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Santiago El Grande

Santiago El Grande

Santiago El Grande

The painting on the left is Santiago El Grande, by Salvador Dali.

I love this painting.

I first saw it when I visited my friend Trish Smith in Fredericton twenty-one years ago. Trish took me to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and when I first laid eyes on this painting I was blown away. You can’t tell by the picture in this post but it’s enormous, and when I saw it up close I could not get over the at times almost photo-realistic detail Dali managed to achieve. It was the first painting of its calibre I had ever seen.

Shortly afterward I travelled to Europe and visited the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay, and several galleries in Florence Italy, and no painting in any of those places impressed me as much as Santiago El Grande. I bought a print of it and it hangs in my office at home. But the print is so small compared to the original that you can’t really get a sense of the painting’s majesty, or intricate detail.

About four years ago I returned to Fredericton on a business trip. When I learned I would be going to Fredericton I knew that the one thing I had to do was see Santiago El Grande again. I hoped I would have time, and that the Gallery wouldn’t be too far from where I was staying. Turns out my hotel was the Beaverbrook Hotel… right next door to the Gallery! As soon as I checked in and deposited my bags in my room I high-tailed it to the Gallery.

I had forgotten the layout of the Gallery, that you can see Santiago El Grande as soon as you step inside. There was only an hour left until close but I paid my eight bucks and went in. I spent about ten minutes staring at Santiago El Grande. As I approached the painting I overheard the final moment of a conversation another patron was having with a staff member about Dali. Once I finished admiring the painting on my own I approached the staff member and asked if he could tell me a bit about the painting.

“You’ll be sorry you asked,” he told me.

But I was not at all sorry. It took him about fifteen minutes, but afterward I appreciated the painting even more. He pointed out many details that I had overlooked, such as the partial transparency of some of the figures, and how certain elements were foreshortened to give a three dimensional aspect if viewed from the right angle beneath the painting. (The painting was originally supposed to hung high above an altar to permit this perspective).

He explained some of the history of the painting, how it came to be in Fredericton after the Catholic Church of Spain refused Dali’s offer of the painting. They weren’t refusing the painting so much as they were refusing the painter himself. After which Dali claims he had a dream that told him the painting belonged in a relatively obscure art gallery in Canada. And he told me much more.

Don’t pass through Fredericton without treating yourself to a glimpse of this fantastic work of art.

If I ever manage to cobble together some manner of art that’s even a thousandth as accomplished in my lifetime, I’ll be grateful.

A Capital Pee

(A repost in honour of tomorrow’s anticipated snowstorm)

Snow Train

Snow Train


Please be advised that this story contains the word “pee.”


I really had to pee.

There I was trying to get to work early, for the taping of Canadia 2056. I wanted to get there and test the microphones, the console, and still have time to sit in on the read-through. Figured if I left by seven, I could make it in by eight-thirty, with the first cast members arriving at ten.

Snow and freezing rain messed everything up. The damned bus didn’t show up ’til seven-twenty. Then the train was late. Forty-five minutes late. Waiting for it, standing in the freezing rain, it occurred to me:

I really had to pee.

But I couldn’t leave the platform in case the train came. The train was already late and the subsequent train had been cancelled. If I left to pee, I’d miss the train and I might never get to work. If I couldn’t get to work, I wouldn’t be able to record the cast of Canadia 2056. I’d let a lot of people down. The train would come soon, I knew. I’d be able to go to the washroom on the train, or maybe even be able to hold it until I got to Toronto.

The train took its sweet time coming. But it came, and I got on it, and I thought I’d better sit down if I want to get a seat, and sure I had to pee but I could hold it ’til Toronto. Lots of other people got on, we stopped at Ajax, then Pickering, and by then so many people were on the train that we couldn’t take any more. There was no way I could get up from my seat and get to the washroom because there were far too many people in the way.

No problem.

I’d be able to go to the washroom in Toronto.

“Sorry folks, we’re gonna have to wait here on the platform for a while until they figure out what to do with us,” the conductor announced to the train. “It’ll just be a few minutes.”

Tycho Brahe -- Too polite for his own good

Tycho Brahe — Too polite for his own good

Half an hour later the train hadn’t budged an inch, and I began to think of Tycho Brahe. Brahe was a sixteenth century astronomer who, once upon a time, attended a banquet (and famously wore a fake brass nose after losing part of his real nose in a duel). It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the banquet before its conclusion, so Tycho didn’t go anywhere, even though he really had to pee. He stayed the course right up until his bladder exploded, and he died several days later. Some physicians these days think that this sort of thing is impossible, and that Tycho actually died from something else (such as mercury poisoning, though opinions differ). But sitting on that train with my bladder poised to explode, I was fairly certain that not only was that how Tycho Brahe died, it was how I was going to die.

Fortunately the train began to move. I would be spared such an ignominious fate.

Unfortunately, we moved about two hundred yards and then the train stopped again. A frozen switch. No problem: a mere half an hour later and we were on the move again.

By then I was in agony.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have created a world in which we cannot pee when we have to. And it’s just plain wrong. Because you see, everybody has to pee. It’s a natural body function. Why, you yourself have probably peed this very day. You may be returning from a pee (did you wash your hands?) Or you may have to pee right now. If so, I suggest you go and pee. Because it’s really not the sort of thing you want to put off.

Once I had to pee and I thought, I’ll just take the elevator down to the second floor. I’ll be able to pee once I get to the second floor.


Didn’t the elevator get stuck between floors. I was stuck in an elevator in Toronto. Security had to call Wisconsin to Otis Head Office to locate an elevator repairman. Otis Head Office woke up a repairman who lived in Barrie (it was one in the morning). He drove all the way into Toronto and a mere hour and a half later I was able to pee.

And I’m here to tell you that that pee felt good.

And so (for that matter) did the pee I had after being stuck on the train.

Which is, perhaps, why we’ve created this crazy world in which it’s not possible to pee whenever we want to. So that sometimes, after we are required to hold our bladders for interminable lengths of time, when at long last we are finally able to pee, we can appreciate just how unbelievably awesome it feels.



John Burk

A tribute to my friend John Burk, who passed away in October 2009

John Burk

John Burk

Hey John,

My father called me and told me you passed away.

What the hell? You were only forty-eight years old. Forty-eight is way too young to die. And how is it you were forty-eight anyway? My God, we were teenagers just yesterday.

I haven’t seen much of you these last few years and I’m sorry about that. There was a time when we were good friends. We went to High School together, played in the Jazz Band together, and got our first start in professional radio together on the same 250 watt daytimer. And then I moved away and it got hard to stay in touch and now I realize too late what a shame that was.

Lots of memories, though. Like the time you hit me in the head with your trombone when we were playing a concert. You probably don’t remember but I kind of lost my temper because it was the second or third time you hit me in the head. I’m sorry I lost my temper; it’s pretty funny looking back at it now.

And then the time you asked me to work for you after I’d spent the entire day in the hot blazing sun sanding the hull of some rich guy’s sailboat. I really wasn’t up to it but you talked me into it. I was so muddle-headed that night I accidentally swore on air and got suspended for two weeks. Also pretty funny thinking back on it. Thanks a lot for that one.

Another night I was finishing my show and I accidentally identified myself on air as you. “You’re listening to CJRW radio, I’m John Burk,” I said. I have absolutely no idea why I did that, but again, it was pretty darned funny.

You were the disc jockey at my wedding. Thank you for that, sir. And a long standing DJ on CJRW. Probably one of the last men standing on CJRW, long after the first building burned down and the owners were so scarred by the experience that they turned the station country and made it almost fully automated. I remember visiting you in that sad excuse for radio thinking that you were just like Venus Flytrap on that episode of WKRP. But you survived.

You were a good guy, Mr. Burk. I don’t remember you uttering one single word of malice toward anyone, ever. My mother told me how well you looked after your mother when she was ill, visiting her every single day for hours at a time. I sure hope someone did the same for you this last little while ’cause you deserved the same consideration you showed your mother.

If there’s a heaven or the rough equivalent of one I know that you’re in it, John.

Where ever you are, even though it’s gotta be a long ways away, I can still hear your voice as clear as day.

The Fiction Editor

The Fiction Editor

The Fiction Editor is a little gem about editing novels by a fellow named Thomas McCormack. It’s probably the best book on editing fiction I’ve ever read, and I’ve read plenty.

Most books on writing you’re lucky if you pick up one good tip. I’m serious about that. In one book I learned to be careful with the verb “To be” (it’s better to say “the birds flew” than “the birds were flying”). In another book I learned that the maxim “show don’t tell” is not a one size fits all piece of advice (sometimes it’s better to sum up crucial facts quickly than add a chapter to your manuscript). In yet another I learned to use a single name for your characters (don’t keep changing the name from Fred to the red haired youth to the budding gymnast back to Fred again) and in another I learned that tension does not exist in the manuscript but rather in the reader, and is generated by constantly posing questions that must be answered.

In McCormack’s text, although not quite one-stop shopping, I garnered many such tips.

McCormack is a former editor for St. Martin’s Press. In fact, he ran the joint for many years, and in so doing turned its fortunes around (it was on its deathbed when he inherited it). But he was always a budding writer (dramatist mainly) and clearly empathised with the writers he worked with, relating strongly to their needs. And what many of them need most is a good editor.

McCormack’s main premise in The Fiction Editor is that good editors are few and far between, and this is primarily because editing has always been mostly an intuitive endeavor. Editors have a few tricks up their sleeves but mostly they seem to go by their guts. They might recognize that something doesn’t quite work, but they don’t necessarily know why it doesn’t work, or how to fix it. McCormack argues strongly for a more disciplined, almost scientifically rigorous approach to editing.

I’ve always felt myself that there are a million hidden rules in writing, that I’ve gradually been unearthing one by one, almost like panning for gold. I have yearned for a teacher who could lay those rules out one by one, clearly, systematically, a process after which I would know how to write not only clearly and quickly, but well.

McCormack goes on to divulge a few tricks of the trade, a mere handful compared to what must be out there, but far more than in most books. I suggest you purchase the book (now in an expanded second edition, available at to find out what they are.

One caveat: The Fiction Editor is slightly self-indulgent. McCormack was the most powerful man in his company (I suspect) when he wrote it; it could have benefited from at least one more pass (hence the second edition… I own the first). I wonder if his underlings were afraid to point out a few things. For instance, he loves to make up words (neologisms, for which he apologizes). Actually, I quite like many of his neologisms, such as “gad factor” (the extent to which characters conflict). Others (such as “somacluster”) don’t work quite so well (I’ve read the book twice and still can’t quite remember what somacluster is supposed to mean).

The worst is “master prelibation,” which is really just an unfortunate and distracting choice of words, and which, were it not for McCormack’s otherwise earnest tone, I might almost suspect is a joke on his part.

But I wouldn’t let that exceedingly minor caveat put you off. This really is a terrific little book on the art of fiction editing.

Larry McMurtry and the Great Book

Larry McMurtry -- Writer of Great Novels

Larry McMurtry — Writer of Great Novels


Here’s something I find kind of sad.

I just finished reading a memoir by Larry McMurtry called “Books.” Although McMurtry is an Academy Award winning screenwriter (Brokeback Mountain, with Diana Ossana), the author of 28 novels (including Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove), he is also the owner and operator of a used bookstore, and has been for about thirty years.

“Books” is about this alternative career.

That’s not what I find sad.

What I find sad is McMurtry’s admission that he never wrote a “great” novel. Here’s what he has to say about his novels:

“Most were good, three or four were indifferent to bad, and two or three were really good. None, to my regret, were great, although my long Western Lonesome Dove was very popular… popularity, of course, is not the same as greatness.”

Lonesome Dove is one of my favourite novels. Maybe McMurtry is right… it’s not great. It’s sublime. If my novel were even one thousandth as good as Lonesome Dove I would be ecstatic.

PrincipiaI don’t think that McMurtry is being modest. He’s been surrounded by books for so long that he has too many to compare his to. He’s comparing his books to the likes of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. It’s apples and oranges. Principia is great for one reason, and Lonesome Dove is great for another.

It may be that the quality of your work is inversely proportional to how good you think it is.

I think my novel is coming along quite well.



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