Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Giving Back

I’m one of those people that like to be busy, busy beyond the realm of the desk. It rarely matters what the task at hand is, just that there is a task. Therefore, eager to avoid the holiday doldrums, I took up the opportunity to contribute a few hours to a homeless luncheon at St. Augustine’s Church in nearby Santa Monica, California.

Initially, I felt struck by a terrible case of cold feet, confronted with the thought that spending time and making contact with people a lot less fortunate than myself would be an awfully awkward and painful experience.

So as we turned into a parking garage on 5th Avenue, I had that dull sinking feeling befitting usually of an experience that does not end well. It was with that sense of foreboding that I trundled across to St Augustine’s and descended into the basement, where the lunch would take place.

Quickly, the tides changed: the friendly, organised ambience within fought back against any worrying premonitions. The fact that we were all told what to do was immensely helpful, meaning that we had a comfortable sense of purpose when the downtrodden, unemployed and homeless came streaming down the stairs, gleaning for a drink and some food but perhaps more importantly some festive cheer. The servers mingled with the guests, creating a nice ambience that also procured some interesting stories, such as the visiting couple from Holland who had lost their credit card.

The meal of ham, yams, bread and pie went down well, accompanied by milk, coffee and fruit punch. Smiles only grew when warm hats and gloves as well as umbrellas were distributed in an attempt to help the guests combat the unusually cold and wet weather. Soon enough, the guests left to test out their gear and so the ensuing clean-up operation began. Reserves were packed off to the Salvation Army and homeless shelters whilst the helpers grabbed a plate of food. The younger folk engaged in a box-crushing session whilst the more disciplined adults battened down the kitchen. Everyone participated in some facet of this stage as well, reminiscent of just why the lunch was such a success: everyone pulled together for a common cause, spreading the Christmas cheer.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ways and Means

Written for the Hills Road Phoenix, Edition 17/12/08

It has been almost 30 years since an Islamic revolution gripped Iran in 1979 and in that long tenure, the country has been perceived as the scourge of the free and fair world. Whilst diplomatic relations with much of the EU have been reinstated, contact with the United States has not reached the heights of an exchange of ambassadors. The country has constantly been the subject of press speculation and UN scrutiny and sanction.

This icy fa├žade has fissured. Beginning in 2006, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began to forge a working friendship with Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf, in contrast to the militaristic sentiment of 2007 and 2004 that culminated with a total of 29 Royal Navy personnel being seized by Iranian forces. Indeed, even outgoing US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that “the diplomatic course is really the best course.”

All this is good and well but when ill will is allowed to ferment at the uppermost levels of government, things do not bode well. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recognised this and set a precedent when he congratulated President-Elect Barack Obama with a personal letter, saying, “I hope you will be able to take fullest advantage of the opportunity to serve and leave behind a positive legacy.”

Whilst Obama did not flatter his Iranian counterpart with a personal response, there is still the propensity for serious talks to occur: the ice has been broken and should remain so, given that dialogue has been initiated. Even if Obama never responds to Ahmadinejad, the very fact that the letter was sent represents an important progression in terms of the governance of Iran: previously the President was merely a puppet for the Ayatollahs – religious leaders who had monopolised control since the 1979 revolution. Now, the President has established contact with the “infidels,” a sure sign that political control has become increasingly secular, even modern.

Back in the Europe and the United States, politicians and whole governments have embraced the internet, campaigning via media such as social networking site Facebook or popular video-sharing site Youtube. Making up for lost time, Iran is not far behind – Ahmadinejad and his multilingual aides have set up a blog, available in English, French, Arabic and Farsi.

It speaks of a reconciliation, if not between the two governments of the US and Iran then between the people of those two countries. In one post, entitled “A Reply to American Mother’s Message,” the President or more likely a ghost writer assures the mother that her son would return home from the Iraq war because, “Certainly Almighty God would help him.”

This sympathy is not a lonely occurrence amongst a swarm of rants. In another post entitled “Merry Christmas to Everyone,” Ahmadinejad spreads the holiday spirit by describing Christ as the “A messenger of peace, devotion and love based upon monotheism and justice.” The mirth is preceded by a philosophical reflection, remarking that, “the dignity, benevolence, peace and tranquillity of the human beings have been taken to abattoir and slaughtered. And then, lie and deception are positioned for honesty and truth.”

Surprisingly, Ahmadinejad recognises that this is a plight of the whole world, not just the scourge of the infidels of the West, saying that this was a problem, “In occupied Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and South America and even in Europe and North America.” Once more, this is a hopeful sign that the reign of the Ayatollahs is a thing of the past. The very fact that the blog is available in English represents the notion that the Iranian government wants to communicate with the West. This isn’t to say that Ahmadinejad is a knight in shining armour as his country has done some terrible things, for example the use of stoning as capital punishment but there is a recognition that modernisation might after all be a good idea.

However, ugly sentiment is still directed at him from the West. Americans who have commented on his blog have hoped that “a bullet is put in [Ahmadinejad’s] head very soon. Similarly, a Briton wrote, “you are a despicable man.” Perhaps more importantly, an Iranian poster was allowed to sarcastically applaud his President. Ahmadinejad has shown the guile to open himself to international critique, unimaginable mere years ago. It doesn’t matter if the blog is a hoax, written by aides, censured beyond recognition. Somewhere in the upper levels of Iranian government, there has been a decision to welcome back the wider world with peace and goodwill.

Note: President Mahmoud Ahmadinjad’s blog is available at www.ahmadinejad.ir

Friday, December 5, 2008

Avery's Recycled Insults

Prior to their recent match-up versus the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery approached the media behind the back of his coach, Dave Tippett. Defying a supposed gentleman's rule throughout the locker-rooms of the NHL, Avery then remarked, "I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about."
Obviously, the intention of such a remark was nothing more and nothing less than to rile up Dion Phaneuf and his girlfriend (and Avery's ex,) Elisha Cuthbert. His intentions were slanderous but his words were not. One has to conjugate his words very euphemistically to get anything near sexual connotations out of them, something which it appears Gary Bettman's office tried to do. If that is not the case, then what did Avery say that was so awful? OK, he longwindedly commented on the private life of a colleague, Dion Phaneuf - who just happens to be a huge marketing pawn but even so, what is the motivaton for the NHL to hand Avery a 6-game ban pending an anger management evaluation? He went out of his way to call out a fellow player on his personal life in front of the press and got 6 games whilst Tom Kostopolous, who carried a criminal record, basically broke Mike van Ryn and wound up with a 3-game suspension. Colin Campbell, in charge of disciplinary issues for the league has long been seen as ridiculously inconsistent but this takes that cake - Avery didn't actually directly insult anyone.
That said, there is another reason for the harsh sentencing: the NHL had been looking to suspend Avery ever since he created a new rule by "screening" future Hall-of-Famer, Martin Brodeur. When he signed on as a summer intern at Vogue, the conservative bastion of the hockey elite saw this as a vicious affront. Thus, without even delivering a cheap hit, Avery finds himself banished to the press box for at least 6 games.
See, there's another reason for his sentencing: even on his team, very few players even find him aquaintable, let alone friendly. Earlier in the season, things got bad enough for Mike Modano to speak out against Avery and his partner in crime, Steve Ott. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kings captain Dustin Brown said, "The more people talk about it the more he'll do stuff like this." Brown was bullied by Avery in his first season with the Kings. In short, a mutual hate for Avery unites a lot of NHL locker-rooms. His influence was counterproductive for the game. "Was," as opposed to "is." As Dave Tippett said, he can only come back in the players want him to. Being such an unpopular figure, it was only natural for the league to throw a few pages of the book at him.
So there you have it: Avery, circumstantially, looks to have been used and abused by the league but in reality did everyone around him a favour in opening his door away from the NHL. Of course, there is just one moment of hilarity left: Avery isn't the first man to use the phrase "sloppy seconds" to describe Dion Phaneuf's relationship with Elisha Cuthbert: it was first featured on a blog several months ago. So desperate for attention was he that he took the words out of the mouths of us "citizen journalists" and came out looking like a fool, a fool. Let's just hope that isn't an omen.