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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Fireworks End. (Maybe.)

I knew I should’ve gone to bed earlier. Young friends had warned us Friday night that Sunday would be the last Big Day of the Chinese lunar new year blast. Another one?! we gasped, mostly for laughs but not entirely.

Bombs away. Happy bombs!

At 5:50 a.m., the first of the bombs went off, not far from our apartment. I was shaken out of sleep a few more times, finally giving up by about eight. There was subdued grumbling in apartment 902, and really, it wasn’t nearly so intrusive as other Big Days had been, certainly nothing like “xiao nian” (“little year”, a week before the New Year), the New Year’s eve and day themselves, or “wu tian five days later. The above links are to irritated pieces I wrote in the midst or aftermath of this or that bombardment.

But if I had had a little more detachment, a touch more grace, I might have also written something like what follows.

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Better Read Than Never: Yardley’s BRAVE DRAGONS

Reviewed: Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 304 pages)

[A slightly different version of this review also appears at, the best English-language look at all things basketball in China. It was published Feb. 22, just after T-Mac’s apparent farewell to China. Grown men cried in the airport as he left.]

I still remember that raised eyebrow, when I said, “It’s not really about basketball!” I was trying to convince my mother-in-law – potter, BBC-watcher, library ghost, someone for whom the Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s Radio 2 has gotten too damned poppy – to watch the superb documentary Hoop Dreams, a window into poverty, race, sport and education in America. This was a few years ago, and I was a new-enough son-in-law that she was still willing to give me the grudging benefit of her considerable doubt. She did finally watch it, and the review was fairly brief: “My dear, that most certainly was about basketball! But there were some interesting parts.”

So let me be clear. Brave Dragons by the American journalist Jim Yardley,

Jim Yardley, second-generation Pulitzer winner, hoops fan.

really is about the Shanxi (Taiyuan) Brave Dragons, their unpredictable owner (Boss) Wang Xingjiang, their 2008-09 season in the Chinese Basketball Association, and about Bob Weiss, the first former NBA bench boss to work in China, and the very mixed bag of players he had to work with. (I remember the chronically slump-shouldered Weiss, with a pained expression on his face, imploring referees or his Seattle Supersonics players to listen. Were I older, I’d remember him as a resilient, nothing-keeps-me-out-of-the-game player for the Chicago Bulls. Both of these qualities made him the perfect person to try to

Weiss, who came back for ANOTHER year (though not in Taiyuan).

coach in Taiyuan under Boss Wang.) It spotlights the babes-in-the-Chinese-woods that wide-eyed young Americans, imported for their superior skill, are in adjusting to hoops with Chinese characteristics. If you like basketball and find the idea (or the reality) of living in China fascinating, you’ll love Brave Dragons, but neither condition is necessary.

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High-Decibel Tradition

The view from our living room. For hours and hours.

The worst of the bombardment is over now, and I’ve been remembering why we made sure to be out of the country for the last two Chinese New Year celebrations. We hunkered down, in 2010, in disbelief and eventual festering resentment as the windows rattled in our then-2nd-floor apartment, and said, “Never again.” This year, we stayed again, and up ’til last night I was feeling pretty good about how calm and accepting I’m getting in my adaptation to life in Dalian. Now I’m wondering. I have such a bad fireworks hangover, and a generally and thoroughly bad attitude about Zhongguo today. This will pass, I know. I wish all my Chinese friends here and abroad xin nian kuai le; forgive me, though, for also wishing that the passage to the Year of the Snake hadn’t had to be so relentlessly bombastic and seemingly eternal. Grumble.

Do you like fireworks? I do. (I did.) For our first two years living in Dalian, we made extraordinary efforts to wrap up our academic duties quickly so that we could be home for Canada Day, the July 1 national holiday. We lived in the nation’s capital, and the music and fireworks next to the Parliament buildings and the Ottawa River made us feel at home and grateful, jet-lagged as we inevitably were. My enthusiasm-prone bride, however, said this morning, “Maybe we don’t need to hustle right back for July 1 this year.” We had about 23 consecutive displays last night, the eve of the Snake. 

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June Up, June Down

It’s an exciting time of year – but also a sigh-inducing, did-I-do-all-that-I-could’ve, what-the-heck-happened-to-Sally period of angst-y reflection – for the teachers.

After six weeks at a suburban Ottawa high school, I’m within hours of my release from room 222. It feels good, mostly. It always did, and why not? While it has been odd to be teaching my head off without really knowing all my students very well (let alone my fellow staff members, or the community within which this school operates), the late-night marking sessions are over. The texts are in. The deadlines for reporting and commentary have been met. My room is clean and the car is packed. I can look forward to the plans for summer, and in particular to making friends with my keyboard again. My writing output has suffered during this return to full-time teaching, so I’ll relaunch my writing / With gnashing and biting / And blasts from a thousand kazoos… That’s the end of my favourite limerick.

But here’s a line from another poem, a fairly whiny bit of long-ago existential self-importance: The loneliness birds are croaking / There’s that pressure behind my brow… Yes. It’s an odd little tang of nostalgia to leave this school, where I have no history and no expectation of ongoing connection. I’ll observe graduation ceremonies tomorrow for senior students for whom I know not a single name. But that’s just life and my peculiar ability to get sentimental about nearly anything.

Worse, there’s a sour ball of disappointment in my gut over the grade nine kids who didn’t get their credit in my courses. That’s the angst. That’s the wondering. Of course, in my situation, the kids who flunked were well on their way by the time I came on the scene in May. (I was covering a maternity leave.) I don’t know if it’s like this for every teacher, but I can’t help feeling my own failure when a kid goes down. Mind you, it chagrins me over and over again to realize, as is too often the case, that I seem to take it harder than the kids do. Even after all these years in classrooms, I don’t find it a bit easier to handle an adolescent nose-dive, though I’ve only known these folks for six weeks. And in virtually every case, the student either dithers or outright decides to not bother doing Essay X or Reading Y (why?), and they are far from surprised at their outcome.

Parents, though, are sometimes blindsided. “He never told me there was a problem!” I can hear the same little guilty tune playing behind their questions, their bewilderment and even the anger and blaming. It becomes a control issue, of course. I still have to remind myself, after 20 years of doing this job, that there are limits to what I can do. I can’t rock every student’s world. I can’t make them love language or care about ideas or be hopeful about the future. It’s up to them. Sigh. I hate that.

“You have the right to fail,” I have sometimes said, “but why would you want to do that?” It’s one of my many attempts to shift a student’s perspective. As teachers, we might wish that we could force a student to do what seems to us so clearly to be the best for him or her. I sure do. But like us, young people have an irritating tendency to want to make their own decisions. And so on we go. Life is for learning. Et cetera.

And in other news…

It’s also an exciting time of year to celebrate all that is best about Canada. Living in Ottawa for these past five July Firsts, it has been quite wonderful to celebrate in the capital, to see the dazzling fireworks that have so terrified our little Sam each year as they explode over Parliament Hill. He’s seven now, and is given to marching through the house singing “O Canada” in French at the top of his lungs. (He has a delightful Outaouais accent. He didn’t get it from me.) I think this will be the year that these astounding displays will be delightfully awesome fun for him instead of an incitement to run away screaming or hide under his Mummy’s arm. Mars Attacks. I thinks that’s what the experience has been for him.

I miss down-home festivities in my little riverside hometown, though. It hasn’t been so long since I lived there. I’ll miss the parade with almost as many people in it as there are watching, the crowds of people milling about in the park afterwards, the more modest but still terrific fireworks down by the dam. We love being around the Big Show here in Ottawa on our national day, but it’s like the culture shock I had about big city grocery stores: I won’t see many people that I actually know as we share our patriotic joys. For that, I’d have to be hanging around the Grand River in Caledonia on Sunday. I’ll miss all those familiar faces, and I’ll remember on Sunday that there are all kinds of communities. One of those is my own little neighbourhood, where Sam and his Mum and I, before we head downtown, will eat hot dogs and wave flags with Djiboutian and Somali-born parents whose kids think Canada Day is the coolest.