Monday, February 22, 2010

One Black Feather

For many years, I worked on a series of poems called Parables of Famous Economists - think Pokemon-style trading value with Garbage Pail Kids sensibilities. A few of the poems were published, but the trading cards stayed a dormant project, and the parables dwindled in frequency.

When The Economist magazine published a special report on financial risk Feb. 13, I was motivated to write a new parable because of the story of value-at-risk theorists pondering on the frequency of "black swans" - unusual events that were supposed to happen once a millenium - except that the experts at quant theory never anticipated events folding into each other like a feedback loop. The quote from the two economists involved in such theories seemed applicable to environmental theory, energy theory, any chaotic oscillatory loop that had moved into a past-equilibrium state of near-catastrophic breakdown. That, of course, is what happened to our financial system in 2008, and is what is happening to many human systems that are near or beyond tipping points. I'm surprised the black swan analogy has not been applied more generally.

Then I started to think about grains of sand and avalanches. And surfing beaches in Kauai. And blue bottles, the Pacific Ocean equivalent of the Portuguese man o' war jellyfish. And how blue bottles swim in swarms when they sting. And how, if black swans have moved from rarities to commonplace creatures, maybe they sting in flocks. Like a protein kinase cascade, tumbling toward a cancer. Except we're already there. Here's the latest parable:

Parables of Famous Economists - #37 in the occasional series

One Black Feather

(for Peter Bernstein and Till Guldimann)

“Financial markets are not only vulnerable to black swans, but have become the perfect breeding ground for them” – T. Guldimann

Ha’Ena crest bubbles on each breaking wave
Burst in the kinase cascades Judy calls frothy
Blue bottles call ‘tase-me-bro’
Or domino – either form of paralysis

In the beached fever dream I can only insist that
Swans never bred in salt water
Silly mistake,
Lagoon or tsunami, this breeding ground swells
To embrace debt swaps and ice melts and the
Single-nucleotide polymorphs
(you insisted had flown)
That sang in a chorus of tase-me-bro

The one grain of Ha’Ena sand
That became a cascade
Mistaken for blue bottle sting
Since they all swim in swarms
Stings cascading hurt
And the black swan so rare
It was only that fever dream suggesting a flock
No proof, a black feather
Feedback storm

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wake-Up Call

This might almost be a follow-up to Alexander. It's about chimes that ring for bravery, as Barry has had to face with his dying mother and his own cancer - and it's about chimes for those that cash out early, as Joe Stack chose to do in Austin with the IRS. Just as bloggers globally were ringing bells for Barry at 2 p.m. Feb. 18, analysts were micro-dissecting Stack's suicide note, in which he excoriates the IRS for not saving him from his own problems.

I know two suicide victims who always chose to follow the path of entitlement, not enlightenment, and wondered why they didn't get an entry-level job at the top executive level, or why people didn't appreciate them stealing silverware. I know a few other people with serious health problems who choose to spend too much time in fear, frightened and wondering how they can garner more sympathy. Barry is an example of those who choose to live in bravery.

A friend who heard about the IRS suicide flight said, "Sometimes living well is the best revenge", and I said that sometimes living is the best revenge. I have no one to seek revenge on, but it seems as though a continued struggle to live, create, and be autonomous is the best strategy to avoid dependency and looking for that magical entitlement. One, two, three, many Barry's, and many bells to ring them on!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Teaching Resilience to Future Alexanders

The maddening thing about learning that fashion designer Alexander McQueen had taken his own life was not just the notion that someone learns suicide from significant others. It certainly must have been hard for McQueen to deal with the suicide of friend Isabella Blow, and the death of his mother. The frustrating thing is trying to spread the message to the desperate that we're all feeling this blanket of exasperation and despondency from time to time, yet those of us who choose our crash helmets carefully can still find the right flowers to focus on. It is a beautiful universe, even for the sentient, and we fail every time we don't get that message out.

It seems like the important balancing act to fall back upon is to live by Richard Buckner's reminder that "kindness calls you out," while being willing to be surly and anti-social enough to speak truth to power when necessary. In the 21st century, there is no civility left to achieve that balance. Terry Tempest Williams, who just started writing a monthly column for The Progressive magazine, argues for the return of the dinner party as the place for civility. Perhaps she's right, but I keep dredging up images of dysfunctional Thanksgivings and "The Dinner is Ruined." Personally, I'd always prefer to stay at the kids' table. But if forced to break bread in the company of grownups, I think it's important to occasionally say (in a civil manner, mind you), "Your opinions indicate you're mentally disturbed, and you really should seek mental help."

What does this have to do with McQueen? A failure to leaven a universal kindness and a mad love affair with the world with an occasional brash tactic can lead to a despair that wins out in the end. This century is going to be tough, folks. We all need crash helmets. The failure of humans to be good stewards will bite us back over the coming decades, and it's important to optimize tactics for being a snarly lover of your surroundings. As Conan O'Brien warned us in his final show, that does not mean living as a cynic. It means living as though kindness could win, as though something you did mattered. Even if you don't believe it, using resilience to mimic a passionate embrace of life is better than living like Alexander McQueen. And letting kindness call you out might prevent another McQueen somewhere.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hope Who?

Wow, two Curmudgeon posts in a row, suffused with joy. Can't have that. Where's the yang? Actually, focusing on small Pop Rocks of joy might be appropriate when the world seems so intent on showing that small instances of intelligent behavior on behalf of either government or people get overwhelmed by the continuous tide of bureaucracy and stupidity. The script gets so familiar, my sense of outrage is buried in ennui.

No, my problem with Washington bears little resemblance to the tea-party gang obsessed with deficits, though the deficit reduction plan does nothing to win Obama friends. I'm also through with worrying about how an Afghan surge will work, or when Gitmo might close. Rather, it's the constant fallback to the national-security position that often makes the Obama administration hard to distinguish from the previous one:

* A legal, nonviolent protest against a missile-defense test at Vandenberg Air Force Base Jan. 31 was met by greater repression than Bush initiated in the post-9/11 period. Military Police at Vandenberg went outside the gates to dismantle a demo on public property. Meanwhile, the missile test failed, while Obama planned on upgraded Patriot missile batteries throughout the Persian Gulf region. Bruce Gagnon blogs about the crackdown on MacGregor Eddy and compatriots here. (Update: Here's an article on the crackdown, with a photo showing a banner that was displayed for a total of five minutes before being pulled down.)

* Obama's nuclear-weapons budget, Pentagon budget ($708 billion), and Quadrennial Defense Review are more business-as-usual bids for more guns and less butter. At least Pell Grants are increased, but that can't make up for all the offensive parts of the present budget.

* The right wing has gone from crazy to downright dangerous, as revealed in the arrests at Sen. Mary Landrieu's office. But was it a CIA inside job? You'll never know. Just like you'll never know the death count from CIA-directed drone attacks inside Pakistan.

I almost got lifted from my sense of repressive-rerun boredom with Ruth Mowry's wonderful post on Black History Month. But then I remembered that even Woodrow Wilson supported D.W. Griffith and supported the Klan. I remembered that we still have racists who try to bury their hatred of a Black president under stories of Kenyan birth certificates. And I remember that our president who was to serve as an agent of change, isn't able to change much at all. I guess I had better chuckle as much as I can at the small stuff, because I am simply too tired and bored to engage in passionate outrage over a world that still seems bent on unraveling its better works.