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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Steve Nash and Morrie Schwartz

Steve Nash isn’t dying. He’s fantastically fit, a young man of 40 who would have his best years of productivity and accomplishment ahead of him if he wasn’t a professional athlete.

Fun! Oh my goodness, was it ever not! The SI cover jinx has rarely been more evilly effective.

In the NBA, of course, he is a dinosaur, and a tiny one at that (at 6’3”, such is relativity), and no amount of his considerable brainpower or his incredible competitive drive is making a damned bit of difference. Less than two years removed from a Sports Illustrated cover – shared with Dwight Howard, the two newest Lakers! – the former point guard maestro is pretty much forgotten, except for Laker fans who snipe bitterly about his injuries, his team-hampering salary and his “selfishness”.  At his uselessness, and worse. He’s played twelve games this cursed season, out of 72.

Grantland editor and Fan-in-Chief, Bill Simmons, had been talking book possibilities with Nash for awhile, but the man’s still playing (well, occasionally; actually, not much at all, but he’s still a Laker). He’s still a colleague, a peer, and he quickly realized he couldn’t write it the way he wanted, and wouldn’t be interested in doing so if it ignored all of his best insights. Besides, he is not only a certifiable Canadian sports hero without skates, but he’s already produced and/or directed documentaries and will continue to do so after his retirement from the hardwood. His own agonizing grind toward the end of his basketball career, he thought, might make a pretty good film, something that hasn’t been done before; Simmons agreed, but convinced him to do it in three short installments, and to do it NOW, in vivo, a Portrait of the Athlete as an Old Man, a peek behind the curtain of a sporting hero’s struggle to prove that I can still do it!

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Encore, Nash?

Don’t look now, but is Mr. Nash hunting for his third MVP? Surely the short, tat-free Canadian couldn’t be voted the Association’s best again? How many shoes is that going to sell?

After his first win in 2005, he proceeded to play and fill stat columns even better last season. The NBA hasn’t seen players that improve on MVP years. It was weird. He crosses over and spins past obstacles that other players won’t. And it’s happening again; a few games ago, he posted his career high in “double-doubles” for a season, and that’s not about caffeine and cholesterol, Tim Hortons lovers! He has been in double figures in two major categories – in his case points and assists – more than fifty times this year, higher than in either of his two MVP seasons. He’s shooting the three-pointer for an absurdly high percentage (46%), and shooting in general (53% from the floor overall) among the lead leaders in that category, who are generally big men, dunk machines like the über-athletic receiver of many of Nash’s immaculate deliveries, Amare Stoudemire.

The Suns are in a playoff push, and blew out the Jazz in Utah last night for their fifth straight win. Nash needed to score only 13, but fired 18 assists without a single turnover. (A 2-1 ratio of assists to turnovers is considered good work for an NBA guard.) Sheesh. He’s on everybody’s MVP ballot, and people might be forced to vote for him again, yea though the marketing machine would surely wish for another more poster-friendly young god of the hardwood. And on a weekend for honouring great sporting pioneers, well, Nash is no Longboat or Robinson, but he is a thoughtful and worthy bearer of the mantle of great athlete who is also a fine man.

2006 in Review: Some Pretty Good Posts

Greatest Hits of

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 . 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…

Class Action, Nash and Klassen.

And a Prairie Woman Shall Lead Them…?

First things first: this is not like baseball star Larry Walker being National League MVP and getting “beat by a car” for the Lou Marsh trophy as Canada’s outstanding athlete (that car, a very fast one that season, was driven by Jacques Villeneuve in Formula 1). Today the TorinoFabulous Cindy Klassen was given the award, and I applaud her heartily. For reasons that the Globe’s Stephen Brunt outlined on Saturday, it was a brilliant year for sweaty Canucks but, like him, I hold out for Steve Nash. (I wrote about him, with appropriate playground bedazzlement, here.)

The Lou Marsh voters, sportwriters all, tend to prefer international athletes, those not getting the usual Canadian buzz for whichever homeboy leads the NHL scoring parade. (Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux combined for 16 Art Ross trophies as scoring champs and 12 NHL MVPs, but “only” five Lou Marsh awards. They were beaten, for example, by Olympians like Gaetan Boucher, Susan Nattrass (target shooting!), Carolyn Waldo (synchro swimming!!), Myriam Bedard (betcha can’t name her sport) and Silken Laumann. Oh, and by a guy called Ben Johnson. Twice. Oops.) Villeneuve was a bit of a departure from this tradition of honouring competitors in sports with a lower profile (and lower salaries), and I won’t start ranting about the dubious athleticism of car jockeys. The choice of Klassen, though, who will continue to be the focus of high-pressure expectation and excitement as the Games come to Vancouver in 2010, is one that honours a great athlete and addresses, in small measure, the usual disregard for female sport. Bravo, say I.

I can’t get much righteous indignation going, though, at the selection of a marvellous Olympian like Klassen. She was a powerhouse at the Torino Winter Games, the most outstanding athlete there and the leader of a superb crew of Canadian women athletes with her five medals, including an individual gold and two silvers. She’s the most decorated Canadian Olympian ever, the 2006 speedskating World Cup champion., and bubbled radiantly with grace and joy at her accomplishments and, wonderfully, at those of her teammates. (I wrote about her with great enthusiasm here last February.)

But I can’t help but say this: how many basketball players are there in the world? Of all those many millions, how many times will a Canadian be judged, for the second straight year, the most valuable to his team at the highest level? Fine. And how many competitive female speedskaters are there on the planet at any given time? Would there be more than ten thousand? I feel like a jerk for pointing out numbers like that, because Cindy Klassen represents much that is most honourable in sport, including the chance for young women to see a wonderfully strong role model and young men to (briefly?) cheer a strong, accomplished and fully-clothed woman. The Olympics are one of the few occasions when female athletes can take centre stage, albeit too often for events with sequins and swimsuits. So it is a sweet thing for this attention to a superb competitor to continue. But the greatest accomplishment by a Canadian athlete, in this or nearly any other year, is that of Mr. Nash.

All the Way With LBJ

Here’s a big question in the Toy Department, professional basketball division: has LeBron James, 21-year-old hoops wizard and savvy Goliath of the sneaker wars, done enough this year to be named MVP of the National Basketball Association? Or will he, as I suspect, need to pay further dues? (And just by the way, by what club are these “dues” being collected? Presumably, it’s the CREWS – the Chronically Resentful and Envious Writers of Sports.)

I wish I was seeing more LeBron Live than Magazine LeBron and King James the Pitchman. Even a jaded old dunks-are-overrated dude like me can get a buzz from some of his highlight reels, but there are several things about James that excite me a whole lot more. One of the first times I saw him play, he tapped a loose ball toward a teammate and hustled out to fill a lane on the fastbreak. The dunk at the end was sweet, but I was blown away by his hustle and speed; I’ve ever seen a big man so fast. And he fills up scoresheets, not just the points column, not to mention that with a Sports Illustrated cover in 11th grade (and another at 20 musing about him being “The Best of All Time” when he hadn’t even made the playoffs yet), James has every reason to be a flaming idiot.

My impression is that he isn’t. He speaks thoughtfully, doesn’t appear to think he’s bigger than the game, and his teammates seem to enjoy playing with him.  Best of all – at least until he becomes a philanthropist and advocate for the disadvantaged – LeBron James loves to pass. For a young guy with hops and scoring ability, he understands the game at a high level. He’s rare. I loved what he said last week, which went something like this: it’s cool to get that ‘Oooh’, but when you make the great pass, you get two ‘Ooohs’, one for the dime and one for the dunk. Not to mention that, suddenly, the game isn’t all about ME anymore. Imagine: brothers in short pants doing their thing together. Unselfishly!

Things are looking good for the Association when its Most Valuable Player is likely to be either King James or the reigning king of delivery, Steve Nash. And looking at the dominance of the Pistons, it looks like Team Ball and “playing the right way” (ah, but Larry Brown, where are you now?) are getting cooler by the quarter. Nice!!