On a Personal Note
A look at boyhood, a guide to goodness, and sports-based parenting
Boy Wonders: A Memoir
As a fluent and artfully plain-speaking sports columnist for the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, Cathal Kelly has attracted readers who aren’t instinctively drawn to the swings and misses of his subject matter. He stands apart from the inbred culture of professionalized athleticism with an aloofness that feels intellectual, and his resistance to fanboyism is dependably idea-driven and contrarian.
The dailiness of sports coverage sometimes makes even the unique aspects of Kelly’s writing feel a bit predictable and pat, so it’s intriguing to see what he gets up to in this pleasing memoir of a reckless, wisdom-inducing Toronto boyhood that, no surprise, makes few concessions to sports nerds. He is no Batman, more a second-banana spectator of rough-and-ready working-class ordinariness who belatedly acquires the scribe’s heightened sense of ephemeral wonderment. Kelly is the anti-Proust of the everyday, matter-of-factly dredging up an awful temps perdu awash with Dungeons and Dragons meet-ups, eye-opening Penthouses purloined from corner-store racks, glittering Michael Jackson jackets (instantly regretted upon purchase) and piled-high gelled hair liable to catch fire during a shift helming the fast-food fryer.
But as a stylist of the colloquial, he is well suited to the memoirist’s trick of making the trivial sound meaningful or, failing that, funny. “The subway gets a bad rap,” he writes, “because it is seen as a conveyance of need rather than desire.” But having suffered through his alcoholic father’s angry, accident-prone driving, and appreciating the dependability of a subway line as only a carless, downtown-seeking teenager can, he wisely observes, “A transit system is chauffeuring for
He starts stealing car hood ornaments because, from his extremely narrow perspective, that’s what everyone was doing in the mid ’80s. But all it takes is getting caught and being charged with public mischief and the compulsive desire for an elusive Rolls ornament disappears. Nobody cared anymore. “It had been tulip mania, but much stupider.”
At one point he finds himself arguing with his brother against the greatness of Wayne Gretzky (so yes, there is sports content here) by touting his own hockey favourite, the slick goal-scorer Mike Bossy. It was the very moment, Kelly says, when
“I first realized that I was totally full of shit.” And then he adds, with the self-deprecating flair of the journalistic trickster, “I wouldn’t become a newspaper sports columnist for another quarter-century, but that may have been where the instinct was first discovered. Twelve years old and loudly arguing the inarguable.”
Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country
By David Johnston
It’s hard to argue with much of what former governor general David Johnston has to say in this extended but somewhat makeshift rumination on the precarious idea of trust in public life. Affability was his hallmark as GG—a grandfatherly openness coupled with an indefatigability that turned his hundreds of road trips into easy-going meet and greets. He was welcoming and welcomed in equal measures, a ready talker who prided himself on being a good listener and, more to the point, he seemed to enjoy all of it. This is not a universal trait in vice-regal representatives, who are tasked with the paradoxical role in our levelled-out democracy of being superior people and mixing easily with very ordinary Canadians.
Trust is at its sporadic best when it becomes personal and (if only modestly) revealing. Johnston boasts of sitting down for lunch every day in the Rideau Hall cafeteria to build trust and rapport among his staff—he was happy to flout convention within an institution that is notoriously -convention-bound.
As recent media controversies have made clear, ex-GGs have a prolonged afterlife consisting of what they would call service and critics would label sponging. Johnston, based on his likeability and dedication, seems immune to the barbs. When he’s not turning out handbooks on building a better country and giving motivational speeches, the former law dean and university leader chairs the Rideau Hall Foundation, a charity focused on learning, leadership, philanthropy, and innovation, and serves as an advisor to Deloitte as well as Fairfax Financial. Not surprisingly, Trust feels like the collective by-product of his varied public activities: an earnest, sometimes credulous, guide to goodness and leadership (go eat with the cafeteria masses!) that often seems to be suppressing a memoirist’s more expansive, digressive urge. At one point Johnston talks about meeting resistance from professional organizations that didn’t want to hear his criticisms of their moral failings—the unofficial version of these arguments would have been much more interesting than the anodyne sentence or two he provides.
Trust proceeds from a place of pessimism concerning our embattled democratic principles, and rightly so, but Johnston is a born optimist and comforting cheerleader. You can see from his -solutions-oriented guide to trust-building why people generally liked being around him.
To the extent that leaders can model and promote undisputed national values, rare public figures like Johnston inspire a better country just by sitting around, talking, and listening. But at the book level, a less amiable, less trusting, more critically impassioned voice is needed.
Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom
By Angie Abdou
Is honesty overrated? Angie Abdou’s reflections on being a reluctant hockey mom are mesmerizing in their anxious urge to reveal everything, which is seemingly the memoirist’s supreme function. But as a neurotic tell-all about sports-based parenting, Home Ice is less a celebration than a warning about how the obsessed-over national game, played out at kid level, can divide families and mess up lives.
This makes for a gripping, emotionally overwrought story. For readers seeking to be tantalized and distracted, maybe that’s more than enough. But as Abdou chronicles her young son Ollie’s fitful progress through low-level hockey programs in Fernie, B.C.—where an away game might involve a three-hour trip filled with boredom, carsickness, and bad driving—the evident collateral damage ought to make hockey parents stand back and reflect on the soul-destroying point of it all.
Not Abdou though. Her novelistic reflections come fast and furious, a seething overspill of pride, worry, anger, disappointment, and resentment, all fuelled by the high-emotion, low-stakes game that takes over far too much of her life and thoughts.
Clearly there must be pleasure in being a hockey mom, if not a hockey child, but Abdou reveals herself to be unbearably conflicted as she watches her son fail to live up to her ambitions and expectations. Give her credit for being brutally honest—her husband’s refusal to share the numbing hockey-parent burdens is Exhibit A in her tales of an unhappy marriage—and then question the need to expose so much pain with so little gain. Nobody likes hockey much by the end. But to get a good story out of this belated life lesson feels like a small human betrayal.