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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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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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Long Way From Home

True North. Call myself a *Canadian*? Never been there, but my three sons have. Plus, I know J. (Quiz: could you find Ottawa on this map?)

[6-minute read]

This wasn’t the plan, not at all, but I want to write about J. today. We hadn’t seen him in a while, and I’ve been wondering how he is. Worrying, too, and running little high-stress scenarios through my mind, where we hear gut-punching news or I find him in fearsome or depressing circumstances. Such polite words: I keep waiting to hear he’s dead, incarcerated, strung out, beaten, vacant in the eyes. J. doesn’t have it easy, and he’s an awful long way from home.

We first met when I was doing some fiddly chore in my front yard, the chaos of my garage open to public view. I can’t remember whether his first request was to do some work for a little money; it might’ve been, he’s done that, but that day it was likely a request for a bit of cash to get himself fed. He looked to be in his early 20s, with a mess of long black hair and well-worn sweats. It was unusual to be approached from the street like that, but his manner was gentle, his voice soft and dignified, and his eyes were steady and calm. I gave him some money to go a few blocks over to Lorenzo’s, a pizza place he favoured.

I guessed, correctly, that he was from Nunavut, one of Canada’s northern territories that, as of 1999, has been self-governed according mainly to traditional Inuit ideas of community. (There are no political parties, for example, and therefore no official “opposition” to an elected government.) There’s a direct flight to my city, Ottawa, from the capital of Nunavut, so there’s a small but significant Inuit presence here. We talked. His deliberate but obviously educated speech belied his scruffy appearance, and I was intrigued. Over the succeeding weeks and months, we talked several times. J. was both open about his situation – no family here, mental health struggles, admitted though relatively benign addictions, dependence on panhandling – and mysterious. He’s a complicated fella.

I was never sure whether to buy certain elements of his story. He spoke of having been a scholarship student in engineering at an Ottawa university, but details were either fuzzy or set off my nonsense detectors. Part of that wasn’t J.’s fault, really, because though I was curious and interested about his life, I didn’t want to pry too much. I also didn’t want to be in his face about facts; the kid probably wasn’t in need of an Inquisitor. So, he’d bag a few leaves for food money, while I wondered how he could afford to live in my middle-class neighbourhood and yet often be short of food. (He wasn’t a superb yard-worker.) After a time, I started to talk to him more frankly.

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Coaching, Hoops, and Young Men: A Tale of Two Teams

If you’re going to be the best, you have to play the best.

Yeah, coaches like to say that. Yup, I’ve used it myself, trying to convince basketball players in several Ontario high schools that getting hammered builds character, that a 40-point loss is an exercise in improvement. (And, on the other side of the scoring table, that 40-point wins mean nothing, most of the time.) “With fire we test the gold…”¹ is a thing I believe, but after last night’s drubbing, I have to wonder if there’s enough gold in them thar hills. I’m a heckuva good digger, but I don’t always stick my spade in the most promising ground. It’s deja vu all over again. (Thanks, Yogi.)

¹ From The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah. (And how ’bout them references? A Persian Prophet in one line, a great ballplayer and language-mangler in the next!)

Linus doesn't play for Lisgar, but I might have to give him a long look...

Linus couldn’t make my OYBA team, but he’d get a long look at Lisgar…

It’s a tale of two teams, both of them mine. My young friend and assistant coach Seb and I picked a group of ninth-graders from 10 high schools across my Canadian city in August, the Under-15 squad representing the Ottawa Youth Basketball Academy (OYBA). Its teams are known as (and strive to be) the Ottawa Elite. It’s a name I don’t love, with all its potential suggestions of class privilege and superiority, but I repeatedly tell those lads that “elite” is more of a high-expectation mindset than a description of what we are. The young men are learning to work hard, and though I clearly chose several players based as much on potential as on present skill — “up-side” being the jock label of the moment — they’re also pretty good.

They will have to be: these boys will be playing the best. Our main competitions will take place in Toronto, where some of the world’s finest youth basketball development is taking place. (You may have heard of Andrew Wiggins. Tristan Thompson. Cory Joseph. The list of NBA players from the GTA gets longer.) Once high school season is over in February, my attention will turn more completely to these ambitious young dudes; in the fall, we trained twice or three times per week and got a few exhibitions played, but with many of them playing demanding school schedules, now we work out once a week. I push them hard, and many of them are looking for nothing other than that. That makes coaching fun.

My other team is a junior varsity squad at one of Ottawa’s outstanding academic schools. (Spoiler alert: it’s a whole different ballgame…)

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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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STRICTLY MID-LIFE: Crisis? What Crisis?

Here’s another piece — not that anybody asked for it, as Kurt Vonnegut once muttered in opening a collection of essays called Fates Worse Than Death — that now sees the light after nearly a decade in the electronic cellar. When I wrote it, I was in Ottawa, not yet in my 50s. Five years in China are in the rear-view now; we’re back in the same house, and visiting the same local complex for its library, pool and workout facilities. For reasons mainly organizational, this one never got posted, but despite the years that have passed, it’s nearly as true now as it was when it was fresh. And hey, how are you doing?

“Well, this sure isn’t Monday Night Football,” I thought. It’s been a long while since I was twitching and “ready for some football!” that late on a weeknight, anyway. But on this particular Monday, I was in the St. Laurent recreation centre getting ready to put the ol’ bod through its paces.

Now, I have spent more pigskin hours in front of the Sacred Tube than I care to remember, but Monday nights weren’t always about a football broadcast. They never are, now. Even as a kid, there were hockey practices, and from about age 15 on, the squeak of sneakers and the pounding of basketballs were the soundtrack to any given Monday (Tuesday, Wednesday…). Even in my increasingly clumsy thirties, as the rim somehow felt higher with each jump-shot, I could still be found running around on my wife on a winter evening. Nope, not a romantic betrayal, but another doomed attempt to outrun a bunch of teens and 20-somethings. The dream was dead, but I could still fool myself for minutes at a time.

It seemed, back then, that my competitive fever had finally broken. A successful night had come to mean a few jumpshots, a good sweat, a few laughs and no icepacks. (Well. I tried to define success this way, but I was chronically annoyed with my uncooperative hands and reluctant legs.) But there I was last Monday at St. Laurent,

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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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Ravens Run Tigers Out of the Gym. Almost.

The place wasn’t even full, for one thing. As the Memphis Tigers returned to the floor 10 minutes from tip-off for the final, all-flushes-flying, let’s-get-this-party-started portion of their pre-game warmup, there were still far south of a thousand spectators in the Ravens’ Nest at Carleton University. True, it was a Saturday night in August, and the students weren’t back yet, but how often do we get to see top American college teams up close?

A long way from home, and a rude Ottawa welcome.

A long way from home, and a rude Ottawa welcome.

Hot young Division One coaching star Josh Pastner knows his stuff. (Gettin’ a little chubby, though!) He knew Carleton coach Dave Smart’s Raveniculous record – 10 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) titles in the last 12 seasons – though his ‘Net research was a year out of date, citing nine McGee Trophies in eleven. He knew the Ravens were a precise, rapid-fire machine on offence, and had heard, no doubt, of their fanatical intensity. He probably tried to communicate this to his high-jumping, young squad. He failed, as he might have known he would.

After all, even last year’s Tigers benchwarmers are used to home crowds of

Not the Ravens' Nest. The Tigers home experience.

Not the Ravens’ Nest. The Tigers home experience.

nearly 18,000, as they play in

the same FedEx Forum where the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies do, and not in this bland, amateurish northern equivalent of a so-so American high school gym. As do all the American players who come north for a summer tour of Ottawa, his lads learned.

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Past-Blasting: The Climate, 2007

This piece from February of 2007 was called “Citizenship, Climate Change…and Hockey?” It’s an orphan piece that never found a publication to call home, so now I offer it here. My nearly six-foot tall teen was then only seven, and merely bilingual. The NHL was struggling to recapture fan interest outside of Canada after losing an entire season to labour squabbles. Canada was still part of the Kyoto Accord. (We bow our head in shame, and remember when Canada deserved its reputation for internationalism.) I was not long removed from writing for Canada’s Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, who had been succeeded in that office by Michaelle Jean.

We hadn’t imagined coming to China at all, and now we’re wrapping up five years on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. Look back. Waaayy back…

Last week saw a series of events that, after a whirl in the cerebral blender, yields a thoughtful stew on citizenship. It’s a bit like the musical “mash-up”, but without that unpleasant ringing in your ears. Here are some not-quite-random reflections on the meaning of the modern Canuck.

Two years ago last Friday, the National Hockey League finally suspended the 2004-2005 season. Canadian men (and a few women) grew more gloomy and resentful. No major sporting league had ever ditched an entire schedule, and the North American cultural divide widened. Canadian lovers of other sports hoped for a silver lining to the lockout, but were dismayed to find that hockey still dominated jock talk and writing. Meanwhile, American sports media – and the great majority of fans – barely noticed its absence.

And the citizenship connection? Well, you might have missed this surprising bit of civic mindfulness, but several NHL players declared the February 16 anniversary as “Save Hockey Day” – not so much to recall the lockout as to pay attention to the Kyoto Accord on climate change. ‘Bout time!

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Honeymoons and Rear-View Mirrors

Well, lookie-lookie. Here’s something I found lurking in my files, an observational piece I never did anything with. I was newly-married, living in a cabin in the West Quebec woods, not far from the Wakefield General Store. It was 1995. Quebec’s second referendum on independence was coming. I was taking Stab One at being a writer, but in addition to being giddy with remarital joy, I had mononucleosis. It was a sleepy, lovely and thoroughly unproductive time, but here is something I scribbled between the birch trees.

Apr. 22/14 UPDATE: This post inspired an extended comment from a faithful reader, which has turned into a full-on guest column that responded to questions of identity and “Canadian-ness” mentioned below. Mr. Freeman’s meditation on home and heart is here.

From here, I look out upon a Wakefield morning. Just after  dawn, a bright sun  peered in our window from behind a curtain of colour. And thank goodness for our woodsy surroundings, because there aren’t any curtains on these huge panes; the trees have already seen enough of my naked dashes from bath to bed. Ouch! One enthusiastic but directionally‑challenged chirper just discovered that our living room is not a fly‑through zone. The day has now become quite grey, but in this splendid Quebecois setting, even grey has charms.

There have been some changes, haven’t there? In my little world, love and restlessness and an overwhelming desire to chain myself to a keyboard have landed me here, tapping merrily and watching the wind. I like where I am. Born near the centre of the universe — Leafs and Jays about  an hour of asphalt away¹ — my grand little rivertown home has been a good place to love and leave and return to, and now to leave again. 

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