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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The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show*

*With Chinese Characteristics

While this all happened, I was scribbling in the dark, periodically shielding my eyes when the gyrating stage lights tried to blind me in my privileged-foreigner (?) front-row seat. For reasons benevolent and charming, some still unclear, and others only a little nauseating, my college puts on its “Christmas Show” on the second weekend in December. When Western universities were completing exams, we had one last bash before the grim final few weeks of term. Exams started yesterday; I have papers to mark and journals to read, but remembering this is more fun. Besides, it’s (barely!) still 2013. I’d missed the show in 2012, on some pretext. Hmm, and also the year before that. This was Chance the Last, and if I hadn’t gone, you wouldn’t be able to read this breathless blurt of hyper-opinionated Western bemusement, befuddlement, wonder and dismay at the spectacle that is a Chinese celebration of we’re-not-sure-what-but-you-must-have-a-great-time…

This is Part One, and a second blast will soon follow. Happy New Year.

Oh, the sparkles, the spangles, the balloons! Oh, the frilly clothing and the 38-yuan red high heels that it was the honour of the young women honoured to be conscripted as the honoured hostesses to buy! Oh, that song, again and still – China takes all the weariness of the post-Hallowe’en deluge of Christmas songs and sharpens it all to a fine point, a stabbing red-hot poker called “Jingle Bells” that plays on repeat. Here is the same version that has impaled me for weeks at the mall where I tutor overpaying English learners on Thursday nights, at one of the many cash-cow private Business English academies. Worse, it’s a rendition that is a sonic cheese-grater to the soft parts of the ears, apparently called “Jingo Be-yo”:

Jingo be-yo, jingo be-yo, jingo ah de whee

Oh wha funny tease to righ / Inna one-hoss oben slee…

[Surely to punish me for my impertinence, the McD’s where I’m hiding away for freedom from distraction and high-grade Author Fuel is playing a diabetes-inducing version of “Here Comes Santa Claus”, which at least has the virtue of not being the George Michaels classic “All I Want for Christmas is You”.]

The glittering MCs come to the fore, to great applause.

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Abdu’l-Baha (on the Tao of Jesus)

Sigh. I could blame the exams, the final projects, the nutbars that I live with or another knock to my already addled head, but I’m late, as usual.

Of course, we don’t actually know the precise date of the birth of Jesus, so I could also plead historical vagueness as a virtue, but that’s not why I missed, either. Let’s just say it’s the season. Let’s just say that it has taken me some time before I could really think much about The Reason for the Season, as Christian friends back home like to remind themselves and their fellow crazed consumizens. (In China these days, it is even more bluntly obvious than it is among comfort-craving North Americans: avid consumption is the best-understood expression of citizenship. “Consumizens.” Not bad.) In fact, it was the thoughtful questions about Christianity from a young Chinese friend that got me thinking more deeply about why this time of year still stirs my blood and brain.

Anyway, I ran across this statement

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Holiday Tourism of the Local Kind

I can almost imagine a year when late December finds me breaking the pattern. Maybe I’ll jet my carbon-neutral way to sun and beaches, or more likely to visit some holy place or natural wonder. Maybe I won’t go anywhere at all, just batten the hatches and gorge myself on the movies I haven’t seen, whittle down the stack of books that implore me to fondle their pages. A guy can dream.

But neither of these extremes is likely. This is the time of year when I can curl up with a good movie; at this point, it looks like that may be confined to finally having seen The Queen, which reminded me of Ray, oddly enough: an okay movie but a superb central performance, here by Helen Mirren. Good reads have come more readily, with a second reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a month being the recent highlight. But, inevitably, it’s never the cinematic orgy or literary bender that I imagine. And though the last ebb of December is not some spectacular foreign getaway, we do travel to two outstanding Canadian counties. Haliburton and Haldimand. Who’d want to be anywhere else?

As per usual, our pre-Christmas routine found us heading westward along winding, hilly and ever-more-obscure blacktop to visit my mother-in-law in her lakeside retreat near the town of Haliburton. The road to late December is traditionally fairly frantic, especially in my busier years of teaching and coaching like my shoes were on fire. (Thankfully, though, Christmas shopping is a pretty low-intensity imperative for us, as we put more emphasis on Baha’i holy days. If my bride hadn’t been born on the 23rd, I’d have boycotted the malls utterly and religiously.) By the time we descend on Portage Lake, where the nearest neighbours are birch trees and looming hills, things are suddenly languid. Lazy. (This is much easier for me than for HyperBride, but I’m just saying.)

A couple of days before the Day, we had the usual low-key celebration of my bride’s birthday. The princess was happy with her usual perquisites: beef fried in a fondue pot, another song-filled and weepy viewing of The Sound of Music. (Report: The Von Trapps escaped. Again. People regularly broke into song at the oddest moments.) Christmas Eve is another subdued tradition, where Mum-in-law Margery places a shrimp ring gobblefest just before The Main Event: the Portage Lake Plum Pudding Massacre. Flaming brandy. Three sauces. Think you’re ready? You’re not ready. Not even the loons will hear you groaning…

One of the subtle joys of late December is how blissfully predictable and serene it all is, especially on the Haliburton end. On Christmas morning, we eat fresh-baked scones and have the most gentle exchange of gifts among the four of us. No tree, no invocation of sacred rituals and bearded elves. (With my first three, we’d ask them if they wanted to play “the Santa game”, worried that they’d feel left out. Sam is unfazed, though, perhaps in part because about half the kids at his school and all his bus buddies are Muslims.) I predicted: socks for Margery, a low-tech toy for Sam, something warm and fuzzy and hand-knit for Diana, and a gently-broken-in book for me. (Margery has great taste in books, and never leaves crumbs or bent pages or reads it in the bathtub. But THIS time, I am shocked and awed and slightly bent to report, she had believed reports of unread books from Christmases past and broke the pattern!) And more. I got to watch one of the annual Christmas Day NBA games, a much older tradition than Haliburton, but didn’t have the father/son sitdown to absorb the hardwood genius of a genuine Canadian idol, Steve Nash. (He always makes me want to coach again.) Supper was duck rather than turkey, an abrupt and fowl departure from orthodoxy, and a visit from Margery’s basket-weaving friend. Talk and warmth and not much else. Sweet.

Then we drove to suburban Cayuga on Boxing Day aft, where the Howden clan gathers in such numbers (and with such a copious food frenzy) that Haldimand appears, next to the somnolence of Haliburton, like Union Station at rush hour. People, people, people, and so dear. But here, changes are more the order of the day. Nieces and nephews come with new romantic interests in tow. (Some even survive for a second Christmas inspection.) We have finally limited the gift exchange, so it wasn’t the interminable round of consumer delight that it once was. It was also our second Christmas without my Mum. We remembered how absurdly and endearingly and predictably overjoyed she would be at the gathering of such a large, goofy and thoroughly wonderful crew. And for the second straight Howden Christmas, not coincidentally, alchohol has returned after our Noels were decidedly dry for decades. The teetotalling curmudgeon of a Baha’i uncle don’t bloody like it. (Stoical but dramatic sigh.)

As I predicted in my holiday crystal basketball, my Sam got as much cousin-time as he could fit in. As I also predicted, I have failed to encounter quite as many old friends or profound conversations as I’d hoped. And after a couple of days to lounge, recover from big sister’s carefully organized food marathon, maybe run by a corn field or two, we’ll soon be ready for the trip back home. My wife will be frantic to get DOING things. I’ll be worrying about whether the backyard rink survived the rain, and cursing myself for not writing more. Sam will be missing his snow-fort and friends. And all will be right with the world.