Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deathnote: Where manga meets Chris Hedges

It wasn't my intention to use this blog for discussing books, but things have settled down for now—at least until the next indignity of living in a credit-driven, corporatist state is visited upon yours truly. I have a home, a room to call my own, and stimulating roommates. Winter's coming on, and with it the urge to curl and up read until the greening of the buds next spring.

* * *

I recently found myself reading two books concurrently—re-reading, actually—and, as occasionally happens when I have more than one book on the go, I discovered unexpected parallels.

On the surface of it, the books couldn’t be more dissimilar. One was Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists (Free Press, New York, 2008). The other was Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga series, Deathnote (English tankōbon, 12 vols., VIZ Media, San Francisco, 2007). Atheists dissects the secular fundamentalism typified by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. Deathnote is a story about a high school student who stumbles on a supernatural notebook that grants him the ability to kill simply by writing a person’s name. Atheists is aimed at an educated, adult audience. Deathnote is primarily directed toward teenagers. And while Hedges is a best-selling author, it’s doubtful whether sales of all his books combined approaches even a fraction of the more than twenty-six million copies of Deathnote sold in Japan alone.

Near the end of Atheists, Hedges makes the following statement:

“Our return to an image-based culture means the destruction of the abstract thought made possible by a literate, print-based society. Image-based societies do not grasp or cope with ambiguity, nuance, doubt and the many layers of irrational motives and urges, some of them frightening, that make human actions complex and finally unfathomable.”

While I’m predisposed to agree with Hedges on every point he makes against Dawkins and his ilk (including their staggering theological illiteracy and spurious application of Darwinian biology to culture), I respectfully disagree with his assertion that image-based culture cannot cope with ambiguity and nuance. As a novelist in the traditional mode, I’m well aware that we’re moving into a post-literary age. However, I do not hold his alarmist view. My position is cautiously optimistic. I believe what we are witnessing is analogous to the shift from an oral tradition to a written one. Much was lost by that shift, but much was gained.

I may be stretching a point, since manga is not purely images (it’s basically a Japanese comic), but what astounds me about the form is precisely its potential to convey ambiguity and complex human motivations. Not all manga realizes the potential; in fact, very little does. But when it is realized, the results are stupendous.

Deathnote is manga at its finest, and makes a particularly pertinent counter to Hedges’ doom-and-gloom view of image-based culture since it deals with exactly the same themes as Atheists, and does so in a manner that, contrary to his assertion, is complex, layered and nuanced.

Hedges’ main thesis is that the fundamentalist mindset, shared by religious types and science-worshipping secularists alike, always entails a Utopian future based on two related but demonstrably flawed assumptions: the possibility of collective salvation, ie. the idea that societies in their entirety can be improved (redeemed); and the myth of moral progress. Hedges rightly argues that as long as human beings are free-thinking organisms, any attempt at collective salvation necessarily devolves into totalitarianism and criminality. Furthermore, neither Religion, nor Reason, nor Science has ever occasioned any moral advancement in our race because, according to Hedges,

“Human evil is not a problem. It is a mystery. It cannot be solved...The forces of darkness are our own forces. If we fail to name or acknowledge these forces, they will destroy us. Acknowledgment means accepting that our encounter with evil is permanent and perpetual...The belief that we can achieve human perfection, that we can advance morally, is itself an evil.”

Light Yagami, the protagonist of Deathnote, is the embodiment of fundamentalist thinking. An A student of high moral principles, he is disgusted with the state of the world, which he characterizes as “a rotten mess.” When Fate hands him the means to kill at will in the form of a Shinigami’s notebook (Shinigami translates roughly as Death God), he mounts a campaign to purge the world of criminals and make it a place “...inhabited only by people I decide are good.”

The deathnote is “dropped” into the human world as a lark by Ryuk, a Shinigami seeking relief from the overwhelming boredom of his existence in the Shinigami realm—a sterile landscape inhabited by listless gods who no longer recall their purpose in Creation. The Beckett-like aridity of the Shinigami realm parallels the impoverished role of spirituality in contemporary Western culture, and it’s no surprise that it provides the seeds for Light’s Manichean Utopianism.

Light himself is an extraordinarily complex character. To start with, he’s impossible not to like. A model teenager, he’s charming, polite, well-spoken. His relationship with his parents is loving and respectful. He shows consideration toward his younger sister, even helping her with homework without griping. Girls find him hot, and guys think he’s cool. It’s as if the creators of Deathnote studied the Patricia Highsmith manual on how to get readers to side with psychopaths and monsters.

Because monster he is. Along side the very qualities that make him so likable is a monomaniacal appetite for power. Light will stop at nothing to become “...the god of a new world.” I say along side, not underneath, because his dark side and his light side, so to speak, coexist. One does not mask or eclipse the other. The synthesis of the two creates a character who’s at once both appealing and utterly blind to his own evil.

He’s also disarmingly frank. Ryuk, the Shinigami, is largely ignorant of human behaviour, a device that allows Light to explain how people think. It’s nearly impossible not to nod in agreement when Light elucidates the reason behind an explosion of Internet sites supporting his purge:

Light: “This is what human beings are like, Ryuk. Say in school, we have a discussion in class...there’s no way the subject would be, ‘Is it all right to kill someone evil?’ but let’s say that was the subject. Everyone would act all virtuous and say, ‘No, it’s wrong to kill anybody.’ And of course, that would be the proper response. People need to maintain that kind of facade in public. But this [Light points to his monitor] is what people really think. Cowards. Nobody will acknowledge my existence openly, but out on the anonymous Internet, ‘Kira’ rules.”

Kira, derived from the Japanese mispronunciation of “killer,” is the name by which Light’s criminal-killing spree is known. It’s not an alter ego; Light is not “sometimes-Light” and “sometimes-Kira.” It’s the label for a phenomenon that appeals to people’s desire for simple solutions to complex problems:

Light: “Media reports still refer only to ‘the series of mysterious deaths among violent criminals,’ but people all over the world already feel it—that someone is passing righteous judgment on them [criminals].”

Light dislikes the term, but intuitively grasps that ‘Kira’ encompasses more than just himself. It’s a doctrine, one that promises its followers paradise on Earth. In manga, as in real life, paradisaical futures, religion-based or secular, demand belief in dogma.

Light is gifted with a high IQ, and, in truth, much of the entertainment value of Deathnote comes from the battle of wits between him and his equally gifted nemesis, the enigmatic L. Reading the series is a bit like watching two grand masters trying to outwit each other in a marathon game of chess. But Light’s intelligence is paired with a grotesquely childish concept of justice. His plan to make the world a better place by killing criminals is utterly jejune. Like any radical Utopian scheme, it reduces evil to a single target and proposes that removal of the target will lead to an era of prosperity and harmony. His plan is as doomed to fail as gassing Jews or bombing Muslims. Or, as secular fundamentalists propound, excising spirituality from human experience.

Not surprisingly, Light’s target list expands when he encounters opposition. At one point, L accuses Kira of being evil, and Light, speaking to Ryuk, has this to say:

Light: “Me...evil...? I’m the hero who’s liberating people from fear. I’m the saviour who’s going to be like the god of this perfect new world! Those who try to fight me...they’re the evil ones!!”

In order to advance his Utopian scheme, he must now purge anyone who opposes Kira or seeks to unmask him. It’s an infantile reaction, one that leads irrevocably to the fanaticism that George Santayana so astutely defined as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

Light’s opponents are, in many ways, as childish and fanatical as Light himself. Their protestations that Kira is nothing more than a murderer come across as rote expressions of schoolbook morality. Like Light, they’re blind to their own evil. Abduction, torture and forcible confinement are part and parcel of the battle to bring Light/Kira down. L and his successor, Near, are perfectly content to stand by while lives are sacrificed. Their fanaticism overwhelms any initial sense of justice. In the end, all that matters is winning.

In Atheists, Hedges maintains that failure to acknowledge the innate flaws in human kind, that denying the full, irrational complexity of human beings, and that imagining evil is “out there” invite the catastrophic violence of fundamentalism.

“...once evil is seen as being only external, once some human beings are proclaimed more moral than others, repression and murder becomes a regrettable necessity to improve the world.”

Only one character in Deathnote is natively responsive to the emotional complexity and warring moral impulses that make him human, a police detective named Matsuda. Significantly, he’s the buffoon of the series. While the supposed good guys are reviling Kira for his wickedness, it falls to luckless Matsuda to point out that Kira’s killing of known criminals has indeed resulted in a significant drop in crime. He offers the observation tentatively, in the spirit of wondering, and for his courage in saying what no one else will receives embarrassed, foot-in-the-mouth silence from his fellow police officers. While everyone else is being deadly earnest, only he is capable of spontaneity. He laughs at what is funny, is moved by what is touching, gets excited when there’s cause for optimism. For this he’s treated like a fool. He sincerely wants to bring an end to Kira—for him, “killing anybody is wrong” is not a public facade—and constantly asks: “What can I do to help?” In one telling panel, L brushes him off with: “ could make me a cup of coffee.”

Matsuda’s just not smart enough, not grimly righteous enough, to play with the big boys. He’s marginalized, much as in the real world those who place humanity above big schemes and sweeping reforms are trivialized and dismissed.

However Matsuda, in his role as fool, makes everyone else look bad. From the start, L suspects that Light is Kira. Proving that he is forms the heart of Deathnote’s plot. But Matsuda likes and respects Light, and rejects L’s notion that Light is guilty until proven innocent. He defends Light at every opportunity, rejoicing whenever the evidence overwhelmingly supports his innocence, which frequently, and quite reasonably, it does—if you subtract the supernatural element of the story. That Matsuda’s wrong is not an indication of intellectual deficiency; it’s evidence of loyalty, decency, and humanity.

It’s no accident on the part of the creators of Deathnote that when Light is finally unmasked, in a stunning progression of images that incorporates one of the most expressive panels in the entire series—Light naked and howling like a beast—it’s Matsuda, the avatar of Everyman betrayed, who fires the shot that brings him down.

I’ve only touched on some of the ways Hedges’ arguments in I Don’t Believe in Atheists are vividly depicted in the pages of Deathnote. Light and L’s relationship alone deserves a book, so finely layered and mytho-psychologically nuanced is the friendship/enmity. Hedges is correct in his blistering criticism of the Utopian ideals that fuel both religious and secular fundamentalism, however he is wrong to imagine that image-based culture—here exemplified by manga—is a priori incapable of coping with the layers of ambiguity, nuance, and doubt that ultimately define who we are as a race.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

I recall the moment I first realized the future we’d been warned about was here. “Free long distance,” said the ad in reassuring, fashionably thin sans-serif type, “just $19.95/mo.”

Now, I'll admit I'm not the world’s most plugged-in person. Words change meaning sometimes, and I fail to notice, as the mongers of consumerism and our government distort them in an effort to direct how people think. But as far as I'm aware, free, in both its senses—liberty and gratis—still means what it always has. Free long distance for a price? That’s like saying, “Free beer Wednesday nights for $7.95 a pitcher.” Free means free, pay means pay. One excludes the other. Both cannot be true.

Not, that is, outside of doublethink.

Doublethink, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is defined as: “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them...” In the novel, doublethink is propagated through the use of Newspeak, a castrated form of English utterly devoid of nuance, like the soundbites heard on CNN. Its function is control, and its architects the Party. Quite unlike Zen koans (“the sound of one hand clapping”) and the gentle paradoxes of Lao Tzu (“the greatest fullness seems empty”), doublethink is not a tool for apprehending the eternal “real” beyond a scrim of words. Its goal is to induce an unmoored, schizophrenic state wherein reality becomes whatever those in power say it is.

In Western culture, doublethink is part and parcel of contemporary life. And it’s bad. Very, very bad. As bad as Orwell warned us it would be. When Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in '49, doublethink was in its infancy, a child of Stalin’s Soviet regime and Josef Goebbels' mastery of propaganda. It was just a trend, but Orwell spotted it, got scared, and used his powers as a novelist to show us what would happen if it carried on unchallenged.

Yet here we are, despite his warning, drenched in doublethink:

  • the former President of a country that styles itself the shining beacon of democracy rigging the elections—twice
  • perfect, controlled demolitions being set off by jet planes crashing into the World Trade Center
  • “greed” being equated with “good”
  • democracy being imposed by force
  • freedom being abrogated in the name of liberty

But it’s not these textbook proofs that 1984 is here and now that frighten me the most. Their blatancy, like all Big Lies, ensures that dissidents and other saintly malcontents will tend the fires of truth. No, what terrifies me is a slogan no one took exception to: “Free long distance, $19.95/mo.”

Doublethink is so pervasive we’ve grown used to it, so much so that, plastered on a billboard, there for everyone to deconstruct, no one even noticed.

* * *

Nineteen Eighty-Four is, of course, best known for the catch phrase: Big Brother is watching you. Perpetual surveillance is but one prong of the strategy employed by Orwell’s Party to control the “proles,” but it’s the bit that stuck, the theme that everybody knows. And, you’d think, would live in terror of.

Yet here we are, the most surveilled society in all of human history.

The twentieth century was a hotbed of cautionary tales, from the post-apocalyptic visions of Walter Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz) and Neville Shute (On the Beach), to Suzette Haden Elgin’s feminist-themed Native Tongue (from which Margaret Atwood appears to have, shall we say, borrowed a few ideas for the Handmaid’s Tale) to Frank Herbert’s tinkering-with-biology-themed The White Plague (which—shall we be charitable again?—prefigured Atwood’s Oryx and Crake), to William Gibson’s dark, corporatist futures—to name a few.

Three, however, stand above the rest and have emerged as classics: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

Each has entered popular imagination via Cole’s Notes-like synposes: Nineteen Eighty-Four is “about” Big Brother; Brave New World is “about” test-tube babies; Fahrenheit 451 is “about” burning books.

More accurate descriptions would run thus: Orwell’s novel is about a state that limits people freedoms by depriving them of discourse; Huxley’s is about control through drugs, consumerism and state-sanctioned hedonism; Bradbury’s most famous novel (other, I suppose, than Dandelion Wine) concerns itself with the anaesthetizing influence of entertainment media.

However, what disturbs me more than seeing complex novels shrivelled into two-word husks is how specifics of the novels' three dystopias have been embraced instead of shunned.

Take, for example, Huxley’s “scent organ,” a concert instrument that, instead of playing sound, wafts odours through the audience. Huxley meant the instrument to represent the lengths to which a society benumbed by drugs and sated by consumerism would go in search of novel stimulation. Imagine my frisson of horror when, a few years back, Glade (or was it AirWick?) marketed a plug-in that, according to the ads, would play a symphony of scents to freshen up your living room.

My first thought was: Is this some sort of sick, postmodern joke? My second was: Brave New World—it’s here. I don’t know why I was surprised. Test-tube babies were already nothing new; consumerism had become the sole means millions had to validate their lives; Valium and Prozac were, for all intents and purposes, Huxley’s state-provided soma.

But just like “free you have to pay for,” one small ad—banal, unnoticed—clued me in: we’re living in not one but two of the dark futures we had more than ample warning to avoid. Bad enough we let the powers that be surveil us with cameras and track our every movement on the Internet, bad enough our language is approaching Newspeak and our thoughts are paralysed by doublethink, bad enough we serve the Party (these days known as “the Economy”), we’ve gone and grafted Huxley onto Orwell’s airless hell.

Andrew, my first lover (mentioned elsewhere in this blog) liked to say that science fiction authors should be shot. His admittedly light-hearted thesis was that cautionary tales bring about the futures they decry; some bozo somewhere always thinks, “What a great idea,” and the warnings get converted into blueprints.

Nowhere is this easier to see than in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s great fear was not the censoring of books, but rather television’s impact on the act of reading, which, for him, symbolizes thinking and imagination. When his book came out in '53, commercial network programming was scarcely five years old, yet Bradbury’s astounding genius extrapolated wall-sized flat-screens, multi-headed displays, rooms devoted to home theatre systems, reality TV and interactive broadcasts. In itself, pretty cool stuff. But Bradbury could also see how television’s vivid, forged realities might lead to losing our imaginative faculties, and posited a world so media-benumbed its citizens had lost the power to think—a vacuum easily exploited by its government.

Sound familiar? Kinda makes you wonder: did someone, reading Fahrenheit 451, say, “Cool! Let’s make the future look like that?”

* * *

Our headlong rush toward the very futures we were warned about is hardly news. Writers with more skill than me have written on it better. These are the meanderings of somebody who doesn’t understand how we, as individuals, are capable of so much good, while as a race we’re so impossibly retarded.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Closet Vegetarian

I love to cook, and in my kitchen (when I have one), I observe three rules:
1. Food should be cooked with butter and love (an old Dutch saying).
2. Fat equals flavour.
3. If it tastes good, it’s probably good for you.

Heresy, no doubt, yet here I am, at 53, never having suffered any major illnesses and weighing what I did when I was fourteen years of age. (In case you’re interested, a slender sixty-eight—kilograms, that is; in pounds, about one-fifty).

What’s my secret?

Well, the time has come to publicly announce it: I'm a closet vegetarian. Not vegan—that’s too pious for my tastes—just somebody who hankers after legumes, grains and vegetables. Rule #2 should clue you in I'm not averse to flesh. My recipe for tourtière (meat pies made at Christmas in Québec) clearly states: For maximum flavour, do not drain the browned veal, pork, and beef... And, truth is, when cooking for a carnivore, I like the meat. Of course I do. Who doesn’t?

But on my own, with no one else’s palate to consider, weeks and sometimes months go by without my purchasing so much as ground pork or a minute steak. It’s more than just my preference. Products from the meat aisle are a terrible economy.

Consider this. Yesterday, I made a batch of chili beans and rice, with cornbread on the side. It’s a little hard to judge, but I'd guess the meal’s total cost was somewhere in the neighbourhood of five to seven dollars. It wasn’t just for me; James, his girlfriend, John and I all ate. I had seconds, and there’s still some in the fridge. I'll be eating it tonight.

All that food for five to seven dollars—impossible with meat. But as I discovered long ago, living poor and eating well need not be incompatible. All you have to do is be a closet vegetarian.

* * *

The ongoing emphasis on supposed health concerns in the meat vs meatless debate seems, at times, designed to distract from a single, unassailable fact: planet Earth cannot sustain our present rate of meat consumption.

Frances Moore Lappé brought the problem to the world’s attention forty years ago in the now-classic Diet for a Small Planet. Her argument—more a statement of the obvious than thesis—was that raising meat’s an unsustainable misuse of global agricultural resources. If the total land required for a single steer is five to six acres, how many more people could be fed if real crops were grown on that same land? The answer is, a shitload (even if that’s not her word). As a protein factory, a cow’s about as fuel efficient as an SUV. More importantly, according to Lappé (and science backs her up), protein from a cow, or pig, or sheep, or chicken isn’t any “better”, isn’t more “required”, than protein from a lentil stew.

Thus Lappé proposed a simple, implementable solution to the problem of a growing population and shrinking agricultural resources: eat plants, not animals.

Unfortunately, Lappé was a sociologist, not a physiologist or doctor, and her book got bogged down in discussions of what she called complementary proteins. Basically, according to Lappé, the “complete” protein found in animal flesh isn’t present in any single plant-source food. However, combining certain plant-source foods (legumes, grains and nuts, primarily), creates a mix-’n-match of partial proteins that, together, are complete.

Lappé was wrong about the proteins—in a good way—and declared it publicly. In the 1981 edition of Diet, she states unequivocally:

“In 1971...I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.
With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat)...In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

In short, any reasonably balanced diet, including one consisting exclusively of plant foods, is perfectly capable of sustaining the human organism. Thus there is no need for meat. Desire, yes—a juicy steak’s a treat, no doubt about it. And we need our treats, our little luxuries: man does not live by bread alone. But to mistake a luxury for need is an addiction, and addictions have a habit of consuming the addicted.

In my case, breaking the addiction—which, admittedly, was never very strong—happened of necessity because I'm living poor. Increasingly, I understand why nowhere is it written: Blessed are the rich. The poor aren’t eating planet Earth to death.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The simple joys of Irish soda bread

My first lover, Andrew, liked to say that poverty’s a state of mind. We were young then, with a lot of growing up to do. His arrogance was unintentional. It should not detract from what he meant, that getting by with very little doesn’t have to mean you’re poor. Once the basics have been covered—food, shelter, clothing, company—failure of imagination is a poverty far worse than lack of funds.

Living poor imposes disciplines: budgeting your every penny, legwork in the search for bargains, making things the lazy buy, learning how to get the most from everything. (Just like hip-hop fashion, the eco-mantra of the monied urbanite, Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, was ransacked from the poor.) But the discipline that matters most is learning to extract the maximum of pleasure from the simplest of things.

Take bread. Not for nothing is it called the staff of life. It fills the belly amply and is packed with nutrients, assuming that we’re talking about real bread, not Wonderbread, of which a friend of mine is fond of saying that the wonder is they call it bread.

The problem is, with good bread, that it’s costly. If you have the money for it, sure, there’s bound to be a baker somewhere in your neighbourhood who’ll charge you seven dollars for a multi-grain delight. He might even have a sign outside his shop that says Artisanal, implying that his wares are lovingly handcrafted in the good old peasant manner. Funny how, as our society grows fat, the artefacts of peasantry cost more and more.

But if you haven’t got the money, what are you to do? Stealing’s out—not everyone is suited for the life of Jean Valjean—so the answer is: you make it.

Many people are intimidated by the thought of making bread. And, without a doubt, yeast breads are a challenge. But why think only yeast? The Irish in the 19th century came up with something simpler that’s a joy to bake and awesome in its humble purity: Irish soda bread.

There are recipes out there that call themselves authentic but require things like butter, sugar, currants, citrus peel and spices. Don’t be fooled. Irish soda bread has only four ingredients: flour, soda, salt and soured milk. Through some miracle or magic they produce a loaf that’s ready for the cover of Bon Appetit, smells wheat-y and delicious, has a moist and chewy crumb, and makes fantastic toast. Every time I bake it I'm astounded. The pleasure never dies. My taste buds don’t get jaded and my nose is always eager for communion with the smell of wheat, a hallmark of good soda bread.

The discipline of living poor. Learning how to take delight in what you have, in what you make, in what you can afford. Get that right, and every day, if only for a moment, you are richer than Bill Gates.

* * *

The canonical recipe for Irish soda bread is four cups of soft, white flour, one teaspoon of baking soda, one teaspoon of salt, and fourteen fluid ounces of soured milk (originally buttermilk, but like so many staples, buttermilk’s now priced as if it’s Devon Cream). I like whole wheat breads, so the recipe below has some adjustments.

Whole Wheat Soda Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1-3/4 cups milk, soured with 1-2 tbsp vinegar
1 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour the bottom of a round 8- or 9-inch cake pan. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl and make a well in the middle. Add the soured milk and mix.

Turn the sticky dough onto a floured surface and knead gently for a minute or so. Form into a ball, smooth, and cut a deep cross into the top.

Place the bread-to-be in the prepared cake pan, invert another pan of the same size overtop, and bake for forty minutes. Remove from pan and cover with a damp cloth while it cools.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Programming or crack cocaine?

I've been silent for a while, but not inactive. Programming—again. Several years ago, I wrote a macroset for groff, and periodically, I have the urge to make it better.

Groff (”gee-roff”) is a typesetting and document formatting system used primarily in Unix-type environments such as GNU/Linux. It’s wildly powerful in a primitive sort of way, and comes with its own programming language. The language allows you to create deceptively simple commands that perform extraordinarily complex and precise typesetting operations. The commands are called macros, and any reasonably complete set of them is like a programme unto itself.

Groff is also free, open-source software. That means you never have to pay for it, the source code is always available, and you’re free to copy, modify and re-distribute it to your heart’s content. Free, open-source software is written and maintained by volunteers, or, more commonly, communities of volunteers.

There aren’t a lot of groff experts out there, just a handful scattered round the globe. We use a mailing list to stay in touch. The members on the list are amongst the most intelligent, thoughtful, helpful, diplomatic and ego-free people I have ever had the pleasure of not meeting face-to-face.

(It’s really quite remarkable, our little list, a paradigm for everything that’s good about the Internet, or was, until the Web got bogged down with the drivel known as social networking.)

The thing about open-source programming is that it’s work—hard work—and carries with it a degree of responsibility far in excess of what a pay cheque can instill. You write a programme, put it out there, people start to use it, and suddenly, it’s no longer optional whether—or when—you work on it. People are relying on you. You can’t have somebody report a bug and leave them stranded. You you have deal with it right away.

The same holds true of features. If all that’s standing in the way of someone finishing their thesis and submitting it in timely fashion is a feature missing from your programme, as was recently the case with “mom”, my macroset, you can’t just say: “I'll implement it later.” Tough or not, you add it right away. That’s the contract that exists between developers of open-source and users, and why open-source beats closed-source (think Windows) hands down every time.

* * *

I cannot really call myself a programmer, even though I like to programme. I'm an amateur without the slightest bit of formal training. But the challenge of it calls to me. Programmes are like free-form model airplane kits. You’re handed all the pieces with a tube of if-else-then-and-while glue; from there, it’s up to you to figure out the plane you want and how to make it fly.

The process uses both sides of the brain, and, for that reason, is addictive. Days and sometimes weeks go by while everything recedes into the distance. Your world is circumscribed by clicking keys and pale glow from a monitor. You go to sleep distressed by some intractability, and wake up with Eurekas! You know only two emotions: satisfaction and despair. Even when you should get up and stretch your legs or spend some time with friends, you carry on, obsessed with nagging details, obsessed with getting done.

In the end, of course, you finish. Stamina has long ago replaced the high you started with, but still there’s strength to pump the air and utter a soft Ye-ess of quiet pride.

* * *

That’s where I have been the past few weeks. It’s over now. Slowly I'm returning to reality. Once again the blog-voice will be speaking.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ontario Works' Callous Stupidity

James, the youngest member of our household, is not a loser. Not by a long shot. Abandoned at an early age, his life has not been easy: foster homes, group homes, and now, a cold adoptive father. As you’d expect, he was delinquent in his teens, in constant trouble with the law. He was plagued by difficulties managing his anger—again, as you’d expect.

But at 21, James wants to put the past behind him and do better. He’s taken counselling to deal with his anger. From all the evidence, it worked; pushed beyond what even I could bear, I’ve seen him patiently withstand the stressors and respond maturely.

He doesn’t want a life of crime; those days are past. He isn’t irresponsible, nor victim to entitlement. He wants to earn a living, have a stable home, and get his life in order. As a roommate, he’s superb. When borrowing, he keeps his word and gives back what he takes—sometimes with a bonus just to show his gratitude.

Even though the disappointments can be soul-destroying, he puts effort into seeking work, and just two months ago got hired. You’ve never seen a man more proud, nor one more serious about the discipline of showing up and doing a good job.

I sing his praises here because the story I’m about to tell might lead the compassionless to conclude that James is just another piece of Vanier trash: shiftless, irresponsible, and out to milk to system. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before James got his job, he was on Welfare. Of course, we don’t call it Welfare in Ontario these days: the correct name is Ontario Works, which, as I’ve pointed out in other posts, is pure Orwellian doublespeak—on several levels.

James was under the impression that Ontario Works assisted people moving off Welfare into the workforce by continuing to pay limited benefits for a few months, notably covering their rent. Therefore, when he got his job (full-time/minimum wage, ie a pittance), he purchased food and paid off debts. It left him little for himself, but he was happy knowing that he could, at last, behave responsibly. With the time he thought he had, he started laying money by against the day he’d have to pay the rent himself.

For a month, everything was rosy. Then the hammer fell.

Ontario Works doesn’t cover rent once you’ve started working. Oh, it seems as if they do. James’ Statement of Assistance looked exactly as it had the month before, with the usual amounts filled in for “Basic Needs” and “Shelter” It wasn’t till the landlord called to say he hadn’t got James’ portion of the rent that James discovered something evil was afoot. For every dollar he had earned, Ontario Works had subtracted an equivalent amount from the money they would actually pay out. Thus, while James’ Statement of Assistance duly noted what he was entitled to, it didn’t bother saying the entitlement was strictly theoretical. James never saw a penny. Worse, having reasonably counted on it (he’s not to blame; it takes a very sick organization to play this kind of accounting game with real people’s lives), after buying food and paying off his debts, he had no money left to pay the rent himself.

To say that he was pissed is understating things, but he didn’t let his anger take control. He realized that if he borrowed what he needed for the rent, he could, with careful budgeting, repay the loan and meet his rental obligations.

Then he lost his job. As near as I can tell, he’d been hired while the company was temporarily snowed under. Once the crisis passed, they found a pretext to dismiss him—conveniently before his three-month probationary period was over so it wouldn’t have to pay him severance.

Despite the blow to his self-confidence and income, James soldiered on and contacted Ontario Works. At the very least, he figured, he could count on them to pay the rent again, even if it left him with a debt not easily repaid.

Guess what? Ontario Works will, once again, be covering his portion of the rent on our apartment but not until next month. Apparently, they’ve calculated that the income he received for six weeks’ work should cover two months’ rent. How they figure this, I do not know. People earning twice what James was getting would be hard pressed paying two months’ rent on six weeks’ salary unless they didn’t eat or pay their bills.

So, thanks to Ontario Works and their callous stupidity, James is utterly destitute, carrying a loan for last month’s rent (borrowed from a person who himself cannot afford the debt incurred to help him out), and incapable of raising this month’s rent. Our landlord, whom I’ll call Mr. Wu, is threatening to evict all three of us. His response to James’ attempts to fill him in on what’s been going on and work things out was simply: “I don’t care.” I wonder if he studied the Ontario Works training manual.

In a final twist of the knife, James’ case worker is refusing to speak to him until he apologizes for hanging up on her in disgust over this whole, wicked absurdity.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Homelessness, Part IV : Romanticism's Folly

This fourth and final article on homelessness and unemployment, excerpted from a letter to my mom (February 2010), casts an objective eye on my upbringing, as well as on my history of choices as an adult. As noted in the previous post, the material gets very personal. I've spent a lot of time deciding what to include and what to excise, and hope that I've achieved a good balance between the specific (unique to me) and the general (applicable, by analogy, to everyone).

The article addresses itself (at last) to the first of the “3 Big Questions” posed at the start of this series: Where did I go wrong?

The original letter ended on what seems to be a downer note, which I considered removing. It doesn’t reflect my usual optimistism, and comes across, to those who do not know me, as self-pitying. Yet there’s truth in it: even those not predisposed to visiting the Wailing Wall can be brought low by homelessness. Therefore, in the interests of honestly, I've left the final passage as it was.

HOMELESS, PART IV : Romanticism’s Folly

Question 1: Where did I go wrong?

The big question. The one I could probably spend the rest of my life answering. Not “trying to figure out” -answering. I ain’t unaware that me and what was expected of me parted company a long, long time ago.

I can’t remember exactly when this habit of being unconventional started. It feels like it’s been with me my whole life. I don’t recall having made a decision to be this way, having chosen “different” as some sort of strategy or life plan.

I think back to my early childhood and sometimes imagine I see the beginnings there. But childhood is a time of unconventionality for nearly everyone, a time when you behave or think outside the box because you aren’t in one yet. Any oddities I might have exhibited then really aren’t much different from any other child’s.

What I do remember is that my unconventionality was, and always has been (or so it feels to me) supported and encouraged. And it certainly developed out of fertile soil.

I wonder sometimes if either you [ie. my mom; remember, this is excerpted from a letter] or Dad realized how different the Schaffters were, how isolated we were as a family from the rest of Mt. Hope [a village south of Hamilton, Ontario that figures prominently—mystically, one might say—in my novel, The Binbrook Caucus]. We did things very differently in the Schaffter household. There was, back then, “what everybody else does” and “what we do,” “how everybody else does it” and “how we do it.” Our way, naturally, was the right way—the proper way—so somehow different always equalled better.

I'm not casting blame, here. I wouldn’t want you to feel as if you’d done anything wrong. Au contraire—big time. I merely want you to understand that when one is raised to be different, and has pride in that different-ness (you and Dad taught us that, too), one isn’t likely to make the same choices everybody else does later on in life.

I'm a Romantic. It’s in my blood. I can’t seem to shake it. They say that if you’re not a liberal in your twenties you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative in your forties you have no brains. Exchanging liberal for Romantic and conservative for some other opposite—Pragmatist?—I guess you’d have to say I have no brains.

I operate on faith. Not predisposed to wear the colours of religion, I cannot help but observe that my approach to everything is Taoist. I do not like to take action. My impression is that any time I try, I not only fail, but experience humiliation. I know when doing something “isn’t me,” and can’t seem to set the feeling aside. Rather, I prefer to be attentive to the flow (the Tao is often likened to a river), and act on things that come my way.

I'm not talking about merely doing what I like. In a world where luck and happenstance play a greater role than your average pragmatist wants to believe, it has always seemed the better part of wisdom to foster one’s talents, nourish one’s connections, and to keep an open mind; never to say no to anything that furthers, and to avoid the vanity of thinking that one’s life or destiny is under one’s control.

Most of the time, I don’t know what I'm doing. Or, more accurately, I don’t have a clue where what I'm doing is headed. If it feels right, if there’s love in it, if it meets my notions of fostering and furthering (myself and others), then I tend to go along. More than go along—devote myself to it. That’s where faith comes in. So far, I've trusted, absolutely, that the river is carrying me where it should. The fact that only now have I reached what seems an impasse is a tribute to that trust.

So where did I go wrong? At what point, or points, ought I to have made choices other than the ones I did? The question is, of course, academic. Not only can I not change the past, but even were I able to go back in time, it’s unlikely that my choices would be different—even with the knowledge I have now.

Ought I, for example, to have stayed at university, pursued my Masters and, who knows, a PhD? Become a Canadian Composer nobody’s ever heard of except other Canadian Composers, teaching future Canadian Composers nobody will ever hear of? By the time I graduated, I'd grown leery of the inward-looking gaze of academia.

Ought I, around the same time, to have chosen not to come out? To ignore the personal and social struggles of the time? To keep my heart and passions under wraps while I pursued the narrow course of currying the favour of the Toronto’s musical elite? Who would I be now? A materially richer man, perhaps, but one who had no knowledge of the pains and joys of life outside a narrowly-delineated clique.

I was frequently guilty of accidental arrogance when I was young, stemming from an ignorance of other modes of living than the one I knew. My coming out set off a change I just cannot regret. I became attentive to how much I didn’t know. Experiencing real, flawed life with real, flawed human beings seemed the only antidote to what I now see as my spiritual blindness.

Ought I to have learned another trade instead of typesetting? In retrospect, perhaps yes, but hindsight’s twenty-twenty. Who could have known the trade I learned in order to ensure employment would, after centuries, be dead in 2010? Should I have stayed with any of the companies I worked for instead of moving on? Given that not one is still in business, how would that have changed things?

Ought I to have said no when Dave [my lover for ten years, now deceased] proposed the fluid course of seasonal work we both embarked on for several years? Like me, he could see how stilted—crippled, even—life inside the “normal bubble” was. Remember, Dave came from a privileged family, knew all the right people in business and the arts, had worked for the Ontario Arts Council, had contacts in the CBC, etc. Though I fought with him tooth and nail as he dismantled the walls of preconception around my own upbringing, I knew, even then, that he was right to do so. Were it not for Dave, I would never have experienced the turning point, the spiritual watershed, that was the summer of my thirtieth year.

Ought I not to have decamped to Montréal twenty years ago, but rather stayed in Toronto and endured an increasing sense of alienation from the city? I'd be a very different person now had I remained, but would I be better off? And ought I to have stayed in Montréal at a failing company [Les Maîtres Typographes Zibra] instead of moving in with F [a roommate for eight years] and embarking on a course of state-supported poverty that let me write two novels and contribute 18,000 lines of code to groff, an open-source programme used around the world?

It’s hard to answer that one. Perhaps I should have stayed in Montréal and carried on a wage-slave. Maybe where did I go wrong? lies there. I don’t regret my choice to leave; I made it trusting that, however unconventional, it moved me forward. But it could be that’s where I went wrong, since it was at that time I committed to the journey that has brought me to my present state.

My disinterest in financial security has always been motivated by a feeling, possibly delusional, that I'm supposed to do more with my talents and abilities than any job I ever held allowed. Not want to to more with my talents, not imagine I could do more—am supposed to. I feel compelled, by some force greater than myself, to use the gifts I have, both those innate and those acquired in childhood—a childhood that, when others hear of it, they scarce believe. I am, in fact, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility in this matter. I cannot seem to make it go away.

One could say, I suppose, that in the life I've chosen, I went wrong in whom I trusted. Trust comes easily to me, with the result that I have sometimes placed my faith in those who didn’t merit it.

Who could have known that F's desire for things material would supersede our friendship? Or that Lauren [a roommate for three years] was faking—god knows why—when she claimed to love the intellectual, cultural and creative Bohemia of our little family? [Lauren had a teenage daughter, aptly named after a precious stone, who was the light of my life while we lived together.]

I trusted F completely. I was prepared to sacrifice a lot for him rather than to prove disloyal as a friend. As for Lauren, I always knew that she was flaky. But I believed in her, in her capacity to become the wonderful person no one but me had ever granted her to the freedom to explore. Should I have said, after a year or so of living with her: “This is way too tough. I'm devoting far too much time to fostering Lauren and her daughter when there are better things I could be doing? Time to move along.” Maybe so. But, as I've said, I tend to operate on faith. Devote yourself to something, work hard without complaining, get better at it, sacrifice as need dictates, and somehow it will pay off. I placed my trust in her because I trust myself and live by faith. It’s apparent now I shouldn’t have.

This past year has been hell. Not just because of all the upsets, moves, anxieties, etc, but because my faith has proven false. Mostly, these day, what I feel is humiliation, leading me to wonder whether vanity, not faith, has been my operating principle—the desire to prove something to the narrow-minded, the conventional, the unimaginative.

As things stand now, I have nothing to hold my head up high about. I have nothing to show for who I am or how I've lived that doesn’t sound like hollow bragging. Prior to this year, I could justify my following what seemed “the path with heart” Now I can’t. I feel utterly ashamed, even though I still believe I've done what morally, spiritually, emotionally and creatively I'm supposed to have been doing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Homeless, Part III : Sticking to Your Guns

The first article in this series on homelessness and unemployment, excerpted from a letter to my mom (February, 2010), asked “The 3 Big Questions”: Where did I go wrong? What have I done to deserve this? and What do I do now?

The third having been addressed in the previous posts, I'll now look at questions one and two, in reverse order.

The material in this and the forthcoming post gets personal as I tussle with decisions, taken long ago, that were, in some ways, radical. Authentic choices are becoming an endangered species in a world ruled by corporations and defined by credit-driven markets. It isn’t that the present world differs all that much from, say Thoreau’s. The vast majority of people still lead lives of quiet desperation. They accept and do not question paradigms, particularly economic ones, that aren't in any way superior to others or even justified by facts. What has changed is the cadre of elites enforcing them. With saturation media, they have more power now to brainwash, hoodwink, threaten and cajole than in the past, with the result that implementing choices off the mainstream has become more difficult.

HOMELESS, PART III : Sticking to Your Guns

Question 2: What did I do to deserve this?

Nothing. Plain and simple. I only ever really contemplate the question on days it’s grey and cold and John has kicked me out for privacy (for which I do not blame him). The rest of the time, I know better than to ask.

“Deserve” implies a causal connection between the morality of actions and their consequences. Good actions deserve rewards; bad actions deserve punishment. When things go well, one never asks: “What did I do to deserve this?” One only asks when things go wrong, the implication being that one’s actions have unjustly brought about reprisal.

I don’t think I've done anything to deserve my treatment at the hands of F [a roommate of eight years], or Lauren [another roommate, whom I referred to in Part I of this series], or Jan [a schizophrenic friend of nearly 20 years who cracked completely, with disastrous consequences for me], or even the weirdness that was the Mad Professor (see Part II : The Arithmetic of Poverty).

In the first three cases, I was invited into their lives. Terms, both spoken and implied, governed our living arrangements, and I fulfilled them scrupulously—to the benefit of all, I believe. I never took advantage, shirking my responsibilities or making demands to which, in the inferior financial state, I was not entitled. I made no impositions and remained respectful of the other persons' needs. I tried at all times to be honest, and freely gave of what I had. I sought and offered friendship. My actions were impelled by love, respect and gratitude, coupled with the hope of furthering all aspects of my roommate’s lives.

I'm not claiming that I haven’t made mistakes, judgment errors that have paved the way for my present state of affairs. I have, and I'll get to those when I attack Question 1. But I don’t “deserve” this. I know which side my moral toast is buttered on, even if it’s fallen, as toast usually does, buttered side down.

The Jesus myth is one I hold dear, even though I cannot call myself a Christian. For me, it’s less about redemption or a reworked Covenant with an aleatory, vengeful god than about sticking to your guns. The Jesus who speaks to me is the one who never backs down, the one who’s willing to go the whole nine yards for his beliefs. It is the all-too-human Jesus who really doesn’t want to be tortured and killed, but who, at the end of the Gethsemane monologue, accepts that his ministry will have been meaningless if he abandons it just because the going got tough.

I extract from the Jesus myth a simple precept: What is the point of ethics or principles if you don’t stick to them? It’s obvious that the one thing Jesus of the Gospels truly hated was hypocrisy. It’s the one sin he does not forgive, and the only one he lifts his hand against. The Good Samaritan, the Pharisee at Prayer, the Cleansing of the Temple...these stories drip with contempt for anyone who proclaims one set of values but acts the opposite way.

(Another thing I like about the Jesus figure is that he’s a party animal. Why else would his very first supernatural act be to save the wedding at Canna by turning water into wine when they ran out of booze? And later on, he conjures up the makings for fish sandwiches—not once, but twice—for gatherings of thousands. Definitely an A-list guest if you’re planning a shindig.)

I've tried to live my life according to certain ethical and spiritual precepts. Or, more accurately, as I've matured and grasped the value of those precepts, I've worked at putting them into effect. That they’re in part—perhaps largely—responsible for my poverty and present state of homelessness doesn’t make them wrong. Neither does my sticking to them make me guilty in some way.

Next: Homeless, Part IV : Romanticism's Folly

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Homeless, Part II : The Arithmetic of Poverty

This is the second of three articles, excerpted from a letter to my mom (winter, 2010), on the difficulties of being unemployed and homeless. In this article, I'll look at some of the realities of homelessness and unemployment, the ones the hard-line, right-wing, tough-love set inevitably sweep under the carpet.

When you find yourself without a home, your first priority is getting one. Everything depends on it. Without a base of operations, hunting for a job presents nearly insurmountable obstacles, from not having an address to give employers (who, understandably, are leery of hiring someone in the mess you’re in) to not having a place to shower and shave so you can look your best at interviews.

Humanely-implemented welfare programmes acknowledge this need, and make it their priority as well. Welfare programmes like Ontario Works, whose first mandate is not welfare, but rather policing the welfare system, merely pay it lip service.

Read on.

HOMELESS, PART II : The Arithmetic of Poverty

There is no such thing as an affordable living situation when your income stands at $535 a month. Not in Ottawa or Toronto, at any rate. [$535/mo is the maximum allowed to a single person without dependents under the Ontario Works programme.] With that amount of money, even the congenitally frugal can’t afford more than $300/mo in rent, and the cost of single rooms—rooms!—starts at $400/mo. I know. I've been doing a lot of looking. The list of rooms and bachelor apartments at Aide logement/Housing Help has nothing under $400. Sure, there’s subsidized housing—I'm in The Registry now, as they call it (ominous-sounding to those of us who cut our teeth on Orwell)—but it takes months, sometimes years, for anything to become available. Not much help when you’re homeless in the dead of winter.

So Step one of my plan (” ..find an affordable living situation”; see previous blog entry, The 3 Big Questions) is already kiboshed. Let’s assume, though, for the sake of argument, we can skip directly to Step two (“...get a job”) and that Step one isn’t the prerequisite it most thoroughly is.

The minimum wage in Ontario presently stands at $10.25/hr. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that translates into a little over $1,600/mo. Subtract one-third (or more) for federal taxes, provincial taxes, payments into the Unemployment Insurance Programme and the Canada Pension Plan, and the total comes out to around $1,100/mo. That ought to be enough to get by on, right? Even when you take into account the $100+/mo for transportation that inevitably goes along with having a job.

Assuming it’s possible to find steady work without having a place to lay your head, the solution to homelessness, one might therefore imagine, is to get a job first, if only at minimum wage, and deal with the housing problem afterwards.


There are precious few full-time, minimum-wage jobs. Those there are don’t pay while you’re on lunch, so at the very least, you’re earning $105 dollars less per month than “40 hours per week” would seem to indicate (for half-hour lunches), or $210 less per month (if you take hour-long breaks).

Thus, even if you do secure a full-time, minimum-wage job, your net income is actually between $100 – $200 a month less than you think. Choosing a figure between the two—$150—your monthly disposable income, minus the cost of transportation (generously rounded down to $100), falls from $1,100/mo to $850/mo.

Now, it’s possible to live on $850/mo, even if just barely (god help you if you have a dental or medical emergency). I can pretty much assure you that the homeless, myself included, would flock to such work if it were available.

Reality is, though, most minimum-wage jobs fall well under the full-time mark. 25 – 28 hours per week is a more likely upper limit. If we perform the same arithmetic on 28 hrs/wk (I'm being generous here) as we did on 40 hrs/wk (incl. subtracting the 15-minute break per shift for which one is not paid), we end up with a net disposable income of approx. $635/mo. That’s exactly $100 more than the $535 a jobless person gets on welfare, so when you factor in the bare minimum cost of a boarding-house room ($400), what you’re left with is exactly the same disposable income you’d have if you were on welfare and living in the mythical $300/mo room!

And lets look at who actually gets hired for those minimum-wage jobs. Most of them are in the retail sector, marketing (ie telemarketing) or food services, most require no experience or education (although, invariably, a high-school diploma is required), and most are mind-crushers.

So who’s holding down the jobs? Kids, mostly, and students after pin money, or one-half of a couple (nearly always the woman) earning extra cash to pay for this year’s trip to Cuba. Even if I applied for a job mopping floors at MacDonald’s, I'd never get hired. Nor would any other man my age, especially one with my education and accomplishments.

So what is a homeless, jobless person past the age of fifty to do? Get a place to stay, then get a job? We’ve seen that that isn’t feasible. Get a job, and then a place to stay? Ix-nay to that, too.

In fact, there’s precious little anyone in my situation can do except pray for luck. The Mad Professor [a narcissistic psychopath I had the misfortune of staying with for a brief time in Toronto] was fond of intoning “Luck is not a strategy”, but when you’re stymied left and right, perforce it is.

Next: Homeless, Part III : Sticking to Your Guns

Friday, July 30, 2010

Homeless, Part I : The 3 Big Questions

The following was written back in February, 2010, one year after a former friend literally locked me out of the home we’d shared for three years—fruitfully and peaceably, I thought. Her doing so occasioned nearly a year and a half of homelessness, thankfully now over.

On the anniversary of the event, I wrote a long letter to my mom. What follows is extracted from that letter. I'm posting it because, on re-reading it, I was struck by how alone I must have felt, how alienated, how disappointed with the society I thought I knew.

It’s important that people unlock these kinds of reflections by putting them on the Web. There’s a wealth of experience out there, waiting to be shared so that others, feeling isolated, can come to realize they’re not unique, not singular, and not alone.

The letter was very long, so I'm going to serialize it into three four parts.

Homeless, Part I : The 3 Big Questions

Well, here we are—February, the anniversary of Lauren locking me out. It’s always a terrible month; now it lives in infamy. I doubt I'll ever make it through a February without remembering.

It’s a disorienting experience, being homeless. I never thought it would come to this. But then again, I wouldn’t, would I? No one plans on being homeless. I'm hardly the first person to have landed in this state, scratching his head and wondering how the hell I got here.

Where did I go wrong? What have I done to deserve this? What do I do now? These are the questions I think about every day as I trudge through winter slush to this or that friend’s house. I don’t want any of them resenting me for hanging out too much, so I rotate my visits.

Sometimes I wish I weren’t so aware. I wish I didn’t know my questions sound as whiny as they do. I wish the answer to the first weren’t quite so evident—or do I mean so facile and misleading? I wish the second didn’t sound so Bubbe-ish.

Furthermore, I wish the answer to the third weren’t so occluded. I wish there were an answer to the question What do I do now? A list of steps to fix my situation, a sort of Methodism for the homeless in the corporate age. But no such list exists, except in the collective hard-line fantasy/refrain of get-an-education, get-a-job, and buy-buy-buy. If it were that simple, no one would get stuck.

But to attack the questions out of order...

Question 3: What do I do now?

Simple answer: I haven’t got a clue, although I do know what I'd do if it were possible.

Step one

Find an affordable living situation that isn’t so precarious (or emotionally noxious) that I can’t get anything done. We’re not talking the Ritz. A small clean room with a table, chair and bed would do. Even the bed is optional; I can be quite happy with very little. All I require, in addition, is sunlight and the means to keep my brain productive.

Step two

From said room, I'd do what anyone in my position would: scour the papers and job banks, and keep my eyes and ears open for paying work. We’re not talking career or vocation here. A person with my blend of skills will never earn a living from it, so I'll do almost anything. No task too menial. The only restrictions are a) that it generate enough income to warrant doing it in the first place, and b) that I be fit for it. No point digging ditches if it puts my back out.

Step three

With a modest dwelling place and adequately remunerated work, I'd return to what I do best: writing. Creating new stuff, gettting The Binbrook Caucus “out there”, carrying on with my open-source work. Being me, in other words.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? A list of goals to satisfy the fantasies of any corporate Methodist. But that’s the trouble with Methodism. It ignores the nasty, messy thing we call reality. One wonders how many Harris-ites [Mike Harris, the former Ontario premier who declared war, not on poverty, but on the poor] are familiar with the saying, “To every complex problem there is a simple solution—which is inevitably wrong”?

Next installment: Homeless, Part II : The Arithmetic of Poverty

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Consider this fantastical scenario: After decades skimming taxes off the sale of a product known to pose some health risks, though no greater than vehicular exhaust, governments at every level outlaw usage of the product anywhere in former times it would have been consumed.

So great the governments' concern for public health they mount a smear campaign against the product in an effort to reduce its use. This despite lost jobs for individuals, lost revenue for businesses, and millions, if not billions of lost dollars for the governments themselves.

* * *

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a government that cared so much? One prepared to risk the ire of everyone, from citizens to corporations, and forgo a tax cash cow, just to take a stand of principled concern? Now that would be a government to vote for. With all the problems facing us—fossil fuel addiction, global warming, ecological disasters, processed food obesity, the raping of the Earth—we need our governments to take a stand, however radical. Which they never do. And which is why the small scenario, above, sounds so fantastical.

Except it’s not.

The product is, of course, tobacco. And ever since the anti-smoking zealots took the field, something in the corridors of power has been stinking worse than day-old butts.

The issue isn’t whether smoking poses risks. It does. Even the most ardent smoker can’t deny the facts. Statistically, a link exists between a number of diseases and prolonged consumption of tobacco. But there’s a problem: the link’s statistical, not causal. And from the point of view of government-initiated smoking bans, statistical’s significant because statistics are what’s offered as the rationale for anti-smoking legislation.

In comparison to other health risks, then, how does smoking measure up? Are cigarettes, statistically, a kiss of death?

Health Canada claims 37,000 people die per year in Canada from smoking. From 2002 to 2007, they pinned the number at an estimated 47,000, then in 2008 dropped the number by 10,000. Retroactively. With the stroke of a pen, they either resuscitated tens of thousands of Canadians, or exculpated smoking in their deaths; I'm never sure exactly how these stroke-of-the-pen things work.

But whether it’s thirty-seven or forty-seven thousand, let’s look at the percentages. If we round the current number of Canadians up to thirty-four million (it’s actually thirty-three plus change) and use the higher number (47,000), the percentage of Canadians who yearly shuffle off this mortal coil by smoking is a whopping zero-point-one-four (also rounded up). In numerals: 0.14%. That’s already not enough to warrant the alarmism of anti-smoking zealotry, but when you stop to realize that nearly one-fifth of Canadians enjoy their cigarettes—18% to be precise, six million—it turns out less than one percent (0.78) of smokers die each year from smoking.

Not to put to fine a point on it, one percent is hardly what you’d call high risk.

I confess to being shocked when I performed the math. I'm a smoker, and like nearly every smoker, I'm aware that cigarettes entail a risk. Because of all the anti-smoking hype, I figured it was moderately high. Less than one percent? That’s more than low. By anybody’s standards, it’s practically no risk at all.

Even if you’re in the anti-smoking camp, you must know how to do arithmetic. The numbers are the numbers (assuming they’re reported accurately; my sources are Health Canada and the good ole CBC). Six million Canadians smoke. 37,000 to 47,000 of them are said to die each year of smoke-related illnesses.

47,000 ÷ 6,000,000 × 100 = 0.78

* * *

The issue of statistics is significant in yet another way. There are very few diseases or conditions caused exclusively by smoking. Even cancer of the lungs—everybody’s favourite bogeyman—has more than just one cause. Therefore, how does one determine if a smoker who expired of lung cancer contracted it from cigarettes or from some other source? It would be atrociously bad science to assume that since tobacco can cause cancer of the lungs, it does in every case.

Heart disease provides a better demonstration of the point I'm trying to make. It’s practically an axiom that diets high in trans fats lead to heart disease. We’re told that smoking, too, is implicated, and I have no doubt that's true. But if a smoker keels over in the fast-food joint she’s eaten at for thirty years, who’s to say if smoking or her diet is primarily responsible? One can’t, of course, which is why the link between tobacco and mortality can only be expressed statistically. If thirty people who don’t smoke eat French fries every day for twenty years and seven of them die of heart disease, while ten of thirty smokers scarfing down the same amount of grease have heart attacks, it’s clear, statistically, that cigarettes increased their chances of mortality. However, proving that they played a part in every death would be impossible. Thus the link between tobacco use and heart disease remains statistical, a trend expressible in ratios and percentages, not fateful, causal certainties.

I don’t claim to be an expert, but it doesn’t take an egghead to observe that something’s screwy with respect to anti-smoking legislation. Simply put, official figures on the risks of smoking do not justify the current war on cigarettes. Which begs the question: Why are governments so disproportionately vicious in their legislative bigotry directed toward smokers? Especially since those who love their cigarettes, like those who love their drink, are easy targets for exorbitant and lucrative taxation. Since when did any government forgo a source of revenue because it cared? About a health risk measured in the smallest of percentage points? It makes no sense. You’re far more likely to be injured in an alcohol-related traffic accident (199,000 Canadians in 2006, the latest year for which I have the numbers) than to die this year from smoking, yet I don’t see Parliament enacting bans on drinking beer.

* * *

I'm not trying to be clever when I say our governments' hard-line, apparently pro-active stance on smoking has all the feel of a smokescreen. The question is: What is it designed to hide? I've asked a lot of bright, insightful people and, to date, none has had an answer. All agree the government would never voluntarily give up a source of revenue except for some significant political advantage, but no one’s figured out exactly what it is.

Even the most rabid, anti-smoking zealot should be wondering what’s really going on.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Swimming pool communist

Hot night tonight. Nothing’s moving. The trees shiver every once in a while but it’s just a tease, a breeze you can see but can’t feel.

Heat waves in Ottawa are the worst in Canada, a country that holds the world record for the most number of deaths during a heat wave. Back in the thirties, over a thousand people died. Four hundred of them drowned trying to cool off.

There’s nothing like a valley with two major rivers running through it to make sure the sauna stays moist and toasty.

John and I went out for Dairy Queen last night. It didn’t help. I guess people knew that already. The place was deserted. Or maybe everybody was just too hot to go anywhere.

Our little household—John, James, myself—has neighbours with a swimming pool. They tend to stick to themselves and give off those disapproving vibes you get from people who think they’re too good for the ’hood. Their kids are fat. They’re also well-mannered and respectful of their parents in that complaisant way that always makes me nervous.

Those same neighbours haven’t offered us their swimming pool yet, and I'm mystified. Health agencies have been issuing warnings left and right. Emergency cooling centres have been set up in strategic locations around the city. Everybody needs relief (except those bastards with air-conditioning making the problem worse for everybody else), and our neighbours haven’t got the decency to invite us over.

You can tell they think: We worked for this. We own it (though more likely, they’re paying it off). Why should we share it with you? You’re welfare bums.

They know nothing of our stories. I doubt it would make a difference if they did. You don’t get mean-spirited and unneighbourly just by having more credit than the people next door. You have to start off that way.

I used to do landscaping work in Caledon, north of Toronto. It’s rich folks’ territory. Some of the estates I worked on were big enough to be provincial parks. Everybody had a swimming pool and at least one spring-fed artificial pond. On really hot days, the owners always told us to jump right in. Nothing to it.

I guess that’s the difference between being rich and putting on airs.

John says I'm a swimming pool communist. Maybe I am. These days, if I had one, I'd certainly be sharing it. And frankly, yes, I expect others to do the same.

What is wrong with people?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The G20 obscenity in Toronto

It’s disappointing when a government screws up so badly it unites the press. There’s precious little for a blogger to contribute when pundits, left and right, unanimously don their outrage hats and fulminate in harmony.

The G8/20 gabfests in the little town of Huntsville, Ontario, and the larger small town of Toronto (June 25-28, 2010) are a case in point. The billion dollar price tag for security surrounding the events affronts on every level: fiscal, governmental, humanitarian. So much so that even right-wing, rah-rah-war-on-terror media are crying foul.

What’s left to add when googling reveals no quip or barb, no bitter rant, no outraged parody that hasn’t been already made? Not much, except my observation that the billion dollars, as reported, has been creeping upward. The estimated figure now is one-point-three billion. Point-three doesn’t sound like much, but do the math. Point-three of a billion dollars is three hundred million—not a figure you round down, or render as a sneaky little fraction.

The explanation for Stephen Harper’s government spending such an obscene amount to host the G8/20 meetings is, according to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, merely “...the cost of Canada’s role in the world.” Flaherty further states, “...Canada is playing a very important role in the world and Canadians have to decide if that role is worth playing.”

Why, one has to ask, if it’s up to us Canadians, were we not consulted? More importantly, what is this very important role the Harper government believes we play? Does it differ from the one we used to play? Was that one insufficient? Is being who we are no longer good enough?

The answer, I believe, in the minds of our elites, is no, being who we are just isn’t good enough. A discontent with Canada as Canada infects our present government—a massive political inferiority complex—and it started in the eighties with Mulroney.

Philosopher and historian, John Ralston Saul, once took aim at Brian Mulroney (in Reflections of a Siamese Twin) and scored a bulls-eye when he pinned him as “...that vivid incarnation of colonial self-loathing.”

Colonial self-loathing is a feeling that your country isn’t good enough, measured by the standards of the metropole, which, these days, is the United States. It leads to overcompensation, transparent imitation, and a predilection for posterior osculation.

By and large, Canadians aren’t happy when our leaders act that way. Mulroney’s pro-US lovefest at the time of the first Gulf War not only brought about his downfall, but decimated the entire Progressive Conservative party—a lesson Stephen Harper either chooses to ignore or is too stupid to have learned.

It all comes down to political penis envy. Following Mulroney’s lead, a succession of Canadian leaders have made it clear they feel that Canada’s great strengths—our role as peacekeepers and mediators, our willingness to embrace diversity, our commitment to the welfare of all citizens (as witnessed by our social safety net, now in tatters)—don't measure up to the donkey dong down south. Men like Ralph Klein, Mike Harris, Stockwell Day, and Preston Manning wrapped their policies in words like tough love, common sense, and competitive free markets when they really meant “we’re scared of looking girlie.” Like two-bit thugs, they dressed in borrowed swagger, hoping to impress us with their manly politics.

Nobody was fooled. Not on the world stage, at any rate. Worse for that cabal of wannabes, no one gave two hoots. It takes a Pearson or a Trudeau to attract the world’s notice.

Quite frankly, the “very important role Canada plays in the world”, the one that’s worth a billion three, is nothing more than self-aggrandizement based on feelings of inadequacy. And the delusion is being bolstered by an expensive bit of grandstanding that's worthy of a banana republic. The money being spent has little to do with security. G20 summits have, since the Battle in Seattle, been universally reviled. If you really want to hold them without fear of protest, do so where the protesters can’t gather, someplace where security’s already tight.

Or better yet, pay attention to the fact that everybody hates you and stop holding them.

As for Stephen Harper and his cronies, I have only this to say: Since President Hu Jintao happens to be in Ottawa right now, why not ask him about penis enlargement? I understand the Chinese are world leaders in the field. The cost of adding inches won’t be in the billions, I assure you.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My latest novel is now officially online

It’s been a helluva struggle, but both my website and my latest novel, The Binbrook Caucus, are now online. The website is at You can access The Binbrook Caucus from the site, or go to it directly at

When I say a struggle, I mean it. Completion of The Binbrook Caucus took six years. Most of it was written in a living room perpetually filled with adolescents playing Xbox games. While smooth as silk, the novel is a complex bit of work. In interlocking spirals, it recounts four epochs in the life of David Ase, psychic extraordinaire and former teenage hustler. A larger underlying story stretches from the 1941 blitz at Coventry to the present. Keeping it all straight was hard enough without the sounds of Final Fantasy forever in my ears.

No sooner had I finished than my editor crapped out on me. Her magazine had just gone down the tubes, and I guess she couldn’t cope with a manuscript as tricky as The Binbrook Caucus. Whatever her reasons, her response to reading a small portion of it was to attack me personally for having written it at all, leaving me to do the editing and proofing on my own.

I'd scarcely started on that Herculean task when my roommate, who’d been showing signs of a collapse for several months, cracked up and locked me out of our apartment. Illegally, even though the lease was in her name. At midnight. In the dead of winter.

Thus began a year of homelessness, interspersed with two attempts at living with the crazy (which I didn’t realize at first, of course): one a former university professor with a personality disorder so severe it verged on psychopathic, and the other a psychotic drunk.

Thank god I had my laptop. The battery is dead, but anywhere that had a plug allowed me to boot up. Thus, large sections of the novel’s finished version were completed in Tim Hortons, and Starbucks with their handy WiFi access.

And not just the writing itself. A long-time champion of copyleft, I decided to forgo the confidence-destroying, hat-in-hand approach to publishers (which I underwent for my first novel, The Schumann Proof,) and make the book available online.

It was a huge amount of work, not only typesetting the book for easy reading at the screen, but creating an entire website from the bottom up, by hand. If you’ve never built a website, believe me, it’s a daunting task: writing copy, making graphics, coding pages, testing and debugging, getting a domain... Imagine doing that while wandering the streets by day, hanging out in shopping malls, and carrying around the knowledge that you may not have a bed at night.

On reflection, “struggle” may be understating things.

The one good thing that comes from all this is that it let me live a period of homelessness like David Ase, age seventeen. His account of living on the street is now, first-hand, my own, and accurate in every detail.

Like David, I did not give up. The work is finished now. I'm in the mood to celebrate, but all my friends are either out of town or just as poor as I.

Instead, I'm sitting by the banks of the canal that runs through Ottawa—the Rideau—listening to robins happy that a thunderstorm has passed. The air is still and heavy, but the sun is setting so it’s not too hot.

A flight of geese goes by; I watch their smudged reflection in the water. Perhaps it’s all the celebration I need. As they fly off, I feel a great weight lifted from my shoulders.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Everyone Deserves a Bed

When you wake up in the morning, do you wonder if you’ll have a place to sleep at night? Have you walked the streets because you have no place to stay, or sheltered in a doughnut shop and waited for the rain to stop?

Sometimes, it rains all day.

Have you tried to cut your food costs when you haven’t got a kitchen, or fed yourself nutritiously without a fridge for milk? Have you ever had to pack your life into a knapsack every day, and cart it with you everywhere?

Not everyone who’s homeless is a fuck-up. Not all of us are drunks, or sick, or lazy. Some of us have landed here by doing what was right. Some of us have skills that in another time would earn respect. Some of us have callings that society belittles.

Most likely, if you’re reading this, you’re comfortably indoors. When you need to pee, the bathroom’s down the hall. When the munchies strike, you’ll check the kitchen cupboards. When you want to take a break, you’ll stretch out on the couch, or if it’s late, head off to bed. Your bed, no one else’s.

Everyone deserves a bed. No one should go homeless. This is Canada. We haven’t got the climate to be laissez-faire about the poor. We used to have a decent social safety net: welfare for the needy, insurance for the unemployed, pensions for the elderly, universal healthcare. It wasn’t perfect, but it aimed for realistic. As late as 1988, a person needing welfare could apply, and walk out of the office with a cheque. It wasn’t much—$200—but back then it was just enough to tide a person over. What’s more, “emergency assistance” was a one-shot supplement over and above the monthly benefits.

In the intervening years, if you want to know how nasty we’ve become—in Ontario, at any rate—emergency assistance has been dropped, while the total monthly benefit for “basic needs” (everything, excluding shelter) has been slashed. Its value now approximates the former supplement: $216.

Could you exist on that? Especially without a place to call your own? Because on welfare, that’s a real possibility. Capped at $350 per month, Ontario Works' shelter allowance won’t even pay for a room in a boarding house. And since you’re on welfare, many landlords will refuse you anyway, even though it’s totally against the law.

In Ottawa, the waiting list for public housing runs into the thousands. That’s thousands without decent shelter in the Nation’s Capital, a nation proud of its prosperity.

Once upon a time, we used to style ourselves “a just society.” Not anymore. In a just society, prosperity is measured by the living standard of the poor, not the comfort of the rich and middle class.

* * *

James and John and I are moving in together. It’s been a hellish struggle battling with landlords, credit checks and references. Our lives have been on hold for months. And it's not over. ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Programme) is now requiring John to justify moving from a dump to better quarters before granting him his moving allowance, which includes his portion of the last month's rent deposit.

But if we overcome this hurdle, June 1st we have a place. We won’t be any better off, but at least we’ll each have rooms to call our own.

Monday, May 3, 2010

My friend, Darren

My friend, Darren, is a little thief. Everybody knows it. In fact, that’s what they call him: Darren, the little thief.

Darren doesn’t mind. He’s proud of being a thief. It’s what he wants to be. Has, in fact, practically since he could crawl.

If you give him half a chance, Darren will regale you with exploits. He has the gift of weaving thievery and swagger into stories that excite the boy in all of us. Some are bragging, to be sure, but most are true. His cheerful lack of guilt just makes them that much more amusing.

Darren looks for all the world like a 1950s teen idol: waves of dark brown hair that make a pompadour without the need for product; sable brows that rise in crescents over bedroom eyes. A snub nose and a pouty mouth complete the picture.

If Darren’s face is ’50s teen (he’s really in his twenties), his style of dress comes straight out of the ’80s. He sports a tailored leather jacket even on the hottest days. His whip-thin build looks good in slim-fit jeans. He’s fond of jewellery, but isn’t into bling: a bracelet, neck chain and a ring or two in silver are enough to make him feel like a somebody. All that’s missing is the Rolex—an oversight, I'm sure, to be corrected.

By his own admission, Darren likes to look a little cheap. His models are those dirty TV cops who always dress like Ginos, or small fry in the mob. That he’s neither makes them fodder for his fantasies.

Fantasy looms large in Darren’s life. The myth of lawlessness attracts him as a way to get respect. Growing up he had twelve “fathers”, none of whom competed with the dark lords of his favourite video games. While the leader of a brotherhood of paid assassins or the master of a Thieves' Guild may inhabit an exotic moral landscape, they at least provide rewards for work accomplished and a sense of affirmation.

Listening to Darren talk, you realize that thievery is his vocation. He’s not a kleptomaniac, or wicked. He steals for the challenge and the blood-rush of the risk. He means no harm. Ethics play a large role in his choice of victims. He’s learned why it’s not right to steal from family. He never takes what someone cannot do without. He’s never greedy with his booty though he’d sometimes like to be. And if he takes from you—something small because the thrill proved irresistible—he’ll 'fess up long before you’ve registered the loss. Not quite ready to be Robin Hood, he doesn’t steal for gain alone. Every theft is practice for the heist he dreams one day of pulling off.

If you believe, as I do, that our lives are based on stories we unconsciously enact, it’s wonderful to have a friend who’s chosen which one he intends to tell—quite consciously—and happily shares chapters even in their roughest form. An evening with Darren is a cavalcade of anecdotes, adventures most of us can only dream about.

As far as I'm concerned, if the price of having Darren as a friend is making sure my wallet’s safe, the price is well worth paying.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Good things in the culture of the poor

There are many facets to this thing called being poor, the sum of which creates a set of values that in other contexts would be called a culture. It is, however, an invisible culture, at least as far as mainstream media is concerned. You only hear or read about the poor when we become a “problem” for society, or when some politician wants to use us in a bid for votes. Such bids, of course, are never made to us. We’re either litmus paper for the health of a society, or cancer used to scare the middle class.

The invisibility of the poor as an authentic culture merits a blistering rant, but I won’t get into here. Instead, I want to sing some aspects of that culture.

* * *

If you want to see generosity in action, look to the poor. In my experience, those with the least to give are frequently the fastest to hold out a helping hand. Even when the only shirt they have is on their backs, they’ll share or even give it if your need is greater than their own. I've been fed and housed at times by people for whom kindness is a luxury, yet they’ve done it willingly, no questions asked. Charity is helpful, to be sure—and thanks to all who give it—but real generosity goes further than mere alms. It nourishes the soul in ways that charity cannot.

When your pocket’s full, it’s easy to be giving. When it’s almost empty, reaching in requires sacrifice: a willingness to do without to help out someone else. The act ennobles both recipient and giver, and fosters bonds that form the basis of community and culture.

Cooperation is the counterpart to generosity. When you’re poor, necessity demands it. The simplest needs, at times, cannot be met. The middle-class and upper’s panacea, ”Why don’t you just buy...”, is not an option. You have to pool resources, which gives those involved a stake in helping out. A reward, as well.

Take John and James and me. We hang out a lot. (In fact, if we get lucky, we may be moving in together soon.) All three of us like movies, but none of us can kick back and enjoy them on our own. I possess a laptop but no DVDs. John’s the owner of a decent monitor, but hasn’t got a player. Sasha, who’s the daughter of my temporary landlord, Bill, has tons of DVDs but rarely feels like company. My laptop’s sound is terrible, but James’s girlfriend has some speakers he can borrow.

When the urge to watch a movie strikes, a typical scenario is this:

John walks down to Sasha’s and picks up some DVDs. James sweet-talks his girlfriend into lending him her speakers. We all walk back to John’s, where I attach my laptop to his monitor and plug in James’s girlfriend’s speakers. John clears off his bed, James rolls a joint, and sometime later, pleased at having overcome the obstacles, we begin the show.

It’s a complicated process just to watch a movie. You’d think we’d tire of it, but we don’t. Sure, it would be nice sometimes to sink back in a Laz-Z-Boy and fire up a 56-inch flatscreen with surround sound blasting from the speakers. But how long would the pleasure last if, every time we got together, it were easy? Where would be the sense of sharing and occasion? Where would be the teamwork that adds spice to being friends? Where would be the pride that comes from overcoming challenges?

Watch kids at play. They don’t go out and purchase everything they need. They improvise, make do, invent. Listen to the sounds they make. Their glee’s as much about cooperation as it is about the game.

I'm fifty-three. John is forty-two. James is twenty-two. When we’re watching movies, it’s as if we’re six. For us, being poor’s a way of staying childlike—a good thing in a world overrun by greedy grownups.