“If you’re going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you’re going to be locked up.” – Hunter S. Thompson

“Labor was the first price, the original purchase – money that was paid for all things.” – Adam Smith

“The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.” – Robert Benchley

I awoke early and noticing it was a beautiful spring-like morning, I decided to take a day off from underemployment and spend it walking about town. Leaving my apartment, I ran into my landlord, who reminded me that I was late on my rent. I told him I wasn’t going to pay February rent, but that I really loved the apartment, the general conceit of its aesthetic, and the narrative flow of its layout, and that I was totally blogging about it all the time, which was good business for us both. He seemed unimpressed, but I told him “what are your options? You expect everyone just to hand over rent every month, just arbitrarily on the first?” How presumptuous. I mean, I was living there, isn’t that half the work? And, plus, as soon as my novel got big, he could, like, turn it into a museum like Dostoevsky’s place. Who the fuck expects to be paid regularly, and in a timely fashion, for providing goods or services? Like, what world is this guy living in, right? Like, some utopian paradise or whatever where effort was compensated?

I hit up my local Starbucks for a coffee, ordering my usual venti Pike Place. When the pretty barista with the weird perm who always played Tom Waits told me it cost $2.57, I told her that I wasn’t going to pay but I would tell everyone I know how much I enjoyed the coffee, and that I always mentioned it on my blog, and that Tom Waits is the best, and wasn’t my enjoyment and celebration of the coffee enough for the both of us, and then I complimented her hair. She was aces about it.

My coffee was warm, the sun was shining, and I had some new shoes on that I needed to break in. The shoes were custom made for me by this great little cobbler around the corner from my place. I didn’t pay him for the shoes, but I’m sure to make note of his location when asked about them, and of course it’s up on the blog. I took a long meandering walk from one neighbourhood to another, and decided to grab some lunch at a little café that had just opened that a friend had told me about. I had a phenomenal sandwich: grilled mahi mahi on fresh sourdough, with a cilantro jalapeno pesto aioli and grilled peppers. On my way out, I complimented the chef on an outstanding effort, and noted that while I did not intend on paying I would totally blog about it later, and it would reflect well upon him that I had eaten there, and that one day, if he continued to work really hard, he would eventually be paid for his food.

I wanted to share the day so I figured I’d get ahold of my buddy, who would certainly be in on celebrating a day of underemployment. Unfortunately, my phone was out of minutes so I dropped by the Bell Store. I let them know that I didn’t have the cash on me to pay for additional minutes, but as soon as I got some grant money I was expecting that I would probably send them a bit. And, I would totally tell everyone I know that they were better than Rogers, and that if people saw me using Bell, then it would be good business for Bell. And plus, I used to volunteer my time at this poetry journal so why did I have to pay for my phone, am I right?

They reluctantly gave in, because my argument got louder and more self-righteous the more I repeated it. I texted my buddy, and he met up with me down by the university where we both got our MFAs. Suddenly, it started to rain, so we decided to catch a matinee at the varsity cinema. My buddy didn’t have any money either, but we explained to the usher that we were both artists, and that we could identify with all the work and artistic sacrifice that went in to making the film, and there was no one else in the theatre so what did it matter if we snuck in, and even if we didn’t like it we would totally say nice things about it on our respective blogs, and in our Huffington Post columns.

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O to Copa: Home and the Local

I miss a lot from my former lives. I’ve spent time living in Ottawa, Vancouver, Costa Rica, Montreal, and now Toronto, and with each move, each shift of life, I’ve left something special behind: a girl I loved, a friend I cherished, an apartment I felt right in, a diner that burned my grilled cheese just right, a quiet street I liked to stumble home, a spot on the beach to celebrate the eventide, a girl I loved. I like moving. I enjoy that sense of displacement. The rush of adrenalin born of fear of solitude and loneliness. The way a new place smells. The way it tastes. Of walking unfamiliar streets completely alone. And what I like best of a new place, a new temporary home, is discovering a local, a pub or tavern to call my own. And on a recent visit back to Montreal, I stopped by a former local to find it turned inside out, contemporized, changed. And I realized, much to my disappointment, that I haven’t had a local in some time, that I’m without a true home.

Many more intelligent folks than I have considered what we “need.” Virginia Woolf claimed that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Why this only applies to women and fiction is beyond my two degrees in English, but it didn’t turn out all that well for Ginny did it? Neil Young claimed a “man needs a maid” but Neil is notoriously messy, and that all turned pretty bad for Carrie Snodgress. Hunter S. Thompson told us “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” which some of us have tried to varying degrees of success, Thompson himself on the low end of that measurement. For me, a man needs a home, and that home is a local, a bar to call his own, a place where you can drop in at 11am without judgment for a cold 50 and read the paper. A place where a stool is always empty, where you can have both conversation and silence, where a hockey game plays on a TV quietly in the distance, where a friend will drop by, or not. And where it doesn’t matter.

My first local was an Irish pub in Ottawa called Gentle Annie’s. My friends and I went there because, well, it was close to our homes and they’d serve us even though we were sixteen. The owner, Des, whose nose had burst so many blood vessels it looked like an irrigation chart, and his staff very much knew how old we were, mostly because we would drunkenly admit it in the wee hours. We were peach-fuzzed little drunkards, but we could hold our liquor and we tipped well. We knew all the words to all the Irish songs, and we belted them out as best we could. The only problem with being so close to our homes, was that from time to time a friend’s parents or one of our high school teachers would come in. We’d all pretend not to see each other, except for on one occasion when a rather inebriated algebra teacher struggled to his feet to declare he was taking attendance, and proceeded to call on the five of us by surname over and over until someone settled him down.

On one of my last visits to Gentle Annie’s, I accidently broke my buddy Joe’s front tooth with the end of my pool cue. Opinion on how it happened differs, as Joe claims I hit him and I maintain that he face planted into my cue as he bent over for his pint.  Joe, suffering from too many drinks and a bit of vanity, naturally called 911 from the bar payphone. We were a little surprised when two cop cars, a fire engine, and an ambulance showed up upon hearing of a broken tooth at a local not averse to the occasional scuffle. The cops laughed at us, the fire engine quickly departed, and after the ambulance attendant explained to Joe that he would be charged a $95 fee for the ride, he thought it best to just go home and sleep it off. To this day his cap doesn’t quite match his teeth, and his mother holds me responsible for his now slightly less than perfect smile. He’s still very pretty, though.

There were a few places when I moved to Vancouver that I considered my local, but I never really felt at home in that city until I found The Fringe Café. The Fringe was like a house party with all your closest friends, every night, all night. I would imagine that the party is still going on, but I haven’t been there in twelve years. The Fringe was special, in that you could go in at any time and feel comfortable whether you were reading a book or hitting on the barmaid or doing shots of Jäger. The staff was more than friendly, and it was not uncommon to stay drinking right into morning, and greet the day staff as they came in for their early shift. On two separate occasions I put my ball cap down on a candle, nearly setting fire to the table, and perhaps the bar. Another time I left the bar not by walking out the front door, but by somersaulting the length of the room and out the back. I remember once refusing to leave the patio, and being carried, pint in hand, by Karen the bartender to an indoor seat. I remember great music. I remember feeling light. I remember good people. I remember being three thousand kilometres from home, and not at all.

Eventually, the sane man sobers up and leaves Vancouver. And in the years that followed I was without a local. There were a few weeks in Ottawa where the Alibi Room was close, but it was too small and dark to find any real comfort. It was, however, the place that supplied my roommate and I with toilet paper, as we were broke and he was handy with opening the locked dispenser in the men’s washroom with his Swiss Army knife. But then one night a girl I was seeing decided to pour an entire litre bottle of water over my head in the middle of the bar, and after that it wasn’t really a place I wanted to go back to.

In Montezuma, on the Peninsula de Nicoya in Costa Rica, there were a couple of little hotel bars I liked, where eventually the staff acknowledged me as a pseudo-regular. If I was a true regular anywhere there, it was the breakfast place that would whip up my eggs and café con leche as they spotted me coming down the beach, or the groceteria that had cheapest pilsners and discounted guaro. But down there, we were always happiest to drink on the beach, and no one is in Costa Rica on any permanent basis. No one is home.

It wasn’t until I got back to Canada, and moved to Montreal that I found a local again. The Cock n’ Bull was one of the first bars I had been to in my youthful visits to Montreal, so it seemed natural to return. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I liked going there alone in the afternoons for pitchers of 50 and to read the paper, maybe try and do some writing. There were always these sad old men at the bar, Bukowksi’s without pens or poetry, drinking draught beer from white wine glasses, contently awaiting some kind end. I kind of admired them, their comfort in solitude, their confident quiet. It was here that I wrote most of my first book, where I could look into the future of my speakers as they sat at the bar next to me. As I found a community, when we called each other, we didn’t even need to say which bar to meet at, just when. The Cock n’ Bull became a home. Many nights would start at a large table, pitcher upon pitch being devoured, and inevitably end up with just myself and Nick McArthur as 3am rolled around, doing shots of Southern Comfort, wondering where everyone went, talking about how one day we’d be writers.

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A Chronicling of my Harlotry

I have to admit that I’ve been cheating on you, and with multiple partners, in multiple cities. I’m not proud of my philandering. I always thought I was better than that. But I’m weak, weak to the temptations of flesh and fortune—the cockteasing of happiness. But it’s a cruel way of being happy, an exercise in vanity. I’m here to apologize to you. Here is a chronicling of my adultery, my writing for multiple publications and other self-indulgent acts of the past week or so:

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Hockey Writers Fail in Post-Belak Fallout

I’ve been waiting it out, and wading through the hockey media’s attempts to write about what Bruce Arthur called probably the worst off-season ever for a professional sports league.  I attempted to tweet at (attweet?) some hockey writers to comment on my argument that it’s a cultural problem, as opposed to an NHL or enforcer problem. But I received no responses. I guess when you’re not relaying a deadline rumour, or agreeing with their simplistic and under-researched “journalism” you’re not worthy of a response. Or you’re just some writer with a blog who really doesn’t warrant a moment of thought.

Either way, what was written was so simple and so naïve it’s not worth directly referencing or linking. Some wrote about the mixing of drugs and alcohol as the problem, and while I’m not saying it isn’t a part of the problem, if mixing drugs and alcohol led directly to these kinds of events as often as they have this summer in the NHL, then the next two weeks of Frosh Weeks in Canadian universities should be on the lookout for some mass deaths. Drug and alcohol abuse are a result of many variables, something these viewpoints did not understand. And to blame the drugs and alcohol themselves? I’ve seen contemporaries drop pills into cocktails like they were ice cubes, and when it came time to evaluate what got them to that point, no one blamed the pills and cocktails. It’s like blaming a concussion on the brain. Or blaming a head and spinal injury on a turnbuckle and not an abhorrent and violent irresponsible action. Oh, wait. They already did that.

Some called for an end to fighting, and while I wouldn’t complain if fighting was removed from the game, I’m not naïve enough to believe it will happen for at least a generation. Maybe two. Some, like the ever-ignorant-yet-more-employed-than-I-am P.J. Stock was hesitant to call Belak’s death a suicide, despite the Toronto Police calling it just that. Perfect. Stock’s not even willing to admit what happened. I guess he’s fully expecting Derek Boogaard to be taking a few shifts this fall for the Rangers. Some wrote very well-intentioned yet benign and useless odes to the wonderful person that was Wade Belak.  Nice? Yes. But sort of Monday morning quarterbacking, if you ask me. They weren’t obituaries as much as they were examples of the further ineptness of the hockey journalism community to reach anything beyond the simple, or what is fed to them by the hockey machine. At least those pieces were in competent English and showed evidence of a simple understanding of the decade we’re in. Bruce Dowbiggin referred to an “online website,” and Steve Simmons couldn’t even get his verb tenses correct. It’s hard to believed they get paid.

Many made calls for not jumping to conclusions. To take our time. To respect and measure a process.  How typically Canadian. To slow down, call an inquiry. Extend the process over several years. Is Charles Dubin still alive? Does he need work? The only hope I found over the weekend was the news via Dave Hodge that Michael Farber was expected back to work soon (he has been battling an illness.) Farber is one of the few hockey journalists around who won’t kowtow to the hockey community. He wrote about the issues facing fighters some decade-and-a-half ago in Sports Illustrated. If only we had listened. But, of course, a voice of reason has no place in hockey. Here’s a link to Mr. Farber’s phenomenal piece from SI, as well as a clip below of him taking on Don Cherry in a TV interview after the Punch-up at Piestany.  This is the kind of opposition, and questioning of the establishment that could lead to a productive and useful discourse.

Hit Somebody

Wade Belak, a 35-year-old former NHL player, took his own life in a downtown Toronto hotel yesterday afternoon. He left behind a wife and two children, a promising post-hockey career, and a hockey culture that has bred two other suicides this summer. Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien played similar hockey roles to Belak. They fought. They hit. They instigated and engaged. There was no power play time. They didn’t kill penalties. They were not on the ice for important face-offs. They were enforcers. Tough guys. Fighters. Des hommes fort. They played the role from their early teens right up to their deaths. And what we, the fans, are left with is trying to understand what role we’ve played in their unfortunate deaths. At the end of the day, the Canadian hockey community, its fan base, and the media that covers the sport are not responsible, but guilty.

Canadians pride themselves on being the gatekeepers to the kingdom of hockey. The protectors of its national sport; it is our obsession, our heart, our long Winters and early Springs. We are born into a culture that idolizes teenagers, that is taught to respect not just the offensively gifted and the defensively sublime, but also those with grit. Those with sandpaper to their games. Players who will stick up for their teammates. And we love a good fighter. Because those boys are the salt of the earth. The real hockey players. The real Canadians. They grow up playing on makeshift rinks on family farms. They shoot pucks at the barn until their mothers force them to bed. They wear hockey sweaters like skin. They’re everything we ever wanted to be.

This, of course, is all bullshit. This is the image of hockey that has been force fed to us by an all-powerful hockey community. These fallacies fill their coffers, fund their sport, and feed our national pride. It’s an image they need to portray in order to hide decades of sanctioned abuse of young boys who just want to play a game. How is it that we, as a populace, allow boys to be taken from their homes as young as 15-years-old in order to play hockey in a community they don’t live in. To be left in the charge of strangers with questionable motives and goals. Left with the Graham James’ and David Frosts’ of the world. Shame on us. Would Canadian hockey die if players were only allowed to play within a certain circumference of their hometown? Of course not, but that’s not a benevolent attitude that buys into the hockey monster.

And once removed from parents all too willing to allow the move (because after all who doesn’t want their child to be the next Gretzky or Crosby or Kordic?) what does it do to a teenager to be told by an adult to go beat up another teenager? How is that a tolerable culture? In any other setting it’s barbarism. It’s child abuse. It’s a horrific act withholding the tools children need to become adults. It’s teaching a culture of violence, a culture that dictates that the less talented, the less gifted, must resort to acts of pugilism elsewhere criminal in order to survive.

What happens to these boys when they become men in an adult world? When they are left outside the rink in places like Nashville and Atlanta and New York, and not Red Deer or Saskatoon or Sudbury? Places that do not worship at the altar of hockey, that do not ignore the right and just and sane for three more wins, for one more season, for a shot at a silver cup. I think we know what happens, and we need to look no further than John Kordic, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, and now Wade Belak. But what of those that never made it to the NHL, to the show? What about those who never made it past Red Deer’s penalty box? What happens to them?

Hockey has become a diseased culture, a deeply flawed community unable or unwilling to tend to its problems. And I believe the media; the ‘journalists’ who cover the sport have played a role in allowing the downward spiral of the game. The media is meant to be the fourth estate, meant to hold those responsible accountable. But the hockey media, and in particular the Canadian hockey media, have a long history of ignoring hockey’s flaws. It dates back to Alan Eagleson, and progresses right through amphetamines, the movement of Canadian franchises, the sexual abuse scandals, ignoring steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, concussions, and now the mental fragility of the players kept on the game’s periphery.

Too often the Canadian hockey media has been populated by fanboys, by those who yearned to move away from their parents at 15 and weren’t talented enough, so they turned to covering the sport they loved. And as much as they love the sport, they love feeling as if they are a part of it. They call players, coaches, and management by sports’ simplest collection of nicknames: Burkie, Collie, Ripper, Gomer, and so on. They report rumours and not fact, as if the rules of journalism don’t apply because they’re just covering hockey. They impose themselves on the discourse not to evolve it, but rather to be a function of it. To be a part of the culture. What should be the entity that protects the Rick Rypiens, and Sheldon Kennedys, and Theoren Fleurys, and Derek Boogaards, that should have held the sport accountable, instead has become the entity that allowed these atrocities under its watch. Shame on them.

After Wade Belak’s death was confirmed yesterday, there was an outpouring of sadness from the hockey community. There was a non-stop flow of stories about what a great guy he was. “Great in the room.” “A great teammate.” And from the ever ignorant and unaccountable media: “A great quote,” “Made our jobs easier.” And yet, who was being a great teammate to Belak in a broader sense? Who was making his job easier? There were certainly some calls for the NHL to be more accountable given the deaths of the three enforcers so close together. No one I’ve read was holding themselves, or the community at large in question. The only solace I could take, in moments away from my outrage, was that I was glad that it was the off-season. I don’t think I could have handled a Coach’s Corner on Belak. To watch the clown prince of hockey, Donald S. Cherry, talk about Belak and Boogaard and Rypien, and yet not hold himself or his jester Ron MacLean somewhat accountable in their blindness.

Cherry often talks about fallen soldiers and law enforcement officers, nearly coming to tears as he tells the audience of their untimely deaths. But what about the deaths occurring in his own backyard? What about those who are living within the philosophy that he espouses only to fall victim to its folly? It’s quite sad that Cherry seems totally oblivious to his power, to his standing within his community. A better man, a more responsible voice, would be leading the charge to reevaluate, to reconsider how all of us are a part of these deaths. But instead the community will pave over their graves with grit and sandpaper. And as typical Canadians we’ll soldier on oblivious and complacent, and we’ll quickly forget about three young men whose lives ended too early, because we’ve got dreams of Saturday nights, and hockey fights, and a vicarious run at the Stanley Cup. Shame on all of us.