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There’s a party in my mind / And I hope it never stops

Party at Farm Boy! It’s my party, and I’ll write if I want to². (Behold: the second obscure pop-musical reference. Didja get the first¹ one?)

I don’t always write when I want to. I am not, and have never been, blessed with my bride’s Do It NOW! gene, at least when it comes to things requiring effort. TV, and fridge doors (see: opening of), and thinking about sports, and reading whatever falls under my eyes – these things come as naturally as does scrolling through a Twitter feed long after my original sharing-impulse or micro-news hunger has expired. Yes: a fresh entrant to this category of Indomitably Easy Activities.)

But I am writing now.

I sit upstairs at a high-end supermarket called Farm Boy. It’s across the street from Tom the Mechanic, where my wheels are getting readied for summer. Breakfast has merged into lunch. I like buying groceries and eating them at the store. There’s even a chance to be healthy. (-er)

(And yes, music historians, the title was a pop lyric, too. I now have Spotify³ on my phone. Most of my downloads are decades old, but surely “To Pimp a Butterfly” will join my invisible milk-crate library.)

It’s my mother’s birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to. I don’t think I will, though. She’s been gone 10 years now, and I’m easy about it. I will admit, though: when I went by the asparagus downstairs in the produce department, I pronounced it “Ass-per-AG-us” in my head, because that’s what Enid just about unfailingly called it. She was never a teacher – heck, never went to university, why would she? She was female! – but reliably pronounced words in such a way as to make their spelling graspable. “Skizzers” for scissors, “fatty-goo” for fatigue, and so on and on. Whether this was with her five kids’ spelling tests in mind – we all aced ‘em, always – or just a mock-fashionable bit of extreme word-nerdery, I couldn’t say. Ennyhoo, as she also serially concluded: Hi, Mum. You had an effect.

Mum was a Christian, less nervous about death than about tidying up before Mrs. Adams, our housekeeper, got to our place for a weekly clean. She was ecumenical before it was cool, absolutely friendly with those Presbyterians and United Churchers, and dismissive of attempts by an earnest young Baptist pastor to condemn her weekly bridge games as the devil’s playground. When one of her sons was allegedly barred access to the gates of heaven because of consorting with Baha’is, she sniffed, “Well, it won’t be much of a heaven for me if my kids can’t go there.” She hated confrontation, but as I recall it, her comment snuffed that pseudo-theological debate right quick.

Maybe my mother would have liked Benjamin Sledge. I don’t know Mr. Sledge, but in the way of Internet Things I read a blog post of his on a stealth-Christian site called Heart Support. In the article, “Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity is Actually Relevant, Okay?”, Sledge jumps from the Vans Warped Tour (a travelling rock music fest with faithful underpinnings) to 2nd-century Rome, and then back to a moral landscape – modern America – that obviously troubles him. What troubles him most? “Christians”, mainly, both the mainstream don’t give it a second thought kind, on one hand, and the minority have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour and hated gays and abortionists enough? brand. It’s unclear which type is the supreme irritant, but he “welcomes”, actually seems to long for, the growing irrelevance of the Christian faith in modern America. He prefers the heroic, supremely loving and sacrificial expressions of the Gospel that he finds in early Roman history, the reason Christianity originally achieved a civilizing groundswell of popularity in the centuries following the life of Jesus. Ennyhoo: you can read the piece yourself. It’s quite refreshing, especially if you reflexively shudder at the excesses of faith-gone-political. It’s not that, not at all. It gives Christianity a good name, actually.

I’m writing in a Farm Boy supermarket, and yes, it’s been awhile since I got anything Out There. And Mr. Sledge has been pleasantly irritating me: a small snippet of the “Relevant” piece has been a brain-worm, burrowing about because of its significance and its craftiness. So thoughtful and cleverly written it was, in fact, that I Actually Wrote It Down in my sorely neglected paper’n’pen journal, as well as a handy just-in-case-I-get-the-typing-itch Word doc. Sledge refers to a simple, under-acknowledged bit of cultural oddness: people hitting other humans over the head with a book they consider Holy, the Bible. Who DOES that? he basically asks. And what in the world do they think they’re DOING?

“It’s a strange practice to ask people who don’t hold the same beliefs as you to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they don’t read.”

Not bad, eh? One thing I’ve loved about the Baha’is is that they bend over frontwards and backwards to avoid using sacred writings as hammers. Another story.

It’s good to write. Sledge’s article did come my way via Twitter – not that there’s anything wrong with that — but reasoned faith and my mother’s ever-living example (for example), are far less momentary. And all these things — along with old tunes, and squeaky-cheese curds ‘n’ apples for lunch, and sunshine on a day of swapping out the snow tires — got stirred into a bloggy stew. I feel good! Like I knew that I would.₄

And if you’re a long-time reader here, thanks for sticking around. I know this could have gone in the He Said/ She Said section, but as I said:

It’s my party.

¹ “Memories Can’t Wait”, by Talking Heads, from their 1979 album Fear of Music. Spooky good. I like old music, but this doesn’t even feel dated.
² “It’s My Party”. It’s the 1963 Lesley Gore version that I hear, one of my big sisters’ 45s. Quincy Jones’s first big hit, the writer learned!
³ Spotify is tremendous, but I still haven’t given away my vinyl yet, even if it’s no longer in milk crates that I can hunch over as I read liner notes and enjoy album art. I miss the bigness and tangibility of LPs, not gonna lie.
₄ James Brown, of course! 1964. The horn break — da-dum da-dum da-dum DA — was included on the imaginary spoken-and-sung-word version of this post. First heard this on the 8-track player of my high school coach’s faux-wood-sided beat-up station wagon. That was a trip, Donny.

Chuck Klosterman (on sports and useless certainty)

[3-minute read]
The 'o' is long.

The ‘o’ is long.

If you’ve read one of these things before, you know my schtick. (It’s not so artificial, though, not really.) I’m a confirmed Accidentalist as a reader, about the farthest imaginable distance that a member of the homo sapiens tribe can be from A) a trend-watcher, eyes peeled for the New and the Hot and the Must-Read¹ or B) somebody with a plan. Usually, that means that when I get around to reading something I wish I’d read it long before. So.

 ¹ Cases in point: I’m still smart-phone free. I drive standard. I play vinyl records and CDs.

I’ve made no sudden conversion to Column A or Column B, but am still prone to literary accidents, which is how I ran into Chuck. Klosterman’s 2016 – wait, isn’t that THIS YEAR? – book-length thought experiment But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. It’s my first book-length CK, though I used to read him often on the Grantland sports ‘n ‘popcult website (ah, Grantland, we hardly knew ye). The moral: it pays, in intellectual and vaguely spiritual terms, anyway, to go to the library. [That hyperlink right there was to a Neil Gaiman essay. You should go to it. And to the library.] BWIWW?, with its black text on white, upside-down cover, leaped into my sweaty palms from my local branch’s “Express Reads” shelf. Get it now, it’s hot, but you have only 7 days before library muscle is pounding on your door…²

² I should have bought it. Ended up costing me a $10 library fine.

It’s a smart and entertaining book, which concerns itself with “Big Potato” questions that cluster around the title query: how can we be so sure about nearly anything, when time so often (and often so quickly!) proves us to be out to lunch without a paddle? what can we safely predict about our futures? do we have even half-decent tools for justifying what we think we know for certain? Klosterman is stylish, contrarian and witty on such starchy questions as these³, there are any number of quote-worthy morsels, but I liked the one below. Sportsy readers don’t get nearly enough Cool Quotation time, so this one’s for them. And for you.

³ No small potatoes. Only big ones are his prey. “Starchy” questions. Get it, didja get it?
The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book at the back.

The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book from the back.

As he concludes the book, Klosterman turns his attention to sabermetrics, the growing movement to quantify and generally science-up the approach to appreciating and understanding sports, the teams and the athletes. Why care? you ask. I answer, Because there’s more to sports than just sweat and dunks, grunts and numbers, for one thing, but also because Klosterman makes reading about sports feel fresh and [gulp!] enlightening. He makes sport feel like a genuinely useful lens to understand human beings and their cultures. Bam. Tell the truth: you have to finish this piece now, right? And the quote is just around the bend.

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Marilynne Robinson (on writing, and labour)*

* And on writing on Labour Day. But that’s more about me than by her.

[3-minute read]
This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom more in a moment.

This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom and from whom more in a moment. (Guardian photo)

My bride asks me some hard questions sometimes. Labour Day Monday’s was, What do you want your blog to be? What’s if for, anyway? I mumbled my usual answers, which she cut short with a familiar refrain: I think it needs to be more focused. Who’s your audience? I get your latest posting and I never know what it’s going to be about.

She says that with the unmistakeable This Is Not A Good Thing tone. The Dissatisfied Client tone. I resist, naturally. I like writing about different subjects. Don’t you love it when you go to the movies and you find yourself thinking, Gee crappy, I don’t know WHERE this is going! I do. I find that thrilling, as long as I trust that I’m in good hands. Besides, writing helps me learn, and I have lots of things I like to learn about. Such would be my arguments, if I was feeling, say, defensive.

However, my lady is probably right: it seems most people like to be on familiar ground at Movie Time, and that people return to a Dave Zirin Edge of Sports column, or a Stephen King novel, or the latest reboot of the hottest superhero flick franchise – moving from the countercultural through the cultural to the culture-of-mass-consumption – because they pretty much know what they’re going to get, and they like that. Meanwhile, I expect my readers to enjoy running the gauntlet of my popping-corn enthusiasms, “madly off in all directions”, as Thurber once wrote. Well, sorry about that, readers!

It’s something to ponder, though.

Earlier, my wife had also had this question, given that it’s Labour Day, and our son heads back to high school tomorrow, and I’ve been teaching on that WonderDreadFul Tuesday nearly every year of my adult life. She asked, So are you having your teacher dreams?

This answer was easy, but I didn’t quite believe myself. Because the answer was NO. One sabbatical year years back, my late August was still filled with can’t find the classroom, teaching a subject I’ve never thought about, general performance-anxiety-ridden can I still DO this thing? mid-night theatre. Later on, when for three straight Septembers I was writing within the Canadian government, it was the same out-of-synch story. Weirdly, my subconscious believed I’d be back in the classroom even though I clearly wouldn’t be. But not this year, at least not that I can remember. I’m still surprised.

Not that I’m free of doubt, or my recurring claustrophobic frustration dreams. I am instead worrying about my writing and where it’s headed. (And basketball. The coaching dreams still haunt me, and that season’s coming up, too.) Which, you may be thankful to hear, brings us to Marilynne Robinson.

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Hundreds! The 700 Club. Double Century Descending. And Other Not Really News.

Twitter made this just for me. Thanks, Twitter!

Twitter made this just for me. Thanks, Twitter!

[2.5-minute read.]

It’s a day of hundreds, centuries, and numerical landmarks that end in double zeroes. (N.B. Not *that* 700 Club. Relax.) Because hundreds! Because, why NOT? Because you’ll see, that’s why! [UPDATE: And thousands, too, ‘cuz ’bout a month after this breathless report, JHdotCOM — this humble effusion of my thinkings — hit its 30,000th page view, which sounds like a lot. (If I cut back on the thinkings.)]

The 100. This is a TV show I have never seen, and only know because I follow a guy on Twitter who’s brilliant but weirdly seduced by gobs and gobs of television. What’s more: a hundred? In the folly of my middle age, I feel I want to live to that age, partly because I’m afraid of missing out on grandchildren if I don’t¹, partly because though allegedly a man of faith I’m afraid to croak, and principally because my hero, the basketball coaching legend John Wooden, fell a few months short and I’d like to do something he couldn’t pull off. When he died in 2010, I was a long way from L.A., and my bucket list was one large item lighter.

¹ Well, of course this is a shot at my sons!

200. TWO HUNDRED? Before this blog existed, somewhere around the turn of the century, I hit two hundred pounds for the first time ‘round, and it hit me back. Hard. I found the never-published chronicle of my comical lard-based dismay a couple of years ago, when I was flirting (again! still!) with that flagstaff of fatness, and included it in a 2014 blog-post. My China years of playing basketball, walking everywhere, and reduced access to my preferred vices had gotten me down. Weightwise, that is. Sometime this past year, I cow-tipped my new scales at 200 again, and it ticked me off, so I instantly did nothing about it.

HOWEVER! This very morning, friends and strangers and aliens and all my flat-bellied players, my scales said THIS: 199.5  (Pounds, that is.) So: YES!! And ‘BOUT FRIGGIN’ TIME!! And more brave muttering about how this is just the start and I can DO this and old-guy underwear ads, here I come! and so on. And Bruce Springsteen started singing in my head, so that’s good, too, though I think he had a different kind of descent in mind.

300. I refused to see the movie, and I still think it was crap. * he limps off to growl at children* But I was a pretty consistent .300 hitter in my bat-swinging days. *he prepares to launch into “boring stories of / Glory days…*   Springsteen’s everywhere today.

400. It has been four centuries since Shakespeare died. So whatcha gonna DO about it?

500. Nothing to say about this number, except that it’s linked to Fortune, which is a fickle and ephemeral thing (and I haven’t made mine yet but this blog post could change all that).

600. Tennyson, anyone?

(Give yourself a banana split if you guessed “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.)

“…’Forward, the Light Brigade!’ / Was there a man dismayed? / Not though the soldier knew / Someone had blundered. / Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred…” Because poetry.

700. SEVEN. HUNDRED. BLURTS. SEVEN HUNDRED! (In which the bloggish typist finally gets around to the point of what this post is, sort of, about. Don’t miss it!!)

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Bahiyyih Nakhjavani (on the burning itch to do something about it)

Hear voices? Maybe I do, but it’s banal: they’re all mine, or snippets of this song or that. (Recent visits: Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, and “Frosty the Snowman”. No explanation.) I’m as egotistical as the selfie-ing man-boy next door, but I don’t think everything refers back to me. This was happenstance. I know that Bahiyyih Nakhjavani wasn’t writing to me, personally, and even if you’ve been hauling around some weighty notion that you burn to DO something about, she might not have been talking to you, either.

"So, get on with it, then!" she might have been saying to us in this Guardian newspaper photo from 2015.

“So, get on with it, then!” she might have been saying to us in this Guardian newspaper photo from 2015.

Nakhjavani is a prose writer with the heart of a poet, and while her short book Four on an Island purports to be about 19th-century political prisoners in Cyprus, it’s more like meditative non-fiction, to coin a genre, than historical biography. She muses elegantly about Earth and Water, Air and Fire, and returns continually to these elemental themes. She teases the reader, occasionally, and finally admits on page 55 that she’s been somewhat coy, offering a kind of pseudo-confession at the halfway point about what the book is actually about. I don’t know whether this was genuine discovery, one of these mysterious cases in which writers claim that the book they are writing, or characters in it, taught them how to write it and what to say. I suspect Ms. Nakhjavani knew where she was going from the start, her twisting and mystical route notwithstanding. (Twistical!)

I was struck by how she prepared the ground for Four on an Island’s change in direction on page 55. Oh, it’s elegant, mildly amusing, and skilfully disguises its sharpness until the point sinks in. But it’s as if she was writing, say, of a book I haven’t finished writing. (It exists.)

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Late to the Party*: 2015 in Bloggish Review

* (BUT WHAT A PARTY! IT’S #WritingYouCanREAD!!)

That boy’ll be late to his own *funeral*, my mother used to spit (sometimes). Or mutter it with a forgiving hint of a grin (most of the time). The Tardis, if it hadn’t already been taken for Doctor Who‘s adventures in time and space, would’ve been my ideal life vehicle, at least as far as its name is concerned. (Silly Side Note No. 1: For the inverse reason, when we bought a car recently, I was swayed against all reason to buy a Honda Fit because I wanted to be that and sought constant reminders. We ended up buying a Mazda 5, and I don’t know why other than its practicality, low price and surprisingly good condition.)

So, I may not be the most practical tool in the shed, and time is almost never on my side. But hey, enough about me: what do YOU think of my Greatest Hits of 2015? There was no polling, and no process, really, and when it’s this late, who cares? Here are 12 posts from last year that you may be inspired to revisit or read for the first time (using the handy links!!), or ignore utterly in favour of finishing this post quickly. I’m with you.

(Depressing Side Note No. 1: After futzing around with this off and on for a couple of weeks, today I wrecked my suspension on the speed bump of melancholy. Now the whole idea seems stupid, but I’m hitting <PUBLISH> anyway.)

A Dozen

So we’re counting down, kids, some of my favourite posts from 2015, in no particular order except for the chronological one. (Keen, Daddio!) It starts with Martin Luther King, badly remembered, and ends with basketball teams I’ve been loving from up close, hopefully springing.

Forgetting MLK: Back to a Future (January 21)

I finally watched Selma the other night. It got me. I have, of course, no idea if David Oyelowo captured Doctor King in his private moments, but he got the rhythms and the accents of those speeches just right. (Man, and he’s a Brit, an actor who’s done Henry VI and TV cop dramas. Talent.) I watched it by a crackling fire on a February night of gorgeous and never-ending snow, so I don’t know if I did MLK or the people “sweltering with the heat of oppression”¹ any empathetic justice.

¹ Besides, that was a reference to Mississippi, not Alabama, in King’s “Dream” speech, but still.

Over a year ago, I wrote this wandering, wondering piece in the realization that I’d had nary a thought of Martin on the day of his birth and his country’s latter-day celebration of it. It has basketball in it, and Malcolm Gladwell, but mainly staggers off (as did I) into the world of an imagined 2019 Los Angeles, as per Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of his now-legendary Blade Runner.  (Yes, and Oscar Pistorious, come to think of it.)

Sunday School Picnic (non-Super Bowl Edition) (February 1)

Terrorists were everywhere in 2015, and were spoken about here. “Let’s talk toxic religion!” I wrote with mock enthusiasm, and then proceeded to write with gusts of anger. Travis Bickle, from Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, made an appearance in this piece, to my surprise. So did the Buddha, and Boko Haram, Je suis Charlie and my city’s celebration of World Religion Day. The projected Part 2, on that latter subject, would have been much more uplifting, but I never wrote it. Too happy.

Hindsight: Memorial for a Quiet Hero (February 13)

This was a local story of a humble man, one I barely knew, whose death brought me not only the familiar spectral chants of Carpe diem! from a dimly recalled Dead Poets Society, or from any number of shivering, back-straightening, deep breath-inducing invocations to LIVE while I yet live. Mark Goldblatt’s funeral let me know the man I had missed, a heroic character I had managed to pay inattention to. This one might have been my most popular of the year; it touched many more nerves than just my own.

No Academy Award – Just Light in a Dark, Dark Room (March 3)

The local met the international at the crossroads of film, politics, social justice and human rights. I gave a few hours to help organize a special showing of a documentary on the Baha’i students in Iran who are denied university education, and I got this experience back. Think Rosewater. (Which I STILL haven’t seen.)

A Canuck Man’s March Madness (March 13)

It was a little nutty. I’d decided I wasn’t missing the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) men’s basketball championship last spring in Toronto. I took an overnight bus and lived hoops for a weekend in what used to be the greatest Puck Pagoda, Hockey Shrine, and Temple of Aggressive Forechecking on the planet: the former Maple Leaf Gardens, Conn Smythe’s “Carleton Street Cashbox”. That weekend, you may know, it became a nest away from home for the incredible Carleton University Ravens, as they won their 11th national championship in 13 seasons. This was my experience of the opening day. Spoiler Alert! (and possible Trigger Warning for those who’ve been traumatized by hoop madness): contains basketball, but in lyrical and not-at-all-obsessive detail.

There were several posts, the last of which was called “CIS/CSI Toronto: The Birds! (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, in which two old movies were summoned to explain what happened in the national final. It was gruesome.

SIV: Germanwings, High School and Islands (May 13)

I had already raged against the weakness of one particular man, the suicidal narcissist who piloted his plane into the side of a European mountain. (Blaze of inglory! Bastard!) Later, as more came out on that German airline disaster and its bitterly lost author, I wrote again, but it turned into an extended meditation on tragedy, especially searing when it strikes schools. (I’m a bred-in-the-wool, dyed-in-the-bone teacher.) I found a mild painkiller in a Jeffrey Deaver crime novel, of all places.

Seven Baha’is, Seven Years (May 14)

I wrote a whole series on this travesty, one rant for each of the 7 “Yaran” (friends) thrown into Iranian jails on hatefully delusory charges. This might have been my angriest. It will be eight years in May, and these quietly magnificent seven are not the only Baha’is – or the only Iranians, God knows, or the only unjustly imprisoned on Earth – to be warehoused, withheld from contributing their gifts to their society. But they are remarkable concerning the reasons for their captivity, and the radiant acquiescence of their response to it. (No radiance here. I’m pissed.)

Vahid: Peerless Insights From Inside Prison (May 21)

I republished my seven biographical sketches of the seven Baha’i leaders later in the year. Six months had passed since my flurry of indignation. The Quietly Magnificent Seven were still locked away, so I released them into the Internet wild a second time. I’m not so crazy. I knew that they’d be no more effective than they were the first time. However, some liked these profiles – I certainly did – and here is the last one, about an optometrist who turns into a lion.

Murray Sinclair (on Aboriginal justice) (June 28)

In 2015, Another Trudeau² was elected to lead Canada in 2015, but another story might turn out to be the big sociopolitical event of the year. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to inquire into and inform the public about the historic mistreatment of our Indigenous peoples in general, and especially the multigenerational cost of having taken thousands of children away from their parents to place them in residential schools. The purpose was to take the Indian out of ‘em by suppressing their language, assigning “Christian” names, strangling cultural affiliation and banning their godforsaken dances. Surprise! People suffered deeply, no matter how well-intentioned some of the priests and nuns and other culture-changers might have been, as did their communities and their families and their self-esteem. (And some of their teachers were brutes, racists, sociopaths and pedophiles. So there’s that, as well.)

Ahem. Anyway, back to Judge Sinclair: of Ojibwe heritage, and among the first Aboriginal judges in Canada, he gave five years of his life to hearing the stories of the survivors of Canada’s residential schools, and authored a report that brought truth to Canadian light. Reconciliation is another story, but I believe in that one, too. Read this post, if you read no others. It’s not long – it centres on a short quote, and fits easily into my He Said/She Said niche – but Judge Sinclair’s labours, and the voices to which he gave a wider hearing, will echo through Canada’s public life and policy for decades to come.

² His actual name is Justin. His election caught the imagination of Canadians. As a certified fan of his brilliant, iconoclastic father Pierre, I sometimes mutter about the son’s ah-ing and unimposing academic credentials, but he has a lot of the best of 21st-century leadership. (No illusions, though: he does labour within a fatally flawed system.) He gets diversity, he gets consultation, in a way no other Canadian leader ever has, not even his swashbuckling daddy.

September FIRST. What’s It To You? (September 2)

As a high school teacher, dad and lover of fresh starts, the first of September is always a watershed for me. In 2015, I reflected on marital success and failure, my craft, another read-through of my fave novellist³, basketball seasons to come and the meaning of the only life I know. Buckle up. This one careens about, but I still like it.

³ Initials: K.V. (Junior)

Return of the Attack of the Cool Lean Bean Counter (October 8)

Title of the Year, I think, hands down. The Bean Counter was Kevin Page, a gadfly government accountant who railed, and rails still, against government bungling and the shackling of the civil service. The event was a surprisingly lively session of the Ottawa Writers Festival, a local institution I love. This could have been one of my “Better Read Than Never’ book reviews if I’d actually read the book! I won’t – too many other things that push Unaccountable to the curb – but that’s partly because the evening itself was fun, and stimulating, and enough.

Coaching, Hoops and Young Men: A Tale of Two Teams (December 10)

One of the reasons I haven’t been a productive pen-monkey is that I’ve been coaching my arse off. This is a post where I wrote about my coaching instead of doing it. I have spent hundreds of hours with 14- and 15-year-old boys since September. My struggling high school team has finished its season, but I ruminate still over what we do in the off-season to raise our games. Meanwhile, the elite-level club team is now increasing in practice frequency as our competitive season shifts into overdrive. Pray for me. (Reminder: there’s more to life than basketball, but there’s more to basketball than basketball, too!)

 

Where’s We At Then, Buddy? JH.com Wonders!

It’s not an anniversary, but it’s close. About mid-July 2014 my wife and son and I made our summer trip back to Canada from China, but for the first time in five years we were coming to stay. So. <Cleansing breath.> Alrighty, then. We’ve been back nearly a year. <Another breath, deeper. Shakes the tension out of his hands, drama-class style.> We’re looking at each other and thinking, This is where we are. How’re we doing? What’s up with you/me/him? Are we who we thought we were? And so on.

I study. I teach, coach, plan. Dishes, floors and laundry loads get done. The garden is weeded and I’d better pick more lettuce and funkygreens. (Note to co-habitants: belly up to the salad bar, hombres!) I am reading about: boys and young men and what might be holding them back; James Baldwin; the NBA draft and free agency; a wonderfully eccentric view of the Bible; Reading Lolita in Tehran. I’m not reading much fiction, again, but Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Atwood’s Maddadam are shouting at me.

I don’t write much. I’m borrowing a concept from The Year of the Flood, the second in Margaret Atwood’s vivid futureDoom trilogy. There, in a “God’s Gardeners” community, people who are lethargic, dispirited, depressed or otherwise dysfunctional are said to be in a “fallow” state, as fields are left uncultivated by wise farmers so that the soil might not be depleted. June was a fallow field for my writing, and after about mid-month I accepted that. It gave my days-ends greater contentment, which is almost always a good thing. I wrote this, however tentative and diffident it is as a spasm of seed-planting, just so that you and I know where we are. (Hello!)

Before I abandoned my writing desk, I was writing feelingly and hard (not sure how well; haven’t gone back to look), striving to better know and appreciate seven prisoners of exquisite conscience. These “friends” of the oppressed Iranian Baha’i community, a group of leaders who tried to encourage their fellow believers once all their institutions and most of their rights had been removed, are now well into the eighth year of their incredible sentences. (Maybe I went fallow then because of futility — daily, tapping my uncalloused fingers against prison walls in a strange and distant country. Or I just got lazy; as a matter of principle, I don’t believe in futility, though I practise it with astonishing persistence.) Maybe you would like to read about the “Yaran”. My personal (possibly meandering) responses to their captivity helped them become more real to me.

It’s time for a quick update, reminders, and some sense of where you are, electronically speaking:

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Dorothy Parker (nastily, on writing and action)

I was writing a blog post, prompted by a prodding sense of injustice (and by

Check out the (apocryphal?) story of her being able to crack wise even with a bland word like "horticulture".

Check out the (apocryphal?) story of her being able to crack wise even with a bland word like “horticulture”.

the jabbing forefingers of two friends). It was about the ongoing imprisonment of seven Baha’is in Tehran jails for the most lunatic of perceived crimes. It felt good to do something, but I was plagued by a looming appreciation of the void between the high sincerity of my action and the narrow scope of my influence. I felt a little like the acid-penned lit-wit Dorothy Parker, who wrote this “Song of Perfect Propriety” as a roaring declaration of desire, followed immediately by a meek admission of the narrow confines of female possibility in her time. It’s funny, smart and more than a little laugh-so-you-don’t-cry. This was going to be my readers’ Hey, You Read the Whole Bloody Thing! reward for getting to the end of the piece on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, but it didn’t fit no matter which way I turned it.

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Getting Your Howdy On: SIV Week Is Here

It’s my mother’s birthday. Were she still shuffling, flat-footed and bunion-aching, along this mortal coil of frayed and ravelled rope, she would be turning 95 today. She would be steamed. I’m so angry I could spit! she used to mutter when one of us, not always me, would race heedlessly past the wide but certainly finite fields of her patience. She loved life, doted on her family and especially those teeming crowds of grandchildren gathered around every Howden turkey. She’s a woman who suffered, and yet got pretty much what she had hoped for in life. In her last months, though, she’d had enough, and was quite-content-thank-you to be DONE with sleeping and waking and eating and all these things. One day in a hospital bed, she awoke, looked around with confusion and (at least the way I read it) growing dismay, and said, “Am I still here?”

Today is Enid Day. She died in 2006. (I remembered her, in one of my favourite and least-saleable pieces in JHdotCOM history, here: http://jameshowden.com/2006/11/enid-mary-elizabeth-howden/ . Sorry, still unable to hyperlink.) Her birth-day is when we most remember her. I got a note from Big Sister that looked forward to her third Enid Day in Nunavut, where she her last few years of “retirement” teaching some of the damaged and despairing children and youth of Cape Dorset. She was enticed there by my ex-wife, with whom she lives. (That’s a pretty good story, I figure, though not mine to tell, not yet.) So, happy Enid Day to them, to all my relations, and to you and me.

In memory of her, I have declared this SIV Week. I’m not sure who was more stubborn, Enid or my Dad, though I’d say both changed astral planes more easily than they often changed their minds. The stubbornness I rue with such arm-waving in my fourth son informs me — eventually, ruefully, guiltily — of just how cement-headed I so often and so chronically am. Solution? StubbornnessIsVirtue Week. SIV. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em; if you can’t alter it, exalt it! Winston Churchill was stubborn. So were Gandhi, King, Teresa. So am I, if only I could beat that adamantine forehead of mine against more meaningful walls.

Therefore, this having been declared SIV Week, I’m taking several half-finished things that I’ve written over the past while — and, for various reasons, chief among them cowardice, fatigue and cerebral untidiness, haven’t had the poop to complete — and I’m GETTING THEM BLOODY WELL DONE. (I also remain, certainly, cursed by Enid’s endlessly repeated counsel that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, which has led to more procrastination and dismayed unfinish-ing than either of us can abide.) So, first you’ll see, in the It’s All About Sports section, my final Final 4 basketball thoughts, though that American college hoops lollapalooza finished three weeks ago. Other gottawritems are even older, but won’t look so obviously out-of-date because they’re less particular.

So: I’m finishing stuff. I’m clearing the decks. Spring cleaning of the neocortical kind. Purging. Loosening my load, in hopes that new and fresh things might follow, but mainly out of brute determination to do-stuff-my-way-even-if-it-makes-no-sense-to-readers-’cause-Mum-never-gave-up-and-mulishness-should-sometimes-bear-fruit-even-if-it-looks-like-a-dungpile. It’s MY dungpile. I made it all by myself! Happy Enid Day, and Happy StubbornnessIsVirtue Week!!

The rest, below, is in explanation of what this site has done and does when it’s not SIVW.

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Rebecca Solnit (on the lie of “the best years”)

I don’t always read out-of-date stuff. In fact, Discerning Reader, the April 2015 issue of Harper’s magazine just found its way into my grocery cart. This issue has pieces on the basketball exploitation of young Africans, a climate change travelogue, and the cover story on the virtues of solitude. I was already sold when I saw reference to an editorial piece by Rebecca Solnit called “Abolish High School!”

Now, high school is where I have spent more time than in any other venue, five (yes, 5) years as a student and nearly another 25 as one of the dreaded Creachers. (English Lit and Writ, some French, a little Phys. Ed., and about half again that much time invested in extracurricular madness.) I believe in public education, though its limitations and squareness aren’t lost on me. I was eager to read Solnit on abolition, and while there’s some element of over-idealistic assaults on windmills, she’s thoughtful, sincere and a wonderful wordsmith.

Somehow, she avoided high school completely, and didn’t miss it a bit. Much of her argument proceeds from the inevitable peer-hazing that happens when a narrow age-range of people are processed within a semi-industrial system of “efficiency”. Solnit figures she’d have been a prime target for ridicule and isolation, and wonders why we so blandly accept this personality-warping pain as a necessary element of growing up. This writer is a long way from boxed-in thinking.

Towards the conclusion, Solnit treats the opposite effect: what about the high school winners? Do they really?

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