Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Beautiful Game

This morning (EST), Arsenal plays Norwich City in the Barclay’s Premier League. Gunners vs Canaries. So, of course, I’ll be watching.  I am a fan in the true sense of the word.  That is to say, a fanatic. I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch a year after I saw Arsenal play live at the Emirates in London, England for the first time. I understand his fever.  And I understand his pain. We cheer for the same team.  Both of us through accident of fate.

                As a Canadian, with no geographical, historical, or familial affiliation to London’s North End, my fanaticism began when I attempted to purchase tickets which coincided with a rare trip across the pond. Of the six London-area teams that float in and out of the Premier League, Arsenal happened to be the only franchise playing conveniently within my travel plans. I booked the tickets. Admittedly, I was hoping to see Chelsea.  I was an aficionado of Didier Drogba, who played for the team then. My current fandom would rather forget this misguided loyalty – unless, of course, he one day represents The Arsenal.

                I have played soccer since the age of eight.  It has always been my sport of choice. In my soccer career, I have plied every position on the field – including keeper.  In Grade Eleven, I was Most Valuable Player on my high school team. Upon graduation, I played competitively for several teams in the OCSL – as both an attacking midfielder and a striker. And over the last two decades of my slow decline, I have played mens’ recreational league, until my knees cried, “No more!” I have also coached girls’ and boys’ soccer for twenty years at the high school and summer competitive levels.

                I love soccer. I love “football.” I love Arsenal.

                Author John Doyle is another kindred spirit. His The World is a Ball captures the insanity and the socio-political impact of a sport which is embraced my more than half of humanity. It also hints at the dark underbelly of soccer economics – as do Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, and Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics. But no author is/was as prescient as Canada’s Declan Hill in The Fix – a book which more or less foretold the eventual moral collapse of FIFA in glaring research and detail.

                So how does one remain a fanatic in a world where soccer has become as phony as the WWE? Wilful ignorance. A fanatic defies logic by definition, anyway.

                Pele called it “the beautiful game.” And I most definitely watch soccer for its beauty. Whether it be the balletic performance of Mesut Ozil, or the dynamism of Alexis Sanchez, or even the charismatic grit of Francis Coquelin (yes, all Arsenal players), I salivate over well-executed footwork, the prophetic run, the previously unseen pass.

                But as zealous as I can be about the uppermost echelons of soccer, the beauty of the sport is visible in the most far-flung backwaters of the global village, too. In games of pickup where economics can’t touch it.

                In fact, the night I watched Tomas Vermaelen score in extra time to seal Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Newcastle United – the night my Arsenal fanaticism took hold – is only the second greatest game I have ever witnessed.  The first took place more than a decade ago on an asphalt court in the barrio of Jose D. Estrada in Nanadaime, Nicaragua.  In was 38 degrees Celsius and sunny at mid day. Most of the players were barefoot or in flip-flops. The ball was a caricature – peeled and lopsided and underinflated. I was on a team composed mainly of Canadian high school students and little children from the barrio.  Our opponents were the quick and flashy teenagers from that same community.  We did not share a language, a culture, or a nationality.  Our life experiences were a seemingly insurmountable gulf.  But at one moment during that game, I stopped to wipe my brow and survey the scene unfurling around me -- the smiles and the impertinent scoffing, the heckling and the cheers.  The high fives and back-slapping. We were communicating the only way we knew how.  To this day, It remains one of the happiest moments of my life. Soccer: the universal language, the shared religion.  The beautiful game.
               Now, if only Arsenal can whip Norwich and retake the top of the table. Kick off in five.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Whack-A-Mole & The-Never-Ending-War-Against-Terror

“The war against terror is bound up in the war against poverty.” --Bono                                                                                                                                    
“Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities.” – Pope Francis

In 1939, John Steinbeck published the Grapes of Wrath – his elegy to the dispossessed farmers of the Great Depression.  Buried in that tome are what have become known as The Three Cries of History.  He said:

“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.

This should sound eerily familiar – if not prescient – in the 21st century.  We are living in times of unprecedented wealth.  But the gap between our rich and our poor has never been so great, either. Nearly 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25/day.  Another 2 ½ billion live on less than $2.50. That’s half of humanity.
            In this gap, terrorism festers – also on an unprecedented scale.
In 2014, after a meeting with the Vatican, John Kerry stated, “We have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.”
In the wake of the Paris attacks this weekend, there is likely to be much sabre rattling about the War on Terror.  Canada’s new Prime Minister will be assaulted for his pre-existing stance on removing troops from Syria and resettling 25 000 refugees.  This will not be a popular decision.  But despite evidence to the contrary, we do not elect our leaders to be popular.  We elect them to lead.
According to Forbes Magazine, in 2011, the War on Terror had cost American taxpayers 1.7 trillion dollars since 2001.  Other left-leaning academics have pegged the price tag as high as 5 trillion.  However, in The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs – Director of the Harvard Earth Institute – calculated the cost of eliminating extreme poverty at $175 billion over 20 years.  This figure is roughly equal to .7% of the OECD’s gross domestic product.  That’s less than a penny from every dollar in the world’s thirty richest nations.  Even at the most conservative estimates, one nation alone (the United States) spent this amount in the first decade of its War on Terror.
Imagine for a moment that this money had been spent on building schools, creating jobs, improving access to clean water, and feeding the hungry.  What would the world look like today?  Alas, imagine is all we can do.
One thing is for sure, however, armed conflict, destabilization, and civil unrest only strengthen the conditions for terrorism.  The National Bureau of Economic Research found an even greater correlation between these conditions and terror, than it did with poverty (Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism).  It is not a secret – even if not widely heralded in the media – that ISIS/ISIL was fostered and even aided by American intervention.  Barack Obama defended his decision to support what he originally considered “moderate rebels” by “non-lethal” means.  This support transformed ISIS/ISIL, which had previously been a bit player in the region, into the force for global terror that it is today.
It is one thing to foster terror through inaction.  It is another to “spread compost on the weeds.”
We have only to ask ourselves, “Is the world a safer place today than it was in 2001?”  If the answer is no, than the War on Terror is a failure. 
The truth is, terrorism is the twisted offspring of inequality.  Bombing treats only the symptom.  To stop terrorism, we must attack it at the source.  Build schools, build hospitals, build democracies. Anything else is an absurd game of Whack-A-Mole – strike terrorism once, and it will show its ugly head again elsewhere in little time. 

Al qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS/ISIL… whack, whack, whack…

Our thoughts can be nowhere else but with the Parisians at this moment in history. #ViveLaFrance

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mahihkan Lake by R. P. MacIntyre

Mahihkan Lake, by R.P. MacIntyre (Thistledown Press 2015)

Sometimes I watch a movie without an explosion. It isn’t filmed in 3D and it doesn’t have computer generated animation.  There aren’t any death-defying stunts, either.  It’s straightforward and dependent upon character and dialogue.  Perhaps it’s something by Robert Altman or Woody Allen, or maybe it’s Denys Arcand or Jean-Marc VallĂ©.  It’s quietly funny and darkly serious all at once.  There is a touch of the absurd, and maybe even a moment of magical realism. This is a little like reading Mahihkan Lake, by R. P. MacIntyre.
              Following the somewhat mysterious death of their older foster-brother, Dave, estranged siblings Denny and Dianne are left to reassemble the pieces.  However, alcoholic Denny – the folk-singing, one hit wonder – is in dire need of an intervention.  And his younger sister, Dianne, who looks as though she stepped “straight out of a fashion magazine,” is already burdened with a rebellious teenage daughter and a floundering marriage – not to mention the care of their Alzheimer-stricken mother. 
              Reunited and argumentative, the two set out for the family cabin on Mahihkan Lake in the north of Saskatchewan, where their troubled brother once found solace.  Their intent is to make peace and scatter the remains, which are stored in a cookie jar.  At the same time, down-trodden Harold Huckaluk, the truck driver held responsible for the death of their brother, sets out on a quest of his own.  In a bizarre twist of fate and coincidence these three “strangers” are reunited on the shore of Lake Mahihkan one last time.   
              MacIntyre has a knack for concise description.  And setting plays a key role in the unfurling of this story.  The “thick green tangles” and the “low meadows of marshy drain” come alive in Mahihkan Lake.  The wild-life too contributes. A wolf, “its yellow eyes clear and forlorn,” follows Harold along his paddle north. And a pair of ravens cluck “like pebbles dropped into a wooden bucket half full of water.”  It is dialogue, however, that becomes the driving force behind this novel.  Philosophical discussions between Denny and Dianne circle around themes of happiness and memory – both as elusive as reconciliation and forgiveness amidst siblings.
              Surfacing throughout Mahihkan Lake is a secret that ebbs and flows like the river which fees it.  And there are no answers to the myriad metaphysical questions of its protagonists -- only moments which define them for good and for bad.  Mahihkan Lake is the bleak cinematic vision of an art-house film, which offers just enough illusory shimmer of hope and dark humour to keep you watching.  Or in this case, reading.

Comment on this post below, before November 30th, and automatically enter for a chance to win a free copy of this book -- courtesy of the publisher.