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Darkness in Nova Scotia

A riff on Nova Scotia’s provincial flag: one extra lion for solace. Sad times. An outrage. (by Halifax artist James Neish)

                                 [4-minute read]

I’ve been circling around this all day. All week, really, ever since I heard the first grim (single-digit dead) reports last weekend. Lemme guess, white guy with grievances? Women not giving him the respect he so deeply deserves? Kills himself so he doesn’t face the music?

I had, purposely and studiously, paid little attention to the details of the story. Scared to. Not another one. I didn’t want to know more. Not only would I refuse to name the Damaged Denturist – a personal rule – I actually didn’t know the jerkwad’s name, this morning at 4:43 a.m., when I began obsessively turning over in my mind the few facts I knew. Death toll 23. Rural Nova Scotia. An RCMP officer is dead. There were fires and shootings and prolonged confusion. I tried hard to get back to sleep, but my brain was composing and couldn’t stop.

Sadness has flowed like the North Atlantic, but it’s as if the news has only intermittently, slowly breached the dikes of, what, my numbness? My fear of being overwhelmed? Isolation fatigue? Dread of another bout of Impotent Rage? (Yup, all that.) Whatever the why, one of the best stretches of sleep I’ve had in ages ended in a mid-night thought-cycle that I couldn’t escape. Maybe the first cracks opened last night, 6:28 p.m., as the CBC “World at Six” newscast ended with Nova Scotia fiddle queen Natalie McMaster scraping out “Amazing Grace” in a painful lament. She played for her province, her people, and it plumbed my own sorrow, too. All those innocent people.

Sadness was first through the barricades, but rage was right behind. These events are outrageous. I couldn’t sleep this morning because I was rehearsing ways to make words, to make sense, out of my anger. We’re a lot the same, this seething, violating numbskull and me, and I’m outraged by it. (Canadian. Educated. White. Male.) I ask, as I too often do, Why are men so goddamned WEAK? He shatters every blessed principle that any Brotherhood I’d want to belong to could possibly hold dear. Self-control. Humility. Endurance. Protectiveness. Humour. Dignity. Respect. Strength. Gentleness. Forbearance. Forgiveness. (Getting the hell over yourself and your petty disappointments, you shit!) I wasn’t planning on writing this AGAIN, but no doubt having it happen in Canada, in rural Nova Scotia, fergawdsakes!, has produced in me more than the usual disgust and dismay when cowardly men Just Won’t Take It Anymore, when they Take a Stand, when they imagine, in a fever-dream of phony heroism, that they arise to “take Arms against a Sea of troubles / And by opposing, end them…”

Hamlet was considering suicide there. It turns out this clown didn’t even have that much courage. What in overheated hell did he think he was ACCOMPLISHING? Because I have no doubt of this: at whatever level of deranged thought he was operating, the prick was riding an absolute tidal wave of we’re gettin’ some shit DONE here!

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Pandemic Darkens the World: What Good Is THAT?*

A little more physical distancing needed now, of course: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres fist-bumps African colleagues. (Wish I knew who they were.) I choose to love this image. (photo courtesy UN)

*(4th in the “Silver Linings”series, which began here in my house, and ends here, on Earth.)   [8-minute read]

In some ways, finding the bright side of the Covid-19 crisis is hardest at the international level. It was easiest inside the four walls of my own home, and required successively more vision and awareness as I moved from civic good news to national bright spots to this challenge: does a global perspective offer much in the way of hopefulness? I must say: I can be a gloomy sort of Gus. I lean in to sadness and uncertainty and so many hands (“on the other other hand…”) in my preferred movies and books and songs. (Dar Williams and Her Deep Well of Sadness¹ pretty dependably make me weepy.) Still, my Thinking Cap has a propeller on it, blowing me ever toward possibility and a belief in the eventual triumph of common decency and basic good sense. So.

                   ¹ This is not the name of her band. She mostly flies solo. (And she’s funny, too.) Back to our regularly scheduled post.

I concluded Part 3, which focussed on Canadian candles in the wind and gloom, with some final thoughts on internationalism. We in the North pride ourselves, at least insulated little pockets of us do, on being a UN-friendly, outward-looking nation. We’ve always tended to be a bit more restrained in our flag-waving than the Americans are, though they’ve rubbed off on us uncomfortably (for me, at any rate) in that way as well. Internationalist visionary and global community-builder Shoghi Effendi – no Canuck, though he did marry one – argued powerfully about the negative side of nationalism. No problem, he wrote, with “a sane and intelligent patriotism”, especially to prevent over-centralization and an overbearing global authority, but between the wars he fingered unrestrained nationalism as one of three “false gods” that threatened human progress and peace. (Communism, of the Soviet flavour at least, and racial-superiority doctrines of every stripe were the other two.) Well, please pardon me for getting all amateurishly philosophical on you. But the brightest of the silver linings behind the darkness of a global pandemic touch on the following: the extent to which we think globally, act cooperatively, and generally show signs that we get that we’re all in this together. Guided by Shoghi Effendi and others, I’ve learned to see humanity as having an extended, collective bar mitzvah. Our maturity as a species grows with our understanding that we are truly citizens of a shared and single planet.  

That’s big and heavy. Never fear. I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit, the most obvious signs of goodness in a bad time for humanity.

  • ALL THE WORLD’S OTHER PROBLEMS HAVE MAGICALLY GONE AWAY! When was the last time you heard about nuclear proliferation, terrorism, hunger, poverty in the Global South, or tensions between North and South Korea, or, like, the Middle East, huh? Am I right or am I — (Oh. Right. That stuff’s all out there even if the news doesn’t have room for it anymore. And is that a silver lining in itself? Not really.)²
                   ² So ends the comedy part of the show! Thanks, you’re a beautiful crowd!

Well, that’s not exactly a silver lining. Let me start over.

  • THE PLANETARY ECO-CATASTROPHE IS OVER! HAS BEEN SLOWED DOWN. A LITTLE BIT. FOR NOW.  Is it just me, or am I breathing better? It’s hard to see it clearly in a small, non-industrial city like Ottawa, but Los Angeles smog is vastly reduced. The canals of Venice haven’t been this clean in forever. Industrialized Chinese cities oppressed by a heavy blanket of thickened air – with a level of particulate air pollution we can barely imagine in the West – are breathing easier and seeing farther than they have in many years. Even scientists studying these changes don’t necessarily want to celebrate – Look, everybody! Pandemics are good for global health! is not a sane position to take, for anybody – but we shouldn’t be afraid to point out that industrial slowdowns aren’t ALL bad. This doesn’t mean that the climate crisis has been brought under control, far otherwise, but it does give us some not-so-subtle hints: first, that “back to normal” clearly isn’t what we should, in the largest sense, be hoping for; second, especially for the environmental nihilists, these improvements remind us that big changes are possible, even when they’re forced on us. Even being compelled to do the humane and right things isn’t all bad!

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Canada During Covid-19: A Third Layer of Silver

PM Justin Trudeau, to the nation from outside his residence. (Photo from Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s national newser.)

[6- minute read. This is Part 3 the “Silver Linings Playbook” series, looking for Canadian good news amid the Covid-19 crisis. Part 1 is here, Part 2 down there.]

The slowdown that many of the fortunate among us have enjoyed – count me front and centre in that squadron – is not so obvious a benefit when we consider one’s country as a whole. Inevitably, and properly, the cost to the national economy receives scrutiny: how can workers in precarious jobs (or the under-employed) be supported, local businesses be sustained? And then imagine how many times the problems are multiplied in the majority of countries that are, to varying degrees, well behind Canada with respect to economic and social stability, particularly their health care systems, AND are not blessed with Canada’s combination of geographic massiveness and fewer than 40 million folks! And we all know: the pandemic is no picnic here, either, but imagine how awful things have been, or will be, in [insert your favourite fragile state here]!

All that pertains to illness and economic strangulation having been said – and I just read a New York Times piece in which Nicholas Kristof gets inside access at New York hospitals, so I’m not blind to blackened horizons – still, there *are* silver linings, and even in a careful, fearful nation state they’re not hard to find. Here are some of the Canadian beacons amid the gloom:

  • UNITED POLITICIANS. Sure, there’s some sniping, but the volume of dissent is much reduced. In our Parliamentary system, in which the elected government is shadowed (or hounded) by “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”, there is audibly less emphasis on opposition than on the preceding adjective. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, an arch-Conservative, has had public praise for Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau and members of his government! (My respect level for Ford is increasing; I might have expected him to be foot-dragging, ignoring scientists and muttering about “getting back to business as usual”, but he’s been a strong, sane and thoughtful voice, from what I’ve heard. He seems to be responding smartly, and with a humane compassion I wasn’t sure he could summon, to the needs of the time, and not holding on to partisan dogma. I’m pleasantly shocked, to be honest.)
  • CONFIRMATIONS: We can be oh-so-careful, maddeningly slow and frustratingly divided in our national conversation, but one strong silver lining is the continued reassurance that Canucks are actually reasonably well-governed, and have a clear tendency to often do the right thing, especially when the chips are down.

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Women and Girls First

She's amazing, but in this post she's the "other Simone".

She’s amazing, but in this post she’s the “other Simone”.

                            [4-minute read]

It had been All About the Women up ‘til Sunday night.

And that’s mostly fine by me, lover of women that I am and aspire to be.

What about the guys?

Yessir, I think about that all the time, and not just when it comes to the Olympics and Canada’s medal count. For only one of hundreds of examples: Boys Adrift is a good book, and its subtitle (“The Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men” is part of it), though long, crystallized my worry and confirmed my observations. There are others like it, and plenty of other worry-warts besides me. However, this space has been crowded with masculine worries and wonderings and Superhero Action Calls to Young Men, fragile shouts that are no doubt still echoing down the cold, dark emptiness of deep space.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

I hope Mr. Phelps can leave swimming and spotlights this time, but I will worry about his transition. This post is not about him, either.

Yes, the Rio Olympics. That’s where we’re headed.

I am no longer as avid about matters Olympian as I had been for most of my life, but I still pay attention. I still get jolts of home-boy joy when a Canadian is two one hundredths of a second faster than a guy from another country and therefore wins the title of World’s Third-Fastest Human. (Yay, Andre!) There’s an even purer, less patriotic delight in watching Usain Bolt surge into that long-limbed, powerfully fluid overdrive for SprintGoldSeven, or that incredibly smooth stride of the South African Wayde van Niekerk as he ran away from TWO Olympic 400-metre champions. That was astounding, and world records usually are. (And since van Niekerk is slender, and maybe since he’s coached by a white-haired, Afrikaans-speaking white granny, there’s not even a whisper of a suggestion of a muted accusation of him being a drug cheat. Hoping his cleanliness is as real as his jaw-dropping talent and training.)

But I’m a Canuck. The other moment of televisual awe, for me, came in the second half of the women’s 100-metre freestyle swim.

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Really, Kevin? Can’t Beat ‘Em?

(twelve-minute read)
One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

Young sir, may I call you Kevin?

I’m sure They have been calling him lots worse, though I’m not looking under bridges to check. I’m guessing “traitor” and “chickenshit” and “turncoat” and “ungrateful bastard” are making the more printable lists. “Benedict Arnold” might be favoured by those who know a little American history.

So: Basketball Star Kevin Durant Signs Free-Agent Contract With Golden State Warriors. There’s your lede, not going to bury it. This being July 5th, it’s no longer news in the antic spin-dry cycle of what-have-you-hot-taken-from-me-lately entertainment/journalism. But to me it’s still novel, a bit shuddery and uncomfortable, sort of bewildering yet all-too-familiar, a cause of naive dismay and even a spur to misplaced and minor outrage. Hey, wanna come along? 

This is literally unmediated. I haven’t had the chance to filter my jangled thoughts through what must have been a torrential downpour in the Twitterverse sports teacup, a tempest in the chatrooms and sports blogs of the world. (At least in North America, this must have outdone Iceland over England by far, and may have even outstripped Trump and cute animals for an Internet spell.) I spent the very best part of yesterday hanging around in my corner of Ottawa with some of the finest young people you’d ever want to know, and many of them barely know who Kevin Durant is. The day was about selfless service. Voluntarism. Youth leadership by the young. (Hence, I wasn’t much more than a bystander, but an inspired and committed one.) Moral purpose. Community. Educational vision. Societal transformation. All that grassroots jazz. (And walking. Lots of walking.) There was no time for Twitter.

But some of the youngsters do know KD, and their phones are smarter than mine is. As we hunted for idealists in Overbrook on the fourth of July,

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Return of the Attack of the Cool Lean Bean-Counter

[Last night, the Ottawa Writers Festival took me on a road trip to Rwanda with Canadian humorist Will Ferguson. Wait. What? Rwanda? Humour? Yes, both, and it was superb. SPOILER ALERT: Rwanda has more to it than machetes and murder. (Gorillas. Mountains. Peace. Progress. More females in government than in your country.) Rwandans laugh. They remember. They change. It’s not still 1994 there, even if it is in most of our minds. But speaking of thought, I haven’t even told you about the previous WriteFest journey I went on, which stayed much closer to home.]

 

Speaking of public radio, and public spaces, and public service – as often happens around my little corner of the globe – I was in a sacred place last week where service to the common good was extolled with the help of a radio star that video couldn’t kill. (It probably helps that Alan Neal might be part hobbit.)

The SPACE: Centretown United Church is a lovely old stone building about 10 bus stops from Canada’s Parliament. Churches give some people the creeps, sometimes with good reason – desperately resisting the temptation here to mention what happened in Rwandan churches – but the UC is a benevolent and remarkably open-minded Canuck institution, and this place gets a different but complementary dose of the sacred whenever the Ottawa Writers Festival takes it over. Stained glass, hard benches, bright light at sundown, elevated and inspiring conversation. And BOOKS. (Another flavour of heaven, though as my father-in-law muttered afterward, “I don’t know what Pierre Berton was thinking when he called his book The Comfortable Pew. Had he ever sat on one of these things?” Irony can be fun.)

The RADIO: An interview with the evening’s author had already been done on CBC Radio 1’s local afternoon show, but the cherubic and funny Alan Neal was glad to recapitulate his conversation with Kevin Page for a live, though clearly greying, audience. It was like public radio in a really big studio, and was punctuated by the duo’s mock competitition to see who could insert more promos: the host at “All-in-a-Day-at-91.5-FM-in-Ottawa” or the writer “flogging my book Unaccountable”. I declared a tie. They made a good comedy team in the context of what could have been a very dry and earnest conversation. It gave bureaucrats (and public radio) a good name.

Kevin Page and a Parliamentary chandelier. (photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Kevin Page and a Parliamentary chandelier. (photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The PUBLIC SERVICE and its SERVANT. Kevin Page became an unlikely centre to a surprising storm of Canadian attention. A self-professed “bean-counter”, this long-time economist within the Canadian federal public service became Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2008. “Nobody else wanted the job,” he claims. It would seem to be a rather grey and readily-ignorable position; certainly, the sitting government during his tenure would have preferred that it remain so.

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Running in Canada, Heading for Home

Generally, I don’t miss the traffic-dodging adrenaline or the lung-scrubbing atmospheric particulates that are involved in getting out for a run in my eastern hometown of Dalian, to say nothing of Beijing. Still, running was sometimes good for me in China. Running is like writing is like prayer, for that matter: frequently, it doesn’t feel like something I want to do until I’m already in the act. (And hey, don’t you assume that, after arrival in today’s Dedicated Writing Niche, I just spent the first 95 minutes hunting Web distractions and brainstorming vision statements for non-existent basketball clubs! Sheesh. You people get so personal sometimes.) So here I am, talking about what I think about when I think about running, especially back home in a Canadian summer.

There’s lots to ponder about running, and about what happens between the ears when we do. I think about all kinds of things when I run. (I also play stale pop tunes in the jukebox of my brain.) I think about the differences between China and Canada. (I rehearse what I should have said in decades-old conversations.) I think. (I think I think.)

I think: I never went for runs like these in China.

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Guest Post: Canadian? Nations, First Nations, Homes & Hearts

My second-most-recent post concerned something retrieved from an old file, and who knows what I wrote it on — our best guess is an Apple Mac Classic II, circa 1995. It was about love, renewal, nature, politics and several other things, but one line irritated/inspired one of my most thoughtful readers, Michael P. Freeman. “Many of us have trouble feeling like Canadians,” I had written in “Honeymoons and Rear-view Mirrors”. Mr. Freeman often comments on my stuff, but this submission was so long, so interesting, at times so poetically heart-punching, that I put a truncated blurt in the comment section but asked him if I could publish the whole thing, too. He agreed, and so here’s my second guest column. The first was a brave and moving piece written by a Chinese student; this one comes from a man of Aboriginal heritage who lives not far from my old stomping ground in Haldimand County, southern Ontario, Canada, Turtle Island, the World.

“Many of us have trouble feeling like Canadians,” the man wrote. It got me thinking. The whole desire of the first half of the 20th century was nationalism. We entered into world wars to defeat countries that had a different concept of nationhood. Some would readily trample on the rights of others to impress upon and impose their own brand of ‘nationhood’ on them, and all in the name of what? World advancement? World domination?

Now, with the infusion of a couple of the newest ‘world’ religions, the nations and peoples of the world are being asked, subtly or overtly, to consider nationhood differently, to see it in the context of one world, one global nation without boundaries. It’s a difficult concept for many, especially given that most are still pondering and transitioning to a national vision. Ask a small-town guy what he thinks of nationhood, and I suspect that he would focus on town and kin, on hills and seclusion, on quiet and solitude. Leave behind the busy-ness and bustle of the city. Leave behind crowded buses and streets lined with vendors.

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70,000 Slapshots from Sochi

It was a groggy, foggy Cambodian morning. The sun over Battambang shone blinding and hot, but the grumpy shades were drawn on me and my companions. Our son had researched, using his Infernal Little Blue Machine, and was sure that the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremonies would begin at 11:30 our time Friday night. (All I’d really known, to that point, was my boy’s eager reporting of bad water and poorly built accommodations in Sochi. And listen: aren’t we stunningly tolerant about Olympic corruption? It appears that (some) Russians are winning gold in this event.) Since we had an 8 a.m. taxi ride to the Thailand border planned (which, as we jostled and bumped our way out of Battambang in a right-hand-drive ’95 Toyota Camry, had become a 9 o’clock exit), we planned to be packed and sleeping  by 8:30 p.m., for which we were also an hour late with nobody to blame, which sort of made it worse, I guess.

Identifying the Spoiled Canadian, No. 98 (b): This species can become very cranky and indignant when deprived of their “Mother Corp”, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which treats hockey as a sacred weekly ritual

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Sixty-Sixty. Pass it on. Tell the rich. Tell each other.

We need more signs.

[UPDATE: This first appeared about a year ago, Jan. 9, 2013. I’d nearly forgotten what this piece was, exactly, until a reader included it on her “best of Howdy ’13”. This was a little embarrassing, since when I wrote it I’d been very moved by a dream and vainly hoped this inspiration might affect many more minds than just mine. (I can still find traces of this resolution-from-another-January in my attempts at mindfulness, but I’d lost the main thread. Pretty characteristic, I’m afraid!) It’s a short piece, and it contains an idea for you alongside my own reflections. It is on the long-ish short list for “Best Of JH.com”, which is coming soon.]

I had a dream last night, and it’s still with me this morning. Maybe it’s because I’m starting a holiday, and I have no plans. Maybe it’s because I went to bed early and slept almost as long as I wanted. Maybe it’s just time. This is for sure: I want to do a little something with what seemed to be uncovered to me in my sleep, and in the moved but unmoving minutes just after. Maybe you will, too.

Who knows where dreams come from? My wife travelled today, and among other adventures will retreat for an intensive period of Vipassana meditation. There will be no talk for nearly 10 days, just action of an extremely still kind. There’s that. Friends back home in Canada are paying more and more attention, the whole country is, to a grassroots movement of Aboriginal people called “Idle No More”, whose purpose (as I understand it from afar) is to mobilize the hopes and capacities of Native Canadians and those who respect them. Many Aboriginal communities live in shameful conditions, especially in the country’s vast north, and the prosperous wider society is being called to account. That’s been on my mind, too, though it may hold little interest for you.

The famous Sao Paulo disparity. How about your place?

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