Pardon the Interruption

We are all our own monsters. (photo from

[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.

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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Tall Poppies

Bernard-Henri Levy is celebrated, so I understand, in his native France as a “public intellectual”, as if this was a good thing. It seems their culture tends toward approval of such a beast, which is likely one of the reasons many Americans are suspicious or

“Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful. And tall. And I see the sunrise before you do.”

dismissive of the French, even before they opposed G.W. Bush’s designs on Iraq. (Remember that? “Freedom fries” were being served at burger joints, because nothing French was palatable to a vociferous portion of American society.) Canadians are also leery of the so-called ivory tower; many think that intellectuals – “smarty pantses” – live nowhere else but white and high and mighty impractical.

Our John Ralston Saul is, therefore, a curious case. He’s not short of praise from various corners of the world: The Unconscious Civilization won Canada’s Governor General’s Award (prior, it must be noted, to his wife Adrienne Clarkson’s mandate), among many honours for his non-fiction and his novels; he’s been the President of International PEN (writers in global advocacy  of reading, writing, and freedom of expression) since 2009; he’s a Chevalier of the French Academy of Arts and Letters and has received honorary doctorates around the world; he’s been acclaimed among the “visionaries” of the world by Utne Reader, and a “prophet” by Time magazine. Now, he’ll never make the cover of People, but he’s a Certifiably Celebrated Dude in some pretty lofty circles. But a Canadian? A public intellectual? Surely that sort of thing should be done only in private!  

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Better Read Than Never: SAUL’s The Unconscious Civilization

I’ve come back for a second assault of John Ralston Saul’s 1995 book The Unconscious Civilization.1 It’s a brainy thing, but not awfully long. And it’s not that it was such tough going; Saul’s prose is quite readable even on difficult subjects. I just wasn’t bringing my mind to it, and there are always Other

JRS in book-signing mode. Best advice I’ve ever heard on writing a book: “Finish it so you can go write a better one!” I remain heedless.

Things to Read. Saul made his early reputation as a novelist, but that phase of his career has been eclipsed by his recent prolific output of essays and book-length arguments on globalization, citizenship, the true nature of democracy and of his Canadian homeland. He is something of a gadfly, and sometimes the epithet “philosopher-king of Canada” is muttered irritably, usually by fellow Canucks suspicious of both thinkers and those who dare to do it in public.

I find him a witty, scarily smart and superbly opinionated voice. In the mid-oughts, when I was writing for the Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, I got to spend some time in various front-row seats for the JRS experience.

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Citizenship at the Centre

I wrote yesterday about two significant Canadian anniversaries and neglected a fascinating third. On July 1st we’ll be celebrating the country’s 140th birthday, but it was only 60 years ago yesterday that the first formal Canadian citizenship was granted. (Pour maple syrup on absolutely everything if you can name the first citizen to be formally recognized as such. *Answer below.) I may have heard this before, but was still lightly startled nonetheless to be reminded that it was only in 1947, 80 years in to the Great Northern Experiment, that we were regarded technically as anything other than British subjects. Imagine how French Quebeckers felt about that, when the thought crossed their minds. Or the Chinese or Ukrainian immigrants. Or the Irish.

And so our blazingly attractive Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, herself an immigrant from Haiti, spoke to new citizens yesterday. They gathered in the halls of the Supreme Court, welcomed by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s frosted beauty and class. They came from all over Canada, and they came from all over the world – the usual Canadian story, at least for the last 40 years or so. Their smiles were wide, and their comments afterward were uplifting and sweet. But even 60 years on, as they followed Madame Jean in reciting their citizenship pledge, they said one jarring thing before promising to obey Canadian law and fulfil their duties as citizens. The Oath begins with the affirmation “that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors…” I shuddered, just slightly, though there are elements of our civic structure that are much more harmful than this small anachronism. Yet symbols do matter.

I stand with those who suggest that quietly, upon the death of the Queen, in a dignified and quintessentially Canadian way, we should end the designation of the top British royal as our Head of State. There is value, however, in separating “pomp from power”, in having the symbolic head of the country distinct from the leader of the government. The institution of the Governor General fits this bill beautifully, and maintains valuable ties to traditions both deep and more recent. (We may need to revise our selection method, which despite its partisan potential has sent some marvellous Canadians to Rideau Hall, including but certainly not limited to the last two.)

Former GG Adrienne Clarkson, for whom I wrote during the last years of her mandate, was honoured Thursday at Rideau Hall with the unveiling of her official portrait. Prime Ministers past (Mr. Chrétien) and present (Mr. Harper) were there, along with most of the chief politicos of Ottawa, but more interesting to me were the artists and the throat-singing Inuit sisters; I’d never heard a live rendition of this eerie, sometimes guttural, viscerally powerful vocalizing before. I also got to hang out with my ol’ buddies and colleagues from the days when I left my house (and my sweatshirts) to go to work.

The Clarkson portrait is striking, a combination of nostalgia and toughness. She is calm and just a touch defiant, actually, as she stands on a frozen Canadian lake and stares down the horizon, or dares the future. It is the first vice-regal portrait to have snow in it. (Only in Canada, you say?) The warmth in it comes from a deep and sturdy friendship between Ms. Clarkson and the painter, Mary Pratt – the photo on which it was based was taken over 20 years ago – and also from the soft blue parka that she wears. I’d seen it (and that steely gaze) before. She has worn it since it was hand-made for her by an Inuit women’s collective thirty years ago, and she swears she always will.

It’s a good day to think a little about being a citizen. It reminds me that I need to flood our Tiny Perfect Backyard Rink® tonight, maybe just after seeing the legendary Willie P. Bennett and the ukulele wizard James Hill play their music tonight at the National Library and Archives. But first, a little Saturday afternoon hockey — good for the northern soul.

* And get those crèpes cooking if you somehow knew that Canada’s then-Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was the first official citizen of this evolving country on February 16, 1947.

Writers Festival Highlights

I read Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept about a year and a half ago. He’s an Ottawa man, so though his book isn’t new, he’s here and his book is even more relevant. Questions about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan keep growing with every young man (and one woman) that we bring home to bury. Are we returning to a time when Canada “punches above its weight” as far as international influence goes? Cohen recommends it, from a military but especially from diplomatic and development perspectives. This is a smart and eloquent guy. If he was more prone to performance and less to dispassionate analysis, he’d be a big star in the punditocratic constellation. Punditocratic. a. describing those who make their living by entertaining us with their knowledge. Word of the day. Word to your father. You’re welcome.

Steven Manners has the look of a stubbornly loyal but chronically disappointed pro sports fan. (The Cubs. The Leafs.) He makes Cohen look like a sharpie, a vaudeville showman, but his wryly detached delivery began to grown on me as he discussed his Super Pills: The Prescription Drugs We Love to Take. I enjoyed his historical reminders of how root beer and Coca-Cola starting out as tonics, in the great tradition of Ayer’s Sarsparilla and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. (For example, only when the forerunner of the American Food and Drug Administration began to investigate why Coke “contains neither coca nor kola” did the company begin marketing it as a mere beverage.) Mainly, though, his book addresses the modern phenomenon that has been called “cosmetic psychopharmacology”: the avid search for and consequently ready supply of meds designed to make us “better than well”. Valium. Prozac. Ritalin. Viagra. The list is long, and the stories around them are a caution. We do love our magic bullets.

After Mr. Manners, I hustled over to fancier digs at Ottawa’s famous Chateau Laurier ballroom to hear my Ol’ Boss, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Her memoir Heart Matters is monstrously important for me and all my former colleagues, and is making a predictably big splash in Canadian newspapers and bookstores. Many in the large crowd, I’m sure, were anxious to hear the “state secrets” she has been admonished in some circles for telling. She was not a big fan of Prime Minister Paul Martin, it is now publicly clear, but she dismisses any idea that she’s broken a sacred code. In any case, she didn’t share anything from that part of the book. What she did read was fine storytelling, much of which I hadn’t heard before, about her family’s harrowing refugee experience and growing up an immigrant in a then very white Canada. She is a superb performer, of course, but she read far too long and the subsequent delightful conversation with host Ken Rockburn was far too short. (Yes, she simply cannot do without me. Ahem.) But then again, the line of book buyers eager to have it signed went on and on. I was in it.

The “Big Idea” series continued Monday night with Stephen O’Shea and his book Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World. I was not familiar with O’Shea, but he’s impressive and I’ll read his book. He’s a journalist writing history, and made a point about the importance of being in the place where great events occurred, and not merely consulting texts in libraries. This was perhaps a gentle critique of academic historians and also of our frequent tendency to give greater weight to abstraction and reference than to direct and felt experience. O’Shea devotes much of the book to countering a pervasive fallacy: the idea that war and conflict is what defines the course of history. Most accounts of medieval relations between Christianity and Islam focus on the great battles (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but O’Shea gives considerable attention to the long periods of peace and productive interaction between the two faith communities. He coins the term “Islamochristian civilization”, and terms the historic relationship as “a sibling rivalry, not this dangerous shibboleth of the ‘clash of civilizations’”. And as for “East is East, and West is West”? O’Shea argues, very convincingly, that “the twain did meet, and mingle, and marry”. He eloquently expresses his dismay at the contemporary toxic rhetoric that mixes politics and religion, and especially the West’s ignorance of Islam and its ongoing “fear of the Turk” – a renewable resource, it appears. “Religion, for all its solace, will always be a ready hand grenade for those who wish to make war,” he said. And I liked the following example, thrown off during questioning after his thoughtful and appealing talk. It’s a good conversation starter (or ender!), and rattles some of the slack-minded impressions of Islam into a new context. “Osama bin Laden is as much a Muslim,” O’Shea stated, “as David Koresh and the Branch Davidians at Waco were Christian…” This guy is good. (I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and listening about Islam lately. If you’d like a sample, start here.)  

Jane Jacobs

My wife, Environmental Avenger and all-around Sustainable Cities Babe, has been educating me for about ten years on Jane Jacobs and what she has meant to urban planning, urban thinking, urban renewal. It’s been a good but fairly steep learning curve. After all, for this small-town Baptist –especially after spending a dark and deeply annoying decade in Toronto one year – cities were nasty and brutish places where stays should be short. Scrape the grime and the moral sleaze off on your way out. Park your principles. Pick up your smile on the way out the door….

Maybe I’m growing up, though. There are wisecracks about Ottawa as the City That Fun Forgot, but it is a city and I mostly like it here. I also understand better some of the wretched costs of our pursuit of Country Living for Everyone! I still can’t get used to going to a supermarket and knowing nobody there, but when the news of Jane Jacobs’s death came through yesterday, I had sufficient respect for cities, and knew enough about her work to improve them, that I felt a real pang of loss. Diana was her neighbour for awhile in the Annex in Toronto, but I only knew her as a deeply appreciative reader. I had finally read her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, under professional pressure. (When I worked for Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, I was forced to read all kinds of magnificent stuff; here, we were preparing together for the William Kilbourn Memorial Lecture she was giving in Toronto.) It entirely changed the way I looked at cities and suburbs, it astonished me as the work of one citizen opposed to the way her city (New York, at that time) was developing, and it impressed me with the clarity and power of its writing. Gosh, she was good.

Now she’s gone. She left us with several remarkable books, and her final one, Dark Age Ahead, needs to move to the front of my next-to-read line. Citizen Jane was a ferocious and compelling example of civic activism and intelligence, and we’ll be referring to her for a long time.

Leonard Cohen and Five Good Songs

“You should never throw anything away, including people and ideas. It’s really true that we should never give up on anyone.”  That was Leonard Cohen, in my radio today.

Cohen is 71 now. Five of his songs were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on the weekend. (Did you know there was one? Not the weekend, I mean the Hall. Although, actually, there is no actual hall for the Hall. Someday.) He was on Sounds Like Canada this morning, a taped interview he’d done with Shelagh Rogers. I missed the first 15 minutes or so of a warm, intelligent conversation of the type that CBC Radio occasionally pulls off so wonderfully well. (The “Mother Corp” takes a lot of hits from people who don’t listen to it. The TV side has its highs, even beyond Hockey Night in Canada, but I don’t watch it much; it’s so-so, even before you account for having to watch commercials. But the radio side is brilliant, commercial-free, and getting better, getting a little younger. Superb.) It was an hour-long conversation, followed by an hour of highlights from the HoF awards show. (How’s a guy supposed to get any work done?)

“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in…” This is an example of the songwriter as Writer, as Poet, a designation Cohen once refused, feeling that it was too early in his career to apply to himself such an exalted title; I take it upon myself to confer it now). It comes from “Anthem”, which enters the Canuck Songster Pantheon along with “Bird on a Wire” (Willie Nelson was there to sing it, and that’s the version I hear), “Ain’t No Cure For Love” (I hear Jennifer Warnes), “Hallelujah” (kd lang did a glorious version at the ceremony, but I like Bono’s, too) and “Everybody Knows” (Don Henley does a terrific rendition on the tribute album Tower of Song, but Cohen’s own is one I find more listenable than some of the others, gritty and morose).

I’m hoping that the whole interview, as well as the awards package, will be available. I looked on the CBC site tonight for it tonight, and instead went wandering through their archives of 1950s radio interviews and 1960s television chats – Adrienne Clarkson, in all her youthful bouffant glory! – and on into the more recent past. And in case there’d been any doubt, I found an extraordinary man. Even in his youth, Leonard Cohen was profoundly articulate, gently contrarian, an artist and a seer who sounded and looked as contemporary as his interviewers looked and often sounded quaint. Now, his intelligence, insight and deep humility are beautiful to hear. I hope to hear today’s interview again. (Apparently it was filmed for eventual airing on television. I’ll let you know.)

Moms for the Holidays

Home again after the holiday trek through Ontario. Haliburton was quiet, homely and the wee traditions of the season were observed: dinner for my bride’s birthday on the 23rd ; Dylan Thomas on tape reciting “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on the 24th (sweet stuff — “I said a few words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept”); a few small gifts and, in the evening, plum pudding (with three kinds of sauces!) on Christmas Day. Quiet dealings, no reindeer, and modest gifting, though Sam loved his Whirly-O thingy with all the fun of its “gravitational, magnetic and centrifugal forces!” Somehow, I got to watch crazy amounts of sport, two basketball games and even parts of two NFL games, thus increasing my 2005 viewing percentages by infinite amounts. On Boxing Day we drove away, waving goodbye to Mother Margery and her beloved front porch SnowTroll™.

The Haldimand County homing was sweet, even if part of it now has to happen at Mom’s residence in Hamilton. It ain’t the same, but the Ol’ Girl loves to see all of us, even if she sometimes mixes up which grandchild is which (or whose). The idea of an entertainment review for her was a beauty, though there was a lot of avoidance behaviour on the part of the granchildren. Thank goodness for Christy, whose dramatic flair with Robert Service saved the rather dull offerings that some of the rest of us made. Or didn’t! Too much food back at Big Sister’s, but the conversation was as lively and interesting as I can remember. The New David (isn’t it remarkable how often SigOthers share the same name, hair colour or laugh as their predecessors?) stirs the Howden stew very engagingly, and his curiosity and interest in people pushed the conversation to very interesting and very funny places. It’s good to have our collective conversational cage rattled in such a friendly way.

The trip back to Ottawa yesterday was a long one, partly due to freezing rain and partly due to a satisfying stopover in Toronto, where I was able to interview Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General (my once-upon-a-boss), and her husband John Ralston Saul. They had agreed to give me an hour each for an infant  series I’m hoping will grow up into a fine book one day. I got more than my hour from each of them, and had an altogether sweet several hours at their new Toronto digs, which are lovely and busy and almost feeling like home. And the dreary ol’ 401 got us back home safely again. Looking forward to ’06.