We’re reflecting on 2020 at Spark. Here, Conor Ó hAonghusa, our Keeper of Contagious Passion, breaks down his personal good and bad from a year like no other.
Not My Worst Year
Calling 2020 a “crazy year” is an understatement. The “craziest year” is still a whopping understatement. It was crazy, it was challenging, but it was not my worst, not by a long shot.
My worst year was one I would not want anyone to live. 1999! Sick in South America, almost slipping into a coma, thinking I was going to die. Then came the many, many agonizing months of panic attacks—the kind of stuff that if it doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. By comparison, this has been a short year. That is not to belittle the havoc and destruction wreaked on our world, it’s a recognition of the one word that has been a constant in my thoughts throughout 2020. Despite all the changes to life, that one word is “privilege.”
I did not lose a job, privileged to be part of a team that was swift to adapt. I did not have to worry about having enough food, privileged to have uninterrupted access to all our necessities, and much more. I did not lose a loved one: I know many who have, unable to even be close or comfort them as they died. There are many who are living an endless year of pain and agony, and my heart goes out to them.
Bim, Bam! A New Plan
2020 was always going to be different. It started with plenty of bim and bam and a new plan. Getting back in cahoots with former colleague Jim Wiandt here on Spark, his fun idea to reinvent events, plans were still taking shape, morphing naturally as new things do. Fired up on the energy, enthusiasm and optimism that new beginnings bring, moving at max warp, our plans hit a speed bump fast.
En route from San Francisco to New York for the Spark launch party, the world as we know it was put on indefinite pause. Forced to turn back to San Sebastian, Spain, where Jim and I are both based, we were lucky to get a flight out of the US as the walls went up rapidly around the globe.
I once had to exit Paraguay very quickly in the dead of night in a battered, barely roadworthy taxi, ‘racing’ for the Brazilian border before it closed, soldiers on the streets, the country on the verge of a coup d’état. Exiting the US was nowhere nearly as dramatic, but infinitely eerier.
Our business model, focused on in-person events, disintegrated. We pivoted.
Across three time zones, many of us having never met in person, our team redefined the model, mapping and navigating the virtual world virtually. Learning on our feet, testing, fixing, finding our vibe, launching and finally having the joy of seeing Spark in action!
Time is so valuable, but family time is tops. Family grows up and goes away. I learned the hard way in 2019 when my 17-year-old daughter moved abroad for Uni. It was an oil and water moment – the pride of seeing her spread her wings, the pain of not wanting her to go. 2020 gave us time back together when Irish universities went online only. My privilege.
What’s a Squat?
I never knew what a squat was. I’m 50, FFS! Same for burpees and ‘reps.’ Nada. ‘Gym-speak’ meant nothing to me. I’m an outdoors guy – the walking, trekking and running type. Throughout the months of lockdown when we were literally only allowed outside to queue and shop, I had daily DIY CrossFit sessions at home with my son – bonding. My privilege.
A Real Leader
Through all the noise, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood out. I have a soft spot for Kiwis in general, their rugby, their nature. I would typically have little reason to follow their politics but genuine leadership is tough to come by these days and she seems to be leading by example. Not only was the country virus-free by this summer, thanks to a careful reopening plan, Ardern recently announced the country had purchased enough vaccinations to cover the entire country, as well as its Pacific Island neighbors.
Music: An Awakening
Weekly virtual album parties with my friends Bubba, Sarah and assorted guests opened my eyes to a forgotten art form – the album. Nobody listens to albums anymore, cherry-picking what they want from streaming services. I had become disillusioned with albums – 2 or 3 moments of greatness mixed in with a bunch of so-so songs. Why bother? Maybe the answer to that is the imperfection of expression, moods changing over time as songs and music are written. The album is the story of that change, not necessarily meant to be perfect. Perfect or not, here are a few that stood out from our sessions: Transformer by Lou Reed (my choice); Paul’s Boutique by Beastie Boys and Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan (courtesy of Bubba). Jim’s gem – Loaded by The Velvet Underground.
Weekly Spark Radio updates from journalist, tastemaker and Spark contributor Nic Harcourt opened my mind to a world of endless new sounds. “I Think You’re Great” by Alex the Astronaut and “It Ain’t Easy” by Delta Spirit just always give me a boost.
My favorite voice of the year was Chris Pierce. In his song “American Silence,” I hear raw, piercing emotion. I hear truth. I hear pain. I hear honour, pride, strength. I hear a challenge. I see my own complacency.
Racism – My Naivety
I have black relatives, black friends and black colleagues but I never really understood the difficulties, the obstacles, the fear, the suffering of the black community. My own naivety hit me like a train in 2020. My eyes are now open.
People of Courage and Character
Tyrone Ross Jr. , a TRue leader, made such a massive impression on me when he spoke about poverty, hunger, and the voiceless at Inside ETFs at the beginning of 2020 that I immediately sent the recording to my kids. Tyrone’s voice has accompanied me throughout 2020 and will be there again in 2021 and beyond, including here at Spark, where he will be a regular contributor.
My mom, who suffered with dignity, and was always positive. She spent nine months in the hospital in 2020 without a single hint of a complaint. It puts our woes over lockdown in perspective. My dad for the love and strength he shows helping her recover against the background of the pandemic now that she’s home. Any partner would do the same, and he does it with class and his trademark sense of humor.
A young financial advisor who I never met and had only just connected with did something that nobody has ever done to me before – she literally asked me to fix a session panel that was broken, a planned discussion on women cutting paths for themselves and others in the male-dominated world of finance was missing the voices of women of color. Why, with everything else that happened this year, did that statement leave a mark on me? It took courage and character! It’s what more white people and anyone with connections and power need to be doing for those around them. I’m grateful to Jess Bost for acting on principle. My daughter and her generation will have better opportunities thanks to Jess and the many others like her.
Diagnosed as Covid positive on October 17, it wasn’t the severity of the symptoms that struck me, rather the speed at which the four of us were infected at home. We seemed to catch it almost simultaneously. If I respected it before being exposed, that has only increased seeing how contagious it was in our household.
It hit each of us in a different way from being asymptomatic, to only losing sense of taste and smell, to heavy flu-like symptoms, plus some. My brief diary of symptoms reads: 2.5 days temp 38/100.4, persistent headache/all over aches, nausea, diarrhea, weird burning eyes, bad sore throat, lost voice, dry lingering cough. It’s the weird burning eyes that I remember most.
Mercy Mercy Me
As I write this, Marvin Gaye’s Mercy, Mercy Me is playing in the background, a visionary reminder from a forgotten time of the real burning issue that we continue to face.
Here’s what I really miss: the handshakes, high fives, real fist bumps (not the timid 2020 remake), the smiles, eye contact, the slaps on the back, the clink of glasses, the huddle, the camaraderie.
I can miss it for another bit longer knowing that we are resilient and strong, that we have been disrupted, but that we are always innovating to win.
The Sun Always Rises
The sunrise in the above image marked me. San Sebastian is home and is by no means perfect. That morning it came close. That sky shouted glory, joy, hope. That morning, only a few days ago, waist deep in the water, I stopped to think the sun always rises . . . even all throughout 2020.