Pandemic Diary 16: A Bigger Picture

Rage is the most short-sighted emotion, but it is the one I have witnessed in my quarantined self more and more lately.

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Information provides something of a relief. Not the numbers, not the information about particulars—there are so many numbers right now, from the numbers of sick and the lists of the newly departed, both of which only do one thing: increase at a pace which itself shifts day-by-day, up and down, and that changing pace is its own number in which one can lose time in unproductive obsession—no, the one bit of information, the one number everyone wants to learn is: How many more tomorrows will resemble this collection of slow and anxious todays? We have had so many todays in a row, after all.

In much of the world, the long today of quarantine will last into May. Ireland’s government announced an extension of its nationwide coronavirus shutdown until May 5 last week. New York State announced its PAUSE extension until May 15 this morning.

There is some comfort in the thought that one knows how many more days this will continue.

PAUSE is one of those those government acronyms that is memorable for its essential clunkiness rather than any ease of memorization. An official asks, “These are the points we want to emphasize, now, do the first letters of these words spell anything?” So, our governor’s team came up with PAUSE: New York State’s “10-Point Policy that Assures Uniform Safety for Everyone.” But if the first word of a policy’s title is “policy,” is it a policy?

More often than not, I am annoyed by government acronyms for bureaucratic programs, as they commonly communicate the poverty of creative thought in government committees than they make the program memorable. Perhaps it is the utter sadness of this moment in history that has created in me a sort of exhausted appreciation of the effort to be cheerful and sell the public on the idea. “We’re shutting down New York State’s economy temporarily so it is a pause, get it?” And then the governor’s staff had to come up with words for the letters: Policy that Assures Uniform Safety for Everyone.

It is mandatory that each one of us wears a mask when in public, so “Uniform” does double-duty in the acronym. That near-pun charms me, somewhat. Perhaps I am exhausted.

My exhaustion started to come out in angry, nasty, just-this-side-of-boiling-over online comments, as I wrote last week. It is a rage at the situation, a rage at this catastrophe caused by a philosophy of governmental inaction (in my nation, anyway), which led to a preventable problem that has killed tens of thousands in my part of the country alone (the northeastern United States). The powers that be at the federal level believe that government is ineffective, so to prove this, they have chosen to be ineffectual, purposely incompetent, non-responsive, and perpetually surprised at each calamity as it transpires (“Who could have predicted?” is this administration’s philosophy of government). They have proved their point: a government run to prove that all government is incompetent is indeed incompetent. A situation that could have been addressed in January was not dealt with, and now friends have started to bury loved ones.

When one feels powerless, confused, overwhelmed, anger is most individuals’ go-to emotional tool. Rage is the most short-sighted emotion, but it is the one I have witnessed in my quarantined self more and more lately. I don’t yell, but I seem to type more loudly and with vehemence.

The long-range view is where sanity can breathe. One of my favorite projects on earth is Jem Finer’s Longplayer, a musical composition that is calculated to take precisely one thousand years to perform once from beginning to end. Longplayer has been in continuous performance in Great Britain since midnight on December 31, 1999. You can tune in at any hour and listen.

In my limited understanding, the composition is six pieces of music that are interlinked, and each one serves as a trigger to start some of the others at set intervals. The pieces overlap. Calculations provide that these intervals will allow for the first-ever repetition of music, a second-ever thousand-year cycle, to start at midnight on December 31, 2999. The composition is programmed to not repeat itself until then.

If you do listen live, you will notice that there is nothing like a “tune” or a catchy piece of a song that one hears. For reasons that are very understandable, this is slow. This is not hum-able. You may only hear a note or two, made by someone touching a Tibetan “singing bowl”—a very ancient instrument—and then a shift up or down from that note. And then that note drifts into silence. It is a human-made project that created to become environmental and outlast its creator(s). Patterns are measured in decades or centuries, not moments.

I feel healthier when I think in decades and not hours and days.

One of the challenges for any thousand-year-long project (and there are a few in existence right now) is the knowledge that we can not anticipate what technologies will be in use a millennium from now, which languages will be common and how they will develop, or how to make certain that the project will not be forgotten, soon or in few centuries. Less than two decades years after its launch, one of my laptops (a Chromebook) does not recognize the Longplayer Live app (get on it, Google Store). Thus the anticipation of technology is hugely important and it must be ignored all the same.

The app is available from iTunes.

Two decades ago, none of the above would have made sense. Brands (iTunes) are ephemeral, but tools like “apps”? When the project was launched in 1999, there was no such thing. Will we need apps—will we be online—two decades from now? Technology changes rapidly, and it can ratchet in different directions, even backwards, just as rapidly. Technologies that seem necessary one year become discarded objects of nostalgic reverie the next year. (Eight-track tape players, anyone?)

We must anticipate deeper changes in society. A mere five hundred years ago, the English language was undergoing the “Great Vowel Shift,” which brought the language from the Middle English of Chaucer to the Modern English of Shakespeare and Kim Kardashian: “The vowel in the English word ‘same’ was in Middle English pronounced ‘psalm’; the vowel in ‘feet’ was similar to ‘fate’; the vowel in ‘wipe’ was similar to ‘weep’; the vowel in ‘boot’ was ‘boat’; and the vowel in ‘mouse’ was similar to ‘moose.'” English speakers of that era did not know they were a part of a great change; to this day, we still deal with the Great Vowel Shift in some of English’s odd spelling rules and in the accents and dialects that did not shift, such as in Scotland. Linguists did not identify this change until about (“aboot?”) one hundred years ago. Might we right now be in the midst of a similar shift in the language, or culture, or politics, or at the start of one, one that linguists or other future scholars will not be able to identify for centuries? Five hundred years from now, will people understand the instruction manual for Longplayer?

To meet the almost certain changes in language and technology, Longplayer’s creators set out to include all such anticipations from the start; they call it a “social and biological strategy of survival.” Whatever new technology comes into existence, the Longplayer project will be available on it (except a Chromebook, obviously). Whatever social rules or laws the people of a thousand years from now may live under, if art and music are still legal, whatever mores may obtain at that time … all of that is unknowable.

No matter what, the composition is one thousand years long by design, so if Longplayer is forgotten and then rediscovered, the re-discovers can pick up the performance from where it ought to be based on calculations.

So can this song to the future that won’t ever leave the here and now last its thousand years? This is certainly not knowable, but with the amount of attention and support it has gotten in its two decades, it seems likely it will play continuously for several more generations. Jem Finer and his team programmed into it as much adaptability as possible.

The memory of adaptability, the knowledge of the bigger picture for humanity, those make rage seem less attractive, even laughable. Today’s rage can be PAUSEd. This will pass into history, and I can wear my mask today.

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Jem Finer is a founding member of the Pogues who has assembled a fascinating and ever-growing list of environmental music projects. Longplayer is his most famous.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 16 asks us to reflect on the word, “Slow.”

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Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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