On the moon landing, and who benefits if you believe it was faked.

On the moon landing, and who benefits if you believe it was faked.

If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that.  Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia. 

In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV.  A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted. 

They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.

Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.

Which is why we spend so much time talking about conspiracy theories.

I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.

But, with the fiftieth anniversary coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon landing was faked.

There’s only so much I can say.  After all, I, personally, have never been to the moon. 

One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.

Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though.  Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years.  Eventually, they were leaked.

But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.

Instead, the strategy that’s worked for me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.

“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon.  Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”

When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset.  Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon.  It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year.  Something is wrong somewhere.”  (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)

During John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway.  Despite the challenge, despite the costs.  “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people?  Not so much.

A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools.  They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma.  They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care.  They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.

To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon.  “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”

The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon. 

Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent.  And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.

Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere.  Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, still don’t have anybody running them.  These agencies will perform worse.

If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt.  Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.

Our one and only.

On drugs and drug laws.

On drugs and drug laws.

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.

The Oracle of Delphi.

Our ancestors began intentionally brewing alcohol nearly 10,000 years ago.  We’ve been using opium as a sacrament – not just a painkiller – for perhaps 3,000 years.

Drugs are very important to our species. 

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.”

DADDY WAKE UP

Travis Combs

I hear the sound of his little feet running

down the hall, I look to make sure the door

is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear

his joy as he yells, I’m superman.

       I do the shot

                      thinking What if?

       What if I fall out, what if he finds

me here, what if his little fingers have to

press 911, something we all teach them to do.

The fear in his voice when he says Daddy

won’t get up.  The pain in his heart when

he shakes me, yelling daddy wake up, daddy

wake up.

              Then I do wake, the needle

still in my arm, I feel his tears on my chest

as he lays there hugging me, crying, daddy

wake up.

Psychedelic drugs are safer.  They tend to be non-addictive. Most are relatively non-toxic. And a single dose can initiate self-discovery that buoys a person’s spirits for six months or more.

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 through racism.

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.

And even now, wealthy people throughout the Bay Area blithely use psychedelic drugs.  Authors like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan openly publicize their experiences flaunting the law.

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 meaningful consequences.

Michael Pollan. Photograph by Sage Ross on Wikipedia.

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. 

Graph made by Tesseract2 on Wikimedia.

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.

Because we’ve allowed people to be so cavalier with antibiotics, medical professionals expect that within a generation, more people will die from bacterial infections than from cancer.

Obviously, this terrifies me.

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.

Is that reasonable?

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

On vengeance and Ahmed Saadawi’s ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad.’

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.

We struggle to be good, despite having been born into an amoral universe and then subjected to innumerable slights or traumas as we aged.

Goodness 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?

There 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.

The compulsion to punish people who have hurt us arises from deep within our brains.

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.

The attack had been recorded by security cameras.  Apparently it was horrifying to watch.  The assailant’s defense lawyer stated publicly that it was “the most provable murder case I have ever seen.

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.)

At the time, I was working on a series of poems about teaching in jail. 

Correction (pt. ii)

My wife’s mother was murdered Saturday –

outside at four a.m., scattering birdseed,

smoking a cigarette, shucking schizophrenic

nothings into the unlistening air.

Then a passing man tossed off a punch,

knocking her to the ground.

He stomped upon her skull

till there was no more her

within that battered brain.

Doctors intubated the corpse &

kept it oxygenated by machine,

monitoring each blip of needless heart

for days

until my wife convinced

a charitable neurologist

to let the mindless body rest.

That same afternoon

I taught another class in jail

for men who hurt someone else’s mother,

daughter, or son.

The man who murdered,

privacy-less New York inmate #14A4438

with black hair & brown eyes,

had been to prison twice,

in 2002 & 2014,

caught each time

with paltry grams of crack cocaine.

Our man received a massive dose

of state-sponsored therapy:

nine years of penitence.

Nearly a decade of correction.

Does Victor Frankenstein share the blame

for the murders of his creation,

the man he quicked but did not love?

Or can we walk into a maternity ward

and point:

that one, nursing now, will be a beast.

Are monsters born or made?

My mother-in-law is dead, & our man is inside again,

apprehended after “spontaneous utterances,”

covered in blood, photographed with

a bandage between his eyes.

And we, in our mercy,

will choose whether

our creation

deserves

to die.

#

Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation. Fronts-piece to the 1831 edition.

I have 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 him away.

Victor 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.

In 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.

And then 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):

“My list 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 never end.

“Time 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.

“But the 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.”

Soon, 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.

Car bombing in Baghdad. Image from Wikimedia.

United 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.

Some people thought that this sounded reasonable at the time.

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?

Do I 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.

I have inherited privilege … which means that I also deserve to inherit blame, even for horrors perpetrated well before I was born.

Forgiveness is hard, but revenge would send us chasing an endless cycle of complicity.  The creature in Frankenstein in Baghdad is flummoxed:

In his 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.

“There 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.”

Header image: an illustration of Frankenstein at work in his laboratory.

On storytelling and social justice.

On storytelling and social justice.

Recently, Dave Eggers joined four local panelists (Lindsey Badger, Michelle Brekke, Max Smith, and me) to discuss writing and incarceration, especially the role of storytelling as a force for social justice.

When I discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling.  Because your consciousness has evolved to create stories.

When you choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles.  You will begin to act.  Then, once you are already in motion, your consciousness will be informed of your decision.  Thats when your brain generates a story to explain why you chose to pick up the pen.

First, we act, then we concoct a narrative.

A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice.  If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.

Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating.  I could continue rattling off more facts.  By reading this essay, you might learn something.  But it probably wouldn’t change how you act.  Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.

In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal writes that:

The Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient, Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.  While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of conversation. 

Elliott was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.  This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making.  It might take him all afternoon to make up his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an appointment or the color of his pen. 

Damasio and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways.  Even though his reasoning capacities seemed perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a conclusion.  As Damasio summarized: “The defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the point at which choice making or response selection must occur.” 

Elliott himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”

After all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good.  Your intellect will invariably fall short.  Only by trusting your emotions can you decide that one course of action is better than another.

And that is the value of stories.

Eggers, who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9 / 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.  “But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page first-person narrative, they become activists.

By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways.  For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday.  I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.

Michelle Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man, she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but today, and even then,  that’s not who I am.  I’m actually a very kind, loving, caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so that’s the way of life I chose to take.  I’m an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.

Luckily I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.

During her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole truth.  She refused to let other people dictate the narrative of her life.  “To be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the beginning, the middle, and the now.

The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”

Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world.  After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).

Smith said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being true to their experience hurts readers.  It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been exposed to it.” 

And Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the writing.  To not feel sorry for me, but to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.

The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue. 

And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate.  Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.

Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.

On empathy.

On empathy.

Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid.  Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.

Salzman loves to write, and he was lucky enough to make a career out of it.  But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to know intimately every sort of character who might populate his books.  Even while writing Lost in Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other – Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the world of Salzman the child.  He was forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book, that he succeeded.

The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.

Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters.  But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled.  In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):

Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness.  Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor.  She thought he needed a personality.  And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,] must have had to write about them at some point.  I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research.  He thought about it, then answered, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week.  I teach a writing class there.  If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

Salzman knew that he was too ignorant to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened himself to the world in order to learn more.  He visited the juvenile detention center.  Soon, he began to teach his own writing class there.  He became friends with several students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation in a movie theater.

All writing draws upon empathy.  Even to create nonfiction, a writer must empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey.  And with fiction, unless we expect authors to populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would perceive the world.

And then, after learning to empathize with characters, a writer must find ways to share that growth.  When it’s done well, understanding spills from the page, which is presumably why reading literary fiction has been experimentally shown to increase empathy.

The world benefits, for example, when the neurodiverse among us write about their lives, giving us firsthand insight into their experience of the world.  But we as a people also benefit when people without autism are allowed, or even encouraged, to consider what the world feels like for others

Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.

Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fall short.

But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all.  In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:

In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.  Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality.  It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.

To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.  In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Image by LA2 on Wikimedia Commons.

In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives.  He allowed his heart to grow.  And he, as a person, was changed.  When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up.  After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.

They weren’t monsters, they were people.  And he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize their shared humanity.

And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world.  Because the world is clearly in need of change.  And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.

Header image from a letter sent to me by a former student, as featured in the essay “Asymmetry and the Hatred of Poetry.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?