On translation and quantum mechanics.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

We have many ways to express ideas.  In this essay, I’ll attempt to convey my thoughts with English words.  Although this is the only metaphoric language that I know well, humans employ several thousand others – among these there may be several that could convey my ideas more clearly.

The distinct features of a language can change the way ideas feel

Perry Link writes that,

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?”  I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.

Anyone who knows two languages well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand, you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

There is no perfect way to translate an idea from Chinese words into English words, nor the other way around.  In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Eliot Weinberger reviews several English reconstructions of a short, seductively simple Chinese poem.  The English variants feel very different from one another – each accentuates certain virtues of the original; by necessity, each also neglects others.

Visual appearances can’t be perfectly described with any metaphoric language.  I could write about a photograph, and maybe my impression would be interesting – the boy’s arms are turned outward, such that his hands would convey a gesture of welcome if not for his grenade, grimace, and fingers curled into a claw – but you’d probably rather see the picture.

Here’s Diane Arbus’s “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” 

This isn’t to say that an image can’t be translated.  The version posted above is a translation.  The original image, created by light striking a photosensitive film, has been translated into a matrix of numbers.  Your computer reads these numbers and translates them back into an image.  If you enlarge this translation, your eyes will detect its numerical pixelation.

For this image, a matrix of numbers is a more useful translation than a paragraph of my words would be. 

From a tutorial on computer vision prepared by Amy Jin & Vivian Chiang at Stanford.

Different forms of communication – words, pictures, numbers, gestures, sounds – are better suited to convey different ideas.  The easiest way to teach organic chemistry is through the use of pictures – simple diagrams often suffice.  But I sometimes worked with students who weren’t very visual learners, and then I’d have to think of words or mathematical descriptions that could represent the same ideas.

Science magazine sponsors an annual contest called “Dance Your Ph.D.,” and although it might sound silly – can someone understand your research after watching human bodies move? – the contest evokes an important idea about translation.  There are many ways to convey any idea.  Research journals now incorporate a combination of words, equations, images, and video. 

Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage: Dance Your PhD 2014 from atinytornado on Vimeo.

A kinetic, three-dimensional dance might be better than words to explain a particular research topic.  When I talked about my graduate research in membrane trafficking, I always gesticulated profusely.

My spouse coached our local high school’s Science Olympiad team, preparing students for the “Write It Do It” contest.  In this competition, teams of two students collaborate – one student looks at an object and describes it, the other student reads that description and attempts to recreate the original object.  Crucially, the rules prohibit students from incorporating diagrams into their instructions.  The mandate to use words – and only words – makes “Write It Do It” devilishly tricky.

I love words, but they’re not the tools best suited for all ideas. 

If you’re curious about quantum mechanics, Beyond Weird by Philip Ball is a nice book.  Ball describes a wide variety of scientific principles in a very precise way – Ball’s language is more nuanced and exact than most researchers’.  Feynman would talk about what photons want, and when I worked in a laboratory that studied the electronic structure of laser-aligned gas clouds, buckyballs, and DNA, we’d sometimes anthropomorphize the behavior of electrons to get our thoughts across.  Ball broaches no such sloppiness.

Unfortunately, Ball combines linguistic exactitude with a dismissal of other ways of conveying information.  Ball claims that any scientific idea that doesn’t translate well into English is an insufficient description of the world:

When physicists exhort us to not get hung up on all-too-human words, we have a right to resist.  Language is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe.  Relationships between numbers are no substitute.  Science deserves more than that.

By way of example, Ball gives a translation of Hugh Everette’s “many worlds” theory, points out the flaws in his own translated version, and then argues that these flaws undermine the theory.

To be fair, I think the “many worlds” theory is no good.  This is the belief that each “observation” – which means any event that links the states of various components of a system such that each component will evolve with restrictions on its future behavior (e.g. if you shine a light on a small object, photons will either pass by or hit it, which restricts where the object may be later) – causes a bifurcation of our universe.  A world would exist where a photon gets absorbed by an atom; another world exists where the atom is localized slightly to the side and the photon speeds blithely by.

The benefit of the “many worlds” interpretation is that physics can be seen as deterministic, not random.  Events only seem random because the consciousness that our present mind evolves into can inhabit only one of the many future worlds.

The drawback of the “many worlds” interpretation is that it presupposes granularity in our universe – physical space would have to be pixelated like computer images. Otherwise every interaction between two air molecules would presage the creation of infinite worlds.

If our world was granular, every interaction between two air molecules would still summon an absurd quantity of independent worlds, but mere absurdity doesn’t invalidate a theory.  There’s no reason why our universe should be structured in a way that’s easy for human brains to comprehend.  Without granularity, though, the “many worlds” theory is impossible, and we have no reason to think that granularity is a reasonable assumption.

It’s more parsimonious to assume that sometimes random things happen.  To believe that our God, although He doesn’t exist, rolls marbles.

(This is a bad joke, wrought by my own persnickety exactitude with words.  Stephen Hawking said, “God does play dice with the universe.  All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible equation.”  But dice are granular.  With a D20, you can’t roll pi.  So the only way for God to avoid inadvertently pixelating His creation is to use infinite-sided dice, i.e. marbles.)

Image of dice by Diacritica on Wikimedia images.

Some physicists have argued that, although our words clearly fail when we attempt to describe the innermost workings of the universe, numbers should suffice.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Math is the language of the universe.  So the more equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.

Indeed, equations often seem to provide accurate descriptions of the way the world works.  But something’s wrong with our numbers.  Even mathematics falls short when we try to converse with the cosmos.

Our numbers are granular.  The universe doesn’t seem to be.

Irrational numbers didn’t bother me much when I was first studying mathematics.  Irrational numbers are things like the square root of two, which can only be expressed in decimal notation by using an infinite patternless series of digits.  Our numbers can’t even express the square root of two!

Similarly, our numbers can’t quite express the electronic structure of oxygen.  We can solve “two body problems,” but we typically can’t give a solution for “three body problems” – we have to rely on approximations when we analyze any circumstance in which there are three or more objects, like several planets orbiting a star, or several electrons surrounding a nucleus.

Oxygen is.  These molecules exist.  They move through our world and interact with their surroundings.  They behave precisely.  But we can’t express their precise behavior with numbers.  The problem isn’t due to any technical shortcoming in our computers – it’s that, if our universe isn’t granular, each oxygen behaves with infinite precision, and our numbers can only be used to express a finite degree of detail.

Using numbers, we can provide a very good translation, but never an exact replica.  So what hope do our words have?

The idea that we should be able to express all the workings of our universe in English – or even with numbers – reminds me of that old quote: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”  We humans exist through an unlikely quirk, a strange series of events.  And that’s wonderful!  You can feel pleasure.  You can walk out into the sunshine.  Isn’t it marvelous?  Evolution could have produced self-replicating objects that were just as successful as us without those objects ever feeling anything.  Rapacious hunger beasts could have been sufficient.  (Indeed, that’s how many of us act at times.)

But you can feel joy, and love, and happiness.  Capitalize on that!

And, yes, it’s thrilling to delve into the secrets of our universe.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect that these secrets should be expressible in the languages we’ve invented.

On writing.

On writing.

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 Knowledge that participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.

Most 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.

Because 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 relinquish control.

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?”

I shrugged and drank it.

“Whoa,” he said.

“What?”

“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.

Because 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.

Being held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin mushrooms.

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.

Eventually, somebody told me.  “Oh, yeah, my bunkie, he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before lockdown.”

The men 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.”

“I’m 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.

Image by emdot on Flickr.

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.

With luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then this man started talking about crows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 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.

image (5)

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.

best

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 courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

On courage, parenting, and Sergio de la Pava’s ‘Lost Empress.’

Sometimes the challenges that life throws our way will be over quickly.  Succeed or fail, we know that a finite quantity of bravery is expected of us.

lostempressIn Sergio de la Pava’s Lost Empress, a football owner addresses her players before the last game of their season.

“I once had someone reduce the film of a game to just those seconds when the ball is actually alive and in play. You know what the result was? Eleven minutes.

A three-and-a-half-hour football game reduces to eleven minutes that actually decide who wins or loses. Are you going to sit there, knowing all the work we’ve put into this season, the bloodshed, the bones snapped, and tell me that you can’t bind yourself to your brothers and collectively outperform another group of men for just eleven minutes?”

Eleven minutes during which they’ll either win or lose – except that by now everybody knows that modern football destroys players’ brains. The consequences will linger long afterward. The team’s quarterback acknowledges as much before the game:

“I don’t care if I’m drooling in a corner in ten years as long as that [championship] ring’s on my finger as I do it.  It’s all I think about.” 

Like Socrates lifting poison to his lips, the quarterback knows that he is choosing to end his life: This is not about his body; it’s more fundamental, his mind. Medically, he should not participate in even more more play of football.  But he has the courage to face it.  It’s only eleven minutes, after all.  Or three-and-a-half hours.  Still, only a single game’s worth of pain and suffering to attain glory. 

In the fourth quarter’s waning moments, Harris, the quarterback, makes one final play:

Taking the ball in just his right hand he brings it back and throws it as hard as he can, screaming in agony as he does since it feels as if his arm’s just been detached from its socket.

The millisecond the ball is released a Cowboy defender launches himself forward helmet-first into Harris’s face mask.  The face mask gives way on impact and the defender’s helmet goes right through into Harris’s face to shatter his nose, bounce his brain off his skull, and resect substantial parts of his lips.

The referee jogs towards the goal line to make the call that will immediately decide the winner as there is no instant replay.  After a seeming eternity he raises both hands and signals touchdown and a Pork victory of 23 – 22.

Harris is unconscious on the ground, it’s not that he will never remember this, it’s more that he never experienced it in the first place.

Interwoven with the quarterback’s story of willful self-destruction is another version of courage.  An impoverished parent whose life seems to be in shambles resolves that she will pour herself into raising her kid right, no matter what it takes.

she’d pinpointed this one thing, a sure path to meaning.  There’s a spiral that has to stop.  A person formed by shit parents becomes a shit person and by extension another shit parent who forms a shit person until you just end up with shit everywhere.  A life spent accomplishing only one thing can maybe be justified if that one thing is significant enough.

She could therefore literally decide that the sole purpose of her breathing was terminating that spiral currently pulling [her son] Donnie towards its diminishing circles.

 

She could do that, in essence forfeit her life.  But it would take a strange kind of courage. This wouldn’t be a stint in the can, it would be a life sentence.

To succeed, she’ll need to be brave for more than three-and-a-half hours.  Good parenting is exhausting.  In the first few years, my spouse and I felt that each night at bedtime we were struggling to toss our bedraggled bodies over the finish line – and then we’d have to wake up and do it again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Oh my.

Eleven minutes for glory?  A committed parent is looking at approximately twenty years, no cheering fans, and no assurance, ever, that you’re even doing it right.  A parent needs to be brave in the sense that David Foster Wallace described in The Pale King.

The_Pale_King‘By which,’ he said, ‘I mean true heroism, not heroism as you might know it from films or the tales of childhood.  You are now nearly at childhood’s end; you are ready for the truth’s weight, to bear it. 

The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor.  It was theater.  The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all–all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience.  An audience.’ 

He made a gesture I can’t describe: ‘Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality–there is no audience.  No one to applaud, to admire.  No one to see you.  Do you understand?  Here is the truth–actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.  No one queues up to see it.  No one is interested.’ 

He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking.  ‘True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space.  True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care–with no one there to see or cheer.  This is the world.  Just you and the job, at your desk.’

Wallace fully expected to have an audience for his words, but even then, bravery was needed during the lonely years spent composing – indeed, the tragedy here is that Wallace’s courage abandoned him just as he wrote this passage.

A parent, too, has a very limited audience.  Usually the only people watching are the children being parented, and, given the way our brains work, children will inevitably forget most of the moments that you share.  But you’re creating the emotional pallet that will color the rest of their lives.

Lots of parenting feels like drudgery, and it takes concentration to do right, and it matters.

image (4)According to Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a human parent thus seems, of all [animals], the one least fitted to live in a world narrower than the one she sees around her.  And yet, for reasons inherent in [our] evolutionary history, she has been the one most fated to do so.  Her young are born less mature than those of related mammals; they require more physical care for a relatively longer time; they have much more to learn before they can function without adult supervision. 

Or there’s Michael Chabon, in Pops, describing the burdens he knowingly undertook when he and his spouse decided to raise children.

image“Put it this way, Michael,” the great man said, and then he sketched out the brutal logic: Writing was a practice.  The more you wrote, the better a writer you became, and the more books you produced.  Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both.  Children, the great man said, were notorious thieves of time. 

And yet.  Even if this unnamed great writer were correct – which seems highly dubious, since most writers need to live in order to escape self-absorption – Chabon probably made the right choice.  If our species is going to persist, we’ll need another generation.  If our species is going to thrive, we’ll need children who were raised well.  We’ll need people to bravely accept all that parenting entails. 

I’d like to think that my own courage hasn’t failed my children yet.  Luckily, it’s reinvigorated when they smile.

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

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

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

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

 all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some weeks class falls flat.

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

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

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

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

through the trees and I come back in my mind

to the man who made me suck his cock

when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.

 

I thought I could leave him standing there

in the years, half smile on his lips …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On reading Playboy from the 1970s.

On reading Playboy from the 1970s.

 A few years ago, the Kinsey Institute culled their library of some of its lesser pornography.  A friend of mine stopped by their clearance sale, although perhaps “sale” is not quite the right word.  He said they’d set out many tables and crates full of pornography and encouraged anyone who stopped by to take as much as they could carry.  He picked up a stack of Playboy for himself and a slender volume of sex mythology for me.

His newfound collection of Playboys included a smattering from each decade, chosen seemingly at random except for his birth month (Feb 1986) and the issue featuring “Lena,” the standard Matlab test image (Nov 1972), shown here.  (Her face contains zero intracellular transport vesicles — I know, because I wrote an algorithm to check.)

The old Playboys — the ones from the sixties and seventies — were actually pretty good magazines.  They had fiction from serious writers like Nabokov and Updike, fescennine illustrated poetry from Shel Silverstein, long interviews from activists like Joan Baez, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Jean Paul Sartre, and photo spreads directed by Salvador Dali.

And the editorial content was rife with predictions that, for instance, marijuana legalization was right around the corner.  “Within five years…” they claimed.  Well, things didn’t turn out quite how they expected.  Even now, harmless people languish in prison in Colorado, doing time for marijuana possession.

Yes, Playboy was a pornographic magazine.  There were photographs of naked women.  But not as many as I’d expected based on what I’d heard growing up.  The vast bulk of every issue was plain text.  And, importantly, the naked women in those photographs were generally woman-shaped, with all the trappings of post-pubescence, as opposed to hairless too-thin figurines like autopsy-table aliens.

(Although, no offense intended to those of you who are naturally shaped that way.  I, too, am jut-boned rib-count thin, although my body is also hairy like a hobbit, hirsute foot-tops and all.  Still, you, too, dear slender reader, deserve to be loved, and I hope whomever you find gradually adapts until his or her ideal matches your image.

PB_CHAMPAGNE-AND-C_2790596kMy contention is just that aesthetic taste is not inborn, and amongst a population need not be monolithic.  Left to their own devices, most humans would show a preference for symmetry and for people who resemble others who’ve been nice to them in the past.  Whereas modern advertising culture is designed to imprint the same desires on the majority of adolescent minds.

Certainly people who are shaped like the modern pornographic ideal — which seems vaguely reminiscent of X-Files Greys except with porcelain skin, long blonde hair, and the top-heaviness starting some 18 inches lower than for a species selected for massive brains — should also be considered beautiful by those whom they treat kindly.  But given the infrequency with which that physique occurs naturally, it seems unhelpful for entire generations of males to be pre-programmed to seek that form.)

There were problems with the magazine, sure.  It was good that the naked women in their photographs looked like human adults, which seems like a good minimum standard for pornographic magazines to live up to, but early Playboy still propagated a very narrow ideal of beauty.  Many of their photospreads, especially in their barely-distinct-from-paid-advertising fashion sections, juxtaposed near-naked women with fully-clothed men, conveying unsettling ideas about power dynamics between the genders.  Which was made worse by some of the cartoons: workplace sexual harassment was a common theme and was always presented as either harmless fun or, worse, a side benefit of women’s entrance into the workforce.

But Playboys from the sixties and seventies were a far sight better than more recent offerings.  By the nineties, the articles were worse, content the magazine’s “readers” would probably skip over, and far more of the pages were taken up by naked photographs.  By the nineties, most of the women shown were underfed, with surgically-modified balloon breasts, airbrushed smooth skin, and prepubescent hairlessness.

And yet, while I was reading Mark Leibovich’s recent New York Times article (“Donald Trump Is Not Going Anywhere”), I came across this line:

Trump motioned to the gallery of magazine covers on the wall next to him, which included an issue of Playboy from 1990 (“And that’s when it was really Playboy”)

By 1990, the readable magazine that paired pornography with serious content was dead.  So it’s unclear what Trump would mean by claiming that it was “really Playboy” then.

CQEgFUhW8AAAP6V-640x479Maybe you think it’s silly that I’d expect any of Trump’s claims to have a logical basis.  But I think there’s a very real chance that the man will win the U.S. presidency.  He’s boorish, racist, misogynistic, jingoistic, narcissistic.  He has extremely crass taste judging by the gaudy buildings he’s emblazoned with his name (not to mention all the other low-quality overpriced products).  He’s obsessed with celebrity and celebrities in the worst way (also from Leibovich’s article — why would anyone be impressed that Bobby Knight support him?  Knight is also a knuckleheaded bully who reaped a fortune creating nothing of value).  His only credentials are his ability to arrest attention on television and his financial prowess, although the repeated bankruptcies and clear cronyism cast a pall over the latter.

All of which means he seems perfect for America.  He embodies the national id of large swaths of our population so well, the United States as represented by grocery-store-checkout-aisle magazines.  Plus, whatever else there is to say about the man, he does have a semblance of integrity.  When he spouts off asinine trash, it doesn’t seem as though he’s regurgitating a prepackaged focus-grouped speech penned by a marketing team.  Given what we’re used to from politicians, that impresses a lot of people.  It impresses me, and I think he’s a horrible human being.

His ideas are stupid — Playboy from 1990? — but he came up with those stupid ideas himself.

And, right, getting back to when I think the magazine was really Playboy, I was surprised that my favorite feature, flipping through them, were the advertisements.  It’s interesting to see the difference in aspirations and expectations for young people between the 1970s and now.

dude with prospects and a car

There’s not really a contemporary magazine that’s a cultural equivalent to what Playboy was then, but I’d say Rolling Stone comes closest.  Each issue of Rolling Stone has a huge amount of fluff, but their one or two real news articles are often quite good.  And, the millennial-targeted advertisements in Rolling Stone?  They’re for video games, sneakers, TV shows, vaporizers.  Far cheaper than the house and car and incipient family intimated by ads from Playboy in the 1970s.  Is that lifestyle still within reach of the majority of today’s young magazine readers?

Flipping through an issue, there were also advertisements for guns, cars, cameras, wine… (Paul Masson is telling me that his wine tastes good, but should I trust those eyes?).

gun ad

scary guy selling wine

…and my personal favorite: cigarettes.  Here’s a choice cigarette advertisement for you.  “Golden Lights.  You really know you’re smoking.”

cigarette ad

Um, sure.  That man probably knows he’s smoking.  But he looks miserable!  Does he want to really know he’s smoking?

That sort of advertisement is probably strongly correlated with when Playboy “was really Playboy.”  There were warnings on cigarette ads, but the big companies were still trying to maintain the whole “They’re not that addictive!  They’re not going to kill you!” charade.  And yet their advertisements could depict the sheer misery of smoking.

You don’t get that anymore.  Now vaping ads are all cool graphics and happy people and it’s clear how easy gobbling your nicotine would be.  Which I understand, from a seller’s perspective.  You want your product to seem desirable.  But for me, someone who is interested in the magazine as a cultural artifact, it’s more fun to see cigarette ads that show their models suffering.

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POSTSCRIPT: In the time between when I wrote this and when it was posted, Playboy made an announcement about their incipient editorial changes. Soon their photographs of naked women will not depict nipples or genitalia — to my mind, a fairly minor change, but other people have different opinions about which parts of the human body should be shown.

Still, the announcement was made after Trump’s declaration that 1990 was when Playboy was really Playboy. So, unless the dude has insider information about contemporary pornographic publishing, that’s not what he was talking about.