On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff.  I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing.  I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.

But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things.  I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat.  The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.

There’s only so much physics you can understand without chugging through the math.  Our numbers don’t quite describe the world – they can’t exactly express quantities like pi, or the solutions to most three-body problems – but they do a better job than our words.

gravity.pngStill, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently.  My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing.  Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.

Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest.  Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”

If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme.  To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets.  When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.

But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get.  Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.

Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though.  A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity.  It’s too small.

A big object like our sun is different.  Gravity pulls everything together toward the center.  At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart.  These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).

But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse.  It would become … well, nobody knows.  The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed.  All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.

Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash.  The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward.  So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it.  Just the point of no return.

If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone.  Not even Morse-code messages could escape.

(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)

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The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting.  K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).

Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.

For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work.  In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.

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A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.

lying cat from Saga

Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole.  Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.

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My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time.  A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival.  The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.

Gravity eats time.

So do babies.  A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world.  They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.

They fell into the timesuck.

On substitutes.

On substitutes.

When I started bouldering, I had the pleasure of attending a gym run by Jess McCauley.  He was an excellent climbing coach – although this was a very small gym in Mountain View, California, many of the kids he taught excelled at national competitions.

Then Jess decided to become a school teacher.  He was clearly great at working with kids, and had a B.A. in history focusing on African studies, so he figured he could do more good inside a classroom than a gym.  As he finished his education degree, Jess began working as a substitute teacher.

His first job was in my spouse’s high school “Biotechnology” class.  The day before, she exhorted her students: “The sub tomorrow is a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna be really upset if you’re hard on him.”

Everybody knew Jess was great with kids.  He’s a funny, charming, knowledgeable, muscular dude.  But every time a substitute teacher steps into a classroom, the chance that something will go wrong increases dramatically.

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Teachers build relationships with students over the course of a year.  As you work with a group of people, you learn to read subtle social cues – you’ll know when two students need to be separated from each other, when somebody might need to take a momentary breather in the hallway.  There’s a lot going on inside a high school beyond content education, and teachers develop an intuitive feel for the social dynamics inside their own rooms.

With experience, most people get better at this.  I imagine my spouse’s content knowledge didn’t improve much over her first five years in the classroom, but she became a better teacher.  She learned how to read and work a room.

And I know how much effort she puts into establishing a culture of trust inside her room.  But there are still problems.

In the morning, she teaches AP biology to her school’s “best and brightest,” kids bound for college at top-tier universities.  Many of those students would probably learn fine if you gave them all textbooks and put a straw-filled scarecrow behind the teacher’s desk.  Their neurochemistry tends to mesh well with the norms of public education.

In the afternoon, she teaches “Earth and space science” to kids who actually need a good teacher.  (Unfortunately, many schools pair their best teachers with the honors students and assign whomever’s left to the kids who need the most.)  These are students whom administrators often expect to fail – and yet, when given appropriate challenges (like a recent assignment engineering challenge to build a functional solar still), they shine.

Still, when a substitute steps into these classrooms, there’s a major risk that something will go wrong.

Last year, when our family traveled to St. Louis for the National American Biology Teacher meeting, one of my spouse’s students punched a classmate in the head.

During another of our trips, a student flipped a desk.  The year before, some students locked a sub out of the room and looped twine between the door handle and a lab table, tightening their barricade with a bar from the coat closet.  Those same kids stole the fire extinguisher that day (which my spouse only knew because they gleefully hugged her and told her so at graduation – nobody expected for these kids to receive diplomas, so they were understandably elated to be there).

When my spouse plans trips, she requests that only experienced substitutes be assigned to cover her classes, but there’s only so much that somebody unfamiliar with the room can do.  I imagine that if she were subbing for somebody else, the chance of something going wrong would still jump, even though she can keep her own classrooms orderly.  Those are students she’s grown familiar with.

High school is a stressful environment.  And putting a new face into that kind of situation can trigger trouble.

But, what’s a little worse than high school?  In terms of, like, people don’t want to be there, emotions flare, you’ve got massive numbers of athletic young men crammed into a cramped little space?

Oh.  Right.  Prison.

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One consequence of the federal hiring freeze is that many prisons have been relying on substitute guards.  These subs might be trained guards who usually work other blocks – or they might be classroom instructors, medical staff, clerks.  Female secretaries dressed in their office clothes (i.e. skirt, button-down blouse) might be suddenly assigned to patrol the halls of a men’s prison.

When a substitute steps into my spouse’s classroom, kids might get hurt.  When a substitute enters a prison, people could die.  According to a terrifying article from the New York Times,

As the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump – and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine – many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.

Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another.

The traditional rules go unenforced, which emboldens people to push the limits further.  When guards can’t be relied on to keep a prison orderly, gang violence often takes over as an alternate form of control.

In My Brother Moochie, journalist Issac J. Bailey describes the emotional fallout that accompanied his older brother’s violent crime.  After this brother, Moochie, was sent to prison, Bailey’s family crumbled.  Several of his younger brothers got involved with petty crime and have been cycling in and out of prison ever since.  For instance, Bailey’s younger brother James, who is traumatized by the violence he witnesses in prison:

The man who was killed was “a little Asian dude smaller than me, so about fifteen of them ran into the room and started stabbing him,” James said.  “Dude was supposed to go home the next week.  What’s crazy is dude is from California and he can’t even speak his family’s original language.  They stabbed him out of fear.”

A shortage of prison guards throughout the state’s correctional system meant the few on duty didn’t always manage to make the rounds through the dorms on schedule.

I teach at our local county jail.  During a staffing shortage two summers ago, the jail became much less safe.  According to former inmate (and excellent human being) Max Smith, “Guys learned to time things.  A guard would be walking through for the count, some guys would be wailing on somebody inside a cell, they’d have somebody go up, ask the guard a question, distract him right when he got to that window.  Then he’d keep walking and they’d continue beating the shit out of somebody.  It was a scary place to be.”

Maybe there’s more that my spouse could be doing to establish a culture that will stay calm even when substitutes come into her classroom.  But I know that she’s already trying awfully hard, and she’s one of our country’s best teachers.

I think it’s safe to assume that the average prison guard puts less energy than she does into cultivating a safe and respectful environment.  When subs cover for them, bad things are going to happen.

Maybe we as a country don’t want to spend so much money on our prisons.  If so, we should probably be spending a whole lot more on education, so that we won’t feel the need to lock people up – public schooling is a chance to turn people’s lives around, but it’s not like we’re pouring money into that.  And there’s sentencing reform.  With shorter prison sentences, we wouldn’t need so many guards.

But I can’t imagine that the best solution is to conscript secretaries, teachers, and medical staff into patrolling the halls.

On the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.

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And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

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On intent.

On intent.

Investigators are searching for incontrovertible proof that our nation’s current president has conspired (or is conspiring) with an enemy nation to undermine the United States of America.

So far, there’s no public evidence that 45 is knowingly employed as a Russian saboteur, nor that he knowingly engaged the aid of other Russian agents to win the presidential election.  His intentions are occluded from us.

But his actions are plain to see.  45 has obstructed investigations into the connections between his administration and the Russian government.  The dictator of Russia wanted for him to be elected, and devoted significant resources toward either bolstering his chances or directly manipulating the vote.  Numerous whimsical actions taken by 45 have caused strife among nations that were formerly allied in their opposition to Russia.  As with his personal businesses, 45 is using kickbacks to bankrupt the United States – we won’t have the financial resources to fix future calamities.

This list of offenses could be extended – indeed, other writers have enumerated many more.

But, absent proof of his intent, 45 cannot be punished for acting as though he was a Russian agent.

And the punishment he’s being protected from?  He’d lose his job.  The Senate would step in to say “You’re fired.”

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When the threatened punishment is 20 years in prison, however – somewhere between 25% and 40% of a poor person’s total lifespan – we don’t require proof.  In those cases, if something looks like a rat, we call it a rat.  Honestly, things don’t have to look all that rat-like – four legs, a tail, a too-pointy nose?  We call it a rat.

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Looks like a rat to me! Photo by Keven Law on Flickr.

We’ve passed laws outlawing various molecules in this country – it’s illegal to sell them, it’s illegal to possess them, it’s illegal to have them floating through your bloodstream.  But we don’t stop there – it’s also illegal to possess objects that might be used to ingest those molecules.

Usually, hypodermic needles are legal.  As are glass pipes.  And soda straws.

STRAW.PNGBut we’ve decided that it’s illegal for certain people to have soda straws.  If a person looks suspicious, he can’t drink through a straw.  If a suspicious-looking person foolishly does receive a straw along with his soda, he can be sent to Rikers, where he might receive permanent brain damage when actual criminals wail on him.

45 sowing discord among America’s allies isn’t enough – we need proof that he’s acting at Russia’s behest to undermine our position in the world.  But possession of a soda straw?  That’s sufficient evidence for us to ruin somebody’s life.  Not even his accompanying soda could absolve the man of presumed guilt.

The punishment for possession of methamphetamine is far less severe than the punishment for possession with intent to sell.  Again, we don’t require proof that somebody’s selling drugs.  If you buy in bulk, you must be selling.  Never mind how many people love shopping at Cosco (or my own propensity to purchase restaurant-sized jars of pickles because each would be a wee bit cheaper per).

Our criminal justice system routinely divines intent from a person’s actions.  When people’s lives are on the line, our suspicions are enough to convict.  Yet now, as our country plunges toward disaster (climate change, nuclear war, or economic collapse could do us in), we need proof.

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

hatredIn The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal.  We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.

But the particular is never universal.  The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures.  It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.

And so actual poems fail.  The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words.  As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems.  All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age.  What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self.  Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language.  Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.

Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?

In Lerner’s words,

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did. one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems.  Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.

I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments.  But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us.  Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.

Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website.  But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal.  I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.

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janaI do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general.  For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:

Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction

of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force

on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the

tides, or put another way, you can stand

on the shore twice daily and witness the very

water flinging itself upwards.

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This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry.  Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets.  This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path.  But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.

Anderson elaborates:

The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.

I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment. 

In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another.  Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.

According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric.  And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is.  At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years).  This asymmetry gives us our world.  Water that flows.  Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.

The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry.  According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing.  And yet, in our universe, matter predominates.  We live.

orlando-sentinelBut asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature.  At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all.  Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci.  So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame.  The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized.  For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.

This asymmetry is stark in poetry.  The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries.  And readers of these poems work to understand why.  Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.

Consider the lines I quoted from Lerner’s own work above, with constructions like “emulsions with then circled the lake” and “they have changed painting, I behind the concertina wire can’t look at it anymore.”  This is not the grammar of high school English teachers.

gilbertLerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions.  Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”).  Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.

But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes.  They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.

This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often.  Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class.  Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal.  But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was.  Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:

I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals.  I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity.  It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.

Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human.  During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.”  He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?

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And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good.  Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside.  They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time.  Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor.  Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.

When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled.  The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.”  Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed.  And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.

But sometimes their work is lovely.

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On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood.  Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week.  Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.

Tensions were high.  And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.

“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write!  This won’t change shit!”

Grim.  And arguably untrue.  But…

“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”

At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no.  You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class.  And it’s not even fucking true.  I mean, look at this… we’re here, right?  And Frank and I are here because of shit we read.  You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”

I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read.  It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat.  The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.

I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand.  These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say.  Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.

A reader must extend trust to be willing to work.  But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs.  Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.

And yet these men dig poems.

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Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort.  That distaste seems fair.  I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world.  But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does?  Then they’d be right.  Nobody would read their shit.

In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

Featured image: artwork by Tao Lin on Flickr.

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I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip.  I read ten pages before a business card fell out.  I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later.  The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc.  I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.

In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them.  For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine).  At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.

That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all.  First, formulate a predictive model about how something works.  Then, perturb your system.  If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong.  If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model.  Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).

In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show.  Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?

Maybe you’d learn something from that.  But, honestly, 0.5 mgs per kg of psilocybin is a more powerful perturbation.

(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin.  He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose.  The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse.  He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there.  Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)

As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans.  He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away.  But he was wrong.  He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.

He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share.  And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs.  He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.

good dayLin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs.  If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).

And those business cards?  They made convenient bookmarks.  Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.

This seemed like a great advertising strategy.  Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.

I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.

Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter.  I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.

When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring  at the camera from atop a camper’s bed.  MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.

And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.

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But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …

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… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.

The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone.  When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old.  She soon became pregnant.  As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs.  I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not.  Some are quite frequently not sober.

During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to.  His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “

Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.

Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore.  The murder occurred in August of 2012.  Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.

I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation.  That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father.  That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.

I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.