Five Points, Vol. 21, No. 3

Sample Content

Muriel Cormican
Lossy Compression

My mother had an Opel Cadet once, a white one—made in Germany. She drove it for about four weeks, and nobody was allowed to talk to her when she was behind the wheel. After moving to Texas, I often called her on Monday mornings driving to work, and she worried about my driving and talking, no matter how much I reassured her that it was hands-free. “But sure, isn’t talking to someone in the car hands-free too,” she’d counter, “but they can still distract you.” It was hard to argue with that. I persisted, though, because nine in the morning my time was three in her afternoon, back in Ireland. About then, she was usually alone, settling into a crossword, watching one of her favorite television quiz shows and having a cup of tea.

Fifteen minutes was the perfect chat time for someone who had never encountered a personal phone until her mid-forties and had always rejected having one in the house, even when they became ubiquitous. “Ye’ll run up a bill,” she’d say; “And who do you think will be left holding that? Is it made of money ye think I am?” Well, after I left for the US in 1990, I still had to arrange a time to talk to her on the phone a week in advance because it involved calling a neighbor’s or a sister’s house and making sure ahead of time that transport was available. Then we’d compress a month’s worth of life into a ten-minute conversation.

Compression involves strategic choices. Which aspects of life can be removed from your communications with no perceptible loss to your listener? Chuck any discussion of the academic writing I was doing, the theory I was reading; keep stories of my personal life, the weather, and the teaching part of my job. Avoid discussions of religion, hide homesickness; include news about friends, the quirkiness of American life and my dog’s antics. The obvious geographic distance between us corresponded to increasing ideological and material distance, but she made a good-faith effort to read my first academic book: a feminist-theory-informed recovery of an early-twentieth-century German author. “Ah now, sure I had to give up a few pages in. You’re no Maeve Binchey,” she quipped, adding, “I’m codding you now, you know. Sure, I just wouldn’t be able to keep up with that sort of stuff. I thought the acknowledgments were lovely though.” I had dedicated it to her and used a couple of words of Irish. For our shared purposes, the book could legitimately be compressed to its first page and a half of print.

I am what some call a theory head. A professor at a University in the US, I consume Lauren Berlant’s cruel optimism, Sara Ahmed’s theory of complaint, bell hooks’ insights on class and race, and Jack Halberstam’s queer failure for breakfast. They’re not that theoretical or highfalutin’ from where I read. My past and present shape how I take them in, and they reshape how I understand my past and present. They offer me ways to articulate and make peace with the resistances experienced on the body for so long as uncomfortably alienating. But when I talk about what I read with friends and family, I remove these writers and most of the German literature I read, listing instead English-language stuff I hope might yield shared ground: Strange Flowers, The Parable of the Sower, Homegoing, A Year of Magical Thinking, now and then an Irish poet. By contrast, the words that form the main building blocks of my academic work spill over silently into daily life, if at all, manifesting themselves as actions or behaviors that to my mother must sometimes have felt like awkward little Lego pieces I kept throwing under her bare feet while she was trying to walk with me.

Monday morning car conversations with Bridie—I don’t remember when we started calling her Bridie, but we did, and it stuck—were almost always the same. “Did you hear that Tommy died? Sure, t’was an ease to him in the end.” I’d do a quick search of old files in my brain to conjure an image of Tommy while she moved on to other funerals she had been unable to attend and then to what and how my various nephews and nieces were doing. She’d ask about John. About Toby, our dog. About me. In that order. For a while, she thought it hilarious to start the conversation with “You’re not pregnant, are you?” but I aged out of that. “Any sign of you to get married?” had been the wisecrack decades earlier. Mostly, though, we’d talk about things that let us skirt around the only thing we were really saying. And eventually we’d chant in unison, as I pulled into the parking lot, that no news was good news and laugh before ending with a litany of byes. “Bye, bye, bye, bye, bye, bye now, bye, bye so, bye, kay, kay, kay, bye.” The bye I thought would never end. Until it did. None of those byes seem redundant. They told us that we didn’t want to let each other go. Those days, I always arrived at work cheery.

In a book about visual alterity that I was reviewing as part of my job in the spring of 2021—that part of my job I don’t talk about much—I read about lossy compression, a type of file compression in which unnecessary information is discarded. That, I thought, explains many of the conversations I’ve had with my mother since 1990, each of us always dumping the extra data, the information not necessary for our intended purpose. Intrigued, I later Googled lossy compression and discovered its counterpart: lossless compression. A type of file compression that just eliminates redundancy. I’m not entirely sure I understand the difference between lossy and lossless compression defined in this way as the difference between eliminating “unnecessary information” and eliminating “redundancy.” The expert explanations I read tell me that in the latter, image and sound quality are not supposed to suffer. In the former, they are. By this standard, I’d judge our compression to have been lossy.

She never drove herself again after the day at the end of a four-week period in 1981, when she was making a right turn and an impatient lorry driver ignored her indicator, accelerated to pass on the right, and pushed the white Opel Cadet made in Germany a hundred yards down the road—sideways. Recalling this accident now brings back lost vocabulary, lost perceptions of right and left, lost time and precision. A right turn then is like a left now; an indicator became a blinker for me ten years later in 1991, when I learned to drive in Columbia, Missouri. The elimination of the word indicator from my vocabulary is an example of lossless compression, the elimination of a redundancy that can be easily restored. There are moments in which the files I’ve encoded for ease of storage, their extraneous data removed, begin to reconstitute themselves independently. RAW, I read, is a lossless image format.

All of us that day—she, my father, and I—spent a few hours in “casualty” (or the “emergency room”) before returning home with our minor wounds and her enduring trauma. My father died about a year later, and I think she always thought of these two events as related, blamed herself, though she was without fault. These experiences from so long ago with people now lost are not lost at all, it turns out, just rendered lossy by time, “retrievable” in computer parlance. Compacted but always potentially expanded—like those Japanese paper water flowers that unfurl and bloom with a drop of water.

It is in the space of my own American car (one she would have called “fancy”) that I suddenly retrieve the file of that first car accident. Perhaps because my car is one of the few places where I am truly alone anymore, it has become a place of non-compression, of the expansion of thought and emotion. My husband is unemployed, and so I am rarely home alone. I am never alone at work. Driving to and from campus, I sit with and in absence—mostly hers these days. I let songs like REM’s “I Remember California” blare. I sing along as if I really did remember wolverines or older boys and girls with tans—prosthetic memories made in the US. Something like the opposite of lossy compression. A kind of compounding expansion.

The car is also where I still talk to my mother. My morning routine these days typically involves checking e-mails before I leave for work and then thinking about the ones that annoyed me as I drive in, hearing what she would tell me to do. “Ah, sure look, a girleen, life is too short. Say nothin’. Say nothin’.” By the time I answer, I am ready to follow her advice, so it’s not that different from talking to her, I suppose. But while the result might be the same, nothing about that means that our conversations on those Mondays were redundant.

In a workshop recently, the convener was talking about bubbles. Safely limited social groups in which we typically move, often characterized by a sameness. As a bit of a contrarian, I immediately think of all the bubbles I move in that feel safely limited and yet not constituted by sameness. I am returned to that book about visual alterity in which lossy and lossless compression first came to me. Alterity is all there is, at least goes the book’s argument, no sameness. And this resonates. Struck by how easily the workshop leader—everyone’s a leader, these days—could avoid thinking of difference, I veer away from her monologue inside my own head and consider instead how easily bubbles burst, drift off, dissipate in air. I remember reading somewhere that blowing bubbles is one of the fastest stress relievers you can engage in. I’m not convinced. They are so ephemeral that I see them as inherently sad.

The space of my car is a much less vulnerable bubble, maybe more an incubator. The boy in the plastic bubble, which was also more of an incubator than a bubble, experienced his protective cocoon as restrictive and limiting. My bubble is a freeing space in which I can incubate memories, ideas, myself for the world. It’s not much time, of course. Fifteen minutes of incubation twice a day when I listen to music and podcasts and, rarely, communicate with someone in redundancies on my hands-free phone.

In recent years, Bridie and I had even Facetimed. Every now and again, I open WhatsApp and read the exchange with Maura, an activity coordinator in my mother’s care home, from January 9, 2021. No lossy compression here. The conversation is preserved word-for-word, as it happened.

“Hi, Maura,” I wrote. “This is Muriel, Bridie’s daughter in the US. I wonder if there’s any way we could set up a Facetime call this week.”

“Hi, Muriel,” she answered. “I am working in one care area, so restricted in my movements unfortunately. We have only two activity coordinators, and neither of us is in your mother’s ward, as they have the least amount of residents. I am truly sorry. As soon as I’m allowed up on her ward, I will Facetime you. I promise. Happy New Year. Stay safe.”

“No worries, Maura,” I replied, “I completely understand.”

Looking back, I understand less completely. And I see that Maura last saw this conversation on January 18, 2022. Why was she looking at it then? Does she, like me, wonder how she never managed to get to my mother’s ward in the next eleven days to give me that one last chance to say nothing new? And while I was teaching students how to construct the passive voice in German on January 20, 2021, in my first class of the semester, Bridie died—twenty-four hours after getting the Pfizer vaccine that promised to make in-person visits possible when I got home again. Sterben. Not a verb you can use in the passive voice. Starb, ist gestorben—this verb configuration is a kind of lossless compression. From it, I can restore sterben to any of its many grammatical functions. There is something entertainingly ironic about teaching passive voice, a grammatical form that can’t even accommodate the verb “to die,” while that verb is actively redefining your day.

I was teaching on Zoom—because, well, Covid—finished up, logged out, and John appeared at the door of my home office. He didn’t look well. “Fuck, no,” I muttered and then wondered aloud if I should maybe cancel my second class. I knew that she was unwell but was convinced she would bounce back. In the narrative I was insisting on for myself, Bridie doesn’t die. It was not as if we would have exchanged redundancies on this day normally, but we might have. We could have. In retrospect, we should have. Nothing tangible changed here—which is why I wondered if canceling my second class was the right thing to do. Same house, same couch, same bed, same walk along the river, same world for everyone around me who hadn’t known her. But nothing was the same. The absence of someone who had always already been absent in this place radically altered its quality, as if I myself had been lossily compressed. There was no potential restoration. It was not a reversible loss, but I still worked just fine for most people’s needs.

What continues to stump me about lossy compression is how the compression is “lossy” if what is lost is unnecessary information. And is one less “bye” in a string of ten byes really lossless, without loss? It doesn’t seem like it today. Each bye matters. If compression is lossless, how is it compression at all? Does compression not necessarily entail loss? There may be lossless compression in the world of technology, but not in life, in human memory, or in writing either. “It doesn’t matter that the reconstruction is different from the original,” I read, “as long as the differences do not result in annoying artifacts.” In many ways, I had become an annoyingly compressed artifact only to myself. To everyone else, I am the same lossy artifact I have always been. From our own perspectives, we are all always lossy to each other.

As I lay an album Bridie loved on the record player, one I would never have listened to while she was alive, I think of our car conversations: one of us the vinyl, the other the needle, then switching roles. The contact of needle and vinyl yielded sound, but dissonant often because the grooves one of us provided were not grooves into which the other’s needle easily fit. Scratches causing the needle to skip. Entire lines jumped over, elided. Lossy compression, I find out when I delve a little deeper, is also called irreversible compression. There is an irreversible compression associated with thirty plus years of immigrant life. Lossless compression, on the other hand, is not irreversible. The original can be restored. There is some of this, too.

Before I looked up lossy compression, I had imagined all the things it might be in personal rather than technological terms. A compression born of loss: compress yourself to cope. A compression of loss: minimize it, so you can function normally. A compression characterized by loss. Loss as theme—that which is lost. Loss as form—all representation is already loss. The images and sounds I cling to these days are of lesser quality: photos, short videos from my visits home, and voicemails. And what is this writing if not lossy compression? A way of storing, handling, transmitting content, a potentially “annoying artifact.” But what else can I do with something that in this place feels like it is mine to carry alone? I canceled one class on that one Wednesday in January 2021, and then I got on with life.

Irish funerals are a big deal. Since Covid-19 had robbed everyone of all the usual comforting rituals of leave-taking, however, people had devised new ones. The one I experienced remotely turned out to be one of the ingenious surrogate ceremonies. I could attend, lossily, because my friends showed up and sent photographs in real time and called and talked to me and told me how moving it all felt. My brother Facetimed me wordlessly and let me see the others laying the last wreaths into the hearse before it pulled away solemnly from the house, starting her last trek on this earth. My niece filmed short pieces of the slow processional drive from her car and sent them immediately. The priest Zoomed the Mass from the church where only ten people were allowed to gather, and tried to include me and my niece in England and nephew in Australia by acknowledging every now and then that we were watching. All the other twenty-five grandchildren—every single one of them—sat outside in their cars and listened to the service on the radio, forcibly removed, like the three of us, from the comforting reality of the sacrament.

When Mass was over, they wheeled the coffin down the middle aisle while the local singer belted out “Shall I n’ere see you more, gentle mother?” with just a little too much emphatic sentiment. Maybe she hadn’t slept after her wedding gig the night before and was still programmed for joy. She enthusiastically admonished mourners with the lyrics:

Some children take a liking to their parents,

while some others fill their mother’s heart with pain,

but one day they will be sorry for their blindness,

when crying will not bring her back again.

On these words, without warning, my Zoom window went black.

Obsessively hitting refresh had no effect. “This session has been ended by the host” assaulted me in the small viewing window where just seconds ago I had been able to reach out, touch and, in my mind, comfort the digital incarnations of my siblings, who walked sadly behind the coffin, heads bowed. I couldn’t tell if they were also maybe smiling a little bit, like me, remembering how we used to torment my mother about this exact song. She liked it, especially Big Tom’s version, perhaps because she had already lost her mother. But we, in our endlessly superior teenage musical taste and our rejection of anything rurally Irish like Big Tom, considered it trite and maudlin. “Aren’t you lucky we took a liking to you and never caused your poor mother’s heart pain?” we used to jibe. She took it with good humor, like just about everything we ever did, including leaving her. That song ends, I realize now, with a line about lossy compression: “I am sorry for the loss I can’t recover.”

My mother never owned a car again after those four weeks in 1981. Just like she never used a shower again after the first time at my sister’s new house, also some time in the eighties, when the water came out too hot and scalded her. I would tease her that she must have had painless births until I was born. After me, she never tried it again. She had always been drolly and quietly stubborn. That she conceded to owning a mobile phone in her last ten years was a boon to me. I had a direct connection again. I could call any time and unless she was at bingo or Mass, she would pick up. And if she called me and I didn’t pick up, she’d leave a short message. I obsessively replay some of those last voicemails from the first week of 2021 in my car now. These spoken words, preserved in their entirety, but lossy at the time, now seem increasingly lossless. The lossless compression of a life. A little bit of water, a few tears, and she unfurls right there in my private bubble. I have nightmares about finding out I’ve mistakenly deleted these messages, all of which say the same thing with only slight modifications. Full of redundancy and “unnecessary information.”

After I listen to the messages for a few minutes one evening—they come on automatically when I plug my phone into the car for the drive home from work, because I had been listening in the morning on the way in—I shake it off and switch to a podcast I’ve been meaning to listen to. The National University of Ireland named my brother “Science Man” of the year some time ago, and they’ve interviewed him. For a good part of 2021, the achievements of the living had taken a back seat to various labors of memory. Alerted to his award over the weekend by a group of Irish WhatsApp friends, I sought out the interview, so I could hear his Irish accent, in my far away bubble, explaining superbugs and Ireland’s Covid-19 response. A pleasant distraction from my usual bubble activities. But then they ask him about how he became interested in and stays interested in science, and suddenly he’s talking directly to me about growing up, my parents, and dissecting worms on the kitchen table. Despite the lossy compression, I hear the nostalgia. Or maybe I mean that in this lossy compression, what I hear is what we’ve lost.

For all the lossiness of attending my mother’s funeral virtually and at a distance of thousands of miles, I have etched losslessly into my brain how my friends stood with the hundreds of people who lined the road from our home to the church in the parish where we had grown up, where my father and brother lay buried, and where a six-foot-deep hole in the ground gaped open into the clear and sunny morning sky awaiting its new deposit. Over a mile of people making the sign of the cross, saying, “bye, bye, bye, bye, bye, bye now, bye, bye so, bye, kay, kay, kay, bye.”