The Stony Lonesome: Trial & Error
by Flynn Washburne, March 2, 2016
Science. It's how things get figured out. It's the root of progress and knowledge and understanding. It's the whys and hows and wherefores, the keys and maps and codes, and without it we'd all be rolling around in the dirt like pillbugs. It's all those -ologies and -ics and -onics and -itics. It's bananas turning black and the sun fusing atoms and recombinant and mitocondrial DNA.
It's atomic numbers, irradiated cucumbers, the periodic table, the mating habits of the sable. It's now and then and yet to be, and up and down and sideways and why none of those things actually exist except as referents within our very limited perceptual range. It's the Big Bang, the Big Crunch, and everything in between, and I'm about to tell you just how that Science really works.
A scientist — and by “scientist; I don't necessarily mean advanced degree, lab coat, blunted affect, etc.; any striver for truth can employ the time-tested methods for arriving at it and rightfully name themselves such — observes phenomena, collects data, and takes a stab at what he thinks might be going on. Experiments are performed, the success or failure of each shaping the contours of the eventual hypothesis, which is an informed version of the wild-ass guess. Through rigorous testing and experimentation, the hypothesis eventually develops into a theory, or scientifically acceptable principle.
Let's say, for instance, that you've got a stick and a knife, and with that knife you whittle one end of the stick into a sharp point. Say you take that stick and jam it into the eye of… Oh, I don't know, a cellphone salesman, and shortly (very) thereafter said salesman appears to become blind in that very same eye. The casual observer would not be faulted for immediately assuming a causal relationship between the stick and the blindness, but the scientist knows better. He may infer a correlation based on his observations, but correlation is not causation and only after a thorough application of the scientific method will he commit to a theory explaining what (if any) relation sticks in the eye have to blindness.
Next is experimentation. The first thing one must do is acquire another cellphone salesman, one with two good eyes, and, using the same degree of force, poke him everywhere but the eye. Jam the stick into his nostril, in his mouth, his ear, poke him in the larynx, the nipple, the lumbar spine, and the sternum. Penetrate his navel, anus and urethra. Thrust it into his patellae and between his toes. After every poke, administer an eye test. If there are no changes in visual ability, you have made a step toward the formulation of a workable theory. But you're not done yet. Round up as many cellphone salesmen as you can (I recommend rounding up the staff of the Verizon store at the Boatyard in Fort Bragg; they seem a helpful and tractable lot) and pierce their eyeballs with various other implements in case it was the wood specifically causing the blindness. Try a hot fireplace poker, a shard of broken glass, a wire hanger, and a plastic knitting needle. If the result is the same, you have both broadened the parameters of your theory and homed in on its resolution. Sticking sharp things into the eyes of cellphone salesmen would appear to be positively correlated with and indeed perhaps causative of any subsequent blindness.
But is there something specific to the ocular apparatus of cellphone salesmen that renders their eyeballs more sensitive to the introduction of pointed implements? Only one way to find out. Amass a test group of people from other occupations. I suggest finding a lawyer, a railroad brakeman, a marketing manager, a barista, and a cruise director. Acquaint their respective eyeballs with the sharp stick, and if the result is the same — voila! You have developed not only a sound, scientifically grounded theory — poking sharp things into eyes causes blindness — but a sensible social guideline: keep sharp things out of your eyes.
That, in a nutshell, is how science works and why we as a species are so smart and awesome and have such great stuff. Yes, an eyeball or two has been sacrificed along the way, but you know what they say about eggs and omelets.
A long time ago I was living my life in the usual fashion of a young man about town, looking for adventure and sipping what nectar I could find. One morning I awoke to find myself not in either my own bed nor that of a warm and pliant female, but on a hard cot in a small stone room. I was dressed in a very unflattering one-piece and ordered around by uniformed sentries. Large, angry-looking tattooed men mulled about, now and then eyeing me in a distinctly discomfiting manner.
This is jail, I thought. What the hell am I doing in jail? I'm no criminal.
I attempted to retrace the steps that led me to that unfortunate circumstance and was unable, due to the volume of alcohol I'd ingested, to recall any specifics from the previous day much beyond the onset of festivities. I wonder, I mused, could the two incidents be connected? Is it possible that my inebriation has somehow led to my incarceration? went my scientific mind.
Of course, the data being incomplete due to my memory having been erased, there was no way to even venture a guess about possible correlation. Further testing was required, and it was thus that I became my own guinea pig.
I will say right here and now that my methodology was flawed and my experimental integrity nonexistent. I didn't measure doses or record data or establish controls. What I did was stay fucked up 100% of the time, and while yes, I did find myself in jail occasionally, only by spending an equal amount of time 0% fucked up would I be able to make any kind of reasonable determination about causation and no way in hell was that going to happen. I considered other possible causes for the disruptions to my liberty. A massive criminal conspiracy extending its insidious tentacles into the highest reaches of government and commerce into which I had unwittingly stumbled? An intriguing notion, to be sure. Plain old bad luck, wrong place wrong time sort of stuff? Definitely a possibility. Insalubrious planetary alignments or stellar configurations? I'd have to consult an astrologer, but I liked the sound of that one. I couldn't be held responsible for the eccentricities of heavenly bodies, could I? A parasitic worm gnawing at the inner reaches of my brain and eroding my behavioral controls? As likely as anything else until proven otherwise.
If I couldn't get clean, I could at least change my weapon of choice. I shifted the focus from alcohol to amphetamines and did again find myself visiting the stripey hole, only now instead of being arrested for fun and kooky things like driving up escalators or exercising salvage rights in public fountains I was being nabbed for more humdrum offenses like theft and trespass. This tack was only muddying the issue.
I continued amassing data in a random, catch-as-catch-can way, figuring there'd be time to collate, quantify, and analyze it later, when I wasn't so busy conducting experiments.
In 1993, at the age of 33, I woke up in the Larimer County (Colorado) jail with a battered, bruised face and again, no idea whatever of how I'd arrived at that place and condition. When I got to court they enumerated a laundry list of fairly serious charges: assault with a deadly this, grand theft that, conspiracy to commit the other, etc. etc. Hoo boy. I was in the big leagues now.
Further court proceedings and a gradually returning memory filled in the gaps in my knowledge. I had been capping off a week-long amphetamine binge with a dozen or so rounds of double vodkas at a local bar. When I left I quite rightly determined that I was in no condition to drive my car, but perversely concluded that that did not mean I couldn't drive someone else's car, with or without their knowledge or permission. It was purely a decision of opportunity, having noticed a likely car with the keys inside.
My progress out of the parking lot was sharply curtailed by a fist coming through the open window and knocking me senseless. The car's owner continued pummeling me through the window until, frustrated by the limitations imposed on him by the small space, yanked me out of the car to have a larger canvas on which to complete his masterpiece: Beating a Thieving Tweaker To Death. Very artfully did that gentleman express his displeasure, working here the body, now the head, never overdoing any single area. Quite professionally done.
At some point I pulled a knife out of my pocket and attempted to stab my way out of that pickle, but luckily he was wearing a leather jacket and I only succeeded in rending his garment. It did serve to divert his attention for a moment, though, and I took the opportunity to hightail it outtathere. There were, however, several onlookers only too ready to leap into the fray and assist in my capture. I waved the knife at them and made loud, empty threats about carving them all up and drinking their blood, but someone took me from behind and they dogpiled me until the cops got there.
"Six years," said the judge after the usual spate of testimony, recriminations, and horse trading.
"Six years?" I repeated, aghast. "I can't do six years, your honor."
"That's okay, son," he said with a kindly smile. "You just go on and do as many as you can." (rim shot).
I didn't say that, but I thought it, and as I sat there in my cell with all those years stretched out in front of me I felt not just despondent and hopeless but cheated. I was about to pay out a significant chunk of my life and all I had to show for it was a fuzzy memory of a night of criminally stupid nincompoopery. I didn't gamble my freedom for the possibility of stacks of cash or piles of jewels, which, if wrong, is understandable. I chucked it away for the dubious joy of behaving like a drunken asshole.
The evidence was mounting in my mission to definitively associate chronically excessive intoxication with recurring disruption of liberty, but I wasn't ready to announce anything conclusive. I am nothing if not thorough.
I did my time (four actual calendars) and decided that prison, while a necessary component of society and fine for some folks, was not my cup of tea and I vowed never again to engage in the kind of shenanigans that would land me back in there.
I kept that promise for a full five years. I didn't stay clean but I did manage to moderate my behavior enough to stay free. Then I moved to Mendocino County and embarked on a tightly focused and rigorously maintained program of methamphetamine acquisition and application and it was goodnight, Irene. 15 months later I'm back in the calaboose and anything I thought I knew about prison life from doing time in Colorado was about to be cruelly overwritten by the harsh reality of CDCR, as savage and hellish an environment as can be imagined. It did not, however, prevent me reoffending 17 months after parole, and again 15 months after my second shot at redemption.
The good news is, I'm ready now to state unequivocally and without qualification that it is my allergy to psychoactive substances that keeps making me break out in handcuffs. There is absolutely, positively a distinct and direct causal link between me having a shrieking, clamoring monkey on my back insisting I steal everything in sight and continuing to add fresh entries to my rap sheet. Once again, Science has shown us the way.