Interview: The First Thirty, courtesy of Junction Reads

This is super last-minute, and I apologize for the late notice, however tomorrow (!) I’m going to be interviewed live (!) on Instagram. Junction Reads is an established (since 2014) Toronto reading series that brings attention to so many great authors. I’m going to take part in Junction Reads’ cool offshoot, The First Thirty, which is designed around speaking with authors about — you guessed it — how the first thirty pages of their published work came about.

From their website:

Writers know, and readers too, the first pages are the most important in any novel, memoir or story. And I want to talk about it.

The First Thirty is an Instagram Live series where I will meet authors for a quick chat (30 minutes) to talk about writing, and how they shape those first pages to be a warm welcome to the reader; to include the hook that makes a reader want to keep reading, and to give us the characters we either want to love or really hate.

You can hear me talk about my latest novel, Radioland, tomorrow (Monday, May 27th) night @ 7pm EST on Instagram by tuning-in to @junctionreads!

UPDATE: You can watch the interview here. I’m really impressed with the depth of Alison’s questions and if this is the last bit of promotion I do for Radioland then I’m happy to have it be this.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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The Big November Update

Holy cow, what a month. I’m sitting here at a sports bar (using their wifi) half-exhausted from everything that’s transpired since my last post here.

me at the launch

The launch for RADIOLAND went great and was well attended!

You can stream my interview with CBC Toronto’s Gill Deacon to assess whether I made any sense (I think I did, though I was very nervous being on live radio).

Speaking of radio interviews, I just completed a wonderful interview with Jamie Tennant for CFMU’s Get Lit. It’s not going to be available until mid-December, but I’ll let y’all know when that happens!

Last but not least…I have a giveaway of sorts. For my launch I decided to do something special and had custom guitar picks made, which I distributed to those who purchased my book. Guess what? I have some left over! So, while quantities last (I’ve never typed that before and it feels weird), if you get in touch and provide a photo of your copy of RADIOLAND (or proof of purchase) I will mail you one of these! Seriously! You can either DM via Twitter (@heymattcahill) or you can email me (matt at mattcahill dot ca).

I’m planning on taking a little time off to regroup (and catch up on my reading!) but I’m planning on getting back into Book Three in December and hopefully deliver the goods in 2023. Take care, and thanks for popping by!

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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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Doing Research

A while back, I read a lovely piece about David Sylvian, vocalist with 80s new wave band Japan and an accomplished solo artist, and was struck by an observation he made, reflecting upon hearing a track by ambient artist Christian Fennesz:

‘What I liked about his work is that there’s a melodicism to it. It wasn’t all sample manipulation. lt really had a heart to it somewhere. I was talking to Ryuichi [Sakamoto] about two years ago and he said, “Do you still listen to music?” I said, “Well, I still tend to buy a lot of music and I listen to a fair amount of it. But I’m not touched by it. I’m not moved by it.” He said, “Yeah, that’s right. It’s just a process of education. It’s a means of finding out what is now possible with this or that technology. You’re no longer listening to music. You’re doing research.” And what I liked about Christian’s work is that there it all was: modern technology, but in the service of the heart. I always come back to the heart.

There are two things that stood out to me in this passage. The first was Sylvian speaking about how his relationship with music had changed. So, first, I suppose it needs to be contextualized that when someone is working in a creative field they should (unsurprisingly) not only be affected by but also actively familiarizing themselves with other artist’s works. The problem is that, after a number of years/decades, it can feel as if everything has been done. Note Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s question; it’s not Have you heard anything good lately. His question is distressing: Do you still listen to music? It raises the spectre of a rupture between an artist and their craft. Sylvian’s answer and Sakamoto’s response, while relieving also point to a sense of being lost. “Yeah,” says Sakamoto, referring to his listening habits, “that’s right. It’s just a process of education. It’s a means of finding out what is now possible with this or that technology. You’re no longer listening to music. You’re doing research.” In other words, the naive curiosity which can be so important for any artist has become dormant. Yes, you are still listening to music, but it’s become reference material; a question of keeping up; who’s doing what with which device.

I have not become anesthetized to music, and the reason for this is most likely because I am not a professional in that industry, and I’m thankful for this. I do relate to this situation with respect to TV and film however. Having gone to school and eked out a career in televised programming followed by long-form motion pictures, it became second nature to watch (and deconstruct) a wide variety of works. And having worked in the sausage factory for 20 years I must admit to feeling a resonant frequency with regards to moving pictures at least, reading Sylvian’s conversation with Sakamoto. Yes, I’m still watching shows and movies, but am I affected by them or am I simply filling in time with reference material? Let’s just say that I am not easily affected these days.

Which brings me to the second thing about this passage: deliverance. In coming across the track from Christian Fennesz, Sylvian seems to rediscover something. Cliché though it may sound, there is the sense of having faith restored. And who could not be struck by something that, while technically accomplished, is “in the service of the heart”? In other words, there is honesty in this work, and depth. Something that is ultimately restorative and worthy of kick-starting another artist’s relationship with their work once more.

I share this because it’s good to share stories of inspiration, and good to admit that sometimes inspiration can be hard to find.

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An Impossible Essay: “The Movement Against Psychiatry”

I’ve been wondering whether to respond to an essay that was posted on VICE Magazine a couple of weeks ago, and so this is my meagre attempt. The hesitation you are picking up is based upon the fact that it’s an almost impossible essay for anyone to attempt to write; impossible because its subject matter contains so many perspectives — ground level, professional, clinical; historical, academic, unacknowledged — that one would need to write a thick book in order to begin to encompass just a notion of the territory that is being covered. The fact that I’m blogging about it means it’s stirred up some feelings (some conflicted) that need to be put on paper. Mostly this reflects well on the piece, despite the fact I’m not exactly a fan of VICE in general.

The essay, The Movement Against Psychiatry, by Shayla Love, lays itself out from the beginning with a profile of two people with two very different mental health challenges: one of whom, it’s argued, might have been helped by being institutionalized (even if against her will) in order to prevent her downward spiral; the other sought psychiatric assistance but found herself over-prescribed with various medications, without a sense of there being an overarching logic or consideration for the underlying causes of her situation, or the side effects of what she was prescribed. In this comparison we are presented with an outline of the challenges facing mental health in general and modern psychiatry specifically.

We are then presented with three groups: the psychiatric orthodoxy, those who belong to what is known as the anti-psychiatry movement, and those who belong (or fall into) what is referred as “critical psychiatry.” The first glimpse of the impossibility the author faces — if using those two persons’ examples off the top didn’t do it — is that, if you stop and consider it, there are inevitably going to be many voices within each of these three groups, ranging from the open-minded to the downright neglectful. For my purposes, it is specifically with how those who belong to the last two groups are separated from each other that I think the piece finds its greatest challenge. A key problem is that there are those who are self-declaratively anti-psychiatric — ranging from wanting to abolish psychiatry altogether to those wanting to revolutionize the foundations upon which patients’ conditions are considered — and those whose philosophy might be considered by the establishment as anti-psychiatric, in a pejorative sense, but who for all intents fall into the “critical psychiatry” group.

To her credit, the author touches early upon the detractive nature of the term anti-psychiatric, however my criticism is that the essay misses an opportunity to convey the power those in the psychiatric establishment have who wield this term, compared to those who are not medical doctors (perhaps researchers, perhaps academics, or clinicians) but who nonetheless have pointed questions about the prevailing logic of certain psychiatric interventions (whether it be about overprescription of drugs, or the use of ECT). That term and its connotations, in other words, can be weaponized, whether or not it is used accurately or as an attempt to discredit or dismiss the person in question entirely.

But I want to be fair where fair is relevant: the author also correctly exposes the fact that the waters of the anti-psychiatry movement are muddied by the more than passive involvement of the Church of Scientology. They have a stake, albeit a selfish one, which is fitting for a cult. This does no one any favours in this debate, and only makes it easier (see last paragraph) to punch down from the psychiatric establishment with only the briefest mention that a critic may have ties to Scientology.

And I will admit that there are a host of well-respected voices who, if pressed, I might put in the “critical psychiatry” camp, who do themselves no favours by using only the most self-serving, one-sided Mad in America articles to labour their (otherwise respectable) arguments. I find by contrast that my professional perspective ends up being more nuanced (which gives me pause given my comparative lack of academic credentials). I believe in a biopsychosocial approach to mental health (whereby causation might be one, or a mix of all). I can tell you anecdotally that, yes, there are people who are temporarily helped by medication, who are able to use that stabilization to pursue non-biomedical interventions like talk therapy. It’s good to question the underlying chemical imbalance hypothesis of depression, but if someone achieves stability enough to be able to advocate for themselves (and to make choices such as tapering off said medication) then so be it.

I think what gets lost in the debate, which can often pit two highly qualified individuals speaking in terms that are highly specialized and often theoretical — and again, I think the author does their best to come back to this point — is that, at ground level, regular people who need help are harmed. Harmed, because their GP likens depression to something like diabetes, insisting that their patient will need to be on drugs for the remainder of their life, or puts their patient on a high dosage of a toxic anti-anxiety med like clonazepam without mandating regular check-ups in order to potentially lessen the dosage. Or they are harmed because community organizations are often ill-equipped to provide consistent space for people who suffer from psychotic episodes. Or they are harmed by an untrained psychotherapist who operates in a province or state where the profession is unregulated, thus allowing practically anyone, regardless of credentials, to see clients.

I keep hearing the word “patchwork” when the mental health support system is mentioned. That is what the average person faces: a patchwork of often disconnected resources with no sense of guidance about what is best for them and their situation. Moving closer to a system that has the capability to provide continuity for each individual within a public health system should be the priority. While there is a need for debate, the largely sectarian nature of it only seems to put that possibility further away.

 

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