On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.

On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.

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I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.

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We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.

On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only

imagined

When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On violence and gratitude.

On violence and gratitude.

Although I consider myself a benevolent tyrant, some of my cells have turned against me.  Mutinous, they were swayed by the propaganda of a virus and started churning out capsids rather than helping me type this essay.  Which leaves me sitting at a YMCA snack room table snerking, goo leaking down my throat and out my nose.

Unconsciously, I take violent reprisal against the traitors.  I send my enforcers to put down the revolt – they cannibalize the still-living rebels, first gnawing the skin, then devouring the organs that come spilling out.  Then the defector dies.

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CD8+ T cell destruction of infected cells by Dananguyen on Wikimedia.

My cells are also expected to commit suicide whenever they cease to be useful for my grand designs.  Any time a revolutionary loses the resolve to commit suicide, my enforcers put it down.  Unless my internal surveillance state fails to notice in time – the other name for a cell that doesn’t want to commit suicide is “cancer,” and even the most robust immune system might be stymied by cancer when the traitor’s family grows too large.

Worse is when the rebels “metastasize,” like contemporary terrorists.  This word signifies that the family has sent sleeper agents to infiltrate the world at large, attempting to develop new pockets of resistance in other areas.  Even if my enforcers crush one cluster of rebellion, others could flourish unchecked.

800px-How_metastasis_occurs_illustration
How metastasis occurs. Image by the National Cancer Institute on Wikimedia.

I know something that perhaps they don’t – if their rebellion succeeds, they will die.  A flourishing cancer sequesters so many resources that the rest of my body would soon prove too weak to seek food and water, causing every cell inside of me to die.

But perhaps they’ve learned my kingdom’s vile secret – rebel or not, they will die.  As with any hereditary monarchy, a select few of my cells are privileged above all others.  And it’s not the cells in my brain that rule.

Every “somatic cell” is doomed.  These cells compose my brain and body.  Each has slight variations from “my” genome – every round of cell division introduces random mutations, making every cell’s DNA slightly different from its neighbors’.

The basic idea behind Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that each of these cells “wants” for its genome to pass down through the ages.  Dawkins argued that familial altruism is rational because any sacrifice bolsters the chances for a very similar genome to propagate.  Similarly, each somatic cell is expected to sacrifice itself to boost the odds for a very similar genome carried by the gametes.

Only gametes – the heralded population of germ cells in our genitalia – can possibly see their lineage continue.  All others are like the commoners who (perhaps foolishly) chant their king or kingdom’s name as they rush into battle to die.  I expect them to show absolute fealty to me, their tyrant.  Apoptosis – uncomplaining suicide – was required of many before I was even born, like when cells forming the webbing between my fingers slit their own bellies in dramatic synchronized hara-kiri.

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Human gametes by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann on Flickr.

Any evolutionary biologist could explain that each such act of sacrifice was in a cell’s mathematical best interest.  But if I were a conscious somatic cell, would I submit so easily?  Or do I owe some sliver of respect to the traitors inside me?

The world is a violent place.  I’m an extremely liberal vegan environmentalist – yet it takes a lot of violence to keep me going.

From Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s The Human Advantage:

image (1)Animals that we are, we must face, every single day of our lives, the consequences of our most basic predicament: we don’t do photosynthesis.  For lack of the necessary genes, we don’t just absorb carbon from the air around us and fix it as new bodily matter with a little help from sunlight.  To survive, we animals have to eat other living organisms, whether animal, vegetable, or fungus, and transform their matter into ours.

And yet the violence doesn’t begin with animals.  Photosynthesis seems benign by comparison – all you’d need is light from the sun! – unless you watch a time-lapsed video of plant growth in any forest or jungle.

The sun casts off electromagnetic radiation without a care in the world, but the amount of useful light reaching any particular spot on earth is limited.  And plants will fight for it.  They race upwards, a sprint that we sometimes fail to notice only because they’ve adapted a timescale of days, years, and centuries rather than our seconds, hours, and years.  They reach over competitors’ heads, attempting to grab any extra smidgen of light … and starving those below.  Many vines physically strangle their foes.  Several trees excrete poison from their roots.  Why win fair if you don’t have to?  A banquet of warm sunlight awaits the tallest plant left standing.

And so why, in such a violent world, would it be worthwhile to be vegan?  After all, nothing wants to be eaten.  Sure, a plant wants for animals to eat its fruit – fruits and animals co-evolved in a system of gift exchange.  The plant freely offers fruit, with no way of guaranteeing recompense, in hope that the animal might plant its seeds in a useful location.

But actual pieces of fruit – the individual cells composing an apple – probably don’t want to be eaten, no more than cancers or my own virus-infected cells want to be put down for the greater good.

A kale plant doesn’t want for me to tear off its leaves and dice them for my morning ramen.

But by acknowledging how much sacrifice it takes to allow for us to be typing or reading or otherwise reaping the pleasures of existence, I think it’s easier to maintain awe.  A sense of gratitude toward all that we’ve been given.  Most humans appreciate things more when we think they cost more.

We should appreciate the chance to be alive.  It costs an absurd amount for us to be here.

But, in the modern world, it’s possible to have a wonderful, rampantly hedonistic life as a vegan.  Why make our existence cost more when we don’t have to?  A bottle of wine tastes better when we’re told that it’s $45-dollar and not $5-dollar wine, but it won’t taste any better if you tell somebody “It’s $45-dollar wine, but you’ll have to pay $90 for it.”

Personally, I’d think it tasted worse, each sip with the savor of squander.

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

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

Surely one of you is mistaken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles.  My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode.  Which simply isn’t true.

Billy_Collins_Poet_at_San_Diego_State_UniversityIn Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world.  His students balk.  That’s not how they were taught to read poetry!  Instead, Collins writes,

 all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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Matthew-Zapruder-Why-PoetryMatthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets.  In Zapruder’s words:

If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry.  The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.

When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.

Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words.  Let alone that writers might actually do it.

Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding.  To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.

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Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently.  New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail.  The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming.  Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.

We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time.  We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing.  Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.

Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks.  One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block.  Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back.  Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.

Some weeks class falls flat.

I don’t blame them for signing up.  I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits.  I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.

Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.

Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year.  Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence.  We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:

Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize

through the trees and I come back in my mind

to the man who made me suck his cock

when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.

 

I thought I could leave him standing there

in the years, half smile on his lips …

This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read.  It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.

AR-160539927The opening is perfect, though.  As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way.  Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …

He thought he could forget his trauma.  Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.”  He was wrong.

Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on.  But the memories can fester.  After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”

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spotlight.jpgIn Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him.  He is asked how he coped.  He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.

Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up.  Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted.  And behind bars.  Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day.  Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.

“The world needs to know,” we tell them.  “Write about that.”

They balk.  “I can’t write about this shit.”  It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed.  Our society has a tendency to blame victims.  In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time.  He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’  I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too.  That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?

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But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse.  It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else.  And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about.  The poem ends,

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

At a February presidential rally, the crowd cheered when Donald Trump declared, “All lives matter,” using his microphone to drown out the protesters.

All lives matter: setting aside that, for some people’s lives, the world is already acting as though they matter, it’s hard to believe Trump meant what he said. Considering his policy proposals, it doesn’t seem like he values Black, Latino, or Muslim lives that much. It’s doublethink à la Animal Farm: “All lives matter. But some lives matter more than others.”

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The world would be less terrible if we could understand why people believe this. Or, better yet, make them stop.

The root of this problem is that our brains are not designed for this world. Natural selection does not work like an engineer, but like a basement tinkerer, slapping together barely-functional prototypes from duct-tape, twine, and pre-existing parts.

Natural selection molded the human brain. And, sure, our brains are amazing. We can talk, we can think, we can rocket ourselves into space. But our brains are built using much the same genetic blueprints as other species’. The finished product features many of the same archaic modules.

But we’d best remember that our brains have flaws, especially within the context of the modern world: we’ve reshaped the planet so thoroughly that it looks nothing like the environment in which humans evolved. And so we make mistakes. Our intuitions about the world, about fairness or even basic logic, do not always match reality.

interlandiIn March of 2015, Jeneen Interlandi published a thought-provoking piece on the “empathy gap” in The New York Times Magazine. She was curious about the neurological underpinnings of empathy. What gives rise to our misguided sense of identity? Why are we moved by the plights of those whom we consider to be like us, but can stay callous and cold to the suffering of perceived “others”? For instance, civil forfeiture episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured exclusively white victims, as did the New York Times coverage of innocent people incarcerated due to faulty roadside drug tests, despite the fact that black drivers are the primary victims of these police abuses. Did the producers worry that an accurate depiction of these harms would lose their audience’s interest?

In “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” Interlandi focuses on the treatment of the Roma in Hungary. Should the Hungarian masses care about poverty and educational failings among the Roma? Yes. Of course. But do they? Judging by most Hungarians’ actions, or by the limited political will to rectify injustice, no. Excepting a rare few bleeding hearts, it doesn’t seem so.

Should the masses in the United States (as in all people, including the melanin-deficient sinking middle classes shouting themselves red in the face at Trump rallies) care about poverty, educational failings, and the state-sponsored murder of black people? Yes. They should.

But this is not how our brains evolved to operate. For millions of years, reflexive callousness made sense. Among populations scraping out a subsistence living – scavenging other hunters’ kills, picking berries, and hoping not to be eaten by a predator in the night – there was only so much help to give. Waste it on a stranger, someone who appears not to share many of your genes, and your own children might die.

From a philosophical perspective, this is not a problem. Utilitarian ethicists from Jeremy Betham to Peter Singer have argued that our moral choices should not be so easily swayed by friendship, family relations, or proximity.

But from an evolutionary perspective? Helping an other as opposed to your own is disastrous. The genes that might trigger this type of self-sacrifice die out, leaving the world overrun with those that spell Family First in a chemical script of As and Cs and Gs and Ts. These narcissistic sequences were so successful that we nearly all have them. Though I like to think of myself as a rational, thoughtful individual, I too have a brain that would command me to trample all the other children on the playground if my daughter were in danger.

These genes helped my ancestors survive long enough that I might be here today.

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It doesn’t work quite like this, but what a picture.  Picture by T. Michael Keesey on Flickr.

Today’s world is very different, of course. Modern agriculture is so productive that there should be plenty of food for all. Air travel and urban living means there is no longer any correlation between physical appearance and genetic similarity. And I would like to think that our thousands of years of philosophical inquiry – what we’ve done with the magnificent brains that natural selection bequeathed us – have accomplished something. We should know better now.

It’s hard, though. Practicing uniform kindness with our brains can be like running Photoshop on a Linux machine; even when it doesn’t hang and crash, the fans are working overtime. My former housemate competes in something called “power racing,” where she builds small vehicles propelled by lawnmower engines. She has to be careful when she drives: juice her machine too hard and the engine might melt. There are always complications when a tool designed for one task is repurposed for another.

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An illustrative example.  Photo credit: the Vulture.

As for our brains, our chauvinism is innate. Psychology journals are full of evidence of this, especially in the older issues, back when rampantly unethical experimental design and the consent-less manipulation of children were seen as permissible in the name of science. A week-long camp with children partitioned into two animal-themed teams is enough to instill a powerful sense of jingoism. Even a classification as arbitrary as falsely purporting that a child over- or under-estimates the number of dots on a screen is enough to trigger a narrowing of moral concern to the child’s own kind.

9781627796330And yet: empathy can be learned. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is a lively demonstration. Foster is a trained veterinarian and ethicist who sought an understanding of the inner lives of animals. In Being a Beast, he documents the months he spent scavenging urban trash like a fox, shivering in winter rivers like an otter, huddling alongside his middle-school-aged son in a hillside burrow like a badger, and chasing after migratory swifts.

Though living as a badger sounds ridiculous, the success or failure of Foster’s project has serious implications. If learning to empathize with someone whom we’ve been taught to view as other were extremely difficult, we might resign ourselves to a world in which no one who brandishes the slogan “all lives matter” could ever understand the fear of black parents that their children might be killed by officers sworn to protect them. Justice, though necessary, might never gain popular support.

No person is more other than an animal. If Foster can understand how it feels to be a beast, then we must all have it in us to offer justice to our fellow humans.

Alarmingly, Foster perceives his project as having failed. In a passage on river otters, Foster dismisses his efforts brusquely:

otterAnd, knowing that the cold, and that urgent calorific imperative, sends otters wandering even more widely, I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and the watersheds, trying to feel in touch with them – or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed.

But Foster, who suffers from depression, is not to be trusted as to the quality of his own work. Like all depressed people, he can malign himself cruelly where congratulations are due.

Foster’s project did not fail. For one, he created a compelling work of art. I laughed aloud at his description of otters as frenetic killing machines. And his experience of empathizing with swifts, a type of bird, is deeply poignant:

tachymarptis_melba_-barcelona_spain_-flying-8I’m best at being a swift when I’m on the ground. At least then I can see and smell the source of the air rivers the swifts are fishing, hear the thrum next to my ear of the wasp that will be broken three hundred yards up, and slap a fly on my arm at more or less the same speed as the swift’s stubby neck would turn and its mandibles close on it.

Most importantly, he was able to overcome all the years in which he’d trained his mind to see badgers, otters, and birds as inescapably other:

badger_odfw_2But species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous. Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman.

It is a mere 30 million years – the blink of a lightly lidded eye on an earth whose life has been evolving for 3.4 thousand million years – since badgers and I shared a common ancestor. Go back just 40 million years before that, and I share my entire family album not only with badgers but with herring gulls.

All the animals in this book are pretty close family. That’s a fact. If it doesn’t seem like that, our feelings are biologically illiterate. They need reeducation.

Foster changed his life in a way that proves his project succeeded. He was an avid hunter through his youth and young adulthood but writes that, because of this experience, “I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu.” He was willing to give up his own pleasure once he convinced himself that the animals he hunted were unique individuals with their own wants and desires. He was willing to make personal sacrifices because others’ pain no longer seemed so different from his own.

We can overcome the reflexes of our minds.

neilLuckily, it seems to require fewer heroics to successfully empathize with another human than Charles Foster employed in his efforts to understand animals. We need not scuttle naked through the woods, defecate outdoors, ask someone to chase us with a pack of hunting dogs. If all you’re after is empathy for other humans, it seems that reading will do. Reading in general, and especially the reading of emotionally-engaging fiction, makes people more empathetic. In The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman speculates that this transformation occurs because “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

It might take nothing more than great literature – including, perhaps, Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, alongside The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, A Naked Singularity, The Beast Side, and the works cited in Justice Sotomayor’s Strieff dissent – for Trump’s supporters to be pained by our nation’s shameful treatment of minorities. The incarceration crisis, the education crisis, the police-murdering-people-in-the-streets crisis. Perhaps books could engender the political will needed to overcome injustice.

(Lest I sound too blithely hopeful, I should probably mention that reading in this country, especially reading fiction, has been on a steady decline for years.)