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

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The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading

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Adventures in Shitty Writing Advice, Part #1

There is a lot of free advice out there for fiction writers on the Internet. Much of it is vague, subjective (to the point of not being clear who it’s intended for), or just plain bad.

Here’s one that instantly didn’t make sense to me:

“Don’t write your story until you’ve plotted it out and know what it is you’re going to write first.”

 

It’s entirely possible that someone, for example, who is new to writing may start a story without having a structured narrative in mind and find themselves unable to sort it out.

However, is the problem really not having a preconceived story figured-out beforehand? Or is the problem that you aren’t allowing yourself patience (and perhaps a little bit of outlining on the side)? Depending upon how experienced a writer you are, or how comfortable you are reaching into your imagination, perhaps it’s a question of giving yourself the time (and opportunity) for perspective, say, looking at your piece after a week’s break with a new set of eyes?

Writing fiction, for me, is an exploration. It’s a journey, regardless of what it’s about, even if I happen to know the beginning, middle, and end of the story. What makes it a journey is the discovery of your characters’ depth and how this inflects the arc of the story; it’s developing your idea into something more than two dimensional. Having something planned out does not always necessitate a successful venture. If I knew everything that was going to happen in advance, I’m not sure I would be quite as excited than if I felt there was an unknown variable or challenge to what I was working on. You’re writing a story, not raising a house.

I would wager that, particularly if you are a new or emerging writer, waiting until you have figured out the structure of the story in advance before attacking it only delays your ability to put what you have in your mind into some sort of form (and using that as a starting point). Learn as you go, in other words. Explore.

Note: I mentioned “outlining”. What’s that? Well, sometimes it’s good to have some notes on the go while you are working on a story. These notes can be as simple as the question “What’s it about?” (so that you stay on track and don’t let your story become something too burdened with marginalia or tangential), or maybe the notes keep track of themes and ideas, or characters’ thoughts that you are trying to develop in the piece.

 

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Away

I’ve been terribly busy for the last three years: work, school, new career, new work. No complaints except that my non-academic writing has suffered considerably. I believe I’ve only squeezed out one, maybe two short stories during this time. Of course, the bevy of my attention was on revising my novel (and whatever energy I had left was spent on the subsequent one).

With respect to this here blog, I’ve been unapologetically negligent. I’ve had no choice. Blogging’s great, but it’s the odd man out when it has to compete for creativity-expenditure with other areas. For one thing, it doesn’t pay. Another drag on its sail is the competition that social media plays. Between posting stuff on Facebook and Twitter (between which I don’t consider myself a fanatic contributor), little is left for blogging and I think there’s a problem with that.

Twitter ends up being a Post-It Note for ideas which never get developed. You tell yourself: if I just jot this idea down I can come back to it later. The problem with this otherwise workable concept is that in Twitter-land what you post takes the form of its own singular effort – it’s a public communication unto itself which fulfills a basic function which makes me, the author, forget about what it was I was hoping to say (or develop the idea of) later.

And Facebook is just a mess of “seen this” and “done that”.

And so I come back to blogging, for now, to say firstly that I’m still here. Secondly, to say that I feel there is room for this format, out-dated and seemingly formal compared to Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Soon (I think) I will be able to get back to saying things of note and interest.

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About Blame, Shame, and the Sacred Altar of Individual Responsibility

[This originally started out as a post on my psychotherapy blog, but became so lengthy and opinion-laced that I figured I’d put it here.]

One comment I hear, particularly in op-ed sections of newspapers, is that as a society we are becoming “soft” (ostensibly because we are beginning to encourage children to discuss their emotions throughout public school life, and not just when they get in trouble or are victimized). Within this same argument is the contention that, thanks to people like me (mental health professionals), everything that is perceived to be wrong with the individual is to be blamed on other people or institutions. Thus, the contention is that individual responsibility is somehow being sapped of its strength.

I see no need to blame anyone for anything. If a client’s parents were too strict when they were growing up, it’s enough to explore it (and its effects) until such a time as the context of those events have a present-day meaning which will allow the client to lead a healthy, durable life and move on. My interest is with the client: their health, their well-being. I have no use for encouraging, casting, or redirecting blame. That is not within the philosophy of the modality of psychotherapy that I am trained in. It is certainly not within my personal philosophy. There’s not much to be gained from vilifying people and things.

Something to note is that many forms of victimization carry with it, primarily, shame (though other feelings may follow closely, like anger). The shame of not being able to avoid the caretaker who struck you. The shame of not being able to speak out about the racial discrimination you experienced in school. The shame of being sexually preyed upon by a coworker. Shame is a very deep hole to climb out of. Just talking about shameful experiences can retraumatize some clients – that is, put them right back in the original emotional context which first scarred them.

Survivors of abuse often feel responsible for their victimization, regardless of how little agency they had at the time they were victimized. In other words, if we are to talk about blame then we should talk about victims of abuse walking around blaming themselves. One of the tasks of therapy is to move the finger of blame away and to look at what has happened to a client with clarity, without an agenda. Then and only then can the process begin of assisting the client out of that deep hole I previously mentioned; assisting by paying close attention, sharing, talking. The client does the heavy work and I’m there to help in every way I can.

I cannot think of something which better defines individual responsibility than someone recognizing that something deep down within them needs to change, and undertaking the time and effort (and pain, and, yes, in the case of working with a therapist, money) to rework their understanding of themselves, to lift themselves to a higher point of view – and all that this entails both in the therapeutic space and in the outside world.

If by “soft” critics mean weak, then the individual who helps herself is not “soft” – she is not weak. She does not blame herself as she once did. She has taken control of herself and has worked hard to build awareness, and through awareness resiliency.

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Self-Consciousness and Self-Awareness

You’ve been leading recently. Leading yourself forward without hesitating when outward support isn’t there, without looking for the comfort that comes from the insular voice – the insular life – that no longer works.

You are switching gears, between the self-conscious and the self-aware. What’s the difference? Here’s an example to demonstrate:

You’re in a restaurant. You’ve been there before. The food is good – reliable. The service, however, has never been their strong suit. Eclectic, you have politely described it to others. You take your seat and the server takes your drink order. Sure enough, you find yourself waiting a long time for the drink to arrive – 10 minutes pass, 15 minutes. All you really want to do is have a meal and relax and not think about why you have to wait. When your drink comes, they take your food order. You hope the initial delay was just a snag – now that your food order was in the queue, it should go back to normal turnaround. And yet… 10 minutes pass… 15 minutes pass… 20 minutes pass… It was just a sandwich… At the point of exasperation, someone – not your server, but another staff member – brings your sandwich. It’s been nearly 30 minutes. You look down and notice that aside from the sandwich on your plate there isn’t a napkin.

Self-conscious you sighs. You don’t want to make a scene. For all you know the server is overworked or there are problems in the kitchen. You sit there, waiting to get his attention. You’re pissed off, but it’s just a sandwich. You eventually Continue reading

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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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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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A Better Person

Before I had an office, and well-before I started seeing clients, I was with my wife and friends at a busy restaurant. We were talking over the enjoyable izakaya ruckus and, as was the case with friends who didn’t know at the time, I mentioned how I was switching careers, to be a psychotherapist.

Telling someone, whether you know them well or not at all, that you are going to be a psychotherapist is like telling someone that you’ve written a novel (*ahem*). They inevitably want to know more, and that inquisitiveness often leads to questions that, at least for the first few months, you struggle to form into sound-bite-sized snippets.

I think I was able to describe the hows and whys and whats effectively, and was about to reward myself with a slug from my porcelain choko of sake when I was asked: “Do you feel pressure to be a better person?

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