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Start Spreadin’ the…

You asked for it.  (Photo by Getty Images)

You asked for it.
(Photo by Getty Images)

WHAT, spreading the NEWS? (I hear you, Mr. Sinatra.) It IS big news this morning.

…rumours? Everybody has his theory, everyone has her opinion. They’re like anuses, as the saying is.

…wings? A new freedom for the ordinary people of America? The victory of the Little Guy against the Political Elites? (How a millionaire’s son convinced millions that he is One of Them is breathtaking stuff, people.)

um, other sorts of wings? Air Canada B&B? Should I be advertising the small extra bedroom in my basement at inflated prices? Are the promised (or threatened?) refugees from this American election already lining up to emigrate to the Civilized North?

…fear and alarm? Ladies and gentlemen: President Trump! And listen: never doubt the ability of frightened people to do things against their own best interests.

…spreadin’ the Jello™? I remember a time when Bill Cosby was the Biggest Joker and not the Supreme Punchline, and this morning I recall his “Chickenheart” bit. It was a long, woolly tale of his childhood, in which his solution to the delicious but overwhelming terror he felt at listening to scary tales on the radio was, yes, to smear Jello on the floor so that when the evil Chickenheart That Ate Philadelphia got to Cos’s place, he’d slip and fall down. Start smearin’ the goos… (If you still don’t get this reference, repeat that line to the tune of Paul Anka’s (Frank Sinatra’s) “New York, New York”, where Hillary Clinton is even now binge-eating Ben & Jerry’s in her fuzzy Barbie pyjamas.)

 ***

Yeah, I’m shuddering, shaking my head in disbelief, pulling out my copy of Charles Pierce’s Idiot America (of which, here is “premise no. 3”: “Anything can be true if someone says it loud enough”). Pierce’s book wasn’t intended to say that all Americans are dumb, though my scary radio show in Ottawa this morning was filled with Canadians incredulizing ả la “How could they elect somebody like that? How could they be so stoopid?” And I go back to 1960s Cosby, when he links the Chickenheart story to another long childhood reminiscence of what happens to an innocent wino who gets run over by a wildly spooked Fat Albert. In the hospital emergency room of Cosby’s ridiculously funny (and rather sweet) story, his Jello-stained father commiserates with the steam-rolled wino, agreeing that terrified people are pretty hard to deal with…

So I’m whistling in the dark. I’m writing headlines, some of which amuse me.

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Guided Tour, Subscription Drive, and a Birthday Bucket

One of these little people was me. (Aren't white babies CUTE?) This is just a nudge to read below-the-page-break.

One of these little people was me. (I am the upright one, but I’m not sure I want to know what was in my mouth, either.) This is just a nudge to encourage you to continue below the Read-More button. Trust me: we’re still cute.

[8-minute read if you love me, 3 if you’re still not sure. This will soon make sense to you.]

August is yearning to become September. The world wants to go back to school. (I do, don’t you?) Naturally, every time I prepare to post something here on JHdotCOM, I do go back to school, figuring out some of what I think I think and what I’m nearly sure that I feel. To “see what I say,” as one writer put it.

What immediately follows is a guided tour¹ of this virtual place — good to see you! make yourself at home! and a shameless attempt to nudge you into subscribing to the writing I scatter around it. See the command in the upper right corner? Don’t be afraid to obey it. Thanks for coming. (And please remember to shut the door when you leave.)

¹ Wait, you’re an old friend? Skip down to the ‘Read More’ button if you already know your way around. I had an August birthday. I wrote about it, and have decided to share some of my restlessness, doubt and inextinguishable intentions. You’re welcome.

So, THE TOUR:

Just below where you are right now – in the “At First Glance” section of the site – I most recently was reporting on someone about whom I’ll write more, or call me a procrastinator. (Quick! This is an emergency — get this man a procrastinator!) Marilynne Robinson is a superb writer of luminous and sharply spirited fiction and coolly brilliant essays on everything from science and religion to the culture of fear. (Libraries. Writing. Democracy. Liberty. Grace, too.²) And farther down the “AFG” queue is another sort of celebration: the appearance of my 700th Web-log post. [UPDATE: Not long after this post, the site registered its 30,000th page view, which could be construed as a YUUUGGE number. Just yuge.]

² Bonus points if you got the Tragically Hip song reference there. Your reward is in your heart.

Over yonder on the right, in the “It’s All About Sports!” section (just below the SO EASY TO SUBSCRIBE IT MIGHT AS WELL BE FREE area), I wrote earlier in August about Ottawa’s Carleton University and its brilliant, undersung dynasty of a men’s basketball program, after the Ravens had chaffed the Wichita State Shockers. There, I predicted that the Ravens would finish 6-0 against their American NCAA guests. Last night, they proved me right with their second conquest of the St. Thomas Aquinas Spartans from downstate New York. I also wrote, and not for the first time, about the wondrous women of Canada’s Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro. (Hey, that’s all over now, isn’t it!)

Just below my playground excitements is a collection called “He Said/She Said”, which doesn’t just fire out an endless stream of out-of-context bons mots but meditates on them. (Marilynne Robinson will be making more appearances there.) I just shared a beauty on solitude from American writer Fenton Johnson, and as usual tried to set it up so that readers know where it came from and why it got my attention. And just before THAT, I quoted something profoundly simple from the dying (but not fading away) Canadian rock idol/poetic conscience Gord Downie of the band The Tragically Hip. They just played what is likely their last concert together, and (most of) a nation is still talking about it over a week later.

The fourth and last section, “On Second Thought”, doesn’t get frequent treatment, but I did throw in some Howdy Poetry about a month back, which is a rarity (and not only because it references my long-departed Dad). “OST” is generally for pieces that I’ve sweated over for longer periods.

And would you consider, now that you know your way around, subscribing to this thing? ‘Cause it’s so easy and FREE and everything. Okay, no more nagging.

TOUR ENDS.

And now here’s the Birthday Thing, which got away from me. I was surprised how personal it became – I blame my little sister as much as possible, have from her cradle days – and so you may or may not be keen to carry on. As Neil Gaiman sometimes warns of his blog posts, Contains ME. This has quite a LOT of (possibly self-absorbed) me, actually, but I decided to run it here below the “Are You SURE You Want to Read More of This Stuff?” break. Some of you may identify with the daunting feeling of Another Trip ‘Round the Sun, another non-youthful number attached to your biographical file. Birthday Blues. This one hit me hard, about two thirds of the way through August, right when and how I was afraid it might.

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Everything’s Coming Up *Marilynne*

[5-minute read]
Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

#ObamasFavoriteWriter is the most reductive, semi-dismissive and ‘Net-friendly way to capsulize her, so I won’t. (Um…)

Let’s start this way: Before 2016, I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson, or at least her name never stuck to my brain casing. Now, I have read all four of her novels, listened to a lecture and two interviews, and read and re-read her Paris Review discussion and one book of essays while ploughing through a second, which was my main accomplishment yesterday and the day before. I think about her work, and about her – where does such a person come from? – constantly. I find myself pestering everybody I like whom I consider might be even a remote candidate to read her. She’s a glorious read.

It started with Phyllis¹. She is a retired university prof who decided, as one of her several voluntary teach-ins, to start a book-club looking at great modern fiction with spiritual themes and underpinnings — as if such literature could actually be found in what often seems to be a doubtful, jaggedly ironic and chronically disillusioned age. Surprise! It can be! Phyllis knew where to look. And so, I got to be the token male among a dozen-and-a-half thoughtful, quietly eager book-types. We read Louise Erdrich and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and the conversations were fun and light-shedding.

¹ Nobody names a daughter Phyllis anymore, yet once upon an old time it was a beautiful name suggestive of green leaves and ancient Greek loyalty and goddess-love. Not bad, Phyll!

But mostly, we careened off on a helpless Marilynne Robinson jag. We couldn’t stop. We didn’t include her 1980 first novel, Housekeeping, which brought her critical praise and a “writers’ writer” designation and a faculty position at the University of Iowa. (I went back and read that one on my own, after I’d finished her Iowa-based sort of a trilogy but not really.) Our little group pulled its chairs up in a circle and started talking about Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, which had stunned me and shaken the ground of American fiction at its 2004 publication – not that I noticed! (I show up late to some of the very best parties.)

Gilead came nearly a quarter-century after Housekeeping. I remember Frank McCourt’s reaction to questions about how late in his life his “overnight success” had come. (His 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes, was an international publishing sensation; he was well into his 60s when it came out.) “I was TEACHING,” he wrote, “that’s why it took so long!”² Robinson might give the same explanation, as she is a long-time faculty member of the legendary Iowa writers workshop. However, she has said in interviews that, not wanting to contribute shallow or derivative novels to the stream of American literature, she wanted to read. And think, as well as teach. And well she did, and does. She is a profound scholar: history, literature, religion, philosophy. Gilead, far from being a work that she laboured over for the intervening decades, came to her quite quickly in the voice of John Ames, a rural Iowa pastor.

² Ever grateful, I am, for McCourt’s lesser-known third book Teacher Man, an in-depth account of his locally legendary career as a high school English teacher in New York City. My review of Teacher Man has a special place, one of the few JHdotCOM pieces to run elsewhere before it ran here, and as a free-lance piece for which I Actually Got Paid.
The NY Times review is worth a read, if you're hungry.

The NY Times review is worth a read, if you’re hungry.

As I read Gilead, I kept asking myself, How is Robinson doing this? How can a novel about a Christian minister in a nowhere town even get published, let alone be this gripping and so smartly written? Simply put, it is a literary miracle, and our little group couldn’t stop, since neither could Ms. Robinson. She wrote Gilead – it is a tiny actual town in Iowa – as the letter that the aging Pastor Ames writes to his young son, the product of a strange, late and utterly unexpected marriage to a much younger woman. Ames wants to explain himself before he dies, so that the boy will, when he comes of age, know something of his departed father. As a novelistic result, so do we, as well as making other compelling acquaintances  of the imaginary kind: Ames’s young wife Lila, his lifelong friend and intellectual sparring partner Robert Boughton, and Boughton’s troubled and troublesome son Jack. Robinson couldn’t get enough of these characters either, to our good luck and delight.

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Hundreds! The 700 Club. Double Century Descending. And Other Not Really News.

Twitter made this just for me. Thanks, Twitter!

Twitter made this just for me. Thanks, Twitter!

[2.5-minute read.]

It’s a day of hundreds, centuries, and numerical landmarks that end in double zeroes. (N.B. Not *that* 700 Club. Relax.) Because hundreds! Because, why NOT? Because you’ll see, that’s why! [UPDATE: And thousands, too, ‘cuz ’bout a month after this breathless report, JHdotCOM — this humble effusion of my thinkings — hit its 30,000th page view, which sounds like a lot. (If I cut back on the thinkings.)]

The 100. This is a TV show I have never seen, and only know because I follow a guy on Twitter who’s brilliant but weirdly seduced by gobs and gobs of television. What’s more: a hundred? In the folly of my middle age, I feel I want to live to that age, partly because I’m afraid of missing out on grandchildren if I don’t¹, partly because though allegedly a man of faith I’m afraid to croak, and principally because my hero, the basketball coaching legend John Wooden, fell a few months short and I’d like to do something he couldn’t pull off. When he died in 2010, I was a long way from L.A., and my bucket list was one large item lighter.

¹ Well, of course this is a shot at my sons!

200. TWO HUNDRED? Before this blog existed, somewhere around the turn of the century, I hit two hundred pounds for the first time ‘round, and it hit me back. Hard. I found the never-published chronicle of my comical lard-based dismay a couple of years ago, when I was flirting (again! still!) with that flagstaff of fatness, and included it in a 2014 blog-post. My China years of playing basketball, walking everywhere, and reduced access to my preferred vices had gotten me down. Weightwise, that is. Sometime this past year, I cow-tipped my new scales at 200 again, and it ticked me off, so I instantly did nothing about it.

HOWEVER! This very morning, friends and strangers and aliens and all my flat-bellied players, my scales said THIS: 199.5  (Pounds, that is.) So: YES!! And ‘BOUT FRIGGIN’ TIME!! And more brave muttering about how this is just the start and I can DO this and old-guy underwear ads, here I come! and so on. And Bruce Springsteen started singing in my head, so that’s good, too, though I think he had a different kind of descent in mind.

300. I refused to see the movie, and I still think it was crap. * he limps off to growl at children* But I was a pretty consistent .300 hitter in my bat-swinging days. *he prepares to launch into “boring stories of / Glory days…*   Springsteen’s everywhere today.

400. It has been four centuries since Shakespeare died. So whatcha gonna DO about it?

500. Nothing to say about this number, except that it’s linked to Fortune, which is a fickle and ephemeral thing (and I haven’t made mine yet but this blog post could change all that).

600. Tennyson, anyone?

(Give yourself a banana split if you guessed “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.)

“…’Forward, the Light Brigade!’ / Was there a man dismayed? / Not though the soldier knew / Someone had blundered. / Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred…” Because poetry.

700. SEVEN. HUNDRED. BLURTS. SEVEN HUNDRED! (In which the bloggish typist finally gets around to the point of what this post is, sort of, about. Don’t miss it!!)

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Triplet Homey Birthdays: Wise Guys!

[5-minute read.]
Some of my readers are family, but most of you won’t know who I’m talking about at all. You may think, Why should I read this? These people mean nothing to me. But I think they will. I suspect that you know gents kinda like these. Listen: they were good men. (One still is.)   

The end of July is reflection time – yeah hey, another one! Rumination. Ponderables. Wonderings and wandering attention, the occasional WHY and a whole posse of what-ifs. As July finishes baking, three sweet’n’sour birthdays follow one another, three days for three men that raised and sandpapered and marinated and confused and strengthened me. Do you know these guys, or men like ’em?

Today, my big brother is 6264. (Yikes! Nice math, Einstein!) We have the usual, the far-too-standard fraternal bond. We love the other guy but never mention it, unless you count the kind of merciless-but-never-toxic teasing that comes with confidence and a certain deep kind of knowing. We would do anything the other one asked, though we know he probably won’t request anything beyond a bed to sleep in or a pool table to move. We rarely call each other, and when we do there’s always a practical reason; we don’t write much, but are surprised at what a brother might say in an email and how good it feels to read it. Despite the obvious facts that we both love sport and are often more willing to explain things than some around us might prefer, I’ve always dwelt on noticing how different we are. I find myself chronically restless, incurably dissatisfied, and find Bill, my father’s namesake, eerily content. (I don’t believe in it, to be honest, but as the decades pile up, so does the evidence of his satisfaction. The guy seems to know what he likes and like what he knows! At a fundamental level, this strikes me as amazing. I can’t quite grasp it.) He’s a business man, good and smart with money, while I eagerly avoid thinking about cash and have most enjoyed work that mysteriously put monthly sums in my bank — or didn’t pay me at all. My brother signs cheques and legal documents with a painstaking, patient cursive signature where each letter is roundly formed. I practised a snazzy, jazzy penmanship designed to look good on the first page of the books I’ve never published and the autographs nobody asks for.

The longer I interact with the lying mirrors in my life, though, or actually listen to my own spoken rhythms, the more I’m forced to admit that we look and sound a lot alike. I still listen to music that he had fairly brief adolescent enthusiasms for, and well into adulthood have feverishly played (and later coached) sports that he taught me to play. I continue to dream of baseball; I presume he was my first pitcher and catch-and-throw partner, but it predates my conscious memory. (I do, however, bat from the opposite side of the plate than he did.) It was because of playing road hockey with him that I became a goaltender on ice. I had to learn not to lean to the right in shooting my first basketballs, once I’d gotten tired of being a slapshot target, because that’s the way he did it. Ask me to punt a football, and I’ll be inclined to slip off my shoe, since Bill hit his high boomers off a bare instep and I learned that way, too. Though I hit a golf ball only very rarely (and that from the goofy side of the tee), while Bill is an avid golfer, I have to admit that we’re more similar than I used to think.  I’ve spent a lot of time searching for brothers in my life. I think we all need brothers, and I’m glad, and still mighty curious, about the one that I was given. (Hello there!)

July 28, yesterday, marked the birth day of another guy who formed me.

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I, Too, Certainly Get Irked

(2.78-minute read)

Get your IRK on, people!

And no, this is not a deeply serious plea, but I will clarify anyway: I don’t mean bombastic, cowardly and bullying bleats that do nothing except divide people. (Buy a bigger truck. Get bigger or more self-righteous hair. Shout louder. Use more invective. AR15 the messenger. Show your Inner Dick is bigger and dickier. More implants. More vitriol. Um, Fox News. None of that junk. Irkery is smarter than that, and has a better sense of humour.)

We need IRK. When we are irked, we hang on to some sense of propriety; we know that what irks us might not actually be All That Serious In Heads Other Than Ours, and that the next person in line might just get twirked¹ by what irks us.

¹ Not a real word, but you know what I mean. (Right? No? Well then: amused, modestly titillated, sparkled up just a little…)

I got more than a little irked by basketball player Kevin Durant’s Independence Day DUREXITfrom Oklahoma City, so if you’re not afraid of basketball references – and hey, my bride read the whole durned thing! you might want to nip over to the It’s All About Sports! section of this humble electronic mutter. (SELF-DEFENSIVE YEAH-BUT: I know that an athlete switching teams is no more than a tidal wave in a two-litre pail, but I was irked and consternated: whither loyalty? why does everybody want the EASY way? (DUH!!) why would I or a saner dude or SO MANY PEOPLE care so deeply about a job relocation by a stranger?) So as always, irked as you might be by Another Howdy Ramble About Sports As If They Mattered, remember that there’s always more to basketball than just basketball! (End of plug for yesterday’s post, which I really liked writing, which is storming the outer fringes of the Galactic Comms, which you haven’t read yet and what’s up with that.)

“I certainly get irked.” My comment section irks me. It’s not used very much, for one fairly major Thing, which means I’m messing up in several somehows. (Posting droughts might have something to do with that, though I’d rather blame YOU guys.)

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Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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Enough? The Baha’i Seven Are Still There**.

**(Lest We Forget)**

The campaign is over now.

There have been several concerted efforts to raise global awareness. One proclaimed the passing of 10,000 hours of unjust, of ridiculously tragic imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Many fine words were said in numerous dignified contexts, but the “Yaran” – it means “friends” in Farsi – remained in jail. The five-year mark of their astounding 20-year sentences brought another crescendo of polite indignation, but these five years of loss, not only to the persecuted Baha’i minority but to all of Iranian society, moved the Teheran government not a bit.

Will a new logo be needed for nine?

Will a new logo be needed for nine?

In May of 2015, the hashtag #SevenBahaisSevenYears achieved not quite the currency of, say, #BlackLivesMatter (to say nothing of tags for TV shows or celebrity break-ups), but it circled the globe with awareness and a renewed call for justice. Earlier this month, #EnoughIsEnough and #ReleaseBahai7Now had their moments of trendiness as the Yaran’s captivity reached its eight anniversary.

The campaign did its best. More people than before are aware of the human rights situation in Iran, one that puts the Baha’is at the centre of the issue – not that they are the only, or even the largest, group that is oppressed and unjustly incarcerated. In fact, the Baha’i community wishes only to serve the broader population, and is dogged, even when its brightest young people are excluded from university admission, in its pursuit of education for all. Their “crime” is one, plainly and simply, of belief in the teachings of the 19th-century Persian nobleman known as Baha’u’llah, considered a heretic by Shiah Islamic clerics. All the noise about “sedition” and “immorality” and “spying” is nothing but bigoted, ignorant and baseless slander; religious intolerance is the reality.

So here I am. I tweeted and liked. Did my bit, I guess. Maybe so.

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Late to the Party*: 2015 in Bloggish Review

* (BUT WHAT A PARTY! IT’S #WritingYouCanREAD!!)

That boy’ll be late to his own *funeral*, my mother used to spit (sometimes). Or mutter it with a forgiving hint of a grin (most of the time). The Tardis, if it hadn’t already been taken for Doctor Who‘s adventures in time and space, would’ve been my ideal life vehicle, at least as far as its name is concerned. (Silly Side Note No. 1: For the inverse reason, when we bought a car recently, I was swayed against all reason to buy a Honda Fit because I wanted to be that and sought constant reminders. We ended up buying a Mazda 5, and I don’t know why other than its practicality, low price and surprisingly good condition.)

So, I may not be the most practical tool in the shed, and time is almost never on my side. But hey, enough about me: what do YOU think of my Greatest Hits of 2015? There was no polling, and no process, really, and when it’s this late, who cares? Here are 12 posts from last year that you may be inspired to revisit or read for the first time (using the handy links!!), or ignore utterly in favour of finishing this post quickly. I’m with you.

(Depressing Side Note No. 1: After futzing around with this off and on for a couple of weeks, today I wrecked my suspension on the speed bump of melancholy. Now the whole idea seems stupid, but I’m hitting <PUBLISH> anyway.)

A Dozen

So we’re counting down, kids, some of my favourite posts from 2015, in no particular order except for the chronological one. (Keen, Daddio!) It starts with Martin Luther King, badly remembered, and ends with basketball teams I’ve been loving from up close, hopefully springing.

Forgetting MLK: Back to a Future (January 21)

I finally watched Selma the other night. It got me. I have, of course, no idea if David Oyelowo captured Doctor King in his private moments, but he got the rhythms and the accents of those speeches just right. (Man, and he’s a Brit, an actor who’s done Henry VI and TV cop dramas. Talent.) I watched it by a crackling fire on a February night of gorgeous and never-ending snow, so I don’t know if I did MLK or the people “sweltering with the heat of oppression”¹ any empathetic justice.

¹ Besides, that was a reference to Mississippi, not Alabama, in King’s “Dream” speech, but still.

Over a year ago, I wrote this wandering, wondering piece in the realization that I’d had nary a thought of Martin on the day of his birth and his country’s latter-day celebration of it. It has basketball in it, and Malcolm Gladwell, but mainly staggers off (as did I) into the world of an imagined 2019 Los Angeles, as per Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of his now-legendary Blade Runner.  (Yes, and Oscar Pistorious, come to think of it.)

Sunday School Picnic (non-Super Bowl Edition) (February 1)

Terrorists were everywhere in 2015, and were spoken about here. “Let’s talk toxic religion!” I wrote with mock enthusiasm, and then proceeded to write with gusts of anger. Travis Bickle, from Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, made an appearance in this piece, to my surprise. So did the Buddha, and Boko Haram, Je suis Charlie and my city’s celebration of World Religion Day. The projected Part 2, on that latter subject, would have been much more uplifting, but I never wrote it. Too happy.

Hindsight: Memorial for a Quiet Hero (February 13)

This was a local story of a humble man, one I barely knew, whose death brought me not only the familiar spectral chants of Carpe diem! from a dimly recalled Dead Poets Society, or from any number of shivering, back-straightening, deep breath-inducing invocations to LIVE while I yet live. Mark Goldblatt’s funeral let me know the man I had missed, a heroic character I had managed to pay inattention to. This one might have been my most popular of the year; it touched many more nerves than just my own.

No Academy Award – Just Light in a Dark, Dark Room (March 3)

The local met the international at the crossroads of film, politics, social justice and human rights. I gave a few hours to help organize a special showing of a documentary on the Baha’i students in Iran who are denied university education, and I got this experience back. Think Rosewater. (Which I STILL haven’t seen.)

A Canuck Man’s March Madness (March 13)

It was a little nutty. I’d decided I wasn’t missing the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) men’s basketball championship last spring in Toronto. I took an overnight bus and lived hoops for a weekend in what used to be the greatest Puck Pagoda, Hockey Shrine, and Temple of Aggressive Forechecking on the planet: the former Maple Leaf Gardens, Conn Smythe’s “Carleton Street Cashbox”. That weekend, you may know, it became a nest away from home for the incredible Carleton University Ravens, as they won their 11th national championship in 13 seasons. This was my experience of the opening day. Spoiler Alert! (and possible Trigger Warning for those who’ve been traumatized by hoop madness): contains basketball, but in lyrical and not-at-all-obsessive detail.

There were several posts, the last of which was called “CIS/CSI Toronto: The Birds! (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, in which two old movies were summoned to explain what happened in the national final. It was gruesome.

SIV: Germanwings, High School and Islands (May 13)

I had already raged against the weakness of one particular man, the suicidal narcissist who piloted his plane into the side of a European mountain. (Blaze of inglory! Bastard!) Later, as more came out on that German airline disaster and its bitterly lost author, I wrote again, but it turned into an extended meditation on tragedy, especially searing when it strikes schools. (I’m a bred-in-the-wool, dyed-in-the-bone teacher.) I found a mild painkiller in a Jeffrey Deaver crime novel, of all places.

Seven Baha’is, Seven Years (May 14)

I wrote a whole series on this travesty, one rant for each of the 7 “Yaran” (friends) thrown into Iranian jails on hatefully delusory charges. This might have been my angriest. It will be eight years in May, and these quietly magnificent seven are not the only Baha’is – or the only Iranians, God knows, or the only unjustly imprisoned on Earth – to be warehoused, withheld from contributing their gifts to their society. But they are remarkable concerning the reasons for their captivity, and the radiant acquiescence of their response to it. (No radiance here. I’m pissed.)

Vahid: Peerless Insights From Inside Prison (May 21)

I republished my seven biographical sketches of the seven Baha’i leaders later in the year. Six months had passed since my flurry of indignation. The Quietly Magnificent Seven were still locked away, so I released them into the Internet wild a second time. I’m not so crazy. I knew that they’d be no more effective than they were the first time. However, some liked these profiles – I certainly did – and here is the last one, about an optometrist who turns into a lion.

Murray Sinclair (on Aboriginal justice) (June 28)

In 2015, Another Trudeau² was elected to lead Canada in 2015, but another story might turn out to be the big sociopolitical event of the year. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to inquire into and inform the public about the historic mistreatment of our Indigenous peoples in general, and especially the multigenerational cost of having taken thousands of children away from their parents to place them in residential schools. The purpose was to take the Indian out of ‘em by suppressing their language, assigning “Christian” names, strangling cultural affiliation and banning their godforsaken dances. Surprise! People suffered deeply, no matter how well-intentioned some of the priests and nuns and other culture-changers might have been, as did their communities and their families and their self-esteem. (And some of their teachers were brutes, racists, sociopaths and pedophiles. So there’s that, as well.)

Ahem. Anyway, back to Judge Sinclair: of Ojibwe heritage, and among the first Aboriginal judges in Canada, he gave five years of his life to hearing the stories of the survivors of Canada’s residential schools, and authored a report that brought truth to Canadian light. Reconciliation is another story, but I believe in that one, too. Read this post, if you read no others. It’s not long – it centres on a short quote, and fits easily into my He Said/She Said niche – but Judge Sinclair’s labours, and the voices to which he gave a wider hearing, will echo through Canada’s public life and policy for decades to come.

² His actual name is Justin. His election caught the imagination of Canadians. As a certified fan of his brilliant, iconoclastic father Pierre, I sometimes mutter about the son’s ah-ing and unimposing academic credentials, but he has a lot of the best of 21st-century leadership. (No illusions, though: he does labour within a fatally flawed system.) He gets diversity, he gets consultation, in a way no other Canadian leader ever has, not even his swashbuckling daddy.

September FIRST. What’s It To You? (September 2)

As a high school teacher, dad and lover of fresh starts, the first of September is always a watershed for me. In 2015, I reflected on marital success and failure, my craft, another read-through of my fave novellist³, basketball seasons to come and the meaning of the only life I know. Buckle up. This one careens about, but I still like it.

³ Initials: K.V. (Junior)

Return of the Attack of the Cool Lean Bean Counter (October 8)

Title of the Year, I think, hands down. The Bean Counter was Kevin Page, a gadfly government accountant who railed, and rails still, against government bungling and the shackling of the civil service. The event was a surprisingly lively session of the Ottawa Writers Festival, a local institution I love. This could have been one of my “Better Read Than Never’ book reviews if I’d actually read the book! I won’t – too many other things that push Unaccountable to the curb – but that’s partly because the evening itself was fun, and stimulating, and enough.

Coaching, Hoops and Young Men: A Tale of Two Teams (December 10)

One of the reasons I haven’t been a productive pen-monkey is that I’ve been coaching my arse off. This is a post where I wrote about my coaching instead of doing it. I have spent hundreds of hours with 14- and 15-year-old boys since September. My struggling high school team has finished its season, but I ruminate still over what we do in the off-season to raise our games. Meanwhile, the elite-level club team is now increasing in practice frequency as our competitive season shifts into overdrive. Pray for me. (Reminder: there’s more to life than basketball, but there’s more to basketball than basketball, too!)

 

Howdy, Are You Goofin’ on Lateness? * (Hey, Baby!)

The Buddha is supposed to have said that we should think of material existence as a lamp, a cataract, a star in space / an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble / a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning. Baha’u’llah wrote, The world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. All is illusion. It’s just a show, fairly useless and finally hollow. That being the case, of what importance is time, for heaven’s sake? (Or my own?) Another fantasy, ridiculous, so what could be the importance of phrases like “two weeks late” or “last month’s news” or “so 2015!”?

Listen, some of what I say could have been done in “January” – an invented construct, as is that of a “week” (see Genesis, Chapter 1) – or even in the earlier weeks of “Febyooary” – not only an arbitrary construct, but also tagged with an unpronounceable label – well, what could the matter be? In the view of the time-bound, the next piece I’ll post was started, oh, 13 days ago – whatever a day is! And some will argue that it should have been out within a “day” or two of the start of the arbitrary, named-after-a-pope-nobody-remembers-or-wants-to, Gregorian Year that apparently we’re calling “2016”. Silly, I know, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Lots of people pay attention to time, timeliness, days and hours, time out of mind. Sometimes I even fall into the trap myself. Though not recently.

But there is more to come.

* Extra points to those who read down to here, and ice cream if you actually got the R.E.M. reference. (In states and provinces where the ice cream provision is void by law, click here, but only if you understood my goofy title.)