2014: A Howdy-Do Year in Review

Last January, I didn’t get my 2013 lookback, The Great Eighteen, up until the 20th, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to call this prompt. Efficient. Timely — at least for me! Reflection on accomplishments never comes at a bad time. (Does it? Of course, you ninny! Okay, but — Which doesn’t mean it’s always foolish to look backwards, either. Alright then, so maybe — Just get to it!)

I posted to 93 times last year, which is as productive as I’ve ever been, and that with December nearly ringing up a doughnut. (That’s jock-talk for nada. Zero. Hole in the JZone layer. Nuttin’, honey. I missed that bizarro perfection by one lonely post, so the rest of the year must’ve been excellent.) Starting with my self-conscious blurts in the middle of 2005, now has an archive of 637 posts. That seems like quite a few.

So, I consulted a panel of experts. What were the most meaningful, artistically satisfying and world-changing posts of 2014 on No. I didn’t. I trawled through 2014 and asked myself, “Okay, self, what do you still like and think others might, too?” Oh, I did take my readers into account, based on what got read most, or what found life elsewhere on the ‘Net, but mainly this is me Me ME. So here is a quick skate through some of the things I wrote here last year. It gives a reasonable portrait of what gave my head a shake in 2014. It’s a quick read, and you can click on anything that appeals. Here, then, are the

Fabulous Fifteen!

1. Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On (Jan. 2)                 (with Chinese Characteristics)

For the last three years in China, my wife and I taught in the School of International Business, a small college within our university in Dalian. Every December, there was a spangly student SHOW. Here, I reviewed this incredible, excessive, odd, passionate, obligatory celebration of something-or-other. Warning: this is only the second half of the extravaganza, and you may not be able to resist dipping back into December 2013 for the full jaw-dropping effect. It was amazing. (And only occasionally depressing.)

2. Lost in Cambodia  (February 5)

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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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Running in Canada, Heading for Home

Generally, I don’t miss the traffic-dodging adrenaline or the lung-scrubbing atmospheric particulates that are involved in getting out for a run in my eastern hometown of Dalian, to say nothing of Beijing. Still, running was sometimes good for me in China. Running is like writing is like prayer, for that matter: frequently, it doesn’t feel like something I want to do until I’m already in the act. (And hey, don’t you assume that, after arrival in today’s Dedicated Writing Niche, I just spent the first 95 minutes hunting Web distractions and brainstorming vision statements for non-existent basketball clubs! Sheesh. You people get so personal sometimes.) So here I am, talking about what I think about when I think about running, especially back home in a Canadian summer.

There’s lots to ponder about running, and about what happens between the ears when we do. I think about all kinds of things when I run. (I also play stale pop tunes in the jukebox of my brain.) I think about the differences between China and Canada. (I rehearse what I should have said in decades-old conversations.) I think. (I think I think.)

I think: I never went for runs like these in China.

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Writing and Doom

That day’s Sinking Feeling Epiphany:

Every day is September.

(Can I still do this?)

The day after Labour Day — in Canada, it’s the first Monday of September — always loomed anxiously. For most of my adult life, it meant being back in a high school classroom, the Return of the Creature. From about the last week of August, the Creature Dreams would begin their annual limited engagement. (It’s an auspicious day, great things to teach or coach, but I can’t find my classroom/the gym, materials are a bizarro mess, and wait didn’t I have clothes on before? and this place looks vaguely familiar but why’s the ceiling getting so low and holy-cow-my-feet-are-stuck-in-what.) Teaching and coaching were performance arts, and so there was performance anxiety, more than 20 years of it, but mainly confined to the first Tuesday morning of the school year. I always got an adrenalizing dose of can I still do this? but I was unfailingly reassured about five minutes into period one: yeah, ‘course you can. You’re built for this. I am Creature. Hear me creach!

Maybe I’m just tired and lonely in this writing thing. In June, we were not only packing, finishing our teaching jobs, and preparing to leave China and our Chinese friends after five years, but I’d accepted a writing deadline: June 30.¹

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But you know, I’m gonna miss this place. Huge.

And I will miss our Chinese friends even more. Jet-lag smacks me pretty hard, but it’s already starting to ease a little. (I can face my keyboard with only minimal dread.) The general disorientation of farewells, uprooting and re-entry into a previous context will soon fade; the cleaning and painting and purging of our house will be over in a few weeks.  I believe and hope that I haven’t left China forever, and that I’ll see some of our friends again, but I know that for too many I’ve said my last goodbye. That’s how it happens, though I’m not much good at accepting it.

I’ll write more about it. I imagine a four-part goodbye: to the teaching work at two Dalian universities, to the new legs that China gave to my long-dormant basketball playing, to the wonders and remarkabilities of that tremendous country that is so suddenly front and centre to the world’s future, and to our sharing of the Baha’i vision with new and lasting friends. (I want you to hold me to this promise.) For now, for recently, I’ve only posted a couple of things.

In “At First Glance”, just below in this main section, you’ll find a piece I could have titled “Fear and Loathing on Huangpu Lu”. I probably was more than a few centimetres from death, but I stared at that speeding car from way too close and from the seat of my slightly soiled pants.

In the “It’s All About Sports” section, there’s this retrospective on the stunningly high level of basketball played by the San Antonio Spurs in winning the NBA championship. We still don’t get it, and with LeBron having dominated the North American sports headlines even after losing, even during the World Cup, my essay isn’t going to change anything. I tried, anyway.

“On Second Thought”, the place where I put ideas I’ve pondered and worried over longer, was just the spot for an older piece, one that didn’t find publication back in 2007 but still tells a story of faith and commitment that you might find touching. (It still touches me, but pain isn’t everything.)

And, it being World Cup season, with Germany and Argentina itching for a fight — but without violent or military intentions — a few days ago I quoted a fine American writer, Brian Phillips, who mused about what the Cup does that no other human activity can match. That’s in the “He Said/She Said” section.

Please note also that the so free and easy to SUBSCRIBE it’s almost sinful button is still just over there, top right.

JH [dot] com is on Twitter @JamesHowdenIII. It keeps followers up-to-date with what’s happening here, plus the usual Twitter smorgasboard of observations, pass-alongs and faves, and of course you’re welcome. 

Thanks for looking in. If you’re new here, read on to find out more about “Sport, Culture and Other Obsessions” that I’ve been writing about

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China Road: Rage Against the Machine*

This is part two of “Crossing the Street in China”. The less-violently-so-but-still emotional part one, on going out of the Way by bringing “poker” into a Chinese college classroom, was here.

In one week, we fly from Dalian to Beijing to Toronto to Ottawa. We’ll be “home”. Our China sojourn, five years young, ends in seven days. I’ll be posting about that, too. I hate goodbyes, and we’ve already had dozens of ’em, but I won’t miss the kind of experience I recount below.


* AltTitle: Fear and Loathing on Huangpu Lu

It’s another T.I.C. story. My wife and I mutter TIC (“this is China”) with resignation, a shrug, usually with grace and occasionally with genuine wonder. (It’s an amazing place. So much to see and learn. But.) Perhaps my most emotionally rich TIC moment happened last week, too, if by “emotion” you mean volcanic but helpless rage.

A Good Guy, defined: someone who goes out of his way for someone else. My son regularly goes out of his way, though not for the sake of being a gentleman, to avoid crossing the main street near our home. Huangpu Lu is six lanes wide, with a bus stop on either side, and the car-heavy side street that comes from our large apartment complex enters it on an oblique angle. There is no stoplight. There is a painted zebra-stripe crossing, which means nothing in China. (Not quite true. It means that drivers speed up as they approach it so pedestrians won’t try anything stupid, like trying to cross ahead of their Audis.) My son doesn’t need to cross there as a rule, and refuses to. Last year, he saw what he’s convinced were three dead bodies at that crossing, one a mown-down pedestrian, two in a car wreck with blood staining the road for several metres.

I cross Huangpu Lu at this spot every day that I go to school.

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Back on Track and Fielding My Age

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They're the blue-clad spectators, here during the "march of the somebody-or-others". Like me.

Surrey goes all out, image-wise. They’re the blue-clad spectators, here during the “march of the somebody-or-others”. Like me.

When I wrote last June about my first in-depth experience of a Chinese university’s annual “Sports Meeting” — a low-performance track and field meet — I was still quite flabbergasted by the whole thing. It was an incredible show that put the circus into the “bread and circuses” recipe for keeping the mass of people contented and amused, and yet everybody takes it so seriously. I swung wildly between my reflexive love for young people giving their hearts to sport — even for a day — and my disgust with what a paltry, occasionally harmful and clearly manipulated “opportunity” the kids actually had. I liked that athletic kids got to run and jump, and hated that many participants and nearly all the spectators weren’t there by any shade of their own choice. The whole thing really wasn’t for the students at all. Mianzi, it’s called. “Face”: making the university and its officials look good, and the university experience a “colourful” one for a day or two between the grey student months. Look, you had the Sports Meeting. Wasn’t that fun? Umm.

I was also a little ticked that I and younger foreign staff hadn’t been invited to join in. Oh, we wore our hats and marched (badly) in the mini-olympian opening ceremonies, but there were faculty races, too, but no wai guo ren had been asked. Then, a week ago, I got a surprise text, asking me to join one of the funky sprint relays that Chinese meets feature. In this case, it was six men and five women, with two 100-metre, six 200-metre and three 400-metre legs. In a “training session” last Monday, I got smoked by young Mr. Zou in a 400 trial, which meant that I’d be a 200 Man, with a shorter distance to lose time in. The goofy thing is that 50-something males – well, at least one that I know of – can still get pumped about silly athletic contests. (Okay, love, I’ve got a week to lose five pounds! Did, too.)

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Temple of Heaven: Grounds for Optimism, Part 2

 This is Part Two of “Grounds for Optimism”, in which our fearless scribe goes to Chinese gardens, walking and running and thinking about things and then writing about them to dazzling effect. Part the First, on the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” in Suzhou, did its dazzling right here.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

The Temple. Little bits of heaven surround it.

A few days later, in Beijing, I loosened my purse-strings again. Though I’d stayed, on a couple of prior visits, in a hotel near the Tiantandongmen station of the capital’s a-maze-ing subway system, I’d balked at the high walls and what had seemed like the rapacious price for a wander around the Temple of Heaven. (Tian Tan. Dongmen means the “eastern door” of this Ming and Qing dynasties-era complex of imperial gardens and temples.) On my second-last day in Beijing, I decided it might be worth running inside those walls, instead of on the chaotic surrounding streets. I had my usual sinking feeling at the entryway crowds, but the lines weren’t actually that long, and I found out that an entrance ticket – no access to the temple interiors, fine by me – was only 15 yuan. (You’re not paying $2.50 to go jogging, goofball. You’re running through Chinese history and culture for the price of a McChicken! Give your head a shake.)

The Tian Tan grounds are enormous, and yes, I got lost. I’d thought to run the perimeter and then see what I’d like to explore further, but after 35 wide-eyed minutes I wasn’t any particular where, as far as I could see. Well, I thought, I must be back near the East Gate by now, but I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Even without entering The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests – the “most famous temple in the world”, this under-educated Westerner was surprised to discover – or the Beamless Fasting Palace where Emperors purified themselves for weeks before their invocations of heaven, or viewing the Circular Mound Altar of sacrifice, I knew I’d be back for another tour the next day. Quite apart from the legends and the antiquity, there’s so much China in there, the parts just behind the walls of heavy traffic, the veils of pollution, and the look-how-modern-we-are! forests of shiny skyscrapers.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s a People Place. (People’s

Rocks to me. Even after I read, I didn't get the significance.

The Seven were just funky-shaped rocks to me. Even after reading, I didn’t get the significance.

Republic. Go figure.) There are tonnes of tourists, absolutely, but what this one liked was the locals who also paid no attention to The Divine Storehouse and the Seven-Star Stones. Folks pay, I found out from a spry old dude with careful and sufficient English, 100 yuan for a year’s pass. They come, singly and in groups, for exercise, community, art, serenity and the most amicable kinds of noise. I walked and ran and watched and listened, and for a time I just lay on a bench looking at the sky through the branches of old cypress trees. Here’s what I saw:

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Running, Pull-Ups and the Oneness of Humanity

I’ve never been able to endure even the idea of running on a treadmill, and only reluctantly do I join the walkers dutifully circling the track at local Chinese schools and universities. (My mind constantly runs in circles, so I don’t need cardiovascular reenactments.) Even plodding along familiar streets gets me restless, which partly explains why I love to run in new places. On a recent day in Suzhou, when my balky body had granted relatively enthusiastic permission for a run, I soured on what might have been a sweet outing, partly because my responsibilities as a friendly tourist nixed my locomotion. Walking (and stewing and brooding) burned a few calories, but I was glad to get out the next day.

We were, however, most favoured tourists. Our more-than-gracious hosts’ apartment  was across the street from Central Park, quiet and leafy in the modern section of Suzhou, so my live-in travel agent and I laced up and lumbered. Ponds and stone avenues, lawns and impromptu dancersize groups of Chinese women gave way to streetcore tourism as my bride signalled she’d had enough. I went straight down Broadway – actually, it was called Xinggang Lu, which means “Denim is my Destination”* — toward the Pants. More respectfully known as the Gate of the Orient, this huge dual tower looks like a pair of low-rise jeans on a hipless Chinese girl. Central Park punctuates, for a few blocks, Xinggang Lu as its traffic flows toward and away from the TrouserGate, and it was only partly for the sake of avoiding getting lost that I went Pants-ward. Impertinence aside, it’s enormous and visually quite compelling, and I didn’t resist its bowlegged charms.

* It most certainly does not mean that.

The boulevard made for pleasant city running.

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