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Ottawa: Next Day

In Ottawa we’re breathing a little better today, security officials aside, though two young men aren’t breathing anymore.

Thre was only one shooter, as it turns out, after we spent most of yesterday worrying about a team, one or two more of the conspiratorially unhinged. No, he wasn’t among the list of the “radicalized” 90 our secret service and police have been looking out for. Thankfully, there aren’t too many evil masterminds here in Real Life, and this tragedy now appears to be what it usually is: some damaged sap who’d lost his balance, and wanted to take somebody down with him. Thankfully, too, he may not have been a very well-organized one, or Nathan Cirillo might not have been alone in paying the ultimate price.

Cirillo earlier that morning, member of a proud Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment that is prouder now. (Photo by Cody Slavik)

Cirillo earlier that morning, member of a proud Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment that is prouder now. (Photo by Cody Slavik)

Maybe he – I will not name him – was just another lonely loser “inspired” by his distant, cock-eyed brother in spineless mayhem, the one who’d run over a uniformed military officer in a Quebec parking lot earlier this week. (Courage!) Like him, he may have labelled himself Hero, and felt the rush of action-film adrenaline and game-boy significance. He was Doing Something About It, whatever in twisted hell It was. Here were pathetic would-be saints of a faith they didn’t understand, Internet pawns of power-mad bigots who use religion as a means by which the lost, the undereducated, and the toxically resentful can get even, or become something of a sociopathic somebody.

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Better Read Than Never: Stephen King’s CELL

My review of Stephen King’s novel Cell got a little long and breathless — much like an SK novel — so I cut it in two. The first part was my experience reading Der Horrormeister and sometimes preferring him as a teacherHere, I punch the buttons of the fictional Cell, which I found an agreeable and often compelling read.

There are gorier covers, but my son's paperback version looks like this.

There are gorier covers, but my son’s paperback version looks like this.

Here’s the deal on Cell: for reasons that are never fully understood (by characters or by us), everybody speaking on a cellular phone at a fatal moment are slammed by some kind of electronic probe, later called the Pulse, which instantly erases from them most of what we typically think of as individual humanity. They lunge for available throats and entirely forget how to drive or otherwise conduct everyday jobs, let alone the conventions of civilization. Chaos ensues, of course, and life suddenly becomes a savage, primitive contest of survival between “normies” and “phoners”.

We watch as this happens via Clayton Riddell, a young Dad separated from his wife and young son. He’s a struggling artist, and (as did King) he has daylighted as a school teacher, but on the day the world goes violently sideways, he has just sold his graphic novel, Dark Wanderer, and its sequel for a dizzying amount of money. He’s bought a gift for Sharon, estrangement be damned. He’s thinking of what comic book might thrill his little Johnny. Things are looking up. Seems like a good time to buy some ice cream.

Uh-oh. None of this helps at all six pages in, when the power-suited, ear-pieced woman ahead of him in line for soft-serve, yacking loudly, suddenly stops, drops her phone, gazes blankly, and then tries to drag Mister Softee out of his truck.

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Better Read Than Never: On Stephen King

SK back when, perhaps about the age of Clay, the artist/teacher protagonist of "Cell".

SK back when, perhaps about the age of Clay, the artist/teacher protagonist of “Cell”.

I’m something of an agnostic when it comes to Stephen King, but I still attend the Church of Steve occasionally. I recently read his 2006 novel Cell, not a decade too soon, and enjoyed the ride; we’ll get to that soon. However, I’m sure I’m not alone, though as usual I’m well outside the best-buying mainstream, in preferring King’s non-fiction to his ever-popular novels and shorter stories.

Danse Macabre, his query into the attractions of the dark and haunting tales he likes, charmed me long ago with its range, its sense-making and its humility. I know what I am. I’m a hack, though I try to be a good one. Not long after, reading Misery — this must have been late ’80s, early ’90s — I was abducted (partly) against my will by that tale of a writer haunted by the insanity of fan-dom. I was often knocked out by his word-smithing, too,

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Larditude, Ice Cream, and Why You Should Subscribe to My Blog

We’ve been back from China for nearly three months now, and I haven’t put on the weight I was afraid I would. YAAAAYY! It’s neither so easy or so enjoyable to play the amount of outdoor hoops in Canada that I did among the mad-for-basketball masses of young men at every Chinese university. Here in Ottawa, it’s either empty courts, or young kids, or a game with serious Players that I can’t hang with anymore. Mostly, it’s the first two.

We still don’t entirely know which end is up. In our familiar Ottawa home, we’re still finding stuff we’d forgotten we owned, still trying to winnow down our possessions at least a little, and find places for the stuff we have. (The Story of Stuff. Daily.) We’ve cracked open most of the boxes. I have So Many Great Books That I Haven’t Read Yet. Sometimes I’m thrilled. Sometimes it’s maddening.

Meanwhile, once again, I’ve found a bit of retro-writing in my files. Last week, it was a letter I wrote to and for Son the Fourth on his first birthday, and it was good to remember the thrill of his arrival amid the wrangle of his rampant teendom. Today, it was a piece I wrote (and never sold) on the (mock) horror and (pointless) resolution arising from tipping my crappy bathroom scales at a shudder-inducing 200 pounds, distributed greasily over my formerly athletic 5’11″ frame. I gave it a quick polish, and posted it over yonder in the “On Second Thought” section, just above my sappy, sentimental birthday letter.

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Guest Post: Why Me? Why NOT Me?

I posted a short quote from a baseball player, of all things, in the “He Said/She Said” section. It was Mel Stottlemyre, a baseball coach and certifiably Famous Dude within the world of MLB, shrugging and refusing to pity himself for being struck with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. “Why me? Why not me?” he said in a Steve Rushin article in Sports Illustrated a decade ago, and I’ve never forgotten. (It must be an example I need to remember.) Thoughtful reader Michael Freeman made his comment into a short personal essay, which deserved prime real estate, and here it is:

I don’t know who actually coined this phraseology first, but it took me a long time to come to the same conclusion, if not the same exact language. A coin has two sides, different sides unless you are lucky enough or crafty enough to possess one of those phony two-headed coins of con job fame.

An argument, or debate, in its simplest form has a pro and a con. An island has an east and a west coast. A game has a winner and a loser. Why can’t every why have a why not?

I was leaving an AA meeting one time. I had just joined in the group commiseration of throwing our proverbial dirty laundry into the centre of the table, and shared ideas as to how to proceed. Each meeting is a safe haven where all are welcome to share and discuss and come away feeling just a little bit better. And it usually works, for many, at least along spiritual and emotional lines, but I have always had the nagging of physical discomfort knocking at my door. Daily. Persistent. And at times, relentless.

I stood at the bottom of a staircase bemoaning my condition: festering leg and back pain and a mind distracted by its impact. I hesitated for but a few moments,

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Catching Up: Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman

Maybe you’ll like this. I did, when I dredged it up from a subterranean file of writing I’d forgotten about. I didn’t forget this girl, though.

A.T. was a favourite student of mine, and Number One Babysitter of Son the Fourth when he was “the world’s happiest child”. In a writing class I was taking, not teaching, I was assigned to interview somebody interesting, and I chose a chubby, bespectacled grade 11 with a great brain, lovely brown eyes and a lethal wit. She still writes, but the activist appears to have won out: she’s spent the past half-dozen years doing development work with an NGO in Africa. She’s come a long way from Caledonia.

I always wanted to be Jann Arden”, says A.T., a 16 year old high school student, “but I can’t sing.  I guess I’ll be a writer–what else can I do?” A. even looks a little like Arden, and has the same intelligence and self-deprecating wit, although her self-possession suggests she will not have to go through the same depressing chemical adventures in seedy bars. Here’s hoping, anyway.

An only child (a gentle iconoclast right from the womb), she nonetheless has loads of family history, blithely speaking and writing about her father’s recent marriage to “the fourth Mrs. J. T.”.

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Writing and Doom

That day’s Sinking Feeling Epiphany:

Every day is September.

(Can I still do this?)

The day after Labour Day — in Canada, it’s the first Monday of September — always loomed anxiously. For most of my adult life, it meant being back in a high school classroom, the Return of the Creature. From about the last week of August, the Creature Dreams would begin their annual limited engagement. (It’s an auspicious day, great things to teach or coach, but I can’t find my classroom/the gym, materials are a bizarro mess, and wait didn’t I have clothes on before? and this place looks vaguely familiar but why’s the ceiling getting so low and holy-cow-my-feet-are-stuck-in-what.) Teaching and coaching were performance arts, and so there was performance anxiety, more than 20 years of it, but mainly confined to the first Tuesday morning of the school year. I always got an adrenalizing dose of can I still do this? but I was unfailingly reassured about five minutes into period one: yeah, ‘course you can. You’re built for this. I am Creature. Hear me creach!

Maybe I’m just tired and lonely in this writing thing. In June, we were not only packing, finishing our teaching jobs, and preparing to leave China and our Chinese friends after five years, but I’d accepted a writing deadline: June 30.¹

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But you know, I’m gonna miss this place. Huge.

And I will miss our Chinese friends even more. Jet-lag smacks me pretty hard, but it’s already starting to ease a little. (I can face my keyboard with only minimal dread.) The general disorientation of farewells, uprooting and re-entry into a previous context will soon fade; the cleaning and painting and purging of our house will be over in a few weeks.  I believe and hope that I haven’t left China forever, and that I’ll see some of our friends again, but I know that for too many I’ve said my last goodbye. That’s how it happens, though I’m not much good at accepting it.

I’ll write more about it. I imagine a four-part goodbye: to the teaching work at two Dalian universities, to the new legs that China gave to my long-dormant basketball playing, to the wonders and remarkabilities of that tremendous country that is so suddenly front and centre to the world’s future, and to our sharing of the Baha’i vision with new and lasting friends. (I want you to hold me to this promise.) For now, for recently, I’ve only posted a couple of things.

In “At First Glance”, just below in this main section, you’ll find a piece I could have titled “Fear and Loathing on Huangpu Lu”. I probably was more than a few centimetres from death, but I stared at that speeding car from way too close and from the seat of my slightly soiled pants.

In the “It’s All About Sports” section, there’s this retrospective on the stunningly high level of basketball played by the San Antonio Spurs in winning the NBA championship. We still don’t get it, and with LeBron having dominated the North American sports headlines even after losing, even during the World Cup, my essay isn’t going to change anything. I tried, anyway.

“On Second Thought”, the place where I put ideas I’ve pondered and worried over longer, was just the spot for an older piece, one that didn’t find publication back in 2007 but still tells a story of faith and commitment that you might find touching. (It still touches me, but pain isn’t everything.)

And, it being World Cup season, with Germany and Argentina itching for a fight — but without violent or military intentions — a few days ago I quoted a fine American writer, Brian Phillips, who mused about what the Cup does that no other human activity can match. That’s in the “He Said/She Said” section.

Please note also that the so free and easy to SUBSCRIBE it’s almost sinful button is still just over there, top right.

JH [dot] com is on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII. It keeps followers up-to-date with what’s happening here, plus the usual Twitter smorgasboard of observations, pass-alongs and faves, and of course you’re welcome. 

Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more about “Sport, Culture and Other Obsessions” that I’ve been writing about

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China Road: Rage Against the Machine*

This is part two of “Crossing the Street in China”. The less-violently-so-but-still emotional part one, on going out of the Way by bringing “poker” into a Chinese college classroom, was here.

In one week, we fly from Dalian to Beijing to Toronto to Ottawa. We’ll be “home”. Our China sojourn, five years young, ends in seven days. I’ll be posting about that, too. I hate goodbyes, and we’ve already had dozens of ‘em, but I won’t miss the kind of experience I recount below.

 

* AltTitle: Fear and Loathing on Huangpu Lu

It’s another T.I.C. story. My wife and I mutter TIC (“this is China”) with resignation, a shrug, usually with grace and occasionally with genuine wonder. (It’s an amazing place. So much to see and learn. But.) Perhaps my most emotionally rich TIC moment happened last week, too, if by “emotion” you mean volcanic but helpless rage.

A Good Guy, defined: someone who goes out of his way for someone else. My son regularly goes out of his way, though not for the sake of being a gentleman, to avoid crossing the main street near our home. Huangpu Lu is six lanes wide, with a bus stop on either side, and the car-heavy side street that comes from our large apartment complex enters it on an oblique angle. There is no stoplight. There is a painted zebra-stripe crossing, which means nothing in China. (Not quite true. It means that drivers speed up as they approach it so pedestrians won’t try anything stupid, like trying to cross ahead of their Audis.) My son doesn’t need to cross there as a rule, and refuses to. Last year, he saw what he’s convinced were three dead bodies at that crossing, one a mown-down pedestrian, two in a car wreck with blood staining the road for several metres.

I cross Huangpu Lu at this spot every day that I go to school.

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Crossing the Street in China: Poker.

I have two “This is China” stories for you, and one lame joke. Here’s the first story of me going just a little out of my way, and the bizarrely typical consequences. It’s about playing cards.

Story. I like this definition of a gentleman: a man who will go out of his way for others. I try to meet it. (I’m not exactly acing the course, but if it’s a pass/fail, I think I might get the credit. Fingers crossed.) I often don’t, though. The little English corner¹ I started at my college a month ago is a test case: I don’t contractually have to do it, it’s a useful service to my students, but it also allows me to continue seeing some of my fave freshman students, kids that I’ve been working with in Oral English class since last fall. I like them and they like me. It’s not exactly sacrificial for me to be with them, but it’s time I don’t need to spend.

¹ I’d never heard of EC until just before we set out for Dalian, China in 2009. Chinese people gather to hear and practise speaking English. It’s a sweet, earnest custom. Foreigners are valued and surrounded, and for us, it can be an ego intoxicant. Practically, what it often means is that the Chinese are off the speaking hook, and mostly listen or ask the questions everybody already knows. “What country are you from?” “Do you like China?”

This week, a few newbies came, too, as soon as their morning class was over. Some finished off hasty lunches. We learned “Over the Rainbow”, did a getting-to-know-you walk ’n’ talk, and then the young vets taught the new kids how to play Whist. I’m not really a big card-player, but my bridge-loving mother taught us bid whist as a lead-up game when we were kids. (I almost remember the rules.) Most important, here, is that there’s so much good English vocabulary and idiom: trump, following suit, deal, bidding, tricks, reneging, lead, shuffling the deck, diamonds (they’re called ‘squares’ in Chinese, while clubs are known as ‘flowers’), and keeping your cards close to the vest/chest. I wish I’d started sooner, as the students love it and I just laugh and cajole and play Language Cop and threaten dire, non-existant consequences if they lapse into Mandarin.

A senior administrator poked her head in. She’s the Party Secretary for our college;

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