To make here might have been: There’s new information from somebody (me) alleging Judge Kavanaugh knowingly jeopardized national security as a federal judge. Maybe we need to have a hearing into that, before the nomination vote. So let’s? There’s probably some kind of emergency rule for something like that. I just wouldn’t know what it is, how to say it, or who to tell.
I know it’s silly because I didn’t earn an Oscar; I didn’t earn anything but my weekend. But I have to say anyway…
Thanks to everyone who helped make this accidental renewal of my old research possible—especially Mark Harris at Wired, Russ Kick at AltGov2 (formerly The Memory Hole), my love R for everything from painting boxes to baths, dear Arjen who put my dissertation on his own server (among other crucial assists), Diani Barreto for editing help (kickstarting some less bad early drafts without which all would have been abandoned), and Moem at Hack42 who gave me a place to get away and work/rest in a different setting. And my other dear friends at Hack42 who didn’t draw on my face when I fell asleep on the couch. And Gregg who saved the tapes. And Nadia who mailed them. And everyone who asked not to be named.
All idiocies (other than the continuing existence of polygraphs) remain mine… And there have been many. I’m sorry that the stress of some related issue areas gets to me sometimes.
And if you don’t have time to read any of this, don’t despair! A recent xkcd also has a nice summary (row 3, column 2).
Open Letter to Senators on Kavanaugh and Polygraphs
Re: After Kavanaugh, Address Polygraphs
A lot of people are asking you to vote one way or another on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. It’s an important issue, and one I hope you decide well.
But I’m writing to you about something different, related, and equally important: a larger issue the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings raise that is overlooked. Whichever way you vote, polygraphs will have affected your decision. That’s wrong, because this is an issue of great national importance, and polygraphs are junk science.
It’s also sadly unavoidable now for partisan reasons that this particular fraud will influence an issue of great national importance. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination in part because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because polygraphs are unreliable. Junk science should not affect national politics, but someone in Congress decided to use a polygraph to assess the accuser’s credibility regarding allegations of sexual assault. That was wrong and should never happen again.
Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to instead of balancing its abuse of power. That’s what Kavanaugh apparently did as a federal appeals court judge writing the opinion in my open records request case Sack v. DOD (2016). That case was a final defeat in my long graduate school quest to obtain records on bias in polygraphy.
When I say polygraphs are junk, I know what I’m talking about. The National Science Foundation supported my doctoral dissertation research on bias in polygraphy. That research somewhat expectedly found evidence of bias, and unexpectedly also found evidence that polygraph programs backfire. Instead of causing police departments that use them for recruit selection to hire more honest officers, they seem to make agencies hire more officers who are later better able to lie to get out of trouble when people complain that they have committed violence. This suggests that instead of exporting polygraphs as anti-corruption tools, the government should stop using them.
Evidence already shows polygraph programs are vulnerable to bias in some cases and contexts, and generate waste, fraud, and abuse. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) could audit federal polygraph programs specifically for systematic bias—and efficacy. By either gaining data access that GAO theoretically cannot be denied, or conducting field experiments to obtain otherwise inaccessible data, or both, GAO could definitively answer questions that non-transparency has prevented other researchers from answering. This type of GAO audit could provide the rationale for immediately ending all government polygraph programs.
Your political trajectory will be forever affected by how you vote on the Kavanaugh nomination. And either way, polygraphs will have mattered. Please take steps to keep this pseudoscience from affecting national politics again in the future. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Then take evidence-based action on the basis of the audit results, which seem likely to be bad news for polygraph programs based on a wealth of already available evidence.
Please consider putting the truth first. Pseudoscience should never influence the fate of the nation. We need institutional solutions to the corruption problems that are keeping the real evidence from setting the terms of the discussions that count.
Thanks and best regards,
Dr. Vera Wilde, Ph.D.
P.S. – References and more information are available on my website at www.verawil.de, which also has my contact information should you wish to discuss.
The way polygraphs are currently being used in politics, everyone loses.
Polygraphs are premised on the intuitive notion that truth matters so much, our own bodies and blood show it when we lie. Yet, lie detection is a myth. There is no unique lie response to detect, and so there is no lie detector. But truth matters. That’s why polygraphs should never again affect issues of national importance such as who works at the National Labs, who is suspected of forbidden dissent, who is sent to Abu Ghraib or sentenced to death in America, whose criminal complaint is investigated, how—or who is (or is not) granted a lifetime appointment on the US Supreme Court.
Whether the Senate confirms or derails Judge Brett Kavanaugh any day now, the junk science of polygraphs will have influenced the outcome of an important process in which it had no appropriate place. Democrats could succeed in blocking the nomination because they consider Kavanaugh’s first sexual misconduct accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, to be credible. That would be unfortunate in a sense, because Dr. Ford’s credibility was bolstered by passing a polygraph. But my National Science Foundation-supported doctoral dissertation research showed that polygraph chart interpretation is vulnerable to confirmation bias. That is, if people already have information about a subject’s background, that information can create an impression of what the truth is—and that, in turn, can influence how the polygraph chart is read.
(As a sidenote: This bias can be neutralized, my research shows. But no one seems to have applied the solution that I demonstrated. I don’t care, because the scientific consensus is that polygraphs are insufficiently evidence-based for any important uses in the first place. So it would be silly to invest resources improving rather than ditching them. But the way the overwhelming majority of polygraphs are conducted introduces possible confirmation bias that could be but has not been systematically addressed.)
Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to, instead of balancing, its abusive power. Judge Kavanaugh was the federal appeals court judge who denied me access as a researcher to polygraph program records that would have enabled further analysis for bias among other things.
The Defense Department told the court polygraphs were so important for law enforcement that their records must be kept secret, and Kavanaugh ruled as though he believed them. The fact that he openly believes polygraphs to be unreliable as a matter of judicial consensus when the stakes are personal suggests that he did not, when he ruled on my case, really believe the argument that DOD made.
That would be unsurprising, since DOD’s argument did not make sense. Kavanaugh’s subsequent ruling was also illogical, as analyzed here. The only explanation for the logical inconsistencies in both would seem to be abuse of power.
Some might say that it would be poetically just if polygraphs helped derail Kavanaugh’s nomination after he unjustly defended polygraph program secrecy. And yet, it would be so much more just if junk science did not affect important outcomes. If polygraphs were retired along with the misconception that real victims report sexual assault immediately to police, when they very often don’t. Never again to tip the scales of justice away from due process. Never again to cloud issues of great national political significance with pseudoscience.
Bias in polygraphy, my research suggests, is a bad apples problem affecting relatively few outcomes but undermining fairness in sometimes egregious ways including life-and-death contexts. At the same time, its propensity to increase the very corruption it’s meant to decrease is a bad barrel problem undermining overall efficacy in contexts that can be just as practically significant. Government non-transparency hinders progress on both issues.
These bias and corruption problems are related but distinct. The bias issue is one of bad appleles. A minority of prejudiced polygraphers probably have huge effects on a minority of police departments, companies, and federal agencies that use their services, by disproportionately flunking certain groups, e.g., blacks, homosexuals, rape victims, whistleblowers—an authoritarians’ banquet of outsiders, anecdotally targeted by polygraphers as recorded by a broad range of documents and sources compiled, shared, and enriched with others’ work in my 2012 collaboration with Marisa Taylor at McClatchy, 2014 Ph.D. dissertation research, and 2018 collaboration with Mark Harris at Wired.
“Bad apples” is more than an expression. Operation Bad Apple was a polygrapher fraud-busting operation that veteran CIA polygrapher John F. Sullivan spoke about in a 2008 interview after writing about it in his book Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner. John called abusive polygraphers who were manufacturing fraudulent confessions or charts, bad apples. The evidence on bias in polygraphy suggests he was probably right to think of them that way.
By contrast, the corruption issue is about “bad barrels”—not egregious cases of bias, fraud, or abuse, but a deleterious overall effect. In the aggregate, polygraph programs seem to hurt police departments that intend to use them in order to decrease corruption, by unexpectedly increasing corruption instead—much like the infamous D.A.R.E. program increased the very juvenile drug use it was expected to decrease. (As a sidenote: No one knew about that backfiring effect until field experimental data revealed it. This type of efficacy data generation remains surprisingly rare in public policy. This is known as the evidence-policy gap. It’s counter-intuitive if you’re not familiar with the literature in this area, but it’s not unusual.)
Secrecy provides cover for both bias and corruption. Programs that seem to be unaccountable under equal opportunity law on a case by case basis, like federal polygraph programs, will be more vulnerable to biased “bad apples” because non-transparency keeps possible aggregate disparities from being publicly analyzed. And anti-corruption programs that backfire, increasing the corruption they seek to decrease, will similarly be better able to protect their own interests in persisting, when their efficacy is not being publicly or independently evaluated.
Non-transparency, as I recently noted, limits research on polygraph bias and efficacy. But federal agencies are not the only possible source of relevant data. Experimental data can be collected in any population, although its generalizability is then an open question. Survey data can be collected from relevant populations, such as state-licensed polygraphers. And national-level survey data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics can be analyzed using statistical tools as if it were experimental data, allowing causal inferences to be drawn about the effects of polygraph programs on police departments. Triangulating all these sources of data sheds novel light on questions of bias and corruption in polygraphy.
Survey and experimental data on bias
Before formulating and beginning to test hypotheses with experiments using the scientific method, I conducted interviews—recently released and curated in an essay on AltGov2—that documented bias, fraud, and abuse in polygraphy. My subsequent hypotheses centered mainly around whether such bias was systematic, and how it worked under real-life conditions such as polygraphers viewing background investigations that could introduce confirmation as well as racial bias. Observational data from the federal polygraph institute itself had in 1990 shown significant racial bias against innocent blacks. But follow-up experimental data—vulnerable to design criticisms such as expectancy effects and artificiality—showed no such bias. Overall, the qualitative and quantitative evidence on racial bias in polygraphy remained suggestive enough to warrant triangulating, or combining it with more forms of data from more sources, to see what they would all suggest when considered together.
A series of four Internet survey experiments showed racial bias (bias against blacks and Hispanics) does not systematically affect polygraph chart interpretation. Confirmation bias (bias against people with negative background investigations) does. And it’s possible to “hack,” or neutralize, that confirmation bias. The hack works by tricking people interpreting polygraph charts into thinking they’re running polygraphs in “suspicious mode,” so they delegate their confirmation bias to the computer.
These Internet survey experiments employed naive interpreters on an online platform run by Amazon called Mechanical Turk (aka MTurk). On MTurk, workers sign up to complete online tasks for pay. MTurk has been criticized, but remains widely used because it seems to yield good data in large samples, cheaply and quickly.
However, it is an open question whether these results generalize to the population of interest—professional polygraphers or to the field more broadly. Ideally, the study sample would have been polygraphers. But their limited accessibility precluded that possibility.
Online survey experimental subjects’ demographics differed from those of polygraphers as a group in potentially important ways. My survey of Virginia state-licensed polygrapher demographics, political attitudes, and self-reported bias showed polygraphers (like American police management) tend to skew white, male, older, conservative, Republican, and Fox News-watching compared with the general population. Per Berinsky et al, MTurk samples skew in the opposite direction in some ways that can impact bias effects, such as gender (female), party identification (Democrat), and especially age (younger).
Polygraphers also tend to be overwhelmingly current and former law enforcement—a distinct group in terms of social and political attitudes and behaviors. For instance, this group skews more authoritarian than the national norm according to national survey data from American National Election Studies analyzed in tandem with polygrapher survey data. This might matter, because right-wing authoritarianism is associated with racial bias.
Indeed, the small-scale pilot study data that helped secure NSF funding for this larger-scale dissertation research on bias in polygraphs used criminal justice students and professionals in real life as much as possible, in order to get a sample more similar to polygraphers than the general population. That preliminary data did indicate racial and confirmation bias, and a possible compounding interaction between them. There wasn’t enough data in that small sample, however, to assess an interaction, or speak to statistical significance at all: thus, the need for a larger sample size. But due to accessibility, that larger sample got further away from polygraphers demographically.
Polygraphers as a group might also be distinct in ways that specifically matter for the bias effects of interest. About 20% of Virginia state-licensed polygrapher survey respondents reported thinking that some groups (e.g., blacks or homosexuals) tend to fail polygraphs more than others. This suggests that a substantial minority of people interpreting polygraph charts for a living in the field hold biases against some groups that could affect the outcomes of the “tests” they administer. If they were simply honestly reporting observed disparities, then those disparities should have been consistent across polygraphers; but the disparities were inconsistent.
The available evidence altogether suggests that polygraphs themselves are not biased, and most people interpreting them may exhibit confirmation, but not racial, bias. Smaller or less systematic effects will be harder to measure with statistical significance. Those effects would be particularly hard to measure if they came from so-called “bad apples” who might self-select into positions of power in the field and abuse them in a relatively small proportion of cases that could yet have socially and politically significant consequences. For instance, a polygraph-related, erroneous credibility attribution to the CIA source Curveball contributed to the illegal 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Polygraphs have similarly contributed to innocent (and subseuqently exonerated) men being sentenced to death in America, and to (probably) innocent men being sent to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Moreover Thomas Schelling’s segregation game shows it only takes a small bias to endanger equality for society as a whole. But relatively small bias effects will nonetheless be difficult to measure with statistical significance in this context.
Qualitative data from interviews and documents, as well as survey data from Virginia state-licensed polygraphers, suggest possible racial, religious, sexuality, and other forms of bias in polygraphy. By contrast, psychophysiology lab studies and online survey experimental data suggest that racial bias in polygraphs is not a systematic, statistically significant effect resulting from stereotype threat or authoritarian selection on the subject side, or from interpreter bias on the polygrapher side. Triangulating field data with these other sources is required to assess the fuller picture of how polygraph programs work in the field. Do they institutionalize systematic racial bias? And do they work in law enforcement agencies to address the corruption they are meant to lessen?
Field data on bias and corruption
The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects national survey data from thousands of state, county, and local law enforcement agencies (LEMAS). This data is sufficient to run quasi-experimental analyses, analyzing the observational data “as if” it were experimental data, using coarsened exact matching (CEM) and difference in differences (DID) analysis (for a more detailed explanation, please see dissertation, Chapter 4). CEM is a matching procedure that here allows comparison of local and state law enforcement agencies that are highly similar, except for their implementation of particular selection tools like polygraphs. This comparison reduces model dependence, average treatment effect estimation error, and internal validity threats from measurement error.
These quasi-experimental analyses do not show evidence of systematic racial bias effects of polygraph programs on law enforcement agencies. However, it seems likely, based on data recently obtained by Mark Harris for Wired in combination with my own research, that there are prejudiced polygraphers who, for example, disproportionately flunk blacks vying for jobs at particular departments. Other sources of data generate cause for concern about racial and other bias in polygraphy in the field. Agencies that observe large racial disparities in hiring and demographics should be wary of polygraphs as one possible avenue for bias in both administrative and employment contexts. That said, there is insufficient scientific evidence to reject the null hypothesis of no systematic racial bias in the aggregate in police polygraph programs in the field. The generalizability of this finding to other contexts, like federal agencies, remains an open question.
These analyses also show that polygraph tests and only polygraph tests (among eighteen police selection tools) decrease sustained citizen complains of excessive officer use of force, and this effect is statistically significant. At first glance that might sound great; it might sound like polygraphs decrease police brutality. That’s not what the data suggest, though. Polygraphing police hires may select against people who are worse at lying or more honest, selecting instead for police officers who are better at lying and getting away with it when they have done something wrong. The reason is that there are tools that cause a decrease in total complaints, and polygraphs are not one of them. So polygraphs appear to select specifically on recruit characteristics that change not brutality or complaint rates themselves, but rather only complaint outcomes.
This is a distinct effect. Polygraphs are the only police selection tool, of eighteen such tools on which LEMAS collects data. That is ironic and important, because the U.S. has long exported polygraphs as part of its sponsored anti-corruption programs—as in Plan Colombia, the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, and others in the Bahamas, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Iraq (dissertation, Chapter 3). It would seem to be horrifying and surprising if American taxpayer-funded anti-corruption programs worldwide actually increased corruption.
Yet this effect has face plausibility. Most American polygraph schools and polygraphers rely primarily on the so-called control question test format. This interrogation protocol intends to cause subjects to lie to polygraphers without knowing that they’re supposed to be lying. Those presumed lies to so-called control questions generate physiological responses that are then compared with physiological responses to so-called relevant questions, to say whether someone is lying. People who are better at lying in the first place are likely to admit less wrongdoing during the dialogue that is arguably the point of the whole exercise. People who are relatively honest are going to both admit more derogatory information, and not lie (as easily, or at all) in response to control questions—skewing the test against them in two ways. So the design of the control question test polygraphs most common in American policing may discriminate against honest people.
That could explain the apparent corruption effect. That is, thus discriminating against honest police recruits through polygraph screenings may cause more hiring of dishonest officers. That would explain why these officers later get the same rate of brutality complaints as their non-polygraphed counterparts. But then they’re better able to get out of these complaints rather than having them sustained—by lying. In this way, police polygraph screenings may systematically contribute to the problem of American police perjury, aka “testilying.”
Generalizability is an open question. But if this result generalizes to other contexts, then it likely contributes to a number of other, serious security problems. For example, federal agencies with polygraph programs could be selecting employees who will be better able to avoid consequences for wrongdoing by lying under questioning.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is accountable instead to the legislative branch—to Congress. It is uniquely independent in its audit capabilities vis-a-vis the military, Department of Defense (DOD), and intelligence community. The National Academy of Sciences and other researchers have been unable to acquire bias and efficacy data directly from federal agencies or indirectly through the courts. But GAO could acquire this data by auditing or investigating federal polygraph programs.
Individual Congresspersons have the power to trigger GAO audits and investigations, making this process accessible. However, DOD has increasingly circumscribed GAO’s powers, and that seems to be an escalating trend. Nonetheless, liberal democratic political institutions must check and balance the power of these programs in the public interests of due process and national security alike. Bad apples should not be able to institutionalize bias. And anti-corruption programs should not increase corruption.
Judge Kavanaugh’s ironic history of defending the same polygraphs he now calls unreliable suggests that—if confirmed to the US Supreme Court—he would defer to dishonest executive power.
Following sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump ordered the FBI to conduct a one-week investigation, briefly postponing Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation vote with the November midterm elections clock ticking. Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she passed a lie detector test. Kavanaugh called polygraphs unreliable—noting their inadmissibility in federal court. That’s not what he thought of them when he decided my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case requesting polygraph program records.
Writing for the US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit on May 20, 2016, in Sack v. Dept. of Defense (DOD), Kavanaugh upheld the District Court’s ruling that federal polygraph records could be withheld because transparency would cause the specific harm, under the Exemption 7(E) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), of disclosing “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations” whose disclosure would reasonably “risk circumvention of the law.” But DOD’s arguments were disingenuous. Scientific consensus for the past ninety years has been that polygraphs are insufficiently evidence-based. It’s no secret that there is no unique physiological lie response to detect. Yet, federal agencies demand most of their polygraph records remain secret, ostensibly because polygraphs are important law enforcement tools.
If the government holds data that would explain this contradiction, making it public would advance science. If the government does not hold data that contradicts long-standing scientific consensus on polygraphs’ unreliability, then withholding data on federal polygraph programs’ bias and efficacy merely perpetuates corruption. Evidence shows polygraphs are prone to bias, fraud, and abuse. Research also shows they can even backfire—apparently increasing police dishonesty. In this context, non-transparency undermines rather than protecting law enforcement.
My National Science Foundation-supported doctoral dissertation and postdoctoral research on bias and corruption in polygraphs and policing led me to file open records requests under FOIA with several federal entities including the CIA, FBI, and DOD, for polygraph program data. These agencies fought transparency and won. Ultimately, they won because Kavanaugh decided in their favor—even though their arguments hinged on the premise that polygraphs promote security. The National Academy of Sciences’ 2003 report on the scientific evidence on polygraphs invalidates this premise.
How ironic that polygraphs should come back to haunt Kavanaugh when, as he says, they’re unreliable. He’s right. Their unreliability in screening jeopardizes national security programs by wrongly implicating many innocent people, while also missing security threats like spies. It undermines due process by wrongly implicating innocent people, like the late death row exoneree Dave Keaton. At the same time, it leads police away from investigating guilty people, and casts untoward doubt on the credibility of honest victims and witnesses. Its continued use makes law enforcement look incompetent, because it’s common knowledge that polygraphs are unreliable. Polygraphs thus damage law enforcement. So it’s weird to protect them just because the government claims—contradicting all publicly available evidence—that the opposite is true.
As a federal appeals court judge, Kavanaugh had a chance to act in the public interest as a member of an independent judiciary—protecting national security and promoting due process by checking executive branch overreach. He blew it, choosing instead to bolster executive power based on lies. Past behavior predicts future behavior, and this holds true for judicial behavior. Thus Kavanaugh would be a bad Supreme Court Justice, because he would undermine judicial independence.
Amidst the spectacacle of sex crime accusations and the partisan refusal to investigate them in due time with due process, Kavanaugh promises—if confirmed—to protect the executive branch rather than balancing it. Many legal experts including Kavanaugh have long agreed that a sitting President cannot be indicted. But Kavanaugh’s historical deference to the executive is more distinctive. A judge who defers to dishonest executive power undermines democracy. That is what Kavanaugh did in my case. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent for the U.S. government as a whole.
To the Senators considering whether to confirm Kavanaugh as a US Supreme Court Justice this week: Consider his history as a judge when you consider his future as a judge. As a federal appeals court judge, Kavanaugh undermined national security while citing it as his reason for letting government secrecy prevent progress in scholarship and accountability in governance. In the present political climate, many fear that President Trump wants to confirm a Supreme Court Justice who will defend him even when he’s wrong—someone who will defend an emperor with no clothes. That’s exactly what Kavanaugh’s history of defending executive secrecy around polygraph programs suggests he would do.
The role of the independent judiciary in the American government is to check and balance the executive and legislative branches. By failing to speak truth to power when DOD lied about the importance of polygraph programs for law enforcement, Kavanaugh showed he won’t fulfill that role. Polygraphs are unreliable. His history with them shows Kavanaugh is, too.
Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near the national interest, especially when it comes to sex crime allegations. But Kavanaugh defended their secrecy and importance as an appeals court judge.
Polygraphs continue to hold a bizarre and misguided centrality in the unfolding drama between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In her Senate Judiciary Committee testimony last week, Dr. Ford claimed to have passed a polygraph. Kavanaugh responded to Senator Harris’s question that yes, he would take one at the Committee’s request—but noted that they’re unreliable and inadmissible in federal court.
Then in a letter Tuesday night, Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley accused Dr. Ford’s lawyers of “withholding material evidence,” repeating his request for recordings of her taking a polygraph among other things. Grassley pegged his request to the committee’s receipt of a letter suggesting Ford committed perjury when she told senators she had never advised anyone on how to take a polygraph. As the brief FBI investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh has concluded, Republican leaders plan to vote on the nomination any day. Dr. Ford’s credibility matters.
But Kavanaugh is right: Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near issues of vital importance to the national interest. Or sex crime allegations—much less their intersection in this case. I know because I conducted National Science Foundation-sponsored doctoral dissertation research on polygraph bias, research that featured in Wired on Monday and a McClatchy national investigative series in 2012. Ironically, Kavanaugh was the federal appeals court judge who decided one of my polygraph open records requests cases (Sack v. DOD, 2016).
Kavanaugh defended polygraph program secrecy after the DOD lied to the Court, saying polygraphs are important law enforcement tools. The truth—as he apparently knows after all, when his own future is at stake—is that polygraphs are unreliable. That’s why the National Academy of Sciences, evaluating the scientific evidence on polygraphs in 2003 at Congress’s request, concluded that polygraph screening programs at the National Labs would undermine the very national security they sought to promote by wrongly implicating large numbers of innocent people while also missing spies. Polygraphs are neither accurate enough for mass security screenings, nor reliable enough for use in individual criminal cases.
They’re also vulnerable to abuse and fraud. Death row exonerees like Dave Keaton and Shabaka Waqlimi lost years of their lives in jail suffering under death sentences for crimes they did not commit, because police had abused the intimidation tool of the “lie detector” to generate a false confession from a black teen (in Dave’s case), and to direct police investigation away from a likelier white suspect and towards an innocent black man (in Shabaka’s). Federal polygraphers have complained to the government itself that polygraphs have been similarly abused as hammers in Iraq and Afghanistan to send presumably innocent people to places like the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Veteran polygrapher John F. Sullivan once ran an operation inside the CIA targeting polygraphers who were manufacturing false confessions and charts. Because the science of polygraphs is so shaky and the processes surrounding them so nontransparent to begin with, addressing bias, fraud, and abuse in these programs remains difficult.
Although the U.S. government exports polygraphs as part of its anti-corruption programs worldwide, my research suggests that police polygraph programs actually increase corruption. But because federal polygraph program data remain secret—thanks to judges like Kavanaugh—it’s been impossible for independent researchers to assess the efficacy of federal polygraph programs. If the apparent causal effects of police polygraph programs are any indication, these other polygraph programs may also backfire.
So polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near issues of vital national importance, such as who attains a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also don’t belong anywhere near sexual assault or harassment, or any other serious allegations. They are insufficiently evidence-based.
While often presented as diagnostic tests, polygraphs are really intimidation tools used in interrogations. Investigators should not intimidate and further traumatize alleged crime victims. Rather, they should do evidence-based forensics to investigate criminal allegations with due process. That is in everyone’s best interests. The wrongly accused and the truthfully traumatized both deserve the full protection of the law. And society deserves investigations that use credible methods to determine facts.
Judges are supposed to ensure that valid investigations using reliable tools take place and result in justice. But Kavanaugh already had a chance as a federal appeals court judge to check and balance executive branch dishonesty by disclosing polygraph program records—records that could have helped hold the government to account where it was abusing its power and lying to the Court about it. He blew it, and that’s no lie.
This introduction curates the next five posts. My name is Dr. Vera Wilde, and I’m a transparency activist and polygraph researcher. I hold a Ph.D in American Politics from the University of Virginia, and was also the appellant in Sack v. DOD, a 2016 federal appellate court ruling authored by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. (As a sidenote: Information environment overload, urgency, and other factors mean that it makes most sense to publish this all now and hope the message gets where it needs to go instead of going to gatekeepers, if it needs to get somewhere…)
The first of these posts, “Deference to Deception,” is about how Kavanaugh’s judicial history as a judge shows he would compromise the independent judiciary. He exhibited undue deference to a dishonest executive branch in Sack v. DOD (2016), one of my polygraph open records cases. He wrote an opinion for the majority granting DOD’s request to maintain secrecy because they call polygraphs an important tool for law enforcement. But the scientific consensus for ninety years has been that polygraphs are unreliable. This suggests Kavanaugh would be a dysfunctional Supreme Court Justice when it comes to checking abusive executive branch power, because he failed to do so in the past.
The second, “Deceiving Due Process: Polygraphs Put Junk Science in the Limelight,” is about how polygraphs continue to play a central role in this national saga. That’s wrong, because they’re junk science. Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near important issues. Yet people on both sides of the aisle continue to be guilty of using polygraphs for their purposes when it serves them, and then suddenly remembering that they’re unreliable when it doesn’t. That’s also how polygraph programs sometimes seem to work in several agencies: They provide cover to target people under falsely neutral, scientific pretenses.
The third, “Bad Apples and Bad Barrels: Bias and Corruption in Polygraphy,” summarizes my original research. Polygraphs are vulnerable to bias, abuse, and fraud. As anti-corruption programs, they backfire. There’s a government office—the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—that helps address such problems. They just need one Congressperson to ask them to do it.
The fourth, “Truth Matters: The way polygraphs are currently being used in politics, everyone loses,” takes a broader view of why, if polygraphs are junk science and Kavanaugh defended them as a federal judge, everyone loses no matter what happens next in his confirmation hearings. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because junk science affected national politics. Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to, instead of balancing, its abuse of power in the polygraph case Sack v. DOD.
And the fifth is an open letter to apparent swing Senators on the Kavanaugh confirmation vote. If other people think it’s right and important, then they’re gratefully welcome to use the same sorts of arguments to reach out to the same sorts of people. A swing Senator—whose political trajectory will be forever affected by how he or she votes on the Kavanaugh nomination—should step back after making this decision, and recognize that junk science adversely affects national politics. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Bring science back.
A sixth post is implied, agitating for better institutions to imbue policy with science. It was unclear to whom one would address such agitation, however, if not to the people who authorize public institutions in a liberal democratic society. And how that might work in an anti-intellectual democratic society deepens the puzzle. One cannot simply call for a revolution of scientists, for scientific institutions, too, are vulnerable to corruption—and scientists to human error.
However, as a growing cadre of people are noticing, the corruption entrenching all of our most dire collective action problems as a civilization today is not an information problem. From climate change and mass surveillance to campaign finance reform and drug policy, contemporary institutions failing to integrate scientific evidence into public policy is the number one threat to humanity among other species. If we channeled a little bit of the resources America currently spends on national security into solving this problem—which is also in itself a national security and fiscal responsibility problem—then it would pay dividends in savings and in lives.
Or, “Jane Doe: A Series.” Oils on stretched canvas, various sizes. (One of these is rather large, three are varying degrees of small, and most are 40 x 60 cm or 40 x 50 cm. My big ruler has gone missing. And this should really be photographed all together on a wall for scale, but not today.)
If you’re one of those people who prefers to make up your own stories about art—respect—stop reading.
This painting series title comes from an investigative series on polygraphs to which I contributed in 2012, from a report of disturbing abuse. Before it was said, I helped make this report public.
She was one of the brightest students at a leading university when the Central Intelligence Agency offered her a job as a counter-terrorism analyst. But first, the 19-year-old was warned, she had to undergo a polygraph test to determine whether she could be trusted.
Instead of scrutinizing her ability to guard government secrets, polygraphers asked about her reported rape and miscarriage, the woman recalled. Over at least eight hours in three separate sessions, polygraphers repeatedy demanded to know her innermost thoughts, even after she started sobbing in shame.
“At one point, one of the polygraphers said to me, ‘Turn on the light inside so I can see,’ ” said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld. “I was amazed at how creepy and invasive the whole process was.”
Reports like these make one wonder what the incidence is of polygraph abuse. Earlier this week on AltGov2, I published an essay curating recently released interviews about polygraphs that, along with some of my other research, feature in Mark Harris’s latest article in Wired, “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings.” As noted there—
In my previous work as a postdoctoral police researcher, I’ve heard police proudly describe how they still use polygraphs against rape victims they don’t believe, even though the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prohibits public officials from making sex offense investigation or prosecution contingent on a victim taking a polygraph test. It’s impossible to know how frequently police continue to use polygraphs on victims and witnesses, including in cases (like rape) or in ways (like contingency) where that is immoral or illegal.
Ultimately, counting the cases may not be as useful as recognizing the broader phenomena of which this seems to be a part…
No where to go
no one to tell
this feminism thing
isn’t going so well.
While it may be a very, very good time to be a woman (in Berlin), it still has its risks. Luckily, risks can be managed… And sometimes even enjoyed.
It will be fun, for example, to plan the launch party for my second poetry book. Even though it’s risky to think it will be done soon; it’s risky to publish it at all. Anyone who makes art knows, when you’re doing it right, it feels really risky. (When you’re doing it right, it still feels really good!)
“Arjen”. Oils, nail polish, gold leaf, silver flake, and wax on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas. This painting is not new, but improved: I added melted wax dripping down on what was originally intended as a WikiLeaks logo reference (since it drips), thinking to complete the portrait… And it cracked. I know I’ve painted with melted wax intended for this purpose before. And that doesn’t usually happen. So… Maybe I shouldn’t have simply poured from the regular candle instead of using the actual art supply source for this… Maybe there is a difference between table candle wax and art wax, after all. If you want to know if I’m going to redo it to fix the problem I created here, well, it’s none of your beeswax.
A tangential invitation: As there has been no news in a while on my dear friend Arjen’s missing person case as far as I know… I’m going to prepare a few of the poems I think of as his to perform at Sunday Slips this week. If anyone else wants to come to enjoy (good company), risk (making art), and honor / appreciate / think of Arjen kindly… I have a fly-swatter and a silver bikini that say it will be fun.
Yesterday was Reunification Day, celebrated here in Berlin—as is the tradition—with Antifa’s vocal response to a Nazi demonstration, followed by fireworks. (Thanks Thomas for good company at the counter-demo, and Karo for pointing out this painting needed more color… I fixed it.)
AltGov2 features my essay “Warning Shots of Corruption: Releasing and Revisiting the Polygraph Interviews that Launched My Dissertation Research.”
As Mark Harris recently observed in his Wired article featuring some of my research — “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings” — federal agencies have generally attempted to keep their polygraph program data from researchers, especially vis-a-vis bias and efficacy. Federal courts have fairly consistently backed them up, citing the vital role polygraph programs play in law enforcement. However, at the same time, it is longstanding government and scientific consensus that there is no such thing as a lie detector, and polygraph programs actually jeopardize the very national security that they are intended to promote. Researchers can thus neither purport to comprehend nor effectively contest this supposedly vital nature of polygraph programs to law enforcement, without greater transparency of the federal program polygraph data that apparently disproves all of the canonical governmental reports on polygraphs—from the 1965 U.S. Committee on Government Operations’ to the 2003 National Academy of Sciences’—as well as most of the scientific literature on psychophysiological deception detection for the last fifty years.
This unified front of non-transparency, and the Catch-22 of secret justifications for keeping this secrecy intact, is exemplified by Sack v. United States Department of Defense. Attorney Kel McClanahan argued this case on my behalf, Circuit Judges Tatel, Griffith, and Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit Court decided it, and Judge Kavanaugh authored the ruling on May 20, 2016. Judge Kavanaugh’s defense of non-transparency here is important in the context of his current status as a prospective U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Much has been made recently, and incorrectly, of his regard for polygraphs (e.g., “Brett Kavanaugh Once Said Polygraphs Are A Good Tool. Now He Says They’re Unreliable“; “A False Charge on Polygraphs“). Mr. McClanahan has already corrected the record on some of these confusions: This case was primarily about researchers’ access to federal polygraph program data that was denied under Exemption 7(E), as well as students’ access to educational requestor status when they file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The latter is not directly an issue of transparency, but rather of access to public records requesting processes—a means of promoting transparency. Thanks to Mr. McClanahan’s persistence, Judge Kavanaugh kept the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the District Court before him from unfairly stratifying student access to FOIA without statutory basis in a way that would have hurt students’ access to public records. The DOD had refused to classify me, when I was a graduate student requesting records, as an educational requestor, citing an OMB Guideline on student requests. Kavanaugh ruled out that this guideline lacked statutory basis, and that it even seemed OMB was trying to manufacture a reason to charge students more than teachers. Kavanaugh called out corruption where he saw it, telling them that he knew FOIA was “grossly overburdened,” but they couldn’t “provide relief for the FOIA bureaucracy on the backs of students.” That was logical, fair, and egalitarian. This set an important precedent for future students to have more effective access to public records requests.
However, without transparency in the form of responsive records disclosures, FOIA access itself is ineffectual or worse. It could even be conceived of as a resource-capturing diversion, if responsive records are not disclosed when they should be through request processes that take time, money, and intellectual resources. On this score, Kavanaugh wrongly enshrined non-transparency in the law, undermining the principle of accountability of government to which public servants in democracies owe their highest commitment.
Exemption 7 lets the Government withhold records compiled for law enforcement purposes, if they can show that producing those records would cause a specified harm. Under 7(E), that harm is disclosing “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations.”
In section III paragraph 2 of his opinion ruling that withholding the records fits under 7(E), Kavanaugh says the Government made that case. But there is no evidence that they did. Disclosing federal polygraph program data would not harm law enforcement. Rather, polygraph programs themselves, according to the National Academy of Sciences’ 2003 polygraph report, harm law enforcement by generating too many inaccurate results to be good for security in contexts such as screening National Lab employees for spies—both missing too many real spies and implicating too many innocent employees.
Bias and efficacy data on federal polygraph programs that was not made available to the National Academy scientists or other researchers might show problems with bias and efficacy. But this would hurt polygraph programs, not law enforcement in the sense the Court means. Perhaps because most polygraphers are current or former law enforcement, law enforcement seem to have trouble telling the difference. Yet it is bias and backfiring programs such as polygraph programs, not disclosing information about these problems, that undermine rule of law and national security.
In section III paragraph 4, Kavanaugh says “The reports at issue in this case assist law enforcement agencies in taking ‘proactive steps’ to deter illegal activity and ensure national security. As the Government notes, law enforcement agencies use polygraphs to test the credibility of witnesses and criminal defendants.” But rather than deterring illegal activity, polygraphs make a mockery of law enforcement who use them because it is widely known that they do not work. This makes law enforcement look unprofessional and ineffective, encouraging illegal activity.
Moreover, to the extent that law enforcement agencies really use polygraphs to test witness and defendant credibility, releasing data on polygraphs’ bias and efficacy should either help bolster law enforcement’s credibility—or cause law enforcement to question their use of polygraphs. If the data are so good that they prove polygraphs are much better than scientists have long thought they are, then law enforcement should be excited to release that data in order to deter illegal activity and promote national security, according to Kavanaugh’s own logic.
In section III paragraph 5, Kavanaugh says “The Government has satisfactorily explained how polygraph examinations serve law enforcement purposes.” But explaining that would require showing data on polygraph programs that contradicts everything scientists know about how they undermine security. That is exactly what Kavanaugh permits the Government to refrain from doing.
In the same paragraph, he goes on to claim “It has also explained how the reports assessing the efficacy of those examinations and identifying needed fixes likewise serve law enforcement purposes” by helping “ensure that law enforcement officers optimally use an important law enforcement tool.” But again, unless the government’s data on polygraph efficacy contradicts everything scientists have known about polygraphs for fifty years, this non-transparency in efficacy data merely covers up inefficacy. Kavanaugh is effectively helping law enforcement cover up their incompetence, protecting “the man behind the curtain” with judicial non-transparency.
In section III paragraph 9, Kavanaugh repeats his faith in non-transparency (and the District Court’s before him). He says that releasing even “reasonably segregable” parts of reports on polygraph efficacy “whether pertaining to the strengths of polygraphs, their weaknesses, or anything else—would create ‘at least a risk that subversive individuals will be armed with advanced knowledge of the procedures used by the United States to screen applicants for sensitive employment positions and security clearances’ ” (Sack v. Dept. of Defense, 6 F. Supp. 3d 78, 91 (D.D.C. 2013)). But this is utterly illogical. Letting researchers evaluate programs consistently charged with bias and inefficacy does not help subversives. Rather, promoting freedom of information, scholarship, and the advancement of science in a free society improves the functioning and accountability of government including law enforcement in that society. Kavanaugh does not seem to understand how democracy works.
Government secrecy around federal polygraph programs guards weakness, not strength. That weakness is already publicly known. Defending it with non-transparency undermines rather than strengthening national security.
It is the role of federal judges to check and balance governmental power in other branches when citizens ask them to. In this case, Judge Kavanaugh was asked to check several executive branch abuses of power. In one area—OMB’s imaginative FOIA fee structure guideline limiting student access to public records requests—he forced the executive to back down and stop denying students their rightful educational requestor status. But in another—the application of Exemption 7(E) to permit DOD to withhold polygraph program data—he upheld non-transparency in a way that hurt national security… But bowed down to its chant in the name of the status quo.
The form of national security that Kavanaugh defended in this decision was an emperor with no clothes.
Mark Harris’s Wired article “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings,” featuring some of my polygraph research, runs today.
Very happy to be off social media; but also very appreciative of the efforts going on there and everywhere to recognize, celebrate, and find Arjen. It’s been really nice to be with good people at Hack42, the fabulous hackerspace where he helped me get an artist residency in 2015, and think of him.
It’s the least of anyone’s worries, but I have felt like I should wait for him to finish my second poetry book, Vagabonding. Some of the poems are his, and part of the dedication. So he has an ownership stake in my work, although he’s not the owning type and would deny it gracefully…
But I also thought he would stumble out of the woods any day going: “Dudes! I was camping. What is wrong with you? Chill out.” And if that were going to happen, it probably would have happened. So maybe I should just finish the book.
Meanwhile, here are some more poems from adventures with my love R. Thinking of my favorite vagabonds.
Walking downtown for food at night,
we stumble across its ugly light.
Guards with semis and machine guns pace
outside the fencing around its face.
Projected up against a wall,
red, white, and blue enthrall
with missing stars and wrong-numbered stripes.
At least you cannot see the pipes.
But the half-empty bookshelves are plain to see
through open curtains. It occurs to me
this, too, is a display of power.
Some would hide their ignorance.
Never a country known to cower,
the bloated Merkan embassy
displays its dumb indifference.
The long arc of history bends black.
Austrian police are here where country ends
to help keep brown people back.
“Blood, wine, ticking time”
The Red Sea is not red.
The hope here is not dead.
It probably used to be,
from coral and algae,
dead kings and dead books.
But the reefs are dying everywhere
along with tourism here and there
where terror scares people away.
We saw it last summer in France,
the lavender fields swaying a yellow-brown dance
from too much rain,
and what if a truck should come again?
The wine-dark Mediterranean, too,
is no longer wine-dark,
though we couldn’t see through.
It was more like thyme honey
in how it looked darker, far away.
The world has no less blood in it now than then,
no less life. There are no fewer stories to write.
But we see differently as the waters change.
As we change them, and are changed.
Time now means disruption.
Mere weeks ago, every day it seemed like my second poetry book was nearly ready. Then I started finding holes, places where I hadn’t quite told the story like I’d thought, like I meant to, like it lies whole in my heart. And other things happened in the world. In response to old holes and new events, I did what I do: I wrote new poems. Most of which are not good enough to post, and all of which will need time and rewriting before I can even decide whether or not to include them in the manuscript. So that finishing-the-book-by-September thing didn’t happen. But here are a few more new poems.
“If you should die”
If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll hunt you down and kill you.
“But I’m at peace!” your ghost will say,
grinning from the deep blue.
I’ll drag it up and string it out to dry in harshest sun.
I’ll stretch it out to wrap around the shivering none
of our knowing where you’ve gone and what you’re up to these days.
Don’t think I won’t do it. I have my ways.
If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll drive a stake into your heart.
Don’t think you won’t feel it from the start.
I’ll hammer out the gold in your soul
to make jewelry. Sand your bones to bowls.
I’ll bunch and twist your hair into brushes.
Sell your organs to the Russians.
You’d better come back, someday.
I left with three full back-up drives on me.
When I got away, they were all empty.
It’s just as well.
There’s no one to tell.
And perhaps always it is better
to start a blank letter
when events interrupt
in a manner abrupt
and what you were saying
is trumped by surveying
Let your mind deplane.
It’s a new Old World to join again.
“What if there were poetic justice?”
Would there still be police to address mere crime,
if we could get at the real thing all of the time?
Would blacklists even need to be found
for their authors to rot underground?
Would eagles descend like for Telemachus
to scratch out the faces of those who mock us?
Or would the world look much like this,
except some people just wouldn’t exist?
“Looking for Land”
The painted waves surprise me
with their steady pink and purple brush-strokes,
unmoving lakes of turquoise, yellow-green, and peach,
fields of water-lily likeness.
I look closer, quicker, out the window
as they fly by between wet wheat
and damp beige houses—
Because the light in the sky sparkles with laughter,
it is impossible that you are dead.
Yet you’re more Democritus than Aristotle,
and would laugh just as brightly after
I said “red sky at morning, sailors take warning;
red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
Be night, be night, be night.
Do not be the red sky of death over
a frozen body floating without breath.
It is quite impossible, although men fall,
that you should have paddled down a fjord
toward an Arctic sea and then toward
the bottom, a rush of water and all
the heaviness of life, the freezing pull,
the heft of a forced salt mouthful
too many and too fast
for even you to last.
Do not make your home in the sea
when you know your home is here with me.
Will you make your place
here in the new space
between knowing and not knowing
if you’re coming or going,
went well or badly,
died for helping dissidents tell the truth,
or slipped away to secretly relive some youth?
Delighting in travel, accounting for nothing to no one,
but still helping others in need on the rocky sea
when you stumble across each other having lost and won,
like I helped you and you helped me?
Do not tell me if you fought and lost,
if you were frightened or forced to pay the ultimate cost.
Because you’re in the light, so you’re with me in the day—
laughing, one, making fun.
But I still hope you’re the night, anyway.
Safe and warm, with someplace to stay,
having decided to rest and stay away.
Tell me, someday, if you can, how to help you there.
You know we can sit in stillness if you tell me where.
When we first heard you were missing, I lit a candle like we used to do,
and prayed and tried to talk to you. In my daydream that sleepless night,
you comforted me. You were resting, you said, on a soft bed
under a starry sky beneath a shimmering silver tarp.
And I thought leaves, thought we’d find you
half-buried with late summer silver and green
and a sharp hiking stick or something metal jutting up
shining through some non-lethal muck,
but surely with two simply broken legs and only just out of water.
Then they said you had bought a folding kayak.
Later a fisherman found your things just out to sea.
But now I think the shimmering silver tarp with which you comforted me,
its warm blanket enveloping your warm embrace and steady face
when I cried out shaking your shoulder to know where you were and come,
must be not water and its grave.
Must be only time rippling over,
time that shines warm even in Nordic nights,
time that you will take to come clearer,
to fight and fly through some awful danger, cold as death,
and finally then come nearer again to the friends
who would have wanted to get you warm and dry
if ever you should have fallen.
We believe in you.
You are not allowed to die.
You are just too good a guy.
This poem isn’t going in the book, but goes with this painting that is apparently going on the blog.
Both were inspired by that time I developed sphenoid sinusitis after pitching paintings that not a single gallerist in sub-zero Cologne would even look at this February, and subsequently: lost my wallet and stuff in the station right out of my hands cos I probably had blind spots I didn’t know about, cried all the way home on the train from the pain, went partially deaf, and generally had a medical emergency without it occurring to me I was having a medical emergency. (I thought it was a migraine, and then a cold, and then…) Then socialized medicine saved my life with a surgery that didn’t bankrupt me because I have subsidized health insurance as a freelance artist. (It was about ten euros. Germany is cool. Charité is awesome.)
Silly poem, silly story. Still, I liked the metaphor enough to write and paint it. I think we all have snakes inside us capable of striking when we don’t see them coming. And experiences or times when we need help but don’t actually have the expertise to convey what’s going on, to get it. It’s just a particular instance of one of those universal experiences that art is supposed to convey, in order to drum up empathy among humans for humans. (Humans are ok.) Not bad work, if you can get it. Better, perhaps, if you can’t… And do it as an outsider for its own sake.
The gravel road behind my face
leads to my red third eye.
The bucking snake there rises up
to strike and kill the sky.
What fire kindles behind my eye?
Days from dead
inside my head
with pain and dread.
Raising scales that throb and pound,
the rattle makes its warning sound.
Help—at last I cry and moan.
That was its poison, and my koan.
It was my voice it feared the most.
I killed the snake. I am its ghost.
This is (quite possibly a draft portrait of) my missing friend Arjen Kamphuis with his heart of gold. This is me back in the studio after months of illness and recovery; vacation and hunger to paint again; and a big box of medical-grade Lindt chocolate thanks to Arjen. Arjen who brought me home to the Continent, CCC, and Berlin. Arjen who took me to the grocery store when I couldn’t afford a protein bar. Arjen who read me right as a healthy artist and an injured transparency activist when I had left the U.S. due to massive retaliation and turned up at CIJ after couchsurfing London alone for a hard spell. Arjen who gets it. #FindArjen
Here are a few more poems for Arjen, who may or may not see online things at the moment, being missing.
- Lockpicking—a poem about how communication can be hard. Maybe it’s easy for some people, but it can be hard for me, especially when I’m overwhelmed. Some people just work that way, and Arjen has always been super tolerant and understanding of that.
- Walking along the Amstel—a poem about how none of us really knows what to do next in this crazy world. But when we go looking for answers to that question in a serious way, we find others who are looking, too.
- Waiting for Wind and Trains—a poem about waiting and trusting your instincts.
Among other poems I haven’t blogged yet that he inspired, I’m digging in my manuscript… And often what I find that seems like his, is in edits to other poems that I’ve already blogged—and that it doesn’t make sense to repost a new version of when the book itself is almost ready.
Like in “Yearning for the Birth of Athena”—the new version’s bit about the gods watching cat videos online… That’s all Arjen, he would make that joke or observation about attention resource capture, while himself also watching cats. Cats are ok. But wait, I already blogged a rewrite with that bit, too. Guess I’ve been rewriting for a while.
Today I learned a relevant, untranslatable German word for this: Verschlimmbesserung—to keep editing until you’re making the thing worse instead of better. Hmmm. Probably best to write a new one quickly, then.
Where did you go?
What did they do?
Didn’t you know
we’d be worried about you?
You would have known, and cared, being you.
So something happened, so… So…
Show up at my door.
We’ll talk some more.
Or not, if talking won’t do.
I’ll still make (poems and paintings and papers and) stew.
I’m so worried about you.
Poetry keeps happening. Poetry that would not be possible without Arjen, my dear friend who found a stray transparency activist wandering the streets of London and brought me home.
Of Arjen-inspired poems, I previously blogged a few from our adventures in Lisbon:
- Wandering Cemitério dos Prazeres
- Finding Praça do Comércio
- Outside the Closed Church Door
As well as this one about what a great listener and friend he is: “Safe Space.” (That painting, too, was inspired by Arjen in—and needs to go home to—Amsterdam, one of these days…)
It also happens that Arjen was the one who helped me pour my first poetry book manuscript into Amazon CreateSpace for publication. As well as making multiple formats of e-book versions for me to put on my website for free. And getting me set up to put the illustrated version on my website, too. It was important to me—that the book be a book, that the art be CreativeCommons and free, that the finished thing be finished and out in all these forms. So it was important to him, and he helped me get it done.
Now my second poetry book is almost done. And it happens that Arjen seems to have gone missing.
This is concerning. I am concerned.
I would like to fix this. But I don’t know what happened, so I’m not sure what to do… More… Tonight. Maybe tomorrow it will become clearer.
In the meantime, I just want to give Arjen some of his other poems. And I’m not sure how, other than to try putting them here… Maybe he is vagabonding and offline, because the world is crazy. Maybe something else is going on or has happened… Because the world is crazy.
Poetry does not help. Except when poetry helps. Here are some more of Arjen’s poems, which I hope actually get to Arjen one of these days, soon.
“Searching in Bodø”
Gray mountaintops like fins slice the Arctic sky.
We retrace your outs and ins,
since you left without saying goodbye.
Did you, too, want to wander further?
To lie down alone forever under a blanket of clouds?
Away, the world’s noise recedes
as you gaze the seas,
as if to tether and untether
boats of breath and mind.
Stay. You own your time,
and so are rich. But could you lend
me a cup of tea and company
sometime and some place calm and free?
Tell me and I’ll meet you there.
The best minds of my generation leach despair.
You do that for me.
When I look again, the mountains are gone in the grip of sky.
Full of more questions than when we came searching—what happened, why?
What sharks rammed your ship?
What do you need? Are you finding it?
Hey! I’m talking to you.
Back in the wild Berlin blue.
“This Is Just To Proclaim”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.—Robert Frost
is a part
of us all
survived its fall
Something else still
when we think
we’re done resisting
for as long
as we’re existing.
can be banal.
“Travelers at Rest”
The bright orange finches
have followed us out
into the city
and are homesick
for the falls;
try to kill themselves
on the terrace.
The cats, kindly,
are here to assist
in all their mortal coil-shuffling needs.
Also to eat bread,
chase each other, brutally,
and regard dogs with suspicion,
people with apathy.
Geography does not change nature,
human or otherwise.
They, too, are homesick,
but for Egypt, and the days
when people better knew their place.
We are all longing
for somewhere else,
except while in motion.
Here on the road,
we are home.
“Picnic in Vondelpark”
Blurry leaves sway over birch tribes, and they are
how there is no time—only lighter and darker moments,
and the wind that moves their weaving orbits,
and the owl’s anthem announcing that they’re mine.
My throat is growling again at the world.
Although I trust in your goodness in my head
and in my heart, something in my animal softness
needs to be apart, bows its head, kicks at the dust.
Half a forest away from the blanket and your question,
a husky field with chirping frogs infringes. I must walk further.
Nothing is wrong. But I would like to wander now, deep into the dry grasses,
and lie down alone forever under a blanket of clouds.
“Humanity seriously needs your salads…” my dear friend Hanka said this morning as I thought about blogging some of the recipes some of my favorite people keep asking for.
My daily perusal of the headlines suggests humanity seriously needs:
- Concerted global action on climate weirding to keep fossil fuels in the ground and transition more or less immediately to clean energy use and infrastructure-building.
- Actual functioning international law on refugees supporting Good Samaritans and those silly little human rights the post-war international order was at least ostensibly built on, and without which the liberal democratic order loses the moral high-ground of first principles.
- More drastic redistribution of wealth from corporations and very rich people than has ever happened before.
- Novel solutions to classic collective action problems that successfully institutionalize checks on corrupt corporate interests in realms from infrastructure and arms to drugs and education.
- For that whistleblower movement that was brutally killed off by short-sighted prigs to begin to get the public support it deserves, starting with ending the mass surveillance that enables states to increasingly predict and restrict resistance to unjust government policies.
The usual: World on fire. Don’t see how to put it out at the moment. Sorry. Shall we tell our grandchildren that I went to the kitchen to think about it? Will future generations invent an A-scale to measure the supreme assholery of people acting (or not acting) like this (like me) in this time, the closing window in which at least significantly mitigating the collapse of global ecosystems and the civilization they support might still be possible? Much as the Frankfurt School of German philosophers responded to Nazism by creating the F-scale to measure Fuckheads (or maybe it was Fascism). But the F-scale, which evolved later into the Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation measures that explained a lot of rising xenophobia in pre-Trump America, didn’t address the A-problem. What about all the assholes who just do nothing while the world burns? I’m no fascist. Just can’t figure out what to do. Fucker’s really going down, huh? Sorry.
There’s really not a lot of thinking out there (as far as I can see) about the possible positive or mixed role of acceptance in global crises. There are ways in which structural failures have positive effects by forcing change, as in the drop of global CO2 emissions during the financial crisis—the only time we’ve seen such a drop in recent history. And there are ways in which perceived personal failures, victimizations, or other tragedies have positive effects by forcing change as well, in people who are resilient to trauma. Maybe we do not need to save the world, to stave off various forms of collapse and systemic failure. May we need to accept that we cannot. Just as we accept that we cannot undo our worst mistakes, or change other people’s behavior, or prevent life from happening in all its random (beautiful, horrible) glory.
We are a cosmic miracle. We were not built to last. Although we may yet. Probably more through chaotic chance than planning, if we make it as a species another ten thousand years. If you want more certainty than that, go gamble against the house. Anything worth winning is uncertain. Yet, it’s good strategy to wait til you can win, to fight again.
Despite its rationality as a piece of sanity personal and political, acceptance is gendered female (marginalized, weak, receptive). It runs throughout Virginia Woolf’s work on what the fuck to do as a woman existing outside most systems of power, but rich in love and expression—and so both privileged and marginalized, as is so often more the case than one or the other. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf presses for women to make their own space for intellectual life in a world that denies them equal educational opportunities, allotting zero-sum resources to boys’ instead of girls’ education. It is an acceptance of being outside, and a petition for making space within that. This resonates today with discrimination against girls who are good at math and science, with all sorts of pressures to self-sort into what seem to be safer spaces but are also much less well-paid and thus ultimately less safe.
Anecdata: I was convinced to leave the high school computer lab in Alabama in 1999 when it was suggested I could have sex for money, and excluded from my robotics team build because it turned into an all-male sleepover. Worse harassment followed me into STEM in college, and I changed paths. My postdoc appointments in Psychology/Government 15 years later paid roughly half that of an average Computer Science postdoc, although they were at two of the top four universities in my fields worldwide. I didn’t have health insurance at Harvard, couldn’t get my moving expenses effectively covered for two required cross-country moves in six months, and certainly didn’t have the time or resources to rebuild social networks in new places again and again to begin to give myself the strength to carry on when I was harassed and retaliated against, leaving America and academia in 2015, as I’ve written about elsewhere.
Informal social exclusion shapes girls’ and women’s choices in logical ways that reproduce structural inequalities, whether you think the data suggest women in the aggregate can be as good and happy in STEM as men in the aggregate, or not. Woolf’s problem of female exclusion from education is thus obviously germane in many societies globally today, but also remains relevant in the more so-called advanced ones (not that I include the U.S. in that subset—it’s a global outlier among OECD nations for backward outcomes from infant mortality and birth control access to police violence and infrastructure). Patriarchies killed off other societal models around the time of the industrial revolution. And patriarchies suck for females…
And a lot of other people. The boot on the neck of one is always, sooner or later, the boot on the neck of many. Social exclusion of girls and women often tracks with or mirrors exclusion of others (e.g., racial/religious minorities under authoritarian leadership, men who aren’t party members under communism). Exclusion doesn’t have to be a law to be a practice, and resistance doesn’t have to make you dysfunctionally unhappy since you can’t solve the problem (of society taking a less healthy but more currently evolutionary successful form) anyway.
So in her later Three Guineas, Woolf suggests a more radical answer to this problem—more a society than a room of one’s own. But she accepts building that takes time, and small efforts from many people acting chaotically rather than in concert. Eventually she goes on to take her own life because, arguably, she cannot either bring a more humane society into existence for herself, or survive in the one she criticizes. She loses her acceptance, and so gives up in a worse way. (I would like to have read more of her writing than she got done before giving up; but refusing to attempt to live through something you know you cannot survive is also a perfectly respectable choice.)
What would our grandchildren’s A-scale have to say about Virginia Woolf? How will this A-scale work? What does it buy us? No idea, really. I wonder, though, how people are faring now mentally and emotionally in juxtaposition with how much of the world burning they know about, tune into, and accept. I wager there is a three-by-two matrix wherein
- well-informed and tuned-in people who accept chaos and powerlessness in a psychologically resilient way are happier and better socially (and thus politically) functioning than,
- misinformed or simply tuned-out people, who have on average probably higher acceptance but not of actual reality, and who are probably happier than,
- well-informed and tuned-in people who do not have this acceptance.
There are lots of problems with testing this. You are not supposed to say some of your prospective research subjects are objectively wrong in their understandings of the world in interesting and important ways, for instance. You are also supposed to make more open-ended hypotheses about stuff we really don’t know, cos then you can say “I was right!” and be more likely to have your results published (sigh). Basically, you are not supposed to have any balls.
But I don’t have any intention of testing any of this stuff anyway. I’m just wondering how to keep being happy and healthy, making good people good food, and square that with watching the world burn. Because it doesn’t actually feel wrong to me to be doing zero world-saving right now. Although I’ve always lived in a guilt-rich internal ecosystem and so this choice of mine puzzles me, striking me as something I understand intuitively better than I do cognitively, at the very least. It just feels right to make cold food on hot days and love the dear ones whom I love. Maybe humanity does need my salads. I certainly do.
All the recipes here are gluten- and-dairy free. None require heat; one requires meat. Enjoy.
As a cool, refreshing side to breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner, mix:
- rinsed handfuls of fresh greens (feldsalat—what is this in English or do all greens really translate “salad” and all cuts of meat “steak”?!, romaine, rucola, whatever’s pretty)
- throw in a bowl with a quarter lime, freshly squeezed
- drizzle with balsamic crema (high in sugar—don’t look—but some sugar turns out to be not so poisonous after all)
- drizzle with olive oil (which is more religious rite than cooking, if you have the right olive oil)
Done. Somehow over the summer it’s a very easy habit to be in, to make a basic salad 2-3 times a day with another bit of food. It helps you feel full to get the extra fiber and water, when it’s really too hot to eat. Plus you get dietary karma points for greens.
Big chunks of different-colored bell pepper or cucumber, pieces of endive or olives, dried tomatoes or artichoke hearts on top add easy variety.
If you want to be fancy or need more variation, you can add some coconut aminos or cajun spice mix (see my Roast Chicken recipe at McSweeney’s for directions) to the dressing. If you want something more filling and don’t feel like making another dish, flash-fry a steak to cut up, or some seafood (scallops, shrimp, dear God sous vide fish) to throw on top. Good meat on good salad needs only a little salt and pepper after cooking in good oil. (What is good meat? Idk: Ask people in your area, forage, and find it. What is good oil? People have different opinions about this because of omega 3:6 ratios, smoke points, and such. I like what tastes good, which is mostly not smoke point winner coconut oil or heart-healthy olive oil, but a blend of sunflower, rapeseed, and linseed oils, even though you’re not supposed to cook with linseed oil cos heat degrades it. Tastes lighter than the others, works for me.)
This is so simple I’m not sure why I’m even writing it up, other than people suggest they want these things, and I am suggestible.
Like the green salad recipe above… This is not even a recipe. It is more of a protocol. Go to a good food market, grocery or biostore. See what fruit is pretty. Rinse it and cut it up in a bowl. Again with the fiber and water, and the being too hot to eat. Now you have two salad bowls on the table: green salad and fruit salad. People are starting to look happier as more bowls appear. Making people happy is fun.
When fresh berries are pretty and affordable, use fresh berries. When melon is, use melon. Passionfruit—don’t be afraid of the wrinkly brown and purple ones. The ugliest ones are the best. Kiwis. Pears.
In the summer, I tend to save apples and citrus for fresh juices. At least, the fresh juices I make lots of since I accepted the ketogenic diet has super cool research behind it but does not work for me… And then a cool nutritionist convinced me that fruit is not evil just because it has sugar and is thus not ketogenic.
My body agrees with the nutritionist. My body says fresh fruit is magic. It also says fresh juice is magic. And it feels really good to make (“make”) and feed (feed) these things to good people. It’s not ketogenic and it might somehow contribute to climate weirding, I know, I know. But I can’t game it out, man. I’m not even gonna try. I’m gonna make fresh salads and juices and be with the people I love. Turns out I’m really good at loving people. And then it turns out there are a lot of really good people to love—or at least, more than I thought. Yes yes yes, world burning. But—salads, juices, sit.
My favorite juices currently are a green one involving fresh greens like spinach (three rinsed handfuls) plus a tin of fresh herbs like basil, a few celery stalks and carrots, a peeled lemon and lime, orange and apple—in a slow (green) juicer… Or a simpler citrus one with orange (for most people), orange and lemon (for me because I like it tart), or clementine (when I lazily arrange for grocery delivery and bags of random things show up but I can’t complain because this food came directly to me). If you don’t have a slow juicer and a citrus juicer, buy a citrus juicer. They’re cheaper and easier to clean, and there are lots of other ways to eat greens (in eggs, salads, wilted, soup, etc.).
Chilled herbal teas are the best thing to drink on a cold day. At least, if you’re allergic to the milk and cream that should go in a proper iced coffee (of which you would otherwise drink approximately five a day)—can’t stomach straight black tea or bubbly things either—and don’t of your own volition drink enough tap water to hydrate although you know that you should. (Did I say alcohol was a tasty cooking ingredient and side dish? Alcohol is poison.)
Rose, chamomile, and black with lemon and honey are my favorites. But it pays off to experiment, since things tend to taste different cold than hot. You might like chilled green tea even though hot, it’s not your thing.
The big problem with chilling herbal teas is that the best way to drink a lot is to vary the flavors. But then you end up with five cups of tea in the fridge, and no space left for salads and mousses (important). One solution to this problem is to brew fewer flavors in bigger pots, half-filling them with boiling water and double tea bags for as long as they need to steep, then topping up with lukewarm water and refrigerating so you add fewer containers and less heat to the fridge. You still couldn’t do this as a commercial kitchen—it’s too space-inefficient and the heat might degrade other, industrial-sized containers of stuff. So I understand why I can’t get this at a restaurant. But I’m not running a restaurant, so I don’t care.
Although it is so hot you need many salads, juices, and herbal teas to survive, you may or may not still sometimes roast a chicken anyway because we are men and not beasts, or women and also beasts, but you know what I mean. If you do, great. If you don’t, no problem.
Pull any leftover chicken off the refrigerated bones of the roast if it exists. Break it up into bite-size pieces. Boil the bones for stock by night, when the heat won’t add to the heat of the day. Set chicken and stock aside.
Dice one raw chicken breast per person (say, 2-4). Heat oil in a pan, add the diced raw chicken, and pour over some mirin rice wine vinegar and tamari (gluten-free soy sauce). Turn down heat from high to medium-high, breaking up meat with a spatula as it cooks together in clumps. Sprinkle spices over meat as it cooks—salt and pepper, plus garlic powder, cayenne, and paprika if you like, and fresh or dried oregano, thyme, and sage if they’re ready to hand and you like them. Flip and cook until both sides are done. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a small bowl, break up a bunch of walnuts and pecans by the handful (say, 3 handfuls each). Pull out any shell pieces. Dump into a larger bowl.
On a clean cutting board, slice rinsed grapes (say, 4 handfuls or 2 bunches). For some reason, I like white grapes better with the other green stuff in this salad. But you could also use purple grapes, frozen pomegranate pips, blueberries, dried cranberries—anything small and sweet. Add to large bowl with nuts.
Rinse and dice celery stalks (3-4), fresh dill (2-5 fronds), and chives (2-5 handfuls). Add to nut and grapes.
Add cooled chicken (both freshly cooked and leftover if you had it) to large bowl. Top with mayonnaise (about 8 squeezes or spoonfuls, but I always eye it) and mustard (1 spoonful). Add salt and pepper to taste.
If you don’t have something (e.g., fresh dill), improvise (e.g., add more dried spices or don’t worry about it). In this way, none of my recipes are recipes. They constantly change because my cooking is not that precise. It’s more meditation than anything else.
Now it is possible that you have three salads on the table along with cold juices and teas. People are happy. People are getting fed. Healthy food is going in good people and this is form of serving justice in the world, except love is not justice and my kitchen is not the world. I’m ok with that.
It’s easier to impress friends with this if you make everything but the juice ahead of time, and just pull it out of the fridge like a rockstar at the last minute. But people’s sense of time is also distorted by heat and stress, and you don’t really need to impress your friends. Although it can be fun.
This is the first recipe that is really a recipe, although it is not the first recipe people have been asking for. Most gazpacho recipes have bread. This one, like all my recipes, is gluten- and dairy-free. So it does not have bread. You could add bread. But I’m not sure why you’d bother, cos this is so good.
2 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
1 spring onion
6 medium, ripe tomatoes
2 red bell peppers (efficiently de-seeded by chopping off top and bottom, and then striking out the white parts from the sides—h/t Milo)
1 large cucumber, peeled but not deseeded (for some reason the seeds are essential to the flavor—do not believe the recipes that tell you to de-seed)
1 handful fresh parsley
1 handfuls fresh cilantro (if you have the gene mutation wherein cilantro tastes like soap to you, I am sorry; you are cursed; some people will make you gazpacho with basil instead, but I am not one of those people because cold basil tomato soup is just wrong; but I can make you a caprese instead)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
a sprinkling of garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne pepper
a more generous sprinkling freshly ground salt and pepper
This looks like a recipe. But actually it is also not really a recipe. It is a list of ingredients you gather and throw in a blender. Then you press a button. Presto. Gazpacho. This is not cooking so much as disassembling fresh food into pureed form. I’m not knocking it. I’m just not sure what to call it.
You can add a variety of things on top to dress up gazpacho—chopped chives and crumbled feta cheese, drizzled balsamic crema and sliced bell pepper, a chorizo smiley-face. But good gazpacho doesn’t need any dressing-up. It’s crisp and refreshing, not too acidic but very bright and fresh.
Like the chicken salad above and sorbet below, this recipe feeds: two people if it’s all you’re making, three people if you have some more dishes to go around, and four if you’re making a bunch of other stuff. (To feed 5-6, it’s better to make two batches ahead of time. Like a lot of chilled, spiced dishes, it gets even better after a day in the fridge.)
a package of frozen sour cherries (what I find here is usually about 300 grams)
3 spoonfuls xylitol (a sugar substitute a bit sweeter than sugar with fewer calories that seems to be better for your teeth)
a few sprinkles of salt
a glug of almond extract
Again, this is not a recipe so much as a list of things you can put in your blender to subsequently eat and feed people when it is too hot to actually cook. It reminds me of the red shaved ice desserts I used to get special from shady vans over the summer as a kid. It reminds my dear friend Gerben of a childhood cherry-flavored candy. I think the cherry flavor probably reminds a lot of people of a lot of childhood things, because cherry was a common junk food flavoring back when junk foods had real food flavors. But this is not junk food. It is mostly cherries. Who knew? Nostalgia can be high in antioxidants.
You can try other variations of the same idea—frozen raspberries with fresh mint and lime juice (plus xylitol and salt), frozen strawberries with fresh basil and balsamic crema(plus xylitol and salt), frozen blueberries with vanilla extract and cinnamon ((plus xylitol and salt), the more sour frozen berry mix you can buy here in Germany (plus a tad more xylitol and melted chocolate drizzled on top). The simple cherry sorbet is my favorite, but playing with new things is fun.
Vegan Chocolate Mousse
1 block tofu (I think the one I got was 400 g and said something about silk on the package)
100g 90% dark chocolate (Lindt, from the enormous box my dear friend Arjen sent to aid in my recovery from illness because I have the best friends in the world)
3 tbsp + a splash maple syrup
splash (1 tsp or so) vanilla extract (I might try vanilla sugar in place of xylitol plus vanilla extract next time. It’s hard to find alcohol-based, American-style extracts here in Berlin—they’re available over-priced at boutique and bio stores, so I usually buy them online… And my love R doesn’t like the flavor so much. I like it more than freshly scraped vanilla bean in desserts though, since it’s what I’m used to—the flavor is stronger.)
pinch of salt
Melt chocolate in microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until smooth. Blend it all. Top with cocoa nibs and chocolate hearts.
Chill in the fridge overnight for best results (or a few hours if you’re desperate). The added bonus of chilling overnight is that then you have a healthy (ish), chocolatey, cool summer breakfast. Also, if your dinner company has left by then, you have more for yourself… Not that I would ever think of anything but the greater good.
A recipe qua love letter.
When I first moved to Berlin—or rather, came on a one-way, first-class train ticket to visit my new love some two-and-a-half years ago, and never left—I vaguely recognized “Danke” from multi-lingual thank-you notes. You know the ones, decorated with the word “Thanks” in seven languages, different sizes and fonts scattered across the page like hands waving in a group—all saying the same thing, all the better for their blithe redundancy. I had learned French in high school, which was of no use to me now—except in fostering the hope that I could learn German, too. This in spite of having lived in Holland for three months, interrupted in the middle by one glorious month in Lisbon, without picking up even the ability to recognize Dutch or Portuguese. (Now I know: Dutch sounds like German without being German, and there are no other common European languages like that. Portuguese sounds Slavic without being Slavic, and there are seven other common European languages like that.)
Mark Twain once wrote of “The Awful German Language” that “Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.” Twain’s beef aside, learning German isn’t all that different from learning French. You have to soak in it for a while, getting soggy in the batter of your stupidity before the lattices of the brain loosen. Then you can jump in the frying pan of real conversation, browning and firming up what seeped in there somehow. If you can learn French, you can learn German. Except perhaps in Berlin.
Berlin to me is a city of love and sweetness. Probably in the first case because I came here for love. But also because it has this vibe of kindness, silliness, celebration, and having time for life. It’s not unusual to see musicians busking in Mauerpark on Sunday, just far enough away so you can make out the different tunes. Or someone wearing gold lamé pants on the subway—or a man wearing lipstick, or a gorgeous young woman in (weather permitting) a summery dress and no bra. I threw away the only bra I came to Europe with years ago; no one has ever catcalled me here, regardless.
The culture of safe self-expression extends even to the corporate world. Local ads for public transit announce that the buses and trains are good here, “Weil wir lieben dich“—because we love you. To be sure, the love doesn’t extend to every grumpy, middle-aged grocery store clerk glaring and double-checking your cart for attempted shoplifting because you seem foreign. But it spreads pretty far and wide in Berlin. So much so that this is the first place that feels like home.
Forgive me for I have been born American: Home is English-speaking. It’s bad, but it’s a good problem to have. My German is coming along slowly, because in Berlin, I can usually get away with feeble attempts and switching to English.
And home is love and sweetness. So not everyday—not even every week in the era of keto-paleo-low-FODMAP-low-carb goody-goodness—but every once in a while, home requires the decadent sweetness of French toast. Not real, American French toast—the kind made with gluten, stale imitation-French bread, and childhood disappointment. But German French toast, modifying the classic recipe of love and sweetness to suit the times and our tastes.
If you can make French toast, you can make German French toast. Start with gluten-free sandwich bread, freshly freed from its airtight seal. Toast the bread slices two by two while mixing five eggs, two extra egg yolks, half a cup of milk or rice milk, one dash of salt per egg, and a similar sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Soak the toasted slices two by two while readying the toppings on the table: maple syrup, cinnamon sugar, cherry preserves, 100% dark chocolate broken into bits for toast-top melting, white miso paste, and rainbow sprinkles. Then cook the soaked toast with extra egg batter spooned over the top and sides to spilling, letting the pairs of pieces brown on medium-high heat in a non-stick pan with a small bit of light cooking oil.
It helps to have at least two and preferably three extra lovely people on hand for good company and quality control. That way, it doesn’t matter that you have to keep toasting, soaking, cooking, and flipping the rest of the batches while the first one, two, three pairs of French toast are done, and need to be eaten while they’re hot. I actually enjoy keeping on cooking while people are eating. I have to explain every time, but I’m happy to keep saying it and feeling that it’s true: There are very few things in life that I enjoy more than cooking good food for good people.
What is the opposite of YOLO (you only live once)? This is not a rhetorical question. I am still actively looking for a better way to say: You only eat too much sugar on rare occasions, so it’s less poisonous than if you did it all the time. Carpe the occasional glucose dump? Eat, drink, and be merry today, for tomorrow we may diet? I don’t know and, by the time I sit down with the last two pieces and cooked leftover egg batter, to show how to melt unsweetened chocolate on top, smother it with miso paste, pour maple syrup over, and enjoy being myself in front of my dear ones, no matter how weird I am—I don’t care.
German French toast tastes like sustainable indulgence. Aber ich muss noch Deutsch lernen.
Oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, 2014-5, Boston. From a series of five in which the best one was in the stolen batch, and another I just gave away. I guess I should have a go at the “road like fire” concept anew one of these days.
What is it about the road that is so like fire?
Staring into it, watching the landscapes flicker,
I fall into the trance of night
like a cat’s liquid pounce into a lap.
Like a hunter caught in a larger cat’s trap—
happy, hot, swaying lap.
I’ll just email people who want to continue receiving infrequent updates about my art, writing, and other goings-on. What that means for my website is that now the newsletter sign-up on the side-bar is gone. So, like it says on my About page, just email me (if you haven’t already) if you would like to receive infrequent updates on my art, writing, research, etc.
Either way, I’m deleting my MailChimp account and all the data it holds this week. I’m so much happier off Facebook and Twitter. And I don’t want / use / even know all the data MailChimp collects on email marketing… So I know it’s going to feel better to not have that lying around, either.
“some sorrows are like stones, and they never melt, though our tears rain and groove them… “—Derek Walcott
Yes, I have carried many heavy stones.
Sometimes the weight has made me stronger.
Sometimes I could not walk any longer.
What is it to you if I cannot put them down?
Meanwhile the man who loves me sleeps.
I cannot injure what he owns.
I would like to lie like water in his ridges,
grooving so softly the canyon of his chest.
What I love best
is the bridges
that over water and stones
stretch solid, straight, and kind.
They are beautiful without rains and troubled water.
They are also beautiful when spring storms blind.
When the storms have passed,
sometimes the high waters have swept away
stones that seemed they couldn’t be moved,
and the bridges themselves may be grooved
A rewrite of and new riff on an older draft of a poem about being happy at home with my love. These are the sorts of things I’m not sure are original enough to leave in the book; but I’m so glad I could write them, I’ll probably let them stay nonetheless…
Sweet, soft, clean, and hot—
too tired to remember what I’ve washed,
too happy to care. This is how we get there.
Home, into each other, every night.
Home, still inside you, you still inside me,
every sweet morning in the early light.
I want to live where this peace flows
over you from inside me
and over me from within,
over and around us like rushing water,
the impossible stream gushing from the stone.
Sleeping and waking in the rhythms of your breath,
in the rhythms of my breath,
in the flow of our dreams,
never bursting the seams of time with rush and such.
Free to be at home together
free to follow the sun, making our own weather.
You feed my gentleness, and my fire
with a love so listening, my savage squire.
Your chest holds my face
like a glass of wine—sweet, calming, and craved
like a hot shower—warming my wearied wake
and like a favorite poem,
the cadence of your breath saying again and again
how beautiful the world is and how it is my home.
“Weiter” is “further”or “continue” in German. Our camper van’s name is a play on this…
From the undulating Elba
to the port-pocked Rhine,
we ferry our camper
down to the sea
in no time.
We find the dunes
just as we left them,
swirling softly under the moon.
And lie down in summer grasses,
and float on soon.
Where we’ll be next time we wake,
neither of us knows.
Free in love and place and time,
to go where the wind blows.
So soft the curling dunes at night,
so sweet your pillow-chest.
I’ve never played so long and hard,
or gotten so much rest.