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Reading With Phyllis in Ottawa

[8-minute read]

The more we read, the bigger the “To Read” pile grows. It’s mysterilicious.

We’ve missed her, but we carry on. This past March, her friends marked a first anniversary, grieved with her husband and family and, oh yes, be very sure of this, a sweet ripe bunch of them felt grateful for her life as they read and reflected on another fine book they’d likely never have heard of without her. And then they did it again in April.

I write here in remembrance of Phyllis Perrakis, a woman I knew only a little, though I felt lucky all the same. It is also a brief history of a book club, full of women, of course, plus one token oddball. (That would be Yours Truly.) I will also offer notes on the BIHE, an educational institution based on courage, justice and belief, but these seeming sidetracks all lead us back to Phyllis, a quiet, unassuming professor of literature. You would not have found her Very Professorial, if that adjective strikes notes for you of bombast or intellectual arrogance, but she surely glowed when she was sharing thoughts about a book she loved. BOOKS. Only now, far too late to learn more from her, do I find out that she was an internationally recognized scholar on the work of the Nobel Prize-winner for literature, Doris Lessing. But to better understand how we came to be Reading With Phyllis In Ottawa, first we need a side trip to Iran…

Once upon an early 21st century time, there was a book. It was written by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor of literature who had fallen exquisitely in love with American writers: Twain, Baldwin, McCullers, and the Russian-born Nabokov. It may not surprise you that Nafisi’s prospects for professional advancement in her homeland, after its Islamic Revolution, were bleak, and she has since moved to the United States. But before she did that, she found a clandestine way to share her literary enthusiasms with young women, the ones that she could never engage with publicly in studying “decadent” Western texts. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran spoke of tense arrivals, a relieved doffing of the hijab upon entry into Nafisi’s home, but above all the rich delights of forbidden conversations among trusted friends about officially banned books, Lolita among them. Nafisi’s account was brilliant and popular and I highly recommend it, but that’s just the beginning.

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A Letter I Never Sent (To a Friend I Can’t Remember)

[4-minute read]

Have you ever stumbled across a letter you wrote (or an essay, or a birthday card) that for some reason didn’t get where it was supposed to? I was looking through my ‘Drafts’ folder in Gmail for something that should’ve been there, and wasn’t. Then I wondered why I had so many drafts; mostly, I use that folder to keep copies of pieces as templates I might use again, such as letters accompanying a writing submission or the kind of email response I make repeatedly.

Dalian is a coastal city of over 6 million, nestled on and among hills. Like all Chinese cities, it is constantly changing. There is already much we wouldn’t recognize.

I don’t know what happened to the text below, or why it was still in Drafts. It looks like it might have been intended as a friends’n’family newsletter, and maybe it did form a part of something like that. Or maybe I plumb forgot to finish an email to whoever-it-was, but in any case, the piece moved me. It effortlessly flung me ten years backward. We were in China, my wife and 9-year-old son and me, approaching our first Christmas of what turned out to be five straight Decembers in the northeastern city of Dalian. We were adventuring, and escaping workplace frustrations, and trying to be of some use to the fledgling Baha’i community there, and learning our ever-loving heads off. Lately, as we approach the fifth anniversary of our permanent return to Canada, we have been reminiscing and brooding about the friends we left behind, many of whom we have little or no contact with anymore. I had left teaching high school (and an earlier stint writing in the Canadian government), while Diana was on sabbatical from environmental policy work. Our son Sam turns 19 soon, still speaks Mandarin well, and his coming of age and future vision push us all back to remembrance and wonder at that epic phase in our family life. What follows is how I looked at our first few months of life in Liaoning Province:

Though we are distressingly mortal, and have known the truth of the culture shock that often hits even the best-intentioned after the “honeymoon” period ends, we are well and prospering. China is an astonishing place. In practical terms, there are frustrations, but it is really not too difficult from the physical point of view. But it is a dazzlingly opaque culture to we foreigners, we moles, blind to even the most obvious of things. (To a friend, in front of our complex of apartment buildings: Kai, we need to find a photocopy place. Do you know where we could find one? Superb, resourceful, devoted Chinese friend: How about the one right there, across the street? Ah, yes. The big yellow sign with red characters. That one.)

Though my job is a job, it has the benefits that other teachers told me would be here: deeply serious and enthusiastic and appreciative students, and a general cultural framework in which education matters (sometimes even too much) and teachers are honoured (almost whether they deserve it or not). I am a week and a half from finishing my first semester as a teacher of conversational English and Western culture to Masters and Doctoral students, and I can say with certainty that I have learned more than the grand majority of my 408 (but who’s counting?) students…

Diana, though sometimes missing her professional and voluntary environmental work, has filled her days with the practicalities of making life work here, and with making friends and sundry human connections. She is so good at it. (For example, our good friend Anna visited again this week at our home, and her stories are greatly appreciated!) Diana is the centre of our shared life of service, and we have made many (most of them university students, as we live within walking distance of three universities) wonderful friends here, many of whom share our love of learning about matters of spirit and an ever-advancing civilization. When school resumes, she will be pioneering two courses in Environment and Business at one of the neighbouring schools (not mine) as well as teaching some conversational English to undergrads. And life will get a little busier, but our essential purpose will not change.

Sam, we sometimes think, has the hardest job of us all, as we have placed him in a local Chinese public school where he often has felt bored and alone. But he likes being in Dalian, in general, and has made fast and furious friends with an American boy (and his sisters). The first two months were very tough for him, but it gets better and better. Thankfully, he really enjoys the teaching and be-friending activities that so frequently bring new people into our orbit and into our apartment. He happily sings the prayer that begins “O God, guide me” in a Chinese that sounds pretty fluent to my ears, and with the help of “Alice”, another of our dear co-workers and friends, his Chinese speaking (and some writing) is progressing speedily.

Being here is a little like going on a spiritual fast, or some great quest: every day, whether we like it or not, we are vividly aware of our life’s purpose, and more in tune with the needs of the age, as well as we can understand them. And when the fruits arrive, often at the end of a sometimes frustrating or disorienting day, they taste wonderfully sweet and we think, This is the life…

And it was, you know, even if it was occasionally maddening.

Even if, now, I can’t quite remember who Anna was.

Pardon the Interruption

We are all our own monsters. (photo from EntertainmentTime.com)

[2.5-minute read. NOTE: this post has nothing to do with the sports-men, Kornheiser and Wilbon, and their high-energy exchanges. I only interrupt myself.]

Jumpstarting a depleted battery. Cranking the old Model T. Applying the paddles to a flatlined patient. Making the Monster LIVE!

Whatever. (Insert your own favourite new-life, Renaissance, man! analogy here.)

I’m back at the controls of the Good Ship Howdy. Hurray! Below, I exhume and quote from an older piece of mine. I just re-read it, quite by chance, and it felt like a good way to help recharge by weary bloggish batteries and get GOING. It also serves to remind readers of one of my favourite things to do on This Little Site of Mine. (I’m gonna let it shine!) Yes, it’s been eerily, fear-ily quiet here at The Howdy. I keep telling myself there’s a silver lining: my recent inactivity has meant that a special piece, much more important than the bookish or sporty matters I often obsess about, was at the head of the Howdy Queue for months. (It’s just down below, in this “At First Glance” section, which is the main one.) A celebration for the age.)

Here I go again. A week ago, when I wasn’t watching, this space hit a small milestone. (It’s a small consolation that, even when I’m not grinding at the word mill, humans are still reading my messages to the universe. Sweet.) 40,000 page views is a decent month for many sites, and it’s taken me quite a few years to get here, but it’s something. I insist that many of those views involved people actually reading what I’ve written, so there! Yes. Thanks for reading, for reading me, for reading just about anything. READING MATTERS. And now this, a blast from the Oh-So-Quotable! JamesHowden past (complete article here):

He Said/She Said… Did you notice this FAVE-QUOTES section? It’s just down there, on your right, if you’re looking at this on a laptop or other big-screened device. There’s no up-top tab for this “He Said/She Said” section, but you can find it if you try hard, maybe?

I’m always looking for the right words. Some people look for the magic bullet – the easy lazy remedy, the simple common-sense answer. Some look for solace and conviction in chemical form, but for me it’s nearly always an incantation. If a problem can’t be solved with words, I’m often not interested in it….

I’ve collected quotes forever. Once upon a lucky break, I was suddenly being paid well to write with her Right Honourable Self¹, and she loved quotations, too. So I scavenged everywhere, tore from newspapers, scribbled in the margins of novels and other good reads, and I cheated: I went to Bartlett’s, to John Robert Columbo, to Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac, to on-line sites like Empyrean. I love to find just the right words….

There be monsters in the quotable woods, though. I remember Mr. Hill’s comments on a high school essay that I had just larded with some of the best quotes ever. Problem: some of them I hadn’t fully understood, when removed from the context in which they were written, and “this is the evil of Bartlett’s”, quoth Mr. Hill. Who knew a treasure house of words could be evil? And then there was my recent discovery that one of my favourite quotes of Ralph Waldo Emerson – beginning “To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…” and ending “This is to have succeeded” – is “almost certainly not his”, according to a scholarly website that I accidentally consulted….

All this to say that I have a wee quote box just down there to your right, underneath the “On Second Thought” section…

¹ In the middle of the Aughts, I wrote correspondence for, and later 18 months of vice-regal speeches with, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, during her term as Governor General of Canada. It was fun. I had deadlines then. And an audience.

Two Centuries Back: Anniversary for the World

[5-minute read. A different version of this same piece appears at www.BahaiTeachings.org, always a good place in which to wander about and think.]

Your retroactive invitation. Festivity’s over, but the party doesn’t end.

October was a big month in my little world. (Ah, but I’m always working to See the Big Picture, and to train my eyes on a World-Embracing Vision. In between laundry loads, basketball practices, and grinding away at That Book.) Just to be annoyingly clear, I’m not referring to the retail assault that was Hallowe’en, that will be BlackFriday/Thanksgiving in the Excited States of America, and which already hounds us to be frenzied consumers so baby Jesus can lay chocolate eggs under the reindeer tree — this, all over the “Christian” world and well beyond it.

No, the event I’m talking about didn’t make anybody any money. There was growing public awareness and appreciation, tributes from heads of state and spiritual dignitaries, but no ad blitzes, no junk-food tie-ins or “free” vacations on offer. No price of admission, either: come as you are, dress up if you’re able. Full disclosure: I think my wife did buy a new pair of shoes, and I bought a Dairy Queen ice-cream cake for my basketball boys. Heck, it was a celebration…

And on an October Saturday night, our family hosted a dinner party for a wonderfully mixed-up group of neighbours. Some had been our friends for a decade and a half, while others were in our home for the first time. Of course, we were celebrating the bicentenary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah. (Wait, WHAT? You didn’t hear about the 200th anniversary? Man, woman, hey kid! come ON! This wasn’t on CNN or Fox News, Al-Jazeera or ‘The World at Six’ on CBC Radio, but it’s the biggest and best behind-the-news story there IS. Seriously.)

(And I hear you over there, saying, “So how come you know about this supposedly ‘IMPORTANT’ event that most people are either totally oblivious to, or just sort of shrug about?” Answer: dumb luck.)

After my love’s famous Thai soup and other delicacies, I tried to explain what the Baha’is are so excited about. You see, I’ve been hanging around the Baha’i community for years, as many of my readers know. I try (and often fail) to live up to Baha’u’llah’s call for personal and societal transformation. I do my bit here and there, I guess, but it seems like pretty small potatoes sometimes. In October, though, it didn’t. It felt like being in a junior church choir that got to sing with a massed chorus from many congregations, one small voice in a great big HALLELUJAH! Right? So I talked about what this anniversary means to Baha’is and to the world. By doing so, at least I gave our friends a few minutes to do some main-course digestion before the unveiling of Diana’s Apple Cheesecake. I wanted to say something like this:

Friends and neighbours, as you know, Diana and I are members of the Baha’i Faith. It’s a worldwide movement dedicated to a few gigantic ideas: that the human race is one family, that we have to start ACTING like it, that there are principles and mechanisms that really can make it all work, and that it WILL work.

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Long Way From Home

True North. Call myself a *Canadian*? Never been there, but my three sons have. Plus, I know J. (Quiz: could you find Ottawa on this map?)

[6-minute read]

This wasn’t the plan, not at all, but I want to write about J. today. We hadn’t seen him in a while, and I’ve been wondering how he is. Worrying, too, and running little high-stress scenarios through my mind, where we hear gut-punching news or I find him in fearsome or depressing circumstances. Such polite words: I keep waiting to hear he’s dead, incarcerated, strung out, beaten, vacant in the eyes. J. doesn’t have it easy, and he’s an awful long way from home.

We first met when I was doing some fiddly chore in my front yard, the chaos of my garage open to public view. I can’t remember whether his first request was to do some work for a little money; it might’ve been, he’s done that, but that day it was likely a request for a bit of cash to get himself fed. He looked to be in his early 20s, with a mess of long black hair and well-worn sweats. It was unusual to be approached from the street like that, but his manner was gentle, his voice soft and dignified, and his eyes were steady and calm. I gave him some money to go a few blocks over to Lorenzo’s, a pizza place he favoured.

I guessed, correctly, that he was from Nunavut, one of Canada’s northern territories that, as of 1999, has been self-governed according mainly to traditional Inuit ideas of community. (There are no political parties, for example, and therefore no official “opposition” to an elected government.) There’s a direct flight to my city, Ottawa, from the capital of Nunavut, so there’s a small but significant Inuit presence here. We talked. His deliberate but obviously educated speech belied his scruffy appearance, and I was intrigued. Over the succeeding weeks and months, we talked several times. J. was both open about his situation – no family here, mental health struggles, admitted though relatively benign addictions, dependence on panhandling – and mysterious. He’s a complicated fella.

I was never sure whether to buy certain elements of his story. He spoke of having been a scholarship student in engineering at an Ottawa university, but details were either fuzzy or set off my nonsense detectors. Part of that wasn’t J.’s fault, really, because though I was curious and interested about his life, I didn’t want to pry too much. I also didn’t want to be in his face about facts; the kid probably wasn’t in need of an Inquisitor. So, he’d bag a few leaves for food money, while I wondered how he could afford to live in my middle-class neighbourhood and yet often be short of food. (He wasn’t a superb yard-worker.) After a time, I started to talk to him more frankly.

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Just Dive In, They Say

Not me!

                                 [3-minute read]

I don’t want to just dive into the water, and I don’t care if I’m a rotten egg. I don’t dive into much, actually.

Which is strange, because I love beginnings, the freshness of unstained hope not yet wracked by reality.¹ I think it reminds me of a future that I deny. Go jump in the lake can mean, in the wrong mind, I hope you die soon. Some of my resistance to jumping into water I can’t see the bottom of, I begin to glumly theorize, arises from my diffidence about death. It doesn’t feel like dread, not quite, but I do sense my unpreparedness. Strange waters or familiar, they feel like a presentiment of extinction. This explains a lot of things.

¹ Except for writing. The terror of the start is not quite matched by the eventual, fitful flow of production and the relieved delight of having written. So swimming is like writing, too, except that I don’t imagine ever being competent in water.

Some of this nervous distaste is less abstract. It comes from my blasted confidence in water, stoked by a childhood failure at lessons in my small town’s cracked outdoor pool. Simple stuff, but I couldn’t do it. Ever since, a lake or pool or pond is above all a glorious thing to get out of, to put sand or clay or concrete underfoot again, to gaze from solid ground on the seductive beauty of water in motion, water still, water frozen and forever. I stare at it, fascinated, confirmed to find it in front of me, not over my head.

Diving in, on my preferred footing of metaphor, is letting go of my dried-out conventions and certainties, which is hard to do. I can admit to the occasional thrill when literally doing so, in Actual Water. When hot, even if unbothered, crashing into coolness is a lively shock, and I don’t flounder right away. I just hang there, most of me under the surface. From the hindsight of a desk, I wonder why a man with more than sufficient body fat won’t float with more ease. But suspended in a cold, thought-stunning brew, I always play dead for a while,

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Letter To a Young Writing Coach

[4-minute read]

Armed, but not sufficiently dangerous.

Dear S.:

I’m a coach myself — basketball, mainly — and I taught writing forever. I’m a chalk- and red-ink-stained wretch, so despite my bride’s entreaties, and the general on-line encouragement I’ve gotten from you, I still don’t want a writing coach. Stubborn? Maybe. I persist in wanting to lift myself by my own bootstraps; mind you, the physics of that is still mysterious to me. After quite a few years of not exactly setting the WordWorld on fire, I still want one of two outcomes: slay this ridiculous dragon of vaguely literary desire, or find a way to harness the sucker all by myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t look for inspiration, tools and writing-my-way-out-of-the-wilderness tips, though.
Mostly because of a suggestion from Margaret Atwood — via her Twitter account, that is — I follow Chuck Wendig and his fiery, rude and funny advice to his on-line band of fellow “pen-monkeys”. That’s also how I wound up lurking near Story is a State of Mind. (Your gentle, organic counsel makes for a very interesting counterpoint to his, as far as voices in a struggling writer’s ear go!) I’ve subscribed to your daily writer’s prompts for months. Never used ’em, and yup, I sometimes rolled my eyes. (“Write about the taste of rain.” Yeah, right.) Hey, listen: I know what you’re pushing me to do. I was a writing teacher in small-town high schools for years, and I, too, gave eye-rollingly absurd suggestions as Journal Topics for the Day: break OUT, guys, try stuff, just get your pen going and then you can go wherever you (or IT) want(s)… The taste of rain wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere with tenth-graders.
I’ve been dry for a while, but I’m back in the saddle. Hit a big birthday, saved up for it by giving myself licence to NOT write ’til the day came, which siphoned a full tank of frustration out of the top half of August. (Good for me.) Since my birthday crepes, I’ve been trying to act more like a pro, showing up at the desk, grinding. Bird by bird, buddy. (I’m sure you get that reference.¹) I’m also a big fan of Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, and yesterday began re-re-re-rereading it with some dear ones. Three of us, at least, clearly aspire to Writingness and can hear the clock tsk, tsk, tsk-ing away. And yes, I’m on a two-week roll, which is lovely, and to get to the point, I’ve finally started using your prompts, blue pen in my own Journal. (And I did write about the taste of rain. Got down some nasty/good stuff I liked and might use, among the blathering. I got going.)

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Cezanne et Moi (and Zola, too!)

[3-minute read]

Blogs are personal, but as I think about how to begin this quick review – these things always seem to start with Me – I’m fazed by my self-centredness as a writer. Ergo, as a human, I suppose. Look how interesting I am! is what I hear now. Aren’t I clever? (Hurt. Hilarious. Lonely. Sensitive. Tough. Damaged. Special. Not Like Them. Better Than You. Worse Than You Know.) Ugh. But blogs are personal…

The poster. (IMDb helped.) Emile and Paul making their way.

I had done my duty to the fine young pair who showed up for Thursday’s SuperCool Chance to Play Basketball On the Freshly Varnished Hardwood Before School Even Starts! (Little O and Uncle Drew did great.) I had even been a good little writer afterward, though I confess that I cheated the typing gods by shortening the time. (Still, though, my thinking was interesting – take it from me – and I may have found a way out of a large, thorny maze where my book got lost.) Cezanne et Moi seemed tailor-made as a writer’s treat and re-treat, and it was the last screening at my cinema of choice. So yeah, I rewarded myself with a luscious dessert when I hadn’t actually finished my first course, but the guilt faded fast. I’m glad I went.

Irrational confidence alert: through BioPic Magic, I feel that I now understood 19th-century painter Paul Cezanne without much effort, and intimately know his lifelong friend and sometime antagonist, the writer Emile Zola, without having read a single novel of his. (But that’s what Wikipedia is for, right? Um, right?) I am hungry to know these two artists better, though, and was exposed to a nearly two-hour, loving meditation on friendship, love, and on the meaning and practice of the creative life. WIN. I’d gladly watch it again.

When you look up “old frenemies” in the dictionary.

It’s a gorgeous film to look at.

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Better Read Than Never: Wendig’s STAR WARS: AFTERMATH

[7-minute read]
“BRTN” is a periodic feature on JH.com, in which I write reviews/appreciations of books that are not exactly current. Today’s entry is, for me, rather timely; my last was on a John Updike memoir from 1989. The trouble is, time waits for no man — and neither does Chuck Wendig.

The second Death Star is destroyed. The Emperor and his powerful enforcer, Darth Vader, are rumoured to be dead. The Galactic Empire is in chaos….Optimism and fear reign side by side.

And while the Rebel Alliance engages the fractured forces of the Empire, a lone rebel scout uncovers a secret imperial meeting…

 

This is how Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig begins. If you need more background information than that, then you may not have been living in this hemisphere during the last number of decades, and maybe this 2015 novel isn’t for you. Wendig – about whom more later, but let’s just say now that he is phenomenally productive, and a review like this is at least three novels behind  – adds full-length sequels in each of the next two years. The seemingly unbreakable Star Wars Rule of Threes continues its reign. Together, the trilogy forms part of a “new canon” of official SW material beyond the films themselves. Aftermath and its children form a bridge between the events of films over 30 years apart: 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and the grizzled-Han and dowager-Leia reunion in The Force Awakens (2015). (Yes, I know, other things happened, too. Luke, for example. And ‘droids. And light-saber battles.) I’m not an SW junkie, and don’t go near fan-sites or extended universes or fundamentalist skirmishes over what is and should be in the Star Wars canon. But like this novel, I do.

It is fast, inventive, breathless and constantly in the present tense, a Wendig trademark. Unknown characters appear in rapid succession, but with references to more or less familiar faces and names from the movies (Admiral Akbar, who does not age at all; C3P0, with upgrades). We know where we are, even when jetting into new worlds. On Coruscant, in one of Wendig’s several “Interludes” — short set-pieces that add context and flavour, and offer a place for him to stow away extra ideas — emboldened former Imperial citizens pull down a statue of Palpatine; see Hussein, Saddam, formerly of Iraq. Imperial Admiral Rae (she’s a woman!) Sloane has a toady and untrustworthy adjutant typecast to remind us of the unfortunate official Force-choked by Vader in the original Star Wars film. Although Wendig takes bitter criticism (surprise!) from many of the Star Wars faithful, Aftermath is an agreeable confection that blends the familiar with the rather wonderfully invented bridgework, with only the occasional bump.

The Empire is going, not gone. Akiva, as tropical a planet as Luke Skywalker’s Tattooine was dry, is now again crime-ridden, with ex-Imperials and ganglords competing for the spoils.

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More of a Skirmish. Fray Rejoined.

[2-minute read]

Easy title, tough challenge. Here we go.

I’m back.

There are endless things to write about, and an infinite number of slimy ways to wriggle away from keyboard, from pen, from the front lines. (Yes, I’ve been meditating on courage, and how life’s demands so often exceed personal supply. I can’t want that.) Courage. My word.¹ When I think of writers I heart the best – and it’s KV² I come back to ever and anon – it’s sometimes ‘how did they do that?’ (technically, commitment-wise) but mostly it’s ‘how did they do  that?’. That is, what allows or compels an artist to be so bloody BRAVE, or reckless, or whatever it takes to tell the whole truth?

¹ Courage: Gord Downie‘s word. (And Hugh McLennan’s.) Go, Gordon.
² That’s Kurt Vonnegut. Hi ho.

I’ve re-read The War of Art. I’ve had a big birthday. I’ve said ‘no’ to a major time commitment to an activity I love well beyond reason and balance. I’m summoning resolve. I plan to act like a professional. I’m ready to write again and more and still and daily. The title speaks of my renewal of effort as “more of a skirmish”, in the wider lens of the social insignificance of whatever I do, and because I lean hard into self-deprecation and other forms of egocentrism. But it’s big news in my little corner; this is my Olympics. This is struggle. Here is my war – one of ‘em, anyway. That will mean Way More Words from the Howdy Home Office, and some of them will appear here.

Hurray for here!

And if you’re a subscriber, bully for you, and thanks for reading. (And if you’re just stumbling into this, there’s a whole lot of earlier stuff on sport and men, culture and books, faith and fandom, learning and remembering, edges and ledges and the odd bit of ecstasy.)