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Hugh Kenner (on taking the best stuff for granted)

Thinking of “Better Read Than Never” – my cleverly named series of reviews on books that are “yesterday’s news” (but not for me) – my tendency to untimely reading isn’t limited to novels. My mind being what it is, I decided to finish off the November 2014 edition of The Atlantic, an interest-packed number of a great old magazine. A James Parker piece on the “rock-star poet” Dylan Thomas, among many other things the inspiration for Robert Zimmerman’s stage name¹, came first, a welcome re-read. What I hadn’t noticed the first time through, or what at least didn’t make much of a dent in my memory bank, was a startlingly great quote from Hugh Kenner.

¹ So far, I have reserved judgement on Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m leaning towards The nostalgia and narcissism of the Boomer generation triumph again. Interesting choice. People paid attention, but I’m not sure it does anything for literature, which continues to have a declining coolness index unless I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong).

Kenner – yup, news to me, too – is described in the Atlantic piece as a student and explainer of Marshall McLuhan, though I’ve come to discover that he was much more than that. Alongside McLuhan and the uber-educated imagination of Northrop Frye², the I hardly knew ye Kenner was in fact one of the great critical minds of 20th-century scholarship, a prodigious writer and one of the great Wise Guy Canadians. (True to form, I’m now bandwagon-jumping on to an e-book platform of his The Elsewhere Community (1998), an account of his travels to learn from and be among the greats of the arts and sciences.³)

² I was lucky enough to have a remarkable English teacher in high school, Pete Hill, who shoved The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye at me. Even then, my rather lightly educated mind knew it was awesome. (Note to self: read more Frye.)
 ³ Also true to form, I will now find an obscure way to connect this literary life to basketball: Kenner was born in Peterborough, Ontario, where one of the older high schools is Kenner Collegiate, named after Hugh’s father, a teacher. (A school named after a teacher?!) At least one of my teams has played at Kenner, so there.

(But enough about me.) The knockout punch of the Dylan Thomas look-back came toward the end of the article, which argues that we should not look at the excesses, lifestyle and literary, of the Welsh poet but rather at the best of what he was and what he did. Author James Parker reminds us of the famed McLuhan aphorism: The medium is the message. Parker advises, therefore: don’t look so much at this or that Thomas poem, which may by now feel dated or immoderate or just plain meaningless; instead, consider what the man himself meant, and attempted. At this point, Parker quotes Kenner’s explanatory paraphrase of The Medium is the Message.

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Marilynne Robinson (on writing, and labour)*

* And on writing on Labour Day. But that’s more about me than by her.

[3-minute read]
This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom more in a moment.

This is not my bride. But it *is* Marilynne Robinson, the gifted American author, about whom and from whom more in a moment. (Guardian photo)

My bride asks me some hard questions sometimes. Labour Day Monday’s was, What do you want your blog to be? What’s if for, anyway? I mumbled my usual answers, which she cut short with a familiar refrain: I think it needs to be more focused. Who’s your audience? I get your latest posting and I never know what it’s going to be about.

She says that with the unmistakeable This Is Not A Good Thing tone. The Dissatisfied Client tone. I resist, naturally. I like writing about different subjects. Don’t you love it when you go to the movies and you find yourself thinking, Gee crappy, I don’t know WHERE this is going! I do. I find that thrilling, as long as I trust that I’m in good hands. Besides, writing helps me learn, and I have lots of things I like to learn about. Such would be my arguments, if I was feeling, say, defensive.

However, my lady is probably right: it seems most people like to be on familiar ground at Movie Time, and that people return to a Dave Zirin Edge of Sports column, or a Stephen King novel, or the latest reboot of the hottest superhero flick franchise – moving from the countercultural through the cultural to the culture-of-mass-consumption – because they pretty much know what they’re going to get, and they like that. Meanwhile, I expect my readers to enjoy running the gauntlet of my popping-corn enthusiasms, “madly off in all directions”, as Thurber once wrote. Well, sorry about that, readers!

It’s something to ponder, though.

Earlier, my wife had also had this question, given that it’s Labour Day, and our son heads back to high school tomorrow, and I’ve been teaching on that WonderDreadFul Tuesday nearly every year of my adult life. She asked, So are you having your teacher dreams?

This answer was easy, but I didn’t quite believe myself. Because the answer was NO. One sabbatical year years back, my late August was still filled with can’t find the classroom, teaching a subject I’ve never thought about, general performance-anxiety-ridden can I still DO this thing? mid-night theatre. Later on, when for three straight Septembers I was writing within the Canadian government, it was the same out-of-synch story. Weirdly, my subconscious believed I’d be back in the classroom even though I clearly wouldn’t be. But not this year, at least not that I can remember. I’m still surprised.

Not that I’m free of doubt, or my recurring claustrophobic frustration dreams. I am instead worrying about my writing and where it’s headed. (And basketball. The coaching dreams still haunt me, and that season’s coming up, too.) Which, you may be thankful to hear, brings us to Marilynne Robinson.

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Gord Downie (on the way, and on the way out)

[2-minute read]
On the (last?) tour, rockin' hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

On the (last?) tour, rockin’ hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

“Canada’s unofficial poet laureate” is what many call Gordon Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip. Thirty years in to singing — he had, and still has, one of the best set of pipes among rock’s leading men — and growling and screaming and talking his enigmatic and multi-layered lyrics, at least one music writer insists on placing him in the lyrical pantheon with Bob Dylan and “post-Graceland Paul Simon”. Downie is a poet — yes, there is a published poetry collection — and there are many phrases that hundreds of thousands of Canadians can sing along with him, as they have been on the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, the one that the band has never said is a farewell.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

But Downie is dying of inoperable brain cancer. He is not the caged stage lion he once was, and there were times in last night’s final show of the tour, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, when we weren’t entirely sure he was going to make it through to the end of the planned setlist. Anyway, here’s the thing: Downie is still a manic stage presence, and he delivered nearly three hours worth of rock ‘n’ roll slamdance poetics, but he’s a quiet dude. Famously private, he had little to say to his adoring fans in Kingston and a national TV audience, even on a night like that. It’s all about the songs, and his band.

But he did tell this little story:

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Bahiyyih Nakhjavani (on the burning itch to do something about it)

Hear voices? Maybe I do, but it’s banal: they’re all mine, or snippets of this song or that. (Recent visits: Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, and “Frosty the Snowman”. No explanation.) I’m as egotistical as the selfie-ing man-boy next door, but I don’t think everything refers back to me. This was happenstance. I know that Bahiyyih Nakhjavani wasn’t writing to me, personally, and even if you’ve been hauling around some weighty notion that you burn to DO something about, she might not have been talking to you, either.

"So, get on with it, then!" she might have been saying to us in this Guardian newspaper photo from 2015.

“So, get on with it, then!” she might have been saying to us in this Guardian newspaper photo from 2015.

Nakhjavani is a prose writer with the heart of a poet, and while her short book Four on an Island purports to be about 19th-century political prisoners in Cyprus, it’s more like meditative non-fiction, to coin a genre, than historical biography. She muses elegantly about Earth and Water, Air and Fire, and returns continually to these elemental themes. She teases the reader, occasionally, and finally admits on page 55 that she’s been somewhat coy, offering a kind of pseudo-confession at the halfway point about what the book is actually about. I don’t know whether this was genuine discovery, one of these mysterious cases in which writers claim that the book they are writing, or characters in it, taught them how to write it and what to say. I suspect Ms. Nakhjavani knew where she was going from the start, her twisting and mystical route notwithstanding. (Twistical!)

I was struck by how she prepared the ground for Four on an Island’s change in direction on page 55. Oh, it’s elegant, mildly amusing, and skilfully disguises its sharpness until the point sinks in. But it’s as if she was writing, say, of a book I haven’t finished writing. (It exists.)

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Where’s We At Then, Buddy? JH.com Wonders!

It’s not an anniversary, but it’s close. About mid-July 2014 my wife and son and I made our summer trip back to Canada from China, but for the first time in five years we were coming to stay. So. <Cleansing breath.> Alrighty, then. We’ve been back nearly a year. <Another breath, deeper. Shakes the tension out of his hands, drama-class style.> We’re looking at each other and thinking, This is where we are. How’re we doing? What’s up with you/me/him? Are we who we thought we were? And so on.

I study. I teach, coach, plan. Dishes, floors and laundry loads get done. The garden is weeded and I’d better pick more lettuce and funkygreens. (Note to co-habitants: belly up to the salad bar, hombres!) I am reading about: boys and young men and what might be holding them back; James Baldwin; the NBA draft and free agency; a wonderfully eccentric view of the Bible; Reading Lolita in Tehran. I’m not reading much fiction, again, but Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and Atwood’s Maddadam are shouting at me.

I don’t write much. I’m borrowing a concept from The Year of the Flood, the second in Margaret Atwood’s vivid futureDoom trilogy. There, in a “God’s Gardeners” community, people who are lethargic, dispirited, depressed or otherwise dysfunctional are said to be in a “fallow” state, as fields are left uncultivated by wise farmers so that the soil might not be depleted. June was a fallow field for my writing, and after about mid-month I accepted that. It gave my days-ends greater contentment, which is almost always a good thing. I wrote this, however tentative and diffident it is as a spasm of seed-planting, just so that you and I know where we are. (Hello!)

Before I abandoned my writing desk, I was writing feelingly and hard (not sure how well; haven’t gone back to look), striving to better know and appreciate seven prisoners of exquisite conscience. These “friends” of the oppressed Iranian Baha’i community, a group of leaders who tried to encourage their fellow believers once all their institutions and most of their rights had been removed, are now well into the eighth year of their incredible sentences. (Maybe I went fallow then because of futility — daily, tapping my uncalloused fingers against prison walls in a strange and distant country. Or I just got lazy; as a matter of principle, I don’t believe in futility, though I practise it with astonishing persistence.) Maybe you would like to read about the “Yaran”. My personal (possibly meandering) responses to their captivity helped them become more real to me.

It’s time for a quick update, reminders, and some sense of where you are, electronically speaking:

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Bruce Springsteen (on being born a 99% American)

Springsteen is singing in my living room. The album art is very 1980s, and Bruce looks like a boy, but he was writing and shouting like a man. It’s a pop-cult quote o’ the day!

Five years in China was five years removed from my modest collection of vinyl records and my turntable. Even on summers home, which gave me access to Hewitt’s Dairy and good chocolate and real hamburgers, yes, and libraries and bookstores, too, there was no listening to the old records because our home was rented out. I don’t have much of the collection that I had as a kid and as a young man, and (mainly) thank goodness and improving taste for that. (Divorce helped, too.) No John Denver, no Grand Funk Railroad, no diminishing returns of obsessively buying every progressively more disappointing Chicago album and only belatedly accepting that they’d left their soul in the ’60s.

I play through what’s left, though, and I’m about three quarters of the way through listening to the whole cabinet. After bouts of Talking Heads and Steely Dan, and a week of playing The Atlantic Family Live at Montreux – the Average White Band and a host of other jazz players blowing their brains out, fine stuff that doesn’t age for me at all – I flipped this morning to what is probably one of my bride’s earliest LP purchases, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. The title song slays me.

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News, Stuff, Things & Subscriptions

Have you missed me? (I’ve missed me.)

In the ongoing whirl of readjustment to Ottawa living, my bride getting back to work, and me coaching junior varsity basketball as if it was played on Mount Olympus, my writing routine has been thrashed. I haven’t been a very productive pen monkey. (Chuck Wendig grimaces in violent dismay and arse-kicking encouragement.) The good recent news is that a quite fine (thank you) American website, The Classical, ran a much-revised version of a piece on my Rugby Daddery and the Adventures of Son the Fourth in learning a brand new game. @classical specializes in long-form writing about sports, stuff that goes beyond the stats and standings. This made me happy.

I should have reviewed the film Whiplash, a disturbing, slightly over-the-top examination of a crazed mentor — in this case, a musical rather than an athletic one — and his perhaps equally nutty victim/protegé. I ate it up, loved and hated the thing, and have been thinking about the making of excellence and just exactly where that line is ever since. Yes, this was at the mighty ByTowne. Whiplash is a claustrophobic, in-your-face depiction of an extreme teacher-student connection, and J.K. Simmons is infuriatingly great as the megalomaniacal mentor. Okay. I suppose I just did sort of review it, but also have wanted to get to a Better Read Than Never review of John Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs, and an account of a brilliant human rights lecture by Payam Akhavan, and reflections on not living in China anymore, and more on books I’m eating, and I haven’t said a word about Ferguson or Jian Ghomeshi or the wars we try to forget or the Toronto Raptors…

…and don’t get me started about my stillborn books. (Thanks for not getting me started.)

The posting pace is about to quicken, I hope I hope I hope. Here’s what’s been going on recently here at JH.com, especially for you newbies.  If you’re a strange lurker here, WELCOME! The bits below will help explain how all this works:

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Larditude, Ice Cream, and Why You Should Subscribe to My Blog

We’ve been back from China for nearly three months now, and I haven’t put on the weight I was afraid I would. YAAAAYY! It’s neither so easy or so enjoyable to play the amount of outdoor hoops in Canada that I did among the mad-for-basketball masses of young men at every Chinese university. Here in Ottawa, it’s either empty courts, or young kids, or a game with serious Players that I can’t hang with anymore. Mostly, it’s the first two.

We still don’t entirely know which end is up. In our familiar Ottawa home, we’re still finding stuff we’d forgotten we owned, still trying to winnow down our possessions at least a little, and find places for the stuff we have. (The Story of Stuff. Daily.) We’ve cracked open most of the boxes. I have So Many Great Books That I Haven’t Read Yet. Sometimes I’m thrilled. Sometimes it’s maddening.

Meanwhile, once again, I’ve found a bit of retro-writing in my files. Last week, it was a letter I wrote to and for Son the Fourth on his first birthday, and it was good to remember the thrill of his arrival amid the wrangle of his rampant teendom. Today, it was a piece I wrote (and never sold) on the (mock) horror and (pointless) resolution arising from tipping my crappy bathroom scales at a shudder-inducing 200 pounds, distributed greasily over my formerly athletic 5’11” frame. I gave it a quick polish, and posted it over yonder in the “On Second Thought” section, just above my sappy, sentimental birthday letter.

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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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JHdotCOM News Update: More Milestones

I’ve been working on other projects — one big writing thingy, plus end of term school stuff and especially all the material and emotional wrangles of saying farewell to our home and friends in Dalian and across China, after five furiously lively years — and giving this site whatever tired attention I can. I did, however, find an older piece that never found a publication to call home. It comes from 2007, and it was fun and a bit frustrating to re-visit. It’s in the “On Second Thought” section.

Sometimes, as with a piece I’ll post this week, the adrenaline pretty much forced me to write something. My recent post in It’s All About Sports! also insisted on being written, as the San Antonio Spurs are such a remarkable example of teamwork and old- and new-fashioned virtues (passing! team first! unity in diversity! multi-lingual huddles!) in a sporting climate that seems to really appreciate narcissism and branding. (Shudder.)

Whew! Anyway, just about two weeks left in the China Adventure, so many good-byes. We had another one today, a hard one with a young woman who became like a sister to my wife and me, and was a most loving auntie for our son. Sigh.

The electronic footprint of this collection continues to reach heights that keep me plugging hopefully. (NOTE: correct use of “hopefully”. I still believe!) I’ve been posting my writing on this web log for nearly eight years, but JH version 2.0 has been up and running only since September of 2012. This week, another pair of notable numbers:

  • We hit 11,000 page views, and should hit the monthly thousand again by June’s end. This is viral in my world. It’s growth without ecological consequences.
  • A quote from the writer David Roth (and my comments about it) appeared in the He Said/She Said section, and this comparatively short piece was my 600th post. I’m also raising my game, productivity-wise, as No. 500 was less than a year ago. Howdy Duty!

Thanks, readers. Please note 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, and I often pass along wee nuggets of my own or re-tweet bits I’ve found funny, consoling or important (and sometimes all three). There’s still a bit more room on that bus, too. 

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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