What You Do vs What You Write

I had the occasion to be asked to do an interview with a Canadian podcaster recently, which I agreed to without hesitation. Firstly, their independently-produced program seemed perfectly legit, and secondly (more pragmatically) there are so many authors chasing interviews and fewer and fewer venues to provide exposure that — all combined — the decision was a no-brainer. That said, the week leading up to the interview my partner asked what I was going to be interviewed about. I had just assumed I’d been chosen based on my being a published author of two novels (etc), however she raised a good question: was it going to centre on my day job?

A backgrounder…

When I was preparing for the publication of Radioland in 2022 I felt more comfortable, perhaps because the book’s characters expressed behaviours of those who are traumatized, making mention of my day job in the lead-up promotional material. My day job, for those who don’t know, is as a Registered Psychotherapist in private practice. It didn’t seem to hurt to make mention of this, insofar as, personally and professionally, I was writing from a place of understanding. So, when the interview requests began to roll in — and believe me, as an author with an indie publisher, I’m grateful for every opportunity I get — I began to notice that, within the interest of Radioland and myself as its author, there was inevitably a tie-in question about my being a psychotherapist.

Some of the interest in my day job was matter-of-fact; there are few writers out there (who are not independently wealthy) who can get by doing this full-time. I had no issues with the professional curiosity. But, overall, a feeling began to grow that — in the way the questions were phrased — my existence as an author and the responsibilities of my day job seemed to be artificially stitched together. A particularly egregious suggestion — one I’ve had to field privately before, even from other writers in casual conversation — was whether I was ever tempted to use my clients’ material for my fiction. I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before, but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes. Needless to say, this would be not only unethical but illegal.

I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before […] but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes.

But there’s a more pernicious concern that developed in the way in which my day job was mentioned in the same breath as my work as an author. In the back of my head was this fear that my book was being portrayed as Good For You (because it’s written by a psychotherapist, right?), that it would thus contain Life Lessons based on Wellness Knowledge. In other words, that it was didactic and prescriptive. Radioland, in both form and intent, couldn’t be further from this, and the steady conflation I experienced between what I did for a living and what I wrote bothered the hell out of me as a result. I also didn’t want to be ghettoized, as some can be, where their non-medically-oriented books are quickly forgotten about.

I realize I bear some naive responsibility for providing this information initially, and yet I feel like it can’t be overstated: I am not my job. I am not my fiction. Of course there’s going to be a whole lot of Venn shared by my interests, my work and my writing output — I would probably be an anomaly if that wasn’t the case. But here’s the important part: what I write is not the product of a psychotherapist so much as that my choice to change careers 12+ years ago was the product of the same person who’s been writing since he was a kid. What I won’t allow myself to be is pigeon-holed, and so, coming back to the podcast interview I had scheduled, I prepared a brief statement which I planned to make if I felt that the same conflation was about to occur. To my relief, the interviewer focused almost solely on my writing with only a brief acknowledgement of my day job, with no attempt to draw the two together (note: I haven’t listened to the final, edited interview yet, which won’t be available for a few weeks). There is always hope.


The Things I’ve Seen

alley view, south of Queen West

There’s a lot going on in the world, which accumulatively makes it difficult to address in a way that doesn’t sound glib or vague, so I’m going to keep this about the things I’ve been watching on streaming services lately.

The Pigeon Tunnel

Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) directs a documentary about author John le Carré? What’s not to like? Well, as someone who is an unabashed fan of both, I found the result to be perplexingly unsatisfying. It’s a near continuous interview with Le Carré (whose real name is David Cornwell), interspersed with research clippings, biographical re-enactments, and clips from (mostly BBC) adaptations of Le Carré’s work over the past 50+ years. Unlike their individual works, it simply never rises above what is a rather pedestrian affair. Plodding, lifeless, and visually uninteresting. It felt as if Morris went into this under the impression that, like Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, he would be able to peel away Le Carré’s defences and force him to confront the betrayals and complicities of a former low-level spy whose father was a serial con-man. It doesn’t happen, and it’s somewhat telegraphed right at the beginning when Le Carré addresses the art of interrogation. Morris, it seems, is simply unable to extract anything amounting to a confession or unguarded moment — I had to ask myself whether he’s ever interviewed an Englishman before. It’s also not lost on me that, given the author’s sons and estate weigh heavily in the production credits, there might have been some political interference also. Strictly for fans only.

The Fall of the House of Usher

I like what Mike Flanagan has done with mainstream TV horror. Starting with The Haunting of Hill House, he’s been able to assemble a troupe of performers in order to tell, in ways both chilling and accessible, stories that rise above their reference material (Shirley Jackson, Henry James and in the current case, Edgar Allan Poe) in order to address human connection, family bonds, and spiritual faith. Even efforts that are so-so (The Haunting of Bly Manor) have their moments of sharp observation, and his cast is typically strong. The Fall of the House of Usher follows suit and is undeniably stronger than Bly and more relevant (via its unmistakable reference to the fentanyl crisis sparked by the Sackler family and Purdue Pharmaceuticals) and engaging than Hill House. I still think the vampire drama Midnight Mass is his best work, but Usher has a lot going for it (for one, it doesn’t have MM‘s monologues). There’s an unfortunate tendency throughout the series which seems to correlate sexuality with corruption of character, but at the same time — unlike Hill House‘s very American family-first romanticism — it takes no prisoners. Nice to see Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood as the patriarch of a fate-ridden family.

Infinity Pool

I finally got around to seeing this (note: this is the director’s cut) and I was blown away by it. It’s my first time watching the work of Brandon Cronenberg, and while it’s hard not to remark on the body horror that it shares in common with his father’s oeuvre, it very much stands on its own. Its story about an aimless author riding the coattails of his wealthy wife, who falls into increasingly bizarre and existentially terrifying events involving a group of mysterious tourists he meets at an exclusive resort is as hypnotic as it is nightmarish. There is some excellent world-building here (the resort is in a fictional country with its own customs and language, which adds to the tension), and Alexander Skarsgård is solid as the self-involved protagonist who catches on too late to what is happening as he’s enmeshed in a series of violent incidents that are punctuated by hallucinogenic orgies. The standout here, however, is Mia Goth, who plays one of the fellow tourists who draws Skarsgård into a web of deception. She is at turns alluring and terrifying. Not everything makes sense here, but it stops (thankfully) at being too clever for its own good. Note: the director’s cut is much more explicit, fyi.


Pandemic Sugar

I’m talking about sugar. Sugar dispensing to be more exact.

Note: if this sounds like the least of society’s problems, I’m going to tell you…yyyyes? aaaaand that there’s an argument to be made in how the quotidian aspects of life matter (accumulatively).

Background: since the start of the pandemic, coffee shops and cafés — I’m not talking Coffee Time or Tim Hortons, but indie espresso places — heeding the assertion at the time that COVID-19 was spreading by coming into contact with physical surfaces (since then dismissed), were forced to remove mixing stations where customers could add their own sugar and milk/cream, for fear of infection. I’m tempted here to paint a nostalgic pre-pandemic picture for those whose memories include this, because it seems that many shop owners have since adjusted and made the removal of mixing stations permanent.

This makes sense economically: there’s less real estate taken up with the mixing station, you can replace the sugar and cream with merchandise (coffee beans, etc), less condiment wastage if the staff is in charge. And this brings us to my problem.

I take sugar in my coffee. One sugar.

The problem is, since the pandemic, when I’m grabbing a coffee to go, and I tell the barista that I take sugar, the results come in two forms. The first is merely irritating: I get too much sugar. Fine, I guess. But the worst is when they put the sugar in the cup first and then add the coffee…without stirring.


No, sir. No, miss. No. Sugar is not a fluid. If you add hot liquid to sugar the sugar does not automagically combine as you clearly have it CONFLATED with milk or cream. What I end up with is effectively a cup of coffee that tastes like they haven’t added sugar to it…only to discover at the end that ALL THE SUGAR IS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE CUP, and NOW I’M DRINKING COFFEE-FLAVOURED SUCROSE.

Do you know how many times in the last four years I’ve had to clumsily use a pen to stir the contents of a coffee in order to avoid this? Do you know what it’s like [Oscar speech] to go through life asking yourself hey, did they forget to put sugar in my coffee or did they simply not understand physics?

(anyways this happened today, btw)

UPDATE: This literally happened again, a week after posting this!


Too Much Freedom, pt II

So, let me try to summarize the previous entry (this a just a running thought, folks, and if it seems to be directionless I’ll pull the plug): I’m attempting to invert the notion of “too much freedom,” which is typically aimed towards people seeking acknowledgement of social justice issues, seeing as in reality if there’s going to be an argument for “too much freedom” it’s in the much more serious and widely documented actions by right-wing extremism.

Part of what I’m musing on are questions of how we got here. How, for example, we have so many people who are poorly informed.

There’s an interesting piece in the Globe & Mail, by columnist David Parkinson, pointing out the chasm that can exist between what a populace thinks they know, and what the more complicated truth may be. In this case, some myths that Canadians seem to have come to believe about our economy. We think our interest rates are the highest compared to other countries, but the opposite is true; we think the carbon tax is hurting our wallets but its overall effect is practically negligible on the average person. An easy takeaway from this is the need for better public education about how the parts of the economy work. But even the best education can’t save us from our own psychology.

We’re easily influenced by phenomena which can seem to draw its own conclusions. The sight of a street person sitting on the sidewalk, drinking from a bottle a sherry distracts from the many possible reasons, likely spanning many years, how that sight came to be. If we were able in that moment to step back, we’d begin to see how factors such as socio-economic status, childhood instability, and mental health issues probably contributed to this outcome. Were we magically to have access to this information, it’s likely we would conclude the street person we see on the sidewalk probably didn’t choose to be where they are, which is where our minds might go if we don’t know any better, or don’t wish to know any better.

A very interesting piece of data is the prevalence of brain injury in homeless populations. We know through research data that street people suffer from a host of unfortunate situations. While data may not tell the full (read: nuanced) story, more and more it provides a scaffolding to better understanding, potentially leading to better social outcomes. The problem is that, to the average person a) data is invisible, and b) because most of us just want our individual lives to go well, and don’t have the time or capacity to understand everything else, we rely on a combination of news, friends, social media, suspicion, projection, transference, you name it. So, even before treading into the topic of intentional disinformation, there are many ways in which we can unintentionally lull our way into thinking we know more about things than we do.

All of this said, a defining issue, which I touched on previously is one of severity. There’s a significant degree of difference between someone who mistakenly believes the federal government is responsible for the Bank of Canada’s decisions to hike interest rates, and someone who is spreading hatred against LGBTQ+ individuals on public channels. The consequences to the former are few and isolated. To the latter other people’s lives may be at stake.

And this is where disinformation makes everything worse. It’s the difference between someone having strong feelings against a politician or member of society, and that same someone wanting to storm the Capital building or intimidate drag storytime at the local library.

And I should take a break and come back to this…to be continued.


Too Much Freedom

I’ve been piecing together something recently, or rather I’ve been doing it very passively for the last few years.

There’s something I took from a controversy from years ago. It was during the conversation that was happening about the voice of Apu (first started through the documentaryThe Problem With Apu, then followed by a rather wilting Simpsons episode in response). I don’t want this particular controversy to necessarily be a centrepiece of what I’m trying to get out, and yet it might be so that’s why I don’t want to jettison it entirely.

The thing I took was from a response by Matt Groening to the suggestion that Apu’s depiction was outdated and/or even racist. “[…] I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” (link to larger USA Today interview).

I’m not sure what Matt Groening’s technical role description is today, but in the beginning he was counter-culture. All you need to do is look at some of his Life In Hell strips to get that picture. He knew how to tweak the nose of authority with a deeply humanistic empathy for the severe consequences that come with authoritarianism and fascism. The Simpsons gave him a larger canvas, first as an experiment/time-filler on The Tracey Ullman Show, then when it had its own TV slot, which it proceeded to…well, it’s such a ubiquitous cultural product that any summary seems trite, doesn’t it?

I was deeply disappointed by Groening’s dismissal at the time, and something about it has been eating at me. It was a mark (if not a casual philosophy) of a type of individual who was speaking from a place of disproportionate comfort: money, power, influence, achievement, cultural impact. And what he was suggesting was that we were the ones with too much: accommodation, choices, ideas. And that by virtue of this we were the thin-skinned ones. He might as well have said — and I swear that Groening did say this, but I must’ve inserted it into my memory because it’s not part of any response of his at the time — that this was a case of “too much freedom”.

There’s a great irony to this dismissive sentiment, and it’s something I largely see perniciously emulated in right-of-centre cultural criticism: these people [children, racialized individuals, the systemically disadvantaged, etc] have it easy, and maybe if they worked harder they would shut up and enjoy their life. And I guess this is where I’m doing some mental wrestling because I actually feel there is too much freedom, but, rather instead of it manifesting in some nightmare of political correctness (waiting for that any day now btw), I’m seeing it in the form of the anti-vax movement, the so-called “freedom convoy” movement, the indisputable rise of far-right militarism under our noses, denial of climate catastrophe and people who demonstratively don’t understand what 5G is.

I’m tempted to ask: are these just two sides of the same “too much freedom” coin? If so, what’s on the other side, because it feels like a bullshit piece of bothside-ism to frame it as such. Is the answer truly you can’t have any progress towards a more just society without a carte blanche allowance for the worst of humanity also?

Separately — just sayin’ — supposing we could, how would we go about lessening “freedom”…without that being a flaming giant untenable nightmare-in-the-making [insert ghost of Stalin]?

I’m tempted to ask: are these just two sides of the same “too much freedom” coin? If so, what’s on the other side, because it feels like a bullshit piece of bothside-ism to frame it as such. Is the answer truly you can’t have any progress towards a more just society without a carte blanche allowance for the worst of humanity also?

I’d be happy to live in a society where my neighbour is a conspiracy freak. To each their own. But when the conspiracy freak starts vandalizing public infrastructure and sowing wider social chaos for beliefs that — political ideology aside — are unfounded or delusional, then part of me sometimes wonders whether there is too much freedom. I’m not talking about being inconvenienced by traffic due to a protest. I’m talking about something like Jan 6th. I’m talking about not just freedom to be stupid, but an enabling of stupid, a metastasizing of stupid as freedom gives it more license. I can’t help but want to tie this into what I think a big part of the problem is: where we get our information, and who/where we get it from. The thought being not that there’s a central source of misinformation/distortion that needs to be regulated (or vanquished), but rather — yes, you saw this coming — social media.

Anyways, I need to leave and come back to this … I’ll either tack onto the end or start something later…

[quick insert] But here’s the thing: social media is just a messaging service; McLuhanism aside, within the context of what I’m talking about, the social medium isn’t the message(s). I also want to avoid a reductionist approach that is hyper-focused on seeking a singular villain, and leave room for complexity and randomness, the stuff that keeps us from convincing ourselves that patterns, just because we notice them, have to be something (causal, intentional) outside of themselves.

(to be continued)


Noticing Little-Big Things

I’m neither the first nor last who has opinions on the shift to working from home. I think, for many, it’s liberating, particularly for those who have a long commute (particularly if it means driving a car into the city). It took a pandemic and the necessary lockdowns for us to realize — and it’s something people working in the tech sector have been onto for years — that dragging our respective asses in the early morning to an office is rather antiquated. I worry this comes at a cost of, among other things, our awareness of our wider world.

There’s a word that has become more and more prevalent: psychogeography. It’s not exactly mainstream, but, particularly as we become more siloed in our homes (apartments, condos, houses) I worry we’re shutting ourselves from noticing the world around us. My particular concern is that this comes at a cost of a larger awareness of how the world around us informs our perspective: of our world, and also of society at large.

I walk to work every day. It’s a blessing, and I’m grateful for this advantage. I get to see the neighbourhoods I walk through change through the seasons, and through the bust and boom cycles of the economy (x10 since the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns happened). Toronto is a big city and has always had big city complexities: traffic, housing, social services. However, I’m here to tell you that, if you haven’t noticed, things have degraded. I’m regularly seeing individuals in mental distress on the sidewalk and on public transit, regularly seeing needle caps strewn in tree planters, and the overall neglect of the little things that affect our notion of a livable city: broken garbage receptacles, abandoned transit projects, public pools that don’t open until mid-summer, empty storefronts held onto by absentee landlords who are holding out for a cannabis retailer with deep pockets to open the nth dispensary downtown.

It informs my perspective of a city that has been through eight years of austerity budgets at the hands of our disgraced former mayor and his executive council. This didn’t happen over night, and though the pandemic made everything worse, it didn’t cause this. These sorts of things just don’t happen in three years. They happen gradually, and the pandemic was a perfect excuse for our city council to throw up their hands and let the ravages play out on their own.

And so, yes, we have tent encampments, filled with people who have been renovicted (see: absentee landlords) — the newly homeless — and we have line ups outside of food banks the likes of which I’ve never seen before. And my worry is that those of us working in our homes aren’t seeing this, or are only seeing this as slivers of whatever news feeds they scan through on their computers, on social media or otherwise. It’s not just something happening to Other People, or if it seems that way, it’s a trick of the lens because more and more people are becoming Other People with each month.

Am I asking for people to get angry as a result of walking through this, not being able to turn their heads to another window in their browser? Am I asking for people to become sad at the results of eight years of austerity budgets that keep property taxes artificially low (see: absentee landlords)? Yes. Because that’s reality, and when we remain in our bubbles and don’t notice the bad along with the good (and that’s there too) then I fear we end up with a society where those of us with means become more and more transfixed with the comforts that are available to us and not with the growing divide that is all around us.

I write this as Toronto is on the verge of a municipal by-election where I hope we bring people into office who are less interested in the status quo and more about turning the decay around. To direct services in such a way as to mitigate the damage that creates Other People. To allow cities to thrive and not simply become overrun by multinational franchises so that there’s no distinction between downtown Toronto and downtown Oakville.

(note: I get that I’m living in a dense urban environment, made up of many communities; it gives me a valuable perspective, but not one widely experienced beyond urban centres, and I would hate to transpose my perspective onto anyone else’s. While we’re here, what’s yours? What happens in your city, town or neighbourhood? Sure, with the help of local journalists you might find out what happens on its streets…but what beyond that is there? What is your experience of this?)


Essay: Making Art is Hard

I wrote this essay last year, anticipating that my choice of having a Black protagonist in my novel Radioland might be met with curiosity (or criticism) about the nature of that choice. What actually followed was complete silence on this topic, save for when I eventually spoke with Steven Beattie for his That Shakespearean Rag site (subscriber only). I wish I’d been better able at that time to communicate some of what I wrote here, but I was battling exhaustion at the time and that’s just the way it goes with interviews. I’ve made some mild revisions to this, but otherwise it’s what I wanted to say.

The title comes from a fortuitous moment where I happened upon visual artist Shary Boyle, leading a presentation of her latest works at the Gardiner Museum to a group of U of T students last year. “Making art is hard,” she said, and followed it by imploring those paying attention to not rely on curators or critics to summarize their work; that it was important for artists themselves to put something out there — a statement, an explanation, a proposition — for the record, before other people do that for you.


Making Art is Hard

Making art is hard. It doesn’t always need to be, but if you’re trying to get a handle on the complexities of our world – let alone articulate them – I feel there’s no room for those who don’t have a personal stake.

When I set out to write Radioland, I did so as I’ve done before, with a focus on moving beyond only telling a story, or rather, to tell a story of people with an eye to those who inhabit the place I live. That place, as much a character as any other, is Toronto, where I’ve made my home since 1995. This city is a lot of things, with a distinct history of its own. Like other major cities in North America, it shares a deep and often troubling history of disrupting the lives of its citizens, mostly working class.

I wrote my first novel, The Society of Experience, as someone making sense of a bustling but dark, often cold city where power was seemingly held by a tiny coterie who may as well have been in a secret society; a blend of the Family Compact and The Theosophical Society, if you will.

Downtown Toronto in the 90s, to borrow a phrase from my editor, was as white as cream cheese. The news was written by white people from a middle to upper-middle-class white perspective (which it largely still is). The people who wrote my paycheques were white. I started in TV commercials which were uniformly white. And white inherited wealth ruled the roost (which it still does). Hell, in the 90s you could get by as exotic if your parents were from Eastern Europe. That white. I worked my first TV post-production jobs downtown, and it was rare to see individuals from Black or South Asian communities in those spaces. The politics of racial identity wasn’t in the foreground for me because I was a white guy surrounded by a largely white crowd.

Becoming aware of my white-guy blinders and the default whiteness of our media perspective has happened gradually. I began to notice how public conversations about multiculturalism (its brokering of what gets acceptance in a predominantly white society) were often conducted by panels of white people with a token racialized academic on hand to lend credibility; how it seemed that the same over-educated white people talked about Toronto — its rich tapestry of ethnic identities! — as if commenting on a really good food court they discovered in Markham. As I shifted from film/TV, training to eventually operate in private practice as a psychotherapist, I learned from my program and especially via the lived experiences shared through client work, how the idea of multiculturalism that I grew up with felt more like a form of gatekeeping, essentially regulating whomever was allowed in to respect the established values and hierarchies of white society.

Radioland is, among other things, a novel about the scars of trauma, told within a macabre world that is somewhat stranger and more speculative than our own. It concerns Kris, a white musician having a nervous breakdown as he comes to terms with his experience of sexual abuse as a kid, and Jill, a Black woman who harnesses a strange and ominous form of magic within her, whose power sometimes leaves a trail of destruction. There’s also a serial killer, but let’s not go there.

A significant factor, though not the only, in deciding to change how I approached Radioland came indirectly from none other than J.K. Rowling, author of the vastly popular Harry Potter series, whose public blessing of main character Hermione Granger being Black (reacting to the casting of Noma Dumezweni for a 2015 theatre adaptation) seemed not only a rather oblique after-the-fact bestowment of white acceptance, but, as has been pointed out, rather than taking on the work of making any of her main characters explicitly racialized in her books, readers were left to, very optionally, in the words of the late Doug Henning, use their imaginations. To do the work for her, in other words. There’s a double-standard around a white author suggesting the reader change the landscape of representation, not the author. Reading this exchange, its discourse about power, I also saw my own faults – as someone who grew up in white rural and suburban enclaves — or should I call them defaults. Ultimately, I thought, fuck billionaire JKR, where were my blindspots?

When I started Radioland in 2016 I wanted to describe, and have the novel reflect, the changing Toronto I saw around me. I wanted this complexity and diversity to be reflected in my characters. I wanted it to be about music, magic, and madness; highly sensitive people roaming through and seeking connection in a randomly insensitive world. Alarmed by rapid neighbourhood gentrification and wage inequity worsening around me, I didn’t want to write a novel about people who, for some reason, never seem to worry about rent or bills, let alone debt or uncertain comfort. I didn’t want to put into the world another lie about a rock band “making it” (whatever the hell that means). I wasn’t interested in magic saving someone from the realities of an unfair world; what would it be like, in fact, if magic made it worse?

I wrote this essay because it’s not 2016. It’s 2023, and there is a lot of scrutiny out there; an understandably greater burden on white authors, whether or not they are established, to take more responsibility for what they’re working with when they choose to include characters of colour in their work; readers and authors increasingly want to see diverse, relatable experiences reflected in their media, otherwise it frankly risks irrelevancy. As a white author who chose to make one of his book’s protagonists Black, this required a lot of things. Mostly humility, and knowing I was going to need to do a lot research, as well as meditating on what it means for a white author to choose a Black character (especially a protagonist), what the privilege of that freedom of choice means, and the responsibilities that come with this. And within the portrayal of the character, Jill, not wanting to have a Black protagonist who’s made to speak for all Black people but rather a woman who is her own person, yet doing so without erasing her Black identity, or obscuring the racism she has internalized. Balancing the very real lives of Black people with care not to veer into a monolithic, monocultural depiction, or reducing the depiction into a convenient political tract, perhaps what Naben Ruthnum may have meant by social-betterment fiction.

Specifically in terms of writing from the viewpoint of racialized characters, I came upon some influential works that were helpful. One of them is a piece Jen Sookfong Lee wrote for Open Book focusing on the question: how do I write about race when it’s not my race? Writing advice can be Janus-faced — the opposite is sometimes just as true as the rule sometimes — but her well-considered guidance made me feel, at the very least, that I wasn’t indulging in a disaster. Written for an academic audience (though immediately approachable) there is also Linda Alcoff’s excellent paper, The Problem of Speaking For Others, and the author’s thorough consideration of the many perspectives involved in writing from a racialized perspective. Most recently, Jay Caspian Kang tackled this in response to the release of the film Turning Red.

I didn’t want to be Anne Tyler, who recently underscored how frustrating this is: “I’m astonished by the appropriation issue […] It would be very foolish for me to write, let’s say, a novel from the viewpoint of a black man, but I think I should be allowed to do it.” The big problem is in her use of allow. No one is stopping white authors like Tyler from writing from the viewpoint of a Black man, but, perhaps for the first time, they are feeling liable around liberties previously tolerated; the freedom, yes, but not as trustworthy without some sense of self-reflection on the implicit privileges those of us producing art may bring. As someone put it in simple terms, this is more about consequence culture than cancel culture. And what we’re seeing are white people being asked to take responsibility. To make matters worse this is being manipulated in right-leaning quarters as a form of existential annihilation.

A sensitivity reader was ultimately hired, and I’m humbly thankful for their insights. I had considered hiring a sensitivity reader during an earlier revision cycle, but stalled on the idea as there had been stories of authors hiring SRs only to throw them under the bus, owing to not taking into account the advice they were given and treating their hiring as a sort of de facto sanctification against criticism. There’s a lot of misplaced and defensive rhetoric that has come out with the rise of the sensitivity reader; a cursory search will unfortunately direct you to articles that don’t so much compare but literally call the hiring of SRs a form of censorship. The very notion of people of colour suddenly being in a position to gatekeep (which SRs don’t actually do) scaring the living hell out of white people is revealing enough. But let’s get back to this allegation of censorship. It’s not. Not only is it about continuity and accuracy, but authors and publishers being open to taking more responsibility for what we create. In the notes I got back from the SR, there were no “thou shalts”. I was pointed to some technical things in my manuscript that I simply hadn’t considered — and it was flagged because the reader thought it didn’t make sense, or needed more clarity. Good catch, I thought. In their preface, the words of the SR who read my manuscript are important, too: “[…] that being said, I am only one Black [person] with a specific experience growing up in Toronto.” They were there to be an informed eye. This was not some NYT op-ed’s notion of woke-ism run amok. Should we then be surprised when sensitivity readers, such as the person who read my manuscript, decline to be publicly identified or acknowledged by name?

All of this is not to say that I don’t exclude the possibility I’ll have to take responsibility for what I might not have thought through well enough. Oppositely, it’s not like I’m expecting some sort of special singling out for not setting the default depiction to white. Making art, as I mentioned earlier, is hard. I don’t think art-making is well-served if we’re seeking to float safely above that which we are thoroughly immersed in.


Arguments with a Musician

There’s a musician I follow on Facebook who is driving me nuts, but I don’t know whether what is bugging me about them has more to do with me than them.

I worked with them from time to time back when I was in the film/TV industry, since they worked as both a score composer and session musician. They’ve had a long and far-ranging career in music — period — let alone the Canadian music scene. Their stories (and friends’ stories) are typically epic to read as they drop references to Leonard Cohen and Ray Charles. It’s helped, too, that they were a consummate professional, and rarely overbearing (considering the twin music/TV industry connections I mean this as a compliment).

Despite being an icon and pillar of the Toronto music scene, like everyone, they were affected by COVID last year. The doors closed not just on a handful of gigs (live and recorded), but all of them in one fell swoop. And within a few months they began posting updates decrying the dire situation musicians were in, along with anti-government diatribes. Now, here’s the thing: I don’t blame anyone in their industry — pillar or acolyte — wanting to express their frustration publicly with the lockdown conditions (for anyone reading this outside of Toronto, there hasn’t been live music or theatre performances for over 14 months). I especially understand anyone wanting to criticize our provincial government’s criminal negligence during this time. They’re posts could also be petty, seeming to express more disappointment about they’re lost prospects than, say, the thousands of others out of work, but I told myself: it’s a pandemic, how about we not hold people to too high a standard?

But something bothered me, particularly when the complaining didn’t subside and began to feel like whining. In other words, another Boomer with a swimming pool in their backyard shaking their fist at the sky when inconvenienced. What bothered me was that here was this person, as mentioned, a pillar. This person has a street named after them. Shouldn’t that sort of prestige, I asked myself, not come with any sense of responsibility toward a role of leadership? A sense of indebtedness to those less fortunate in their trade, to the degree they might realize that stomping their shoes on the ground wasn’t just a bad look, it was a missed opportunity for advocacy.

It reminded me of so many people in the film/TV industry who ground their teeth over any missed opportunity, taking like a mortal blow to their ego what people like myself had to endure on a regular basis just to land a gig that paid decently.

This person disappointed me, and I feel that there’s some of my own shit in that. I had few if no role models during those 20 years, and those who came closest could still say or do hurtful things, often because of their inflated sense of importance, or plain ol’ toxic masculinity (which ran from hot and cold taps back then). I don’t write about the industry very often because my relationship with it is bittersweet; there was a shit load of misogyny and general bad behaviour, which makes writing about it that much more difficult.

I would love nothing more than for this person on Facebook to stand taller, to look beyond their four-block radius, to think what might encourage or inspire others, rather than posting things like “TOO MUCH BIG-GOVERNMENT!”. It saddens me when people of a particular generation who were entitled to many more advantages than subsequent generations can’t see beyond their immediate domain. Worse still, when brought down a level or two from their prestige, appearing aggrieved.



There’s no way to summarize this year, so I won’t start.

Stripping things down to studs, I’m thankful for my health, no matter that I still sometimes push myself too hard because of stubborn habits; that said, 2020 was largely injury free, which I mostly attribute to taking core exercises seriously. My running times have markedly improved, as well as my ability to be patient with myself (e.g. anxiety about my ability to finish whatever running circuit I’ve chosen, no matter that I almost always finish them). I blame/thank guitar lessons, which have forced me to find patience with myself, that is if I was ever going to continue with them (with thanks to my instructor, Michael, who recognized this and talked me down from getting frustrated with myself on a couple of occasions). I wish the process of being patient was as simple as allowing myself to expect long-term as opposed to short-term results — easy, right? But, with me at least, it can also be a frustration with myself on a deeper level. So, with guitar, to find a way to come to terms with that in an intentional way that incorporates regular practice (which means good days, bad days, ugly days — all of which are ok and inevitable, right?) is a gift and a privilege as much as it is also, in every sense of the word, work. I don’t do gratitude posts, but I am grateful to have had, in this year of years, the ability to pay my bills and still have the time (and ability) to write and, less successfully (at least with fiction) read.

It can be weird to acknowledge one’s growth in a year during which there has been so much death and ignorance, and so much terrible news, while so many of our elected leaders are more focused on the next election rather than the human cost of the pandemic in front of them. I wrote earlier in the year about paying attention to the precedents that the pandemic ushers in, and I feel it’s still important, though increasingly the precedents seem retrograde rather than progressive or humanitarian. All I can do is stay informed and continue to support those who put the the general good before the economy.

2020 made me think closely about volunteering time and money, both of which I did widely, whereas in the past my efforts were typically cause-specific. It made me think about why in the past it’s been easier for me to donate to large, recognized charities which issue me a tax receipt at the end of the year than, say, the GoFundMe drive for something smaller yet no less important (like 1492 Landback Lane) which, because the latter is community driven, stays off the radar of those who would otherwise donate if the same tax relief applied. I understand there are many reasons for this, but 2020 made me want to support local initiatives (involved with food scarcity, shelter, etc), and the advantages of larger/mega charities who can hire PR teams to write altruistic ad copy suddenly seems a baked-in advantage, as the WE scandal showed. In other words, it’s not fair, morally speaking equitable.

I wrote a lot this year, and I managed to land at least two publication deals for short stories. My next novel, Radioland, looks to be finding a home shortly — look for an announcement in January. And yet nearly all of my writing this year has been related to my 3rd novel, which, owing to the pandemic and how it affected as much where as how I wrote, allowed me to get out of my areas of comfort. As a result I ended up writing more, substantially more, in each of my writing sessions (though I still give myself a break if I’m at an impasse and just need to freeform/sketch some stuff). I would love to have a complete(ish) first draft of novel #3 done before I go into heavy revisions on Radioland, but I’m thinking that’s a bit of a pipe dream. We’ll see.

My work as a psychotherapist was exhausting, and yet I probably did some of my best work with clients this year. This as my practice was indirectly affected by the economic effects of the initial lockdown and ensuing health measures. I lost (at least temporarily) a decent chunk of my business. That said, I’m grateful to be able to cover my expenses. Working virtually with clients became more necessary, and while my ability to engage virtually with clients for prolonged hours of the day improved as the weeks proceeded after lockdown, I still feel that in-person talk therapy is the gold standard, albeit one that many aren’t able to partake in at the moment, due to health concerns or financial disruption. And if I read one more Is The Future of Therapy Online? thinkpiece I will put my fist through a wall. In 2020 I increased my involvement in raising awareness of how white psychotherapy in Toronto is, and how it needs to (literally) make room for financially disadvantaged and racialized individuals, so that the BIPOC community may see themselves better reflected when they are seeking help. I wish to push that one harder in 2021.

Oh, and I turned 50. It’s the new 40, apparently. Yes, I would’ve preferred a 50th blow out party at a favourite bar with friends. I still had a grand, if isolated, time in PEC with my partner, Ingrid.

I don’t know who comes to this blog. What I write is diverse, sometimes niche, often somewhat politicized, so I imagine my readership reflects this. Though it may sound odd when applied to any other, I hope you had a steady year, and I hope 2021 gives us the opportunity to be with those we love once we’re all vaccinated.

Be well.


Finding A Horizon

As a therapist I’ve had the honour of sharing many a client’s experience during the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world since early this year. It is one of those rare experiences in my profession where everyone — client, client’s friends/family, and therapist — are all in the same situation, facing the same invisible antagonist.

One thing which began to sink in for me, probably around August where most people, including myself, despite being able to enjoy the peak of summer and the freedom to leave our homes and workplaces, each day and each week seemed to be a repeat of the last one. At the worst of times it certainly felt this way to me: Groundhog Day without the humour or inevitable expectation that, whether we like it or not, credits will eventually roll. Even with the chaos of the American election and the clown shows of our respective provincial governments’ COVID preparations as distractions, it became clear to me that part of our misery was in the sense that time itself wasn’t moving despite us objectively knowing that it was. And while it might have seemed an interesting question to ponder theoretically back in August, now, in mid-November with the cold weather setting in and winter’s icy grasp not far from us, I think it’s important to share something: we have to make plans.

One thing I have both heard and repeatedly felt is that there is nothing to look forward to. Yes, there are a few vaccine candidates coming down the pipe, but I think it would be unwise for us to lull ourselves into believing that anyone who isn’t a frontline medical worker or resident of a long term care home is going to see a needle until at least next summer (please prove me wrong). Until then there is, in other words, no horizon line for us to align our sense of perspective, our direction. And so, to combat this sense that we are all floating in a timeless vacuum — and, most importantly, its ensuing depression and existential anxiety — I strongly recommend that we find ways to look forward to things, even if we have to search them out. This occurred to me when I’ve spoken with people who were moving, either because they were taking advantage of lower rent at another location, or just getting out of the city for better real estate options elsewhere. I found myself feeling jealous. I was jealous because I could see that for the next few weeks or months they could set their minds to the myriad of things-to-do and anticipate when you’re changing your place of primary residence: insurance, mail forwarding, organizing with a moving company, painting the kitchen, new mattress, reimagining the work/home space. They had, in other words, things both mentally substantial and hands-on practical to look forward to, which also happened to be novel and even open-ended (all the things you want to do before you move to a new location vs. all the things you actually have time to do). It didn’t need to be sexy, or even expensive. And I could see the relief that this presented for them.

So how can we transpose this upon our present moment, say, for the rest of us who don’t have the ability to make such a broad change in our lives? Here’s what I might suggest: look at your calendar and start to think of some thing or activity that will allow you to look forward, that you might feel engaged with, so that you can feel involved. I just received a Toronto District School Board guide in the mail, filled with online continuing education courses ranging from learning public speaking to cooking Afro-Cuban cuisine. Now, imagine enrolling in one of these courses and marking down six subsequent weeks’ worth of regularly-scheduled events where you get to look forward to learning something new — wouldn’t that add some structure to your seemingly structureless life? Books are flying off the shelves of many a book retailer — would a monthly online book club organized between you and some (carefully chosen) friends be a good idea? Maybe instead of shaking your fist at our hapless politicians on Twitter you could get involved in the organization and publicity of local community events, political or otherwise. Perhaps things like these would help us feel involved in a world where it’s hard to feel seen and heard because of all the sturm und drang around us.

I suppose what I’m suggesting is finding ways, big and small, to create a series of horizon lines for ourselves — individually and as a community — until the day comes when we will be able to safely walk out of our homes and see each other, and hold each other closely. I would like that as much as the next person, but until then I feel it’s important, from a mental health perspective, that we find ways to keep ourselves focused by finding (or creating) structure for ourselves.