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The Creature Dreams

Gary Larsen, The Far Side. (Did you hear he’s back and creating fresh content?) I’ve missed Mr. Larsen.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Welcome to JH.com. This is the default location for this site, but you might also want to look *over there on the right* for stuff that’s more sport-centric (“It’s All About Sports!”) or for longer essays (“On Second Thought”). For example, I recently posted THIS DEEP DIVE on a super-amazing aspect of The Whole Baha’i Thing

 

[5-minute read]

I don’t think of myself as an anxious person, particularly, but performance-anxiety dreams are my bedbugs. My bride still dreams, decades later, of being on stage in full costume but without an idea of what the choreography is. For me, it takes the form, occasionally, of long-gone athletic worries (suddenly I can’t judge a fly ball and there it goes, over my head!) or whistle-blowing tensions (wait, these kids have no clue and where are the basketballs anyway? Hold it, there are no baskets in this gym?!). Most often, though, after three decades in the classroom, it’s Teaching Anxiety that troubles my sleep.

Every August they’d kick into top gear, without fail. Even after retirement – or during interludes when I wrote for a living – I knew September was coming not so much from cooling nights and red-tinged trees as from at-school-sans-pants, can’t-find-my-classroom midnight adventures. Classic symptoms. After a week or so of starting-the-year nightmares — I can’t say they were terrifying, but my sub-conscious was clearly hard at work already — I’d head for my classroom on Day One wondering, “Can I still do this? You’re only as good as your last lesson, buddy, and it’s not like you’re gettin’ younger!” And two minutes in I’d know, without fail, “You were made for this. Let’s GO!

Now, a few years into retirement, the Teacher Dreams are still with me, but they’re changing. They started at about the same time of year, but there’s been no First Day of School to dismiss them, and it’s no longer the start of school that get me so much as the dread of an Ending. I loved teaching, but although I long for more of those dynamic interactions, those performances, I don’t miss the professional duties or their daily grind at all, especially with the added load teachers carry due to Covid. But I’ve been on a steady diet of dreams like this: I’m teaching, my usual assortment of high school English courses, and it seems they’ve been going along well except that I don’t think I’ve showed up for that grade 10 writing class in a month and it dawns on me that marks are due next week! and I don’t have a single grade recorded for any of these kids and I’m not totally clear on all their names and how the hell am I going to do report cards when I haven’t given even one quiz or essay?

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Boys in My ‘Hood: “Talkin’ ‘Bout TRAINING?”

They’re bigger now, one a freshman starter at McGill, one doing a prep year with D1 aspirations. Good men.

[5-minute read]

I live in an Ottawa neighbourhood called Overbrook, having moved here from southern Ontario in ’02. (I don’t think we chose it because the great Wilt Chamberlain and other NBA players went to Philadelphia’s Overbrook High, but I can’t swear that had nothing to do with it. ) I’ve been a nutbar basketball coach since well before my athletic prime waned, a lover and teacher of “the city game” decades before I flew the coop on my little hometown. I’ve blown whistles in gyms all over Ottawa, from house leagues to its top-shelf club team to three area high schools. Still, though, I like wandering by the Overbrook Community Centre’s outdoor courts – among the best outdoor venues in the city, at least potentially. And there I was, minding my own business and in broad daylight, when suddenly I was swarmed by a group of youth, must’ve been a dozen of ‘em, and they obviously wanted something from me.

Headfake! It’s not what you might have thought. These were shy middle-schoolers, who had asked an older brother (I’ll call him “Izzy”), “Hey, who is that guy you were talking to?” Izzy and his older brother know me as an ol’ ball coach. We had shot the breeze a bit, and then I left him and his younger brother and the rest of the crew that he was coaching and encouraging in a pickup game. I was sporting a ball, gimpy ankles and a spare tire ‘round my middle. I haven’t really played much since we got back from China five years ago (hence the added girth; I actually got back into half-decent has-been shape on the outdoor courts of Dalian). I just wanted to get a few shots up on the one other basket with a net on it, and think about my neighbourhood.

Before long, with Izzy leading the way, the whole group came across the asphalt courts towards me. Izzy, ever polite, did most of the talking.

“These guys want you to train them. I told them you’re a coach.”

“Train?” I answered. “Are you sure?” I told them that a lot of boys think they want to train, but really they just want to play ball because they like it – and there’s nothing wrong with that! But here’s the thing. Kids have heard their NBA heroes talk about training. It *sounds* so cool, but in fact it takes sweat and patience and perseverance and attention. Were they really sure? Listen, I’ve had a lot of guys tell me they wanted to train, or that they were really grinding, but it either didn’t last or it was fake in the first place. And then I stopped with the cautions. What was the point in being Dickie Downer?

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Re-Distribution 7.5: Behrouz Prays for His Oppressors

I’ve gotten distracted, just like the world has. For a week last May, considerable global attention — at least, within the bubble of those with the willingness (or the freedom) to look up from their routine concerns — was paid to remembrance and advocacy for seven leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran. Wanting to join the movement, I had to get to know Behrouz Tavakkoli, so I wrote about him.

Behrouz is another man who is widely known and loved — and was taken from — among the Iranian Baha’is, one of the seven who were then entering an eighth year of unjust imprisonment in two Iranian jails.  He and his partners in “crime” were the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and now that it’s seven-and-a-HALF years, here I go again. I hoped, back then, that my seven personal essays (this was the sixth) could be of some use in the worldwide protest, and maybe they moved somebody besides me, but the seven still grow old in prison. They are sacrificial lions, bravely enduring pariah status in a country that needs their kind more than it knows. So in case you missed, or would like to remember, my May series on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for 7.5-years-and-counting, here was Issue No. 6…

They made a carpenter out of him. Behrouz Tavakkoli, in most ways, is probably okay with that.

They made a carpenter out of him. Behrouz Tavakkoli, in most ways, is probably okay with that.

I’ve been reading about Behrouz Tavakkoli. (I’ve known some “Persian versions” named Behrouz. They usually had to defer to the impervious pronunciation of Canadian-born friends and accept ‘Bruce’. Too bad, but Iranians have put up with worse. Declaration: I’ve never had a bad experience with a Behrouz.)

My favourite Bruce, singer/songwriter Cockburn, startled those familiar with his gorgeous acoustic guitar-picking and gentle, Christian-flavoured and granola-fed singing. It was the 1980s. As he became more aware of global poverty and the systematic injustice of so-called “first world” nations, songs like “They Call it Democracy” were wildly angry for a peace-loving Canuck. The most shocking one, of course, and likely the one that put him on an American blacklist for a time, was “(If I Had a) Rocket Launcher”. He wanted to “make somebody pay” for the terrible suffering he saw in Central and South American countries, which were ‘collateral damage’ during that ever-more–ridiculous global struggle (allegedly) between communism and democracy. (Remember the Cold War? Is it even over? Where and how is it being fought now? These are uncomfortable questions. Feel free to ignore them; most do.)

I have nothing so dramatic to say; nobody will pay. However, I read Mr. Tavakkoli’s story, and there’s no doubt: that’s anger rising up into my chest.

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Recapitulation 7.5: Saeid Rezaie is STILL a Farmer-Loving Baha’i Intellectual*

* Clearly, he had to be stopped!

Mr. Rezaie was the fifth of the seven “friends” (Yaran) who had taken on the job of looking out for the needs of the oppressed Baha’i community in Iran, the land of its birth. In the past few decades, their elected councils have been outlawed, their reputations slandered, their businesses shuttered, their youth deprived of education, all in the wake of the execution of hundreds of believers following the “Islamic” revolution in 1979. Even the Yaran, voluntary leaders of the oppressed community, were arrested, and Mr. Rezaie and his colleagues are now halfway through their eighth year of unjust imprisonment in two Iranian jails.  He — and his six partners in the most benevolent, world-minded sorts of “crime” you could imagine — were the focus last May for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and this was my homage to Mr. Rezaie. The Seven are enemies of an insecure state simply because of their membership in a community enduring nearly two centuries, now, of slander and persecution in their homeland.

Now it’s November, half a year of imprisonment later, and the tragic, heroic and under-reported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years, is still a burr under my saddle. So here’s what I said, and here’s what I say:

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Agriculture is quite old-fashioned. Who needs it? Who even cares? It’s as if we’ve gotten so modern and giga-groovy that we don’t have to think about food production at all, and if we do, chances are it’s not much more than a glimpse: an idyllic image of a family farm on some supermarket packaging, an image that bears about as much relationship to modern agriculture as fish do to fish sticks.

I have my own agri-romantic fantasies. I want to be a farmer. I was a happy man today with a shovel, a rake and a barrow — no wheel — in my tiny backyard garden. Maybe this comes from raking and draining ball diamonds to get ready for my team’s next youthful pitching and catching and swings of the bat. Certainly it comes from growing up in a little town with two old mills within, and endless fields of corn, hay and soy all around it. Our town fair featured — for a few years among the usual tractor and biggest-pumpkin displays, greasy food and clunky rides, the Baptist Church pies and the demolition derby — an earnest group of idealists celebrating the notion that “The Farmer Comes First”. (Always liked being first, I did, but my farm dreams are a rather unlikely route to victory. I digress.)

This advocacy for the preeminent importance of the farmer was, even then, a relatively doomed notion, as more and more of us became city-dwellers and ever more remote from the reality of food. (Never mind where babies come from – where does chicken or Cheez Whiz come from?!) And yet, it’s still a concept that we might find useful, this making-sure-we-can-feed-ourselves-not-just-cheaply-but-healthily-and-sustainably thing. Y’know, the small stuff.

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Who in the World is Afif Naeimi?

It’s Day 4 of 7. I’m thinking of this man, previously unknown to me, who is among the seven innocent Baha’is now entering their eighth year of imprisonment in two Iranian jails.  He — and his six partners in the most benevolent, world-minded sort of “crime” you could imagine — are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and this is my attempt to honour Mr. Naeimi. This probably isn’t what Danny and Pej had in mind; the bulk of the campaign they asked me to contribute to involves social media, an area where I have only narrow and entry-level eptitude. These friends, among others that I’m close to, have only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from these sacrificial lions. The Seven are enemies of an insecure state simply because of their membership in an often-ostracized community, which has been subject to nearly two centuries of bigoted slander from the entrenched shiah orthodoxy in what was once Persia, now Iran. I learn more of this tragic, heroic and underreported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years. I call to remembrance people that I don’t know, because when I read their stories, they are no longer strangers.

Mr. Naeimi, circa 2005 or so.

Mr. Naeimi, circa 2005 or so.

When I was young, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. So did Afif Naeimi. I was undone, for most medical schools, by my underwhelming performance in university chem and biology labs. At the progressive school I came the closest to being selected for, my clumsy interview performance likely roasted my goose. Mr. Naeimi? Now that’s a different story. He’s 53 now, which means that when he graduated from high school, a superb student, the Islamic Republic of Iran was in place, and a member of the “detestable Baha’i sect” was automatically disqualified from university. This is still the case in 2015.

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No Academy Award — Just Light in a Dark, Dark Room

My friend Sherri asked me to help out with an event she was helping to organize. So I did. I got to see a woefully underviewed but important film. For free. And I hardly had to do anything, but I got to write this:

Sherri Yazdani is a prairie girl, but as her surname suggests, she married into an Iranian family. Sherri is a mother, a storyteller, a lawyer, and when she stood in front of a nearly full auditorium in my city, she stood for human rights victims half a world away, yet not far from her family. She was a symbol, without making any fuss. She was there to bear witness to the ongoing, and indeed worsening, situation of the Baha’i community of Iran — maybe you’ve heard about this? — and to introduce the Ottawa screening of the documentary film To Light a Candle. She was one of several voices that brought local accents to its stirring international subject.

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Bahari is on the right, and that's Jon Stewart in the middle. (Sorry, other guy!)

That’s Jon Stewart in the middle, actor Gael Garcia Bernal on the left, and on the right, the man he portrayed in Rosewater, Maziar Bahari. (Thanks, Sherri, for the edit!)

Canadians familiar with Maziar Bahari likely know him from the 2014 Jon Stewart biopic Rosewater, or perhaps from the Iranian-Canadian Bahari’s best-selling memoir Then They Came For Me, the book that inspired Stewart to make his directoral debut. However, before his now-famous stay and forced “confession” in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison following the suspicious 2009 elections, Mr. Bahari was Newsweek’s Iran correspondent and the award-winning maker of numerous documentaries. His most recent film is To Light a Candle.

Mr. Bahari, as part of a global campaign (www.educationisnotacrime.me), chose February 27 as an international day of conscience and awareness, and many Canadian communities screened To Light a Candle, supporting Bahari’s efforts to spotlight another notable injustice from his homeland: the Iranian government’s denial of education to Baha’i youth. (Bahari is not a Baha’i himself.) Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including South Africa’s Desmond Tutu¹ and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, joined with Mr. Bahari and many other notable artists and public figures in speaking up for the beleaguered Baha’i community of Iran.

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William Sloane Coffin (on education and perspective)

I was never an American, and I was at the dimly echoing end of the Baby Boom generation, so I didn’t catch Reverend Coffin — now there’s a foreboding name for a man of the cloth — the first time around. He was an ordained pastor, the chaplain of Yale University from the late ’50s to the ’70s and later the voice of New York’s Riverside Church. In both places, he was a strong and fearless champion of peace, disarmament, social justice and a progressivist orientation for people of faith. (He was called, by some, the “true heir” to the mantle of Martin Luther King after King’s assassination in 1968.)

William Sloane Coffin, calling on the faithful, calling out everybody.

William Sloane Coffin, calling on the faithful, calling out everybody.

Lewis Lapham‘s 2006 eulogy to Coffin, in the July edition of Harper’s Magazine, was a beautiful and resonating thing which, however, has still not led to my more attentive reading of WSC’s works, such as The Heart is a Little to the LeftLetters to a Young Doubter, and Once to Every Man: A Memoir.  I read Lapham’s praise of Coffin again a few days ago, in the course of pruning my too-bountiful files of things to think about and teach. Not everything old is news, but this felt fresher than the latest poll numbers for Rob Ford, fergawdsake.

I do, however, pay attention to the bits and pieces I know,

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Paulo Freire (on political “neutrality”)

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Paulo Freire (1921-1997), from his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He was a Brazilian educator, philosopher and community activist, and this quote skewers any possibility of sincere people maintaining an “oh, well, nothing I can do about…” attitude — about wealth and poverty, about “developed” and developing nations, about racial or class or religious prejudices — and thinking that this is somehow an even-handed approach. It favours the privileged, those established at the top of the hill, which seems rather obvious when we think about it. Most of us don’t. Look at me — I’ve been quoting Freire and thinking around the edges of commentaries about this highly influential work, and yet have never actually read the book. For shame! jeered the crowd.

Abdu’l-Baha (on the greatness of goodness)

“Is there any deed in the world that would be nobler than service to the common good? Is there any greater blessing conceivable for a man, than that he should become the cause of education, the development, the prosperity and honour of his fellow creatures?…The highest righteousness of all is for blessed souls to take hold of the hands of the helpless and deliver them out of their ignorance and abasement and poverty, and with pure motives, and only for the sake of God, to arise and energetically devote themselves to the service of the masses, forgetting their own worldly advantage and working only to serve the general good…”

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), The Secret of Divine Civilization (1875), p. 103. This then-anonymous treatise, an open letter to the people of Iran (then Persia), is still an incredibly valuable perspective on human progress, true happiness, and the development of nations. The line “only for the sake of God” has had me thinking. Yet another re-read of this seminal book this summer has been contributing to the general good of this man’s mind.

Guest Post: A Chinese Student Speaks Up

Through a P2C2E — a “process too complicated to explain,” as Salman Rushdie called it in his wonderful youth novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories — I got to meet Ms. Z. Like many Chinese university students, perhaps most, she studies in a major chosen by her family, not by her. Unlike many, she is a writer, even in her second language. In a spasm of bravery, she wrote an English essay about something honest and true-hearted and even a bit angry, and it found its way to me. It is a declaration of independence. It is her youthful emancipation proclamation.

I was moved by her courage and her plain-spoken message, and asked her permission to share it with my readers. (I did a quick edit of some rough second-language edges, but this is all Ms. Z.) She is not a “typical” Chinese student, if you assume such a thing exists, but neither is she alone. Perhaps you will enjoy a small taste of life in a Chinese university — but this time, from an eagle-eyed student perspective. She calls her piece “Marionette Generation”.

The ties that bind.

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