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.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Rest Is Noise

When I love a book, I read it slowly. Keri Hume’s The Bone People, for example. It took me six weeks. I'd read a page or two, then set it down and step out on the balcony. The region of Québec I lived in at the time is called la Gatineau—a rugged, hilly landscape filled with conifers and lakes, and granite that turns pink at sunset. Looking out across the valley, I'd relive the deep humanity that runs through every sentence of Hume’s prose. Like a box of chocolates, her writing begged to be stretched out as long as possible.

* * 

It took a month to finish Alex Ross’s wonderful account of music in the twentieth century, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. The slowdown stemmed, in part, from wanting to enjoy the writing itself. Ross is very good. His prose is clean and unselfconscious, plus he has the gift of making history itself a character, an entity that grows before your eyes. Periodically, his observations have the force of poetry, as in this brilliant passage:

“Composing is a difficult business...a laborious traversal of an imaginary landscape. What emerges is an artwork in code, which other musicians must be persuaded to unravel. Unlike a novel or a painting, a score gives up its full meaning only when it is performed in front of an audience; it is a child of loneliness that lives off crowds.”

His treatment of composers is thorough, accurate, and rivetting. I was particularly taken with his section on Olivier Messaien, whose extravagantly beautiful scores have been enthralling me for decades. The background to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is, in itself, an inspiring read. And Ross doesn’t make the mistake of merely writing about music; he provides a website where you can listen to examples (

I have only two quibbles with the book. One, admittedly, is personal. Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, while not as well known as The Threepenny Opera, has always struck me as one of the wonders of the Weimar period. Ross doesn’t even mention it. The other is Ross’s inexplicably long-winded blow-by-blow of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Obviously a personal favorite of Ross’s, I found myself flipping pages looking for the end.

Otherwise, Ross has written a deeply satisfying account of the politics of musical style in what, for future art music lovers, will probably be a lost century. His history illuminates what I learned at the Conservatory, and, more importantly, concurs with what, as a young composer, I experienced first hand.

Which leads to the second reason for the month-long read: my personal engagement in the history.

* * *

Conceivably the worst time in history to have been born a composer, especially in Canada, was the latter half of the twentieth century. An attitude persisted, at least among the educated middle class, that Western art music was integral to our culture, and the summum of all musics. If you’d suggested back then that classical music was irrelevant to North American society (as New York City oboist, Blair Tindell, does in her excellent autobiography, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music), you’d have been met with blank stares. And yet, at the time, living classical music was patently irrelevant: nobody liked it, nobody wanted it, and nobody understood it except a cabal of over-educated specialists.

(Of which, sadly, I was one, with the result that I remain, to this day, passionately fond of the repertoire everybody else loves to hate.)

Classical music had become separated from its audience. But if that weren’t bad enough for budding composers, the elites inside the tiny bubble of irrelevance that was contemporary art music had decreed that tonality was dead. “Tonal” music, for the uninitiated, inherently sounds right and makes sense to Western ears, which meant, in effect, it was no longer acceptable to write classical music the concert-going public liked or understood.

And we bought it.

To anyone not brought up in music, it must seem insane that three generations of composers actually believed Western music had evolved past tonality. But they did, myself included, and this is what Ross’s book is all about. Not so much the dissolution of tonality—that’s been well covered elsewhere—but the myriad social and political reasons why atonality became dogma.

I wish I'd had the insights Ross provides back then. They would have helped me understand my life a whole lot better. By the time I entered the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music to study composition, I was already steeped in the notion that “serious” contemporary music was atonal. So much so that I didn't see anything odd about dividing my output into two categories: “real” compositions (atonal and formidable), and ones that didn’t count (tonal and accessible). I was actually embarrased that my simple, tonal settings of five songs from Lord of the Rings were hugely more popular than the dense, atonal scores I was producing for my professors.

Not that I minded composing atonal music. It was intellectual junk food for a guy whose notion of background music was Ligeti or Stockhausen.

The problem with atonal music, other than that it alienated the public, was that no one, not even Schoenberg—the progenitor of atonality—had come up with a satisfactory musical language to contain it. Composers in the twentieth century had to reinvent the wheel every time they sat down to write. In Mozart’s time, musicians and audiences all “spoke” tonality. A composer with something to say had the wherewithal to say it. That was never the case with atonality, which wasn’t a language, but rather sound in search of an organizing principle. Formerly, composers found their “voice” within a common musical language. In the 20th century, they had to invent their own language before they could speak at all.

Legions of composition students, the pool of “tomorrow’s greats”, foundered under the burden. So did many of the greats, who either bounced from -ism to -ism, went mute for tortured years, or simply gave up.

A disenchantment with writing atonal music set in in my fourth year of University. I started having trouble finding anything to write about, and my academic performance began to slip. I didn’t understand. I'd started musical training at age four, yet here I was, in my early twenties, poised to complete my studies, suddenly apathetic about the career I'd spent so long preparing for.

I fought against a growing sense of the futility of composing over the next decade or so. I re-incorporated tonality into my music and succeeded, for a while, in finding an authentic voice. But I knew the works would never get performed. Not tonal enough for society concerts, not avant-garde enough for New Music venues, they fell through the cracks of an artform nobody would admit wasn’t really all that important anyway. In time, I ceased composing altogether.

* * *

Until I read The Rest Is Noise, I don’t think I really understood how my slide into silence, insignificant when compared to, say, Sibelius’s similar slide, was symptomatic of a century that itself had no idea where to turn aesthetically. It wasn’t just music. All the arts were plagued by “-ism” wars, effectively blocking artists from ever developing a common language for their work. Worse, as with music, a totalitarian insistence that modernity entailed a total rupture from the past—regardless of whatever good the past still held—led to some of the most arrogantly awful artworks in the history of Western culture.

Thankfully, even though I've given up composing, I've been able remain an artist, albeit reinvented as a writer. Somehow, the novel survived the predations of Joyce and his ilk, and remains a relevant, expressive and popular artform.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Virtual work

I attended an information session at Ontario Works a couple of days ago. OW is big on information sessions. Some are mandatory, others not. However, if I don’t attend at least some non-mandatory ones, I risk being tarred with the non-compliance brush; see my earlier post, You will comply.

This one was advertised as a workshop on “Virtual Work” (by which, one hopes, the organizers meant “finding work in the virtual world of the Internet” not “finding work that doesn’t really exist”).

I'm always on the lookout for ways to generate income from my mostly non-income generating skillset, so I signed up. Double-bonus: I'd be meeting my compliance requirements and I might learn something useful.

The workshop proved to be an information session, not a workshop. As per all such gatherings, attendance was taken first. Next, printouts from a PowerPoint presentation were passed around. After giving me and my fellow destitutes ample time to study them, a facilitator then read the very same sheets aloud while their contents were projected on the wall.

Perhaps some of us needed the triple redundancy, but the woman biologist behind me and the neat, geeky, articulate guy beside me certainly didn’t, and neither did I.

Following the session, I was required to meet with a caseworker to determine my suitability for Virtual Work Training. Having already made that determination for myself—why else would I have signed up for the workshop-that-wasn’t-a-workshop?—I confess my irritation slipped out a few times. Not a good idea. Very non-compliant.

The worker interviewing me was a woman I'll call C. So far, I've dealt with four OW workers, all of whom are women, and all of whose names begin with C. Remarkably, they’re all about the same age, the same height, the same build, and approximately the same hair colour.

“I gather your computer skills are quite advanced,” C began. (This because of my Tourette’s Syndrome-like response during the information session, a muttered it’s not exactly rocket science when the facilitator couldn’t kill her PowerPoint’s sound effects.)

“That depends,” I answered. “If you mean, do I know MSOffice, the answer is no. I run Linux, and my skills are all Unix/Linux-based.”

“I'm sorry,” she said, puzzled. “Linux? What’s that?”

It’s 2010. The Unix operating system, of which Linux is a variant, has been around since the seventies. Linux itself—stable, secure and virus-free—has been a significant contributor to computing since the early nineties. Nearly two-thirds of the Web relies on Linux servers. Pixar, who gave you Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, runs on Linux. Googling “linux” turns up 619 million hits. In addition, Linux is at the forefront of crossing the digital divide in Africa and South America, as well as having been adopted by government departments and educational facilities in France, Germany, Spain and India. And my suitability for OW's Virtual Work Training is being assessed by someone who’s never even heard of it?

This is the third time I've had to deal with that particular bit of ignorance at OW. If their goal is helping me find work, the lacuna isn’t trivial.

At a minimum, charged with assessing my suitability for the Virtual Work programme, C needed to know whether the training (online via Skype, four days a week, one hour a day, for six weeks) would interface smoothly with my operating system. OW is hugely, if not exclusively, Windows-centric, and Windows has a way of playing nasty with other operating systems.

On discovering I run a Linux box, C ought to have been able to respond: “The training programme is geared towards Windows users.” Followed by: So it’s not for you, or, But that shouldn’t be a problem. Instead I got: “What’s Linux?”

To be fair, C admitted that the Virtual Work Programme was a new initiative, that she was only an administrator, that the actual training was being farmed out to a commercial contractor, and that I'd be interviewed by yet another worker before undergoing the training.

What I'd been hoping for from the workshop were suggestions—novel strategies, avenues to explore, resources to exploit, URLs I didn’t know about—and maybe help with mastering the jargon hirers are said to drool over, Pavlov-doggie-style.

What I got instead was an information session suitable for grade-school, and an interview that left me feeling marginal. Again.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cold comfort

In my last post, I made the comment “...Ontario Works operates under the paranoid assumption that everyone on welfare is shiftless and untrustworthy.”

Worried that I might be paranoid myself, I delved into the background of Ontario Works. Guess what I discovered? The programme, an initiative of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris, was implemented not to improve social assistance, but to combat welfare fraud. The premier, whom philosopher/historian John Ralston Saul actually calls “evil” in his must-read book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, hoodwinked the electorate into believing that the homeless and the destitute were systematically robbing the government and needed to be taught a lesson.

The web holds so much information on the subject that I won't repeat it here. Those interested should check out John-Paul Hatala, Ph.D, Analysis of Welfare Reform Policy in Ontario, and Morgan Duchesney, The Treatment of Welfare Fraud by the Ontario Government: 1995-2003.

But it's cold comfort knowing I'm not paranoid; I still have to bow and scrape to get my cheque.

Monday, April 5, 2010

You will comply

My April financial-assistance payment (formerly, Welfare cheque) didn't get deposited in my bank account, proving once again that Ontario Works doesn't.

The pittance is supposed to be there for the start of every month. I called last week to let my worker know it wasn't. With Easter Weekend coming up, government services would be shut down. That meant three, possibly four, days without cash.

It took rather longer than the promised twenty-four hours for my call to be returned. Calls, actually, since my case, like everyone else's, is handled by two workers who, between them, are responsible for money, jobs, housing, and “compliance”.

Compliance is as scary as it sounds. It means absolute submission to the whims and dictates of Ontario Works. Non-compliance gets you totally cut off (if you're lucky) or charged with fraud (if you're not).

Ontario Works is on a hairtrigger with respect to non-compliance. Undotted i's or uncrossed t's can count as non-compliance. In any other context they'd be oversights, certainly not cause for damning anyone to hunger. But Ontario Works operates under the paranoid assumption that everyone on welfare is shiftless and untrustworthy. The slightest irregularity or oversight is viewed as proof the “member” (doesn't membership imply a club? special privileges?) is perpetuating fraud. This despite the following:

“The rate of fraud in the income tax system is approximately 20 times higher than the rate of fraud in the welfare system. A study conducted by a national auditing firm estimated fraud to be in the range of 3% of the Ontario welfare budget. A 2002 report from the Ontario Provincial Auditor noted: ‘of the 763,000 corporations with active accounts on the Ministry’s tax roll, 355,000 corporations—or one in two—did not file required returns.’”
Welfare: Myth and Reality (

I ended up talking to both my workers. One said the funds had been held up because I hadn't provided a required document. The other said the problem was unreported income.

The document in question was a copy of utility bill from my temporary landlord (Bill, whom I've mentioned in earlier posts), proving he's the owner of the house. The unreported income was a small amount of money I receive once a year from the Public Lending Rights Commission for my novel, The Schumann Proof.

I had, in fact, already supplied the utility bill—Ontario Works had misplaced it—but agreed to show up within an hour to replace it. As for The Public Lending Rights Commission, it had been incorrectly entered in my file as monthly, not yearly, income. Once we got that straightened out,I was told: “Your cheque has been cleared.”

Maybe I don't grasp the meaning of your cheque has been cleared. I learned English at school, not Newspeak. My understanding was that the money would go into my account. I have bills and loans to pay, not to mention that I'm getting tired of instant Ramen. Yet here we are, the Monday after Easter, and the hoped-for resurrection in my balance hasn't happened.

Ontario Works? My ass it does.

* * *

Update: It's now Tuesday, Apr. 6. I called my worker again. My April assistance, I was informed, will be in my account “before midnight” today. No apologies for the week-long delay.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The myth of the job market

I hear a lot about the job market these days—an inevitable consequence of putting in my time at Ontario Works. Recently, I got to wondering about the term. Time was, we used to have a work force. Now we have a job market. The terms are interchangeable. If you're unemployed, and have been for a while, "re-entering the job market" and "re-entering the workforce" are interchangeable.

So why the shift in terminology? What does it imply? To me, it's fishy, reminiscent of the way "consumer" clobbered "citizen" to mean "the public".

A market is a place where customers buy merchandise from vendors. Thus, if today's job market (somehow different from yesterday's?) really is a market, who is selling what to whom?

Job descriptions read like advertising copy. Dynamic, exciting, innovative, leading edge, creative... The hucksterism telegraphs a personality, much as "this great country" and "tradition" telegraph a personality for beer. You feel left out if you don't covet what they're offering. And, of course, the jobs all sound like existential panaceas; Sartre's god-shaped hole will magically disappear if you "...join our leading edge, dynamic team." Who, on reading that, doesn't feel a twinge of Gee, I gotta get me one of those?

All of which could lead one reasonably to conclude that what's for sale in the job market is jobs. Why else take such pains to make them so attractive?

But when I write a résumé, it's advertising, too. This is what I'm selling, it proclaims; here's what I have to offer. Buy me now and don't get left behind. Coaches in the art of getting hired stress the need to sell yourself. "In today's job market&mdash," I'm starting to detest that phrase, "—image matters just as much as work experience."

But if I have to sell myself (and there's a word for that in every language), it's me for sale, not jobs. So once again, I ask: In the so-called job market, who is selling what to whom? Are employers selling jobs, or workers selling skills? And who is doing the buying? At what cost? What market anywhere is so chaotic that you cannot tell the buyers from the sellers, nor even figure out what's being bought and sold?

When I was a member of the work force, I was part of a collective, a pool of willing competence society could draw on. When workers' skills went begging, the fault lay with society.

Now I'm in the job market. Markets, we are told, are governed by the heartless doctrine known as social Darwinism. Competition and self-interest prevail. If workers can't find jobs, the fault is theirs. Not for lacking competence, not for lacking will, but because they aren't good salesmen. Social degradation, economic factors, the absence of political will, and the ghastly, greedy errors made by companies and corporations—none of these creates the difficulties faced by those in search of work. In the job market, the seekers are to blame if they can't find employment.

Unemployment—and underemployement, an even graver issue—is not a market problem. It's a social problem. It can't be remedied by pitting individuals against each other, which attitude the term, "job market", fosters. In a market, collectivity disintegrates; there are only sharks, competing in a frenzy of self-interest.

Am I wrong in thinking this is not a healthy paradigm?