On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles.  My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode.  Which simply isn’t true.

Billy_Collins_Poet_at_San_Diego_State_UniversityIn Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world.  His students balk.  That’s not how they were taught to read poetry!  Instead, Collins writes,

 all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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Matthew-Zapruder-Why-PoetryMatthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets.  In Zapruder’s words:

If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry.  The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.

When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.

Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words.  Let alone that writers might actually do it.

Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding.  To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.

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Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently.  New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail.  The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming.  Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.

We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time.  We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing.  Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.

Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks.  One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block.  Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back.  Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.

Some weeks class falls flat.

I don’t blame them for signing up.  I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits.  I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.

Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.

Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year.  Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence.  We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:

Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize

through the trees and I come back in my mind

to the man who made me suck his cock

when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.

 

I thought I could leave him standing there

in the years, half smile on his lips …

This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read.  It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.

AR-160539927The opening is perfect, though.  As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way.  Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …

He thought he could forget his trauma.  Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.”  He was wrong.

Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on.  But the memories can fester.  After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”

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spotlight.jpgIn Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him.  He is asked how he coped.  He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.

Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up.  Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted.  And behind bars.  Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day.  Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.

“The world needs to know,” we tell them.  “Write about that.”

They balk.  “I can’t write about this shit.”  It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed.  Our society has a tendency to blame victims.  In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time.  He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’  I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too.  That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?

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But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse.  It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else.  And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about.  The poem ends,

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.

*

Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.

*

proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.

*

But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.

OK.

Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.

*

I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

The scientific method is the best way to investigate the world.

Do you want to know how something works?  Start by making a guess, consider the implications of your guess, and then take action.  Muck something up and see if it responds the way you expect it to.  If not, make a new guess and repeat the whole process.

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Image by Derek K. Miller on Flickr.

This is slow and arduous, however.  If your goal is not to understand the world, but rather to convince other people that you do, the scientific method is a bad bet.  Instead you should muck something up, see how it responds, and then make your guess.  When you know the outcome in advance, you can appear to be much more clever.

A large proportion of biomedical science publications are inaccurate because researchers follow the second strategy.  Given our incentives, this is reasonable.  Yes, it’s nice to be right.  It’d be cool to understand all the nuances of how cells work, for instance.  But it’s more urgent to build a career.

Both labs I worked in at Stanford cheerfully published bad science.  Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible for an outsider to notice the flaws because primary data aren’t published.

A colleague of mine obtained data by varying several parameters simultaneously, but then graphed his findings against only one of these.  As it happens, his observations were caused by the variable he left out of his charts.  Whoops!

(Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel quickly responded that my colleague’s conclusions probably weren’t correct.  Unfortunately, Warshel’s argument was based on unrealistic simulations – in his model, a key molecule spins in unnatural ways.  This next sentence is pretty wonky, so feel free to skip it, but … to show the error in my colleague’s paper, Warshel should have modeled multiple molecules entering the enzyme active site, not molecules entering backward.  Whoops!)

Another colleague of mine published his findings about unusual behavior from a human protein.  But then his collaborator realized that they’d accidentally purified and studied a similarly-sized bacterial protein, and were attempting to map its location in cells with an antibody that didn’t work.  Whoops!

No apologies or corrections were ever given.  They rarely are, especially not from researchers at our nation’s fanciest universities.  When somebody with impressive credentials claims a thing is true, people often feel ready to believe.

antibodies.JPGIndeed, for my own thesis work, we wanted to test whether two proteins are in the same place inside cells.  You can do this by staining with light-up antibodies for each.  If one antibody is green and the other is red, you’ll know how often the proteins are in the same place based on how much yellow light you see.

Before conducting the experiment, I wrote a computer program that would assess the data.  My program could identify various cellular structures and check the fraction that were each color.

As it happened, I didn’t get the results we wanted.  My data suggested that our guess was wrong.

But we couldn’t publish that.  And so my advisor told me to count again, by hand, claiming that I should be counting things of a different size.  And then she continued to revise her instructions until we could plausibly claim that we’d seen what we expected.  We made a graph and published the paper.

This is crummy.  It’s falsehood with the veneer of truth.  But it’s also tragically routine.

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41B1pZkOwmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Luke Dittrich intertwines two horror stories about scientific ethics in Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.

One of these nightmares is driven by the perverse incentives facing early neurosurgeons.  Perhaps you noticed, above, that an essential step of the scientific method involves mucking things up.  You can’t tell whether your guesses are correct until you perform an experiment.  Dittrich provides a lovely summary of this idea:

The broken illuminate the unbroken.

An underdeveloped dwarf with misfiring adrenal glands might shine a light on the functional purpose of these glands.  An impulsive man with rod-obliterated frontal lobes [Phineas Gage] might provide clues to what intact frontal lobes do.

This history of modern brain science has been particularly reliant on broken brains, and almost every significant step forward in our understanding of cerebral localization – that is, discovering what functions rely on which parts of the brain – has relied on breakthroughs provided by the study of individuals who lacked some portion of their gray matter.

. . .

While the therapeutic value of the lobotomy remained murky, its scientific potential was clear: Human beings were no longer off-limits as test subjects in brain-lesioning experiments.  This was a fundamental shift.  Broken men like Phineas Gage and Monsieur Tan may have always illuminated the unbroken, but in the past they had always become broken by accident.  No longer.  By the middle of the twentieth century, the breaking of human brains was intentional, premeditated, clinical.

Dittrich was dismayed to learn that his own grandfather had participated in this sort of research, intentionally wrecking at least one human brain in order to study the effects of his meddling.

Lacking a specific target in a specific hemisphere of Henry’s medial temporal lobes, my grandfather had decided to destroy both.

This decision was the riskiest possible one for Henry.  Whatever the functions of the medial temporal lobe structures were – and, again, nobody at the time had any idea what they were – my grandfather would be eliminating them.  The risks to Henry were as inarguable as they were unimaginable.

The risks to my grandfather, on the other hand, were not.

At that moment, the riskiest possible option for his patient was the one with the most potential rewards for him.

Turning_the_Mind_Inside_Out_Saturday_Evening_Post_24_May_1941_a_detail_1

By destroying part of a brain, Dittrich’s grandfather could create a valuable research subject.  Yes, there was a chance of curing the patient – Henry agreed to surgery because he was suffering from epileptic seizures.  But Henry didn’t understand what the proposed “cure” would be.  This cure was very likely to be devastating.

At other times, devastation was the intent.  During an interview with one of his grandfather’s former colleagues, Dittrich is told that his grandmother was strapped to the operating table as well.

It was a different era,” he said.  “And he did what at the time he thought was okay: He lobotomized his wife.  And she became much more tractable.  And so he succeeded in getting what he wanted: a tractable wife.”

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Compared to slicing up a brain so that its bearer might better conform to our society’s misogynistic expectations of female behavior, a bit of scientific fraud probably doesn’t sound so bad.  Which is a shame.  I love science.  I’ve written previously about the manifold virtues of the scientific method.  And we need truth to save the world.

Which is precisely why those who purport to search for truth need to live clean.  In the cut-throat world of modern academia, they often don’t.

Dittrich investigated the rest of Henry’s life: after part of his brain was destroyed, Henry became a famous study subject.  He unwittingly enabled the career of a striving scientist, Suzanne Corkin.

Dittrich writes that

Unlike Teuber’s patients, most of the research subjects Corkin had worked with were not “accidents of nature” [a bullet to the brain, for instance] but instead the willful products of surgery, and one of them, Patient H.M., was already clearly among the most important lesion patients in history.  There was a word that scientists had begun using to describe him.  They called him pure.  The purity in question didn’t have anything to do with morals or hygiene.  It was entirely anatomical.  My grandfather’s resection had produced a living, breathing test subject whose lesioned brain provided an opportunity to probe the neurological underpinnings of memory in unprecedented ways.  The unlikelihood that a patient like Henry could ever have come to be without an act of surgery was important.

. . .

By hiring Corkin, Teuber was acquiring not only a first-rate scientist practiced in his beloved lesion method but also by extension the world’s premier lesion patient.

. . .

According to [Howard] Eichenbaum, [a colleague at MIT,] Corkin’s fierceness as a gatekeeper was understandable.  After all, he said, “her career is based on having that exclusive access.”

Because Corkin had (coercively) gained exclusive access to this patient, most of her claims about the workings of memory would be difficult to contradict.  No one could conduct the experiments needed to rebut her.

Which makes me very skeptical of her claims.

Like most scientists, Corkin stumbled across occasional data that seemed to contradict the models she’d built her career around.  And so she reacted in the same was as the professors I’ve worked with: she hid the data.

Dittrich: Right.  And what’s going to happen to the files themselves?

She paused for several seconds.

Corkin: Shredded

Dittrich: Shredded?  Why would they be shredded?

Corkin: Nobody’s gonna look at them.

Dittrich: Really?  I can’t imagine shredding the files of the most important research subject in history.  Why would you do that?

. . .

Corkin: Well, the things that aren’t published are, you know, experiments that just didn’t … [another long pause] go right.

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On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

2014-01-31demon001In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide.  Again and again.  Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.

Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse.  Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell.  Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.

*

We incarcerate drug dealers.  But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand.  People’s lives are still broken.  Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy.  When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.

*

Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison.  When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!”  When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished.  Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.

Child molesters were often abused as children.  In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.

The demon leaps from one shell to the next.

*

During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”  Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work.  When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger.  We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.

Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others.  And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again.  After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else.  But the initial mistakes were made by a child.  Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.

We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not.  We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not.  We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.

After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.

If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it.  I too believe in free will.  But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain.  If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?

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51ZgODW8D+L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIn ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons.  A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.

This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted.  It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others.  This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen.  Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right.  After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.

Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult.  Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.

*

In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised.  In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.

Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment.  A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.

*

Some demons might never leave the body.  The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history.  Even after years clean, addiction lingers.

In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted.  Apparently demons love to guard treasure.  It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.

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Addicts are shuttered in jail.  The walls are concrete.  Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day.  People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark.  The block is noisy, and feels dangerous.  The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance.  Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.

Thoughts of drugs.

But poems can be treasures.  If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there.  Something for the demon to guard.

We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.

*

Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

It’s easy to get caught up in goal-oriented thinking.  Television commercials for the University of Phoenix tout how much better your life would be with a degree.  Romantic comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall end with the beginning of a relationship.  We strive for a big house, a beautiful family, a flush bank account.

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Adam Alter discusses some of the flaws in goal-oriented thinking in his recent Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.  Most humans are happiest while striving for a goal, but reaching goals can leave us feeling empty.

Consider the protagonist of Jack Vance’s The Demon Princes, who hunts down the villains who killed his family.  After defeating the last, he falls into melancholy.  He describes himself as feeling “Deflated, perhaps.  I have been deserted by my enemies. The affair is over.  I am done.

We will either fail to reach our goals … or succeed, only to find that our goals have failed us.

The advertising companies that Adam Alter discusses in Irresistible know that goal-oriented thinking will leave us feeling empty, but that is precisely why they nurture these thoughts.  Striving for ever more Facebook or Instagram “likes” keeps people logging in, which lets the company keep making money.  The corporation’s profit model relies on people feeling unfulfilled.

Most of the corporations shilling things through your telephone want you to feel unhappy.  Contented people spend less.

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41BPcuTxX-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_We read Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” in jail.  This poem is a gorgeous paean to process-oriented thinking, opening with the line:

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

Gilbert then describes a “failed” marriage, one that ended in divorce.  But even though the eventual outcome was separation, he and his wife shared many happy years.  They had engaging conversations over lunch.  He would wake in the morning and marvel over her sleeping form in bed.

Each afternoon I watched her coming back

through the hot stony field after swimming,

the sea light behind her and the huge sky

on the other side of that.

Gilbert knows that he was blessed to have lived through so much beauty.  He thinks it’s absurd that other people will say his marriage failed.  It ended, yes.  He fell short of a goal.  But he (appropriately) enjoyed the process.  He has many years of happy memories, and he would be a fool to let the divorce poison his recollection of them all.

The men in jail have also lost many loved ones, either because they’ve drifted apart over time or, tragically often, because their partners have died.  They’ve loved Jack Gilbert’s poems: several dudes teared up at the image of Gilbert finding his second wife Michiko’s hair in a potted plant after she died.

And the men in jail are in jail.  From a goal-oriented perspective, their lives, so far, have been failures.  No one wants to end up there.  When we read Pattiann Rogers’s “The Greatest Grandeur,”  I suggested we write our perspective on the best of the world.  They looked at me confused.  I said, “Well, she’s writing about why nature makes her believe in God.  I’m an atheist, but I think the world can be beautiful.  So could you write about, I dunno, what makes you want to go on living?”

Three dudes tossed down their pencils.  “That’ll … I’ll need to think about that one for a week or two,” one said.  His brother died last year.  His son cussed him out and moved away.  Three weeks in jail, he’s still going through withdrawal.  He can’t sleep more than an hour at a time.  The highlight of his day is running in place in the cement-walled fourth-floor “rec yard” until he feels sufficiently sick & drained to still his brain, “but they haven’t taken us to daytime rec more than, what, two times a month?  There’s a good dude here at night, though.  We had night rec three times this week.”

Oops.  So maybe that wasn’t the best writing prompt.  But one man wrote a beautiful poem about linked cycles of growth – a tall tree starting from a small seed, his own son begun from an even smaller seed, and the poem itself originating as the seed of an idea inside his mind.  In his poem,

tree-220664_1280                                      the tree that withstood

The storm now given opportunity to transform mere

Feet into stories

Our growth – the process of transformation – is what matters.  We all die in the end.  Maybe this alone should be enough to persuade us against goal-oriented thinking.  We need to enjoy life as we live it.  Otherwise, we’re striving toward nothingness.

Gilbert ends “Failing and Falling” with the beauty of our struggle:

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,

but just coming to the end of his triumph.

602px-Goltzius_Ikarus

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

On Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Seeds of Life’ and artificial wombs.

Juvenile_Smooth_Guarding_Frog_(Limnonectes_palavanensis)_maybe-_(6967250574)Among the smooth guardian frogs of Borneo, females croon to the males, attempting to woo a mate.  This is abnormal for frogs: usually females are serenaded.  But males of this species are the most devoted parents – they guard the fertilized eggs and carry tadpoles from pond to pond after they hatch.  Whereas the females simply lay eggs and leave.

Because male smooth guardian frogs contribute most to the next generation, they are more discerning than females when choosing a mate.  Unclaimed males might be surrounded by strident singers, each striving to win his affection.

Do smooth guardian frogs tell myths?  If their myths are anything like ours, they probably exalt female creator gods whose eggs – sans any contribution from the males – burst forth with heroes.  Or even entire worlds.

Human myths purposefully invert the workings of the world.

*

Among humans, females contribute most to survival of the species.  Females undergo nine months of gestation and perhaps years of breastfeeding for every child.  From the first, they pour huge amounts of energy into their offspring.

But human males – especially after the switch to agrarian lifestyles, at which point our minor sexual dimorphism made a large difference in how many calories each individual could procure – fancied themselves to be more important than females.  So we told stories in which men were the stewards of existence.

From Edward Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

9780465082957In ancient Egypt, the creation of new life – indeed, the creation of the entire universe – was emphatically the province of males.  Females played a subsidiary role or (in the case of the gods) no role at all.  Creation myths told of male gods who, as one historian writes, “gave birth to their spouses, their children, other humans, animals, cities, sanctuaries, shrines, perpetual offerings, earth, and the planets themselves.”

One papyrus manuscript records the boasts of the Sun God, who first created himself out of nothing – we are not told how – and then took matters into his own capable hands, masturbating the universe into existence.  “I created on my own every being … my fist became my spouse.  I copulated with my hand.”

In human myths from around the world, male gods act as solitary progenitors.  Yahweh creates the world alone.  Then Adam gives birth: a rib is taken from his body to make Eve.

The male leader of the Greek pantheon births a child: Athena springs forth from Zeus’s head.  In some variants of the Ramayana, Ravana creates Sita with a sneeze.

(Did the originator of this myth know anything about reproduction?  How could you imagine birthing a child through a nostril?)

Even among mortals, human males often imagined themselves to be the more important parents.  Obviously female bodies could carry new life, and male bodies could not.  So the men created myths in which female bodies were replaceable – in their telling, sperm was essential.  Women were not.

From Wendy Doniger’s Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts:

51W-viAy4OL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Hindu mythology the instances of unilateral female creation are by far outnumbered by unilateral male creation.  The male seed is fertile in itself, particularly the seed of a great ascetic who has kept it within him for a long time and is therefore “one whose seed is never shed in vain” (amogharetas); that is, he engenders a child every time he sheds his seed, no matter where he sheds it.  Even an ordinary man’s seed is basically the source of life, as is evident from the Upanisadic tradition; in Dharmasastra, too, the seed remains more important than the womb.  The seed shed by a powerful male may fall into any of a number of womb substitutes (a pot, the earth, a river, or somebody’s mouth) and produce an embryo.

*

In The Seeds of Life, Dolnick describes the experiments that finally led Europeans to understand that both parents produce essential gametes.  In the late 1700s, Lazzaro Spallanzani sewed silk pants for male frogs as a form of full-body contraceptive device.  When frogs ejaculated inside their sperm-retaining pants, eggs would not become embryos.  After the pants were turned inside out and rubbed across the jellied clumps of eggs, tadpoles grew.

Spallanzani also performed the first artificial insemination of a dog.  He was a Catholic priest.  Priesthood was different in those days.

rogersShortly after I finished reading The Seeds of Life, we discussed Pattiann Rogers’s “The Rites of Passage” in jail.  This poem opens with the initial cleavage of a fertilized frog egg, followed by its development into a blastula and the formation of organs until

that one definite moment

When a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time

And someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,

Bearing now in the white water of the moon

The instantaneous distinction of being liable to death.

We talked about the almost magical border between nothingness and life – J. said, “When I had my son, I didn’t even want to tell anybody for months, I was worried they’d laugh, they’d say, like, you, you’re just gonna fuck it up.”  And S. said, “I dunno, man, my kid was born, and I was just like, damn.  I made that!”

The thing that hurts these men most is that they’re not there for their kids.

Then we talked about embryology.  I told the men, briefly, about Spallanzani’s experiments.  Then told them that, although I’ve never touched the genitalia of any non-human animal, I used to work next to a man who collected sperm from horseshoe crabs.  He wore gloves.  The supine crabs scrabbled for his arm with their little claws.

*

Although early European doctors thought human females contributed nothing to a child other than a fertile field for growth, they were concerned that feminine misbehavior could corrupt poison the filed and corrupt a fetus.  From Rebecca Kukla’s Mass Hysteria:

419Nh3Un2WL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The seventeenth-century textbooks are particularly concerned about and often organized around the possibility of deformed births, with a special focus on the dangers of the impure, permeated womb.  Sadler’s book, for instance, is organized primarily as a list of ways in which the womb can fail to maintain its purity and its integrity–the womb here leaks and ‘weeps,’ and various ‘corrupt humours’ flow in and out of it, making nothing more ‘perilous’ to the body than the ‘ill-affected womb.’ 

Many of the works go into elaborate detail, describing and often visually representing famous cases of monstrous births.  Monstrous births could be the product of weak seed or impure blood, of conception during menstruation, of the woman fertilizing herself with her own seed (!), or, most importantly and consistently, of maternal ingestions of sights and substances that could pollute or deform the womb.  In justifying the need for careful knowledge and monitoring of the maternal body, in the preface of his book, Sadler warns us: “From the womb come convulsions, epilepsies, apoplexies, palseys, hecticke fevers, dropsies, malignant ulcers, and to bee short, there is no disease so ill but may proceed from the evil quality of it.”

They thought that if a pregnant female gazed upon an impure sight, or had an impure thought, the child inside her would be irrevocably damaged.  Which implied the converse.  If a baby was born wrong – mentally or physically disabled – it was proof that the mother’s mind was foul.  Kukla reports that “lascivious thoughts could produce hermaphrodism and other obscene monstrosities.

Children needed to be protected from their mothers.  Otherwise women’s lascivious thoughts would cause a decline in the human race.

For years, doctors recommended that women not breastfeed their children – mothers could exert a harmful influence through their milk as well.  A mother who was good and pure would produce healthful milk, they thought, but most were not.  After all, sex itself was sin.  And children were rarely engendered without sex.  To minimize risk, mothers should feed their babies with commercially prepared substitutes instead.

These doctors would have been thrilled to read in the news, as I did the other day, that modern researchers have come closer to developing an artificial womb.  Children can be kept safe from the perfidies of maternal imagination!  And though it’s not quite unilateral male creation, this “fluid-filled biobag” is akin to the womb-replacing baskets and jars of ghee of Hindu myth.

lamb

*

And yet.  A belief that men convey the stuff of life, with women serving solely as a fertile patch of earth, need not lead to misogynistic behavior.  Some cultures have used the same mistaken mythologies to create more egalitarian worlds.

Again from Dolnick’s The Seeds of Life:

Common across many cultures, too, even today, is a belief that it takes many acts of sex to create a baby.  “Many of my New Guinea friends feel obliged to have regular sex right up to the end of pregnancy,” writes the scientist Jared Diamond, “because they believe that repeated infusions of semen furnish the material to build the fetus’s body.”

. . .

Many South American tribes go a step further: not only is the developing baby built up from new batches of semen, but it is best if several different men make a contribution.  All those men are considered the child’s father.  Among the Bari people in Venezuela, for instance, “a good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant,” one historian writes, “so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior, and the most considerate lover.”

*

Biology isn’t destiny.  Not even our beliefs about mythology force us to behave any particular way.  A world that is good and fair would be compatible with many myths.

 

******

post-script: Shortly after this essay went up, the O.E.D. online’s “word of the day” was “murk,” which includes a misogynistic quote from the early 1400s that fits these themes perfectly.

From Prick of Conscience (1425): Man … was consyved synfully With-in his awen moder body … Par duellid man in a myrk dungeon And in a foul sted of corupcion.

As best I can tell, this would be rendered in modern English as “Man was conceived sinfully within his own mother’s body, and then he dwelled in a murky dungeon (her womb) in a foul state of corruption.”

Male writers have long seemed to channel their jealousy at women’s ability to create life into a hatred of women.  If men have no wombs, we’ll call wombs corrupt!  Although, did you look at that picture of the womb-replacing “bio-bag”?  Less murky, sure.  Totally exposed to the light.  But it also looks nightmarish.

 

On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

On the Silk Road, Nick Bilton’s ‘American Kingpin,’ and the difference between being clever and being wise.

There are many forms of intelligence.  A runner on our cross country team was a jittery kid with mediocre grades, but he was one of the most kinesthetically gifted people I’ve met.  He was good at construction, auto repairs, skateboarding, climbing, running, jumping …

Our society holds these skills in low regard.  We shower money and adulation onto klutzy math whizzes, whereas tactile learners are told they have “disabilities” like ADHD and are given potent psychoactive drugs to get them through each day at schools ill-designed for them.

I’m a klutzy math whiz, so maybe I shouldn’t complain.  But, if this kid had been born fifteen- or twenty-thousand years earlier, he could have been a king.  During most of human evolution, his talents would have been more valuable than my own.

I found myself thinking about the distinction between different types of intelligence while reading Nick Bilton’s American Kingpin.  The protagonist – who went by Ross Ulbricht in real life and “the Dread Pirate Roberts” online – was clever but un-wise.  And I don’t mean “un-wise” in the sense of antagonistically luring the wrath of government agents the world over – that’s ambitious, perhaps foolhardy, but it’s reasonable for an intelligent person to take risks while pushing back against oppression.  Attacking the Death Star is never as easy as it looks in movies; it’s still worth doing.

Ross_UlbrichtRoss Ulbricht was un-wise in that he dogmatically clung to his philosophical stances without regard for new evidence.  Ulbricht disliked the War on Drugs without considering that abetting the transfer of certain drugs could be as immoral as attempting to staunch their flow.  Our world is incredibly complicated, full of moral quandaries and shades of gray.  But Ulbricht treated real life like an undergraduate debate.

From Bilton’s American Kingpin:

9781591848141[A man going by the username “Variety Jones”] was a loyal servant and companion.  He had even talked about buying a helicopter company to break [Ulbricht] out of jail if he was ever caught.  “Remember that one day when you’re in the exercise yard, I’ll be the dude in the helicopter coming in low and fast, I promise,” he had written.  “With the amount of $ we’re generating, I could hire a small country to come get you.”

But even with that bond, fundamental disagreements over the direction of the site would crop up, and Variety Jones was trying desperately to steer [Ulbricht] in a new direction on a particular topic.

It wasn’t even up for debate in VJ’s mind that the Dread Pirate Roberts was as libertarian as they came and that he believed the Silk Road should be a place to buy and sell anything.  There were no rules and no regulations, and as a result there was something illegal for sale on the site for literally every letter of the alphabet.  Acid, benzos, coke, DMT, ecstasy, fizzies, GHB … but it was the letter H that had Variety Jones in a very difficult quandary.  He was fine with everything before and after that letter, but heroin – he hated it.

“I don’t even have a problem with coke,” VJ wrote to DPR, but “H, man – in prison I’ve seen guys – I wish that shit would go away.”

Variety Jones was open about the time he had spent in jail.  He told long and funny stories about people he had met behind bars and explained the ins and outs of getting around the system, including how cans of “mackerel” were the currency of choice in the British prison he had been confined to years earlier.

Instead of mackerel, many transactions in U.S. jails seem to be priced in terms of “Honey Buns,” shelf-stable sweet rolls often sold by commissaries for about a dollar each.  In class one day my co-teacher J.M. mentioned that in Richmond, Virginia, two honey buns could buy you a roll of toilet paper or a blowjob.

The guys in our class were incredulous.  “Two honeybuns for a blowjob?  That’s extortion right there.  Here it’s gonna run you one.”

“If that,” somebody added.

SONY DSC

 

But they thought the price of toilet paper sounded fair.  Apparently the guards are allowed to give out extra rolls, “but they’re not gonna give it to you unless you walk up to them with literally shit dripping down your arm.”  J.M. and I once walked by a pregnant woman in the tank pleading with a male guard to bring her an extra roll.

And many of the men in jail in Bloomington – especially the ones whose actions would make you think they loved H – wish there was less heroin around.  It seeps into every corner of their lives.

heroin-622x400

“My kid wanted some cereal, okay?  A bowl of cereal for breakfast.  So I got it for him, poured the cereal, poured the milk.  I went to get him a spoon.  First spoon I picked up, it had this big burn in the bottom.  I threw it in the trash.  And the next spoon too.  I went through … every spoon I took out of that drawer was burned.  I threw them all away.  My kid ate his cereal with a fork.”

He was trying.  But he slipped again and landed back in jail.

From American Kingpin:

Morally, though, Jones told Dread, “I don’t think I could make money off importing H.  If you want to, I’ll offer all the help and advice you need, but I don’t want to profit off of it.”

. . .

Ross had never seen the effects of heroin in person it still didn’t deter him from his belief system.  “I’ve got this separation between personal and business morality,” DPR explained to VJ.  “I would be there for a friend to help him break a drug dependency, and encourage him not to start, but I would never physically bar him from it if he didn’t ask me to.”

And yet, as harmful as addiction is, you could argue that the War on Drugs is worse.  After all, the War on Drugs pushes transactions underground; makes drug concentrations so variable that it’s hard not to overdose; makes harm reduction therapies borderline illegal.

If Ulbricht had been incarcerated simply for creating the Silk Road website, I’d have a lot of sympathy for him.

But, as a devout libertarian, Ulbricht thought it was okay to murder people.  Eventually, the FBI caught a computer programmer who’d been helping with the website.  During the bust, a rogue FBI agent used that programmer’s credentials to steal a bunch of money.

How could [Ulbricht] let someone steal [$350,000] from DPR and get away with a measly beating?  The conundrum lay in the reality that violence was not something Ross was used to, though it was something he believed in when absolutely necessary.

Finally, Variety Jones rang the final death knell.  “So, you’ve had your time to think,” he said.  “You’re sitting in the big chair, and you need to make a decision.”

I would have no problem wasting this guy,” DPR replied.

And so Ulbricht paid another rogue government agent to murder the innocent programmer.  He’d go on to pay for the murders of several more people.  And felt justified all the while – in his opinion, lethal violence was acceptable when used to protect his property rights.

By the same reasoning, anyone would be justified in murdering Ulbricht when his actions caused someone else’s property to lose value.  Because his website increased the availability of guns and addictive drugs, he had crossed that line.

This is the problem with libertarianism and anarchy – without a coalition government to monopolize violence, individuals take violence into their own hands.  Bad governments are terrifying, but unhinged individuals are pretty scary, too.  Ulbricht paid for murder and felt righteous the whole time.

Despite the juvenile, unreflective protagonist, American Kingpin is a charming read.  Ulbricht was clever.  Singlehandedly, surreptitiously, he did the work of a billion-dollar start-up company.

But he was wrecked by his success.  If he was intelligent enough to build the Silk Road, he thought, wasn’t he also qualified to decide who should live or die?