12 Years A Slave, the book

Twelve Years A Slave cover
I literally read this book in stunned silence. Months ago, because at first I could not process it at all.

I first learned about Twelve Years A Slave by watching the Oscars. I hadn’t known about the book, or about Solomon Northup, or the awful injustice* done to him, or that a movie had been made about it. Later some of my friends highly recommended the film, which is not to say that they thought I would enjoy it.

But… a book lay behind the movie. A book written 161 years ago by a man taken from his family, his life, and from all hope. However great the movie might be, this book was its source. It is a first-person account of part of our history.

I can say with some confidence that many white Americans do not really believe that slavery existed. Engage them about it if you like, but they will straightaway begin making excuses: “It wasn’t that bad. It was different in biblical times. We fought a war over it, which should pay up any debt. We didn’t fight a war over it; the real issue was state’s rights. Slaves loved their masters, and were better off than they would have been in Africa. It was long ago and it shouldn’t have any effect on race relations today. Plus, you know, we have a black president.”

This is a narrative told to children, but unlike Santa Claus it is genuinely harmful. It is whitewash on a monstrous evil, and Northup lays that evil out exposed in the hot Louisiana sun. Most of the book is the telling of his story, but there are also passages of exposition:

“Happiness, in her mind, was exemption from stripes – from labor – from the cruelty of masters and overseers. Her idea of the joy of heaven was simply rest, and is fully expressed in these of a melancholy bard:

“I ask no paradise on high,
With cares on earth oppressed,
The only heaven for which I sigh,
Is rest, eternal rest.”

“It is a mistaken opinion that prevails in some quarters that the slave does not understand the term – does not comprehend the idea of freedom. Even on Bayou Boeuf, where I conceive slavery exists in its most abject and cruel form – where it exhibits features altogether unknown in more northern states – the most ignorant of them generally know full well its meaning. They understand the privileges and exemptions that belong to it – that it would bestow upon them the fruits of their own labors, and that it would secure to them the enjoyment of domestic happiness. They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power not only to appropriate the profits of their industry, but to subject them to unmerited and unprovoked punishment, without remedy, or the right to resist or to remonstrate.”

Northup was abducted, and whipped into terror of the consequences should he ever dare to say that he was a freeman, then sold into slavery. His deeper story is about the mental discipline of keeping alive an ember of hope, and keeping it hidden. In one instance he sought the help of an apparently sympathetic white person to deliver a letter to his family in the North; to let them know he was alive, and of his circumstances. The man said he would think about it, then told Northup’s master, leaving him in peril of his life. Only quick thinking and reasoning saved him, but what then? How would he ever get word to his family?

“I knew not now whither to look for deliverance. Hopes sprang up in my heart only to be crushed and blighted. The summer of my life was passing away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a few years more, and toil, and grief, and the poisonous miasma of the swamps would accomplish their work on me – would consign me to the grave’s embrace, to moulder and be forgotten. Repelled, betrayed, cut off: from the hope of succor, I could only prostrate myself upon the earth and groan in unutterable anguish. The hope of rescue was the only light that cast a ray of comfort on my heart. That was now flicking, faint and low; another breath of disappointment would extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in midnight darkness to the end of life.”

 It is no spoiler to say that he eventually did find someone to deliver a letter; he could not possibly have ever written the book otherwise. An educated man, he was forced to feign illiteracy. It had taken him years to acquire that first piece of paper and write on it, and to save his life he had to quickly destroy the letter when the person in whom he had trusted betrayed him.

To me the most suffocating part of the story is that enslaved persons were expected to act like they were happy about their lot in life. Even to entertain their masters, enthusiastically, or face severe flogging. Enslaved persons learned to keep hidden their soul, their hopes, their discontents.

Individualism is a cherished religious belief in our country, whatever confession an individual may embrace. We fancy ourselves masters of our own fate, and morally responsible for only our own decisions. Somehow, we tell ourselves, if a person suffers, it must be in some way their own fault. The reality that the sins of our fathers, or our father’s fathers, or many generations behind them could still poison the air we breathe today is heresy to the faith of our democracy. It is even worse to think that injustice affects everyone, and not only the straight line descendants of slaves or slave owners. Even today we fear to look deeply into the darkness of our recent past. It raises too many questions for which we have no answers.

Having said all these things, I do not know how to tell you what it was like to spend time with the words of Solomon Northup. The story is more or less irreducible, and I have no personal experiences that can even serve as a metaphor, or as a unit of measurement, of what he experienced.

All I can say is; read it. If you dare. It won’t stay in a sealed compartment called “history” though.


  • Wikipedia article on the book and its history
  • The slave economy most assuredly affects politics today. And in turn appears to have been affected by ancient geology. Where you can grow cotton | Where it made economic “sense” to have slaves | Voting patterns in the 21st century.
  • *So, was the injustice done to him worse because he was a free man, who was kidnapped into slavery? Because he was an educated man, a musician, a family man? I hope this question would not be difficult for anyone.
  • I didn’t watch the movie. Maybe someday.
  • I often hear the words “white guilt” bandied around by people who want to build a generational firewall around past injustice. No, I am not personally guilty for slavery; that would be idiotic. But yes, I have enjoyed all my life the privileges of social position that derive from nothing more than being white. Why pretend otherwise?


Sure there is, captain. Just be a popular athlete.

I really wasn’t surprised that Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice got a standing ovation from fans, after returning from his too-brief suspension for knocking out his girlfriend. My experience of sportsball culture is that athletes are held to a much lower standard than the rest of us. They expect it. They’re allowed to cut in line, break the rules of decency, and sneer at any expectation that they be expected to face consequences. And their fans seem to like it that way. Hence the standing ovation.

The reason that men don’t go around hitting other men, though, is that most men can credibly hit back. Which makes hitting women all the more craven. We keep our testosterone in check when our dental work is at stake. And I believe it’s a component of the contempt that certain men hold for women of strength – either physical or relational.

Sometimes I think that testosterone culture* doesn’t so much celebrate strength and aggression as it is terrified of weakness, of losing power. This is why certain people compare other men to a woman… as an insult.

Few people (of either gender) will physically attack anyone they believe can really defend themselves. Effeminate men seem to be targets, and children, and the elderly, the disabled, and people who are not in a legal position to defend themselves. Such cowardice extends even outside our species; during WW I, some men kicked dachshund hounds because they were  “German dogs”. No record of them attempting the same thing on German shepherds.

Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism asks; “How about people don’t hit people?” (Good article, as is the article she links to.)

“And exactly why can’t we instill in boys that real men never hit people? Why should it be okay for men to hit other men? I am not okay with that being okay.”

 Adlai Stevenson famously said that a free society is one in which it is safe to be unpopular. I would like to add that a free society is also one in which it is safe to be poor, to be physically less than powerful, to care about others, or to be shy or non- aggressive. I would welcome attempts to distill that into a statement as pithy as Stevenson’s.


  • *Testosterone culture, of course, extends way beyond sportsball. That’s just the example which prompted this rant.
  • News creatures say “alleged domestic assault incident”. Bullshit: he was recorded on video knocking out his girlfriend, and dragging her away unconscious.  There’s nothing “alleged” about it.
  • Remember the mass protests at Penn State, in defense of Jerry Sandusky? Beloved sportsball figure!

Back when people used typewriters

Mark Twain was a famous early adopter of fancy technology, and he helped to popularize the typewriter. Isaac Asimov, author of more than five hundred books, had two IBM selectrics; if one broke, he shoved it aside and kept writing. It was a different time, when most information was distributed on dead trees. You know, right up until 22 years ago, before the World Wide Web.

Check out this video of kids reacting to a typewriter. Funny how a couple of them… want to keep it. It is sort of magical, letters appearing on the paper like that. The sound, the mechanism; this thing has authority.

I had a very difficult time with fine motor coordination* as a kid, and my handwriting was terrible. My sister taught me how to use a typewriter; home row, hands in position, strike the key – magic! A crisp letter on paper. I could get my thoughts out, finally.

I got very good at typing. In college, I made spending money typing papers for grad students who couldn’t spell. You kids, remember this: Spell Check won’t save you from using the correctly spelled wrong word. Homophones lurk, waiting to make you look like an idiot. But I will be sympathetic, pat you on the back and say; “There, they’re, their.”

Here’s what I like best about a manual typewriter: it has infinite patience. While you compose your next words (and you do compose, because it has no error correction), it waits, silent, wanting nothing. No electricity, no software patches, no pop-up ads. It offers no half-assed electronic opinions about your spelling or grammar. It has nothing else to do but wait for your next words. Now, that’s power.


  • Dave Hill compares his Smith Corona typewriter to a firearm… (Give me the typewriter any day.)
  • *Spinal meningitis, age 4. I was “lucky” but effects persist to this day. My handwriting has improved. The typewriter was a godsend.
  • Today I use a computer. My favorite is my Chromebook, which has a very long battery life, and no fan.
  • Next time you have some serious writing to do, instead of a word processor, try a code editor in “clean screen” mode. It’s the closest thing on a computer to using a typewriter. My favorite is Notepad++.

Something I learned from fixing things

Sewer Repair
Your savings? They are gone now.

Recently our sewer pipe broke, and it’s going to cost us 10 grand to fix it. Our yard is a mess with an excavation eight feet deep and 80 feet in length. But that isn’t the important thing.

The important thing is that in the last 5 years, most of the houses on the block have had to have this repair done. All the houses were built about 50 years ago. Buried clay tile only lasts about 40 to 60 years.

If you build a lot of something, they will all start to break at about the same time.

I’ve spent a lifetime fixing things. Cars, bicycles, photographic equipment, computers, and more. When something breaks, people turn around and look at me. From this I’ve learned that systems and objects have a “service life”. That is, you can expect them to last about n years before they need repair or replacement. If you have 100 of them, and plot how long they worked until failing, a failure curve will emerge.  Most of them will fail at approximately n years and a few will fail before and after.

The big picture

Crude MTBF concept sketch
Crude MTBF concept sketch (click to embiggen)

If you build a bunch of houses, most of them will need new sewer pipes around the same time. The same goes for roofs, furnaces, sinks, etc. Each of these systems has a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) curve. When you look at that curve, you know about how long it takes the system in question to wear out or at least need maintenance.

Ideally, you should use this information to plan ahead. Because fixing them is gonna be real expensive.

This also applies, broadly, to roads, bridges, tunnels, train tracks, schools, water mains and sewers, and much more. Now suppose you cut way back on maintenance and replacement? What would the result be?

Right: the roads, bridges, pipes, and whatnot will all start failing at once. It’ll be like an invasion, with foreign saboteurs dynamiting your vital infrastructure. Only in this case, the saboteur is named “Entropy” and you were supposed to be staying ahead of him all along. It is doubtful that actual terrorists could do as much damage on as wide a scale.

But maybe you were distracted by fighting wars you didn’t need to fight, propping up financial firms that were too big to fail, and just generally pretending that Entropy didn’t exist. Eventually you won’t be able to deny it anymore, and by that time the economy will be suffering because the infrastructure that supports it will be in shambles. It didn’t take much foresight to know Entropy was coming. All our experience in everyday life tells us about him.  Our leaders would be morons to pretend otherwise, and we’d be morons to keep voting for them.

Pain dreams

Second in a series on Chronic Pain

The dog had my upper right arm in his jaws, biting down hard. I could feel nerves, muscles, blood vessels, tearing. I could feel pressure on the bone. I pushed away; I hit him on the head. But each blow only seemed to tighten his bite…

What the hell?

I learned about pain dreams 20-some years ago. Pain will keep you from sleeping, but only until fatigue overcomes it. But your brain remains active even when you sleep, and sleep has no analgesic properties. Pain is still coming in.

Ever hear a sound in your dreams, only to wake up and find that the sound is actually present in your bedroom? Or dream about going to the bathroom, only to wake up and find that you really need to go to the bathroom? You can see where this is going…

The collapsed building

One of my pain dreams has recurred hundreds of times over the years. I’m in an old, inner-city office building with brick walls and radiators and tall windows. Usually it seems like the offices of a newspaper, or some kind of bureau, and I’m talking to someone at an old-style, gray Steelcase desk with a linoleum top and rubber borders, and a manual typewriter and dial telephone on it. Then something happens and the building collapses. There’s dust and noise and rescuers are moving around. I’m laying in the street and a huge pile of bricks is crushing my legs. And then I wake up. In my bed. My legs hurting like hell in the darkness and quiet of my bedroom.

Shards of glass

In another dream, I am walking down the street, again in an older part of a downtown area with plate-glass windows. It is evening and the street lights are coming on. There is a flash of light in a store and I throw up my hands to protect my face. Then I am sitting on a park bench looking at my hands and forearms. They are full of shards and splinters of glass. As people move around me, I begin to pull out the pieces of glass, one by one. Some of them are small, but others are three inches ling. After pulling out a few glass pieces, I wake up, with my hands and arms hurting. Usually it’s a generalized ache punctuated by flashes of sharp pain, even though my hands are actually uninjured. Just pain for no damn reason. This dream has recurred probably 50 times.

Klein bottle pain dream

I’m lying in bed, seemingly bathed in pain. My feet hurt, my legs hurt. My arms and hands hurt. My face hurts. I let out an involuntary moan… and wake up. I’m lying in bed, just like in my dream, and my whole body hurts. Should I get up? Move around the house a little, have a glass of milk? Take some ibuprofen? Or something stronger? I lift up the sheet and my shoulder protests… and I wake up. I’m lying in bed. I dreamed that I woke up and found myself in pain. And I am in pain. Awake. And usually I get up and plod down the hall for a glass of milk. This dream has recurred 20 times or so.

 Other pain dreams

There are a few other, less-repeated brain inventions to explain pain while sleeping. I’m being interrogated. I got an electrical shock and have that weak, trembly pain all over. I’m walking down the street and someone punches me in the kidney. I fall, and my ribs hurt terribly. I’m in a movie theatre, and my legs hurt so much I can barely pay attention to the movie. Or I’m talking to someone in an office, and my legs hurt so that I can barely pay attention to them. Or a large dog has my arm in a vise-like grip and won’t let go.

Morning finally comes

These dreams usually occur between 2 and 4 am, and they often signal the end of that night’s sleep. Occasionally I can get back to sleep. On a few occasions there will be a second pain dream the same night. It’s fair to say pain dreams do not improve my efficiency or demeanor at the office. They usually portend a painful day as well.

Why these dreams are interesting, though…

With the possible exception of the kidney-punch* dream, these experiences are not correlated with any actual organic damage or disease. It’s simply a malfunction of the nervous system. The part of my brain that handles imaging, interpretation, context, and story is still active even when sleeping, and still receiving stimuli from the rest of the body.

This is actually normal dream functioning. If there is a cricket in your bedroom, you may hear the cricket in your dream. Different parts of your brain are doing what they do, even though you are asleep. I might speculate that there is an evolutionary reason for this; some animals barely sleep, or only some parts of their brains sleep while others keep watch. It appears this is true to some extent of humans. You smell smoke? Feel a large insect crawling on you? Hear footsteps in the hall where there should be no footsteps? Wake up! Pump adrenalin!

The human brain is a small universe that fits inside our heads. It reflects, prioritizes, images, and in small ways manipulates the universe around us.

About This Series

In this series I’m trying to write about pain as a subject. I have a strong intuition that understanding pain and its effects will do more good than our reflex to offer sympathy. In this series I will be posting links on social media for discussion purposes.

Chronic pain is very common, but little discussed. It can be caused by arthritis, fibromyalgia, or at the other extremes of intensity, cancer or nerve damage from accidents or surgery.  It affects personality, relationships, employment, goals, and sleep to name a few.


  • The kidney-punch dream may be related to passing a small kidney stone. I have passed a number of them in waking hours over the years; big, spiky nasty ones. And possibly a bunch of smaller ones.
  • I don’t write about my dreams – positive or negative – very often. Mainly this is because I don’t think most dreams mean very much. But in this case I think they reveal something about how the brain and body work.

Pain, part 1

This series started out as one humongous postDaudet-200

I’ve been trying to write this post about chronic pain for more than 2 years, but finally decided to break it down into parts. After all, books have chapters, don’t they? This post is the first of several.

I’m not attempting anything profound here, just writing down my thoughts about an interesting aspect of my life. Writing stuff down is sort of what I do, so here goes.

When this started and maybe what started it

Starting around 22 years ago I had a series of operations, in which it seems that something went wrong with the anesthesia. At least, that’s my guess because doctors have not been able to explain why, since then, ordinary sensations are downright painful. Even washing my hands and drying them with a towel, or sitting in a chair for more than an hour. Even lying in bed only starts out comfortable. Sleep is a challenge, since staying in motion is the only thing that helps.

One doctor said that I have “fibromyalgia”, which is an ill-defined cluster of symptoms related to pain and fatigue. Because of pain’s effect on sleep I suspect the fatigue is a by-product. It’s been said you know that you have fibromyalgia when you wake up every morning feeling like you have a hangover and got into a bar fight the night before. When that goes on for years, it begins to wear on you.

Pain and personality

Chronic pain is very common. Something like 2 people out of 5 experience it, ranging from my miswired nerves to the relentless agony of a cancer or accident victim. Think of all the people you know, and several of them are probably in pain at least half of their waking hours. And (as I’ll discuss in a future installment) their sleeping hours as well.

Funny thing about pain; if it is persistent it warps your personality. Over the years, other people have noticed. Some years I become impatient with others, and struggle to filter what I say. This is, I assure you, a bad combination.

People with chronic pain actually get tired of sympathy

There’s a reason people generally don’t talk about their pain, and it is sympathy. That’s right; ordinary, well-intentioned compassion and kindness begins to wear thin. When a friend or co-worker says “Well I hope you feel better soon!”… and you know you won’t, you just don’t know how to respond. You also start to become cynical about their sympathy. And while cynicism is corrosive enough when it’s about strangers; it feels awful when you think it of your friends.

And why this series

I get through hospital stays by geeking out over the technology. It’s just so interesting, that I try to forget that I am the character in the story. And that’s what I’m doing here. I’m writing an inside perspective on something that’s a bit of a mystery: why do some people’s bodies experience pain when there’s no injury? What’s up with that? How to live with it? That’s my focus.

I plan to write about pain and doctors, drugs, depression, sleep, relationships, and anything else that comes to mind. And I’m writing it on my blog with links in social media because social media just seems too ephemeral to me. Social media is made for discussion but isn’t much good for archiving.

How to make an interesting movie about Superman

Superman – you know him, right? Super-powerful, super-nice guy. He’s so super it’s difficult to find villains who pose any challenge to him. He can’t be wasted on thugs and crooks; Superman stories tend to ratchet up to planet-threatening scale (even though a mugger or a rapist is just as big a threat to Lois as Lex Luthor could be).

In the most recent Superman flick Man Of Steel, the big guy wound up in a destructive world-saving fight before most Earthlings knew he existed. Here’s the trailer:

Not that a Superman movie could be realistic, but on the day when thousands of people die, most people just learning of his existence would need a play book to know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. The most likely reaction is that people would want him off our planet as soon as possible. Out-of-context, he is a terrifying character.

It was a really lousy movie – the fight scenes went on forever while the audience struggled to find some reason to care. But it wasn’t a total loss. Watching Man Of Steel gave me a chance to figure out how to make a Superman movie that would at least be interesting to me: by turning the lens on the people around him.

Look at the problem differently: Young Clark is not twice as strong, not five times as strong as most people, but thousands of times as strong. To him we are as fragile as rotten eggshells. His biggest problem isn’t keeping a secret identity, it’s learning how (and why) not to kill people. He needs a reason to value human life, and a literally inhuman level of self-control. Jonathan and Martha Kent must figure out how to raise this dangerous child. And that’s where you spend your first movie; he isn’t the star, his adoptive parents are.

Scene: Jonathan Kent is in the local hospital with three broken ribs. Toddler Clark (only beginning to gain strength) awakens from a bad dream and lashes out, knocking him into the hallway. To the doctor Jonathan explains that he was kicked by a horse in the barn, though the bruise mark on his chest looks more like the hand of a child. He’s a bit doped up as he and Martha discuss what to do.

You see the problem? The conflict? They can’t turn loose of this found-child, but they are in way, way over their heads. He’s only going to get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. They don’t know yet that he will be able to fly, or cut steel with heat rays from his eyes.  As the magnitude of their problem dawns on them, they acquire a new – and probably unwelcome – life mission.

There’s never any respite from raising Clark. It isn’t like they could leave him with a babysitter and go out to the movies. They couldn’t just hand him over to the government, which never saw a new phenomenon that it didn’t try to weaponize. No, they’re stuck with him.

How do you wake a super-child who is having a nightmare, or even a childish tantrum? How do you teach him to stand out? Be a “pretty good athlete”? Have compassion – he must have compassion – without trying to fix the whole world? How to be an honest person while living an enormous lie?

They can’t wait until he’s a teenager to tell him his true origins. Who’s to say (as Man Of Steel suggested) that someone equally powerful, but grown up, won’t come looking for him? He needs to know. They need him to know. They can’t raise him without his help. This is as “bootstraps” as it gets.

Jonathan and Martha are raising perhaps the most difficult child in the universe, while keeping that difficulty an absolute secret. Maybe there’s someone in the community they can confide in, but maybe not. Who can they trust? Joseph and Mary surely had less trouble raising Jesus (and I doubt the initials are accidental either).

In my Superman movie, a childless couple in Kansas pull off the most high-stakes, high-wire-without-a-net child raising in history. Pretending to be Clark Kent most of the time is the most difficult thing that Superman ever does. And the first few times Superman makes the news, it has to be in an unambiguously positive way. There can’t be any cities in ruins before the world knows that Superman is a good guy.

Maybe the second movie should be about The Daily Planet. Let the third movie be a catastrophic, world-threatening crisis. But my bet would be on the first two as worth watching.


  • Let’s assume the Kents have seen the Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life.
  • I see that movie makers have decided it’s OK to do 9-11 style destruction scenes again. Think of how many movies in the last year have involved destroying big buildings with people in them – Superman, Pacific Rim, Star Trek, Transformers, probably others. A bit overdone, if you ask me.
  • Man Of Steel touched for a moment or two on the problem of Clark learning self-control, but it got lost in all the planet-threatening violence.
  • The very enjoyable TV series Smallville hinted at the problem of Clark, but really it was more like a teen-spirit version of the grown-up Superman. At least, the episodes I saw; we didn’t get that station very well.
  • Lance Mannion wrote an excellent series of reviews on Man Of Steel – all of them targeting deficiencies in the movie. Here’s a re-post of one with a list of all the others: But Superman Would Never Do That.