February update

self-portrait walking in Little Portugal, Toronto

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

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

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

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

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January 2024

I hope this finds you well, dear reader. I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, not all of it (entirely) creative, but writing nonetheless.

I’ve been working on a short story that I put off developing last year in order to get through the last pass of Book Three. What I love about the story is that it takes a familiar conceit — a group of people planning on robbing a store — and becomes something almost meta with the addition of being told as a comedy. Since letting humour take centre stage in Book Three, I’ve been more confident (and inspired) to let loose with it for as long as it needs expression. But boy is humour hard. I mean, humour’s always been hard, but especially when avoiding what’s called “punching down” (ie making sure the laughs aren’t at the expense of a person/group for what are typically classist/ableist/racist reasons). But guess what: if you want to produce at a high level of quality it’s going to take time and effort.

Last post, I talked about pushing a grant application out. One of my other writing projects this month has been –wait for it — working on another grant. A larger, privately funded one that is open beyond North America. Why? Well, for one thing: why not? And yet, I’ll be the first to admit it’s more complicated than this. I hate working on grant applications, which explains why I don’t exactly have an extra-thick dossier of them from the past. But I’ve done it enough to know that it’s a chore, and, because grants such as this (or, to be fair, Toronto/Ontario/Canada Arts Council grants) are often extremely competitive, what with shrinking investment in the arts, it sometimes feels as if I might’ve just as well put the time toward working on a manuscript instead. This time, however, I found that there can be something practical (even therapeutic) about answering questions which prompt you to explain your book. I don’t think it should be required that authors have meditated on the why of our writing ethos/project, but when we do, especially as part of an assignment, I think it can help sharpen one’s idea of what it is that we’re setting out to do. A book/author doesn’t need to have a mission, but…if they did, what would it be? And it doesn’t need to be lofty.

As I’ve said elsewhere, applying for grants makes you better at applying for grants. I might just take some of the material I was able to put together for this one and see whether I can apply it to couple of others, so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m re-making the wheel each time. It is a little stressful, however, because as I touched on earlier, there’s only a finite amount of writing time I have per-week, and I can’t make that pie bigger, so it’s about balancing grant work with the sort of creative writing that got me this far.

Stay warm and dry,

M

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Grants

It took someone on social media posting a reminder of an upcoming deadline for me to realize that I haven’t applied for a writer’s grant in the better part of three years. For anyone outside of publishing reading this, while there’s no obligation to do this (unless of course you’re depending upon writing for a living, in which case it pretty much would be an obligation), it can make life a lot less burdensome for those who want to be able to take time off work so that we might devote ourselves more thoroughly to our writing projects. Most of us secretly bend time and space to be able to spend a few hours here and there each week.

This strikes me whenever I’m researching residencies for writers. A lot of the ones I’ve been interested in have a time stipulation of something grand, like “at least three weeks”, and that’s a deal-breaker for me. I pay for residencies out of my own pocket, and typically 5-7 days is the max I can allot. This is where grants come in. The big ones, from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Arts Council, have the capacity to provide wide financial support (in other words, scalable to the needs of the applicant, depending upon their professional and personal circumstances). The catch is that you have to go through the application process, which necessitates answering a lot of very detailed questions, not only about your project but about things like your budget (which in itself requires a breakdown of living expenses, etc). You have to essentially provide a compelling argument for the arts council awarding your project, as well as providing a reasonably accurate idea that you (the artist) understand what it is that you’re talking about from a financial perspective.

One of the reasons I’m writing this post is that I think it might be easy for outsiders to think that Arts Council grants are easily awarded, as if it were a question of simply hacking an algorithm. Let me assure you: they are not. If such were the case, there wouldn’t be professional grant writers marketing themselves (and paying their bills assumedly with something other than magic beans). Most artists might be able to summarize their projected finances, or describe their motivation for being an artist, or provide a captivating enticement for their current work-in-progress. Not many can do all three. And, just to add a dose of reality, even if you manage to ace all three, you’re still at the mercy of whomever is reading your application and whatever inevitable cognitive biases and preferences they have.

I’ve never received a big grant, though I’ve certainly applied. I supposed I stopped applying for the same reason I begin walking when I realize the streetcar isn’t coming any time soon; I’d rather try to achieve something on my own than be let down by something out of my control. That said, I run a small business. If I take time off, I don’t have any income. So yes, when I see a TWO MONTH MINIMUM on a writer’s retreat, I can get punchy. Truth is, there’s something strangely out-of-date about a framework whose parameters so clearly prohibit those who don’t have careers which allow such long absences.

The grant I mentioned at the beginning of this post is the Recommender Grants for Writers (via the Ontario Arts Council). It’s not nearly as big (or as arduous to complete) as others. I was lucky enough to have been awarded once before, which helped me book a flight out west to the Banff Centre for the Arts for a self-directed residency, so I pushed myself to submit a sample of Book Three to one of the indie publishers who are participating in the program this year, hopefully before their internal deadline (with this grant in particular, which runs from September to January, the deadline for submissions is set internally by the publishers).

One of the benefits of grant writing, and a reason for my writing this post, is that it can motivate (aka force) you to polish/revise/clarify your work for an actual (aka real) audience, even if you never see them or know exactly what they liked or didn’t. It can be a good prod to work on your bio (which a lot of writers freak out about), or the synopsis of your piece. I’d like to think there’s no downside, other than going through a bit of stress.

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Dialogue, by Froth

Their album, Duress, is a cracker that sees them combining their love of shoegaze with some tuneful Wilco-inspired guitar licks. Whereas their previous work could lean a little too heavily towards a clear Swervedriver influence, this album stands on its own. Highly recommended.

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December Update

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

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

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

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

photo of my racing bib, showing my name and racer number
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Blue by Sweeping Promises

Just happened upon this band, and pretty much everything they’re doing (and have done) is damn good.

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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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Pandemic Sugar

I’m talking about sugar. Sugar dispensing to be more exact.

Note: if this sounds like the least of society’s problems, I’m going to tell you…yyyyes? aaaaand that there’s an argument to be made in how the quotidian aspects of life matter (accumulatively).

Background: since the start of the pandemic, coffee shops and cafés — I’m not talking Coffee Time or Tim Hortons, but indie espresso places — heeding the assertion at the time that COVID-19 was spreading by coming into contact with physical surfaces (since then dismissed), were forced to remove mixing stations where customers could add their own sugar and milk/cream, for fear of infection. I’m tempted here to paint a nostalgic pre-pandemic picture for those whose memories include this, because it seems that many shop owners have since adjusted and made the removal of mixing stations permanent.

This makes sense economically: there’s less real estate taken up with the mixing station, you can replace the sugar and cream with merchandise (coffee beans, etc), less condiment wastage if the staff is in charge. And this brings us to my problem.

I take sugar in my coffee. One sugar.

The problem is, since the pandemic, when I’m grabbing a coffee to go, and I tell the barista that I take sugar, the results come in two forms. The first is merely irritating: I get too much sugar. Fine, I guess. But the worst is when they put the sugar in the cup first and then add the coffee…without stirring.

WITHOUT STIRRING.

No, sir. No, miss. No. Sugar is not a fluid. If you add hot liquid to sugar the sugar does not automagically combine as you clearly have it CONFLATED with milk or cream. What I end up with is effectively a cup of coffee that tastes like they haven’t added sugar to it…only to discover at the end that ALL THE SUGAR IS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE CUP, and NOW I’M DRINKING COFFEE-FLAVOURED SUCROSE.

Do you know how many times in the last four years I’ve had to clumsily use a pen to stir the contents of a coffee in order to avoid this? Do you know what it’s like [Oscar speech] to go through life asking yourself hey, did they forget to put sugar in my coffee or did they simply not understand physics?

(anyways this happened today, btw)

UPDATE: This literally happened again, a week after posting this!

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Separated at Birth: A Devil in the Woods, by The Gun Club; Lucifer Over Lancashire, by The Fall

I’d like to think these two songs came into being independently. And technically I can tell you that they did. A Devil in the Woods (The Gun Club) in the US, and Lucifer Over Lancashire (The Fall) in the UK, the latter circa 1986(?),  the former in 1982. The thing is, they sound tremendously similar, and I can’t help think whether Mark E. Smith et co might have found inspiration in The Gun Club track. But wouldn’t it be incredible if they were hashed out in isolation from one another? There’s really no downside to this discussion because for music fans they’re both post-punk crackers.

Enjoy!

(note: I typically prefer sharing Bandcamp links as it’s more generous to its artists, but these two tracks are not available there.)

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Too Much Freedom, pt II

So, let me try to summarize the previous entry (this a just a running thought, folks, and if it seems to be directionless I’ll pull the plug): I’m attempting to invert the notion of “too much freedom,” which is typically aimed towards people seeking acknowledgement of social justice issues, seeing as in reality if there’s going to be an argument for “too much freedom” it’s in the much more serious and widely documented actions by right-wing extremism.

Part of what I’m musing on are questions of how we got here. How, for example, we have so many people who are poorly informed.

There’s an interesting piece in the Globe & Mail, by columnist David Parkinson, pointing out the chasm that can exist between what a populace thinks they know, and what the more complicated truth may be. In this case, some myths that Canadians seem to have come to believe about our economy. We think our interest rates are the highest compared to other countries, but the opposite is true; we think the carbon tax is hurting our wallets but its overall effect is practically negligible on the average person. An easy takeaway from this is the need for better public education about how the parts of the economy work. But even the best education can’t save us from our own psychology.

We’re easily influenced by phenomena which can seem to draw its own conclusions. The sight of a street person sitting on the sidewalk, drinking from a bottle a sherry distracts from the many possible reasons, likely spanning many years, how that sight came to be. If we were able in that moment to step back, we’d begin to see how factors such as socio-economic status, childhood instability, and mental health issues probably contributed to this outcome. Were we magically to have access to this information, it’s likely we would conclude the street person we see on the sidewalk probably didn’t choose to be where they are, which is where our minds might go if we don’t know any better, or don’t wish to know any better.

A very interesting piece of data is the prevalence of brain injury in homeless populations. We know through research data that street people suffer from a host of unfortunate situations. While data may not tell the full (read: nuanced) story, more and more it provides a scaffolding to better understanding, potentially leading to better social outcomes. The problem is that, to the average person a) data is invisible, and b) because most of us just want our individual lives to go well, and don’t have the time or capacity to understand everything else, we rely on a combination of news, friends, social media, suspicion, projection, transference, you name it. So, even before treading into the topic of intentional disinformation, there are many ways in which we can unintentionally lull our way into thinking we know more about things than we do.

All of this said, a defining issue, which I touched on previously is one of severity. There’s a significant degree of difference between someone who mistakenly believes the federal government is responsible for the Bank of Canada’s decisions to hike interest rates, and someone who is spreading hatred against LGBTQ+ individuals on public channels. The consequences to the former are few and isolated. To the latter other people’s lives may be at stake.

And this is where disinformation makes everything worse. It’s the difference between someone having strong feelings against a politician or member of society, and that same someone wanting to storm the Capital building or intimidate drag storytime at the local library.

And I should take a break and come back to this…to be continued.

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