Tongue-tied

By David Parkinson

Drenched boughs and dark skies.

How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
(E.M. Forster, 1927, Aspects of the Novel, ch. 5)

After a few weeks of vacation spent out east, coming back to the wet coast and settling back into the regular routine feels a little bit like going from zero to six thousand in a few seconds. 2011 is getting started quickly and shows early signs of being a very busy and (I hope) productive year, with all kinds of old projects coming around again and new ones popping up through the coming months.

While I was in — mostly near — Toronto, I felt at a loss to explain to people what it is I do out here. Toronto, being the financial capital of Canada and a city which rewards industry with wealth and all the accoutrements of the good life, is obsessed with money: where it comes from; who has it; who paid how much for what; who deserves it and who doesn’t. Like all true obsessives, the average Torontonian does not even realize that the conversation excludes whole areas of interest to people who might be slipping or have already slipped through the cracks of the econocentric universe which is all their instruments can see. It’s a place where it is good to have money, better to have sacks of money, impossible to have too much money. Most cities I have lived in suffer from this forgivable affliction, but nowhere to the same degree as Toronto.

So, when the conversation turns — as it always does, and right briskly too — to talk of “what one does”, then I can feel myself about to fumble the ball. Compared to my contemporaries, or older people who came up through the fast-disappearing model of the full education and consistent career, “what I do” sounds pretty half-assed. I don’t think anyone walks away with much grasp on it, and that sometimes makes me wonder whether I do. The only way to make it sound sensible would be to back the conversation up to the starting line and rework the first principles on which we base our notion of the life well lived (or whatever it is we’re trying to get at when we talk with each other about what we do). And, sadly, these conversations generally don’t leave much space open for disruptive tactics on that scale. So I spend more time hearing about what others do, and there’s nothing really bad about that. Listening is a civilized skill — you can tell that’s so because it’s rarely done well.

Within these confines, I’m left explaining that I work about twelve hours per week, plus odd little bits here and there, now and then. The nature and importance of my work is also hard to convey without peeling away a huge amount of comfortable assumptions and common wisdom about our food system — and more broadly about the constellation of social forces that we might call ‘capitalism’ for want of a better word. So yeah, I tinker in a desultory way around the edges of the food system, which we can all agree has some shortcomings but is otherwise A-OK and in no danger of letting us down anytime soon. If the person I’m talking to is already clued-in about the underlying flaws in this system, then we get a free ticket to a more interesting conversation; if not, the ticket is for a much longer one, and one that might leave one or both of us feeling pummeled.

If I were a more confrontational person I might relish the chance to get in there and mix it up a little; play hell with people’s cherished beliefs; that sort of thing. But I think that there’s no point opening up a huge yawning chasm in the middle of a conversation which is really, after all, not much more than the human equivalent of what dogs do when they meet. There must be dogs who think that they are so much more than the first sniff would indicate; I hope they have an outlet for their frustrations. (Dogs with blogs?)

Occasionally I get a chance to go far enough below the surface of the conversation that interesting vistas open up. This is rare. Generally a longer conversation will veer away from talk of what one does into areas recognized to be safer and more conducive to happy chattings: TV, movies, those damn kids and their iWhatevers, and so on ad tædium. (Nausea would be too exciting, really.) It takes either plenty of time to plumb these depths and get on to something more honest and relevant or the mutual will to stop one’s ears against the siren song of trivia and easy segues from one superficiality to the next. We want to blurt and absorb data at a high rate of transfer and then move on to something else. Else is where we live.

The real problem, though, is not me, or my friends, family, and acquaintances, or people who live in Toronto. This conversational stuckness is a microcosm of the pervasive muting of human expression in a time when anti-human — more like ahuman or dyshuman — values have seeped into every corner of the once-human world. The whole thing hangs together: we have nothing to say because we have so little time because we’re all stretched thin and running around doing crazy counterproductive things in the name of making ends meet. And having so little time to stop and reflect on the situation lets it perpetuate itself, grow stronger, and shut out ever more dialogue and the work of finding our ways out. It’s a positive feedback loop irising out on human potential, a long low drone of making things happen without really knowing why or caring.

How can we expect anyone, let alone everyone, to find time to think up or talk though a way out of the impasse? To see that there might be other ways to organize one’s life to make room for goal-less activities? Or ones whose goals are less selfish than those we’re supposed to honour with our labour? Each conversation that ends in a blur of pop-culture stupefaction represents a missed opportunity to go somewhere only humans can go; worse, it capitulates to the very forces of ill thinking that we, as humans, ought to be on our guard against around the clock, eight days a week, from cradle to grave, Α to Ω, big bang to heat death.

Terence McKenna, one of the last century’s most unflinching observers of the human predicament, was fond of saying that culture is not your friend. What he meant by this was that culture is the sum of all of the beliefs, myths, and orthodoxies that add up to create the human situation in all its good and bad aspects. Unless we work vigilantly, constantly to unpack these stories and ask ourselves why these and not others, we have no power to break away and find better ways to live. For McKenna, the work of counteracting culture’s tendency to normalize the intolerable was the highest human calling — and one that was within everyone’s reach, no matter their situation. Buddhists would agree, although their chosen techniques are quite different from McKenna’s.

Sometimes the best way to attack this challenge is through conversation with our fellow humans, although one of the pernicious effects of the culture we struggle against is the numbing of our ability to talk about what matters. We need to break free of what binds us before we can even see it. And so culture’s work continues stealthily, locking us up in an invisible jail, unaware that escape is necessary let alone possible. Anyway, it’s not like it’s uncomfortable here: we have TV and all mod cons, it’s warm and there’s plenty of food. Why cause trouble? (Although sometimes late at night it sounds like someone’s screaming out there. I wonder what that’s about?)

For me, the brightest hope in this region is our resurgent community radio station. I want to see this medium unlock the pent-up human expression that has forgotten that it needs an outlet and remind people that we’re not just consumer units in a world that makes less sense every day. Radio is not about using garbage corporate music to sell crap to robots. It’s not for making us stupider. It’s not for making people sound like shameless buffoons. It should be about us expressing our humanity: our confusion, despair, joy, rage, gratitude, bliss, compassion, and all the other real qualities of humanity that we find hard to express and may have have forgotten that we ought to be expressing.

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2 Responses to “Tongue-tied”


  1. 1 Margy January 7, 2011 at 22:06

    I kind of know what you mean about trying to explain things about life in Powell River. I’ve sort of given up about explaining my preference to live in a floating cabin up the lake. – Margy

  2. 2 David Parkinson January 8, 2011 at 08:11

    It’s hard to explain to the people who haven’t been here. I think it sounds to many of my friends and family like some kind of country getaway trip. Maybe they think it’s just a phase…


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