On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

On Tara Westover’s “Educated.”

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

#

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

#

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

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

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

“Oh, Hulk wants something to eat?”

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

“Hulk is upset because he has no shoes?”

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

#

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

4600608792_bc43de9c17_z.jpg
Superman vs. Hulk by JD Hancock on Flickr.

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She thought:

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

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

In a footnote, Westover adds: 

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

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

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

His pupils were unevenly dilated.  His brain was bleeding.

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

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

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

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

# 

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

On smell (again!).

On smell (again!).

1200px-Concentrated_animal_feeding_operation,_Missouri_(2)If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume.  The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear.  If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks.  Or, sure, conversation.  But a charming scent won’t do it.

In other environs, scent contributes to your allure.  We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell.  Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.

oldspiceDuring college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave.  “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said.  This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.

But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.

Stick_insect_WGWe’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates.  Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas.  Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin.  These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.

If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.

That’s what happens with fish.

When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other.  In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.

fishMany types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears.  Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters.  And so fish mate across species.  Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.

Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other.  But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is.  Whatever boundaries exist seem porous.  The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction.  Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.

Although – maybe that’s fine.  Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one.  I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.

Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding.  For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.

A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier.  Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way.  And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.  Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.

In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier.  In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them.  This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.

Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine.  My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people.  And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?

 

Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

On addiction, crime, Buddhism, and exorcism.

2014-01-31demon001In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide.  Again and again.  Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.

Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse.  Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell.  Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.

*

We incarcerate drug dealers.  But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand.  People’s lives are still broken.  Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy.  When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.

*

Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison.  When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!”  When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished.  Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.

Child molesters were often abused as children.  In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.

The demon leaps from one shell to the next.

*

During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”  Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work.  When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger.  We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.

Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others.  And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again.  After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else.  But the initial mistakes were made by a child.  Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.

We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not.  We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not.  We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.

After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.

If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it.  I too believe in free will.  But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain.  If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?

*

51ZgODW8D+L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIn ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons.  A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.

This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted.  It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others.  This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen.  Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right.  After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.

Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult.  Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.

*

In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised.  In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.

Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment.  A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.

*

Some demons might never leave the body.  The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history.  Even after years clean, addiction lingers.

In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted.  Apparently demons love to guard treasure.  It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.

458309472_48b67b8452_z.jpg

Addicts are shuttered in jail.  The walls are concrete.  Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day.  People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark.  The block is noisy, and feels dangerous.  The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance.  Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.

Thoughts of drugs.

But poems can be treasures.  If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there.  Something for the demon to guard.

We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.

*

Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

In Jason Shiga’s Empire State, the protagonist decides he will “see America” by traveling from Oakland, CA to New York City on a bus.  Everyone derides the plan as foolish – he’ll see only the great big slab of I-80 and some gas stations – but, because he’d kept his plan secret to surprise a friend, nobody warns him until it’s too late.

Professional movers, however, take occasional breaks from the highway to navigate their trucks down treacherous suburban streets.  It’s those excursions into the world where people actually live that lets movers understand America.  Crisp descriptions of those excursions make Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road a charming read.

Murphy’s experience criss-crossing the United States has also give him a sharp perspective on our economy.  His political analysis is both more accurate and more concise than what’s been written by most academic researchers:

9780393608717_p0_v2_s192x300.jpgThe next day I picked up I-94 west and stopped for the night in Ann Arbor.  In college towns – like Chapel Hill, Boulder, Iowa City, Missoula, Austin, Madison, and Oxford, Mississippi, to name a few – all of a sudden, instead of unemployment, meth labs, and poverty, there are real jobs. As far as I can figure, the only places left in America that can boast of vibrant downtowns are college towns and high-end tourist towns.  In the rest of the country the downtowns were hollowed out when nobody was looking.  You might think it’s only your town that’s been ruined by sprawl, but it’s happened everywhere.  You’ve got the new CVS, the Walmart, the Home Depot on the fringes, while the old downtown is either empty or the buildings have a Goodwill store, an immigration law office, and an “antiques” store, meaning junk.  The chains on the outskirts provide the nine-dollar-an-hour jobs and wire the day’s receipts to Bentonville or New York every night.

I hate it personally, but we deserved what we got.  We wanted the eight-dollar sneakers and the forty-five-cent tube socks.  We didn’t consider that maybe it’d be a better bargain to pay twenty dollars for sneakers and buy them from the neighbor who owns the shoe store downtown and stocks sneakers made in Maine.

It’s too late now.  The game’s been won by companies who don’t give two shits about community character or decent jobs.  Congratufuckinglations, America!  We did the deal.  Now we’ve got an unlimited supply of cheap commodities and unhealthy food and crumbling downtowns, no sense of place, and a permanent underclass.

If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an underpaid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.

#

Most of The Long Haul is more chipper than the passage I’ve excerpted above – Murphy discusses how he chose his career, the basic principles of long-haul driving and packing other people’s belongings, the zen of hard manual labor, and what it meant to finally let go of his own anger and enjoy his time on this planet.  Both K and I loved the book.

But I wanted to share the passage above.  I’ve written previously about common misconceptions regarding “free-market capitalism” – a quick summary being that although the phrase “free-market capitalism” is used so commonly that most people sense intuitively what it means, it doesn’t actually mean anything.  To have a market, it cannot be free.  (This idea is explained succinctly in the beginning of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism – you can read an excerpt in the essay linked above.)

As a handful of business owners and CEO destroy the social fabric of the United States, they depend upon government intervention to help them do it.  They need the government to enforce payment on certain types of contracts, but not others.  They need the government to prevent certain actions that lower others’ property values – I’ll be punished if I set fire to your building – but not others – I won’t be punished if I dump so much poison that your neighboring property becomes un-usable.

Our country’s particular set of rules & regulations have allowed a small number of people to accomplish what used to be the work of many.  Instead of a factory with 100 human workers, a foreman oversees 10 robots.  The foreman gets paid more than the prior workers, but most of their salary now goes to the factory owner.  And those 100 people who would have worked in the factory are mired in despair.  Some get service jobs.  Others take drugs.  We get the “unemployment, meth labs, and poverty” that Murphy described.

And even the relative prosperity of the main street in college towns is fragile.  In Bloomington we have several blocks with bookstores, comic shops, restaurants, bars, a public library, banks, clothing boutiques and smokeshops and the like.  But in the past few weeks, an escalating conflict between the police and people without houses has kept shoppers away from the downtown.

Herald Times front page
A recent front page from the local newspaper.

Indiana is in many ways a heartless state, so our little town is one of the few places where people in need can receive services.  Bloomington always has more poverty than you might expect for a city of just 100,000.  Of late, Bloomington is also a destination city for drug use: between the heroin cut with fentanyl and the wide variety of supposed THC analogs sold as “spice,” the ambulances have been responding to upwards of ten overdoses per day.

In jail the other day, T. told me,

“It’s getting to the point where heroin and meth are easier to find than pot.  When I got out of prison, I was three years clean, and I thought I was gonna make it … but I was walking by the Taco Bell and somebody handed me a rig, all loaded up and ready to go.”

G. said,

“It’s really hard to avoid it now.  It’s spread to places you really wouldn’t expect.  Like I remember ten years ago, the whole middle class crowd was doing the usual, some pot, some psychedelics, you know.  But now people from those circles, they’re shooting meth, they’re using H.”

T. said,

“You talk to somebody, they’re like, yeah, I got it all, what you need, what you need.  But you ask for pot, they’re like, naw, I don’t know where to get that.”

J. said,

“Okay, okay, these overdoses, you know?  Trust me, I’m a real spice-head, I smoke a lot of that shit, and these overdoses, they’re all just people, they don’t know how to handle it.  You can’t just jump in, you know, and smoke like I smoke.”

I asked him, “If pot were legal, would you smoke it.”

“Hell yeah I’d smoke pot.”

“No no, sorry, I mean, if pot were legal, would you smoke spice?”

The guys all laughed.  “Nobody would touch that shit.”

And yet.  In our town, now, people with all their belongings line main street.  The hospital spends some thirty thousand dollars a day sending the ambulance there for overdoses.  The cops hold their roll call several times a day in the public park where unhoused people used to sleep.  Occasionally a dozen or so people will be hauled into jail: they lose all their possessions.

And people who had been spending money at the little shops feel afraid to go downtown.  The places are all losing money … and when the money goes, compassion starts fading too.

It doesn’t take much for even a college town to become the post-apocalyptic husk that Murphy has seen spread all over our country.  Which is sad, especially since it wouldn’t take that much to help people – our most dire need is a guaranteed basic income, probably coupled to a public works program.  Instead we’ve settled for rampant inequality.  But harms that start elsewhere won’t stay elsewhere.

*******

post-script: in the time between when this essay was written & when it was posted, the crowds of unhoused people have disappeared from Bloomington’s main street.  And, two blocks away, the 280-bed county jail has had over 320 people locked inside for weeks.  Somehow, this doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.

On race and our criminal justice system.

On race and our criminal justice system.

I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.

When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.

plowWhereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …

Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.

Ai_bwThe accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.

But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.

On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.

And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …

And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.

The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.

This is their life.

And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.

So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.

No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.

A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.

The first student was white; the latter black.

snowflakeThere’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.

Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.

“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”

(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)

#

This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”

He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.

NCA-Earth“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …

“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”

“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”

His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.

We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.

We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.

Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,

Race: Black.

doc

On keeping someone alive.

On keeping someone alive.

A friend’s father recently suffered a stroke and spent a mostly unconscious week in the hospital.  On the third day, he had a brief spell of lucidity.  My friend was visiting.  The father – who’d reverted to his native language – said, “Keep me alive, son.”

Then rapidly deteriorated.  He was intubated.  The functions of his inoperative organs were replaced by pumping, thumping, wheezing machines.

But it was much more difficult for my friend to finally tell the doctors, “You’re right, it’s time,” than if he hadn’t had that final conversation.  He knew his father wasn’t coming back.  But keep me alive, son sure changes the way it feels.

checking_pulmonary_sounds_after_intubation

Twice in the past year or so, my spouse has had to decide when it was time to ease off on her parents’ care.  Her mother could speak (incoherently) when first taken to the hospital, but then the swelling set in.  Her father, after a stroke, was speechless in the hospital, but during his moments of lucidity was able to wink at our daughter.  He played peek-a-boo by rotating his head.

That night, the bleeding started again.  With aggressive treatment, he could’ve been kept sufficiently alive for a vegetative, ventilated existence in the hospital.  It was up to K to decide.  “Make it easy for him.”

Most doctors forgo aggressive treatment.  Those who’ve seen the fallout know it isn’t worthwhile.

Instead, my father-in-law’s life ended on a high note.  The week before, he’d had a romantic fling with a 22-year-old.  In the hospital, he played games with his granddaughter one last time.  I told him we’d take good care of his rabbit and his dog.  And the stroke itself occurred during a dinner party with his neighbors – thankfully they emptied out his weed grinder before he was loaded into the ambulance.  (Although, why did they return the empty – but still redolent – grinder to his pocket?  Do such accouterments hold sentimental value to potheads?  As far as I could tell, this was a cheap wooden one, no more than a decade old.)

He didn’t ask that we keep him alive.  And yet, in many ways, I am.

26699_683902317113_6195728_n

10322431_10101064778337473_5093448295702155029_nMike Milks was a firm believer in community, and he spent his time caring for people less fortunate than himself… this despite the fact that he was often broke, homeless, and hungry.  Each month when his SNAP benefits came through, he’d ride the bus to the discount grocery store, buy a bunch of whole wheat flour, and bake loaves of sourdough bread for his neighbors.  $200 a month isn’t much, and yet his benefits helped a lot of people eat.

Before K and I moved him to Bloomington and started paying for him to have an apartment, he was squatting in his deceased former roommate’s house.  No electricity, no water, no heat, in a mostly-abandoned neighborhood where thieves had stripped most homes of their copper pipes.  Folks broke into his house twice; he was pistol-whipped in the face.

Before he fed himself, he fed the dog.  And, when he could, left out scraps for the stray cats.

In Bloomington, he cared for addicts – his friends here struggled with opiates and amphetamines.  He’d talk to them, and, when they blew their own meager salaries on drugs – or lost their jobs for arriving blinkered at work again – he’d feed them.

167346_736041549673_5510527_nHe cycled through many bedraggled roommates in his time here.  One stiffed us for a thousand dollars, having never paid rent for seven months (yes, rent in Bloomington is very cheap.  But that left K & me to scrape together the money on the salaries of a public school teacher and a full-time writer).  Another has since been murdered in a bungled drug deal.  The alcoholic librarian fancied himself the best of the lot, slurring to me one day, “Yer father sure knows a lotta low-level criminals.”

And yet even he, the alcoholic librarian, vanished… at which point cops came by to ask some questions because the dude’s car had been found abandoned in a field in the run-down nowhere between a town known for meth and a town known for pills.  It was two weeks before the librarian turned up again, and every time Mike asked where he’d been the dude pretended not to hear the question.

Mike Milks gave what he had to those people.  Nobody else cared for them.

And then, after he died, I began teaching in the local jail.

Against all odds – because I should admit that Mike infuriated me sometimes – I am carrying on his work.  When Mike gave a banquet – with those scraps he cobbled together from SNAP benefits – he would invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind … and addicts, lepers of the modern world.  He did so unthinkingly.  All he had was love, and he gave where it was needed.

I am less kind than he was.  But I am learning.

So, thank you, Mike.  I am grateful to be keeping a small part of your work alive.

On wasted ingenuity.

On wasted ingenuity.

You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison.  He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

cunningham.JPG

And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.

He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted.  It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal.  But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.

But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy.  He studies with cardboard.

Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment.  Those who murder need time away from society.  People should be kept safe from harm.  But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.

K’s mother, too, was murdered recently.  In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges.  The time he served in prison surely affected him.  Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.

So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder.  Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years?  And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place?  Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child?  Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?

Did Cunningham?

In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence.  He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.

Why keep them?  The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.

Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world?  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.

Or there’s her passage on the amenities:

bloodinthewaterThe men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis.  These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb.  Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.”  The state’s food budget allotment was also meager.  At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines.  The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.  For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted.  At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.

To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money.  Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day.  With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.

Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions.  Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.

But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness.  We prize instead earned wealth and good grades.  And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted?  What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?

I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries.  But capitalism crumbles without opportunity.  Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity.  The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.

Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise.  That’s how we got here in the first place.