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…

ODY: Week 9. Weak, Overwhelm, Werner.

In the landscape of a week’s weak learning, it was flatlands all the way to a horizon that seemed impossibly far for an Old Dog. (All filled up with dreams of competence, not a tree or a fire hydrant of achievement in sight.) There wouldn’t have been much to say, except that two conversations stood out like lonesome grain elevators on Saskatchewan prairie, outposts of interest in a flat but faithful week of practice.

First, let me tell you about the plain. I’m more comfortable admitting that I’m learning to play guitar and letting Gordie take my fingers for a walk where someone might actually hear us. Chord changes still freeze me, though at least once this week I hit the C chord without looking or hesitating. Or thinking. (Not thinking comes nearly as hard for me as thinking clearly. That grey gunk inside my skull is always quivering madly off in all directions.) Nearly halfway through the week, lesson night with KW the Guitar Guy brought four new finger-picking patterns for songs that also added 5 or 6 more chords with complicated names. More chords?!?

We have one of the GG’s own pieces, “Study in E”. It suggests a pleasant little finger sequence – thumb on the low E, then fingers 1, 2 and 3 tickling down to the G string. T 1 2 3, T 1 2 3. Nice! I can do that! But the chords? They start easily enough with an E, but then we jump to an A 6-9 over E (a what?), then an E major 7th, then an E 7th, back to A 6-9/E, then to an A minor 6-9/E (are you kidding me?), back to a simple E and finish with something called an “E suspended 4th” (E sus 4). What the -? I scribbled down the chord diagrams that Kurt had chalked out for us, despairing that soon he’d be chalking my body outline on the floor. Then I breathed. Then I looked at the diagrams, and a dim bulb began to glow over my head. The dreaded A 6-9/E is the same basic shape as E, just spread out and a fret higher. The E major 7th that follows is precisely the same, except two more frets up. E7 and the doubly dreaded Am 6-9/E also have the same shape. And the last transition, from E to Esus4, is a one-fret finger-one adjustment. Hosanna! Weird and complex as they seem, they fit together more easily than I can go from G to C or A to D or, especially, B7 to or from friggin’ anything. (But I love the sound of B7, and can always tell when I’ve hit it right without checking my fingers. And when I get there, I don’t want to leave.) Not only that, but “Study in E” is written such that any picking pattern will sound good. You’ll be hearing it on your radio any day now.

So much for the lone prairie. The first silo, landmark number one, was a conversation with Pejman, who had just moved in to our part of the city. At a community meeting, he volunteered to put together a program for a holy day commemoration. (The birth of the Báb, if you’re keeping score at home.) Right away, he had a rough question for me. “So, who are the musicians in the room? I want some music for Thursday.” I thought, maybejustmaybe I could do some Travis picking as background to a reading, but those changes are so clumsy and it’s only three days away… Yikes. My answer? “Um, ah, well, you know about Daniel’s singing, and you heard Amir on the piano tonight, but other than that, well, can’t really think of anybody. Nope.” Well, I missed a perfect blushing opportunity there. Pej’s probing pulled Farzad and his guitar out of the bushes, though, and so Pachelbel’s “Canon” sweetened our celebration. (Can’t believe my Iranian brother beat me to the punch, but he is quite a way ahead of me. For now...) I was also abashed by young Sarah’s courage, wading through a difficult piece on an unfamiliar keyboard. Must. Embrace. Next. Chance.

Second conversational signpost? The Itinerant Artist, my number one son, phoned about mid-week, and the talk turned inevitably to the Old Dog Year of musical education. Change. Transformation. Transition. My struggles to get from one chord to another – and to resist making that change until I have the chord perfect – are obvious analogues to the bigger adjustments that you or I or anybody might be making. And so the IA had a suggestion. “Let me tell you about the triangle. Have I told you about the learning triangle? No? Well, it comes from Werner, and it goes like this. There are three aspects to mastering a song: being able to play it PERFECTLY, AT TEMPO and from BEGINNING TO END. The thing is, when you’re learning the thing, the best you can do is two out of three, and at first you probably can’t do any of them. So pick a section, and play it slowly ‘til it’s right. SLOWLY. This was a hard one for me to learn at McGill, but it’s so useful.” The IA was a jazz performance student at Montreal’s McGill University. Trombone. (He’s also a fine guitar and bass player, and a decent drummer.) He was referring to musical concepts in a book called Effortless Mastery by the great jazz pianist Kenny Werner. When the need is clear, the book will appear. Gotta get it.

Do a section as slowly as I need to do it well. Do it with a steady rhythm, even if it’s a laughably slow one. Do it until it’s right. Do it perfectly until it’s at a good tempo. Then do it together with the other chunks until I can complete the triangle: Perfectly. At tempo. Beginning to end. My whole life has been about learning, and now I’m learning more about how to learn. It’s all so new and all so familiar. 63 days and counting.

ODY: 20/365

So I went for a plod this afternoon, and it was better than usual. The ankles only muttered at me today, no screaming, and there were even some short stretches where I was running on autopilot. So, a little rhythm, for a change. Oh, and a Sign From God.

Okay, I don’t actually believe in angels, at least not the It’s a Wonderful Life kind or the Touched by an Incredibly Good-Looking Television Angel kind. (Why do we want angels to have bodies, anyway? Oops, hey, I can feel you starting to worry. This is Old Dog Year: My Quest for Midlife Guitar Glory. You haven’t stumbled into a theology ‘blog. Trust me. I know a really roundabout way to get there.) Besides, the guy with the sweatshirt was hunched over as he walked, and he looked tired, anxious and lonely.

But on the other hand, he was wearing a sweatshirt with “MUST” embroidered on the chest. I didn’t know whether it referred to a tech school or a personal imperative. (Or the stifling odour of attics or armpits.) Not that I’m utterly self-absorbed, not that the entire world exists to prop up my private obsessions, but even lonely old men in parks remind me that I MUST play my guitar tonight. So I will. Even I can read a sign like that. Day 20. (Only 345 to go.) 

ODY: Day 9

Gary Larsen once had a superb cartoon captioned “Great Moments in Evolution”. It was spun from all the solemn tributes to major passages in the world of sport, like those of NFL Films. (In Canada, we also have the mocked and adored “Heritage Minutes”, tiny slices of historical Canadiana that punctuate CBC television). Larsen’s one-panel “great moments” gag looked like this: near the shore, two innovative underwater creatures – one carrying a bat, one carrying a glove – consider emerging onto dry land where, you guessed it, lies a baseball. (Rim shot!)

I had my moment of (miniscule) transformation today, my little shiver of possibility. I discovered that the blues riff that the TVPI, my guide toward mid-life guitary glory, had scribbled out on paper was actually not that hard! Oh, I’m slow and clumsy, but I can read his little Tabs for Dummies nomenclature and I can, with tortoise-like determination, play ‘dem blues! Quite suddenly, I can imagine getting good enough to play that oh-so-clichéd riff with a little style and pace. Yes, and bar chords really confuse and abuse my fret fingers, but I know where the fingers go. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of this Old Dog Year, and I will dwell in the House of Blues forever. (No sacrilege intended. I plead giddiness, with intent to self-parody.)   

Words AND Music?

I woke up this morning with a full-colour version of an old and quite likely vain imagining playing in my head. (Playing with my head, it felt like.) It already has a title: How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? First, though, it will be serially published, let’s say in Guitar Player magazine. Each month will chronicle some of the daily highs and lows, as well as account for this musical pilgrim’s progress in learning one of the standard riffs. We’ll start with the main rhythm from “Smoke on the Water”. And some month down the road? The Walsh solo from “Hotel California”. And one thing, anything, from Bruce Cockburn. “Foxglove”. Anything from Speechless. Yeah, in my dreams…

I want to learn how to play guitar. (There, I’ve said it. You’ve read it. “The temple is already built!”) That thought has been banging around in my brain for years, and it must terrify me. I’ve never taken even the remotest step towards it. It frightens me almost as much as writing does, except that when it comes to words I know lots of the basic repertoire. I just suffer from performance anxiety and bad habits. That, and a deep melancholia about the place of my scribbling in the parade. (As if place matters. Join the parade! Even if you’re the guy with the broom walking behind the elephants…) In any case, I’m trying to learn how to follow what Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: “Creativity is a spiritual practice….The stringent requirement of a sustained creative life is the humility to start again, to begin anew.” And the courage, Ms. Cameron. And the courage. “The beginner’s mind,” says the guru. “A culture of learning,” says the International Teaching Centre. So.

Humility and courage, the Right Stuff, remind me of one of my favourite Far Side cartoons. (And where is Gary Larsen now?) It informed me when I was making a second stab at marital sustainability, and it sits above my writing desk now. The cartoon shows a dog on a unicycle riding on a high-wire. In the spotlights’ glare, our wide-eyed pooch juggles four balls, keeps a hula hoop whirling, holding a jug on his head and a cat in his mouth. The caption: “High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog and this was a new trick.”

This writing trick is a hard one. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed the publishing trend that may have begun with Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and which continues apace with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, among many others. It’s a diary. (I can write a diary!) It recounts, more or less, a substantial, natural and imaginable block of time. (I can imagine a year!) It’s become something of a publishing cliché, but it seems to have staying power. (I hope I have staying power, and I know I can do clichés!)

How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? This crazy notion reminds me of that lead-balloon anti-joke about heeding an ambition. Self-Doubting Desire complains: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to play the guitar? The Voice of Pragmatic Encouragement answers: The same age you will be if you don’t. (Borrowed that one from Julia Cameron, too.) I like it. Such dedication to a long-delayed dream scares me. (Yeah, so?) Okay, how about A Year and Six Strings? Or maybe Because A Red Miata Seemed Too Obvious: My Mid-Life Quest for Guitar Glory. I am Title Guy. Now I just have to Do the Deed and Write the Rambling Memoir. (Cool.)