Goodbye April

I haven’t had the opportunity to post here, however I hadn’t realized that it was over a month since posting something substantial. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything different going on in my life, so much as that, upon reflection, perhaps I’m spending a bit more time seeking comfort where I need it.

I got back into a martial art that I started before the pandemic, called baguazhang, or simply bagua (pron. bahg-wah). It’s a little idiosyncratic compared to more mainstream forms like karate, taekwondo or BJJ. I’d say it’s somewhere between what we in the West call “kung fu” (external) and tai chi (internal). Let’s just say there’s a lot of walking in circles. That said, I needed something that allowed me to move/train my body in a way that was different than going to the gym or distance running, which can feel static. Bagua is anything but static. Also, crucially, the very place that teaches it is literally across the street from my office in Chinatown. It centres me and its choreography is demanding enough without the more wild kung fu-style kicks etc. It’s also nice to do this with other people — something I was also sorely needing (ie a form of socializing that wasn’t chatting with someone at a pub)

I also started Book Four (I know, I know), which is coming along. I can’t really say much about it because it’s very early, however I’m liking its shape. What’s funny is that my previous long-form entry here was about not wanting to be stuck with Author/Psychotherapist in publicity material…and yet the protagonist of Book Four is exactly that. It’s also nice working on a book where the protagonist is a woman. Radioland had two protagonists — male and female — and The Society of Experience had an intermittent female narrative in the form of Seneca’s diaries, however I’m looking forward to keeping things female this time around. Book Three is in revision-mode now, for the last round I think.

I’m trying to keep myself informed of what’s going on in the world, but the world is too big and there’s too much. I think the curse of social media is that there are so many perspectives on so many things that it can be paralyzing to even log-in some days, so currently I’m not. I’m very thankful that I re-subscribed to the London Review of Books this past summer because their coverage of what’s happening in Gaza is extensive and authoritative, without the self-censorship or bad faith arguments that have poisoned coverage of this conflict in much of the mainstream media. I’m not a prolific magazine subscriber, however I can’t help but think of how lucky I felt when I happened to subscribe to Harper’s just prior to the towers falling on 9/11, the drums beating towards a disastrous war. Reading informed, well-written arguments isn’t going to stop the worst of humanity from manifesting, but at least I can form my opinion from a source that isn’t compromised by a fear of spooking advertisers or an editor casting a dark shadow over someone’s shoulder.

Yes, and reading. Lots of reading. Let’s see…Labyrinths (a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories and essays), Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (which is fabulous), The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton and Audit Culture: How Indicators and Rankings are Reshaping the World by Cris Shore and Susan Wright.

I hope this finds you well.

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February update

self-portrait walking in Little Portugal, Toronto

It’s been a busy time in these parts. Working on the short story I mentioned last post, working on a Canada Council grant (because why not), as well as working-working.

My day job has been affected by the economic downturn since about September of last year. September is typically a busier time for therapists — end of summer/vacation, anxiety about returning to school, etc — but for me it was the opposite. And it was more or less that way until January, where it continues to be patchy. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it weren’t that I have an office lease and a number of other regular professional expenses. I’m getting by ok enough, but the lack of predictability can be stressful. The thing I also remind myself of is that psychotherapists are typically downstream from whatever’s happening in society, so it’s no surprise the economic crunch that so many are experiencing now should visit my doorstep.

February was…fun? Keeping the momentum going from seeing Quebec band La Sécurité in late January at The Monarch here in town, earlier this month my partner and I hopped on a train to Montreal, where I haven’t been in nearly a decade, in order to see one of my favourite current acts, Sweeping Promises, play at La Sala Rossa (note: they are not Quebecois but hail from Kansas). I was not let down. Super-impressed with their energy and their songs translated to a live venue easily. Strangely, having heard all my adult life about how tame Toronto audiences can be, I was surprised to see the Montreal crowd’s energy was so restrained…and here I was, in my early 50s and one of the more enthusiastic people in the audience. Needless to say, it was great to be in Montreal and I was struck by how little damage the pandemic lockdowns did to their bars, restaurants and live venues. Otherwise, I pushed myself to get out and socialize more this month, which I’m thankful for, even though I’m a little more introverted than others, as it was good to connect with old and new friends.

If I do get some grant money I’d like to see about booking a return to the artist’s retreat run by the Pouch Cove Foundation in Newfoundland. It really is a stunning place. If I have a burning frustration with the airline oligopoly in this country it’s that it’s cheaper for me to fly to Las Vegas (3,619km) or Vancouver (3,359.km) than St. John’s (2,686km), and believe me I would take St. John’s any day over those and many other destinations (okay, only between the months of May and October).

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December Update

It’s been a year, and I feel that the air is clearing. If that sounds vague, let’s just say that 2023 has been a challenge. Not like 2022, which was quite calamitous by comparison, but certainly from the perspective of world politics and (closer to home) the health of my business, it’s been a tough one. The economy is hard and a lot of people (myself included) are being a lot more financially conscious than ever.

After some super-constructive feedback I’ve been intently focused on revising Book Three, which has been tough. You’ve probably heard the term “kill your darlings” before, in regards to the sorts of sacrifices an author inevitably has to make during revisions; well, this last revision has led to a small cemetery of darlings. And necessarily so, since I attempted to cram a lot into the second half of this novel, and the result was the lack of a sense of a singular theme/conflict as opposed to a barrage of them. That said, I think it’s in a good place now, and I’ve put the manuscript in a proverbial drawer in order for it to sit for a while, so that I can come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. It’s still a solid story, and I’m very happy with the process of deciding what it was I wanted to, well, say — sounds straight forward, but it’s harder than it seems, especially when you have a lot of things you want to reflect on. Hoping to turn this over to my agent in the spring of 2024. It’s also nice to not be staring at the same project, so that I can (god forbid) consider other writing projects (short stories, essays) I’ve either neglected or temporarily abandoned.

Musically, I’ve been blessed to have come upon a wide array of artists who are new to me: Sweeping Promises, Water From Your Eyes and Froth most recently stand out.

Tomorrow, for the first time in two years, I’m taking part in the Holiday 10k (formerly the Tannenbaum 10k), and the weather is going to be perfect (a little wet, but above zero), so I’m going to quietly focus on a personal best time. Don’t tell anyone.

photo of my racing bib, showing my name and racer number
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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.

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!

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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)

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Spare Cycles

I’ve had a very good year with respect to productivity, albeit — and if you follow this blog you’ll see a pattern — a sort of productivity that can have exhaustive consequences.

My partner and I went to a cottage in July for a week, and (I swear) I spent the first three days doing nothing more than staring out at the lake. During that time I barely read for any kind of pleasure, and I certainly didn’t engage with social media. What I really needed at that time was a canvas larger than myself; a moving/undulating canvas that was just as complex as I am, and yet, for lack of a better word, steadier. A model, if you will.

I’m very good at using whatever pockets of time are available to round off creative tasks, be it writing, revising or reading. Too good. I can end up feeling overwhelmed because the creative stuff is still labour, right? It ends up being a lot of work, divvied up between work-work and not-work-work-work.

Earlier today I was sitting in a quiet back patio, and I found myself staring at the unoccupied benches in front of me, subdued in indirect light, blanched in a sort of mossy green because of the clouds and the overhanging vines. And it was good to simply observe this for what it was. Not to seek meaning, but to take it all in. It was like the lake at the rented cottage, though harder to find in the city: quiet, empty, alive.

Stillness. It’s what I end up taking photographs of; people-less landscapes that are only indirectly inhabited. A suggestion of the human world around us within a pause.

This is why I’m stepping back (significantly, if not completely) from social media. There’s simply too much information, mixed with outrage, competitiveness and whatever else. Add to this the rise of auto-play videos (as on Instagram), and how that plays on my ability to focus, and it all drags on me terribly.

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Greetings from somewhere cloudy

Hi all — I’m slowly getting back into the swing of providing regular updates here, but I should be honest with you that I’ve been battling exhaustion and burnout over the past couple of months. It’s not pretty: in-between forgetting a lot of things, tackling overdue quotidian tasks comes with frustration and resentment. My energy and focus have been more or less on my day job, with good reason. I was also somewhat ironically prolific over the Xmas break, having done a complete read-through of Book Three for revision notes, as well as putting together a very personal essay which ties the story together of my murdered uncle’s stolen guitar.

So yes, “productive”, but I’m paying for it currently, along with the dividends of the not-so-good things from 2022 (ie my mother was hospitalized for several months).

I’m going to leave you with a wonderful song from Jenny Hval that I have been trying not to mainline every moment I can, owing to the fact that the piece has a strong emotional impact on me. Perhaps it’s the reflective and speculative nature of the (gorgeous) lyrics. In any case, I hope to see you soon.

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September Update

Regular visitors have probably been frustrated with the lack of updates here. So have I. The truth is that I’ve been swamped with doing the finishing touches on Radioland…and taking care of an ailing parent. I cannot express how exhausting the last while has been, on so many personal levels.

The good news is that, as of Friday, I signed-off on the last of the changes to the manuscript. It is, for all intents and purposes, out of my hands…which is both satisfying and frightening.

I finally have had time to update my website as well as post an update here (and add Radioland to the sidebar links). My next task is to gird myself for publicity, which I’m both excited for…and intimidated af. If there’s one thing I need to work on it’s getting out of my Writer Head and speaking about the book so that someone who isn’t in my head can understand what it’s actually about, which would be easier if I hadn’t written a fairly complex novel. There are worse problems.

Also…

(CBC Books 2022 fall fiction picks)

I should mention that Radioland was picked as one of CBC Books fall fiction titles!

Anyhoo, I hope to be here more regularly.

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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.

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