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Triplet Homey Birthdays: Wise Guys!

[5-minute read.]
Some of my readers are family, but most of you won’t know who I’m talking about at all. You may think, Why should I read this? These people mean nothing to me. But I think they will. I suspect that you know gents kinda like these. Listen: they were good men. (One still is.)   

The end of July is reflection time – yeah hey, another one! Rumination. Ponderables. Wonderings and wandering attention, the occasional WHY and a whole posse of what-ifs. As July finishes baking, three sweet’n’sour birthdays follow one another, three days for three men that raised and sandpapered and marinated and confused and strengthened me. Do you know these guys, or men like ’em?

Today, my big brother is 6264. (Yikes! Nice math, Einstein!) We have the usual, the far-too-standard fraternal bond. We love the other guy but never mention it, unless you count the kind of merciless-but-never-toxic teasing that comes with confidence and a certain deep kind of knowing. We would do anything the other one asked, though we know he probably won’t request anything beyond a bed to sleep in or a pool table to move. We rarely call each other, and when we do there’s always a practical reason; we don’t write much, but are surprised at what a brother might say in an email and how good it feels to read it. Despite the obvious facts that we both love sport and are often more willing to explain things than some around us might prefer, I’ve always dwelt on noticing how different we are. I find myself chronically restless, incurably dissatisfied, and find Bill, my father’s namesake, eerily content. (I don’t believe in it, to be honest, but as the decades pile up, so does the evidence of his satisfaction. The guy seems to know what he likes and like what he knows! At a fundamental level, this strikes me as amazing. I can’t quite grasp it.) He’s a business man, good and smart with money, while I eagerly avoid thinking about cash and have most enjoyed work that mysteriously put monthly sums in my bank — or didn’t pay me at all. My brother signs cheques and legal documents with a painstaking, patient cursive signature where each letter is roundly formed. I practised a snazzy, jazzy penmanship designed to look good on the first page of the books I’ve never published and the autographs nobody asks for.

The longer I interact with the lying mirrors in my life, though, or actually listen to my own spoken rhythms, the more I’m forced to admit that we look and sound a lot alike. I still listen to music that he had fairly brief adolescent enthusiasms for, and well into adulthood have feverishly played (and later coached) sports that he taught me to play. I continue to dream of baseball; I presume he was my first pitcher and catch-and-throw partner, but it predates my conscious memory. (I do, however, bat from the opposite side of the plate than he did.) It was because of playing road hockey with him that I became a goaltender on ice. I had to learn not to lean to the right in shooting my first basketballs, once I’d gotten tired of being a slapshot target, because that’s the way he did it. Ask me to punt a football, and I’ll be inclined to slip off my shoe, since Bill hit his high boomers off a bare instep and I learned that way, too. Though I hit a golf ball only very rarely (and that from the goofy side of the tee), while Bill is an avid golfer, I have to admit that we’re more similar than I used to think.  I’ve spent a lot of time searching for brothers in my life. I think we all need brothers, and I’m glad, and still mighty curious, about the one that I was given. (Hello there!)

July 28, yesterday, marked the birth day of another guy who formed me.

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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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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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“Dalian, Dalian, Dalian-ward…!”: A Family Newsletter

The excitement is hitting me this morning, as it periodically does. A 4:30 a.m. bathroom stumble turned into an hour of restlessness, thinking of all that is changing in our lives and all of you that are steady in our thoughts. The insects are buzzing, the birds sing (as do the fishing boats and motorbikes), and the sun is preparing to turn a warm and humid night into a blazing sweatbox day in Macau. I’m sitting by the pool in our hotel on the isle of Coloane in this former Portuguese colony that is now one of the Special Administrative Regions of China. CHINA. There isn’t a lot of lounging time, so by the time I finish writing this newsletter, I expect that we will be in Dalian, a small village of about four million in northeastern China. (CHINA!)

I’ll try to be brief. (I will fail. Skim as you wish.)

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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.

Barnabus Quotidianus

BQ is a web log that I recently stumbled upon. (It’s written by a guy older than me, which I find encouraging and consoling.) If your grasp of Latin is even shakier than mine, I’ll tell you that it means something like “The Daily Barney”.

But no, worry not, there is no annoying soundtrack and zero appearances by purple cartoon dinosaurs. Barney is a British writer who comments on community and spiritual development, primarily – all the places where social concern, citizenship, faith and activism converge – but he also writes appealingly on a wide range of personal stories and interests. He’s a good read. He manages a fairly difficult thing with ease and style: he can write about matters of religion, for example, with refreshing plainness, sense and even fun.

It’s a personal log, so it doesn’t carry any official stamp, but Mr. Leith is a prominent member of the Bahá’í community of the United Kingdom. So, there is a fair sense of how they approach issues from gender equality to religious discrimination, along with the Barnabus take on technology, media, writing, family and a long list of other interests. It’s a pleasant cyberspace stroll that you might enjoy, as I do.

ODY: Week 10. 70/365. But I Never Played for my Mother…

Monday. Gordon (the guitar) and I had a nice long bedward session. Michael Enright was interviewing the astonishingly young, beautiful and good Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the radio. (In Half of a Yellow Sun, she writes of the birth of Biafra in the ‘60s. Sounds powerful.) I like my right hand. I can get much more into the BlissyZone with finger picking than with chord changes. Male multi-tasking!

Tuesday. It was game 3 of the World Series, the first of the playoffs that I’d seen. First of the year. (Unbelievable. I still love that strange, timeless, slow game. I raced home from October school days to watch the Series as a kid. I played seriously into my 30s. I can still feel the bat in my hands, awake or asleep, in a way that I doubt a guitar will ever match.) Carpenter pitched brilliantly, and that turned the Series for the Cards. I watched over at my friends’ house, where I found not only a working television but that my buddy Fanfan is learning to play bass. Potential collaborator. I played long and lots. Had the room to myself ‘til the seventh inning, then the bullpen got too loud. These folks, two of them born in Canada, knew far less about baseball than I did about guitar two months ago. I tried to save them.

Wednesday. Lesson Night at the Ol’ Ottawa Folklore Corral, and it was a good night in the Old Dog guitar saddle. (How’s that for a mangled metaphor?) Asked questions. Got answers. Further to my mind-boggled reaction to the chords from last week’s “Study in E”, GG (Kurt the Guitar Guru) was able to quickly teach me the remarkable “E minor 11th” chord, which can also be played as “G 6-9”. It’s the opening chord to “Hard Day’s Night”, for one thing, and I’ve got it. Sounds good, right? Actually, it doesn’t. It’s ridiculously primitive. It’s just a brainless right-hand strum without a finger on the fretboard. (Ohh. I knew that.) The GG had lots to say about more significant things, like finger shapes. Learning to feel the chord shapes is the key. Sliding from one chord to another based on shapes, not notes, means that skilled guitarists are sometimes seen as “idiot savants” by other classically trained musicians. While they have had to learn the individual notes to a chord, good guitarists can intuit new chords quickly by adjusting their finger shapes or moving them up or down the fretboard. (I think that’s what the GG said. Musicians, forgive me when I know not quite what I am talking about.) 

And then came Thursday. “I think you should come right away,” Big Sister said. Our dear Mum has been in steady physical decline for the past several years, and it looked like she was doing her final taxi toward spiritual takeoff. And she was. I took care of what I thought I needed to, including being ready for a funeral, packing for my youngest son and preparing to practise the guitar for however long we would be away from home. I grabbed Gordon, met Calvin Junior (and his own versions of Hobbes) at the school bus stop and hit the road running. We didn’t quite make it, but I had some quiet moments of reflection in her room, where her body still lay.

I didn’t think much about music. Aside from her love for hymns and her comically poor singing of them, music was never a big part of our life together. Baseball? Hockey? Books and books? Absolutely. When I was a kid, though, Mum would make occasional reference to my hands: “Look at those fingers! You’re going to either be a surgeon or a concert pianist.” Well, I did almost get into medical school one year, but musical virtuosity was unlikely since lessons were never even suggested. It occurs to me that my impracticality stems more from my mother than I had thought. She’s always been a woman of grand dreams, and her vision of a generous, funny and welcoming family life was realized in the most vivid way, especially in the generation of her 13 grand-kids. Later, as we shared Enid stories, someone told of a young writer friend who had told Mum of an ambition: to win a (remotely conceivable) literary prize. (It might have been the Pulitzer.) Mum’s response was characteristic and quick. “Why not the Nobel?” Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? (Enid Howden quoting Robert Browning. Time and again. Burden and blessing.)

So, decades after I began to notice my own rabid interest in music, and after years of fascination and envy at the musical progress and accomplishments and satisfactions of my own kids, I embarked on this Old Dog Year. I decided to do something about a hypothesis I’d had for awhile. Maybe I am a bit musical. And with my athletic ability in free-fall, maybe I should work at something I can get better at in mid-life, without a need for youth or functional ankles. ‘Cause they ain’t comin’ back. I now feel that among the many lofty and wonderfully principled ideas my Mum had planted in me, this seed of musicianship was among them. It wasn’t well-nourished, mind you, but it was there. It was the classic “castle in the air”, which another strain of my childhood had derided. Quit your dreaming, boy. Get down to business. What a little absent-minded professor he is! And I hated that stuff, that accusation that I was cloud-bound, impractical, a dreamer.  

But although I function reasonably well in this allegedly Real World, I came to understand as an adult that I clearly was all of those things, and an idealist and a hope-filled romantic, too. So was my Mum. And like me, she would have loved Thoreau’s take on dreamers in Walden: “If you build castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now build foundations under them.”  So I do, in this case by pulling out my guitar every day. I thought later that I should’ve taken Gordon up and played a little in the stillness of her second-to-last room, but that wasn’t really us. (Among those souls I called upon that night to welcome Mum, though, was the old Cleveland Indians star Rocky Colavito. She’d been a great fan, and it seemed fun; the only problem was my discovery that he’s still alive. Ah, well.) Instead, I pulled out the guitar later at Big Brother’s place, where the clan gathered late into the evening, ostensibly to plan but mainly to remember. I softly fingered all the bits I can do without thinking. It felt a little like love.

Maybe all this explains, in part, why I’ve taken the long way ‘round to being a musician. (Wow. I just said I was a musician. It hardly even hurt! I do feel a giggle coming on, though.) It also took me a long while to become a writer. Chez Howden, it was reading, not writing; baseball, not music; and, in a larger sense, principles that regularly overrode pragmatism. I felt a certain joy in Mum’s passing. It was release from a limited and painful life for her. It was a superb family reunion: everybody was there, and the laughs were legion. But there was more than that, a sense of personal relief and of eagerness to live that I attribute to Mum’s example of both. Relief and contentment at the end of a well-lived and loving day, and a current of eagerness to do what I might to realize her hopes for all of us.

Right this moment, odd as it is, messing around with a guitar seems to be part of that. Amid stories and photographs, I picked some more at Little Sister and Silent Paul’s place the next night. I was a late-night guitar vampire for the next few days, using the quiet of Big Sister’s living room to go through my exercises and exercise my memories. At times it was a welcome escape from thinking, yet at others I felt as mindful as I could be. It was a rhythmically stumbling kind of meditation, peaceful moments to linger on the kindness of dear old friends and vaguely familiar faces from the old home town. Sorry for your loss. Condolences to you and your family. Enid was a great lady…

We stood by her grave — right next to my Dad’s — in the sweet sunlight of a warming autumn day, laying roses and praying and singing. (It was just the Howdens, and we actually sang pretty well, thanks.) I walked by my grandfather’s grave, past my old high school, around some of my favourite tree-lined and leaf-scented streets. Back by the fireplace at Big Brother’s, I spent a good part of the afternoon playing, including a welcome bit of stern rehearsal time with the Itinerant Artist. My eldest son, the IA, is a genuine musician, the Real Instrumental Deal, and has taught guitar for several years. He applied the Kenny Werner learning triangle – got to play slowly, and eventually combine the ability to play perfectly, at tempo and all the way through – in very specific ways to my practising. He beat out a very slow tempo, and insisted I match it. He showed me a technique for practising chord changes that avoids frozen frustration and encourages gradual acquisition of speed. It was sweet, personalized guidance and attention. (He also played, after my fingers were numb, many of the pieces I’ve struggled with, giving me some sense for how it sounds.) I’ve never felt so much at home with playing music.

That night, at a wonderful memorial for Enid H., our words of memory and tribute were in the forefront, but so was music. “How Great Thou Art” was sung with chest-busting force and beauty by a large congregation (there was a stealth tenor among the guests, and we rode his thunder. Wow.). And there are real live musicians in the next generation. Representing them, niece Bethany played a sweetly feeling “Fairest Lord Jesus” on the piano, and the IA followed later with a gorgeous solo trombone rendition – a bit jazzier than that small-town Baptish church has likely heard before – of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. I’m decades behind, and didn’t even think of playing guitar on that bill. But I’m on the job, I’m learning, and “if a job’s worth doing,” as Mum reminded us all ad infinitum, “it’s worth doing well.” I never played for my mother, but that’s okay. I am playing for her now, and hope to do it well.

ODY: 34/365

I drove nearly six hours today and caught the last quarter of a high school girls’ basketball game featuring my old friend The Don’s team. The coach and I grabbed a quick post mortem pizza, and then I was off to visit my dear and declining, my barely but contentedly pre-mortem Mum. While there may still be hope for her fourth-born child, there are no more new tricks for this noble Lady. There’s not much left of her at all, now, unless you count a radiantly kind heart and a mind that, while it may not remember my visit ten minutes later, can sing the Oakwood High fight song from the 1930s and recite the 23rd Psalm. She smiles at me even when she’s not sure what I’ve said. “I’m happy with my lot,” she murmurs to me. “I’ve had good kids.”

Another hour got me to my big sister’s place, where I grazed near her fridge just like I lurked around my mother’s all those decades ago. For all my mocking of mid-life charges at windmills large and small, I do have to give myself a smidgeon of credit, though. In spite of cross-eyed weariness and my preference for Stealth Practices, I started messing around with the strings even while Sister Pamela and I caught up on some of the down-home news. And then I forced myself to do some determined if bleary playing before sleep. So yeah, this entry is a day late and several ideas short. But it’s almost five weeks now. I’m not sure who will come and what it means if they do, but I’m Building It. I am never so happy as when I am building something: a skill, an organization, a graceful sentence or a fresh capacity. Confidence in the young. Hope among the disappointed. Peace for the aging. Friskiness in my fingers…

On Raising Loving Children

You may never have heard of APAPSO, but this small and dynamic community did another fine thing for all of us who are raising children, running busy homes and lives, or trying our best to love a partner. L’Association des parents et amis de la pédagogie Steiner à Ottawa (whew!) is the Mighty Mouse of area education, a group of parents who have instituted a pilot program using Steiner-Waldorf principles in a French-language public school in Vanier. On November 11-12, they held a conference called “Raising Loving Children” featuring Gene Campbell, a Toronto consultant and trainer, who was brought to Ottawa to help parents to make sense of all the things they are trying so hard to do well, to do “right”. It was a wonderful session.

For someone like me, who had to miss the Friday evening session, the Saturday morning start was a bit awkward – for about two minutes. But then Gene helped us do what she does with the youngest children: shut off our minds and go to our bodies. We clapped and snapped our fingers and learned how to get in synch with each other. “The mind has no sense of rhythm,” she later pointed out. “It’s very linear. We need something to interrupt the pattern of a mind-centred materialism. Only the heart, the body, has rhythm…”

And so that’s where we started. In an amazingly short time, as we introduced our children to the group and expressed our dedication to them, we became a community. As we expressed our dearest wishes and feelings, we were united as friends: listening, comparing notes, laughing, even crying together. And that’s when the doors to learning really opened.

Gene has quite a following among Steiner-Waldorf parents, and I could immediately see why. She has huge experience – she taught school for 16 years before she ever ran across the writings of Rudolf Steiner – deep knowledge and eloquent speech. She knows the principles and she has put them into action for years and years. Clearly, plainly, simply, she helped us to learn these things:

* Too many choices aren’t good for the little ones—it makes them too individualistic, and it’s too early for that.
* We need to help them get out, not only out of the house but also out of themselves; nature and imagination are essential to this.
* “Individualism is not a sustainable route to happiness. They need to feel the ‘we’, that sustaining sense that they are part of a family, a team that is there for life…”
* Playing a recorder is not only musical fun but also a psychological assessment tool!
* The creation of community is something we all instinctively long for and have the power to achieve.
* An orderly home is not impossible to achieve, and there are simple techniques and principles to help us get there.
* The home is a body, with its heart and its lungs (and its excretory function—get rid of that stuff!).
* Sometimes, the obstacles and emotional attachments that we think the kids have are really coming from us.
* “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (These are Margaret Mead’s words, but Gene gave us the same challenge, the same hope for what we are doing with this program.)

And as much as anything, we learned that we are all in this together, that the little
group at Trillium is filled with caring and loving parents (and grandparents), and that the Waldorf-Steiner program has intelligent principles and practical help for this most important job: educating our children in a loving family setting. Our numbers grew as the day went on, and no doubt those numbers will be even higher the next time Gene Campbell comes to town.

This article was written for a local newspaper, and appeared later in November as well as in the APAPSO newsletter.