I’ve submitted the manuscript for my new book, Has the World Ended Yet?, which is due out this fall. My sixth book! Now I’m waiting for the edits. And taking the time to be present in the world again instead of my mind. I love the writing life, but sometimes you have to close the computer and just step outside and breathe again.
(The photo is of Pitt Lake, one of my favourite places in B.C. You should visit it. There is enough clean, mountain air for all of us.)
Lately I’ve been thinking about Venice. I visited it for the first time earlier this year, during a mini-tour of Italy. It was by far my favourite city out of the four I explored — the others being Trieste, Florence and Rome — because, well, it’s Venice. It’s a maddening labyrinth with a strange history and almost unreal nature — it’s a city that shouldn’t be possible yet is somehow there anyway. When you walk its streets, it’s like you’re walking through a mad dream. Perhaps that why it’s so popular. We have enough cities in the world, but how many dreams can we actually explore?
The whole time I was there, I kept wondering how Venice had even come about. A little Googling revealed that the city’s history is one of crazy ideas. A city founded by refugees who built it out of a swamp and transformed it into an influential city state thanks to a combination of shipping power and religious relics. The city continues to be a crazy idea today — imagine a city that sometimes still floods, and where parts of it are permanently flooded, like the Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria. A modern city where automobiles largely don’t seem to exist. A city that depends on tourism for its economic success but where tourists are told to go home for fear they may destroy the whole place, as if reality may sink the fragile foundation of the dream city.
Is there a real Venice that exists under the tourist façade? Even that is uncertain. I mean, obviously there is a Venice that physically exists there. But what is it exactly? Which parts make up what we think of as Venice?
Is it the bridges crowded with tourists — the bridges that used to host bloody fistfight spectacles?
Is it the island of the dead?
The various abandoned and forgotten islands?
The picture here is my copy of Shawna Lemay’s Asking in the soil of the island of Torcello, an island home to an abandoned monastery turned tourist destination. An island that is on its way to being forgotten? Or transformed into some new form of Disneyesque attraction? I finished the book on my travels, and it’s one I’ll likely return to again, much like Lemay’s blog Calm Things. When I have time, I’ll also check out her book about Venice, Against Paradise.
I also read Sebastien de Castell’s Saint’s Blood during this trip, which turned out to be an appropriate choice. Right before I left, de Castell and I met up for lunch and he advised me to remember to experience the moment while in Italy. I think he’s right in saying too many of us spend too much time thinking about how to present the moment to others and not live it while it happens. I kept this thought in mind while travelling and it made a difference in the way I remember Venice. I think.
I can’t help but think of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities when I think of Venice. The book is like the city itself, something magical and indescribable. You have to experience it to understand it and everyone’s understanding of it will be their own. (A glimpse of it from a distance.) The book is a mythical travelogue of sorts, with the explorer Marco Polo describing 55 incredible, impossible cities to Kublai Khan, such as Octavia:
Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.
This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.
In trying to map out Venice in my mind, I came across this intriguing bit by Jeanette Winterson on Calvino’s book and Venice. Seems to fit here:
Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice is the one where every canal and palazzo and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venice’s, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value.
Venice’s extremes – its Disneyishness and its invisibility, are not unique, they are the lesser experience of many cities. In Venice the experience is concentrated. There is nowhere less rewarding, nowhere more maddening. The secret Venice guidebooks are useless. This is not New York or Rome. Venice can only be read as fiction. Visiting Venice is to become a fiction yourself – at least if you want to get any sense of it. The facts tell you nothing. This is a cusp city, working at the intersection of art and life – where the best fiction works too.
To return to Calvino, I think of Venice like I think of Calvino’s Tamara. “You leave Tamara without having discovered it.”
Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something — who knows what? — has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes — the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa — so that the worshiper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.
However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant. . . .
Yes, I would like to visit Venice again, and experience once more that joyous act of discovery where we encounter not only a strange and foreign place but also experience our own mad, impossible imagination.
“Congratulations. You’re a Canadian now.”
That was what my wife said to me after the Tragically Hip concert in Vancouver Sunday night. Somehow, I had made it into my late 40s without ever seeing the Canuck rockers live. My wife had seen them at 16 at Ontario Place, which made her far more Canadian and far cooler than me.
I’ve been to a few concerts in my lifetime, but none of them have left me as emotionally moved as the Hip show, with the possible exception of Nick Cave. Because Nick Cave. And I wasn’t alone in this — the entire crowd was having a moment for the entire show. People were waving Canadian flags, men and women with grey hair were dancing in the aisles while the younger audience members were waving their smartphones in the air like lighters. Everyone was singing along to the lyrics and screaming enthusiastically whenever the big screens showed Hip singer Gord Downie’s face.
What is it about the Hip that causes such multi-generational love? If you’re Canadian, you just kind of get it even if you’re not really into their music. If you’re not a Canuck, it’s hard to explain. Sure, there’s the fact they’re a group of small-town boys from Kingston, Ontario, who did good. They seem to down to earth, as far as rock stars go. They started the Vancouver concert on time, after all! And I’ve never heard any stories of hotel room trashing or the usual rock and roll fables.
Maybe it’s our shared stories they sing about. Every Canadian knows what Downie is talking about when he sings “Twenty years for nothing, well, that’s nothing new / besides, no one is interested in something you didn’t do.” Or when they name a song Bobcaygeon: “It was in Bobcaygeon / I saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time.” Or songs like The Hundredth Meridian, which marks various borders physical and otherwise in Canada, or Fifty Mission Cap about the Maple Leafs and hockey or I could go on and on but I don’t need to. If you’re Canadian, you just get the Hip.
Not that they sing strictly about Canadiana. They’ve got plenty of songs that don’t reference Canada at all. The crowd went nuts for Grace, Too at the show I saw — the line “I come from downtown, born ready for you” being the equivalent of a national anthem for some.
And what other band could make a hit song about poets: “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing / those Himalayas of the mind.” Poets, man. Poets.
If you’re Canadian, the Hip have been the soundtrack to your life — whether or not you’ve actually ever owned any of their albums. They’re just always playing somewhere wherever you go. I was having a flashback of my life during their show — listening to New Orleans is Sinking while working the night shift at a grocery store, dancing to Locked In the Trunk of a Car while in university, making a mess of a romance to Ahead by a Century. And so on. We all have our own stories.
The Hip played songs about those moments, places and people that became something more than what they were, that became part of the Canadian experience, part of our shared memory and identity. In doing so, they became the exact sort of thing they sang about – they went from being a bunch of guys in a Kingston band to being the Hip. Something that was indescribably Canadian.
So when news came that Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it was like the entire country had been sucker punched in the gut. It was like finding out a family member was dying.
The Hip announced they were going to do another tour. Partially to support their new album, sure. But let’s face it, the tour was also about connecting with their fans one last time.
“What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection,” the Hip said in a letter on their website, “with each other; with music and its magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans.”
And that was what I felt in that concert in Vancouver: a connection to the band, to all the people around me, to the great country of Canada and its stories. I said on someone’s Facebook thread that it felt like a communion, and that seems as good a description as any.
“Enjoy those one-night moments,” Downie said in an interview with Strombo some time ago. “We’ll only be here tonight, this bunch of us in this room, doing this. That’s live performance. Let’s try and find some point of transcendence and leap together.”
I definitely felt that transcendence during the show, and I’m still feeling its lingering after-effects. And I’m having trouble imagining a Canada without the Tragically Hip. The band is like another province to us, the state of mind we all want to live in.
I suspect the Hip’s final show, which the CBC is going to broadcast live Aug. 20 from Kingston, the band’s hometown, will be a moment this country has never seen before.
Well, let’s just see what the morning brings.
Well, this is as close as it gets to winter where I live, anyway.
A dinner conversation about that discovery of possible alien megastructures at the star KIC 8462852:
Me: So today I read an interesting news story. Scientists were studying a distant star when they noticed strange flickers of light that could have been caused by alien structures. Aliens!
Alden: I don’t think so.
Me: What do you mean, you don’t think so?
Alden: If there are aliens, why haven’t they abducted me yet?
Me: I ask myself that every day.
If you haven’t seen the video of Wil Wheaton talking about his struggles with mental illness yet, watch it now. It’s important. If you haven’t struggled with mental illness yourself, it’s almost certainly affected someone you know. Which means it’s affected you, directly or indirectly.
Depression is a horrible thing to live through. Anxiety is a horrible thing to live through. Suicidal thoughts are a horrible thing to live through. But as Wheaton says, you can live life with these things rather than through them. You can manage them and know the joy of being alive rather than simply existing. And this is so incredibly important:
“You are not the only person in the world who has anxiety. You are not the only person in the world who has depression. You’re not the only person in the world who has thoughts of self-harm. There are people who want to help you. There are people who have spent their entire lives helping people like you and me and all of the people that you’re seeing in this video. And you’re not alone. You are okay.”
You are okay. You just need a little help. And people want to help you. And they can help you. You can change your normal.
Hey, if you don’t believe Wheaton, believe me. I used to suffer from depression and suicidal tendencies. It started sometime in my childhood and gradually got worse as I aged. The breaking point was during my university days, when I found myself lying in bed one afternoon with a knife, seriously considering slitting my wrists because I just found life too hard of a burden to bear anymore. I remember looking out the window, at the beautiful day outside. The sky was blue, children were playing, etc., and there I was with a knife in bed. I thought, “I can’t go on like this anymore.” But I realized I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. I just didn’t know how to live.
That afternoon I went to the health clinic at the University of Western Ontario and told the woman at the reception desk I needed help. She took one look at me and asked if I was thinking about harming myself. I couldn’t even answer. I just stood there and shook. We’re taught to hide our feelings and vulnerabilities, not reveal them. I didn’t know how to admit everything I felt. She sat me down in a private room and I was talking to a counsellor within minutes.
That counsellor saved my life. I honestly believe that. She helped me to understand that what I thought was the normal way of experiencing life wasn’t normal, that I could actually move through life feeling good about myself and what I did. She helped me find a healthy normal that I could build a life upon.
When I first went to the clinic, I thought maybe I needed drugs or something to fix a chemical imbalance in me. As it turned out, my depression was purely psychological and due to past experiences, which I’m not going to get into here. It’s all good now. What I needed was someone to talk to, to help me, to guide the depressed me to the real me that was hiding within myself and waiting to do good things. In fact, I needed a few people to talk to. That first counsellor I saw helped me build a foundation for my life that was positive and uplifting — a foundation that made me care about myself. When I relapsed into depression years later because of life events, I immediately saw another another counsellor, who helped me add to that foundation. I think I’ve sought out counselling three times in my life now, and each one has left me stronger and better equipped to deal with the challenges of my life.
I am the person I am now because I sought help. Without those people helping me, I don’t think I ever would have lived to realize my dream of becoming a published writer, let alone the author of five novels. I never would have had the stability to find true love and become a dedicated husband and father. I’d had my daughter at the point I was struggling with depression, but if I hadn’t sought help I never would have become a father to my two sons — who fill me with a joy I couldn’t truly appreciate when I was younger. I never would have stuck around to meet my grandson, who is a source of daily wonder for me. I never would have had the confidence to pursue the career in the media that I have enjoyed for more than a decade now. I have lived the fullest life imaginable because I realized I needed help. I no longer suffer from depression and I don’t think I ever will again — I’ve lived too full a life to have any regrets now.
Wheaton is right. There are people who want to help you. Let them help you. Live the life you deserve to live. Help others live the lives they deserve to live. None of us are alone. And we are all okay.
The other day I stumbled across a photo on reddit that showed a doctor allegedly grieving outside a hospital after losing a young patient. The photo affected me deeply, as I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals lately with my sons, who have health problems. Health care workers have become an important part of my life, and I’ve sometimes wondered how they cope with everything they see. The reddit thread shows they clearly struggle with it, as they’re only human, too.
I wrote a personal column in response for The Province, the paper where I work. It spread like crazy, with people offering stories of their own medical experiences. It’s now the most-read thing I’ve ever written — The Province’s Facebook post about the story was seen by more than 50,000 people in a single day, and the paper’s Twitter page was a stream of retweets for a while.
I’m glad the column reached so many people, and I hope it helps readers find ways to say thanks to those health care workers who have changed their lives, just as they changed mine.
I’ll never forget the words a nurse said to me one day when things looked particularly dire: “It makes you realize how much of a miracle life is.”
Now imagine how they must feel when they see that miracle taken away in front of them on a routine basis.