Inauthentic Authenticiy

“Hey Antonio, what’s the problem?” I asked.

“Oh, not that much I suppose,” I replied.

“OK, then why the long face…?”

“Honestly, I’m not that keen on writing dialogue.”

“Well, it seems like you’ve gotten pretty good at dictating things on a microphone into Microsoft Word so that you can publish them as blog articles. What’s the issue?”

“Even when I use the keyboard though, I was never really good at writing out dialogue. Part of me says it’s because of all the punctuation marks that have to go when you’re writing a conversation between two people.”

“You mean like you’re doing right now?”

“Yes, precisely. And yet I’m putting in the punctuation marks right now. For whatever stupid reason the first draft, Microsoft Word is making the beginning of every phrase lowercase, so I have to go back and manually edit it after the fact Notwithstanding that, I’m perfectly capable of putting in quotation marks.”

“So, it’s not that, then?”

“Evidently not. I think it’s something more fundamental about writing dialogue that’s never quite worked for me.”

“I find that impossible to believe, Antonio.”

“And why exactly is that, Antonio?”

“Because you’re somebody who’s an absolute motor mouth, and most people can’t seem to shut you the fuck up to save their life. You would think that someone who bloviates as much as you do would be an expert at writing dialogue.”

“That’s not a very nice way to talk about yourself.”

“Touché.”

“Generally, I’m very hard on myself. I’m definitely very hard on myself when it comes to writing. But there’s something especially pernicious about dialogue. More specifically, writing ‘convincing dialogue.’”

“And why is that?”

“Even when I borrow little snippets of conversations that I’ve actually had in real life, I remember feedback from English teachers and friend proofreaders telling me that my dialogue didn’t sound very convincing. What the hell? This was a conversation that I actually had! Sometimes copied verbatim. It’s this tricky, evasive thing about ‘convincing’ dialogue. I feel like true to life is really besides the point. Trailer Park Boys probably has the most convincing, true to life dialogue of any TV show that I’ve ever watched. Maybe that just speaks to the kind of people I hang around with in real life (or who more importantly lurk around my office). But what I think we really mean when we say ‘convincing dialogue’ is a form of simulacrum that doesn’t look too fake, but it’s still more polished and refined than any conversation that we would have in real life.’”

“So, like being authentic, but in a really phony and insincere way?”

“Yeah, you got it.”

“Perfectly clear as mud. No contradiction in there at all.”

“Cognitive dissonance aside, I guess one of the good things about being a lawyer is that I practice being inauthentic and phony on a daily basis. The joys of being in a service industry. But it hasn’t translated into writing dialogue.”

“It seems to me that it’s going to be a skill like anything else that you might right. You’re good at writing essays, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’d like to think so.”

“And you’ve written pretty decent wills as well, right?”

“Well, wills are sort of boilerplate. There’s really not a lot of original skill and thought that comes into most of them.”

“OK, but you’re missing the point. My point is, you’ve had years to hone and refine those crafts, that’s how you develop a skill. It’s not going to crystallize in a vacuum. So, you really have to do something if you want to achieve something.”

“So maybe I should just write reams of dialogue without any of the narrative portions of a paragraph and see if the things that I churn out start to sound more authentic.”

“Exactly! But you know, in a very polished and insincere sort of authenticity.”

“Alright. I’m gonna start editing all the blatantly obvious, garbage errors in this Microsoft Word document, and see how this is for a first start.”

“Do you feel any better?”

“Maybe a little bit.”

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The Time Papa got Angry

“You can’t do stuff like that in this country!” these were the words of advice from an old man with a sub-Saharan accent that I’m not going to try and proffer a guess as to, because it’s been over thirty years. He was lecturing my grandfather, following one of the most traumatic incidents of my childhood.

My grandfather was born in what is now part of Slovakia, but was then part of Hungary, in 1942. To say that he was a stoic man for all of my life is perhaps an understatement. Sure, he would laugh and smile whenever we watched cartoons or played together, but beside that he was not one to show large bursts of warm, cuddly emotion. Even now, as I sit and write this, I can picture him sitting alone in the evening at his kitchen table, a dim light shining above him, doing his nightly sudokus while his Maine Coon watches him patiently. Suffice to say, I have also never known him to be an angry or violent person.

Except for this one time.

I was about five or six years old, and he decided to take me to Mooney’s Bay, which was a beach not too far from our home. We drove in his blue Dodge Caravan, an ugly but reliable family vehicle that grandpa fawned over. it wasn’t that it was particularly nice, or that he had any emotional bond to it I think. It was simply that it cost him a lot of money a year or two prior, and that he traded in a much nicer car in his 1979 Buick LeSabre in order to get this damn thing. And so simply by virtue of the amount of bother it provided him, he felt very protective of it.

We were driving into the ramped parkade to the beach, when a pair of kids, maybe 10 and 13 years old, riding on their bicycles glided in front of him. He missed them, but was quite perturbed by the fact that they came so close to hitting his car, and all the potential liability that would have ensued. Now, you or I, Dear Reader, might have just went, parked our car, and gone on our merry way. My grandfather decided that it would be funny in this instance to try and chase them a little bit in his van, and give them the fear that he might actually hit them, so as to teach them a lesson. He followed in pursuit for a few meters, and then grew tired of his plan, and found a spot to park. The kids muttered and complained in some variation of Arabic, and then went off in the distance.

We walked up the hill, and I believe the flimsy premise of our outing was for him to teach me how to fly a kite. I don’t remember much about the kite flying. In fact, I don’t have any particularly warm memories of ever having flown a kite, and so I think it’s highly unlikely that I ever had fun doing so. At worst it was a nuisance, and a best it was very mildly entertaining. But as we stood at the top of the hill at Mooney’s Bay, we could see those same too teenagers hovering over grandpa’s van. As we walked down the hill, grandpa went to inspect his vehicle, only to find that one of the boys had hocked a loogie on the driver side window.

It was then that I saw a side of my grandfather that I won’t soon forget, even some thirty-odd years later. He found the kids sitting around not too far away in the grass, probably quite proud of what they had done to the man who had provoked them. Grandpa decided to take the younger of the two, and grab him in a headlock. This immediately provoked this standoff with the older one, which with the benefit of hindsight is hilarious and possibly a little white trash, but at that time as a five year old was as terrifying as a full blown Mexican standoff.

The older Lebanese lad had picked up a boulder that he’d found and cocked it, as though he was ready to fire at my Papa’s head. Papa continued his Python like grip with his arm around the younger boy’s neck, who appeared to be turning beet red from being choked out.

“Fucking let go of my cousin!” The boy cried.

“You go and clean my fock-on car you punk!” my grandfather replied.

At this point I, maybe five or six years old and worried for my grandfather’s safety, pleaded with him to stop because I was scared. Finally, I think a sense of self-awareness came over him, and he let the younger boy go. At that point the older one—who was maybe 13 or 14 years old but seemed older to me at the time, and who probably was scared as I—grabbed his cousin and scuttled off into the distance for home.

I began to calm down as this situation deescalated. It was at this point that the sagely old black man approached my grandfather. “Hey!” he exclaimed, as Papa tried to explain his position. “I know what they did, I saw it. But you can’t do stuff like that in this country.” Eventually my grandfather wiped down the spit with some Kleenex from the van, and we turned around to start for home.

Thirty years later, I can’t remember the precise events, accents, or dialogue. But I do remember the emotion. I remember how terrified I was in that moment, and how that was the biggest, angriest conflict that I’d really ever seen. You have to remember, dear reader, that this was probably five or six years before I saw my first episode of COPS, and growing up in a first world country with a real lack of internal strife or conflict like Canada, there was really no other frame of reference for my young impressionable mind.

Looking back on it, I really wonder what that old man meant to say to my grandfather. Was he admonishing him for his terrible behavior in front of those youth? “You can’t do stuff like that in this country!” Canada. This wonderful, shining beacon of liberalism and individual rights and pacifism. That’s not my instinct. I have a feeling it came from a dark point of understanding and camaraderie between the two older gents who weren’t from around here. “You can’t do stuff like that in this country.” Canada. Land of the wimps, where everyone sues everyone when their feelings get hurt, and ruffians go undisciplined. Maybe it was a tacit understanding that wherever home was for these two men who spoke with a heavy accent—and every “old country,” had these same nostalgic characteristics, regardless of race, religion, or creed—retributive justice would have been OK, and more to the point, no one would have dared to have spat on their car in the first place.

In any event, it’s hard to say what sort of lasting event this had on me as a child. To this day, I am extremely conflict averse and afraid of any kind of confrontation. I also don’t much care for kites.

OK, Maybe I am Doing it for the Money.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit over the past…I don’t know, decade? Probably even more than that. Why is it that I want to create art? I’ve touched on this in past podcasts, and maybe even a few blog essays on this website. I don’t entirely understand what that creative drive is, and I’m sure it varies from person to person. For me personally, the answer is not apparent. I think part of it is a sense of recognition. I desire to seem as though I’m clever. When I spoke with my friend Arthur’s mom, Michelle Desbarats, she talked about it in the context of her own poetry. Essentially, the goal in her poetry was to be radically honest, and not try and appear as though you’re clever.

I think that’s my problem at its essence. I have this overarching desire to seem very clever by the creative things that I do. And that’s what drives me. And it kind of leads you down this path of self-flagellation where you really shame yourself because you’re not doing what you personally think is clever or smart or good enough. What is that it? Am I just trying to show people I’m smart and clever? I can do sudoku or chess problems and probably achieve the same thing in a lot cheaper easier fashion.

But specifically when it comes to my drive to try and write something, I wonder how much of it is simply the financial incentive. Put it another way, if money was no object and I had an infinite supply of currency, would I even bother trying to do any writing? The idea of a novel certainly has its allure, but I think moreover the idea of writing for a living–setting my own schedule, whittling away in complete solitude with a pot of coffee and maybe a laptop–sounds a lot more alluring than reporting to a boss, having a fixed schedule, and interacting with people I may not necessarily like.

But of course, if you ever say that you want to do something because of the money, there’s something unseemly or disgusting about it. And even now, I’m doing a job that is not the most remunerative one that’s even been offered to me recently. But I’m doing it because I have a certain sense of freedom and comfort and ease with the schedule, and how things work out for me. And I think being a professional writer is sort of the logical conclusion to all of that. That is the ultimate tradeoff of “complete freedom of schedule,” compared to a nine to five job. So maybe it’s not about the money in the sense of greedy financial avarice, like a day trader. But it’s more in the sense of the money like “I need to do something in order to earn a living week to week, so the thing that I want to do to get money is something where my schedule is very free, and I can pick the schedule that I want, and I don’t necessarily have to deal with unpleasant people.”

In describing a freelance writing career as something like that, I do hearken back to my times a sole practitioner. In theory, at least, I had complete autonomy when it came to my schedule. In reality, there were court deadlines and anxious clients would bother you on the phone all the time, and so it never quite worked out that way. And I don’t know enough about being a writer to say with any certainty that what I imagine in my head is actually the reality. If I end up doing potboilers and copywriting, then perhaps it’s a situation where I’m not necessarily anymore the master of my domain than I am presently where I am right now.

So when I say I’ve come to an epiphany that I think I want to do this “for money,” I don’t mean it in any crass or ulterior way. I guess what I’m saying is I wanna do something that is actually going to reward me financially in some way shape or form. That is to say, I would not be satisfied working a nine to five job, putting my kids to sleep around 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock in the evening, and then dragging my ass downstairs so that I can draft a whole bunch of sonnets that no one is ever going to read during my lifetime.

I signed up for a short story writing class on Domestika, with a South African writer who seems to have a bent for literary fiction. Very autobiographical stuff. In a mean, sort of fucked-up way (and mean and fucked-up is kind of my bailiwick), reading the posts by the other collaborators that are signed up for the course, and seeing how terrible their writing is, gives me a bit of confidence that I could actually do this for a living. I’m at least better than the general population when it comes to conveying my ideas, and doing so in an eloquent fashion.

But then why haven’t I written that story? Why don’t I have a finished novel? Where is my groundbreaking polemical essay, my memoir, my anything? And thus motivation rears its ugly head again.

I’m going to start reading some more books on motivation. I feel like motivation is more important than time management. I used to stress so much about time management, and it would never get me anywhere. Of course, the trap with all these self-help texts is that you constantly feel like you’re an incomplete person who needs to work on themselves. At what point are you complete? At what point are you, for lack of a better word, good enough?

Why do I want to create?

Two times in the same week! I guess momentum is starting to pick up.

I thought a little bit more about this question of motivation. And I don’t even know if motivation is necessarily the right word either. I do brainstorm these ideas with my therapist and with friends. Why is it in the first place that I even want to do something creative?

At a certain point, you start to get too metaphysical when you question your motivation for doing everything. Any and all motivation is going to be some sort of combination of biology, psychology, and perhaps theology if you’re so inclined as well. I know that at somewhere deep down, I simply want to do something creative. And so even when I do approach writing projects, the ideas that I have for writing stories or something where the premise of the story is something exceedingly “novel,” if you’ll pardon the pun. Like I don’t want to write some generic Harlequin romance, or a Western based on a very strict, formulaic script. As much as I say the idea of being a “writer” is appealing, I don’t mean being a copywriter, or someone who produces potboilers to pay the rent. I think that’s an important distinction.

At a certain point you question whether you want to be a writer because you enjoy the creative process, or because you want to make money, and be famous, and be lauded for how smart and creative and special you really are. There’s no clear answer to that one. Obviously if I was making a boatload of money as a novelist, and I had complete domain over my schedule, I wouldn’t be doing the job that I’m doing right now. I wouldn’t be doing any other job at all. So is my desire to be creative, or is my desire to make money? They don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive goals, but there is some sort of an overlap between the two of them.

So why do I want to write? Is it some sense of self satisfaction about being able to look at something you created and have a sense of pride regarding it? Or is it some deep, psychological manifestation from childhood, the kind of thing that torments an artist their entire life, where I have to seek external validation in order to be satisfied with myself?

The more I dwell on this point, the more I think the answer is “maybe all of the above.” A very lawyerly answer, if there ever was one. But hear me out. I am writing this blog, which I don’t advertise to just about anyone, where I’m essentially dictating thoughts into Microsoft Word, and posting them online knowing full well that probably no one is ever going to reflect on, nor read these words. It’s essentially a very public diary. and I think if you’re the kind of person who writes a diary, to reflect on your thoughts in a private way without seeking external validation, at a certain point you must enjoy writing. Or at the very least, the act of writing provides some sort of catharsis where ideas are rumbling around in your head. Like being able to put pen to paper or word to processor become some sort of a spiritual digestif, calming some mild or grave torment that needs to come out through your mouth or through your hands and be expressed. And in that sort of a situation, the audience is really neither here nor there. Somebody may read your writings and your journals and your diaries one day, but that’s not the point. 

And I guess philosophically, this is exactly what I want. Or at least that’s what the story in my head tells me that I want. I want to create art for the intrinsic purpose of creating art for my benefit. That’s why my podcast is called “Who Cares if You Listen?”, because I want to reflect on the fact that it’s there for my benefit, and my sense of art and intrinsic value. I don’t think that’s egotistical; rather, it’s an acknowledgment that creating something is valuable in and of itself, and I don’t have to chase likes or eyeballs or money in order to justify the things that I’m doing.

Maybe that’s just a story that I tell myself because it sounds very noble and respectable. Maybe I do care a little bit about whether people read this or listen to my podcast. But then again here I am throwing pencils in the void for a second time in one week, after not touching this blog for almost a month. So that’s got to count for something.

How to start moving again without a swift kick in the ass.

Well, it finally happened. It looks like I bottomed out on my creative endeavors.

I had a feeling that this would happen eventually. But it’s been well over a month since my last podcast episode, and probably two or three months (edit: only one!) since the last time I updated this blog. I know through years of therapy that I probably shouldn’t shame myself for doing that, as it’s not particularly helpful or fruitful. But still. There is certainly a part of me that feels as though I’m some sort of moral reprobate, or at least a garden variety failure.

But enough about wallowing in self flagellation and self pity. What do I do about it? There’s a lot of different schools of thought, and in the past I probably would have turned to self-help books about time management, arguing that a lack of free time is what is to blame for not making headway on my creative endeavors.

But nowadays, I don’t think that this is true at all. Honestly, even on days when I have ample amounts of free time, I have a neverending capacity to refresh email inboxes, check social media, and do a lot of sweet-eff-all when I could be writing, or doing other creative work. Twitter has been a recent time sink for me. No, if I was going to do self help work at this point, I’m really more interested in the science of motivation. I read a little bit of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow,” and that’s of course a very trendy and neat one to think about. But there are certainly rare fleeting moments where I get so lost in practicing the piano, that I lose track of time and I just truly absorb myself in the moment. It’s fleeting, almost like a dream state. And as soon as I draw myself consciously to notice that I’m in this flow state, it instantly disappears. It’s like how you can start lucid dreaming when you realize that you’re in a dream, but as soon as you realize you’re in that dream state, everything begins to crumble apart.

But flow isn’t the same as motivation. How do I get excited about my creative projects? How do I find the burning passion to set aside the easy creature comforts, and dig deep to the more long term, high end satisfying goals? And of course, how do I know what my goals actually are? Maybe I’m deluding myself by thinking that I want to improve my chess, compose music, and putting in a lot of hard work on my podcast. But if not those endeavors, then what? It’s certainly never been a career focus, and it certainly isn’t that now. But I’d like to think that my ambitions run higher then obsessing over social media, and spamming games on my phone. But even in the way I phrased that, I can’t help but notice a certain level of self shaming, and questioning my own self worth. And around and around in circles we go again.

I don’t know if anybody actually reads this blog, or if I’m just throwing pencils into a void. However, if anyone does read this or follow this, and has any suggestions on books about motivation, either from a scientific or philosophical standpoint (I don’t really care which) I would love to hear about them.

Slavery and Human Knowledge

I keep saying that I’m going to write a book review of David Graber’s “Debt: the first 5000 years,” but I never seem to get around to it. Like most of my creative projects, I haven’t whipped myself into writing on a regular basis, and so the pace at which I produce these blog articles as fallen off precipitously. Even though I’m still dictating them.

 

I do think about the book quite a bit, though. It’s a very interesting read for a variety of reasons. At its root, it talks about our relationship to debt and money. The concept of money, and currency is an abstraction.

 

As Graber puts it, the history of money has very little to do with barter. The classical economics, Adam Smith story, tells us that people in primitive societies in small cities used to barter in exchange for goods, until one day coinage and money was created, in order to facilitate everyday transactions. Apparently this is a crock of shit, and there is no anthropological evidence to suggest that there have ever been widespread barter societies. In actuality, money and debt were created as a way to divorce material value from its social constructs. Particularly in the context of slavery.

 

That is to say, a human being has family, friends, and a role within society. A slave, which is a form of commodity, is divorced from all of the social relations. So is it for every single commodity that can be purchased, and indeed for money, the material which is used to make all of these abstract purchases. It makes intuitive sense, even if it is a bit of a tricky concept to nail down exactly. Graber suggests that it was slavery that created our first currencies and first monies, when human beings were ripped from their social contexts in order to fuel large, often brutal empires, such as ancient Rome.

 

Years ago when I was a kid, somebody asked me what was the difference between eating an animal that was livestock, and  eating someone’s pet. I responded rather matter-of-factly that it was a name. You have a pet, it has a name. It has a home. There are people who love it and care for it. A chicken born bred and slaughtered inside of an assembly line has none of these. It’s a very chilling thought, but one that I figured out as early as middle school: if you rob a human being of its family and its name, is there any reason—outside of the obvious legal and theological arguments—why you couldn’t treat it like any other commodity or piece of meat, nameless and inside of an assembly line?

 

But yes, like I said, I’m not doing a full book review of this text, although I think more people should read it, as I found it captivating and very interesting. But it brings me back to my own thinking about the legal world, which I occupy for better or for worse. I have a very uneasy relationship with my career as a lawyer. There’s probably a whole host of reasons for that, but the one that comes to mind is my disdain for quoting prices with clients. I never really know what any of my legal work is actually worth. And there’s a lot of well-meaning pop philosophical texts about “knowing your worth,” and making sure that you don’t “sell yourself short.” But outside of that, how do you actually set a price for something intangible like legal knowledge? The Canadian Bar Association and other organizations set out a suggested price range for a lot of transactional services, and there are practices and commonly understood guidelines for hourly rates for a lot of lawyers in different regions. But this is all relational to what other people are charging, and it suggests the sort of collective mind that’s dictating what the prices will be. In a neoliberal free-market economy this idea of an “invisible hand” guiding the prices that things take certainly is very comforting, and if I actually believed it, it would obviate a whole lot of thinking about what is actually fair to charge to do a particular service.

 

Oftentimes I see litigators bills and think that they’re wildly overinflated, relative to the outcome that they provide. Litigators are quick to defend the work that they do, either by way of reasoning to the fact that it is the client’s fault for finding themselves in the predicament that requires litigation in the first place; or otherwise to point out that there are externalities—legal insurance, bar fees, commercial rent, etc.—that force the lawyer’s hand in charging exorbitant sums, just so they can break even and make a decent sort of living.

 

At an even more basic, fundamental level, why is anything that I know actually valuable? I routinely show people in my family and immediate friends how to set up things on their phone, change settings on a laptop, or interact with dozens of electronic appliances; any “old millennial” like myself has parents and grandparents who rely on him or her for tech support. It’s knowledge that I have that the other person doesn’t have. This is essentially what my legal education is. I spent three years in university, plus another 10 months as an articling student, in order to acquire and horde knowledge that others require, but don’t have. And because of this imbalance of knowledge, with information that I don’t want to freely share because I’ve got a mortgage to pay, I can then set the price for my expertise based on something that I know.

 

Like my other random, discursive posts on here, maybe I’m not going anywhere. Maybe I’m not going anywhere useful, at least. But the entire concept of a “knowledge-based economy” where collectively we have the answer to each other’s problems, but hide them and covet them like little treasures in order to feed ourselves, seems like a giant grotesque game. Being stuck at home during Covid times and working out of my basement is given me a lot of time to think about the ways in which we organize human society at a macro level. I would be perfectly happy to share all of my legal knowledge without any expectation of remuneration, if of course, the grocer and the landlord and the gas station attendant all did the same.

 

University libraries and case law reporters and scientists and medical researchers and lawyers all seem to trade in the hoarding and collecting of human knowledge. I think there are real downsides to this way of thinking, and given that less and less of us are required to do the everyday minutia of physical labour that is required in order to feed and sustain our nations, I think it behooves us to reevaluate how exactly a knowledge-based economy works, and the ways in which we can share knowledge with each other in some sort of group which organize itself on the concept of mutual aid.

The King’s Gambit

I’ve been playing chess since I was about twelve years old. I spent a lot of time getting my ass whooped at our local chess club inside of a Chapter’s, and later at the RA Centre where the heavy hitters in town play. I’ve taken breaks from it but it always manages to find me again.

It has never been easier, pandemic notwithstanding, to find an opponent, do tactical puzzles, learn new openings, and do pretty much anything to improve your game. And the Queen’s Gambit on Netflix simply introduced thousands upon thousands of new people to the game.

But what I find most interesting about chess is the lessons that it teaches me about myself, off the board. I realize that I need sleep to process moves with any efficiency, and working all nighters is going to screw you over. If you start berating yourself, you’re “tilting,” and you’re going to be unable to see anything on the board properly. And even if you spend days or months staring at the same position, you might never be able to uncover the objectively “best” position that an app on your phone could find in ten minutes. And that’s okay.

I have to be in the right frame of mind to study chess. I can’t force it or whip myself into it. Chunking lessons down into manageable bits is a necessary but not sufficient precondition to learning something new. And I have to be prepared to have something stagnate for long periods of time before I notice any real improvement. And if I feel like doing something else one day or my mood isn’t where I want it to be, I have to listen to that.

These are lessons I need to take seriously in all aspects of my life, if I want to improve my rating!

Why growth?

I have been working my way through David Graeber’s “Debt: the First 5000 years” very slowly for the past few months. I find it to be a very interesting read, which is turning a lot of our preconceived notions about the ways in which finance work upside down, drawing on historical and anthropological resources.

I’ve just started into a chapter about the rise of capitalism, with Graeber offering the suggestion that what can rightly be called “capitalism” came to rise a lot earlier in human history than most of us believe, according to conventional wisdom. But that’s not the point of this blog post. What’s interesting is this one particular line from the passage that I’m reading:

All of this raises the question of what “capitalism” is to begin with, a question on which there is no consensus at all. The word was originally invented by socialists, who saw capitalism as that system whereby those who own capital command the labour of those do not. Proponents, in contrast, tendency capitalism is the freedom of the marketplace, which allows those with potentially marketable visions to pull resources together to bring those visions into being. Just about everyone agrees, however, that capitalism is a system that demands constant, endless growth. Enterprises have to grow in order to remain viable. The same is true of nations. (Emphasis mine)

So what is interesting in all of that? Well, I’m very curious about the usage of the term “growth.” We often talk about growth when describing our desires for self betterment. We grow our knowledge, we grow our wealth, we grow our family, and we grow our business. It seems that we manifest inward that which we see in society; this desire towards constant, unending growth.

But we know from history and economics that unending growth is an impossibility. Eventually, empires stretch themselves too thin and get picked apart at their borders. Corporations become too large and too bloated to be efficient in the competitive market. Nation-states rise and fall. What about individual desires for self-growth? If you grow your family too large you will face financial ruin, or worse yet, starve. If you literally grow too much (i.e., you gain an enormous amount of weight, either through the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut or through steroids in the gym) then you risk an incredible burden to your health that will ultimately factor in your demise. And you will likely also sacrifice your health and well-being if you seek endless growth through your career or through sheer avarice for money and power.

This creates a tricky mental puzzle: is growth even a good thing at all? It seems whether we are discussing people, corporations, or states, the factors which allow something to grow also invariably lead to its demise. I think this is something Marx and Hegel refer to as the “dialectic,” but I’m not well read enough to confirm or deny that. But it seems to lend credence to the fact that endless growth is neither possible nor desirable. But then what is the alternative? No one seems to be happy losing money, or stagnating in a career or personal journey. What if that is exactly what is necessary in order to feel a sense of balance and contentment?

As always, these are pseudo-philosophical ramblings that I have, narrated into a dictaphone. But I think about the ways in which we should try to (perhaps paradoxically) maximize our satisfaction with life and the world around us, without necessarily trying to impose growth on it. Does that make sense? I think it is a matter of being able to change one’s priorities and one’s mindset.

I don’t know if that is possible. And more paradoxically still, perhaps that is a sign of emotional “growth,” where we are able to let go of avaricious desires for growth which hold us back.

On “Whipping,” Pt. 2? Pt. 3?

I recently talked to a friend of mine who is contemplating writing a novel. I’ve started many writing projects myself, only to have them fizzle out each and every time before I had a finished product. She’s reading a book by Stephen King describing all the different skills involved in writing a novel. One of his main takeaways that you should be writing every day. Groundbreaking, huh?

Well, my friend is apparently doing just that, even if some days it’s not working towards her fiction craft, and instead it’s just making detailed notes about what she had for lunch. I guess I kind of want to write in this blog every day, although as you can plainly see if you scroll through all the articles, I took an eight year hiatus where I decided I didn’t want to do this anymore. I got sick of it. There were other, better things to do. And even now, I dictated this into my recorded on a Thursday, and posted it on a Friday, as a result of a combination of fatigue and religious obligation.

I’ve often convinced myself that the only correct way to get a project done is through slow, steady, methodical work. “Write every day” sounds intuitive, obvious, and necessary advice. To its literal end, that means writing every single day (duh), whether you feel like it or not. My problem I can’t seem to square that wisdom, with the advice that I’ve gotten from my therapist, which is that I have this rather pervasive, unconscious habit of “whipping” myself. I wrote about that recently. I tell myself that I have to write every day, with the tacit understanding that if I don’t write every day, I won’t get the novel/essay/project done, and if I don’t get the project done, I will have failed at that task, and if I failed at that task, I am a failure. Do you believe that rabbit hole is true? Maybe just a little? If so, what a horrible way to engage with yourself.

A book I have on self compassion describes alternatives to “whipping yourself,” to get things done more quickly. A better long-term strategy, they say, is to learn to encourage yourself, not unlike a tender, loving parent, or perhaps a very good coach who motivates you to do something by cheering you on from the sidelines and picking you up, rather than benching you when the other team scored a goal and yelling at you.

But “real” writers have deadlines, and things need to be done on a certain day. Successful podcasts come out every week. Columns come out weekly/monthly/daily, regardless of how someone feels. Full stop. That’s not my opinion, go out and look at how the world organizes itself.

So here’s my dilemma: what is the correct way to approach this? Do I whip myself? Or do I lean into the ebbs and flows of how I feel in a given moment, and only write or create things when the spirit moves me?

Perhaps you can tell by the way that I’m phrasing all this and massaging my words, that I question the entire premise. Is every person who diligently and regularly writes, composes, produces art, just doing mental and emotional self-flagellation? That sounds incredibly cruel. I’d like to believe that not all creative people are simply masochistic, and treating themselves with the harshness of an indentured servant.

Perhaps it is the case that if someone is truly destined to be a writer, there is so much momentum, so much energy, so much inspiration, that in fact they have no choice but to write each and every single day. It is a different mindset, maybe one based in flow, that propels them to do something, rather than being forced to drag their feet into doing it.

I just would like to know how to get into that mindset, as it’s something that I think about a lot.

Happy Easter.

We’re All in this Together, for Ourselves.

I read a very interesting article last week in The Economist (paywall) about the way that stakeholder capitalism works in Japan. It was interesting to listen to how it contrasts and compares to the society that we have here in Canada for. In a nutshell, the article describes how large corporations in Japan are more willing to protect employees for life, and do things for the greater good of society at large, acting as a sort of private industry safety net, so to speak, even at the peril of maximizing shareholder profits.

Without painting too rosy or utopian a picture, this is very different from how we envision corporations in the West, where this obsessive drive to maximize shareholder profits resembles a bunch of pigs fighting at a trough to consume as much as possible, without any care or regard for human welfare, the environment, or the plight of the developed nations where our goods come from. Obviously, Japan has its own host of problems, particularly as it relates to its aging workforce, and its very conservative attitudes when it comes to women and immigration. And maybe to a certain extent, the fact that it is a more homogeneous society than say, a Canada, might explain part of this reason why there’s a feeling that they all “pull from the same rope.” Others have pointed to the idea of moral collectivism which comes from the teachings of Confucius.

Regardless of where it comes from, I would really like to further explore in my own free time the notions of collectivism versus individuality more broadly in society, and the ways in which they may have eroded—in philosophy, economics, law, to name a few scopes of human thought—the idea that we are all working towards an “common good,” and instead have become a deeply individualistic society, where we all look out for number one.

I’m not some doe eyed idealist who thinks that it would be easy or quick to try and institute some sort of a collectivist society here in my own home country. Maybe we don’t even want it. There are a lot of people that I despise. Viciously even. Especially in the age of social media, you’re easily exposed to all kinds of views, opinions, and just general nastiness that makes you not want to pull from the same rope as all of your peers. I can’t be the only monster that wishes ill on people who have extremely different politics and views from my own, particularly when they’re so damn sure of themselves. I don’t want to pull from the same rope as those scum.

Right now, it seems as though half of the people that I follow on Twitter want to abolish the police force altogether and replace them with social workers. The other half think that wearing a paper mask the same thickness as a restaurant serviette in order to stop the spread of a very virulent, deadly disease, is a greater infringement on their freedom than anything they’ve seen since the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
 

When you hear all this sort of polemical idiocy, it’s very hard to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of people, even people who engage in such ridiculous hyperbolic language, are at their core (probably) decent people who want very simple things. To be able to live in peace and prosperity, without fear of where their income is going to come from, and be able to have a relatively safe and happy life. Intellectually I feel I know this. In practice…eh.

A lot of people wax poetic about the polarization of our politics and society. But I wonder if there are examples from other cultures and societies that may point us in a direction to where we might return to a sense of all working together. Perhaps “return” isn’t even the right term; did we ever even have that? I have to believe that it existed in some form in at least the Middle Ages, if not before that among the plebeian masses of ancient Rome. But perhaps it is a pre-Enlightenment notion that has fallen out of vogue. One cannot be a collectivist and think about the greater society and greater humanity, while also supporting chattel slavery, to name but one egregious example. Are we collectivists if we all work together as part of, say a nation-state, to the detriment or harm or exclusion of people halfway across the globe, whose faces or names we will never encounter?

As always, I don’t really have any good answers. But it is something that I think about a lot, particularly in the age of covid-19, when the actions of people a world away suddenly have direct and dire consequences at home. It’s hard not to question how selfish some of your fellow countrymen can be when we continue to bicker and fight and politicize our way out of the largest existential crisis of our lives.

Or maybe that’s just the way that it appears when we look at the Internet all the time. Maybe if we had Twitter back in the 1940s, the “Greatest Generation” would not have looked so unified in its fight against the axis powers as it may seem. Maybe the technology itself is to blame, and an attention economy necessarily allows conspiracy theorists and contrarians to tell us outrageous things that wedge us apart.

I’d like to be optimistic, and hope that once it is epidemiologically safe to do so, we can all get together and perhaps hug this all out. I’d like to. But I don’t really think it will happen.