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.