07 August, 2019

The Old Cellmate Switcheroo... and Some Dogs

For the sixth time since transferring to ERDCC fifteen months ago, I moved. Like any real-world move, packing up, transporting, and unpacking stuff in prison is no cakewalk. Usually the new cell needs serious cleaning. This time, at least, my move was by request.

The prison administration reserves the right to relocate people willy-nilly. A guy can ask to be randomly assigned another bed, but so-called convenience moves, those with a specific destination, require a form. (Almost everything in prison requires a form.) For this, a guy wanting to move has to not only write down where he's assigned to live and where he wants to be assigned, whoever he's switching places with also has to sign it. So do both his current and prospective cellmates. Getting all parties to agree to the arrangement can take effort. Tensions sometimes rise. Tempers sometimes flare.

My latest move came about because Hopper, my more-than-acceptable cellmate of the past year, had had enough of our housing unit — its sliding cell doors, its staff, its population of creeps and assholes. That these problems were largely isolated to one wing made no difference to him. He wanted out any way he could. Volunteering to leave this housing unit, regardless of who he might get as a cellmate, seemed to belie his claim that I'm easy to live with. But Hopper was a cypher in many regards, possibly because even he had a hard time recognizing his motivations for doing most things.

I might've been stuck with some Brando had it not been for Jeff. He'd been on my trivia team, back in February. As it happens, he was eager to replace the insufferable goon he cohabitated with. Jeff and I get along well and, for reasons of his own, the goon badly wanted to move to my wing. So our plan looked like an easy one-for-one swap. Then someone else heard about it.

Starved for excitement, many prisoners turn into gossipmongers. I've met more than a few "static addicts" in my time, who rile people up and generally make more out of situations than is warranted. Despising drama as I do, I steer clear of that type. But the moment that word about Hopper leaving the house and me switching with somebody in another wing got out, the dramatists came to us.

Weeks passed, during which Hopper and I got barraged daily with questions. Some wanted to know if we'd had a falling out. Others wanted to know who was moving over in our place. A few wanted to take over our cell, somehow, after we left. The more people get involved, the more apt a plan is to go bad, and for a while it looked as if one desperate party, who were flailing to realize their scheme for a parallel move, might foul up what Hopper and I had set in motion. He and I even had an argument, sparked by the pressure they, perhaps unwittingly, put on us.

Caseworkers generally get in no hurry to handle convenience moves, even though the procedure takes mere minutes to complete. The day I came back from work and was finally told I was moving felt like a great unburdening. I packed my footlocker in less than an hour and a half, then tamped down the lid. Since I was only moving into the adjacent wing, I carried everything over by hand — my footlocker, TV, boombox, typewriter, fan, canteen food, cooler, and trash can — rather than use a cart. Jeff and I deep-cleaned the cell, to get the remnants of the last guy out, and I settled in before evening.

It's better here. There are dogs. The animals being trained for the Puppies for Parole program live in the cells downstairs. Sometimes I pet them. Luke, the closest thing to a friend that I've made here so far, is just across the walk. We talk multiple times a day now. The wing itself is quieter and houses fewer abrasive personalities than the one I moved from. This is important. Crucial, though, is that Jeff is clean, even-tempered, fair-minded, and possessed of above-average intelligence. He's turning out to be a very good cellmate. As long as I've got peace of mind in that regard, most every concern can take a backseat. I can live like this.

26 July, 2019

Buddhism Behind Bars


There is religion in prison. Some might say that prisoners are the most faith-filled people one could meet, and I wouldn't automatically have reason to disagree. To be sure, these circumstances will try a man.

Weekly services for several different faiths, plus a handful of interfaith services, are offered at ERDCC. Some of my wingmates supplement their worship with mornings hunched at tables, studying Bibles and Korans. A nightly prayer circle also forms in my wing at 9 PM sharp. Some pray in their cells, hidden from sight. That's them — what about me?

Thursday mornings occasion a two-hour Buddhism service in the chapel. When I walk in, the carpeted floor of the big room is clear of all but eight comfortable cushions and a folding table draped with a flowery aquamarine altar cloth. On the table sit a foot-high wooden Buddha, a book of scripture, the seven copper cups representing the seven-limbed prayer, and a stupa. Our singing bowl sits with us on the floor, atop a little blue and red satin pillow and sounds, when it's rung before the "Refuge" meditation, like thoughts dropped into a deep well. I like the singing bowl a lot.

Attending these services is a new thing for me, even though I knew six of their attendees before I joined. Apparently my inclination is toward Buddhist philosophy as well as toward those with the mentalities of its practitioners. (Like minds and all that.) After all these years of living by precepts integral to Buddhism, officially declaring myself a Buddhist still felt life-altering. I'm just constitutionally averse to joining stuff. Groupthink freaks me out.

Our group has no leader; although, it would be nice if someone from the outside world came in to offer us occasional guidance. We're a motley collection of individuals now. A different person each week volunteers in advance to open and facilitate, usually with a reading that we then discuss. Then there's meditation of some sort. Sometimes we discuss our meditation, too — what sensations we noticed, what thoughts came to the fore, what difficulties we experienced. The atmosphere is relaxed without being slack, sincere without being stuffy. We follow the Middle Path — one of the nicest walks I take all week.

12 July, 2019

Thoughts About Dying

My recent thoughts have been fixed to an inordinate degree on death. Not Death, the cute, down-to-earth goth girl from the comic books, I mean my death, the big sleep, the end, the cessation of my vital functions and the profoundest nothingness that follows. I've been thinking this multiple times a day, in the middle of otherwise pleasant phone conversations, while I'm reading a good book in my cell, when my sleep breaks at odd hours of the night: Byron Case, you are going to die.

The specter of death looms over my days' bland landscape like the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (One key substitution, courtesy of my sardonic mind: the soundtrack isn't Strauss but that song from Sesame Street, "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.") Death is big and weird and doesn't fit. I don't like it.

I ask myself, What if up until right now was all that I got? Let it be placed in the record that I don't believe in a hereafter. We shuffle along, taking our roughly twenty-five million breaths, eating things, doing stuff we enjoy, doing stuff we don't enjoy, having stuff done to us, and meeting a few people along the way who, if we're very fortunate, value our company enough to shuffle side by side awhile. Then we lie down or collapse somewhere, and the show goes on without us. The shuffling along is what we get.

And so I think about my footwork. I know that I'm a terrible dancer. Much has been made of the time a girl cried just because I performed a little soft-shoe in front of her. Dancing, however, is something else, laying the flattering unction to one's soul. I'm talking about shuffling and how well we do it.

Between there and here, I've generally kept my head up and paid attention to my surroundings. I've also tripped and fallen... a lot. One could actually say that my life's been a succession of sometimes elaborate pratfalls followed by recoveries of questionable elegance. My continued imprisonment, while being a travesty of justice that's hurt worse than any other tumble I've taken, is also the best example of recovery I can point to. I could have let myself be mired in woe-is-me bullshit and cried myself to sleep every night of the last eighteen years, mourning the loss of all that I love — but no. I keep shuffling. My eyes don't drop below the horizon. Sometimes I even look at the sky.

I've lived a rich life despite my poverty. Even trapped like this, under lock and key, I managed to find deep fulfillment. I rose above my situation. Here's a revealing tidbit: I had a dream, last week sometime, that I had a fatal heart attack while typing the final pages of my novel. Somehow it was scarier to leave the work undone than to simply kick the bucket. Purpose matters. Mine comes from writing and from the meaningful connections I forge with people beyond the boundaries of prison. These pursuits offer moments of beauty. They're what give color to the void.

Regarding shuffling, I admit that I tripped some people over the years. Several times it was deliberate. Long before I learned how to be happy (and oh, it's an acquired skill, believe me), I got a sad satisfaction out of watching someone I disliked stumble. Once upon a time I slathered someone's Land Rover with five gallons of lard after he rear-ended my friend's new car and didn't apologize. I don't regret stuff like this, but I also wouldn't think of doing its like again. I prefer to maintain a certain high-mindedness. It's about personal dignity and sense of scale.

Regrets constitute a whole other kettle of fish. I think the person who lives without regret is either a sociopath or engaged in some seriously unhealthy compartmentalization. You need regret for growth, to learn what not to do in the future. I cherish my regrets; they're rare jewels in the crown of a life well lived.

I regret throwing that rock at the neighbor kid just because he pushed me down. I regret not kicking Happy in the balls when I had the chance. I regret the shitty coping mechanisms Young Byron got stuck relying on. I regret not telling Brooke, Dave, and Corbin to shove off. I regret not taking Justin and Stasia's problems seriously. I regret breaking Molly's heart. I regret ever feeling sorry for Kelly. I regret giving Tim (and a host of others, really) the benefit of the doubt. I regret throwing only the third or fourth punch. I regret every time I took the short way home. I regret how little time I spent drawing. I regret doing less than I could have to show my love. I won't go on, even though my list does.

Certain myths hold that a man (it's always a man — one way you can tell it's a myth) at the gate, mouth, or shore of an afterlife waits to judge the souls seeking entry. If I fell dead at this very moment, and found myself face to face with this celestial bouncer, I'd justify my existence to him by pointing out that the balance of good and bad tips at a rather acute angle to the side of the former, that my shuffling has been, if not consistently then at least mostly of an agreeable variety, and he'd grant me passage, no sweat.

Of course, that's easy to say. It actually sounds flippant, like I'm ready for that big, creepy black block to tip over and crush me whenever. That's not the case at all. I've got an indisputable, stubborn attachment to living. I want as much life (while remaining cognizant and in control of my bodily functions) as I can have. There's so much left to do — so much more to write, so much more to make of myself, so much more to give the world, so much more love to show those in my life who matter most.

I'm not afraid to die, I'm just not ready for it yet. I'd tell this to the black thing looming over my shoulder in the mirror when I'm brushing my teeth, except it wouldn't listen.