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…

A Sunday Morning Voice From Israel

I think of myself as a relatively literate person – spend enough time around gymnasiums and ball fields, and a guy who reads can get this impression – but apparently I’m no Eleanor Wachtel. I’d never even heard of David Grossman, the (apparently) quite wonderful Israeli novelist, but Michael Enright and The Sunday Edition brought him into my kitchen yesterday morning.

There’d been an April series of interviews and discussions recorded in Israel, most of which I hadn’t heard. The culminating interview was yesterday’s 25 minutes or so (ah, the pleasures of commercial-free radio!) between Enright and Mr. Grossman, a sympathetic and thoughtful commentator on the eternal (in my life, at least) Middle East Problem. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan have, in the western popular mind, pluralized this Problem, but it always comes back to roost in Palestine, the Holy Land (aren’t they all?), the Greater Israel of the extreme Zionists. And in the centre, the modern state of Israel and the territories it occupies or otherwise influences and warns. The Jewish Question remains, though it has been re-cast in their reclamation of an ancestral homeland in the years since 1948.

“We are a story,” says Grossman of the Jewish people, an enormously polarized one that he wishes was just a bit less compelling. Extremes make for good fiction, but they make ordinary life tenuous and painful. A little moderation might be nice, he thinks: “[Jews] are idealized or demonized, but these are simply the two faces of dehumanization. I just want a solid existence, a place to be, and for us to live an enjoyable life.” (The same is true of Aboriginal people everywhere, including those occupying land near my home town of Caledonia.) Most Israelis want only the same thing. But unlike Grossman, most Israelis have no idea how their Palestinian neighbours live, and they may not want to. (Digressing again, I’d say the same is true of many Caledonians.) “Most,” he told the CBC’s Michael Enright, “cannot rise above the fear that they have for each other. This fear is almost mythological.” (If I were to digress again, I would say something about a similar fear in and around a small Ontario town. But I’m too disciplined for that.)

Contemporary Israel’s fear is a recent innovation, though the ignorance of conditions in the West Bank is of long standing. “For the first 21 years of the occupation,” says Grossman, “there was no hatred from Israelis toward Palestinian. They were inconsequential; they were almost as children.” And the Israeli media tended to act not as a lens but as a buffer, insulating Israelis from the reality of military occupation. At least, that is, until Grossman wrote a series of late-‘80s articles about living in occupied territory, a series that eventually became the novelist’s best-known work, a non-fiction sensation in Israel called The Yellow Wind. (It is a must-read, already on order from my local library. Are libraries not the greatest institutions ever? I’ll probably go overdue on this book, and I’ll be happier to pay the fine than you were to read another digression.)

The Yellow Wind reminded Israelis that they are occupiers, a dysfunctional dynamic that can only distort both peoples. Grossman is not engaging in knee-jerk national self-loathing – “we are not the only bad guys here; Israel is not surrounded by the Salvation Army” – but I think he paints a most intelligent, humane and, as far as I can tell, fair portrait of conditions in Palestine. He spoke very strongly yesterday about the great wall that Israel is building to insulate itself from Palestinian guerrilla attacks: “A wall will not stop Palestinian misery and poverty…You cannot impose a border upon your neighbours. A wall is against dialogue. We must acknowledge the harm we have done to each other. We must pay a maturity tax.”

I’m glad Mr. Grossman came into my house. His is a weary but stubbornly hopeful voice, one that deserves a wider hearing and more of my attention. Coming soon to a bedside table near me.