shaunterrywriter

These are my writings. Ideally, these are the most honest expressions of myself that I could give.

Verities and Vestiges

cracked-wall

I could feel Charlie staring at me, but I didn’t dare to look. When she looks at me like that, it really freaks me out. It’s like she ceases to be a living, breathing, real human. You know when you can feel what someone else is feeling? Other people talk about this, they talk about people’s energies, or at least I guess that’s what they mean. Well anyway, when someone’s really losing control, when they’re about to get real crazy, sometimes I pick up on something. There’s a static in the room and it feels like something Teslan, like anything could happen, only that it won’t likely be good.

Mostly, I was just trying to not look at her. I was trying to ignore her. She was just staring at me. We’d fought a good deal, recently, and the arguments were getting worse. This was the part where the prospective long-term life partner becomes frustrated with me and decides that I’m not worth all this bullshit. I hate this part. It’s uncomfortable for me and they always make it so complicated.

At some point, I was just staring at the wall when I realized that I was staring at the wall and, then, I was intentionally staring at the wall, following the cracks or just looking at it stupidly, as though I was completely mindless.

I ignored Charlie’s incessant fidgeting. This is how they get when it gets like this. At some point — well, not all, but some — some of them get really anxious and fidgety and I get scared that I’m gonna get smacked by some uncontrolled appendage. Chill out. Don’t hit me, you spazz. I’m always thinking stupid things like that when I get in this position.

But, you know, I couldn’t even blame Charlie for this. In fact, I’m experienced in this sort of thing and maybe she’s never dealt with something as ridiculous as this. The thing is that no one ever understands anyone else. Most people don’t understand themselves. Maybe no one does. I certainly don’t. And Charlie doesn’t understand me. Why would she? Why should she? She wouldn’t. No one would.

She was making me anxious. I suddenly became aware of my heartbeat; my whole body was pulsing — no, thumping — thumping against nothing, thumping against itself. God! Now, my heart was beating even faster. What’s wrong with me? Whenever this happens, I feel like I should call a doctor, but I’ve survived through this so many times now. I don’t want to be dramatic. At least, I don’t want anyone to realize how dramatic I am.

And for some reason, I made the idiotic decision to look over at her. I could see it all in her face, all this pain, all this frustration. She’s mad at me, but more than that, she’s disappointed. I’ve wronged her and I should be ashamed. She’s just standing there, staring directly at me. She’s so mad at me. Why is she mad? Does she even know?

That’s the funny thing about being someone like me. By this point, I’ve seen this patterned behavior so many times that I know what it looks like, even if my unsuspecting, undeserving victims have no idea what they’re feeling at all. It becomes so easy for me to divert attention from what I did wrong and to cast doubt. That’s so shitty, but it’s just true.

I almost jumped when she suddenly made a sound, “Are you gonna say something?” She was speaking so strangely, so uncomfortably.

“What do you want me to say?”

“I dunno. You could apologize. You could explain yourself. Anything would be better than you just standing there with your mouth open.”

She was visibly uncomfortable. She sarcastically looked at the wall with me, as though she didn’t realize there was nothing there to look at. She was annoyed and she wanted to punish me now. I couldn’t blame her.

But I was annoyed by her question and I didn’t wanna answer it. So slowly, I forced myself to play along. “I’m sorry that we’re here, doing this. I’m sorry that I upset you. I have no idea what I did, though. I want to figure this out, but I don’t understand what’s happening and I wish you would tell me.”

I knew it instantly. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. I said the wrong thing. You’d think I could figure out how to respond to these situations by now, but I always fuck it up.

Charlie kept spazzing out. At one point, I thought that she might come toward me, but her nerves ensured that she returned to the position she’d been in before.

I found myself remembering the first time I ever bloviated in Charlie’s direction: “The first thing you have to understand about me is that I’m a narcissist. I’m not proud of it, and I’m not as bad as I used to be, but I don’t recommend that anyone get close to me. I mean, I want you to. But for your sake, don’t. I mean, I want you to love me. I want everyone to love me. But from afar. I want to pick and choose who I interact with and how, and maybe I want to interact with you, but you really shouldn’t. Just trust me on this. But don’t trust me on anything.” She had laughed at that. She’s not laughing now.

Charlie’s giving up. She made a weird little exasperated noise. That’s when I heard the birds chirping outside and little furry squirrels and chipmunks roaring like cutesie vestiges of the Jurassic or some shit.

Family Photo

family-photo

Why are we doing this? It’s so stupid. We look like a retarded Brady Bunch. I’m not supposed to say “retarded.” Whatever. I guess it’s bad to Colin. It upsets Aunt Jenna. So embarrassing.

Why do they make us dress up like dorks? Why this tree? Why do we have to smile? Who cares at all? It’s not like it’s even a family tradition. It’s so random and it always sucks. Smile with your eyes. That doesn’t even mean anything. So stupid.

I secretly have the worst parents on Earth. No one knows it. How does no one see it? I wish that CPS would’ve done something. I didn’t want them to, but I kinda did. I was disappointed when nothing happened to mom and dad. How could CPS not see that we were being abused? That’s not justice. Now, we’re stuck with them and they think what they do is okay.

It’s not abuse. It’s punishment. They’re idiots. They’re so irrational and unfair. What if I don’t want to take a stupid picture? Why do I have to? I didn’t choose this. I didn’t choose my parents. I want different parents. Why can’t I have Alex’s parents? He steals his dad’s porn. His mom might not like it, but Alex seems okay and he has freedom. I don’t have freedom. I can’t wait to leave.

I don’t want Justin and Jared’s parents. I don’t get that family. Mom’s irrational and dad’s unpredictable and they’re both abusive, but Justin and Jared’s parents confuse me. I don’t know if they’d be better. In some ways they would. They have cable and they wear Nikes.

God, how long is this gonna take? How much longer until we have to start this thing? I don’t want it to start. Could I run to Josh’s house? I’d get in trouble. I’m already grounded, so what’s the point? They’d probably ground me for longer. I fucking hate it here.

Why can’t I just be like my friends? Why is our family so weird? Everyone else knows about sex and drugs and they go to parties. It’s so embarrassing.

“Shaunie, get your sisters and brothers and tell them to come over here.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Why is that my job? Why don’t you do it if it’s what you want? I’m not your slave. This is a free country. Don’t you know that? Kids have rights, too. I won’t be a kid for long.

“Mom, where are we supposed to go?”

“Honey, tuck in your shirt for Pete’s sake. Is that a stain?”

“Huh? Where?”

Oh, shit. She’s gonna be mad. Why do I always spill my food without realizing it?

“Honey! You got ketchup on your shirt. Come here.”

Why does she do this? How old does she think I am? Does she think her saliva’s gonna make the red get out? This is so stupid. Maybe I’ll get out of having to take this stupid photo.

Tethering Icarus: A Response to Popper’s “Conjectures and Refutations”

On page 57 of “Conjectures and Refutations,” Popper states, “One should also be careful not to confuse the problem of the reasonableness of the scientific procedure and the (tentative) acceptance of the results of this procedure—i.e. the scientific theories—with the problem of the rationality or otherwise of the belief that this procedure will succeed.” Here, Popper means to point out that the degree to which we can feel confident in a theory is not the basis on which we should determine the value in a scientific theory; instead, a theory’s value should lie in the degree to which a theory is corroborable. In Section 82 of Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery,” Popper defines corroborability by whether or not we can test a theory and its constituent aspects.

I agree that it is important for a theory to be testable; in fact, I think that is an important aspect of what makes a theory scientific and I think that Popper made important discoveries that helped to shape more accurate and useful science. But I have a few contentions. My first problem is that his definition of corroborability is a bit amorphous. On page 264 of “The Logic of Scientific Discovery,” Popper explains: “[Corroboration] asserts the fact that these basic statements do not contradict the theory, and it does this with due regard to the degree of testability of the theory, and to the severity of the tests to which the theory has been subjected, up to a stated period of time.”

What does Popper mean by “up to a stated period of time?” It seems that Popper is suggesting that there is some timeframe within which one is to attempt to falsify a theory before which we come to tentatively accept its truthfulness. I think that Popper might even agree in hindsight that this definition gives too much leeway to the theorizer and that it can lead to the acceptance of untrue theories. Even if we altered Popper’s statement to speak to a volume of attempts at discreditation, it would still be problematic. After all, the ability to uncover new evidence means that a theory could always be disproved. Maybe a better definition would have ended by saying that a theory is indefinitely subject to its verification. Still, the idea that we should ever accept a theory, tentatively or not, is one that I am disinclined to buy into.

I think that it is right to presume that humans tend to seek out and establish patterns, and that we act on the basis that those patterns are true, but, in this way, science should be distinct from unscientific human behaviors. If we accept that we can never know whether or not a theory is true, then why should we accept any theory at all? Discussing theories in terms of degrees of confidence makes some sense and I would advocate that we could act on the basis that some theories appear to be true, but in discourse over theories, themselves, I am not convinced of the wisdom in tentatively accepting any scientific theory, as opposed to simply claiming that some appear to be more true than others do.

But these are minor issues when compared with how Popper treats probability and the valuation of theories. Popper argues that a scientific theory that tells us very little about the world is of little value to us and that the value in a theory should rest solely on the degree to which it can be tested and disproved. He supports this idea on page 58 of “Conjectures and Refutations,” by saying that “…the probability of a statement (or set of statements) is always the greater the less the statement says: it is inverse to the content or the deductive power of the statement, and thus to its explanatory power.” Viewed in a certain way, this makes perfect sense: a theory that accurately explains everything is more valuable than a theory that explains nearly nothing. If one were to theorize with this idea as a guide, they might view their success as having something to do with coming up with the most comprehensive and unlikely theory they can, given what Popper has to say, on page 58, about how the value of a theory relates to its probability.

To some degree, the danger of overtheorizing is mitigated by Popper’s claims about the importance of corroboration, but that does not fully negate the problem. It may be that the improbability of a theory is immaterial, so long as one can effectively test the theory, but it is also true that there is value in attaining some level of confidence in simple theories and that the value is less clear when the testing of a theory is prohibitively complicated. To be clear, a simple theory at least has the virtue of being more clearly verifiable (regardless of what exactly is meant by “verifiable”) than a more complicated theory. Borrowing an idea from calculus, the problem with a theory of everything is, in some sense, opposite to the problem with a theory of something infinitesimally small: one requires so much that you never achieve its corroboration while the other’s significance is imperceptible. I would argue that lesser significance is less dangerous than is complication in verification, which supports a preference for simpler theories.

Popper’s work has been important and has ignited advancements in how we conduct science but, like many philosophers, Popper gives a degree of lip service to the idea that induction is a fundamentally flawed proposition while arguing for induction’s virtues. It may be that the question of value in induction is discussed in terms of a spectrum—after all, I have yet to discover a modern philosopher who argues that you can prove things through induction—but where I would argue the flaw lies (Popper included) in the thinking of some philosophers is that they seem to make statements on the problem of induction as a way to qualify their arguments which run counter to this fundamental problem.

Birdsongs and Tiny Roars

cracked-wall

Charlie’s eyes looked alert and dead at the same time. Her eyes systematically scanned over Hugo for any indication of his feelings, but instead, she ended up staring at the crooked bottom row of Hugo’s teeth. He might drool.

Her chest heaved and oil began to accumulate on the surface of her skin. Her hair looked like a small, shiny black cloud, and her movements came in unexpected bursts and waves, establishing no sort of rhythm.

She had once imagined Hugo to be a charming, handsome, gentle, spiritual man with philosophical thoughts and a delivery like a slow, old, empathic woman. There was no more illusion. Hugo wasn’t these things; at least, he wasn’t always all of them. Two ways to dehumanize someone…

Hugo stared at the pale, cracked wall. He wondered who had lived there before him. The thing is that no one ever understands anyone else. Most people don’t understand themselves. Maybe no one does.

Hugo noticed the low drumming inside of him, and his sudden awareness of his anxiety made him feel anxious for the fact that he felt anxious. He looked at her face. She’s just standing there, staring directly at me. She’s so mad at me. Why is she mad? Does she even know?

Why isn’t he saying anything? Charlie’s face formed contorted words as her lips stayed tight around her teeth, “Are you gonna say something?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I dunno. You could apologize. You could explain yourself. Anything would be better than you just standing there with your mouth open, looking at the wall.” Charlie tilted her body unnecessarily, as though she were having to look around something that wasn’t there in order to inspect Hugo’s point on the wall. But there really wasn’t anything there. She already knew that, though.

Hugo’s lips pressed together, forming a long horizontal line while the rest of his face remained still and he looked briefly at the floor before looking back at Charlie. “I’m sorry that we’re here, doing this. I’m sorry that I upset you. I have no idea what I did, though. I want to figure this out, but I don’t understand what’s happening and I wish you would tell me.”

That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. I said the wrong thing.

Charlie’s foot moved toward Hugo at an angle, but her body didn’t. Her foot slid back beneath her. Her neck and shoulders shimmied, causing her head to bobble in a snakelike motion and her arms to dust off her sides. She expelled air in the same way that a dying character in a movie might expel air, softly, “Huhh…”

“I want someone to love me, I want someone to like me. I want them to choose to be with me because they don’t want to be with someone else. I don’t want to be someone’s safe choice. I don’t want them to choose me out of practicality or hope for a good life for themselves. I want to feel like I matter to someone.

“It’s fine if you and I are different. In a lot of ways, I appreciate that. But maybe it means that things won’t work out. Maybe you’ll meet some guy who’ll want everything to be just the way that you want it. Maybe he’ll make you feel safe. I’d be disappointed, I’d be sad. It’d he hard for me. But for you, you’ve got a lot going on, so maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal. I don’t want this to end, but it’s your choice at this point.”

Sunlight shone in at a steep angle, and the leaves of the trees made kaleidoscopic patterns through one of the room’s windows that stood a little too high off the ground. Why so high? Hugo often wondered. The yard formed a little hill, and a big ash tree had stood there for a few decades now. Birds, squirrels, and chipmunks fought over real estate in the monumental plant, as the high-pitched birdsongs competed with tiny roars from the rodents.

Disenlightenment: A Response to Friedman’s “The Methodology of Positive Economics”

The Age of Reason gave us much to be thankful for, but residue from their pursuit of a calculative ethos has had drawbacks.

Friedman offers, on page 6, that “[his] judgment … is itself a ‘positive’ statement to be accepted or rejected on the basis of empirical evidence.” Friedman sometimes makes statements in such absolute terms. He sometimes points out that he writes from his perspective or that his writing reflects his opinions, avoiding stating that something “is.” That he does not do so more often reflects failing I see in some academic writing.

Friedman argues for separation between positivist and normativist economics. I would argue that this is a mistake. I would argue that an approach that attempts to separate description from prescription: 1) is impossibly unrealistic; 2) misses the point of research.

Addressing the first point, conclusions in research often include extrapolative data analysis. To observe an example, I searched for “economic research paper” online and opened the first result, a paper from Kar and Pentecost, titled, “Financial Development and Economic Growth in Turkey: Further Evidence on the Causality Issue.” This is the article’s conclusion:

 

In this paper, the direction of causality between financial development and economic growth in Turkey is investigated for the period 1963-1995. In order to see the impact of different aspects of financial development, five alternative financial development indicators are proposed. Granger causality tests have been carried out in the context of cointegration and vector error-correction mechanisms. The empirical results show that the direction of causality between financial development and economic growth is sensitive to the choice of measurement for financial development in Turkey. There can therefore be no ‘wholesale’ acceptance of the view that ‘finance leads growth’ just as there can be no ‘wholesale’ acceptance of the view that ‘finance follows growth’ in Turkey. The results do however, imply that the strength of the causality between financial development and economic growth is much weaker than that between economic growth and financial development. Indeed it would not be inconsistent with the results obtained to argue that for all intents and purposes in Turkey economic growth leads financial development.

 

The point of Kar’s and Pentecost’s paper seems to be to identify causation. I think that is a noble but unrealistic cause — a pursuit that leads to misguidance.

I believe that Hume is right to problematize inductive reasoning. We can assume that gravity works in the way we think it does and that it will continue to do so, but there is a chance that it does not and/or will not. It seems that claims of knowledge require leaps of faith.

When Kar and Pentecost state, “The empirical results show that the direction of causality between financial development and economic growth is sensitive to the choice of measurement for financial development in Turkey,” they make an assumption based on ideas about methods and observations. There are explanations for why their assertions might not hold: perhaps their methods are not all efficacious toward ends that they seek, perhaps they did not correctly execute the methods, or perhaps the observed case is merely a coincidence and not something more meaningful. Kar’s and Pentecost’s conclusion contains more statements with similar problems. I use this paper as an example of flaws I have seen in academic writings.

These issues are not limited to these kinds of papers, though. The problem lies in pursuit of objectivity altogether. In debate, assessments of value appear necessary, but valuations rely on biases. Without valuation of ideas, actions, policies, etc., there seems to be nothing to argue. But biases are biases because they happen outside the view of our conscious minds, so they cannot be mitigated against. This brings me to my second point from above.

Humans are not rational, and human experience is not rational, at least not in the way that we often conceive of rationality. Human perspectives are limited and the human mind assures biases. Definitions of “objectivity” include words like “unbiased,” “known,” “independent,” “thoughts,” “feelings,” “interpretation,” and “prejudice.” Humans cannot be unbiased, humans are not independent, the human mind does a lot of interpretation subconsciously, and so on. Take an extreme case like murder: with few exceptions, we agree that murder is wrong, but not thanks to mathematical thinking. Humans agree that murder is wrong because we have a bias that developed through evolution. Whether or not someone tries to rigorously defend that murder is wrong, humans start from the position that it is wrong. In Antonio Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error, he points out that emotionality affects decision-making, whether we realize it or not, and that much of what goes into decision-making happens in parts of the body found outside the brain. Human “objectivity” can be described in relative terms, but herein lies another problem.

Friedman acknowledges that separation of description and prescription is not altogether realistic, but I would argue that his proposed solution is counter-productive. So long as people value “objectivity,” they are likely to be led to undesirable outcomes. The subconscious decision-making apparatus is efficient and effective at making contributions to decisions that produce desirable outcomes, a point made in Damasio’s book. Often, people make poor decisions due to rationalizing past the point of good decisions that would have been led to by being more accepting of “gut responses.” A 2013 study, by Lee, Blumenfeld, and Esposito, titled, “Disruption of Dorsolateral But Not Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex Improves Unconscious Perceptual Memories,” found that humans often perform better when they do not allow their consciousnesses to impede the decision-making process. If all this is true, then pursuit of objectivity can lead to errors and misunderstandings.

I believe that it would be better if research were more committed to acknowledging biases and stating arguments in understated ways. It is reasonable to suggest possible relationships between observed phenomena, but stating such relationships as facts, while pursuing objectivity, seems problematic.

Hope Not Yet Abandoned

Durham Protestors march in solidarity with striking prisoners, photo courtesy of Christi Fenison

We gathered at dusk in the downtown Farmer’s Market, which can seem more like a park: an open field, a concrete slab, a parking lot, all surrounded by buildings made of old-looking red brick. Much of downtown Durham looks something like you might expect an old industrial city to look. It was warm out tonight, and the moisture in the air beaded up on people’s foreheads and in little dark spots on their shirts. We were there to fight for the least among us: American prisoners.

The activist scene can be an interesting mix: eager union members, black preachers, proud LGBTQIA+, idealistic mothers, fed-up ethnic minorities, privileged hipsters, and curious university students form an unexpected coalition. If you go to one local activist event, you’ll run into many of the same people as at another, completely unrelated event, even though these activists can appear to have nothing in common.

There’s an integration problem in the South. Maybe there’s an integration problem all over, but in the South, it seems stark. I remember my surprise when I first moved to North Carolina, noting that all the blacks who worked in the restaurants seemed to work in the backs of the restaurants — not in the fronts. It’s not like that where I’m from, although where I’m from comes with its own set of problems. It is also like that in other parts of the South, though.

Conditions in American prisons are terrible. Prison is supposed to be a punishment, they say. Well, we imprison more people in America than they do in any other country on Earth, and the conditions in our prisons are far worse than prisons in so many modern societies. Many people in prison are there because they know what the deal is: if you’re not rich, then you’re getting an overworked, uninterested lawyer, and the lawyer’s going to make you take a plea deal, anyway, so you might as well get it over with. In prison, inmates are locked in cells with several strangers at a time, they eat food that’s barely food, they’re made to follow a strict schedule, they get poor health care and very few basic services, and they have very little freedom to do anything positive for themselves or for anyone else. In America, prison isn’t a rehabilitation project; it’s a capitalist project.

Police, judges, lawyers, prison guards, prison-owning corporations, and contractors for the prison all stand to make mountains of money by making sure that there’s a steady flow of inmates to these facilities, and policymakers have done a good job of presenting the situation in a light such that well-meaning people often feel that we need to lock up lots of criminals. The media are in on it, too: at last check, 90% of American media are owned by six conglomerates. Do you think that none of the board members for those companies have vested interests in these industries?

The media present a terrifying image of crime, but the system is also set up to ensure very high recidivism rates. When people leave prison, they generally don’t leave with more skills or a healthier outlook in life. Instead, their old social network has often eroded out from under them and can be replaced by a network of fellow inmates and those inmates’ associates. The former prisoners’ job prospects wither under the social stigma, the loss of job experience, and the reality of human resources policies that mean that this checked box makes hiring a no-go. But today, these problems are old.

Incarceration Rate in America

Prison incarceration (not including jail incarceration) rates collected by the Bureau of Justice

In the 1960s, much of the world watched and then followed similar paths as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War Protests ignited an activistic fire. All this activism eventually led to policies intended to de-fund our educations, but that’s a story for another day. May of 1968 saw France come about as close to revolution as you get without having to reset, and similar actions were stirred up across the globe. A lot of good came from these actions, but it’s also true that the Power Elite reacted in ways that served their interests. Ronald Reagan won the California Governorship after having said he’d “clean up that mess in Berkeley.” Nixon was so eager to appear tough on crime that he ignored a report that he’d commissioned to find out the effects of marijuana because it didn’t suit his political mission. Of course, when Reagan became President, the War on Drugs was ratcheted up as his CIA sold cocaine on Californian streets. The Clintons wouldn’t be one-upped: Bill, with Hillary’s help, passed welfare reform and oppressive laws to stiffen penalties on crimes. The results have been devastating.

Most people in prison are there for non-violent crimes, mostly relating to drug charges. Of course, marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized in most states by this point, and it’ll be on the ballot for even more states in the coming elections. Also, the fact remains that many people in jail are innocent.

Criminal Justice Reform has been a hot topic in this election cycle, and the Black Lives Matter Movement has gotten a lot of media coverage in recent years. But prisoners have been suffering all along. Before the 1970s, the Prisoners’ Rights Movement was vibrant and a lot of good was accomplished. Since then, as with so many things, those people who make decisions for our institutions have managed to commodify nearly every aspect imaginable. Much of the work in prisons is done by inmates who generally get paid far less than minimum wage, and usually have to pay for things like more desirable food, phone cards to call their families, and paper and pen with which to write. In some prisons, inmates no longer have the option of face-to-face visitations from their loved ones, instead having to pay incredibly high rates to private companies in order to use videoconferencing.

This brings us to today’s march: prisoners in at least 40 facilities in at least 24 states have gone on strike, refusing to work as something akin to chattel slaves to benefit a few rich people, after which they would be sent back into the world having to make sense of isolation and poor life prospects. Tonight, a healthy number of people gathered in Durham to show solidarity with these struggling prisoners, to support them and help to shine a light on the serious injustices which they face.

Michael Hardt, a political philosophy professor at Duke, has spoken about “the pleasures and the sort of joyful life of political struggle.” Sure, lots of activists probably act out of guilt, but on this evening, we marched through the streets of Durham, chanting, smiling, laughing, dancing, feeling that we were contributing to some greater good, hopeful that the subtle simmer that seems to bubble beneath the stale cultural mire might culminate in a boil that leads to wholesale change or something like it. We saw one another, with all our differences, and we saw friends — maybe even a kind of odd, surrogate family — who were willing to give of ourselves, willing to spend time and to act, willing to risk something and sacrifice something so that we could show that the most forgotten, most neglected among us were still humans to us and that the struggles they faced had meaning outside of those places built for punishment, those cold confines in which they had all the time they could need to mull over their most troubling questions. We stopped at the downtown jail for some time. At one point, we chanted, “We see you! We love you!” over and over and over. I hope that the prisoners could make out the message from behind the walls that separated us from them.

When I promoted this event to some friends of mine, one of them commented “If you don’t like what happens in prison, don’t go there!!!” [emphasis not mine] Surely, we’d all prefer to not be in prison, but there are other nations where prisons serve a positive function for the citizens who have to pay for them: they produce community members who can better deal with their lives and who have better skills with which to integrate themselves into society and into the labor force. In America, prison is a terrible place that leads to further horrors upon release. If only it were as simple as my friend’s suggestion.

Note: In this election cycle, we face options who are inclined to perpetuate systems that harm the vulnerable in favor of the powerful, but we can choose people who have consistently shown an interest in helping those people who are less privileged. Maybe we could benefit by leaders who show thoughtful consideration in how we treat people.

Betrayal in My Youth

When I was very young — maybe just four or five — our dog —my dog, actually — had a litter of puppies. The puppies were adorable and they gave me a lot of joy. Maybe I felt some responsibility for protecting them. I was the oldest of seven kids (well, at this point, just four) and my parents were young and stupid. I probably would’ve benefitted from having gotten more attention than I got, or at least maybe Freud or Jung or Lacan would’ve said so; frankly, I’d agree with any such assessment. I was a sensitive child and I could be pretty passive and hesitant. Maybe all kids are this way.

It must’ve been spring or summer and it was nearing dusk, so we’d been playing outside. Of course, I was obsessed with the puppies, so I was spending a lot of time playing with them. They had a cardboard box in the middle of the garage and they were a few weeks old. They could bounce around:  little fuzzy globs of meat with too much skin, but they were uncoordinated and unaware.

We kept the garage door open so that we could run in and out, grabbing a basketball or taking a break to play with the pups or running inside the house to pee. But it was starting to get dark, so my parents decided that it was time for us to get inside for the evening. My sister stood by the inside and pressed the button on the wall to close the big garage door.

The garage door hung parallel to the ceiling in four wide wooden panels, each hinged to the other. I had put the puppies in the box for the night, and the first wood panel started to slowly descend from the ceiling, with the accompanying loud, low-pitched grind drowning other noise in the atmosphere.

The puppy was bounding toward me in short hops. I was more-or-less in the middle of the driveway, and I yelled to my sister, who was still standing by the button to the garage door: “Hey! Press the button again!”

“What?!” she said, so I repeated myself.

“What?!” She looked confused. Was she confused because she couldn’t make out what I was saying or because she couldn’t figure out why she should re-open the garage door? My sister could be obedient and deferential to my parents, and often treated me as a rival. I was getting frustrated, as I quickly made my way toward the garage. By this point, a couple panels were perpendicular to the ceiling, steadily descending.

“OPEN THE DOOR! THE PUPPY’S RUNNING OUT! HURRY! PRESS THE BUTTON!”

She just stood there, slack-jawed. I was running in fear, and the puppy was obliviously bounding toward the inch-and-a-half thick piece of wood that was sure to obliterate him. I was terrified, and I’d lost sight of my sister, so I couldn’t depend on her. My father was further afield, and I sensed that he’d come from the street or the yard, having recognized some trouble. He was a big, athletic man, but there was no way that he was going to make it the distance to save the day.

I got to the door as it was closing. Times before, I’d managed to prop up the door and keep it from closing, at which point the door would stutter and return to the ceiling. Was I too late? I quickly jammed my leg as far under the door as I could. It wasn’t enough.

My foot got halfway under the door, but didn’t supply sufficient resistance. The puppy was half on one side of the door, half on the other: convulsing, smushed. Moments before, my sister had finally pressed the damn button, but there was lag between the depression of the button and the response of the door, so now the door raised up to reveal the mess that the puppy left behind, wiggling in its last moments.

I was bawling. My father reacted quickly. My sister stood, stunned. I’ve never considered how she must’ve felt, but I was more traumatized by the puppy’s fate than I was angry at her. I’d never dealt with death before, but my father assured me that I wouldn’t have to. He was a salesman and a fast talker; he was good at making people feel good, even if his efforts could be dishonest. The puppy was going to be okay. Daddy was going to take him to the vet, and the vet would take care of the puppy. He was my dad; maybe he could make this happen. Was there life in this puppy? I was in shock, my ruddy cheeks covered in saline.

At the end of our street was a small wooded area. A few days later, my mother told me that dad had buried the dead puppy there.  The bastard.

18 August, 2016 — Espresso House Lund C, Sweden

I left the cafe to go check out the campus. It was one of those universities with fractures of campus strewn about town, but the architecture was old, and the landscape was green, even if the sky was grey. I walked about the Student Union, trying to find someone to talk to about doing grad work in this town, but relevant parties were absent, so I trekked back the couple hundred meters through a mild drizzle to retake my couch.

As I came down the spiral staircase, I saw an older man sitting in my seat, my things neatly displaced. But as I neared the couch, I couldn’t find the book I’d been reading. He peeked up at me, “Oh, are you looking for this?” He’d been taking in my copy of The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a contemporary book about Nordic cultures.

“Oh, yeah; thanks.” My level of irritation was going from naught to something just Nord of mild.

“Sorry about that,” he claimed.

“No, it’s okay,” I replied. His apology quickly dismantled my sudden mood. “Did you enjoy what you read?”

“Very much; yes. Thank you.”

I grabbed for my things before he started, “I’m not taking your place, am I?”

I waved my arm around the room like a game show host presenter, only without the commercially preferred female proportions and slinky dress, as I graciously pointed out, “There are plenty of other couches. Thanks.”

We smiled at each other, as I walked a few feet to the welcomed isolation of the couch on the adjacent wall. As I set my things in their appropriate configuration, I looked back at him and realized that he no longer had anything to read. I walked back. “If you wanna keep reading, I have lots of other books to read.”

“That’s very nice of you,” he replied.

“Yeah, it’s no problem.”

Society tells us that places like Las Vegas, Rio de Jainero, Tokyo, and the savannahs of Africa are the exciting places to go, and maybe that’s right; I don’t disagree. And when people think of where to live, America, Germany, Costa Rica, Australia, and France seem to be relatively hot choices.

The media inform us that Scandinavians are healthier and happier than we are, as they trade in taxes and diversity for dull, communal sensibilities and large, numerous public benefits. I think I’d like to move to boring Scandinavia. There seems to be tension between fostering people’s uniquenesses and creating social cohesion. This troubles me, but in the end, would I rather be healthy and happy or feel free to pursue my most narcissistic proclivities?

I’ll argue that individualism and competition share a close relationship, and in America, people see the evidence of this. Members of society often find society’s ruts, as they get waylaid by a system that asks for exceptional ambition in order to survive and grow. In Scandinavia, homogeneity seems to be the price paid for a smaller number of people slipping through the cracks.

Scandinavia could do better. Some parts of Scandinavia are surprisingly conservative. People really can be a little petty and judgemental, like in so many parochial societies. For all the advancements in things like gender equality, education, and environmentalism, Scandinavians can be victims of their own successes, failing to really push things forward where there are obvious shortcomings.

Still, perfection not standing in the way of the good, maybe better is still better. I hate the cold. Maybe there’s an obscure Norwegian commune in the Mediterranean (I doubt that there is). Life is hard.

I think kindness and altruism go a long way toward making people feel good, just as I appreciate the somewhat presumptuous, albeit sweet and crinkly, literary from the cafe. These things don’t come without costs, but for me, maybe the benefits are worth what’s being given up.

14 August 2016 — Between Slovenia and Germany

Riding the train through the Austrian Alps, reading the book of WWI poetry that Cleo gave me, I’m thinking of “The Sound of Music,” and it’s making me want to cry. I’m not kidding. Maybe I have a disease. I think that the German mother sitting across from me is starting to notice.

She and her husband patiently look after their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The daughter’s sleepy and hungry so she whines but only a little. The lady breastfeeds as she explains that the husband used to have a six-pack but that he looks better with a little bit of a belly. It’s all pretty adorable, really. He talks with me about Trump and global capitalism and we agree that the situation’s complicated and unfortunate.

I wouldn’t mind living on the side of one of these mountains. I really like Ljubljana, with its modern infrastructure, ancient architecture, and second-world food prices. It may be the best that former Soviet countries have to offer. These Slovenians go to sleep awfully early, though.

The snow wraps around the tops of the mountains, enveloping their frosty, jagged heads, cutting their tallest points off so that the mountaintops end in wavy, milky frontiers. In Ljubljana, I saw a sickel and hammer painted onto the side of a building, so I guess that the clouds are just keeping the mountains humble. Perhaps Zizek would approve. And so on and so on…

Two Serbias

Serbian Cornfield

Just beyond Belgrade,
a cornfield sprawls
from one edge of the horizon to the other.
Highways pass over it,
like anachronistic eggshell ribbons, hanging in the sky.

From the field,
farmers mostly ignore
the strips of serial art passing by,
as rancorous old trains transport Slavs back-and-forth
between the city and the North.

A few kilometers past the cornfield,
between other cornfields and uniform red brick apartments,
with their red clay roofs,
a bronzed, slightly greasy man,
wearing three-day old scruff and an ill-fitting t-shirt,
speaks with an old lady at a fruit stand.
His messy belly jiggles as he laughs,
while she clutches a pristine old Orthodox Bible in one hand
and a cane in the other.

Parts of Belgrade thrive;
ecru facades of modern, functionalist buildings,
with lighted Latin letter signs,
are erected between larger, more functionalist,
rusty, slowly-imploding Soviet relics, adorned by Cyrillic characters.

Outside the city,
Serbs eschew internet for bright yellow flowers
and familiar beers with lifelong friends and family,
as they wait for modernity to remember them.

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