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Poke the Bear

When you find work that resonates with people, any deviation is a risk. People like the happy animals, so why upset the apple cart? Shouldn’t I create another image with a better chance of print sales and licensed images?

In 2009, my work was editorial cartoons, painting caricatures, and the occasional illustration gig. I was getting bored and painted a funny-looking grizzly bear to try something new. That small experiment changed my life and career for the better.

I painted this angry bear for the same reason, to do something different.

For the last while, I’ve been angry, frustrated, and afraid. We’re human, we have emotions, though we often deny or quash them for fear of others’ reactions. If you’re not dying in a ditch from cholera or a bullet wound in a third-world country, you’re not allowed to feel bad about anything. Don’t be so negative. Cheer up.

It’s called toxic positivity, and many use it as a passive-aggressive weapon to make themselves feel comfortable or righteous. How dare you be grumpy, sad, or depressed when things could always be worse?

Several years ago, I had debilitating lower back pain. It hurt to sit, drive, walk and lay down. It would wake me almost every night and begin as soon as I got out of bed each morning. It wasn’t long before Advil couldn’t touch it.

Shonna suggested I go to yoga with her, and that helped. We’ve been doing that together one night a week ever since, a healthy practice for flexibility, balance, and strength. But it wasn’t enough to eliminate the pain.

While googling incessantly for options, reading about compressed and bulging discs, spinal defects, and worse, I came across a book called Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John E. Sarno.

Sarno’s theory of Tension myositis syndrome (TMS) explains that for those with perfectionist and people-pleasing tendencies, the subconscious mind can create chronic pain to distract a person from dealing with repressed anger, fear, and stress.

Here’s where I lose most of you, and I knew that going in.

Before you post angry comments and send me emails telling me about your genuine bone, nerve, or systemic issues, I wouldn’t dispute anybody else’s pain. I’m not a doctor. Plenty of people require back surgery, have hip and knee problems, arthritis, and other physiological issues related to identifiable causes, especially with age. Stuff breaks down. Parts fail.

But this began in my late thirties. I tried the doctor, physiotherapy, and massage, and there was no reason for this dramatic physical failure. Anything that worked was a temporary fix with no lasting effect.

This was my experience; if it sounds familiar, it might be yours.

In a 1999 segment of 20/20, John Stossel profiled it well and said Sarno cured his back pain. Howard Stern credits Sarno with saving his life and talks about it often.

There were no courses or programs, no supplements to buy, and no up-selling. It was just a book; one I’ve since read and listened to several times.

If you want to call it one, the cure is realizing you’re doing it, acknowledging the anger, and bringing it into the light. It sounds simple, and it is. And it isn’t. Because after a lifetime of bad habits, the pain comes back, especially in times of stress, and not just in the lower back. It often moves around the body and manifests in other places. So when one distraction is realized, the subconscious finds another, somehow convinced that physical pain is preferable to emotional pain. That’s TMS.
Roll your eyes, shake your head, wave it off, and call me crazy. I don’t need to convince you. All I know is I went from near-crippling back pain for several months to having almost none over a decade later. You’d think a genuine bulging disc, spinal defect, or structural deformity would worsen with age, not disappear.

After the back pain left, however, other physical ailments would pop up over the years. I had sciatic pain in both legs that would come and go. I developed migraine headaches in times of stress. I had severe neck and shoulder pain. I once had jaw and tooth pain so bad I thought I needed root canals. At its worst, I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to eat a hamburger. That went on for months.

These aren’t hallucinations. This was all real excruciating pain, and Sarno explains the physiology of it in the book. But it would fade once I recognized that it was simply another manifestation of the back pain in a different location. Then another pain would show up, and I’d have to realize it again.

In 2016, when the physical distractions no longer worked, I fell into a deep depression, as dark as you can go, and that means what you think it means. Thankfully, Shonna was supportive and urged me to get help. I didn’t want to take drugs, but I went into therapy, and over a few years, I retreated from looking too long into that abyss.

While the darkness is always there in the background, I’ve thankfully never fallen that far back again, though it permanently changed me. You can glue a broken vase, but the cracks remain.

I’ve sought the approval of others for most of my life. When I should have stood up for myself, I held my tongue to keep the peace, and all it got me was pain. The recovery taught me to no longer accept bullying, gaslighting, and criticism from those who would never take it from me.

The most important lessons are always hard.

But every so often, it’s easy to fall back into a bad habit, especially with the stress of the pandemic. Things have built up again over the last year, and I developed stomach issues. I eliminated one food from my diet, then another, then another. Tough for Shonna as she’s such an excellent cook.

At the end of last year and the beginning of this one, I’d finally had enough of this not making any sense. Realizing I was more affected than I thought by the stress of our car accident last year, higher interest rates, inflation, mounting business expenses, financial fear and uncertainty, I went back to the book and a TMS forum site. After some healthy reminders of what I already knew, it made sense that this was just another way my mind was distracting me from acknowledging my fears and anger—sneaky bugger.

I began a new habit of rapid-fire writing on the advice of one post I read.

I open a blank Word file and type a stream-of-consciousness rant about anything scaring me or making me angry. It’s the things we don’t like to admit, the selfish thoughts, the petty, bitter stuff we don’t say to other people for fear of their judgment. It’s Freud’s Id, that fussing toddler in all of us that wants what it wants.

It’s the part of you that wants to scream and rant in a grocery store lineup or start smashing back and forth in your car to get out of a traffic jam or punch your boss in the face when he makes you feel small and unappreciated. It’s acknowledging what we feel but aren’t allowed to express.

So, when I’ve been feeling ticked off or afraid, I’ve taken five minutes to write this stuff down, with lots of swearing, spelling mistakes, poor grammar, and no editing.

“I’m angry I have to draw another sleazy politician. I’m afraid I will never make enough money to feel secure. I’m angry that the demanding client won’t shut up and go away. I’m angry that my neighbour’s dogs are barking again. I’m afraid of getting old. I’m afraid of getting dementia. I’m afraid that none of this effort matters. I’m afraid people will think I’m whining with this self-indulgent post.”

And when I’ve had that childish temper tantrum on the page, I close the file without saving it. I’ve been doing this once daily for the past month whenever the mood strikes me.

My stomach issues are almost gone.

When we deny our emotions, we deny ourselves. When we allow others to assert their wants and needs over us at the expense of our mental health and we bury the resentment, there are consequences. When we let other people mistreat us and we stuff that down inside, it doesn’t just go away. It will show up somewhere else.

Eight billion people on the planet, and everybody has a different view of the world and their place in it. To live in a community means hiding your darker, baser instincts for everyone’s mutual survival. But it’s much healthier to still admit and acknowledge them privately and give that primitive self a voice. That part of you needs to speak, even if it’s to an empty room or on a blank page.

So this angry black bear was a little art therapy, another way to put some rage on the page, pour it into a painting of the animal I have feared and loved most.

I enjoyed it and I’ll do it again.
____
©Patrick LaMontagne 2023

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‘Tis the Season

Near as I can tell, it was the seven years working in the tourism industry in Banff that exorcised the spirit of Christmas from this here cartoonist and painter of whimsical wildlife.

When you work in a hotel, restaurant, bar, retail store or other service industry in one of the busiest tourist towns in the world, you don’t get time off during the holidays. Tourism is a lifestyle agreement many around here have signed at some point.

But too often, tourists who don’t get their picture-perfect Canadian Rockies Christmas tend to get cranky and take it out on the staff. Year after year that takes a toll.

After playing Christmas all day for the tourists, it always felt like more work to come home to your overpriced apartment and play Christmas there as well. So, we gave it up a long time ago with no regrets.
Shonna and I have not had a tree or decorations in more than twenty years. Aside from a few extra blankets on the couch, our home looks the same on December 25th as on July 25th. We don’t exchange gifts, and we don’t make a big meal.

We still attend Shonna’s office Christmas party, and that’s usually fun, as she works with nice people.

Some years, we are obligated to travel to see family because Christmas and guilt go hand in hand. Every year while living in Banff, we would have to explain to a couple of family members that we had to work on Christmas (just like the year before), so we wouldn’t be coming home.
I welcomed the excuse not to travel. In the darkest month, with the best chance for the worst weather and most treacherous driving, while we’re all under peak stress, everybody hits the road at the same time. And if the highways close for a winter whiteout, and the RCMP tell you to stay home, well, that’s just too bad. Find a way; otherwise, you’ve ruined Christmas for everybody.
Even before the pandemic, ‘tis the season when we’re all contagious. So, we get together with as many people as possible, cram ourselves into crowded spaces, shake hands, hug and kiss and then eat a bunch of finger food.

Why can’t we do this in July when we can camp or hang out on a beach? Those lucky Australians.

Despite my irredeemable inner Scrooge, I have no desire to ruin anybody else’s Christmas. If somebody says Merry Christmas to me, I’ll return the greeting. If they choose another festive Hello-Ho-Ho, I’ll return that too, unlike some who lose their minds and shriek, “IT’S MERRY CHRISTMAS, DAMMIT, NOT HAPPY HOLIDAYS!”

I have a return greeting for those people, too. Two words, no hints; you’ll only need one guess.
But here’s where it gets weird.

I like drawing holiday season and Christmas cartoons.

I enjoy drawing Santa Claus, reindeer, ornaments, ribbons, and bows on presents. I don’t know if it’s the bright colour schemes, warm subjects on cool backgrounds, snow on trees, or mythical critters. It’s just strange.

True, there’s always a cynical tone to these cartoons, making fun of the season and my issues with it, but that’s a pillar of the editorial cartoonist profession all year long. I usually come up with far too many ideas this time of year, more than I can draw in December.

But the themes are evergreen. An idea that didn’t get used last year might still work next year. The politicians and issues change, but I can put a seasonal twist on most things, and many cartoons are variations of ones I’ve drawn before, without apology.

Traditional imagery is just that. People don’t want a new twist on Santa Claus. Nobody is deciding stockings on the mantle are passé this year, so let’s hang Levi’s from the dishwasher.

However, what will change is that, hopefully, I’ll be a better artist than I was the year before, as I’m always trying to improve my skills. If I can manage that, that’s all the gift I need.

Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, it’s a tough time of year for many people. Try to be a bit nicer to anyone who must work through the season. It’s not the grocery clerk’s fault that you had to circle three times for parking or that the eggnog is sold out. Nor are they to blame that everything is expensive this year. They’re paying more, too, just like you.

Give some money or groceries to the food bank, drop some cash in the Salvation Army kettle, or donate some clothes or blankets to a shelter. Giving to those less fortunate feels good.

If you’re travelling, please don’t drink and drive. Go a little slower and allow more time to get there. As someone who had a vehicle destroyed this year by somebody else’s carelessness, even if you don’t get hurt, insurance will not make you whole, and the experience seriously inconveniences your life. We’re still looking for a replacement vehicle. It can happen to you, and it will ruin your Christmas, and anyone else’s who gets caught in the chaos.

Advice I can give, but I’m bad at following; try to go a little easier on yourself. You don’t need to be perfect, and neither does anybody else. The golden rule is timeless.

I hope you enjoyed this small selection of cartoons from Christmas past and present, and with tongue firmly in cheek…Bah Humbug!

I mean, Merry Christmas.

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Grump

We’ve had fantastic fall weather this year in the mountains. The leaves took a long time to change, and there are still plenty on the trees. It’s been almost like summer, right up until last week, with our first snowfall. A warming climate is a growing concern, but it has been hard to see that big picture lately while still biking in shorts in the middle of October.

And yet, despite the excellent weather, I’ve been depressed and angry. I’m not the type to put my fist through a wall or throw things; instead, I hold it all in and ruminate. One could argue the latter does more damage in the long run.

This melancholy happens to me this time of year, but usually a little later. I suspect it’s a combination of several things.

I’m weary from the last three years. But, unfortunately, rather than getting easier, this difficult period in our collective history seems to keep compounding. As if we all haven’t had enough, inflation is up, spending is down, and even more financial stress is on the horizon.

Then there is the constant deluge of negative news. Editorial cartooning, the other half of my business, requires I turn my daily focus to bad actors with nefarious agendas, lying and cheating their way into powerful positions. Around the world, people dissatisfied with their current leaders seem content to vote for any alternative, even when a second’s reflection quickly reveals that the new boss is far worse than the old one. Most of these button-pushing zealots’ plans stop at ‘get the power.’

I’m not sleeping well, I have no appetite, and under all of it is a growing sense of futility, especially as a self-employed artist. More than once in recent days, I’ve considered chucking it all and going back to a real job. Last month, a complete medical checkup revealed I’ve no physical health issues. All numbers are in the green, with no red flags.

Mentally, however, I’m struggling.

This is not a ploy for sympathy because, seriously, who among us hasn’t got reasons to feel blue and lost lately? Another local business closed last week. A friend had two close family members die this year, one after another. So everybody is struggling in one way or another.

What weighs most heavily on me is how so many are taking it out on each other. Thankfully, I don’t have to see it on social media anymore. Killing those platforms was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But people are becoming bolder and more abrasive in real-world interactions, and I find it profoundly disturbing.

Anyone who takes out their frustration over a long lineup, on the grocery store clerk who actually showed up for work, should have to return to the back of the line.

Ironic that so many of us hated the lockdowns, being told we couldn’t go anywhere or socialize. Now that everything has opened again, I’ve found I prefer to stay home and avoid people by choice.

No, I’m not special. Neither are you. We’re all going through some tough shit.

I’m just explaining the source of this latest painting.
I have been working on another cute, happy painting of a grizzly bear for the past couple of months. I’m recording the process and writing a narrative to go with it. These videos take a lot more time than a regular piece. Recording the painting, writing the text, recording the voice-over, selecting the music, and editing it all add hours to the work.

I don’t want to rush it, but I didn’t want to go too long without a new painting to share and add to my licensing. While perusing my extensive library of reference images, looking for a subject to paint, the happy, genial photos weren’t resonating with me.

Then I came across a series of photos I’d taken of Griffin, a lion at Discovery Wildlife Park. In a couple of shots, he looked a little annoyed. Considering my present dark cloud perspective and frustration, it felt right.

Naturally, I exaggerated the expression to make him look downright grumpy, hence the title. The more I painted, the more it felt like a self-portrait.

I know that people who buy and license my work are looking for happy, whimsical wildlife paintings to make them feel good. I also know my role in this relationship, and I’m delighted to play it most of the time. I get a lot of satisfaction and joy from my work, and I’m glad many of you enjoy it, too.

But art is often cathartic and a means of expressing our emotions, whether for the person creating it or those it touches.

Though this lion’s expression isn’t happy, I can still see some comedy in it. But make no doubt about it. He’s pissed off, unimpressed, and wants to be left alone.

As with every painting, once released into the wild, I have no control over how people feel about it or whether this grump will connect. But I have a couple of other paintings that aren’t so happy and cheery, and they’ve found their audience, so who knows?

When I’m at the Calgary Expo or a Mountain Made Market, people often repeat the same lines I’ve heard dozens of times. So I’ll confess to having a few stock responses at the ready. It’s impossible to avoid once you have phrases you know connect with people.

While standing at the booth or table, gazing at the wall of paintings before them, some will say, “they’re all so happy!”

I’ll agree with them but offer, “Well, maybe not the Ostrich. He’s got a bit of an attitude problem.”

Or I might advise caution around the Ring-tailed Lemur. “He’s not quite all there.”

Sometime down the road, I’ll undoubtedly have some more advice if I stock prints of this latest painting. “Careful around that grumpy lion. He’s having a bad day.”

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Broughton Beach Memoirs

For our 25th anniversary two years ago, Shonna and I had planned a week of glamping and kayaking on Vancouver Island.

But not long ago, a friend aptly referred to 2020 as the ‘year of cancelled plans.’

Spirit of the West Adventures has an incredible reputation, and we had no doubt they’d sell out once people began travelling again. So, In July of 2021, we booked for 2022. With the worldwide shortage of vehicles, we even booked our rental car and flights nine months in advance.

We’re not road trip people. Spending four days driving to and from Vancouver Island in the middle of summer is not our idea of a vacation. That’s why we’ve taken several trips to the Island together without ever having to endure the ferry.

Right up until the day we left, I worried about the well-publicized flight delays, cancellations, airport issues, and rental car problems. I didn’t truly relax until I sat in the Comox airport parking lot.

After quick stops for lunch, groceries, and the liquor store, we hit the highway for an easy three-hour drive to the north Island.

While eating dinner on the deck of a bar and grill in Port McNeill, near our comfortable room at the Dalewood Inn, I texted my buddy, Darrel. His aunt used to teach here, and I knew he’d visited as a kid. He joked, “Don’t forget to check out the Burl!”

Say, what now?

Darrel is fascinated with oversized roadside attractions and shared that the world’s largest burl was somewhere in Port McNeill.

Shonna said we had to find it to send him a photo. It was only a block from where we sat. Gotta love Google Maps.
I captioned this with “BEST VACATION EVER!”

The following morning, we drove the ten minutes to Alder Bay Marina, met the group, and loaded our luggage on the water taxi for our ride to the Spirit of the West base camp.

We arrived on Swanson Island to a well-oiled machine. Returning guests waited on the beach to unload our gear and supplies, after which we loaded theirs. As our boat became their boat, their camp became ours. Following a guest and guide introduction, we checked into our luxurious tents and met in the dining area for a freshly prepared lunch. That afternoon, we were on the water.

For the next five days and four nights, we were now a community of ten guests, two kayaking guides, a camp staff member, and our chef.

On a trip like this, everyone must haul kayaks, load and unload supplies and gear, and follow instructions. The other guests were younger and older than we were, with more and less kayak experience. All were genuinely nice people and a pleasure to hang out with for a week. We couldn’t have asked for a better group.

We were required to wear masks on the water taxi and the crew wore them while preparing and serving food, but the rest of the time, in this outdoor environment, we were able to forget about COVID for awhile.
THE CREW

P.J. is an easy-going pro with eight seasons under his belt. A natural leader, this guy loves his job and sharing his knowledge. Even when our easily distracted (WHALE!) wide-eyed group was only half-listening to what he was trying to tell us; he patiently got us back on track with his great sense of humour.

In addition to her skills as a kayaking guide and guest wrangler, Rebecca is an unapologetic whale nerd. She gave a talk about whales one evening, and her enthusiasm was infectious

Kenna was a jill-of-all-trades on this trip. Usually she’s in the Spirit of the West office, but she was helpful in the kitchen, general duties around camp, upbeat and friendly.

Josh is a wonder in a camp kitchen. He’s a genial, funny guy and incredibly modest about his exceptional culinary skills. Though after our tsunami of compliments every time he put food in front of us, his ego might need some deflating.

THE FOOD

We started each day with delicious coffee and a big breakfast. Lunch went with us in the kayaks, served on whatever scenic rocky beach we landed on. Appetizers waited for us on our return to camp before delicious meals each evening, served with red and white wine.

We’d been encouraged to bring additional refreshments, and most did. Before our trip, I had rigged a collapsible cooler bag with an aluminum bubble wrap insulation lining. It worked so well that I still had ice for rum and coke on the third night and our beer stayed cold the whole trip.

The meals were better than a lot of restaurant fare I’ve had; fresh, tasty and abundant. For dessert one night, Josh warned us that he had never made lemon meringue pie before. It was one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
THE CAMP

Surrounded by water on three sides, this place is stunning. A wooden staircase leads from the kayak beach up to a network of boardwalks and paths to accommodation tents and support structures.

Each trapper-style tent sits on a wooden platform beneath a corrugated roof. Furnished with comfortable beds, duvets, towels, luggage racks, solar-charged electric lamps, and personal headlamps, all had a view of the ocean.

Every tent has a washing area, compost toilet, and a metal bear-bin style cabinet to ensure that toiletries don’t attract wildlife. While we didn’t see any this trip, there are plenty of black bears in this part of the world, but with plenty of food from the sea and careful camp cleanliness, they’re not a problem.

A natural stream feeds two propane showers. We never had to wait to use them, and there was always hot water.

Communal areas include a large kitchen with a covered dining area, a lounge with comfortable couches, a gas fireplace, and a woodfired hot tub.

We were not roughing it.
KAYAKING

Shonna and I have a bit of kayaking experience. We had one day in Tofino years ago, plus four days with Spirit of the West in 2019. We enjoyed our time on the water, but neither of us has ‘the bug.’ So, we won’t be buying sea kayaks or taking a trip like this every year. But what drew us to this experience was the location and a leisurely means of touring the islands, allowing us to be out in the fresh air and physically active.
Our exceptional guides taught us about the landscape, currents, tides, wildlife, and the indigenous people who first inhabited the area. Each day, a different route would introduce us to new experiences.
Vancouver Island is a coastal temperate rainforest. While we prepared for rain and even expected it, we didn’t have any on our whole trip. Every morning we were socked in with fog until after noon, and I loved it. Kayaking in calm foggy waters is a spiritual experience, the forest and rocks drifting in and out beside us as we crept into little coves and inlets.
It was quiet, often punctuated only by the sound of humpback whales surfacing nearby.

On our final afternoon, a weather system arrived earlier than forecast (surprise, surprise), and we had to cross Parson bay with 8-knot winds. It was a workout, each of us paddling hard to stay with the group to get from one sheltered beach to another. We endured wind and choppy waters all the way back but arrived on our home beach with enthusiasm. It felt like a team effort.
WILDLIFE

From the dining area one late afternoon, we saw a large orca in Blackfish Sound headed our way. Initially thought to be alone, it soon became apparent there was a pod of them close behind. They never got near the camp, but it was a thrill, especially since they stayed awhile.
Other critters included bald eagles, dolphins, seals, sea lions and plenty of seagulls.
On our last morning, the tide was out as far as we’d yet seen. Pretty soon, the whole group wandered around the shore, checking out crabs, urchins, and other tidal life, calling out the best finds so everyone could share in the wonder.

But the highlight of the whole trip was the humpback whales. I could never have predicted so many in one spot. Easily identified by their signature blow of vapour when they exhale, you couldn’t look anywhere for long without seeing one.

When closer, you could hear them, like a rapidly deflating tire, but with more depth. While lying in bed at night, it was a frequent sound in the darkness. Then, in the morning, we’d wake to that sound in the fog, right outside our tent.

Everywhere we went in camp, walking on the shore, eating a meal, sitting in the lounge or while out in the kayaks, humpbacks were the soundtrack of our experience.

But hearing them is not nearly as thrilling as seeing so many of them, sometimes incredibly close.

From our camp and in the kayaks, we saw them surge feeding, breaching, surfacing fast and slow, way out in the channel, and right inside our bay. I took this shot standing beside the hot tub one evening.
Late Wednesday evening, half the group paddled around the bay with P.J. so he could show them bio-luminescence in the water. Dry and comfortable, I’d opted out, but Shonna enjoyed the experience. Those of us who stayed on land watched them from the shore. Then, suddenly, a humpback surfaced right off camp and looked like it was going into the narrow channel between our camp and Flower Island, where our kayakers were paddling in the failing light.

When it exhaled, P.J. told everyone to back-paddle fast. The timing and distance of the blows indicated the whale was heading into their path. Fortunately, it changed course, but it was a tense moment.

Here’s Flower Island and the narrow channel from the dining area.
On our final morning on the water, we paddled across a channel in the fog, grouped for safety. Whales were blowing all around us, and while they sounded close, fog plays tricks with noises. It was creepy but exciting, paddling in a cloud with limited visibility.

I was in a kayak close behind Shonna’s when suddenly a humpback surfaced immediately to her left, parallel but heading the opposite way. P.J. told us to group closer together and paddle for the shore ahead. The whale circled and surfaced again to our right, a little further away this time.

Humpbacks don’t have the echolocation of orcas, so their spatial awareness isn’t the greatest. P.J. later told Shonna the whale had been about forty feet away, far too close. The problem with whales is they don’t always let you know where they are until the last moment.

It startled all of us but was a wonderful experience, one that several said was the trip’s highlight. I know it certainly was for Shonna and me.
LOOKING UP FROM THE CAMERA

Our next-door neighbour Chris was a kayak guide years ago in this area. He once told me that guests were often so focused on getting photos they missed out on the experience.

I left my pro camera in camp each day rather than stuff it into a dry bag in the kayak, where I’d be too afraid to take it out while on the water, anyway. I brought an older point-and-shoot in the kayak and got some good shots. While still careful, I had accepted that it was an older camera, and if something happened to it, I’d be OK.
But for most of the shots, I had a waterproof case for my iPhone and a GoPro-style suction mount to secure it to the kayak in front of me, backed up with a tether for when I handheld it. I took plenty of videos and selected screenshots from those when I got home.

Around camp, I used my Canon DSLR to take photos of any wildlife. But too often, I focused on getting a shot of a humpback or orca swimming by rather than simply watching and enjoying the moment.

Even forewarned, I fell into the same trap.

Thankfully, I downloaded a bunch of photos to my iPad the first couple of days, and when I saw that very few of those long-distance whale shots were remarkable, I spent the rest of the trip watching more with my eyes and less time looking through a lens.

While I am pleased with many photos I took, none of them come close to the experience of being there—the smell of the air, ethereal light, moisture in the fog and the quiet peace. No camera or video will capture that, certainly not with my limited skills.

It’s a lesson I’ll likely keep learning, but I intend to be more selective on when to take photos and when to simply enjoy a time and place.

COMING HOME

After the kayak portion of our trip, we spent a couple of days in Courtenay, staying with my friend Darrel’s folks, who might as well be family. Saturday evening, we enjoyed a visit with old Bow Valley friends who moved to the Island years ago, before we flew home Sunday.

While no vacation is perfect, this one was pretty darn close. After more than two years of planning and waiting, it was a relief that it went so well and that we enjoyed ourselves this much. We probably had unreasonably high expectations, and it still exceeded them.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Please visit their website for more information about Spirit of the West Adventures and the different tours they offer. These aren’t bargain tours; as in all things, you get what you pay for, and this company over-delivers. Our tour was the 5-day Whales and Wilderness Glamping.

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The Insurance Company Hit-and-Run

This post has nothing to do with cartoons, painting, creativity, art, the business of art or anything in that orbit. But I still wanted to share it, because it could easily happen to you, if it hasn’t already.
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On June 11th, my wife and I drove to Calgary to see a matinee of Top Gun: Maverick on a beautiful sunny day. After shopping at Chinook Mall, we returned to the car in good spirits as the movie exceeded our high expectations. We decided to go for an early dinner before the drive home to Canmore.

Leaving the parking lot, Shonna stopped at a Yield sign to wait for traffic to clear so we could head west on Glenmore Trail. Suddenly we heard a crash to our left as a large red Buick smashed into a large black Volvo. There was nothing Shonna could do as the Volvo jumped the curb and collided with her side of the car.

After making sure Shonna was OK, I got out of the car to check the other drivers. The airbags had deployed in both of those vehicles, and I couldn’t get the doors fully open. The woman in the Volvo was dazed and frightened for her child in the car seat behind her. Thankfully neither was hurt. The woman in the Buick said she was OK.
I could already hear sirens. I don’t know who called 911, but fire, ambulance and police were on scene in a ridiculously short time.

I’ll spare you the play-by-play of the usual post-accident exchange of statements and information, but a couple of standouts are worth sharing.

Calgary EMS firefighters and paramedics were fantastic, but that’s hardly surprising. Likewise, the Calgary Police Service members on scene were friendly, helpful, and empathetic. I talked to three or four of them while Shonna was calling insurance, and while a collision like this is no doubt routine for them, their roadside manner was considerate and appreciated.

One member told me we were lucky. He had attended a similar incident the week before, where a car ran a red light, sending another car into a cyclist standing beside his bike, waiting to use the crosswalk. The cyclist broke both his legs and was currently in the hospital.

Then he told me that even though we weren’t at fault, not to trust our insurance company. “They’re working for themselves, not for you.”

The last time we saw Shonna’s car, it was on a flatbed tow truck.

While I don’t know the outcomes for all involved, everybody walked away. However, I won’t say Shonna and I are ‘fine’ because some injuries take time to appear, which is why you have two years from the time of the incident to make a personal injury claim.

I also don’t want to write anything that gives an insurance company more disproportionate power than they already have. I’m not going to tell you the company’s name because from what I’ve read; this is an industry problem.

On the phone, the insurance agent said we should take a cab to the airport, where a rental car was waiting for us.

“So, it’s booked? There’s a car there?” I asked Shonna.

With the well-publicized rental car shortage, I was pleasantly surprised.

We took a $60 cab ride to the airport, arrived at Enterprise, and told them our situation. The gentlemen looked at us like we were speaking in tongues. There was no car booked for us and none available.

Another call to the insurance company.

The agent had made the booking for Monday at a different Calgary location. It was Saturday, and we were an hour and a half away from home.

I suggested we take the Banff Airporter shuttle home, but the next one didn’t run for another two hours. So with the Calgary Airport food court closed, we walked to an airport hotel, had a beer and ordered a pizza we had no appetite to finish.

A couple of friends generously offered to come to Calgary to pick us up, but we didn’t want to ruin their Saturday as well. My parents even offered to drive from Red Deer to get us back to Canmore, which would have been a round trip of 6 hours for them. Not an option.

We did accept a ride from the shuttle drop-off in Canmore from our friend, Michelle. At 10:30 pm, we had no energy left to resist.

The next morning, I took Shonna to Banff to get assessed by a doctor because if you don’t get looked at right away and try to make an insurance claim later, they’ll use any excuse to deny it. It’s easy to find stories on the many ways your insurance company is going to screw you on a technicality.

Another call to the insurance company, and they promised a car would be available here in Canmore the next day. On Monday, however, the rental car company had never heard of us. We finally got one on Tuesday.

Over the next five weeks, dealing with the insurance company proved more traumatic than the incident itself.

The body shop and the impound lot in Calgary both called to ask what they were supposed to do with the car because they hadn’t heard from our insurer. When we finally talked to an adjuster, we soon realized how little we mattered to him or the company.

We sent multiple emails and left several phone messages to get the adjuster to even communicate with us, both at the beginning and throughout the process. Finally, after more than a week of unanswered emails and calls, Shonna complained to somebody else, and they reassigned the case to another adjuster.
Shonna’s car was a 2012 Mazda3 GS Sport. It had a leather interior, 154,000km on it and was in immaculate shape. She had just put brand new tires on it the month before. This car was supposed to last another ten years.

Anyone who has bought or sold a car this year understands it is a seller’s market due to the worldwide shortage of new and used vehicles. If you can find a car, it will cost you a lot more. Insurance companies base their reimbursement on market value, so we figured we at least had that going for us.

How naïve.

They finally notified us that the car was a total loss and offered an embarrassment of a settlement.

Did you know that you don’t have to accept the insurer’s first offer and they’re well known for lowballing their own customers? So the police officer’s words were prophetic.

When Shonna wouldn’t accept their first offer, they abruptly cancelled her rental car on the July long weekend. But, of course, they didn’t bother to tell her. She found out when Enterprise called on Monday asking how long she intended to keep paying for the car on her own. She immediately returned it, and they didn’t charge her for the extra couple of days.

To craft a reasonable counteroffer, Shonna found multiple listings for the same vehicle, similar mileage and condition, and provided links for the adjuster. In addition, a friend who works at a car dealership generously provided more listings from their network. All showed that the insurance company’s valuation of her vehicle was well below reasonable.

As advised by related articles, we wrote a detailed narrative of the hardship incurred by losing the vehicle in the current market during the waning days of a pandemic and the financial difficulties that came with it. After several hours of research and due diligence, we felt we made a good case for an increase in compensation.

More than a week after our submission of the counteroffer, the insurance company responded that they couldn’t use the listings we had provided as evidence because they no longer existed. In the hottest vehicle market in recent history, they expected those vehicles to be still available a week later.

Of course, they had no response when Shonna pointed out that the vehicle listings they used to justify their compensation offer were from three weeks before the collision.

But they made it sound like a generous gesture when they agreed to adjust the settlement to account for the new tires.

So Shonna did more research and found several more listings, all showing that the insurer’s offer was well under the current market value. She resubmitted and advised that they’d also be gone if they waited a week to assess these listings.

They declined any further negotiation and said we were free to hire a lawyer and take it to arbitration.

As a legal battle with an insurance company would be like trying to punch your way into a bank vault, Shonna took the settlement, feeling well and truly violated by her own insurer. That’s what years of premiums buy you.

They’ve recently sent Shonna multiple form emails asking, “How did we do?”

Shonna is going to wait to replace the car until availability increases, and prices come down. She’s not interested in buying the first overpriced lemon on four wheels she can find, and I don’t blame her.

So we bought electric bikes, which I’ll write about in another post. A significant investment, but we’ve each put over 300 km on them in just under a month. Shonna takes hers to the gym and commutes to work, and I run most errands on mine; plus, we’re biking for recreation together and enjoying it a great deal. Our busy tourist town has difficult traffic and paid parking, but plenty of bike trails. Now we get everywhere faster than we used to, and our remaining car should last even longer. Provided somebody doesn’t hit us.

When we told people about the collision, we heard many variations of ‘it could be worse, it’s just a car, at least you’re OK, and be glad you weren’t hurt.’

Yes, of course that’s accurate, and we’re grateful we weren’t injured or worse. Time and distance do offer that perspective. But on the day of a traumatic incident like that and in the days that follow, where somebody else’s negligence has derailed your financial stability, future plans, and any sense of security you had on the road, those dismissive sentiments only made us more bitter and angry. It felt like we should be ashamed for being upset.

When somebody has just been through a horrible experience, put yourself in their shoes and ask if what you’re about to say will make them feel better or worse.

I don’t know what was happening with whoever ran that red light, but one person’s carelessness dramatically altered our lives. I’m not mad at her. We’ve all been guilty of careless driving. She’s human, and people make mistakes, but it was preventable, like almost all vehicle collisions.

We see it every day. People fail to signal, mess with their music, drive too fast, roll through stop signs, pass on solid lines, and narrowly miss pedestrians in crosswalks. Tailgating, texting, speeding, aggressive lane changes, road rage and the myriad other failures of attention and selfish behaviour where a lack of consequences makes us forget that most of us are driving one to three tons of metal, plastic and glass at high speeds.

It takes a second to end or ruin somebody else’s life.

Then you have to live with it.

Allow a few extra minutes to get there. Take a deep breath when that person in front of you is going slower than you’d like. It could be your friend’s Mom who just got bad news from her doctor. Or your neighbour is taking their sick dog to the vet. It could be some kid the same age as yours learning to drive and scared shitless about it. Or it could simply be that someone is lost and hasn’t realized they should pull over somewhere.

Minutes later, that delay likely won’t matter to you. Ads on Youtube probably cost you more time. But if you get impatient and do something stupid behind the wheel, it could matter for the rest of your life.

Drive safe and expect that others will not.

Take care,
Patrick

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Cocky Cartoonist and COVID

After two-plus years of wearing a mask, staying home, the shots, booster, and trying my best to avoid the plague of the 21st century, that sumbitch finally got me.

I’ve always had a sound immune system and rarely get sick. I can go two or three years at the best of times without a cold or flu. I imagine much of that has to do with no kids and working from home, so I don’t get exposed to every virus making the rounds.

But when I get sick, it’s a knock me on my ass, man-cold. I become Cameron at the beginning of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Shonna and I had a frightening, stressful experience on June 11th in Calgary, a story for another time. Still, I’m guessing the flood of adrenaline from that and the subsequent let-down effect scuttled my immune system and opened me up for attack.

I got a tickle in my throat last Saturday, and the test returned negative. When I woke Sunday morning feeling congested, I took another test and sure enough, it was positive. I felt OK and hoped my adventure with COVID would be like Shonna’s earlier this year.

She had the sniffles for two days, worked from home and felt fine, said it was the easiest cold she’s ever had.

Shonna and I can’t keep our distance in our modest home, but I slept on the couch since I still get up earlier than she does most days, and she slept in that week. Thankfully, it’s a very comfortable couch.

Still, I expected I would get it from her then, and we both isolated, just in case. But I never caught it, or I have been operating under the false assumption that I probably got it and was one of those lucky ones who didn’t have any symptoms.

When I tested positive last Sunday, I thought, “OK, I’ll have what she had!”

Cocky cartoonist. It even inspired this cartoon.
I warned a few people I’d seen days before that I’d tested positive and settled in for what I assumed would be a mild cold. Instead, by Sunday evening, I felt like absolute dogshit.

Runny nose, congestion, headache, muscle and joint aches, chills, etc. I’ve managed to work every day and get my cartoons out, even worked several hours on a painting, but there weren’t any long workdays. I didn’t have the energy.

The literature on this version of COVID, which I suspect was a variation of Omicron, is that it’s mild compared to the ones that came before. Upon further investigation, what medical professionals mean by ‘mild’ is that you’re unlikely to require a hospital visit. But the mild experience can be anywhere from one sneeze to “didn’t I see you on The Walking Dead?!”

I slept on the couch again last week, and it looks like Shonna avoided it, or her previous infection of hopefully the same variant is protecting her. We both know you can get it again.

Wait…when she’s sick, I sleep on the couch. When I’m sick, I sleep on the couch. This is bullshit!

Over-the-counter cold meds helped, plenty leftover from Shonna’s experience because she barely touched them. I drink plenty of water at the best of times, but I must have been downing 3 litres a day last week, especially if you factor in all the tea and soup.

As I publish this on the 9th day after my positive test, I feel pretty good. From what I’ve read, you can test positive for up to 90 days afterward, even though you’re no longer contagious. It’s an antibody thing. But I’ll take a test tomorrow anyway.

An unfortunate side effect is that my sense of smell has been altered. This happened to me after a bad cold years ago, and the problem lasted for months. Hopefully, this won’t be a repeat performance. It has something to do with the inflammation traumatizing nerves in smell receptors and is relatively common. As smell is a big part of taste, certain foods are unappetizing right now, and there’s an underlying constant weird smell to everything.

I have plans to go away for a guy’s weekend later this week. The friend I’m going with isn’t concerned, mainly because he’s pretty sure he recently had it himself, and I’ll be past the ten days when I see him. While I could have done without this infection, I am grateful that this bout with the plague didn’t cancel this trip we’ve booked for months.

Bottom line, this felt like a nasty cold or flu. Survivable, sure, but not an experience I care to repeat anytime soon. Regardless of where you sit on the vaccine argument (and no, I don’t care to discuss it), I’m glad I got mine. Because given how bad this felt, especially for the first three days, I don’t want to know how much worse it could have been.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Painting a Dog’s Best Life


Late last year, one of my subscribers inquired about a commission of her dog, Santé. Sadly, Suzanne lost her much-loved pup to osteosarcoma at the end of November, and she wanted a painting to remember her.

The initial back and forth conversation is an essential part of every commission. It allows me to get to know both the person and the subject, and it helps me decide if I’m the right artist for the job, especially for a memorial piece.

While I can paint both in portrait style and my signature whimsical style, I’ll admit to preferring the latter, but most people who hire me for memorials choose the portrait style.

Suzanne, however, wanted to remember Santé at her best, and as she’s followed my work for some time, she requested the whimsical style.

Initially, Suzanne sent me a photo of Santé running through the water with a stick in her mouth and asked if I could paint her like that. I was reluctant for a couple of reasons.

My style is about the face and expression, best revealed by a large headshot painting, like much of my work.
Also, I haven’t painted many full-body action poses, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Fear of failure is a powerful demotivator.

As part of her grieving process, Suzanne wrote a long essay about her life with her dog and shared that with me so I could get to know her as well. So I made a cup of tea one afternoon and sat down in the kitchen to read it.

I don’t mind admitting that it got me right in the heartstrings, and I had to wipe away tears. But, sad ending aside, it was a good story, and Suzanne is an excellent writer.

She is an outdoor enthusiast, frequently mountain biking and hiking, with Santé by her side. After reading about Santé’s adventurous nature, her boundless energy and obsessive love of sticks, I couldn’t imagine painting her any other way. That dog lived her best life.

Suzanne provided plenty of photos, but the first was the best, Santé running in the water with a stick in her mouth.

But I don’t just want to copy an image, especially in the whimsical style. I want to make it my own. So, I exaggerated her expression and gave her a big grin. You can’t see Santé’s teeth in the reference photo, so I found additional reference for that, as it helped a lot with the smile around that stick. I also exaggerated the size of the stick and changed its shape for a better overall composition.
The water spray from her feet was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in any painting I’ve done to date. It took many hours to get it right, not to mention all the tiny droplets to add action to the scene.

Instead of filling the entire background, I created a graphic shape of the water and painted Santé so that she was running out of it, adding to the illusion of action.

This painting took a long time, but it was well worth the effort. Not only did it stretch my skills, but necessity forced me to learn a few new techniques to bring this to life. It was overcoming the challenge that made the final piece so satisfying.

I’m a frequent proponent of printing my work on canvas. It brings out the textures and richness in many paintings, especially the detail I paint in my work. But I gave Suzanne another option, and after providing her with more information, she’s chosen an 18″ X 24″ matte aluminum. Given the dynamic nature of this painting, I think it was the best choice, and I’m looking forward to seeing it once it arrives.

When I shared the final image with her Saturday morning, less than an hour after I finished it, Suzanne told me that it was the 11th anniversary of the day she brought Santé home at eight weeks old and shared a pic with me. That puppy didn’t yet know she had won the lottery and was about to have a grand adventure.

Of the painting, Suzanne wrote, “I love it. It’s perfect. You added the whimsy and didn’t lose an ounce of “her” in the process. Thank you so much for making the effort to know her to paint her.”

Cheers,
Patrick

Please visit this page if you’d like to know more about my pet portrait commissions.

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Silly Monkeys


As a perfectionist workaholic with unreasonable personal expectations, my past year reflecting most often reveals that I didn’t get enough done.

I’ve wanted to create an art book of my work for years with little progress. Almost a decade ago, I recorded two training DVDs for painting and cartooning that did well, so I’ve been planning an updated online painting course.

Two years ago, right before all plans went to hell, my friend Serena and her family went on African safari for a few weeks. She brought home plenty of reference for me for an elephant I’ve wanted to paint for years. I still haven’t started it.

I’ve been procrastinating, making excuses that I’m too busy with other work. There’s no profound psychological mystery as to why.

If I never complete these things, they can’t suck.

The holidays are always a low point for me. We don’t celebrate Christmas for various reasons. While I genuinely did enjoy the three recent holiday markets, they wore me out. In addition, earlier deadlines for Christmas and New Year’s cartoons and fewer publication dates meant less revenue from the daily papers.

As I write this, I’m in a creative rut, unmotivated to draw, paint, or write anything uplifting. In recent days I’ve still been up at five and sitting at my desk before six, googling articles and watching videos about art marketing, an exercise in desperation.

There are more online listicles on how to create a successful art career than anyone could read in a lifetime, often written by those with little experience. The same regurgitated tips and tricks, all revealing the same truth, that there is no map to get there.

Not that long ago, society’s idea of a good career was picture perfect.

Go to college, university or learn a valuable trade, and get a job with a good company. Then, over the next thirty or forty years, advance through middle-management, then management, earning enough to pay off a mortgage in the suburbs, provide for your family of 2 kids, get a dog, and have BBQs on the weekends with neighbours you’d live beside for decades.

Sometime in your sixties, the company (really, we’re a family!) will throw you a party, give you a gold watch, and you’ll retire with a comfortable pension, spending your weekends playing with the grandkids on the porch. Then, one day, at a ripe old age with a smile on your face, you’ll pass away comfortably in your sleep.

That story starts with “Once upon a time” and ends with “happily ever after.”

Because it’s a fairy tale.

Before I found any direction in my early 30s, I tried a few different things. I spent five years in the Reserves, two of those as a full-time instructor, and thought I might join the military like so many in my family. I went to school for EMT training, got my license, but never actually worked on an ambulance service. Before that, I spent two and a half years in college because that’s what was expected. I moved to Banff, worked in hotels and retail, got married, moved to Canmore and here we are.

I don’t regret any of those choices, but none of it was part of any plan.

The notion that we’re supposed to decide the rest of our lives while in high school is ridiculous. We’re still children but are somehow supposed to have the foresight to know what we’ll want to be in our forties.

I was an idiot at 18, and I suspect many of you were as well, with no idea how the real world worked. I took foolish risks and did very stupid things, convinced I was immortal. I’ve often mused, “thank god we weren’t taking photos with our phones all the time and posting every moronic thought that crossed our pea-brains.”

Although frankly, plenty of people my age and older still haven’t learned that lesson.

We’re all victims of our own cognitive biases; errors in thinking, logic, and interpretation that influence how we perceive the world. We can easily spot them in others but often fail to acknowledge our own, even though we all exhibit these behaviours.

Cognitive bias is the fuel that runs the social media machine.

There are many on the list, but one is called “Rosy Retrospection.”

We remember the ‘good old days’ with a sigh, when everything was easier, cheaper, people treated each other better, and the world was a nicer place.

It’s why “Make America Great Again” worked so well as a campaign slogan. Nostalgia is powerful even though it takes minimal surface scratching to reveal that our wistful memories are largely edited and wildly inaccurate.

There has never been a golden age of sustained prosperity, freedom and peaceful coexistence in the United States, Canada, or anywhere else.

I look back on the early days of my professional art career and remember my tenacity and motivation, working mornings, evenings and weekends on the side to build up my business so that I could one day take it full-time and SUCCEED! (whatever the hell that means.)

However, my nostalgia wants to leave out that I was drawing three to five syndicated cartoons a week for only two weekly papers for a few years. Paid $10 each; I was essentially making pennies an hour, eating up all my free time.

I came VERY close to pulling the plug several times in those early years, asking myself why I bothered to work so hard for no money. I constantly wanted to quit, convinced I was wasting my life.

That was almost 20 years ago.

Following the news every day is a dangerous game when things are normal. If it bleeds, it leads is the very foundation of news media. We might be at the top of the food chain, but we’re still animals, barely out of the trees on an evolutionary timeline. We say we want to hear good news, yet we focus all our attention on the bad. Our actions speak louder than our words.

We are emotional, scared little monkeys who react to anything remotely threatening with a fight, flight, or freeze response. We imagine ourselves incredibly intelligent, but the evidence doesn’t support our hubris.

For example, everybody knows the basic rule of investing. Buy low, sell high. And yet, all it takes to throw the market into a tailspin of frantic trading and panic is one billionaire tech mogul to tweet something silly while he’s sitting on the john.

And it’s not just those Wall Street types. One need only look to the rest of us glued to our screens and devices, slaves to social media, eating garbage food, drinking too much, failing to exercise, and wasting our lives watching forgettable TV for hours on end every night.

This past year, I’ve found myself skimming the employment section of our local paper more than once. I’ve been here before, walking this familiar territory. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to realize this behaviour comes from fear.

But I also know that the greener grass is simply a trick of the light.

There’s a severe staff shortage in this valley. If I did get a job, it wouldn’t be the one advertised. It would be longer hours covering the other positions they can’t fill, for less money than the job is worth. The cost of living in this community is one of the highest in the country, even though wages are not.

Logically, I know that leaving this long art career experiment and going back to a ‘real job’ won’t solve any problems, financially or otherwise. And further down that well, I also know that taking the difficult steps toward worthwhile change never happens until you’re really uncomfortable.

Because otherwise, why would you change?

My business has suffered the last couple of years. Newspapers were already struggling before the pandemic, still operating under last century’s business model. The other half of my business depends on tourism and people with disposable income, both in short supply.

I don’t write this to gain your sympathy because everybody is suffering right now, in one fashion or another. We’re all dealing with a whole lot of unexpected, uncomfortable shit.

You can blame the media, politicians, bureaucrats, or run down the long list of ridiculous conspiracy theories. However, it still doesn’t change that we must deal with the circumstances before us, and complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

Our nostalgia filter might tell us otherwise, but the normal we yearn for wasn’t the utopia we pretend it was. We took for granted all that we now pine for, complained about everything, and blamed whatever we could find for our lives not living up to our expectations. We did it before, and we will do it again. It’s our nature.

We spend a lot of time wishing other people would change, but the only thing we can ever change is ourselves.

I’m very uncomfortable right now; professionally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually, which means I’ve got to change. My focus for the next year is on diversification, making my income dependent on more revenue streams so that when one suffers, it doesn’t threaten the foundation. Some of those projects are underway. For others, I need to stop procrastinating and light fire to kindling.

I’m no longer willing to accept poor treatment simply because somebody doesn’t agree with my perspective. I don’t need everybody to like me. It’s a fool’s errand because it won’t ever happen.

I will put less energy into trivial pursuits and more time into riskier endeavours that may or may not work. That’s what got me here and what will move me beyond. Unplanted trees don’t bear fruit.

I will try to treat myself better, stop beating myself up over every stumble, perceived shortcoming, and soften that hard-edge perfectionism. Because I will never live up to my own ridiculous unattainable standards, making me miserable.

I will likely fail at some or all these things because I have failed before. But you know what they say about trying again.

Life is tough. It will still be tough when this pandemic is over, just as it was before.

So rather than pretend that turning a calendar will solve our problems, I’m going with a more realistic view of the new year.

2022. Shit will happen. Deal with it.


© Patrick LaMontagne

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A Light on the Darkness

Sometime in the late 90s, my grandmother and her husband were clearing out some things, and my Dad acquired a Nazi flag that John had brought back from World War II. My father thought it was an interesting artifact, but it spent the next several years in a plastic Hudson’s Bay shopping bag in their basement.

Years later, it came up in conversation while visiting my folks. As Shonna and I are both interested in the period, and I had been reading Richard J. Evans’ Third Reich Trilogy, we asked if we could see it.

I volunteered to do some research and eventually try to find a place for it in a museum. My mother was glad to have it out of the house. For the past few years, it sat in our basement, tucked away on a shelf, folded up in the same Hudson’s Bay bag.

It’s a square flag made of canvas, well stitched, 2 feet on each side. It’s red with a white circle in the middle, containing a black swastika, the traditional Nazi flag with which we’re all familiar. Three sides have gold collared braided fringe. The top edge has three sets of evenly spaced canvas ties.

There are dark stains on one side. It would be easy to imagine that it’s blood, making for a better story, but I suspect it’s likely grease or rust.

I’ll only share a photo of the corner of the flag. I don’t want somebody to Google my name and have a Nazi swastika come up in the images, alongside my editorial cartoons and whimsical wildlife paintings.

In our current online culture of ‘shoot first, ask questions never,’ my art career would likely be damaged or concluded faster than I could say, “wait a minute, I can explain.”

So you’ll have to use your imagination.

My research revealed that this flag was most likely a banner tied to a fanfare trumpet or bugle. There were similar banners online, but I failed to find an exact match.

When I came to the end of my desire for specifics, I turned my attention to finding an appropriate place for it. There is a brisk online trade in these items, but for reasons I hope I don’t have to explain, I didn’t want to make any money on this artifact, given its dark past. Nor did I wish to keep it.

It’s a cliché to say that those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.

If we discard these artifacts, it makes it easier to forget. The sacrifices made to stop Hitler and the Third Reich, the millions murdered in concentration camps, and the lives destroyed in World War II become statistics, without other means of refreshing our collective memory.

Despite the historical weight of this banner, it’s not a rare piece. Soldiers bring home war souvenirs, and their children and grandchildren find themselves the inheritors of these items, with no idea what to do with them.

I offered this piece to the Holocaust Museum in Ontario, the Military Museums in Calgary and the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta. Unfortunately, each declined the offer because they either didn’t have space or had enough similar artifacts.

If I couldn’t find a place for it, I was ready to burn it, but that presented another problem. We live in a townhouse condo complex with no firepits. I could take it with me to the cabin we occasionally rent or on a camping trip, but my overactive imagination doesn’t have to work hard to picture it found in my belongings after a collision. Or perhaps somebody walks by while I’m unfolding the banner at a campsite, quick to record a video on their phone.

A couple of weeks ago, while browsing the morning news stories looking for cartoon ideas, I came across an article. Someone discovered that an Ontario man had displayed several Nazi artifact images on Facebook some years ago. He was in a position of authority on a hospital board and was called upon to explain the photos. His motives unclear, the conclusion was that he showed poor judgment for a person in his position, resulting in his dismissal.

The journalist sought the opinion of Valerie Hébert, Ph.D., an associate professor of history with Lakehead University in Orillia. Dr. Hébert is an expert in Holocaust education.

Figuring she would have some solid advice for me, I sent her an email explaining my dilemma.

Dr. Hébert provided links and options for me but also cautioned that there are “expenses that go along with authenticating, restoring, accessioning, and storing items. If what you offer duplicates something they already have or doesn’t fit with the goals of their collection, they may turn it down. It seems strange to us that historical artefacts would be refused, but so it goes.”

However, at the end of her reply, she presented me with an option I hadn’t considered.

“Should these places decline the donation, but you still wish for it to be preserved, I could use it in my teaching. I teach a 2-semester course on the Holocaust, and a 2-semester course on the Hitler state in alternating years. I would not display the banner in my office but would bring it out in the classroom. Few of my students have personal connections to this period in history and I know from my use of other artefacts that the item itself can make this history come alive in compelling and constructive ways.  I think the banner would also work well to prompt discussion around what we should do with sensitive historical artefacts, particularly those which symbolize such terrible human suffering.”

It didn’t take long to decide that this would be the best use for the banner, and I told Dr. Hébert that I would be happy to send it to her at my expense. It arrived this week.

History is replete with examples of monuments, artifacts and valuable manuscripts destroyed by conquering armies and short-sighted governments. While one might look at the atrocities committed by the Nazis and think it best to wipe it clean from our memory, there is no better teacher than our past mistakes.

One need only look to the rise of the Trump administration in the United States, the misinformation tactics, the artful sowing of division and hatred to see how a culture can become quickly divided and pit against each other. The events of World War II did not happen because of one man’s ambition for conquest and genocide; it happened because the populace not only allowed it, but supported it.

We see it on Facebook, Twitter and in the Comments sections of myriad news and fake news sites, polarized opinions turning people against each other. We surround ourselves with those who agree with us and paint everybody who doesn’t as the enemy, defining ourselves by our politics at the expense of our humanity and empathy.

My father served 31 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. His three brothers served, as did their father. My mother’s parents both served, as did her three brothers.

I grew up as a base brat, spending ten years of my youth in West Germany. I spent five years in the Reserves, and Shonna was in for three, which is where we met.

You could say that the military was the family business, though I decided on a different path. It says a lot about Canada that I grew up in a family where we followed orders, and my Dad worked for the government, but my profession involves calling out that government for its current failures.

I can draw an unflattering caricature of the Prime Minister, criticize his decisions and leadership, without worrying that thugs in jackboots might break down my door in the middle of the night and take me away for re-education. Or worse.

That’s freedom. And we take it for granted.

I visited Dachau concentration camp on a school trip. I have looked upon the ironwork sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” I have seen the hundreds of boots and shoes preserved behind glass, the photos of real people so emaciated it was a wonder they were still alive. I have seen the ovens.

It had a profound effect on me and still gives me chills. It’s supposed to.

Words on a page do not carry the same weight as seeing the evidence in person, holding it in your hands, considering its history, allowing it to make you uncomfortable so that it is never allowed to happen again.

That’s why I didn’t want the banner destroyed.

That’s why we remember.

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© Patrick LaMontagne

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Whoever Fights With Monsters

(If you’re easily offended by profanity or negativity or just don’t want to deal with somebody else’s crap today, turn back now.)
I’m prone to rumination; deep, dark swan dives into the abyss. It’s a byproduct of my particular brand of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I’m not going to go into a long boring history of it because people have seen too many movies, and most think it’s just about germs, lining up stuff in the fridge and avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. I have none of those traits.

The reason Hollywood has perpetuated that stereotype is that they can SHOW it. But anybody who lives with this nasty roommate will tell you that the worst of it plays out in their head. It’s a constant internal argument between a rational, logical realist and a batshit crazy lunatic.

The short version is that every so often, I’ll backslide into a period of doom, gloom, and depression.

Artists. We’re all so fucking mercurial.

Last night, I spiralled for most of the evening, went down the Google rabbit hole, looking for some relief from the dark thoughts, regret, and pervasive shame. When Shonna went to bed, I grabbed spare sheets, my pillow and made up the couch. No reason for the both of us to be tossing and turning all night.

I’ve slept on the couch more in the past two years than in the rest of my life. Before you read anything into that about my marriage, I do this voluntarily. With the constant barrage of pandemic news porn, my brain doesn’t easily shut down.

While lying awake most of the night, frustrated by insomnia, my mind went to all sorts of things, none of them good. Were I to detail the endless list of irrational fears and worries, you’d quickly get bored if you’re not already.

This morning, I woke at 4 am with no motivation to draw or paint. Thankfully, I have a cartoon ready to send that I finished late yesterday afternoon.

In an exercise in distraction, I decided to clean up my website and went through old blog posts. There are more than 600 posts from as early as 2008, detailing my focus at that time. I barely remember much of that work, and a lot of it is tough to look at since my skills have significantly improved.

There were posts about illustrations I did for board/card games, caricatures of celebrities and commissions, and several on a Flash animation series I created when it looked like editorial cartooning was heading in that direction.

There were even more irrelevant posts about new releases of Photoshop and videos I shared that no longer exist online, so they’re just broken links. I wrote posts about new business cards, websites, projects, and my complicated relationship with social media.

It’s not like anybody is going through my blog posts from more than a decade ago and spending weeks reading them. There is no good reason to keep this digital history.

But on more than a few posts, I lingered and gave them a quick scan. I’m a much better writer today than I was then. I’ve written many thousands of words between the first post and this one, so I’ve had plenty of practice.

While I deleted the first year of posts with barely a thought, I got a little pickier around the time I painted that first grizzly bear in 2009, and the posts revealing many of the animal paintings that followed. I’m not ready to get rid of those yet. There’s some relevant history there and fodder for the book I’m not writing fast enough for my liking. (cue the chorus of self-loathing).

I found some other posts that could use a rewrite, words of advice for other artists, warnings about dealing with disreputable people and how to recognize and avoid being scammed. I’ve learned a lot in the decade since then, and if I can spare some newbie some harsh lessons of experience, I’d like to.

I’ve got many more blog posts to go through and discard, but just like spring cleaning, it needs doing.

On days like this, the really dark days, I would much rather just curl up on the couch and zone out on Netflix, but it’s not in my nature. I’ll just feel worse at the end of the day for being lazy. So, I’ll spend it cleaning up my office closet, bookkeeping or on some other mindless chore that needs doing but doesn’t require any creativity.

I’m fully aware that this post is not inspirational, celebratory or positive. I almost didn’t share it, but that’s part of the bullshit we feed each other online that makes so many miserable. Everybody shares their best days and hides their worst, putting a false front out into the world. And even though we all know the warning about comparing your behind-the-scenes to somebody else’s highlight reel, we still play the game and fall for it. It doesn’t take much mindless scrolling through the social media curated gallery of somebody else’s greatness to end up feeling like garbage.

This is where I’m supposed to end the post with a cheery, upbeat turnaround, say ‘oh well’ and acknowledge that things could be worse and others in the world are having a much rougher time and, and, and…

Any psychologist worth their salt will tell you that failing to feel the bad shit, dismissing it, and shoving it aside will just make it worse, as will making yourself feel guilty for expressing it.

Over the years, I’ve talked with therapists, read a whole library of self-help books, listened to hours of podcasts, politely listened to unwanted advice about essential oils, mindfulness practices, apps, vitamins, medication and every suggestion under the sun, including the oh-so-helpful, “Hey, cheer up!”

The truth is, from time to time, you just find yourself travelling through hell. And over the past year and a half, we’re each experiencing our own personal brand of it.

So yeah, this too shall pass.

But probably not today.

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© Patrick LaMontagne

P.S. While looking for an image in my archives to go with this post, I discovered that this is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Well, at least that gave me a chuckle.