Protesters at the Death of Evidence march on Pariliament Hill in July 2012. PaulMcKinnon
On July 10, 2012, pallbearers in lab coats carried a black coffin up Parliament Hill behind a cloaked reaper and proclaimed the death of evidence. The procession of 2,000 scientists mourned the cuts to internationally renowned research centres and the muzzling of scientists by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. When they reached the Canadian Parliament building, participants tossed Darwin’s The Origin of Species and other books into the open casket.
When Canadian scientists criticized the loss of programs supporting field research and public communication, their US counterparts joined in. The march planned for today in DC is greater than the rallies hosted on Canada’s government lawn, but the underlying motive is the same: science appears to be in trouble. The March for Science follows the globally synchronized protests for women, immigrants, and detained foreign travellers in the aftermath of the Donald Trump’s election. Yet this particular movement has struggled to find its mandate, originally telling the New York Times “it’s not a political protest,” and then drafting a comprehensive mission statement and clearly stating “we are political.” Amid the confusion, some have questioned whether scientists belong on the front lines of political action—or if they should be involved at all.
When news of the march was first announced, coastal geologist Robert Young wrote it would polarize the population, and further alienate voters that are already skeptical of scientists as bearers-of-bad-news. Politicization of science also undermines the credibility of research, according to astrophysics professor Adam Frank. For NPR, he summarized the job of a scientist:
Find the evidence,
that lets everyone see,
how the world works.
Those in favour of the March for Science say the debate is a problem of semantics: political involvement differs from partisan support. “Some scientists think there is such a thing as neutrality and objectivity in science, and it becomes problematic when you become politically involved,” says Margrit Eichler, president of the Canadian science advocacy group Our Right to Know. “They fail to see that they have an obligation to be engaged and to make the knowledge available.” Independence and funding for US and multinational projects are at stake whether researchers participate or not, and the most recent election hasn’t changed the reality that scientists are always having to justify their work’s value to society. The challenge now is reminding political leaders the science-based policy differentiates fact and fiction. Human-caused climate change? Fact. Vaccinations linked to chronic illness and autism? Alternative fact.
And while evidence is supposed to be ideologically neutral, the source of funding for research and the restrictions fixed to the money is entirely dependent on politicians and the policies they champion. Eichler says researchers need to do a better job of informing taxpayers—the source of a majority of government funding—where their money goes. Perceived public fatigue or disinterest in science allows governments to slash the budget—or worse. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, agencies prohibited government-funded scientists from talking about their research, and data centres were shuttered. In the US, it’s rumoured that the White House has been removing information about climate change from the Environment Protection Agency website. The administration is also suggesting an 18 percent cut to the National Institutes for Health (NIH, which is the primary US health research agency and a global leader in medical innovation, unless Congress can be swayed.
At a Toronto sign-making event ahead of the march, Dan Weaver stands in front of a curtained stage in the main hall of the Tranzac Club to defend the idea that scientists should get political. Weaver, an atmospheric researcher, was studying the Arctic when the federal government announced it wouldn’t renew funding to support the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) on Ellesmere Island. The lab contains data about changes to the Arctic atmosphere that are crucial in climate change research: In 2011, a year before funding cuts were announced, PEARL had reported massive ozone depletion in the Arctic. Closing the lab, Weaver says, would have left a hole in Arctic climate data. Without government funding, the station couldn’t afford to keep experiments running during the summer of 2012—despite citizen efforts to raise $10,000—leaving a hole in PEARL’s data for that period until a five-year grant restored most of its funding.
The looming closure stoked Weaver’s activism. He is now a member of the advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, a group born from the Death of Evidence rally that campaigns to have more scientists involved in policy decisions. Leaning over tables covered in poster boards and paint, he gave sign-makers a brief history of science activism in Canada under Stephen Harper’s government. Weaver quotes Einstein—“Those who have the privilege to know have a duty to act”—and looks hopefully at the children sloshing paint on poster boards. Parents there saw value in their children’s curiosity. In fact, children made up nearly half of participants; one mother showed me a sign she painted with her son that read, “Every child is a scientist.”
Sharon Cohen is also prepared to march. Cohen, the director of a Toronto Alzheimer’s and dementia research centre, speaks with urgency about the potential cuts to health research in the US. The NIH is a dominant force in Alzheimer’s research, thanks in part to a bill signed under Obama’s administration. Rolling back efforts to combat the disease won’t meet the rising demand for treatment, which is climbing as the elderly survive other diseases and live longer around the world. Globally, the number of cases is expected to triple by 2050 to 115 million. Politicians agree something needs to be done: Obama’s national strategy to eliminate Alzheimer’s by 2025 met little objection when it was approved, though negotiations by a fractious Congress on how much money should be dedicated to research has stalled the plan. “If we allow myths to be perpetuated and allow neurological research to be underfunded, it’ll totally backfire,” Cohen says. Canada currently has about 564,000 Alzheimer’s patients, which is poised to double in the next twenty years and cost Canadians upward of $17 billion. “We can’t really afford not to find effective treatment,” Cohen says. There isn’t a shortcut to finding new treatments or cures. But if the public rallies around Alzheimer’s the way it did for heart and lung diseases, then it won’t be such a long shot.
The solution to preventing attacks on scientific agencies may be to not only march, but also run for office. In the US, the 314 Action group, inspired by the first digits of the constant pi, is raising money to train scientists to become politicians. The US also has advisory and lobby groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) advocating for science in politics.
A march won’t solve anything on its own, but Canada’s experience proves they can lead to results. It’s been five years since science was laid to rest on Parliament Hill. Since that time, unions have negotiated scientists’ right to speak to media, the Ontario-based facilities that study freshwater and environmental changes have been absorbed by the province, and an injection in atmospheric research is keeping PEARL alive until 2018. But while the change in government restored the place of science in policymaking—innovation and STEM training were highlights of Trudeau’s 2017 budget—scientists are still fighting for independent positions. There are other concerns, as well: since September, Canada’s information watchdog and chief statistician stepped down citing concerns about independence. “People shouldn’t stop just because Harper is out of office,” Eichler says. “It wasn’t just him—he was part of a movement.”
You Don't Need to Buy that House
Canada’s housing market is not the problem. Our fixation on home ownership is
Next week, the Government of Ontario will deliver a budget with measures to cool off the inferno that is Toronto’s real estate market. Those fire retardants will take the form of a foreign buyer’s tax—much like the one imposed in Vancouver by the provincial government last year—and measures intended to encourage housing development, adding supply to a desperately short market. Such initiatives seem promising, but they will almost certainly not be enough to help most Ontarians. That’s because most people looking for a solution to the problematic housing market are still asking the wrong question: how to make homeownership affordable for the largest number of Canadians.
In two of Canada’s biggest cities, that’s no longer a realistic policy objective—or, at least, no more reasonable than wanting to make Aston Martin ownership affordable. In Vancouver, even a 50 percent correction in the price of the averaged detached home would bring it down to a measly $750,000—hardly the definition of affordability in a city where the median household income is just over $75,000. Prices have escalated so dramatically in Toronto over the past year that a 50 percent haircut would bring prices back to where they were in 2012—a then-record high of $542,174.
And while a more moderate decrease (say, 25 percent) is well within the realm of possible outcomes, it would disproportionately affect younger homeowners, who purchased more recently and at higher prices and therefore have less equity to shield them from the pain of any downturn. They’re also the least likely to be able to weather an increase in financing costs—which seems inevitable, given that the Federal Reserve has already started hiking interest rates, and the Bank of Canada appears poised to follow (albeit reluctantly) in its footsteps. In this sort of environment, helping young Canadians get into a housing market that they can’t otherwise afford—as the BC Liberals’ newly announced program for first-time buyers purports to do—is like lending someone money so they can buy a ticket on the Hindenburg. And yet, politicians continue to trip over themselves in order to get as many buyers on board as possible.
They’re not entirely to blame. For three generations, housing policy in North America has explicitly and almost exclusively favoured owners. And no wonder: home ownership, according to the prevailing orthodoxy, was an unalloyed social good, one that enriched both the people who bought houses and the neighbourhoods that hosted them. In the United States, that idea ultimately distorted our view of the purpose of housing, and transformed it from an asset that was prized for its stability and durability into the subject of collective get-rich-quick schemes. And like all such ploys, this one won’t end well for the people who got in at the end—or the politicians who helped shoehorn them into it.
This reality is beginning to dawn on Canada’s millennial homeowners. According to a recent CIBC poll, among those who own homes (the majority of whom bought with help from their parents), more than four out of five plan to sell in the near future. Many said it was because their mortgage was making them cash poor (63 percent), or because rising interest rates could make it hard for them to pay their bills (57 percent). Perhaps most crucially, 36 percent thought of renting as the “better option.” They’re onto something. That’s why, instead of incentivizing home ownership, politicians should focus on ensuring that middle-class Canadians—the nurses, teachers, paramedics, public servants, and assorted white-collar professionals who provide the economic and social lubrication for the engine of civilization—can access affordable shelter. That means being able to put a roof over your head without it consuming 50 percent of your take-home pay, never mind the 120 percent that BMO says the average detached house would cost the average Vancouver family. And in Toronto and Vancouver, that’s means favouring renters, and renting, in a way that’s never happened before.
The good news is that some politicians are slowly waking up to this new state of affairs. In Vancouver, Gregor Robertson has embarked a conspicuous campaign that encourages voters to pressure their MLAs to support renter-friendly policies ahead of next month’s provincial election. The Kathleen Wynne government in Ontario also gets it, albeit belatedly: its announcement of a package of pro-affordability policies on April 20 included an extension of the province’s rent-control guidelines to the entire market and a five-year, $125 million program that rebates development charges to companies building new rental units.
But any politician who speaks out in favour of renters is bound to face enormous pushback, given the accumulation of interests on the side of home ownership—and the relative paucity of players who support renter-friendly policies. From big banks and real estate agencies to mortgage brokers, interior decorators, and other smaller fish in the ever-expanding economic ecosystem that surrounds housing, there are literally thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on Canadians buying more houses than they can afford, and plowing the rest of their disposable income into renovation projects that are the stuff of an HGTV-powered fever dream. Almost nobody gets rich off of people who choose to rent.
That’s why, rather than trying to bring this massive behemoth to heel, the government should direct its energy (and capital) toward more productive ends. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, whose decision to insure “high-ratio” mortgages—that is, mortgages in which the bank lends over 80 percent of the purchase price—greatly contributed to Canada’s housing boom, is sitting on a balance sheet worth billions of dollars. It generated nearly $2 billion in net income in 2015 from the fees that high-ratio borrowers paid to have their mortgages insured, and it has kicked upwards of $20 billion into the federal treasury over the last decade.
Rather than using that money to “improve the government’s fiscal position,” as has been the case, Ottawa should send it back to Toronto and Vancouver, through any number of affordability-oriented projects. That could mean the revival of a federal co-op housing program, which in previous iterations has helped build more than 50,000 units of housing across the country. It could also mean placing greater emphasis on purpose-built rentals, where the annual increase is linked to inflation rather than the vagaries of the housing market. But what it absolutely must mean is a commitment to protecting affordability rather than promoting ownership.
That will require a major shift in the mindsets of the people (and policymakers) in this housing-mad country. But as the CIBC poll suggests, that change is already underway. And while politicians aren’t exactly known for their willingness to stand up to home-owning voters, a bold volte-face isn’t totally inconceivable. Even homeowners are starting to realize that turning a $350,000 bungalow into a $2.5 million lottery ticket comes with a cost, and it’s one they have to help pay—whether by watching their adult children move to more affordable markets or by seeing their neighbourhood lose the vitality that only young families can contribute to a community.
There is precedent for collective and decisive government action around housing affordability, as newly retired UBC geography professor David Ley told the South China Morning Post’s Ian Young in a recent interview. “For a brief time, from 1972 to 1975, it was at all three levels: there was the new ‘open society’ of [Pierre] Trudeau at the federal level, there was the first ever NDP administration in Victoria, and there was a reform movement in Vancouver.” Now, it falls to Justin Trudeau to help save Toronto and Vancouver from themselves. His government’s recent budget was a good start, given that it committed the federal government to a role—and a meaningful one—in the fight for affordable housing that it had largely abandoned in recent decades. But while the money will surely help, government must do more. Ottawa, along with all other levels of government, has to stop prioritizing home ownership over the ability of middle class citizens to put a roof over their heads without draining all of their financial resources in the process.
There’s still work to do, if Premier Wynne’s recent comments are any indication. “When young people can’t afford their own apartment or can’t imagine ever owning their own home, we know we have a problem,” she said. “And when the rising cost of housing is making more and more people insecure about their future, and about their quality of life in Ontario, we know we have to act.” Therein lies the rub: both Canadians and the politicians who represent them have to start imagining a future in which they don’t own their own homes. And if those politicians continue to act in ways that prioritize the ability to buy real estate over the capacity to afford shelter, people with insecurity about the future aren’t going to get the kind of help they really need. We’ve already lost the battle here. Let’s not lose the war.
We Let Work Define Us. Why Not Play?
Hobbies aren’t just fulfilling—they keep us healthy, mindful, and sane
A few years ago, my family and I lived at an international school in a cliffside Italian village overlooking the Adriatic. My husband was teaching, and I was writing. I was also in charge of ushering our two shell-shocked kids to and from their village schools, trying to put a positive spin on the fact that they spoke zero Italian as I backed away from the gate: “They will give you mozzarella di bufala at lunch! Ciao!”
Faculty at Julian’s school came from around the world—a mini-UN of teachers. Right away, I noticed something different about them. When I made get-to-know-you small talk, they didn’t immediately turn to their professional lives; there was no CV rundown in response to the question “What do you do?” Instead, they talked about what they actually did, as in, during the time they weren’t working. It turned out that the Scottish science teacher also competed in decathlons, and the Dutch economics prof was always appearing in shiny bicycling clothes and helmet, heading off to the mountains. By Friday at 5:00 p.m., other residents of our village were card sharks, sketchers, gardeners, and hikers. Consequently, I was asked more than once, in a range of fetching European accents, “So, what is your hobby?”
Good question, and one I had literally never been asked in Toronto. What had I been doing all these years? Ingesting social media and occasionally hitting museums were not sustained passions; they were ﬂeeting diversions. Did the odd yoga class count? How about trading sassy pop culture barbs over wine with friends? Good times, but also not a hobby.
A hobby is an interest practiced for pleasure, rather than reward, and in a work-centric culture, it’s no surprise that the concept has faded from the vernacular. The Puritans warned of the “descent into idleness,” and Victorian-era women’s magazines instructed women that crafting and musical pursuits must be “useful.” We may not say it out loud, but the idea of just following pleasure week after week, fervently, feels a little . . . lazy. Are we any different from those prissy Puritans?
Perhaps not coincidentally, the old-fashioned hobbies of the crafting and gathering type—model railroad making; mineral collecting—appear to be in decline. One British paper reports a survey showing that one in four Brits describes “watching TV” as his or her favorite hobby; Americans spend thirty-three hours per week doing the same. The British survey showed that practicing a musical instrument was a pastime for only 4 percent, while ﬁshing was enjoyed by only 2 percent. Local papers periodically revisit the mournful feature that reads like an obituary when yet another beloved hobby store closes down. Of course, fetishists who can’t afford bricks and mortar set up online, and some niche hobbies thrive on the Internet (at bagophily.com, one can commune with other collectors of airline barf bags).
But our nostalgia for the craft store is not just for homeless model ship kits, but also for the free time they once inhabited. RIP, weekends. It’s no coincidence that hobbies boomed in popularity in the United States in the 1930s when the eight-hour workday was ﬁnally legislated, and more people than ever before had weekends off.
Hobbies exist in a gray area of our free time; they’re supposed to be the opposite of work, but they can be laborious. Steven M. Gelber, a history professor at Santa Clara University, has written that hobbies “take work, turn it into leisure; take leisure, turn it into work.” By deﬁnition, hobbies are freely chosen, but Gelber argues that many of them are repetitive and goal-oriented, imitations of work that we invite into our home (thus reinforcing capitalist values and keeping us cheerful cogs in the machine, he notes). Hobbies can also feel inherently conservative, cementing gender roles. Gelber writes how 1950s women were encouraged to sew and make music, while men were supposed to ﬂex their DIY muscles in the garage with very big tools, or exercise their man-science brains with model kits.
But even if some hobbies follow the contours of work, there’s one signiﬁcant, liberating difference: nobody cares how good you are at your hobby but you. In amped-up, high-stakes, economically anxious times, hobbies are a deliciously low-stakes pursuit. Yes, there may be spectatorship and competitiveness within the insular world of a particular hobby (in Utah a few years ago, a Dungeons & Dragons hobbyist, displeased with his friend’s behavior as Dungeon Master, snuck into the Master’s house and beat him with a hammer). But most hobbies are personal refuges, a private space in the week where we can explore mastery for its own sake.
My husband’s parents have become bird-watchers in their later years. At ﬁrst, I admit, I didn’t totally get it. Bird-watching is a type of collecting, really, with its checklists and insider lingo. It’s also one of the fastest-growing hobbies in North America. They wear funny hats and keep binoculars with them at all times; it is, like so many hobbies, supremely uncool. But the pleasure bird-watching brings my in-laws is palpable. It transforms their holidays, shaping their weekends and changing the meaning of the landscape that they’re in.
It’s also something that bonds them as a couple. When I picture them, I see them side by side on the edge of a road, necks craned, binoculars tilted to the heavens. My father-in-law, Brian, describes it as “a pair of matched minds pursuing the same end.” But he also likes the solitude of bird-watching alone. He speaks of the mental exercise: the patience required on the long wait for the bird that may or may not emerge; the rise to the surface of all his senses. He has what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls an “autotelic personality,” someone with an innate curiosity to master things just for their own sake and the ability to concentrate on those things for long periods of time (collectors and catalogue hobbyists). Brian admits to having taken over 75,000 photos (he whittled one trip to Mexico from 10,000 photos to 10). “Birds have this power, this spiritual power, to bring us to ourselves, to tame our distracted mind. Their appearance can feel like grace, and their disappearance contributes to the magic,” he says.
Hobbies are also incredibly good for you physiologically. Hobbies can boost social interaction, which reduces stress—and loneliness. They may even make you less susceptible to dementia. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic interviewed 256 seniors about their leisure habits. At the start of the survey, none of the group—average age eighty-seven—displayed any impairment of memory or thought. Approximately four years later, 121 of the subjects had developed mild cognitive issues. Researchers discovered that certain activities indicated a lower likelihood of impairment, such as socializing and using the computer for surﬁng and games. But by far, the best way to stave off mental decline was to participate in artistic hobbies. Subjects who had regularly taken part in artistic endeavours in middle or old age—like painting, sculpting, or drawing—were 73 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who hadn’t.
Crafters (pottery, woodworking, quilting, sewing) were 45 percent less likely to develop memory issues. And if you really need to think of everything in terms of work, hobbies breed professional success, too: Nobel prize-winners are more likely than other scientists or members of the public to have had long-standing hobbies. A recent study found that those who practiced creative hobbies in their free time were better equipped to recover from the demands of work after hours, more likely to help others, and more likely to be creative when they returned to the ofﬁce.
All of this productivity stuff is well and good, but a hobby’s real value is in its purposelessness. In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote that “play” had been crippled “by the cult of efﬁciency.” The idea that every activity must be useful takes on a new cast in the Internet age: the web can make an entrepreneur out of anyone with a mouse. There’s a lure to monetize what we become good at, to turn the amateur into the professional. Uber started as a hobby! Maybe my idea will grab the world by storm! This is what’s been called a “jobby,” not a “hobby”: a pursuit with an agenda. But hobby as side-hustle kind of misses the point: a hobby is something that’s not about winning, it’s about doing one thing deeply.
So often, the self feels inescapable; privately, we cultivate our self online all day, posting versions on social media; professionally, many of us work at jobs with an online dimension, broadcasting every beat of our day. Here’s what we need in a weekend: ﬂow. Csikszentmihalyi describes the “ﬂow state” as total immersion in an activity for its own sake (this is why paid work doesn’t count, though ﬂow at work is an incredible experience). It’s the feeling of being out of self, and out of time: “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
In 1776, while riding in a coach from Henley to Birmingham, James Boswell sought Samuel Johnson’s advice about a creeping feeling of melancholia. Dr. Johnson had an answer for him: “When you have a place in the country, lay out twenty pounds a year upon a laboratory. It will be an amusement to you . . . Take a course of chemistry or a course of rope-dancing, or a course of anything to which you are inclined at the time. Contrive to have as many retreats for your mind as you can, as many things to which it can ﬂy from itself.”
So, Johnson was advising Boswell that the best way to manage his depression was to get a hobby (even though “rope-dancing” means tightrope walking, which sounds a little sarcastic). “Retreats for your mind”—don’t we all need those, and isn’t that just ﬂow? Hobbies are the way of unalloyed pleasure, which we so desperately need after those long hours and nights, tethered to our devices and our jobs. The tasks that make up the responsibilities of our lives have end points, but the hobby is boundless. It can be a site of rejuvenation, and preparation for epiphanies to come.
On Saturday morning at 10:00 in Tucson, Arizona, an adult colouring club meets. They bring their own books and colored pencils and sit down at a long table in a quiet room. Jamar runs the group, booking the space, posting the location (library, community center, retirement home) online on meetup.com; he walks around the room quietly, murmuring encouragement as everyone colours.
A few winters ago, Jamar was living in Montana, bored and housebound by snow, and he began drawing mandalas. Then he started mirroring them, creating elaborate Escher-esque patterns, complex line drawings that begged to be colored. This was before the adult colouring book trend took off, as it has: roughly 12 million adult coloring books were sold in 2015, up about 1 million from 2014. Jamar decided to self-publish and sell his drawings online. Then he read that people were gathering and colouring together, and he decided to start a group. “I realized pretty quickly that it’s not about the colouring, it’s about bringing people together.”
It’s odd, really: a group of adults with their heads bowed, silently coloring. Sometimes there’s small talk and laughter, and once, someone was being “disrespectful” and Jamar had to ask him to leave. It’s easy to sniff at this trend, which has the faddish feel of Cabbage Patch Kids and Tae Bo. Adults colouring, grumble the grumblers, is a form of mass infantilization, and the packaging of mindfulness for proﬁt. It’s not even creative! Sheeple, put down the crayons!
But this tut-tutting means nothing in the room at the Tucson coloring club. Different people come every week, and friendships have been forged. Those who love it describe a mental shift that feels entirely different from other kinds of weekend hobbies. “It’s the neatest experience, your mind goes into a place where it hasn’t been. It’s like it’s structured and it’s free,” says Robin, who works in medical publishing. She lived in New York and St. Louis before moving to Arizona and relishes the quiet of the desert. She never really had a hobby before. Painting and pottery classes didn’t yield much pleasure. She and her husband know Jamar from their regular nights at the restaurant where he waits tables, and at his invitation, she decided to come out one Saturday. She was apprehensive, but she enjoyed the ritual of preparation: the fresh pack of pencils and the crisp new book, like a kid on the ﬁrst day of school. And once she sat down and started colouring, she was engrossed.
The rhythmic repetition sounds exactly like ﬂow: the loss of time, the world falling away. The positive effects of colouring are well documented. In one study, the anxiety levels of subjects were measured in a baseline test. Then, researchers described a scary experience, increasing participants’ anxiety. In that heightened state, they were randomly assigned to colour a blank page or a patterned page. The blank page people showed no decrease in anxiety levels, but those who coloured were signiﬁcantly less anxious.
“It gets you out of a very busy, frantic pace,” says Robin. “It’s like your circuits slow down. When you were a kid, you could sit in the corner and play with dolls or cars or colouring books; you did it for hours and that was all that existed in the world. This is like that. I’ve never felt that as an adult.”
Sometimes a hobby can save a life.
Tyler is a young software developer in Portland, Oregon. He got into origami on a road trip with his family when his mother gave him the Klutz guide to origami. Soon, he was folding constantly, leaving his creations around town. When he went into restaurants, he would leave pieces behind; in one Thai restaurant, his objects accrued at the counter until they formed a pile. The manager asked him to make a koi ﬁsh out of a hundred-dollar bill, based on an Internet sensation, “Wan Park’s dollar koi,” where the hands of an origamist take a dollar bill and fold it into a beautiful scaled ﬁsh with whiskers and eyes in the exact right place. The patterns didn’t quite line up on the hundred, but Tyler did ﬁnish, staying several hours after closing.
On weekends, he often does origami at home, alone, but on the second Sunday of each month, he attends a group at a Portland library. He’s not the most social person, so this can be a struggle for him, but he makes a conscious point of going. The group that gathers isn’t uniform, with people from ages eight to sixty-ish. It’s equal parts male and female, culturally diverse, with many older Japanese people. There’s no instruction. Tyler wants to see what other people are making and get inspired, and also (he admits) show off his own work, which is spectacular: long braids that look sculpted out of marble; a row of delicate birds linked at the wings, facing different directions, as if breaking out of one continuous piece of paper.
Even as it shares some of the qualities of his paid work—the logic and patterning of software—origami is an escape from what he does during the week. “Software is endless, and each piece of origami has a beginning and an end,” he says. It isn’t, he notes, meditative: it can actually be a bit of an adrenaline rush, as he pushes to the ﬁnish.
A few years ago, Tyler suffered serious depression, and found that one way to get out of it was to use his hands. Repetitive motions release serotonin, and origami felt like a way to manage the pain. He’s doing better now, but he worries about the depression returning; he works to keep it at bay. In a poignant email, he described how important this hobby is to his life. It provides a sense of purpose, and at the Saturday club, it puts him inside a larger community.” My worldview shifted from being in so much pain for so long. I’m terriﬁed that something will happen again and I’ll be trapped in this body suffering for years,” he wrote. “For whatever reason I seem wired to ﬁnd at least some meaning in sharing the things I ﬁnd meaningful with other people. Sharing origami designs and helping someone learn to fold is a good way to do that.”
“Peter” was a seventeen-year-old skateboarder from an affluent family. He had spent most of the last two years waking and baking. If he was conscious, there was a good chance Peter had just hit a bong or smoked a joint.
He was like so many of the clients I worked with as an addictions counsellor: good kid, okay grades, loved playing with his younger siblings. And then things changed. After a few months of experimenting with marijuana, Peter began lying and manipulating his parents to get money to support his habit. When they finally cut him off from the parent bank, Peter began stealing directly from their wallets. He started skipping classes and getting failing grades. As his moods became increasingly erratic, he lost the ability to maintain eye contact. When in withdrawal, he had severe anger outbursts that frequently ended with a hole punched through the wall.
And then things got weird. His mother noticed that he would watch TV when it wasn’t even on. He developed conspiracy theories about CSIS, the CIA, and the Illuminati. Having recently returned from a Florida vacation where his parents had detoxed him while watching his every move, Peter was totally sober when he asked me to stop violating his mind with my psychic brain probes. I laughed when he said this, assuming it was a joke. His response: “No, no—I am being serious. Can you teach me how to do it? Can I get chicks to fuck me if I read their minds? Can I control them?”
Peter was my introduction to marijuana-induced psychosis—a schizophrenia-like condition that afflicts a small but growing minority of the adolescents and young adults who become dependent on pot. As Canada moves toward legalizing marijuana, my fear is that such cases as Peter’s are being ignored in the conversation about pot legislation. Pot psychosis is only one of the many detrimental life-limiting effects that can result from pot addiction. Yet when I mention the words “marijuana” and “addiction” together, I’m often met with a disbelieving eye roll. Unfortunately, the idea that marijuana is a harmless substance has been accepted as fact by much of our society. And so those of us who raise concerns about its risks are often stigmatized as alarmists.
Those reeling from their pot addictions often see this collective state of denial as a damning judgment of them. I now work as a Toronto-based psychotherapist who specializes in concurrent disorders—mental health conditions that are intermeshed with addiction. One of the most important ways I can help clients move on from their substance abuse is severing the link between shame and addiction. Thankfully, society’s attitudes have begun to change. Increasingly, we see addiction as a medical condition that needs to be treated, rather than a symptom of criminality or moral failure. But in the case of marijuana addiction, this compassionate attitude gets discarded because of a blind belief in the benign nature of marijuana. Our message to people such as Peter is clear: There’s no problem with pot. So the problem must be with you.
Many are shocked when I tell them that pot is the substance I deal most with in my practice—more so than heroin, cocaine, or even alcohol. Most have little understanding that the pot consumed today is completely different from the weed smoked twenty or even ten years ago. The tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) potency of many strains of pot has exploded in that time. THC is the main psychoactive agent in marijuana, and it’s what produces the drug’s euphoric effects, gives users the feeling of being high. Throughout the 1980s, most of the pot you could buy on the street had a THC content of around 3 percent. Marijuana was then generally grown in arable fields, and the top, leafy portion of the plant was harvested for distribution. In the 1990s, production started switching to indoor grow ops that used sophisticated hydroponic technology to cultivate strains that maximized THC potency. New harvesting methods targeted the middle of the plant, where THC content is higher. It is no longer uncommon to find strains with a potency of more than 30 percent.
More recently, competitive market forces have unleashed the technological innovation of cannabis-oil extraction. Commonly known as “BHO” (butane hash oil), “dab,” or “shatter,” cannabis oil is a sticky, wax-like substance that has a THC potency of between 70 and 80 percent. It can be inhaled through a vaporizer, or by using simpler methods, such as “dabbing,” which involves heating the pot extract on a knife or nail.
Even some pot supporters have become concerned about the impact of cannabis-oil extraction. As one columnist on leafy.com, a marijuana-advocacy forum and pot-culture online magazine, recently wrote: “One of the most unsettling facts about dabs is that thanks to the super-concentrated power of BHO, for the first time it seems possible to ‘overdose’ on cannabis. While still not lethal, taking more than your personal limit of dabs can lead to uncomfortable highs and, in some cases, passing out. After all of the chanting that ‘you can’t overdose on marijuana,’ concentrates could be undermining advocates’ message of safety.”
In a number of jurisdictions where cannabis has been decriminalized or legalized, there are growing movements to limit the THC potency of recreational pot. The Netherlands was the first to propose a limit of 15 percent THC potency in 2011, as the country saw an increase in pot psychosis and people seeking help for marijuana addiction. One of the criticisms of this change to the nation’s liberal drug legislation is that the 15 percent cap is arbitrary—and the challenges involved in accurately testing THC levels would make enforcement nearly impossible. Nevertheless, politicians and advocacy groups in Colorado started petitioning for similar THC limits after research showed that legalization could be resulting in an increase in the THC levels of pot sold in that state.
We really have no clue what consuming THC at levels in even the mid-to-high twenty-something percent range will do to a human being over the long term. What we do know is that the younger you are when you start smoking pot, the more likely you are to become addicted to it; the more you smoke it, the more likely it is to have debilitating affects on mental health and brain development; and the stronger the THC content, the more profound the damage will be.
When researchers ask people why they smoke pot, among the most frequent responses is that the drug relaxes or calms them. This tranquilizing effect is the result of a phenomenon pot researchers call “emotional dampening”—a diminishing of emotional arousal or distress—which lowers the intensity of emotional activity in the brain. For some, however, continual emotional dampening becomes necessary for daily functioning as they switch from healthier forms of emotional coping to pot smoking. Woody Harrelson, for one—an actor famous for his pot advocacy—recently disclosed that he had stopped smoking pot because his chronic usage had kept him from being “emotionally available.”
Those who come to the drug with compromised coping abilities, especially in regard to anxiety, often develop an urgent need to smoke pot all day long, so as not to feel as if they are about to go crazy or have a nervous breakdown. This psychological dependency becomes an emotional ball and chain. I once had an executive seek out my services because he’d found himself smuggling pot through airport security when flying into the United States for business trips and family vacations. It took putting himself and his family in jeopardy for him to realize he was fully addicted to pot.
In my experience, the emotional-dampening effect that chronic pot smokers experience makes it impossible to treat underlying mental health disorders while they are actively using. The core of treatment for those suffering with concurrent disorders is to allow them to safely feel emotion and effectively regulate the intensity of their feelings. Pot’s emotional-dampening effect reduces a person’s ability to manage their emotions, while at the same time making the prospect of experiencing uninhibited emotion terrifying.
Adolescents and young adults are two and a half times more likely to smoke pot than adults are. This is problematic, because there is growing consensus that, over time, THC exposure can alter the development of the cortex region in the brains of people younger than twenty-five. Such changes can result in the long-term inhibition of executive functioning, leading to deficits in attention, memory, verbal learning, and impulse control. (There is conflicting evidence as to whether these deficits are permanent, or could be mitigated if the user gives up pot.)
Just as significant as these neurological effects are the cascading psychological effects experienced by a young person who becomes addicted to weed. As the drug becomes their preoccupation, these youth can find themselves alienated from their peers, family, and teachers. They create narratives of themselves as misfits and screw-ups, a process often supported by other psychologically damaging experiences, such as abuse, bullying, or family dysfunction. Whether they end up in my office at the age of fifteen, twenty-five, or thirty-five, these users have seen their lives diminished. It should be noted that a recent UNICEF study found that Canada has the highest rate of youth cannabis consumption in the developed world.
I am not concerned by teenagers who occasionally smoke joints at parties, or take bong hits on weekend nights out. Sporadic pot use is not nearly as risky as unprotected sex, aggressive driving, binge drinking, or experimenting with harder drugs. But I am concerned for the nearly 20 percent of kids who experiment with pot and then eventually get hooked on it and start smoking it daily. I once had a sixteen-year-old client who refused to quit pot, but agreed to try to reduce his use from forty bong hits a day to twenty or thirty.
It’s situations such as Peter’s—the ones involving full-blown psychotic episodes—that really scare me. At a number of youth psychiatric wards in Toronto-area hospitals, the staff know me by name. “Hey, Felix, got another one for us?” is a greeting I often get from psychiatrists and nurses. We sometimes use dark humour as a means to cope with the surreal nature of the delusions. This patient was talking to the Martians in the curtains; that one was sure there was a conspiracy to keep him off Wi-Fi. No humour can be found in other cases. I had one twenty-one-year-old client, with no prior history of violence or aggression, who mistook his mother for a demon and attacked her with a knife. While I was writing this, a seventeen-year-old client of mine was forcibly confined to an intensive psychiatric unit reserved for the most serious cases.
If we can get these patients into the hospital in time, and they find a way to break their dependence on marijuana, it is possible for them to return to a normal life. But there are some kids, such as Peter, who just won’t listen. After spending two months in the psych ward, he came out seeming like his old self again. His parents thought it was a miracle that they had their good-tempered and caring son back. And then he started smoking weed again, and quickly landed up back in the hospital. After his third admission, he was diagnosed as being permanently schizophrenic.
The debate around pot legalization is largely irrelevant to the work I do with my clients. The history of civilization teaches us that an addict will always find their fix, whether it is legal or not. (Personally, I am pro-legalization, as drug-prohibition laws have so clearly failed.) What disappoints me about the Liberal government’s approach to legalization is the tenor of the discussion surrounding it. I was appalled in late March when the Liberals paid homage to pothead culture, announcing that they intended to table marijuana legalization before April 20, or 4/20: a date that is commemorated annually (for obscure historical reasons) in most major cities in North America, having become a sort of pothead Christmas, complete with ad hoc parades. It’s a nod and a wink to the infantile side of Canadian youth culture, and helps feed the caricature of Trudeau as the high-school teacher who tries too hard to be as cool as his students.
For so many in Canada, marijuana is “just pot.” Those of us who deal with marijuana’s consequences know better. And one would think that our federal government would, too.
The Benefits of Solitude
Our society rewards social behaviour while ignoring the positive effects of time spent alone
On April 14, 1934, Richard Byrd went out for his daily walk. The air was the usual temperature: minus 57 degrees Fahrenheit. He stepped steadily through the drifts of snow, making his rounds. And then he paused to listen. Nothing.
He attended, a little startled, to the cloud-high and over-powering silence he had stepped into. For miles around the only other life belonged to a few stubborn microbes that clung to sheltering shelves of ice. It was only 4 p.m., but the land quavered in a perpetual twilight. There was—was there?—some play on the chilled horizon, some crack in the bruised Antarctic sky. And then, unaccountably, Richard Byrd’s universe began to expand.
Later, back in his hut, huddled by a makeshift furnace, Byrd wrote in his diary:
Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence—a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres, perhaps.
It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe.
Admiral Byrd had volunteered to staff a weather base near the South Pole for five winter months. But the reason he was there alone was far less concrete. Struggling to explain his reasons, Byrd admitted that he wanted “to know that kind of experience to the full . . . to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.” He was also after a kind of personal liberty, for he believed that “no man can hope to be completely free who lingers within reach of familiar habits.”
Byrd received the Medal of Honor for his work, but for most of us, the choice to be alone in the wild is not rewarded at all; in fact it is highly suspect. A trek into nature is assumed to be proof of some anti-social tendency. A feral disposition. Our friends and families don’t want us to wander off in search of the expansive, euphoric revelations that Byrd experienced in his Antarctic abyss. So we keep warm, instead, within our comfortable culture of monitoring and messaging. We abhor the disconnection that the woods, the desert, the glacier threaten us with in their heartless way. Our culture leans so sharply toward the social that those who wander into the wild are lucky if they’re only considered weird. At worst, they’re Unabombers. The bias is so strong that we stop thinking about that wilderness trek altogether; besides, we tell ourselves, surely we aren’t capable of such adventures. We’d wind up rotting in a ditch. And even if we could access the wild, we probably don’t have the fine kind of soul that would get something out of it.
There is something dangerous about isolating oneself the way Admiral Byrd did. Mystic euphoria aside, he nearly died there at the frozen anchor of the world. His furnace began leaking carbon monoxide into his hut. Indeed, a company of men down at his base camp had to hike in and save him when his health deteriorated. Other solitaries without radio-handy companions have been markedly less lucky. Think of young Chris McCandless (memorialized in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild), who left no trail for his acquaintances when he hiked into the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice. After 119 days he died in the wilderness he had sought—poisoned by mouldy seeds is one guess—stranded, anyway, by the vagaries of Mother Nature.
In the final days of Admiral Byrd’s solo Antarctic adventure—before men from his base camp came to rescue him—he was very close to death himself. Frostbite began to eat his body, and he mumbled like a monk in his sleeping bag, at times growing so weak he was unable to move. He cradled heat pads against himself and scraped lima beans from cans. He tried to play card games and was baffled by the weakness in his arms. He tried to read a biography of Napoleon but the words blurred and swam uselessly on the pages. “You asked for it,” a small voice within him said. “And here it is.”
But despite all this trauma, Admiral Byrd was returned to society with a gift that society itself could never give him; he carried “something I had not fully possessed before,” he wrote in his memoir. It was an “appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive . . . Civilization has not altered my ideas. I live more simply now, and with more peace.”
When Byrd and McCandless trekked into the wild, so doggedly insisting on solitude in nature, they both tapped into a human impulse that our progress has all but quashed.
When did we first step out of the wild and into the forever-crowded city? There was a time when all we had was access to nature—we were so inextricably in it and of it. Our ancestors spent their first 2.5 million years operating as nomadic groups that gathered plants where they grew and hunted animals where they grazed. Relatively recently, around ten thousand years ago, something phenomenal shifted: beginning in modern-day Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East, our ancestors embarked on what’s called the Agricultural Revolution. They began to manipulate and care for plants (and animals), devoting their days to sowing seeds and battling weeds, leading herds to pastures and fighting off their predators. This was no overnight transformation; rather, bit by bit, these nomads reimagined nature as a force to be contained and managed.
Or was it nature, rather, that was doing the taming? Even as we domesticated the wheat, rice, and corn that we still rely on to feed ourselves, human lives were bent in servitude to the care of crops. The historian Yuval Noah Harari calls this exchange “history’s biggest fraud” and argues that “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” The historian of food Margaret Visser agrees, calling rice, for example, a “tyrant” that
governs power structures, technological prowess, population figures, interpersonal relationships, religious custom . . . Once human beings agree to grow rice as a staple crop, they are caught in a web of consequences from which they cannot escape—if only because from that moment on rice dictates to them not only what they must do, but also what they prefer.
Relying on single staples for the majority of one’s caloric intake can be a gamble, too: even while it allows for exponential population growth, the diets of individuals become less varied and more vulnerable to attack by pests and blight. Others have pointed out that, just as domesticated animals have smaller brains than their wild ancestors, the brain of the “domesticated human” is significantly smaller than that of our pre-agriculture, pre-city selves.
Meanwhile, the care of crops and animals required so much of humans that they were forced to cease their wandering ways and remain permanently beside their fields—and so we have wheat and its cousins to thank for the first human settlements.
Professor Harari notes that the plot of land around Jericho, in Palestine, would have originally supported “at most one roaming band of about a hundred relatively healthy and well-nourished people,” whereas, post–Agricultural Revolution (around 8500 BCE), “the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1,000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment.” The Middle East was, by then, covered with similar, permanent settlements.
By 7500 BCE, our disenfranchisement from nature was expressed more dramatically when the citizens of Jericho constructed an enormous wall around their city—the first of its kind. The purpose of this wall was probably twofold: it protected against floods as well as marauding enemies. What’s extraordinary about this first significantly walled city is the almost fanatical determination to withdraw from that earlier, wild world. The wall, made of stone, was five feet thick and twelve feet tall. In addition, a ditch was constructed adjacent to the wall that was nine feet deep and almost thirty feet wide. Jericho’s workers dug this enormous bulwark against the outside from solid bedrock—a feat of determined withdrawal that would have been unthinkable to our pre-agricultural ancestors. This was a true denial of the sprawling bushland that had been our home for millennia. The “wild” had been exiled. And we never invited it back. By the fourth century BCE the Agricultural Revolution had evolved into an “urban revolution”—one we are living out still.
In 2007, it was announced that more people live in cities than not. According to the World Health Organization, six out of every ten people will live in cities by 2030. No reversal of the trend is in sight. And as the city continues to draw us to itself, like some enormous, concrete siren, we begin to convince ourselves that this crowded existence is the only “natural” life, that there is nothing for us beyond the walls of Jericho. Perhaps, goes the myth, there never was.
As the urban revolution reaches a head and humans become more citified than not, “nature deficit disorder” blooms in every apartment block, and the crowds of urbanity push out key components of human life that we never knew we needed to safeguard. Nature activists like Richard Louv use less poesy and more research to prove that cities impoverish our sensory experience and can lead to an impoverished identity, too—one deprived of “the sense of humility required for true human intelligence,” as Louv puts it.
But what really happens when we turn too often toward society and away from the salt-smacking air of the seaside or our prickling intuition of unseen movements in a darkening forest? Do we really dismantle parts of our better selves?
A growing body of research suggests exactly that. A study from the University of London, for example, found that members of the remote cattle-herding Himba tribe in Namibia, who spend their lives in the open bush, had greater attention spans and a greater sense of contentment than urbanized Britons and, when those same tribe members moved into urban centres, their attention spans and levels of contentment dropped to match their British counterparts. Dr. Karina Linnell, who led the study, was “staggered” by how superior the rural Himba were. She told the BBC that these profound differences were “a function of how we live our lives,” suggesting that overcrowded urban settings demand altered states of mind. Linnell even proposes that employers, were they looking to design the best workforces, consider stationing employees who need to concentrate outside the city.
Meanwhile, at Stanford University, study participants had their brains scanned before and after walking in grassy meadows and then beside heavy car traffic. Participants walking in urban environments had markedly higher instances of “rumination”—a brooding and self-criticism the researchers correlated with the onset of depression. And, just as parts of the brain associated with rumination lit up on urban walks, they calmed down during nature walks.
Photos of nature will increase your sense of affection and playfulness. A quick trip into the woods, known as “forest bathing” in Japan, reduces cortisol levels and boosts the immune system. Whether rich or poor, students perform better with access to green space. And a simple view of greenery can insulate us from stress and increase our resilience to adversity. Time in nature even boosts, in a very concrete way, our ability to smell, see, and hear. The data piles up.
The cumulative effect of all these benefits appears to be a kind of balm for the harried urban soul. In the nineteenth century, as urbanization began its enormous uptick, as over- crowded and polluted city streets became, in the words of Pip in Great Expectations, “all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam,” doctors regularly prescribed “nature” for the anxiety and depression that ailed their patients. The smoke and noise of cities were seen as truly foreign influences that required remedy in the form of nature retreats. Sanitariums were nestled in lush, Arcadian surrounds to counteract the disruptive influence of cities. Eva Selhub and Alan Logan, the authors of Your Brain on Nature, have described how these efforts gave way, in the twentieth century, to the miracle of pills, which allowed ill people to remain in the city indefinitely, so long as they took their medicine: “The half-page advertisement for the Glen Springs Sanitarium gave way to the full-page advertisement for the anti-anxiety drug meprobamate.” In this light, today’s urban populace, which manages itself with sleeping pills and antidepressants (more than 10 per cent of Americans take antidepressants), may remind us of the soma-popping characters in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World. That vision may be changing at last, though. Today, as the curative effects of nature come back to light, some doctors have again begun prescribing “time outdoors” for conditions as various as asthma, ADHD, obesity, diabetes, and anxiety.
To walk out of our houses and beyond our city limits is to shuck off the pretense and assumptions that we otherwise live by. This is how we open ourselves to brave new notions or independent attitudes. This is how we come to know our own minds.
For some people, a brief walk away from home has been the only respite from a suffocating domestic life. Think of an English woman in the early nineteenth century with very few activities open to her—certainly few chances to escape the confines of the drawing room. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s determination to walk in the countryside signals her lack of convention. When her sister Jane takes ill at the wealthy Mr. Bingley’s house, Elizabeth traipses alone through fields of mud to be with her, prompting Bingley’s sister to call her “wild” in appearance with hair that has become unpardonably “blowsy”: “That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible . . . they held her in contempt for it.”
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes had a walking stick with an inkhorn built into its top so he could jot things down as they popped into his head during long walks. Rousseau would have approved of the strategy; he writes, “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.” Albert Einstein, for his part, was diligent about taking a walk through the woods on the Princeton campus every day. Other famous walkers include Charles Dickens and Mother Teresa, John Bunyan and Martin Luther King Jr., Francis of Assisi, and Toyohiko Kagawa. Why do so many bright minds seem set on their walks away from the desk? It can’t be just that they need a break from thinking—some of their best thinking is done during this supposed “downtime” out of doors.
In educational circles, there is a theory that helps explain the compulsion; it’s called the theory of loose parts. Originally developed by architect Simon Nicholson in 1972, when he was puzzling over how to make playgrounds more engaging, the loose parts theory suggests that one needs random elements, changing environments, in order to think independently and cobble together one’s own vision of things. Nature is an infinite source of loose parts, whereas the office or the living room, being made by people, is limited. Virginia Woolf noted that even the stuff and furniture of our homes may “enforce the memories of our own experience” and cause a narrowing, a suffocating effect. Outside of our ordered homes, though, we escape heavy memories about the way things have always been and become open to new attitudes.
But there does seem to be an art to walks; we must work at making use of those interstitial moments. Going on a hike, or even just taking the scenic route to the grocery store, is a chance to dip into our solitude—but we must seize it. If we’re compelled by our more curious selves to walk out into the world—sans phone, sans tablet, sans Internet of Everything—then we still must decide to taste the richness of things.
Outside the maelstrom of mainstream chatter, we at last meet not just the bigger world but also ourselves. Confirmed flâneur William Hazlitt paints the picture well. When he wanders out of doors he is searching for
liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do, just as one pleases . . . I want to see my vague notions float like the down on the thistle before the breeze, and not to have them entangled in the briars and thorns of controversy. For once, I like to have it all my own way; and this is impossible unless you are alone.
This is the gift of even a short, solitary walk in a city park. To find, in glimpsing a sign of the elements, that one does belong to something more elemental than an urban crowd. That there is a universe of experience beyond human networks and social grooming—and that this universe is our true home. Workers in the cramped centre of Osaka may cut through Namba Park on their way to work; Torontonians may cut through Trinity Bellwoods Park on their way to the city’s best bookshop; New Yorkers may cut through Central Park on their way to the Metropolitan Museum; and Londoners may cut through Hyde Park on their way to Royal Albert Hall. Stepping off the narrow sidewalk for even a few minutes, we may come across a new (and very old) definition of ourselves, one with less reference to others.
Excerpted from Solitude by Michael Harris. Copyright @ 2017 Michael Harris. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangment with the Publisher. All rights reserved.