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 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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Better Read Than Never: Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN

Chaney and Meredith, Lennie and George (1939).

Quaid and Blake (1981).








I quoted John Steinbeck recently (in “He Said/She Said”, below right) because I empathize with the fear and inadequacy he felt as a writer. It’s always good to know that heroes are what they are not because they have “no fear” – that great modern lie of the superhero movies and shoe-hawking T-shirts – but precisely because they do fear and it doesn’t stop them. His writerly doubts came as he was struggling with an experimental novel, the classic Of Mice and Men, and I read about them in its introduction. Then I dived, certainly not for the first or second time and (swear to God, hope not to die) likely not for the last, into Steinbeck’s timeless evocation of rural California, sometime early in the 20th century.

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Your Birds Are All Wackwards

This is a nugget from the vault, a piece I wrote before was born. Beginning as it does with the verbal misalacrity [sic] of a former American President, it might seem a bit dated, but it’s mostly about words, about loving, about learning and about learning to love words. 

Who knew, apart from the good folks of Texas, that Mr. Bush would be so entertaining? So creative? One of the great cyber-parlour games going—I’ve had samples passed on to me from several directions—is the collection of “Bush-isms”, perverse and delightful nuggets of tangled syntax and malapropism unbound. (See www.bushfollies.comfor a thoroughly biased view of the Dubya presidency.) They are designed, of course, to mock this most powerful man, to express astonished alarm that someone apparently so

Not to mention “nukular”, my (non)fave mispronunciation. Or “Mission Accomplished!” on a Persian Gulf aircraft carrier, our best symbol of the marriage between materialism and the disposition to dominate.

inarticulate should have the ear of the world and the power to bend it.

For Canadians typically avid for a chance to smirk at Americans, Quotations from Chairman Bush are manna from Internet heaven. Some of them, no doubt, are maliciously taken out of contxt, or are carved from the sort of hesitant, circular pronouncements most of us make in conversation. But gosh, as someone who adores creativity in language, I confess to bemused admiration for his verbal achievements.

The poet Coleridge defined poetry as “the right words in the right order”. Mr. Bush shows a genius not just for choosing le mot juste, but for inventing it, and his ordering of words has a mad artistry to it. Listen! He “will not stand for the subsidation of failure”, and once noted of his political opponents that “they misunderestimated me”. (Note to my spell-checker:  everything’s fine.  Relax.)  Bush’s compassionate and poetic vision sings in statements like “I know how hard it is to put food on your family” and (my favourite) “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dreams.” Are you listening now? And my goodness, we should celebrate poetry wherever we find it, not just in the wit and wisdom of the mighty. I have loved it in children, from the wee one watching mommy and daddy work and asking, over and over, “What are duning?” to a five-year-old’s interest in the movies of “Arnold Sportsenegger”.

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Reason to Remember: A Short Story

Memory was a funny thing. David Jenkins could still name the starters on UCLA’s 1973 championship basketball team, and he could recite Marcy’s girlhood phone number, twenty-five years, four Bruins coaches, and two wedding days later. Yet it seemed to him that his days were dedicated to forgetfulness. So many gaps. There were entire years of his schooling with only the barest souvenir shreds attached to them. The childhoods of his own three kids had become one big soup, with only the occasional bit of meaty remembrance.

“Well, I do remember that Johnny loved to dance. Every time I played ‘Blind’, he went crazy, just boogeying around in his diaper. You know, that was the last vinyl album I ever bought, I think. That was the Talking Heads, right? And projectile poop, I told you about that, didn’t I? That was definitely Jordan, straight off the change table, splat against the wall! Who was trying to change him? Mary, maybe? How’s that for ‘good morning, auntie’! No picture of that one. Hey. I used to have a great picture of Joey, what happened to that? He’s maybe 18 months, standing beside a stop sign. Or a fire hydrant. Anyway, believe it or not, Joey was chubby when he was a little sprout! I think he was the one that fell off the back stoop, or was that…?” It was always Marcy Gingrich, though, at the center of his memories, the one who could always redraw the lines that had faded. He had met her when he was fourteen, and most things before that were hazy in his mind.

Elwood Henry had found a way – one of the usual ones – to deal with a name that can get a boy a bloody nose at recess. He had become the fun boy, the goofball, the lucky charmer, “crazy Henry”. On David’s high school football team, Elwood was a treasured cutup and the object of many gags, practical or just bloody foolish. The Blues were a pitiable team, with a history of doing more damage to each other than to any opponent. One practice, while the team’s only coach was still grabbing an after-school coffee, the captains tried to get things started. So did Potter, who really was crazy when he put on a helmet. He grabbed Elwood around the thigh pads from behind, turned him upside-down, and used him to demonstrate King Kong Bundy’s pro wrestling pile-driver move. A few guys cheered. This was better than stretching! No one was too surprised when Elwood started staggering around the calisthenics lines, eyes wide, arms pointing vaguely. This was Crazy Henry.

“What am I doing?  Where am I?” As a sophomore, David had nothing to say, but the veteran players were enjoying the show.

“Hey, not bad, Henry!”

“Better go down to guidance. Rabbit’ll tell you what to do!”

“Listen, how many times did Elwood watch Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, anyhow?”

“Nah, he’s just in a daze. He slept all the way through The Perv’s class.”

“Alright, shut-up, you guys. You wanna get stretching, dickhead? Coach is still pissed about your fumble Friday – hey, dipstick, you listening? Hey! Woody?”

David only knew Elwood from the team, and the occasional hallway elbow, but he knew something about this was weird. He was carrying the joke too far. He had even taken off his helmet, and he looked scared. Jason was stunned to see that Crazy Henry was crying.

“I don’t know who I am!” he wailed.

Nobody knew much about concussions back then, but the Blues were learning. The halls were still buzzing with wide-eyed details – I’m not shittin’ you, he didn’t even know his own name! – when David Jenkins added to the fogbound memories of that vague and losing season.

The Blues practiced Monday through Thursday, though on Fridays it often looked like they’d been press-ganged out of class just that afternoon. A few days after what was by then called The Henry Shuffle, David lined up at his usual slotback position. He knew his assignment on Power Pitch 37, and everyone else’s, too. He imagined himself bursting from his stance, getting a good angle on the outside linebacker, and sealing him to the inside as the running back went wide. Ecker wasn’t quick, but he outweighed David by at least 75 pounds. He knew there was no choice but to cut-block him, since he’d get buried if he tried to hit Ecker up high. On the snap, David sprinted to get wide of the pursuing linebacker, who was quicker than he looked. He threw his body across his path, and the last image he saw before blankness was Ecker’s left knee.

David remembered nothing else until he noticed that he was sitting in Doctor Linden’s office across town, and he never did recall how he’d gotten there. Marcy filled in most of the blanks later. She had stayed after school that day for cheerleading practice, and Guck, the football manager and “go-fer” extraordinaire, knew where to find her.

“Marcy, you gotta come ‘cause Dave got conked out and he can’t find his locker and he doesn’t know which clothes are his, come on!”

Despite the oddity and the overpowering odor of entering the jam-packed jumble of the boys’ tiny change room, Marcy had no trouble in picking out David’s usual jeans, green hockey sweater, and his white Chuck Taylor All-Stars with the wide blue laces. She then took him to his locker, and held up the lock, its dial marked from 0-60.

“Can you remember your combination, sweetie?”

“Yeah!  129, 63, 108.” (Hearing the tale recounted months later, for the fiftieth time, David suddenly laughed, realizing he must have given the combination for his father’s office safe.) With repeated reminders of what he needed to do, and with three red-faced entries into the boys’ washroom near the science labs, Marcy did manage to get David clothed and then driven to the doctor’s. She phoned the Jenkins’s to explain what had happened.

“Oh, my.  It’s an ill wind. We just found out that Wayne’s father has died. Heart attack,” David’s mother said. Wayne had married David’s oldest sister, Mary, five years before, and David idolized him – his stunning speed as a country fastball pitcher, the facts he spewed on the most arcane and undebatable subjects, and one unique bit of living room gymnastics. He would make an inverted arch by linking his fingers below his waist, then hop over his joined hands, frontwards and back.

“Oh, Dave,” Marcy said when she came back to the waiting room. “I’ve just talked to your mom. Wayne’s father died today!”  She held David’s hand, and watched him. His reaction was muted and very slow, but he seemed to understand. He looked at the carpet, shaking his head slowly. His voice was hollow and strained.

“Oh, no. That’s terrible.” He sat, unmoving, for several minutes. Marcy let him grieve quietly, a little surprised that David wanted no more details and had nothing else to say.

“Your mom says the funeral’s Friday.”

“What funeral? Who died?”

“Mr. Richardson! Wayne’s dad!”

“He died?  Oh, no. That’s terrible.” He looked down, and shook his head slowly.

In the hospital that night, Marcy made a little laughter grow through the solemnity, telling David’s visitors how she had broken the news repeatedly, getting a fresh flood of slow-moving grief each time. He could remember the last time she had told him, sitting in those hard chairs in a white room, waiting for the family doctor. It was the first memory that had stuck in his head since his closeup view of the grass-stained knees of Ecker’s football pants.


Years passed. By the end of high school, the Blues had better helmets and some wins, and Marcy and David had already envisioned their riverside wedding. Though they enrolled in different universities, there was no doubt they’d soon be together again. “Darcy and Mave”, their friends sometimes called them. Delighted at their merging, they sometimes called themselves that. Their respective dormitory staffs marveled at the volume of their loving mail. They were married at 21 in Marcy’s back yard, and threw flowers in the water. They were the golden couple, almost always the first among their various associates and friends to have married.

By age 25, there was Joseph and new-born careers. By 27, there was Jordan, a first house, and weekend trips to see Daddy play in various outposts of fast-pitch softball. By 32, there was Jonathan staggering about the backyard Olympics of his two big brothers. And by 34, David and Marcy had loved each other for more than half their lives, but were somehow forgetting how to do it. Too many questions were asked, and too much darkness was falling. There was impotent hope, and pleas for the impossible, bruised walls and broken words. As he traced the plotlines in his mind, David could see the shadows of separation, but no matter how many times he reread the story, he was always surprised at the end, and after all the slowly marching pain, how abrupt it seemed. He kept looking for a rose-colored epilogue.

He was living by then next to Mary and Wayne, in the small apartment they’d built for the last years of his mother’s life after Wayne’s father had died. Having given up playing ball years before to keep summers more clear for Marcy and the lads – she’d never been much for sports – David didn’t hesitate to resume playing when the Port Hope club gave him a call. He brooded dully on the irony that, though he wanted to live and play with hope, there wasn’t any left for him and Marcy. The Sailors weren’t the young, athletic powerhouse they had been before, either, though David was more player than he’d been in his twenties. The manager, Jerry Edwards, remembered too well.

“You know, Dave, you wore mediums when you played before,” he said, handing Jason a pair of large uniform pants. Still, he was able to shed the rust from his throwing arm, his batting stroke was still there, and though he needed a lot more stretching in between innings, he was still pretty quick going from first to third. David, at 35, was glad to have teammates, as well as a ball and some lukewarm dreams to chase. Joey and Jordan, even little Johnny, enjoyed seeing Daddy play, and loved even more roaring about among the trees and picnic tables beyond the rightfield fence.

David remembered where the weakest kid always got placed in tyke baseball, so it was a pin to his pride to have to play right field. It did make it easy to daydream and watch the boys on his custody weekends, and he’d had worse stings. Besides, the kid who’d been the batboy during his first tour of ball-playing duty was the new shortstop, and David had to admit that Skinny was pretty good. Pony was a fast little fixture in centerfield, David’s other favorite position, but he didn’t take charge of the outfield the way David thought he should. He would have reason to remember that thought, not far into his first season back in the blue and gold.

It was a warm Friday in June, and a few bugs lazily circled the floodlights. David was having a good night, and was starting to feel like a ballplayer again, not just “Dad” to his younger teammates. In the fifth inning, he got a good jump on a short fly ball, right off the bat.  As he raced in from right, his eyes bounced from the falling ball to Eddie, the second baseman, who was running into the outfield. When he knew Eddie wouldn’t get there, David yelled, “I got it got it got it!” The last thing he remembered this time was that he was going to have to dive to make that catch.

They probably shouldn’t have moved him after a blow to the head like that. He was unconscious for a couple of minutes, and the blood bubbled and spurted from his nose and mouth. After he seemed to know roughly where he was and what was happening, his mates helped him to his feet and, arms draped across the broadest shoulders, David began a deeply drunken march to the dugout. The ambulance was already driving in to the park by the time he crossed the first baseline, and David wanted to know one thing.

“Somebody hurt? Whosa ambulance for?”

The guys had some laughs telling that story, and David filled in the gaps. It had likely been Pony’s left knee – another one, smaller than Ecker’s but moving much faster – as he galloped wordlessly in from centerfield and made the catch, that had broken David’s nose and scrambled his brain. His first dim awareness, the next memory that remained after I got it!, was at least half an hour after leaving the suburban ballpark. He realized, wonderingly, as the back doors opened at the entrance to the hospital emergency room, that he was in an ambulance.

He was wearing his ball uniform. There was lots of blood across the Sailors logo. Memory of where he had been, and how he might have been hurt came only slowly, and David never did recall anything after the doomed race for that short pop fly. The next thing he knew was that Mary was by his hospital bedside. It seemed odd, somehow, that his sister was there, but he was glad to see her. She gently explained what she knew of the accident, its results, and how she’d been notified. Something bothered David, though. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He was vaguely but increasingly anxious throughout their conversation, before a question bloomed in his mind like an instantaneous tumor.

“Where’s Marcy?”

He hadn’t even finished the third syllable before he groaned like a huge and badly wounded beast. He had flashed, in a thundering moment, from his disquiet to the cascading replay of the previous two years of marital drama and separation. Instantly. David hadn’t cried in front of his sister since he’d been five, but sobs shook him like a Doberman does a rag doll. Later, she told him that this blitzkrieg of sudden awareness had played itself out half a dozen times since she’d arrived at his bedside.

“I’m sorry, Mary,” he moaned as she hugged him. “I just remembered.”

Better Read Than Never: FALLING MAN

Got DeLillo? Here he is, somewhere in New York City.

Not everybody gets Don DeLillo. If you don’t pay attention to the contemporary art of the novel, you may not have even heard of him. Presto! That’s why I’m here today! Mr. D. is in the pantheon of current American fiction writers. Literary fiction, that is – this is not a “page-turner”, and he’s no Dan Brown. (That would be like comparing Vincent Van Gogh to the guy who makes the blue outlines for the old “paint by numbers” craft sets.) And I’m no DeLillo expert: of his major, and often hefty, acclaimed novels – White Noise, Mao II, and the famous Underworld – I have read precisely none. I tiptoed into his work with a comparatively slender novel called The Body Artist. It was clever, admirable stuff, a bit morose, and I don’t remember much about it. It left me cold, or maybe I was there to begin with. I may, however, need to read it again.

My recent second voyage into DeLillo Country was his 2007 novel Falling Man, the post-9-11 book he hadn’t intended to write. I found it on a remainder shelf in a mega-bookstore back home in Canada, next to a non-fiction book by Martin Amis in the same historical vein: The Second Plane. I was trawling for all-things-I-can’t-get-in-China, and not only were these two volumes a few cultural steps higher than the Harvey’s burgers and Baskin-Robbins cones I’d been gorging myself on last July, they also seemed fated together to increase my lugging for the next month’s return trip to China. And here’s why The Body Artist might deserve a second look: Falling Man is a novel I’ll be thinking about for a long time, one that I immediately started re-reading once I’d finished. How did he do that? It’s brilliant, but also an accessible introduction to a challenging writer.

See those towers? On the left, the back jacket, peeking through clouds.

We later find that one of the central characters is Keith Neudecker, a thirty-something lawyer and lover of games. We first meet him, though, as he staggers down a New York street. The novel opens like this:

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The Howdy Herald (Nuclear Family Radiation)

[The Howdy Herald is a family/friendly newsletter I send out somewhat annually. It is full of Howden/Cartwright doings and musings. It may not be of any interest to you whatever.]

The ImmediClan, minus one hunk of Will.

October 12. It’s a Friday afternoon in Dalian, Liaoning Province, People’s Republic of China, Asia, the World, Third Rock from a Modest Sun. I’m sitting in the 5th floor Reference Room of the School of International Business, a college at the university where Diana and I make our material living (and earn our visa privileges). The room has been mine for 90 minutes now, and there’s a pleasant breeze that seems to come straight from the scrub-forested hillside that fills the window to my left. It’s all I can see, and traffic sounds are fairly distant. Pleasant. I even hear the odd bird, and there aren’t too many in a city like Dalian, relatively clean though it is. This is a nice little zone. I should come here more often.

Yes, Sam and Diana and I are back in Dalian for our fourth China year.

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General Jack Speaks: A Play

General Jack Speaks

 This short monologue attempts to capture a little of the spirit and story of Marion Jack (1866-1954), a legendary Canadian Baha’i pioneer who was much extolled by the Faith’s Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, and much loved by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the son its Founder. The three “letters” that Marion “writes” during the play are fictional, though based on letters that she wrote to, among others, fellow believers Ella Robarts and Edna True. The text uses Marion’s own words where possible, and such quotations are indicated in bold print. Statements about “Jacky” written by or on behalf of the Guardian are underlined. She was nearly 90 when she died in Sofia, Bulgaria, her pioneer post since the early 1930s.


[Marion Jack, in the middle of the stage, is seated at a small desk in her tiny hotel room writing a letter and reminiscing. An off-stage voice introduces her.]

“[Marion Jack] was such a lovely person– so joyous and happy that one loved to be with her. Her shining eyes and beautiful smile showed how much the Baha’i Faith meant to her….We used to love to go to her studio and talk with her, also to see her paintings of the Holy Land and familiar Green Acre landscapes….She always entered into any plan with zest….If we could all radiate happiness as did Jacky, I am sure we would attract more people to the Faith.”


[Marion looks up and begins speaking.]

August, 1945

My dear Ella,

This terrible war is finally over, and perhaps things can return to normal now. I apologize for using a pencil, but my little inkpot has dried up. I began this letter in a little coffee shop. I like that place as I have had the chance of speaking to a couple of fine men here, so lately I try to frequent it in hopes of catching a listening ear…[and] pass on the Glad Tidings.

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Why Do Men Love Sports So Much?

Bill Simmons is one of the best sportswriters I’ve read. His prose pops with ideas, digressions and extrapolations. He churns out words at a high volume (especially in his book on the NBA, but also in his columns for Grantland, which can run to 10,000 words), but still manages to be graceful.

I’m a relative newbie in reading The Sports Guy. I’ve enjoyed reading pieces, by Simmons and the Grantland website’s “usual gang of idiots” (that’s a MAD Magazine reference, for you young’uns), that treat sports as something worth thinking about. (And mocking. And questioning. And loving, all the same.) From the start of this online discussion of sport and pop culture, indeed for his whole career, Simmons has been willing – eager – to rip off the mask of “objectivity” that supposedly marks the true “sports journalist”, and write as an unabashed fan. It’s no shock when a Grantland writer drop a fairly high-cult literary reference into a piece on doomed basketball franchises or tragic-comic ballplayers, but Simmons’s niche is emotion, plumbing the beer-sodden basements of “the agony of defeat”, and the dizzy champagne heights of joy and optimism, when the Good Guys win and whichever Evil Empire threatens them has been justly humiliated.

Simmons thrives on an unapologetic rooting for the laundry of all things New England and an amusing hatred for everything New York teams do and stand for. (See also: Lakers, Los Angeles.)

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Herald-ry 2011: Another Family Newsletter Thundering With TMI

[This family report was written in early September, 2011. The author stands by his commentary, if not necessarily his publication choices.]

Good morning, all my relations! It’s a blue-sky Monday in Dalian, and Sarah Harmer is singing “I am Aglow (With Thoughts of You)” in the next room. It’s not only a sweet and lively tune, but it’s a good mask for the usual September sounds in our apartment complex: military training next door. Freshman college and university students in China spend their first few weeks on campus in a kind of boot camp, so we hear endless repetitions of canned marching songs, indefatigable shouts of “Yi! Er! San! Si!” (their counting is outstanding, though limited; I used to think the same things about my high school’s football teams during their early-practice calisthenics), the crow-like hollers of young women crying out their martial arts thrusts and, of course, the Chinese national anthem. This morning’s alarm was megaphoned instructions a little before 6 am, and canned trumpets doing some sort of reveille. HELLO!! Sam was out the door by 7:30 for his third day of school, and Diana was teaching Oral English at her university by 8. So now it’s just me and Sarah, and a mad wind whirling about and through our 9th floor apartment. I can see the Bohai Sea between the cupolas of the apartment buildings across the street. I’ve just received the sweetest email from one of our dear friends here. It’s a good day.

Oh, the beds we’ve slept in!  Canada was a glorious, homely and instructive place to be this past summer. We had two brief visits to our house on Presland Road,

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