Saturday, March 27, 2010

Embracing My Snakes

I am on the favorite old-home dog walk. That is when I see them projected by my spring-addled brain onto the river rocks lining the path between the creek and the cornfields: a sudden shock of a black rat snake, outstretched across my way to gather the season's first warmth. This one is fictitious but will soon be real. It always feels like he's crept up on me, but the truth is that I've crept up on him. He's minding his business, slowly, and his surprise is evident in his wary flicking eye.

The human (and canine) fear of snakes is instinctual, and makes a hell of a lot of sense. Only, as with almost every eminently sensible instinct, some individuals simply don't have them. Fear of heights; fear of snakes; fear of falling off high towers. When you live with someone who does not have an aversion to something you do, you can be made to feel foolish. On the other hand, the difference is mighty useful for snake removal when they decide to crawl into the living spaces of your home.

For nearly a hundred years, the house I used to live in was home to unknowable generations of black rat snakes. They molted their skins in the attic; they moved silently between the stones of the foundation. On occasion, they would drape themselves across the porch, the branches of the trees. And, most alarmingly, one day a black head, followed by the dully shining rest of a body much like the head, flowed out between the two sections of the dishwasher. As I happened to be standing next to it, at the sink. The little glimmer of movement--the scream.

Still, I tried to catch my breath, psychically speaking. A wildlife protector from some agency I had called in a panic--my toddler had reached, smiling, for a snake before I saw that it was not in fact a stick (another scream, quite instinctual)--dressed me down. "Some day, you will be happy to know," he said in clipped tones, "they will all be gone, when everyone like you has finished 'relocating' them." I was chastened; I had not proposed a euphemism, but rather actual relocation. I wanted them alive, somewhere else.

From that moment, I determined to embrace my snakes. They had been here before me, after all, and so they were like the ghosts of the long dead in that house, whom I also would never presume to throw out. Much as they might spook me.

I approach that which I fear. I stand as close to it as I can without causing fear in him, too, and I stare. Demystify, or de-snakify. Need I reveal I am offering up a construction here, a metaphor that is simultaneously a real thing? A creature who scares me as well as gives me a chance to break past the bounds of my own smallness, and proceed from here.

To the memory of my friend A.V.V., whose bravery,
and young beauty, were borne ever outward in her smile.
Too soon gone. Too soon.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


The list of things I am unfit for is a long one. Ballerina, freestyle skateboarder, auto mechanic, seamstress. And, in yoga, meditator. Get me in that room, sitting on the mat eyes closed, and I can do everything but “observe thoughts as they arise, but let them go.” No, they fall over me like a feather comforter, and I breathe them in and out until I am transported four hundred miles away, walking into the Diamond Grille in Akron. Always, walking into the forties in the form of a restaurant I’ve been in only a few times, yellow light on blonde wood. I wonder why I always come here, when I am supposed to be at yoga class. I get hung up on this place. Among other things.

Then, the voice of the instructor this morning, suddenly opening my eyes to the blue overhead through the skylight and a contrail of white vapor expanding slowly. “This is the best moment of your life.”

It was, and then it too bisected the view in disappearing cotton. I came here wearing a gray heaviness that I thought I might never again have to bear. I had forgotten what this felt like, the mood that descends and pulls me down, down. I am caught in the anchor rope, and there is only so much breath left in me. The next time I inhale, it will be water, and then I will fall all the way to the bottom.

I have been living lately in a green world, shot through with light, one with a three-hundred-sixty-degree view of joy. I was not sure where it came from—after a year of building my own new mental house, sawing and hammering and watching the walls go up, finally the roof going on—but I was not going to question it. What is this strange feeling? Why, it’s happiness! I had grown so used to feeling this lately, I had begun to believe it was the steady state.


Everything changes. Happiness, too.

I used to say, Panic attacks are something you would not wish on your worst enemy. (I have compassion even for criminals; they, too, suffer.) But this past week, it’s depression I have been making the reacquaintance of. It’s like meeting the dead. Alive again. And horrible.

It’s a hole in the bottom of your bucket. A minute pinhole you can’t find in order to patch; the water seeps slowly. I was going to write something, tomorrow. When tomorrow came, I decided I would write it tomorrow. I got into bed right after dinner, fell hard asleep, then woke at two, and and four, twisted up with the duvet. Woke tired. Aimless through the day. Hopeless through the night.

I tried to parse its meaning. It couldn’t have just come back for a visit, unbidden, because it missed me, from our long relationship of yore. It had to be here for a reason, sapping all desire.

The week before I had ridden long, and hard. I had felt the exhilaration of doing something I did not know I had it in me to do. The ecstasy of thinking , for all those miles, about the one thing that’s paramount in my mind right now, and had the magic of the road solve it—the answer to a problem I did not yet know I faced—out there just ahead of me in the Pennsylvania dark. I came home so tired I did not even know it until the next day. The day after that, I was even tireder. And then it became something else. A fatigue of the spirit. In the following week the sum total of my accomplishments was three loads of laundry.

I must remember that I have never stayed anything for long. Not panicked, not sad, not angry, not happy, not productive. Or unproductive. I wish I could say, for now, this was something in the air. But it seems to be in me. Maybe tomorrow I will finally get around to washing my bike, as I have been telling myself to do for six days. Maybe tomorrow it will go away, this feeling like chains that clank about my ankles as I try to walk. Tomorrow it could all turn out different. We could both be washed clean.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In Prison

The world subverted.

Everything that is known--the foundations of life, what we call "love," the myriad considerations that keep us together and in harmony (for the most part) so that we can function as a society--all of it is turned on its head in there. So that up is down. Love is hate. Understanding is torn top to bottom. "This hellhole," writes an inmate of Attica to me; "this shit storm they call justice and I call hell on earth." The notion of justice, even: all tied up and turned around until it is not possible to read what Webster's has to say about it and believe the dictionary tells the truth. What is true, inside the cellblock?

Your friends become your enemies, and the people who punish you are besotted with their power. Or perhaps it is their powerlessness after all. Who knows anymore.

When we lock up animals, for the crime of being voiceless, we call it a zoo. Depriving a creature of its freedom to follow its biological imperatives--to move, to fulfill basic needs for companionship, safety, food, space around the body, to know who is who--causes well-documented neuroses. Animals take to what are called stereotypies: pacing, cribbing, ceaseless licking, self-mortification. They slowly go out of their minds. They turn on one another in acts of aggression; unwarranted aggression, it is termed. And when the animals are humans called prisoners, these behavioral last resorts are then considered proof of their unfitness to be returned back to the outside. And so on the inside they stay, further ruined for the possibility of freedom.

Yet sometimes, prisoners are let go. Then they become frightened because it looks like the rules have changed once again--the subverted world is quickly turned right-side up once more, hence nothing that worked for them previously (the strange rules of exchange; the hard methods of self-protection; the awful plays of power that pass for the expression of love, as in the forcible taking of the weak, the new, the unguarded) will work out here. It is terrible, suddenly, this freedom. And so, another crime. At least they can go back to the familiar. Recidivism rates are currently around 67.5 percent. That is a number to think about. Think hard. It tells a strange tale, of inside and out.

The institutions are called "correctional." This in itself becomes part of what is subverted: the presumption that inside, things are taught, things are learned. That there is, in the end, hope.

There is not. Because we are not honest about what we are doing here. Is this not then, strangely enough, a crime we commit?

In his book Coercion and Its Fallout, Dr. Murray Sidman, a foremost behavior analyst, writes (in a chapter titled "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," an apt title for any exploration of our prison system),

Ordinary standards of justice are suspended in these citadels

of law enforcement, so even conformity to regulations does not

ensure the avoidance of punishment. The slightest suspicion of

any departure from the rules brings the authorities swooping down

on the whole inmate population. Because constant observation of

everyone is not feasible, accurate assignment of blame for

instigating disorder is impossible. Indisciminately and

capriciously, therefore, they administer the approved measures

of solitary confinement, lockup, ruthless questioning, revocation

of privileges, and surreptitious viciousness. The guards, their

uniforms, the very sound of their footsteps, and all aspects of

the prison environment become signals for unavoidable punishment.

Depression is common among prison inmates. Yet, because it keeps

them "well behaved," it is not considered a serious problem.

It is from (very unfortunate) animal experiments that we have learned precisely what happens when punishment--say, electric shock--is administered "indiscriminately and capriciously." Not knowing when it is to occur, and therefore not knowing how to avoid it, the rat ceases even to try. He dissociates from his fear, from his anxiety; those emotions were designed to assist in preparing for action, after all, and now no action will be of help. He gives up. "Learned helplessness." Or, in another word, depression.

The lie is given. "Correction"? What then is being taught? Perhaps it is merely a lesson in how terribly humans can act toward other humans.

From afar, they are imposing, and dismal. It is clear they are hiding something. They are hiding something big from our eyes. Something we do not wish to see. So that prisons are most of all hiding a truth about what is inside all of us.

Behind these locked gates, these stone and concrete and tempered steel walls, 2.3 million Americans now live. China, four times more populous than the United States, has but 1.6 million prisoners in its jails. (Another way to understand this--those big numbers are almost too big to picture, aren't they?--is to imagine the fact that this amounts to one in every one hundred adults, incarcerated.) And we are getting harsher and harsher, too, in imposing our will: from 1925 to 1975, our rates of incarceration were fairly steady. Then the numbers shot up, raced up, almost as if it were such a pleasure to us that we wished only to jail more and more and more. So that now the U.S. has one quarter of the world's imprisoned people, though we have only 5 percent of its population. One might almost say our best-producing cash crop is prisoners.

It is tempting to ask where this all might end. It is also necessary. Or else we might find more and more of us inside, and only a few beyond the gates, beckoning. If we are willing to keep what is hidden in plain sight a secret inside our hearts, they too will rot. Like the humans whose various pains we are all too happy to forget. It is necessary to look inside. So that we might see how it is that the world turns upside down, reversing all that we think we know about ourselves. It is necessary to look at the walls, the bars, the weapons that are made from objects once innocent, now fearsome in their new shape. Human ingenuity is the one thing that remains unchanged, inside.

Prison photos (c) Andrew Garn

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Conscience Takes a Holiday

What a strange locale, the ski slopes. As close to the place we call "nature" as it is possible to get--the elemental mountains, stripped of animal comforts, even to the thinness of the air. And as detached from nature as anyplace save the Mall of America. A place devoted to doing something as unnecessary as sliding down snowy hills on two boards, then being hoisted back aloft to the top to do it all again. This unproductive (but irresistible) activity is bracketed by journeys to and from gigantic parking lots, often in gigantic cars that can negotiate winter terrain as well as hold lots of expensive, single-purpose equipment manufactured and purchased solely for these few lavish days in the winter. Many of the skiers I know are very "green" people, so obviously they're averting their eyes when they head to the ski resorts.

Yes, me, too. "Blind spot," I think it's called. I have so many of these they'd make me breathless to recount.

Now that I live twenty minutes from a state-owned ski area that would not win any prizes for luxury--the lodges are overcrowded, the food dismal but still shockingly overpriced--I cannot justify not going skiing, at least a few times each season, primarily because for kids it's such huge fun. For grownups my age, it's largely a day spent praying to avoid either frostbite or hard landings. (But it's also huge fun for us when we allow ourselves to go a little too fast, or pause mid-slope and look out over the panoramic view--blue sky over gray bowl of far-off mountains--that can be had no other way than at the top of a chairlift.)

Many lessons can be learned at the slopes. Some can make you a little bit sick.

The chairs stop operating at 4:00, so everyone can get down from even the highest run before sun gets clipped by the ridge of dense mountains. It was only 3:30, but although I wanted to make another run, having successfully evaded both blue fingers and hairline fractures, my internal dog alarm was now ringing. That's the one that got installed the day I first got a dog; the one that buzzes insistently when I've been away from home for five hours.

Why five hours? I don't know. It feels like the whisper of love. It feels like my dog wanted me to come home, attend to her needs.

To the friend who was gesturing, "Down to the bottom, we'll go back up this lift again," I gestured, "No, can't, gotta leave." She slid over to me, perplexed. "Why?"

"Nelly is alone, and I need to get back. I've been gone five hours."

She looked at me like I'd given her something spoiled to eat. "We used to leave our dog alone for ten hours, and he was fine."

I have heard this one so many times I have lost the patience for smiling tightly and shrugging my shoulders. Now I say, "Can you go for ten hours without having to pee?"

Her response: "Well, you can crate the dog. Then they won't pee in the house."

Please permit me to jump up and down and tear out my hair for a minute, will you. There.

These small sentences contain so many large implications. Like The problem is not whether another animal is suffering because he's trapped and has a natural taboo against soiling his own nest, and so will wait in an agony until it's no longer possible; no, the problem is whether or not you have to clean up a puddle when you get home. And also: The fact that I have a dog is not going to stop me from doing things I want; a dog is a convenience, like a tennis racquet, that can be put in a closet when not in use.

The biggest, though, is: I assume my dog feels what I want him to feel, because it's more comforting for me that way. Ergo, he's fine. But that is simply because he lacks the means to make his owner realize that he's not fine. And what lack of common language doesn't accomplish, lack of empathy will. Or, wait: a lack of even the desire to have empathy.

This exchange up on the mountain instantly reminded me of all the similar, shocking conversations I've had with people who purported to love their dogs, and they rained down on me until I was wet with unhappiness. "Yeah, one time he got locked into the gallery, and we didn't realize until the next day he was there; 28 hours and he didn't even go to the bathroom! He was fine." "One time my father couldn't make it home and the dog was there all weekend. Only peed a little, by the door." And do you think he felt terrible things when he did?

I remember the time I offered to pick up a friend's dog up from the vet's where he had been caged--er, I mean "boarded"--for the weekend. Three young vet techs were hanging out in the room, looking at something together and laughing. Dogs watched from behind their bars.

They gave me the leash, and the lovely brown dog jumped out of the cage. We walked down the hall, and he kept looking nervously up at me. I opened the door, and he managed to get his tail clear of it by one inch before he lifted his leg to pee. And pee. And pee. I think it took seven minutes for him to void his bladder. Then he took three more steps, to the first patch of lawn he could reach, and crouched. That took a long time, too.

I think maybe those vet techs had been looking and laughing at that thing for quite some time. Like, days.

Oh, why do I know anything? Maybe people are right. Maybe I make this stuff up. Maybe I project. Maybe dogs' bladders are indeed made different from ours, by an evolutionary process that foresaw ownership by people who liked to ski full days (once it foresaw the invention of the chairlift).

It certainly would make my life a whole lot easier if Nelly would only be fine when I left her home for entire days so I could go do fun human things. But I have a piece of her inside me, so she comes along whenever I go. I can hear her when she begins to whimper, and then I can't help feeling bad for her. It's the damn inconvenient piece that makes it seem that a responsibility comes along with having a dog. Love has a weight, and it sits on your shoulders.