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The thing I took was from a response by Matt Groening to the suggestion that Apu’s depiction was outdated and/or even racist.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)


Book #3 update

The pandemic has had a deleterious effect on many writers. Whereas it’s affected my ability to hold my concentration on reading (for pleasure), it has certainly proved to be an obstacle on the creative process of others. I’m grateful that I have, somewhat contrarily, thrived.

I committed to starting my third book in earnest, seeing as I had plenty of time on my hands — business was (and is) down, leaving me with large swaths of time during the week. Add to this the lockdown, which has affected my ability to plant myself in my familiar café/bar haunts, given that they have either been forced to close or restricted to only outdoor seating, I found myself working from home. And I’m not used to this, seeing as I share it with my partner. A good pair of headphones have helped.

My writing process is different this time. Typically, in the past, I’ve written most of my first drafts by hand in a notebook, then transposed to laptop. But that style was very much based on walking about town with my notebook and stopping off somewhere to jot down the skeleton of a chapter. This time, I’m staring at a blank screen on my laptop because somehow writing a rough draft in a notebook just doesn’t seem necessary (or, if I am honest with myself, perhaps less efficient). And, as it’s turned out, staring at a blank page on my laptop has become an invigorating challenge. I’ll know in my head the rough outline of what it is I’m supposed to write (i.e. This is the chapter were Marcus and Alex need to connect with one another), but aside from my marching orders I don’t really know what it’s supposed to look like. The advantage of handwriting is that there’s an implicit casualness — if I want to doodle in the margins then it takes the piss out of whatever I end up writing being somehow sacred, if that makes sense. And so I begin filling in the blank laptop page with tidy New Times Roman text and there’s a kind of rush, not unlike pushing off from the lip of a snowy hill, poles in hand, skis firmly strapped to my boots.

I wrote earlier about how I was considering Book #3* as a comedy. This has changed. There is plenty of comedic absurdity, don’t get me wrong, but I think The Point of the book has changed and developed, and clarified. This is the magic of writing: watching something that only exists in your technicolor imagination take shape imperfectly in the real world of the formerly blank page, and the more you write the closer it is you get — not to the technicolor thing you imagined necessarily, but what you learn it should be, if that makes sense. A novel is in some respects an argument for its own existence, and what exists only in your imagination is but an impetus. Once you begin to manifest it you discover that, like a legal argument, characters will demand that you justify what happens to them, what they say in the form of dialogue, so that you are ultimately being fair to the spirit of the material.

I suppose what I’m saying is that my relationship with writing has undergone a substantial shift between Radioland and now, and I think part of it is being more practical with my time/labour, and the other is finding a new way of focusing as I write, which I may write about in another post.

*technically this isn’t Book #3 per se. I wrote a novel prior to The Society of Experience, which I proceeded to put aside (if you read the acknowledgements in SoE you’ll get the story around this). Then, while waiting for SoE to work its way through to publication I began work on a spiritual sequel to SoE, which I also proceeded to put aside (short version: I had a better, more dynamic idea for a novel, and I didn’t want to feel trapped in the same narrative universe as SoE). Thus, my forthcoming “Book #2”, Radioland, came into being. So, Book #3 is really Book #5, which is some crazy backwards Star Wars shit, I know. It’s also, as some might realize, a lot of pages of writing that no one will probably ever see, and if any neophyte authors are reading this and wondering how I feel about that, my answer is that it’s part of the process. Just as musicians practice their brains out before going into studio to record, there’s going to be a lot of effort that your audience is never going to see that ultimately (and quietly) benefits the parts they do see.



When I’m working with clients at my day job as a therapist, a lot of questions get asked. These can as often be prompted at the client’s request than from my own professional curiosity. However, at some point in the course of our work, one question will almost always be arrived at, regardless that finding its answer in a general or objective sense would seem intimidating: what’s normal supposed to be?

This question is provoked by the arrival of two large, often incompatible and almost always incongruent masses: our-normal — the nuanced consideration of the innate (though not necessarily immutable) principles and conditionings that define who we are as individuals — and normal-normal — the broader idea of how we should be both as individuals and with others, and our expectations for how society works. In our unprecedented present situation, given widespread self-isolation, a death count that isn’t stopping soon, and worldwide unemployment, to name just a few items, normal-normal seems less normal than it did previously.

I’ll start by saying that I’m pretty sure our-normal, who we are as individuals, isn’t going to change as much as some might fear. Individual change happens slowly, even when its intentional.  That said, over the course of our current crisis we may feel different due to a host of serious inconveniences, which — depending upon socio-economic factors — might wreak havoc on our lives, even traumatize; this isn’t even to mention the ever-present tension and the fact most of us don’t know what the the future looks like beyond the next week. This is not a safe time, for anyone, and these sorts of situations don’t happen often on a worldwide scale. In light of this, if we find ourselves suffering anxiety or depression during this unsafe time, even if we haven’t experienced those things before, I don’t generally consider that to be a sign of our-normal changing; I would contend it’s a sign of our-normal reacting within an allowable range, given the present context. If anything we may end up seeing more of ourselves (the good and the meh).

For me, the prime question boils to: when this is all done, what’s normal-normal going to be? What will normal be like with respect to unemployment support and health care services? What’s normal like for travel and public gatherings? When we don’t even know the next time we’ll be allowed to sit in a pub or café — let alone our favourites because they might’ve gone out of business? When we don’t know when we’ll be seeing our next paycheque, what’s normal supposed to look like?

I’m tempted to look at normal like the passage of time from the standpoint of physics. Time doesn’t really pass, it just is. There isn’t really a 2pm — that’s just society trying to sort itself out so that we know when to sleep and when to feed the chickens. Given the unpredictable timeline ahead of us, I think we will need to look at normal-normal similarly. Most of us would readily acknowledge that words such as “normal” are open to subjective bias, even if at the same time we are using them to define objective standards because we have to, because humans. I think we may be less comfortable acknowledging that normal can be something as subject to change as it is to definition.

What’s happening, I feel, is not the suspension of normal-normal, or normal-normal being reprogrammed. Like being part of an engrossing movie only to catch a piece of fake scenery, we are jolted out of the way we have accepted our places in, and the construct of, pre-pandemic society. I see this as an opportunity to question to what degree normal-normal, beyond semantics, truly exists, and who benefits.

I feel it’s important not to get too hung up on restoring whatever our collective version of normal-normal was, like the last backup of a computer. Among other things, there’s a lot of inequality there. When our community, municipal, provincial, and federal representatives inevitably talk about moving forward I would prefer that we not reflexively reach for  previous notions without first considering what can be addressed so that there is less inequality. I want to pay attention to the laws and precedents being laid down presently — like taking over a hotel in order to house the homeless, an initiative that was ignored by city council in the past — so that we are able not only to take care of ourselves and our communities today, but to think about the evolving normal-normal we want from this point forward.

As I might venture to share with a client, in answer to that inevitable question I opened with, whatever normal can be, whatever normal can include, we get to have a say.



The Brain & Science – The Problem With Wanting It All

As a psychotherapist, I have taken an interest in the rise of neurobiological research being applied to my field. At first, particularly upon hearing about “interpersonal neurobiology” (or IPNB), I was excited — I was seeing the intrapsychic and biological converge into what appeared to be a fascinating model of understanding human behaviour. But here’s the thing: while I have a deep reverence for the subjective life of the individual, I’m also interested in looking at things empirically, where applicable. Without this latter aspect, I feel we fall prey to magical thinking.

The more I looked into some of the new ideas permeating my field, I became aware of a few things. While certain concepts, such as the idea of neuroplasticity, were taken from science, the more I looked at who was writing about this, the more I noticed that the people applying these complicated concepts to psychotherapy weren’t neurologists or geneticists. One of the oft-referenced authors in the field of IPNB is Allan N. Schore, who is a psychologist and researcher. His books are popular with those looking to harmonize neurology and psychotherapy. And while I respect his multidisciplinary work, I have difficulty with binary conceptions of how the left and right brains work (whereas, supposedly, the right brain is responsible for emotional attunement, the left brain for insight and analysis). Why do I have difficulty with this? Because many neuroscientists would contend that this is too simplistic a way to look at the brain.

This is a blog post and not a long-form essay. I could go on. I suppose what irks me is the amount of material being written about a myriad of complex neurobiological research findings that skip over the necessary cautions that are the hallmarks of science. Correlation is not causation. How big was the sample size? Continue reading “The Brain & Science – The Problem With Wanting It All”


Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving

Sometimes I feel that I stand in-between too many things. Un-firm. Undecided. This is in part due to my fond appreciation for not only a lot of disparate topics but also disparate approaches. I believe in the vigour of an approach which involves good research. I also believe that we can lace “good research” with wishful thinking so that the evidence it produces is wishful thinking presented as fact. I believe that there are charlatans who willingly or naively provide a distraction that slows us down. I also believe that we dismiss many things as charlatanism not because they pose a danger but because they conflict with the politics of our personal or professional lives. I believe in intuition. I also believe intuition alone brings us too close to a raw reflexiveness which doesn’t serve long term needs.

So when someone asks me What do you think about x? I sometimes find myself considering a number of things and contexts to understand the question. The drawback is we’ve created a world where this sort of complexity is undesired. Certainly, in some industries and roles, complexity is unnecessary — a prime example would be assembly line work where the task is to simply crank out carbon copy iterations of something already conceived-of and revised to an acceptable standard. If you want to know what roles robots and AI are going to swallow up in the future, it’s those things. Complexity, on the other hand, keeps us guessing, reminds us that there are no set answers, or if there are they are kludges we developed until the next discovery forces us to revise our notions, our presumptions.

In an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr profiles someone turning to exotic flora in order to stave off our imminent depletion of effective antibiotics. The researcher in question turns to the lore of sometimes ancient civilizations, the extracts and tinctures from nature that one might rightly think come from fantasy, or from a presumably primitive culture. From some pharmaceutical industry perspectives, this is quackery. And yet, in one example, Continue reading “Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving”


Short Fiction: “There Is This Thing Of You”

I am proud to put new works out into the world. My short fiction piece, There Is This Thing Of You, is something I’ve been polishing for a number of years and I’m happy that it found a home with the online literary journal The Rusty Toque.

While it’s free to read, please consider donating to The Rusty Toque if you like what you see (and please check out the other great authors – like poets Madhur Anand and Eva H.D.)


My Psychotherapy Blog

As some of you (now more of you) know, I recently began a practice as a psychotherapist. I have a website, which gets a fair bit of traffic (allowing that summer is a traditionally slow time of the year), but recently I added an adjunctive blog.

The purpose was to get more of me out there, rather than have people rely on their preconceptions of what a psychotherapist is/does just by staring at my business card. I figured it would help both me and potential clients (including curious onlookers) deal up-front with questions that often go unasked yet which people would like answered.

For example: Do I need to know what’s wrong with me in order to see a therapist? Will I lose my creativity if I see one?

These are some of the things people ask, sometimes in passing, sometimes directly to me. I was inspired to address them, if only so that I could clarify the process of therapy.

That said, it’s a challenge. Unlike this space where I can tear away at preconceptions without concern for who I may be offending, I have to alter the timbre of my voice when blogging for the benefit of those who may be potential clients – it’s not always cut and dry. I ran into this recently with a post I wrote about men and how men tend to have preconceptions about psychotherapy (and how some of this may have to do with the language/imagery predominant in the latest barrage of public service announcements). My partner brought to my attention that what I’d wrote (and published) was in fact meant for this blog, not the one I originally thought it was intended for. So…I went back and changed the voice, as if I were revising a short story.

The lesson? Know your audience. People curious about psychotherapy don’t need to read hard-hitting op/ed-style commentary – the challenge was to go back and revise what I’d done so that, rather than focusing on a political critique of the way society isolates men from seeking help and agitating for personal growth, I retreated/reverted/went back to the more digestible core point of therapy is good for men, too.

Perhaps I will post both versions here to demonstrate how I revised it. In any case, feel free to visit the other blog (and tell your friends).


The Sky is Falling (Very Slowly), or, Will The Real Science Please Stand Up

The problem with having a belief in something which happens to be provocative (and by provocative, I mean something which is not embraced by the whole and which may be a bit thorny for some) is that, like in most aspects of life, all it takes is a few zealots to make you look like a fool by ideological proximity.

As I pointed out many moons ago (December of 2006!) when it comes to climate change (as opposed to the slightly misleading term global warming), outside of blind ignorance our greatest liability are people who jab an accusatory finger at every natural disaster and scream “You see! It’s global warming! Climate change caused this! If we don’t do something NOW we are doomed as a species!”. For me, it started with Hurricane Katrina, when people (a fantastic percentage of whom had no scientific accreditation) began to suggest that it simply wasn’t an old-school “act of nature”, but rather something to be blamed upon worldwide environmental collapse (as if New Orleans didn’t have enough problems to contend with). It fed into a grand conspiracy theory which gave certain people a quixotic reason to exist: that mankind was the chief culprit all along, and that it was only a question of years to fix it. Cue epilogue of Planet Of The Apes.

On the other (self-evident to the point where I wonder whether it’s worth mentioning) end of the spectrum are the usual assortment of deep-pocketed corporate “carbon monoxide is good for you” state polluters, and knee-jerk libertarian radio hosts who feel that idling their cars is akin to patriotism (and, as an aside, the whole libertarian-patriot thing seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?).

The thing is this, panic aside: I do believe in climate change. All that shit turning to water north of us (that would be the Arctic ice) is a sign. Much less lachrymose is all that science, provided by all those scientists, which pretty much confirms that, yes, climate change is real, and that, yes, human industry is a variable in its occurrence. The issue of how the future is looking as a result of climate change is less clear. The problem is this: remember those largely non-scientific people blaming Hurricane Katrina on climate change? The ones telling us that if we don’t do something NOW then the world’s a goner? They got a lot of attention; the cameras kept rolling. This was probably just a knee-jerk reaction of mass media which was (and is) delighted to scare the public any chance they get (it keeps ratings up). Well guess what: some scientists found that if they used the same sort of seismic analogies and kept the ticking clock of doom just a few minutes away, not only would they get attention, but they could get funding.

Inevitably, it had to end – the speculative bubble that is. You can only say that we have five more years to change the world for five years until people start asking why societies haven’t collapsed like the finale of an Irwin Allen movie. And then someone or some group hacked into the records of some climate scientists and found that some of them were acting like jerks, that some of them didn’t want to play nice with their facts (unlike all those journalists and columnists we read). To me, this was heart-breaking, because it allowed both honest sceptics and partisan political hacks alike to pull a j’accuse and call it Climategate (seriously, I look forward to a world without the silly and dated gate suffix) and call the science itself into question, as opposed to the questionable actions of a few. Some have hinted that the bad publicity fall-out could set climate science back by a decade if increased public persecution gets worse. However, I feel this is as likely as, well, the world ending in five years.

The good news is that the world hasn’t ended; neither our world, nor the world of science. If anything, reading today’s op-ed by Margaret Wente in the G&M, even people who previously took every opportunity to deny the existence of climate change are now looking at things plainly: no pro trumped-up worries about imminent global catastrophe, and no con lefty/green/hippy bullshit stereotypes. If anything, perhaps bringing those few scientists into the spotlight has, post whatever-gate, calmed everyone down a notch. Perhaps enough so that we will be able to parse our language into something which does not use fear as a means of persuasion. Perhaps so that we won’t dilute the meaning of words like green and sustainable to homeopathic degrees.

I believe (or at least I hope) we can find an entry-point where we can use science and research rather than propaganda and fear to motivate ourselves to improve our prospects (that is, both human prospects and business prospects, two things which have not always shared mutually fulfilling goals). It is heartening to see that there may be an X-Prize for fuel/energy production, similar to what was done for sub-orbital exploration. I’d also like it if we could reboot the message of environmentalism with a good ‘ol back-to-basics mantra of: use less (as in packaging, unnecessary products, natural resources). I will be happy, even if it is all a hopelessly lost cause, that we go down working on something together as opposed to a Purgatory of scoring political points against ourselves.


For *’s Sake

It’s been one of those battle-cries of mine the last while. Everything in the world, culturally-speaking (and I don’t necessarily mean high culture) seems to be evaporating into mindless bullshit.

The AV Club – a site I admittedly have a love/hate relationship with already – just posted an interview with actor Paul Giamatti. In the opening summary, the interviewer describes the plot of his latest film, which reads like a counterscript of 1999’s Being John Malkovich and yet there is no mention of this parallel anywhere in the article, something even Entertainment Tonight would do. The interviewer talks about this upcoming film with Giamatti as if it and his role – the John Malkovich role, if it were Being John Malkovich – were just soulless objects to be discussed out of necessity. In other words, it’s just like any other media-junket interview, like something you would read in InStyle or Chatelaine. Not that those examples are b-a-d, but when you pride yourself as better, especially savvy, tongue-in-cheek better, you shouldn’t even be in the same postal code as InStyle or Chatelaine if you want to retain your reputation.

The Motley Fool – again, a site previously known for being savvy, even though they deal with the stock market – now reads like Ain’t It Cool News, complete with arguments which, under rational analysis, seem completely idiotic and antithetical to what one would assume is their mission statement (ie. being different than the rest of those brain-dead-and-short-sighted Money sites).

Oh, and CNN. Not that they’ve ever been more relevant than a Reuters news ticker, but they’ve gone from mediocre to stupid by allowing one of their show hosts, Lou Dobbs, to continuously question the origin of Barack Obama’s citizenship, a paranoid suspicion virulent in the libertarian/right-wing fringe of the U.S. that has been repeatedly disproved (read: he doesn’t want Johnny Foreigner running and ruining the most-possibly-greatest-country-ever-in-the-world).

Now, one of the arguments I can imagine hearing is: well, Matt, in a 24-hour newsday (whether on TV or the Internet) when people expect constant information there inevitably has to be weaker material. To which I say: I understand, but I’d settle for less information over less hours (if need be), if it means the information will be consistent and better. After all, you are what you eat, and in this day and age we feed on media in an astonishingly unconscious and voracious manner.