Close to Home: What’s Up on Whitton?

[5-minute read]

They must be wind-protected. (Photo from National Candle Association, literally not metaphorically.)

It was a relief when the police tape came down, but it hasn’t felt the same, not yet. Maybe it’s just imagination, but Whitton Crescent seems a lot less lively now. Shocking violence can do that to a neighbourhood, and it’s not only the besieged and grieving family that will never fully recover from that terrible morning in early September. The perpetrators — just kids, really — and their families are also ruined in their own particular ways. It was another sad day in, and for, Overbrook, my little piece of Ottawa, where a curvy little street is named for Charlotte Whitton, first female mayor of a Canadian city.

It’s a question that came up in my living room on the weekend: Aren’t you afraid to live here? The answer, sadness aside, is a simple No. We chose this area when we moved to Ottawa. We love it. My family lives two blocks from the murder scene, and from the shooting the week before, which we learned to our dismay injured a lovely woman we know well. We’re a two-minute bike ride from the shooting at the “four corners”, where the convenience store and the pizza restaurant have seen too much of this kind of criminal traffic. Though we don’t fear for our own safety — without a doubt my daily commute across town to my high school coaching gig is more dangerous than where my house sits — it’s unsettling. As for everyone in Overbrook, but especially those on Whitton or near the four corners, these events feel far too close to home. So what are we to do? My wife and son and I are privileged folk in many ways, including our relatively easy option to move out, but that has never crossed our minds.  Nor have we considered extra home security, spending less time walking or biking the streets, or (God forbid!) getting suspicious or cold towards our neighbours.

Just the opposite, actually. If darkness has sometimes fallen on my part of town, the thing is to get to work and create more light. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” as the ancient proverb says. When violence strikes at the heart of community, if the threat of it erodes our hopefulness and our trust in each other, then we have TRULY lost. The better course? Build more community. We started by asking what we might be able to do for the victims’ families? We’re trying to go beyond that: what are we already doing that involves us with Overbrook folk or local development? How do we do more of that? We wonder, What’s missing in this area? and then look to take some small action to begin to fill in that gap. Doing something helps us, first, and let’s hope it ripples outward, but mindset is critical.

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Re-Broadcast the Last: Vahid Tizfahm and His Living Letters

I could be writing, it’s true, about gun violence here and there. (Been there, wrote that, but there’s always more.) I ought to explore the tangled feelings of a frayed and stubborn father and his proud, combative son. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) There are Things to be Said about the two troupes of (mainly) 14-year-old boys that I’m spurring/goading/inspiring/herding toward basketball excellence, so impatiently. (How about now? Can you hear me NOW?! Why aren’t you trying harder?) And how about those Warriors, and the hardwood genius of Stephen Curry? And, like, all those other like sports thingies?

There’s Paris. I’ve barely written a word about the horrors of Paris then (and Beirut, and Bamako (Mali), and Kano (Nigeria), and San Bernardino (USA)…), and nothing of Paris now: governments and leaders defending their privilege (systematically) and twiddling and fiddling (often) while the climate burns, slowly and inexorably. (Heck, you think we have a refugee problem now? How about when Bangladesh or [insert your most precious coastal population centre here] is under water, or drought deepens in California or any other global or local food basket? Say, while I’m on the subject, didn’t Syria have a series of disastrous crop years just before the war?)

I’ll be getting to those. Probablymaybe. Soonerorlater.

But today, as I promised myself and The Usual Lurkers here at, I’m thinking about the last of the Iranian Seven, prisoners now on the most trumped-up of charges – weird how, suddenly, “trumped-up” accusations have a whole new layer of meaning – for over 90 months. I want you to know about and remember Vahid Tizfahm. You might not have heard of him, or his six brothers- and sisters-in-nobility, but I’ve written about each and I’ve been re-issuing the call. They’re still in jail. Their names are listed below.

There’s one, though, that I want you to read RIGHT NOW (sorry, no need to shout, I guess, not really, but wow) is this updated profile of Vahid Tizfahm, in which I include links to three remarkable — I dare say nearly incredible — letters written by (or partly by) Mr. Tizfahm.

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Jerome K. Jerome (on love and time)

My bride and I don’t think of ourselves as old. (Well, not old old.) I run around with athletic teens and 20-somethings, and that can make me feel a tad creaky and lardaceous by comparison, but still. We did celebrate (and celebrate) a significant anniversary last month, which compels us to accept that, while we can still find some giddy in our good coupling luck, we’re not exactly newlyweds. We felt like it at certain August moments, which for me was like dozens of non-fattening banana splits in one hand-delivered magic box.

Days back, during my ongoing organizing and an attempted material purge, I ran across the quote below from writer Jerome K. Jerome. I had long ago photocopied it (and its accompanying sentimental snapshot of an elderly couple) from somewhere onto coloured sheets of paper I used to use for something that we dinosaurs used to call “letter writing”. I have a whole stack of them. It makes me want to write letters to people! (Confession: I even have stamps.) With a little new-fashioned research, I easily found that Jerome’s comments on love and marriage – I hadn’t known the source – came from an early 20th-century play of his.

It’s the sort of play whose subtitle has a subtitle, whose dramatis personae includes “Mrs. Sharpe”, “Miss Kite”, “Mrs. Tompkins”, and The Major (“Troublesome creatures, these girls! Troublesome creatures!”). There is a mysterious Stranger, who quickly becomes everyone’s confidante. A young man is described as a “cheerful bounder” – now there’s a word we’ve lost, if we ever really had it in the Colonies – and another is said to speak with “gallant jauntiness”. (Jaunty! Don’t you think we should be, in general, more — and more frequently — jaunty?)

Enough preamble to the prologue:

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Vahid: Peerless Insight From Inside

Vahid is Vahid Tizfahm, yet another widely known and cherished community servant taken from among the Iranian Baha’is. He and his partners in “crime” are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and here we go again. Danny and Pej asked their buddy, me, to contribute to the social media protests, and I’m hoping these personal essays are of some use in the necessary worldwide conversation. Vahid Tizfahm and his six colleagues are sacrificial lions, bravely enduring pariah status in a country that needs their kind more than it knows. Here is the last instalment of my series on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for seven years, and counting…

Ever had an optometrist for a hero? I have, now. Vahid Tizfahm is a lion.

Ever had an optometrist for a hero? I have, now. Vahid Tizfahm is a lion.

At 42, Mr. Tizfahm is the same age as his father was when he was executed for being a Baha’i. Three bullets, no lawyer, no charge that we would recognize as remotely judicial. Vahid, the son who is now the similarly arrested father, is quite the youngest of the Yaran, the “friends”, the group of seven Baha’is that worked to guide and encourage the members of their persecuted community. As has become the disgusting norm in Iranian society, it goes without saying — so I’ll SAY it, again — that he did not go to university; as a member of “this detestable sect”, he wasn’t allowed to. He was able to train as an optometrist, and alongside this business he was a youth leader, taught children’s classes and was appointed to generally inspire, encourage, and promote learning among Baha’is. He studied under and supported the BIHE, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an underground university that trains excluded Baha’i students in living rooms and by email. He did these things, of course, until he and the other Yaran were arrested, for “crimes” such as these, a little more than seven years ago.


Vahid is the Persian form of an Arabic word that means “unique”, “peerless”. Vahid. One of the greatest figures of the violently visionary and just plain violent early years of the Baha’i movement, in 19th-century Persia, was given this lofty title. And now we have another singular man, quietly, hardily, heartily bearing societal rejection and punishment in the name of principle, in the pursuit of justice.

The Tizfahm family. Not sure whether this is a prison visit, or just prior to his arrest.

The Tizfahm family. Not sure whether this is a prison visit, or just prior to his arrest.

Vahid Tizfahm’s son was in grade 3 when they came for him, about the same age his daddy had been when his own father was taken. The family had just moved to Tehran, and my thinly educated guess is that they had done so in order for Mr. Tizfahm to more easily work together with his Baha’i leadership colleagues. (You know, relocation to pursue sacrificial voluntarism, that old story.) The lad is now a sophomore in high school. I have a son about that age, who probably gets more contact with his Dad than he’d like. But what about young Mr. Tizfahm?

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A Letter to My Son (When He Was Only One)

He’s six feet tall now, with arms and legs madly off in many directions, a big smile, a stubborn spirit, floppy hair, and arguments that seem to never end. He drives me nuts, but he’s also smart and talented and funny as hell. It was fun to look back at how I saw him as a wee one. There were clues right from the beginning, and I’m not just talking about the messes he leaves behind. This is why baby pictures are so lovely, so necessary.


Dear Goonybird, Stinkerbomb, Punky Poobler, SammerBammer, my honey bunny boy,

Today you have six teeth, four consonants, and one candle on your cake. You delight the heart of a Dad who thought his diapering days were behind him. You love your little purple and orange basketball, and your peek-a-boo skills are splendid. “Clap, clap, hooray!” we say as you grin and applaud the wonders tumbling about you. With two deep dimples and the softest of skin and hair, you are a shameless magnet for kisses.

And I get to thinking about three bigger boys that I’ve hugged and smackerooed, probably a Dad’n’Lad world record, and wonder when did I stop kissing your gigantic brothers? They are rather more elusive targets, and two of them are bigger than me now, but young men can still benefit from a whisker rub now and then. Thank-you for reminding me how my chest explodes when I hold my sons.

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e.e. cummings (on love and funky sonnets)

Poetry is where you find it, I’ve heard, but this “found poem” is one I was wonderfully predisposed to be warmly attracted to at first sight. It came from a member of my own family, a family not generally known for its poetic enthusiasms, a member with no previous convictions about verse that I knew of. In a way yet unexplained — and I’m thinking that I very well may not want to know whence it came to her — life brought her a piece of cummings. Her routinely warm and generous heart sent it to me as a birthday tribute to my wife, the same impulse that led me to murder a Paul Simon song for the glory of love.

I do love Mr. Cummings, and while I don’t (not yet, anyway) consider this among his best or my favourites, that doesn’t mean it isn’t pretty darned marvellous. He was 26 when he wrote “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in)”; he generally didn’t title things, so they’re called by their first lines. Here ’tis: 

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Abdu’l-Baha (on peace, happiness & everything)

“The body of the human world is sick. Its remedy and healing will be the oneness of the kingdom of humanity. Its life is ‘The Most Great Peace.’ Its illumination and quickening is love. Its happiness is the attainment of spiritual perfections.”

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921) was the son of Baha’u’llah, the source of the Baha’i system of knowledge and practice.

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A Girl Just Like the Girl

This is a small love letter to the woman I woke up with this Mother’s Day morning. She’d been groaning, sneezing and muttering semi-coherently for a couple of achy days, but today she just feels a little crappy. Her 12-year-old son was a little off this morning, too, after a late-night binge of Marvel comic heroes, and managed to soil his hand-crafted M-D artwork with a surly Well, I gave you a card, didn’t I? His father, disgruntled at the attitude, had to nonetheless admit that he hadn’t come up with even the card. It’s all that my girl really wants on this (and her birth) day.

I knew when I married her that she was eager to be a mother, but I hadn’t known how good she’d be at it. She’s a woman of quicksilver emotions, a ResultsMaker, and when we finally decided it was time to face the reality of my single-dad situation, her first meeting with my three sons was a sit-com disaster without the laugh-track. (Well, I did chuckle ruefully, resignedly, when I thought, after months of sweet, scary and resuscitating courtship, Well, this just isn’t going to work at ALL.)

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M.L. King (on love and power and where they meet)


“Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Martin Luther King, in Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community.
Read it again. Power and love are positioned as allies, not foes, whose intersections lead toward the justice we all seek. That man had a mighty dream, but not only that.

Requiem for a Coach

My first thought was brilliant — they always seem to be — where else could the wake for Coach Wright be but in the tiny, tiled box of a gym where he spent so many thousands of hours with his “kids”, this never-married father of none? The Caledonia Sweatbox, the dim, cramped but comfortable Blue Devils’ lair, where half-court shots were no longer than an NBA three-pointer, where big-footed forwards needed to turn sideways to get their Chuck Taylor high-cuts completely out of bounds…

But what if there are only twenty people there? That gave me pause; even in that bandbox of a gym, twenty voices would make for some unfairly desolate echoes. As it happens, my grand thought was punctured, and for the best. As it is with too many aspects of sporting and educational life these days, the bureaucratic and custodial hoops we’d have had to jump through were too many, so we didn’t celebrate Don Wright’s life of ball-bouncing generosity in the centre court circle of The Gym, as madly poetic as that might have been.

We did better. The community hall we got was perfect. (Its hardwood floor was a far better surface than we ever played on in the old town high school.) What do you need, really, when it’s time to pay tribute to the life of a man – once painfully shy and young and slender, but by his last days grey and limping and carrying too much goddam weight – who gave to our youthfulness and to our kids whatever he had? Nothing but the people, as it turned out, and they were there. We were referees, athletes’ parents, fellow coaches, former players and friends. (I was all of these things. A five-time winner.)

Dave B was there. He had been to Don something I never was: a young coach who got to discover, years later in repeatedly teasing conversations, that he had cut the man we were honouring when Don was an earnest and under-skilled twelve-year-old. Dave and his wife Georgia had made sure, for the last several years, that Coach Donny had a place to go for Christmas dinner. (They also did most of the coffee-making, cookie-dealing and cleanup for the memorial. The Basketball Family lives.) Dave, the nearly legendary “Bart” of the Hamilton hoops community, had been with Don one of “the usual suspects” when it came to college and high school basketball games, especially for girls’ and women’s teams. His eulogy at the service had some good laughs, but it was serious business. It even allowed a glimpse of anger, for Bart wanted it known that his friend, our friend, was more than might’ve met the eye. Bart had seen and heard too much of those who dismissed the Coach as either a has-been or “some old guy, whatever”. He made earnest and teary amends.

Most of those who spoke after Bart were former players, though there were some old friends and fellow coaches that he’d never blown a whistle at. (Come to think of it, he rarely blew one at any of us. He had no interest in the whistle. He wanted his voice to be enough. It was.) The sharing was utterly informal, as Don had insisted and would have liked, but at least one former Ontario West university All-Star, an experienced teacher, had written her remarks in order to have some anchor, some way to not “lose it”. Mind you, she’d already lost it twice before her turn came, and duly lost it again, but my goodness, weren’t these the best kind of “losses”: of composure, of emotional restraint, of the kind of busy life-living that sometimes leads us to forget to say “thanks” to those who built us? Cindy and I weren’t the only ones to lose it more than once, and we gained so much by really feeling what we felt.

There were about 100 of us. It was a grand reunion, including the core of my own high school team from three decades gone. Present, too, were about ten young women, high schoolers who looked a little bewildered and felt, for a while, out of place. They were members of the last teams that my old buddy Don, sore and often discouraged, gave his last weary hours of coaching to. They honoured “Mr. Wright” by their presence, and they went away knowing more of the man than they had, and wishing perhaps that they had found a way to give something back to him. We all did.

So long, Coach. Thanks for all the sweat, the hope, the ideals. Keep caring for us as we do for you. Fare well, brother.

[I also wrote an “In Memoriam” for Donald Edward, and it’s in the “On Second Thought” section. It gives a more clear picture of the man and what he did.]