Humans are deeply social organisms; they need company almost as badly as they need food and water.
I confess I thought this was obvious enough that, though I knew the U.S. puts some people in solitary confinement, I figured it was at most a few hundred. It’s 80,000. Brandon Keim brings the story:
In the largest prison protest in California’s history, nearly 30,000 inmates have gone on hunger strike. Their main grievance: the state’s use of solitary confinement, in which prisoners are held for years or decades with almost no social contact and the barest of sensory stimuli.
The human brain is ill-adapted to such conditions, and activists and some psychologists equate it to torture. Solitary confinement isn’t merely uncomfortable, they say, but such an anathema to human needs that it often drives prisoners mad.
In isolation, people become anxious and angry, prone to hallucinations and wild mood swings, and unable to control their impulses. The problems are even worse in people predisposed to mental illness, and can wreak long-lasting changes in prisoners’ minds.
“What we’ve found is that a series of symptoms occur almost universally. They are so common that it’s something of a syndrome,” said psychiatrist Terry Kupers of the Wright Institute, a prominent critic of solitary confinement. “I’m afraid we’re talking about permanent damage.”
California holds some 4,500 inmates in solitary confinement, making it emblematic of the United States as a whole: More than 80,000 U.S. prisoners are housed this way, more than in any other democratic nation.
The effects are a horror no one decent society should condone, but we have more people in solitary than ever. Neuroscientists are trying to document the effects well enough to roll back this practice, as we have before. Keim tells the rest of the story at Wired.
I’ve been slowly reading Roy Bedichek’s splendid and horrifically overlooked Adventures With A TexasNaturalist — a 50-year-old book fresh as any new bloom, packed with smart talk about science slipped into fine-grained observations about swallows, frogs, or, in this case, chickens.
His family kept chickens when he was a boy growing up in Texas.
How, I asked myself, could the hen know that the eggs needed turning? More remarkable still, how could the pullet on her first setting know that the eggs must be turned and how often they should be turned? I didn’t know then; I don’t know now. But my wonder was excited.
Too often we forget that such wonder is not just enough reason to inquire; it’s the best reason.
But I interrupt.
Wonders never cease, but the capacity of the average person for wondering declines.… The sense of wonder in certain individuals becomes, on the other hand, more and more sensitive and excitable, as their eyes continue to dwell upon the works of nature, and they persist throughout life in asking questions which some people choose to term childish. Outstanding among such wonderers and questioners is William Blake. His “Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright” is a series of questions which any intelligent child might ask and which, like intelligent children’s questions, have a deceptive superficiality. These queries are as valid today as the were in Blake’s time which antedated “the wonderful century” of science. Science explains little, or comparatively little. It concerns itself merely with a few steps in a process, backward or forward or both, in no case joining up more than a few links in the infinite chain of causation.
Image: License Some rights reserved by petercooperuk
A couple days ago my wee small town lost one of its most colorful, interesting, and widely inquisitive and experienced citizens, John Wires, who was 91. My good friend and fellow writer Bryan Pfeiffer, who soaked up John’s company and wisdoms far more thoroughly than I did, has a wonderful remembrance:
John Wires spent a lifetime at the fertile intersection of mind and nature. A reader, writer, philosopher, and field naturalist, John never gave up trying to understand himself, his place in the world, and how to make the world a better place. Many of us will now write and recite fitting tributes to John, to a life well-lived, perhaps even to the mistakes he made and accepted over the course of that varied and bumpy life – mistakes that occupied John’s verdant mind until the end. But here, instead, I’ll write of John’s legacy and some of the wisdom he leaves me and those who never knew him.
The first is a lesson in slowing down. Lunch with John was a three-hour affair – an hour walking, an hour eating, and another hour walking. It wasn’t only that walking with a 91-year-old man is intrinsically an exercise in slowing down. Walking with John forced me out of my rush and into a slower pace – a challenge of body and mind. Persisting in my brain is the nagging list of what’s next – my unfinished book, the goddam inbox, my blog, the nature yet undiscovered. On a walk with John, however, we would dwell with a lonely aster still flowering near cold pavement in November or discuss Hannah Arendt’s writings on the Holocaust or waste time talking about sports. We often discussed women. Being with John was about being present with John – a practice we all might expand for ourselves now that John is gone.John and Brett Engstrom at breakfast.
Another of John’s lessons is the beauty and force of thought. For John it came from his own family, from a family of friends, and from a family of great minds. Particularly late in his life, John thought a lot about his parents and siblings and how they shaped him as a person. He thought about his marriage to Ruth and about their children. Some of the painful moments he shared during our walks always lead to discussion and introspection. Into that cauldron of thought always came books. John read everything, and if you mentioned one he hadn’t, John would often say, “No, I haven’t read it, but I’d like to.”
John always seemed to be searching for some way to weave together his parents and childhood, his post-traumatic stress from World War II, his mistakes, the philosophers he read, and a life close to nature into some sort of unified field theory for his place in the world. He never discovered that theory. But it kept his mind busy and lively. One one walk some years ago, with John lecturing me about Rudolf Steiner he really liked Steiner, I stopped us cold on the trail and said, “John, I don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about.” He laughed and thanked me for not humoring him about Steiner.
Which brings me to three more lessons: humor, honesty, and humility. A few weeks ago, I drove John walking would have taken the entire day to an appointment with a new doctor. John asked me to join him during the exam to take notes. They discussed John’s medical history, which included nothing serious except for the shrapnel he took in the war, as John put it, “while fighting for you.” Then the doctor asked, “So, any other medical problems?”
“Yeah –– doctors,” John replied.
The three of us lost it. And what you must know is that in uttering this line John’s timing was perfect. After saying, “Yeah,” his pause was effortless and of exactly the right duration for maximum comedic impact. Johnny Carson couldn’t have nailed it any better.
Then I chimed in with a question: “So how long have you had all the nasal congestion? Do you think it might be an allergy?”
John shot me a look and replied, “He’s the doctor. Let him ask the questions.”
Without missing a beat, the doctor said: “So how long have you had all the nasal congestion? Do you think it might be an allergy?”
John Wires 1922-2013 | Bryan Pfeiffer
There’s much more at Bryan’s fine, moving post. To his I added only this comment of my own:
Can you pick apart the magic in a great piece of writing? No — but you can learn a lot trying. Watch Joan Didion, back in 1998 in The New Yorker, do so with one of Hemingway’s most mysteriously gorgeous passages:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
So goes the famous first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” which I was moved to reread by the recent announcement that what was said to be Hemingway’s last novel would be published posthumously next year. That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself. Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one. Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.” There are four commas. The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and,” creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of “the” before the word “leaves” in the fourth sentence (“and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling”) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season. The power of the paragraph…derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information. In the late summer of what year? What river, what mountains, what troops?
Discussions of what nonfiction writers can learn from fiction often focus on close reporting, vivid scene description, the use of dialogue, or a strong emphasis on plot. These are all important. But the best fiction also generates meaning, and much of its power to entrance, not just through those more visible devices, but through the sort of veil work that Didion writes of here — the generation of meaning through mystery, presence through absence, creation through concealment.
Link: Life and Letters: Last Words
The article is paywalled but well worth it. It includes a wonderful assessment — a reminder still valuable — of how radically Hemingway affected writing, in ways we still feel today. A teaser:
The didactic momentum of the biography was such that we sometimes forgot that this was a writer who had in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think. The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.
Modernism embodified, in other words, but in service to a ferocious engagement with the few parts of the world that could be trusted: the natural world; physical engagements with the natural world, especially fishing; a small handful of people and experiences with integrity. Hemingway’s engagement with and representation of post-Great-War modern experience was much different than that of Virginia Woolf. An astonishing amount of writing since then bears the mark of one or the other — or, very often, both.
The wonderful actor and writer Stephen Fry attempted suicide last year. Yesterday — by chance the same day a story of mine about suicide came out in the Times — he wrote a beautiful post about that attempt. The post gets at several of the many strange and contradictory mysteries of suicide, and dwelt with a bit of extra attention to the conundrum of wanting, at once, to not be alone, but to be left alone. NB the saving power of work for this fine man:
[M]edicine, much as some don’t like to hear it, can help. I am on a regime of four a day. One is an SNRI, the other a mood-stabilizer. I haven’t considered suicide in anything other than a puzzled intellectual way since this pharmaceutical regime “kicked in”.
But I can still be sad. Perhaps you might go to my tumblr page and see what Bertrand Russell wrote about his abiding passions (it’s the last section of the page). I can be sad for the same reason he was, though I do so much less about it than that great man did. But I can be sad for personal reasons because I am often forlorn, unhappy and lonely. These are qualities all humans suffer from and do not qualify (except in their worst extremes) as mental illnesses.
Lonely? I get invitation cards through the post almost every day. I shall be in the Royal Box at Wimbledon and I have serious and generous offers from friends asking me to join them in the South of France, Italy, Sicily, South Africa, British Columbia and America this summer. I have two months to start a book before I go off to Broadway for a run of Twelfth Night there.
I can read back that last sentence and see that, bipolar or not, if I’m under treatment and not actually depressed, what the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.
In the end loneliness is the most terrible and contradictory of my problems. I hate having only myself to come home to. If I have a book to write, it’s fine. I’m up so early in the morning that even I pop out for an early supper I am happy to go straight to bed, eager to be up and writing at dawn the next day. But otherwise…
Read the rest at Only The Lonely « The New Adventures of Stephen Fry.
On average, about 700 Americans kill themselves each week — but in the fine-weather weeks of May and June, the toll rises closer to 800, sometimes higher. Every year, suicide peaks with the tulips and lilacs — increasing roughly 15 percent over the annual average to create one of psychiatry’s most consistent epidemiological patterns. It may seem perverse that the period of spring and early summer, as the psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison puts it in her splendid book “Night Falls Fast,” should contain “a capacity for self-murder that winter less often has.” Yet it does.
My article in today’s New York Times looks at the search for answers to this mystery. Read it at Clues in the Cycle of Suicide.
Image: David Dobbs. OK to share with attribution to David Dobbs at htttp:daviddobbs.net
Research offers so many diversions from the main thread one is following. Yesterday it was Blériot flying the Channel. This morning produced this distracting oddity, from the Wikipedia entry for Northampton, MA (link below):
In 1805 a crowd of 15,000 gathered in Northampton to watch the executions of two Irishmen convicted of murder: Dominic Daley, 34, and James Halligan, 27. The crowd, composed largely of New England Protestants of English ancestry, lit bonfires and expressed virulently anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments. The trial evidence against Daley and Halligan was sparse, circumstantial, contrived, and perjurious. The men were hanged on June 5, 1806, on Pancake Plain. Their bodies were denied a burial; they were destroyed in the local slaughterhouse. This trial “later came to be seen as epitomizing the anti-Irish sentiment that was widespread in New England in the early 19th century.” Daley and Halligan were exonerated of all crimes by governor Michael Dukakis in 1984. Today a simple stone landmark stands marking the site of Daley and Halligan’s executions.
Not long after, the Transcendentalists took the place over. Go figure.
via Northampton, Massachusetts – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Planes, boats, waves, an opportunistic photographer — what’s not to like? I ran into this lovely photo while researching early monoplanes: Louis Blériot crossing the English Channel 1909 in his Blériot XI, one of the best early single-wings. A few years later, the Swiss aviator Oskar Bider flew one over the Alps and the Pyrenees; the photo below shows him taking off for the crossing.
Blériot, unusually for a bold pilot, died of natural causes — a heart attack at 54, in Paris. According to Wikipedia, Bider paid the more traditional price:
On July 7, 1919, Bider, decided to celebrate his departure from duty in the Swiss Air Force on July 2. While flying a Nieuport 21 fighter—possibly drunk—he attempted to demonstrate his flight knowledge and crashed fatally.
The good folk at Nautilus, the luscious new(ish) online science magazine, asked me to write something for their issue on uncertainty. The vague mystification over the call for an autopsy of James Gandolfini, may he RIP, gave me my cue:
When Italian authorities confirmed Wednesday that James Gandolfini had just died in Rome of an apparent heart attack, many of the US reports fronted the fact that Gandolfini’s body would be autopsied, “as required by Italian law.” They fronted this news for understandable reasons—an autopsy on someone who died in medical care seemed unusual. In the United States, we usually don’t autopsy people unless the cause of death is mysterious or foul play is suspected. In fact, we autopsy less than 5 percent of all deaths.
So why would you want to do an autopsy on someone when the cause of death seemed pretty clear? Heart attacks are obvious, right?
You would do so because while death and taxes may be the only sure things in life, the actual why and how of any given is often uncertain, even when doctors think otherwise. The sad fact is that despite medicine’s many modern wonders—the tests, the drugs, the scans that show fibers the size of a hair—the cause of death that American doctors provide for death certificates are dead wrong about a fifth of the time.
How do we know they’re wrong? Because of so-called autopsy studies. In an autopsy study, researchers perform or collect data from post-mortem dissections of large numbers of dead people; determine definitively why they died; and then compare those findings to the causes of death listed on those people’s medical or death records. These studies reliably find something rather shocking: about 15 to 30 percent of the time, the diagnoses at time of death are wrong—and 5 to 10 percent of the time, that diagnostic error probably helped kill the patient.
This is why Italy required Gandolfini’s autopsy: So the doctors and family would know with certainty why and how he died. As it happens, heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms—clots in a lung—present very similarly: Both cause chest pain, shortness of breath, panic, and can kill you within an hour. Doctors thus often think someone died of a heart attack when they actually died of a pulmonary embolism—so often, in fact, that most pulmonary embolisms are not diagnosed unless an autopsy is done. (We know this, of course, only because autopsy studies showed us it was so.)
Get the rest at Why Autopsy Gandolfini? Death Is Certain; Its Cause Is Not – Facts So Romantic – Nautilus. Includes my father cursing.
For more on how the death of the autopsy is deadly, see my Buried Answers, from the New York Times Magazine.
The good folks at Matter and Medium asked me how I got started writing and how I write. My answer, which they first ran at Medium (and an enormous photo), is reproduced below. See the Medium feed for other writer interviews, such as that with Alexis Madrigal (and his cat).
Was there a specific moment that made you follow the path you’re on? An inspiration? A revelation?
First semester at college, when I really started to read. In particular, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway got me entrenched, to take up your metaphor, on my slippery, often sloppily walked path toward being a writer.
Many others energized and sometimes rerouted the way: Shakespeare, with what someone (Hilary Mantel? Damn me for not writing it down) recently termed his “roughing up” of the language; Updike and Nabokov, with their fluid elegance and exacting precision; and later, waving encouragingly from the Path of Nonfiction, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm, who are two powerful, abiding influences and inspirations (there’s no one I re-read more than Malcolm); and David Quammen, whose Song of the Dodo confirmed that science is as rich a subject as any for serious writing.
Do you have a specific routine or approach you take?
Once I reach the writing stage of a longer article or a book, such as theone I’m writing now, I follow a fairly regular daily routine. I work 9 to 5, at least. If I’m smart, I turn off the internet as soon as I walk into my office and leave it off until at least lunch; afternoon I’ll either fill in reading or research or work on any shorter pieces I’m doing. Plus, you know, tweak the Twitter.
I like to map a piece out pretty thoroughly before I start. I’m with John McPhee: the right structure makes everything else easier. And once I start writing, I try to follow Hemingway’s dictum to end each day’s writing in the middle of a passage or even a sentence, someplace where I know what is going to happen next, so that when I sit down next day I know exactly what I’m going to write.
This exquisite wisdom can be surprisingly hard to follow, Why stop when it’s going well and I’m having so much fun? But assuming I’ve worked well for a while and hit or passed my day’s word target, that’s actually a great time to stop, because I’ll enter the room next day aching to hit it and will know exactly how. Even Twitter can’t compete with that.
But that steady desk time is just one part of the work — absolutely necessary; not entirely sufficient. Over the years I’ve come to rely too on sudden insights or ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, usually when I’m technically not working: when I’m walking or riding a bike or skiing or paddling or reading.
These sudden connections with the material — unexpected quickies — can take two forms. One is the much-needed burst of language that was earlier sought in vain but now appears unbidden: the opening sentence, or the last, or a short phrase that suddenly makes a transition work. Carry a notebook.
At other times, though, some non-writing diversion will allow entry of a solution to some structural or tonal problem — some adjustment so simple but fundamental that it solves many problems all at once. It might be some formal adjustment — a different approach to voice, or language, or substructure. It might be as simple as moving a section to a different part of the work.
These often come while I’m reading or (more likely) re-reading something rich, laden, and intense — something like Janet Malcolm’sThe Silent Womanthe third time through, or Gatbsy a fifth, or John le Carré. I re-read such works for the re-experienced pleasure, but also because it’s only the second or third or fifth time through that I’ll see how the writer not only structures the tale but strings its less apparent lines of force and tension.
So in Smiley’s Peoplefor instance, I find the story’s magic not just in the mixed victory that le Carré’s rotund spymaster George Smiley experiences when he finally discovers the weakness of Karla, his Russian arch-rival and nemesis; nor in the delicious fact that Smiley finds this weakness by reading (yet again!) every last bit of original-source material on the man; nor in my recognition that the book’s structure and solution hinges on how an aging Russian refugee in Paris named Ostrakova, narrowly surviving an attempt on her life ordered by Karla, enters from the bottom, gun in hand, the same hellish labyrinth of ambiguous evidence and mystery and danger that Smiley is negotiating from the top.
It’s not just those things that make the book hum and throb, though they’re gifts enough. It’s that with those things in mind and the opacity of this world accepted, my mind more at ease and less confused on this repeat read, I suddenly see how le Carré uses not just structure and plot but modulations in language and diction and narrative distance and sentence structure to multiply exponentially the tension about whether and how the two paths — Smiley’s ponderous, cerebral, opaque, and controlled, Ostrokov’s earthy, urgent, fleshy, and furious — will converge in time to save them both.
It’s the nature of such things that you’ll miss them — I will, anyway — if I’m trying too hard to see them. I must perceive them in not the center of my vision but its periphery, where subtle motion and faint light most easily register.
And so I see it, in this case, while reading le Carré and drinking whiskey in the garden. I’m relaxed but in suspense. ’m reading the part where Smiley is climbing the stairs to Ostrakova’s apartment to rescue her, and she, listening to his footsteps, is watching the door with a pistol in her hand ready to shoot him — damned likely to, in fact, for she feels certain Smiley’s footsteps are her killer’s. I’m not too tense, for I’ve read this before and pretty much remember how it turns out. But I don’t quite recall how they avoid this looming disaster, or rather, how Le Carre works this.
Thus riveted, I attend now less to what happens? than to how does he work this?, and I see what I missed the first time. I see that Le Carre first signals Smiley’s and Ostrakova’s mutual rescue not with action or revelation, but by reconciling the two languages, and thus the two paths, along which these two have thought, spoken, and operated up to this moment.
For 200 pages the stylistic differences with which Le Carre has rendered their stories have created a worrying and increasingly dangerous distance between Smiley’s, layered, elaborate, latinate world of memory and mystification and detection, codes and ephemera, and the harder hewn, starker world Ostrakova plods through, related in more stark, Anglo-Saxon, even sexual language: a world of burning cords, screeching tires, aching legs, and old revolvers.
These worlds and vocabularies have been heading for a collision for a while. Lately they’re accelerating toward it as the two narratives alternate more frequently. Now, with Smiley climbing the stairs, they will join in either safety or disaster. Yet they join not in the moment in the key dramatic moment, in which Ostrakova finally lowers her pistol and lets Smiley in. They join two pages earlier, when we peer with Ostrakova through the peephole and see not the Smiley who operates in a multisyllabic world of allusion and deception, but the Smiley who appears as “a small gentleman in spectacles, who in the fish-eye was as fat as the Michelin tyre man.”
Even before Ostrakova knows it herself, the language in which she sees Smiley here, his successful presentation as a man she can understand, tells us that she will trust him. And with that realization my head jerks up and I simply cannot find my pen and notebook fast enough — for in this meeting of not just two paths but two lines of structure, language, and style, I see instantly how to solve a problem in my own book that has tormented me for months.
Which is why I love this job. In what other realm can you do some of your best work sitting in your garden reading a thriller and sipping Bulleitt?
A short version of this interview first appeared in the email newsletter from digital longform publisher MATTER. Sign up for an account today to receive a weekly dose of great stories, enthralling links and insightful tips.