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Pardon Me While I Kill Myself. (Please get a room of your own.)

So here’s why you and I should get stuff done.

Stories change.

The Germanwings plane disaster hit me hard because of one fact: 18 of the dead were from one high school, sixteen kids and two chaperones. I still don’t know for sure what they were doing in Spain, but it didn’t make the slightest difference to me: they were kids, teachers were with them, and that interaction has meant the world to me for much of my life, and life to me in most of my world. I’m an education guy. I’m a school freak. So I got writing. The emotional vein was rich, and I had it going. 613 words in, I knew where the piece was headed and how it would end. Powerful comparisons had been summoned, and hearty stories from my direct and tangential experience just needed a little more flesh. I was tired. Maybe a bit distracted. Probably could’ve finished, but close enough. The writing beast had been slain for another day. Well, badly wounded, anyway, so I knew it couldn’t run much farther.

Life intervened, though, and I couldn’t get back to the piece the next day, and didn’t the day after that. Not only was nobody waiting for the piece to be done – standardly lame working conditions for an aimless blogger – but my take, full of emotion though it was/is, wasn’t exactly a hot one. It was elegiac and backward-looking and somber. No rush, right?

And then the air disaster story changed for me, dramatically, with the reports of the co-pilot having done the deed purposely, by and for himself.

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2006 in Review: Some Pretty Good Posts

Greatest Hits of JH.com

Well, strangers and friends, I’ve caught the New Year bug. [Not to mention the technical cockroaches that have scurrying around my keyboard!] If every sports channel, newspaper and current affairs show can air its highlights of the Old Gregorian Year, then so can I. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself…” as Whitman wrote. (Perhaps easier to say when you’re Walt Whitman, but so far, I’m okay with it.)

If you’re one of those people (and you’re not alone!) who CAN get enough of my writing — if you’re someone who may have resolved to look through those archives for all the gems contained therein, but preferred to make a living instead — then here’s the Coles Notes version, some of the good things (sez me) on JamesHowden.com . It’ll give you a taste of what I’ve been doing, without having to slog through 173 posts.

There are selections from “At First Glance” (my general-interest, whatever-happens-to-be-on-my-mind pile), from the “It’s All About Sports” section of the site (which IS), and from “On Second Thought” (generally longer, more considered articles and essays, although this section has largely been taken over by the “Old Dog Year” (ODY) chronicle of my mid-life quest to play the guitar). So: here comes a list of some of my favourite entries from 2006. It’s pretty random – hard to pick faves among your children – but these are nineteen letters that I wrote to you.

Letters to the Living. Read any that tickle or appeal to you.

NINETEEN: “Youthful Reasons and Dreams” talks about a Saturday night youth-fest at our place, and one evening’s Hopefulness Visible with the next generation. Dynamic, committed young people.

EIGHTEEN: “Four Straight Titles – Does Anybody Hear?” is one of several pieces I’ve written this year about the Carleton Ravens basketball men, one of the most extraordinary stories in sport.

SEVENTEEN: “Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers” is a review of a night at the Ottawa Writers Festival, one of the pleasures of my year. (Spring and Fall!)

SIXTEEN: “Twin-Billed Terrorism” is a double movie review of one blockbuster and one little-known independent film. Howdy goes to the movies; both come with a bang.

FIFTEEN: “Class Action, Nash and Klassen” looks at two of Canada’s most brilliant athletes (and people, I think). Mr. Howden Takes a Stand on the Lou Marsh Award.

FOURTEEN: “A Sunday Morning Voice from Israel” recounts an interview with a great writer I’d never heard of. Come to think of it, I never did write my review of David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind, which was the centre of this radio conversation; it was an important and brilliant book.

THIRTEEN: “Paradise by the Carney Lights” has nothing to do with Meatloaf. It’s about a night when faithfulness trumped glitz, at least for a minute. At least for me.

TWELVE: “February Empowers, Brings May Flowers…” is actually the story of a Valentine’s Day date gone horribly, well, right, I guess, though it wasn’t everybody’s romantic ideal. But Elizabeth May was there! We HEART environmentalists…

ELEVEN: “The Heart and the Congo” is a review of the Barbara Kingsolver novel The Poisonwood Bible. Just got around to it this year, and it got me.

TEN: “Just One. So Far. (Thank God. Thank the Cops.)” The Dawson College shootings in September hit me hard. Education, youth, belonging, the way we care for and feed our young men: this is my street.

NINE: “J-MAC and the Miracle: Everything Sport Should Be” is my take on a story that microwaved many hearts: autistic kid gets to be manager of the school basketball team, gets a chance to dress for the final home game of his career, actually gets a few minutes of playing time, and goes on an incredible scoring spree. “I was just on fire,” said Jason.

EIGHT: “Remembering Iran” is an account of an evening with two Canadians who know and love that place, its history, its beauty and its modern struggles. Jean-Daniel Lafond and Fred Reed made a movie, wrote a book, and spoke eloquently about each.

SEVEN: “On the Walrus Shelf” is part education rant, part literary appreciation, and part proud fatherhood. This was an evening when it was great to be on the shelf.

SIX: “Dar at the Noir” recounts another fine evening, this time in the company of folksinger Dar Williams and a few hundred of our closest friends. She’s tremendous.

Ah, we’re getting close now, friends. Countdown!

FIVE is for FAITH: That of Muhammad, in this case. A few dozen of us sat down with a fine scholar last August, and “Another Shot at Understanding: Learning About Islam” was the first of three (non-scholarly, but I think pretty readable) commentaries I wrote on Dr. Lawson’s lectures. We need to know.

FOUR wants MORE: There are several choices I could have made here, but this is a taste of something I’ve written an awful lot about: my “Old Dog Year” (ODY) of shutting down embarrassment and other hesitations and picking up a guitar. I have, for over 130 straight days now, and still no invitations to solo with the Stones. “Words AND Music?” is the genesis of the whole silly, obsessive (and sometimes delightful) project, which I have been ruminating about in “On Second Thought” since August.

THREE is for THRILLING ATHLETES (and how THTUPID they can be): I love sport. There are few things, however, that infuriate me more than athletic excess, when idiocy rules the playground, and especially when foolish or horrid things are done in the name of sport. (Religion isn’t the only institution that is stained by those who love and use it.) “O Zizou, Zizou, wherefore art thou so SELFISH?” is my look at Zinedine Zidane’s infamous Head-Butt Heard ‘Round the World.

TWO is for my HOMETOWN: I don’t have to do as much explaining about where my home and native town is anymore. People have heard of Caledonia now, for reasons sad and frustrating. “A Little Nightmare Down Home” is a bit of a lament for the banks of the Grand and the peoples that share it, and something of a memoir.

ONE is for my MUM: Everybody liked Enid. She was a brave and loving woman and she finally slipped away last fall. I have to put my remembrance of her at the top of this little list. And it’s not really a tale of grief and loss, though there was some of each. She had a wonderful family; it was a wonderful life. So here’s to you, “Enid Mary Elizabeth Howden”.

And that’s all, folks! Thanks for your interest, and have an encouraging 2007…

Just One. So Far. (Thank God. Thank the Cops.)

The number of killers? One, it turns out, a wounded child of 25. Loner, rejected, bitter. An Internet need for recklessness, weapons and creepy thoughts to feel a little more like a man who belongs. An Indo-Canadian Eleanor Rigby with rage and a video addiction.

The number of innocent dead (so far)? Mercifully, only one, though it is no consolation to a devastated family whose 18-year-old daughter is gone after a week and a half in her big new downtown school. What can this sacrifice mean? And what petty criminal do we thank for drawing, apparently, two young officers next to the scene? They followed the killer – I will not name him – not long after he strutted into Montreal’s Dawson College with the movie or game script playing in his head. Surely to goodness, these officers must have saved dozens of lives by pinning him down and drawing his fire before he was finally given the mortal send-off that he wanted. (But even the depraved should be careful what they pray for.)

The number of warnings? It depends on what you’re looking for and whom you want to be listening. This makes three school shootings in Montreal in less than 20 years. An American writer on the phenomenon found it anomalous – these things don’t tend to happen in urban areas – but then she specializes in high school shootings. We’re going to hear an awful lot about Mr. Sickly and his on-line musings about hate and violent death and the pictures of him caressing his weapons, and probably about the signals he has long been giving out. Who is it for?…No-one comes near…No-one was saved…All the lonely people / Where do they all come from?   

And there was this on CBC Radio’s The Current this morning, from Francine Pelletier, a Montreal journalist and documentary filmmaker. She connected this event with a disturbing societal picture: “Young men in Quebec have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There is something rotten here…[and] young men between 18 and 35 are particularly vulnerable…” She called Quebec “the most American of Canadian provinces,” an assertion that is disputable in many dimensions, but she was pointing to an “appetite for display” and drama. Pelletier also worries that “40% of Quebeckers feel that suicide is acceptable. If you are more tolerant towards it, you are more likely to have it.” And all too often, angry (and cowardly) men want to take someone with them or, as seems to have been the case here, to have a deadly tantrum and force the police to do his suicidal dirty work. We are in, bitterly enough, international suicide prevention week. It started on September 11.

I used to tell my basketball players – I used to tell my own son – “Get mad, not sad.” In an athletic context, sadness over an error, a defeat or even a lack of improvement is an emotion that can engender helplessness (what’s the use?), while a certain kind of anger builds resolve and a determination to turn it around (I can do better than that! or I’ll show them!). It makes me ill to think of it in this context, and it raises one of the biggest challenges that modern society faces: what do we do with male energy and anger? (There’s no simple answer, but here’s what we don’t do, as too many have: label all male anger as toxic and primitive. Actually, extremist gender attitudes have a way of labelling men as toxic and primitive, and don’t think that young guys can’t hear that.)

The Current also had a novelist on. Lionel Shriver is the American writer of the Orange Prize-winning novel We Have to Talk About Kevin, which follows a mother who tries to understand the murderous spree of her son. Shriver’s immersion in the world of youthful mass killing is ominous the day after Dawson: “I became convinced that it was a fad, an imitative thing” and that, while environment obviously plays a vital role, “people vary in their initial ability to recognize the reality of others, to empathize, to love…It’s not a stretch to say that some were born with less moral capability than others.” It’s not a stretch to notice, however, that they are almost always boys.

Yesterday and today, there was periodic relief expressed that there appeared to be no ethnic or religious or political dimension to this. Certainly, Canadian Muslims must have been praying Oh God, not one of ours, please! We are all grateful that it wasn’t another gender-specific Montreal massacre, not an anti-Semitic or anti-anglo or anti-black or, apparently, anti-anybody-in-particular action. It was just a deadly strike against life. Against most of us. As for the reflexive media relief that It does not appear to be a terrorist act, I can only wonder at our public definition of terrorism. Of COURSE this is terrorism! It just happens to be fairly non-discriminatory and without even a real objective, however delusional. Just because he had to. Just because he could. It’s the terrorism of the excluded, I guess, of someone who felt oppressed by unpopularity and lovelessness and the previous impotence of his rage. It’s a peculiar sort of comfort. It still scares the hell out of me.

I’m Not THERE, Either

Montreal again. Trench coats and young white males and guns again. School kids in terrified lockdown in classes, or running into the streets, or hitting the floor of their cafeteria. But especially, it seems that a desperately alienated and angry young man (or maybe more than one) has decided to do something about it. The something involved automatic weapons and people he probably didn’t even know. The it? God knows. But I’ll bet it has to do with uselessness, and toxic blame, and utter disassociation from lives and problems and wounds other than his own.

This time it’s Dawson College, part of Quebec’s CEGEP system of trades and university-preparatory schools. These are 16-19-year-olds in a large downtown school of more than 7000. Many of them are living away from home for the first time. How disoriented are they today?

Something about the conjunction of learning and murder, of striving youth and senseless death, is unbearable. It looks like the police took down one of these pathetic excuses for manhood, but it’s still not clear if he was alone. (He makes a fine argument for the benefits of suicide. Maybe we should have more respect for merely self-destructive behaviour among the young.)

But there is blood on the walls of another Montreal school, and stains on students and families that no pressure-hose will ever wash away. Four dead so far, they say. A dozen others in various degrees of distress. At least it’s not 14, as it was at L’École Polytechnique in 1989. So much to grieve, so much to rage against in the dying of youthful lights.