On fire and ash.

On fire and ash.

The phoenix falls into fire, burns, and dies. Then rises again, reborn.

The phoenix triumphs over adversity. Life gets hard, excruciatingly hard. Everything falls to shit. But the phoenix rises again.

Or so we hope.

Sometimes, the fire burns too hot. And then the phoenix dies and stays dead. Sometimes ash isn’t a phoenix egg.

Sometimes ash is only ash.


Here’s a poem by my friend Satish:


Satish Brown

a peacock, so vibrant

& bright, but vulnerable

for lack of flight, a

turkey that flutters

searching for height.

A dove that flies so

high, so pure & clean.

I’m none of these.

Just searching for a

balance – in between.

Maybe a phoenix, mystical,

reborn from fire &



Satish wrote this poem while he was living inside the dormitory on the ground floor of the Monroe County Jail. This is an awful little space. It’s about the size of my living room. Twelve men lived there. They slept on bunk beds. The fluorescent lights were turned off only from midnight until four a.m. The single window, a tiny rectangle of wire-reinforced glass inside the steel door, faced the subterranean booking desk – no glimpse of the outdoors. There were two steel tables bolted to the floor, and each table had six steel stools curving out from beneath it, like a pair of silver-skinned twice-amputated octopuses where the men could sit to eat their meals.

The jail dorm shared a wall with soft booking – “the drunk tank.” Much of the time, someone with mental health issues would be in there, hollering. If someone in the tank decides to stand there rhythmically kicking the steel door, the noise resounds through your skull like the repeated cocking of a shotgun inside your brain. All thoughts disappear but hate. At least, that was my experience, and I never spent more than two hours at a time inside that space.

Satish was there for months.

But he stayed chipper. It was always a pleasure to go in there with a stack of poems and have the chance to talk with him. On his good days, his enthusiasm was infectious, leaning in close to ask questions or banter about religion, his huge eyes gleaming like polished fishbowls.

The saddest poem he wrote was about cheating on his girlfriend with an old man – “old man” is slang for heroin.


The other men in the dorm loved having him around. In such a small space, where people are going through the worst time of their lives and yet are expected to endure the constant presence of a roomful of other men who’re also going through the worst time of their lives, emotions fray easily. Twice when I came in there, my buddy Max had ugly blue bruises covering his face.

“We had a little disagreement,” Max would tell me. And he’d mention the name of somebody who’d been in the dorm the week before, but had since been moved to a different block.

But nobody had trouble with Satish.

Nobody except the judge.

Max told me, “Judge ______ gave him this deal, Satish was on this drug court thing, and she was going to pretend to care. She said, ‘write me a letter, write me a letter and convince me why I should go easy on you.’ But if she’s going to go easy, why would she need that letter? So Satish wrote this letter, he basically wrote to her, ‘Fuck you, just do what you’re going to do.’ “

The thing is, we all thought he would walk. The case, as far as I knew it, was pretty weak. He had come home, he’d lost his keys, and he was high. He thought he could sleep it off, go look for his keys in the morning, and so he tried to get in through the window.

Except he picked the wrong window. He was climbing in the neighbors’, and they freaked and called the police. The cops came. By then they figured out who he was, everybody was confused, but mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when people are on drugs, but, regardless, mistakes happen.

The neighbors didn’t want to press charges. They weren’t going to cooperate with a case.

In the United States, prosecutors have a lot of leeway, though. Doesn’t matter what the police report says, doesn’t matter what the witnesses say, the prosecutor gets to decide what charges to file. They get to pile charges on as leverage for plea bargaining. They don’t have to justify which people get dog piled and which people walk free.

The prosecutor’s decisions are yet another place in our criminal justice system where racial injustice creeps in. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in the eyes of the state, Satish was Black.


So, a phoenix. Maybe they’d send him away. But he could overcome adversity.


We thought he would walk. We expected that he’d go to court, then get sent home for time served.

Instead, they gave him seven years.

He was shipped off to the “Reception & Diagnostics Center.” This is where they do psychological evaluations, figure out which prison you’ll be sent to. While at reception & diagnostics, nobody can get a hold of you.

He’d been there two days when his girlfriend – mother of his two children, pregnant with their third – overdosed and died. She’d been clean a while. But after something like that – you think he’s coming out, instead they give him seven years – it’s easy to relapse.

Heroin killed her. But the courts killed her too.


He took it hard.

We volleyed letters for a while – he’d send me folded bundles, six or seven sheets that he’d written over the course of a week, and he stamped the envelopes low to dodge the postmark – but he always said that it was hard to find time to write. He was doing as many programs as he could, trying to get level-headed, trying to get out. Most programs will give you a time cut.

They’d given him seven years, but he was out after another two. Lots of guys have tried to explain the math of criminal justice time to me; I have never understood.

Max said, “He was in a pretty good place, at first. I mean, he had a handle on it, what’d happened with Chelsea, everything that happened. But when he started using …”


He was trying to rise. Twenty-nine, and rebuilding his life.

But sometimes the fire burns too hot. Sometimes it burns and burns and the ash stops being an egg. Sometimes ash is only ash.

Rest in peace, Satish.




Header image from Badeeh Abla on flickr.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

After William Burroughs experienced how pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control. 

His own brain had been upended.  Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate.  If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick.  Agony would keep him focused.

If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways?  In Queer, the protagonist speculates:

“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I have experienced it myself.  I have no interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody.  What interests me is, how can I use it?

“In South America at the headwaters of the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity.  Medicine men use it in their work.  A Colombian scientist, whose name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine.  I read all this in a magazine article.

“Later I see another article: the Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor.  It seems they want to induce states of automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’  The basic con.  No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move in on someone’s psyche and give orders.

“I have a theory that the Mayan priests developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the work.  The deal is certain to backfire eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup of sender and receiver at all.”

As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control.  But there are other ways.  A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.

Because repeated behaviors give rise to our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.  Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a distance. 

You could be made other.

The more common form of mind control practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced.  Rather than using a magnetic pulse to stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative control.

Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served.  If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation.  This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning.  You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.

Humans can be similarly conditioned.  Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone.  The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement.  Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.

In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits.  If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.

But those are little stories.  A few stray details added to the narrative of your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update!  More threatening is the prospect of mind control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative.  Take a person’s memories and supplant them.

In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:

“While in general I avoid the use of torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it.  And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved.”

In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality. 

A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).

And it works.  Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things.  With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.

Your stories can be wrested from you.

Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control.  Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.

Predictably, the prosecutor often wins.  Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials.  So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories.  They plead guilty.  After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.

Of course, you might not walk out today.  Even if you were told that you would.  In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest.  The other is not.

And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.

Featured image: neural pathways in the brain taken using diffusion tensor. Image by Thomas Schultz.

On slow driving as protest.

If you’re thinking about driving slowly / legally, please don’t do it in a passing lane. That’s just wrong.

My apologies to anyone who has been stuck driving behind me recently.

I’ve been driving very slowly.  As in, actually following traffic laws.  Whereas most people drive between one and fifteen miles per hour over the posted speed limit, I’ve been driving about two miles per hour below posted speed limits.

It can be frustrating.  It feels slow.  Pickup trucks & SUVs sometimes whip around to pass me on residential streets.  2 mph below the speed limit!  Although that is legal driving. Whereas speeds even 1 mph above a posted limit are illegal.

The habit of driving at or above speed limits is so ingrained in most people’s minds that Kwame Anthony Appiah recently joked in the New York Times that the police don’t want to be alerted if you’re stuck behind someone driving 2 mph below the speed limit ... this in a column about drawing attention to illegal driving practices.  Which upset me, but I just trawled through the comments for that article and it seems that no one else noticed or cared.

I’ve been attempting to actually follow traffic laws as an ineffectual form of protest.

It’s dangerous to have laws that nearly everyone routinely violates.  Police officers, who as a class have shown themselves to be rather imperfect arbiters of fairness, are thereby given free reign to harass anyone they’d like.  I like Kenneth Nunn’s phrase “surplus criminality,” which I first encountered in his article “Race, Crime, and the Pool of Surplus Criminality: Or Why the ‘War on Drugs’ was a ‘War on Blacks.’ “  A pool of criminals is harbored at all times & can be punished whenever circumstance demands, perhaps to quell social unrest, perhaps to raise money.

The problem is, if an activity that a wide range of people engage in is technically illegal, police officers are given discretion to selectively enforce those laws.  And the targets of their harassment will generally be met with very little sympathy… because they were doing something illegal, after all.  Those people are criminals.

imageCriminals are one of the few remaining minorities for which it’s still common for reasonably-informed people to claim that they chose to be who they are.  I volunteer with an organization that ships free books to inmates, and after I’ve put together a package of books for someone I’ll often look that person up to be certain I have the correct address… the search page always displays a very unflattering photograph and a list of convictions.  Often the convictions are for “crimes” in which no one was harmed (absurd lengths of time for drug possession).  I’ve sent books to a number of people convicted of crimes of poverty (if you steal small sums of money because you’re trying to survive & get caught, we lock you away for a long time.  But if you steal huge amounts of money because you’re a self-important greedhead, your only punishment will typically be paying back a fraction of the money you stole… Bernie Madoff’s case was a rare exception).  But sometimes inmates were convicted of murder, and even I reflexively shake my head and whisper “Shouldn’t kill people, dude,” before sending him some books.

And I should know better than to respond that way.  The address lookup page never tells you any particulars.  It won’t tell you if someone was living in a district where the police routinely plant evidence on people.  It won’t tell you the particulars of a crime — for instance CeCe McDonald was locked up for manslaughter after a besodden & belligerent neo-Nazi chased her and impaled himself on her hairdressing scissors.  It certainly won’t tell you anything about the person’s life — how was that person treated for all those years before snapping and doing something regrettable?

But our prejudices against criminals are deep-set — my middle & high schools, like most people’s, had plenty of burly young men with impulse control problems who might shove me into lockers while walking down the hall.  And it’s easy to think that those dudes were jerks & they grew up and kept being jerks & finally got what they deserved.

At the time, I certainly never thought about how lucky I was to be living in my parents’ home instead of in those kids’.

And that’s not even the way our criminal justice system works.  People who grow up mean, with poor impulse control, will often be fine as long as they have money.  Whereas people who’re living in impoverished, heavily-policed areas are much more likely to be hauled to jail for doing the same things.  And people who fit a police officer’s mental image of a criminal are much more likely to be hauled to jail.

I slapped up a post a little while ago recommending that you find time to read the prologue of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, but let me quote another passage from the book… both highly relevant to this point & beautifully written.

[The warden] dangles a handcuff key in my face and, with one thick hairless arm, hoists me upright, scooting my chair in so close to the table that I can see my suit and tie’s reflection in its shiny, lemony-fresh mahogany finish.  I’ve never worn a suit before, and the man who sold me this one said, “You’re going to like the way you look.  I guarantee it.”  But the face in the table staring back at me looks like what any business-suit-wearing, cornrowed, dreadlocked, bald-headed, corporate Afro’d black man whose name you don’t know and whose face you don’t recognize looks like–he looks like a criminal.

driving-while-blackIt’s a great twist… builds up specific, starts listing particular haircuts, until you realize that in the United States we are conditioned to think that all black men whom we don’t recognize look potentially criminal.  And the police are allowed to act upon that suspicion.  Police are allowed to stop drivers based on race as long as someone’s race isn’t the only reason for doing so.  It is allowable to harass people no matter how specious any additional reasons are, though… if someone is black and driving an expensive-looking car.  If someone is black and driving a beat-up-looking car.  If someone is black and driving too fast.  If someone is black and too scrupulously following all traffic laws… what does he have to hide??  All of those are valid, legal rationales for stopping someone.

Once someone has been stopped, that person is already well on his or her way toward being considered a criminal.  Police officers are allowed to steal from people they stop as long as they suspect that cash on hand might later be used to buy drugs, or that an ipod was bought with money that was once used in drug transactions, at which point the victim of police theft is required to file a suit and prove innocence beyond a reasonable doubt to reclaim the property (yay civil forfeiture!).

Or totally innocuous objects might result in arrest.  Do you ever drink through a straw?  Well, did you know that some people somewhere also use straws in the drug trade?  Which means possession of a straw might get you locked away: you should read the harrowing story in the New York Times Magazine about Tyrone Tomlin serving 21 days in Rikers for possession of a soda straw.

And, yes, I realize that I’m not really accomplishing anything by driving slowly.  Given the discretion police officers currently have in choosing whom to target for enforcement, we might still have all the same problems if traffic laws were changed to match how people actually drive.  But changing traffic laws is a necessary first step toward fixing the problem.  Posted speed limits, for instance, should denote the behavior that will actually be treated as criminal — if officers won’t stop people unless they’re driving 38 mph in a 30 mph zone, the number 38 should be posted, not 30.  And everyone driving at the illegal speed should be stopped.

CaptureOtherwise we’ll be stuck with our current system in which police can choose to enforce laws selectively against those who “look like criminals.”  And, as Beatty eloquently described, our media is saturated with images and depictions that leave all people, blacks and whites alike, with a subconscious association between young black men and criminals.