Turned away, yet again

No call out, though the person in charge had confirmed in an email a week ago that one was set up. No call out, no class. You might think that I’d have learned by now to call to find out whether on any given scheduled day the gate clearance and call outs were in place. The last time I did that though — at a meeting on Memorial Day I’d gotten clearance for weeks in advance — I was told by the guard who took the call that no, I should not come because there would be no call out because they were too short staffed to have a guard in the school that night. Made sense, indeed that’s why I called to double check. But at our next meeting I learned that there HAD been a call out, and thus of course a school guard. And when that happens the men just sit in the room for the allotted two hours. Demoralizing to have read and prepared material, also to have to push back the discussion of that material, but not the worst thing for them.

The scheduled reading and discussion last night of chapter three of the Montaigne book How to Live, “Be Born,” would have been eerily timely in the wake of Charlottesville. Bakewell ends the chapter with a discussion of a formative salt tax riot in which Montaigne saw a man beaten to death and lynched. Something he — and the region he was later in charge of politically — of course never forgot.


How to live?: Pay attention

Small group but lively discussion about Bakewell’s second chapter, with everyone pointing out what should have been obvious to the reader in this context, but was not to this obtuse reader: that Bakewell contrasts the laudatory way that Montaigne pays attention with the inattention of the ordinary person without seeming to consider the other contrast: namely, with the constant, vigilant attention to what might normally pass without notice that prison demands, for example, to what every passerby is doing with his hands. It’s exhausting. To be sure the men get crucial information they’d otherwise dangerously lack, but the need for it reflects something intrinsically bad and abnormal about prison life. It put me in mind of the time early on in my career at the prison when on a bitterly cold night I ran from the gate I’d just been put through to the pick up van 50 yards away. One does not run in the prison yard, no matter how natural it might otherwise seem in punishing weather conditions. Of course as soon as the guard who yelled from the van said it it made perfect sense…

The men were also intrigued by the differences among paying attention, reflecting on what one had noticed, and writing down (or writing about?) what one had noticed. And yes, Montaigne’s essays inspire them to think about the everyday, and the fact that anybody can in theory at least do it. Pay attention, that is.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Last night we talked about Montaigne’s exhortation that we not worry about death, an interesting springboard into ideas and fears about death, existentialism, Buddhism, the self, and more, including of course thoughts about the afterlife. At some point I threw in a butchered version of the quote from Hamlet above (ending it with something like “than we can imagine.”) An avid reader in the group gently corrected me.

Anyone who has spent time on the faculty of a college in the last 50 years has almost certainly been a party to a fractious discussion and decision about the merits of distribution requirements (say, that all students have to take at least one (or two) art, science… etc., course). One paternalistic argument in favor of such requirements usually appeals to the speaker’s own experience of having taken something they would never otherwise have signed up for and discovering a real passion for the subject. Something like that happened in the book group last night.

New guard in the school decided that anyone who signed up and made it on to the call out sheet should be forced to attend. I told him emphatically that this was not the case (at best the call out sheet bears a passing resemblance to our actual groups, with several people who go to one group but not all, and several people who long ago were transferred or discharged). The call out is in short necessary but far from sufficient for attendance. He managed to force all of the men on the list and still in the prison to come, including a regular who was quite sick we’d all have much rather he’d not come, so by the end of the first half hour the number had swelled by 13. Thirteen men who, to a person, looked really pissed off to be coming in. Oh, and that is one of the arguments against distribution requirements — who wants people in your courses who are forced to be there?

I asked all of the men who’d been forced to come to give me their info so I can write to the person who does the call outs to insist that they be taken off the list in case this guard is now a regular, also because several of the regulars repeated that there are still people interested in joining the group who’ve they’ve heard been turned away because we are (supposedly) at the maximum.

We then ended up having a great discussion — death is sexy! — with three of the new people eagerly participating. On their way out of the room those three and a couple more men crossed their names off the removal list. I would never have tried to rope anyone into the group that way, but I’ll happily take these once reluctant additions.



“Wait, how is that not about ethics?”

July 3. Not a holiday, but close enough that there was lots of confusion — as usual — about my gate clearance, ride to the school, and whether there had been call outs. I got to the school late, as a result, even so, COs, but no men in the classroom. Eventually three men trickled in from three dorms, one because he saw me get out of the van and could show his CO a call out print out, even though there’d not actually been a vocal call out.

We were to start a new book, the first three chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s philosophical biography of Montaigne, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

A lively, interesting book, so far. I didn’t want to get too far into it since we were five or six men short and would want to cover the new material with the whole group, but two of the men really took Bakewell to task over her claim in the introduction that (of Montaigne’s Essays project):

Although it is not quite grammatical in English, it can be phrased in three simple words: “How to live?” This is not the same at the ethical question “How should one live?” Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did. He wanted to know how to live a good life — meaning a correct or honorable life, but also a fully human, satisfying, flourishing one.” (p.4)

starting with my titular question: What makes for an honorable, flourishing life? Wait, how is that not about ethics? Aristotle would famously agree, and so would many of his philosophical descendants. We shall see how the ought/is distinction pans out in the rest of the book.

Not all three men agreed, I should add, with the hold out eager to link morality and ethics to divine law. He asked passionately Really, why do you do this, I mean apart from what you might get out of it? In other words what’s the story of why something is the right thing to do (justification?) that doesn’t rely on a higher sort of ethical law or demand? He knows I am an atheist, and still cannot get his head around the idea of actions having moral worth, or agents having moral intentions, or even life having meaning or other value (honor, flourishing) if we believe in a godless universe. I have never been moved by the tension between godlessness and being committed to an ethical life — I just don’t feel a gap at all — but I can see the difficulty of positing value in a world of purely physical objects. He tried to give me an out by asking me if maybe I was spiritual (if not religious) :).

We will take up these questions again soon.

Last week

19437474_10154688550150866_6540423640056587117_nWhen I left our meeting at 8:40 p.m. last Monday June 26 the setting sun was illuminating the tops of some trees and the fronts of others with a surrealistic cross between glow and shimmer: incandescent. It was stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks breathtaking. By the time I got to my car and phone a few minutes later the illumination moment had passed, but the last minute of the sunset was pretty spectacular too.

I took some measure of comfort and pleasure knowing that the men walking back from the school across the yard must have seen it too. And I was reminded of the wonder that we are lucky enough to be the sort of creatures that appreciate beauty.  

*Adventures in prison bureaucracy, chapter…I’ve lost track

* Refers back to an entry I promised to say more about Monday night.

Getting in and out of the prison at all and the yard in particular is often a challenge and a hassle but has been streamlined lately. First, the lobby guard who somehow managed to have the metal detector go off when we passed through no matter how thoughtful our metal-less prep has retired. The volunteers from Hamilton’s hearts sank when we saw him behind the desk on our approach. Second, the second tier guards who made it a point to put me into the yard and in serious harm’s way before the van had arrived seem to have been reassigned. I’d long ago figured out that I could simply refuse to leave the building or the pre yard cage until the van was there, still, feels much better not to be urged to exit dangerously prematurely.

Over the last several years my meeting evenings have coincided with, on one night a week a pair of Mennonites, and on another a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both sects have interesting views about the relationship between religion and the state, and politics, and share a related view about the complete unimportance of all things worldly. But the Mennonites were as a rule taciturn with everyone they came in contact with at the prison, it seemed, whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses are (or were) jovial and chatty and liked to give me a hard time about politics and even the study of philosophy — all in fun. They’re in the proselytizing game after all. But they took that mission too far; they’ve recently been barred from the school/religion program for having contacted inmates directly by US mail, something we all well know from orientation is verboten. The good thing for me is that I no longer have to wait for them to arrive before heading in or out of the school via van. But I am sorry for the men they met with regularly who counted on those gatherings.

Speaking of being kept out, I learned recently that they (the system?) had lost my fingerprint records. So I had my fingerprints redone early this morning with a crew of new(ish) people at a different factility.  I found it pretty unnerving to be in prison — not my prison, that is — to my surprise. But the fear was offset in a conversation with another instructor waiting to get processed who in passing mentioned that she had learned last week from the boys that… Wait, the boys? We are instructed to refer to the men in our groups as “offenders” (at the moment; it used to be “inmates”) and not to use their first names, or, for that matter, the title “Mr.” Most of us either use their first names, or Mr.; I don’t think any of the six or seven other instructors I know well has ever stuck to the solo last name practice. I draw the line at nicknames, which seriously, in prison you’d mostly really rather not know (early example that moved me to the policy: “Maldito”). But “the boys” was a new one for me. I confess that I found it charming. Why “confess”? Because it certainly borders on the sentimental. And I do my best not to sentimentalize this work. Among other things it’s insulting to the men.

Hume was right

Topic tonight: final chapter on informal fallacies, in this case, under the heading of adequacy (vs. acceptability or relevance), concluding with the usual line up of causal fallacies (post hoc ergo propter hoc, confusing cause and effect, and common cause). Everyone had a good example from their own experience of at least one of the fallacies, only some of which would be printable here. To tee up the discussion we had also read some famous passages from Hume on causation (or better, on the problem of positing necessary connexions between alleged causes and effects) from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New man in the group who’d not gotten a copy of the text (and never will, at this point. I will instead send him photocopies of what’s left to cover via the librarian who may or may not actually get the material into his hands*), sat quietly for the first 40 minutes or so. We’d been talking about the nefarious exploitation of Humean reasoning by the tobacco industry’s spokesmen before Congress in the 60’s, and contrasted it more modest scientific reluctance to conclude that correlation is causation.  What a wallop when he did speak: “Hume was right…at least about the mind’s need to project a cause between A and B just based on A and B often coming together. And I can’t tell you how many ways the wrong projection of causes has messed with both the general public’s understanding of HIV, and among people at high risk for contracting HIV. The rampant misunderstanding about who is at risk and why has led people to reject good scientific authority about how to educate for prevention. We need to be so much more careful in the conclusions we draw and how we talk about what we do and don’t know.” Lucky stars! — he just finished a 10 day course on HIV peer education, with a focus on epidemiology.

He filled in some interesting (if depressing) detail about what groups have seen the greatest rise of infection from 2010-2015 (the most recent full data set), at the same time throwing into sharp relief my own low expectations for what these men as a rule might or do know. And it’s not as if that doesn’t happen at just about every single meeting: that’s how entrenched the assumptions are, at least in my ancient brain.

I am also never not taken aback by the loud speaker’s “Go back!” announcement at precisely 8:30, and reminded of the luxury I often exploit in my college classes by stealing a minute or two (okay, or five) over time to let whoever is talking finish making the point. In this case the men must do so literally on their way out the door. Parting question tonight: how do you square the charge of over simplified cause with the demands of Occam’s Razor?

Such a great question to start out with next week!

* Will have more to say about this in my next post.