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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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Ottawa: Next Day

In Ottawa we’re breathing a little better today, security officials aside, though two young men aren’t breathing anymore.

Thre was only one shooter, as it turns out, after we spent most of yesterday worrying about a team, one or two more of the conspiratorially unhinged. No, he wasn’t among the list of the “radicalized” 90 our secret service and police have been looking out for. Thankfully, there aren’t too many evil masterminds here in Real Life, and this tragedy now appears to be what it usually is: some damaged sap who’d lost his balance, and wanted to take somebody down with him. Thankfully, too, he may not have been a very well-organized one, or Nathan Cirillo might not have been alone in paying the ultimate price.

Cirillo earlier that morning, member of a proud Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment that is prouder now. (Photo by Cody Slavik)

Cirillo earlier that morning, member of a proud Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment that is prouder now. (Photo by Cody Slavik)

Maybe he – I will not name him – was just another lonely loser “inspired” by his distant, cock-eyed brother in spineless mayhem, the one who’d run over a uniformed military officer in a Quebec parking lot earlier this week. (Courage!) Like him, he may have labelled himself Hero, and felt the rush of action-film adrenaline and game-boy significance. He was Doing Something About It, whatever in twisted hell It was. Here were pathetic would-be saints of a faith they didn’t understand, Internet pawns of power-mad bigots who use religion as a means by which the lost, the undereducated, and the toxically resentful can get even, or become something of a sociopathic somebody.

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Better Read Than Never: Stephen King’s CELL

My review of Stephen King’s novel Cell got a little long and breathless — much like an SK novel — so I cut it in two. The first part was my experience reading Der Horrormeister and sometimes preferring him as a teacherHere, I punch the buttons of the fictional Cell, which I found an agreeable and often compelling read.

There are gorier covers, but my son's paperback version looks like this.

There are gorier covers, but my son’s paperback version looks like this.

Here’s the deal on Cell: for reasons that are never fully understood (by characters or by us), everybody speaking on a cellular phone at a fatal moment are slammed by some kind of electronic probe, later called the Pulse, which instantly erases from them most of what we typically think of as individual humanity. They lunge for available throats and entirely forget how to drive or otherwise conduct everyday jobs, let alone the conventions of civilization. Chaos ensues, of course, and life suddenly becomes a savage, primitive contest of survival between “normies” and “phoners”.

We watch as this happens via Clayton Riddell, a young Dad separated from his wife and young son. He’s a struggling artist, and (as did King) he has daylighted as a school teacher, but on the day the world goes violently sideways, he has just sold his graphic novel, Dark Wanderer, and its sequel for a dizzying amount of money. He’s bought a gift for Sharon, estrangement be damned. He’s thinking of what comic book might thrill his little Johnny. Things are looking up. Seems like a good time to buy some ice cream.

Uh-oh. None of this helps at all six pages in, when the power-suited, ear-pieced woman ahead of him in line for soft-serve, yacking loudly, suddenly stops, drops her phone, gazes blankly, and then tries to drag Mister Softee out of his truck.

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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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Larditude, Ice Cream, and Why You Should Subscribe to My Blog

We’ve been back from China for nearly three months now, and I haven’t put on the weight I was afraid I would. YAAAAYY! It’s neither so easy or so enjoyable to play the amount of outdoor hoops in Canada that I did among the mad-for-basketball masses of young men at every Chinese university. Here in Ottawa, it’s either empty courts, or young kids, or a game with serious Players that I can’t hang with anymore. Mostly, it’s the first two.

We still don’t entirely know which end is up. In our familiar Ottawa home, we’re still finding stuff we’d forgotten we owned, still trying to winnow down our possessions at least a little, and find places for the stuff we have. (The Story of Stuff. Daily.) We’ve cracked open most of the boxes. I have So Many Great Books That I Haven’t Read Yet. Sometimes I’m thrilled. Sometimes it’s maddening.

Meanwhile, once again, I’ve found a bit of retro-writing in my files. Last week, it was a letter I wrote to and for Son the Fourth on his first birthday, and it was good to remember the thrill of his arrival amid the wrangle of his rampant teendom. Today, it was a piece I wrote (and never sold) on the (mock) horror and (pointless) resolution arising from tipping my crappy bathroom scales at a shudder-inducing 200 pounds, distributed greasily over my formerly athletic 5’11″ frame. I gave it a quick polish, and posted it over yonder in the “On Second Thought” section, just above my sappy, sentimental birthday letter.

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Guest Post: Why Me? Why NOT Me?

I posted a short quote from a baseball player, of all things, in the “He Said/She Said” section. It was Mel Stottlemyre, a baseball coach and certifiably Famous Dude within the world of MLB, shrugging and refusing to pity himself for being struck with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. “Why me? Why not me?” he said in a Steve Rushin article in Sports Illustrated a decade ago, and I’ve never forgotten. (It must be an example I need to remember.) Thoughtful reader Michael Freeman made his comment into a short personal essay, which deserved prime real estate, and here it is:

I don’t know who actually coined this phraseology first, but it took me a long time to come to the same conclusion, if not the same exact language. A coin has two sides, different sides unless you are lucky enough or crafty enough to possess one of those phony two-headed coins of con job fame.

An argument, or debate, in its simplest form has a pro and a con. An island has an east and a west coast. A game has a winner and a loser. Why can’t every why have a why not?

I was leaving an AA meeting one time. I had just joined in the group commiseration of throwing our proverbial dirty laundry into the centre of the table, and shared ideas as to how to proceed. Each meeting is a safe haven where all are welcome to share and discuss and come away feeling just a little bit better. And it usually works, for many, at least along spiritual and emotional lines, but I have always had the nagging of physical discomfort knocking at my door. Daily. Persistent. And at times, relentless.

I stood at the bottom of a staircase bemoaning my condition: festering leg and back pain and a mind distracted by its impact. I hesitated for but a few moments,

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