Petrarch (on lost souls and tennis)

In pursuit of a possible piece centring on the too-soon departed David Foster Wallace, that brilliant and neuron-crackling and ultimately doomed writer, that Guy with Curious Hair (and an ever-present headband), that Broom of multiple Systems, that brain of infinite zest, that Pale authorial King, that supposedly fun-tastic writer-thing he’ll never be or do again¹ – and oh, the loss that was to us, though too few know it! – I bought a posthumously issued collection of his essays, Both Flesh and Not. Before I could even finish the first piece, his classic take on the on-court genius of tennis god Roger Federer, the universe delivered a piping-hot review of another posthumous collection of all the tennis-themed Wallace oeuvre. (It’s called String Theory, which title is a tidy bow linking ribbons of jockery and the nerdiest domains of physics. Would Wallace have approved of the title? Sure, it’s a pun, but not the most brainless, after all.) In eager pursuit of writing I didn’t actually have to do – that is, somebody else’s – I was electronically extracted from the old-school pulpy pages of Both Flesh, (surely by Twitter, or perhaps it was Wikipedia?) pricked by precisely God-only-remembers-what in the Federer piece, and then virtually dragged to an on-line review of String Theory, which rubbed my ever-forgetful nose in pungent memories of what little I know of the desperately sad and finally self-destroying DFW, laden meanwhile with my own fumbling, muted, doomed urgency about doing whatever for no particular reason or special benefit to anybody but my imaginings, vain or narcissistic or otherwise.

This is the author photo for "Both Flesh and Not". Very high, this man, on my Wish I'd Met Him list. Reading more will only make this worse, but that's okay.

This is the author photo for “Both Flesh and Not”. Very high, this man, on my Wish I’d Met Him list. Reading more will only make this worse, but that’s okay.

¹ DFW was famous, in his essays and even in his novels, for an exuberant use of superscripts and page-end notes, digressions and elaborations that were just as fascinating as the central march of his subject. Sometimes there were end-notes to his end-notes. This note of mine points back to a set of descriptions each of which nods to one of his most important book-titles. Way too nerdy-clever (clerdy! nerver!), I know, but I had fun.

And somewhere in that review was Petrarch,

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Oliver Sacks (on awakening to the end)

Oliver Sacks is the neurologist and professor who was brought to cinematic life by Robin Williams in Awakenings, helping and observing as Bob DeNiro’s coma patient emerges from the darkness. (Side note which I vaguely promise will not turn into an intolerably long digression, but the length of whose prefatory remarks must even now be giving pause to sensitive and perceptive readers such as you: I notice suddenly the number of films in which Williams is the psychiatrist/healer. Not just Awakenings, but his gruff and brilliant therapist to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, and his turn as Patch Adams, the unconventional MD who used humour and nonsense to heal and console his patients. All of which did Williams no good at all in calming his own demons, or so it would seem. Terminate digression.)

Sack’s books on psychological oddities and wonders — Awakenings was his second book, I think, followed by such titles as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Musicophilia, An Anthropologist on Mars — made him famous and beloved, though not always embraced by medical rivals. Now that he’s dying, as he announced recently, I want to read more than I have. Typical.

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George Monbiot (on economic growth and the dreaded WHY)

For his quirky autobiographical note alone, I'd admire the man.

For his quirky autobiographical note alone, I’d admire the man.

For most of our politicians, in most of our countries — those who are elected to preserve and advance a governance system that appears unable to consider anything besides economic growth as keys to the good life, the good society — George Monbiot is on the lunatic fringe. His book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (2006) was unsparing, openly pessimistic and radical in the original sense — it called for fundamental change in how we look at our governance, our lifestyles, our future, everything. “Radical” means “going back to the roots”. Those that we invest with the authority to make societal changes aren’t often interested in radical thought, partly because it requires so much thought and partly because it undermines their own privileged positions in society.

Here was Mr. Monbiot earlier this week, concluding a recent commentary in the Guardian newspaper — “Growth: the destructive god that can never be appeased” — with questions that the elected don’t often consider, but which citizens must:

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An End to Foreign-ness: This is London Calling

My last post bemoaned my neglect of this quiet little forum, and that was several months ago. If you happen to have been a regular reader when there was fresh fodder, sorry and thanks. If you’re new, thanks for showing up. (And “an end to foreign-ness”? It’s part of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahà, visionary and civilization-builder, called upon the world to create nearly a century ago. I love that phrase.) (I hope I don’t have to explain the “London Calling” reference, except maybe for my mother-in-law: Margery, it’s a great punk album by The Clash. You’re welcome.)

After a wobbly and jet-lagged first day in London, vacationing back to the Anglo-Saxon homeland with my wife and youngest son, I want to throw this into the ether before pitching myself into the loft of oblivion. Sleep, my friends. Sleep.

The next thing you’ll see is a little something I wrote to my Grade 10 English class — a group that should’ve been a delight, considering the material we studied and the brainpower of many of the kids, but was only occasionally so — as class ended in June. No coincidence that I’ve relaunched my writing / With gnashing and biting and / Blasts from a thousand kazoos after a week and more away from being a full-time educator. Teaching and writing is a balancing act I haven’t yet found the rhythm or the moderation to master…


Sunday Morning Angels

Good things happen to men who do dishes and tidy up their rooms, especially if they listen to good radio stations. Here are a couple of highlights from a mere 90 minutes of radio (plus a little scrubbing, a little filing, a little man, look at this place!).

Hail to Jane.  How do we make cities work? Three radio guests offered their answers, their hopes and despair, about the state of cities in Canada, in everywhere. Reverend Bowtie (aka Michael Enright) was piloting The Sunday Edition, and navigating the airwaves with him were architect Brigitte Shim, a former Vancouver planner (was it Larry Beasley? Ah, the downside to writers doing dishes: poor note-taking), and Toronto’s William Thorsell, a former Globe and Mail editor and now head of the Royal Ontario Museum. They were talking cities, and responding to Enright’s how do they work questions. They decried city development that was piecemeal and commodified and developer-driven. They argued that density wasn’t a bad word, if it was combined with humanity and concern for the building of coherent and livable communities within a city. Shim, in particular, wondered how long it would be before we figured out that bulldozing prime farmland for sprawling one-family commuter suburbs might not be a sustainable practice. Thorsell, in particular, confessed his shame at being a Torontonian every time he visits Vancouver, a world model for urban sustainability. And Beasley – if I’ve actually got the right guy – was particularly humble in discussing what North American cities might be able to learn from what Vancouver is doing. (So why hail Jane? Because behind all this thinking and re-thinking about what can make cities the centre of art, culture, science, dynamic forms of human understanding, is the astoundingly clear and still-ringing voice of the late Jane Jacobs. The only reason I could even follow this morning’s conversation was because I finally read her brilliant book The Death and Life of Great American Cities last year. Few books have informed me like this one.)

Hail to Ingrid. Check this out. Not only is she a woman, not only is her name Ingrid, but she grew up as a devout Roman Catholic in Kitchener, Ontario. This seemingly ordinary constellation of facts becomes astonishing when you hear, as I did this morning for the first time, that Ingrid Mattson has been elected President of the Islamic Society of North America. (She had been a vice-president since 2001, and a good profile of her from that year can be found here.) She converted to Islam as a young woman, having rediscovered in Muslim practice the child-like wonder and reverence she had loved as a Christian child. She also found great scope and comfort for her brilliant mind, and she is now professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. What a calm and intelligent voice she has! And what a potent perspective she brings to Muslim communities around the world, and to those who wish to better understand Islam, as a woman of European/Christian heritage, Canadian upbringing and profound Muslim scholarship, a wife, mother, academic and Western convert to the Faith of Muhammad. I’m glad to know Ingrid is at work in the world.

Hail to Agnes. For a reason I didn’t entirely catch, there was a brief tribute to Agnes McPhail in my radio, too. In the first year that Canadian women had the right to vote — did you know it was 1921? — McPhail was elected to Canada’s House of Commons as the first – and for a long time, the only – woman Member of Parliament. She served nobly until 1940, and later spent five years as an Ontario M.P.P. I heard her voice for the first time this morning, a tape of a CBC interview from the late 1930s, I think. Here was another smart and serene (and quietly fierce) female voice. (It’s the same voice she used when, heckled by a fellow MP — “Hey Agnes, don’t you wish you were a man?!” — she fixed him with a cool stare and said “Why yes, don’t you?”) She had an eloquence we don’t often hear these days, and a flatness of tone that showed no evidence of media training or the search for the perfect sound-bite. Yet she was incisive, clear and almost unbelievably modern in her views, without the shrill extremes that often accompany contemporary quests for justice. Except perhaps for the diction, her discussion could only be dated by the laughably archaic worries of the male union leader she was quietly slaughtering in debate.

Hail to Wendy. The last thing I heard on The Sunday Edition was a repeat documentary, first aired last spring, on a fifth-grade teacher in an Ottawa Catholic elementary school. Her name is Wendy Alexis, and her voice was one of those reminders of the greatness of the good teacher. Our culture too seldom recognizes it, but the Wendys of the world are priceless gems. “Always keep a diamond in your mind…” This Tom Waits lyric rumbles through my thoughts in the voice of Solomon Burke, and today it refers to Ms. Alexis. Her classroom is one of those New Canada, New World places where the children come from 20 countries, speak 15 languages among them, and are often refugees from humanity’s greatest modern failures. So Wendy Alexis gets her kids to be quiet so they can listen, to clean up the floor, and to learn their times tables. Yes, and she has created a community that is a microcosm of a suffering but still-hopeful world, where children can tell and hear their stories and work for the betterment of a world that has done them harm. And these kids at St. Luke’s school have a small project. It’s called “One Angel at a Time” (, and it is a project of remembrance. They are collecting feathers, 800,000 feathers, one for each of the slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. I’m not sure what they’re doing with them, and I don’t much care. They are becoming angels of mindfulness and compassion. They have about 50,000 so far. They are learning to read and think and love and trust. I’d like to send some feathers for these angels. And you?

Jane and Ingrid and Agnes and Wendy. Good morning!