07 January, 2019

D-Wing Exodus

Rumors of the move had circulated for weeks. High muckamucks allegedly wanted A-Wing of each housing unit at ERDCC to become an honor dorm. This would mean an en masse cell-swap for those of us in incentive wings 1B, 3B, and 6D, and the GP inhabitants of 4A, 5A, and 6A — an operation involving a total of 432 prisoners. The purported reason was that houses full of well-behaved prisoners require less work by staff; most other houses are full of psychos, creeps, and assholes. But since 6-House already had one so-called incentive wing, moving us from D-Wing to A-Wing seemed so phenomenally nitpicky as to be absurd, like some obsessive bureaucrat's dream of perfect order. What difference could it make, which side of the house we're on? I wouldn't believe it until a guard told me to pack my stuff.

That happened first thing, Friday morning.

Pandemonium ensued. Beginning at 7:30 AM, all 144 prisoners in A- and D-Wing simultaneously packed and moved their worldly belongings out one set of doors, and straight through another. The activity, noise, and proximity of so many people in such a small space had me on edge, fighting back anxiety, as my cellmate and I waited for a cart with which to schlep our stuff.

Although it finally came, promising relief from the madness, a disaster occurred. Owing to distraction, I'd set my precious typewriter in a precarious spot. One nudge by my cellmate's footlocker, as we lifted it onto the cart, sent my typewriter crashing to the concrete floor. Plastic pieces scattered. A chorus of hoots and curses went up. Being in full Self-Control Mode kept me from freaking out at the potential loss of this irreplaceable asset. I decided to wait, deal with the tasks immediately at hand, then, later, plug in Old Faithful and see if she still worked. A neighbor handed me a little piece of the typewriter I'd missed. I accepted it from him with what probably looked like disinterest.

The new cell, when we reached it, stank like a mead hall. Vikings had left their hair and detritus everywhere. Hopper, my cellmate, swept up two dustpans of the stuff — the remnants of a Viking funeral, for all we knew. There was evidence of fire. The underside of Hopper's bunk had DAVE LOVES DE'S NUTS! written on it in soot. The last occupants had been two very classy guys. We purged the place of their residue with only about three and a half hours' worth of sweat. Fully settling in will take a bit longer.

As for the typewriter, it's unusable. I'm hoping that prison ingenuity can help me find a fix. Because it's not the brand and model currently sold by the prison canteen (an almost useless piece of crap), ERDCC won't let me send it out for repair. So I've got a grievance to file and desperately hope that I win. Meanwhile, my long-delayed novel (and so much else) will have to wait a while longer still. I'm trying very hard not to panic.

03 January, 2019


My mother's apartment, where I can allege to have lived in my tempestuous mid-teens, was in a six-unit walkup. It was nice enough, just old and not as well maintained as it deserved to be. Cherry wood floors and accents couldn't compensate for a structural problem that made half of my bedroom look to be gradually splitting away from the rest of the building. On the south wall, a crack ran from ceiling to floor, like a vertical canyon. The plaster patch job was sub-par and had to be hidden behind an abstract charcoal artwork seven feet high.

Those richly textured walls were flimsier than they looked. There were many afternoons when I had to turn up my stereo, even when I wasn't in the mood for music. It was the only way to drown out that damned Cranberries album the next-door neighbor liked so much. The vocals he contributed to Zombie were hard to overpower. That guy had enthusiasm.

The floors insulated no better. Downstairs lived a couple, an artist and a musician, with no idea how much of their private lives telegraphed upward: indistinct conversations, arguments, moans of pleasure from biweekly love acts. My own day-to-day constituted a string of inconceivable conditions that were, at least on the home front, less sonically varied. If the couple heard anything of me, it was all heel-clops on hardwood, some melancholic music, the rolling of my desk chair, the connection-establishing screeches of dialup Internet. My mother probably made even less noise than I did. I don't know. At that age, I stayed on the move. Home was for computing, for eating, for bathing, for sleep. Mum had a boyfriend and was sometimes out. I didn't entertain guests.

By contrast, the couple downstairs always seemed to have company, gaggles of creative types spilling out their back door and onto the building's wide wooden landing. Coming home sometimes meant apologizing my way through those crowds. Their smiles were enviously easy, lubricated by Coronas and Heinekens. Social groups were tough for me. I clammed up in a crowd, overwhelmed by stimuli. I believed that a normal person might stop by and say hello, Ned Flanders-like. "Hi-diddly-ho, neighborinos!" Then he'd stay a while and gab. Well, okay, even I knew that normal people would consider the friendliness of the Simpsons' cheery neighbor unacceptable.

Coming in late was my habit. I had another, worse habit then as well, which confused my hours of waking and sleeping, and left me bedraggled after days of high flying. With feet safely back on terra firma, I'd undress and shower in the dark. I never bothered turning on lights. Nighttimes were nice. Meditative. Solitary. Recuperative.

Bathed and dried, I'd shrug into my robe and swing open the bathroom door. I loved how the apartment's cool dry air would swirl in, pimpling my follicles as the chill passed through me. It always felt like a renewal.

On one night that I recall particularly well, along with the chill that poured in was noise — the muted, bassy sounds of the party below. Quite suddenly, I very much wanted to be down there, in the company of people I'd never met. Of course, I couldn't possibly bring myself to go and introduce myself. I'd be the odd man out, on so many levels. I stood there, listening, for a full minute before an idea came to me.

Where had I seen it done before — a bad '80s comedy, some black-and-white suspense film? Barefoot, I took a flat-bottomed glass from the kitchen cabinet and padded to the dining room. Beside the table I knelt and set the mouth of the glass against the floorboards. While my knees said no to the unforgiving wood, my palms said yes, meeting its surface and relishing its coolness. Much like my mind, my body was not in accord with itself. My ear touched the base of the glass. The cold shock of it made me rear back. I set my ear down again, this time better prepared, and strained to hear.

The sound dispirited me terribly: the thwump-thwump of my own elevated heartbeat, imparting secrets I already knew.

21 December, 2018

Nine Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Continuing through the surprise package of books From Lori B. (mentioned in my last reading-list post), I finished Bram Stoker's lesser-known Gothic horror, The Lair of the White Worm. It's basically a reworking of Dracula, with a serpentine female villain. There's good reason the novel is all but forgotten, but I was grateful for Lori's gift just the same. The subject matter helped put me in the Halloween spirit I love (and love writing about, as I did here, in October) so much.

Karen Russell's cutely uncanny 2007 debut story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, didn't contribute to the Halloween mood as much. Maybe if her protagonists weren't all children.... On the other hand, the stories of Sylvia Jackson that appear in Dark Tales are unsettling in the best possible way. Jackson had such a knack for conjuring eerie atmosphere amid familiar settings. On par with ghost-story maestro M.R. James, she was truly a master of the uncanny.

Next, I moved to nonfiction. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World might sound hyperbolic, but Jane McGonigal addresses her subject in a reasoned, almost philosophical way, analyzing games' (mostly video games', but also party games' and ARGs') methods of bringing people real happiness and fulfillment. Using a fascinating cross-discipline approach, she culls from positive psychology, historical studies, and other seemingly disparate areas, to bring her subject into the reader's grasp. This book actually helped me to feel less guilty about all those hours of my life lost to The Sims (a phenomenon the journalist Clive Thompson dubbed gamer regretin a 2007 Wired article).

Then I read these stirring words, written by Friederich Nietzsche in the late-1800s, which encapsulate and typify a large chunk of his philosophy:
I have often asked myself whether I am not more heavily obligated to the hardest years of my life than to any other. As my inmost nature teaches me, whatever is necessary — as seen from the heights and in the sense of a great economy — is also the useful par excellence: one should not only bear it, one should love it. Amor fati: that is my inmost nature. And as for my long sickness, do I not owe it indescribably more than I owe to my health? I owe it a higher health — one which is made stronger by whatever does not kill it. I also owe my philosophy to it. Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit, as the teacher of great suspicion which turns every U into an X, a real, genuine X, that is, the letter before the penultimate one. Only great pain, that long, slow pain in which we are burned with green wood, as it were — pain which takes its time — only this forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and to put away all trust, all good-naturedness, all that would veil, all mildness, all that is medium — things in which formerly we may have found our humanity. I doubt that such a pain makes us "better," but I know that it makes us more profound.
Substitute "wrongful imprisonment" for his "sickness," and the thought could well be mine. With The Portable Nietzsche, another of the books from Lori B. (whom I now thank once again), I was finally able to finish my quest to read all of the philosopher's major works. That it happened in the lead-up to my fortieth birthday, a period during which I felt particularly speculative and pensive, was a fortuitous bit of happenstance.

Joy Williams was not a writer whose work I knew before November. At some point, somewhere, I must've read a highly favorable review of The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, because it had been on my Amazon wish list for a while. That another vendor had a better price for it isn't the point; I bought it and was bowled over. Williams's style is deceptively spare, even simplistic-seeming at first, as she tells her subtle, disjointed tales. Short declarative sentences accrete, butting against each other until texture emerges and the reader very suddenly goes, "Wow." There's so much going on here. I reread several stories, just to see how Williams pulled them off.

Although The Encyclopedia of Coloured Pencil Techniques, by Judy Martin, was inspiring and helpful, the other birthday gift Emily C. sent was a genuine treasure. The Sandman Omnibus, Volume I collects the first thirty-seven issues (plus Sandman Special #1) of the classic lush fantasy comic written by Neil Gaiman. The series and its spin-offs, taken in total, comprise a high-water mark in the world of graphic novels.

The first time I read The Sandman was by candlelight in my bedroom, a pale seventeen-year-old waif in all-black and eyeliner. I smoked clove cigarettes as I turned the pages. My pet rat sniffed at each new issue as I laid it reverently on my desk. The stories were enrapturing. Those nights felt like a fever dream. Twenty-three years later, rereading it in a place of often smothering reality, The Sandman proved no less transporting. Thank you, Emily.

Finally there was Jesse Ball's A Cure for Suicide: A Novel, a gift from my mother. (Thanks, Mum!) Unless he's published another in the last three years, I've now read all but one of his peculiar novels. You might call me a fan. A Cure for Suicide was structurally and conceptually unique, while (delightfully) borrowing certain elements from other Ball novels. Despite what the title implies, the book's got nothing to do with recalling from the dead those who've taken their own lives. Rather, it's a beautiful little love story about two very hollowed-out people who find themselves, after a fashion, in each other. Ball's off-center version of romance is one I don't merely tolerate but actually relish.