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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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Margaret Atwood (on sadness, in fiction?)

I’m reading Atwood’s weirdly witty near-future dystopian nightmare trilogy of runaway climate, corporate takeover, canyonesque income disparity and biotech gone to its illogical conclusion. In the second novel, The Year of the Flood, an overused and under-loved young woman named Ren leaves a decent, if menial, job because there’s too much pain there. She goes, as a backup plan, to Scales and Tails, a strip-bar/brothel whose chief pimp, Mordis, at least appreciates her dance training.

Ms. Atwood channels through this hooker’s-minder-with-a-heart-of, well, maybe not gold but apparently harbouring more careful attention to and protection of Ren than her mother ever showed. (Heart of cynicized bronze, maybe.) Mordis remembers Ren from when his SekSmart Corporation interviewed her at a job fair hosted by her seedy arts college, the Martha Graham Institute. Ren has no illusions about the work she’s getting into, and has only one qualm:

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Chuck Wendig (on weak & entitled men)

Chuck Wendig is funnier than I am, even when he’s pissed off. Especially then.

More Chuck/Howdy distinctions: Wendig’s funnier, more productive, less frightened of fiction, more joyfully profane and (allegedly) actually makes decent money as a writer. (I actually quite like him, though.) He writes a blog called Terrible Minds which is particularly aimed at writers, and secondarily at those who enjoy and consume fantasy and science fiction, whether electronically or by manual analog movement of stained wood-pulp tissues. (So-called “pages” within three-dimensional, sometimes weighty and sharp-cornered “books”. Weird stuff.) He has met Neil Gaiman. He has a writing shed.

But here’s how Chuck and I are brothers: he is the father of a little boy that he’s evidently fascinated by and cuckoo about; he believes in creativity and wonder; he has a thing for Margaret Atwood; he’s wacky about words (his writing is like steroid-enhanced psychedelic popcorn and, like mine, digresses wildly but with way more profanity and phrases like “shit-shellacked”, “jerky lackwits”, “a ranty, yelly, gesticulating mess of a screed” [about “arting harder”], and “a pair of toddler underoos spackled with mess”; AND, if you thought I’d never get to the point, like me he is often inclined to spew inflammable verbal dragon-venom when men are hateful towards women and their aspirations. Chuck Wendig is bloody merciless and absolutely off-his-nut indignant when men are whiny, machofeeble, femophobic and protective of illogical and illegitimate privilege. It enrages him. It enrages me, though less colourfully and NSFW-ish.

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Better Read Than Never: On Stephen King

SK back when, perhaps about the age of Clay, the artist/teacher protagonist of "Cell".

SK back when, perhaps about the age of Clay, the artist/teacher protagonist of “Cell”.

I’m something of an agnostic when it comes to Stephen King, but I still attend the Church of Steve occasionally. I recently read his 2006 novel Cell, not a decade too soon, and enjoyed the ride; we’ll get to that soon. However, I’m sure I’m not alone, though as usual I’m well outside the best-buying mainstream, in preferring King’s non-fiction to his ever-popular novels and shorter stories.

Danse Macabre, his query into the attractions of the dark and haunting tales he likes, charmed me long ago with its range, its sense-making and its humility. I know what I am. I’m a hack, though I try to be a good one. Not long after, reading Misery — this must have been late ’80s, early ’90s — I was abducted (partly) against my will by that tale of a writer haunted by the insanity of fan-dom. I was often knocked out by his word-smithing, too,

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Kurt Vonnegut (an oath on freedom, good news for Dad)

This story, the story of this letter, has moved me over and over as if I was reading it for the first time. I might as well have been. Lately it has been on my mind constantly. This is likely because I have recently entertained the possibility that I will never haunt a classroom again, at least not for money. After years in between blackboards and bored kids, mainly in southern Ontario high schools but for five recent campaigns in two northeastern Chinese universities, I may be done with all that. Hence, the Kurt Vonnegut ear-worm, my writing hero‘s blazing honesty on repeat. (How did you do it, Kurt? How did you do it? I’m reading his non-fiction again, trying to find clues, but I mainly get beaten about the ears by the impossibility of doing what he did.)

Humane, funny, tortured, conscious, brave.

Humane, funny, tortured, conscious, brave.

Yes. So here’s the set-up. KV’s story is in the second of his “autobiographical collages”, Fates Worse Than Death. (The first was Palm Sunday, if you’re keeping score.) (Desert island books, both. I can read these things again and again.) He’s writing about his saintly “unicorn” of a father, and the stoic resilience he showed as an artist enduring commercial vulgarity and disdain, and as a man surviving the madness of his wife. Kurt Junior ends this whimsically sad tribute to a man living in the wrong era by telling of his own early days as a writer, maybe one born at the right time — if being a World War II infantryman is good timing.

At age 27, Vonnegut was paying bills by writing advertising copy for General Electric by day, but his eccentric short stories were — amazing as this seems in hindsight — being accepted by the mass-market general-interest magazines of the day. The last word on his beauty-loving Daddy was this:

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