Monday, September 16, 2013

And He Built a Crooked House...

The mall experience is something I avoid whenever possible. Rare’s the time I find what I’m looking for. But last Saturday, I donned my biking gloves and knapsack and headed over to the St-Laurent Shopping Centre.

I had three items on my list: ink for my printer, new jeans, and a new pair of sneakers.

St-Laurent is as horrible as any other mall. It’s an expressionist nightmare where no corridor proceeds in parallel with any other. Entrances and exits, or the escalators up and down, seem to recede as you approach them. The only thing that’s missing for a truly Kaligari-esque experience are looming shadows on the walls, and that’s only because the weirdly artificial light casts no shadows at all.

It’s a house of mirrors, too. Halls that led you to the shoe store yesterday today deposit you outside the food court—Heinlein’s And He Built a Crooked House made manifest.

The Printwell service counter is conveniently located just inside a southern entrance. I approve of Printwell. They exist to screw the system, filling up your printer cartridge for a fraction of the cost of a replacement. My old bird’s been going for a couple of years now thanks to them.

I dropped my cartridge off, and was told it would be ready in about a half an hour, time to pick up jeans and sneakers. I know my jean size (30-34) and my shoe size (12), so it seemed a simple matter of finding what I needed on the shelves.

I started with the sneakers. All my life, I’ve favoured canvas running shoes. They’re comfortable, cheap, and practical. I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy, so they don’t look out of place. And they’ve been around forever. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine devotes a whole chapter to them. Besides, fashionable footwear angers me. I want function over branding. I’m not vain enough to think a logo magically transforms me into something that I’m not.

St-Laurent has seven shoe stores, four sporting goods stores, and two department stores—more than enough to find a pair of size twelve canvas runners. I like high-tops, but I’m not that fussy; ordinary low cuts are fine.

Could I find what I was looking for? Not a chance. I added a mile or so of wear to my already worn-out sneakers traipsing through the mall, checking every one of those thirteen stores. Only three had canvas sneakers. The offerings at Payless Shoes had quilted padding and cost 3x what I paid the last time for unquilted ones. Footlocker had Converse, but the sales person shook his head when I enquired about size twelve.

I felt a glimmer of hope at SportCheck, where they had both Converse and size twelves. The glimmer faded when I asked price: sixty-five dollars. “You’re paying for the name,” the clerk said sympathetically when I pointed out the shoes were made of canvas, rubber, and a little bit of foam.

If I’m paying for a name, that name had better be along the lines of Stradivarius or Fabergé, not something as supremely inconsequential as eight letters in a circle on the ankles of my running shoes!

Sneakers off the list, I attacked the jeans. Besides the two department stores, St-Laurent boasts eighteen clothing retailers, including two that specialize in jeans. The plethora of choices offered was staggering: boot cut, straight cut, classic cut, slim fit, comfortable fit, high waist, low-riders, button fly, zipper... Some were even ordinary denim blue. But the only choice that mattered—30-34—was nowhere to be found. Not in one of twenty stores.

I couldn’t believe it. There I was, in a temple to commerce, in a day and age where economic pundits and other lackeys of the über-rich prattle on about competition and consumer choice, and not one single competitive price or useful choice was to be found.

Angered at this sham of “giving consumers what they want”, and disgusted by the propaganda that supports it, I went back to Printwell, paid a reasonable price for my unbranded black ink, and left.

Outside, the sun cast comfortingly real shadows on the ground.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cooking Poor:
Making yoghurt at home

If your reaction to the subject of this article is Ew, I don’t like yoghurt, then go away. I’ll be preaching to the choir.

Yoghurt is miracle. Milk plus some bacteria equals one of the oldest treats known to mankind. While I’m sure it’s terribly good for you, as so many claim, what matters most is that it’s delicious and keeps for weeks. I may use coffee to kickstart my brain, but it’s that morning bowl of yoghurt that makes my days worth facing.

If you embrace the principles of “living poor,” making yoghurt at home fits right in.

First off, you’re manufacturing something yourself rather than paying someone to do it for you—in this case, the dairy industry. The people who profit when you buy processed milk products at the supermarket aren’t dairy farmers, but stockholders invested in supermarket chains and the food conglomerates supplying them. While we can’t avoid the dairy industry when it comes to basics like milk, butter, and cheese, we can give it the finger by making yoghurt at home.

Secondly, the environmental damage caused by unnecessary processing of foods is reduced every time you make a product marketers would have you thinking it’s easier, or better, or faster, or simpler to buy—yoghurt, especially flavoured yoghurts, being a classic example.

Making yoghurt is no trouble at all, and litre for litre costs the same as milk. Where I live, a container of supermarket yoghurt comparable in flavour to what I make at home costs four times what I pay for the equivalent amount of milk.

Yoghurt enthusiasts on the Web have their hearts in the right place, but may be doing a disservice because of their excessive emphasis on getting temperatures perfect. There are thousands of articles out there telling you to heat the milk to such-and-such a precise temperature, then let it cool to such-and-such another precise temperature, then let it incubate at yet another precise temperature.

Bollocks! In thirty years of making yoghurt, I have never touched a thermometer. Here’s the skinny on how to make real, no-fuss, no-worry yoghurt.

Pour any quanitity of milk you like into a thick-bottomed pot. Heat, stirring contantly, until it begins to foam. Reduce the heat and simmer for two minutes, still stirring constantly. Milk has an awful tendency to boil over.

Remove the pot from the element and let the milk cool until it passes the baby-bottle wrist test, typically half an hour.

Pour the milk into a clean bowl and stir in a tablespoon or so of your last batch of yoghurt. If you’re making yoghurt for the very first time, buy a small container of good, unflavoured commercial yoghurt and use a tablespoon of that instead.

Cover the bowl with a lid or plate, and set it in the oven with the oven light turned on. Leave for 12 hours.

Voilà! A bowl of yoghurt, ready to be cooled. I usually pass a whisk through it a couple of times to incorporate any whey (the clear liquid that rises to the top) before transfering it to a smaller pot for storage in the fridge.

The consistency of homemade yoghurt is a little runnier than commercial offerings, which often use lecithin, egg-white powder, and other thickeners. Why, I do not know. Extending the product, maybe, so manufacturers can squeeze another dollar out of a litre of milk? At any rate, the 2-minute simmering evaporates excess water from the milk and ensures a thick, unctuous, honest yoghurt.

The flavour is generally better than bought yoghurt, and you can increase the tanginess by letting the yoghurt incubate longer. I like a good, “bright” yoghurt, and have found 12 hours to be just about right.

The essence of living poor, cooking poor, is summed up by making yoghurt at home. It costs less than buying, it robs food conglomerates of inauthentically-generated profit, it contributes to the well-being of the Earth by reducing wasteful and destructive over-processing, it diminishes the carbon footprint of shipping, and it tastes fantastic. How perfect is that?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Cooking Poor:
Whole wheat quick breads

Bread. I adore the stuff no matter what form it comes in. I’ve often said a bread and water diet would present no hardship for me, provided the bread were good.

When you’re living poor, bread really is the staff of life, a superb source of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, complex carbohydrates and dietary fibre. All of which is secondary to the fact that bread is filling, something that’s important when you’re trying to spend the least amount of money possible on food.

In the broadest terms, bread is nothing more than flour or meal mixed with liquid to make a dough, then heated. Every culture in the world makes bread in some form or another, whether it’s French baguettes, Jewish challah, Mexican tortillas, Lebanese pita, or Indian nan.

For most North Americans, bread means a yeast-risen loaf—basically, the stuff you buy in plastic bags at the supermarket. The problem there, of course, is that you’re paying an industry to make something that you could be making yourself, and the cheap offerings, like Wonderbread, simply don't deliver the flavour and nutrition of an honest loaf.

Baking beautiful, whole wheat loaves is an activity I do regularly, but I won’t lie: It’s a lengthy process that ties you to the kitchen for a couple of hours, and it’s a skill that takes practice. Well worth it, but even we dedicated bakers need alternatives to yeast-risen breads for those times when we want a simple, no-fuss loaf.

So-called “quick breads” are breads leavened with baking soda or baking powder instead of yeast. Other than Irish soda bread, which is sui generis, they require sugar in some form or another in order to produce a good texture, or “crumb”, as bakers call it. Consequently, most quick bread recipes you come across are quite sweet and fall into the dessert category, like zucchini bread or date-and-nut loaf. While delicious, they’re not as useful dietarily as regular yeast breads. For example, you wouldn’t want to make a tuna sandwich on banana bread.

I made it a project of mine some years ago to come up with a quick loaf that could stand in for yeast bread and be as suitable dripping with marmalade as bracketing a tomato sandwich. The following two recipes are the fruits of my labours. Despite their seeming similarity, each produces a distinctly different loaf. The one with corn syrup has the sturdier crumb of the two and a faint sweetness that brings out the flavour of the whole wheat. The molasses loaf has a slightly denser crumb with a paradoxically more delicate texture. The molasses does not predominate, but adds complexity and richness. Both toast beautifully—an essential quality in any useful bread—and both make great sandwiches.

A couple of baking tips:
    Always sift your dry ingredients, no matter that many cookbooks swear it isn’t necessary. Aside from ensuring even distribution of the flour and leavening agent, sifting loosens and aerates the flour, which benefits every kind of baking.
    When a recipe calls for buttermilk, which is expensive, put a tablespoon or so of vinegar in the measuring cup, then fill it to the desired measure with milk. Let sit for five minutes to sour.
    When a recipe calls a sticky liquid, such as molasses, along with oil, use the same measuring cup for both, and measure the oil first. Afterwards, the sticky stuff will pour out cleanly, leaving only a small drop at the lip.
    Do not overbake. Ever. Dry baked goods are nearly always the result of overbaking, not an inferior recipe.

Whole Wheat Quick Bread #1

1-1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-1/2 x 5 inch loaf pan or equivalent.

Sift together the flours, baking soda, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Make a well in the middle.

In another bowl, mix together the buttermilk, oil, and corn syrup. Pour into the well. Stir just enough to combine. Transfer the batter to the loaf pan.

Bake 45-50 minutes. Turn the loaf out onto a wire rack and cover with a damp cloth while it cools.

Whole Wheat Quick Bread #2

2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-1/2 x 5 inch loaf pan or equivalent.

Sift together the flours, baking soda, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Make a well in the middle.

In another bowl, mix together the buttermilk, oil, and molasses. Pour into the well. Stir just enough to combine. Transfer the batter to the loaf pan.

Bake 40-50 minutes. Turn the loaf out onto a wire rack and cover with a damp cloth while it cools.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My excellent neighbours—an object lesson

I want to hold myself up as an object of ridicule and humiliation. I would also like to hold myself up as an object lesson.

We were having a heat-wave the summer John and James and I moved into our apartment. The next-door neighbours had—have—a swimming pool. I didn’t know them; I could only see them over the fence, splashing about in their oasis of turquoise bliss.

I’m big on sharing and hard on hoarding, and it seemed unconscionable to me, during one of Ottawa’s filthy heat waves, not to offer us escape from the swelter and humidity. I judged them harshly, those people I didn’t know, and wrote an article, Swimming pool communist, in which I painted them in shades contemptuous and damning. I accused them of being bourgeois, hermetic, smug, and insensitive to the reality of Vanier, which is mostly Franco slum.

Three years have passed, and for three years, that momentary eruption of heat-induced name-calling has been sticking in my craw. Communist is an article I should never have written, at least not with our neighbours as the springboard. I was so very wrong to judge them.

Their names are Carole (accent on the last syllable) and René. They’ve lived in the same lovingly-maintained house for thirty-five years with never a thought of flipping it for profit. They’ve weathered the changes inflicted on Vanier by the city of Ottawa, from working-class quarter to crackwhore ridden slum. Not just weathered, but adapted to with humour, grace, and understanding. René’s been in roofing and construction since forever. Carole embodies everything the archetypal version of a mother, now a grandmother, should be. Their marriage had some rocky patches, but they persevered, as couples used to do, and now they complete each other in a partnership to warm the heart.

I properly met Carole the first time at a yard sale. I’d been looking for a sink strainer, one of those slotted plastic inserts you tuck in a corner of the sink to collect vegetable peelings and whatnot, that have inexplicably vanished from the store shelves. Lo and behold, there on a table on their lawn was the very thing for which I'd been hunting. Carole and I exchanged a few words in French and English, which is pretty much the norm in linguistically schizophrenic Vanier, where anglophones are anglophone but francophones are fluently bilingual. The nature of the object I was buying prompted kitchen talk, whence Carole and I discovered a shared love of baking.

I don't recall who took that first plate of cookies or slice of pie next door, but soon enough, sharing and comparing what we whipped up in the oven turned us into real neighbours. Carole invited me to help make doughnuts for some little-league hockey blow-out; I showed her the secrets of perfect pie pastry. One thing led to another, and soon enough, Carole, René, and I were friends.

They are a couple who exemplify decency, generosity, and open-heartedness. They are as comfortable asking for neighbourly help—say, cat-sitting—as they are offering it: the propane barbeque I so love in the summer was a gift, someone's rusting piece of junk restored to working order by René. They fix, recycle, and re-use everything. What they no longer have use for, they offer first to neighbours before donating to the Sally Ann. Not for them the Brave New World mantra of consumerism, “Ending is better than mending.”

(You haven't read BNW? Go back to school! Oh, right. . . they don’t teach it in school anymore. How convenient for our corporate masters.)

There’s something wonderfully, almost magically, anachronistic about Carole and René. René goes bowling twice a week. Carole still hangs her laundry on the line, winter and summer. She kvetches about being a widow during hockey season. He rolls his eyes when she makes him come with her to Fabricville. He recycles old metal. She makes quilts—gorgeous quilts—for newborns at the Children’s Hospital and army veterans. They enrol their grandkids in soapbox derbies. Soapbox derbies! Who even knows what those are anymore? And they do everything together. Carole’s as handy with tools as René is with the washing.

Two years ago, René built a covered porch for Carole, a place for her to sip her tea, quilt, and watch the world go by. I’m often invited to sit with her. We’ve got a system going that beats telephones and texting. When she wants me to come over, she stands at her back door and rings a little crystal bell she picked up god-knows-where. The tinkling’s my signal that it’s time for tea and chatting. René, leery of the eccentricity at first, himself now rings from time to time—always way too long—and grins from ear to ear when, summoned, I appear.

So go on, laugh at me. Call me names. Accuse me of hypocrisy. I deserve it. I’m always holding forth about not judging people till you know them, yet three years ago I looked across a fence at people I had yet to meet and damned them publicly, or as publicly as blogs that no one reads allow. I could not have been more wrong, either in the making or the substance of my judgment.

When you look across a fence, be it real or virtual—a border or a shallow strip of muddy water or an economic difference—don’t judge the people on the other side until you get to know them.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cooking Poor:
White sauce variations

In my last post, I discussed creamed vegetables, which are a delicious way to make your vegetables go further. Flavour is everything when you’re living poor because ill-prepared or tasteless food has a dampening effect on one’s spirits. The difference between living poor and living in poverty is that the former emphasizes living, while the latter emphasizes deprivation. Attitude is everything. Whether you’re poor by choice or circumstance, extracting the best from everything you buy brings satisfaction, pride, and even joy.

Once you’ve mastered white sauce—and mastered is really too strong a verb for something so easy—you have at your disposal a foundation for endless variations to accompany meat, poultry, and fish. Overall, when living poor, flesh is a terrible economy and should be avoided. However, when you do come across specials in the supermarket freezer, it makes a wonderful treat, even if the quality is usually not Grade A. That’s where the art of saucing comes in.

You’re really only limited by your imagination when it comes turning white sauce into a delicious partner for other foods. The French have all sorts of fancy names for the variations: Mornay for cheese sauce, Forestière for mushroom sauce, etc. I prefer the common, descriptive English names, which make the sauces sound more down-to-earth and accessible to home cooks. There’s probably a bit of reverse snobbery involved, too.

Here are four suggestions for things you can do with white sauce to get you started.

Cheese Sauce: Add 3/4 - 1 cup of full-flavoured, grated cheese(s) to 1 cup of white sauce. Season with a pinch each of cayenne pepper and dry mustard. White sauce brings out the flavour of cheese and lets you get the most out of those plastic-wrapped rectangles sold in supermarkets.

Aside from being a classic accompaniment to cauliflower, which is inexpensive and can be grown locally throughout most of North America—two qualities always to watch for in your food—cheese sauce is fabulous over meat loaf.

Mushroom Sauce: Also called mushroom gravy. Add 3/4 cup of chopped raw mushrooms to 1 cup of white sauce and heat gently over low heat for 10 minutes. Season with generous gratings of nutmeg; mushrooms love nutmeg.

Mushrooms have practically no nutritional value, so they’re best kept off the menu when you’re living poor. However, the deliciousness of mushroom sauce justifies their occasional purchase, especially since the quantity is small. Also, I'm not sure why raw mushrooms produce a better flavour than cooked—it seems to break culinary common sense—but they do.

Mushroom gravy is the perfect sauce to serve with oven-broiled chicken (recipe below).

Egg Sauce: Increase the quantity of milk in the basic white sauce recipe by 1/3 cup. Add two chopped, hardboiled eggs and season with a splash of Tobasco. The Tobasco adds no heat, and its flavour is essential to the sauce.

Egg sauce is one of the great comfort foods, and is the sauce of choice to go over salmon loaf (recipe below), an oft-overlooked traditional poor-man’s food.

Parsley Sauce: Add 1/3 -1/2 cup chopped curly parsley to the white sauce and let it warm for a few minutes. Aside from being excellent with fish, parsley sauce over plain, boiled potatoes is a real treat.

Curly parsley should be part of every economical kitchen. It’s inexpensive to buy, and can even be grown in a pot indoors. It keeps for ages in the refrigerator, and is a great herb for rounding out the flavour of dishes that “seem to be missing something”. Plus it’s loaded with iron.

Don’t make the foodie mistake of thinking Italian flat-leaf parsley is superior to curly parsley. Italian parsley has a pepperiness that’s works with some dishes, but is entirely inappropriate for others. Both are delicious, but real cooks, as opposed to Food Network junkies, know when to use which.

Oven-broiled Chicken

3 - 4 lb chicken
3 tbsp oil
freshly cracked pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut the chicken into parts. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish; glass is best, I find. Rub the chicken pieces with the remaining oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the chicken skin side up in the oiled dish and bake until just done, approximately 30 - 45 minutes. Do not under any circumstance overcook.

For whatever reason, this simple way of doing chicken is the best. I find it preferable to roasting a whole chicken. The skin is crispy, the flavour rich and honest, and the flesh nice and moist.

Salmon Loaf

3 tins salmon, drained
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
4 tbsp soft butter
1 tbsp chopped curly parsley
1 onion, diced fine
salt and pepper
Worcestershire sauce
2 eggs, slightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl with your hands. Pat into a buttered loaf pan (again, I find glass is best). Set the loaf pan in 1 inch of hot water in larger pan and bake 30 - 35 minutes. Let the loaf rest a few minutes before slicing.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cooking Poor:
White sauce, creamed vegetables

The French refer to White Sauce, which I wrote about here, as a “mother sauce” because it provides the foundation for a host of variations. If you’re living poor, it’s a miracle for stretching food that costs only pennies. Your grandmother knew it. If you’re lucky, your mom knew it, too.

These days, white sauce isn’t something home cooks whip up regularly for weekday meals. More’s the pity. So-called creamed dishes—meats, leftovers, and particularly vegetables added to a basic white sauce—make great comfort food. They can be served as a side, or as a main dish spooned over rice or slices of toast. Excellent “living poor” food that makes your leftovers and vegetables go twice as far.

Unadulterated white sauce has a particular affinity for cooked vegetables, which reveal unexpected flavours when the two come together. Root vegetables like carrots or turnips become less aggressive and develop a pleasant sweetness. Scalloped potatoes (sliced potatoes and onions baked in white sauce) are their own brand of delicious. Equally good, if less fancy, are cubed, cooked potatoes added directly to the sauce—useful to know when you’re down to just a few shrivelling spuds. Green and yellow vegetables like peas, beans, celery, corn, and squashes undergo subtle transformations that reveal new sides to their character. Spinach and chard loose any residual bitterness and turn comfortingly rich. Anything in the cabbage family can be creamed, including broccoli, as can boiled white or yellow onions.

All that’s required for creamed vegetables is a quantity of white sauce and a quantity of cooked vegetables. The basic recipe for white sauce gives one cup, but it can be doubled endlessly. The vegetables should be cubed or sliced, not too thinly, and cooked simply by steaming or boiling. Combine the two in the pot you use to make the sauce and keep warm over low heat so the mixture doesn’t boil.

It often happens that when you add the vegetables, the sauce becomes a little too thick. Thin it with small amounts of milk, which can be cold, to bring it to the desired consistency.

A favourite creamed dish of mine is cabbage. Cabbages are a vegetable of choice when you’re living poor, at least here in Canada, because they’re inexpensive, filling, and nutritious. What’s more, they grow everywhere, ship easily, require minimal refrigeration, and keep for ages—qualities we should look for in our supermarket produce in order to slow the destruction of planet Earth. Reducing the harm done when money exchanges hands is one of the guiding principles of living poor.

Here’s my gussied-up version of creamed cabbage, the one I use when serving guests.

Creamed Cabbage

4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
1-3/4 cups hot milk
1/2 tsp salt
freshly cracked pepper
1 small or 1/2 large head cabbage
buttered breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shred cabbage, place in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add a little water, and steam, covered, for 20 minutes. Drain and transfer to a casserole.

Make a white sauce of the butter, flour, milk, salt, and pepper. Season well with freshly grated nutmeg. Pour over the cabbage, cover with buttered breadcrumbs, and bake until bubbly and golden brown.

Next: White Sauce variations

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cooking Poor:
Basic White Sauce

It has been said that one of the most subversive things you can do these days is grow your own food. Supermarket chains, and the food processing and shipping conglomerates that support them, don’t want you raising your own crops. They can’t make money from it. Heaven forfend consumers should also be producers. With a small plot of land—say, the size of a suburban backyard—your beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans, squashes, and herbs cost virtually nothing but the time devoted to their cultivation. A kitchen garden deprives global food corporations of the only crop they harvest: money.

Living poor, especially in the city, you probably don’t own a patch of arable land despite being a person far more likely to cultivate it than the urban landowners who do. The kitchen garden “movement” is a great conscience-easer for the middle-class and wealthier, but is meaningless and insulting to the poor.

A more attainable way to give the finger to greed is to learn to cook your own food from scratch. Not the “seared Kobe beef with pancetta lardons and tarragon-balsamic vinegar reduction” cooking worshipped by pretentious urban foodies, but real home cooking, whose foundation is economy.

As with most of what used to be called the domestic arts, basic cooking skills are viewed as optional by many foodie dabblers. They either mistake expensive ingredients and exotic products for solid technique, or protest that learning somehow interferes with creativity, or are simply undisciplined frauds wearing the borrowed colours of a professional chef.

I’m alarmed at times by the number of people I know who don’t know how to mash potatoes, cook rice, steam vegetables, roast fowl, make stock, and a host of other fundamental kitchen skills. Without those skills, you wind up paying to have someone else prepare your food, either by purchasing processed approximations of the real thing or by supporting the hugely wasteful restaurant industry.

I’ve been preparing my own food and feeding households on a limited budget for years. I’ve already written a few food-themed articles in this blog, and am now beginning to realize I should incorporate more. Living poor and eating well is something I’ve spend decades practising. The time has come to share the fruits of my experience.

Good, practical cooking is largely a question of creating variety out of a small number of staples combined with fresh, unprocessed ingredients. One of the essentials to achieving this is knowing how to make White Sauce.

Foodies balk whenever I say White Sauce, preferring the la-dee-dah term, béchamel, unless, of course, they’re so far misguided by snobbery that their noses crinkle at the very thought of pre-nouvelle cuisine. They’re wrong in any case. Béchamel is a white sauce variation, not the thing itself.

White Sauce is a combination of milk, butter, and flour that produces a medium-thick, pleasantly mild sauce that serves as a sort of culinary blank slate for all sorts of foods and flavours. For budget-limited cooks, it is the “extender” par excellence, and for that reason alone deserves its place as one of the foundations of home cooking.

White Sauce Recipe

1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt*
*If your butter is salted, reduce this quantity by half

Begin by heating the milk, either in a double-boiler until steam starts to rise off the surface, or for 1 minute in the microwave.

While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Do not let the butter brown.

When the butter’s melted, reduce the heat to low and stir in the flour and salt. Let the roux, as the flour and butter mixture is called, cook for 1 minute, then remove it from the heat until the milk is ready. Do not let the roux brown.

Return the heat to medium and set the saucepan back on the burner. Using a whisk, incorporate the hot milk into the roux a little at a time, whisking constantly so the two blend together smoothly.

Continue cooking and stirring until the sauce achieves a medium-thick consistency. Do not let it boil, as this imparts an unwanted sweetness. I use a wooden spoon for the last bit of stirring because it’s easier to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom and sides of the pan.

Season with a few twists from the peppermill and, for a wonderfully pleasant flavour that marries beautifully with all sorts of foods, a small grating of nutmeg.

That’s it. Perfect white sauce, ready for whatever use you can think of.

In my next food-related article, I’ll discuss some of the things you can do with our marvellous culinary blank slate.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Living poor, Part II:
Spend less, do less harm

I wrote in my blog post June 24 that money is the lifebood of civilization. We cannot function without it.

In any large-scale social grouping, two attributes, paradoxically opposed, are needed for survival: self-sufficiency and cooperation. We have to be able to accomplish some tasks on our own, and to work together to accomplish others. Money provides a framework for achieving both. Self-sufficiency comes from financial independence—the ability to buy what one needs—and cooperation in the form of income-earning work. It’s all conceptual, of course, illusory. Real self-sufficiency is making everything you need yourself and raising your own food, while true cooperation happens for no other reason than there’s need. Without money, few of us are truly self-sufficient, and without a steady paycheck, few of us prepared to work in needful joint endeavours.

This is not to cast aspersions, but rather to underline why money is essential. The notion of “value”, transferable between goods, services, and labour through the use of symbolic tokens, eases the burden of self-sufficiency and provides an incentive for cooperation.

No, we cannot do without money. And yet...

– the produce you buy at the supermarket is shipped from half a world away, creating a huge carbon footprint; most of it is grown as destructive monoculture crops; chemical pesticides, fertilizers and significant water diversion were likely involved; underpaid and unprotected migrant workers or impoverished native populations were used to harvest it

– the clothing you purchase was almost certainly made in a sweatshop

– the gasoline you fill your tank with on the way to work pollutes the atmosphere; wars are fought to keep the oil it comes from flowing

– money from the pills you buy enriches companies who manufacture deadly chemicals that enter the biosphere; the same companies then turn around and sell you drugs to treat the diseases they have caused

– the house you’re paying too much for—or selling for too much—inflates the cost of real estate, impoverishing millions and dooming many to homelessness

– the electricity you burn through comes from dirty, coal-fired generators, unsafe nuclear plants, and land-destroying damns

– the insurance premiums you pay on your hourse, your car, your belongings are invested in corporations that operate without regard to human rights, safety, or dignity; the environment is treated with the same contempt

– the treat you give yourself for being a wage-slave—a resort holiday on some impoverished island—adds to global warming when you fly there and come back, and furthers the social inequity endemic to poor nations

And that’s just what happens when you spend money. For many, earning it has consequences equally as dire. Flipping burgers at a fast-food joint contributes to the epidemic of obesity afflicting North America and encourages destructive land-use policies. Working for a financial institution means you’re helping those without a conscience play with capital—buying, selling, investing—wrecking lives and the environment without a second thought. Your factory job depends on manufactured obsolescence. Your farming job requires you to plant and harvest crops that have been modified so that the seed can’t be collected and you have to pay each year for something nature gives for free. Your teaching job demands that you train worker drones to feed the maw of finance rather than instructing students to become mature and thinking members of society.

If money is the lifeblood of civilization, then we must conclude that, at present, the blood is poisoned. Virtually every time we spend it, we are doing harm somewhere, and the hours we put in earning it are scarcely less damaging. There is no escaping; we must earn and spend in order to survive, yet doing so incurs a host of evils which, if left unchecked, threaten to destroy the Earth.

“Living poor”, as I have come to call my way of life, is not intended as a solution. It is not a cure. It is a response, an individual commitment not to worsen things, to minimize the damage done by money. It is a decision to devote oneself to real productivity and fruitful pursuits. It begins by valuing one’s social, creative, intellectual, and spiritual aptitudes higher than a paycheque, thereby enabling a life of conscience, not expedience. The choice is hard since it means limiting expenditures, forgoing convenience, overcoming laziness, and acquiring skills the poor the world over practise to survive.

Living poor need not be all-or-nothing; taken to extremes it risks fanaticism. Rather, it’s a guiding ethos, best described by questions: Am I learning to survive with less and still feel full? Am I maximizing the utility of everything I buy? Am I sharing what I can, even it it means I have to tighten up my belt? Am I seeking entertainment in the company of others, not expensive toys? Can I ask for help in need, knowing that I give it freely?

Living poor, as I see it, is taking on the role of conscientious objector in a war that’s being waged against the Earth and all humanity. The poor are not responsible for plundering the globe and spreading misery to every hemisphere. The poor don’t waste. The poor don’t wage imperial wars. The poor don’t despoil the environment. Furthermore, the poor know how to share. The poor know how to sacrifice. The poor know how to work together. Joining them by learning to get by with next to nothing will not stop the war, but it minimizes harm and announces that you won’t partake in something that runs contrary to conscience.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Living poor

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this life-project I call “living poor”. It started years ago, when I dwelt in Québec. I’d come to realize that no matter how hard I worked, no matter what the pay, I would always be struggling for money. Furthermore, I would always feel beaten down by the knowledge that I was being personally and creatively unproductive during the hours I worked.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt the overwhelming pull to practise what I’m called to do: be of service to others, and to contribute to the world from my creative and intellectual abilities. I do not fancy myself a superior talent worthy of fame or fortune, but I’m a competent and thorough craftsman in a number of areas. There is need for what I do, though it rarely pays, and I will not rob the world of skills I possess by devoting myself to the singular pursuit of an income. Time to write, to compose, to programme, to shop/cook/clean for friends who cannot, to teach and tutor, to be there for people in crisis—this is more valuable than any paycheque.

The pursuit of money dirties everything it touches. There’s a reason why the expression is “filthy lucre”, not “lily-white lucre”, and why money is “laundered”. I’m deeply uncomfortable receiving money for services from people who have no money to spare, especially when those services cost me nothing. I would rather the gratitude and trust of the out-of-work friend whose résumé I prepare than the cold insult of cash.

Lest I be thought naive, it is the pursuit of money that troubles me, not the thing itself. The symbolic exchange of value for value—my bushel of turnips for three copper coins; three copper coins to pay the blacksmith for a hoe—is a necessary convenience. There is much good that cannot be accomplished without it, at least not in societies whose members do not function well cooperatively, such as ours.

An oft-repeated caution is that money is the root of all evil, but the original formulation, in Latin, speaks the truth more clearly: Radix malorum est cupiditaslove of money is the root of all evil.

Our society worships money, and what greater love is there than worship? Practically from birth we we are taught to revere money. Those born into it learn it confers prestige, privilege, and ease. It sets them apart from ordinary mortals. Those less fortunate grow up yearning to acquire it. It has, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant enshrinement of capitalism and the growth of the middle class, become our Holy of Holies. Not to base one’s life upon its acquisition and expenditure is to reject dogma and commit heresy.

The problem with worshipping anything is that the love is not reciprocal. The object of worship, or what it represents, doesn’t love back, except that we imagine it. An acquaintance of mine, a wealthy one, once opined, “You have to love money if you want money to love you.” A clever quip, one designed to make most people nod in rueful agreement, but untrue. The ardent pursuit of money, whether much (say, by gambling on the stock market) or “enough” (eg by earning a steady income), whether attended by success or failure, has wasted far more lives than it has enriched.

None of this is new. It is self-evident, if one takes but a moment to think about it. Or perhaps not so self-evident. Throughout history, prophets and teachers have had to repeat the message. The Buddha. Jesus. Mohamed. Francis of Assisi.

Thoreau, in the first chapter of Walden, “Economy”, famously summed up the personal consequences of devoting one’s life to the pursuit of money: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” [The italics are mine.]

Anyone who bucks the trend of “job at any cost” is marginalized in our society. The decision to embrace living poor is labelled laziness, advantage taking, illness. Irony of ironies. The middle class and wealthier drive everywhere instead of walking, buy pre-prepared and processed foods they could have made themselves, have machines to do their dishes and their laundry and their yard work, throw things out instead of fixing them, buy new socks instead of darning them. That is laziness. The same class fuels the trend to “more for less”, a hallmark of consumerism that enslaves the poor—half a world away so as not to trouble conscience. And are not militant rejection of reality, delusion, and refusal to acknowledge undisputed facts all indicators of a mental illness?

Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, said in 1972: “Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

Again, not new. Again, self-evident. Yet we act as if it isn’t. We elevate the pursuit of money as a means unto itself, deny that our thinking is circular, and stick our fingers in our ears and shout la-la-la whenever someone points to facts like “wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

Money is the life-blood of our society, every monetary exchange a beat of its unfeeling heart, which creates a perpetual psychic noise, like real blood rushing through our ears. For the poor, it is a loud, distressing buzz. For the middle-class, a hum, persistent but low-level. The rich, of course, build soundproof mansions.

We can’t escape it. The money-meter never stops. Every second of every day, we’re forced to spend. Rent, electricity, gas, phone, TV, Internet...these suck up money like a vacuum cleaner even while we sleep.

I was talking about this with my roommate, John, the other night. Like me, he’s one of those who’s chosen “living poor”. Both of us have observed something few remark upon: if you live in the city, every time you leave your home you wind up spending money. There’s almost no way to avoid it unless all you fancy is a stroll around the block to take in the sickening air. In fact, most urbanites only ever leave their homes for money, either making it—and getting to work alone can cost thousands per year—or spending it.

In short, our lives are circumscribed by money. It makes vassals of us all. Being a vassal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided one’s ruler is benign. Money is anything but. Truly, cupiditas, the love of money, is the root of evil, if evil be the misery inflicted on the people of Nigeria, the human rights atrocities of China, the rioting in bankrupt countries such as Greece and Spain, the sweatshops found in Free Trade zones, the death of workers crushed or burned in unsafe factories, the despoliation of the Earth, and the destruction of the biosphere.

But the most pernicious evil of all is the waste of human potential. When people’s value to society is measured solely by their income, it is tantamount to saying they are worthless otherwise—patently untrue, but so pervasive it is rarely questioned. If you don’t or cannot “monetize” your skills (a sickening neologism), they have no value. You have no value.

Value to what? Why “the economy”, of course, a tool we have elevated to the status of a raison d’être. Activities of real value—to your neighbours, your community, your culture, the globe—are actively discouraged by the credo “if it isn’t earning money then it hasn’t any worth”. Those with skills that fall outside the purview of “employment” lose the opportunity to practise them when “real jobs” become the only thing that counts. Society is poorer for it, but somehow that’s okay because it fuels the economy.

I’m not “against” money. I’m not against commerce. Civilizations need the trust implied by exchanging tokens of value, whether paper or gold or numbers on a screen. I’m not a communist, though I confess to being a committed social democrat. I’m not even against capitalism, when practised with restraint and oversight.

What I am against is wasting time in meaningless employment, which more times than not contributes to the ecological and human ills that threaten to destroy us. I, and others like me, are compelled to use our skills to be of use, not to make a buck. In other times, we might have gravitated to the holy life, as priests or monks, or nuns. Vows of poverty were once respected. In today’s society, we must, instead, commit ourselves to living poor, by which I do not mean “in poverty”, but rather valuing oneself, one’s skills, one’s contributions to the world, as more important than a steady income.

It is not an easy choice. For some of us, it’s not a choice at all, but rather a vocation—which, from it’s Latin root, denotes a calling, a summons to be useful.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Orchestrating with Musescore v1.3 and LinuxSampler

For the past few months, I’ve been exploring Musescore as an all-in-one solution to composing, orchestrating, and engraving original compositions. I’ve already written a tutorial at Musescore on extending Musescore (v1.3) with LinuxSampler, but I’d like to share my thoughts on the more musical side of things, specifically achieving a satisfactory Musescore-generated performance of music written for full orchestra.

If you’re a Musescore user, and interested in this article, have a look at the LinuxSampler tutorial located here. My commentary is based on the setup described.

I started using Musescore simply to engrave pencilled manuscripts that were in danger of fading. The more I worked with it, the more I became intrigued with the idea of using it for prototyping audio versions of my work. Starting off small, just songs scored for a solo instrument with piano accompaniment, I progressed to adding strings, and finally worked up to a small orchestra.

I wanted to go bigger, trying my hand at a full orchestra, but was finding some limitations in Musescore’s reliance on GM soundbanks. No soundbank I could find was perfect. If the strings were good, the oboe would be awful. Or the oboe would be great and the French horns terrible. Since Musescore is JACK smart, I wondered if connecting Musescore’s midi output to a sampler would solve my problem. It did. Using LinuxSampler, I could load any soundfont I wanted and have it correspond to the appropriate Musescore staff.

There’s no dearth of free soundfonts out there, most in .sf2 format, some in .sfz and .gig, all three of which can be loaded into LinuxSampler. The problem is that where quantity reigns, quality does not. Part of that is personal preference, but generally, quality soundfonts that work well as part of an orchestra are hard to find. For anyone interested in midi orchestration, I suggest downloading as many soundfonts as you can find for any particular instrument, then auditioning them, just as you’d do with real players. LinuxSampler has a handy virtual keyboard that makes trying out individual soundfonts easy.

No soundfont is perfect, top to bottom, so what you’re looking for is as close to a “typical” sound in the low, medium, and high registers as possible. A flute that’s acceptable above C5 but sounds oddly metallic between C4 and C5 is no good, whereas one that sounds realistic up to C6 but then gets shrill may, in fact, be usable, since the flute is naturally a little shrill up there.

It’s a good idea to have several soundfonts available for each instrument. Depending on the overall orchestration, you may find that that trumpet that sounded dreadful with one combination of instruments works perfectly with another. You will also want a choice between “solo” instrument samples and samples that fit well into an orchestral fabric.

In the woodwinds, stay away from samples with overly noticeable vibrato. A little vibrato can offset the fact that you aren’t working with instrument sections—essentially, you’re scoring one instrument per part—but too much stands out and usually sounds cheap. The only exception to the rule is the oboe, which in midi scoring seems to blend more naturally when there’s a distinctive vibrato. This is true not only of, say, oboe+flute in octaves, but also when the oboe is reinforcing a section of strings.

Usable brass is hard to find, particularly the all-important French horns. The problem is that most of the soundfonts I came across have far too much character, suitable for solos but too distinctive for orchestral work. Nearly all of them have too much bite, so I’d advise looking for soundfonts that minimize it; otherwise, balance with other instruments becomes next to impossible.

The string section presents the hardest challenge. Plenty of soundfonts exist, but none can hope to be completely satisfactory. Such is the nature of strings, where expressivity in both timbre and articulation are all important. I learned a few tricks in Musescore that help with the problem, which I’ll get to further on. While you’re auditioning soundfonts, you should be listening for string sections that display a good medium legato (not too slow on the attack) as well as timbrally similar sections of strings détaché. Marcato, too, depending on your needs.

Pay particular attention to the timbre of the soundfonts in all the registers from contrabass to stratosphere. There are a number out there specifically for violin, viola, cello, and bass sections, but I didn’t find them as useful as the more generalized “strings” soundfonts. A few make excellent first and second violins; others make great cellos. Miraculously, some even sound like violas.

For pizzicato, a general “pizz. strings” soundfont is usually sufficient for all sections of strings. An “acoustic bass” soundfont, ie a single plucked contrabass, makes a helpful stand-in for pizzicato basses when the scoring is light.

Harp, percussion, and piano are usually intended to stand out from the surrounding orchestration, so the choice of soundfonts is very much a question of personal preference.

Don’t overlook the large GM banks (like FluidGM or Merlin) when hunting around for samples. You can load individual instruments from them in LinuxSampler, and there are a few gems.

Once you’ve got a library of soundfonts, you can start setting up “orchestras” in LinuxSampler that correspond to your scoring needs.

Balance is everything, and one thing that’s certain is that your soundfonts won’t all be of equal volume. My way of dealing with the problem is to create a test score in Musescore composed of long whole notes, one per instrument in succession in their middle range: the flute plays a whole note A5, then the oboe an A4, then the clarinet an A4, etc. By default, Musescore sets note velocity to 80, which I use as a mezzo-forte benchmark. I adjust the levels with Musescore’s mixer until all the instruments are producing a satisfactory mezzo-forte at a velocity of 80. (An alternative is to leave Musescore’s levels alone, and adjust them in LinuxSampler. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.)

Using 80 as the note velocity for mezzo-forte lets you to divide dynamics into useful increments of 20: 20=pp; 40=p; 60=mp; 80=mf; 100=f; 120=ff. The 20 provides room for expressive phrasing within a particular dynamic, and to compensate for the dynamic differences between high and low registers. Allocating dynamic levels this way gives a fairly reliable approximation of the balance of instrumental forces you would hear from a live orchestra—essential when prototyping a score. It also allows you to improve the sonority when parts are doubled—say, two trombones playing unison. If you increase the velocity by 10, the sonority increases while staying within the same dynamic range.

Be careful of horns, though. You may want to decrease their levels in the Musescore mixer, since horns do not have the same carrying power as other instruments and often have to be marked one level louder in the score than the prevailing dynamic. If the trumpets and trombones are playing mezzo-forte, it’s certain the horns will have to be marked forte if you’re after an even balance. However, if the horns’ mezzo-forte velocity is identical to all the other instruments, marking them forte and setting their velocity to 100 results in horns that are too loud.

Achieving a reasonably close correspondence between the dynamic markings in the score and the assigned note velocities is essential. If a bassoon phrase is marked piano, you don’t want to have to tinker around with note velocities (in the Note properties dialogue) until it “sounds right”. It’s much easier to mark the passage piano and set all the notes to a velocity of 40, assured that the bassoon is then playing a good, uniform piano.

There’s still an awful lot of tweaking to be done, but for a “first pass” at your score, achieving a good, overall balance of dynamics between parts makes fine-tuning much easier.

Strings, as I’ve mentioned, present particular challenges. There are some very expensive commercial VSTs out there that offer good strings with a wide choice of articulations and dynamics, but when scoring with Musescore, your options are limited.

The problem with string soundfonts is articulation. Legato, or “slow”, strings have a very gentle, long attack and are unsuitable for even medium-fast passages. Conversely, most “marcato strings” (usually détaché, not marcato) have an aggressive attack, almost like a series of downbows, making them unsuitable for legato phrasing.

I deal with the problem by assigning a legato-strings soundfont to the Musescore’s “normal” string channel, and a marcato-strings soundfont to the “tremolo” channel. (Real tremolos I write out in full and make invisible, generally on Voice 4 of the staff.) To switch between articulations, I create staff text saying which I want, then go into the “Staff text properties” dialogue and select the appropriate channel. Afterwards, I set the text invisible.

It isn’t possible to get marcato strings to approach legato, but there is some leeway going the other direction. This is fortunate because repeated notes in a legato strings soundfont tend to blur together owing to the very slow attack and decay. The problem is fixable in the Note Properties dialogue, where it’s possible to change the “offtime” of a note to a negative value, effectively shortening its sounded length without altering its written length. Depending on the tempo and note-length, I find setting the offtime between -5% and -10% is usually enough to make repeated notes heard as such.

Upbeats, especially short ones, can be a real headache with legato strings unless some other instrument is sharing the upbeat and can mask the slow attack. The solution to this problem is to set the ontime to a negative value, which starts the note a little sooner than normal. Adjusted carefully, you can get the sustain phase of the note’s envelope to fall directly on the upbeat; the early attack is scarcely audible. Another solution I sometimes use is to increase the velocity of the upbeat drastically. If the upbeat’s short enough, the note never gets a chance to reach peak velocity and may sound weak simply because it’s too soft.

Unfortunately, there is no quick or easy solution to crescendi and diminuendi, which must be worked out “by hand”, making progressive adjustments to the velocity of every note in all parts of the passage. The “mf=80” system I use does help a bit, in that I can reliably in/decrease the velocities in all the affected parts by the same amount, say by 3, then 5, then 7, and so on. However, it’s worth noting that crescendi and diminuendi, like rit., rall., and other rubato, are rarely executed according to mathematical principles and sensitive ears are required to make them properly musical.

The one place where all bets are off is orchestral tutti. Balancing tutti passages requires knowing the art of orchestration well, scoring accordingly, then simply using your ears to get the synthetic output to sound like what you know the real deal sounds like. Owing to acoustic oddities that pile up the more sampled instruments you have playing together, you may have to in/decrease note velocities radically in certain parts, in despite of orchestral common sense. My song, North, (on YouTube here) has a two-bar tutti that took a day or more to get right.

Reverb is an essential part of orchestration, so I always attach my sampler, the software that’s actually “playing” the music from Musescore, to a reverb app. All things being equal, and my soundfonts having been carefully selected, this provides enough timbral and dynamic realism to let me tinker with the orchestration while I’m composing.

The final step in preparing synthesized audio prototypes of orchestral scores is to apply equalization and compression. This is where deficiencies and eccentricities inherent in the soundfonts can be erased, balance further adjusted, character imparted to various instruments and sections, and the semblance of life infused into what is, after all, canned music.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Speaking out against Ontario Works

My curriculum vitae, which I’ve written as a narrative rather than a list of dates and jobs, ends with the words: “I believe people are more important than institutions.” Not a sentence to warm the hearts of employers, but one that is true and belongs in my CV. Anyone wishing to employ my services should know what they’re getting: I don’t take kindly to institutional bullying. I have, or had, a history of standing up for fellow workers. The talented magazine artist named Linda, browbeaten into timid mediocrity; the single mother with a son named Carl required to work long nights and weekends. That sort of thing.

I’ve even compared salaries, especially with female co-workers. I realize that’s cause for being fired, even though freedom of expression is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I don’t like lies, and I don’t like expedient silence. It goes against my nature. It goes against my conscience.

Did you know freedom of conscience is also protected under the Canadian Charter? Probably not. Most Canadians, like most Americans with their Constitution, have no idea what’s really in the Charter. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien wanted to have the article removed. So, no doubt, would have Mike Harris, former premier of Ontario and instigator of Ontario Works.

My recent yelling match with Claudette Gamache, the OW worker responsible for my file, has left me in a state of fear for the past few days. Anxiety has dogged my every waking hour. I’m uneasy all the time, unable to concentrate on the simplest of tasks. I’ve started doubting myself, even in areas where I know myself to be competent. I dread the ringing of the phone, the arrival of the mailman. I feel threatened, watched, under suspicion. I find myself defending myself to myself in order to shore up a demoralized sense of self-confidence. I feel attacked. I feel powerless.

All this because I dared be honest. Ms. Gamache chose to make my continued eligibility for OW benefits contingent on attending two interviews in widely-spaced locations, one of which meetings was clearly superfluous. So blatant was the duplication that I assumed an error and took steps to correct it. When it turned out to be deliberate, I smelled “jumping through hoops” and said so, adding that I would, of course, attend the interview on the other side of the city if that was what was required.

It wasn’t the right thing to say. I know. Neither is finishing my CV with a perfectly honest statement that, in a better world, would be self-evident.

I cannot help but notice that in this post and in my last, I’ve quite unconsciously repeated the phrase, “It wasn’t the right thing to say.” What would have been the right thing to say? Why, nothing, of course, just submissive, compliant silence. To speak up, to speak out—to speak at all—is to invite reprisals, and everyone receiving OW benefits knows it.

We all live under the fear that at any moment, we'll be called upon to justify our lives, our actions. A caseworker happens upon your file after a period of "inactivity" and calls you in. Sometimes the periods are a few months. Sometimes, they're a few years. The point is, you never know, but when the call comes, you know you're in for a rough ride. You will be interrogated, castigated, made to feel guilty, humiliated, and trivialized. You will know that the only way to ensure the arrival of your next cheque is to bow, scrape, kow-tow, agree to everything, and lie. Yes, lie. No one can live on the $7,000 a year provided by OW. The caseworkers know this, which makes the lying even worse because you're being made to do it as an exercise in power. It is nothing more than sanctioned, institutionalized oppression of a disadvantaged group.

It’s funny how long one can go feeling something without recognizing it for what it is. Depression, for example. Many people suffering depression know they’re feeling helpless, know that joy has vanished from their lives, know they’re not attending to the simplest life-affirming tasks, but never connect the dots. It’s the same thing with op-pression. You can go a very long time knuckling under to it without realizing it’s the reason why you’re fearful all the time, the reason you feel guilty when you've done nothing wrong, the reason you're defensive about things that need no defending. You’re scared because it feels as if at any moment someone’s going to pounce. You’re the Jew in Nazi Germany waiting for the knock on the door, the Alabama sharecropper fearing the arrival of the Night Riders.

For the record, and because I’ve spoken of honesty and conscience, I am not looking for “...whatever work I can find” (Ms. Gamache, verbatim). It is a lie I’ve been coerced to tell. The truth, which I’m afraid to speak lest I be punished, is this:

I have chosen to be on OW (“Welfare”) in order to be of service to others and to contribute, to the world, from my unusual combination of skills. It is an unconventional sacrifice, but not one made out of narcissism or mental illness. Conscience demands it.

I cook and clean and shop for a household of three. I spend long hours nearly every day teaching one of my roommmates to sing (if you read my blog, you know I have a degree in music), affording him an opportunity denied by his Children’s Aid Society group-home upbringing. He doesn’t know his father. His mother drank herself to sleep with a lit cigarette and burned to death. He suffers from ADHD. He was spat out by an insensitive, underfunded public education system. Music is healing him, in a very real way, but teaching the unteachable (no education, ADHD) requires an enormous investment of time. I make it willingly, without thought of remuneration, because I see his self-confidence growing, his anger softening, his ability to trust improving daily. And his voice developing in a “oh my god we've hit a motherlode” kind of way.

Cooking, cleaning, shopping, teaching... These aren’t the activities of a lazy man, which is how OW, in the guise of Ms. Gamache, characterizes me. But let’s add to the list of activities. I’m a writer, and not just of novels. I help friends without jobs, or a penny to spare, prepare their resumes. I write extensively-researched and well-respected tutorials for open-source software, most recently for a music-engraving program called MuseScore. (Open-source software is free, written by volunteer developers. Approximately 2/3 of Internet servers run on open-source software. Android, which powers smart phones and iPads, is also open-source.)

In 2002, I released my own software to the world, a text-processing tool that runs on another piece of open-source software derived from the Unix operating system (you know, the one used at universities and research facilities). It’s over 18,000 lines of commented code with well over a megabyte of documentation and took several years to write. Since then, I have been responsible for maintaining the program, providing support to users from all over the world, dealing with bug reports, and updating my work to reflect current technologies. Last summer alone, I spent over three months reworking the program into what is now one of the best PDF authoring tools available.

Lest you imagine writing open-source software is fun, or merely for the hobbyist, know that it frequently involves 18-hour days, and that non-availability to users is not an option. It is not paid, but it is necessary, demanding work in our networked age. I have the skills to do it, within my specialized field of expertise (typesetting and typography; I am neither a hacker nor a trained programmer), and conscience—a moral life— demands of me that I do it.

I’m also a musician, primarily a composer. With extensive training in classical music, the music I write will never be commercially viable, even when it approaches the popular song form. There are a number of examples of my work on YouTube, fully-realized symphonic scores and arrangements that took months to prepare, from composing the music to professionally engraving the scores to note-by-note rendering of the scores into computer-generated performances. I go to the trouble, again at a huge cost in time, not in the expectation of making money, not to trot out my creative efforts for the vanity of recognition, but because of my need to contribute to the unbroken tradition of classical music. It is one of mankind’s most magnificent accomplishments, but one which is seriously at risk of vanishing in the face of overwhelming commercial and corporate interests. My scores are online so that others can study and learn from them, as well, one hopes, to be moved by them.

So no, I am not “...out there, all day, every day, looking for whatever work I can find.” I’m at home, working hard at what I’m good at. Of course I’d like to get paid. But in the trade-off between giving to the world of one’s talents versus wasting one’s life in meaningless labour, I chose the former. That’s meant a life of poverty, but I’ve embraced it because I’m driven to be productive. I cannot otherwise hold my head up high.

Welfare exists to assist those who, for whatever reason, are in financial need. It is not OW’s place to judge. It is not OW’s place to frighten me into unsuitable labour. It is not their place to sit me down with a “specialist” who has no resources whatsoever to help me find work appropriate to my skills, but rather to acknowledge that paid work in my fields is exceptionally difficult to come by, especially now that I am fifty-six years old. It is not their place to demand an accounting of my “job search”, but rather to trust that, like any normal human being, I'll jump at any suitable opportunity that presents itself.

In terms of the social contract which used to be Canada’s pride, Ontario Works is a thuggish perversion that oppresses and demeans its clients, coercing them into a failing job market by means of threats and intimidation. Those responsible for setting it up and those responsible for its continuance have corrupted the war on poverty into a war on the poor. My case is unusual, I acknowledge, as are my life choices, but my treatment at the hands of OW is not. I am far from unique. As a province, Ontario to be ashamed of itself.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Speech after long silence - Ontario Works, again

Forgive the quote from Yeats in the title. I couldn't think of a better way to say I'm back from a long hiatus. I ceased blogging two years ago when I realized that almost no one was reading my posts. It seemed pointless to continue without an audience. I was also experiencing the chill of knowing that if I wrote the truth about living poor in Ontario, I was likely to be cut off Welfare. “Ontario Works”, as it is called, a double irony lost on no one.

Suspicion and Surveillance, a report from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work, spells out what OW is really all about.

“Rather than being guided by the principles of universality, needs-based eligibility, and rights and entitlements, the emphasis now is on compulsion, sanctions and obligations...the real intent is to deny access to social assistance and to remove those who are on as quickly as possible.”

Living on OW, whose monthly cheques add up to just a little over $7,000 a year, means living with the daily anxiety of being watched and judged. One is required not only to justify every penny in one's bank account, not only to disclose intimate details of one’s personal and social life, not only to participate in futile and irrelevant job seminars, one is also expected to be, in the words of my worker, to whom I just spoke, “...out there, every day, all day, looking for whatever work you can find.”

The chief means by which OW enforces its agenda is “non-compliance”. In order to receive even so much as a penny, one has to sign an agreement stating that one will, quite simply, do everything OW demands. Non-compliance with any directive from one’s case worker means no cheque. (It is difficult to know which allusion in “non-compliance” is more ominous: the echoes of Nazi Germany and 1984, or the pitiless totalinarianism of the Borg—“You will comply!”) Forced signing of an agreement is tantamount to a contract entered into under duress—void under the law, but when you’re handing welfare cheques to bums, who cares about the law?

I’ve just spoken with my worker, a woman named Claudette Gamache, and been threatened with non-compliance. Again. Roused from sleep when she called—the upstairs neighbours have been keeping me up late for months— I was unable to muster my usual composure and got angry with her. Here's the story.

Last February, after months and months of not hearing from her, Ms. Gamache called me in for an update of my file. Right off the bat, she made the delay into my fault. Why was I to blame? I asked her. I’d made no changes in my financial or living arrangements, and was keeping my eyes open for possible employment. She tippy-tapped at her computer, shook her head, and began muttering about “seeing no movement on this file.” More pecking at the computer, and she accused me of not complying with an order to see an employment specialist—2-1/2 years prior! I had, in fact, seen the said specialist and attended the prescribed seminar on online employment.

As we continued, further inconsistencies came to light, all pertaining to missing information I had in fact supplied. Throughout the interview, I was treated with suspicion and frequently chastised, the theme always the same: non-compliance and my “attitude”, which Ms. Gamache characterized as, “...if you’re like this in a job interview, it's no wonder you can’t get a job.” I responded that this was not a job interview, and that in a job interview, I would not be being reprimanded for the oversights of others.

Ms. Gamache then said she was going to set me up with an employment specialist and handed me some forms to sign, renewing my so-called agreement with OW.

A week or two later, I received notification in the mail that I had an interview with an employement specialist on Mar. 15, 2013. A day later, I received a second notification that I had a second interview with another employment specialist. The second interview was for Mar. 18—by coincidence, my birthday— at the office of another OW district entirely. At the same time, my mom, who’s 89, was experiencing unusual confusion and memory loss, necessistating an immediate trip to Elora, hundreds of kilometers away, to assess the situation. (She’s fine now.)

I called both employment specialists to advise them I’d have to cancel. As per OW norm, both were out of the office. I left clear and detailed messages, saying I’d call to reschedule as soon as I got back to Ottawa, and asking that the two specialists clear up between them which one I should see. I also left a message with Ms. Gamache (“out of the office for the next three days”) enquiring about the redundant interviews.

It turned out that the forms I signed included an agreement to meet with both an “employment specialist” and an “Ontario employment specialist”, a distinction that still escapes me. Since it was an absurd duplication to see both, I called the second, the one not in my district, and re-explained the situation. She agreed it was peculiar and said that, since I wasn’t even in her district, I just had to go see the one who was.

Upon my return to Ottawa, I rescheduled with employment specialist #1. Shortly thereafter, I received mail notification that I had failed to show up for the original appointment and was about to be held in non-compliance. I called Ms. Gamache and clarified that I had given proper notification of the cancellation and had re-booked.

A few days later, I received a second mail notification, this time from the offices of specialist #2, again threatening me with non-compliance for having not shown up at an interview.

Second letter in hand, I went to my interview with specialist #1. Let's call her Janine. Unlike Ms. Gamache, she deserves privacy in this matter. What transpired was both shocking and surreal.

When I showed up at the OW offices, Janine was in tears. A close relative had died, and OW was refusing to give her the day off. I offered what solace I could during the next hour while Janine soldiered on, so distressed she couldn’t even remember her computer password. I offered to write a letter to the editor about OW’s stunning lack of compassion, but she recoiled, fearful it would cost her job.

During that interview, Janine said that the whole OW system is broken. The case workers are unhappy, the clients needs aren’t being met, and the whole non-compliance thing is nothing more than bullying. Her job is mostly futile, since real employment is scarce in the present economy, and whatever assistance she could be offering job-seekers has been hacked off at the knees by cuts to employment programs. Not that the programs were all that effective, she went on, since they were largely for people with little education or for whom English is still very much a second language. Worse, the system requires everyone to lie: the clients, who cannot possibly live $7,000 a year alone, and the workers who have to pretend they don’t know. She said, and I quote: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and wish for the End of Days.”

She was an intelligent and compassionate woman, and deserved honesty in return. I confided to her that my circumstances were unusual. I’m a classically-trained composer, a published novelist, a former typesetter, and a respected open-source programmer . In order to remain productive in these areas, and to pursue what my friend, Tom, calls a Christ vocation (devoting myself to the service of those in need, both in my community and in my immediate circle), I chose, many years ago, to live a life of poverty. “Living poor,” I call it. I have an overwhelming compulsion to be useful, and to give freely to the world what the world so freely gave to me: intelligence, education, talent, encouragement, and practical support. That none of my areas of training and expertise generate much income does not remove my spiritual obligation to continue practising them. Welfare is a choice for me, not to avoid work, but in order to work meaningfully at all. Of course I’d like to have reasonably-paid employment in one of my fields, but they’ rarified and Fate, more than anything else, decides whether I get wind of anything. In short, I’m a hard worker who relies on welfare because the work I do, while highly appreciated by those who benefit, is rarely paid commensurately with the labour involved.

Janine actually congratulated me on my difficult and unusual choices, and wished aloud that more of the people she sees sitting across her desk were like me. I don’t say that vainly, only with gratitude. We spent the remainder of our hour going through the online postings at several job-banks, the same ones I check at home.

To return to our actual story, at the end of our hour, I showed Janine the non-compliance letter from specialist #2. She agreed it would be absurd for me to repeat everything we’d just done. I asked if she could take care of the matter. She said she would, by speaking to Ms. Gamache and contacting specialist #2. To be on the safe side, I called Ms. Gamache (“This is Claudette Gamache, I'm out of the office...”) and left a message bringing her up to date on my interview with Janine, including what she’d said about the second non-compliance letter.

That, I thought, was the end of it. And for two months, so it seemed. Then, this morning, a call from Ms. Gamache claiming I’d refused to see specialist #2. Refused, as if I hadn’t called, hadn’t left messages, hadn’t kept her posted during the whole silly business. More significantly, I had “refused“ nothing, merely cleared up what seemed like a bureaucratic mix-up. I said as much.

The big stick came out quickly. "I don’t think you realize how serious this is. You’re in non-compliance.” Taken aback, I replied that, to the best of my knowledge, the matter of the superfluous interview had been cleared up months ago. Why was she was she calling now? Her response was to repeat: "You’re in non-compliance. You refused to attend an interview. I’m sending you a letter today.”

Over her continued insistence I was in non-compliance, I endeavoured to remind her of the steps I’d taken to deal with the matter, including my communications with specialist #2, my meeting with Janine, and the phone calls to Ms. Gamache herself. I got cross. Who doesn’t when people won’t acknowledge facts? As once before, she criticized my attitude, something which personally she may have had the right to do, but not when she was speaking for the Ontario Works system. Compliant I may have to be, but nowhere in my agreement is it written that I have to act submissively and keep my voice down, too.

I repeated that the duplicate interview had been taken care of months ago, and that it was a dead issue as far as I was concerned because I hadn’t heard about it since. Why was she raising it now? “There's been no movement on your file,” she replied, non-sequitur. “Look,” I said, “if this is a question of jumping through hoops, by all means, set up another interview. I'll be there. But don't threaten me with non-compliance, and stop using that phrase. It sounds like something out of freaking Orwell.”

Of course it wasn’t the right thing to say, but here’s the interesting fact: what I said was true. OW may coerce people into signing an agreement (they also coerce people into volunteering, in direct contradiction to the meaning of both words), but when they deny the right to speak honestly without fear of reprisal, then it’s clear that a darker agenda is at work than providing income assistance and employment counselling.

It goes without saying that Ms. Gamache’s parting shot, having not once acknowledged anything I’d said, was, “You’re in non-compliance. I'm preparing a letter today.”