Tuesday, July 27, 2021

A Message From Our Leader

Pandemic-related effects on staffing
Due to Brexit-induced bureaucracy
Break international law in a very specific and limited way.

As we account for both the inclement weather the area is seeing
Weapons of mass destruction program-related activities
You will experience more delays than usual today

Resource actions are ongoing as a result of the recent events
Local authorities and the voluntary sector all rose to the challenge.
Their staff went the extra mile ahead of the restructuring activities

The steps we're taking today are painful, but necessary.
We've made the difficult decision to rebalance and seek efficiencies
And sharing the difficult news of involuntary separations

Some of you might be wondering why we haven't done this before
There is one huge difference compared to last year: COVID restrictions
I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle

Make no mistake, we have a huge opportunity in front of us
This will require relentless focus on initiatives
With a fair wind in our sails and a strength of resolve

There is a material risk of being overwhelmed
That's data that's been in our possession now for a day or so
But we've always taken account of scientific advice, decisively,
Always tried to follow it. That aligns tightly with our strategic priorities.
It is a matter of deep regret and that is what we're doing today

The whole nation has been engaged in a great national effort
Getting the company ready for the next stage of growth
In light of the global coronavirus pandemic and the challenge it poses

I suppose the message is that this is the year of getting things done
This means having the discipline to pull back from those that don't, alas,
We can come together with united spirit
To lift a glass to those who aren't there.

Your Leader

After A Message from our CEO, Potential Service Delays Today, and members of Her Majesty's government lead by Mister Johnson

homeless encampment near dam

I've become an afficionado of bureaucratese and the many uses of euphemism. Although I hate to be on the receiving end, I appreciate the education we are all getting on words intended to obscure.
A man stands on a platform. He is about to address a packed audience of Swindlers, Cowards, Bounder, Painted Harridans and Trulls. He opens his mouth to address them. What does he say? He says: "Ladies and Gentlemen."

Human language should be packed with Euphemisms. It is, indeed, proof that man was meant to live with his fellows, and proof also of how difficult it is for man to carry on that task without inordinate friction.

On Euphemism by Hilaire Belloc
urban decay

See previously:

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.

It seems to me that it could also fall under the banner of The Rough Beast, which asks who is writing the script? Do let me know which one fits better.


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Writing log: January 14, 2021

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Open House

The only open issue in your mind was whether the house had been a brothel or a boarding house. As you walked out and weighed the ambiguous evidence, you decided on the latter. Either way, what you had seen, what you had smelt, in those ten minutes was misery itself. Human misery. It was a house of forced labour, of lost dreams. To call it an open house was to do violence to the very term; it was the reverse, a closed house in every imaginable way, featuring those elements of coercion, those elements of powerlessness and, especially, those elements of cruelty whose vestiges still lingered inside. It was the kind of cruelty that only men do to others.

But they called it an open house, that's what the sign outside proclaimed. The Wife and you had no clue, you had simply been on your rounds, doing your Sunday house hunting and getting to know the town. It was your penultimate stop that July afternoon. "It sounds like a bargain, it just came on the market. Spacious too." Well now you knew. Real estate.

It was a quiet walk out of the house and you periodically looked at each other, as if to confirm what you both had seen. "I feel like I'm going to cry", she said finally. You simply fumbled around for the Zipcar card to open up the rental. "Me too", you muttered as you waved your piece of plastic in the air above the windshield. The click unlocked the Prius. "I feel sick". Hell you needed a cold shower or a stiff drink.

It was a hot day and there was a stir in the neighbourhood, you hadn't quite noticed it when you had entered the house earlier on. People were beginning to come onto their porches, pointing and peeping at the house. A few had stepped out and were now making their way towards the house for their viewing. Presumably there had been much talk about whatever had been going on in its confines, thus all the neighbours were expectant and interested. They had long suspected that bad things were happening there, this was their opportunity to bear witness. Reflecting on it, you had been a little disturbed at the way some of those children were running amok inside that house. Your own walkthrough had been very sober.

There had been a pungent odour to the place, it smelled of... Well... The smell lingered even as you considered the case. You turned around and looked at the house again. That smell... Yes, it was the smell of unhappiness, of people who slept in shifts... This wasn't student housing, nor indeed was this your garden variety slum housing. There was no pleasure here, this kind of forced labour has the kind of disagreable odour you tried to forget but couldn't.

As if to confirm things, you notice that woman who had grabbed her two children just a few moments earlier, also leaving the house in a hurry. She was silent and grim-faced, dressed in her Sunday best, a school teacher type. Her eyes were disturbed beacons. She knew what she had seen. She knew what this was - a bad house, and she needed to get her progeny out of there before they too became tainted by it. She held on tight to them as she passed you. It was the first viewing, it was an open house. You were all victims.

As you sat in the car the two of you began to compare notes. It's funny how it all came out in a hurry now as opposed to the steady accretion of details when you'd been walking through the house.

"It was young women, coerced into doing who knows what"

A musty smell of resignation.

"Not many laughs in the house."

"It couldn't be a brothel, right?"

Does despair have a smell?

"They must have left in a hurry."

"No. not men. Doesn't smell like men." It was the smell of cheap perfume and women's hair.

"Pommade."

I'd seen many boarding houses of immigrants - men and women. This was disconcerting.

"No, it can't be a brothel. It would be more upscale. I don't think they'd bring clients here. Well..."

"So. A prostitution ring?"

"Yeah... This is where they kept the women until they sent them out to work."

"But what about the basement? Don't you think?..."

"No. Who would come to this place?"

The basement was the tipping point, its aura of unease had unnerved you.

"Here, let me see the flyer again"

"Wonderful Enormous 7 Room Finished basement" was what the flyer had advertised.

"People had left in a hurry... Very recently..."

"There were ..."

Your guess: 10-30 "guests" were accomodated in the house, most likely.

"Prostitution ring. It must be. Young women."

"Young women."

"They didn't have much to do with the neighbours."

"The rooms, the layout... Labyrinth..."

What troubled you most was the absence. Where were the inhabitants? Where were the most recent residents? Were they still in service somewhere, or had the entire operation been shut down? The cots or bunk beds weren't there.

"Cleaned out."

"I'm creeped out."

"Where are they now? I wonder..."

Too many questions and you didn't dare get them all answered for fear of further depression. These places surely exist, houses of prostitution, houses of trafficking even - but do you really want to know?

It wasn't about drugs: this wasn't a crack house or even a crystal meth house like you might have read about in Oakland, or hypothesized must exist in South Berkeley. And it wasn't immigrant workers... It wasn't men who lived here, of that you were sure. You pondered the question, the puzzle of this open house.

so sunny

Then it struck you that the owner had been there.

"The owner!", you both exclaimed simultaneously.

"The owner. That's right, the owner..." You knew it as you'd walked past him but hadn't wanted to admit it to yourself. Black guy. He didn't look like the agent but looked to have authority, wearing what he did, and standing the way he did in the kitchen. The almost orange suit trousers and the shirt that looked a little dressy. The slightly sharp tan shoes. He was a pimp, a gentleman of leisure. The fruits of his leisure were on display for sale today.

It's funny how these details came back.

You had caught his lecherous assessment of The Wife. Well perhaps not lecherous, just a cool, calm assessment with a practiced eye. How could she be used? She later said as you exchanged notes, "Yes, he was sizing me up. It was that kind of look. There was definitely a sexual angle there".

Was that how he picked up his women, runaways or those who arrived at the Greyhound station barely ten minutes away? The easy triage of the flesh, the evaluation of weakness, a prelude to the approach.

Still, don't underestimate the man, he's been doing this for a while and this house sale is a temporary setback.

People, his people, had recently left the house. It had just been cleared of much of the incriminating evidence, the sleeping cots, but you can't disguise the smell. The house couldn't but reveal its purpose. Sweet misery, the bitter pungent odour of desperation, the heavy vibes of predation.

It was as you had mounted into the attic earlier that the smell really hit you. What was worse as you inspected it, was the realization that someone had been living there, even in that attic. Could it have been a punishment room perhaps?

When you came down from the attic, shaken, and about to get her to leave, The Wife slowly pointed to a door. By that point you didn't know what to think. "I don't want to know what's behind the door". You grabbed her hand and made to leave on. Some things are not worth knowing.

As you passed you saw that the closet held a few desultory cans of paint - funny that. You can't cover over the layers of of iniquity, and they certainly hadn't bothered trying in the house - or maybe they had, yes. You looked around and saw one wall vaguely painted. Well half a room isn't bad. They hadn't even had time to throw on a gesture before the viewing. Barely painted, the rest of the house was left raw and unadorned. They'd just listed it. Talk about an open house.

This troubling puzzle you'd tried to decipher as you walked through this house on [redacted] street.

"I'm steering clear of South Berkeley and North Oakland."

"I'm not doing any more open houses" was your rejoinder.

You returned again to the scene in the kitchen just minutes earlier. There was a certain axis of malignancy in that triangle. The real estate agent, the potential buyer looking for her entree into the society of slum lords, looking to flip the property, and, last but not least, the owner. A ruthless predatory vibe emanating from all three of them.

"It's structurally sound, a steal at that price." The real estate agent had no conscience. She was just selling it. Condescending too, to the couple who had asked for a leaflet earlier - she had dismissed them as window shoppers, not her brand of client. The Wife had observed that this was the most predatory real estate broker in town that was arranging the showing.

"What's a probate record?", asked the buyer, the prospective slum lord.

"Now we're talking", she started her spiel. The owner chuckled.

There was lots of interest in the property per the web site and the open house had gotten quite crowded by the time you were getting ready to leave. Slum housing has lots of possibilities, you suppose.

But you couldn't have been the only ones who recognized the suffocating atmosphere. You thought back to the church ladies clutching their handbags; they had their eyes wide open. The harrowing sights and the smell.

"This housing bubble is out of control. Pimps are getting into the act. We've been here a year, look, this is ridiculous. We've seen what, maybe 150 houses, all these overpriced open houses, and now we've seen this... this... what's the phrase again.. this charnel house, this den of iniquity."

At that The Wife laughed.

You continued, "I'm sure that they used some of the rooms here to have their way with the women. I just don't know. Or did they just use it to keep them and made them work in streets. Where were the women from. Black or Mexican? What do you think?"

"What was that satellite dish for in that concrete backyard?"

"Oh yeah, I saw that"

"Was it transmitting or was it receiving? A bordello?"

"It isn't worth thinking about. Let's go." You started the car.

...

Fifteen minutes later on a lark to detox, you entered the million dollar home listed on the other side of town. You saw the manicured lawns, the granite countertops, the wholesome picket fences of North Berkeley, a world away.

What is this town you live in? Where do you live? How to get a measure of a place? To think just ten minutes away from this...? Do they know what is happening just down the road?

You will never buy a house on that street. You may not believe in evil but this is a dark matter. They were, he was, trafficking in human souls, if not humans flesh and labour itself. You've lost your innocence.

There are people behaving badly... They know, he knew... And you saw it in his eyes. A little embarrassed, perhaps, but it was a way of life, it was his way of life, and he chose it, he'd live with it. Heck, he was even looking to get a bit above land resale value out of the house. The hustle continued.

True, the affair had shut down in a hurry. That they had cleared out within living memory... made things all the more worrying... perhaps just days earlier. Where were the people? Where are the people he was using? Disposable people.

You couldn't bear to do the research. But at the back of your mind, you surely knew. There's a paper trail for sure, if you searched you could put the story together. Trust your intuition, you're the son of a journalist.

...

It had been an assisted living facility ten years ago.

After some more digging on your conjecture, you determined that this was originally a family business. They did things like funeral homes on the Oakland-Berkeley border. The young one, the current scion was obviously into more grisly stuff - he had a stable of women. Probably not picky could even be those Honduras or El Salvador women so beloved in West Oakland. People steered clear of the operation but it was open knowledge what went on there. You stopped digging.

The open house.

There was a sick feeling in your stomach, you have been in the presence of malignancy. And it has been like that for a long while.

The open house.

Where are the women? Where did they go?

The open house.

The stain persists whenever you walk through an open house.

million dollar house

The listing, July 2007


[Redacted] Street, Berkeley, CA

Price: $583,000

Huge Craftsman! Grand Dame In Need Of New Mate! 2594 Sf 5Bd/ 2Bath, Formal Dining Rm.,& Great Home Office; All On Main Floor. Gracious Front Porch & Wonderful Attic. Zoned R2a For Pos.Duplex Use. 1919 Vintage Detail! Wonderful Enormous 7 Room Finished Basmt. W/2 Sep. Pvt. Entry. Open Sun 2-5.

5 Bedrooms, 2 Baths, Main Entry Room - Additional: Basement Finished, Formal Dining Room, In-Law Quarters, Office, Rec/Rumpus Room, Unfinished Room, Utility Room

Postscript


This was the penultimate open house we viewed together in our time in Berkeley. I stuck to my resolve. I called the peak of the housing bubble.

One week after our viewing, Bear Stearns liquidated two of its hedge funds worth billions of dollars due to collateralized debt obligations and subprime mortgages. The stage was set for the Great Recession.

Note: In 2021, the house on [Redacted] Street was listed at over $2 million dollars. It has reasonable bones and was mildly revamped. Presumably the owners are unaware of this aspect of its history

104.1 FM End imperialism

Open House, a playlist


A soundtrack to alleviate my distress. The statute of limitations has passed and so I can belatedly nominate this piece for The Things Fall Apart Series.

Next: The Bad Seed

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Writing log. Concept: July 31, 2007, March 6, 2021

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Doves

He was so certain of himself that he would sing misheard lyrics with the conviction of the new convert.

Maybe I'm just like my father twofold
When you pointed out that he was substituting a parental profligacy for boldness, he would scoff and continue:
This is what is sounds like, when the doves fly
The son a King, he was a prince who wrote his own lyrics. Nevermind the printed label on the vinyl or the record cover, it was the sound of doves flying. I shook my head. He laughed, case closed, argument over. I will miss you my brother.

...

Growing up, he'd heard that the best jockeys needed to learn how to fall "properly" to lose their fear of failure. Somehow the number ten was attached to that anecdote. Thus it was resolved, this 6 year old provoked every horse to throw him to get it over with.

My first horse riding lessons were thus quite an ordeal as this my brother proceeded with his plan and even encouraged me to get on with the falling - I demurred. He celebrated when he reached the tenth fall, he was going to be the best.

He was forever disappointed that he grew too tall and too athletic, his body too magnificent a specimen to be a jockey. What remained was this urge for speed, this will to fly where others wouldn't. I will miss you my brother.

...

We discovered the baby dove in our driveway one Sunday morning, limp, immobile and near death - indeed The Wife thought it was dead having fallen from the sky, and was about to pick it up to dispose of it when it stirred. Just like that Michigan woman arisen when she was just about to be enbalmed at the mortuary.

when doves cry

After a few hours it began to stir, but was still too dazed and, in the two days since, it hadn't recovered sufficiently, it couldn't unfurl its right wing for one. We placed water and some feed nearby to give some relief. Slowly it moved from the front yard to the side and now the fence.

There was a scare the next day when two black cats were lurking nearby, but, somehow, either our presence or the mother dove's fierceness must have deterred the feline predators. I guess we could have taken it in to protect it but we're no vets and the mother was doing nature's job.

We had wondered how it had been able to move at all and now we have evidence: call it the carry trade. It looks as if the mother dove was now trying to carry its brood to safety if not higher ground, there was a nest nearby.

It took a few more days to mend, but I caught a glimpse of the younger dove flying with the mother - the wounded wing gave the bird a slightly lopsided arc to its flight path.

Doves


It was deep in my time of grief,
As the tears finally crystalized on my cheeks,
That I started to move on from crying
To recalling the stolen moments
The conversations never to be renewed

Our trade in misheard lyrics
I recalled that vision of the flight of doves
A revival, this movement towards an antidote,
And the sound of my brother's laughter

Soundtrack for this note


See also The Laws of Grief

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Writing log: March 6, 2021

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Grief House

There's a house, that I know very well, rebuilt over the years
That has now revealed that its skeletal frame is made out of tears
Ducts of worry, sorrow at the joints, and meshed in places by weary tissue
Many of these features were undetected at the initial walk through

The insulation is suspect, for the early builders were optimists
But later additions of redundancy came from the school of realists
Located in the torrid zone, there's always a struggle for ventilation
Thankfully, the last architect made sure there was no need for air conditioning

In that house in just a short period of time, the inhabitants
Have lost their siblings, nephew, and many friends and confidants
They've lost the light, there's no mirth or relief
Rather, they are paying tribute to the laws of grief

True, they have each other to turn to, to share the pain
A paradox, they are surrounded by absences all the same
Straining to recall the earlier moments of tenderness and laughter
That all is not lost, that they can still write new chapters

At the start of last year, they had readied one of the bedrooms
In advance of the summer visit from their son and family that loomed
Freshened and revamped for their grandchildren, blue and orange paint was procured
And applied with care but these last would have to make do with a virtual tour

There was also a new study and a flurry of other projects started
But they were all upended by the pandemic, which pulled out the rug
This covidious change of plans, the absence of touch, not even a hug
To lose the joy of a granddaughter running up to you unprompted

No company in the kitchen, to try out the secret recipe, no eager food taster
No unending questions asked about everything, no mischief maker
No one to sit in the lap, to tease, and fuss over their hair and apply lotion
Some lessons can only be taught in person, there is no remote option

No one to ask how this retirement home came to be surrounded by skyscrapers
Despite the noise, the young ones would have surely enjoyed studying the excavators
The Turkish contractors building next door fleeing Erdogan were students of Gülen
Who would now have to make their fortunes in exile in Ghana, it was only prudent

The Chinese crew who were busy putting up the other hotel had a few rocky moments
When the neighborhood learned these developers had just returned from Wuhan province
For a few months it seemed as if the tide would turn against these scapegoat Galamsey
But China recovered, and, with mask diplomacy and more, now leads the way

But back to the inhabitants of this house now in isolation
And eerie silence from those who normally brought conversation
Like most of the world, life has made them fretful prisoners
In the past year, it seems as if death was the only visitor

There is neither time nor space to list, so much loss, such an abundance
They've again tasted the essence of solitude and the quality of numbness
At a remove across an ocean, I've been confronted by the same grief surfeit
Oh to spend even a day in person with this wounded parental unit

It's a selfish concern, I know, but I miss their counsel
Thoroughly unsatisfactory to see them reduced to digital pixels
Of course, I realize that it's plainly the safe choice
But I'm now left with hearing their disembodied voices
Even without network lag, it feels as though there's always a mediator
Thwarted, again and again, by the attack of the viral interloper

Perhaps we'll all eventually get vaccinated
And one day procure the required travel certificates
I envision three generations together again, if life allows
I'd dearly love to enliven the setting of that grief house

secret garden

Missing You, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note.
See previously: The Laws of Grief

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: March 9, 2021

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Great Longing

To this type of writer, fidelity is not the concern
He strains for the lyrical in everything he observes
Comfortable with a tall-tale, or is it a hall of mirrors?
One shouldn't hew too closely to those paragraphs about Paris

He delights in fluttering from town to town
But there's acuity whenever he hits the ground
Picking out people to study and describe
It's no wonder this novel concerns a public scribe

His novels have that quality of floating above a city
All residents are fair game for his detached scrutiny
The fumes of memory are his proving ground
His task is recording the imprint of history's sound

Some writers are like this, they feel so deeply
Even when their work covers a terrain of uncertainty
Yet their commitment holds fast to that roving eye
A compulsion they cannot escape no matter how much they try

It's a sort of out-of-body performance, this authorial detachment
The critics would brand him the laureate of internal displacement
I'm minded of a line from a song called Human Nature
The knowing looks exchanged that the lyricist captured

He traces this compulsion to growing up as a sick child
Confined to bed and to home, experiencing life through others
Starting with imaginary affairs where he pictures himself running wild
Escaping his room and seducing the women who visit his mother

As an adult, in his own real relationships, there is always awkwardness
The flesh can never measure up to the erstwhile fictional goddesses
The determination to eschew participation in favor of bearing witness
Has a pervasive effect, in all engagements he is rendered feckless

He describes towns he has lived in, Fez, Tangiers, all full of traditions
Exquisite portraits, even if some of these places are not happy locations
Take the camp he is sent to as punishment for dissent as a young student
In maturity, in France he can only reminisce about the Morocco he left

A metaphor, perhaps, of the perils of life as a dissident
The squalid end that autocrats decree to crush dissent
The Moroccan antecedent was L'Affaire Ben Barka
The means, fear and blood, that marked such chapters

So who is this écrivain public? And how accurate is his narrative?
The author wears as his disguise a mask of words hidden in plain sight
The indirection of men of letters who craft their narratives of exile
This reader recognizes a fellow traveler bearing a splinter of ice

In days of yore, it was an honorable profession to write letters
To give voice to those requiring correspondence and editorial services
The public scribe took dictation or transformed words into print
From mundane business to, sometimes piquant, the most romantic

The later novels are what endeared him to the academy
But it is this early one that lingers in my memory
The sketches of childhoods with certainties written in sand
And the testimonies on the lack of mercy in the life of man

The lesson is that what matters is documenting the dislocation
We'll have time enough later to deal with truth and reconciliation
The spirit's rhythm of loss is the heart of the matter
The great longing is the main feature of nostalgia



On reading L'Écrivain Public by Tahar Ben Jelloun

brass glistens souk of marrakesh africa report 1966-06-058 portfolio of african holidays

The Great Longing, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note ...

Timing is everything
Observers are worried

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Writing log. Concept: January 10, 2011; March 5, 2021

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Rhythm of Loss

The unraveling of the self plays out with its own time signature
Breaking the compact constraints of traditional measure
While the blue notes of despair are the first to come across,
There is no transcribing the spirit's rhythm of loss

Some label the composition's cadence as a diminuendo
Eccentric, the induced fugue state gives rise to sudden shifts in tempo
A music of dissonance, compression and anarchy
Moaning accents and counterpoint, discord in a minor key

The blows of grief are known to assail with idiosyncrasy
Their percussive patterns jab the listener with frantic immediacy
Leaving the pressured victim untethered and seeking relief
Breath marks play their part in the soul's symphony of deceit

The dynamics of worry quaver in half steps without resolution
For agitation, furioso, doesn't bear internal modulation
Some virtuoso singers can get to the coda in nine bars of melody
But the fraught interval for all others merely leads to disharmony

The scale of the problem repeats in staccato transposition
The syncopated theme crosses the ledger line of dislocation
Tranquillo, the whole rest is always four beats
The timbre of the montage obeys the laws of grief

wiz-drum-swing

Rhythm of Loss, a playlist


A soundtrack to contrast from the foregoing intonation.
And for a reprise, we can return to Julie Dexter's chorus, behold a rhythm daughter in full flow who moves to her own tune. Look who's got your back
I hear beats around me
Harmony that's soothing


See previously: The Laws of Grief


This internal displacement is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: February 27, 2021

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Economics of Whimsy

The question was laid out by the professor at the start of class:
Is a country without whimsy worth worrying about?
It was perplexing, for this was in the realm of philosophy
Was I really in the right class: the economics of whimsy?

In previous meetings, the central discussion was around whimsy trade deficits
With this provocation, it seemed that she was now bringing up matters of ethics
Oh well, everyone perked up, we all started to pay close attention
Her socratic method had, very quickly, exposed a new dimension:

The first article of impeachment against the rogue authoritarian
Is the damning charge: must everything be utilitarian?
Far more egregious than their murders, and garden variety deceit,
Is the scoundrel's plundering of society's strategic reserves of wit

Market failure occurs when the supply of whimsy is artificially constrained
This can lead to dramatic episodes of hyperinflation, alienation and pain
A few speculators may prosper, but the overall market sentiment is of blood in the water
As only minimal soul support can be provided, even with the most activist central banker

No, a run on the human marketplace of invention is to be avoided at all costs
Regulators have historically placed limits on derivative trading to enforce stop-loss
Most countries consequently have their equivalent of the Plunge Protection Team
It is rather naive to speak of a free market in light of this severe market discipline

The quants had devised new hedging strategies but their struggle was uphill
They were never satisfactory, those cheap laughs and bargain basement thrills
Some made a killing with subprime whimsy - but never marked to market their beliefs
And when the adjustable rates would kick in, the balloon payments would lead to grief

I started to see her purpose, that she favored classroom anarchy
That her pedagogy was engaged, she liked to get her hands dirty
Quintessential abstractions were the very opposite of her teaching strategy
By this point, I was very minded to enroll with her and change my course of study

She wanted to expose her students to all of the world's chaos and disorder
And so we learned that whimsy is not national, it is no respecter of borders
Protectionism had been tried by autocratic regimes to no avail,
The professor added, "For whimsy denied can lead to forced sales"

Those who have lived under dictators know this truth:
Everything starts with the irrepressible youth
That, even when the regime is cruel, ruthless, and beyond the pale
The pricing pressure the young bring to bear affects the economies of scale

And when the bond traders sense a weakness, there's a flight to safety
The informal sector responds to all this volatility
Albeit, we all start trading whimsy on the black market
Belly laughs are most exhilarating when it is darkest

Tyrants have been lampooned and mortally wounded, even high fliers
With a well targeted strike of suitably barbed satire
All it took were a few pointed words about the Emperor's sartorial choices
To give leverage to sanity; the nude hubris of rogues is never advised

We ended class by reconsidering her initial subversive question
Namely whether safeguarding the quaint must be seen as a real obligation
I remarked that I was starting to see the outline of an answer
That there is moral power to be held in the resulting laughter

I added, a country without play or fancy is merely absurd
And that the last refuge of rogues was their weasel words
A simple proof by contradiction of the invisible hand theory
The scarcity of resources is central to the economics of whimsy

The necessity of permanent outrage had long been my mainstay
But it appeared I was too single minded and had been led astray
The seminar had taught me larger lessons and rude awakenings
I left with a renewed appreciation of the joy of small things

It's your day by Glen


The notion that so few in my country can bury their heads in books on weekday afternoons or on a lazy Saturday morning at the library is cause for much distress. And don't get me started about what's happened to the Legon University bookstore. Must everything be utilitarian? Is a country without whimsy worth worrying about?

— extract from The Books of Nima
Timing is everything
Observers are worried

See previously: The Laws of Grief


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Writing log: February 26, 2021

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Texas Freeze

Sitting in my own house wearing mismatched gloves
Ten blankets and duvets piled up on this bed, hoodies on
Everyone in the same room, the retreat was complete
The look on the children's faces was beyond pitiful:
Now what? First the coronavirus, schools closed
No friends, no playdates, no birthday parties
Masks, Zoom lessons, and now this curve ball

No electricity, no heat, just the freezing cold
Seven layers of clothes, it was getting old
Well below freezing outside
Forty seven degrees inside
Stuck indoors with our winter hats
We kept checking the damned thermostat
The solar chargers weren't of much use after day one
The blizzard conditions didn't make for much sun
Taps dripping for fear of frozen pipes
All creature comforts duly denied

You started to consider the offers to bundle with luckier neighbors
The alternative: you'd just read the tweet about the warming shelters
Turns out The Authorities had belatedly opened the school gymnasium
(The public health department issued a double mask recommendation)
The specter of upended plumbing, the burst pipes
The trees that fell, buckling under the weight of ice
Those friends seeking tarp to deal with holes in their roofs,
Like you, were being taught hard lessons and American home truths

The instrument panels at the gas power plants that froze over
Frozen coal, who'd have thought? Certainly not those in power
(That last a dubious proposition by all reports
The lessons of the earlier disasters were simply ignored)
Perhaps this time, when they review these matters
(There's one born every minute, losers and suckers)
They might finally revisit the winner-take-all capitalism
(An unlikely prospect, of course, hold fast to your skepticism)

But mostly it's the look of dismay that chafes
Your underlying condition: internally displaced
And the sound of your children's voices stands apart
It's their simple question, "Why Daddy?", that breaks your heart

a long walk during the Texas freeze

II. Food Bank USA


After walking around Austin in the aftermath of the Texas Freeze, and watching the news, I kept wondering if the iconography of the lines for food banks would stick to Brand USA.

Throughout this covidious interlude, the sight of the SUVs lining up at food banks has been iconic and worrying, yet, for whatever reason, the images haven't cut through. To my eyes, the cultural impact has been diffuse, but perhaps it's my bubble.

The Essential Worker Industrial Complex doesn't have a lobby. Anyone know an agent?

I suppose the Reagan-led war on trade unions neutered the most viable opposition. Coupled with the lack of a shame culture, the rule of greed and managed capitalism won.

What labor has left as offensive weapons are likes and, what, memes?

The community centers turned food banks (or the schools turned warming shelters just days earlier) take the shine off God's own country, as well they should. I guess the term of art is brand damage.

I'm not into public relations or communications, I don't have the gift of prophecy, but I've been wondering for a while now what will stick, what could ever pierce the exceptionalism. For that aspect of the USA, the self regard, is world historic.

America has well-oiled cultural machines. Hollywood's golden age took in the Great Depression, hot and cold wars and the civil rights movement; Madison Avenue kept purring throughout.

All that glitters...

I have a long memory but American outrage doesn't seem to stick. Throughout the Bush years all the way through the Trump years one kept asking what will be the last straw? What will be the watershed? But perhaps that's the wrong framing.

Gil Scott Heron's band was the Amnesia Express.

III. Tradeoffs


I will say that at hour 75 of the Texas freeze, I was idly speculating about whether I would trade hunger for freezing. It was a close call. I know many had (and have) to deal with both so I'll just leave the thought there. Mindless speculation about life at the extremes...

Mind you, I heed to the skeptic's credo, and plan accordingly and make my own bubble. Like my parents, I expend tremendous energy maintaining these protective layers. It takes considerable effort but I'm used to things falling apart.

snowman after texas freeze

The Texas Freeze, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note
See previously: The Golden Yam

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time.


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Writing log: February 19, 2021

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

The Laws of Grief

The First Law of Grief, conservation, is, at first glance, confounding
That while cathartic, the public expression of grief favors forgetting
This is the quantity theory of grief that the ancients have observed
Namely, that it is in the nature of grief that it is preserved

A fundamental property of the substance is internal displacement
An external observer disturbs the soul, preventing reliable measurement
The observer effect is ineffable, never judge the outward appearance
Nay, the solitude of private grief destroys society's moral balance

That pain, unacknowledged, is a burden cannot be denied
Social beasts, the inside might not be as strong as the outside
Sometimes extreme measures are called for, even extraordinary rendition
It is only in retrospect that the workings of grief achieve recognition

The Second Law of Grief, irreversibility, is much disputed
For the texture of grief is intangible and cannot be computed
Most social sciences assume agency, hence the notion is frequently challenged
Practitioners believe in the efficacy of solace, thinking that it can be managed

It's an article of faith in all religions that the cure is consolation
Memorials and laughter are often proffered as emotional vaccination
The counselor's handy prescription for the spirit's rhythm of loss
Assuages the survivor's misgivings, yet we all one day will pay the cost

Some advanced the notion of stages,
Finite, and with an eventual equilibrium
These stages were posited as stepping stones,
Or rest stops, on the pathway to resolution

There were many doctrinal disputes about the magic number
Conclaves and conferences were held, more than I can remember
Was it the five heartbeats or, rather, the seven steps to heaven?
Out of the tower of Babel, came a dozen steps of mourning

Expedience and practicality reared its head contra the theorists
There's no pride of place to be the chief mourner in the funeral notice
Regret is everything, only belatedly can you enjoin in the communal numbness
Weary sons and daughters left wounded at the loved one's erasure, and the absence

Unlike thermodynamics, the Third Law of Grief concerns sorrow
The essential conceit is that no one is promised tomorrow
It is an inverse, this constant, and, rather than absolute zero,
The arc of grief, experiments confirm, instead approaches a plateau

The formal statement posits an upper bound, renewed anew
The paradox is that this physical limit is unapproachable
Whatever the perspective, whether raised heights or depths unfathomable,
You may think that you are done, but grief is never done with you

Applied grief, in practice, presents a serious dilemma
The theory holds that there are ways to move on and recover
Military institutions have training courses to inure their recruits from future trauma
But stress has a thousand fathers, while grief bears the affliction of a single mother

Unlike shame, for which some cultures have herd immunity,
There is no cure as yet, there is no remission for grief
Highly contagious, it's a social disease that simply cannot be prevented,
The only treatment is time, a balm with only minor palliative relief

The late discovery of the calculus of grief was a sorry chapter
Contra the skeptic's credo, its proponents got caught up in the rapture
The assumption of the golden rule has been that for every act of emotional kindness
Society will repay the bearer in full, and with no small amount of additional interest

Ivory tower professors, however, got into the mix, and designed a commodity market
But the flaw in the trading strategy's conception should have been readily apparent
Recall the First Law, markets can remain irrational longer than you can stay solvent

The Apocrypha suggest a Fourth Law of Grief which I'll briefly explore
Malcontents required an additional dimension, and preferred the Rule of Four

If you probe deeply, these quantum theories, simply stated, are plainly mislabeled
The putative reason is that grief's insubstantiality is the source of much frustration
Like its cousin, nostalgia, grief can be a fatal affliction
When in the throes of it, patients are frequently disabled

The impairment presents as a nervous condition, as they say, observers are worried
Yet the demands of capital mean that the working reality is barely acknowledged
In most companies, the nature of the loss is judged by the closeness of connection
Always check the fine print of the bereavement policy lest you suffer a resource action

All houses are grief houses, it all depends on one's time frame
The long view of humanity, let alone biology, enforces this hard rule
The tale of the lost stories, we're all marks in a shell game
The hard knocks will come surely, some learned the lesson early in school

In the world of the bereaved, the ritual is king
The comforting routines that are shared with kith and kin
A facade of normalcy is said to protect a house of pain
Guilt leads the way, but grief always leaves a residue of shame

Social interplay imposes complexity, we were left to understand
Previous certainties dissolved, like everything, they were written in sand
Our freedom is ephemeral, and this is the chief reason:
In the land of the living, we are never far from grief season

The burden of the done thing enforces the miserable
Teaching a lifelong caution against the public spectacle
Yet the natural impulse is to seek out unease and embrace discomfiting
But the pangs afflict further when you’re accused of disturbing tranquility

The laws of grief, in their fullness, verge on the obscene
The fear of flailing even when you want to scream


In memoriam: Atu Mould (1972-2020)



All is not lost

Grief, a playlist


A soundtrack for this lament.

See previously:

This treatise and internal displacement is part of a series: In a covidious time


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Writing log: February 22, 2021

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Golden Yam

I. Temptation


It was the week of my birthday, I must confess
That I came across the golden yam in a moment of weakness

Call me terrified about going to the grocery store
What with the new variant spreading inexorably next door

The Wife had long since banned me from the Ghana shop
Lest I bring back to the marital home a viral dollop

Our town's covidious alert level was now up to the fifth stage
Leaving me home as usual, trapped in my pandemic cage

I noted, with interest, the increasing bareness of my pantry
Having run out of supplies and other necessaries

Hmmm, these growing children actually needed to be fed
Who knew? I somehow felt that I was being misled

With a craving for comfort food, this exiled soul knew what was best
I promptly launched a browser and brought up Carry Go Market

Mechanically, I added the usual suspects to my cart
I stuck to the tried and trusted, power shopping is an art

Ga kenkey, of course, some gari and sardines, I kept it wholesome
The weekly special on palm oil and suya spice was quite welcome

I passed on the fufu powder, it pays to keep your eyes on the prize
But what's this? A temptation appeared right next to the mix for jollof rice

That's the moment I first saw the golden yam
Believe me, I was quite simply unmanned

I call it golden because, well, it cost an arm and a leg
The price was simply outrageous, it had to be said

But I hadn't eaten any yam for nigh eight months, lockdown you see
This taste of Africa, culinary nostalgia, had been denied to me

My attempts at planting yams in the backyard, my own Operation Feed Yourself
Had come to nought, I was left wishing for herd immunity if nothing else

I started to do the math, the conversion rate has almost six cedis to one dollar
Throw in shipping and handling and, well, you can guess the vertiginous number

I daresay it was a temporary madness what was about to unfold
To actually buy this tuber priced above its weight in gold

Some say the most precious material in the world is printer ink
It doesn't bear contemplating, the golden yam was the kitchen sink

But the flesh was weak, I'll freely admit to the sin of gluttony
By this stage of the pandemic, I needed relief from the monotony

In mitigation, give me leave Dear Reader, what you have to understand
Is that potatoes, even the sweet ones, are a poor cousin to puna yam

I rationalized the purchase, it was my birthday, remember
I've sometimes paid hundreds of dollars for unsatisfying dinners

It took a few more clicks to succumb to the madness
And so Dear Wife and Children, please forgive me my debts

I'd practice austerity for a few months, I'd later explain to my bank manager
Thus it was that, a week later, UPS delivered a glorious golden yam tuber

growing puna yam in my covidious backyard

II. Redemption


It was on the fourth night of the Texas Freeze
That my eyes came to rest on the golden yam
The inside temperature had dipped to forty seven degrees
Fahrenheit, frostbite terrain, I had goosebumps on my arm
It's an understatement to say that my entire household was displeased
The February blizzard conditions had brought the entire state to its knees

Lockdown and now the storm, talk about social distancing
One thing after another, this life in Austin was proving daunting
I pride myself on a knack for surmounting challenges but this was confounding
Almost instinctively, I came to the realization that no one was coming

A frozen hellscape was the universal description
While unbearable angst was the prevailing emotion
Buyer's remorse underlay the fraught situation
And regret would tinge the sense of privation

We were truly stuck with the power restrictions
The outage would likely take days for resolution
The crisis management team had led with poor communication
Destroying, perhaps irreparably, the state's reputation

Rotating outages were the initial, hopeful prediction
The chastening reality was that permanence was our condition
Adding insult to injury is that this was eminently predictable
This was the very opposite of what was known as good trouble

"It stopped being fun real quick", the wages of deregulation were slim pickings
Such is the fate of the curious prevailing ideology: wishful thinking
When you have to be melting crushed snow to flush down your bathroom privy
The vaunted exceptionalism is now subject to worldwide concern, if not pity

"You welcome the U.S. to the fun of the Third World" was your mantra long ago
Don't call it prescience but, well, you reap what you sow

My spare battery charger had long since given up the crop
So I'd had to charge the phone using one of the kids' laptops
There would be time enough, if we survived, to reevaluate our emergency procedures
It is only in its absence that you recognize what is called infrastructure

The last bit I'd read was that Flying Ted had absconded on the daily news
Packed his bags and headed to Cancun Mexico, I see you Senator Cruz
I voted against the man but, stuck in a freezer, I still felt rather abused
But what of the clear majority that put him in power, were they now confused?

I'm used to lights out, dumsor comes naturally to a Ghanaian
But this was different, there was no heat, only snow and no trace of sun
Ice everywhere, and not the immigration agency folks on the prowl
God I missed Ghana, I was quite ready to throw in the towel

This was frankly uncomfortable, quiet as it's kept
Even indoors I could see the plumes of my vaporous breath
If I had electricity, I'd no doubt see on the telly
The rolling disaster unfold, the millions left in penury

Be prepared is what the ancients advise
Despite the single digit temperatures outside,
Our house luckily seemed to have reasonable bones
For want of a bolt, a house is not a home

But back to my tale, let's move on from the disabled electrical furnace
Cometh the hour, cometh the yam, I had quite forgotten about this purchase
After all that I'd gone through earlier, this was a stroke of brilliance
It was written, I congratulated myself about my foresight and resilience

It was a swift decision, "I'll make us yam and stew for dinner"
I ignored the complaints of the 7 year old at the food on offer
Every man for himself, "Good luck, young man if you want to be picky"
Survival of the fittest, the palaver sauce needed to be eaten quickly
For everything in the thawing fridge was about to be spoiled
On the large burner, the golden yam would take ten minutes to boil
The cigar matches we'd obtained from the neighbors were pressed into service
One strike was all it took (truth in advertising) to light things up in earnest

oto

I wondered whether I could last through the weekend, or just admit defeat
At this point, I would even forgo food for a few days, in exchange for heat
Throw caution to the wind and expand my support bubble
Brave the treacherous icy roads and assume the risk of covidious trouble
But from what we'd heard, some of our friends that had made earlier offers
Of support were now keeping mum, after their houses too had lost power

The boil water notice had come through when I'd switched off airplane mode
To find out if relief would be forthcoming - the bill of goods we'd been sold
Hotels in town had started charging usurious rates, call it a disaster premium
Cold comfort, that is, if only you could get to them in this inclement weather
The alternative was to throw yourself at the mercy of fate, and head for the gymnasium
The children's elementary school had now been repurposed as, get this, a warming shelter

Forty six degrees is as low a temperature as the young ones could tolerate without panic
The Missus was reaching breaking point, was threatening to become catatonic
I daresay this freezing business, on top of the pandemic was getting rather old
Need I remind you that, by this stage, we were sixty five hours deep in this bitter cold
Those fateful words, the kindness of strangers were just a mirage
I kept wondering if the old man who lives in the park had found a garage

The palaver sauce heated up, the palm oil simply glistened
I daresay there was mist in my eyes, you don't know what you were missing
The water boiled and the slices of the golden yam emerged, what a rush
I quickly made to set the table, there was no need to fuss

The combination of hunger, fright and cold was quite auspicious
The serendipity of having this comfort food was rather fortuitous
All I can say is that the golden yam tasted delicious
At breaking point, I was soul sanctified, it was like magic
Thus fortified, I told myself "I could deal with this for another week"

Narrator: that night's temperature drop put paid to this premature optimism
Thankfully this story has a happy ending, put aside your skepticism

Oh the cheer that went through the neighborhood at 5 am when electricity was restored
The sheer relief at this turn of events - these 75 hours, could not be ignored
Quick, we all got up, charged everything; everyone took a shower
Who knew if this would last, we made sure to boil extra water

...

At the outset of the pandemic, as it were, before the storm
A traveling salesman had accosted me as I was mowing my lawn
Rent was due, desperate, he showed me a shiny nugget and made me an offer
I'd laugh later at the memory of this hungry man and my golden encounter

And now, after this bout of winter adversity, I was stuck in my home
Freezing and starving, yet I was pondering a poem
The light was fading, at a loss, yours truly was the desperate man
Thankfully, my hunger was sated by an encounter with a golden yam

oto

...

I might as well go with The Golden Encounter playlist as a soundtrack for this note.

This folktale is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: Part I January 15 2021, Part II. February 21, 2021

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Reverse Ferret

"We don't want to be forced into any kind of retreat or reverse ferret," the prime minister added.

The Observer, February 2021
The reverse ferret is a tough maneuver to perform
It requires fleetness of foot and delicate balance
While the deft footwork is executed as a whirling dervish dance,
Ideally the audience will not detect your changed public stance

A discreet volte-face is essential for the presentation
The change of plans should remain unadvertised upon completion
The impetus is an imminent reversal of fortune
When legal liability and the threat of punishment looms

Whether defamation or criminal contempt, the prospect is of much damage
Public reaction to exposure and revelation would likely be savage
The knives would be out, votes of confidence, resignation or electoral defeat
Contra the golden rule: a politician's first duty is to preserve his seat

On etymology, the phrase was originally journalistic fodder
A pet remark of Rupert Murdoch's agent, The Sun's editor
Orwell would have known about the tendency when he wrote of Big Brother
After all, "Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia"

And so we heard the unguarded remark of the British Prime Minister
A man so allergic to truth he was badged as a congenital dissembler
He viewed theater as politics and politics as theater
Delivering his slapstick lines with a knowing, churlish patter
As Curtis Mayfield once sang, "they're all political actors"
Everything was transactional for this Magic Johnson
Yet everything he touched was subject to potential legal action

Ferrets, those winsome beasts, are much needed in human ecology
They play a handsome role even in today's concrete modernity
They say that every complex ecosystem has parasites
Caution, however, take heed of their insatiable appetites

The general public, generally bemused, found it hard to understand
With so much whiplash, it seemed as if everything was written in sand.
For even as the Prime Minister hastened to loot with a smile
Confronted with a pandemic, he could only deal death and denial
He would leave a legacy of so many u-turns in policy, his mark was a demerit
That despite himself, this Prime Minister's self coinage was the reverse ferret

grilled fish

Reverse Ferret, a playlist


A soundtrack for this note to cover our retreat. See previously

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Writing log: February 17, 2021