One of my BFFs and her daughter are traveling to Europe in January, and will be spending eight short days in Spain and Portugal. My friend and her teenage artist phenom both love art, so I am very excited for them to see one of my favourite paintings in person on their upcoming trip.
There are many reasons I have an immense love of Spain, not the least of which is its art. And while there is a veritable cornucopia of beautiful and meaningful paintings to indulge in throughout the country, there is little doubt that its most famous artwork is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
For those fortunate enough to visit Spain, you will wrestle with where to visit in your (presumably) short time there. That is completely understandable. However, if you miss out on visiting the Reina Sofia, where today Guernica is housed, then you should immediately consult a brain surgeon, as your corpus callosum has clearly been severed.
On that day, after Hitler had responded to Franco’s request to send some aerial firepower to Spain in a bid to help him bring an end to the Spanish Civil War, Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe led the charge, attacking the spiritual capital of the Basque people by dropping 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg) of bombs on the tiny town over a period of three hours.
The Aftermath of the Bombing of Guernica
The result was devastating. Picasso, who at the time was living in Paris and working on a painting for the Spanish Pavillion at the upcoming Paris International Exhibition, heard about the bombing of Guernica shortly after it happened and was horrified. He immediately did away with what he was working on and began creating what was to become his most celebrated artwork. In fact, Picasso is said to have worked frantically on the painting for 35 days, finishing it on June 4, 1937.
Guernica is now housed in the Reina Sofia, which, along with the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, makes up one-third of Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art — one of the most illustrious pieces of art real estate in the world. And at 3.49 meters (11 ft. 5 in) in height and 7.76 meters (25 ft 6 in) in width, it is nothing if not daunting to absorb visually when you see it for yourself in person.
There are endless tales associated with this painting, from the work Picasso put into it nearly a century ago, to its role as a political tool/bargaining chip in the years it hung in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to its safe return to Spain in 1981. There are of course many books written about Guernica as well, one of which I read and enjoyed thoroughly was Gijs van Hensbergen’s Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon.
Today, when thinking about Guernica and its long-lasting effect on the world as a whole, I go back to March 1945. As World War II was drawing to a close, Picasso said something to the French journalist Simone Téry in an interview which could very well be the perfect description of his most iconic work: “No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”
A year ago this week, I was hospitalized for what, to this day, remains a mystery. It would be the same week the WHO declared a new SARS-CoV-2 variant: Omicron. We were a year and a half into the pandemic and about to have our world turned upside down — again.
I won’t speak for everyone’s experiences post-hospital stay, but there’s a certain equanimity I have gained with the passing of time. In this particular case, I awoke one morning and started my day. Then, sometime after dinner — and pardon the cliche — I collapsed out of the blue. I had lost the ability to stand and, as I quickly learned, to walk.
Cue the Blue Shirts, Toronto’s EMS, who performed a feat of engineering magic and somehow not only got me on a stretcher in a very tight space but also managed to carry me down a flight of stairs in my two-story apartment with absolutely no wiggle room.
Similar to another magical stay in 1995, this time around I was also quarantined, because of Covid or because doctors had no idea what was wrong with me, I will likely never know. They drugged me up good and goodly that night and when I awoke the next morning, I assessed my situation. I could not get up out of the deluxe gurney, which presented my first problem because I had to use the bathroom bad and badly. Other bonus features included: I was alone in a room that had neither a TV nor a radio. I had no cell phone, no computer, and no book to read. In fact, I had a whole lot of nothin’, not even the shirt on my back.
There were tests. There were also needles and IVs and visits to cool and interesting parts of the hospital. And in between there was the kind of silence I hadn’t experienced in years.
The results of all the tests showed nothing. Even my MRI proved my brain was still in good working order. (Suckas! Like taking candy from a baby!) Doctors were dumbfounded. So, after two weeks of being spoon-fed by nurses, having my backside attended to by nurses, and carted around in a wheelchair or gurney by nurses, they were moving me to a rehab hospital. I had to learn how to walk again. (Insert the expletive of your choice here)
On my first morning at the rehab joint, I met the two young ladies who were tasked with (literally) getting me on my feet again. One was a physical therapist, the other an occupational therapist. They explained how things would work for the next couple of weeks, but before they left they asked me if I had any questions. I told them that I didn’t have any questions but that I would never use that wheelchair again. And I would be leaving the hospital before Christmas under my own steam.
Why did I feel it necessary to be a cocky-ass tough guy and tell these two nice people that I was walking out of the hospital come hell or high water? While it’s true that I have a remarkable ability for being an asshole at opportune times, this was a conviction that came from the pit of my (severely lacking confidence at that exact moment) soul. I needed to say the words out loud, in public, to someone else, just so I would believe them. Because in truth, I wasn’t so sure.
Here’s my shitty analogy; prepare to be underwhelmed and throw your device out a window: I’m a kid. I go to the Alps in Switzerland. They’re high. I’m a teenager. I go to the Rockies in Colorado. They’re also pretty high. I’m a young adult. I go to the Andes in Argentina. They’re really high. Look! That’s Aconcagua! I’m a fully formed, dumbass adult. I go to Nepal. I come across Annapurna in the Himalayas (8,100 m/26,500 feet). I say to myself, Sweet gentle Jesus in the god damn garden. They can actually build shit that high? My neck hurt just looking up at what appeared to be a celestial body (and arguably the most beautiful piece of nature I’d seen in my life). Well, that’s how I felt about my present shitstorm. All my previous challenges were those “high” mountains; this current contumacy (big word for a big situation) on the part of my lower body represented the highest thing on the planet I’d ever had to get over. Learn how to walk again?
Right. Baby steps. My days consisted of waking up early, getting on my computer and working until physical therapy started after breakfast. Then, between sessions, I’d putter around my half of the room with the aid of a walker to get more practice in, one agonizingly slow rotation around my bed at a time. Why half of the room, you ask?
I shared my room with an elderly gentleman who’d just had a foot amputated, was waiting for a different hospital to have an OR available to amputate his other foot (or the entire leg; they weren’t sure), was doing rehab in the meantime, and clearly had a broken, sad-as-sin relationship with his son, who I pegged to be a little older than me. Oh, and his backstory? His wife of 60 years died while he was in the last hospital a couple of months ago, so he never got to say goodbye to her, and now he had nowhere to be released after his hospital stay because his home had stairs and he could no longer take care of himself all on his own. He cried to himself daily, usually when he woke up, then after breakfast, and always loudest — and most heart-wrenchingly painful — in the afternoon.
So there was that.
While pieces of my heart creaked and cracked like ice over a half-frozen pond every time my roommate began crying, I needed to focus on getting better. The truth is that nobody could do this for me. There was no drug or chemical that could fix this, no doctor with a bunch of fancy letters beside their name who could wave their magic wand and make this all go away. This needed good ol’ fashioned hard work and a boatload of faith in myself. Simple formula, really. I worked my ass off, from morning to night, and would not relent, even when my legs collapsed, and I crumpled to the floor. Do or die. Sink or swim.
Contrary to the hospital’s projected timeline for me to need full-time assistance at the rehab hospital, I brought the staff there to their knees in shock and awe when I walked out of that joint like a god damn Greek god a mere twelve days later! All the nurses lined up in the hallway and patted me on the back. I think someone was even playing a harp in the background. Maybe a piccollo, too.
Let’s try that again: Twelve days later I met with an administrator who told me they were short on beds — Omicron had blown up in Toronto and they needed to turn my ward into a Covid unit again. In addition, she added, “You’re bleeding our healthcare system dry, you look like shit, you haven’t showered in nearly a month, your beard makes you look like you’re a wannabe Ted freaking Kaplansky — or whatever the hell that guy’s name was — and would you please get the hell off our property before we have our kindly Rent-a-Cops escort you out, in a wheelchair or body bag, either will be fine.”
Gulp. Twelve days later I did indeed walk out of the hospital. No line of nurses in the hallway. Even my two physical therapists were anything but impressed when I walked — WALKED!!! — out on my own two feet, no cane, no wheelchair, a little wobbly, and my BFF carrying my goods for me (one laptop, two books, change of clothes). But I walked out of there and then headed back to said friend’s place for another week of get-your-shit-together prep work so I could return to real everyday life.
As you might imagine, I did a lot of thinking while I was on that otherworldly hiatus. Fortunately, I’d had a lot of experience spending long periods of time alone and in vulnerable situations. Here’s one thing I can tell you I did not do in any way, shape or form. I did not feel sorry for myself or lament my lot in life. Everyone’s different. We’re all unique. How my elderly roommate was going to survive, I had no idea, but I knew how I was going to seize this opportunity and make the most of it. I was going to do the one thing in life that brought me great joy.
Thus and therefore, I got back to writing with one goal in mind: to take my career to the next level. And wouldn’t you know it, something extraordinary happened this past summer. As many writers have mused over the centuries, when we want something badly enough in life — so badly it hurts in all the right and wrong places — the universe has a knack of conspiring in our favour and making it happen.
For me, I found an agent after being released from the hospital. Correction. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Senior Editor from Random House with 20 years of experience shaping countless manuscripts and who had just started her own literary agency found me. As you can see on the About the Author page, Katie Hall and I have teamed up and are now taking our first of several completed novels together to the powers that be in the world of publishing.
I am now absolutely certain that 2023 will be a watershed year in my publishing career. How can I be so confident about this inevitability? When you’ve had to overcome something that seemed so simple yet so out-of-control impossible at the same time, everything else becomes that much easier to achieve.
Here’s the thing about the real Theory of Relativity — the amount of pain you experience in life is relative to the suffering and hardship you yourself have already been through up to that point. Not what others have survived or continue to surmount on a daily basis. You. Your shit. Your shitty baggage. There are no absolutes (except the speed of light, of course), so don’t ever apologize for feeling like the world is shitting on you if that’s how you feel. In my own case, last year’s “event” only galvanized an already fired-up dude bent on writing more and reaching a wider audience of readers.
By the way, in case you were wondering if I exaggerated about how I looked when meeting that hospital administrator last December, have a gander at this Zoolander runway model who’d lost 30 pounds (13.5 kilos) and didn’t see a ray of sunshine for over a month. And then please to meet his younger brother, who just popped off set from filming his new Hallmark Channel special, Gosh! I’m Home for Christmas, Fellas!
I took the first pic upon release from my hospital “journey”; I took the second pic two hours after getting home and visiting my hairdresser. Just remember this — “they” may knock you down, but only you can keep yourself down.
I find it interesting how books come into our lives, and the effect they have on us (or don’t have on us). I recently finished two books. One was a non-fiction title I received from a friend as a Christmas gift; the other was a novel chosen by a woman from my book club last month. The former was Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, while the latter was Matt Haig’s The Humans.
I found that funny. Not funny like COVID-19, China picking on Lithuania (and removing the country’s name from its customs forms), Russia blaming the world for setting up shop on Ukraine’s border, or NHL stars not going to the Olympics. No. I found it funny that I had chosen neither book and yet both ended up being about, well, people like me — Homo sapiens/human beings
Both books opened my eyes, if in different ways. For example, Mr. Harari did an excellent job of documenting what we know about how Homo sapiens helped extinguish the other members of the genus Homo, almost like we were snuffing out a candle, leaving only us sapiens to work on wiping out the remaining 8.7 million species (est.) we share the Earth will. As Yuval Harari opined, it was almost like we were bent on exterminating life from our very inception.
For his part, Matt Haig, when not opening up the proverbial can of Riemann’s hypothesis, does a solid job of confirming that extra-terrestrial life not only exists, but that they also want ultimate control over the entire universe and will kill indiscriminately to maintain the present order of all things organic, even if that means no such things as love and passion and death and tragedy.
For me there were several times I paused and thought about what the authors were saying about me/us as a species. In The Humans, it was this:
“In every life there is a moment. A crisis. One that says: what I believe is wrong. It happens to everyone, the only difference is how that knowledge changes them. In most cases, it is simply a case of burying that knowledge and pretending it isn’t there. That is how humans grow old. That is ultimately what creases their faces and curves their backs and shrinks their mouths and ambitions. The weight of that denial. The stress of it. This is not unique to humans. The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change.”
In Sapiens, it was this:
“Seventy thousand years ago, Homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem. Today it stands on the verge of becoming a god, poised to acquire not only eternal youth, but also the divine abilities of creation and destruction…Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
While I would not recommend The Humans unless you’re a fan of Robert Fulghum (and if you are, then you might just love this work of fiction), I think Sapiens should be mandatory reading for all literate Homo sapiens. It’s that good. More importantly, it’s that important.
“So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.”
It’s been two years since I last posted. A lot has happened in the world over that time, but you already know that. You’ve lived it. You’re living it. You will continue living it until you realize this will always be with us, if only as a memory.
There are some who believe that every generation has a “moment” they live through that defines them, that defines us as a world. And while there were events such as WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII that affected most nations and peoples simultaneously, they were not as indiscriminate as the current epoch we’re still groping our way through as blind as bats. I, for one, would like to know who our one-eyed man is today.
To be fair, we’re still knee-deep in this shitstorm. I can’t reconcile where I’ve been over these two years or what the hell has happened. I’ve stopped writing; this is my first non-work-related writing since the proverbial candles went out in Toronto that fateful day in March. I haven’t seen my book club in person for more than 100 weeks. I’ve lost more than 30 pounds. I’ve spent solid time in two hospitals, seen a lot of wasted bodies, and been witness to cruelty I’ve not seen or heard previously.
And yet…I’ve also seen the best of humanity firsthand in our nurses, doctors, and countless other medical professionals and hospital staff. In my family members and friends. In random acts of kindness. In small, meaningful gestures that have not gone unnoticed. I have a new appreciation for art. I cherish the dark of morning and the solace which music brings with it. Texting or chatting online is no longer a lame substitute for calling or seeing someone in the flesh. Two years into this sociological mindfuck I’ll take what I can get when it comes to human “contact.”
Nonetheless, despite all the negativity we have been inundated with for hundreds upon hundreds of days, I still have hope. I have not given up. Or as someone so wisely once said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Never before have I had such hope that the Leafs could actually win the Stanley Cup. That Team Canada will qualify for the World Cup of Rugby next summer in France. That everyone I love will make it through this hiccup in time with a few nicks and bruises, but otherwise stronger for the experience.
As Wally Lamb once wrote, “I know this much is true.”
March 8, 2019 marks the 108th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD). Per the official IWD site:
The first International Women’s Day occurred in 1911, supported by over one million people. Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific.
The future is exciting. Let’s build a gender-balanced world.
Everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere.
From grassroots activism to worldwide action, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. We notice its absence and celebrate its presence.
Balance drives a better working world. Let’s all help create a #BalanceforBetter.
I’d like to take this opportunity to pay homage to the most influential woman I know, a civic advocacy leader, affordable housing champion, unrivaled proponent of older women’s rights through the Older Women’s Network, and (duh!) best mother in the world: my mom.
She was also the reason I had my first library as a young punk, and taught me that reading was not just cool; it was necessary, like food and water. For that, and so many other reasons, I hope that a day like IWD can inspire us all to push for greater changes in gender equality rights, and to reach out to the women in our lives who have impacted us in such meaningful, positive, and long-lasting ways.
What I love about this is that it can be applied (mostly) to everyday life and the challenges we face as partners, parents, employees…human beings. Here’s a snapshot of some of Mr. Faulkner’s choice thoughts:
On how to approach writing:
Keep it amateur. You’re not writing for money but for pleasure. It should be fun. And it should be exciting.
Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.
On what makes a good novelist
He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. . . . Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.
The real truths come from human hearts.
I think anyone that spends too much of his time about his style, developing a style, or following a style, probably hasn’t got much to say and knows it and is afraid of it, and so he writes a style, a marvelous trove.
On writing towards the truth:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.
On what a writer needs:
[T]he only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.
On the writer’s essential toolkit:
A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others.
On the best training for writing:
Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it.
And maybe the best piece of advice of all.
On also getting a job:
Don’t make writing your work. Get another job so you’ll have money to buy the things you want in life. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t count on money and a deadline for your writing.
If you like reading, you’ll probably like this book. If you love reading, you will love this book. And if you adore reading like it’s a source of oxygen, then you will go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs when you start this book.
In 1997, Argentine-Canadian Alberto Manguel published an immensely engrossing book called A History of Reading, a love letter, as it were, to readers everywhere throughout the ages. As his publisher puts it:
“At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book—that string of confused, alien ciphers—shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader. Alberto Manguel moves from this essential moment to explore the 6000-year-old conversation between words and that magician without whom the book would be a lifeless object: the reader. Manguel lingers over reading as seduction, as rebellion, as obsession, and goes on to trace the never-before-told story of the reader’s progress from clay tablet to scroll, codex to CD-ROM.”
For those bibliophiles and word nerds out there who can’t get enough book-related stuff, Mr. Manguel also has another interesting nonfiction book called The Library at Night. It’s sexy. It’s mild. It’s a sexy mild read.
In a similarly related piece, Nicholas Cannariato penned a thought-provoking piece for @The_Millions called “Why We Read and Why We Write.” As Mr. Cannariato says:
“Reading then is a moral and subversive act in its own right. It’s a disengagement from the commercial and competitive in pursuit of heightened moral sense coupled with aesthetic and intellectual engagement. Reading doesn’t produce ‘work’ itself as ‘producerist’ ideology would have it, but rather it cultivates the intangibles that go into that work. What we gain by reading is what we often strive for in life when we’re actually thinking about what we want.”
But perhaps the most hilarious quote from this piece (and something which would likely make Stephen King hunt down and “Misery” the male colleague in question here) is the following: “Sheila Liming, in her recent essay “In Praise of Not Not Reading,” recounts a male colleague pursuing an MFA in fiction tell her he literally didn’t believe in reading. ‘I’m a writer, I make things,’ he said, ‘whereas you’re a reader, you consume things.'”
Anyone have a candlestick, knife, rope, dumbbell, trophy, poison, lead pipe, revolver, or wrench handy for Professor Douchebag?
Someone asked me recently what I do for a living. I explained that I work across a broad range of areas connected to the craft of writing, from translation, blogging, and social media involvement to writing (fiction & nonfiction), editing and proofreading.
“You must be pretty busy,” the gentleman remarked. “And making good money!”
I thought about this for a moment, then responded, “Think of my line of work as similar to that of a professional athlete or a farmer: I sow in some seasons, reap in others, and then “take five,” though not usually by choice.
My low season is roughly December to March, making me, I suppose, closest in work schedule to a baseball player (except as a freelancer I don’t get paid in my time off, no insurance, no benefits, etc.).
That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about harsh times, poverty, and the like these days. Of course it doesn’t help that I live in the Great White North. As Sarah McLachlan so poetically sings in “Full of Grace“:
The winter here’s cold, and bitter. It’s chilled us to the bone. We haven’t seen the sun for weeks, Too long, too far from home. I feel just like I’m sinking, and I claw for solid ground. I’m pulled down by the undertow. I never thought I could feel so low. Oh, darkness, I feel like letting go.
Even in a country like Canada, which has a very generous social safety net, nearly five million of us live in poverty, or one in seven individuals, according to Canada Without Poverty. Another alarming statistic by the same group says that “over the past 25 years, Canada’s population has increased by 30% and yet annual national investment in housing has decreased by 46%.”
On that sunshiny note! This got me thinking about poverty as it’s portrayed in fiction and nonfiction. After an extensive search through Goodreads’ “shelved as poverty” pages, I came up with the following list of must-reads. Again, just my opinion…
MUST-READS (FICTION): All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr), A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams), A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga), The Good Earth (Pearl Buck), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), Of Human Bondage (Somerset Maugham), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz), The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
MUST-READS (NONFICTION): The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou), No Logo (Naomi Klein), Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, (Jared Diamond), Infidel (Ayaan Hirsi Ali)
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