Do prisons create prisoners?

Posted December 21, 2011 by dorothyfieldsfan
Categories: Uncategorized

In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell takes the stance, based on the Power of Context, that behavior is a function of social context.

There is a world of difference between being inclined toward violence and actually committing a violent act. A crime is relatively rare and aberrant event. For a crime to be committed, something extra, something additional has to happen to tip a troubled person toward violence, and what the Power of Context is saying is that those Tipping Points may be as simple and trivial as everyday signs of disorder like graffiti and fare-beating. The implications of this idea are enormous. The previous notion that disposition is everything – that the cause of violent behavior is always ‘sociopathic personality’ or ‘deficient superego’ or the inability to delay gratification or some evil in the genes – is, in the end, the most passive and reactive of ideas about crime. It says that once you catch a criminal you can try to help him get better – give him Prozac, put him in therapy, try to rehabilitate him – but there is very little you can do to prevent crime from happening in the first place. . . Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

If behavior is a function of social context, then prison – prisoners consorting exclusively with other prisoners – is the most noxious environment ever created; and may be the most destructive foil to the success of society and even humanity as a whole.

In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne says, “It’s funny. On the outside I was an honest man, a straight arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.”



Posted March 9, 2011 by dorothyfieldsfan
Categories: Uncategorized

I tend to make sense of the world by making analogies between large units and small units.  So, for example, if a country can be equated to one’s home, then that reinforces my belief that the United States should keep its borders sealed from the free flow of immigrants.  Even though I would want to help those less fortunate than me, opening my house – and by extension my country – to assist every person in need is not realistically feasible, and, actually, destructive to my own household.  And indeed, the destruction caused by our country’s altruistic immigration policies is easily evidenced.

So, when I overheard the question on NPR recently “Can a country be healthy without economic growth?” in my mind I compared the growth of a country’s economy to the growth of a person’s body. 

The presumption of that statement is that growth is always preferable to maintaining the status quo. 

We grow continuously from youth into adulthood until a certain point at which we stop.  A person who grows perpetually is decidedly unhealthy, suffering from an unregulated amount of growth hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. 

André the Giant measured 7’4” and 500 pounds.  His heart had to struggle to pump blood through his massive body, and the unnatural weight of his body caused him chronic, excruciating pain.  His strained body succumbed at the age of 46.  It suggests, to me, that constant growth, whether of body or economy, will be the death of us.

By extension, Americans as a nation are growing uncontrollably – laterally.  This nationwide epidemic of obesity – uncontrollable growth – is destroying us.  We would do well to maintain a certain status quo; that is, neither letting ourselves get too skinny (because that can be dangerous too) nor letting ourselves get too fat.

Inasmuch as we should curb our temptation to indulge and get too heavy, should we not also curb our instinct to grow our economy too much?  Because at a certain point, does not growth become destructive?

Probably a fantasy

Posted December 30, 2010 by dorothyfieldsfan
Categories: Uncategorized

I have a memory that could actually be a fantasy.  It’s been so many years that I’m not sure if it actually happened or if it is/was just wishful thinking.

It’s the early 80’s.  I am about middle school age – a pre-teen.  My mom and I live in a two-bedroom rental outside Waikiki.  It’s an old neighborhood – not a luxurious one by any means.  Demographically, it is a mix of elderly, long-time Asian residents (Japanese and Chinese) and recent Asian immigrants (Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Korean etc.). 

Likewise there was a mix of local-born Asians and immigrant Asians in my 6th grade class at Lunalilo Elementary.  I was the token haole, or white – even though I am only half white; so it is no stretch of the imagination that none of my best friends in 6th grade spoke English as a first language:  I was, I think, reaching out and identifying with the outcast.  They were good friends to me.

But this memory – one of only a handful that I still retain – took place at home.  I was piddling around in my room on my bed, probably lying on my stomach in bed writing in my diary, and my mom – who conscientiously and responsibly supported us by giving voice lessons in our living room and teaching aerobics at the gym – had a free moment for a change. 

She came into my bedroom.  This was unusual, because most of the time there was no reason for that.  And then she sat on my bed and talked with me.  And it was a wonderful, warm moment.

The other version of this memory – which one is true?  I honestly don’t know – is that she came into my room and stood by my bed and spoke to me, and I wished so much that she would have taken the time to sit down on my bed because it could have been such a wonderful, warm moment.

I am currently living with a man – my lover and my best friend.  Our relationship is fraught with baggage and complexity; suffice it to say that sometimes I share his bed, but yet I have my own bed in my own bedroom in his former office.  In my room there is an odd dynamic of privacy and yet nothing to hide.

There is a Lazyboy, two fluffy office chairs, and a papa-san chair in my room.  I have recently come into the habit of making my bed every day.  And, just today, having recalled this memory/fantasy in which I learned that warm moments can be surprisingly simple, I have cleared everything off all three chairs.


Posted December 12, 2010 by dorothyfieldsfan
Categories: Uncategorized

The following was on the front page of the Oregonian Saturday morning:  

“Each week, about 600 Oregonians exhaust jobless benefits.  In January, about 4,000 a week will lose coverage. . . In April more than 35,000 people will exhaust benefits in a single week. . . 741,419 Oregonians are on the supplemental nutritional assistance program.”  

With these numbers, it is no surprise that I have not been able to get a job.  And it seems to me that the desperation is going to increase exponentially very soon.  The entire west coast is in essentially the same situation.  The message that I am taking away from this is a resounding “Get out!” 

So I have started applying for teaching positions on the east coast, further south of you (Virginia, Maryland, DC, the Carolinas, etc.) because the unemployment rate there is about half what it is here. 

My BIG concern is that the school year doesn’t start for another nine months, and what am I going to do in the meantime?

I was bemoaning my situation to an unemployed friend here in Portland, lamenting that I just want my independence back.  She told me that these are different times, and that independence is just not a reasonable expectation anymore. 

2 years

Posted November 3, 2010 by dorothyfieldsfan
Categories: Uncategorized

In 2002, I had a baby boy.  In 2003, my husband and I separated.  In 2006, I started the ($30,000) teacher education program at the university at night while I taught during the day.  In 2008 I graduated, and took my son back from his grandparents.  That was around the time I became insomniac. 

It was a terrible time.  For more than two years, I did not fall asleep without assistance – the assistance being either Zolpidem or alcohol.  I would alternate so as not to become dependent on one or the other.  (To my credit I did not mix them, although the temptation was great.)  This was only way I could fall asleep: to have some external force knock me out and force me down.  Without assistance, I would lie in bed literally until dawn without ever surmounting that drowsy pre-sleep stage; which is to say, I was relaxed with my eyes closed, but fully conscious for the entire night.  I thought maybe I had some kind of physical disorder that inhibited my ability to transition into full sleep.

Well, it is worth considering that the quality of my life was beyond low.  I had a mouthy, defiant son; I was constantly putting out fires between my son’s grandparents, who despise one another; I was having to prepare separate meals for my son and me because I’m celiac and he’s not.  I was not making anywhere near enough money to pay basic expenses (and yet I made too much to qualify for any manner of assistance); and I was drinking too much, which wasn’t helping with expenses.

The worst factor of all, though, was probably my job in the public education system.  The first faculty meeting last year was shocking, as I recall.  Mine was a groundbreaking school.  We were going to be the first school in the state to do this program and initiate that reform:  AVID, SLC’s, School-wide Writing, Pyramid of Interventions, two-week grade checks for all students, monthly peer walkthrough, professional learning communities, IB program, PTP, AP courses, Internship opportunities, Cognitive Tutor, Read 180, Achieve 3000, Project Based Learning, approved comprehensive reform models, and many more projects.  Of course, we all want what’s best for the students, but the entire faculty groaned in unison at the thought of the workload that was awaiting us.  The principal cut us short and said, “Don’t complain.  You have a job.”  I felt blackmailed.

But I whittled through the year and tried my best every day to convince students to be functional in the middle of a desert in a classroom without air-conditioning.  The worst part of my job, though, by far, was showing up to work to face overwhelming student apathy everyday.

I turned in my resignation last February.  I finished the school year off in May, and spent June packing up every last sock and spatula and ear swab I owned.  On June 28 I flew to the Mainland with my 18 boxes and 2 suitcases containing my every earthly possession.  By the end of July, my insomnia was just a bad dream.  I haven’t taken a sleeping pill in at least 4 months.  I drink one-fourth as much as I used to.  And, even though I don’t have a job – maybe because I don’t have a job – I fall asleep seamlessly every night.

Agnosticism upended

Posted October 23, 2010 by dorothyfieldsfan
Categories: Uncategorized

1991.  That was the year I spent my days lingering about the English Department at the University of Hawaii – after I had decided to major in marine biology, but before I chose to major in French.  Outside Kuykendall Hall there was a large courtyard with round stone tables and benches; a kiosk with an awning sold snacks and coffee.  When the weather was dry the vague conversation of students coming and going served as relaxing white noise:  a serene backdrop for studying or daydreaming.

That’s where I met Randall Jay Ching.  (I don’t think he will mind if I use his real name.)  He was a good-looking Chinese guy, about 3 years older than me.  Tall and slender, with his signature worn jeans and leather jacket, he always held his motorcycle helmet in one hand:  he could secure the helmet onto his bike, he said, but that wouldn’t keep people from emptying soda cans into it.

Randy was a country boy, an only child who grew up on Rice Street in a quiet neighborhood on Kaua’i.   His first job was in a tofu factory.  (He hated tofu.)  I liked his half-goofy, half-philosophical outlook on life.  I liked how he held himself to a high standard of behavior even when nobody was watching.  He was a stickler about motorcycle safety, and if he didn’t have two helmets when he took me around, he would insist that I wear the helmet.  He respected other people’s property, never taking so much as a shortcut if it meant that he would tread on a space that was not his.  He valued respect of all things; and he treated me with great respect.  He had ambitions for his life, goals and plans, or so I thought.  I loved all these qualities about him, and I fell in love with him. 

But he would not date me.  No matter how many afternoons we spent studying behind Kuykendall Hall; no matter how many times we kissed or held hands; no matter how many times we went to Legend Restaurant for their dim-sum and melt-in-your-mouth look-fun, he would not concede to being my boyfriend, nor offer any explanation why.

He finished his course work that year, and returned to Kaua’i after he graduated.  We corresponded by mail; I still have a few of his letters.  He got a government job on Kaua’i, and, as is typical with the passing of time, we lost touch with one another.

I moved on with my life; got married in 1996; continued with my French studies; and moved into an apartment within walking distance of the University.  I would always pass near the apartment where he used to live and would think of him, wonder about him.

As it happened, one day, in about 1998, I stopped in at the 7-11 behind his very same former apartment, and bumped into him.  It was so pleasurable to see him again, looking the same as ever.  He had decided to quit Kaua’i for the big city life of Honolulu.  I had missed him, and I gave him my phone number and told him to give me a call, and let’s go have lunch or something sometime.  He gave me his phone number too.

A week passed, and I didn’t hear from him.  I called his number.  It was disconnected.  I tried again later.  Same thing.  I looked up his parents’ number in the phone book and called them.  The mother answered.  Or was it the father?  I honestly don’t remember anymore.  Hadn’t I heard?  Heard what?  Randy had committed suicide just 3 days earlier.  I called his best friend Erik.  Randy had shot himself in the head on the couch of his living room.  He had imposed this scene for his unfortunate roommate to walk into.

I don’t believe I ever really got over his death.  The timing of it – 3 days after I bumped into him – what did that mean?  What had he meant to communicate by leaving such messy brutality to be cleaned up by those he loved?  And as an only child, how could he possibly justify this cruel act to his parents?  He left no note; only plans for a new bike that he had wanted to purchase.  He was 32 years old.  No one had any explanations for his actions.  I have only painful suppositions.

I really want to see him again in the afterlife.  I want to hug him and tell him I miss him and ask him why he did what he did.  I might scold him, or, less judgmentally, just reflect with him over the course that our lives took.  Or maybe we could just visit Kuykendall Hall and let the sights and sounds and smells of it exhume long lost memories and feelings.   It doesn’t matter really – I would make any excuse to just spend time with him again. 

I do not normally think about where I will go after I die.  So it is surprising – a rare event indeed – that I would turn so reflexively, so involuntarily, toward religion to console my grief; because I am absolutely not a religious person.  But the emotion that I felt – that I still feel now sometimes more than 10 years later – makes me want to believe in God almost against my will.  How did the existence of God, so irreconcilable in my mind, become such a comfortable, easy safety net for me to fall into?  How did a notion that I once considered completely implausible become such a temptress to resolve the unanswerable questions about life and death?

But whenever I think of Randy, I desperately hope that there is an afterlife.

The biggest underreported story of the 20th century

Posted October 13, 2010 by dorothyfieldsfan
Categories: Uncategorized

“Between 1915 and 1918,” Jill Lepore wrote on September 6 in the New Yorker Magazine,

five hundred thousand blacks left the south; 1.3 million between 1920 and 1930.  They drove; they hitched rides; they saved till they could buy a train ticket.  They went to cities, especially Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.  They fled Jim Crow, laws put on the books after Reconstruction…  Before the Great Migration, ninety per cent of all blacks in the United States lived in the South; after it, forty-seven per cent lived someplace else.  Today, more African-Americans live in the city of Chicago than in the state of Mississippi.   

Isabel Wilkerson, realizing that the generation of Americans who lived under Jim Crow won’t be around much longer, set out to talk to them…  She interviewed more than twelve hundred people, from all over the country.  “I hung around playgrounds; I hung around the street, the bars… I went into hundreds of buildings and just knocked on doors…  I’d sit back and try to get it down as accurately as I could…” Her book [The Warmth of Other Suns] is the story of three lives, told, really, as an act of love. 

The questions of social scientists (What is the structure of poverty?) and of policymakers (How can this be fixed?) are not Wilkerson’s questions… This is narrative non-fiction, lyrical and tragic and fatalist.  The story exposes; the story moves; the story ends.  What Wilkerson urges, finally, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion.  Hush, and listen.

In my malnourished life – chronically, cyclically sapped of skill and energy, wisdom and esprit, and money – this is where my generosity lies; this is how I show my love.  I hush, and listen.  Like Peter Hessler (April 29), I have found that many Americans are great talkers, but they don’t like to listen.

At times, the lack of curiosity depressed me.  [But] in a small town, people asked very little of an outsider – really, all you had to do was listen…  Once when I visited my parents in Missouri, I took a shuttle bus from the airport, and the driver was South Carolinian with a huge white beard that tumbled across his chest like snowdrift…  He talked non-stop for 120 miles…