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…

February Empowers, Brings May Flowers: A Greenhouse Valentine

And to show what a WILDLY romantic pair my bride and I are, we spent Valentine’s evening at a meeting of the World Federalists. Now there’s a dedicated, thoughtful bunch. (“In schoolyards, cities and democratically governed nations, agreed rules help ensure a peaceful social order. Why not for our global community?” The WF movement has been quietly working at this for decades, and their program and aspirations are worthy of more attention than they get. As their evening’s speaker, they’d brought in Elizabeth May, Order of Canada member and head of the Sierra Club nationally, and my lady has long been an admirer. I’ve joined her now. May is passionate, funny and vividly intelligent. I’ll join the Club, too. My favourite quote from last night: “Climate change can be narrowly categorized as ‘an environmental issue’ in the same way that drowning is ‘a water issue’.”

Ms. May took us through the history of climate change in a lively and superbly informed way. It is interesting, in the light of the present mania for security, that the first international conference on climate change (in June 1988) issued a report called “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security”. It’s also interesting that this conference was hosted in Canada and co-sponsored by the Conservative government of Mr. Mulroney. The subsequent 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was the one where President Bush the First threatened to boycott the session if there were to be ANY figures, targets or timelines for action discussed there. After all, he insisted, “the American lifestyle is not on trial”. Ahem. And so Rio spoke only in vague terms about “dangerous levels of anthropogenic [human-produced] carbon” in the atmosphere. (Meanwhile, the scientists in Toronto four years earlier had said this: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war.” Gulp.)

Only the third subsequent “Conference of the Parties” to the climate change convention adopted in Rio – now I finally know what the “COP 11” acronym for the recent Montreal conference actually meant – was finally able to arrive at some targets for reduction of carbon pollution. (These are the infamous “greenhouse gases”, like carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4)). These targets were, in the light of the scientific consensus, shockingly modest.  They were clearly acknowledged — at least among non-governmental organizations — to be feeble ones that, at best, could buy us a little time (the UN scientific agency had recommended, in 1990, reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the order of 60%; by 1997, COP 3 adopted only single-digit targets). You might even remember the name of the city where COP 3 was held. Yes. Kyoto, Japan.

And we’re still struggling to get nations, most notably our own, to commit to the low Kyoto Protocol targets. (By the way, tomorrow is Happy Birthday, Kyoto: on February 16, 2005, with Russia’s ratification of the treaty, two things occurred. One, the United States and Australia were left as the only two nations that signed the Kyoto protocols but refused to ratify them. Second, Kyoto became legally binding. The protocols, that is, not the city.)

So COP 11, last fall, was held in Montreal, with 8000 people in attendance, including Bill Clinton (though not officially – the Americans apparently would have walked had he spoken to the Conference itself). It was very significant. First – and the American government was not happy about this, according to May – the Conference was being held in North America for the first time, and thus was much more difficult for the western media to ignore. The unwillingness of the American delegation was a matter of public interest and debate. As key environmental “tipping points” approach – the Gulf Stream is slowing down, the stupendous Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are eroding, and each of these evolving situations is potentially cataclysmic – the Montreal conference was a major sign of hope. The allied non-governmental organizations (yes, acronym-lovers, the NGOs), such as the Sierra Club, had set out an ambitious set of goals, of which even the most optimistic felt that few could actually be adopted. Through a fascinating process of infighting, influence and genuine international intrigue – all-night sessions, mysterious Russian dealings, perhaps even the American delegation blinking in the face of a geopolitical stare-down – every single NGO goal was eventually adopted. This is good news for polar bears, Bangladeshis, Rideau Canal skaters and coastal cities. This is good news for the world, though it’s not much more than a start.

As the Montreal Conference of the Parties was about to begin, the Liberal government had just fallen. Its finest moment may have come on its deathbed. Ms. May praised former Prime Minister Martin’s administration for bringing COP 11 to Montreal, and especially lauded the immense preparation and committed Chairmanship of former Environment Minister Stéphane Dion. I found it quite wonderful, in the face of all the easy cynicism about government, to hear of useful contributions and real engagement by our political leaders.

It’s not all sunshine, of course. Elizabeth May has no shortage of dire warnings about the consequences of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels and the attendant effect on our global climate. People like her, though, are seen less and less as mad voices wailing in the wilderness. Valentine’s Day or not, the world still needs a wake-up call, and it was good to hear that there are real signs of attention and action. And as serious-minded as they are, the World Federalists did not forget to bring  May flowers. That was sweet. (See how romantic I am?)