O Coach, Coach, wherefore art thou Coaching?

[5-minute read]

It’s hoopin’ time again. *swallows nervously, drums his fingers on the desk*

Can you hear the whistle blowing? I am blowing the whistle. On coaching. Mine.

I can’t just walk away, and I don’t want to, and I don’t think I necessarily ought to want to, but the apparently never-ending intra-cranial debate continues. And the scoreboard says WHAT? I don’t know why I should feel that I’m losing this contest, since I’m playing myself. But it’s a battle of divided wits, and there is always the fear of loss. Such is the mind of a man who wants Sudden Victory, in terms even his childhood self could understand. Confetti. Trophies. Hugs from my brothers, kisses from my wife. A microphone in my face; it wants to know how it feels for me to be Such A Champion. Guess what?

I still want to win.

So yes, that’s part of it. It’s probably not the most stone-headed story I tell myself about why I want to coach basketball, still and again and for who knows how long. There are other reasons, compulsions, purposes and afflictions. Some of them aren’t so savoury, while others leave a mainly good taste in my mouth. But in the pursuit of the recently proverbial (and ungrammatically concise) “Know Your Why”, let me start off being truthful, and hang the embarrassment:

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What, So We’re a RUGBY Family Now?

UPDATE: A revised and condensed version of this sportsy meditation on sonship and daddery appeared at the on-line long-form sportswriting site The Classical on November 26, 2014. I still like the sprawling ME-ness of this piece, but the tighter form @Classical has lots to recommend it, too, even apart from costing you less time!

The thunder began at 5:45 a.m. The shower is next to our bedroom, and Rugby Boy was in it. (Spoiler alert: this time, he did not flood the bathroom.) I tried to imagine myself back into dreamland, but I fear the thunder. 6:13: Size 11 hooves rattle the beams as a herd of buffalo thunder manfully to the kitchen. (Wow, I think. Half an hour from bed to breakfast. He’s getting faster!) It didn’t look like dreamland was an option, but after a few more rumbles of downstairs thunder, I heard the sonic boom of the front door banging shut. 6:45! Wow the second. He’s going to be early for practice! What had gotten into my son?

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

I’d thought that I might get out of bed and bike over to see Thunderhoof and His Flailing Limbs on the high school rugby pitch for his 7:30 workout. Meanwhile, I continued doing what a tired old coot-of-sporting-colours does when sleep is hopeless: I thought about basketball. Rugby isn’t my game, and never was. Back in Canada, I’m a wanna-be hoops guru again. I’m reading and noting, observing practices and networking, and obsessing over possibilities and plans, to say nothing of all the technical adjustments and teaching points my stormy brain whips up for imaginary teams. (Fire in the belly: sometimes it feels more like heartburn.) I want to blame Thunder Bunny the Rugby Boy for my broken sleep, but his crashing about only punctuates my sentence of wakefulness. Besides, going to rugger practice with him might be <yawn> fun.

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Spurs Win Again. We Don’t Get It.

I expected to be watching Game Seven of the NBA Finals Friday morning — I’m in China, lest ye forget — and instead I wrote this.


Nobody. Cuz we believe “the team with the best player wins”, cuz the NBA has marketed the hell out of individualism. And MJ did, and Shaq probably was, and so was Tim Duncan, once upon a time, but even back then it was always a team deal with the Spurs.

I forecast San Antonio in seven, so I’m still not adjusted. I’m programmed for an epic climax, as games 6 and 7 in 2013 were the best pair of basketball struggles I’ve seen, what, ever? At least since the Magic Lakers and the Celtic Birds in the ’80s. With the Spurs’ early air-conditioning this year, I’m revising history: they actually won last year, too, even though LeBron James held up the trophies and preened and narcissized “I’m not supposed to be here!” (Sorry, kid king. Noticing the clay feet more than is charitable.)

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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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‘Abdu’l-Baha (on human greatness and happiness)

“[T]he happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems.”

                                                ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas, The Secret of Divine Civilization, an indispensable and criminally little-known 19th-century guide to the building of enlightened, progressive and sustainable societies. 

Changing Minds and Addresses

Well, loyal lurkers – and you, over there, stumbling upon this site, wondering where the cool graphics and flashing doodads are – thanks for dropping by (again). Look. I’ve been unfaithful. (There it is.) I haven’t “always been there for you”, wherever “there” is. Mea culpa. I cringe when I note the last date of entry into HowdenTown and, as you can imagine, the public outcry has been furious.

But life changes are sometimes needed, always good for a scribbler, and I surely have bountiful fuel for the writing bus if I can only remember where I left the keys! Here’s the thing: I’m now on a continent where I’ve never been, learning a language I hadn’t imagined needing, obliging myself to draw on spiritual capital I’ve blandly believed was available, and buzzing with anticipation. My bride and I, and our wide-eyed nine-year-old son, have packed up our cozy Canadian townhouse and our cozy professional kits to learn more of what world citizenship involves.

We’re learning. June and July were blurs: wrapping up school and work, dispensing with as many of the trappings of familiarity as we could bear, and seeing what we could find to know and to love in a new way. And here we are in China. CHINA! There will be details.

ODY: Week 11. Cryin’ the Blues

Thanks and congrats to those of you who read all the way through last week’s long and sentimental entry. Even Old Dogs miss their Mums. (And their Dads, too, although that is not news for this wrinkled puppy.) It was another week of plugging along in the OD Year, and although some of my practices weren’t as inspired as I would like, I am fairly astonished to report that I’ve played guitar for 77 (and still counting) consecutive days. (May discipline be contagious: today’s Day 3 of my new stretch ‘n’ strength routine.) And PERISH all thoughts of what I can’t yet do…

I have been thinking about my peculiar way of going about learning to play, which is slow and inside-out. I haven’t been as interested in the quick score, the easy song that I can play and say “Whoo-hoo!”, as I have been with trying to really understand what I’m doing and develop a solid base of skill. I’d like to be more hungry to attempt and master new elements of guitaristry, but I want to win Tortoise Style. My old high school football mentor, Coach Woody, had a dismissive term for those who started fast, pedal-to-metal but couldn’t really sustain their interest and commitment. “Sprinters,” he’d snort. With ankles like mine, speed is no longer an option, so I’ll enjoy this ponderous pace and whatever milestones (hmmm, metre-stones?) I can reach. Eagerly. Son Ben, the IA, has some concerns about my GG’s group teaching method, with its emphasis on learning some of everything over our ten weeks together, giving us enough “so that you can teach yourselves the guitar after we’re done”. The IA is not a fan of this approach. He thinks there’s way too much material, and not enough short-term objectives to reach and be inspired by. I can see that point, and I want to get smarter about really mastering a few fun and recognizable tunes. Still, I like the depth of the foundation I’m getting, and I’m in this for 365. We’ll see.

I heard an interview last week with Dunstan Prial, an American journalist, talking about his 2006 book The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. I was fascinated, especially by Prial’s description of a 73-year-old, nattily dressed Hammond shuffling to a Carnegie Hall microphone in 1984 to introduce Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. Vaughan, that blazing comet of the blues guitar, was only the most recent discovery and protégé of Hammond, a list that started back in the ‘30s with a black guitarist named Teddy Wilson and a white clarinettist named Benny Goodman. The list went on. Count Basie. Pete Seeger. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. George Benson. Bruce Springsteen… For Prial, Hammond had a brilliant ear, not only for musical genius but for the great social milieu in which it might be heard. And in a business noted for bottom-line, flavour-of-the-month heartlessness, it was intriguing to hear of Springsteen’s gratitude for the warmth and inspiration of Hammond, and his lament that such a culture no longer exists for young artists.

Can’t tell you too much more about the book, but I picked up the Double Trouble recording from Carnegie Hall, and how would you explain this? (How do I?) Hammond introduces the band, bullied to shorten his remarks by an impatient audience. (Even Prial, who was there that night, wondered who IS this old guy?) Then Stevie and the lads launch into “Scuttle Buttin’”, which Prial described as “a lightning storm of circular blues scales played at earsplitting volume”. My throat tightened, my heart raced and my eyes leaked. OH, MY. On the Six Nations Reserve near where I grew up, there is a widespread embrace of the blues. (Aboriginal experience and an identification with the blues! Go figure, eh?) And among a lot of the young men I used to coach and teach, there was a near-worship of Vaughan. Though I’ve always liked the blues guitar, and am a particular fan of the great and tragic Roy Buchanan, I’d never gotten all the way into SRV. I knew about “Pride and Joy”, of course, but hadn’t really heard the licks in a hungry-eared way. But wow. Where’s all that weeping come from? I love the feeling in the blues, the plaintive longing that is so haunting in Roy Buchanan alongside his explosive, note-bending creativity and speed. And perhaps my own learning has helped me understand a little better what these guys are doing, and to know at an intestinal level how much they had to sacrifice, how fiercely they needed to love, in order to be able to Do That Thing. 

And maybe I was choked by the certain knowledge that I will never be able to play like that. I adore skill, dig virtuosity. The democratic note in punk-rock philosophy – hey, anybody can play, and everybody should! – is a fine thing, though it sometimes goes so far as to be perversely snobbish about skill. But I admire excellence and I WANT it, though it chills me blue to be so savagely reminded – but hey, thanks, Stevie Ray, and God bless — how far away I am from it.

ODY: 18/365. Consoled by Blues.

The TVPI, before his departure for the Great (Not Quite) White North of Canada, had written out for his Old Dog Dad a guitar Tablature for Old Dog Dummies. It’s a blues riff. You know it. Everybody knows it. (I think Dave called it “A Blues Riff”.) It was one he enjoyed learning. It made him feel, at 14, like he was actually playing guitar, and he went on to improvise from it and generally make punkadelic mayhem.

I’ve been messing about with it some, but hadn’t quite figured out the rhythm of the resolution part that was supposed to take me back to the beginning of the thing. Tonight, I decided I wouldn’t do anything else until I did. And hey presto! I did!

Now listen. I have, up ‘til now, refused even to play for Calvin Junior and his stuffed and furry friends at night-night. (Point of order: Junior is my fourth six-year-old son. So where’s my Order of Canada?! Where’s my Presidential Medal of Freedom?) But tonight, I ran upstairs, dragged EcoWoman out of the bath, propped her up in an attentive and generally approving posture, and played A Blues Riff. Twice! It was, ah, humilerating. (Exhiliating?) Embarrassed pleasure, rueful excitement. Mid-life learning is a confusing business.