared to the mess it helped, if not outright caused.

Hello! We meet again with the bunch who don't want to know whodunit on page 3. Shame, really. Some of the best books I read did exactly that: tell you the butler did it straight off the bat, and then keep you wondering how and why for the next 300 pages. But hey, horses for courses. I'm here to cater for all your tastes. Not. I actually don't care for your tastes, even if they're exact copy of mine. That's your business. My business, at least here, is to tell you something I think you should know. And to have fun doing it, which I am. Read on. Indulge me. You're here for me, even if you don't exist. Not the other way around. You're my therapist. And now enough of this faffing about, and back to the main order of the day. Otherwise we may become too complacent about our relative importance in the schemes of things, big and small. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Say no more!
Phew! Where were we then? Ah, yes. The break-up of Yugoslavia, and why do I think it happened, or at least why it happened so seemingly easily.

Let's first fast forward through some history. Not my biggest strength, but I'll try to keep it as simple and factual as I can. You'll live, trust me, even if I feel inclined to start with the proverbial Kulin Ban (proverbial in ex-Yugoslavia at least, for the others, it means I'll start from too far back).
So, first, there were amoebas. Then, in quick succession came (and went) dinosaurs. Then Romans occupied Britain. Fast forward a bit more, and we have medieval Balkans, with various little nations, insignificant in the grand scheme of things, one and all. Let's call them Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians. Of course there were others, but these were always the main troublemakers.

Next, came the Turkish Ottoman Empire. They rolled over the little people above, and set camp just outside Vienna. They didn't like Vienna very much, or it was the other way around, so they retreated a bit. All the way to Belgrade, in fact. They liked Belgrade, and decided to stay a while. A mere 500 years. Right up to the middle of XIX century. Not much later, at the beginning of the XX century Austro-Hungarian Empire, which kindly looked after the little people between Vienna and Belgrade, decided to go home, too. Bored. Or something.

Several dozens of a million dead and maimed later, in 1918, the little people decided that they now wanted to grow up a bit, and joined forces. After a short experiment of The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians, they decided the name was too unwieldy, and settled on a much more elegant Yugoslavia. After all they were Slavs, and also as good as the southernmost tribes there were. Hence, Yugoslavia. For those unfamiliar with any Slavic languages, "jug" is south, and "slav" is a Slav. Jug-o-slav-ia. OK? It was you who thought "j" is pronounced as in "jam", and not as in "you".
Anyway, with a spot of trouble here and there, they lived happily ever after until the World War II came knocking. Now, here comes the first really interesting bit. The king was happy, or more likely scared enough to actually side with Hitler. A move that proved a tad unpopular back home, in Belgrade. MI5 involvement or not, Belgrade saw huge anti-fascist demonstrations in the spring of 1941. Big enough for Hitler to take a clue and invade in just over a week's time. Coward that he obviously was, the king fled (ironically, to Britain), leaving the country and its army to crumble in another week's time or so.

The country crumbled thusly: Slovenia became a very tightly occupied territory. Croatia sided with Germans to such an extent they were granted a status of an independent allied country. Serbia was occupied as well. What was left of the royal army at first fought a guerrilla-like war against the Germans in Serbia. So did the communists who quickly organised a Yugoslavia-wide underground and guerrilla resistance movement - the Partisans. For reasons known only to them, the ex-royal army, the Chetniks, soon decided they hated communists more than they loved freedom. So they turned sides and collaborated with Germans, and fought the Partisans instead. I guess only a deluded mind could have believed the mantra of first dealing with the communists, and then turning on the Germans. But hey, that was then, and this is now, and between then and now, Germans lost, and the Allies recognised the Partisans as being on the winning side. And in this sort of contest there's no prizes for a second place.

So, as a winning side Partisans naturally won the right to have a say in what will happen to Yugoslavia. And they decided to keep it ticking. Not a kingdom any more, but an experiment in the mold of Soviet Union. Until that relationship soured after Stalin thought that all copycats have to play by his rules, until death take us apart. So we divorced the Big Daddy. As all divorces, this one was painful. Very much so. As always, kids suffered the most, all 15 million or so of them. Unfortunately, the ones who still loved the Big daddy, or appeared to do so, suffered the most. But, as with all such things it passed, and got better.

The 50s and the 60s were the rebuilding phase. Most people mostly thought about how to make Yugoslavia a better place to live in. After all, it wasn't exactly prosperous before the WWII, and the war itself certainly didn't help. Luckily, after the Big Daddy finally left us alone, help came from the West who tried to woo us closer. A sought after widow, if ever there was one. With our own hard work, and some friendly help, the country finally started to look worth living in. It was sometimes in the 70s when that happened. And, as always, with the economic prosperity came the freedom to engage in more "wasteful" activities. Music, art, and leisure suddenly moved within easy reach both for people to enjoy, and create them. And, the Big Daddy now being just an itch from the ancient past, and the people running the country being, for want of a better word, rather soft and understanding, allowing influences from everywhere to flow in quite freely, the country increasingly became a nice place to live, too. Things were moving up. We were moving up in the world. Or so we thought…

And this is where the complacency kicks in. See, what I gave you up to now, especially what's in the bottom half of the previous paragraph is a view of people like me. In ex-Yugoslavia people like me thought that freedom of expression, and equality of all people regardless of race, religion, or any other stupid trait, are the most important things to be had. Alongside economic prosperity, that is. It didn't really matter if the country was "communist", "socialist", or "capitalist", as long as one could make a comfortable enough living in his chosen profession, and was also able to enjoy the fruits of his labours in any reasonable way they wanted. That meant creating, and listening to, whatever kind of music, art or literature. Albeit vaguely it also implied that we should be free to pursue any political option we cared about, too. However, that bit was not considered really important. Politics was there to create a prosperous economic background so we could pursue other interests. As long as that seemed to work fine we didn't see much reason to meddle in it. Politics was boring, a means to an end.

Little did we know that "we" were, for all our visibility, at least to "us", a minority. Not only that, but most crucially the "politicians", as well as those "interested in" politics were not "us" either! And they had their own views, ideas, and agendas. Worst of all, they had the power to make things happen, too. We might have had moral and intellectual high ground (in our opinion) but had no power to enforce anything or even will to do it. Until it was too late, at least, and then we realised another thing: it is almost impossible for people like "us" to stand pretty much any sort of chance against "them". Not only they had the power, and clutched at it with both hands, but they also had a completely alien ways. Our considered arguments didn't work. They either didn't understand them, or just didn't want to listen because it didn't fit with their plans and ideas.

Worse, the great unwashed masses sided with "them" and not with "us". It was for several reasons. For one, they never really understood "us". Our world was too alien, foreign even. Quite apart from not being able to understand for lack of education, we were also suspiciously fond of many tings foreign, and to uneducated everywhere foreign is frightening, as it is unknown. It didn't really matter that we were fonder of the West than of the East. Both were equally foreign, East only slightly less so. And then, as to most uneducated the manner of those with power is seductive. They project the power of others onto their unremarkable selves and thus think they shine, too. And knowing they're powerless, and powerless to change that, they tend to side with the bully, because the bully wins most of the time. As a corollary they enjoy seeing the bully's victim squirm. It makes them feel almost as if it was them strong enough to be a bully. Lastly, the bullies know all this, too, and so they cultivate and reward the weak unwashed to ensure they have their support. And the great unwashed being an overwhelming majority everywhere this policy seems to be capable of maintaining the bullies in power, if not indefinitely, then for a very long time.

So, becoming complacent, believing the good times were here to stay, we allowed the bullies to grow strong and do pretty much what they wanted. It all happened under our very noses, but we were to busy with "important" things: music, arts, literature, and generally enjoying the good times. We thought everyone was like us. All people do, after all, and most are actually right. For the overwhelming majority of the great unwashed it is true. For all intents and purposes they all are the same in their wants and needs. Interesting fact is that they tend not to think this is the case at all. This is because to them, we are painfully visible, being aloof, and difficult to impossible to understand. We're an eye sore, an abomination. No wonder then that any bully wanting to get rid of us finds it all to easy to recruit a following. There's nothing more soothing to the masses than to feel everyone's exactly the same, and for bullies to keep masses thinking that. On the other hand, we believed that everybody's same. Different, but same, if you know what I mean. We are all individuals with very different and very personal needs and wants, and precisely those differences make us the same. Equal is the word here, really. And we never saw anything wrong with it, either. Quite to the contrary, we thought it to be a "good thing"™. And, seeing how we became what we were mostly through our own will and actions, we didn't see any threat from anybody else, least of all the great unwashed masses. They must have wanted to be what they were, too, otherwise they would have done something about it, no? Well, no. They seemed to have wanted something more alright, but either couldn't achieve it or were just as happy to just make everybody else be as they are. If there's nobody to look up to there's nobody to make you feel bad about yourself, yes? So when the call came to cut the heads above the parapet, there was no shortage of volunteers.

Was there anything we should have done about this, had we not become complacent. Maybe, but it's hard to say. We kept our eyes off the ball for so long it's difficult to see when the things started to go wrong for the first time. Maybe we should have infiltrated the power structures. I'm sure we'd have found more than one sympathiser had we done that. Maybe we could have paid more attention to the great unwashed masses and did more to educate them. The fact is, we did neither, mostly because we were too busy enjoying the fruits of prosperity, partly because it would have been a hard slog, and too much like politics of which we had such a bad view. Politics is not for the faint of heart, and most certainly not for the weak of will. Power corrupts (and attracts the corruptible). Just look at some of the ones who used to be "us" and then became "them" quicker than you can say "money".
And so it transpired that when the first opportunity arose, the ones in power, and the ones with an agenda to pursue, and the will and skill to gain power found it easy to reap the strength of numbers in the unwashed masses and use them to get to where they thought they wanted to be. The results of that drive, and experiment, are still felt throughout the ex-Yugoslavia, and will be for the foreseeable future. And what became of "us"? There's not really many left, as far as I can see. The hard core is spread very thin, and a lot don't even live there any more, for one reason or another. The others have taken sides along the way and mostly have been chewed up and spat out by those who they joined.

But does it really matter? Probably not very much any more. An opportunity has been missed, and in the process the chances of a similar one messed up beyond recognition. Not to mention that "we" are now old enough, too old in fact, to be of consequence in any decision of any new generation anywhere as to what they want to do and where they want to be in their lives. We can only hope that they'll be able to learn from our example, and won't make the same mistakes we made. Enjoy yourself by all means, but never take the eye off the ball. Do not become complacent. Those in power do not work for you. They work for themselves, and for the great unwashed masses that get them in power in the first place. Beware also of yourselves moving into power. Power not only corrupts, but attracts the corruptible. Know yourself, so you can help yourself and the others. At least that way you won't be surprised when the shit hits the fan. Not to mention maybe being able to deflect it at least a little bit. Or turn the fan off before the worst happens.

Oh, and the last bit of advice. Think of it as parting advice.

Don't call the great unwashed masses "the great unwashed masses" to their faces. They don't like that, trust me. And not only do they not like it, they will also patiently wait until a convenient parapet is raised so you can be cut to measure.

Oops! There goes my head…

So it goes.