On the sacred.

On the sacred.

In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana.  We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.  Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly.  But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.

The guys asked me when these experiments had happened. 

“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.

“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then!  Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard.  Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”

I was shaking my head.  “Five pounds?  The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California.  Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”

“Two hundred dollars?  You got ripped off!”

I laughed.  “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”

“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”

I demurred.  “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”

The guy’s face fell.  The room grew silent.  Until somebody shouted, “Oregano?  He just called you a major asshole!”

I felt pretty bad.  I’d really hurt his feelings.

#

As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.

Unsuccessfully.  Possibly by accident.  But still.

There was a dropped wallet.  His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes.  Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through.  Then an arrest.

That whole episode transpired almost three years ago.  But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.

The guy has been in my class several times before.  I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street.  Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.

#

Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me.  He said he hadn’t known whose card it was.  I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse.  Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.

Money isn’t sacred.

Photo by Todd Huffman on Flickr.

I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other.  The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings.  Money comes and money goes.  It’s just paper.  Or less: numbers inside a machine.

That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank.  We scan a card and the value of our account goes down.  Nothing physically happens.

Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.

#

But passing off drugs as something they’re not?  That violates something sacred.  Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.

You don’t have to be honest all the time.  You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers.  That’s all harmless talk.  Passing the time, shooting the shit.

If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test.  Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it.  For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.

When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt.  If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope.  Not pot dipped in embalming fluid.  Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.

I won’t tell another joke about oregano.

Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges.  But one really rankles him:

“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice?  The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me!  They put my picture on Fox News.  I was so fucking pissed!  I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”

On smuggling.

On smuggling.

While I was working in a research laboratory at Stanford, my advisor mentioned that she was waiting for a package from ________.

“Oh, we got something from him,” said our technician John, “but it was just an Invitrogen catalog.  Their rep brought us a newer copy last week, so I threw it out.”

“What!” my advisor shouted, causing him to jump.  “Which trash can?!” 

She and John rooted through the garbage together.  Luckily the package had arrived that day.  The now-gooey catalog (I was smashing a lot of cow brains in those days, and the bleached muck went into the trash) was still there.

We didn’t need another Invitrogen catalog.  But it’s illegal to ship DNA through the mail, so researchers often smuggle it by dotting some onto paper then circling the spot.  When you receive DNA this way, you cut out the circle, dip it in water, and then add bacteria.

The bacteria make more copies of your DNA.  Antibiotics kill off any bacteria that aren’t helping.  And the U.S. post office is none the wiser.

Then you can throw out the useless catalog.


I’ve been volunteering with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners project for about a decade.  We ship books to people who would be otherwise deprived.  Occasionally, though, administrators at a prison will instruct their mailroom staff to return all our packages.  Or, worse, quietly pitch them into the trash.  Months might pass before people inside let us know that our books aren’t getting in.

Usually, the administrators will relent and let us send books again, but it might take a few years of phone calls.  During one such frustrating episode, I wrote a poem.

Sympathy for the Devil

I am a writer as in a vulture, plucking words from

others’ pain. & sing penance, but never loud enough:

we feast upon this world of hurt we’ve made.

Words might salve even the poor, so we send free

books to inmates. At one prison, packages never

arrived. We called & were told we impregnated

literature with suboxone. We lacked both will &

way: we have no budget; drugged pages wilt &

yellow; no one would read. Later I heard the state

was shunting sex criminals there. Books were

a privilege, underhandedly revoked.

                                                               Gangs rule

inside: Aryan Brotherhood for whites, Gangland

Disciples for black men. We are free to believe in

post-racial America: in prison, meals might mean

a stack of trays sloughed inside a then-locked door.

Some men take two. Others will go hungry. The

ache of want sends us seeking for what symbols

of solidarity we find, hoping for allies against the

world.

             AB oft allies with the guards. Members reap

cushy jobs, access to visitors, untrammelled mail.

At the prison binning our books, gang & guards

were very close, COs inked in crosses, runic letters,

shields & shamrocks. Yet AB, there, was weak. So

they were fed sex criminals – easy, friendless kills.

A guard outs the doomed man’s past – everyone

lies, asked why he’s doing time – and members

murder him in the shower.  They look tougher

than they are.

                         A dozen deaths. No indictments.

Activists began to smuggle phones, hoping to

document abuse. That’s when our packages ceased

to be received.

                           I’ve no deep love for these men –

friends of mine were abused.  But if those who molest

should be punished by death, let’s force judge & juries

to say it. Not read a shadow sentence of 10 or 20 years.

We should say what we mean:

I sentence you to a cruel and unusual death.  It will

come suddenly in a shower stall, faux-Odinist skin-

head slamming your head against the tile until your

bruised brain ruptures from repeated trauma.  Your

eyes will loosen from their sockets, your skull will

crack, blood will whelm through your nostrils.  In a

final indignity, bowels relax.  You will know the brief

hell of hoping to live when you cannot.  Your limp

body will drop while the water runs, cascading over

your corpse.  Although news of your death will not

reach those who sentenced you, they will know that

justice has been done.


Quite likely, drugs were being smuggled into that prison.  I’ve been told that it’s easier to buy drugs in prison than out on the street.  Which is rough – people who are recovering from addiction often relapse after being sent to prison.  In those bleak environs, there aren’t a lot of other ways to occupy your time.

The drugs weren’t coming from Pages to Prisoners, though.  We always embalm our packages in tape so that correctional officers can’t tamper with them (as easily) on their way in.  And, seriously, our organization doesn’t have the budget for drugs – we’re shipping donated books wrapped in old grocery bags!  I’ve never tried to buy opiates, but I assume they’re expensive.  Guys in jail sometimes mention how many thousands they were spending on their habits each week, which helps explain why they’re broke.

I understand why prison administrators worry, though.  Scientists use books to smuggle DNA; you could illicitly ship a variety of drugs that way.

Although our organization ships books to people incarcerated in twelve different states, local prisons are the only ones that ban us.  Which is sad.  From a community perspective, we’d like to help people locally.  We can recruit volunteers by mentioning that the people inside will be coming back to our community.

From a health and safety perspective, though, prison administrators would prefer that books come from out of state.  Then they can feel more confident that packages are being sent by people who’ve never met the inmates. 

The recipients would be like my colleague John, evaluating each book based solely on its title: an Invitrogen catalog?  We don’t need that! 

Or, after receiving one of the packages sent by Pages to Prisoners recently: sweet, advanced Dungeons & Dragons!

Prison administrators have good reason to keep drugs out.  People’s tolerance wanes during their time in jail – somebody might take too much and die.  Whereas they’re unlikely to OD on D&D.

 Of course, prisons don’t have to be so bleak & punitive, let alone violent & PTSD-inducing.  Prisons like we have in the U.S. don’t need to exist at all.  And then organizations like Pages to Prisoners wouldn’t need to send books.

On meditation.

On meditation.

More is different.

In the beginning, subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect.  The universe was “hot.”  (Temperature is a measure of average speed as objects jiggle.  When physics people say that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of the speed of light.)

In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting.  But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded.  Speeds slowed.  Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact.  Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars. 

Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins.  This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.

An exploding star scatters heavier atoms across the sky.  When these are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events in turn, producing even heavier atoms. 

Then that star might explode, too.

Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites.  On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars. 

After all, the infernal core of a star is pretty hot, too.  Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules – long strings of atoms bonded together.

The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars.  On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.

These molecules are just big amalgams of subatomic particles.  The underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid.  An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron.  It can do acid-base chemistry!  Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents. 

But if you compare that single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total snoresville.

Proteins, though … wow!  They can fold into fantastical shapes.  They can function as molecular machines, their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.

When you glom more and more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world.  They create more things like themselves.  Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.

And then, a cell!  A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat.  If you thought proteins were cool, check this out!  Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.

Or, what if there were more cells?  Then you can make us!  With many cells, you can make brains, which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.

Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out.  Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people.  Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …

And each of those physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles.  As we transition between scales, we see qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.

This essay is made from a set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an infinite number of different ideas.

We blink many thousands of times each day.  Our eyes close, pause, and then open again.  We need to blink.  Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches.  But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much.  Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.

Meditation is just a long blink.  Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.

But more is different.  A blink doesn’t disrupt your thoughts.  Meditation, however, can be a psychedelic experience.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.  Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.  Buddha decided to share that vision with others.

Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.

I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners.  As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation.  After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith.  These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.

The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception.  Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.

But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world.  Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic paincan be treated through meditation.  The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.

All people are creative.  Our problem, often, is that our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them.  Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”

Meditation can clear the turbid waters of your mind.  Like gazing into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they come.

I’ve never been inside a prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I make the pamphlets.  But everything I’ve read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and dangerous.  Which has obvious implications for how easily people can meditate.  If you live near a beautiful glen, you could probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit peacefully beside some flowing water.

Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation.  By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction.  To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA.  This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.

Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation.  During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase.  People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender. 

That seems silly to me – although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my age. 

I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself.  After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit.  But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life.  Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families.  Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.

While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place.  I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system.  Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.

In case you’re interested in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me.  I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.”  I liked the translation when I looked it up online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the “sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out.  I’ve read that people aim to spend about six seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than that. 

If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds.  But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.

As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation.  Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives.  If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects.  But you have to keep at it long enough.

When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:

Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly.  But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.

Mr. Lilly had a number of different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments.  It didn’t seem to make much difference as far as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was unnecessary.  Now that I saw what to do, I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.

I would like to have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.

I’ve only had a bit of practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift.  I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes, although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman.  But I get the feeling that it has to be continuous.  Once I’ve opened my eyes and glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.  Even if nothing much has happened.

On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness:Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.

I begin by stretching – although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body.  I try not to move while meditating, and it’d be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.

After I close my eyes, the first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time.  I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.

As long as I can force myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes.  More becomes different.  Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber field of my closed eyes.  Sometimes I slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.

Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing.  If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness. 

During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil.  Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.

One day without sleep won’t kill you.  Luckily so – since having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming and I never get to rest.  But more is different.  After three days without sleep, the shadow people start talking.  After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude.  But we got into all these arguments.

Sleep washes away the argumentative shadow people.

When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables.  But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.

If you trust my spouse’s subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help.  I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live with since I started practicing. 

If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks.  My apologies if it seems pointless at first.  I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.

After all, more is different.

.

Featured image by Mitchell Joyce on Flickr.

On white supremacist vegetables and watchful eyes.

On white supremacist vegetables and watchful eyes.

Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times.  Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention.  The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.

Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate.  The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas.  Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.

Teaching poetry in the local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery.  Most people know that the Confederate flag is bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto people’s flesh. 

COs bring twelve people to each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are usually white guys.  It’s pretty common for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist tattoos.  Which doesn’t even include questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there.  Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin and burgeoning designs.

When I’m there, we often read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice.  I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith.  Sometimes these lead to good discussions.  Sometimes our class gets totally derailed.

In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick.  The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction.  It’s a beautiful moment.  The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.

The next time I brought this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right.  Then they went off about sagging pants.  All this from southern-accented white guys whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely comprehend.

We had to quickly move on.

Or there was the time when we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare, stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a similarly constrained lexicon.

Many gone to the grave: men awed

by blood, lost in the black

of all that is awful:

think crack and aluminum.  Odd

what time steals,

or steals time: black robes, awful

nights when men offed in the streets awed

us.

If you read the poem aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.  That’s what I wanted to discuss.

Instead, a few guys latched onto lines like

                                                Black,

Mario, Charles, they all blackened

the inside of a coffin

and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!”  As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own.  Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president.  This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit.  The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.

Somebody else shook his head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”

We moved on.

In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties.  My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old.  But ideology can set in early.  My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.

At the beginning of the year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed.  She then posts these along the ceiling of her classroom.  Several times, she’s had to ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.

So it isn’t terribly surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs.  Right-wing supremacist movements are major terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting.  As our nation has become slightly less horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect.  They maintain a divide between their private and public language.

People who rely upon public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with their hate.

Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect.  But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless.  Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board.  This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States.  Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously.  But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover.  Sort of.  The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document. 

Through assiduous work, a team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.

The activists who had worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate.  They wanted to take action.  But the plan they favored wasn’t very flashy.  They would organize a boycott of that farm stand.  They also proposed that the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.

To stay at the farmers market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and they were making less and less money here.  I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be selling out their stock.

Unfortunately, the tropes of social media have changed public discourse in our country.  I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to claim that social media prizes style over substance.  Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in the attention economy.

As word spread that these farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our market.  People of color now felt unsafe in that space, for obvious reasons.  There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial minority.

The mayor, whose spouse is a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able to sue the city on a First Amendment case. 

Still, people felt that we had to do something more visible.  Passively allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.

Everybody has a right to believe whatever garbage they want.  Do you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic inclination toward greater intelligence?  You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.

The problem is that white supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their asinine beliefs.  Implicit threats of violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are different from “mere” hate.

If these farmers couldn’t be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth.  Eventually, a protester was arrested – the police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her home address was published online. 

She was soon inundated with death threats.

As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town.  Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott.  And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season.  Other farmers were suffering.

Image from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Calm, careful behavior from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’ in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped.  Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts were made to impose consequences.

But then our visible protests made matters worse.  We’ve helped the proponents of hate to make more money.

And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies.  They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.

As this whole struggle was unfolding, my spouse and I participated in a poetry reading.  We shared poems written by people in our local jail.  We were joined by one of the authors, a man who had just been released after five months inside.  He described what it was like to write while he was there – breathing fresh air in the outdoor rec courtyard only nine times in five months, having access to a pencil sharpener only once each week, and feeling forced to confess to a crime that he swears he hadn’t committed because they promised to release him for time served.

Our audience clapped for the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should be.

We closed our set with a piece from M.G.  This poem was written in February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began.  At a moment when so many of us were warily watching that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been watchful eyes gazing at the market.

The farmers market is just down the street from our five-story county jail.

MARKET

M.G.

As I look out this window of bars

There’s a farmer’s market.

People coming and going.

I wonder if I have any friends over there.

The sun is warm and bright.

One day soon I will be at

That farmer’s market.

I hope to see my friends again.

On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life.  Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.

But, let’s face it.  Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly.  If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person.  If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.

There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims.  But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence.  After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case.  Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world.  Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma.  And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.

So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country.  Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity.  Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.

At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru.  Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic.  And Norse mythology is cool!  Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion.  Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry.  But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice.  We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs.  Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.

I have nothing against religious invention.  All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today.  Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too.  Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.

So I like the idea of neo-paganism.  You want to find a clearing in the woods and do some moonlit dancing?  You’d rather worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity?  You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be protected rather than a resource to be exploited?  Go right ahead!  All of that sounds pretty great to me.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.

That’s why I’ve been working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology.  Currently, when people ask for The Poetic Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it, and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul of our anti-hate policy. 

But the Norse myths are certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of those.  The main difference is that centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler beliefs around the stories in the Bible. 

The text of Psalm 137 states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  But the text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion.  The practice of Christianity frowns upon the murder of any human infant.  Whether you like the kid’s parents or not.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people.  Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult.  You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too.  But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist.  Feminist.  Supporting the pursuit of knowledge.  Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.

Because contemporary Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to address skin color and genetic heritage directly.  It’s a fraught topic.  Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion of evolution.  Some people feel squigged out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common ancestors as the dinosaurs.  And that’s far less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States.  Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense.  Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.

I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though.  After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.

Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart.  This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other.  Maybe one group migrated to an island.  In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.

Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way.  Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell.  But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

If humans hadn’t polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed.  No matter how many sense-suppressing chemicals we dumped.

We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees.  About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together.  By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other.  Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.

One group of these creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright posture.  This allowed for a good vantage while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.  The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on all fours.  This body plan results in fewer mothers dying during childbirth.  As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Up until about 2 million years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.  But then they began to migrate.  Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe.  By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The difference between one population to the next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown bears.  Scientists describe them as distinct species.  Although they were similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve adaptations to their specific environments.

Evolution isn’t easy.  Nor is it quick.  Just because a certain trait would be advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it.  In the desert, it would help to have adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to cool the blood.  But a trait can only spread after a random mutation creates it.  And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for the benefit to spread through the population. 

Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish.  But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck.  That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment.  Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.

By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different.  Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness.  Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air.  These are incredibly beneficial traits.  Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.

Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct.  To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them.  But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals.  And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.

The Neanderthal lived at high latitude.  Over many generations, their average skin color became paler.  In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure.  Think about a dodo – there was no advantage for these birds to lose their fear of humans.  But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.

A sculpture of a dodo.

Dodos lost a beneficial trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed.  It’s kind of like the airbags in an old car.  If your car’s engine goes bad, you’ll notice right away.  Turn the key, hear it sputter.  You use the engine every time you drive.  But your airbags could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re needed, they won’t deploy.

Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin.  If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.

The most recent ancestors that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin.  Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale.  They can afford to be – their fur protects them from the sun.  But our ancestors lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this led to the evolution of dark skin.

High concentrations of epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.

As humans migrated to higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their humanity.  Because the sunlight was less intense, there was less selective pressure.  Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the trait went untested in their day to day lives.  They had no way to “realize” how important it was. 

Your airbags aren’t helpful until you crash.  And then they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.

Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north.  Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D.  We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.

In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers.  When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild.  And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors.  Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage.  They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

Around 40,000 years ago, our planet’s most recent ice age ended.  The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe.  By then, a group of humans living in Africa were recognizably Homo sapiens.  These were our ancestors.  Every human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from – is descended from this group of people from Africa.  They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.

As the world warmed, some of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.  These journeys occurred over many generations.  Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia.  As they traveled, they encountered the humans who already lived in those places.  As I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the natives.  They probably also killed a lot of them.  Unfortunately, we Homo sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well. 

Interbreeding happened rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA.  Some people, especially if their families are from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA.  At other extreme, even people whose families are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.

Among people living in Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

Like the Neanderthal before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to lose their epidermal melanin.  People who hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of sun damage.  Remember, this didn’t happen all at once.  Average skin color would change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime. 

Our ancestors spent almost all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably synthesize plenty of vitamin D.  Among contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we spend too much time inside.  As I type this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering fluorescent bulbs.  This low-quality light won’t help me make vitamin D.

Instead, I take a daily supplement.  But that doesn’t come near matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week.  At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence.  Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice.  You could see some stars.  And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street?  Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”

Treating people that way is unlikely to help them get better.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

But back to our migrants!  Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories.  Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America. 

As people traveled – journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve.  Indeed, skin color was a trait that came repeatedly under selective pressure.  As people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer and closer to the equator.  Compared to their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight.  They needed more epidermal melanin.

This is a process that takes a long time.  A family might have six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their own.  If this happens again and again, among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind up with slightly darker skin.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

Because human skin color has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated with other traits.  As we entered the modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the equator their recent ancestors lived.  But human populations migrated so often that there were many different groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every latitude.  Because skin color is so closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar concentrations of epidermal melanin.  And there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain size or intelligence.

As it happens, there are major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably intelligence).  After all, human brains are costly.  Even though there’s a benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against large brains.

Large brains kill mothers.  Because humans walk upright, childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates.  Our posture constrains the width of our hips – both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that narrow passageway.

Having children is so risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely.  Human gestation takes about a year, but most mothers give birth after only 9 months.  This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body, but human babies are totally helpless at birth.  We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.

Also, our brains require a lot of fuel.  Human evolution occurred over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and calamities.  During the hard years, our ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that struggle harder. 

A person with a smaller brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean times.  And, again, it’s worth remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many families, that even small changes can add up.  If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then the trend will be to have people with smaller brains.  Intelligence has to be extremely beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.

Similarly, if people with small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts, then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.

Many of us have the bad habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of more and more complexity.  But that’s not what it is.  Evolution is the process by which things that are better suited for their environment become more abundant.  If the environment is a hard place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity.  When it’s hard to get enough calories, why waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?

Starfish are descended from organisms that had brains.  But starfish are brainless.  The ancestral starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.

Which should make you feel pretty good about your own brain, actually.  Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to starve to death, or kill our mothers.

That’s a valuable thing you’ve got inside your skull.  It cost our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.

But, right.  Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes.  Like when we first domesticated dogs.  Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago.  Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night.  Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children.  Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.

Because we could slough off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further.  A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming.  This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm.  Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain. 

There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends.  Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.

But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time.  By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language.  But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.

Nobody is born with an innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics.  None of that can be encoded in your genes.  If you want to understand this stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.

Neuron count only suggests a brain’s potential.  You could do incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary telephone.  And, conversely, sensory deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your innate potential.

That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners.  Our brains are capable of wonders.  At any age, we can learn and grow.  And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.

On writing.

On writing.

At high doses, psilocybin mushrooms trigger transcendent, mystical experiences.  Many researchers are incorporating these into treatments for PTSD, depression, and other maladies that stem from a crisis of meaning or identity.

There are challenges inherent in using medicines that disrupt the workings of a person’s consciousness.  William Richards, who conducts psychedelic therapy at Johns Hopkins, writes in Sacred Knowledge that participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.

Most commonly, the term “death” is employed as the ego (everyday self) feels that it quite literally is dying. 

Though one may have read that others have reported subsequent immersion in the eternal and experiences of being reborn and returning to everyday existence afterward, in the moment imminence of death may feel acutely – and for some terrifyingly – real.

Because this sensation is so frightening, most researchers recommend a trip-sitter – in Richards’s words, “having someone present who one honestly can choose to trust without reservation.  The attitude ‘I can manage on my own and don’t really need anyone else’ clearly can be very counterproductive in some high-dose sessions when the ‘I’ needs to totally relinquish control.

At times, an arrogant attitude of self-reliance is unhelpful.  It is also, unsurprisingly, the attitude with which I approached nearly all aspects of my life.  I’m an athlete, an academic, usually in full command of my own mind and body.  I mostly work alone (although I’m very grateful that my spouse helps me run this website). 

Why wouldn’t I do my own psychotherapy?

I tried psilocybin mushrooms during graduate school.  Shortly after we met, the person who is now my spouse asked if we could visit her sibling in Portland for her birthday.  We left Stanford at 7 p.m. on a Friday, then drove north through the night.  We arrived at about dawn on Saturday morning, collapsed, and slept until noon. 

We were visiting a punk house, it seemed, where the bulk of the rent was paid by one person’s trust fund, with others occasionally chipping in money from various odd jobs (there was a nearby sporting event during the second day of our visit, and one of the housemates put on an official-looking reflective vest and charged people to illegally park in an abandoned lot down the street).  A dozen misshapen mattresses were strewn about the skunky-smelling attic; I picked the second-least stained to sleep on.

On Saturday night, for the birthday celebration, our hosts threw a party.  Several bands played – it was the sort of event where the scrawny white weed dealer’s terrible hip-hop group (bass, drums, and the dealer on the mic) was allowed to play a set.  The others were mostly metal bands.

One of the housemates (the faux-parking attendant, as it happens) brewed a large mason jar of psilocybin tea.  As he was gamboling about the house, we crossed paths and he proffered the nearly empty jar: “Hey, man, you want these dregs?”

I shrugged and drank it.

“Whoa,” he said.

“What?”

“Just, that was a lot of dregs.”

Which, honestly, was not the best moment to be warned. I’d already drank it. I obviously couldn’t do anything about it then.

Richards and other medical professionals involved in psychedelics research would find it unsurprising that the tenor of the evening turned intensely spiritual for me.  Ken Kesey and other psychonauts would find it unsurprising that the goings on seemed exceedingly trippy, as well.  I sat on a couch in front of the bands’ performance area and watched as a singer seemed to smear her face across the microphone; soon I saw her with three mouths, the two in her neck relegated to singing harmony.

I felt intense paranoia; as I waited in line for a bathroom, people nearby seemed to be snickering at me.  Of course, snickers often follow in my wake at parties – my behavior can be outlandish – and I might’ve been making goofy facial expressions.

I understood only snippets of conversation.  A squinty-eyed Thor-looking blonde man named Hyacinth was saying, “I always wanted to get with a Gemini, and then, bam, last winter, I met this older lady with these, like, enormous eyes, and I was like, whoa, and wouldn’t you know it, bam, she’s a Gemini!” 

(I later learned that he worked as an, ahem, “intimate massage therapist,” or “hired companion,” that sort of thing.  He also cornered me and spent thirty minutes explaining his take on quantum mechanics.  His version involved a lot of positive energy radiating from crystals.  The abundance of positive energy in his own life is part of what brought him together with that Gemini, it seems. The waning disorientation from psilocybin left me totally unable to extricate myself from the conversation.)

And, as per Richards’s expectations, I felt myself losing a fundamental component of my identity.  I temporarily forgot how to speak. Then felt as though I was losing all ability to translate my thoughts into external action. 

Perhaps I should’ve noticed that I was still passively influencing my surroundings – nobody else could stand where I was standing, and Hyacinth wouldn’t have stood there simply lecturing the air – but the flickering of my short term memory caused these examples to slip away from me.  I felt like a ghost, and the sensation terrified me.

But I was lucky.  Even at parties (to be perfectly honest, especially at loud parties), I carry a pencil and paper.  That way, I can draw horrible cartoons. Sometimes I try to use these to communicate.

It should come as no surprise that I make few friends at parties.

I found a secluded corner of the party and began to write.  And then, minutes later, when I felt another wave of loss of self pass over me, I was able look at the sheet of paper in my hand and see. I wrote that.  I did change the world.  I am changing it. 

I was able to regain a sense of object permanence, despite the ego-erasing effects of psilocybin. If I were a ghost, my marks would wisp from the page like so much abluvion. But here they are.

Because I can still communicate with the outside world, I still am.

In all, the experience was probably good for me.  Someday I could write about why.  But for now, I’d simply like to stress that, in that moment, writing saved me.  Writing kept me anchored and tamped down the terror sufficiently that I could accept whatever was happening inside my brain.  (Indeed, one of the things I wrote that night was, “Without this paper, I’d wander the streets, wake tomorrow in a gutter with a rat gnawing on my eyeball.”)

And I’ve seen the way that writing has saved other people, too.  When people fear that they’re turning into ghosts – cut off from the outside world, unable to reach their friends and families – even severely dyslexic men will start sending letters.

Being held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin mushrooms.

Each week, I bring in another dozen pencils.  I occasionally wondered what was happening to the pencils, whether they accumulated like Lincoln Logs in the block.  But I kept bringing more because we need a way to write during our class. And I’d let the guys keep them. So much has been taken from these men that I couldn’t bear to ask for the pencils back.

Eventually, somebody told me.  “Oh, yeah, my bunkie, he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before lockdown.”

The men in jail aren’t allowed to have pens.  They can’t have mechanical pencils.  And they don’t have sharpeners in their cells.

At night … or if there’s a disciplinary infraction … or if the jail is understaffed … the men are locked into their little cells.  Unless they sharpen pencils beforehand, they cannot write.  Each broken tip brings an inmate that much closer to enforced silence, unable to communicate with the outside world.

Recently, people have been forming a big line at the pencil sharpener whenever I teach class.  I slowly pass out the poems that we’ll read that week, then pass out pencils, then pass out paper, then sit and wait. The waiting takes a while.  Guys come with twenty or thirty pencils bristling from the shirt pocket of their orange scrubs, then stand and sharpen all of them.  A dozen men, sharpening perhaps twenty pencils each.

At the table, they mention trades they’ve made.  Losses, due to theft: “At the beginning of the week I had fifteen pencils; now I’m down to three.”  They exhort me to bring more.  I say I’ll do my best.

“There’s only one pencil sharpener in the block, and it’s been broken for three months.  It’s like that one, a wall mount.  The gears are all screwed up.  The handle was broken off, but you could sort of still use it then.  But now, anybody who doesn’t get to come to your class can’t sharpen any.”

“I’m sharpening some for my bunkie,” yells the guy currently cranking the handle.  A few of the others nod; they’ll also sharpen some for charity.

Image by emdot on Flickr.

Twenty … thirty … maybe forty sharpened graphite tips.  While those last, the guys will be able to write.  Time will pass, but they’ll be able to prove to themselves, and to the outside world, that they really do exist.

With luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.