On bravery and Uncle Max

On bravery and Uncle Max

Not everyone attending Stanford comes from a background of wealth and privilege, obviously, but few people arrive there after circumstances like my spouse’s.

Violent trauma; abandonment; food insecurity. For college, she’d turned down Harvard despite their generous offer of significant financial aid: she didn’t have any money to pay for college. Instead, she went to a school that offered a full ride plus a stipend.

Even that wasn’t enough: her father took out credit cards in her name and used them to pay his bills. After collection notices began to arrive at her dormitory mail room, she … well, first she slumped to the floor and cried. Wouldn’t you? But then she used the money from her job at the college bookstore to pay them off.

After college, she won a Fulbright. The Fulbright award comes with a stipend: many young people use this money to travel, to see something of the world while they’re overseas. My spouse used the stipend to pay her bills from dental surgery.

By the time she and I met, she’d made her way to Stanford; her mother, father, and younger sibling were all unhoused.

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Her father was in Albany. Luckily, a friend took him in, a man named Paul who had a little pension from working at the post office. Paul’s house was small, the foundation was sinking, and everything rattled with the passing trains, but there were four walls and heat. I’ve never not had four walls and heat. I like to think that I have a good imagination, but I can’t fathom being unhoused in Albany.

The post office pension was something, but Paul decided that he ought to grow marijuana. That would nicely supplement his income. He also decided, despite living on a street where two-thirds of the houses were vacant and boarded up, that he ought to tell his neighbors about this plan to grow marijuana in the attic. Then they’d know to buy from him.

The first time people broke in to steal the marijuana, my spouse’s father got pistol whipped in the face. For weeks afterward, his face ached. After the second time, he found his bedraggled tomato plants abandoned in the middle of the street. This I can imagine: somebody waiting in the car, engine idling, ready to drive away, looking up to say “You idiots, that’s not marijuana!”

Paul decided to get a guard dog. He found somebody with a pitbull too unruly to handle – the dog had been kicked out of two houses already, for howling, breaking things, biting people. This dog would go berserk around bright lights, and was even worse when he heard the sound of motorcycles. Two years old, but he walked and ran with a limp; the dog must’ve broken a leg when he was a puppy.

Having a guard dog helped. When some guys were working their way down the street, stripping copper pipes out of all the vacant houses, the dog started barking and got the guys arrested. My spouse’s father didn’t get pistol-whipped again.

He talked to my spouse on the phone. “Paul got a dog,” he said.

My spouse knew how much her father loved animals. “Is this really your dog?” she asked.

No,” her father said, “it’s Paul’s dog.” But also, my spouse could hear a gentle panting; the dog’s head was in her father’s lap.

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The next year, toward the end of November, Paul was having sex and died. Very suddenly. Which must have been traumatizing for Paul’s lady friend?

After Paul passed, the dog was very clearly my spouse’s father’s dog.

Unfortunately, the mortgage was in Paul’s name. As were the utilities. Paul’s post office pension had been paying the bills. Which meant that my spouse’s father and the dog were squatting in the vacant house without electricity or heat. December tends to be cold in Albany.

So my spouse and I borrowed a car – we’d spent a few years walking and biking everywhere – and drove out to get her father and the dog. We moved them in with us, thinking that they’d be with us briefly, then found out that you can’t keep a pitbull in Section 8 housing. So then we spent a few months searching for a second apartment that we could afford.

My spouse’s father didn’t have any money. He’d lost his last job – parking cars in a garage – when he had a stroke during working hours. His boss assumed that he’d been drinking and so he was thrown in jail instead of taken to the hospital. He had unmanaged diabetes and cardiovascular troubles and the stroke made things worse, but it took several years before he was approved for disability.

But the dog kept him alive. Got him outside a few times a day – the dog would pull like a little tugboat to get my spouse’s father up the stairs again to their apartment – and would rouse him when my spouse’s father briefly stopped breathing in his sleep. (Which happened often, and always sounded deeply unsettling during the time that he lived with my spouse and me.) The dog seemed to like trying to help. Although, honestly, the dog was pretty traumatized too: he’d howl when he was left alone, and the gunshot sounds of the 4th of July would make him thrash and snap his jaws.

The dog got his full name a few years later, when my spouse showed up at her father’s apartment to tell him she was pregnant.

“Max,” her father said, turning toward the dog with tears brimming in his eyes, “you’re gonna be an uncle. Uncle Max.”

“Nuh uh,” my spouse said, “we are not calling the dog Uncle Max.”

My spouse’s father died when our child was one. The dog came to live with us: his fifth family, then. We called him Uncle Max.

The name helped. He was a sixty-pound, scary-looking pitbull. But there’s something disarming about a dog called “uncle.”

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The first week he lived with us, I thought he’d bitten off my child’s fingers. I was fixing lunch and had lost track of what my child was doing. I didn’t realize that she might be in the room with the scary dog.

Suddenly, I heard my child wail. I rushed toward the sound, and my child came staggering toward me, clutching her arm against her belly as though her hand might be bleeding or even missing, but when she finally let me see, there was the slightest little dimple on the soft skin of the back of her hand. She tried to explain what had happened to me in that vaguely incomprehensible way that an 18-month-old explains things:

“I, I …” she said, or perhaps “Eye, eye …” and then, “…put finger Max-y eye.”

So she’d been putting her fingers into the dog’s eyeball and then wailed, chagrined, when he had rather gently told her “No.”

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Uncle Max loved running. I rather loathed going running with him, but we went together three times each week. He was fast, despite his limp, and he liked to start at a sprint, bolting from the house with me stumbling along behind him, struggling to hang on to his leash. Then, after about three miles he’d tire and plod along the rest of the way home.

He especially loved bounding through the local university campus, drawing smiles from students as his tongue flopped rakishly through the air: he was as gorgeous and charismatic as an underwear model. When people were watching, he liked to hop up and prance along little stone walls next to the sidewalk. He’d wag his tail and flirt whenever people asked to pet him.

But Uncle Max had memories. He held a lifelong vendetta. He’d seen an ambulance take my spouse’s father away, and then my spouse’s father never came back: just a long lock of faded russet hair that my spouse brought for Uncle Max to sniff.

I was walking Uncle Max one day when an ambulance came by us, forty miles per hour and flashing lights on a quiet street. Uncle Max lunged, trying to bite the ambulance, and nearly pulled me off my feet.

To be perfectly honest, my eyes filled up with tears when I typed this. Uncle Max seemed mostly happy. But that was one goal he never achieved: he never got his revenge, never killed an ambulance.

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That’s one type of heroism. Easy to spot. Cinematic. A dog hurling himself into danger to slay the mechanical beast that took his person.

Uncle Max also had the other kind. The quiet heroism. Generally I don’t like David Foster Wallace’s writing, but I love this passage about heroism from The Pale King:

By which,” [our accounting instructor] said, “I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood.  You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it.  The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor.  It was theater.  The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all – all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience.    An audience.”

He made a gesture I can’t describe: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality – there is no audience.  No one to applaud, to admire.  No one to see you.  Do you understand?  Here is the truth – actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.  No one queues up to see it.  No one is interested.”

He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking.  “True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space.  True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer.  This is the world.  Just you and the job, at your desk.”

This is a sad passage: the author wants to convey the heroism of quietly getting your work done; his own ability to do so had faltered. David Foster Wallace could no longer bear to sit at his desk.

But Uncle Max had children to look after. I think that Uncle Max was in a lot of pain for his last few years. He lived until he was almost fourteen, but by the time he was eight, he stopped being able to run – he still wanted to run, but if we let him, he’d spend the next few days licking his aching, arthritic joints – and as the years went on, he needed to take progressively shorter and shorter walks. Near the end of his life, he was so stiff in the mornings that watching him walk was like a stop-motion film of a taxidermied dead animal.

But each day, after his medication kicked in, he was so happy to see his kids, to play with them or simply sit and be their pillow. He hurt, a lot, but he probably would have kept on going if we’d asked him.

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At times, of course, he was infuriating. He felt aggrieved one evening when we rushed off to a dinner party without taking him; he protested by nosing his way into our baking supplies, dragging a package of chocolate chips off a shelf, and devouring them. His heart was racing and his breath was shallow as I drove him to the all-night vet; it took a while to clean all his chocolate-scented vomit.

He’d shriek with a high-pitched, plangent whine whenever he felt like he wasn’t near enough to help; other people in town can walk their dogs to playgrounds and leave them tied just outside the fence, but Uncle Max had lost so many families that he couldn’t believe we’d survive without him. His shrieks sounded like he was in agony; spiritually, perhaps he was.

And he was very loud. Our whole neighborhood knew when he was demanding to go outside or in. Once when we happened to be out of the house for a while on the 4th of July, we returned home to find the kid next door shaking her head ruefully and saying, “I think there’s something wrong with your dog.” He never could handle fireworks.

But he loved his children.

Uncle Max did well. I believe he lived his life with heroism.

I’m proud of that dog.

And I’m proud of my spouse. She took care of her father until the end and then some. For seven years after her father died, my spouse made sure that his dog was safe & warm, well-fed & loved.

Most paths that start like theirs do not lead to here.

On ‘Babel,’ ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ and violence.

On ‘Babel,’ ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’ and violence.

In the beginning, the world was quiet. There was no language.

According to The Popul Vuh, as translated by Michael Bazzett,

Then came the word.

The gods arrived “in the dark of the only night.

The gods broke the silence.

They talked together then. They pondered and wondered.

And, together, the gods decided to make new creatures to join their conversation. A motivation we well understand – we’ve pored so much effort into the design of chatbots, and even though most language-generating A.I. will be used to inundate the internet with new venues for advertising, sometimes we just want to talk to someone. The first chatbot, ELIZA from the 1960s, rephrased an interlocutor’s statements as questions. But even people who fully understood the inner workings of ELIZA were often comforted when they conversed with her.

The gods made the first people, “human in form, speaking human tongues.”

But the first people displeased the gods. They did not worship their creators correctly. “They held no memory of who had made them.”

And so the gods decided to murder their creations with a flood.

The face of the earth went black:

a black rain fell all day, all night,

and animals both large and small

began to slink into their homes –

their faces were crushed

by trees and stones –

So the first people were undone.

They were demolished, overthrown.

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Yahweh, too, spoke the world into being. He said, “Let there be light: and there was light.

Yahweh, too, made creatures after his own image: humans who could talk. He conversed with his creations. When he was alone, he called out to his creations, “Where art thou?”

And Yahweh, too, grew disappointed. He “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

And he said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

Of the creatures who could speak, only Noah and his family would be spared; Yahweh had judged Noah to be the best of his (terrible!) generation. Noah was instructed to build a boat. After it was built, the rains began to fall.

Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man.

Noah watched his god murder everyone he had known. And Noah was traumatized. Noah planted a vineyard, fermented the grapes, and drank himself to sleep at night. Otherwise the dreams would come.

While Noah lay insensate, his son crept into his tent.

This scene is based upon an old Babylonian folktale. A son believes that his father has sired too many children, and so the son, fearing that his inheritance will shrink further as it is divided between ever more heirs, castrates his father. No new children will stake claims upon the father’s holdings. But when the father wakes in his bloodied bed, he curses his son: “You have done this evil to preserve your inheritance, so you will inherit nothing!”

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.”

Noah yanked away the son’s inheritance, and more: his son’s heirs would not only fail to inherit the lands, they would become slaves.

Noah’s curse was the beginning of human inequality. When self-professed Christians living in the American regime of abduction & torture (roughly 1600 to 1900, although the era by no means ended crisply) wanted to offer a biblical justification for their abhorrent practices, they claimed that the people whom they’d abducted & tortured were descended from Noah’s cursed son.

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Yahweh had claimed that he would not murder the people with another flood, but the humans felt that Yahweh had broken promises before. The people did not believe themselves to be safe. In the first flood, even mountains were covered. (Fifteen cubits would make for a very small mountain – about as tall as a two-story house – but most ancient myths were created over centuries, so we needn’t quibble over a little math.)

To be safe, the people would have to create their own high ground. An even higher ground. They would build a tower into the sky. Not from hubris, but from fear, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

High above the earth, they would be safe from divine violence.

Without the power to wrench away their lives, Yahweh’s power over them would wane.

This was unacceptable. And so Yahweh inflicted upon them the very calamity that they feared. He “scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth.”

And Yahweh ensured that his creations could not attempt again to build their own high ground, their own realm of safety away from his violence. He had noticed that his creations “have all one language” and so “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” To maintain their subservience, he said “let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

Yahweh spoke this curse in the Edenic language. Yahweh cursed his creations to make them weaker. And yet, he made them better. Before, they were all of one mind. There was a single culture, a single mode of thought for all, a single set of words to describe the world.

After Babel, there were many.

A cursing, a blessing: our diversity of languages is both.

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In the scientific telling, our diversity of languages – a blessing – came from separation. In the beginning, all humans lived within a small region of the globe. Fossils representing the first four million years of human evolution have been found only in east Africa. Only in the last two hundred thousand years did small populations of human ancestors begin to live elsewhere: in Europe, Asia, and the Polynesian Islands.

The mass migrations of Homo sapiens that led directly to our diversity of languages did not begin until about forty thousand years ago.

This was long before anyone told stories like the Popul Vuh or Genesis, which are rooted in agricultural traditions. But this was when our languages were “confounded,” when our ancestors developed a diversity of ways to think of and describe the world.

Yet our separation also wrought a curse. After our ancestors dispersed, creating millions of ways to speak, they also began to foster select pockets of disease. Each isolated community experienced their own zoogenic epidemics; time and time again, their civilizations nearly collapsed, but survivors gained immunity.

Local immunity. After centuries in which influenza had spread through European communities, this virus could typically kill only the very young and old. But when European travelers brought influenza to the Americas, the virus obliterated immunologically naive communities. Upwards of ninety percent of people died. Imagine: a pandemic 300 times more deadly than Covid-19. Influenza was (and still is!) a nightmarish virus.

Our separation also led to our diversity of appearances. And these small differences – lighter or darker skin; straighter or curlier hair; broader or pointier noses – were enough to spur hatred and bigotry.

Guided by these trivial differences in appearance, our ancestors made real Noah’s curse of inequality. Those who happened to have more ancestral exposure to disease and more ancestral access to nutritious foodstuffs were able to conquer their fellow humans. People were enslaved. Resources were plundered. Our diversity of languages has dwindled. Is dwindling now.

Separation – which let our ancestors develop distinct languages, distinct ways of seeing and speaking about the world – also led to hierarchy.

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In the fantasy novel Babel, R. F. Kuang reimagines history to consider opposition to Noah’s curse. How might we topple the hierarchies? How might we create a world in which all children are born equal and free?

Babel is a lovely book, but it’s vision is pessimistic and bleak. Babel is subtitled The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This is the protagonists’ conclusion: violence is their only option. Only violence will stop the empire.

Like gods, they will murder and destroy.

Yet even in Babel – with its anticolonial, anticapitalist leanings – the heroes oppress. In their moral framework, only human life has value. Our species can speak. The other creatures – who either have no verbal language, or whose spoken words we’ve failed to comprehend – are ours to enslave, kill, and devour.

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In the film The Matrix, only violence can set people free.** With a plethora of armaments, the heroes assault government offices and murder the hapless rule-followers who stand in their way.

Everything Everywhere All at Once reimagines The Matrix without its preponderance of violence. Everything Everywhere All at Once is based upon a similar premise – the world that we experience is an illusion, and huge quantities of information exist just outside our perception – but asks what it would mean to find a peaceful way to set things right.

Hugs instead of handguns: could such a revolution ever succeed?

Midway through the film, Everything Everywhere All at Once re-enacts Genesis 22. The hero is handed a knife and commanded by a father figure to sacrifice her child for reasons that she cannot understand. But where Abraham would have said yes – abetting the sort of god who preferred Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, celebrating the first murder and thereby setting into motion a long chain of suffering – in Everything Everywhere All at Once the hero rejects violence and sets her child free.

In Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, the knight of infinite resignation should have been described as more heroic than the knight of faith – to know that there is suffering, to confront a mystery that your mind cannot possibly comprehend, and to reject the demands of a murderous authority.

For a 1963 psychology experiment conducted at Yale University, Stanley Milgram tested how often people would attempt murder when commanded by an authority figure. 40 men were tested; 26 made the same choice as Abraham. “Take now thy son and offer him there for a burnt offering.

Abraham raised a knife to slay his son.

Abraham lived within a world of hierarchies and violence. A world of gods who have no respect for the fruits of the ground, preferring instead slain creatures and the fat thereof.

In Babel, the heroes seek to overturn that world, but cannot imagine any means other than by perpetuating its violence.

In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the heroes consider love.

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** Also, a friend recently shared with me their belief that The Matrix would be a better film if Trinity’s prophecy — that she’d love the hero who saved human-kind — meant Trinity learning to love herself before assuming the savior’s mantle. But there’s no way the Wachowski sisters could have made a movie like that in 1999, given their (very reasonable!) reluctance to publicly display their real identities.

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Image of a person chatting with ELIZA by Kevin Trotman on flickr.

Painting of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, 1563.

On urgency and gender-affirming medical care.

On urgency and gender-affirming medical care.

In the New York Times Magazine article “The Battle Over Gender Therapy,” journalist Emily Bazelon describes the conflicting views of several medical doctors and psychologists. They disagree over timing and access: who should decide whether a young person receives gender-affirming medical care, and how long should this decision-making process take?

In general, waiting before finalizing a decision is best. This is true whether they are big decisions – like getting married or buying a house – or relatively small decisions – like buying a new couch, posting an irate Twitter message, or drinking another beer. If you can give yourself time to mull it over, you’ll probably be happier with your resulting decision, even if you end up doing the same thing.

In the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, a chess instructor attempts to teach this patience to his student:

“So what’s your best move?”

“Rook to d.”

“What about taking on e?”

“What about it?”

“You didn’t consider it. You’re still not considering it.”

“I’m right. Rook to d is the best move.”

“You didn’t study the board!”

Even when the answer seems clear, it’s still often better to take time to think. To plan, to weigh options.

But we don’t always have this luxury. Sometimes, when considering whether to buy a house, people feel forced to make a decision immediately – otherwise, someone else might buy it! These snap decisions, like the home purchases that many people made during the pandemic, are more likely to lead to regret.

For a person seeking gender-affirming medical care, deciding to begin hormone therapy might be an even bigger decision than getting married or buying a house. Hormone therapy can cause irreversible physical changes. For a person who was assigned female at birth, taking testosterone often results in a permanently deeper voice; reshaping of the face to appear more angular; changes in the shape and size of genitals.

Similarly, when a person who was assigned male at birth uses hormone therapy to help their appearance and physiology better match the gender of their brain, an analogous set of changes may linger even if this person decides to stop taking the medications.

And, yes, some people will decide to stop taking the medications. As with any medical treatment, hormone therapy has both benefits and side-effects, and it’s hard to know how these will balance out for a particular individual’s brain & body before they try.

So, it’s a big decision. There are irreversible changes. Obviously, taking a lot of time to wait and evaluate would be best, right?

But sometimes, competing urgency makes waiting impractical. As an example, consider surgical removal of an organ. This is a drastic measure: you’d like to wait and mull things over. Unfortunately, time pressure from the septic shock of an advanced bacterial infection might force a quick decision. My friend was barely conscious during this decision-making process after collapsing in the lobby of our local hospital.

When deciding whether or not to initiate gender-affirming hormone therapy, there’s a bit more wiggle room. But for a young person who’s mustered up enough self-knowledge and courage to talk to their parents or healthcare provider about wanting medication, there is still looming time pressure.

During puberty, bodies can change very drastically within a matter of months. Many of these changes are lifelong and irreversible. Waiting to evaluate isn’t just a default, low-impact choice. Hormone therapy is a big deal, but waiting will also bring dramatic, permanent physiological changes. Not to mention continued psychological turmoil, which might be compounded by the knowledge that, for all of your bravery in speaking up, you’re still not getting the help you need.

My main qualm with Bazelon’s article? For all the nuance devoted to the medical doctors’ and psychologists’ opinions, we hear very little from young people. Bazelon interviewed over 60 clinicians, researchers, activists, and historians, but only half that many of the young people whose brains, bodies, & lives are at stake. As a parent, I’m aware that children can do or say a lot of irksome, irrational things; as someone who works with elementary and high-school students, I also know that we have to recognize young people as valid knowers and thinkers.

I want to hear about the sense of urgency from young people themselves. Instead, this central issue was only passingly mentioned in a single sentence, a quote from child psychologist Laura Edwards-Leeper about the process of evaluating young people for gender-affirming treatment: “If a child was on the cusp of puberty, and anxious about how their body was about to change, we tried to squeeze them in faster, which I still think is really important.”

Young people have a stake in our world. And yet – with our inaction on climate change; our mass production & sale of military-grade weaponry to anybody who wants it; our treating schools as a lower priority than bars or restaurants during the pandemic, and then keeping schools closed or disrupted even after we had data showing that these disruptions were causing children even greater harm than Covid-19 infection; our age- and wealth-based prejudices that give retirees a far greater say in the future of our country & planet than the young people who will inherit the mess – we are not only disenfranchising young people, but abjectly failing them.

Young people have not been silent. We ought to listen.

On pandemic-era incarceration.

On pandemic-era incarceration.

During the first year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, the local county jail wouldn’t admit volunteers. Incarceration in the United States sounds crummy most of the time, but most of the people I’ve communicated with have said that things were even worse during the pandemic: more fear, more tension, fewer opportunities to do much of anything either than sit & worry.

Around that time, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project – an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated – received many letters like this:

The prison I am at has us on 23 hour a day lockdown due to the coronavirus threat. We also lost access to most jobs around the prison, visits, library, and a lot of other things that help relieve stress, like sports, walking track, weight-lifting, church, etc.

So books will be a huge help, we are three-deep to a cell and I can’t say I always enjoy the company.

And also –a la Baudelaire’s “oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – we received some terrifying stories from people who got very sick:

On Sept 1st I was Covid-positive, on Sept 4 shortly after 6 a.m. I was rushed to the hospital. I was on a ventilator & in paralytic coma for 6 ½ days. Both lungs free of pneumonia, I have now been diagnosed with stress-induced cardiomyopathy due to Covid. I am back at the prison. My voice sounds like a man (LOL).

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There are almost always communicable diseases circulating through the jails and prisons. That’s certainly still been true during the Covid-19 pandemic: in southern Indiana, vaccine uptake is relatively low, especially among the population of people usually targeted for incarceration. Still, volunteers began visiting the jail again as soon as we were allowed – during stressful times, people need more support and kindness than usual, not less.

For the past few months, the administration has been letting us bring equipment to record people reading books for their kids. Then librarians at our excellent local library send the video and a paper copy of the book to the person’s kids.

After a Sunday morning recording session, someone was telling me a bit about her recent experience:

We’ve got three levels of security in the women’s block right now, so we’re on lockdown about 22 hours a day. They only let us out to the common area one level at a time.”

Breakfast at 4:30, why I was feeling a sleepy. They do have coffee at commissary, instant coffee. Commissary’s a little tough, the prices of everything have gone up but they didn’t raise the weekly cap, so you can get a little less each week. My parents have been putting money in my commissary, but you can’t do more than the cap.

My parents have been taking good care of me, thank God, not that I deserve it.

Which always breaks my heart to hear somebody say. She deserves help. We all do.

I doubt there’s anyone among us who would be pleased to have people always associate us with the worst things we’d ever done. Or have our worst moments mulled over by judges and prosecutors and public defenders, then written up in someone else’s words and stored in a permanent file.

I’ve certainly done bad things & broken laws: I had the good fortune to not be caught. (Good fortune, plus pale skin, masculine frame, upper-class accent, apartments in wealthy, less-policed areas …) I drove with drugs in my car. And I definitely hurt people – started petty arguments, callously trampled feelings – in ways that aren’t illegal, but I’d still feel awful having those moments replayed again and again, discussed in a courtroom, treated as though those smallest, meanest moments were the essence of me, the most important thing for somebody to know about me.

In Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes that:

I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others.”

But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.

I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations – over the things they’d done, or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst things we’ve ever done.

I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief.

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In jail that day, I tried to say something vaguely similar. But at the end of our recording session, I got to return to my loving family. I got to read a book to my children while hugging them.

She went back to the block, waiting for us to mail a DVD of her reading & a copy of the book to her kids. Which isn’t the same, and isn’t enough.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

Farmers conquered the world.

Not that many of us farm. Modern technologies allow us all to be fed even though less than 1% of the population still does the actual work of farming. But the food we eat comes from farms. Without farms, we couldn’t live as we do.

Indeed, the material luxuries of the modern world would make this place seem like a paradise to our ancestors. So much food, so easily procured! Soft warm clothes – you can buy great digs at Goodwill for a few dollars. Oracular pocket computers – my telephone can prophesize way better than ancient gods. I know when it’s going to rain. I know if the rain will be stopping in 35 minutes.

We have indoor plumbing, hot showers, scented candles – that’s awesome! Think about it: Victorian cities smelled so bad!

I mean, sure – with climate change and rising sea levels, sewers in places like New York City will back up more frequently, and I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a moment to be grateful: the stuff we have access to is pretty incredible. All our technologies and toys.

Wow.

Farmers really nailed it, didn’t they?

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But before we reached our fabulous present (please continue to suspend your disbelief for a little longer; I understand that the present moment in history feels decidedly less than fabulous for many people), something strange had to happen.

Hunter-gatherers lived pretty well. They ate good food. They spent ample time socializing and relaxing. As best we can tell, their lives had a lot of potential for happiness.

By way of contrast, it was the pits to be an early farmer! You’d work all day; eat crummy food that left you gassy and bloated; die young. Also, you’d feel small – instead of believing that you were probably just as good as anyone else, you’d know that there were kings and such who lived way better than you.

Every now and then, their ruffians might come calling and haul away your food.

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Just like the recently deposed leader of the United States, ancient kings were big on building walls. But there’s a difference. Because it was so miserable to be an early farmer – a cog in the gearworks of a glorious civilization! – early walls may have been built to keep people in.

In Against the Grain, James Scott writes of early states that, “Do what they might to discourage and punish flight – and the earliest legal codes are filled with such injunctions – archaic states lacked the means to prevent a certain degree of [population loss] under normal circumstances. For China’s Mongol frontier, Owen Lattimore has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions. … Precisely because this practice of going over to the barbarians flies directly in the face of civilization’s “just so” story, it is not a story one will find in the court chronicles and official histories. It is subversive in the most profound sense.

The hunter gatherers had been happy, though! So how did we get from there to here? If early farming was so miserable, why did people do it?

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In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that a select few prehistoric farming communities were less miserable than the rest. Their arguments are based on sparse archaeological data – in the essay “Digging for Utopia,” Kwame Anthony Appiah presents several examples in which Graeber & Wengrow’s interpretations extend beyond the evidence – and yet, their central conclusion is almost certainly correct.

Many, many groups of humans formed distinct communities over the past ten thousand years. That’s a long time. These people didn’t have access to all the historical knowledge that we have, but they were no less intelligent or imaginative than we are. It would be naive to imagine that every single community followed the exact same political system.

Although Appiah’s review ends with a great line – “Never mind the dawn, Rousseau was urging: we will not find our future in our past” – I agree with Graeber & Wengrow that there’s benefit from showing that cooperation and mutual aid were the underpinnings of successful civilizations in the past. We needn’t be shackled by the choices of our ancestors, but it’s still nice to feel inspired by them. Even one single example of a stable ancient civilization organized around mutual aid would give credence to the idea that a radical reworking of contemporary civilization isn’t doomed to failure.

If prehistoric people did have a variety of political systems, though – some happy, some oppressive – why did we end up with a bad version?

Graeber & Wengrow write:

When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to [societies like] Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality.

All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence, and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization: the sacrifice of our three basic freedoms, and of life itself, for the sake of something always out of reach – whether that be an ideal or world order, the Mandate of Heaven or blessings from insatiable gods.

Is it any wonder that in some circles the very idea of ‘civilization’ has fallen into disrepute? Something very basic has gone wrong here.

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Presumably, some ancient cultures prioritized happiness (cooperation, sharing, art), while others prioritized growth (acquisition, extraction, war, and work).

I would rather live in the former sort; I assume most people, if given the chance to experience both, would make a similar choice. (Graeber & Wengrow include several examples of well-educated people who experienced both self-interested European-style capitalism and cooperative “savagery” preferring the latter. “By far the most common reasonshad to do with the intensity of social bonds they experienced in Native American communities: qualities of mutual care, love and above all happiness, which they found impossible to replicate once back in European settings. ‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.”)

But the borders of a political system that prioritizes growth will steadily expand if able. Whenever there’s a meeting between a growth-valuing and a happiness-valuing society, the former is likely to attempt to commandeer the land and resources that had been used to support the latter.

North America was populated before Europeans arrived. The land was intensely managed: Graeber and Wengrow write that “What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour-intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.

But the land was being managed according to ideals other than maximum short-term agricultural extraction and population growth. The original human inhabitants of this continent believed that it would be both morally and ethically wrong to extract everything possible from their surroundings – future generations and other animals also held valid claims to the land – and so their civilizations sought to thrive sustainably amid natural abundance.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, as Matt Siegel relates in The Secret History of Food, people “described great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of each other, downing giant oaks from their weight and covering the forest in four inches of droppings. John Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun, and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.

Despite this well-managed abundance, many Europeans still starved to death when they first arrived on this continent. They starved “not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of skill and acquiring it. In unwillingness to heed the advice of the Natives, whom they saw as ‘uncivilized savages.’ Pilgrim John Smith recounts, for example, coming across waters so thick with fish that their heads stuck out above the water, but being unable to catch any for want of nets. ‘We attempted to catch them with a frying pan,’ he writes, ‘but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.’ ”

This sort of extravagant abundance is now gone, because the encroaching civilization prioritized extraction. Enough of the Europeans survived to gain a foothold on this continent, after which natural resources would not be managed, but consumed.

The rivers were sullied; the great flocks of birds were killed.

(The other day, my family was driving near a highway where a flock of perhaps a thousand starlings swelled and tumbled through the air – it looked magical. I cannot imagine what a flock of a billion birds would be like.)

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The standard measure of our economy – the single magical number cited by politicians and talking heads to let us regular TV-watching folks know how our country is doing – is “growth.”

This magic number doesn’t assess how much we have – although politicians occasionally mention “per capita income” or “per capita output,” which could be rough proxies for that, as long as you neglect our slight (ha!) disparities in distribution – nor how happy we are. Instead, we boast or fret over the rate of increase.

But there’s a limit to growth. I loved the game Universal Paperclip, which I’ve discussed previously, because it elegantly depicts what goes wrong when we attempt ceaseless expansion.

We could prioritize something else – happiness, perhaps – but that would require a massive cultural shift. The ideals of growth are ingrained on both sides of our current political spectrum.

In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson discusses climate change and the conflict it presents: the freedom to do what we want now (chop down forests; extract & burn fossil fuels) versus our descendants having the freedom to do what they want later (visit old-growth forests; encounter wild animals; have a stable climate; survive). We now know that we can’t both have these untrammeled freedoms. Someone – either us or our descendants – has to make sacrifices.

Nelson discusses Naomi Klein’s interactions with people who are unwilling to change their current lifestyle: those who demand the freedom to eat lots of meat, crank their air conditioning, purchase & dispose of whatever plastic products they want.

Those people “are right, Klein says, when they say that climate change isn’t really an ‘issue.’ Rather, she says, ‘climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideals are no longer viable.’

These ideals – shared by people on both the right and left, Klein explains – involve a paradigm of civilization based on progress and expansion rather than one based on an apprehension of and respect for natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence, and the material, planetary parameters that make human life possible.

But it does no good for you to personally refrain from extracting & burning fossil fuels if someone else goes ahead and does it. Our planet is interconnected: the politics of Brazil will affect us all. Clever people are prioritizing growth and expansion.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that the Earth was already a poor habitat for humanity; if climate change makes our planet less habitable, so be it. He believes that there’s no limit to the growth of knowledge – or, therefore, to the economic growth possible for a knowledge-bearing civilization – so why should we slow down now?

(Despite his background in physics, Deutsch ignores the hard limit imposed by entropy – all processes in our universe consume order and excrete chaos, There will be no possibility for further action – not even thought – once the initial order has been consumed. Believe me, I’m all for scientific research: if the lifespan of our sun is compressed into a twenty-four hour day, the current time is about 10:58 a.m., humans have been around since about 10:57 a.m., and the sun will become too hot and evaporate all our water by 7:36 p.m. For humanity to carry on, our descendants will have to find a way to leave this planet by then – but humanity won’t carry on infinitely. And we’ll be unlikely to carry on at all if we recklessly wreck the planet before 11 a.m. instead of giving ourselves the full day to work on solutions!)

If a subset of our population agrees with Nelson & Klein, and another subset agrees with Deutsch, those who agree with Deutsch will win – win, that is, in the sense of having done what they want to the world. Sprinting ahead during the first minute of what’s likely to be an eight-hour long marathon, overheating, and expiring at the side of the road.

As a running coach, that’s something I generally counsel people not to do.

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Europeans arrived on North America. They prioritized growth. They took land from the previous inhabitants.

The vast flocks of pigeons are gone.

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In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber & Wengrow make a persuasive case that many cultures intentionally avoided the emergence of severe inequality or permanent bureaucracy. “Sometimes indigenous property systems formed the basis for differential access to resources, with the result that something like social classes emerged. Usually, though, this did not happen, because people made sure that it didn’t, much as they made sure chiefs did not develop coercive power.”

Mutual aid and cooperation were intentional goals around which societies were structured.

Unfortunately, although this sort of political structure might be good at producing happiness, it’s inefficient. I volunteer with several organizations that operate on the principle of consensus decision-making; these deliberations can be quite arduous!

Over time, the cultures with more efficient political systems are likely to grow faster – even if they’re less happy – and gradually displace the others. This is the same logic of invasive species: the plants labeled as “invasive” in any habitat tend to begin their growing season earlier and spread more easily, allowing them to replace whatever had been there before.

Capitalism has a lot of flaws, and unfettered capitalism can certainly get stuck with massive inefficiencies through monopoly power or the like, but capitalism is typically more efficient than mutual aid.

Graeber and Wengrow write that:

Both money and administration are based on similar principles of interpersonal equivalence. What we wish to emphasize is how frequently the most violent inequalities seem to arise from such fictions of legal equality.

This equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations.

As anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council, resolving inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.

It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.

As money is to promises, we might say, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of maths and violence.

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I would have preferred for Graeber and Wengrow to continue this discussion of efficiency, which helps explain why we inherited a political system that produces less happiness than the cultures of many of our ancestors.

Hunting and gathering yielded ample calories for ancient humans to build stable, complex societies. But in these societies, little would have been interchangeable; people might engage in different activities each day, each season, each year. The food they ate might vary considerably from one day to the next.

(In Against the Grain, Scott writes “Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time. The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average. This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet. It would be hard to exaggerate that variety. Not only might it span several food webs – marine, wetland, forest, savanna, arid – each with its seasonal variation, but even when it came to plant foods, the diversity was, by agricultural standards, staggering. The archaeological site of Abu Hureyra, for example, in its hunter-gatherer phase, yielded remains from 192 different plants, of which 142 could be identified, and of which 118 are known to be consumed by contemporary hunter-gatherers.”)

Farming produces equivalence. A farmer can specialize in a small set of actions, raising a small set of plants and animals. Bushels of wheat can be easily measured. There are definite losses in terms of health, happiness, and leisure time, but farming makes political organization more efficient.

Indiana’s forests are filling up with garlic mustard, not because it’s the best plant, but because it grows efficiently.

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Among the superpowers of the modern world, some have vaguely democratic political systems (although perhaps it’s foolish to lump plutocratic representational systems like the U.S. into this category), and some use dictatorship (like China).

I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces suggesting that the Chinese political system can’t succeed over the long run because it stifles creativity; for instance, an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why China Can’t Innovate” claims that Ph.D. students in China receive an inadequate training because “the governance structures of China’s state-owned universities still leaves too many decisions to too few people.”

In the long-run, yes, free societies can produce more creative solutions to their problems. Graeber and Wengrow present compelling evidence that the indigenous free peoples of North America created a much greater variety of political systems than the oppressed peoples of Europe.

In the short run, however, dictatorships can be more efficient. (With the obvious possibility that a dictator might decide to do something counterproductive, as Vladimir Putin is demonstrating.)

Civilizations collapse – or devour each other – in the short run.

On masks and whether they ‘work.’

On masks and whether they ‘work.’

tl;dr – Please get vaccinated, friend!

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My community’s most recent school board meeting was exceptionally contentious.

Public education is almost always contentious in this country: Evolution! The pledge of allegiance! The Founding Fathers’ complicity in felonious (oft murderous) abduction & torture!

Now, we’re also arguing over whether it’s safe for schools to be open at all!

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At the school board meeting, a white woman stood up at the podium, ripped off her mask, and said “I can’t breathe.”

(Unfortunately, I assume the resonance with the BLM protests was intentional. When I went to pick up my kids from school last week, a white mother was wearing a t-shirt with the traditional white on black BLM layout that said “Drunk Wives Matter.” My hometown is within a half hour’s drive of the national KKK headquarters.)

As is the way of things in our country right now, about half the parents in attendance were aghast. The other half cheered.

“The masks don’t work! Everybody knows the masks don’t work!” people shouted.

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Oddly enough, though, the people saying “the masks don’t work” are actually correct. But so are the people who say that masks work. The word “work” is pretty nebulous!

As Joseph Allen & Helen Jenkins wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, many well-meaning people have been unhelpfully vague when defining goals for our pandemic response. Are we trying to minimize lifelong harms from all causes? Are we trying to minimize the number of deaths that occur this year? Are we trying to eradicate the virus that causes Covid-19?

Each of these goals would require that we take a different set of actions.

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Masks “work” in the sense that when people are wearing face masks, there’s a lower probability of Covid-19 transmission during any interaction.

Masks reduce the number of viral particles that exit a person’s airspace as they speak or exhale. Of course, this presupposes that the person wearing a mask actually is shedding viral particles. But that’s the tricky thing about Covid-19 (or influenza)! Some people feel fine!

Masks also might reduce the likelihood of transmission when an unexposed person who is hoping to avoid or delay illness wears a mask. (Masks probably help with this, but it’s less well tested.)

Universal mask requirements are a great tool to delay transmission!

When worn selectively – for instance, only during hospital visits, or only when inside nursing homes – masks can also skew the demographics of transmission. With Covid-19, skewing the demographics of transmission is a great goal!

Even back before we had safe, effective vaccines, we could’ve saved huge numbers of lives by skewing the demographics of transmission! Some people are much more likely to recover from Covid-19 safely than others! (Major risk factors include advanced age, diabetes status, and probably smoking status. But there are also unknown risk factors – we don’t know why certain young healthy people can get so sick from this.)

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Masks don’t “work,” though, if the goal is to prevent cases of Covid-19.

By May of 2020, it was already clear that Covid-19 would become endemic. We’d spread the virus too widely by then. The virus will never go away. Cases will never fall to zero.

Everyone alive today, and everyone born in the future, will be exposed to Covid-19 eventually. (With the possible exception of people who happen to die of other causes within the next few years.)

There’s still a strong argument for using masks to delay Covid-19 transmission: with more time, more people can be vaccinated! The vaccines work, by which I mean that the vaccines save lives.

Everyone will be exposed to Covid-19! The people who have been vaccinated are much more likely to survive! This front page article in my local newspaper is fear mongering; it’s a sort of fear mongering that I wholeheartedly endorse!

Vaccination is a safe, effective, time-tested medical practice. The principles behind vaccination were independently discovered centuries ago by scientists and healers in Africa, India, and China. Their discoveries were the basis for Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.

When scientists say that vaccines “work” – vaccines save lives – we mean something very different than when we say that masks “work” – masks delay exposure!

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In conjunction with vaccination, masks can be helpful!

Which is why the argument that children should currently wear masks in school is reasonable. Covid-19 tends not to be very dangerous for children, but occasionally it’s deadly. There’s a definite cost to wearing masks in school – muffled voices, hidden facial expressions, increased hassle – but children could be kept safer by delaying their exposure to Covid-19 until after a vaccine is approved for them.

(I feel lucky that my kids have already safely recovered from Covid-19 – I’m not beset by the same fear over this that other parents are navigating. But I understand their concern: raising children often feels terrifying because my heart would shatter if anything happened to these tiny, willful, fragile creatures.)

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Most of the people who say “masks don’t work” are planning not to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Which means, weirdly, that they’re right! Without the end goal of eventual vaccination, masks don’t work! Even if universal masking policies were kept in place forever, Covid-19 is so infectious that everyone would still be exposed eventually!

The vaccines can save lives; masks cannot.

Obviously, I’m not arguing that you should ignore local mask requirements: I’m currently wearing a face mask as I type this! And there are lots of people who do want to be vaccinated who don’t have access yet – this isn’t much of an issue for adults in the United States, but vaccine access is an incredible privilege for most of the world’s population.

Because Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who feel fine, wearing a mask is a way to protect others. And personal preference isn’t a good reason to endanger the lives of the folks around us! That’s why we have traffic laws! Even if I think it’d be fun to go out driving while buzzed on booze, or to cruise on the left-hand side of the road, I shouldn’t be allowed to do it!

But also, I think it’s worth acknowledging that, within the full context of their actions, people’s denunciations of masks are actually scientifically accurate.

“Follow the science” is an unhelpful slogan – scientific analysis doesn’t result in a monolithic set of inarguable conclusions. At the heart of any policy, there are goals and priorities. These are set by philosophical or ethical considerations, not scientific fact.

“Follow the scientific findings that help us all achieve my goals for the world” doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it, though.

On trauma and the marshmallow test.

On trauma and the marshmallow test.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I could not have passed the marshmallow test yesterday.

I meditated.

I could probably pass today.

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header image by Kate Ter Haar on flickr

On vaccination.

On vaccination.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Shucks.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

White male bodies are considered to be human bodies, and any deviation is considered an abnormal case. Medication tested in white men can be approved for everyone; medication tested in Black patients was approved only for use in other Black patients.

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.

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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.

So should you.

On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

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.

Even when fantasy authors are kind of awful – perhaps using their outsize cultural influence to oppress other people – their wizards mostly strive to do good.

But not in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

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.

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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.

In Entitled, Kate Manne writes that

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.

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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.

If Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” could cast spells, what do you think they’d do?

On bad penis puns.

On bad penis puns.

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:

PENELOPE’S LAMENT

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

insisted,

“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,

They learn.”

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.

Throughout the marvelous X+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender, Eugenia Cheng encourages us to avoid needless competitive thinking:

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.

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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.