Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Work shall set you free

I've tried, most of my life, to be a watcher. To disconnect, to stand apart, to see the bigger picture. I'm not sure when it started. I suspect in school. Learning things came easily to me, so I didn't pay attention much in class. Instead, I focussed on the way my teachers gave their lessons. It was way more fun, and taught me lots about the real function public education serves. (Hint: it isn't about learning the three Rs.)

A couple of decades ago, I decided to stop reading newspapers. I had yet to meet Thoreau, but was already in agreement with him that "...all news, as it is called, is gossip." (David Ase, hero of The Binbrook Caucus, soon to be online, shares this point of view.) It seemed to me the carefully selected factoids—nothing more than variations on the same old, tired themes—were leading to a heavily "directed" world view. In other words, I was being told what was important, what to care about, how to situate my life in context of what "mattered", and I took offense.

There wasn't any Web, and I didn't listen to the radio or watch TV, so ceasing newspapers amounted to a journalistic blackout.

I was castigated by my friends for being irresponsible. "How will you stay informed?" they'd ask. "Informed about what?" I'd counter. "What the Globe and Mail or CTV decides I need to know? Have you ever stopped to wonder how much news they don't report?" My second line of defence was that it's true: news is mostly gossip. If an event is making headlines, someone's sure to tell you.

Shunning journalistic media allowed me to observe how even the astute are hoodwinked into thinking they're informed, when all they really know are facts some editor has pre-digested for them. In Canada, journalism's shift from pseudo objectivity to outright propaganda was more evident to me, I think, than most because I'd chosen to get off the infotainment ride.

The outcome of my habit of avoiding news has been that when I happen on a paper now (typically in someone else's bathroom), the stories read like articles from Mars. The issues they report on don't seem relevant to here-and now, at least not as I know it. Worse, they're disempowering. Deeply flawed assumptions go unchallenged. Most strikingly, the language used—dumbed-down, presumptive, larded with acronymes du jour and obfuscatory buzzwords—is scarcely one I recognize. Most times, if I read the print beneath a headline, I end up wondering: Does anyone believe this shit?

*  *  *

Fifteen years ago, I opted out of the work force. I hoped to, in Marge Piercy's words, "weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses." It was a risk, an experiment, but I've never shied away from playing with my life if it will give me insight into how things really work.

I got a lot accomplished in those fifteen years, but now I have to find a job. Ontario Works demands it. In Québec, where I used to live, I could classify my open source and writing work as self-employment. Bien-être social was perfectly content with that. Here, you have to actively be seeking work. Underneath the Welfare hucksterism ("Ontario Works") lurks more than just a hint of Arbeit macht frei.

If picking up a newspaper's a guarantee of feeling, not so much that I've lost touch, but that society's lost touch with me, reading job descriptions only makes it worse. Perusing Monster.ca, Workopolis and Job Bank Canada, half the time I haven't got a clue what sort of work is being offered. It's as if the writers of the copy missed the point of Dilbert.

Consider this:

"Our goal is to competently enhance value-added infrastructures and synergistically negotiate cost effective opportunities to meet our customer's needs. The successful candidate will smooth the day to day management of the data that resides in the organization's data bases. The role is absolutely critical to ensure an extremely high rate of data cleanliness and integrity."

Half of the above is nonsense cooked up by the sorely-missed Dilbert Online Mission Statement Generator. The other half is from an ad I read today. Can you tell which is which? Most likely not. All of it is twaddle. Yet it's what I face, day to day, looking for a place to use my talents.

As with newspapers, I shake my head and wonder: Does anyone believe this shit?

Then I grit my teeth and fire off another résumé.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

We'll always have Paris

I recently bought a copy of The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross's book on music in the twentieth century. I was surprised to see it on the shelves. Since my early teens, I've been passionately fond of 20th-century art music (until Philip Glass came on the scene), but long ago gave up the search for fellow fans. Tellingly, the best-known treatment of the subject prior to The Rest Is Noise is Henry Pleasant's The Agony of Modern Music, which came out in 1955.

Ross's book is very good.  I may review it later.  What caught me at the start was his discussion of creative life in Paris in the twenties.

What a time that must have been.  Everybody who was anybody swarmed the city: Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Stravinsky, Satie, Poulenc, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamps, Diaghalev, Nijinsky... I'm not trying for exhaustive here, just throwing out some names that spring to mind.

I first encountered 1920s Paris in my teens, courtesy of Canadian John Glassco's wry account, Memoires of Montparnasse. (Another Canadian, Morley Callaghan, cast an equally detached eye on the Left Bank in That Summer in Paris.  Canadians have a talent for observation; consider the war art of Frederick Varley and Arthur Lismer).

What drew me about Paris in the twenties was its fairytale quality.  At least that's what it seemed like to this budding writer-pianist-composer.  I spent my teenhood in a suburb.  A really nice suburb, mind you, noted for its pioneering, people-friendly planning.  Just the same, it was a suburb: middle-income, middle-class, middle everything.  No wonder twenties Paris seemed like an enchanted world.  Everyone had big ideas.  Everyone was partisan.  Movements started, had their day, and faded into footnotes.  Turncoats fled from camp to camp.  Legends bickered constantly.  Genius rubbed shoulders with inanity; wannabes and poseurs occupied the middle ground.  Anyone could join the fray, provided they had something new or daring to contribute.

Sure, the level of pretension was sky high.  Sure, mistakes were made with dreadful consequences on aesthetics in the decades following.  Sure, some dumb ideas got respect they didn't merit.  Sure, a lot of quasi-pseudo-semis (as my friend, Ron, likes to call them) strutted round in borrowed colours.

But Paris in the twenties wasn't about good or bad, right or wrong, talent or the lack thereof.  It was about the freedom to be unconventional, the freedom not to feel judged for having an imagination, the freedom to indulge in intellectual debate that had no goal but served a purpose.

Heady stuff if you're a teenager in love with poetry and music.

* * *
When I started writing this, I planned to wrap up asking: Where is Paris now?  Where's the spiritual homeland for the artist-thinker-visionary suffering the loneliness of non-conformity, the censure of the middle-class, the awful silence of ideas that, shouted at the rockface of society, don't even raise an echo?

I must have started writing in a pessimistic mood.  The answer was in front of me: The Web.  Funny how I missed it.

Looks like Rick was right.

Here's lookin' at ya, kid.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The New Voice

Between 1980 and 1982, I conducted Toronto's first lesbian and gay choir, The New Voice.  At the upcoming Unison Choral Festival in Winnipeg, they're resurrecting an anthem I wrote for the choir.  They've asked me for a brief text reminiscing about Toronto back then, the choir, etc.  Here's the draft:

Toronto in the early eighties was a great place to be gay.  The city was discovering its world-class potential, and pioneering activism had brought gay out of the shadows.  Politics was in the air—a heady, sometimes fractious blend of social justice, feminism, and gay rights.  A whiff of sixties militancy lingered.  We still had ample reason to take to the streets.  But when we did, it was as much in celebration as in protest.  The tide was turning in our favour.  We knew the fight would soon be done.  The cloud that would be AIDS had yet to darken the horizon.

What I wouldn't give for such naïveté again.

Gay men's choruses were flourishing in cities in the States when Paul Endicott, a founding member of Toronto Area Gays, lawyer-activist Harvey Hamburg, film director Bruce Glawson, and singer Andrew Mullin sat down with me to knock around ideas for a choir in Toronto.  It was typical of both the time and place that the first thing on the table was discussion of the choir's composition.  Should it be all male, or mixed?  In the States, only LA had a choir with what Robin, its conductor, called "a full-sized keyboard".  As I recall, there wasn't much debate.  We favoured mixed, and anyway the point was moot.  I said I wasn't interested in working with a male-only chorus.

"Mixed" took on a bigger meaning when we held our first auditions.  More than half of those who turned out couldn't read a note of music.  A number were completely straight, albeit comfortably.  I remember with special fondness Helga—married, in her sixties—who wandered into a rehearsal at The 519, the Community Centre where we practiced, and asked if she could join.  We assumed she didn't realize the choir was gay and lesbian, which only goes to show how even the most liberal can sometimes get it wrong.  "I know," she said, unruffled.  "I just want to sing.  The music sounds so wonderful."  For me, she came to symbolize the spirit of the choir: music before politics, and everyone invited.

There was much discussion over what to call ourselves.  The Toronto Gay Community Choir didn't sit well with women members.  Adding lesbian not only sounded stilted, but would have meant our letterhead ran off the page.  In the end, we chose the title of the anthem I composed for our first concert, The New Voice.  The words, by Feir Jaros, seemed to sum us up:

We are new singers of an old song
We are new voices of an old way
The music is measured, the music is strong
A new voice, for a new day.

Teaching untrained voices how to sing as one is no mean feat.  I'm not entirely sure anybody realized just how much work was involved.  Preparing for rehearsals sometimes took me days.  The fault was mine entirely.  From the start, our repertoire was mostly a cappella, and not a little of it thornily contemporary.

The speed with which The New Voice coalesced was nothing short of wonderful.  Our initial Christmas concert was a great success, followed in the spring by a programme that included Brahms and Pergolesi, and a new work written for the choir, again with words by Jaros.  A man who'd sung with Healey Whilan came up afterwards and complimented our performance of his Missa Brevis, claiming it was just as Whilan would have wanted it.

The choir's rapid musical progress reflected the commitment of its members.  Everyone was dedicated.  No one skipped rehearsals.  Even more remarkable, at least from this conductor's point of view, no one showed up late.

The group's capacity for learning and hard work encouraged me to push the envelope.  When the Gay Community Appeal supplied The New Voice with funds for a commission, the work I wrote, based on poet Marge Piercy's femininist reflections on the Tarot deck, would have been a challenge even to professionals.  Sad to say, the triptych, To Be of Use, was never sung in its entirety.  However, the last song, The Seven of Pentacles, did receive a public hearing.  Few would have guessed the singers deftly managing the complex harmonies and fluid rhythms were by and large untrained.

There were no cliques within the choir, no divisions.  We were all there for the joy of singing, men and women, young and old, gay and straight.  Music is a builder of communities.  The New Voice proved it every time we raised the roof.  Tolerance and pluralism aren't just words, our songs proclaimed; they're human, from the heart.  The lyrics of our anthem said it best:

And now our time
Has found its space
We touch
We know
We are

I'm not sure why The New Voice didn't last.  Friendships that sprang up have stood the test of time, but the choir itself was only in existence for two years.  Perhaps it was the pall of AIDS.  Joyous celebration sounded hollow in the shadow of what lay ahead.  Perhaps it was because the era we were part of lost its relevance.  Or perhaps there was no reason.  Even the most marvellous of things can be ephemeral, their purpose mainly to remind us of the possible.

Myself, I know the memory of working with The New Voice has remained an inspiration to this day.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Vignette after midnight

I was heading back to Bill and Sasha's after visiting a friend two nights ago. It must have been near two o'clock. A cold, March fog had settled in. Not a drifting, dreamy fog; one that and hung there, motionless, and chilled the bones. A woman was ahead of me, vanishing and re-appearing in the sparse orange pools of streetlight. Her gait was purposeful, her clothing plain. Not a Vanier hooker.

A little past a bankrupt dépanneur, she stopped.

"I hope you don't mind," she said as I got close. "I don't like someone walking behind me."

Vanier's not the safest place, at least by reputation. Myself, I never feel uneasy. The streets aren't dead the way they are in suburbs I've been trapped in after dark. Even after midnight, someone's always out. I find that reassuring. But then, I'm not a woman.

"It's okay," I told her. "I understand. Let me get ahead of you. I'm harmless."

"I can see that," she said with some relief.

Our brief encounter didn't feel complete, so a few steps on, I turned around.

"You know," I said, "it takes a lot of courage, just talking to a stranger like that."

"Thank you," she replied. Just that: Thank you.

She could have said, "Oh, no, not really," or "Do you really think so?", calling on that Anglo tendency to answer compliments with false, polite humility. She hadn't, and I found it gratifying.

I was pondering our micro-meeting when by accident I passed the street to Bill and Sasha's, rue Confort. Knowing that the woman was behind me, and not wanting to resuscitate her fears, I decided to go round the block.

As luck would have it, when I turned on rue Confort, she was coming up the street.

"What are you doing?" she enquired, sounding more amused than apprehensive. "Walking in circles?"

I enjoy the opportunity to share a little of myself with strangers, so I answered truthfully.

"I was reflecting on our encounter back there and missed my street."

"Oh? Why were you thinking about it?"

"To be honest, because there are so few people who know how to take a compliment. As far as I'm concerned, the only correct response is a simple, heartfelt thank-you. Which you said."

I began to walk away.

"I'm going to remember this," she called out after me. "I'm going to remember you."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Last day in Vanier, for now

I'm in Vanier right now, Ottawa's crack-infested francophone slum, at my friend Bill's.  His daughter, Sasha, who's also a friend, invited me to stay a couple of days.  It's eleven o'clock in the morning.  I've been up since ten-thirty, woken by Silas, Sasha's dog, who's sleeping on the bed he chased me from.

For the last month or so, I've been camping out at John's.  John lives in a one-room apartment in a subsidized block, what in England they'd call a council estate.  John's a big boy.  There isn't room for two on his double mattress, so I've been sleeping on the floor.  It's not too bad.  I have a pad, like a yoga mat, that's self-inflating.  It provides enough of a cushion that I can't feel the linoleum underneath.

The place itself is cramped, to say the least, about the size of a cheap room in a motel that rents by the hour.  The walls are cinder block, dirty beige and streaked with tar from cigarettes.

John suffers from some sort of non-specific mental illness.  He lives on a tiny fixed income provided by the provincial government and spends most of his days at home.  I, too, spend my days at home, working at my laptop.  If it weren't for the fact that both of us are good at retreating into our heads, we'd have killed each other by now.  As it is, we manage to co-exist in total silence for hours at a stretch, John engaged at his computer, me at mine.  We smoke up from time to time, usually in the evening, to take the edge off living in close quarters.

Last week, Sasha offered me a room at her and Bill's for a couple of days.  She likes John and wanted him to have a break.  Couch surfing, I have to take these kinds of offers, even though I dread them.  Carting my possessions from one place to another, I'm reminded how precarious my living situation is.

Today's my last day here.  I've enjoyed the little room Sasha let me use.  It has a real bed and, more important, a comfortable reading chair.  At John's, there are no chairs except a rickety spindle-back, adequate for working at my laptop, little more.  It's been a treat, having someplace to relax and read.

I have no feelings about returning to John's.  It's neither better nor worse than Bill and Sasha's.  If John's place is absurdly small, theirs is absurdly cluttered.  Floors, tables, chairs and desks all strewn with papers, books, dishes, laundry, cardboard boxes, broken lamps and garbage from a recent bout of renovations.  Every step, there's something in my way; every surface, when it's needed, has to be cleared off.  On my own, I couldn't live like this.  As it is, I've been navigating through the mess without complaint.  It is, after all, not my home.

Tomorrow, I have a meeting with a social assistance caseworker.  Social assistance in Ontario is called Ontario Works—a grimly Orwellian formulation.  I wonder if the bureaucrats who coined the name had any idea.  Most likely not.  If they did, their arrogance is even more alarming than their lie.  Ontario doesn't work.  Social spending has been pared to the bone.  Health care is a shadow of its former self.  The school system has become a travesty of real education.  Minimum wage is entirely inadequate to cover the cost of living.

The caseworker is supposed to help me find some sort of work.  She'll ask to see my CV.  After reading it, she'll express surprise that a man with my experience, qualifications and accomplishments is in the situation I'm in.  I know; I've done these interviews before.  Then she'll set the CV aside and tell me there's no place for my talents in the current job market, with an injunction to take the first minimum-wage job I can find.

Homeless and useless.  Thanks, Ontario Works.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Start off with a bang, that's what everybody says. Choose a catchy title, write an nforgettable first line. It doesn't matter if you're talking about stories, novels, or a blog. The advice has gained the force of axiom.

Missives from the Edge is hardly catchy. If anything, it comes across as stuffy. And quoting TS Eliot in the title of a blog is sure to turn off readers. Those who recognize the line will smell pretention; those who don't will simply scratch their heads. Not with a bang, but a whimper? What's that all about? Is this guy a wimp or something?

I'm not especially fond of TS Eliot. As an educated English speaker, of course I know his poetry. But I'm no fan. I'd prefer to read about The Wasteland than to actually plough through it. And The Hollow Men, from which the whimper/bang line comes, while popular with adolescents on the cusp of disillusion, is a gawky exercise in frivolous ellipsis.

So why Missives from the Edge, with its obvious allusion to the movie, Postcards from the Edge? And why TS Eliot, when his poetry does nothing for me?

Missives from the Edge is easy to explain. I'm homeless. That's right, you read correctly. Homeless. As in "no fixed address". Couch-surfing while I hunt for lodging that's affordable, of which there's none. Not in Ottawa, at any rate

A year ago, my life was perfect. I had love, a sense of family, time to write, and boundless optimism for the future of the novel I'd just written, The Binbrook Caucus. In less than three days, all that vanished, courtesy of guilt and discontentment on the part of someone who had formerly romanticized la vie d'artiste but suddenly gave into bourgeois-envy.

Admittedly, in adult life, I've pushed the envelope of interstitial living (a term from William Gibson) but always managed to avoid The Edge. Now I'm there, and feel the need to share my observations. From the perspective of the census takers, I'm a homeless, penniless, unemployed bum. How many bums do you know capable of citing TS Eliot and William Gibson? Not many, I imagine, hence Missives from the Edge: perspectives on what poverty is like from someone with an education. The very education current propaganda has Canadians believing is a guarantee of middle-class success.

Which brings me to the TS Eliot line. Aside from announcing I intend to start this blog off quietly, it's a starting point for addressing a misapprehension I've trying to counter all my life, namely that if you're educated and familiar with dead, white male authors, you have to be a snob. Someone out of touch with common pleasures, like beer and barbeque, country music, comic books, or action films.

I'm no snob. I like Death Note and the Preacher comics as much as I like Shakespeare and John Donne. In fact, I'm passionate about all four. I'm told this is unusual. For the life of me, I can't imagine why. But if it is, then perhaps my oddity will serve me in this blog.

It is said that significant enquiries always originate on the margin. My unorthodoxy, which has grown organically around me rather than my having cultivated it, puts me on the fringes of edge. It's from here, without fuss or posturing, I intend to question and observe, thus Missives from the Edge that start not with a bang, but a whimper.