My family recently visited a state park for some hiking. I know that we are quite privileged to be able to do it, but visiting nature is really restorative right now.
At the end of the day, we sat near a firepit and roasted vegan marshmallows.
After a few minutes, a woman and her partner asked if they could join us. They sat on the other side of the fire, and we got to talking.
The woman used to work in special education, but now she teaches geography and world religions. She loves her work, because she helps students in her small Midwestern town realize how much possibility there is in our world.
Her partner works for the Department of Corrections as a hostage negotiator.
“In training, you feel like you’re doing the same things over and over. Like, hasn’t there been enough of this already? But then, when you have to use it, you hardly have to think about it, you know just what to do. All that repetition really pays off.”
A few months earlier, several of the guys in our jail poetry class were talking about the drills they’ve been in.
“It was the scariest thing of my entire life. I knew it was just a drill, too. It was fucking terrifying. All these SWAT guys running in, screaming, they’ve got paintball guns, Get on the ground!, yelling, If you fucking move your ass is grass!”
“You’re lying there, face on the ground, can’t move, they might ziptie your hands behind your back, you can’t move for hours. I mean, I was lying there, just watching this puddle of piss spreading from the guy next to me. I fucking hated that guy right then. But he tried to hold it, I know he did. They had us lying there so long.”
“You tell a guard, I have to piss, he’s going to say, too fucking bad.”
“You’re lying there smelling shit, because you know some guy shit himself.”
“You’re smelling shit like right away. They come in yelling like that, some guys shit themselves from fear.”
“I know! I’m that guy. I was so fucking scared.”
“Your on the ground, lying on your stomach on the ground, I mean, the ground is gross, right? You’re lying there with your face on the floor and your neck hurts and you want to like turn your neck, but you got this guy yelling, You so much as fucking move, your ass is grass. Like, it’s pathetic, but it hurts.”
“Walked through this indoor rec later, paintball splatters all over the place. Like, fuck, what happened in here? Some guy in there, they must’ve lit him up.”
“I been through some rough shit in prison, but this one time, it was a piss-ant county jail, I was in the drill there. That was the worst. Like, there were only fifty guys in that place, what’s the big deal? But they came in there, boom, they fucking pepper sprayed us. For a drill.”
“I’ve watched guys die. But that shit, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been.”
I asked one of the guys, Jason, if he’d write about it.
“That’s something people should read,” I told him.
He shook his head.
“I’m trying to write, like, uplifting stuff. Help guys get on a better track, do better than what I done. This stuff … I don’t know. I don’t even really like talking about it. I don’t want to think about it enough to write it down.”
Header image: cropped photograph of a Val Verde county (Texas) drill from the Laughlin Airforce Base. Most of the time, cameras aren’t allowed inside jails or prisons.
At about eleven a.m. on my birthday, I buckled the kids into the car to drive to our local print shop. Taking the kids with me for a fifteen minute errand seemed like a good gift for my spouse: she’d have some time in our house alone, which is rare to come by right now.
The print shop is just across the street from the (currently closed) services center for people experiencing homelessness, just down the street from the services center for people recently released from incarceration, a few blocks from the hospital. There’s a popular bus stop on the sidewalk out front. Across the street, a truck rental company has a large, mostly empty parking lot.
Large crowds of people have been hanging out near the print shop. Day and night.
I pulled into a shaded parking spot. We had the windows down. “I’ll just be a minute, can you sit in the car?” I asked.
The kids nodded, not looking up. A friend recently gave us a stack of Ranger Rick magazines, and we’ve been doling them out gradually for car rides.
I had my wallet in my pocket with a twenty and a ten, and we’d already been sent the bill for our print order. $20.49 for a stack of postcards to send to my spouse’s future AP biology students, explaining their summer assignment.
Normally she’d give kids a slip of paper with their assignment sometime during finals week, but this year had no finals. For many kids, no school.
But don’t worry. The assignment isn’t too bad. Students choose from a set of things like “fill an old sock with trash, bury it, then dig it up six weeks later” or “take a walk and look for things that match each of these different colors.”
I looked in the center console of the car for a pair of quarter. We keep them in a little pouch, ready to pay for parking. Haven’t been using them recently – the meters are still on, but there’d be nowhere to go after parking the car.
I thought it would be a nice gesture to pay in cash with exact change. The credit card company wouldn’t be taking a cut of the profits, and exact change would minimize the length of our transaction.
As I was zipping the pouch closed, a man ambled over. I’d guess he was a little over six feet tall, a little over two hundred pounds, with light brown skin, a buzzed head, and a bristly beard. He leaned down to the open passenger-side window and said something to me, but I couldn’t parse it – his words sounded mushy, thick with saliva.
“Hang on,” I said, “I’m hopping out of the car, let me come around.”
I walked around the back of the car, stopping a few feet away from him. He said the same thing again. I shrugged and shook my head. My brain takes a while to process spoken words, even under the best of circumstances. I can’t listen to audiobooks – whole chapters wash over me without any understanding. I can’t listen to podcasts – when people recommend them, I’ll search for a transcript, then read it and pretend that I too listened while riding an exercise bike or something.
By the fourth time he repeated himself, I understood him better. I think part of the problem was that he was speaking too quickly – almost everybody gets nervous when approaching a stranger.
I can relate. I doubt I’d ever be able to flirt with strangers in a bar.
“I like your hair,” he said. “I grew up in Gary, came down fifteen years ago for Indiana University, but I caught that bipolar. Just got out of the hospital, today’s my birthday, five twenty-six, and I just got out.
He still had a white plastic bracelet on his arm, which seemed to be printed with his name and age. He didn’t gesture to it or anything, which felt nice. As though the two of us would need no evidence to trust each other.
“Your birthday? How old are you?”
“Thirty-seven,” he said, without hesitation.
Indeed, the bracelet was printed with the number 37 in a fairly large font. But it seemed like this was a nice thing to ask.
“No shit,” I said, “thirty-seven. Same as me. Today’s my birthday, I just turned thirty-seven.”
“Naw, man, you’re shitting me.”
“It’s true.” I turned to the car, shouted to the kids, “Whose birthday is it today?”
The kids said something, but neither the man nor I could hear them. The crowd across the street was loud.
The man reached into his pocket, pulled out a jumble of stuff. Dice, some black beaded necklaces, a keychain, a tiny flashlight, nail clippers, a tube of toothpaste. He put the toothpaste back into his pocket.
“Don’t need this yet,” he mumbled.
“You got a toothbrush?” I asked. We actually have some spare ones in the car to give to people.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling out the green plastic handle of a toothbrush, “but I used that already. See these, my teeth so fucking white.”
He smiled for me and I nodded approvingly, murmuring that his teeth were indeed very white. A full smile. Several teeth were stained dark near the edges, but I’ve met lots of men with worse teeth than that.
“Hey, you paint your nails, too,” he said, noticing. “See this, look at this.” He reached out, his hands still full of stuff, to show me his fingers. They had tiny remnants of polish, pink on several but a pointer finger with a mix of red and black, just like I use on mine. My nails were barely even chipped, because I’d painted them the week before. I usually do them about once a month these days. Hard to find time for the little things since having kids.
“I got … here, how about this,” he said, handing me the nail clippers. “They good, they good ones, I haven’t even used them yet, they’re clean.”
As he spoke, spittle flew from his mouth. Luckily, I’m not much of a germophobe. Luckier still, I think I already had the disease that’s going around right now. Between a pair of kids in preschool, a spouse at the high school, and me teaching in jail, I catch most of the viruses that come through town.
I turned the clippers over in my hand. A large pair, space-age iridescent top glimmering in loops of purple and blue, big letters “Made in China” etched into the metal.
“They’re beautiful,” I said. “I like the look of that metal. But we’ve got so much stuff already. Meeting you, that’s present enough today.”
I handed the clippers back. As he took them, one of his dice tumbled from his hand. I bent down to pick it up, gave that back to him, too.
“You play craps?” he asked.
“Hey, I’ll teach you. Come on, here, you gotta get a seven, eleven, don’t want snake eyes.” He bent down, blew on the dice, and rolled. A five and a six.
“Eleven, hey, that’s good,” he said. Then picked up the dice, blew on them again, and rolled. A two and a six.
“Eight. Now I got to roll an eight before I get a seven, see, that’s crap out.” And he rolled about four more times before he hit his seven.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said, and handed them to me.
I rolled, got a two and a four.
“That’s a six, that’s a hard one, got to roll a six again before you crap out.”
I rolled again, same two and a four. Maybe I didn’t shake the dice enough – they didn’t really tumble on the ground, they just sort of plopped down on the asphalt in front of me.
And I found myself thinking how strange it is that dice are a big thing for both the toughest and the wimpiest groups of people in town. Street people and folks in jail gamble with dice, and then there’s Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy buffs rolling 2d6 as they tell stories.
I’ve heard that Dungeons & Dragons is pretty big in some prisons, too. A few prisons have banned D&D or roleplaying books from being sent in – reputedly, people got killed over developments in their games. Somebody’s elf cleric was betrayed and a few days later guards found a body in the showers.
I don’t know how much truth there is to that. But, when people at those prisons ask for D&D books, I have to write an apology and send some fantasy novels instead.
I tried to give the dice back after rolling my second six, but he said I had to keep playing. “I got two, hey, you got to see where you go on this next roll.”
“Okay,” I said, “but then I got to pick up, my spouse is a high school teacher, she has this print order, some post cards to send to her students.” I gestured with my head toward the shop. And then I rolled.
An eight. Followed by a seven. I was done.
“Thanks for teaching me,” I said.
“And, hey, hey, I was thinking, for my birthday, you help me get something at Rally’s. I’m trying to get a pair of ice cones, for me and my girl.”
I gave a wan smile. Normally I don’t give money to people. It’s a tricky situation – people have things they need to buy, and even the chemical escape can seem necessary. My life is really good, and even I struggle with the sense of being trapped inside my head sometimes. And yet, I don’t really like the thought of my money being part of the whole cycle, keeping drugs in town. I’m even pro-drug, mostly, but meth and heroin typically do bad things to people’s lives.
A few days earlier, when I crossed paths with a friend from jail while my dog and I were out running, I’d asked if my friend was eating enough. He laughed at me and said, “Fuck, no!”
It’s true, I’m pretty bad at looking at people’s faces when I talk to them. When my friend started laughing, I finally met his eyes and realized how gaunt he looked.
“Is it a money problem, or …?”
“Oh, dude, don’t give me any money. I could eat, I think I can eat, I just don’t. You give me anything, I’d just spend it on meth.”
Instead of handing money to people on the street, we buy paper and pencils for folks in jail; we support our local food bank; we give time. Building human connection takes time, and there’s no shortcut.
Still, on my birthday, I was standing there in the print shop parking lot next to a man who’d just given me a present – nice nail clippers, even if I didn’t keep them. And we’d played craps. Maybe he’d won – I’m not sure what the rules are about draws. And I had a pair of quarters in my hand.
I’d hoped to have exact change. But I shrugged and gave him the quarters.
“Thanks, man,” he said, and I told him “Thanks for the game,” and walked over to ring the doorbell at the print shop, ready to pick up my order. The kids had been doing a great job of waiting patiently in the car.
At the beginning of our poetry class in jail, I walked around the room to give the printed poems to people. I noticed that somebody was working on an elaborate Valentine’s Day card. (The date was February 28th.)
“Oh, cool,” I said, “did you draw that?”
“Naw,” he said. “I commissioned it and all, though. Designed it. Cost me two Honey Buns. Check it out.”
He waved me in to see the card up close. The front had a red rose with marijuana leaves sprouting from its stem. The poem he’d written inside began:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
If you were a blunt
I’d smoke you too …
“Cost me two Honey Buns each time,” he said. “They shredded my first. I mailed it out, but they said I addressed it wrong, said I wasn’t, what’s that thing, no money on your books … ?”
“Indigent mail,” somebody told him.
“Yeah, said I wasn’t indigent, so they shredded it. Now I’ve gotta send another one.”
Another time, somebody explained the booms and busts of the economy in jail.
In the world at large, the business cycle typically lasts about five to seven years – the economy will rhythmically surge and then contract. This is bad news for the unlucky cohorts who begin their careers during the cyclical recessions – these people typically have lower earnings over their entire lifetimes – but because the cycles are so predictable, central banks are supposed mitigate the downswings.
In jail, the business cycle lasts a week.
“We get commissary on Friday, so every Friday, people have coffee again, we all drink too much. People pay off their debts … or you get an asshole who racked up a bunch of debt then goes to seg on Thursday, tells the guards he’s hearing voices.”
“But near the end of the week, Wednesday or something, people are running out, so coffee gets more expensive. You got to pay a bunch of interest if you’re trying to get coffee from somebody.”
“Worst is you get here near the end of a week. Cause even if somebody puts money on your books, it’ll take a while before they add your name to the list and you can get commissary. So you’re getting everything on credit, people bleed you dry.”
Many people are aware that the central bank has a mandate to “control inflation.” This is very important to political donors – low inflation benefits people who already have wealth, at the expense of current workers.
But most people – including professional economists – think that the central bank controls inflation by manipulating the money supply. This misconception might be a holdover from ancient history. Long ago, only sovereigns could create money. Kings and pretenders would mint coins as a way to flaunt their power. And they’d unleash their full wrath upon interlopers.
The central bank is a little different.
If there’s too much money, which would cause prices to rise, the central bank is supposed to yank money out of the economy by selling bonds. If there is too little money, the central bank is supposed to print more.
The central bank attempts to control the money supply this way.
At the same time, other banks are lending money. If you decide to buy a house, you won’t call up the federal reserve – you’ll probably visit a few banks around town and apply for a mortgage.
Because most money doesn’t exist – it’s just a tally of credits and debits maintained on a server somewhere – a bank that gives you a loan is creating money. Modern banks don’t actually check whether they have money before they lend it to you.
The theoretical support for deregulation was based on the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics, in which banks are mere intermediaries. This does not recognize their pivotal role as creators of the money supply.
Since the 1980s, bank credit creation has expanded at a considerably faster rate than GDP, with an increasing amount of bank credit creation channeled into financial transactions. This is unsustainable and costly to society.
Inflation has stayed low, because the amount of money available for purchasing real things hasn’t grown much. Low inflation means that if people took on debt to go to college, that debt is often still hanging over them years later – inflation would make it easier to clear debt, because employers would respond to inflation by raising salaries. The amount of debt relative to a week’s pay would fall.
Instead, the money supply in only one corner of our economy has ballooned, producing a flurry of destructive activity in the financial sector.
This has been lucrative for people willing to work in finance, though.
Skidelsky explains that:
The economic collapse of 2008-2009 showed that monetary policy directed to the single aim of price stability was not enough either to maintain economic stability or to restore it. The economy collapsed, though the price level was stable.
Preventing a collapse in the money supply was to be achieved by what was euphemistically called ‘unconventional’ monetary policy: pump enough cash into the economy and the extra spending it produced would soon lift it out of the doldrums.
As it happens, the method that the central bank chose to inject money into the economy was perversely ineffectual. The central bank gave money to wealthy people.
One strategy was “quantitative easing.” The central bank paid people above-market-rate for low-quality financial assets.
This helped the people who owned these particular low-quality financial assets – typically foolish wealthy people. They should’ve lost a bunch of money. They’d bought junk! But they didn’t, because the central bank stepped in to save the day.
Our central bank also fulfilled a small set of private companies’ insurance policies. The corporations who bought absurd insurance from AIG should have lost all their money when AIG, unsurprisingly, was unable to fulfill their policies.
If you’re in a high school cafeteria and somebody says, “I bet you a million dollars that …”, you shouldn’t expect the kid to pay up for losing the bet. But our central bank intervened, giving huge amounts of money to destructive corporations like Goldman Sachs, because it wouldn’t be fair for them to win a bet and then not get the money (even though they’d been betting with a kid who obviously didn’t have a million dollars to pay).
And yet, these tactics didn’t stave off financial recession. Since the central bank only gave money to wealthy people, these recipients of our government’s largess had no incentive to actually spend the money.
The main effect of the central bank’s reliance on “portfolio rebalancing” to boost output was to boost the portfolios of the wealthy, with minimal effects on output. One doesn’t need headwinds to explain why.
“There’s a lot you can get in jail. There were a couple years when people had all this spice, but they cracked down on that. Still, you can get a blowjob for a couple Honey Buns, some guys will give you a stick for a soup … “
“What’s a stick?” I asked. My initial assumptions were that it was either something sexual or drug-related, both of which turned out to be wrong. A single soup would be pretty low to pay for drugs – soups are worth less than Honey Buns.
“Hey, ________, show him.”
A guy pulled down the front of his orange jumpsuit. In gothic letters arcing across his chest, he had the words “WHITE TRASH.” The skin around the letters was an agitated red.
“People think you need pens and ink for tats,” somebody said, “but most guys just use a staple and some burnt hair grease … “
The most popular black pigment for oil paints and acrylics is made of charred animal bones. The calcium phosphate from bones is pale – the deep black color comes from carbon. When you burn organic material, you’ll make buckyballs – small spheres of carbon like hollow soccer balls – as well as tubes of graphite. And these molecules have high absorption across the visible spectrum.
Whenever a photon of visible light hits one of these molecules, the light is absorbed. This causes an electronic transition. But then the physical shape of the molecule doesn’t match its electronic structure, so the molecule begins to vibrate.
By the time the molecule collapses back to its initial electronic structure – which ejects a photon – some of the energy that the molecule absorbed has been used up by vibrations. So the outgoing photon will have lower energy. It’ll be “infrared radiation,” which we can’t see. So, colored light goes in, and then invisible light comes out – to us, it looks black.
Still, I hadn’t considered that you could burn the gunk that gathers on unwashed hair in order to make tattoo ink. Despite the brutal efforts of our government, people find ways to live even while incarcerated.
As in the world at large, many transactions in jail are made with hard currency. If something costs a Honey Bun and two soups, you might be expected to hand over the food. Sometimes, currency actually exists.
But people can create money, too.
“Thanks, I owe you one.”
With those words, we gain the power of medieval kings.
As with most fictions, the story that we tell about money helps some people more than others.
Money, in and of itself, is useless. Gold, cowry shells, slips of paper with pictures of dead presidents. The story makes us want these things. We tell ourselves that these items can “hold value.” Instead of lumbering about with all the goods we want to barter, we can carry a small purse of coins. As long as everyone believes the same fiction, we can trade our apples for some coins, then later use those coins to pay someone to help us dig a well.
The story that money has value is most helpful for the people who already have money.
If everyone suddenly woke up from the story, and decided that coins were worthless, the people who grow apples would be okay. In some ways, it’s less practical to pay people with apples – coins don’t bruise or rot – but it can be done. Similarly, the people who dig wells would be okay.
But the people who owned coins would be worse off – previously, the things they owned could be traded for other, inherently useful goods. And people who had made loans would be much worse off – they would have given away money at a time when it could be used to buy things, and when they receive the coins back, they’ll be worthless. No recompense for past sacrifice – only loss.
So people with current wealth benefit most from the fiction that money has value.
This is, as far as I can tell, the only real virtue of Bitcoins. This form of currency is not anonymous – indeed, it works through the use of “blockchains,” a permanent ledger that records everyone who has ever owned a particular piece of money. Bitcoins are a little like dollar bills where you have to sign your name on it in order to spend it. And they’re excruciatingly bad for the environment – it takes energy to mint a real-world, metal coin, but nothing like the amount of energy that’s constantly wasted in order to verify the ledgers of who owns which Bitcoin. Ownership is determined by vote, and the system was designed to be intentionally inefficient so that it’s difficult for one person to overwhelm the system and claim ownership of everybody’s coins. And it’s unstable – it’s difficult for someone to outvote the system and take control, but not impossible.
Those all seem like bad features. But Bitcoins are now incredibly valuable – in the years since I explained all these flaws to a high school runner who’d begun investing in Bitcoins, his $500 investment has burgeoned to be worth $24,000.
The only “good” feature of Bitcoins is that the system is designed to reward past wealth. The total money supply approaches an asymptote – new Bitcoins are added to the system more slowly over time. If the currency is successful, this will impose a deflationary pressure on prices. Today, a certain amount of heroin might cost 0.1 Bitcoin – in the future, that same amount of heroin might cost 0.01 Bitcoin.
This deflationary pressure would cause the value of current holdings to increase. By simply buying Bitcoins and hoarding them, you’d gain wealth!
But this only works for as long as people keep believing the fiction that Bitcoins have value. And the more people who buy and hold Bitcoins, as opposed to actively using them as currency, the less believable the story will be. Anyone who “invests” in Bitcoins is wagering that other people will behave in a way that maintains the fiction, even though the person who is making the wager is actively undermining the story.
When we immerse ourselves in stories, we often need to temporarily suspend our disbelieve, but that particular set of mental gymnastics is too twisty for my mind.
Modern money barely exists. Before, we spun stories about the value of coins – now, the fiction lends value to certain strings of numbers. In addition to the Federal Reserve, any bank can create money by making a loan and claiming that a certain amount of currency has been added to one account or another.
This has allowed our fictions to become more intricate. In 2008, the banking crisis threatened to make wealthy people much less wealthy – they had purchased certain financial assets that seemed valuable, and then these assets turned out to be worthless.
It’s as though there was a certain new Magic card that everyone assumed was great, and a few rich kids bought all the copies of it, but then people finally read the card and realized it was terrible. Now these rich kids are holding hundreds of copies of a worthless piece of cardboard.
This would be sad for those rich kids. But, lo and behold, it was fixable! If everyone can be forced to believe, again, that the item has value, then it will. The story needs to be chanted more loudly. If I paid $50 for this card last week, then it’s still worth at least $50!
That’s what “quantitative easing” was – governments around the world agreed to buy worthless items in order to convince everyone that these items had value. This way, the wealthy people who had initially bought them wouldn’t have to suffer.
In the years since I’ve been teaching in our local county jail, I’ve struggled to comprehend the disparities between the way we treat poor people and wealthy people who made mistakes.
For instance, stock traders stole $60 billion from state governments across Europe – the trick was to have two people both temporarily own the stock around tax time, then they lie to the government and claim that they both had to pay taxes on it. Only one set of taxes were actually paid, but they lie and claim two rebates. Money from nothing!
From David Segal’s New York Times article:
A lawyer who worked at the firm Dr. Berger founded in 2010, and who under German law can’t be identified by the news media, described for the Bonn court a memorable meeting at the office.
Sensitive types, Dr. Berger told his underlings that day, should find other jobs.
“Whoever has a problem with the fact that because of our work there are fewer kindergartens being built,” Dr. Berger reportedly said, “here’s the door.”
They stole billions of dollars, and the question at stake isn’t whether they will be punished, but whether they can be forced to return any of the money.
By way of contrast, many of the guys in jail are there for stealing $10 or so. A guy did five months for attempting to use my HSA card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Another violated probation when he stole a lemonade – “In my defense,” he told me, “I didn’t even mean to steal it, I was just really fucking high at the time.”
Two weeks ago, a dentist visited the jail during my class. I go in from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 – at about 4:15, a guard came to the door and barked somebody’s name.
“Med call?” somebody asked.
“Shakedown?” asked another.
The guard looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, then said “Dentist.” And suddenly six guys started clamoring, “You got time for extras? I gotta get on that list!”
The man whose name had been called jumped out of his chair and sauntered to the door.
After he’d left, the guys explained the system. “You can get dental, like real dental, but you have to put your name on the list and they only come like every five, six months. So there’s no hope unless you’re gonna be here for a while. And it’s kinda expensive, you pay like fifty for the visit and another ten for each tooth they pull.”
Apparently that’s the only service – pulling teeth.
“They do good work,” said the older man next to me, “I got these bottom two done here.” And he tilted his head back and opened his mouth. But I grew up wealthy – it’s hard for me to assess quality by eyeballing the blank gap between somebody’s teeth.
About twenty minutes later, the guy came back.
“Which ones you have them do?” somebody asked him.
“I had ‘em get these bottom three,” he said, although his voice was slurry because they’d loaded his mouth with novacaine.
“You idiot! You didn’t have them get the top one?”
“No, man, that’s my smile! Gonna find a way to save that tooth.”
“Man, see, how come I couldn’t be on that list? I would’ve had ‘em pull a whole bunch of ‘em out. Wouldn’t give ‘em no that’s my smile bullshit.”
As it happens, I’d gone in for a cleaning at my dentist just the day before. And I’ve had braces. Invisalign. I suddenly felt rather self-conscious about my own perfectly clean, perfectly straight, perfectly intact teeth.
“So who was it, that lady doctor?”
“Naw, was the Black guy.”
“What? Fuck’s it matter that he’s Black?”
“Nobody said it matters, it’s just, there’s three dentists, there’s the lady doctor, the Black guy, and then that other guy. There’s just three, is all.”
Our man was out eighty dollars after the visit. Could’ve spent ninety, but he was holding out hope for that last one. And they didn’t let him keep the teeth.
I’m not sure the tooth fairy ever visits the county jail, anyway.
In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana. We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:
I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
The guys asked me when these experiments had happened.
“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.
“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then! Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard. Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”
I was shaking my head. “Five pounds? The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California. Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”
“Two hundred dollars? You got ripped off!”
I laughed. “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”
“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”
I demurred. “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”
The guy’s face fell. The room grew silent. Until somebody shouted, “Oregano? He just called you a major asshole!”
I felt pretty bad. I’d really hurt his feelings.
As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.
Unsuccessfully. Possibly by accident. But still.
There was a dropped wallet. His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through. Then an arrest.
That whole episode transpired almost three years ago. But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.
The guy has been in my class several times before. I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street. Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.
Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me. He said he hadn’t known whose card it was. I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse. Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.
Money isn’t sacred.
I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other. The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings. Money comes and money goes. It’s just paper. Or less: numbers inside a machine.
That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank. We scan a card and the value of our account goes down. Nothing physically happens.
Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.
But passing off drugs as something they’re not? That violates something sacred. Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.
You don’t have to be honest all the time. You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers. That’s all harmless talk. Passing the time, shooting the shit.
If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test. Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it. For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.
When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt. If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope. Not pot dipped in embalming fluid. Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.
I won’t tell another joke about oregano.
Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges. But one really rankles him:
“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice? The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me! They put my picture on Fox News. I was so fucking pissed! I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”
The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.
remember not only how much you were loved,
the beds on which you lay,
A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present. Our gratitude should encompass more, though. We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,
those desires for you
glowed plainly in the eyes,
trembled in the voice – and some
obstacle made futile.
In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs. These could be many things. On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance. In another lifetime. Another world, perhaps.
But we have the potential for so many glories. In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game. If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.
Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t. In the present, we try our best. But our present slides inexorably into the past. And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.
all of them belong to the past,
almost seems as if you had yielded
desires – how they glowed,
in the eyes gazing at you;
trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
Consciousness is such a strange contraption. Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment. The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction.
A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis. This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind. The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world. It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.
then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged. The Boltzmann brain would vanish. The self-perceiving entity would end.
Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t. A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant. And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.
Past success makes future success come easier. If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future. If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time.
triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to
remember. If our life will be improved
by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy? “It almost seems as if you had yielded to
those desires.” The glow, the gaze:
In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse. Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.
We all need to know that we are fallible. Our brains are made of squishy goo. The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat. Only the patterns are important. Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.
As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure. We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose. As we live, we grow. A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.
imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never
been, the sort of person who would assault a woman. He surely believes that he would never thrust
his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand. And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current
behavior is improved by this belief. In
his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve,
rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record
of consensus reality.
problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power. In his personal life, he should preserve the
mutable memories that help him to be good.
No matter how inaccurate they might be.
The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights. Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.
someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to
preserve a lingering memory of past sins.
I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to
the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to
preserve. But I would hope that he
remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while
memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and
college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would
benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol. When I discuss drug use with people in jail,
I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization. I think that people should be allowed to
manipulate their own minds.
certain people should not take certain drugs.
Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin. And I was handed more at college parties. But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.
people really like opiates, though.
Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.
though, his life would not be that much worse without it. Beer changes how your brain works in the now. For an hour or two, your perception of the
world is different. Then that sensation,
like any other, slides into the past.
whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of
Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life. Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.
But, let’s face it. Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly. If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person. If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.
There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims. But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence. After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case. Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too.
Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world. Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma. And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.
So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country. Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity. Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.
At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru. Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic. And Norse mythology is cool! Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion. Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.
During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry. But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice. We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs. Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.
I have nothing against religious invention. All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today. Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too. Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.
So I like the idea of neo-paganism. You want to find a clearing in the woods and
do some moonlit dancing? You’d rather
worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity? You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be
protected rather than a resource to be exploited? Go right ahead! All of that sounds pretty great to me.
neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.
That’s why I’ve been
working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology. Currently, when people ask for The Poetic
Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it,
and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul
of our anti-hate policy.
But the Norse myths are
certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of
those. The main difference is that
centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler
beliefs around the stories in the Bible.
The text of Psalm 137
states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little
ones against the stones.” But the
text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion. The practice of Christianity frowns upon
the murder of any human infant. Whether
you like the kid’s parents or not.
We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people. Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult. You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too. But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist. Feminist. Supporting the pursuit of knowledge. Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.
Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to
address skin color and genetic heritage directly. It’s a fraught topic. Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion
of evolution. Some people feel squigged
out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common
ancestors as the dinosaurs. And that’s far
less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution.
Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States. Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense. Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.
I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though. After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.
Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart. This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other. Maybe one group migrated to an island. In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.
Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way. Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell. But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.
If humans hadn’t
polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther
and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed. No matter how many sense-suppressing
chemicals we dumped.
We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees. About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together. By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other. Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.
One group of these
creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright
posture. This allowed for a good vantage
while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.
The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on
all fours. This body plan results in
fewer mothers dying during childbirth.
As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.
Up until about 2 million
years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.
But then they began to migrate.
Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe. By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen
different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The difference between one population to the
next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more
like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown
bears. Scientists describe them as
distinct species. Although they were
similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they
rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve
adaptations to their specific environments.
Evolution isn’t easy. Nor is it quick. Just because a certain trait would be
advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it. In the desert, it would help to have
adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to
cool the blood. But a trait can only
spread after a random mutation creates it.
And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born
with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for
the benefit to spread through the population.
Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish. But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck. That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment. Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.
By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different. Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness. Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air. These are incredibly beneficial traits. Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.
Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct. To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them. But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals. And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.
The Neanderthal lived at
high latitude. Over many generations,
their average skin color became paler.
In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure. Think about a dodo – there was no advantage
for these birds to lose their fear of humans.
But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled
to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.
Dodos lost a beneficial
trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed. It’s kind of like the airbags in an old
car. If your car’s engine goes bad,
you’ll notice right away. Turn the key,
hear it sputter. You use the engine
every time you drive. But your airbags
could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re
needed, they won’t deploy.
Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin. If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.
The most recent ancestors
that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin. Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale. They can afford to be – their fur protects
them from the sun. But our ancestors
lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this
led to the evolution of dark skin.
High concentrations of
epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.
As humans migrated to
higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their
humanity. Because the sunlight was less
intense, there was less selective pressure.
Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos
lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the
trait went untested in their day to day lives.
They had no way to “realize” how important it was.
Your airbags aren’t
helpful until you crash. And then
they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.
Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north. Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D. We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.
In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers. When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild. And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors. Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage. They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.
Around 40,000 years ago,
our planet’s most recent ice age ended.
The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe. By then, a group of humans living in Africa
were recognizably Homo sapiens.
These were our ancestors. Every
human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from –
is descended from this group of people from Africa. They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred
people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.
As the world warmed, some
of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.
These journeys occurred over many generations. Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes
ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia. As they traveled, they encountered the humans
who already lived in those places. As
I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the
natives. They probably also killed a lot
of them. Unfortunately, we Homo
sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well.
rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA. Some people, especially if their families are
from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA. At other extreme, even people whose families
are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.
Among people living in
Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes
Like the Neanderthal
before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to
lose their epidermal melanin. People who
hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of
sun damage. Remember, this didn’t happen
all at once. Average skin color would
change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not
during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime.
Our ancestors spent almost
all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably
synthesize plenty of vitamin D. Among
contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we
spend too much time inside. As I type
this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering
fluorescent bulbs. This low-quality
light won’t help me make vitamin D.
Instead, I take a daily
supplement. But that doesn’t come near
matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.
Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week. At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence. Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice. You could see some stars. And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street? Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”
Treating people that way
is unlikely to help them get better.
But back to our migrants! Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories. Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America.
As people traveled –
journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve. Indeed, skin color was a trait that came
repeatedly under selective pressure. As
people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer
and closer to the equator. Compared to
their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight. They needed more epidermal melanin.
This is a process that
takes a long time. A family might have
six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely
that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their
own. If this happens again and again,
among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind
up with slightly darker skin.
Because human skin color
has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated
with other traits. As we entered the
modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the
equator their recent ancestors lived.
But human populations migrated so often that there were many different
groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every
latitude. Because skin color is so
closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar
concentrations of epidermal melanin. And
there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain
size or intelligence.
As it happens, there are
major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably
intelligence). After all, human brains
are costly. Even though there’s a
benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against
Large brains kill
mothers. Because humans walk upright,
childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates. Our posture constrains the width of our hips
– both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that
Having children is so
risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely. Human gestation takes about a year, but most
mothers give birth after only 9 months.
This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body,
but human babies are totally helpless at birth.
We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.
Also, our brains require a
lot of fuel. Human evolution occurred
over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and
calamities. During the hard years, our
ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that
A person with a smaller
brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean
times. And, again, it’s worth
remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many
families, that even small changes can add up.
If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen
pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then
the trend will be to have people with smaller brains. Intelligence has to be extremely
beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.
Similarly, if people with
small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts,
then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of
extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.
Many of us have the bad
habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of
more and more complexity. But that’s not
what it is. Evolution is the process by
which things that are better suited for their environment become more
abundant. If the environment is a hard
place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity. When it’s hard to get enough calories, why
waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?
Starfish are descended
from organisms that had brains. But
starfish are brainless. The ancestral
starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.
Which should make you feel
pretty good about your own brain, actually.
Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger
and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to
starve to death, or kill our mothers.
That’s a valuable thing
you’ve got inside your skull. It cost
our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.
But, right. Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes. Like when we first domesticated dogs. Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago. Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night. Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children. Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.
Because we could slough
off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will
help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and
reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.
When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further. A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming. This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm. Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain.
There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends. Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.
But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time. By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language. But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.
Nobody is born with an
innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics. None of that can be encoded in your
genes. If you want to understand this
stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.
Neuron count only suggests
a brain’s potential. You could do
incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats
that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary
telephone. And, conversely, sensory
deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your
That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners. Our brains are capable of wonders. At any age, we can learn and grow. And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.
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
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
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.
Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years. We’ve been using cocaine even longer. Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience. Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.
Not all drug use is good, obviously. Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost. Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught. I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time. I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking. I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”
Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose. When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.
In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter. Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”
But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled. Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use. Possession is a felony.
Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising. Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments. Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.
In the United States, cocaine
was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of
white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into
monsters. Prohibition was mediated
It’s true that cocaine is
dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the
purified compound. But coca tea is no
more dangerous than earl grey. Indeed,
if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.
Marijuana was also legal in
the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories
about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.
Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative. Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that
No one should ever be arrested
or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it
would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and
grown psilocybin myself.
And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests. I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience. I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests.
For all the people subject to
this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the
current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very
Instead, Pollan centers his
cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.”
That idea is true enough, as
far as things go. Some people probably
shouldn’t use psilocybin. Some people
feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its
influence. But I would argue that arrest
is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance
increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.
And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs. For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin. The drug can hurt someone who uses it. But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain. Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others.
It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery. Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views.
Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink. Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended. But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.
Or consider antibiotics. Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse. With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.
And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs. If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all. But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.
In the past, somebody might
get scratched by a cat … and die.
Any infection could turn septic and kill you.
In the future, a
currently-treatable infection might kill me.
Or kill my children.
But we’re not stopping the
meat industry from using them. We’re not
using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their
misuse. Instead we’ve outlawed
psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that
helps you become a kinder, happier person.
We are composite creatures, the edifice of our minds perched atop accumulated strata of a lifetime of memories. Most people, I imagine, have done wrong; remembrance of our lapses is part of who we are. And most of us have been hurt; those grievances also shape our identities.
struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected
to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.
is a nebulous concept, however. There’s
no external metric that indicates what we should do. For instance: if we are subject to an
injustice, is it better to forgive or to punish the transgressor?
are compelling arguments for both sides, and for each position you could base
your reasoning on philosophy, psychology, physiology, evolutionary biology …
Intellect and reasoning can’t identify what we should do.
A wide variety of cooperative species will swiftly and severely punish transgressions in order to maintain social order. Misbehavior among naked mole rats is generally resolved through bullying and violence, which ensures the colony does not lapse into decadence. (As with humans, shared adversity like hunger generally compels threat-free cooperation.)
Archaeologists suggest that the belief in vengeful gods was coupled to the development of complex human societies. The Code of Hammurabi prescribed immediate, brutal retribution for almost any misdeed.
But punishment invites further punishment. Every act of revenge can lead to yet another act of revenge – the Hatfield and McCoy families carried on their feud for nearly thirty years.
Punishment is fueled by anger, and anger poisons our bodies. On a purely physiological level, forgiving others allows us to heal. The psychological benefits seem to be even more pronounced.
But forgiveness is hard. Sometimes people do terrible things. After her mother was killed, my spouse had to spend her entire afternoon prep period on the phone with a family member and the prosecutor, convincing them not to seek the death penalty.
And incidents in which dark-skinned men hurt white women are precisely those for which prosecutors typically seek the death penalty; after my mother-in-law’s death, the only national news sites that wrote about the case were run by far-right white supremacists trying to incite more hatred and violence toward innocent black people. (I’m including no links to these, obviously.)
time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail.
wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –
at four a.m., scattering birdseed,
a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic
into the unlistening air.
a passing man tossed off a punch,
her to the ground.
stomped upon her skull
there was no more her
that battered brain.
intubated the corpse &
it oxygenated by machine,
each blip of needless heart
my wife convinced
to let the mindless body rest.
taught another class in jail
men who hurt someone else’s mother,
daughter, or son.
man who murdered,
New York inmate #14A4438
black hair & brown eyes,
been to prison twice,
2002 & 2014,
paltry grams of crack cocaine.
man received a massive dose
years of penitence.
Nearly a decade of correction.
Victor Frankenstein share the blame
the murders of his creation,
man he quicked but did not love?
can we walk into a maternity ward
one, nursing now, will be a beast.
Are monsters born or made?
mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,
after “spontaneous utterances,”
in blood, photographed with
bandage between his eyes.
we, in our mercy,
always stood firmly on the side of Frankenstein’s creation. Yes, he began to kill, but misanthropy was
thrust upon him. The creature was
ethical and kind at first, but the rest of the world ruthlessly mistreated
him. Victor Frankenstein abandoned him
in the laboratory; he befriended a blind man, but then the man’s children chased
Frankenstein’s fiancée did not deserve to be strangled – except insofar as we
share blame for the crimes of those we love – but I understand the wellspring
of the creature’s rage.
In Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, a junk dealer’s attempt to honor the anonymous victims of Iraq’s many bombings gives rise to a spirit of vengeance. The junk dealer acts upon a grisly idea – most victims could not receive proper funerals because their bodies were scattered or incinerated by the blasts. But what if many stray pieces were collected? An charred arm from Tuesday’s explosion; a ribcage and lower jawbone from Wednesday’s; two different victims’ legs from Thursday’s. The city is so wracked by violence that there are plenty of body parts to choose from. And then the junk dealer could take his creation to the police and say, Look! Here is a body, victim of the attacks. Here is a dead man we can honor properly.
truth, the junk dealer’s plan was never terribly well thought out. Once he completes the corpse, he realizes
that using his creation as a locus for lamentation would be no better than all
the empty coffins.
the corpse springs to life, seeking vengeance on any and all who wronged its
component parts. In the creature’s words
(as translated by Jonathan Wright):
of people to seek revenge on grew longer as my old body parts fell off and my
assistants added parts from my new victims, until one night I realized that
under these circumstances I would face an open-ended list of targets that would
was my enemy, because there was never enough of it to accomplish my mission,
and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my
supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.
killing had only begun. At least that’s
how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead
bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”
the creature realizes that the people he attacks are no different from the dead
victims that he is composed of. He can
chase after the terrorist organizations that orchestrate suicide bombings, but
the people in those organizations are also seeking revenge for their dead
allies. The chain of causality is so
tangled that no one is clearly responsible.
States forces have been inadvertently killing innocent civilians ever since
invading Iraq … an attack that was launched in retribution for the actions of a
small group of Afghani terrorists.
To seek vengeance, we need someone to blame. But who should I blame for my mother-in-law’s death? The man who assaulted her? That’s certainly the conclusion that the white supremacist news sites want me to reach. But I sincerely doubt that this poor man would have hurt her if a prosecutor hadn’t ripped him from his friends and family, condemning him to ten years within the nightmarish violence of America’s prisons, all for participating in a small-scale version of the exact same economic transaction that allowed Merck to become a $160-billion-dollar valued company.
Do I blame the racist white legislators who imposed such draconian punishments on the possession of the pure amine form of cocaine, all while celebrating their pale-skinned buddies who snerked up the hydrochloride salt form?
blame myself? As a citizen of this
country – a wealthy citizen, no less, showered with un-earned privilege – I am
complicit in the misfortunes that my nation imposes on others. Even when I loathe the way this nation acts,
by benefiting from its sins, I too share responsibility.
is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity. The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad
mind he still had a long list of the people he was supposed to kill, and as
fast as the list shrank it was replenished with new names, making avenging
these lives an endless task. Or maybe he
would wake up one day to discover that there was no one left to kill, because
the criminals and the victims were entangled in a way that was more complicated
than ever before.
are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely
criminal.” This sentence drilled its way
into his head like a bullet out of the blue.
He stood in the middle of the street and looked up at the sky, waiting
for the final moment when he would disintegrate into his original
components. This was the realization
that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was
also a victim. The victim proportion in
some of them might even be higher than the criminal proportion, so he might
inadvertently be made up of the most innocent parts of the criminals’ bodies.
“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.”