End of summer

a cat sitting on a picnic table, the sun setting behind her

Is it possible for a summer to go by in a blur and yet to still be able to say that, yeah, I had a good time? Because that’s summer 2023 in a nutshell. It came and went. I don’t feel like I missed out (note: I’m not exactly a “summer person”, but I also like to take part in warm weather activities) and yet when I stop to think about the passing months, there’s a complexity to it. The wildfires didn’t exactly help matters. Nothing like the smell of burning wood and murky orange skies to inspire feelings of relaxation.

That said, we spent time with our lovable feline friend (pictured above) and managed to get out of the city for a while.

I hope you had a decent summer and, whether or not you love the autumn (like me) I hope the new season is good to you.

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The thing I took was from a response by Matt Groening to the suggestion that Apu’s depiction was outdated and/or even racist.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

September is a strange month. As a therapist, I associate it with a predictable increase in new and former clients reaching out for support. Why is that? A bunch of things, depending upon the situation of the individual, but to name just a few reasons: end of summer, beginning of school, vacation(s) in the rearview mirror, THE END OF THE YEAR IS COMING (if I were the months of October and November I would file a complaint), shorter days (and, subsequently, daylight). What’s that, your pulse is racing just reading this? I’m not surprised.

I find September to be a significant time for reflection, whether or not I’m looking for it, and this year is no different for yours truly.

As an author, it’s hard not to think about the progress on Book Three. I’ve just received some substantial feedback and I find myself wanting to balance between (putting on overalls) OKAY LET’S GET TO WORK!… and taking a little bit of time to stand further back from the book (if possible), so that I’m not simply following through on what I’ve already created, but asking myself essential questions about structure, story, themes.

Writing a book (or short story), one can sometimes fixate a little too much on what the original idea was — that thing which struck your passion and allowed you to sit your ass down and start the project in the first place — and in doing so run the risk of missing how the larger form might change to convenience the parts which require changing within it. It’s like getting the inspiration for a mansion on a hill only to discover, the more you think about what it is you’re aiming for that, actually, a bungalow near a pond is actually a closer realization of your original idea. This can especially happen if you’ve put in a shitload of work already. Your insecurities begin to howl, and suddenly the idea of changing direction is giving you heart palpitations. No! No! I have to finish it soon, I want to move on to the next project! I don’t want to work on this forever! As with psychotherapy, there are no easy answers in this profession, and much of the time it boils down to “it depends.”

Welcome to September.

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Spare Cycles

I’ve had a very good year with respect to productivity, albeit — and if you follow this blog you’ll see a pattern — a sort of productivity that can have exhaustive consequences.

My partner and I went to a cottage in July for a week, and (I swear) I spent the first three days doing nothing more than staring out at the lake. During that time I barely read for any kind of pleasure, and I certainly didn’t engage with social media. What I really needed at that time was a canvas larger than myself; a moving/undulating canvas that was just as complex as I am, and yet, for lack of a better word, steadier. A model, if you will.

I’m very good at using whatever pockets of time are available to round off creative tasks, be it writing, revising or reading. Too good. I can end up feeling overwhelmed because the creative stuff is still labour, right? It ends up being a lot of work, divvied up between work-work and not-work-work-work.

Earlier today I was sitting in a quiet back patio, and I found myself staring at the unoccupied benches in front of me, subdued in indirect light, blanched in a sort of mossy green because of the clouds and the overhanging vines. And it was good to simply observe this for what it was. Not to seek meaning, but to take it all in. It was like the lake at the rented cottage, though harder to find in the city: quiet, empty, alive.

Stillness. It’s what I end up taking photographs of; people-less landscapes that are only indirectly inhabited. A suggestion of the human world around us within a pause.

This is why I’m stepping back (significantly, if not completely) from social media. There’s simply too much information, mixed with outrage, competitiveness and whatever else. Add to this the rise of auto-play videos (as on Instagram), and how that plays on my ability to focus, and it all drags on me terribly.

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Conduit by Jon McKiel

I had the occasion to see Jon McKiel earlier this summer at The Baby G. He’s a solid songwriter and musician. This album in particular is a little more muscular whereas the follow-up (his latest) is a little more tuneful. Currently touring the U.K., which is great to see.

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Totally Wired

Well over five years ago, I was having a hard time with wired earbuds. The pair that came with my phone at the time had a sort-of butterfly wing that held each earbud securely in place, but when they slowly deteriorated I found it nearly impossible to find a pair that used the same (or similar mechanism). My ears are a little strange, it seems.

Lo and behold, during my search I came across a display for Bose and their new-ish SoundSport model. They were wireless. They sounded decent enough in the store, and after some thought I picked up a pair. The clincher were the wingtips each earbud had, which made their fit more or less guaranteed. Note: these were not what are now somewhat pedantically called “True Wireless” as there was a flimsy harness wire which connected them (this turned out to be handy, given that if I had to remove an earbud I could let it drop and it would simply hang over my shoulder). They sounded good and were comfortable, which is really all I wanted.

I listen to music a lot; and when I’m not listening to music on my phone I’m listening to streaming radio stations like BBC 6 Music. I’m not an audiophile, but I like decently balanced sound. Whenever I read about “high fidelity wireless earbuds” I struggle with the dissonance that a) Bluetooth (how wireless earbuds connect) is an inherently lossy format to begin with, and b) what exactly are you listening to that requires peerless sound quality? If I’m commuting to work and listening to compressed MP3s of GBV, what exactly am I gaining from a $400 pair of earbuds?

The Bose SoundSport buds simply worked, which is all I wanted. And then they began to fall apart. After 1.5yrs the rubber covering on the selection buttons was disintegrating. It became harder and harder to pause what I was listening to (I had to press with the edge of my fingernail to do this after a while). After stretching it out as long as I could, a total of 2.5yrs, I began to (begrudgingly) look for a replacement. I started looking at “True Wireless” models from various brands, and they were all hideously expensive and/or maintained the same hard-to-fit-in-Matt’s-ear bud shape. In a moment of “what the hell, eh” I decided to order a pair of Google Pixel Buds. They were comparatively inexpensive and I figured it was as good an introduction to “True Wireless” as I was going to get.

Out of the box, the Pixel Buds did their job. They fit about as well as the Bose and came with a sleek egg-like charger case which didn’t take up much space. I also appreciated that I could, especially for client phone calls, optionally only have one bud in my ear (the idea of having both of my ears plugged on a phone call is not attractive as I get a form of claustrophobia from things like that). And then, after a year, they too began to fall apart. The charger case began to crack along the edges, and then each bud’s charging ability began to lessen, up to the point where I couldn’t use them for 50-minute client sessions. It became a bit of a joke, though I didn’t appreciate the cost and inconvenience of having to contemplate replacing them in less time than I was able to stretch out my pair of Bose previously. When I looked up help from Google the answer was either a version of “did you turn it on and off again?” and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I know this is the way things are: disposability. I don’t like it, but I when it comes to what you get for those low prices I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. But goddamnit, can’t something last more than 2 years without falling apart??

Let’s take a moment to made room for my biggest bugbear about wireless earbuds (True and not): radio frequency (RF) interference. The idea that is sold to us about wireless/Bluetooth devices is that we are liberated from our phones etc, but little ink is spilled (don’t get me started on online product reviews) about RF interference. Yes, within the confines of my office, Bluetooth technology presents no immediate shortfalls. However, when I’m walking down an urban sidewalk, whatever I’m listening to begins to cut out, with the sort of maddening infrequency that makes the whole point of listening to music futile. The worst culprit is Spadina Avenue, where my office is, naturally. I can neither listen to music nor conduct phone calls walking on Spadina owing to what I can only imagine are high levels of interruptive wifi signals (Spadina is a tech company ghetto after all).

I finally decided to look for a good-fitting pair of wired earbuds, which made it clear, if it wasn’t already, that True Wireless Earbuds Are Everywhere Now. And here I was, looking for something unintentionally retro. I looked far and wide, even at used products — this is how desperate I was. Eventually, scratching at the bottom of a Google search, I saw a pair of JBL earbuds for sale at Staples. Sleek and black, and made for workouts, they were also on the verge of being a legacy model at this point. They were also $29.

It’s been a week with them so far and I have no complaints, aside from navigating the wires occasionally. They sound great (no lossy format), they fit decently, I don’t have to worry about charging them throughout the day, and there’s no need to fear RF interference.

All is well.

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Guitar Update

In 2019, after coming back from a weekend away in Memphis, I started seriously thinking about taking electric guitar lessons. I blame the mandatory documentary I had watch when I took a tour of the Stax Museum, which included a clip of Sister Rosetta Tharp playing a white Gibson SG with such grace and authority that one would swear she invented electric guitar music. Prior to that moment, I had no interest in picking up a guitar.

I know what you’re thinking: wow, a 50-ish dude learning electric guitar. How unique. Truth be told, I’ve been playing on-and-off in bands since I was a teenager, albeit on drum kit. I’ve known musicians all my life and even call myself one from time to time. In other words, it’s not because I was having a midlife crisis. I think there are different reasons people have for picking up an instrument like guitar. I think they can grouped into one of three reasons:

  • They want to learn to play [insert classic rock song]
  • They want to learn to play, generally
  • They want to develop a relationship with the guitar, as an instrument

When I made the decision to take lessons, I was certainly leaning toward the last camp, although that doesn’t negate taking enjoyment from playing [insert classic rock song]. It’s been four years, almost to the day of my first lesson, and I’m in a good place: I’m a proficient beginner who squeezes in guitar practice several times a week, when possible. I have a guitar at my office, my first guitar, a Riviera P93 (semi-hollow archtop), and last year, a treat to myself for Radioland being published, I picked up a second one, a Nighthawk (solid body) which I keep at home.

The first year learning guitar was hard. I know I have “feel”, which helped me previously in piano and drums. But guitar, in case you haven’t given it much thought, is a string instrument, which means that all the intuition and “feel” one may have isn’t going to change the fact that it’s like playing the game Operation: if your fourth finger is off by 3mm it’s probably going to sound like crap. So yes, I had to struggle with my lack of patience. I also have some genetic shenanigans with my fingers and hands (Dupuytren contracture), which can make some fretting harder; that said, I’m probably keeping my 52 year-old hands in better shape playing than not. A bonus is that my keyboard typing speed/dexterity has improved from playing!

Guitar theory is something I struggle with. Unlike piano, which is linear, guitar uses a matrix. So, learning the why around where things are and how notes interrelate, while important, requires time. And time, as I tend to mention, is something that is hard to come by. If I have 20 mins to grab a guitar and practice, I’m more likely to play sequences, or bits from songs that I’ve learned, or do scales. Sitting with a book, trying to understand how a semi-diminished chord differs from a full-diminished, doesn’t typically take priority. That said, I am soldiering on. Theory is like learning math in school, and with math I get frustrated quickly because it feels like I’m being forced to learn a game, albeit in the driest way possible, with rules that feel arbitrary. My guitar teacher made it clear that he didn’t like to spend too much time on theory because it gets away from learning/enjoyment after a while. (I think one of the bonuses of being in a band is that you can always ask the person playing with you for help with the theory parts you don’t get.) I’m currently working my way through Guitar Theory: Straight Talking Music Theory for Guitarists by Lee Nichols, for what it’s worth.

I listen to a lot of guitar-based music, and sometimes I’ll sit with my guitar while my playlist churns on the stereo, and if I hear something interesting, I’ll try to figure out what/how they’re playing it. This is one of the best things about learning guitar: figuring out other people’s riffs on your own, without going online to Ultimate Guitar or some other place. My most recent a-ha moment was figuring out the rhythm riffs on Howlin’ Wolf’s I Ain’t Superstitious. I was reading an interview with a noted session guitarist who insisted that rhythm guitar (as opposed to solo) was ultimately the best to learn from (and sometimes the hardest to master; on this note he mentioned Clean up Woman, by Betty Wright — to this day I’m still polishing that one, owing to how exact you have be with your strumming).

Some guitarists I admire/emulate: Willie Johnson (not to be mistaken for Blind Willie Johnson), Auburn “Pat” Hare, Robert Quine, Otis Rush, Chuck Berry, Hubert Sumlin, Bill Orcutt, Loren Connors, Gene Vincent, Lightning Hopkins, the list goes on.

As with other interests I’ve explored, like photography, I can see how easy it is to accessorize yourself to the point where you might as well open a store for all the goods you have accumulated. Thankfully, I’ve seen enough examples of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) early in my life to work with what I have and not add anything that I’m not going to get much repeated use out of. Nearly everything guitar-related I have, save for cables and picks, is pre-owned. Trust me, I’d like nothing more than a sweet ol’ Supro tube amp, or a Mark VI bass, but it’s just not worthwhile. Online guitar culture is a series of men posting glossy photos of what they bought, or arguing about “tone”. I don’t care for it, and tend to skirt around it. I’ll also propose that one could indulge oneself so much in gear that you neglect the basics: practicing guitar regularly.

If someone were to ask me what I play, the answer would be a little bit of everything. I will always go back to Blues, because there’s something very seminal (and unadorned) about what guys like John Lee Hooker and Mississippi Fred McDowell did. But as a child of the 70s, it’s impossible for me not to jam out with Funk #49 by The James Gang. I’m also alternately enamoured with tuneful tracks like Fingertips by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, or the sheer attack of The SinKing by Crystal Stilts. It’s not unlike my reading habits: if I like it I’ll read it. It’s as simple as that.

I’ll end with touching on the fact that it’s a relationship — that’s what I sought from learning guitar. I find that arrangement the most rewarding, as opposed to, say, building a man-throne for my guitar and showing friends that I can play AC/DC. You learn more about yourself this way, as well as learning music.

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Radioland, a Nine-Month Retrospective

As of August 2nd, it will have been nine months since the official launch of my second novel, Radioland. I wanted to reflect, if non-linearly, on how things have gone. And yeah, I get that “nine months” is a fairly loaded measurement of time. Fact is, I could’ve written this months ago, but time is my enemy.

a copy of Radioland on my home work desk
  1. I will always (and I mean that literally) be thankful for the opportunity to have my work published, especially in novel form. The format takes a lot of time and energy. Time from my life. Energy from my life. Not only am I thankful that those sacrifices were not in vain, but that my publisher (and acquiring editor) took this particular book on. Call it what you will or want — psychological thriller (a descriptor my publisher chose that I’m sometimes uncomfortable with), weird fiction, urban fantasy, or simply “literary fiction” — this isn’t an airport book (ie easy to read, not exactly challenging or demanding on the reader).

2. Unlike my experiences with the publication of The Society of Experience, which went so smoothly that I stand in awe of it, with Radioland every step of the way was difficult. Not only was I tasked with promoting a complex, multi-threaded tale in the sort of limelight I didn’t have for The Society of Experience, the more I tried to summarize it into an elevator pitch for radio and podcast interviews, the less I believed it (or felt I was doing the book justice). From an investment standpoint, my publisher choosing psychological thriller makes sense in that it at least gives the potential reader a rough idea of what’s inside. It’s certainly better than literary fiction which can mean anything to those who don’t discern or care whether they’re reading Jo Nesbø or Eudora Welty. As thankful as I was for the opportunities, it still felt as if I was peddling some vague literary fiction, especially given that the vast majority of those I spoke with didn’t have time to read the fucking book (this, I understand, is par for the course), leaving me to build a scaffolding of sense about it while they prod me with the same goddamn questions gleaned from our PR person’s one sheet (“So, this is a psychological thriller. Could you tell us about that?” “What’s it like writing about Toronto?”). I would’ve killed for someone to have asked about its darkness, its weirdness, its splitting the world into the real and unreal and how both of those worlds are in internal conflict. At least my chat with Jamie Tennant included realtalk about music, given that a) he actually read the book, and b) he’s a musician. The strange, flattening, surreal experience of trying to get word out about a novel in ways much more wide and far-reaching than The Society of Experience and yet walking away not knowing whether anyone listening had any better a clue about what it was that was being presented.

3. The pants-down ridiculousness of University of Toronto Press Distribution not anticipating that lower / less consistent orders from independent publishers and bookstores (this coming after the lockdowns of the pandemic) would cause their internal algorithm to go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ just as publishing’s fall season was unrolling in anticipation of the Christmas buying season. This meant that my book wasn’t in stores when people expected it to be. I was marathon-publicizing a book (see #2) that no one was able to buy in the city of Toronto. Oh, but they could buy it in Ancaster. I was interviewed about it here, but there’s a paywall (that said, Steven’s site is worth the $5/month). Here’s an excerpt:

One affected author is Matt Cahill, whose second novel, Radioland, published on October 18. His book is still not in stores in his home town of Toronto, and some stores are not even sure when they will receive supply of the title. “As an author I bust my ass to revise and make deadlines; the editorial and layout staff are busting their asses; the publisher has paid an advance to me and is overseeing the printing schedule; bookstores are preparing to stock their shelves for the upcoming season; readers are creating their Christmas lists; preorders have been prepaid,” Cahill says. “And all of this comes to a crashing halt for reasons that don’t sound unforeseeable.”

4. Oh, and then there were the book reviews. I’m not going to go into thoughts about Goodreads (note: please feel free to leave a review there if you wish), but rather reviews written by people whose role is to actually review books. Now, I know that reviews aren’t aimed at the author (and their ego) but rather intended to help readers sort through new releases, etc, and it’s always good to come back to this. But there are so few outlets left in this country (forget about getting a review in another country for a there-unknown Canadian author) that each one seems to have more gravitas than before. Add to this that a review of one’s work can be just a little stressful in the first place. Add to this that a review posted online anywhere is 100% better than nothing nowhere. Radioland received a couple of glowing reviews from the Ampersand Review and The Minerva Reader which I deeply appreciate. It also got a couple of mixed reviews elsewhere, which I find issues with, but it would feel neurotic/insecure to post my feelings here. I should note that The Society of Experience had no reviews. Nix. And there’s something about this that illustrates the deal you make as a published author: you want exposure? Ok — oh, but you don’t get much say in how it happens. It is, as they say, what it is.

5. I’m gladdened by the unwavering support I’ve experienced from loved ones, friends, family and complete strangers. Despite my own anxiety, despite the fuck-ups with the distribution, despite it not being an airport book, despite the ebook coming out months after the paperback’s publication, many people indulged themselves in my work, which is very gratifying (<- understatement). It’s good to remind myself of this, especially as the seasons cycle and the latest “hot book” takes up all the oxygen, and the opportunities for me to publicly promote Radioland become less and less. It’s also good to remind myself of all the people who helped get Radioland into Toronto Public Library, most of whom I don’t know.

6. What is success as a literary writer? I can tell you that I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want people to recognize me on the street (though this *sometimes* happens, especially in Kensington Market where I used to live). If “Matt Cahill” is just a name people associate with my writing but not me as a person I’m ok with that. Would I love it if my book sold thousands of copies (thus supporting bookstores, my publisher and me)? Sure thing! But that’s not very realistic in the smaller market of literary fiction. So, success… I think success is reaching a broad spectrum of readers. Art doesn’t exist without an audience. I don’t know how much Radioland has sold — and, like external reviews, maybe it’s best I don’t inquire too much — and I won’t know until year’s end. I still don’t know how my weird tale of two people trying to find connection in a city almost designed to thwart them is going to land with readers. That said, the arrow has left the bow. I’ve done all I can on this one.

The one person who has been through all this with me is my partner, Ingrid. Without her support, her ear and her perspective, I’d likely set fire to all this years ago. I’d also like to thank you, dear reader, for giving me time to open up a little here, warts and all.

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