After “recovering” from Covid-19, many people have suffered lingering malaise: labored breathing, foggy thoughts, chronic fatigue.
It’s awful, and it’s ill-understood. Trials are ongoing to try to help people, but, honestly, medical doctors don’t know what to do. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale, has been investigating Long Covid since late 2020 and has a long list of experimental therapies that her team would like to test.
In an interview with Jennifer Couzin-Frankel for Science magazine, Iwasaki said “As a basic scientist, of course I’d like to have all the pieces of the puzzle” before giving people untested therapies, “but the patients, they cannot wait.”
Unfortunately, longstanding prejudice in the medical community about what counts as a “real” disease has meant that a promising medication, Prazosin, apparently isn’t even on the list of therapies to try.
Full recovery from an upper respiratory infection like influenza or Covid-19 often takes months. This timeline is very noticeable among athletes, whose performance is exquisitely sensitive to any disturbances in breathing. Even though young people recover from many illnesses much more quickly than others, an elite high school athlete who catches a bad respiratory infection will often suffer for an entire sports season.
This is after the acute phase of coughing and viral production has passed: bodies can take a long time to heal.
Diabetes, heart damage, and a wide range of autoimmune conditions can also be triggered by viral infections (or, often, a body’s immune response to viral infection). Even after a virus has been cleared from a person’s body, the collateral damage caused by the infection or the person’s immune response can result in lingering maladies.
We shouldn’t be surprised that a wide range of persistent problems would appear after the vast majority of the world’s population just had their first encounter (and second, and third …) with a novel coronavirus.
Also, common symptoms of Long Covid – sleep disturbances, muddled thoughts, chronic fatigue, unexpectedly low cortisol, “odd” immune responses, gastrointestinal distress – match common symptoms of PTSD. For many people, Long Covid probably is PTSD.
Please note that I’m not saying that Long Covid isn’t real!
PTSD is real. PTSD causes real physical effects. But for some reason – perhaps because PTSD has a partly psychological origin – PTSD is often considered a less meaningful condition by both the professional medical community and our society at large.
In an opinion essay for the New York Times – “If You’re Suffering After Being Sick with Covid, It’s Not Just in Your Head” – sociologist Zeynep Tufekci inadvertently perpetuates this prejudice, the idea that conditions that have mental causes aren’t as important. I don’t believe that this was Tufekci’s intent – after all, she does an excellent job listing many conditions that the medical community incorrectly discounted in the past.
But conditions that target the brain matter, too! Honestly, it shouldn’t be a hard sell to convince people that brains are at least as important to the human experience as kidneys, lungs, livers, or arteries.
And yet, here we are, living in a world where migraines, depression, or PTSD are considered less “real” than other conditions.
Most likely, what we’ve been calling Long Covid will turn out to be a variety of different conditions. Some people have suffered inflammation or damage to their hearts or lungs that will last a long while after viral clearance. Some people are experiencing the opportunistic reactivation of other latent viruses.
But many cases of Long Covid are probably PTSD. Which is a real condition, with real physiological effects, and there are real medications – like the blood pressure medication Prazosin – that can help in recovery.
We shouldn’t let prejudice about which conditions count keep people from the treatments they need.
We were walking our dogs past our neighbor Katie’s house when she stepped onto her front porch. Katie is a philosophy professor specializing in the works of David Hume. She is also a phenomenal baker of holiday treats (her collection of cookie cutters is prodigious) and a generous guardian to several cats.
“Your flowers look beautiful!” we called out from about twenty-five feet away.
“I hope they don’t die right away,” she said. Then she shook her head and laughed. “God, what a year. They do look beautiful. And that’s the first thing I thought?”
We’re feeling traumatized. Nearly all of us.
The marshmallow test: a researcher leaves a young child in a room with a marshmallow. “You can eat it now, but I’ll be back in ten minutes, and if the marshmallow is still there, you’ll get to have two.”
The marshmallow test has been written about extensively. The children who waited used a variety of strategies to distract themselves from temptation, like closing their eyes or singing to themselves.
Some children impulsively ate the marshmallow. Here’s a treat, nom nom nom! But the children who waited, the researchers reported, grew up to be more successful.
A variety of claims were made, like that the willpower needed to delay gratification allowed children to prioritize their futures, to keep struggling and striving even when things were hard, to turn down drugs and alcohol.
Here’s another interpretation: children who have been through trauma might be making a perfectly logical decision if they eat the marshmallow right away. Because lots of kids have been taught, by past experience, that despite a recently met grown-up’s promise, waiting might cause them to get zero marshmallows, not two.
If a child has learned that any situation might suddenly turn dangerous, they might not feel safe closing their eyes to ignore the marshmallow. If a child has learned that the money and food often run out by the end of the month, they might rightfully eat treats when there’s still a chance.
The pandemic has made me more impulsive. Like my neighbor Katie, I worry that the beautiful flowers might die –almost to the point of forgetting to enjoy them while they last.
Like a child, I worry that the marshmallow might be gone.
I am – or at least, I have been for almost my entire life – a patient, resilient person. My graduate degree took six years. I merrily undertook a writing project that lasted another six. I’m raising children, which feels both hectic and achingly slow.
But right now, I can feel it in myself. Signing up for a vaccine and having the appointment be two and a half weeks away! felt interminable. Every delay aches. The future feels like a distant blur.
Especially amid all the outbreaks of violence – mass shootings in the national news, seemingly unrelated spates of murders in our local paper, all of them likely rooted in impulsiveness, isolation, & stress – delaying any source of joy feels agonizing. As though we might not make it another whole week, or month, or year.
Today, at least, I set aside time in the morning for self-care. I dropped the kids off at school. I went for a fast run, five kilometers just under eighteen minutes. I stretched.
Most importantly, I took the time to meditate.
Meditation is the marshmallow test writ small.
Set a timer for twenty minutes. Sit down. Close your eyes. Choose some small phrase, meaningful or not – “sat nam,” “love more,” “I am calm” – and intone it silently in your mind, half as you breathe in, half as you breathe out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Your mind might wander – if you notice, try to resume your small phrase. Silently repeated sound can anchor you, give yourself space to wash away some mental turmoil.
And, if you are like me, you’ll want to open your eyes and be done with it. This is taking forever! See if you can stay. Keep your eyes closed. Repeat your phrase, and breathe.
If you can last the entire time – well, no researcher will bring you a second marshmallow. But you’ll still receive a gift. A bit of inner peace that wasn’t there before.
I could not have passed the marshmallow test yesterday.
My family recently visited a state park for some hiking. I know that we are quite privileged to be able to do it, but visiting nature is really restorative right now.
At the end of the day, we sat near a firepit and roasted vegan marshmallows.
After a few minutes, a woman and her partner asked if they could join us. They sat on the other side of the fire, and we got to talking.
The woman used to work in special education, but now she teaches geography and world religions. She loves her work, because she helps students in her small Midwestern town realize how much possibility there is in our world.
Her partner works for the Department of Corrections as a hostage negotiator.
“In training, you feel like you’re doing the same things over and over. Like, hasn’t there been enough of this already? But then, when you have to use it, you hardly have to think about it, you know just what to do. All that repetition really pays off.”
A few months earlier, several of the guys in our jail poetry class were talking about the drills they’ve been in.
“It was the scariest thing of my entire life. I knew it was just a drill, too. It was fucking terrifying. All these SWAT guys running in, screaming, they’ve got paintball guns, Get on the ground!, yelling, If you fucking move your ass is grass!”
“You’re lying there, face on the ground, can’t move, they might ziptie your hands behind your back, you can’t move for hours. I mean, I was lying there, just watching this puddle of piss spreading from the guy next to me. I fucking hated that guy right then. But he tried to hold it, I know he did. They had us lying there so long.”
“You tell a guard, I have to piss, he’s going to say, too fucking bad.”
“You’re lying there smelling shit, because you know some guy shit himself.”
“You’re smelling shit like right away. They come in yelling like that, some guys shit themselves from fear.”
“I know! I’m that guy. I was so fucking scared.”
“Your on the ground, lying on your stomach on the ground, I mean, the ground is gross, right? You’re lying there with your face on the floor and your neck hurts and you want to like turn your neck, but you got this guy yelling, You so much as fucking move, your ass is grass. Like, it’s pathetic, but it hurts.”
“Walked through this indoor rec later, paintball splatters all over the place. Like, fuck, what happened in here? Some guy in there, they must’ve lit him up.”
“I been through some rough shit in prison, but this one time, it was a piss-ant county jail, I was in the drill there. That was the worst. Like, there were only fifty guys in that place, what’s the big deal? But they came in there, boom, they fucking pepper sprayed us. For a drill.”
“I’ve watched guys die. But that shit, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been.”
I asked one of the guys, Jason, if he’d write about it.
“That’s something people should read,” I told him.
He shook his head.
“I’m trying to write, like, uplifting stuff. Help guys get on a better track, do better than what I done. This stuff … I don’t know. I don’t even really like talking about it. I don’t want to think about it enough to write it down.”
Header image: cropped photograph of a Val Verde county (Texas) drill from the Laughlin Airforce Base. Most of the time, cameras aren’t allowed inside jails or prisons.
At high doses, psilocybin mushrooms trigger transcendent, mystical experiences. Many researchers are incorporating these into treatments for PTSD, depression, and other maladies that stem from a crisis of meaning or identity.
There are challenges inherent in using medicines that disrupt the workings of a person’s consciousness. William Richards, who conducts psychedelic therapy at Johns Hopkins, writes in Sacred Knowledgethat participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.
commonly, the term “death” is employed as the ego (everyday self) feels that it
quite literally is dying.
Though one may have read that others have reported subsequent immersion in the eternal and experiences of being reborn and returning to everyday existence afterward, in the moment imminence of death may feel acutely – and for some terrifyingly – real.
this sensation is so frightening, most researchers recommend a trip-sitter – in
Richards’s words, “having someone present who one honestly can choose to
trust without reservation. The attitude
‘I can manage on my own and don’t really need anyone else’ clearly can be very
counterproductive in some high-dose sessions when the ‘I’ needs to totally
At times, an arrogant attitude of self-reliance is unhelpful. It is also, unsurprisingly, the attitude with which I approached nearly all aspects of my life. I’m an athlete, an academic, usually in full command of my own mind and body. I mostly work alone (although I’m very grateful that my spouse helps me run this website).
Why wouldn’t I do my own psychotherapy?
I tried psilocybin mushrooms during graduate school. Shortly after we met, the person who is now my spouse asked if we could visit her sibling in Portland for her birthday. We left Stanford at 7 p.m. on a Friday, then drove north through the night. We arrived at about dawn on Saturday morning, collapsed, and slept until noon.
We were visiting a punk house, it seemed, where the bulk of the rent was paid by one person’s trust fund, with others occasionally chipping in money from various odd jobs (there was a nearby sporting event during the second day of our visit, and one of the housemates put on an official-looking reflective vest and charged people to illegally park in an abandoned lot down the street). A dozen misshapen mattresses were strewn about the skunky-smelling attic; I picked the second-least stained to sleep on.
On Saturday night, for the birthday celebration, our hosts threw a party. Several bands played – it was the sort of event where the scrawny white weed dealer’s terrible hip-hop group (bass, drums, and the dealer on the mic) was allowed to play a set. The others were mostly metal bands.
One of the housemates (the faux-parking attendant, as it happens) brewed a large mason jar of psilocybin tea. As he was gamboling about the house, we crossed paths and he proffered the nearly empty jar: “Hey, man, you want these dregs?”
shrugged and drank it.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Just, that was a lot of dregs.”
Which, honestly, was not the best moment to be warned. I’d already drank it. I obviously couldn’t do anything about it then.
Richards and other medical professionals involved in psychedelics research would find it unsurprising that the tenor of the evening turned intensely spiritual for me. Ken Kesey and other psychonauts would find it unsurprising that the goings on seemed exceedingly trippy, as well. I sat on a couch in front of the bands’ performance area and watched as a singer seemed to smear her face across the microphone; soon I saw her with three mouths, the two in her neck relegated to singing harmony.
I felt intense paranoia; as I waited in line for a bathroom, people nearby seemed to be snickering at me. Of course, snickers often follow in my wake at parties – my behavior can be outlandish – and I might’ve been making goofy facial expressions.
I understood only snippets of conversation. A squinty-eyed Thor-looking blonde man named Hyacinth was saying, “I always wanted to get with a Gemini, and then, bam, last winter, I met this older lady with these, like, enormous eyes, and I was like, whoa, and wouldn’t you know it, bam, she’s a Gemini!”
(I later learned that he worked as an, ahem, “intimate massage therapist,” or “hired companion,” that sort of thing. He also cornered me and spent thirty minutes explaining his take on quantum mechanics. His version involved a lot of positive energy radiating from crystals. The abundance of positive energy in his own life is part of what brought him together with that Gemini, it seems. The waning disorientation from psilocybin left me totally unable to extricate myself from the conversation.)
And, as per Richards’s expectations, I felt myself losing a fundamental component of my identity. I temporarily forgot how to speak. Then felt as though I was losing all ability to translate my thoughts into external action.
Perhaps I should’ve noticed that I was still passively influencing my surroundings – nobody else could stand where I was standing, and Hyacinth wouldn’t have stood there simply lecturing the air – but the flickering of my short term memory caused these examples to slip away from me. I felt like a ghost, and the sensation terrified me.
But I was lucky. Even at parties (to be perfectly honest, especially at loud parties), I carry a pencil and paper. That way, I can draw horrible cartoons. Sometimes I try to use these to communicate.
It should come as no surprise that I make few friends at parties.
I found a secluded corner of the party and began to write. And then, minutes later, when I felt another wave of loss of self pass over me, I was able look at the sheet of paper in my hand and see. I wrote that. I did change the world. I am changing it.
I was able to regain a sense of object permanence, despite the ego-erasing effects of psilocybin. If I were a ghost, my marks would wisp from the page like so much abluvion. But here they are.
I can still communicate with the outside world, I still am.
In all, the experience was probably good for me. Someday I could write about why. But for now, I’d simply like to stress that, in that moment, writing saved me. Writing kept me anchored and tamped down the terror sufficiently that I could accept whatever was happening inside my brain. (Indeed, one of the things I wrote that night was, “Without this paper, I’d wander the streets, wake tomorrow in a gutter with a rat gnawing on my eyeball.”)
And I’ve seen the way that writing has saved other people, too. When people fear that they’re turning into ghosts – cut off from the outside world, unable to reach their friends and families – even severely dyslexic men will start sending letters.
held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin
Each week, I bring in another dozen pencils. I occasionally wondered what was happening to the pencils, whether they accumulated like Lincoln Logs in the block. But I kept bringing more because we need a way to write during our class. And I’d let the guys keep them. So much has been taken from these men that I couldn’t bear to ask for the pencils back.
somebody told me. “Oh, yeah, my bunkie,
he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before
in jail aren’t allowed to have pens.
They can’t have mechanical pencils.
And they don’t have sharpeners in their cells.
At night … or if there’s a disciplinary infraction … or if the jail is understaffed … the men are locked into their little cells. Unless they sharpen pencils beforehand, they cannot write. Each broken tip brings an inmate that much closer to enforced silence, unable to communicate with the outside world.
Recently, people have been forming a big line at the pencil sharpener whenever I teach class. I slowly pass out the poems that we’ll read that week, then pass out pencils, then pass out paper, then sit and wait. The waiting takes a while. Guys come with twenty or thirty pencils bristling from the shirt pocket of their orange scrubs, then stand and sharpen all of them. A dozen men, sharpening perhaps twenty pencils each.
At the table, they mention trades they’ve made. Losses, due to theft: “At the beginning of the week I had fifteen pencils; now I’m down to three.” They exhort me to bring more. I say I’ll do my best.
“There’s only one pencil sharpener in the block, and it’s been broken for three months. It’s like that one, a wall mount. The gears are all screwed up. The handle was broken off, but you could sort of still use it then. But now, anybody who doesn’t get to come to your class can’t sharpen any.”
sharpening some for my bunkie,” yells the guy currently cranking the handle. A few of the others nod; they’ll also sharpen
some for charity.
Twenty … thirty … maybe forty sharpened graphite tips. While those last, the guys will be able to write. Time will pass, but they’ll be able to prove to themselves, and to the outside world, that they really do exist.
luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.
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
“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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff. I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing. I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.
But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things. I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat. The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.
Still, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently. My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing. Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.
Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest. Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”
If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme. To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets. When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.
But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get. Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.
Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though. A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity. It’s too small.
A big object like our sun is different. Gravity pulls everything together toward the center. At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart. These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).
But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse. It would become … well, nobody knows. The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed. All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.
Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash. The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward. So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it. Just the point of no return.
If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone. Not even Morse-code messages could escape.
(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)
The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting. K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).
Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.
For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work. In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.
A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.
Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole. Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.
My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time. A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival. The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.
Gravity eats time.
So do babies. A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world. They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.
In jail recently, we read Bruce Weigl’s “A Romance.” I gave a brief introduction:
“A lot of Bruce Weigl’s poems are about trauma – we’ve read something about his childhood, and he wrote about serving in the Vietnam War. What is was like to return home, trying to deal with everything he’d seen. In this poem, he’s been drinking. Others are about trying to suppress the memories that keep coming back.”
Describing a hollow night out, Weigl writes:
I can’t sleep anyway so I go to bars …
A bearded dude near the back shook his head.
“I been there,” he said. “Can’t never fall asleep. Did two tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they just kicked me out of veteran’s court. Said I was too violent. But all those other guys, the ones they’re letting stay, who’re getting helped because they served? None of them saw combat! I was the only one who’d fought! But they said veteran’s court’s not for me.”
“And it’s hard,” I said, “because people use drugs to try to deaden some of the horrible stuff that keeps whelming up, and the drug we say is okay to use, alcohol, is one of the worst. Researchers tried to rank drugs in terms of which are most dangerous, you know, for the people who use it and for everybody around them. I think alcohol was at the top of the list, then maybe heroin, and …”
“But what about pot?” Somebody always asks. In this case, it was somebody who says he’s in for marijuana, although he once let slip that it was domestic violence.
“I dunno … pretty far down. I mean, you can’t OD or anything, but you shouldn’t drive stoned.”
“I’d rather drive stoned than after eight days of meth!”
Well, sure. But that seems like a false dichotomy – shouldn’t the comparison be between driving stoned or sober?
“But what do you think,” the first guy said, “about them saying pot is, like, a gateway drug?”
“I believe that,” said an older guy. “I used pot for years before I ever had a drink.”
“Me too – my pops was an alcoholic, I didn’t want to touch that stuff.”
“I started smoking when I was thirteen … you had to know somebody to get a beer, but anybody could buy pot.”
“I mean, pot’s gotta be the first drug most people try.”
“No way. My kids, they’re one and four years old right now … and I can tell you for sure, the first drug anybody tries, it’s spinning. Around and around in circles till they’re staggering. Drunk, dizzy, falling down and giggling. Humans have always wanted to experiment with altered consciousness. Like, how would the world look if … every culture uses drugs. A lot of other animals will use them too. And we start young. Little duders love to spin.”
The guys thought this sounded reasonable enough, but I’ve reconsidered. Maybe marijuana is a gateway drug … but only because it’s illegal. I don’t think that smoking pot would compel someone to use other drugs, but our laws imply that heroin is no more dangerous than marijuana – both are Schedule I – and that Schedule II drugs like Vicodin are less dangerous.
Whereas most sensible people now know that alcohol is more dangerous than MDMA – it’s easier to overdose on alcohol, and easier to hurt other people while under the influence. But veterans with PTSD turn to drink because booze is legal. Not even licensed therapists are allowed to purchase the drug with a proven record for treating trauma.
(Note: pure MDMA is relatively safe, but a wide variety of chemicals are sold as “molly” or “ecstasy,” and some of those are dangerous.)
It doesn’t take kids long to realize how many well-respected, fully functional people have used drugs. Our previous two presidents both consumed many more illegal drugs than I did, and our current president probably did also – I assume cocaine seems less taboo to most people than paying young women for sex. Many cultures used psychedelic drugs as religious sacrament for centuries, if not millennia.
“When I was twelve years old,” one of the guys said, “my parents, first they burned all my records, then had our preacher take me to a mental hospital. But I didn’t know it was a hospital at the time. I just saw these people, you know, drooling, babbling, whatever. And they told me, ‘See these people? They’re like this because they used drugs.’ And it was years before I realized what they’d done.”
Each child receives genetic information from its parents. Some of this information conveys distinct traits. And some of these traits increase the chance that an individual will have children of his or her own. If those children are also good at having kids, the underlying genetic information will spread.
The DNA sequences that evolution enriches don’t necessarily make a creature better – in fact, they often accomplish the opposite. A gene that made its bearer 10% happier would not spread through the population. Happy people are less fearful and more likely to be die in tragic accidents.
(Infection with Toxoplasma gondii seems to make mice happier. The parasite produces a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis to increase the chance that Toxoplasma-infected mice blithely stroll along and get eaten by a cat.)
All that evolution “wants” is for a gene’s bearer to have children who have children who have children, and so on. This necessitates survival, yes – you can’t have kids if you’re dead, and in many species, orphaned children are less likely to ever have kids of their own. But evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be clever – brainless starfish evolved from a bilaterally symmetric forebear that did have a brain. Evolution doesn’t need a gene’s bearer to be nice – bullies seem to have plenty of children, and sexual assault is an instinctual mating strategy in many species, including ducks and orangutans. Maybe humans, too.
So, who controls which genes are passed on?
In most species, whichever parent puts the most effort into raising children gets to choose.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum describes the experience of tropical birds, like manakins, who live in regions where food is plentiful. The female parent raises children entirely on her own – males reside elsewhere in fraternal performance troupes. And so the female birds have absolute say in deciding who will and will not fool around. The females visit large numbers of males and decline most of their overtures. Why should she settle for anything less than the absolute sexiest gentleman in the forest? She’ll find him eventually, and since he never helps any of his children’s mothers with child-rearing, she knows he’ll be available.
Male smooth guardian frogs protect their fertilized eggs and young tadpoles. Large choruses of females will surround and serenade each available male, hoping to sway his desire. Since males do all the parenting, they are very selective.
That’s the usual system – you do the work, you get to choose.
Unfortunately, in many species, others attempt to subvert mate choice. You know – those ducks. Orangutans. Humans.
Myriam Gurba’s Mean is alternately comic and horrifying. In a chapter titled “Omnipresence” (after the trauma, danger seems to be everywhere), Gurba writes:
A stranger chose me to rape.
There was no nepotism involved.
Basically, I got raped for real. (I’m being cheeky here.)
Stranger rape is like the Mona Lisa.
It’s exquisite, timeless, and archetypal.
It’s classic. I can’t help but think of it as the Coca-Cola of sex crimes.
You never predict that rapists are lurking in the sun, sky, and trees.
In The Evolution of Beauty, Prum writes:
Of course, it has long been clear that sexual coercion and sexual violence are directly harmful to the well-being of female animals. But the aesthetic perspective allows us to understand that sexual coercion also infringes upon their individual freedom of choice. Once we recognize that coercion undermines individual sexual autonomy, we are led, inexorably, to the discovery that freedom of choice matters to animals.
Sexual autonomy is not a mythical and poorly conceived legal concept invented by feminists and liberals. Rather, sexual autonomy is an evolved feature of the societies of many sexual species. As we have learned from ducks and other birds, when sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice.
Many of the trappings of human civilization exist solely to subvert mate choice. Powerful males did not want human females to exercise sexual autonomy, because what if she picks someone else? And so men made marriage, Biblical commandments against both adultery and thinking about adultery, and a propensity to murder (or, on contemporary U.S. playgrounds, heckle) loose women.
Human males wanted to control the flow of genetic information without doing the work of parenting. Just like ducks, whose females evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas because only those individuals with complicated genitalia could exercise free mate choice amidst generations of rape culture.
Rape culture isn’t specific to Homo sapiens, after all. It’s a disease of any species in which those who don’t put in the work decide they ought to make choices for others – and nobody stops them.
(Humans do perpetrate more sexual violence than other species, especially violence against non-humans. Interspecies sexual assault strikes most people as outlandish, unless it’s being done on our behalf. Farms, puppy mills, and zoos are major assault factories. We assent to forcible fertilization because it produces large-breasted chickens, cute puppies, and caged “wild” animals for our screaming children to ogle.)
Not all species rape. In some, coalitions of females defend each other. In others, males enforce fairness. Those who believe in justice can punish interlopers, providing females with the right to choose. Feminism isn’t the exclusive provenance of females. Injustice hurts everyone, and anyone can feel aggrieved by it.
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.
In 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.
Matthew 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.
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.
The 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?”
In 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?”
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.
During springtime each year, my spouse tells a lot of people that high school prom is a blast … as long as you’re not a high schooler. Many teachers attend, nominally as chaperones, and they don’t have to worry about who they’ll leave with or what they’ll be doing afterward. (Shucking earplugs and going to sleep.)
We go to the local high school prom most years. My spouse greets her students and compliments their attire: you clean up well! The boys on the cross country and track teams shake my hand and compliment my attire: you clean up well, coach!
At times, briefly, I am allowed to dance. (My only formal dance training was in preparation for the South Asian Students’ Association spring show during college – I was part of a Dandiya Raas set to “Chale Chalo” from Lagaan – and my preferred style of dancing still involves a lot of leaping.)
Each year’s prom is themed, with decorations prepared by junior members of the student council. My favorite was 2012’s “prom-apocalypse,” with fake flames and wreckage. Coincidentally, I prepared the same style of decoration for a fundraiser when I was my high school’s National Honor Society president. The kids here were inspired by the end of the Mayan calendar; our dance was held in December, 1999, when the newspapers were rife with reports of people hoarding cans or turning blue-ish from ingesting too much anti-microbial silver.
I also convinced a d.j. buddy to put together some music for the event, like a track splicing Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” with Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”
Despite having hated being in high school, I love the corny tropes involved. Like, okay, film noir about drug deals gone bad? Eh, seen it. But set that same noir in high school, you get Brick, with charming lines like “She knows where I eat lunch.”
As humans have learned more about animal cognition, we have steadily revised our claims as to the features of our brains that make us special. Once upon a time, we claimed that our superiority came simply from our very large brains; we contrasted ourselves to dinosaurs, whom we claimed (erroneously) had brains no bigger than walnuts.
Elephants have the largest brains of any land animal.
Later, we realized that sheer brain bulk does not equate with intelligence – actual neuron counts would be far more informative.
We once posited that “tool use” separated humans from other animals, until we learned that chimpanzees, crows, and others use tools too.
We claimed that only humans understand death. Touting that no other species buries their dead, we claimed that only Homo sapiens have the emotional intelligence necessary to understand narrative. Other animals are trapped inside an eternal now.
This, too, is false.
In elephants, the hippocampus – the brain region implicated in processing narrative emotional memory – is enlarged relative to humans. They routinely visit sites where friends or relatives died. They caress the bones of their lost. After violent encounters with a brutal species of hairless ape, elephants can suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for years. Their children require the guidance of elders to learn behavioral norms.
We humans have treated elephants abysmally, not in spite of their magnificence, but because of it. When a small, flamboyantly-dressed circus tamer can break an elephant’s will so completely that the creature will perform in the center of a jeering crowd, we receive proof just how powerful humans are.
Elena Passarello writes of our dominance over nature in her essay “Jumbo II,” which interlaces two histories: that of elephants brought to the United States, and our ability to harness electricity.
From the beginning, the elephants were tortured: placed in small zoo enclosures (Passarello: They gave “Old Chief” to the Cincinnati Zoo, which shot him by the end of the decade. Two days after, Cincinnati’s Palace Restaurant added “elephant loin” to its dinner menu.), beaten by circus trainers until they learned to do “tricks,” condemned to death for unexpectedly dangerous behavior during musth.
As our technological prowess grew, electricity was put to ever new uses. Electricity could light our streets! It could power our factories! It could execute the condemned!
The histories of elephants and electricity in America merge in 1903. In Passarello’s words:
[Electrocuting an Elephant] is a minute-long, live short of the first elephant – and the second female of any species on the planet – to be condemned to electrocution for her crimes.
In the yards around Coney Island’s Luna Park, the condemned elephant places each foot onto a copper plate. Once ignited with over 6,000 volts of alternating current, they smoke beneath her planted feet. The smoke rises around her body, her trunk goes rigid, and all five tons of her list forward.
…though it changes nothing, I want to explain how, when the elephant falls, she falls like a cropped elm. First the shudder, then the toppling as the surge ripples through each nerve and vein, and she drops in silence and a fit of steam to lie there prone, one eye opened that I wish I could close.
Even now, we make mistakes. If we want a world with elephants, the money from ecotourism is not enough. Those who have been born to wealthy nations – beneficiaries of a long history of exploitation and violence – should devote funds to repairing some of the damage we’ve inherited.