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'√Čcrivain 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 (spotify version) ...

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


Rhythm of Loss, a playlist

A soundtrack to contrast from the foregoing intonation. (spotify version)
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 was 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 spotify version)
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 training courses may try 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 natural impulse is to seek out unease when stricken
To find comfort in the unseemly, and embrace discomfiting
But the pangs afflict further, and run up against respectability
When, in your pain, you’re accused of disturbing tranquility

The burden of the done thing enforces the miserable
Teaching a lifelong caution against the public spectacle
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. (spotify version)

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