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HimBits: Poems on a Man I Never Knew

[2-minute read, tops]
Pinched this image, but glad to promote this collection; sounds like a book to own.

Pinched this image, but glad to promote this collection; sounds like a book to own.

I was subtly slain by a friend’s quick response to an end-of-July piece I wrote for a trio of birthdays: one was my big brother’s, which immediately followed that of a sorely missed coach and friend, which in turn was the day after the anniversary of my long-dead father’s entry into the world in 1911. My buddy Buck had known them all, for nearly as long as he’s known me, and he was especially moved by the paragraphs about my Dad. He slipped a dagger between my ribs with one brief, benign sentence: “In the years I’ve known you, you’ve never spoken about him.”

Really? Come on! That can’t possibly be true, forgetful and faithful friend! I said to myself, or sin-covering words to that useless effect. Of course, the absolute truth of the thing doesn’t matter a bit, and besides, in that same piece I did confess that, other than oblique and occasional references, I had never written about my father in the fog-bound annals of my Blogdom.

But as a kid – and, incidentally, inspired back then by teenaged forays into poetry that buddy Buck had startled me awake by making – I did write some rarely shared, bemused poems about my Dad. They were clumsy, but had a good heart. I reworked them 17 years later, and they were read by, I believe, three or four people other than me. Prompted by the point of Buck’s gentle stiletto, I took another look at them, and now have officially pronounced them Not Awful. I decided to give them a little air.

I couldn’t help playing with them a bit, but here are two poems about a Dad, mine – businessman, father of five, steadfast husband, demon-fighter, melancholic, man of principle and provision – nearly 40 years gone and still a mystery to me.

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STRICTLY MID-LIFE: Crisis? What Crisis?

Here’s another piece — not that anybody asked for it, as Kurt Vonnegut once muttered in opening a collection of essays called Fates Worse Than Death — that now sees the light after nearly a decade in the electronic cellar. When I wrote it, I was in Ottawa, not yet in my 50s. Five years in China are in the rear-view now; we’re back in the same house, and visiting the same local complex for its library, pool and workout facilities. For reasons mainly organizational, this one never got posted, but despite the years that have passed, it’s nearly as true now as it was when it was fresh. And hey, how are you doing?

“Well, this sure isn’t Monday Night Football,” I thought. It’s been a long while since I was twitching and “ready for some football!” that late on a weeknight, anyway. But on this particular Monday, I was in the St. Laurent recreation centre getting ready to put the ol’ bod through its paces.

Now, I have spent more pigskin hours in front of the Sacred Tube than I care to remember, but Monday nights weren’t always about a football broadcast. They never are, now. Even as a kid, there were hockey practices, and from about age 15 on, the squeak of sneakers and the pounding of basketballs were the soundtrack to any given Monday (Tuesday, Wednesday…). Even in my increasingly clumsy thirties, as the rim somehow felt higher with each jump-shot, I could still be found running around on my wife on a winter evening. Nope, not a romantic betrayal, but another doomed attempt to outrun a bunch of teens and 20-somethings. The dream was dead, but I could still fool myself for minutes at a time.

It seemed, back then, that my competitive fever had finally broken. A successful night had come to mean a few jumpshots, a good sweat, a few laughs and no icepacks. (Well. I tried to define success this way, but I was chronically annoyed with my uncooperative hands and reluctant legs.) But there I was last Monday at St. Laurent,

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Sweet Teeth and Faulty Scales: Hitting Two Hundred

LOOK-BACK: 200 FOR THE 2000s.

Five years in China, partly ’cause I walked everywhere and pounded basketballs on car-free pavements, helped me climb down from a high-level status I’d never asked for and never fully believed. When I went there in 2009, I was still tipping my bathroom scales a little too ferociously. In Dalian, it was a lot harder (or, in a few cases — I’m looking at you, Haagen-Dazs! — the price tripped my cheapness alarm) to get sweet treats that met my lofty Canadian-consumption standards. Summers back home were exercises in box-ticking (can’t get that in Dalian, gotta do it now!). Um, and in not exercising that much. My personal record: one summer, in our seven weeks home I put on seven kilos — 15 pounds!

So now we’re back for good, and this summer’s victory is that I’ve kept my balance, dietarily, and though I’m not where I’d like to be, I’m still well under the critical threshold that so alarmed me at the beginning of my Chubby Decade, towards the end of the 20th century. The piece below, another one that pre-dated this website and never saw the light of readership day, was my reaction to realizing I’d hit 200 pounds. The words below were indignant and disbelieving, fun to read years later, and pretty much useless in getting me to actually do anything about the ballast I was packing. Not right away, anyhow.

Two hundred?  Now that’s just a lie.  Hah!  Hah!  says I to myself, it’s an el cheapo scale, and besides, it was on a carpet, and shoot, it’s been cold and I’ve been sick, and besides, hey, I like to eat, it’s not like I drink or smoke so I deserve the occasional treat and I just need to get working out a little more regularly and by the way, I’ve never cracked two hundred and I still have pretty good moves for an old guy…

Okay.  So this new level of larditude is not exactly one of the “firsts” I’d envisioned for the (pre)Millennial Me. Plea-bargains and pitiable denials aside, one nasty bit of gristle in the stew of midlife is unrequited affection:  I love ice cream but it doesn’t treat me right.  (There, I’ve said it.) 

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A Letter to My Son (When He Was Only One)

He’s six feet tall now, with arms and legs madly off in many directions, a big smile, a stubborn spirit, floppy hair, and arguments that seem to never end. He drives me nuts, but he’s also smart and talented and funny as hell. It was fun to look back at how I saw him as a wee one. There were clues right from the beginning, and I’m not just talking about the messes he leaves behind. This is why baby pictures are so lovely, so necessary.

 

Dear Goonybird, Stinkerbomb, Punky Poobler, SammerBammer, my honey bunny boy,

Today you have six teeth, four consonants, and one candle on your cake. You delight the heart of a Dad who thought his diapering days were behind him. You love your little purple and orange basketball, and your peek-a-boo skills are splendid. “Clap, clap, hooray!” we say as you grin and applaud the wonders tumbling about you. With two deep dimples and the softest of skin and hair, you are a shameless magnet for kisses.

And I get to thinking about three bigger boys that I’ve hugged and smackerooed, probably a Dad’n’Lad world record, and wonder when did I stop kissing your gigantic brothers? They are rather more elusive targets, and two of them are bigger than me now, but young men can still benefit from a whisker rub now and then. Thank-you for reminding me how my chest explodes when I hold my sons.

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For a Change

Two more sleeps, and we fly to Canada, ending our five-year service in China. So much to say about our stay and our going, but little time to write. I did, however, stumble on this from my archives, a 2007 piece recalling my halting, erratic progress along a spiritual path. That road eventually led to several warm, lovely evenings and afternoons of farewell to good friends in Dalian, China. CHINA! 

I was a small-town Baptist, though I mainly worshipped Gordie Howe. I reverently oiled my baseball glove at least twice a year. We also went to church every Sunday, and were allowed to ransack our stockings and open only one present before attending Christmas service. Sunday school attendance prizes were an annual treat, but I rarely read or discussed the Bible at home. The patron saints of our southern Ontario Protestant family were Rocket Richard, who crowned my sister “Miss Corvair” in 1965, and a skinny, bespectacled local football hero named Garney Henley. Oh, and Rusty Staub, le grand orange of another Montreal sports squad, the brand-new Expos. As I became a teenager, though, love and spirit began to mean something different.

One September morning, a new girl sat in the desk behind mine, a girl with long blonde hair. In a grade eight instant, I knew there might be a reason for females after all. Within two years, I had not only fallen for her brains over basketballs, but was also fascinated by the Faith lived by her mother.

It said the Creator keeps promises.

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Past-Blasting: The Climate, 2007

This piece from February of 2007 was called “Citizenship, Climate Change…and Hockey?” It’s an orphan piece that never found a publication to call home, so now I offer it here. My nearly six-foot tall teen was then only seven, and merely bilingual. The NHL was struggling to recapture fan interest outside of Canada after losing an entire season to labour squabbles. Canada was still part of the Kyoto Accord. (We bow our head in shame, and remember when Canada deserved its reputation for internationalism.) I was not long removed from writing for Canada’s Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, who had been succeeded in that office by Michaelle Jean.

We hadn’t imagined coming to China at all, and now we’re wrapping up five years on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. Look back. Waaayy back…

Last week saw a series of events that, after a whirl in the cerebral blender, yields a thoughtful stew on citizenship. It’s a bit like the musical “mash-up”, but without that unpleasant ringing in your ears. Here are some not-quite-random reflections on the meaning of the modern Canuck.

Two years ago last Friday, the National Hockey League finally suspended the 2004-2005 season. Canadian men (and a few women) grew more gloomy and resentful. No major sporting league had ever ditched an entire schedule, and the North American cultural divide widened. Canadian lovers of other sports hoped for a silver lining to the lockout, but were dismayed to find that hockey still dominated jock talk and writing. Meanwhile, American sports media – and the great majority of fans – barely noticed its absence.

And the citizenship connection? Well, you might have missed this surprising bit of civic mindfulness, but several NHL players declared the February 16 anniversary as “Save Hockey Day” – not so much to recall the lockout as to pay attention to the Kyoto Accord on climate change. ‘Bout time!

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Smokers Get All the Breaks

Remember matches?

Remember matches?

For various reasons, including some good ones, I have moved in mainly smoke-free circles for most of my life. Every once in a while, seeing someone with that fiery little tube between lips or fingers can startle me to attention, as if I’d just seen a rare bird or a quaint way of dressing. But I’ve also noticed enough workplace smoking areas to be convinced that smokers may be smarter than the rest of us. Really.

It was Wanda that got me thinking about it first. She was the professeur de français, a precise and careful woman who was also a dedicated smoker. It seemed incongruous to me, given her fastidious habits of diet and dress. After all, I was the “healthy” one, the school’s basketball coach, a guy who tried to keep an ex-athletic body in some kind of tune. We worked in a sparkling new high school with a total climate-control system, not an open window in the place.

“Time for a fix,” I’d smirk as Wanda left for the parking lot. Like the men on staff who smoked, she sat in her car, or drove around town if there were likely to be giggling grade nines or over-confident seniors lurking about. Sometimes I felt sorry for her. But then I’d find myself leaving school after practice, maybe even after the community house league games ended at 10 p.m., and I’d realize that I had breathed only recycled oxygen since early that morning. I’d barely seen the sun all day.

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Honeymoons and Rear-View Mirrors

Well, lookie-lookie. Here’s something I found lurking in my files, an observational piece I never did anything with. I was newly-married, living in a cabin in the West Quebec woods, not far from the Wakefield General Store. It was 1995. Quebec’s second referendum on independence was coming. I was taking Stab One at being a writer, but in addition to being giddy with remarital joy, I had mononucleosis. It was a sleepy, lovely and thoroughly unproductive time, but here is something I scribbled between the birch trees.

Apr. 22/14 UPDATE: This post inspired an extended comment from a faithful reader, which has turned into a full-on guest column that responded to questions of identity and “Canadian-ness” mentioned below. Mr. Freeman’s meditation on home and heart is here.

From here, I look out upon a Wakefield morning. Just after  dawn, a bright sun  peered in our window from behind a curtain of colour. And thank goodness for our woodsy surroundings, because there aren’t any curtains on these huge panes; the trees have already seen enough of my naked dashes from bath to bed. Ouch! One enthusiastic but directionally‑challenged chirper just discovered that our living room is not a fly‑through zone. The day has now become quite grey, but in this splendid Quebecois setting, even grey has charms.

There have been some changes, haven’t there? In my little world, love and restlessness and an overwhelming desire to chain myself to a keyboard have landed me here, tapping merrily and watching the wind. I like where I am. Born near the centre of the universe — Leafs and Jays about  an hour of asphalt away¹ — my grand little rivertown home has been a good place to love and leave and return to, and now to leave again. 

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2013 in Review: The Great Eighteen. Writing you can READ.

The last time I compiled a “Best of Howdy” list, for 2012, it was easier. I browsed through the year’s posts, remembered some things I liked, whittled it down to 10, gave a brief description, done. This time I tried to get more scientific, more democratic, and it’s been a mess. Not a lot of people responded to my invitation to submit favourites of the year, but they were some of my best readers and it was satisfying to hear about posts they liked. But.

My correspondents were far from unanimous in their preferences, and often those didn’t match the things I’d have chosen. And now that I have slightly more sophisticated analytics, I can easily check which posts had the most page views, which was often a completely different list from mine or the sometimes-odd choices of my panellists. A blogger’s work is never done. All this did cause extra work, but it was good thinking – along with the sidebar reflections that my Choice Readers had made – about what I’ve done, what worked and didn’t, and especially about what got read, and how. As it turns out, a tour of these will give you a pretty good idea of what I’m on (and off) about.

So here it is, again in the form of a quick trip through the Howdy catalogue. And I know: eighteen posts? Well, I plead indecision, for one thing, but it’s hard to choose among your children. There were 128 of them birthed on JH.com for 2013; also I reached my 500th post overall. Not a bad year, I’m not afraid to admit it.¹

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Hitting ‘Refresh’: One Dark Night, This Ol’ Dad

I just didn’t get it. (I never seem to, as he often reminds me.)

We’d had a pretty good time at the basketball courts, my 13 year-old son and me and a half dozen temporary teammates. I thought so, anyway; I was gassed, toast, bagged (as we used to say in the Grand valley), as usual, but fairly content. I’d had a good run. Some shots and passes found their targets. No ankles were harmed in the making of that afternoon which had turned into an early Dalian evening. We had a 20-minute walk home, but somehow we couldn’t pull it off.

Ours was not a Norman Rockwell moment.

I can’t rebuild that wrecked conversation now, and there’s no instant replay available – all I know is that I must have said a steaming pile of Wrong Things, and before I could say “that was fun” my lad was snorting and huffing, you just don’t get-ting and stomping his way as far from the Dysfunctional Father Unit as he could get. He’s a fiery critter, and a stubborn, and maybe-just-maybe a little too much like his old man for our collective good. Here we go again, I muttered. How did we get here from there?  

It was dark, and I was alone, and except for the relationship shrapnel, that was fine by me. Breathing room. A little peace and quiet. Yes. But not only that: I also remembered to turn to an old favourite consolation.

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