Residue

In the end, all you have are memories.

I say this as someone who has lived in Toronto since 1995. I’ve seen many changes: the mainlining of Queen West into a retail stripmall, the slow existential irreverence of Church Street/Boystown, the awkward moral reclamation of Yonge Street by the city, the evolution (and perverse deflation) of Ossington Avenue, the current “yuppy tension” in Kensington Market. To name just a few.

One thing you learn in Toronto (and perhaps most large urban centres) is that it was always cooler before you got there. It was always more fun. There was more leniency. Less rules. This is bullshit, of course, but it makes the people who were around back then feel important.

You live somewhere long enough and, whether you expect to be in this role or not, you end up being the person who points out what used to be at certain addresses: clothing stores, book stores, record shops, dance clubs, their lovely fucked-up people, long gone (and missed).

We go through life somewhat arrogantly or narcissistically thinking it’s all being recorded – it is the modern age, after all. But it’s not. The only thing recording it is your head. Your eyes. Your nose, your brain. When it’s all been taken-over, torn-down, or burnt to the ground by corrupt real estate developers, you – yes, you and your memories – are the only record of that thing having existed.

If there is something we share, I suppose it is that we all become storytellers after a while.

 

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Connectedness, Social Media, and Syntheticism

If there’s something to be said about going on a vacation – whether that means renting a car and driving two hours away from your town, or buying a plane ticket and flying six hours away from your country – it’s that it provides something crucial: distance. Physical (and, one should hope, subsequently mental) distance.

When I go away I take that idea of “distance” seriously. I don’t check Facebook, I don’t check Twitter. I don’t even check voicemail (unless it looks important). My only transgression is occasionally checking newspaper headlines to make sure that the world isn’t on the brink of collapse (which it often seems to be).

Upon returning, I find myself staring at my computer (or, more often, my BlackBerry) and wondering: what’s the point? Sure, I’ll go back to checking email, scheduling things, occasionally making sure the world isn’t on the brink of collapse, but re-entering the world of social media is another question. A daunting one, to be honest. I respect social media, yet, against its purpose, I often find it paradoxically alienating.

It started with Facebook, which began as a unique way to stay in touch with friends without relying upon email – a communal sandbox with multimedia extensions. With time (and popularity) came the inevitable mediocrity of a lot of people (along with the watering-down of “friend”-ship) without a lot of ideas posting a lot of crap that I found myself more often than not skipping. Continue reading

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Health & Illness

There has been a lot of work done over the last few years to bring to the foreground how mental health and well-being affects everyone, from every quadrant of society, regardless of their geography, culture, race, or class. And I say, as both an emerging mental health professional and citizen: bravo.

There is, however, something which bothers me in the midst of this accelerated (but otherwise welcome) media awareness campaign. It is the habitually casual use of the term “mental illness”, rather than “mental health”. There is more than a semantic difference between the two.

“Illness” is a medicalized notion. It correlates to somatic cause and effect: the patient’s body is sick, so the patient must take x to get better. When you have an illness, you take drugs to get better. Illness implies sickness, which implies the prescription of medicine. “Health” is a generalized notion, which may incorporate the taking of medication but certainly also encompasses needs which do not strictly apply to treatment via medication.

When we lump such disparate problems as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, cigarette addiction, and behavioural/emotional anxiety under a catch-all phrase, that term should not imply that everything which falls under its domain be medicalized or seen as a medical problem.

If you fear that you may have a problem which is affecting the quality of your life, slapping the word “illness” on it is needlessly stigmatizing. Illness = something is wrong. And when “illness” comes after “mental”, it can then seem to someone that they are wrong or somehow broken. In other words, the constant use of “mental illness” as a generalized term for discussion actually perpetuates a needless (and ironic) branding upon those who are affected.

Quite frankly, to use “mental health” is to say that someone who feels that something is affecting the quality of their life is not ill. They may not feel well, but they still have agency. It’s well-documented that what may appear to some as “symptoms” of behavioural or emotional disorders are in actuality subconscious attempts by the person affected to become healthy. We can facilitate this quite easily by not stigmatizing the language around mental health with terms that needlessly cast an onerous light on the problem.

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Narratives & Messages

We live in an atmosphere concentrated with media: we are drenched so deep that we don’t often realize how integral it has become in our lives. In my fiction, which can be speculative and sometimes nodding to “the future”, I don’t mention this much. I was wondering if, by not speaking to this (awesome/scary) fact of life, I was missing out on saying something substantial about our lives; then again, a writer with the intent to say “something substantial about our lives” is often asking for more than they can deliver to begin with. Perhaps I intentionally avoid the subject. Perhaps I want, fictionally, to portray a world where the reader can escape our media fishbowl, not content to stare into our monitors and smartphones – into any one of the many shining screens around us. *

 (*This is not to say that, as someone who writes stories to be read, I am exempt from any of what I go on to describe.)

As Madge the manicurist in the Palmolive commercials used to say: “You’re soaking in it.” And we are.

My concern, as far as this post goes, is not the number of screens surrounding us, nor is it the gross subsidization of our environment by advertising (vis à vis self-interested parties). Content is king, after all. And, unlike ads and the proliferation of screens, I feel we don’t look at content very closely.

We are essentially surrounded by narratives.

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On Self-Censorship As A Canadian Preoccupation

There are always going to be thin-skinned readers, but writers who self-censor for fear of offending said readers suck more. #canada

This was going to be a missive sent over Twitter. Then I thought, what if someone replies to me, calling me out? What if someone says:

@m_cahill Care to name names, or are you AFRAID OF OFFENDING SOMEONE? #jerk

Allow me to elaborate (and do it in an environment I can totally control without distorting my message due to a 140-character limit).

Two articles in the last week were sources of outrage among certain parts of the online world, particularly on Twitter, where it’s particularly easy to express outrage*. The first was Ian Brown’s essay on men gazing at women in the Globe & Mail. It elicited a lot of criticism, from feminists who were offended by the objectification of women to people who simply construed Brown’s perspective as creepy in a Lolita sorta way.

My partner and I began talking about some of the anger we saw in our respective Internet social circles. I felt a lot of it was overblown. Predictable, actually (sadly). And yet I agreed with Ingrid, who reminded me that there is something to be said about “the gaze” which women historically have been on the other end of. In other words, it was a complex issue. All said, something I found admirable in Brown’s piece (and his writing in general**) was his forthrightness. Unlike so many writers there was no effort made to allay the concerns of the entire reading public that he wasn’t trying to offend anyone.

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The Dread of Zombies

Everyone is waiting for the zombie genre (in books, television, and particularly film) to whither away like a desiccated corpse. I argue that it’s here to stay – that, in fact, it has stronger legs (ugh) than most other genres of the macabre.

The dread of zombies imagined – the tiredness some of us feel with each iteration (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Walking Dead, Zombieland) – is understandable. Less understandable than with vampires, but understandable still. There are too many zombie and zombie-like (for the record, 28 Weeks Later is not, strictly-speaking, a zombie film, yet it more or less qualifies itself by virtue of many shared) themes in books, shows, and movies these days. But I would argue that it’s because – due to our increased connectedness to each other via the Internet and social media – we are exposed to real life zombies. Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. And the exposure stands to increase.

A shitload of people voted for a complete ass to be the mayor of Toronto. A shit. Load. Mind you, not many who lived downtown did. Still, it was a rout. People like me – people who prize intelligent discourse over pot shots, people who would prefer to be ruled by someone with an informed conscience rather than a bullet-list of to-dos – were incredulous. It didn’t even matter what quadrant of the political spectrum Rob Ford occupied: he was the last person any reasonably well-informed person would have wanted. And yet he won in spades.

Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. The dread of zombies.

Who voted for him? Who can say that they “understand” him? Are they too not also zombies by virtue of his succession to the throne of city council? Faceless, nameless, godless, conscience-less hordes hefted Mr. Ford to office, and we stand here still – a year later – asking ourselves just what the hell happened, watching the circus of political buffoonery before our eyes.

Lest this become a solely personal treatise, isn’t this the same for everyone? Aren’t we witnessing “zombie activity” in other guises: large groups of seemingly nameless, faceless, godless, conscience-less hordes blindly enabling things we fundamentally disagree with but are powerless to dispell? For me it’s the rise of Rob Ford, for others it could be the Occupy movement. For others still, it could be the revolution in Tahrir Square. The massive, faceless but powerful other. The faceless, godless, conscience-less hordes…with agency.

Thematic zombies. Metaphorical zombies. The dread of zombies.

No, it is not going away. Make popcorn.

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Book Review: Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand

It was with considerable surprise when, browsing the shelves of our favourite used bookstore, Balfour Books, I was handed a book by my wife. “Did you see this?” It was purporting to be about a massive psychoanalytic commune which had its roots in downtown Toronto during the 60s and 70s. I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before – the group was called Therafields. I was immediately struck by the communal angle, the era, the emphasis on psychological investigation – it was like being handed a screenplay by David Cronenberg. The fact that I am studying psychotherapy and its theoretical/historic development made it irresistible.

Subtitled The Rise And Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalysis Commune, Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields is just that. From the mid-60s till the early-80s, what was eventually coined Therafields, became one of the largest active communes in North America (significant considering both the era and that it happened with virtually no physical or cultural traces left in this city), owning as many as 35 houses within, and 400 acres of farmland just outside Toronto. At its apex it had over 900 members.

Starting out with a modest practice in the Annex, Welsh émigré Lea Hindley-Smith began by seeing people in her home. Her open embrace of students combined with an uncanny ability to get to the bottom of her clients’ problems (not to mention her real estate acumen) conspired along with the socially progressive ideals of the 60s to develop a remarkable experiment in psychotherapy: a live/work environment which operated also as an ongoing group-process for its members, all under the auspices of Hindley-Smith who became their professor, CEO, and den mother. More houses were bought so that more living spaces could be added to accommodate new members, and new groups were developed. The story of Therafields is an account of how this creative hive eventually became an unmanageable empire. It is also an invaluable reflection of the changes happening at the time, guest-starring those stranded by the revoked promises of Vatican II, the back-to-the-farm movement, and the idea that psychotherapy could be about society rather than the individual.

I am a child of the 70s. Nothing could possibly be less meaningful than that statement. However, culturally speaking, I was surrounded by the 70s. The mid-70s to mid-80s were a formative time in Canadian television. In other words, we saw a lot of ourselves. And what we saw was produced and inflected by those who came of age in the 60s and early 70s (that’s the way it always worked until recently, by the way – the older generation helped the younger generation identify with their own generation). In other words, I can imagine Therafields, while reading about it. Goodbrand has done a good job of contextualizing the era in which his book takes place. It also helps that Goodbrand was a key member of Therafields himself, and as such is gifted with a familiarity which an outside author would struggle to develop. The flip-side to that statement is that an outside author might have had a better chance of keeping the rhythm of the book’s story consistent: there is a habit of temporal back-and-forth which does not make for smooth comprehension at times.

Considering Goodbrand’s credentials, Therafields unfortunately suffers from a detached perspective. He is as qualified as anyone to write about Lea Hindley-Smith and those who were key to the group’s skyward development – like esteemed poet bpNicol, for example – yet it seems only an accumulation of actions, the plotline of a biography, which gives us clues to the hearts beating behind the cast of characters. Goodbrand’s book sometimes reads like an account rather than an experience.

And here we come to a marketing dilemma: I’m not sure who the intended audience is. I am thankfully, luckily, well-suited to read, understand, and enjoy Therafields. Yet… With its insistence on differentiating what Hindley-Smith practiced (Kleinian) from classical psychoanalysis, without necessarily providing a debriefer for the reader on what makes Kleinian psychoanalysis different from it, I cannot imagine the “average reader” walking away knowing what that all should mean. Perhaps that won’t matter if they are keen on digging into a prime slice of Toronto history – complete with addresses, one could conceivably operate a motor-tour of where Therafields took place.

It is, nonetheless, an insightful read and an invaluable chronicle of a peculiar social/cultural phenomenon. Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand (ISBN: 978-1-55022-976-9), is available (evidently) from a used bookstore near you, and also online.

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On Elitism

There is a lot of anger these days being directed towards a group known as “the elites”. I’m not sure who they are. Sometimes I am part of them. Sometimes I’m not, but standing apart from a crowd, with their torches, storming toward the castle gates which protect “the elites”.

The elites are the rich.

The elites are liberals.

The elites are the well-educated.

The elites are neo-conservatives.

The elites are the well-connected and entitled.

I keep hearing this term: the elites. And when I step back I think of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge movement, and how they ultimately targeted people who wore glasses. And when I say targeted, I mean murdered.

When I hear, in that angry, spittle-on-the-microphone voice – elites – I think of the ease with which we can take a non-specific swath of individuals from various classes, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds, and clump them together almost by magic. And they suddenly become something standing in the way of common sense, progress, Providence. Those fucking elitists.

I can take everything that makes your life hard – the year-to-year complexities of living in a society with others – and compel you to believe that if it wasn’t for some small band of conniving intellectuals things would be better, simpler.

I can blame the elites.

Doris Lessing:

There is a certain social process that is known and very visible, but perhaps not acknowledged as much as it should be. It is that one where a new idea (or an old one in new form) is accepted by a minority, while the majority are shouting treason, rubbish, kook, Communist, capitalist, or whatever is the valued term of abuse in that society. The minority develop this idea, at first probably in secrecy, or semi-secrecy, and then more and more visibly, with more and more support until…guess what? This seditious, impossible, wrong-headed idea becomes what is known as “received opinion” and is loved and valued by the majority. Meanwhile, of course, a new idea, still seditious etc. and so forth, has been born somewhere else, and is being cultivated and worked out by a minority. Suppose we redefine the word elite, for our present purposes, to mean any group of people who for any reason are in the possession of ideas that put them ahead of the majority?

If holding certain beliefs or regarding some aspects of life as being too complex to reduce to unconditional conclusions sets me apart from the crowd, and if this standing apart-ness is sedition, and if this is what it means to be an elitist, then I am an unrepentant elitist.

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I Don’t Want To Know

As a writer, even though I am not part of any sort of literati, I am still plugged into the lit scene. You need to be if you want to understand the general to-and-fro of any industry you are interested in becoming a part of (same goes for TV, music, theatre, etc..). That said, I must make an admission. I am making this admission because I think there are a lot of people like me out there who feel the same but are reticent to admit it.

Here goes: I don’t take any particular interest in the life of the artist outside of his or her art.

When I read a book, I don’t care if an author comes from the East Coast and studied journalism, had a drug problem and now lives in a shed with a mastiff. It’s not that I don’t care about this author personally, it’s that these facts shouldn’t have anything to do with the book that I am about to read. I should be able to pick up the book, knowing nothing about said author, and be able to read it, enjoy it, be fully affected by it, without substantially missing something due to a lack of familiarity with the author’s biography.

And yet, when you are culturally plugged-in (and by this I mean, you check out industry blogs, trade mags, etc.) there is so much white noise about the artists themselves that it seems divergent from what it is they are supposed to be doing: their work. We can talk about Picasso’s passions, but 100 years from now there will probably only be discussion of his work – your work is the only thing left after you and everyone who knew you has died. And if people are still talking more about you than your work after this point, then I would think the quality of your work was overstated.

Would knowing that Stephen King battled drug addiction offer an insight into some of his writing? Yes. But, my point is that if that insight is necessary in order to fully appreciate a piece of work then there is a problem. The work doesn’t work if you need a biographical cheat sheet to inject context into the material.

I think Bryan Ferry is an fantastic vocalist – and I don’t want to know anything more than that. Nor the details outside a director’s films, nor what inspired the playwright to write her play. I’ve got my own shit going on, thanks very much.

Ephemera is for journalists, fanzines, and those working on their Ph.D. The general public should not feel inadequate if they pick a DVD or book off a shelf, sit down in a theatre, or load a song without being prepared with supplemental information not contained within the medium which contains the work. The work inevitably has to stand up for itself. I write this for two reasons: first, with the likes of the AV Club and traditional print/TV media clamouring to add as much web-based context as possible to every article, there’s a growing sense that – for the everyman – if you aren’t savvy to the smallest details of each artist’s passings and goings, you are nothing but a tourist. Secondly, embracing social media to a claustrophobic degree, we can now read endless commentating on authors reading their work for a live audience!…something no one really asked for outside the publishing companies themselves and perhaps the authors’ parents. Let’s face it: most authors can’t read aloud to save their lives – it’s not their specialty.

There are reasons for digging deeper, but that’s up to the individual. It was interesting to learn more about HP Lovecraft when I reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s quasi-biography of him and his work. What’s funny, however – using that same example – is that when I proceeded to read the two works by Lovecraft contained in that same book, I don’t recall thinking to myself “Ahh – this is where his uncomfortable relationship with women takes shape!”. That’s because the stories were two of his masterpieces, and when you witness a masterpiece, peripheral biographical information is going to gunk-up your enjoyment.

The medium may be the message, but the work contains the words. Outside of this we are left with cultural “bonus features”. Nice to have, but not necessary.

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All That Glitters Isn’t Oranje

It should come as no surprise that my postings have been less frequent, in proportion to the success or lack thereof of the Dutch at the World Cup, which has just (mercifully) ended.

First: I’m happy we made it to the Final.

Second: I’m happy we lost (even though I wanted us to win at the time).

Allow me to explain: I will always support Oranje, but that doesn’t mean I have to suspend my critical faculties while doing so. It also doesn’t mean I am living in a nostalgic cloudbank in which Holland must either play soccer like the Kirov ballerinas dance or else they are “cynical” – a word bandied about by once-every-four-years-I-pay-attention-to-soccer pundits.

In case I haven’t beaten this point enough, my Oranje is the team of 1998. It always will be. They were beautiful to watch (take a look at my Ryeberg essay if you haven’t already) and most aficionados consider that squad the greatest team of the competition, regardless that they lost to Brazil in the semi-finals. The thing is, if you accept that, then you must also accept they were the very same team who flamed-out against Italy in Euro 2000 in the quarters, in perhaps one of the most humiliating games I’ve seen us play: same squad, folks. How’s that for beauty?

The toughest question in the world if you are a Dutch international soccer player: What can you do when the public, the pundits, the former stars from the Golden Age all want to see you play ballet if playing ballet doesn’t win anything? Don’t get me wrong: I like the Oranje ballet – I am one of those people who can walk away from a loss, still chuffed that we played “as we should”. I do side with author David Winner’s thoughts about Dutch soccer philosophy, as laid out in his (brilliant) book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. But inevitably you want to win something, and the only silverware the Dutch have is the Euro title in 1988.

This brings us to the present. Sadly. Sadly, because for the most part Oranje did not live up to the philosophy we had come to World Cup 2010 expecting. Under the direction of Bert van Marwijk, they took a detour: individual beauty, sure, when necessary, but collectively less a ballet than an assembly line with a very narrow directive: win, above all else. And they did. They were rusty at first and their games, outside of pockets of that ol’ Clockwork Oranje we hoped to see, were not pretty, but they won, and continued to win. Lord, I wanted them to win, too – I was a willing enabler.

When the final against Spain came, I was a nervous wreck. I can only imagine how it must have been in Holland, for those making their way to the Museum Square in Amsterdam where the games were shown for the public. They had come so far, had been through so much, for so many years: 1974, 1978, the glimmer of 1998, the disappointment of missing 2002. So much baggage that you wanted them to win just to shake off the voodoo of the past.

But as I got prepared that morning I visualized what it would be like if we won, if for the first time ever we won the Cup. Instead of tears of joy, I have to tell you, I saw that it would have felt as if we had cheated. As if in winning, we had not done so as ourselves but as a cunning machine, as if someone had invented a “Dutch Soccer Team” to take our place. I cannot describe how difficult it was to deal with that: to stare at a historic vindication within reach of your fingertips, knowing simultaneously there was something inherently inauthentic about it. In fact, had we won, I fear the “victory” would have irrevocably punctured the heart of Dutch soccer, as opposed to the bittersweet reality I live with now: we lost, Dutch soccer is merely dented. Coach van Marwijk’s corporatist approach has been repudiated, that is for sure. What I don’t know is who or what, philosophically speaking, has been vindicated, since we are bridesmaids once again.

Perhaps it is our souls? I can’t speak for yours, but mine is in a better if not exactly comfortable place right now.

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