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Putting the ‘Howdy’ Back Into JHdotCOM

Greetings and salutations and urgent summonses and trivial nonsensicals, everybody! Howdy Do.

It’s time for a quick update, reminders, and some sense of where you are, electronically speaking: this is JamesHowden[dot]com, something my favourite Martin might have labelled “a growing repository of all that is good” if, number one, it was his own website and, in a related story, it wasn’t filled with my fairly undisciplined observations about whatever turns my finger-tapping crank at a given moment. Or, sometimes, days after that moment. So, what’s been up recently?

I haven’t been a very productive pen monkey. (Chuck Wendig grimaces in violent dismay and arse-kicking encouragement.) (And then he wondered, in a rudely personal and wildly public way: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/03/23/should-you-quit-writing/. I am not going to quit writing, Chuckles, so there! Fallow periods restore vitality to the soul soil.) (And okay, maybe that CW blog post was not addressed only to me.)

But, man oh man. The LIST.

My “Better Read Than Never” series of asynchronous reviews is backed up all the way to John Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs, Bill McKibbens’s Enough, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I’m way too late on a brilliant human rights lecture by Payam Akhavan, and reflections on not living in China anymore, not to mention Ferguson or Jian Ghomeshi. I may yet write the definitive take on “Why I Suck at Meditation”, even if Maury is the only one that’s waiting. On the sporting side, I still feel compelled to coagulate my musings on the end of this March’s basketball Madness into one wet, sticky mass, and to decide finally whether I’m happy that Duke won or whether I even care. (It’s good to care, but my experiment in lowering my default give-a-crap thresholds is interesting and unsettling.) I should write on my less-than-glorious return to basketball coaching. Should should should.

…and don’t get me started about my stillborn books. (Thanks for not getting me started.)

Here’s what’s been going on recently here at JH.com, especially for you newbies.  If you’re a strange lurker here, WELCOME! The bits below will help explain how all this works:

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Pardon Me While I Kill Myself. (Please get a room of your own.)

So here’s why you and I should get stuff done.

Stories change.

The Germanwings plane disaster hit me hard because of one fact: 18 of the dead were from one high school, sixteen kids and two chaperones. I still don’t know for sure what they were doing in Spain, but it didn’t make the slightest difference to me: they were kids, teachers were with them, and that interaction has meant the world to me for much of my life, and life to me in most of my world. I’m an education guy. I’m a school freak. So I got writing. The emotional vein was rich, and I had it going. 613 words in, I knew where the piece was headed and how it would end. Powerful comparisons had been summoned, and hearty stories from my direct and tangential experience just needed a little more flesh. I was tired. Maybe a bit distracted. Probably could’ve finished, but close enough. The writing beast had been slain for another day. Well, badly wounded, anyway, so I knew it couldn’t run much farther.

Life intervened, though, and I couldn’t get back to the piece the next day, and didn’t the day after that. Not only was nobody waiting for the piece to be done – standardly lame working conditions for an aimless blogger – but my take, full of emotion though it was/is, wasn’t exactly a hot one. It was elegiac and backward-looking and somber. No rush, right?

And then the air disaster story changed for me, dramatically, with the reports of the co-pilot having done the deed purposely, by and for himself.

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No Academy Award — Just Light in a Dark, Dark Room

My friend Sherri asked me to help out with an event she was helping to organize. So I did. I got to see a woefully underviewed but important film. For free. And I hardly had to do anything, but I got to write this:

Sherri Yazdani is a prairie girl, but as her surname suggests, she married into an Iranian family. Sherri is a mother, a storyteller, a lawyer, and when she stood in front of a nearly full auditorium in my city, she stood for human rights victims half a world away, yet not far from her family. She was a symbol, without making any fuss. She was there to bear witness to the ongoing, and indeed worsening, situation of the Baha’i community of Iran — maybe you’ve heard about this? — and to introduce the Ottawa screening of the documentary film To Light a Candle. She was one of several voices that brought local accents to its stirring international subject.

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Bahari is on the right, and that's Jon Stewart in the middle. (Sorry, other guy!)

Bahari is on the right, and that’s Jon Stewart in the middle. (Sorry, other guy!)

Canadians familiar with Maziar Bahari likely know him from the 2014 Jon Stewart biopic Rosewater, or perhaps from the Iranian-Canadian Bahari’s best-selling memoir Then They Came For Me, the book that inspired Stewart to make his directoral debut. However, before his now-famous stay and forced “confession” in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison following the suspicious 2009 elections, Mr. Bahari was Newsweek’s Iran correspondent and the award-winning maker of numerous documentaries. His most recent film is To Light a Candle.

Mr. Bahari, as part of a global campaign (www.educationisnotacrime.me), chose February 27 as an international day of conscience and awareness, and many Canadian communities screened To Light a Candle, supporting Bahari’s efforts to spotlight another notable injustice from his homeland: the Iranian government’s denial of education to Baha’i youth. (Bahari is not a Baha’i himself.) Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including South Africa’s Desmond Tutu¹ and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, joined with Mr. Bahari and many other notable artists and public figures in speaking up for the beleaguered Baha’i community of Iran.

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Hindsight: Memorial for a Quiet Hero

I didn’t know Mark well at all. We’d only met a few times, so when his husk was committed to the earth this week, I wasn’t there. That would’ve been for the dearest of family and friends, and Lord knows there was no shortage of those.

But funerals change me. (They certainly try hard.) I hope – I knew in the teary quiet of a Sunday afternoon – that his did wonders for me. Although I’d nearly found sufficient pretexts not to attend the service, I finally did, and thank goodness and greatness and mercy and joy for that.

For me, Mark was only the quiet, smiley man who opened the door and served the tea at Linda’s place. I’d been there occasionally, sometimes to lead a discussion or give a small talk in their modest living room, sometimes to listen in on what was sure to be an elevated conversation; no celebrity gossip, nary an ounce of snark. I can’t even say I knew his wife Linda all that well, either, though she’d been a community co-worker for a decade. Mark seemed a gentle support to Linda’s calm and steely leadership. That’s what I thought I saw there. What did he do outside those meetings? I wasn’t too sure, and to my embarrassment,

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Sunday School Picnic (non-Super Bowl edition)

A pity-the-poor-writer preamble:

The Buddha is supposed to have said that we should think of material existence as a lamp, a cataract, a star in space / an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble / a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning. Baha’u’llah wrote, The world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. All is illusion. It’s just a show, fairly useless and finally hollow. That being the case, of what importance is time, for heaven’s sake? (Or mine?) Another fantasy, ridiculous, so what could be the importance of a phrase like “two weeks late”? Third week in “January” – an invented construct, as is that of a “week” (see Genesis, Chapter 1) – or first week in “Febyooary” – not only an arbitrary construct but also with an unpronounceable label – well, what could the matter be? In the view of the time-bound, the following piece should have made its appearance, oh, 13 days ago – whatever a day is! Silly, I know, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Lots of people pay attention to time, timeliness, days and hours, time out of mind. To all that, I say, Piffle.

[And oops. And, um, sorry. Actually, this first part, an introductory paragraph that mutated into an invasive species, has been written for a week. It’s the second part, the one requiring a more positive attitude, that has held up this article. It's getting there. (Wherever there is -- see "vapour in the desert" above.) So without further (illusory) delay, let’s talk about toxic religion!]

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Ask the people in Peshawar. (Though they might have a different answer than you’d think.) Ask in Paris. Ask anybody qui est Charlie. We could ask those affected by the Boko Haram militias spreading like a cancer from northeastern Nigeria, I suppose, if they were still alive, or if we cared about folks so unlike us and so far away. Even in boring old Canada, 2014 brought us faithful killings and rumours of more. What to do when religion goes murderous? (Spare a thought for doctors killed by Christian fundamentalists at abortion clinics, or women abused on Super Bowl Sunday. Beware the deadly fruit of any sort of fanaticism, any belief gone sour, whether it invokes God or racial superiority or football fever.)

You may have heard of “lone wolf” acts of terror in Canada, men allegedly inspired in the name of their Islamic leanings to kill peace-time soldiers who weren’t looking. (Ah, courage.) In the news recently were reports that Muslim Imams here in Ottawa were concerned at the spike of interest in Islam in the wake of the shootings at the national War Memorial and in Parliament itself. Muslim community leaders wondered aloud about some process of slowing down the new-found ardour they were seeing, and they questioned its source. How depressing! People are so desperate for a thing they can stand up for, I thought, they’ll fall for anything! Any port of committed action, however nutty, in an existential storm.

Commentators invoke loneliness and anomie, and lament that the mentally fragile, vulnerable to the attractions of religious madness, don’t get the help they need. What we rarely hear in the public debate is mention of moral bankruptcy, how entire societies and classes and governments appear to have little on their minds other than consumerism, the almighty GDP and personal comforts. How blind must we be to not see how hungry so many people are for a sense of meaning that rises above well I got mine and we’re the greatest country in the world and what’s wrong with those crazy bastards over there? And, more unsettling, right HERE.

North America – and, no doubt, for Muslims and many other sorts of barely tolerated immigrants in France and over much of Europe – is a hard place to be if you’re not on the winning side. (This is why sports are better than real life: one percent of players, no matter how good they were, could never kick the living snot out of a team ninety-nine times bigger, and keep on doing it and doing it.) No wonder the frustrated, “lookin’ like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just coverin’ up” guys, even if they were Born in the USA or Ottawa or a Paris suburb, want to do something about it. Are we so smug, so insulated in whatever socioeconomic or cultural bubble we call home, that we really find such a search for meaning and usefulness incomprehensible? Yes. I think that most of us are.

Young men want to kill authority figures, or go fight with the “men of faith”. They want their lives to mean something, to stand for something. (Suddenly I think of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere….There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man….Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum,…the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” Talk about jihad!) This is all I could think of, hearing of an interest in Islam that was worrisome even to Muslim community leaders. It was days before I was able to consider another way of understanding it. There have to be some people (I thought, as the lights came on) who are just curious about what Islam really is. It’s slower to filter through than reflexive religious bigotry is, but after 9-11, after Charlie Hebdo or any number of atrocities committed by those who claim to honour the Arabian Prophet, there are always the voices, not always or even predominantly Muslim themselves, who say, This is not Islam. This is religion perverted to justify power-seeking and oppression.

And people learn something about the vast majority of Muslims, and they wonder what it is that compels believers to peacefully hold on to their faith in spite of suspicion, outright bigotry, and the humiliation, the resentment, the frustration, of constantly having to apologize for the misguided hatred of the fanatical few. I’m not denying that there are Travis Bickles out there who see in jihadist extremism a convenient container for their disaffection and their revenge fantasies. But listen: religion has been around for a lot longer than the fashionably modern rejection of it. There must be something more to religion than hatred and ignorance and division, or it couldn’t have survived. We shouldn’t judge a Book because of a Bickle who carries it around with his rage.

That’s why I went to (of all things!) my local celebration of World Religion Day.

In Part Two, I wade into the teeth of a multifaith storm, and come out unbloodied, unbowed, and pretty darned hopeful. Refreshed. Coming soon. (Pinky-swear!)

Forgetting MLK: Back to a Future

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the Excited States™ (not my phrasal ™, but Dr. Foth’s). I celebrated by studying concepts of spirituality with two friends. We didn’t mention Martin. Or movies.

(Quite incidentally, we did hear some Langston Hughes, because Langston Hughes. Johnny’s nuts for poetry, his own and recently that of Hughes, and can’t stop himself from reciting and reading aloud. He was never a Freedom Rider, but he’s still riding today. He is an old white guy, older than me! He burns.)

Also: I shopped, napped, put my basketball team through its awkward paces. Six kids have African backgrounds, but no remembrance of Martin. They’re young; no excuse for me.

I was set for sleep by 9. Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath was warming by my bedside. My laptop was on top of my lap (you do the math), confirming that I was free for repose, though a squadron of open tabs reminded me of great online reading that I could ignore for another day. Twitter called. Helplessly, unfortunately, I answered. It chirped of a movie I’d meant to see.

It wasn’t even Selma.

I threw on discarded sweats and jumped in a borrowed car.

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2014: A Howdy-Do Year in Review

Last January, I didn’t get my 2013 lookback, The Great Eighteen, up until the 20th, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to call this prompt. Efficient. Timely – at least for me! Reflection on accomplishments never comes at a bad time. (Does it? Of course, you ninny! Okay, but — Which doesn’t mean it’s always foolish to look backwards, either. Alright then, so maybe — Just get to it!)

I posted to JH.com 93 times last year, which is as productive as I’ve ever been, and that with December nearly ringing up a doughnut. (That’s jock-talk for nada. Zero. Hole in the JZone layer. Nuttin’, honey. I missed that bizarro perfection by one lonely post, so the rest of the year must’ve been excellent.) Starting with my self-conscious blurts in the middle of 2005, JH.com now has an archive of 637 posts. That seems like quite a few.

So, I consulted a panel of experts. What were the most meaningful, artistically satisfying and world-changing posts of 2014 on JamesHowden.com? No. I didn’t. I trawled through 2014 and asked myself, “Okay, self, what do you still like and think others might, too?” Oh, I did take my readers into account, based on what got read most, or what found life elsewhere on the ‘Net, but mainly this is me Me ME. So here is a quick skate through some of the things I wrote here last year. It gives a reasonable portrait of what gave my head a shake in 2014. It’s a quick read, and you can click on anything that appeals. Here, then, are the

Fabulous Fifteen!

1. Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On (Jan. 2)                 (with Chinese Characteristics)

For the last three years in China, my wife and I taught in the School of International Business, a small college within our university in Dalian. Every December, there was a spangly student SHOW. Here, I reviewed this incredible, excessive, odd, passionate, obligatory celebration of something-or-other. Warning: this is only the second half of the extravaganza, and you may not be able to resist dipping back into December 2013 for the full jaw-dropping effect. It was amazing. (And only occasionally depressing.)

2. Lost in Cambodia  (February 5)

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Two Thousand and Fifteen. Happy?

Can’t say that I am. There’s really no excuse for that, except that “men” are asserting their “honour” and “courage” by killing a family in Edmonton or by shooting dozens of verb-slingers at a magazine in Paris. (And they call that faith?) Or that this man has staggered about “trying to find” his writing groove, which is where it always is, of course — in scheduled or impulsive, thoughtful or brainless, inspired or insipid attempts to do my thing.

But I’m happy that it’s 2015, I guess. Fresh starts, and all that, not to mention holiday visiting (and overeating) that we missed during the China Years. 2014 was a pretty good year at JH.com, lots of growth and bigger numbers than ever before, so my electronic muttering and waving is being engraved on more eyeballs. Yay, eyeballs! Heck, 4 or 6 of you might even be interested in this WordPress traffic report for this site:

http://jetpack.me/annual-report/39522313/2014/

My most-read article of the year is over a year old, so WordPress encourages me:

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News, Stuff, Things & Subscriptions

Have you missed me? (I’ve missed me.)

In the ongoing whirl of readjustment to Ottawa living, my bride getting back to work, and me coaching junior varsity basketball as if it was played on Mount Olympus, my writing routine has been thrashed. I haven’t been a very productive pen monkey. (Chuck Wendig grimaces in violent dismay and arse-kicking encouragement.) The good recent news is that a quite fine (thank you) American website, The Classical, ran a much-revised version of a piece on my Rugby Daddery and the Adventures of Son the Fourth in learning a brand new game. @classical specializes in long-form writing about sports, stuff that goes beyond the stats and standings. This made me happy.

I should have reviewed the film Whiplash, a disturbing, slightly over-the-top examination of a crazed mentor — in this case, a musical rather than an athletic one — and his perhaps equally nutty victim/protegé. I ate it up, loved and hated the thing, and have been thinking about the making of excellence and just exactly where that line is ever since. Yes, this was at the mighty ByTowne. Whiplash is a claustrophobic, in-your-face depiction of an extreme teacher-student connection, and J.K. Simmons is infuriatingly great as the megalomaniacal mentor. Okay. I suppose I just did sort of review it, but also have wanted to get to a Better Read Than Never review of John Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs, and an account of a brilliant human rights lecture by Payam Akhavan, and reflections on not living in China anymore, and more on books I’m eating, and I haven’t said a word about Ferguson or Jian Ghomeshi or the wars we try to forget or the Toronto Raptors…

…and don’t get me started about my stillborn books. (Thanks for not getting me started.)

The posting pace is about to quicken, I hope I hope I hope. Here’s what’s been going on recently here at JH.com, especially for you newbies.  If you’re a strange lurker here, WELCOME! The bits below will help explain how all this works:

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What Do We Remember?

First I tweeted, then I thought.

Typical.

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except --

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except –

I retweeted sharp, moving, bitterly lovely and earnest images: helmet and bayonet, Canadian flag, grey beret-wearing veteran among poppies in remembrance of long-lost ever-youthful brothers in arms. It’s only natural: I’m touched by the loss of “my guys”. They’re mine because even though nearly all Canadian war dead fought under a different flag than the one I’ve lived my life under, they came from places I’ve been, or want to. I’ve recited the poems, sung the songs, seen the films. I used to have McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” by heart (the poppies blow), yes, and McGee’s “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings…”, and a long time ago I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars like I was in one.

(Well, I know. John Gillespie McGee was American, but his “High Flight” poem celebrated his epiphany as a soaring fighter pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was dead, at age 19, not long after he wrote how he “wheeled and soared and swung / High in the sunlit silence”. It was a training accident. He hadn’t even had the chance to fight for honour, freedom or anything.)

A British man named Laurence Binyon wrote “For the Fallen” as the Great War was swinging into high gear in the late summer of 1914.

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