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…

Oh Zizou, Zizou, wherefore art thou so SELFISH?

(A slightly revised version of this piece, printed after Zidane’s first public statement hinted not at racism but to insults to his mother and sister, appeared in The Ottawa Citzen on Friday, July 14, 2006.) 

The comparisons will be flying. Can you imagine Gretzky clobbering an opponent over the head in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals? Derek Jeter charging the mound to spike the pitcher in the deciding game of the World Series? Michael Jordan decking the guy guarding him with the championship about to be decided? No valid parallels exist in professional sport, to my knowledge, for the moment Zinedine Zidane chose to settle a personal score when there was so much at stake for the team he captained. It was a shocking thing, more for its incredibly bad timing than for the violence of the act itself (which was considerable).

It was clear that the Italians were harassing Zidane physically; but when in his starry career has this not been the case? It was obvious that Materazzi said something vile, something that froze the French captain in mid-stride and brought down the blinding beams of rage; but what taunts hadn’t this child of a poor Algerian immigrant family already heard? And yes, there had been a remarkable Buffon save on what looked like France’s Cup-winner from that same powerful forehead. The rock-hard Cannavaro’s elbow smash, possibly inadvertent, to Zidane’s shoulder? Sure, that happened. Frustrating and brutal things often occur in the context of championship sport, and the mark of the champion is fortitude under the most severe of trials. There is nothing to conclude except that Zinedine Zidane, in the greatest pressure situation of his athletic life, abandoned teammates and national honour in a fit of anger. It was a bizarre act by a sporting idol, one of the most selfish acts we have ever seen from a great and graceful athlete.

Unless it wasn’t. Unless our tendency to attribute heroic character to a man with athletic gifts hasn’t tripped us up again. And maybe, just maybe, unless we have once again assumed that what happens in a World Cup final match is more important than life itself (or racism, or other forms of inhumanity). French athletic supporter that I am (at least during World Cup), I know what my first outraged question was after the head-butt: What could possibly be more important right then than winning the Cup? I was furious with this man I don’t know, whose career I’ve followed about every fourth year. And I guess, too, I wanted to believe in that persistent myth, reincarnated again with Zidane: the superb sportsman as ambassador of good, as role model to the world, as spokesman and exemplar for the most humane of causes.

But I remember the words of a prominent American basketball coach, who told me, “I’ve never known a great player who wasn’t a bit of a jerk.” Good genetics aside, how does someone like Zidane graduate from the ferocious street football games of his impoverished youth to become a star? By never backing away from insults and challenges. By inspiring fear in opponents. By being a hard, hard man. By sporting an ego bigger than all the barriers he faced.

Countering my shocked disbelief was my soccer-savvy friend, who nodded quietly and said, “Do you remember him stomping on the Saudi in ’98? (I didn’t.) Do you remember his head-butt with Juventus? (Um, no.) He’s been red-carded many times.” Zinedine Zidane has to win, and he has to win right now. Amateur psychologists like me might mutter sagely about self-absorption, about “the inability to delay gratification” that is the hallmark of all sorts of immaturity. And this would be true.

But there is more to be heard of this. There are some who would seek to excuse Zidane, or at least to diminish our self-righteous horror (“I would never do such a thing!”). One of the most extreme apologist voices is the American Dave Zirin (“Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey”) (, who frames the incident as Zidane’s way of standing against racism and Islamophobia, as an assertion that some things are just BIGGER than sport. And I agree that many things are more important than winning the big game. Included in that list, though, are dignity and self-control, the needs of your companions and the art of the long view. Zinedine Zidane’s scorecard is not yet complete. I still want to believe that nice guys can finish first in all the most important contests, but it would appear that neither the French star nor his Italian antagonist would qualify.