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?