In a review a couple of months ago I had excitedly bragged at having found a back room to the prison library here at M.R. There was an entire 3-ring binder filled with obscure books, two of which (Evening by Susan Minot, and She Drove Without Stopping by a former teacher of mine, Jaimy Gordon) I had promised to read and tell you about. As often happens I ran out of time, had to take them back for renewing and, like a bouncer confiscating a fake I.D., the books had to be kept by the kid at the desk. Apparently the library is in the process of moving those books from the back room to the front stacks.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” the kid at the desk said. “It’s ‘been in the works’ for three years.”
Hence, no review of the two promised books. That is the perfect example of the way things go in prison. It is a big, sucking black hole here fragile hope dies for lack of light.
A bushy-haired young man hung himself last Wednesday in level 4—a fact no one will ever hear on the local news. Yet if a c.o. suffers a hangnail while firing their Taser at an inmate, the administration will bring out their spokesman to get the word out about the “violent nature of prisoners.” This propaganda has the hint of truth, like all propaganda, but misses the point entirely and is done simply in the name of job security. It’s like having cancer and focusing all your time and attention to hair care. The fundamental difference in power is what most of these guys have lived with their entire lives. Never wonder long from where the rage comes: it comes from this.
All I can do is keep reading and writing: This week, What the Dog Saw, 19 collected essays by the New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, a book also from the prison library. He’s a good writer and is consistently interested in unique people and ideas. For example, the first essay is called “The Pitchman,” about Ron Popeil, the founder of Ronco, who you might know from such inventions and infomercials as the Chop-O-Matic, the Showtime Rotisserie, and that paint a person can spray on his bald spot to make it disappear.
The second piece is about why there are so many different types of mustard, while fancy recipes of ketchup can never seem to catch on. What follows in “The Ketchup Conundrum” is an in-depth analysis of the elements of taste.
There are several essays about Enron, and all the lessons learned (has there been any?) from that financial disaster, which seems to repeat in a different guise every decade or so. There is an essay about the dog-whisperer, Cesar Milan, which is where the book gets its title. It is set up like a criminal investigation (a dog versus his owners) but then that idea just seems to vanish. I don’t know what happened there. The takeaway from “What the Dog Saw” is that people are morons when it comes to their pets. They spoil them too much, often preferring them over their children.
The essay I learned the most from was called “John Rock’s Error,” about the inventor of The Pill. He was a devout Catholic and wanted the blessing of The Church, so he added a week of hormones to the therapy so women could continue to menstruate. He thought this would cause the Church to consider that form of birth control “natural,” thereby allowing it.
Up until fifty or sixty years ago, women didn’t menstruate nearly as often as they do today—they were pregnant or nursing, and this modern-day increase in menstruation causes many more cases of cancer, having something to do with all the doubling of cells in the uterine wall. I found it all fascinating. The evidence seems pretty convincing that a woman’s chance of cancer rises dramatically the more periods she has—and many of these are caused by a mistake made to appease the Catholic Church. I blew my feminist partner, Kim, away with this knowledge, and the research to back it up. I felt capable, for once, of carrying on an intelligent conversation on a woman’s issue!
It’s easy to pick my favorite essay, though: “The Art of Failure, Why Some People Choke and Others Panic.” Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart” (269).
Gladwell illustrates “panic” by recounting a scuba-diving incident where a human-factors specialist at NASA was going on her open-water certification dive. Her secondary regulator malfunctioned. She panicked and grabbed for her diving buddy’s regulator, putting both of their lives at serious risk. It was a terrifying reaction, and completely understandable. The other example Gladwell uses is the plane crash and death of John Kennedy Jr., who panicked after losing the horizon during a night flight. Gladwell gets an accomplished pilot to take him flying in order to duplicate the conditions leading to the fatal spiral dive. Kennedy’s group probably never even knew they were about to die. In the dark, in a small plane, spiraling feels the same as level flight. When he lost the horizon on his way to Martha’s Vineyard, he began searching for it by turning and banking wildly.
The examples of “choking” are mostly sports-related, which, while not as deadly, are no less fascinating and certainly something almost everyone can relate to. Why does a professional tennis player (Jana Novotna vs. Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon) suddenly lose a match after having the whole thing all but won? Why does a second baseman (Chuck Knoblach of the Yankees) suddenly find it impossible to throw to first? Or, why does a golfer (Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters) choke in the home stretch begin missing 3 foot putts?
I love learning about the ins and outs of human behavior. Besides fiction, why people fail and succeed are my favorite things to read about. In the pages of the New Yorker, Gladwell often writes about the workings of the brain as well. I never fail to be entertained by why people do the things they do—though sometimes, I’m beginning to learn, the more you know, the less it matters. Some things will forever remain unexplainable.