My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.
A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.
Phew, that was a close one!
My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.
At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.
On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”
Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.
And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)
To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.
During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.
“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.
My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?
Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.
In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.
My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.
But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.
A week later, he was gone.
The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.
Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.
But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.
Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.
But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.
Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.
For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.
But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.
Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!
Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!
And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.
During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.
Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Teachers say it’s the end of the world.
Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.
Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.
During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)
Hide under a desk.
Pretend that furniture is enough
to protect us against perilous flames.
Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.
The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.
Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,
but some kids giggle.
They don’t believe that death
Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.
We know, now. At least, some of us do.
Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.
Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.
Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.
Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.
But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.
Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.
You, as an individual, can only do so much.
When I hide under my frail school desk,
my heart grows as rough and brittle
as the slab of wood
that fails to protect me
We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.
Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.
Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.
We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.
We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.
Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.
Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.
Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.
The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.
But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.
Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.
Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!
But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.
Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.
Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.
And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.
A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.
And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.
Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.
Here in Bloomington, the time of cicadas is drawing to a close.
Some trees are still fairly loud, with pulses of sound that pour down, compressing & rarefacting the air like the thrum of an alien turbine. But two weeks ago, the loudest trees were excruciating, with sound levels that could dispel all thought, inducing headaches & nausea as we walked beneath.
More & more often now, I’m able to pick out the plaintive kreeee of individual singers, their voices divorced from any chorus: males who arrived late to the party and are wondering whether any nearby females might be similarly tardy.
Molted exoskeletons still litter the ground, or cling to flowerstems & the lower bark of trees. But my kids are finding few fresh ones. Nearly all the cicadas who are going to emerge in our town this year have already done so.
My kids (like most kids) collected the shed exoskeletons. And each morning before school, they would search our carport for newly emerged adults – although it does feel strange to refer to cicada nymphs as somehow youthful when they’re a decade older than my eldest child. She cradled the bugs like babies; they were more than twice her age.
My kids would move the newcomers – bodies & wings still soft from metamorphosis – to a safe sunny spot in our yard. They’d be able to fly sooner, & our car wouldn’t squish them.
In the afternoon, we would go on walks – again stepping carefully to avoid squishing anyone – and we’d stop every few feet to inspect the cicadas whom we found.
And it was alarming. Most of the insects we encountered then were oddly shaped, with twisted legs or crumpled wings; or exceptionally small; or otherwise malformed. We found some who had only partially emerged from their exoskeletons and then stopped, trapped within their own old skin.
Which I can’t chide them for too severely. At times, we humans also have difficulty sloughing off our past selves.
Now that the cicadas’ brief orgy is ending, they will expire. Many have already died: not just the cicadas who were eaten by birds, chipmunks, squirrels, pet cats & dogs, but also the cicadas who simply plummet from the sky, collapsing from the various internal depredations of old age.
They decompose. The air reeks now of an acrid ammonia tang. On certain sidewalks – beneath especially popular trees, those that a few days ago had been deafeningly loud – we walk through a bevy of corpses. Viscous goo spills from their split sides where other people have stepped on them.
And it’s interesting, the perspective that my children and I have had upon the cicadas’ lives.
For all those years, they were invisible to us, burrowing rootward through the soil and sipping the delectable sap of trees.
After the cicadas emerged, we still rarely saw the cicadas who were feeling actualized. Who were up high in the trees, singing, seducing, laying eggs, living their best cicada lives. Those who lingered on the sidewalks where we might find them had often suffered some mishap or misfortune. Cicadas whose heads had been bitten off by birds. Cicadas who were bamboozled by the sky’s reflection in a puddle or pool of water and plunged in to drown. Cicadas whose developmental differences left them unable to fly.
I felt really happy that my children, even after interacting with thousands of cicadas, still felt compelled to help each and every one. My children never stopped searching the carport to ensure that nobody would be squished. If any cicadas fell into nearby water, my children would splash in to the rescue.
But it felt strange for me, knowing the limits of our perception. As though some insects had visited a human hospital and drew all their conclusions about our way of being based on what they saw there.
And you can buy t-shirts that have the word “sexy” crossed out & replaced to read “consent is sexy mandatory.”
I dislike this slogan, and the word “mandatory” doesn’t fix it for me. Yes, it’s true that respecting people’s bodily autonomy is mandatory, that it’s not just some extra added spice that makes an evening better.
But the specific wording bothers me. Because “consent” means agreement. Consent means saying yes.
According to the dictionary definitions of the words, the phrase “consent is sexy” means a sexy person would say yes.
Now, you might protest. “Nobody is going to interpret the phrase that way!”
And, sure. The intent of the phrase is to convey that “asking first is sexy,” that “respecting another person’s right to say ‘no’ is sexy,” that “cherishing your partners’ autonomy is sexy.” The word “consent” here is just a shorthand, standing in for the full script of seeking consent, & waiting to proceed until you’re certain that you have your partners’ consent, & checking in often, & being willing to stop if anyone involved doesn’t consent to what’s going on.
But using the word “consent” to mean all that is pretty ambiguous. And the whole function of the phrase – of the practice of affirmative consent – is to protect people from harms that can emerge from ambiguity.
I’ve discussed some of this previously – that, for example, different interpretations of common words & phrases can cause people to mistakenly believe that everyone involved has agreed to a proposal. If I think the phrase “make out” means kissing, and you think that “make out” means having sex, and you’d asked if I wanted to make out, then we might run into problems even after I enthusiastically consent.
I’d be approaching the situation thinking that we’ve agreed to kiss. You’d be under the belief that we’re about to have sex. That the kissing is just the first phase of what we’ll soon be tumbling through.
And, sure, I could speak up later. To say “no,” to stop things from progressing past what I thought we had agreed to. But it can feel pretty overwhelming to extricate oneself from unwanted physical intimacy after it’s already happening.
At issue, generally, is whether we respect the right of others to be the protagonists of their own stories. Whether we see the world around us as a backdrop for our own glories, or whether we’re willing to recognize that we are no more important than anyone else.
Unfortunately, modern technological developments often nudge us in the opposite direction. Away from empathy, toward self-importance. Facebook, Google, Spotify – their predictive algorithms lend the illusion that our desires reshape reality. If we like a certain sort of music, that’s what we encounter. If we hold a certain set of beliefs, then all the news we’re shown seem to agree!
Cultivating these private spheres of individual experience can make us less empathetic. We might not mean to, but our relationships with technology cause us to inadvertently deprioritize the thoughts and feelings of those around us.
So many of the arguments against sex robots focus on their impact on women, but the rise of the sex robot is going to affect us all. It’s not just about the objectification of women – although the robots do objectify women. It’s not only about men being given an opportunity to act out rape fantasies and misogynistic violence – although a small number may well want a sex robot for that reason.
It’s about how humanity will change when we can have relationships with robots.
When it becomes possible to own a partner who exists purely to please his or her owner, a constantly available partner without in-laws or menstrual cycles or bathroom habits or emotional baggage or independent ambitions, when it’s possible to have an ideal sexual relationship without ever having to compromise, where the pleasure of only one half of the partnership matters, surely our capacity to have mutual relationships with other people will be diminished.
When empathy is no longer a requirement of social interaction … we will all be a little less human.
The world isn’t ours to command. The world isn’t something owned. The world around us is a gift that we are permitted temporarily to borrow.
But modern technologies often inculcate a false belief in our mastery of the world around us. That our surroundings should be here to please us. A fantasy land where we fully expect our desires to be consented to – hey siri, what’s the average rainfall in Australia? Your phone isn’t too busy to look that up right now. Your phone has been patiently waiting, listening in, just hoping you’d ask for something like this!
If everything else is easy, shouldn’t sex be easy too? Why should it take so much work just to build a relationship with another human being?
For affirmative consent culture to work, everyone’s autonomy must be respected.
But women’s authority over their own selves is often discounted.
In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel discusses experiments in which cis-gendered women were shown a variety of pornographic video clips. Many of these women said that they disliked the violent scenes.
“But wait!” the researchers exclaimed. “The women’s bodies responded with physiological signs of arousal! Clearly, these women are lying!”
Angel writes that:
Women experience genital responses to all manner of stimuli, including, yes, bonobos, and including sexual threat stimuli – whether images or fantasies of rape, or actual experiences of assault. Hastily inferring from measurements of genital arousal to the truth of what women are aroused by, and even further to the truth of what they desire, is spurious.
If we care about pleasure, and if we care about consent as well as enthusiasm, then the subjective is precisely, vitally, what we should attend to. We should prioritize what women say, in all its complexity, rather than fetishizing what their bodies do in the name of a spurious scientism.
It’s an extreme form of objectification, that we might trust a physiological responses measured from a woman’s body instead of the actual words articulated by her brain.
And it’s in stark contrast to the way we typically treat disagreements between men’s brains & bodies.
Many cis-gendered men have claimed to be aroused even when their bodies’ physiological response clearly indicated that they weren’t. If somebody with a penis doesn’t have an erection, the message from their body is every bit as loud & clear – if not more – as vaginal lubrication measured in a laboratory.
But with cis-men, we trust what they say.
Angel writes that:
His subjective sense of interest in sex, despite his impotence, is taken as the truth. It is he, not his body, that speaks the truth – and we believe him.
Personhood, and its relationship to the body, is different in men and women: men are authorities on themselves, while women are not.
Sommers proposes a situation with limited physical danger: a man claiming to be romantically available in order to have sex with a woman who’d say “no” if she knew that he was monogamously attached.
And it’s a nebulous situation – the New York Times received many aggrieved letters to the editor after printing this column – because the shared touch seemed desirable, and only became unwanted later (or perhaps never) when more information was unveiled.
Two people had sex, perhaps enjoyed it, and went their separate ways. If the woman never heard another word about her partner, she might remember the experience fondly. But if she learned that he was married at the time, she’d feel betrayed. The remembrance shifts. Now, upon recollecting an event that happened fully in the past, she might feel violated.
Mental harm is real, and it matters. But perhaps these issues of trust seem simpler when it comes to STI status – in that case, lying before sex is also a physical threat. A physical assault.
Whether the risk is borne by a person’s mind or body, though, the underlying issue is the same – do we respect our potential partners as autonomous individuals, or not?
Affirmative consent requires mutual trust. A space where an invitation can be earnestly extended without threat of reprisal, and where an answer can be freely given & respected.
But I had never considered what we, as loving, sexual people, might lose in a world where the only way to feel safe from unwanted touch is to unambiguously state our desires in advance.
In Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown questions, “Is it possible for the world to be as sexy if there’s consent and permission and openness about our deepest desires, if we truly bring our nakedness into the light?”
“I don’t know. I still love touching into the forbidden places – partially because they are forbidden. I know for sure that part of this is conditioning, being raised in a culture of repression, sex shaming, patriarchy, and danger. But it’s also how my desire is wired, even after decades of therapy and somatics.”
In an essay on unwanted touch, Melissa Febos describes her experiences at a “cuddle party.” The rules for this event, articulated forcefully in advance, were that “If you’re a yes, say YES. If you’re a no, say NO. If you’re a maybe, say NO.”
But “maybe” is an important psychological space. As the protagonists of our own stories, we will grow and change. What we want may not be a static thing. Part of the pleasure of being alive is that we tentatively approach our own selves – our knowledge of ourselves – throughout our journeys.
“Maybe” is a way of being, and of learning, that we risk excluding people from if we prioritize an aggressive or sexually-dominant partner’s need to hear an unambiguous “no” in order to refrain from causing harm.
It’s tempting to insist that women are themselves the authority on their desires; that they categorically know what they want. But is anyone an authority on themselves, whether on their sexuality or anything else?
I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that insisting so gets us very far. Women are not the authority on themselves – not because they, unlike men, have difficulty detecting their ‘true’ desires, but because no one, perhaps especially when it comes to sex, is an authority on themselves.
And why should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?
The negotiation of imbalances in power between men and women, between all of us, occurs minute by minute, second by second. And there is no realm, whether sexual or otherwise, in which that act of negotiation is no longer necessary.
Whatever we do, in sex and elsewhere, we calibrate our desires with those of the other, and try to understand what it is that we want.
But we don’t simply work out what we want and then act on that knowledge. Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over.
We were walking our dogs past our neighbor Katie’s house when she stepped onto her front porch. Katie is a philosophy professor specializing in the works of David Hume. She is also a phenomenal baker of holiday treats (her collection of cookie cutters is prodigious) and a generous guardian to several cats.
“Your flowers look beautiful!” we called out from about twenty-five feet away.
“I hope they don’t die right away,” she said. Then she shook her head and laughed. “God, what a year. They do look beautiful. And that’s the first thing I thought?”
We’re feeling traumatized. Nearly all of us.
The marshmallow test: a researcher leaves a young child in a room with a marshmallow. “You can eat it now, but I’ll be back in ten minutes, and if the marshmallow is still there, you’ll get to have two.”
The marshmallow test has been written about extensively. The children who waited used a variety of strategies to distract themselves from temptation, like closing their eyes or singing to themselves.
Some children impulsively ate the marshmallow. Here’s a treat, nom nom nom! But the children who waited, the researchers reported, grew up to be more successful.
A variety of claims were made, like that the willpower needed to delay gratification allowed children to prioritize their futures, to keep struggling and striving even when things were hard, to turn down drugs and alcohol.
Here’s another interpretation: children who have been through trauma might be making a perfectly logical decision if they eat the marshmallow right away. Because lots of kids have been taught, by past experience, that despite a recently met grown-up’s promise, waiting might cause them to get zero marshmallows, not two.
If a child has learned that any situation might suddenly turn dangerous, they might not feel safe closing their eyes to ignore the marshmallow. If a child has learned that the money and food often run out by the end of the month, they might rightfully eat treats when there’s still a chance.
The pandemic has made me more impulsive. Like my neighbor Katie, I worry that the beautiful flowers might die –almost to the point of forgetting to enjoy them while they last.
Like a child, I worry that the marshmallow might be gone.
I am – or at least, I have been for almost my entire life – a patient, resilient person. My graduate degree took six years. I merrily undertook a writing project that lasted another six. I’m raising children, which feels both hectic and achingly slow.
But right now, I can feel it in myself. Signing up for a vaccine and having the appointment be two and a half weeks away! felt interminable. Every delay aches. The future feels like a distant blur.
Especially amid all the outbreaks of violence – mass shootings in the national news, seemingly unrelated spates of murders in our local paper, all of them likely rooted in impulsiveness, isolation, & stress – delaying any source of joy feels agonizing. As though we might not make it another whole week, or month, or year.
Today, at least, I set aside time in the morning for self-care. I dropped the kids off at school. I went for a fast run, five kilometers just under eighteen minutes. I stretched.
Most importantly, I took the time to meditate.
Meditation is the marshmallow test writ small.
Set a timer for twenty minutes. Sit down. Close your eyes. Choose some small phrase, meaningful or not – “sat nam,” “love more,” “I am calm” – and intone it silently in your mind, half as you breathe in, half as you breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Your mind might wander – if you notice, try to resume your small phrase. Silently repeated sound can anchor you, give yourself space to wash away some mental turmoil.
And, if you are like me, you’ll want to open your eyes and be done with it. This is taking forever! See if you can stay. Keep your eyes closed. Repeat your phrase, and breathe.
If you can last the entire time – well, no researcher will bring you a second marshmallow. But you’ll still receive a gift. A bit of inner peace that wasn’t there before.
I could not have passed the marshmallow test yesterday.
The shape of things determines what they can do. Or, as a molecular biologist would phrase it, “structure determines function.”
In most ways, forks and spoons are similar. They’re made from the same materials, they show up alongside each other in place settings. But a spoon has a curved, solid bowl – you’d use it for soup or ice cream. A fork has prongs and is better suited for stabbing.
In matters of self defense, I’d reach for the fork.
On a much smaller scale, the three-dimensional shapes of a protein determines what it can do.
Each molecule of hemoglobin has a spoon-like pocket that’s just the right size for carrying oxygen, while still allowing the oxygen to wriggle free wherever your cells need it. A developing fetus has hemoglobin that’s shaped differently – when the fetal hemoglobin grabs oxygen, it squeezes more tightly, causing oxygen to pass from a mother to her fetus.
Each “voltage-gated ion channel” in your neurons has a shape that lets it sense incoming electrical signals and pass them forward. Voltage-gated ion channels are like sliding doors. They occasionally open to let in a rush of salt. Because salts are electrically charged, this creates an electric current. The electrical current will cause the next set of doors to open.
Every protein is shaped differently, which lets each do a different job. But they’re all made from the same materials – a long chain of amino acids.
Your DNA holds the instructions for every protein in your body.
Your DNA is like a big, fancy cookbook – it holds all the recipes, but you might not want to bring it into the kitchen. You wouldn’t want to spill something on it, or get it wet, or otherwise wreck it.
Instead of bringing your nice big cookbook into the kitchen, you might copy a single recipe onto an index card. That way, you can be as messy as you like – if you spill something, you can always write out a new index card later.
And your cells do the same thing. When it’s time to make proteins, your cells copy the recipes. The original cookbook is made from DNA; the index-card-like copies are made from RNA. Then the index cards are shipped out of the nucleus – the library at the center of your cells – into the cytoplasm – the bustling kitchen where proteins are made and do their work.
When a protein is first made, it’s a long strand of amino acids. Imagine a long rope with assorted junk tied on every few inches. Look, here’s a swath of velcro! Here’s a magnet. Here’s another magnet. Here’s a big plastic knob. Here’s another magnet. Here’s another piece of velcro. And so on.
If you shake this long rope, jostling it the way that a molecule tumbling through our cells gets jostled, the magnets will eventually stick together, and the velcro bits will stick to together, and the big plastic knob will jut out because there’s not enough room for it to fit inside the jumble.
That’s what happens during protein folding. Some amino acids are good at being near water, and those often end up on the outside of the final shape. Some amino acids repel water – like the oil layer of an unshaken oil & vinegar salad dressing – and those often end up on the inside of the final shape.
Other amino acids glue the protein together. The amino acid cysteine will stick to other cysteines. Some amino acids have negatively-charged sidechains, some have positively-charged sidechains, and these attract each other like magnets.
Sounds easy enough!
Except, wait. If you had a long rope with dozens of magnets, dozens of patches of velcro, and then you shook it around … well, the magnets would stick to other magnets, but would they stick to the right magnets?
You might imagine that there are many ways the protein could fold. But there’s only a single final shape that would allow the protein to function correctly in a cell.
So your cells use little helpers to ensure that proteins fold correctly. Some of the helpers are called “molecular chaperones,” and they guard various parts of the long strand so that it won’t glom together incorrectly. Some helpers are called “glycosylation enzymes,” and these glue little bits and bobs to the surface of a protein, some of which seem to act like mailing addresses to send the protein to the right place in a cell, some of which change the way the protein folds.
Our cells have a bunch of ways to ensure that each protein folds into the right 3D shape. And even with all this help, something things go awry. Alzheimer’s disease is associated with amyloid plaques that form in the brain – these are big trash heaps of misfolded proteins. The Alzheimer’s protein is just very tricky to fold correctly, especially if there’s a bunch of the misfolded protein strewn about.
Many human proteins can be made by bacteria. Humans and bacteria are relatives, after all – if you look back in our family trees, you’ll find that humans and bacteria shared a great-great-great-grandmother a mere three billion years ago.
The cookbooks in our cells are written in the same language. Bacteria can read all our recipes.
Which is great news for biochemists, because bacteria are really cheap to grow.
If you need a whole bunch of some human protein, you start by trying to make it in bacteria. First you copy down the recipe – which means using things called “restriction enzymes” to move a sequence of DNA into a plasmid, which is something like a bacterial index card – then you punch holes in some bacteria and let your instructions drift in for them to read.
The bacteria churn out copies of your human protein. Bacteria almost always make the right long rope of amino acids.
But human proteins sometimes fold into the wrong shapes inside bacteria. Bacteria don’t have all the same helper molecules that we do,.
If a protein doesn’t fold into the right shape, it won’t do the right things.
If you were working in a laboratory, and you found out that the protein you’d asked bacteria to make was getting folded wrong … well, you’d probably start to sigh a lot. Instead of making the correctly-folded human protein, your bacteria gave you useless goo.
But fear not!
Yeast can’t be grown as cheaply as bacteria, but they’re still reasonably inexpensive. And yeast are closer relatives – instead of three billion years ago, the most recent great-great-grandmother shared between humans and yeast lived about one billion years ago.
Yeast have a few of the same helper proteins that we do. Some human proteins that can’t be made in bacteria will fold correctly in yeast.
So, you take some yeast, genetically modify it to produce a human protein, then grow a whole bunch of it. This is called “fermentation.” It’s like you’re making beer, almost. Genetically modified beer.
Then you spin your beer inside a centrifuge. This collects all the solid stuff at the bottom of the flask. Then you’ll try to purify the protein that you want away from all the other gunk. Like the yeast itself, and all the proteins that yeast normally make.
If you’re lucky, the human protein you were after will have folded correctly!
If you’re unlucky, the protein will have folded wrong. Your yeast might produce a bunch of useless goo. And then you do more sighing.
There’s another option, but it’s expensive. You can make your human protein inside human cells.
Normally, human cells are hesitant to do too much growing and dividing and replicating. After all, the instructions in our DNA are supposed to produce a body that looks just so – two arms, two eyes, a smile. Once we have cells in the right places, cell division is just supposed to replace the parts of you that have worn out.
Dead skin cells steadily flake from our bodies. New cells constantly replace them.
But sometimes a cell gets too eager to grow. If its DNA loses certain instructions, like the “contact inhibition” that tells cells to stop growing when they get too crowded, a human cell might make many, many copies of itself.
Which is unhelpful. Potentially lethal. A cell that’s too eager to grow is cancer.
Although it’s really, really unhelpful to have cancer cells growing in your body, in a laboratory, cancer cells are prized. Cancer cells are so eager to grow that we might be able to raise them in petri dishes.
Maybe you’ve heard of HeLa cells – this is a cancer cell line that was taken from a Black woman’s body without her consent, and then this cell line was used to produce innumerable medical discoveries, including many that were patented and have brought in huge sums of money, and this woman’s family was not compensated at all, and they’ve suffered huge invasions of their privacy because a lot of their genetic information has been published, again without their consent …
HeLa cells are probably the easiest human cells to grow. And it’s possible to flood them with instructions to make a particular human protein. You can feel quite confident that your human protein will fold correctly.
But it’s way more expensive to grow HeLa cells than yeast. You have to grow them in a single layer in a petri dish. You have to feed them the blood of a baby calf. You have to be very careful while you work or else the cells will get contaminated with bacteria or yeast and die.
If you really must have a whole lot of a human protein, and you can’t make it in bacteria or yeast, then you can do it. But it’ll cost you.
Vaccination is perhaps the safest, most effective thing that physicians do.
Your immune system quells disease, but it has to learn which shapes inside your body represent danger. Antibodies and immunological memory arise in a process like evolution – random genetic recombination until our defenses can bind to the surface of an intruder. By letting our immune system train in a relatively safe encounter, we boost our odds of later survival.
The molecular workings of our immune systems are still being studied, but the basic principles of inoculation were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists in Africa, India, and China. These scientists’ descendants practiced inoculation against smallpox for hundreds of years before their techniques were adapted by Edward Jenner to create his smallpox vaccine.
If you put a virus into somebody’s body, that person might get sick. So what you want is to put something that looks a lot like the virus into somebody’s body.
One way to make something that looks like the virus, but isn’t, is to take the actual virus and whack it with a hammer. You break it a little. Not so much that it’s unrecognizable, but enough so that it can’t work. Can’t make somebody sick. This is often done with “heat inactivation.”
Heat inactivation can be dangerous, though. If you cook a virus too long, it might fall apart and your immune system learns nothing. If you don’t cook a virus long enough, it might make you sick.
In some of the early smallpox vaccine trials, the “heat inactivated” viruses still made a lot of people very, very sick.
Fewer people got very sick than if they’d been exposed to smallpox virus naturally, but it feels different when you’re injecting something right into somebody’s arm.
We hold vaccines to high standards. Even when we’re vaccinating people against deadly diseases, we expect our vaccines to be very, very safe.
It’s safer to vaccinate people with things that look like a virus but can’t possibly infect them.
This is why you might want to produce a whole bunch of some specific protein. Why you’d go through that whole rigamarole of testing protein folding in bacteria, yeast, and HeLa cells. Because you’re trying to make a bunch of protein that looks like a virus.
Each virus is a little protein shell. They’re basically delivery drones for nasty bits of genetic material.
If you can make pieces of this protein shell inside bacteria, or in yeast, and then inject those into people, then the people can’t possibly be infected. You’re not injecting people with a whole virus – the delivery drone with its awful recipes inside. Instead, you’re injecting people with just the propeller blades from the drone, or just its empty cargo hold.
These vaccine are missing the genetic material that allow viruses to make copies of themselves. Unlike with a heat inactivated virus, we can’t possibly contract the illness from these vaccines.
This is roughly the strategy used for the HPV vaccine that my father helped develop. Merck’s “Gardasil” uses viral proteins made by yeast, which is a fancy way of saying that Merck purifies part of the virus’s delivery drone away from big batches of genetically-modified beer.
We have a lot of practice making vaccines from purified protein.
Even so, it’s a long, difficult, expensive process. You have to identify which part of the virus is often recognized by our immune systems. You have to find a way to produce a lot of this correctly-folded protein. You have to purify this protein away from everything else made by your bacteria or yeast or HeLa cells.
The Covid-19 vaccines bypass all that.
In a way, these are vaccines for lazy people. Instead of finding a way to make a whole bunch of viral protein, then purify it, then put it into somebody’s arm … well, what if we just asked the patient’s arm to make the viral protein on its own?
Several of the Covid-19 vaccines are made with mRNA molecules.
These mRNA molecules are the index cards that we use for recipes in our cells’ kitchens, so the only trick is to deliver a bunch of mRNA with a recipe for part of the Covid-19 virus. Then our immune system can learn that anything with that particular shape is bad and ought to be destroyed.
After learning to recognize one part of the virus delivery drone, we’ll be able to stop the real thing.
We can’t vaccinate people by injecting just the mRNA, though, because our bodies have lots of ways to destroy RNA molecules. After all, you wouldn’t want to cook from the recipe from any old index card that you’d found in the street. Maybe somebody copied a recipe from The Anarchist Cookbook – you’d accidentally whip up a bomb instead of a delicious cake.
I used to share laboratory space with people who studied RNA, and they were intensely paranoid about cleaning. They’d always wear gloves, they’d wipe down every surface many times each day. Not to protect themselves, but to ensure that all the RNA-destroying enzymes that our bodies naturally produce wouldn’t ruin their experiments.
mRNA is finicky and unstable. And our bodies intentionally destroy stray recipes.
So to make a vaccine, you have to wrap the mRNA in a little envelope. That way, your cells might receive the recipe before it’s destroyed. In this case, the envelope is called a “lipid nanoparticle,” but you could also call a fat bubble. Not a bubble that’s rotund – a tiny sphere made of fat.
Fat bubbles are used throughout cells. When the neurons in your brain communicate, they burst open fat bubbles full of neurotransmitters and scatter the contents. When stuff found outside a cell needs to be destroyed, it’s bundled into fat bubbles and sent to a cellular trash factories called lysosomes.
For my Ph.D. thesis, I studied the postmarking system for fat bubbles. How fat bubbles get addressed in order to be sent to the right places.
Sure, I made my work sound fancier when I gave my thesis defense, but that’s really what I was doing.
Anyway, after we inject someone with an mRNA vaccine, the fat bubble with the mRNA gets bundled up and taken into some of their cells, and this tricks those cells into following the mRNA recipe and making a protein from the Covid-19 virus.
This mRNA recipe won’t teach the cells how to make a whole virus — that would be dangerous! That’s what happens during a Covid-19 infection – your cells get the virus’s whole damn cookbook and they make the entire delivery drone and more cookbooks to put inside and then these spread through your body and pull the same trick on more and more of your cells. A single unstopped delivery drone can trick your cells into building a whole fleet of them and infecting cells throughout your body.
Instead, the mRNA recipe we use for the vaccine has only a small portion of the Covid-19 genome, just enough for your cells to make part of the delivery drone and learn to recognize it as a threat.
And this recipe never visits the nucleus, which is the main library in your cells that holds your DNA, the master cookbook with recipes for every protein in your body. Your cells are tricked into following recipes scribbled onto the vaccine’s index cards, but your master cookbook remains unchanged. And, just like all the mRNA index cards that our bodies normally produce, the mRNA from the vaccine soon gets destroyed. All those stray index cards, chucked unceremoniously into the recycling bin.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also tricks our cells into making a piece of the Covid-19 virus.
This vaccine uses a different virus’s delivery drone to send the recipe for a piece of Covid-19 into your cells. The vaccine’s delivery drone isn’t a real virus – the recipe it holds doesn’t include the instructions on how to make copies of itself. But the vaccine’s delivery drone looks an awful lot like a virus, which means it’s easier to work with than the mRNA vaccines.
Those little engineered fat bubbles are finicky. And mRNA is finicky. But the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a delivery drone that was optimized through natural selection out in the real world. It evolved to be stable enough to make us sick.
Now we can steal its design in an effort to keep people well.
Lots of people received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine without incident, but we’ve temporarily stopped giving it to people. Blood clots are really scary.
You might want to read Alexandra Lahav’s excellent essay, “Medicine Is Made for Men.” Lahav describes the many ways in which a lack of diversity in science, technology, and engineering fields can cause harm.
Cars are designed to protect men: for many years, we used only crash test dummies that were shaped like men to determine whether cars were safe. In equivalent accidents, women are more likely to die, because, lo and behold, their bodies are often shaped differently.
Women are also more likely to be killed by medication. Safety testing often fails to account for women’s hormonal cycles, or complications from contraceptives, or differences in metabolism, or several other important features of women’s bodies.
Although more than half our population are women, their bodies are treated as bizarre.
For most people, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe. But this is a sort of tragedy that occurs too often – causing harm to women because we’re inattentive to the unique features of their bodies.
I haven’t been vaccinated yet, but I registered as soon as I was able – my first dose will be on April 26th. Although I’ve almost certainly already had Covid-19 before, and am unlikely to get severely ill the next time I contract it, I’m getting the vaccine to protect my friends and neighbors.
In fantasy novels, those blessed with magical power often chose to become heroes.
In Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail (suitable for children as young as four and at least as old as forty — our family read it aloud together and we all loved it), the protagonist is a child with prodigious magical gifts but limited training. She’s always trying to make the world a better place. The villain is a weaker mage who attempts to siphon off the hero’s power for her own nefarious ends.
A more accurate reflection of our current world, The Magicians shows wizards making the same sorts of choices as Ivy League graduates – greed and status prioritized over service. Characters celebrate their own brilliance by grabbing as much as they can from the world around them. With great power comes the chance to make money in finance.
I love having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but the experience of reading it was often cringe-inducing. The characters are awful, particularly the main protagonist. It’s compelling in the way of Bojack Horseman, a steady desire to see what happens, even while knowing that it won’t be good.
The protagonist, Quentin, is a single-minded young man out for glory. He’d planned to jaunt off to Princeton, in recognition of his stellar performance at New York City magnet schools, but he enrolls at a wizards’ academy instead. There, he steadily accrues magical prowess; he also maintains the selfish ethical nihilism of an embittered teenager.
At times, it’s clear that Grossman has knowingly made his protagonist despicable; at other moments, it wasn’t quite clear whether the author was aware. Quentin revels in the incel attitude that love is owed to him by the world in recognition of his determination and intellect. Quentin puts no effort into building relationships – instead, the author rewards him with the desire of flatly-portrayed women, just another trophy to be won.
Though Quentin begins the book bemoaning that a certain lady friend isn’t interested in having sex with him, he doesn’t remain celibate forever. But his same twisted worldview persists.
It’s a mistake to think that incels are primarily motivated by sex. Not only are some incels also interested in love (or some outward simulacrum thereof), but their interest in having sex with “Staceys” is at least partly a means to an end – the end being to beat the “Chads” at their own game.Sex thus promises to sooth these men’s inferiority complexes, at least as must as to satisfy their libidos.
Yet another mistake is to think that sex would provide a solution to an incel’s supposed problem. If an incel does start having sex, or gets into a relationship, who will he turn into?
A once-single incel may well become a female partner’s tormentor. Anyone can feel lonely. But a wrongheaded sense of entitlement to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor may result in incel tendencies prior to the relationship and intimate partner violence afterward, if he feels thwarted, resentful, or jealous.
In other words, an incel is an abuser waiting to happen.
In The Magicians, women are depicted as having personalities only insofar as they relate to Quentin. When Quentin’s ex-girlfriend sleeps with someone – a man who is kinder, more studious, a better wizard, and has spent weeks working closely on a project with her – it’s soon revealed that she had sex with him only to hurt Quentin.
And when Quentin feels lonely and adrift in the final pages of the novel, the author has a new romantic interest fly through his window – the woman whom Quentin had pined for in high school, whom he refused to help when she was herself distraught, who is now a powerful self-taught wizard and hopes only to serve as a queen alongside Quentin as king in a magical fairyland.
Quentin hates his parents – he dismisses their paltry hopes and dreams in a few short paragraphs, and never considers using his newfound powers to help them in any way.
Quentin is indifferent to the world – he uses his magic to score drugs and make money. What else would be worth doing? Other people haven’t worked as hard as he has, Quentin believes, or else they would have been successful, too.
And those few people who are better at magic than Quentin – blessed with more prodigious intellects or greater work ethics – are derided as either sexual deviants or friendless wimps, “so autistically focused … that even direct mockery bounced right off him.” As in the novels of Ayn Rand, there can only be one greatest man, and the best women will inevitably fawn over him.
Which is why The Magicians works so well. There’s a persistent meanness throughout. The characters are crude and cruel. Through the lens of fantasy tropes, The Magicians reflects our world.
Modern English is built on a foundation of The King James Bible and William Shakespeare – the former, plagiarized from a person we burned on the stake for his efforts; the latter, Lord Regent of Bad Penis Puns, as though his very name compelled him: Willy-I-Am Shake-Spear, Billy Wagcock, old I am a dick now brandishing said dick.
English: a hodgepodge tongue, its literature begun with a bloody tale of dragon baiting, vernacular eschewed until Chaucer made his fame from crude jokes and sex slang, the modern form a mongrel mix of guttural Germanic old and ornate Norman new.
And the modern modern era began in Year 1 p.s.U – the first year “post scriptum Ulysses,” which was, according to T.S. Eliott, “the most important expression which the present age has found,” and perched at the apex of the Harvard committee’s 92% male twentieth century centenary – a year otherwise known as 1922, since few aside from antisemitic fascist Ezra Pound felt that Joyce’s tome compelled a novel calendar.
Ulysses: supposedly in conversation with the past, but the conversation only flows one way. Knowing the Greco-Roman myth changes how a reader reads Joyce, but Joyce doesn’t alter our perception of the past, unless to cast undeserved disparagement upon Penelope, privileging post-agrarian men’s fear of wicked women’s wanton sexuality.
Quite the contrast with Barbara Hamby’s poem “Penelope’s Lament,” in conversation with the past as though conversation requires both speaking and listening:
– Barbara Hamby
No sex for twenty years except with my handmaidens
and myself, so when you turned up like a beggar man,
O I recognized you but needed time to trade in
my poor-widow persona for something more Charlie Chan,
you know, a razor hiding behind a cream puff mask,
irritated by my number-one-and-only son,
ranting about food and money, hiding sheep and casks
of wine in caves, so the suitors would be forced to run
away. As if they would. A more ratty shiftless bunch
of creatures would be hard to rustle up. My bad luck,
they wanted to be king. I’d thought of giving them a lunch
of strychnine. Then you showed up, a geriatric Huck
Finn. So be my guest, finish them off, then I mean
to poison you. O Ithaka is mine. I am queen.
Or there’s Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, also actually in conversation with the past, respectfully acknowledging words that were there already, gracefully responding with what they’re now seen to mean.
After Odysseus returned and the suitors were slain, his son resolved to murder the women whom the dead suitors had coerced into sex … or raped. In Wilson’s words,
Showing initiative, Telemachus
“I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”
At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but somebody sets a trap –
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.
Joyce’s Ulysses – the unidirectional address – is in conversation with the past the way a bloviating mansplainer is in conversation with his victim.
Mansplaining, better explained not by me (a man) but by Kate Manne, from Entitled(excerpted with a few additional paragraph breaks for internet readability):
On other occasions, manifestations of epistemic entitlement may result in a less privileged speaker deciding not to make her intended or fitting contribution to the conversation. This will then often constitute what the philosopher Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial smothering,” where a speaker self-silences.
A mansplainer may be nigh on uninterruptable.
The point is epitomized by an incident recounted by Rebecca Solnit, in her classic and galvanizing essay “Men Explain Things to Me.”
Solnit had attended a dinner party with a female friend, where she’d been prevailed upon by the older, “distinguished” male host to linger after dinner to talk about her writing.
“I hear you’ve written a couple of books,” he offered genially.
“Several, actually,” she ventured.
“And what are they about?” he inquired, in a patronizing tone – much “the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice,” as Solnit puts it.
She nevertheless obliged and began to describe her most recent book at the time, which was about Eadweard Muybridge, an English American photographer and pioneer of motion pictures.
She didn’t get far, however.
Solnit recalls: “He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. ‘And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?’ So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book – with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”
The very important book, Solnit’s female friend soon realized, was Solnit’s.
The friend tried to interject this point three or four times. But the mansplainer failed, somehow, to hear her.
When he finally registered this news, his face fell; he turned “ashen.”
Solnit writes: “That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the The New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless – for a moment, before he began holding forth again.”
Of the many insights that Solnit offers us here into the nature of mansplaining, one of the most striking is the way both speakers in this exchange are assigned roles, which are then difficult to break from.
Solnit’s host was the authority, of course; and she was cast as the naive one – “an empty vessel to be filled with [his] wisdom and knowledge” she writes, “in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor.”
Because of the social dynamics in play here, it then became very difficult to change the course of the conversation.
But the skewed sense of epistemic entitlement that structured the exchange left her host’s face “ashen” when he finally registered his error. She was in danger of humiliating him.
Still, he was only momentarily deterred: he proceeded to explain other things when unceremoniously deprived of that fledgling site of epistemic domination.
Joyce is out to impress and overwhelm – “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” As though only speaking, not listening – not the relationships that outlast us – could save someone from death.
Joyce’s Penelope: a woman, a wife, sexually voracious, not to be trusted. Joyce’s hero, Odysseus: masturbating in public at the sight of a schoolgirl’s underclothes.
As though the original myth were insufficiently misogynistic. As though the myth needed more than the misogyny made clear with Wilson’s words, more than the misogyny marked in Christopher Logue’s War Music, a modern epic in (two-way) conversation with the past, in which Odysseus’s ally Achilles pouts to his mermaid mother:
“The Greeks have let their King take my prize she.
And now they aim to privatise that wrong.
Make it Achilles’ brain-ache, fireside, thing.
So go to God.
Press him. Yourself against Him. Kiss his knees.
Then beg Him this:
Till they come running to your actual son,
Let the Greeks burn, let them taste pain,
Asphyxiate their hope, so as their blood soaks down into the sand,
Or as they sink like coins into the sea,
And yet, within Ulysses, there is an absolutely gorgeous scene, some thirty-four pages long in my edition, “Scylla & Charybdis,” in which Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s Telemachus, lectures lyrically on William Shakespeare.
As expected for an English text, sex jokes abound.
Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism, as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies.
Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeen woman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugal love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures.
You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III.
Sexuality, per his post-agrarian mind, described as dirty – “scortatory,” a word for sultry goings on that lacks the playful good-humor of “fescennine” or the simple celebration of “sensuous.” In the local university library’s Oxford English Dictionary, the only citation for the word “scortatory” came from this scene, although later editions of the OED include a precedent from 1794 and a nineteenth century denunciation of “scortatory religions.”
Past usage for “capon” is rather more lively, although Joyce’s particular employment is as childishly petty as the Reddit wasteland’s proto-incel overuse of the word “cuck” to describe any unwanted situation – in 1398, Trevisa writes that “the capon is a cocke made as it were female by keruynge away of his gendringe stones.”
Consensual sex as though castrating an uninvited party – not that the encounter between Shakespeare and the woman is described as clearly consensual, but the person supposedly castrated by Willy’s (which would have been Dick’s) dalliance was the burgher, apparently uninvolved in either pairing.
Sex as competition – which perhaps seemed sensible to Joyce since his very eloquence is intended to be competitive, a thunderous plaint demanding that we recognize his exclusive triumph, with this scene a fractal microcosm of the whole, Dedalus’s competitive banter seeking victory for his own (& thereby Joyce’s) prodigious intellect.
Loving or laying or writing to win. Within a world where, without behavior like this, neither sex nor intellect would be mistaken as finite goods.
In No Contest, Alfie Kohn characterizes competition as coming from situations where resources are scarce.
But education involves a resource that can never be scarce: one person having knowledge and wisdom does not prevent someone else from having it. It might be scarce in the sense that not many people have it, especially when it comes to very specialized knowledge, but the whole point of education should be to share knowledge and wisdom with the next generation and thus ensure that it keeps growing.
So the fact that we make education competitive is at worst contradictory and at best a choice that we should acknowledge and question.
It’s not a competition, but men’s attempts at female sex wit have at times been less than winning, travesties like the Bond-ean “Pussy Galore” or even our Latinate word for internal parts that means etymologically not “birthing channel” or “wayfare of life,” but rather “sheath.” A place to put your sword. With the whole shebang described by medical men too squeamish to undertake actual inspection – the second century Roman scientist Galen instructed his readers (men) to “Think first of the man’s turned in and extending inward.”
It seemed obvious to Galen – despite his likely inability to birth a child – that you could “Turn outward the woman’s” … or “turn inward … the man’s” and “you will find the same in both in every respect.”
“The same in every respect.” Except that men also believed that a uterus was a living creature, mischievous and untrustworthy inside a woman’s body – “hysterical,” from the Greek word for “womb,” a castigation that someone’s excess of feeling or rage against patriarchal oppression was due not to circumstance but to her wandering organ. The genitalia that crept up inside her and latched onto her brain.
English is for alliteration (which sounds better if you slur the initial vowel sounds into sameness); romance for rhyming. Neither English nor true romance languages have great words for sex, but our latinate word is better.
The term “fornicate” comes from heat and warmth. Although not in the good, true way, that love can both spiritually and corporeally warm us like fresh baked bread. Instead, we have the word because sex is what goes on in brothels, and a traditional set of brothels had vaulted chambers, and these rooms vaguely resembled the shape of baker’s brick ovens, and these hot warm ovens were where bread was made.
Etymologically, fornication leaves something to be desired. And yet, it’s the best we have.
“Fuck” comes from farming and violence – the possible root words mean “to plow” or “to punch”. As though sex is something that a person with a penis does to another.
Not something shared – as with the Maori word “hika,” which can mean either making fire or making love – but something taken. Predisposing English speakers to see men’s genitals as pushy, greedy things. The English language can betray us as we try to build a better world.
Although at times there’s truth. The violence and the greed – at times, tragically often times, men can be such dicks.
As a society, we’ve made enormous sacrifices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re wearing masks; we’re staying home; children are missing school.
We’re all cooperating to protect the people who are most at risk.
The risk profile for Covid-19 is opposite the risk from climate change. Covid-19 is more dangerous for the old. Climate change is more dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.
There’s another way to phrase this – Covid-19 is more dangerous for the wealthy, and climate change is more dangerous for those who currently have little or nothing. This is true both temporally and geographically.
(Wealth obviously protect individuals from Covid-19. Despite all his buffoonish posturing, when Donald Trump was infected, he received higher quality, more expensive medical care than almost anyone else. But on a population level, increased wealth is correlated with increased risk. Wealthy people are privileged to live longer, and in our capitalist society, people often accumulate wealth as they age.)
People with low risk from Covid-19 are making enormous sacrifices to protect others from it. But those with low risk from climate change are, in general, making no efforts to stop it.
Which conveys a clear message:
Younger people, you must solve this problem on your own. Despite your willingness to make sacrifices to protect us, we will not make sacrifices to protect you.
If we knew in March 2020 what we know now, we wouldn’t have closed schools. If you’re interested in some of the reasoning behind this, you should read this February 24, 2021 New York Times editorial from Nicholas Kristof.
We are hurting kids under the guise of protecting older people. But we’re not even succeeding. Schools have such low rates of Covid-19 transmission that we’re hurting kids without accomplishing anything.
People from “my” political party have orchestrated this harm, which makes it feel all the worse.
The New York Times recently printed an editorial from someone at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute chiding us for our totally un-scientific school closures. Members of the Republican party are positioning themselves as the defenders of public education.
The Republican party has been trying to undermine public schools ever since the Supreme Court decided that maybe Black kids deserve an equal chance to learn. And we’re letting them posture as the defenders of education?
During the vaccine roll-out, the New York Times set the stage for a big reveal – younger people were never in huge amounts of danger from Covid-19.
I don’t want to sound cavalier about this – Covid-19 is dangerous to people of all ages. It’s very similar to influenza.
Many people have a misconception that influenza is relatively harmless – sniffles & a runny nose – unless you’re elderly.
That’s not true.
Although the majority of cases of seasonal influenza are mild, it’s a deadly disease. Young healthy people die of influenza every year.
Most influenza deaths are recorded as “pneumonia” during post-mortem reports. To compare the dangers of Covid-19 to influenza, we’d want to measure how many more pneumonia deaths we’ve seen recently.
In a typical year, there are about 130,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States – these might be caused by influenza, coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, etc.
Many if not most of these deaths are caused by influenza – the column of numbers reporting verified influenza deaths is so low because we don’t always test for it, and when we do we typically use a low-quality antigen test.
Last year, though, was much worse – between January 1, 2020 and February 24, 2021, there were 670,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States. During those 14 months, five-fold more people died from this set of symptoms than we’d expect during a normal year.
We’ve also had about five times as many infections. Usually, about 30 million people contract seasonal influenza each year. The CDC estimates that perhaps 100 million people contracted Covid-19 during the ten months from February 2020 to December 2020.
That’s why the CDC’s roughestimates for the “infection fatality ratio” of Covid-19 are about the same as for influenza.
Last year, more people died from Covid-19 than would be expected from a typical year’s burden of seasonal influenza, but that’s because there were many more infections.
Seasonal influenza and Covid-19 are both deadly diseases. And it’s worth comparing them because the pandemic might be declared “over” once Covid-19 deaths fall to influenza-like levels.
That’s what most public health experts said when they were interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for an article in The Atlantic – that a reasonable goal is for Covid-19 “to mirror the typical mortality of influenza in the U.S. over a typical year.”
Which seems like a bit of a cop out. You’re going to call it “over” while people are still dying?
But we have to. Covid-19 will probably be with us forever. Like the coronavirus OC43, which we picked up from cows and which probably killed over a million people during the 1890 pandemic, Covid-19 will continue to make humans sick indefinitely.
Elderly people – especially those who weren’t exposed to Covid-19 as children – will always be particularly susceptible.
Early on during the pandemic – when we already had a good sense that younger people weren’t in much personal danger but also knew that we could only slow the spread of Covid-19 if younger people made sacrifices – we concocted a narrative that healthy young people were at high risk, too.
In March 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Fiona Lowenstein, a 26 year old who became tragically ill, saying “Millennials: if you can’t stay at home for others, do it for yourselves.”
In May 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Mara Gay, a 33 year old who became tragically ill, saying “I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know, this is no flu.”
This year, healthy young people have gotten very sick and even died of Covid-19 – which is tragic, but not unusual. Every year, healthy young people get very sick and die from influenza. This past year, with about five-fold more infections of an equivalently deadly disease, we’ve seen about five-fold more of these tragic young people’s deaths.
Now that a vaccine is available, though, the narrative has shifted.
In the February 28, 2021 New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Ethicist” column says that “Health care workers who are in their 20s and don’t have certain medical conditions aren’t at high risk if they contract Covid-19. Perhaps we could save more lives if we left them [to be vaccinated] until later.”
Now that we have a limited supply of vaccines, older, wealthier people benefit if young people are less afraid of Covid-19.
By delaying Covid-19 infection, young people increased their personal risk. Early during the pandemic, the virus was not particularly dangerous for young people. By now, though, there have now been millions of transmission events – millions of opportunities for mutant variants to arise.
And indeed, in February 2021 the New York Timesreports that “it is likely that the [new Covid-19 virus] variant is linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.”
Currently, we’re rationing the limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines based on age.
This is hypocritical, and potentially misguided.
When people develop such severe complications from Covid-19 that they require ventilation in order to have a chance of surviving, a younger person is more likely to benefit from the treatment. This holds both in terms of absolute number of lives saved, and is even more dramatic if you consider the years of life saved.
With a limited supply of ventilators, you can accomplish most by reserving them for the young – and we said that would be horrible.
In a March 2020 article for the New York Times, Sheri Fink wrote that the health department’s civil rights office would ensure “that states did not allow medical providers to discriminate on the basis of … age … when deciding who would receive lifesaving medical care.
In April 2020, Joel Zivot wrote for Medpage that “Rationing ventilators by age is wrong.”
Although we declared that it would be unethical to ration healthcare (ventilators) by age, we’re now rationing healthcare (vaccines) by age. The difference is that a different group of people – older, on average wealthier – benefits.
Rationing vaccines by age doesn’t even save the most lives.
Based on the CDC data, if both a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about ten times more likely to die. That’s scary!
The major benefit of the vaccine is that it reduces the chance of severe illness if you are exposedto Covid-19. But we also know other ways to reduce the odds of exposure – a person can stay home, wear a mask near others, minimize the number of unique individuals they come into contact with.
If the 70-year-old has retired, they should be able to reduce the number of unique individuals they see each week to ten or fewer. But a 50-year-old grocery store clerk might see a thousand or more unique individuals each week, and have to spend time in fairly close proximity to each.
If the 50-year-old is at least ten-fold more likely to be exposed to Covid-19, then you’ll save more lives by giving the vaccine to them instead of to the 70-year-old.
Not only did we declare that rationing healthcare by age was wrong when it benefited younger people, but now we’re doing it even though it doesn’t save the most lives.
The unfairness is even more dramatic if we consider the risk of hospitalization. According to the CDC chart above, if both a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about five times as likely to be hospitalized. But Medicare will pay the hospital bill. If a 20-year-old is hospitalized, they might face ruinous medical debt.
It’s quite likely that the obligations of most 20-year-olds – going to school, going to work, taking care of family – make them at least five times as likely to be exposed to Covid-19. We could stop lives from being ruined by medical debt if we vaccinated 20-year-olds first.
A friend of mine works in a take-out & delivery pizza restaurant in Chicago. For other people to be able to stay home and order food, he had to go in to work. His risk of exposure to Covid-19 was much higher than other people’s. As a healthy athlete in his late twenties, he wasn’t at high risk, but he was unlucky – when he got sick, he was so ill that he spent weeks in the hospital. He’s still recovering from his ruptured lung. He has no idea how to pay the $200,000 medical bill.
Because we’re rationing care by age, we’re not protecting people like him. Even though his risk – interacting with customers all day – made it possible for others to stay safe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been awful, but I was pleased that people took fewer plane flights. Our carbon emissions briefly dropped.
Now that older people have received vaccines, though, they’ll resume flying.
For a February 17, 2021 article in the New York Times, Debra Kamin writes that “When the coronavirus hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas, Texas. But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their Covid-19 vaccinations. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.”
“Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel – often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine.”
Newly protected against Covid-19, they’ll increase their contributions to climate change.
Climate change has the opposite risk profile from Covid-19. Covid-19 is most dangerous for the old; climate change is most dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.
In some sense, it’s trivializing to even compare these. The risk from climate change is so much more severe.
If we make our planet inhospitable – if our crops fail due to storms or heat waves – the carrying capacity of Earth could easily fall by half.
We will see billions, not millions, of deaths.
Someone who is elderly today is unlikely to survive long enough to experience the worst effects of climate change – although it’s true that in severe weather events like Chicago’s fluke summer heat waves or Texas’s fluke winter storms, elderly people who live alone are exceptionally vulnerable.
Still, younger adults will have to endure worse calamities. They’ll live through more years of severe weather, crop failures, dangerous heat, lingering smog. And, since society will be forced to spend more money each year to maintain humanity’s precarious place on this planet – rebuilding after fires or floods – younger adults will face an increasingly inhospitable world with less wealth at their disposal.
Today’s children will encounter even worse. They’ll experience every disaster that today’s young adults will survive to see, and then some.
Generations not yet born may inherit a nightmare.
When people who currently have wealth were in danger, we created a narrative that everyone needed to make sacrifices. The largest sacrifices came from those who benefited least.
We’re still keeping children out of school – for almost no benefit in terms of Covid-19 transmission – in order to protect older, wealthier people.
Climate change is and has been caused primarily by those with the most wealth. If you can buy more meat, if you can take more plane flights, if you can purchase a bigger home, then you’re able to cause more climate change.
To stop climate change, we need wealthy people to make sacrifices. Buy less, fly less, eat plants.
But why would they?
Currently wealthy people aren’t in danger.
And – worse – currently wealthy people often became wealthy by treating the world as a competitive place. Now we’re asking them to cooperate? To make sacrifices for the sake of others?
Meat tastes good. Flying to Maui is fun. Doesn’t a person who worked hard deserve an enormous home?
A curious thought about the Gamestop stock trading phenomenon: Many small investors – often younger people – were convinced through emotional arguments to buy a few shares of stock and hold them with “diamond hands.”
Don’t sell, even if the price dips!
There was a strange cooperative / competitive system going on. The cooperative portion would have been illegal had it not been done in public – people were colluding to make the shares hard to get, which forced the hedge fund to pay more in order to cover their short sales.
Short sales: a hedge fund had borrowed many shares of the stock and sold them, hoping the price would fall and that new shares could be purchased more cheaply when it was time to return them. So the hedge fund had basically announced, “On such & such a date, I must have this stock, no matter the price!” If other people all cooperate and say, “On that day, don’t sell it for less than $420.00,” then the hedge fund has to pay $420.00 per share, even if the company that the stock represents is worthless.
But here’s the competitive portion – the company, Gamestop, is probably going out of business eventually. Driving to a strip mall to buy a video game cartridge instead of downloading it? The stock isn’t worth much money. So people wanted to cooperate to hurt the hedge fund, but people were also forced to compete because nobody wanted to be holding the stock at the end of the day.
Everyone would like to sell it for a bunch of money, but not everyone will get to sell it.
Even if more than a hundred percent of shares are short sold, not everyone will get to sell it – the hedge fund can satisfy all their contracts by buying a share, returning it to someone, buying the same share back from that person, returning it to someone else, and so on.
So if you know that everybody else has put in a “sell order” at $420.00, because they think it’s a funny number, you benefit by putting in a sell order at $419. That way you get almost as much money as anyone else, but you’re guaranteed to sell yours, whereas only a fraction of the people with $420 sell orders get to trade their (worthless) stock for money.
But then, if you know that other people are going to plug in a sell order at $419, you benefit from selling yours at $418. Because what if too many people sell their shares at $419?? You might still be left out!
So there was an incentive for savvy investors – wealthy people who might have thousands of dollars on the line – to convince other people to hold onto the stock no matter what … even while selling their own.
Billions of dollars changed hands. Some people “made” a lot of money. And it wouldn’t have happened without cooperation – lots of people colluding against the hedge fund.
But the particular people who benefited were determined by a con. By selling shares while promoting a narrative that “if we all hold with diamond hands, this is going to the moon!”
In some ways, our response to Covid-19 encourages me.
So many people – especially younger people – have shown themselves to be willing to cooperate.
A cloth mask traps your exhalations. Wearing a cloth mask makes your life worse, but it protects other people. Almost everybody in my home town wears a mask. Every young person at school wears a mask.
Young people are willing to make sacrifices to protect older people. But therein lies the con.
We’re not making sacrifices to protect them.
Our carbon emissions are no different from pulling off this face mask and intentionally coughing in a young child’s face. We ought to feel ashamed.
For people whose past cultural experiences have led them to associate mint smells with sweet tastes, pairing the scent of mint with a sip of sucrose solution makes them believe that the drink is more sugary than it really is. When mint scent is paired with a sip of mildly acidic water, the drink seems less sour than it really is.
This experiment didn’t assess people’s perception of alcoholic drinks, but people in the United States probably make the same mistake about the bourbon in a mint julep.
Our assumptions – particular to our own cultural experience of the world – can powerfully deceive us.
A mint julep mixed perfectly for someone from the United States would taste bitter to someone from Vietnam.
Viet Thanh Nguyen – author of The Sympathizer, which I’ve written about previously – strives to draw attention to our cultural blindness. The way our minds’ innate self-deceptions allow us to overlook or misinterpret the experiences of others.
My spouse and I have often felt grateful for Nguyen’s work. His essay about the sinking sensation he felt after teaching his child to read was particularly beautiful. (I linked to it in my own essay about teaching a child to read.)
Which is why we felt so dismayed by Nguyen’s most recent New York Times editorial.
Nguyen explains why he enjoys teaching over Zoom. He’s prompted with students’ names; he can see their reactions up close; student voices contribute to the lecture from the same up-front position of power as his own; typed remarks can overlap without distracting; lectures are recorded for students to review later.
All well and good. Nguyen is quite intelligent. If he thinks Zoom is good for lectures, I’m inclined to believe him.
But lectures aren’t the best way to learn.
For many subjects, project-based learning is a more effective way to educate students. Many of my spouse’s resources – designed primarily for teaching college-level biology and introductory Earth & space science with a social justice bent – are available on her website, here.
For the better part of a decade, I’ve hosted a poetry class in the county jail. We read poems and discuss how they make us feel. Our discussions touch upon contemporary scientific research, mythology, economics – all safe enough topics, for most folks – but also religion, addiction, trauma, violence, relationships, loss – which can be tough for anyone to talk about, let alone a room full of men who won’t get to see their families for months.
Because people cycle through the county jail, I never know who will be coming to class each week until I get there. For a few months, I might be with mostly the same group of men. Other weeks, I won’t have met any of the dozen or so people previously.
And there’s a huge difference between what we can accomplish – between what sorts of things feel safe to discuss – when the people in class haven’t met me before, and haven’t been in a class like that with each other. If we haven’t built the necessary emotional connection, we can do less. The class is worse for all of us.
Recently, the jail has allowed a small number of classes over Zoom. But Zoom doesn’t let you make the same emotional connection.
People sometimes complain about the supposed invasiveness of Zoom – the camera snatches up your personal surroundings, the pictures on your wall, the books on your shelves, your family in the background – but it’s by no means the intimacy of being there.
My spouse says, “Over Zoom you can’t tell who’s hungry.”
It would be nice if she meant this metaphorically – that it’s hard to tell who’s eager to learn. But, no. Many students aren’t eating enough. They are hungry.
Worse, we read Nguyen’s paean to Zoom on a snow day.
Streets near my spouse’s high school school were well-salted and plowed, but we live in a sprawling, semi-rural area – the school district serves families from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. There are hills and valleys – not everyone can get a satellite signal at home. And the for-profit cable companies certainly haven’t connected those families to the modern world with wires.
Still, the pandemic has made “e-learning days” seem like a reliable alternative. If it snows, kids learn from home.
“What’s Zoom supposed to do,” my spouse asked, “for my students with no heat?”
This isn’t (only) a concern for fluke events like the avarice-fueled power outages and heat losses in Texas. My spouse grew up in Albany, New York. Every winter was cold. The infrastructure to heat homes there was secure – for children whose families had money.
My spouse’s family didn’t. Her father failed to pay the electric bill. The power was shut off. And then the district called a snow day.
If my spouse and her sibling had gone to school, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Warm classrooms, a hot meal.
Instead they were stuck at home, shivering. Wanting so badly to go to a neighbor’s house. But then the neighbors would know.
In the United States, where poverty is often stigmatized as a moral failing, people hide the ache of want.
Which is why Zoom is so horrible. Zoom makes it easy. When you only have to disguise a small corner of your life, you can convey the illusion that things are okay.