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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Honeymoons and Rear-View Mirrors

Well, lookie-lookie. Here’s something I found lurking in my files, an observational piece I never did anything with. I was newly-married, living in a cabin in the West Quebec woods, not far from the Wakefield General Store. It was 1995. Quebec’s second referendum on independence was coming. I was taking Stab One at being a writer, but in addition to being giddy with remarital joy, I had mononucleosis. It was a sleepy, lovely and thoroughly unproductive time, but here is something I scribbled between the birch trees.

Apr. 22/14 UPDATE: This post inspired an extended comment from a faithful reader, which has turned into a full-on guest column that responded to questions of identity and “Canadian-ness” mentioned below. Mr. Freeman’s meditation on home and heart is here.

From here, I look out upon a Wakefield morning. Just after  dawn, a bright sun  peered in our window from behind a curtain of colour. And thank goodness for our woodsy surroundings, because there aren’t any curtains on these huge panes; the trees have already seen enough of my naked dashes from bath to bed. Ouch! One enthusiastic but directionally‑challenged chirper just discovered that our living room is not a fly‑through zone. The day has now become quite grey, but in this splendid Quebecois setting, even grey has charms.

There have been some changes, haven’t there? In my little world, love and restlessness and an overwhelming desire to chain myself to a keyboard have landed me here, tapping merrily and watching the wind. I like where I am. Born near the centre of the universe — Leafs and Jays about  an hour of asphalt away¹ — my grand little rivertown home has been a good place to love and leave and return to, and now to leave again. 

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A Little Blubber With My Breakfast: MORTAL CITY

You know, you think that everything’s peaceful. Crazybird has caught his bus, Ladybird has madly pedalled her way into the professional distance, and there is bread in the toaster. A small hit of sports news so as not to feel left out of the loop of entirely imaginary conversations. (Will I speak to anyone today who cares that the World Series starts tonight?) A knife from the drawer, a practised flip from Tuner to CD and wherever it was that I paused last night’s silvered, tuneful progression of disks. Some even date from this century.

Where was I? Dar Williams, American folksinger, a 1996 album called Mortal City. I smile during my artful bread-spreading at the whimsical meanderings of “Southern California Wants To Be Western New York”. Smart fun. The title song is last. She recorded it in her bedroom. It has made my throat catch and my chest heave before this, but I’m not ready for that at 8:37 in the morning with honey dripping off my whole wheat. “Mortal City” has breathy, uncertain voicings, rueful humour, soaring loneliness, and good old-fashioned gentleness. Altruism lives. People find each other, at least for one night. There is crisis and self-doubt and tiny victories, and harmonies so longing that they hurt. This is a song that never would have made the radio even in the ‘good old days’, whenever that was, and not only because it’s seven minutes and fourteen seconds long and has only the most sombre and subtle of hooks. It doesn’t make me want to even think about dancing.

Dar Williams has done this to me before. She writes some of the most clever and feeling stuff there is. Good morning.

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…

Dar at the Noir

I am more than mildly infatuated with Dar Williams. (There.) My general (if limited) pattern is to fall for the blonde and tall, and she is an elfin brunette, but that hasn’t stopped me from tumbling off cliffs of emotion and devotion when I hear her sing, especially live. In spite of her hair colour, size and marital status – not to mention mine – I might be tempted to propose lifetime commitment to Ms. Williams if I were ever to actually meet her. I guess I’ll just buy more albums. She is funny, wildly smart, terribly serious, and sings from a deep well of sadness that informs even the wittiest of songs.

My bride and I saw just enough at her short FolkFest stint Sunday to convince me to drive up the road last night to the Black Sheep Inn in bustling Wakefield, Quebec. I dragged five friends with me, two of whom were local Wakefield yokels designated to fight off the envious so that we latecomers could get a seat au Mouton Noir, that wee haven for musicians and them as loves ‘em. Dan Frechette, the opener, was a pleasant Manitoban surprise, engaging and charmingly geeky and a very good writer to boot. Imagine (visually, at least) Eugene Levy with trimmed eyebrows, a clear singing voice and crisp guitar slinging from the left side. I’d see him again.

And Frechette was nearly as anxious to listen to Dar Williams as the rest of us. It was a love-in. The Black Sheep is a cramped venue in a tiny village that attracts the best songwriters, singers and pickers from all over North America. Whether it’s the beautiful view of the Gatineau River and its hills, the loyal listening folk or the gracious management, it’s become a magnet. Williams strongly credits le Mouton for helping her regain her performing mojo. And what a gift that is.

She’s a better guitar player than I’d realized, her voice is full of range and feeling and my goodness can she write! Her songs are often too complex or too subtle, I imagine, for her to ever get much pop radio play, and her style is distinctive enough that she is not easy to cover. Some of her early songs were occasionally so dense and manic that they were hard to take in all at once. They rewarded close listening, to be sure, and now she slows them down just enough to make them accessible to first-time hearers. I noticed this with her deliberate and witty rendition of one of her fans’ faves, “The Babysitter’s Here”. It’s a signature Williams piece, containing childhood sweetness, adult wit and a scorching way of seeing.

And as she has done so many times, she had me snuffling and heaving at the shoulder. “February” kills me every time, and “The End of the Summer” is one of the most melancholy and moving bits of song I’ve ever heard. Newer pieces – the haunting “Blue Light of the Flame” from her most recent album, My Best Self, “Mercy of the Fallen” and an inspired cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” – remind me that I really know only Williams’ first three albums from the mid- to late-90s. She’s a wonderful artist. (She’s also written a couple of young-adult novels, for heaven’s sake, campaigns earnestly for environmental protection and also fit in the birth of a son.) I have some shopping to do. (But worry not, Dar, no stalking for me.)