Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue

Search and rescue volunteers dangle from a helicopterI have an article appearing in the Winter 2019 issue of Montecristo magazine about the life and work of Mike Danks, the Team Leader of Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue. Danks and his volunteer colleagues sacrifice their free time and sometimes put their lives in harm’s way to rescue hikers, skiers, snowshoers and climbers who becomes lost or injured in the Coast Mountains north of the city.

You can read about their work here.

Sasquatch in the Media

Image of a Sasquatch postage stamp from CanadaSince the release of In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond in the USA in July (and in Canada in August, respectively), I’ve been up to my eyebrows in work plugging the book.

I’m grateful that the response has been unanimously positive (so far) from literary reviewers and the media.

In addition to Amazon featuring the work as one of its 10 Best Books of July 2019, the work has garnered a medley of print, online, radio, podcast and TV plugs in North America and the U.K. A list of the more notable mentions with links, including from The Washington Post, can be found on the Press page of my website.

For the more hardcore Sasquatch buffs out there: you might be interested in reading an essay I wrote in July for Lit Hub in which I wax philosophically some more about Bigfoot and reveal details about a strange incident that occurred to me on Vancouver Island just before the book was published.

I’d like to offer a heartfelt thanks for everyone’s interest and support.

Emotionalism & the News Media

Al Jazeera English TV News

The rumours had been circulating for weeks: the announcement of a royal engagement was in the offing. Preparations went into high gear at the television news station to cover the announcement. We were all in a state of red-alert.

And then, with little more warning, the big day came.

At the morning editorial meeting it was one story to rule them all. Coverage would run all-day and include interviews with royal watchers, pundits, commentators, members of the excited public – anyone willing to speak.

Meanwhile, a massive fuel barge loaded with three million litres of diesel had become disabled in a bad storm off the Pacific coast of British Columbia, threatening an environmental disaster. That and other important stories had received scant mention, or had fallen under the radar in the early morning hours, because of the news of the upcoming nuptials.

“Would we run any other stories?” I asked a colleague.

“Not a chance. We’re going with wall-to-wall coverage. It’s a royal engagement!”

Hours into the show, the broadcast went live to reveal the happy couple stepping outdoors to face the paparazzi. The would-be bride nonchalantly raised her hand and flashed her diamond ring as the cameras simultaneously zoomed-in. A collection of high-pitched shrieks and sighs rose from several women in the newsroom. The lengthy on-air analysis which followed that moment was accompanied by a breaking news banner in red at the bottom of the screen that read:

“The One-of-a-Kind Royal Ring”

It was all very surreal – but also part of a larger and now familiar trend. When I considered our news coverage from the weeks, months and even years prior – whole daylong cycles of national news devoted to local murder trials, celebrity deaths, and the various scandals de jour – it was clear that the trend over time was to run with stories that were ever more sensational and emotionally loaded. The more I thought about it, the more I could see that society as a whole seemed to be in the grip of the same condition: a preoccupation with high emotion.

Our popular movies have become faster, more violent and peppered with terse dialogue spoken rapid-fire. Extreme division and polarization has hobbled our politics and negated the art of compromise. The tabloidization of even our most respected media organisations continues unabated: political and celebrity scandals have become de rigueur, eliciting disproportionally emotional responses from an entranced public. Social media has amplified our willingness and ability to share our opinions and oppose others – raising the emotional pitch even further.

Traditional Eastern psychology has long warned of the negative consequences of emotional overindulgence – and its distracting and blunting effects. The Sufi writer Idries Shah often wrote that people seek excitement, stimulation and emotion over truth – regardless of what they might otherwise claim. The idea that excessive emotion can interfere in our ability to observe subtleties, make nuanced discriminations and appreciate a wider reality was a major theme of his work.

“Emotion is a powerful consideration in human life,” he writes in Knowing How to Know. “It must be understood.”

It is not hard to appreciate the seductive power of emotionalism. Emotions serve the purpose of drawing and fixing our attention to important circumstances in the environment. They can be visceral and deeply stimulating – evidence that something important is happening – often eliciting a clear-cut reaction rooted in self-certainty. But high emotion, tied as it often is to various forms of self-preservation, causes us to think in the shortcut of absolutes. This black-and-white thinking turns our minds into obtuse instruments incapable of registering subtler shades of the truth.

Nothing seems to summon this very human proclivity to feel and react (as opposed to the more sober and measured effort to understand) as much as the news media. Though news serves an important function in keeping us informed and abreast of developments in the world, as well as being a check on political power, it can often come at a heavy price. It’s a common refrain that the majority of the stories covered in the news are negative. Bad news stories capture audiences because our minds evolved to perceive dramatic and threatening events in our environment. However, this incessant drumbeat of negative and pessimistic stories and images ripples out across society, setting a bleak emotional tempo for our lives.

As a freelance writer and journalist I periodically work at a national television news station where I am able to see how programming and story decisions are made. After the arrival of the Internet, the competition among more and more media for less and less advertising revenue has made news organisations desperate to attract the largest audiences possible. Though they have always sought to grab, hold and monetize our attention, most news companies have crossed a new threshold that have them going for the emotional jugular whenever possible.

The standard approach is to excite, anger, titillate, sadden and entertain audiences using the easiest and cheapest-to-produce stories. More virtuous, investigative, slower, truth-telling journalism – always hard to come by in the best of times – has become that much rarer.

Polemical debates and celebrity stories dominate the news cycle. If the two can be combined, all the better. Crime stories, mostly pertinent to local audiences, are now lifted from their narrower contexts and given national or international coverage. Because our brains are story-processing machines, news is often shaped and framed in a way most easy for us to consume: into archetypal tales in which a good person, suffering at the hands of a villain or exploiter, struggles to find justice. In addition to goading audiences to take sides in a conflict, this tactic also simplifies issues into easy to understand binary positions.

Though excellent and laudable work continues to be produced by some news organisations, they still tend to warp reality through exaggeration, simplification, and excessive repetition – often giving the impression that their stories define all of life and the world at any given moment. But of course the map is not the territory. Our world, in its great complexity and immensity, bears little resemblance to its news-born caricatures. And like the fish that has no idea it is in water because it is surrounded by it, whole newsrooms have become largely unconscious of what they are doing: sewing large scale anxiety throughout society.

We need to recognize these dynamics and their influence on our individual and collective emotional states.

So, how do we avoid having our emotions manipulated without tuning-out of media completely – or cutting ourselves off from the world?

A two-pronged approach might be taken. The first is to be parse and nimble in our consumption of information, an approach which could include:

1. Choosing news sources that are more likely to look at the bigger picture, and less likely to harp on the petty and trivial.

2. Periodically attaching and detaching our attention from the news instead of incessantly monitoring or binging on it.

3. Trying to see any story from as many different perspectives as possible, as opposed to just the one or two sides that tend to actually be represented.

4. Questioning the accuracy, relevance and importance of any given story – even those from the most reputable news organisations.

5. Combining, contextualizing and hedging any news with our own personal observations and experiences – and those of informed contacts. Sometimes our experiences, and those of people we know, will provide exceptions to, or will contradict, what the news is telling us.

6. Discovering other “news” in the world that we’re not hearing about in the mainstream – including, and especially, developments that are positive.

The second approach is to find ever-more satisfaction in our own lives – in our work, hobbies and projects. When we are healthily engaged in undertakings that are genuinely satisfying and stretching, we are less prone to pettiness and seeking stimulus from elsewhere – including from sensational news stories that are fundamentally not relevant to our lives.

Polemical, fear-inducing and/or sensational news media stories are the “bread and games” of our age. The more we can free our thoughts and emotions from the loops of neuroses they might induce, the more capacity we might have for seeing and appreciating the less thrilling, yet more holistic, weaves of nuance about our world that might more accurately depict it.

The Great Attention Heist

Tim Wu's book, The Attention MerchantsThe L.A. Review of Books is running a piece co-written with colleague John Bell on Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants.

To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need. Some have pointed out that attention exchange is often the main, underlying motive for any human interaction, regardless of the actors’ overt intention.

Wu shows us how technologists, profiteers and politicians take advantage of this deep human preponderance for their own advantage. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed.

“According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets — and the applications that support them — represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.”

Review: Is Travel Writing Dead?

is travel writing dead?This is a question that’s bantered about a lot these days.

It’s not just political correctness, identity politics and the growing intolerance towards the legacy of colonialism that are causing some to charge – and others to fear – the relevance of non-fiction travel narratives. In this digital age everything seems to have been photographed, written about, or blogged to death. Humanity appears to have visited every conceivable niche. What could be left to describe? And how many of us truly, seriously, want to read another account of someone crossing the steppes of Central Asia on a segue as they search for the lost goat stew recipe of Genghis Khan?

The Winter 2017 issue of Granta, entitled “Journeys,” includes short essays by a dozen well-known writers that tackle the above question.

The consensus among them is that travel writing is not dead – and in a sense could never die as all our journeys through life are a form of travel, each unique, and each filtered through the writer’s individual personality and perspective. Most of them acknowledge that travel literature is changing, and should change, to encompass a wider variety of voices, perspectives and experiences to become more original and democratic – and no longer western-centric.

Below are a few quotes from the essays. If you’re interested, pick up the back-issue and read the complete essays which are seriously thought provoking.

*

“Travel writing isn’t dead; it can no more die than curiosity or humanity or the strangeness of the world can die. If anything, it’s broken out of its self-created shell, as more and more women give us half their world, and Paris is ever more crowded with visitors from Chengdu.”

– Pico Iyer

“Some of the most important kinds of travel writing now are stories of flight, written by people who belong to the millions of asylum seekers in the world. These are the stories that are almost too hard to tell, but which, once read, will never be forgotten.”

– Alexis Wright

“It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world, by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironized, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way. Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.”

– Ian Jack

“The literature of travel describes the world as it is – but only as it is in its instant, as it appears to the particular sensibility of the passing witness. For that is the other aspect of travel writing that has begun frequently to be overlooked – that it has much to do with the beholder as the beheld. The writer filters her surroundings through her temperament, distilling something richer and more meaningful in the process… As long as there are writers, and as long as they stir occasionally out of their houses, there will be travel writing worth reading.”

– Samanth Subramanian

“There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronizing act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia… Whatever the current state of travel writing (which reached its popular peak in the 1980s) its continuance over the centuries belies its death sentence.”

– Colin Thubron

“Instead of finding a Western angle of experience in countries like Vietnam – motorbiking from Hanoi to Saigon, boating in the southern delta, snapping up fabric arts from the Hmong, eating their way down the Mekong, seeking redemption from war experiences or war protests, romanticizing French colonialism, or tracing the ghost of writer Marguerite Duras – maybe writers should stick closer to home. What would it look like to travel to a mall, a local wood, a suburban tract – to deeply study and visit one’s own locale?”

– Hoa Nguyen

“Travel literature will always be with us. But the centre of experience also shifts in the world. Stupendous traditions end accordingly, and spring up again from new, improbably sources.”

– Rana Dasgupta

When the Virtual Upstages the Real

Social media has become the primary conduit for criticizing others, airing our gripes and mobilizing against real and perceived injustices. It seems like it’s never been easier for members of the general public to disseminate messages and raise awareness of certain issues, online.

But like all technologies that have arisen throughout the course of history, the Internet is also a double-edged sword. It’s changed how we engage with life, exacting a sort of Faustian “price” we pay in exchange for its benefits.

One of the more obvious costs is that we spend large parts of our days distracted and entranced by screens.  There are likely a flurry of other negative consequences that lie just below conscious awareness. Pondering this has led to a thought: I wonder if by increasingly taking our concerns online, we are preempting – or robbing the real world of – other more direct forms of action we could be taking. And not just through amount of time we spend online versus out in the world.

Could it be that when we campaign, lobby or complain in the virtual world we are in fact discharging the impulse to act in the real, physical world – where our efforts and the rewards are seemingly more tangible? We feel less compelled to act because we’ve gotten that hit of satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’ve done our bit.

If so, the consequences for the future might be considerable. Yet another of those costs that we didn’t quite bargain for.

Residential Schools Documentary

After a long time away from the documentary world, I’ve stepped back into the fray to help research and produce a film for Al Jazeera about Canada’s Indian residential schools. “Canada’s Dark Secret” looks at the forced cultural assimilation and abuse of indigenous children who attended those schools for over a century.

Canada residential schools indian documentary al jazeera
Our crew on location in Powassan, Ontario to interview Ron Shortt

The film is directed by Lebanese filmmaker Rania Rafei (above right) and highlights the experiences of a pair of indigenous survivors of the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, in Brantford Ontario.

The doc also features Ron Shortt, a former officer of the RCMP who recently went public to admit he’d helped an Indian agent take a pair of young girls away from their family in Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories, in the mid-1960s. The work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in Winnipeg will also be included in the film (Senator Murray Sinclair, the former TRC commissioner, makes an appearance).

Details to come.

The Harper Years

Here’s another op-ed for Al Jazeera, written with a colleague, about Canada’s recently deposed Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his autocratic style of rule.