On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

A man in my poetry class recently told me, “Ugh, cocaine is awful.  You use some, you’ll want some more, but I hate it.  It makes me such a jerk.  I mean, I’m not like this, I’m never like this, but if I’m on coke, I’m like, bitch, you best make yourself useful around here.”

Cocaine has a reputation as a fun party drug, but nobody in jail has anything nice to say about it.  And it’s not that they’re down on drugs in general – that same man told me:

“Meth?  Meth is great – you should never try it.”

And then he explained the social niceties of trying to shoot up in the home of a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV.  This friend was apparently cavalierly sloppy with needles:

“Like, blood was spurting, and I was scooting back thinking, like, god, I wish I was anywhere but here … “

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Glasseelskils_0European eels are endangered.  They swim huge distances to complete their life cycles – hatching at sea, undertaking a voracious (oft cannibalistic) quest up rivers, then returning to their birthplaces to spawn – and have been thwarted by hydroelectric dams blocking their migration, and the tendency of an insatiable terrestrial ape to catch and consume huge numbers of their kind.

Now these eels face another obstacle: they must complete their voyages while blitzed on cocaine.  European governments dump drugs into the sea to “destroy” them, but that’s not how water works.  The drugs are still there.  The eels get high.

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576px-Robert_Louis_Stevenson_by_Henry_Walter_Barnett_bwAccording to popular legend, Robert Louis Stevenson was very sick before he wrote his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Stevenson had tried many cures; all had failed.  Then his spouse bought cocaine.  This worked.  Suddenly Stevenson could write again.  In three days, he composed his novel.

When he read the first draft to his spouse, she said it didn’t seem sufficiently allegorical.  So Stevenson flung the pages into the fire and began again.  In three more days, he’d composed the version of the story that we know today.

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Dr. Jekyll was a fine man.  On drugs, he became a monster.

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IMG_5233When our first child was just shy of two years old, she liked to wear a green long-sleeve with a picture of The Incredible Hulk rampaging.  She’d pull it from her drawer; I’d say, “Oh, you want to wear your Hulk Smash shirt today?”

One day, I asked her, “N., why does Hulk want to smash?”

She looked down at the picture, then back up to me.  First she signed the word hungry.

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

She shook her head.  No, that didn’t sound quite right.  She looked down again, then made another sign, banging her hands together for the word shoes.

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

She bobbed her head yes.  No shoes.  That would make her rage, too.

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Once, some runners on the local high school cross country team asked me who would win in a fight, Superman or the Hulk.  They’d reached a detente after one claimed that the Hulk was unstoppable when enraged (“… and nothing calms him down except his girlfriend.”), and the other argued that Superman could turn back time until the moment before Hulk had gotten angry, then smash him.

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Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

I demurred.  I don’t think Superman is a very interesting hero, and the Hulk is interesting only in campaigns, not battles.  I like the idea of a hero who might go berserk and accidentally thwart his own plans, but a single bout of wrestling isn’t like that.  I think it’s more compelling to consider his constant risk of hurting the people that he loves.

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fullsizeoutput_12In Educated, Tara Westover writes beautifully about the horrors of living with the Hulk.  Her early years were controlled by a father in the throes of extreme paranoia and delusions of grandeur:

Fourteen years after the incident with the Weavers, I would sit in a university classroom and listen to a professor of psychology describe something called bipolar disorder.  Until that moment I had never heard of mental illness.  I knew people could go crazy – they’d wear dead cats on their heads or fall in love with a turnip – but the notion that a person could be functional, lucid, persuasive, and something could still be wrong, had never occurred to me.

The professor recited facts in a dull, earthy voice: the average age of onset is twenty-five; there may be no symptoms before then. 

The irony was that if Dad was bipolar – or had any of a dozen disorders that might explain his behavior – the same paranoia that was a symptom of the illness would prevent its ever being diagnosed and treated.  No one would ever know. 

Because her father was at war with the federal government, Westover never went to school.  Her birth went undocumented – she didn’t have a certificate that would’ve allowed her to enroll until years later, and even then wound up with a hodgepodge of documents that listed slightly differing names and birthdates. 

And her father needed money, because he was frantically stockpiling food and ammunition.  He needed solar panels (back when they were much more expensive than today) because the power grid was going to cut out after Y2K.

As one of God’s soldiers, he needed to build an ark.  Or tank.  Arsenal.  Whatever.

This constant hustle for money led Westover’s father to subject his children to incredible dangers.  There might be a safe way to do a job, but if the risky way could save two minutes, the man put his kids’ lives on the line.  Westover was forced to ride up to a trailer inside a bin filled with two thousand pounds of scrap iron.  When her leg got caught and she couldn’t jump out, her father still dumped the bucket.  Westover tumbled nearly twenty feet to the ground.  And this was lucky.  If she’d fallen a few inches to the other side, she would’ve been crushed by all that iron. 

Her brothers were injured even more grievously at her father’s hands.

For instance, a brother’s clothes caught fire while he was working with his father.  In Westover’s recollection, the father then lifted his burnt son into the cab of a truck and made him drive home alone.  Only the ten-year-old Westover was there to help him, so she put her brother’s burnt leg inside a garbage can full of ice water.

She thought:

If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn.  Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain.  Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old.  Why it had ended up in a garbage can.

Except that she then realizes that her father must have been with her brother.  He must have been there in order to put out the fire; otherwise the whole mountainside would’ve burned. 

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident.  His account differs from both mine and Richard’s.  In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire.  This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s.  Still, perhaps our memories are in error.  Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass.  What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.

Westover’s father was abusive, and he routinely convinced his children that their memories were in error, instead substituting his own (oft-illogical) versions of events, but he isn’t the Hulk in this story.  Yup, things get worse.  One of Westover’s brothers might suddenly snap and become Hyde.

Westover loved her older brother Shawn, but during an over-hasty job with their father, Shawn fell twelve feet, striking a concrete wall headfirst, and sustained a severe brain injury.  Instead of taking the kid to the hospital, their father propped him against a pickup truck and left him to sit in the hot sun.

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

Fifteen minutes later, Shawn wandered back to the worksite and started acting wild.  He screamed, flung his father, ran around leaping and howling.  The others tackled him – at which point his head again struck the concrete, hard – and called 911 for a helicopter to airlift him to the hospital.

It took some time for me to realize that although Shawn looked the same, he wasn’t.  He seemed lucid, but if you listened carefully his stories didn’t make sense.  They weren’t really stories at all, just one tangent after another. 

Worse, he was violent.  But unpredictably so.  At one moment, he and Westover might be laughing together.  At another moment, he’d twist her arm behind her back so brutally that she worried her wrist would break, call her a slut, and cram her face into a toilet bowl.  He hacked at the throat of his son’s pet dog with a five-inch knife blade while the animal howled, dying.  He called his sister and placidly explained his plans to visit her university and murder her.

In a lucid moment, he helped Westover install a massive deadbolt in her bedroom door, despite knowing that he was the only person she needed protection from.

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Tara_Westover_1+2-smallerAnd yet, Westover escaped.  Although she’d never set foot inside a classroom, she was accepted to Brigham Young University, where the consensus view of reality was much closer to her own.

Of course, she made a few stumbles.  Because she didn’t understand what course numbers signified, she enrolled as a freshman in an upper-level art history class.  Worse, she raised her hand to ask after the meaning of a word she didn’t recognize: Holocaust.

During one of my own classes, we were discussing poems from Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony when I mentioned that Reznikoff had also written about the Holocaust.

“Holocaust, what’s that?” a man asked. 

Unlike Westover, this man had grown up in an urban area.  But he’d stopped attending school when he was pretty young, and there’s a lot of cultural knowledge that we tend to take for granted.

I’d like to think that I handled the situation better than Westover’s professor.  Westover was shamed.  In our poetry class, we instead talked about how the word “holocaust” could be seen as offensive when used to describe the years during which members of the Nazi party murdered at least 6 million people, typically because their victims believed in Judaism.  The word “holocaust” originally meant a burnt offering for God, so Jewish leaders instead referred to this period of history with the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”  Although even that phrasing seems off, because “catastrophe” generally evokes natural disaster, whereas the Holocaust was mass murder and torture on a scale comparable only to American slavery.  A purely human evil.

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Westover became a historian.  After experiencing firsthand the nightmare of having her own account of reality constantly replaced by someone else’s version, she understood how powerful storytelling can be.  Educated is a beautiful book.  And, to my mind, a much more sensible depiction of unequal opportunity in the United States than J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

Westover recognizes how lucky she was to escape, and how narrowly she avoided the fate of her sister-in-law.  And Westover gives a powerful endorsement of government aid:

I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.  My professors came into focus, suddenly and sharply; it was as if before the grant I’d been looking at them through a blurred lens.  My textbooks began to make sense, and I found myself doing more than the required reading.

On protest, the Supreme Court, and autocratic minority rule.

On protest, the Supreme Court, and autocratic minority rule.

I was planning an essay on cell phones and surveillance.  The central thesis was that our Supreme Court is a massively flawed institution.  Many of our current Supreme Court justices are both willfully ignorant and opportunistically illogical.  This set of people are not exceptionally knowledgeable, nor are they particularly clever.  But we have given them extraordinary power to shape our world.

I will still write that essay – Carpenter v. United States is definitely worth discussing – but shortly after I prepared my outline, the Supreme Court released a slew of misguided, malicious decisions.  And then Anthony Kennedy – who is already a pretty crummy jurist – announced his resignation.  A narrow-minded ideologue will be nominated to replace him.

Last weekend, people gathered across the country to protest recent developments at our nation’s immigration detention centers.  And I couldn’t help but think that the protesters’ energy and enthusiasm was misdirected.

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Don’t get me wrong – wrenching families apart is awful.  Every citizen of this country should feel ashamed that this is being done on our behalf, and we should want for it to stop.  It’s worth being upset about, both these new developments at immigration detention centers and when families are severed because the parents were incarcerated for semi-volitional medical conditions like drug addiction.

(To be fair, living with addicts is often also horrible.  It’s a point of pride among people in jail if they kept clean while their kids were young.)

In My Brother Moochie, Issac Bailey writes beautifully about the harms suffered by millions of families across the country:

Bailey_BrotherMoochieFINAL-260x390.jpgAs a member of the perpetrator’s family you don’t know what you are allowed to feel, or think.  Victims can mourn, and others will help them mourn.  When prosecutors and pundits talk about justice, they are referring to victims and their families, not families like mine.  Why should anybody give a damn that the ripple effects of crime change our lives, too?  We don’t get to mourn.  We don’t get to reflect, at least not fully, not publicly.

To stand by a man you love after he has done something dastardly is to be accused of having a lack of respect for what the victim has endured.  To demand that he not be known solely by his worst act is to be accused of excusing evil.  To not be there for him would feel like a dereliction of familial duty, a betrayal of the worst order.  To state the truth – that sentencing him to a long stay behind bars would be a devastating blow to your family – is to open yourself up to ridicule and screams of, “He should have thought about that before he decided to kill a man.”

Although the numbers are smaller, what we’re doing at immigration detention centers is worse.  The only “crime” that these people are accused of is fleeing torture, rape, and murder.  They migrated to land controlled by the U.S. government too late – European immigrants already staked claims to territories by murdering the previous inhabitants.  Those prior inhabitants had immigrated from Siberia and staked their claims by murdering dangerous macrofauna and their human competitors.  

All claims of sovereignty, among almost all species, have involved violence.  Even plants strangle their competitors, or steal sunlight, or waft poisons through the air. 

But I digress.  My worry isn’t philosophical.  I’m simply afraid that horrendous abuses of power like what’s happening at the immigration detention centers will become tragically routine. 

Lots of people voted for POTUS45 in the last presidential election, but demography is working against his political party.  Through gerrymandering, a minority party can maintain control over democratically-elected legislative bodies for a long time.  (Indeed, the electoral college is itself a form of gerrymandering, designed as a tool to suppress the influence of liberal northerners.)

But the Supreme Court is an even better tool for minority control.  A mere quintet of hate machines can shape the entire country.  Barring a constitutional amendment imposing term limits, or a wave of Supreme Court assassinations during the next administration, they will.

Given their fundamental misunderstandings regarding terms like “free market,” “privacy,” “speech,” and “person,” it will be pretty horrible.

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On courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

On courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

Sometimes the challenges that life throws our way will be over quickly.  Succeed or fail, we know that a finite quantity of bravery is expected of us.

lostempressIn Sergio de la Pava’s Lost Empress, a football owner addresses her players before the last game of their season.

“I once had someone reduce the film of a game to just those seconds when the ball is actually alive and in play. You know what the result was? Eleven minutes.

A three-and-a-half-hour football game reduces to eleven minutes that actually decide who wins or loses. Are you going to sit there, knowing all the work we’ve put into this season, the bloodshed, the bones snapped, and tell me that you can’t bind yourself to your brothers and collectively outperform another group of men for just eleven minutes?”

Eleven minutes during which they’ll either win or lose – except that by now everybody knows that modern football destroys players’ brains. The consequences will linger long afterward. The team’s quarterback acknowledges as much before the game:

“I don’t care if I’m drooling in a corner in ten years as long as that [championship] ring’s on my finger as I do it.  It’s all I think about.” 

Like Socrates lifting poison to his lips, the quarterback knows that he is choosing to end his life: This is not about his body; it’s more fundamental, his mind. Medically, he should not participate in even more more play of football.  But he has the courage to face it.  It’s only eleven minutes, after all.  Or three-and-a-half hours.  Still, only a single game’s worth of pain and suffering to attain glory. 

In the fourth quarter’s waning moments, Harris, the quarterback, makes one final play:

Taking the ball in just his right hand he brings it back and throws it as hard as he can, screaming in agony as he does since it feels as if his arm’s just been detached from its socket.

The millisecond the ball is released a Cowboy defender launches himself forward helmet-first into Harris’s face mask.  The face mask gives way on impact and the defender’s helmet goes right through into Harris’s face to shatter his nose, bounce his brain off his skull, and resect substantial parts of his lips.

The referee jogs towards the goal line to make the call that will immediately decide the winner as there is no instant replay.  After a seeming eternity he raises both hands and signals touchdown and a Pork victory of 23 – 22.

Harris is unconscious on the ground, it’s not that he will never remember this, it’s more that he never experienced it in the first place.

Interwoven with the quarterback’s story of willful self-destruction is another version of courage.  An impoverished parent whose life seems to be in shambles resolves that she will pour herself into raising her kid right, no matter what it takes.

she’d pinpointed this one thing, a sure path to meaning.  There’s a spiral that has to stop.  A person formed by shit parents becomes a shit person and by extension another shit parent who forms a shit person until you just end up with shit everywhere.  A life spent accomplishing only one thing can maybe be justified if that one thing is significant enough.

She could therefore literally decide that the sole purpose of her breathing was terminating that spiral currently pulling [her son] Donnie towards its diminishing circles.

 

She could do that, in essence forfeit her life.  But it would take a strange kind of courage. This wouldn’t be a stint in the can, it would be a life sentence.

To succeed, she’ll need to be brave for more than three-and-a-half hours.  Good parenting is exhausting.  In the first few years, my spouse and I felt that each night at bedtime we were struggling to toss our bedraggled bodies over the finish line – and then we’d have to wake up and do it again.

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Oh my.

Eleven minutes for glory?  A committed parent is looking at approximately twenty years, no cheering fans, and no assurance, ever, that you’re even doing it right.  A parent needs to be brave in the sense that David Foster Wallace described in The Pale King.

The_Pale_King‘By which,’ he 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.’

Wallace fully expected to have an audience for his words, but even then, bravery was needed during the lonely years spent composing – indeed, the tragedy here is that Wallace’s courage abandoned him just as he wrote this passage.

A parent, too, has a very limited audience.  Usually the only people watching are the children being parented, and, given the way our brains work, children will inevitably forget most of the moments that you share.  But you’re creating the emotional pallet that will color the rest of their lives.

Lots of parenting feels like drudgery, and it takes concentration to do right, and it matters.

image (4)According to Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a human parent thus seems, of all [animals], the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in [our] evolutionary history, she has been the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision. 

Or there’s Michael Chabon, in Pops, describing the burdens he knowingly undertook when he and his spouse decided to raise children.

image“Put it this way, Michael,” the great man said, and then he sketched out the brutal logic: Writing was a practice.  The more you wrote, the better a writer you became, and the more books you produced.  Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both.  Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time. 

And yet.  Even if this unnamed great writer were correct – which seems highly dubious, since most writers need to live in order to escape self-absorption – Chabon probably made the right choice.  If our species is going to persist, we’ll need another generation.  If our species is going to thrive, we’ll need children who were raised well.  We’ll need people to bravely accept all that parenting entails. 

I’d like to think that my own courage hasn’t failed my children yet.  Luckily, it’s reinvigorated when they smile.

On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

Evolution depends upon the unnecessary.

Evolution is a process in which those organisms best suited to their environments – either because they persist longer than others or produce more progeny – become more abundant.  For a lineage to become better suited to an environment over time, the organisms have to change in a heritable way.

DNA polymerases aren’t perfect.  Whenever enzymes copy our genetic material, they make mistakes.  To be honest, these mistakes are rarely beneficial.  Sometimes they cause other enzymes to stop working.  Sometimes they turn a cell into cancer.  But that same imperfection – which changes genetic information from one generation to the next – gives rise to evolution.

The evolution of a particular species of bacteria has been carefully documented in biologist Richard Lenski’s laboratory.  These were allowed to compete inside a precisely-controlled environment over hundreds of thousands of generations, and some of the bacteria were frozen after every few hundred generations to keep track of all the genetic changes.

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Zachary Blount and Richard Lenski horsing around with some of the Petri dishes from Blount’s work on the evolution of citrate utilization in one . Image from Wikimedia.

In this experiment, a single subpopulation gained the ability to metabolize a new nutrient, which gave it a huge competitive advantage and allowed it to conquer its tiny world.  But how?  After all, most of a bacteria’s genes are already important for something, and, when mutations occur, the most common outcome is for functions to be lost.  If you give a radio and a screwdriver to a toddler, you probably shouldn’t expect crisper reception come evening.  Chances are that your radio won’t work at all.

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Gene duplication, as depicted by the National Human Genome Research Institute on Wikimedia Commons.

As it happens, a very rare event happened before this bacterial subpopulation “learned” to use the new energy source.  When the experiment was re-started with various frozen samples, most lineages never acquired this ability.  But in one set, there had been a “gene duplication event.”  During cell division, the enzyme that copies DNA had stuttered and accidentally included two copies of a gene that bacteria only need one copy of.  And these bacteria, recipients of that unnecessary second copy, would almost always gain the new metabolic function and swamp out the others.

Once there were two copies of the gene, the second copy was free to change.  A mutation in that copy wouldn’t cause the bacteria to grow weak or die, because they still had a fully-functional copy of the enzyme.  And eventually, through the rare happenstance of random error, bacteria would accumulate enough mutations in that second copy that it gained a new function.

In the beginning, this new function was pretty weak.  But once there was a faint glimmer, natural selection could refine it.  Without an unnecessary second copy of that gene, though, the bacteria never would’ve gained the new metabolic pathway.

You can look at human culture in a similar way.  Which isn’t to say that one culture is intrinsically better than another, and certainly doesn’t imply that we’re progressing toward some teleological goal.  Evolution is just a matter of statistics, after all.  The things that are, now, were probably descended from things that were good at being and producing.

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An image from a 1902 engineering textbook from Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, cars make human life easier.  And so the traits that allow a culture to have cars, like a basic understanding of mathematics and a willingness to follow rules on roadways, seem to spread pretty easily.  Car cultures have swamped out non-car cultures all over the planet.  Walking is pretty great, and so are bikes, but any culture that has access to mechanical engineering textbooks seems to have a pretty huge advantage over those that don’t.

But if you’d dropped a mechanical engineering textbook into the lap of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, it’d seem pretty useless.

It took a lot of waste to reach a state when the textbook could matter.  Over many generations, there was excess and dead weight.  Many centuries of an oppressor class stealing from the mouths of the poor, really.

Somebody who is struggling every day to procure food doesn’t have the luxury to fiddle with mathematics.  That’s why so many of the early European scientists were members of the aristocracy.  They didn’t need to work to eat because they had serfs to steal food from, levying taxes for the use of land that was “theirs” because their ancestors had done a bang-up job of murdering other people’s ancestors.

In the generations after humans developed agriculture, the average quality of life plummeted.  If you were told to pick any year and your soul would be suddenly re-incarnated (pre-incarnated?) into a randomly-chosen Homo sapiens alive at that time, you’d probably be happier 20,000 years ago than at most times during the last few millennia.  20,000 years ago, nobody lived terribly well – there was scant medicine and a constant risk of famine – but the suffering and servitude experienced by the majority of humans later on was worse.

After farming, people worked harder, for more hours a day, to produce a less varied, less healthful diet than the hunter-gatherers had eaten.  They had even less access to medicine, and still endured the constant risk of famine.  Oh, and envy.  Because farmers, who had to live in place, could be conquered.

640px-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001Those conquered farmers could be taxed, charged rent, etc., with the proceeds used to feed an idle class.  Most of the idlers produced nothing of value.  They ate others’ food and lived in un-earned luxury (although their “luxury” would seem pretty shabby to us).  But a few of them – a very few – produced the cultural innovations (like mathematics, medicine, poetry, astronomy) that gave us the modern world.

It feels more than a little disconcerting that a gruesome history of violence and oppression allows me to type this essay on a laptop computer.

In the past, though, oppression was the only way for our world to have “excess” people, those who could be free to devote their time and energy toward changing things.  Now, however, food production (and many other things) has been heavily automated.  We could have a much larger excess population, which could increase the rate of cultural evolution.  A luxurious lifestyle could be had by all using the essential (food- and shelter-producing) efforts of a smaller number of people than ever before.

With a guaranteed basic income – which could be funded by taxing wealth at a very low rate, maybe a percent or two – nearly all people could effectively become aristocracy.  People could follow their passions and curiosities.  Most, as ever, wouldn’t change the world. That’s how evolution works.  Chaotic tinkering with things that are pretty good rarely improves things.  But with billions of tinkerers, the odds that something works out are better.

It’s easily within reach.  Instead we’ve stuck with the same system of celebrating historical violence that was used to oppress people before.  Maybe it was necessary, all that cruelty, to get from our past to here.  But it certainly isn’t needed now.

Featured image: DNA duplication diagram by Madeline Price Ball on Wikipedia.

On love and physics.

On love and physics.
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Portrait of Max from 812 Magazine.

I recently attended a singer-songwriter’s performance with my buddy Max.  I have difficulty sitting still, so I’d brought paper and some markers to draw horrible cartoons while we listened.

After the show, Max and I caught up.  We briefly mentioned our work (he is building things; I am alternating between typing, reading children’s books, and spraying down my popsicle-sticky kids with a hose) and started hashing philosophy.  Max digs the old stuff – he’s currently reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which speculates on both the existence of atoms and reasons why we are conscious.

I told him once that K won’t let me talk about free will at parties, so Max often goads me into it.  He’s always loved the image of K hovering with a flyswatter, waiting for me to broach her ire by describing the experiment that would disprove the existence of free will.  “We can’t do it yet, but if a non-destructive brain scan at sufficient molecular accuracy … “ SWAT!

Hugh-EverettI described Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum wave-function collapse – the idea that with every coin-flip, the universe splits into two and time keeps marching on with the coin having landed both heads and tails.  A lot of physicists like dispensing with probability and randomness.  Not me – I think the world needs a little chaos.  Even if our choices were totally unpredictable, we might not have free will, but if the universe was predictable, sensible and orderly, then we definitely wouldn’t be free.

If you feel like you have free will, that’s almost the same as having it – but how free would you feel if researchers could strap you into a scanner and predict your fate more impeccably than any fortuneteller?

And then, because Max and I always bring up Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus when we discuss the meaning of life, we had to talk about the experiment that would let you prove Everett’s theory (but only to yourself).  I’ve written about this previously, in an essay on my father-in-law and the science of resurrection, but the shorthand description of the experiment is “quantum-mechanical suicide.”

If every coin flip created a new world, and inside one your consciousness would be extinguished before you learned the result of the flip, then you could only consciously perceive yourself as experiencing the other outcome.  Someone could flip a coin hundreds of times and you’d always see it landing heads, if the you inside every tails world was instantly ablated.

I was scribbling out diagrams, jotting numbers, and drawing an experimental apparatus with a research subject exploding into flames.  Max leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and mused, “But what I want to know is where love comes into it.”

I added a few more jagged flames, then set down my pen.

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Photo by Shena Pamela on Flickr.

Look, I’m a clever dude.  I’ve always been good at math, despite having taken very few math classes.  I’m well read, hard working, and adept at solving puzzles.  But I was never the best with emotions.  Before I had kids, nobody would’ve mistaken me for any sort of love expert.

I stuttered a little, then described quantum entanglement (also referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – Jim Holt wrote a lovely essay for the New York Review of Books about it).  Particles that are linked stay linked.

Max shook his head.  We both knew that wasn’t really love.

But I’m a cold, rational scientist.  Max trusts his intuition that something mystical is happening in the world.  What kind of explanation might satisfy us both?

So we tried again.  The world is real.  There is, as best we can tell, a single, objective reality surrounding us.  But our consciousness has no access to that world.

In reality, the computer I’m typing this essay on is composed of mostly empty space.  Electrons flit blurrily around atomic nuclei – when I reach toward the keys, electrons in my fingertips are repelled, giving me the illusion that the computer is solid.  One by one receptors in the cone cells of my eyes interact with incident photons, letting me believe that I am constantly seeing a room full of smooth, hard surfaces.  My consciousness gobbles sensory data and creates a representation of the world.

And it’s within those representations that we live.  Some philosophers question why humans are conscious.  Others speculate that iPhones have consciousness as well.  Just like us, a modern telephone integrates a wide variety of external perceptions into its conception of the world.

In any case, because we live within our perception of the world, as opposed to the world per se, love really does change the universe.  By opening ourselves up to the world, we suddenly find ourselves to be inside a different world.  A physicist might not notice the difference after you let yourself love – but that physicist isn’t inside your head.  A physicist’s truth is not always the truth that matters.

Which I am very grateful to Max for teaching me.

Header image from The Scientific Cartoonist.

On cooperation in gaming.

On cooperation in gaming.

vowminiatureAt a buddy’s house recently, I played a cooperative board game.  In Vanguard of War, each player controls a character defending a church from an army of demons.  Many games of this ilk have been produced recently – Pandemic and Ghost Stories are among the most popular.

But my impression is that these games are best with a single player.  You’re attempting to solve a (typically randomized) puzzle created by the designer.  Maybe you’re the sort of person who enjoyed doing math homework with friends – if so, this type of game would probably be fun to play with a team.

Perhaps it’s a failure of my own education that I rarely worked through chemistry or physics problems in groups.  After all, few really big puzzles are solved alone.  To the best of my knowledge, no tech company of one is going to stop climate change or start a colony on Mars.

But something I look for in games – in any group project, really – is for the identity of the participants to matter.  There’s an increasing awareness that people from different backgrounds will often come up with different approaches to even highly technical problems.  A world in which only white males hold management positions at tech companies doesn’t just produce economic and social inequality – it also makes crappier technologies.

themindSome cooperative games have an element of this.  I played The Mind recently, in which players are dealt random cards from a numbered deck of a hundred, and without communicating (other than wait times) are supposed to dole out their cards in ascending order.  Any set of players should converge toward the game’s simple solution (waiting a constant duration per card number before tossing down your next), but it was still fun to play.  I imagine that a kid could enjoy ten or more games, especially with different teammates.  Will you reach a rhythm soon enough?

But in many of other cooperative games, the identities of the actual humans sitting around the table don’t matter.  If you’re talking through decisions with your teammates, each player’s personality is subsumed by the game.  In something like Vanguard of War, where each player is the primary controller of a single character, that game character’s personality matters more than your own.

And let’s say you play a game several times: with many cooperative board games, the way to maintain an interesting challenge as you improve is for your teammates to play worse.  Otherwise the game becomes easier precisely when you need it to be more difficult.  When a game is a pre-set puzzle, you and your friends can’t keep having fun by growing in experience together.

This is unfortunate, because I’d wanted to introduce cooperative games to my kids.  Isn’t that what all parents want?  For their kids to get along, to be the sort of friendly, helpful ally that people are happy to work with later on in life?

hiveBut then I realized that the best thing for me to do is simply change how I think about playing games.  A two-player “competitive” game like Go or chess (or Hive, a recent household favorite) doesn’t need to seem adversarial.

In chess, each person is given an objective, and, yes, those objectives are mutually exclusive.  But completing the objective isn’t really the point.  The purpose of the game is to have fun solving puzzles, and the person you’re playing with creates the puzzles for you.  The players in chess actually are cooperating, because they’re both setting aside reality in favor of an arbitrary set of rules that both follow for the duration of the game – and the game is only interesting if both players work together to create it.  If anyone doesn’t follow the expected rules, it wrecks the puzzle.

Go_boardPart of what makes “competitive” games interesting is that both players are striving to win – to capture the king, control the most territory, what have you.  A human consciousness is manipulating the puzzle that you’re trying to solve in real time.  Of course, this works best when both players have a fair chance of completing their objectives, which is a reason why I like Go better than chess.  There’s a built-in mechanism to accommodate less-experienced players.  And until the players have “solved” the game (like knowing the exact best strategy in tic-tac-toe or checkers), they’ll continue to have a fun challenge as they grow in experience together.

So I shouldn’t have been worried about introducing competitive games to my children.  I just needed to change the way I think about them.  If only I’d paid more attention to ecologist Mark Bekoff!

Bekoff has studied play for years.  In The Emotional Lives of Animals, he writes:

bekoffI was surprised to learn that [dogs’] bows are used not only right at the beginning of play to tell another dog “I want to play with you,” but also right before biting, accompanied by rapid side-to-side head shaking, as if to say, “I’m going to bite you hard but it’s still in play.”  Bows are also used right after vigorous biting, as if to say, “I’m sorry I just bit you so hard, but it was play.”  Bows serve as punctuation, an exclamation point, to call attention to what the dog wants. 

Infant dogs and their wild relatives learn how to play fairly using play markers such as the bow, and their response to play bows seems to be innate.  Pigs use play markers such as bouncy running and head twisting to communicate their intentions to play.  Jessica Flack and her colleagues discovered that juvenile chimpanzees will increase the use of signals to prevent the termination of play by the mothers of their younger play partners.  Researchers who study the activity always note that play is highly cooperative.  I can’t stress enough how important it is that play is carefully negotiated, that it is fine-tuned on the run so that the play mood is maintained.  There are social rules that must be followed.

Just the other day, my kid asked if we could play a game of “chest.”  I momentarily demurred.  But now that I’ve had time to reflect, I know – I don’t want to play against her, but I will happily play many games of chess with her.

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And probably with this guy, too.

On drinking.

On drinking.

In our poetry classes, we’ve had a lot of guys doing time or awaiting trial for domestic.  As you might expect, their troubles are often wrapped up with alcohol.  Nobody wants to think of himself as the kind of dude who’d hit his partner, but booze saps self-control.  Sober, we feel angry; drunk, we lash out.

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 7.20.19 PMWe began a recent class with Dave Johnson’s “Dave Gibson Makes His Way Down.”  Johnson teaches poetry in probation office waiting rooms, and he cares deeply about the ways so many of us struggle to be good.  His poem opens with the line,

image         Seven Sundays in a row he fell

         on his knees at the altar

         of Rocky Creek Presbyterian.

Each week, the protagonist of Johnson’s poem slips again.  He drinks then he repents.  At church, he’s “shaking his head / crying for forgiveness.”  But everyone knows that it won’t last, until one day his wife has had enough.  He staggered home drunk; she sewed him up inside a rug.

         And she beat him blue.  He swore he’d never

         drink anymore, and she beat him.

         And then he swore he’d go to church every Sunday.

         And she still beat him.

         He told her he’d love her forever.

         She kept on.

         And he said he’d repent.  She beat him harder.

         And he said he wanted to die.

         She beat him.

         And he said he’d never repent again.

         She stopped.

A man in class – back inside after only nine days out because he drank the night before a visit with his parole officer – hung his head.  “I should send this to my wife,” he said.  “I’m always telling her, I’ll stop, I’ll stop.  But then I hit that bottle.”

Apologizing isn’t enough.  We have to make sure we won’t apologize again.  “Sorry” doesn’t mean much if you have to say it again and again.

And, yes, it’s still mind boggling to me that MDMA and psilocybin – two low-risk chemicals that can help turn somebody’s life around – are illegal whereas alcohol, one of the world’s most dangerous drugs, is openly shilled with flashy television ads.

waterThen we read two poems by Raymond Carver.  “Woolworth’s 1954” has long been a favorite of mine – a man slips into reverie while he’s out walking with a buddy and the buddy’s young kids.  The man thinks about when he “was sixteen, working / for six bits an hour” as a stockboy in a department store.  An older man was training him; Carver writes,

        Most important memory

         of that whole time: opening

         the cartons of women’s lingerie.

         Underpants, and soft, clingy things

         like that.  Taking it out

         of cartons by the handful.  Something

         sweet and mysterious about those

         things even then.  Sol called it

         “linger-ey.”  “Linger-ey?”

         What did I know?  I called it

         that for a while, too.  “Linger-ey.”

Poets play with the difference between private and public language.  Some words mean almost the same thing no matter who hears them.  When I write “of,” chances are there are few strong associations in your mind that would cause you to misinterpret my intent.

But many words feel very different from one person to the next.  When the New York Times printed poems alongside photographs they inspired last summer, I brought them in to jail.  I had no idea that a line from Ada Limon’s “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” would jolt the men out of reading.

         And how we stood there,

         low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,

         and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets

But “shard” is slang for methamphetamine, apparently, and once the idea of meth has wormed into their brains, it’s hard to shake away.  That’s the whole problem with addiction. 

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A shard of crystal (in this case, meth).

For Carver, the private meaning of “lingerie” is safer.

        Then I got older.  Quit being

         a stockboy.  Started pronouncing

         that frog word right.

         I knew what I was talking about!

         Went to taking girls out

         in hopes of touching that softness,

         slipping down those underpants.

         And sometimes it happened.  God,

         they let me.  And they were

         linger-ey, those underpants.

         They tended to linger a little

         sometimes, as they slipped down 

Raymond_CarverCarver thinks back to those bright early years, when everything felt charged with possibility.  Dangerous, but navigable.  Undergarments “kicked free / onto the floor of the car and / forgotten about.  Until you had / to look for them.

But his past is gone.  He’s grown up, made mistakes, worked crummy jobs and started drinking.  He has more freedoms now – a house to take dates to, instead of fumbling in the car – and yet fewer possibilities.  Those women he knew have grown up too; they have families and responsibilities.  Or they’ve died.  Some of us find less luck than others. 

Carver is left lamenting his mistakes, knowing that some things he’ll never fix.

Then we read Carver’s “Fear.”  One man read the first half of the poem, but when he reached the line “Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes”, he paused, blinked, started again, and found he had no voice.  We sat in silence for about ten seconds, then he said, “Yeah, that one got me.  Somebody else is gonna have to read the rest of this.”

He was too broke for bail and had spent almost a year inside (waiting on a case that would wind up dismissed when the witnesses didn’t show), and each week said something to me about his daughter, seven years old, living a state away, whom he hadn’t seen in years.  On his good days, he’d tell me, “When I get out, I’m gonna get myself on a bus, go up and see her.”

On his bad days, he’d say, “I don’t know if she’s gonna want to see me.  Cause it’s been years, you know?”

After reading the poem, I thought we’d use “Fear” as a writing prompt.  “Jot down five things,” I said.  “What are you afraid of?” 

This was a terrible writing prompt.

Seriously.  Only two people wrote anything (“I’m afraid of being killed by an ex / I’m afraid of dying broke / I’m afraid of dying alone”).  It can’t feel safe to write about your fears in jail. 

Mea culpa.

But some of what the guys said while telling me that they couldn’t write was heartbreaking.  Like the guy with the seven-year-old daughter he wanted to visit:

I’m afraid that when they let me out I’m not gonna want to go, cause I’ll have forgotten how to live any place but here.

Or another guy, who said that his first grandchild was born while he was stuck there.

The only thing I’m scared of is that I’m gonna drink again and my daughter won’t let me see my grandkid.  Because she says that if I get back to drinking, she won’t let me around.  I’m an alcoholic, and I’m a mean alcoholic.

And yet, the week before he left, he told me, “When I get out, first thing I’m gonna do, I’m gonna walk down to that liquor store and buy myself a beer.”

At the end of class I told him, “I don’t have anything against drugs, you know.  But some of us, some drugs, we just don’t mix well.  So I wish you’d go, maybe buy that grandkid a present, go down to see her instead of buying yourself a drink.”

“I know, I know … but it’s something I told myself, to get me through this time here.  That I’d get out, and when I got out, I’d get to have a beer.”

“I mean, if it’s just one …” I said.

“Yeah, but I’m an alcoholic.”