‘Abdu’l-Baha (on truth and national limitations)

His father called him "the Master". He preferred to be known as a servant.

His father called him “the Master”. He preferred to be known as a servant.

He was a big story in 1912, but aside from the Baha’i community and its friends, few remember ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas. For 239 days, he travelled about North America to considerable acclaim: he was heralded in newspapers from Montreal to San Francisco, New York to Chicago as an “Oriental Seer”, the “Baha’i Prophet”, as a “Wonderful Persian Mystic” and “Apostle of Peace”. He gave hundreds of talks in synagogues, churches, universities, public auditoriums and private homes. His topics were many, but the central core of his message was one of spiritual awakening, the hard but necessary road to global peace, and the essential oneness of all faiths, races and peoples. Imagine: 1912.

On May 3, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (it means something like “servant of the Glory”) spoke at the Hotel Plaza in Chicago. He analyzed what factors led to the advancement of civilization and the living of an ethical, productive life. He pointed towards what he called “universal educators”, those historical sources of spiritual, intellectual and material guidance around whom whole systems of belief and practice have arisen. Given where he was, Jesus Christ was his main example.

The quote below almost seemed a throwaway line given at the end of the talk.

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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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Thinking With Your Flagpole

Are you sure that you’re thinking? How do you know?

Bride and Boy and I are back in the academic saddle as of last week, and I saw my freshman writing classes for the first time. Like many Chinese university students, they were often bored during their seven weeks back home, during the huge annual migration that is the Spring Festival period. However, don’t be afraid, for I helped them by giving reading and writing assignments to do. (Attaboy, teach!) So, then I had 324 pages of journal writing to read. (Doofus!) I learn a lot about China and my students that way, though, and not only about which ones are most inclined to plagiarism, and which kids actually try to read in English instead of watching a movie. (You read The Godfather? Puzo’s thick, complex, racy novel? Really?)

Their first new assignment of the term is the argumentative essay. So what do you really feel strongly about? This is often a tough question for kids here, as they are not trained to think critically, and Chinese life requires acceptance, waiting and there-is-no-why (mei you wei shenme) in quantities that North American students can’t imagine. I gave examples and prompts. I asked, for example, Who is the proper owner of the Diaoyu islands? and quickly answered China, of course! and they all smiled at the obviousness of the answer. But when I mentioned that every Japanese student would “think” otherwise, oh, and by the way, that Taiwan is closer than either China or Japan and, yes, Taiwan does not think of itself as being part of the mainland — well, the brows furrowed a little. They started to get where I was going with this: opinion, argument, mind-sharpening, “to learn to write is to learn to have ideas”, as Robert Frost once said.

It put a crease or three in my forehead, too. How do we know when we are really THINKING?

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NINE-EIGHTEEN: Face to (Losing) Face in Asia

This morning in Dalian, there were no all-city sirens and alarm bells at 9:18. Yesterday, though, the Chinese loudly remembered what they consider perhaps their greatest national humiliation, an injury that they just won’t let go: the invasion of northeastern China by Japanese forces in 1931. They just call it “9-18”. It’s eighty-one years now, but if anything the memories are recently growing more bitter, as the obscure islands in the East China Sea — now, does Japan call it that? — that are claimed by both countries become a renewed source of hostility.

Diaoyu! Senkaku! Let’s call the whole thing off…

The People’s Republic of China says the Diaoyu Islands are theirs. (Actually, it says these islands belong to Taiwan, but that Taiwan belongs to mainland China, the PRC.) The Republic of China agrees, though it prefers the spelling Tiaoyu Islands. (It, however, also insists that it is a sovereign nation, so that’s a bit of a disagreement.) And although these tiny islands are quite close to Taiwan, Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands and says they are in charge,

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World Series Baseball: Game ON

8:16 p.m.

What a great television! Thanks, Wendy and Bernie!

It’s the 103rd “World Series” of baseball, named not for its global reach — though the game is getting more international — but because it was initially sponsored by a long-defunct newspaper called the New York Globe. (You could look it up, and I hope you will. Going Google-free tonight.)

The participating teams are proving that baseball is a sport that is the least reliable of all the North American major sports in having its “best team” win. After all, baseball is a marathon 162-game schedule, and the playoff series can end in a shorter period than an individual engagement with another team in-season. So here we are, with the Red Sox having come from behind in the American League championship series to win. No surprise here, really. Boston is a big-money team and dominated their division most of this season. However, Colorado had to win 14 out of their last 15 games just to qualify for a tie-breaker, and they have now won eight straight post-season games to take the National League title. Whoever is hottest at the end seems to be the team to watch…

8:24 p.m.

Who gets the National Anthem for Game One of the World Series? “The Pride of Boston, and the epitome of our culture, Maestro John Williams…” At the time when he first won an Oscar for the score to Indiana Jones, he was the conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra. So we had brass in the outfield instead of some brassy blonde. I approve.

Pre-game introductions highlighted by one of baseball’s specialties, a close-up shot of Boston manager Terry Francona launching a brown spurt of tobacco juice for the edification of all. Spitting is the thing. Country ball.

Actually, no. The true highlight, and no sarcasm here, is having Boston Red Sox icon Carl Yastrzemski throw out the ceremonial first pitch. (He bounced it to the plate. But he’s still a hero from my youth. I changed my batting stance as a 10-year-old in homage to his high-held bat. The last winner of the Triple Crown, in 1967.) Quite splendiferously cool to see the visiting Rockies lined up along their dugout’s top step to watch the great Hall of Famer demonstrate his old-man arm. And he’s so central to the Red Sox team’s painful mystique, as all his greatness and all those seasons never brought him to the Series championship. They didn’t break the so-called “Curse of the Babe” — they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1492 or so and had never won the big one since until the 2004 exorcism.

8:44 p.m.

Wow, this Josh Beckett is all I’ve heard. The starting pitcher for the BoSox just threw bullets, nothing but fastballs in the high 90s to strike out three straight Rockies. Yikes. (That was 90 as in miles per hour. This may be the World Series, but we are in the Excited States of Anti-Metric Measurement.) But here comes the pride of Canada, the first Canuck to start as the pitcher of a Series game since Reggie Cleveland did in the mid-70s. Jeff Francis, a big left-hander with stuff and style.

8:50 p.m.

Wow. Runty little second baseman hits it out. Dustin Pedroia hit a big home run in the ALCS, too. Second batter Kevin Youkilis lines a double. David “Big Papi” (this reference to him is already getting annoying) Ortiz moves the runner over, and Manny Ramirez drills the first runner home. Not a good start for the Canadian.

8:58 p.m.

The black and purple/blue of the Rockies’ uniforms remind me of the cover to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality album. Those little armless vests don’t work for me at all, especially with the guys showing off their guns with polyester long-sleeved undershirts. 3-0 at the end of one inning, and the Rockies would love for the rain to turn into a monsoon. One of the many things that make baseball a distinct game: it’s outdoors, and you can’t play it properly in anything more than the lightest of rains.

9:07 p.m.

The Rockies are going to need a second time through the order, after their eight days off, to catch up with Beckett. Four straight Ks now. Whoa! Why bother throwing the curveball? It results in a double that nearly went over the massive Green Monster, the left-field wall in Boston’s Fenway Park. Nice to see a park like Fenway in the World Series, not just a boutique field designed to evoke nostalgia for the days when baseball truly was the National Pastime.

Hey, and there’s my new shortstop hero, Troy Tulowitzki, ripping a double to get the Rockies on the board. (I was a fan, still am, of Khalil Greene of the San Diego Padres, though I haven’t seen him much; but hey, he belongs to the Baha’i Faith, and the minority religionists have to stick together.) Some of his teammates have been waving fairly helplessly, but two doubles in the bottom of the first may have broken the Beckett mystique, just a little. Baseball is, perhaps more than any other team sport, such a mental exercise. You most often can’t overcome poor play with hustle, effort, all that “old college try”. In true baseball-speak, you gotta try EASIER.  

9:37 p.m.

Lots of car commercials, of course. Boy toy night at the television. There was one that had, though, more than just jolting music and chaotic camera angles. There was actually an appeal to ideals and ethics, a frontal attack on our tendency to materialist impatience. But I can’t remember what the product was. Ah. I’m sure I’ll have another chance at it. It played, after all, twice in the first half-hour of the broadcast. And it’s raining hard now in Boston. Oh, oh…

9:51 p.m.

It’s the top of the fourth inning, less than halfway through the regulation ballgame, and all the young baseball fans in North America, at least in the Eastern Time Zone, should be long gone to dreamland. And this is one of many reasons that baseball is dying out in large parts of the continent. I used to race home from school to catch the end of Series games that started in the afternoon. Money, money, money. Seven Ks for Beckett in four innings. Nice. (“K” is the baseball scorebook symbol for a strikeout. Boston fans have been provided with “K” placards by a local radio station. This being the Series, they may not require JumboTron appeals to “Make noise” and “Clap your hands!” I am ever an optimist.)

10:12 p.m.

Canada’s Pitcher just escaped the fourth inning, but there’s another crooked number on the Red Sox scoreboard. (The occasional one run doesn’t always hurt, but those bent numerals…) Francis may be done for the night, in which case he will continue one of the odd little facts that litter, even more than they always have in baseball, this number-crazy game: no Canadian has ever been the winning pitcher in a Series game. A nice little piece of conversation about Francis a couple of innings ago: born in Vancouver, named for a legendary Montreal Canadiens star (Jeff for Geoffrion, nicknamed “Boom Boom” as the hard-shooting Hab also was). And never learned to skate. So the American broadcast duo has a little fun with that, but I’m thinking What? You name AND nickname your kid after a hockey star and never let a good little athlete play the game? Not that every Canadian boy has to be a hockey head — none of my four have, although the youngest gets outdoor hockey in Canada’s cold capital’s outdoor rinks — but there’s a parental oddity there that I’d like to know more about.  

The rain has eased, and now the necessary five innings to make the game official are in the book. All Red Sox. More of those little ballcaps with the old-fashioned ‘B’ on them will be adorning male heads all over the continent.

10:40 p.m.

And my attention is wandering. Past my bedtime. But I can watch Manny Ramirez, one of the oddest-looking great athletes ever, hit. Three hits tonight. Everybody knows a hitter has to keep his head down on the ball, but he’s perfect. Wow. A flaky dude, a chaotic and sometimes even incompetent outfielder, but what a hitter. (Okay, perfect? Sorry. My error. Had he been a left-hand hitter, now then he’d be perfect.) Just detected another Howden error: Red Sox captain Jason Varitek does indeed wear the traditional knee-high knickers and tall red stockings. (I lost it in the sun.)

10:56 p.m.

12-1. Fifth inning. Another Colorado relief pitcher. I need a relief bloggist.

11:02 p.m.

The Red Sox are still up, now 13-1, and they’ve finally gotten the 3rd out of a 5th inning that seemed to have started yesterday. Cameras just caught a shot of writer Stephen King in a rain poncho, reading a magazine. You may have heard of his novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Okay, I haven’t read it either, but Gordon was a Red Sox pitcher with a fine curveball, as I recall. Naturally, he was called “Flash”. And here’s another one of those things about baseball: no sport has been written about better. There are lots of short stories, a few fine novels and tonnes of creative documentary writing about the game. It’s the only game, I used to joke — and I love baseball — that’s more interesting to talk about than to play. Almost true.

Macho guitars and turbo-charged video about a minivan from Toyota; at the end is slipped in the printed fact that it has the best fuel efficiency among grocery-getters. Not hard to see that peak oil hasn’t entirely penetrated North American consciousness. And then comes the ad for recreational gas-guzzling, the Polaris ATV.

11:26 p.m.

Wendy and Bernie just got home. They’re the guys with the three televisions, any one of which is at my disposal when my lust for sport cannot be sated by radio or on-line reports the next morning.

Just when I thought there was nothing more to say, here comes Ashanti singing “God Bless America” as the since-9-11 7th inning stretch song of choice. No more taking anybody out to the ballgame. Patriotism. Bowed heads. (An echo, of course, of the U.S. Air Force fly-by to punctuate “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Bowed heads and blood lust. Ooh. Did I just say that?) The extreme patriotism of Americans has always been an irritant to me, Canada having traditionally been a little quieter about our national pride (except certain hockey blowhards). We’re getting a little more vociferous, in our reserved Scottish way, and I wince about it sometimes. Our pride is not mainly based on military might, so I feel less compromised about our occasional chest-thumping. But the attachment of national glory to every single athletic contest? I mean the solemnity of l’hymne nationale before each game beyond high school. Surely this is a tradition that, if it weren’t so deep and patriotism such an American article of faith, would have long outlived its usefulness. And to add the alternative national anthem for a mid-game bit of national self-importance is sickly sweet icing upon a cake that’s past its best-before date. I wanted to paste my favourite little bumper sticker over Wendy and Bernie’s TV: God Bless ALL The Nations.

And on in relief for the Red Sox is Mike Timlin. Mike Timlin? He’s still living? He was relieving for the Blue Jays last millennium, for goodness’ sake. And speaking of great relievers, the other Canadian chucker won’t likely get off the bench for the Red Sox. Whither the Eric Gagné of old, he of the unhittable Dodgers closeouts? Hard not to be a bit suspicious about how he fuelled his earlier exploits, but maybe he’s just old. I know that feeling.

12:02 a.m.

Sheesh. Error number three for the typist. Gagné is in, but this IS, after all, a twelve-run ballgame. We’re finally in the ninth inning. We’ll soon be home. And my current favourite name just made the catch for the Sox in centre field: yes, friends, Coco Crisp is in the game as a defensive replacement.

12:07 a.m.

Big Eric closes the game with a strikeout. Yawn. Zoom, zoom, zoom. More car sales. Time to jump into my car.

WritersFest II: Men’s Night

There was a superb collection of brainy and passionate literary warriors last night in Ottawa. (I was there, too!) Session One of another evening at the Writers’ Festival was titled “Canada: The Imagination of Place”, and it took the often-banal national navel-gazing to a level of intelligent feeling that we don’t often don’t come near.

B.W. Powe discussed and read from his (again) newly revised A Canada of Light, which examines the philosophy and perception underlying the country. He is not without self-confidence, and describes the book as “my ‘Leaves of Grass’, my attempt to do for Canada what Walt Whitman did for the United States”. Or maybe he just meant that the centre of his life and thought is right there, and he keeps going back ‘til he gets it right. (Did Whitman do the same?) “We should celebrate the solitudes and the strangeness of this country,” he says, “because Canada works very well in fact, just not in theory!” Canada offers to the world, he argues, not a mirror but “a new premise, a new ethic” based on what he calls, oxymoron intended, a “radical rootlessness”. Yes, he invokes Innis and McLuhan, and has something of the wild-eyed romantic about him. Powe, eloquently and forcefully, puts forward a poetic vision of the country, one that opposes the ever-present forces that subvert hopefulness and joy. He wants us to understand what is in front of our faces right now, to “face the present! For the future is implicit in it.” Powe is passionate and lyrical about our country, its place in an evolving world, and would like for all of us to see it more clearly.

So would Andrew Cohen, whose While Canada Slept bemoaned our loss of moral (not to mention military and diplomatic) influence in the world, has now come out with The Unfinished Canadian. He examines the Great Northern Project from a more historic and political viewpoint — our collective choice of evolution over revolution — and his urgently practical manner was an interesting counterpoint to Powe’s visionary urbanity (“Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”). Substituting as he was for Roy McGregor (who was puck chasing with Sidney Crosby and the Senators), Cohen told a hockey story to illustrate one of his strongest points. After the hail of criticism that fell on the Canadian women’s hockey team (and the women’s game itself) as they stir-fried their opponents at the Torino Olympics, star Cassie Campbell had to wonder. “Just what is it about this country that we get slammed for excellence?” Ah, the tall poppies. They must be cut down to size! Cohen decries our poor grasp of our own history, and our reflexive anti-Americanism, dismissing the recent bestseller Fire and Ice precisely because it panders to our desperate urge to see ourselves not only as separate from the Americans but, well, better than them. While there are real differences, Cohen finds it rather unbecoming to “protest too much” (and so inaccurately). He’s an unabashed nationalist, however. To the charge that nationalism is so 19th-century, such a violent albatross from the past, he responds with a call for civic nationalism: pride in our institutions, in the ethics and practices we have evolved and the good things Canucks have made and done in the world. It is, on the other hand, the ethnically based nationalism, he argues, that is limiting and has such rich harvests of bigotry, war and misery. It was all good stuff.

Next up was the third of the Writers’ Festival’s “Writing Life” series, featuring two men I’d never heard of and a third I’d never read. I find writers sharing their work unfailingly interesting, but I was particularly impressed last night. Neil Smith read from his debut collection of short stories, Bang Crunch. Having been a student in Montreal when the 1989 massacre of 14 women occurred – and with Virginia Tech reverberating in every mind – Mr. Smith read from a disturbing mass-murder tale of his own invention. He has an unusual reading voice and style, and was quite compelling. I’ll be paying more attention. C.S. Richardson is another first-time author, after a distinguished and ongoing career in the visual arts and design. (He was the designer of Smith’s book, for example.) What an engaging person and writer: his character descriptions flow beautifully, unpredictably, in his novel The End of the Alphabet. Because of what he selected, I have little idea of the plot, but sign me up – this is a novel I want to read.

The third writer, Lawrence Hill, has made a sensation with his newest novel, The Book of Negroes. It is a shameful omission that I haven’t read him before. For one thing, he’s from my neck of the southern Ontario woods, but his background couldn’t be much different – intellectual American parents, a white mother and black father who came to Canada to escape bigoted attitudes (and laws) toward racially mixed marriages. He has been writing the stories of his own family, of the African diaspora and especially the North American experience of it. His reading from Negroes was outstanding. He has told this story of many stories in the voice of an African woman, from her youth in what is now Mali, her enslavement and her release from it after the American Revolutionary War, a Black Loyalist move to Nova Scotia and one of the first back-to-Africa voyages ever made by a black community. At the beginning of the novel, and again at the end, we listen to her as an elderly woman in Britain at the height of the movement to abolish the slave trade. With this year marking 200 years since that epochal change, Hill’s timing is excellent but, more importantly, he has the story and he has the voice. It’s funny: I’ve never read the man before, but one night in his company has made me a big fan. He is gracious, enormously eloquent, and there’s a quiet fire burning in all that he says and writes.

Chalk up another great night for the wordwatchers. And somehow, the Senators managed to defeat Sidney and the Penguins without me frozen in front of the tube.

NBC Takes an Olympian Hit

I promise. This is my last Olympic post. (I think I promise.) Dave Zirin, that counterculture sports columnist, fell into my Inbox again. (You can get it here.) He reminds me of the blurb that Howard Cosell once wrote for one of my favourite books on sport: Foul: The Connie Hawkins Story by Dave Wolf. It came out in the 1970s, and for some reason Humble Howard’s assessment lives on in my head though Foul disappeared from my shelves decades ago: “Puts to rout forever the propagated notion that sports is a sacred cow and the only milk it emits is pure.”

Zirin is in a fever to do the same thing. I must say that I didn’t watch any of NBC’s Olympic telecast – when you can get the CBC (as some lucky Americans can), why bother? – but I’ve seen their act before. So I enjoyed what Zirin had to say about his own national network’s approach, full of junk sports and jingoism. Here are some excerpts (the entire article can be seen here.)

The Winter Olympics have been to NBC what icebergs were to the Titanic. With the exception of the prime-time figure skating competition Tuesday, ratings have been subterranean….[W]hy? The answers speak to everything that’s wrong with the arrogance of television networks and the hypocrisy and jingoism at the heart of the games….

Moldy Nationalism: It’s amazing. Baseball fans cheer for the DR’s Pedro Martinez, basketball heads scream for Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, and the sporting world has never been more of a global village, but NBC still treats the games as if it were 1980 and the United States were taking on the Eastern Bloc….Please, NBC. Rocky has retired and Ivan Drago has left the building.

Treating Us Like We Are Idiots (or Tape Delays): In the age of real-time video on the Internet, showing the games on ten-hour tape delay is as anachronistic as shoulder pads and piano-key ties…but for NBC to [do live coverage] would mean losing precious advertising dollars. So viewers lose the very essence of what separates sports from pro wrestling: suspense and surprise at unanticipated outcomes.

Manufactured Sports: Is your water cooler abuzz with news of the skeleton finals? What about the half-pipe? The slalom? No? Then congratulations, you don’t work in an insane asylum. Most of the sports highlighted by NBC seem to have been dreamed up in corporate boardrooms to sell Mountain Dew and manufacture medals for US athletes…. This is not to say that there isn’t art or beauty in the practice of these sports. But to feel them marketed to us like an X-treme Tupperware party just became tiresome….

There have been compelling acts of athletic derring-do and personal turmoil during these games. If only the NeoCon Bellowing Corporation [ed. note: Yikes!!] would have had the imagination and the backbone to fully and fairly cover what was happening, these Winter Olympics would not have been such a staggering waste of time and talent.

 Dave brings it strong. I particularly liked his description of the marketing of an “X-treme Tupperware party”. Slick. But hey, Professor Zee, you should try to get the dear ol’ CBC on your satellite dish. Trust me. You’ll feel better.