Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A year without my mom

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death.  I’ve watched R. Kelly’s video of “I Wish” (in which he laments the loss of his mother) more than once today, both alone and with my kids.  It is somehow comforting to me to listen to a grown man still struggling to come to terms with a parent’s death even years after the fact (though it bodes ill for any prospect of this getting any easier with time).  Kelly captures the sense of helplessness, bewilderment, resignation that seems unavoidable whenever you think too much about your lost loved ones.  For me the only way not to feel these sensations all the time is to avoid pondering the loss too much.  So though my mom is always present in my thoughts, in my family’s conversations, in our dreams, I try not to dwell on the what-ifs of her death, nor conversely on the sheer inevitability of death for us all.

Ironically, this anniversary also falls on the day after Mr. Kelly posted bond to get outof jail pending his trial for sexual abuse of minors.  It is a sordid affair, and I don’t give him a pass for any of it.  I obviously don’t have an answer to the question of how much, if at all, we can honor the art of a person without condoning that person’s actions in the real world.  On top of this, what is a mainly philosophical question for cases like Wagner or Rick James, is complicated further when an artist is still alive and benefits economically from your patronage of his art.  But with all that, R. Kelly is what I felt like listening to to console me today.

For a white woman who came of age in 1950s Wisconsin, reared on the Chordettes (though also admittedly on Sam Cooke), my mom was very much in tune with 21st century pop culture trends.  When I turned 33, she told me that at that age Christ saved the world and Tupac had already been dead for 8 years, so I had a lot to live up to.  I think she’d get a kick out of sharing her 1-year anniversary with news of R. Kelly’s post-bail trip to McDonald’s.  I can see her laughing and yelling about how gross he is, and dishing on the latest news with my wife, who only indulged in tabloid gossip with my mom.

My few loyal readers will have noted that I haven't posted anything on this blog for a month or so.  I've been vacillating between wanting to share lots of ideas and impressions with the world at large, and then feeling more in the mood for silent reflection.  Mom was a writer though, and I feel like she's pushing me to take up the pen in a more disciplined way again.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Madrid as consumption city

Around when I was writing a recent post on production vs. consumption cities, I also happened to be reading a short blurb about the history of Madrid.  Madrid  is like the original DC or Brasilia--no real commercial or logistical reason for existence, but rather planned as a geographically central capital for the newly united Spanish Kingdom starting in the 1600s or so (the royalty also liked the mild, sunny climate and the good hunting grounds).  Even when the monarchy vacillated about whether Madrid should be the permanent capital or one of a few temporary capitals, the city kept growing, drawing in merchants and other service workers catering to the nobles that were increasingly clustering near this new power center. 

So in this sense, Madrid is like an early version of a Lagos or Conakry.  In fact, an oft-repeated quip is that the most abundant culinary "port" in Spain is Madrid, where a majority of the country's seafood is consumed despite its being located a few hundred miles inland of any coast. 

I have loved Madrid ever since I spent a few years living there in my early 20s, strolling its quirky streets and absorbing its unique character.  But even back then I vaguely realized that part of its character was this sense of having sprung out of nothing a few hundred years ago, and persisting as a population center, with entire regional, quasi-ethnic identities around long-established neighborhoods (think the Cockney culture of East London, an entirely urban regional cultural group) that had no underlying industrial reason to exist.  So again, this characterization of consumption vs. production cities has proven useful for me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Non-industrial urban centers

I've often wondered about fast-growing cities today that seem not to have an underlying logic to their growth.  There have been lots of articles published about cities like Kinshasa or Port-au-Prince where urbanization has not necessarily led to the improvements in economic wellbeing that we have historically seen when people move to a city.  In other words, there are cities today that seem to buck the logic of people moving to them because their earning potential and general wellbeing are vastly better than if they stayed in a rural setting.

This article lays out the general panorama:  urbanization has not always gone hand-in-hand with a country's economic growth, neither as a cause nor an effect.  There have been periods when urbanization has tracked closely to growth, most notably the trajectory of now-developed countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, but there have been other periods, including the present, when the two are less tightly linked. 

The question of individual wellbeing is slightly different, but related.  I have heard somewhere that life expectancy in London and many cities up until the early 20th century or so (when municipal sewer systems greatly reduced disease burden) was lower than in their countries' rural areas.  Population growth in such cities is driven entirely by in-migration, because many of the newcomers survive only a few years before they die of typhoid or something.

Anyway, it has all led me to continually wonder about today's fast-growing cities.  I do believe that people's wellbeing is often vastly improved by moving to these new boomtowns.  If you're earning five dollars a day or so farming to support your family, then even doing something as menial as selling Kleenex to cars in traffic jams in a city can net you that with a few hours of work.  But even when the economic perspective is a wash between the city and the country, cities everywhere continue to grow rapidly.  Often these cities depend a lot on imports, especially in countries where poor transportation infrastructure makes it easy for coastal cities to receive goods from abroad than from their rustic interior.  I always wonder then where the money comes from ultimately to buy these imports.  It may make sense for one person or even a whole army of migrants to sell Kleenex in traffic jams, but ultimately the money their customers have to buy the Kleenex must come from somewhere.  In the 20th-century boomtowns of Europe  and the US, the source of this money, this "created" wealth that could finance purchase of imports, was often industry.  If Chicago's industry (and the workers paid by it) was producing steel or cattle or even software or tourism that brought in money, then it stands to reason that those workers will have money to buy Kleenex etc. from abroad.  But if a country lacks major industry, where  is it getting the money to buy its imported Kleenex?

I recently came across this useful article that explains the phenomenon for me.  The authors talk about consumption vs. production cities.  The latter are like the Chicago case I've described; these cities produce something for export, and can thus finance their own consumption.  But the former, the so-called consumption cities, tend to get their money from resource extraction.  This begins  to explain for me how even a mega-city like Lagos in a mega-country like Nigeria can lack a lot of industry, and have its rich people linked more to real estate or government, neither of which are productive in themselves.  In countries that export primary resources like oil, timber, or minerals, relatively few people are actually employed in these sectors, which explains why a large proportion of the population in their major cities are employed in services like Kleenex-selling.  And the money to import said Kleenex wholesale and then buy it at retail, is ultimately the trickle-down from the riches accruing to the few involved in the oil or mineral extraction.  You can imagine then that this would lead to a situation where a few  people would accumulate a lot of wealth, either saving it or spending it on lavish consumption from abroad, and ultimately not much of it would be available to spark real local entrepreneurship and economic growth.  In such a setting, importers and retail prosper, as do sectors like security guards and lottery shacks.  But there's not a broad base of well-earning, socially-organized industrial workers to really drive equitable, widespread development.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Readings in modern Igbo literature

Over the past few years my wife and I have read a lot of literature by Igbo authors.  When I say a lot, it's probably only four or five books in the course of two years, but if you're only occasionally reading novels outside of your normal cultural sphere of reference, and four of them end up being by authors from the same ethnic group in the same country, it seems like a lot.

Anyway, one of them is The Sound of Things to Come by Emmanuel Iduma.  This is a multi-perspective collection of vignettes that eventually converge, at least partially.  I hesitate to describe it as a Nigerian novel in a broad sense, since all the major characters are Igbo, and there's no attempt to explore viewpoints other than these Igbo people's particular visions.  The few times non-Igbos appear, it is either as attackers in interethnic violence, or as sleazy romantic partners that Igbo parents disapprove of. 

Iduma's novel deftly explores individuals, and specifically the internal conflict between reason and passion.  But the source of interest is basically that all of the people he profiles are disagreeable and self-centered.  The conflicts arise from people just randomly acting like jerks to one another.  The end effect is an expertly-rendered exploration of people that you don't particularly want to explore, and who are so unpleasant that they seem sometimes unrealistic.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is fascinating, but I wouldn't want to be friends with the protagonists, and frankly I'm not sure how many people even exist that are so brazenly, rawly ugly.

The novel thus paints a pretty bleak picture of Nigeria, or at least of Igbo culture, in the 21st century.  The salient cultural traits Iduma shows are a determined self-centeredness, a lack of human connection or emotion.  I don't know if Nigeria is really like this, but the country Iduma depicts made me really sad.  It is frequent in popular discourse to oppose the developed world, where material conditions are comfortable but human hope and emotion has been dulled, with the developing world, where people are poor but there is a certain human warmth and fun to life.  This is obviously a cliche, but at least some truth must be found in the objective fact (which is repeated in the next novel I'm going to discuss) that in the developing world, the present material poverty convinces many that the best times are yet to come, so the culture tends to be hopeful.  But Iduma's Nigeria is a country that exhibits dire poverty with no human affection or joy to temper it.  If this place really exists, it sounds pretty grim.

The other Igbo novel I read is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, about young people raised in Nigeria but always looking abroad for meaning and self-fulfillment.  The novel shares some common leitmotifs with Iduma's in its depiction of modern Nigeria.  Mercantilized love, hypereducated people, relentless classism, women kept by military strongmen, university strikes and demonstrations, a society where all money is dirty money, and a hypocritical religiosity heavy on prosperity theology and light on common decency (there's a scene where a woman who has been praising Jesus for bringing a corrupt general into her sister's life to keep her as a mistress, then turns around and insists that her sister get an abortion when she actually gets knocked up by said general).  But where Iduma's book is all character study and little relation to the larger society, Adichie's book expertly explores societies, but the individual people are mainly flat caricatures.  Not all of them--the Nigerian characters are a lot more fleshed out and three-dimensional.  But almost all the Americans and Brits are really just tropes of different strains of sanctimonious liberal flake. 

I wonder if the difference in depth of characterization of Nigerian vs. non-Nigerian characters in Americanah is due in part to the protagonist's (maybe even the author's?) perch as an outsider observing the US, located within the country but never feeling a part of it.  If so, it makes sense that the "real" people are those that she grew up with, while the new people she runs into in a new context are like so many extras in the movie of her life.  I know that's often how I feel about my friends and family vis a vis everyone else.  There are certain people I know and relate to in a very deep way because I have shared so many moments with them, and everyone else I just have a surface  impression of.

As with Iduma's irredeemably ugly characters, I don't think that most people are actually like Adichie's shallow Americans, and I certainly can't imagine being in any context where everyone around me is just phony and absurd.  I have certainly found myself at times around boors who only talk in cliches and groupthink, but when I am in a situation where I'm surrounded by them, I make it a point to get out of those settings as soon as I can.  So it's hard for me to imagine a 15-year stretch of someone only running into, and continuing to hang around, phony people.

That said, maybe I'm giving people's individuality more credit than I should.  I try not to act out predetermined roles or cliches (not that I'm aware of, at least), but maybe people find comfort in conforming  to certain of these molds.  I recently went to a dance school in my neighborhood to see about signing my kids up for classes in African dance and drums.  In my neck of West Africa, there is a cottage industry of master musicians, dancers, and choreographers who host people from all over the world for intensive multi-week workshops in these arts.  So when my family and I went, we caught a group of mainly Mexican students practicing their dance routine.  I was surprised (though not too surprised, I guess) at how similarly the non-African students were all dressed and coiffed.  Shaved sides of the head, long hair from the top, usually in braids or dreads, lots of piercings and tattoos on the rest of the body, baggy yoga/circus clothes (mixed of course with more practical, tight-fitting dance gear).  It was like a uniform they had all agreed on.  It was perhaps a confirmation of Adichie's implicit thesis that modern bourgeois people (both Americans and Nigerians in her novel) are only a collection of so many cultural tics and socially-controlled values, according to a pre-packaged image that each person tries to project.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Blackest and whitest things in Philadelphia

I recently ran across this video of Billy Paul singing his signature piece, Me and Mrs. Jones.  There are a couple of things I love about this video (once you get past the weird modern dance number at the very beginning).  Most immediately striking is that Billy sings the whole song with a long, thin cigar clenched between his teeth.  It's just so effortlessly cool, and doesn't even looked contrived, though it was surely the result of a very deliberate decision by the production team.  The second thing I like about this is that Billy is about 38 when he's singing this song.  It's a grown-up song about a grown-up topic, sung by a grown-up.  This contrasts with much of pop music throughout the late 20th century, which tends to be teenyboppers singing about silly nonsense.  Billy Paul is unapologetically adult here.  In this sense he is really archetypal of the Philly Soul sound, which to me is defined by just such a confident, self-assured grown-up attitude.

At the same time, my wife and I have been watching the old TV show "thirtysomething".  I'd never seen it, save occasional snatches I'd catch when I was a kid and had network TV on at that hour of the night.  It's really good, and  deftly captures a lot of things about being a grown-up, navigating a marriage, raising kids.  It's particularly mind-blowing for me because the characters are the age I am now, but the show was shot thirty years ago, when I was a little kid.  So it's this odd mix of familiar from my childhood, familiar from my adulthood, and a lot less dated than you might expect a 30-year-old show to be.  Coincidentally, "thirtysomething" is also set in Philadelphia.  But don't expect a cameo from Billy Paul.  In fact, don't expect to see anyone who looks even remotely like him.  We're about 5 episodes in, and I can't recall having seen one black face, not even walking around in the background of scenes set downtown.  I guess it's because there aren't many black folks in Philly, right?