On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

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

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

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

We would have something like:

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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

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

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

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

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

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words have power, after all.


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

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

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

I groaned.

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

“What happened?”

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

“With … ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Words have power.

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

On overdose.

A few years ago, Max helped me write a poem:

DOPE TO THE CUT

Dealers too have mouths

& hungry, hungry arms;

must we begrudge these impacted men

their modicum of profit?

And there is honor among thieves –

my buddy Moses could move meth

only by loathing meth-heads –

nobody’s hurt by laxative-

laced white lady,

and why not a trace

of fentanyl in the H?

Both wash pain.

A dealer’s gotta eat.

But now the cartels start with the cut,

disguise it with dope

& wonder why

their customers

die.


I wanted to share this along with a recommendation that you read this heartbreaking story from The Washington Post.  Right now, our nation has begun reckoning with the fact that people who are addicted to drugs are sick and need help.  Incarceration isn’t curing them.  Sympathetic articles profile working class white people who are trapped in a spiral of despair.

But deaths have skyrocketed among another population, a group of people that most major news outlets have blithely ignored.  Older black users – who were anonymously demonized from the beginning – are being killed when dangerous synthetic chemicals are disguised as the same heroin that they’ve safely used for decades.

People who aren’t in severe pain shouldn’t use opiates.  These drugs sap away life.  Over time, they make pain worse, because opiates make long-term users much more susceptible to discomfort and stress.

But our laws against these drugs are making opiates lethal.  If we want people not to use certain chemicals, our best bet is to provide accurate information.  Banning drugs hasn’t helped: patients seeking legitimate verified doses have a harder time getting their medicines, but opiates are easy to come by on the streets.  We’ve only succeeded in making them edgy, transgressive, and deadly.

On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

Luca_Giordano_-_Christ_Cleansing_the_Temple_-_WGA09000

So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

illustration

 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On the water-fueled car.

On the water-fueled car.

“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “

“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them.  But oil companies bought all the patents.”

A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories.  Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …

old hat(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different.  Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve.  This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today.  Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)

I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them.  Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away.  Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.

Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.

Or, last week, the existence of water cars.

In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel.  At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.

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When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”).  The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.

If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening.  For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box.  The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time.  If they were, you’d get energy from nothing.  They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.

But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur.  It violates the Second Law, and it can happen.  Perpetual motion machines can exist.  They are just very, very rare.  (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die.  That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)

When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:

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The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.

For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen.  Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion.  The released energy moves your car forward.

And there’s a hill in the middle.  This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction.  Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy.  Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered.  Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.

Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next.  The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.

(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.”  If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power.  Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses.  This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.

But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier.  It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure.  Something like millions of degrees.  I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)

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Seriously, I would not want this to be happening beneath the hood of the family ride.

With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs.  Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward.  Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine.  High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.

(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)

Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.

A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water.  There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.

If you were worried that major oil companies are conspiring against you by hiding the existence of water-fueled cars, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  But don’t let yourself get too complacent, because these companies really are conspiring against you.  They’re trying to starve your children.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:

 

THAT CAT

– Mouse

 

We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps

 

Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken

 

One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped

 

We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

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Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:

 

Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,

 

… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.

 

And

how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

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I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.

 

Kelly writes:

 

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.

 

Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.

 

Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.

 

I am learning

 

what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.

 

To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

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On neural plasticity.

On neural plasticity.

After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.

A few guys looked down at the table and nodded.  People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.

I gave the same answer as always.

“Drugs do it on their own.  Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again.  Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”

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But it’s not all bleak.  Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too.  Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.

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Repeated exposure to drugs depletes the brain’s dopamine receptors, which are critical for one’s ability to experience pleasure and reward. From Wikimedia Commons.

(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.”  This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say.  If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.

A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do.  He’s now weathered five years of single days.  But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)

I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith.  It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.

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An E-meter.

It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true.  There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.

Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests.  In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad.  But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point.  You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.

“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”

Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you.  Do it daily.  Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change.  Your words will become true.

On mind control versus body control

On mind control versus body control

In jail last week, we found ourselves discussing mind control.  Ants that haul infected comrades away from the colony – otherwise, the zombie will climb above the colony before a Cordyceps fruiting body bursts from its spine, raining spores down onto everyone below, causing them all to die.

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Photo by Bernard Dupont on Flickr.

Several parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii, are known to change behaviors by infecting the brain.  I’ve written about Toxo and the possibility of using cat shit as a nutritional supplement previously – this parasite seems to make its victims happier (it secretes a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis), braver, and more attractive.

I told the guys that I used to think mind control was super-terrifying – suddenly your choices are not quite your own! – but I’ve since realized that body control is even more terrifying.

We’d thought that each fungus that makes ants act funny was taking over their brains.  But we were wrong.  The Ophiocordyceps fungus is not controlling the brains of its victims – instead, the fungus spreads through the body and connects directly to muscle fibers.  The fungus leaves an ant’s brain intact but takes away its choices, contracting muscles to make the ant do its bidding while the poor creature can only gaze in horror at what it’s being forced to do.

If a zombie master corrupts your brain and forces you to obey, at least you won’t be there to watch.  Far worse to be trapped behind the window of your eyes, unable to control the actions that your shell is taking in the world.

A sense of free will is so important to our well-being that human brains seem to include modules that graft a perception of volition onto our reflex actions.  Because it takes so long for messages to be relayed to the central processing unit of our brains and back outward to our limbs, our bodies often act before we’ve had a chance to consciously think about what we’re doing.  Our actions typically begin a few hundred milliseconds before we subjectively experience a decision.

Then, the brain’s storytelling function kicks into gear – we explain to ourselves why we chose to do the thing that we’ve already begun doing.

If something goes wrong at that stage, we feel awful.  People report that their bodies have “gone rogue.”  If you use a targeted magnetic pulse to sway a right-handed person to do a simple task left-handed, that person probably won’t notice anything amiss.  The storytelling part of our brain hardly cares what we do – it can come up with a compelling rationalization for almost any action.

“Well, I chose to use my left hand because … “

But if you use a targeted magnetic pulse to incapacitate the brain’s internal storyteller?  The sensation apparently feels like demonic possession.  Our own choices are nightmarish when severed from a story.

On substitutes.

On substitutes.

When I started bouldering, I had the pleasure of attending a gym run by Jess McCauley.  He was an excellent climbing coach – although this was a very small gym in Mountain View, California, many of the kids he taught excelled at national competitions.

Then Jess decided to become a school teacher.  He was clearly great at working with kids, and had a B.A. in history focusing on African studies, so he figured he could do more good inside a classroom than a gym.  As he finished his education degree, Jess began working as a substitute teacher.

His first job was in my spouse’s high school “Biotechnology” class.  The day before, she exhorted her students: “The sub tomorrow is a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna be really upset if you’re hard on him.”

Everybody knew Jess was great with kids.  He’s a funny, charming, knowledgeable, muscular dude.  But every time a substitute teacher steps into a classroom, the chance that something will go wrong increases dramatically.

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Teachers build relationships with students over the course of a year.  As you work with a group of people, you learn to read subtle social cues – you’ll know when two students need to be separated from each other, when somebody might need to take a momentary breather in the hallway.  There’s a lot going on inside a high school beyond content education, and teachers develop an intuitive feel for the social dynamics inside their own rooms.

With experience, most people get better at this.  I imagine my spouse’s content knowledge didn’t improve much over her first five years in the classroom, but she became a better teacher.  She learned how to read and work a room.

And I know how much effort she puts into establishing a culture of trust inside her room.  But there are still problems.

In the morning, she teaches AP biology to her school’s “best and brightest,” kids bound for college at top-tier universities.  Many of those students would probably learn fine if you gave them all textbooks and put a straw-filled scarecrow behind the teacher’s desk.  Their neurochemistry tends to mesh well with the norms of public education.

In the afternoon, she teaches “Earth and space science” to kids who actually need a good teacher.  (Unfortunately, many schools pair their best teachers with the honors students and assign whomever’s left to the kids who need the most.)  These are students whom administrators often expect to fail – and yet, when given appropriate challenges (like a recent assignment engineering challenge to build a functional solar still), they shine.

Still, when a substitute steps into these classrooms, there’s a major risk that something will go wrong.

Last year, when our family traveled to St. Louis for the National American Biology Teacher meeting, one of my spouse’s students punched a classmate in the head.

During another of our trips, a student flipped a desk.  The year before, some students locked a sub out of the room and looped twine between the door handle and a lab table, tightening their barricade with a bar from the coat closet.  Those same kids stole the fire extinguisher that day (which my spouse only knew because they gleefully hugged her and told her so at graduation – nobody expected for these kids to receive diplomas, so they were understandably elated to be there).

When my spouse plans trips, she requests that only experienced substitutes be assigned to cover her classes, but there’s only so much that somebody unfamiliar with the room can do.  I imagine that if she were subbing for somebody else, the chance of something going wrong would still jump, even though she can keep her own classrooms orderly.  Those are students she’s grown familiar with.

High school is a stressful environment.  And putting a new face into that kind of situation can trigger trouble.

But, what’s a little worse than high school?  In terms of, like, people don’t want to be there, emotions flare, you’ve got massive numbers of athletic young men crammed into a cramped little space?

Oh.  Right.  Prison.

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One consequence of the federal hiring freeze is that many prisons have been relying on substitute guards.  These subs might be trained guards who usually work other blocks – or they might be classroom instructors, medical staff, clerks.  Female secretaries dressed in their office clothes (i.e. skirt, button-down blouse) might be suddenly assigned to patrol the halls of a men’s prison.

When a substitute steps into my spouse’s classroom, kids might get hurt.  When a substitute enters a prison, people could die.  According to a terrifying article from the New York Times,

As the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump – and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine – many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.

Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another.

The traditional rules go unenforced, which emboldens people to push the limits further.  When guards can’t be relied on to keep a prison orderly, gang violence often takes over as an alternate form of control.

In My Brother Moochie, journalist Issac J. Bailey describes the emotional fallout that accompanied his older brother’s violent crime.  After this brother, Moochie, was sent to prison, Bailey’s family crumbled.  Several of his younger brothers got involved with petty crime and have been cycling in and out of prison ever since.  For instance, Bailey’s younger brother James, who is traumatized by the violence he witnesses in prison:

The man who was killed was “a little Asian dude smaller than me, so about fifteen of them ran into the room and started stabbing him,” James said.  “Dude was supposed to go home the next week.  What’s crazy is dude is from California and he can’t even speak his family’s original language.  They stabbed him out of fear.”

A shortage of prison guards throughout the state’s correctional system meant the few on duty didn’t always manage to make the rounds through the dorms on schedule.

I teach at our local county jail.  During a staffing shortage two summers ago, the jail became much less safe.  According to former inmate (and excellent human being) Max Smith, “Guys learned to time things.  A guard would be walking through for the count, some guys would be wailing on somebody inside a cell, they’d have somebody go up, ask the guard a question, distract him right when he got to that window.  Then he’d keep walking and they’d continue beating the shit out of somebody.  It was a scary place to be.”

Maybe there’s more that my spouse could be doing to establish a culture that will stay calm even when substitutes come into her classroom.  But I know that she’s already trying awfully hard, and she’s one of our country’s best teachers.

I think it’s safe to assume that the average prison guard puts less energy than she does into cultivating a safe and respectful environment.  When subs cover for them, bad things are going to happen.

Maybe we as a country don’t want to spend so much money on our prisons.  If so, we should probably be spending a whole lot more on education, so that we won’t feel the need to lock people up – public schooling is a chance to turn people’s lives around, but it’s not like we’re pouring money into that.  And there’s sentencing reform.  With shorter prison sentences, we wouldn’t need so many guards.

But I can’t imagine that the best solution is to conscript secretaries, teachers, and medical staff into patrolling the halls.

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

hatredIn The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal.  We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.

But the particular is never universal.  The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures.  It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.

And so actual poems fail.  The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words.  As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems.  All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age.  What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self.  Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language.  Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.

Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?

In Lerner’s words,

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did. one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems.  Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.

I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments.  But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us.  Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.

Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website.  But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal.  I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.

#

janaI do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general.  For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:

Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction

of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force

on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the

tides, or put another way, you can stand

on the shore twice daily and witness the very

water flinging itself upwards.

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This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry.  Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets.  This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path.  But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.

Anderson elaborates:

The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.

I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment. 

In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another.  Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.

According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric.  And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is.  At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years).  This asymmetry gives us our world.  Water that flows.  Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.

The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry.  According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing.  And yet, in our universe, matter predominates.  We live.

orlando-sentinelBut asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature.  At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all.  Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci.  So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame.  The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized.  For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.

This asymmetry is stark in poetry.  The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries.  And readers of these poems work to understand why.  Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.

Consider the lines I quoted from Lerner’s own work above, with constructions like “emulsions with then circled the lake” and “they have changed painting, I behind the concertina wire can’t look at it anymore.”  This is not the grammar of high school English teachers.

gilbertLerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions.  Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”).  Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.

But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes.  They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.

This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often.  Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class.  Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal.  But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was.  Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:

I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals.  I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity.  It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.

Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human.  During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.”  He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?

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And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good.  Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside.  They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time.  Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor.  Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.

When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled.  The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.”  Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed.  And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.

But sometimes their work is lovely.

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On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood.  Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week.  Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.

Tensions were high.  And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.

“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write!  This won’t change shit!”

Grim.  And arguably untrue.  But…

“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”

At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no.  You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class.  And it’s not even fucking true.  I mean, look at this… we’re here, right?  And Frank and I are here because of shit we read.  You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”

I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read.  It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat.  The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.

I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand.  These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say.  Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.

A reader must extend trust to be willing to work.  But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs.  Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.

And yet these men dig poems.

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Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort.  That distaste seems fair.  I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world.  But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does?  Then they’d be right.  Nobody would read their shit.

In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.