15 October, 2020

Unboxing a Raspberry Pi – a Special Treat

We thought our boss showed up bearing a notice for us to post on the prison's information channel. Instead, what he brings into the little room where I work among ceiling-to-floor computers and DVDs is a package the size of a cereal box. "Here you go, fellas," he tells Luke and me. "Play around with that and see what you can make happen."

The boss grins as Luke, my friend and on-the-job superior, pulls the box's cardboard tab. Cradled inside is our new project: a Raspberry Pi, a powerful, versatile, pretty amazing computer the size of a soap dish.

I resist the urge to coo, instead exclaiming over and over, "It's so tiny," as Luke removes each component of the kit – the board, the case, the power adapter – and sets it on the desk in front of us. The Pi's cooling fan takes up scarcely more space than three stacked quarters. The heat sinks are smaller still. I'm awed.

We ask the boss to copy some files from the Internet (which we, as prisoners, can't access) onto a Micro SD card, and before long we have a fully operational Raspberry Pi to tinker with. The plan is to assign one of these an IP address, hook it up to our local network, and pump a handful of video files out to it, so that prisoners without their own TVs can, during their recreation periods, come into the gym and watch movies. I've never done anything like this before, yet I feel completely capable of making viewing stations a reality.

The Missouri DOC offers computer-based jobs and training programs, but not many of them, and never at a facility where I was confined. The job that's come closest to the level of intellectual challenge and autonomy afforded by my current position in the media center was twelve years ago, when I clerked in the food-service warehouse at Crossroads Correctional Center. Most of what passed for mental stimulation there involved basic math and bantering with three zany coworkers. There's a reason that I never blogged about my workdays there.

One thing I have posted writings about is my techno-geekdom. (See "A Very Technical Boy" or "Hidden Pictures of an Elusive Past," for examples.) Following my sham of a trial, the judge ordered a pre-sentencing investigation be conducted by the Board of Probation and Parole – interviews with me, my supporters, and the family of the friend I was convicted of killing. This was purely a formality. State statutes demand that first-degree murder carries a life sentence without possible parole. The parole officer's final report said that I had "mid-level IT experience" and was interested in a job "working with computers" when I got to prison.

It took nineteen years, but here I am. It thrills me to have code at my fingertips, and hardware all around. I'm even allowed to bring music to work and listen to all the Kraftwerk or Gary Numan I care to – as long as I don't turn the headphone volume up too high and lose all track of time as I configure this Raspberry Pi.

09 October, 2020

Tom Waits Time Machine

"Tango Till They're Sore" is the fifth track on the timeless Tom Waits album Rain Dogs, released by Island Records in 1989. It clocks in at less than three minutes but that brief amount of time can do a lot. Its effect on me is a kind of time travel, twenty-three years into the past.

The song opens with an off-key barroom piano, perhaps one that's missing keys, and a metronomic ticking like someone tapping a sliver of plastic on a sheet of linoleum. The plinking melody is soon joined, all at once, by an upright bass, a couple of brass instruments, and the plaintive vocals of the Vagabond, the estimable Mr. Waits, whose voice makes Joe Cocker's sound almost AutoTune-smooth by comparison.

Without ever adopting an actual narrative, "Tango Till They're Sore" takes the perspective of a hedonist ruminating in a flophouse, considering how he wants his death, and subsequent funeral, to be. "I guess daisies'll have to do," Waits croaks, a man resigned to dying because he plans to have a good time in the process. ("Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair," the chorus pleads.) His list of final requests, for the funeral and beyond, includes a roast pig, a rousing New Orleans band, and someone hang on to his beloved clarinet "until I get back in town." You could call this funereal optimism.

I once mentioned the song in a short blog post that functioned as a belated eulogy for my friend Justin. Lounging around his condo with my friends, following a late-summer evening our favorite local record store, I heard Tom Waits for the very first time and practically climbed the walls to get away from the minor-key cacophony of Rain Dogs' opening track, "Singapore."

I warmed to the sound eventually. It just took a few listens. If I've learned anything about music in my years since, it's that some of the hardest stuff to hear can become the most satisfying, the most meaningfully enjoyable music there is. That's what Tom Waits was for me. It got so I couldn't get enough of his scratchy growl, his song's surreal characters, his devil-may-care musical style, and his singular persona.

As for that song from Rain Dogs, it came to be associated with Justin, a friend whose death comprises one half of the single most harmful, most enduring, most resented event of my life. Even today I can't hear it and not think of how Justin talked and talked about his funeral, about the different ways he'd thought about dying. He'd never discussed the way he actually died, of course, taking his own life within hours of his girlfriend's mysterious, grisly death. And that incongruity has contributed to the endurance of my feelings about the song, which are somehow simultaneously scornful and tender.

I appreciate difficult music that doesn't give itself up to listener all at once, the way a pop song does. I like the intellectual struggle to understand what it is that a piece of music is intended to do; why it works, sonically speaking; what message, if any, it contains. Working toward an understanding deepens a listener's relationship to it. Deep listening enriches your relationship to the music, giving it a chance to sink into your bones as you sink into its melodies, rhythms, and lyrics. Eventually it might even become part of you.

"Tango Till They're Sore" became a part of me more than half my lifetime ago. It's not a song I hum in the shower, nor one that I find myself wanting, at random moments, to hear. But when I get in a certain mood and feel like cueing up Rain Dogs on a warm Midwestern night, the whiskey-warped melody that starts plinking along, eleven minutes into the album, throws me right back into the long-past past. A resurrection. A revival. A memory not worth indulging but there, and strangely enjoyed, just the same.

02 October, 2020

A Nostalgic Poem, of Sorts

The Terrible Movie of You

is set in autumn and all at night –
static scenes of two teens talking
in a parked sedan, light
from the lot's sole lamp
cartooning your face Frank Milleresque.

When the window fogs it's not a heart
you finger there but a skull.
It cries real tears
for your heaped black jeans
and a Misfits midriff
dropped to the floorboard.

no one smokes on film except the occasional villain.
You draw your pack like a gun and fire
one up off the dying
ember in your boy's pale hand,
daring fate.

So very melodrama, you and he,
in your dooms complacent.
Even happy, a little bit.

I'm almost sorry I sneaked into this matinee.
The theater's sticky floors gum
my soles and remind
with every step down
and up the aisle
that intermission made me miss
the part at the swimming pool, where
you're white as the moon and
equally inviting – the part when,
while this silvery dreamshow flickers along,
your reflection in the ripples spills
up to touch you, toe to toe,
then disappears
in wavelets.

An echo
in a courtyard,
the pull of razor
across skin.

I return
to the cinematic dark
just in time to see
your eely curls writhing
wetly, as you stare
into the dark
November sky.

* * * * *

The role of biography in poetry can't be denied, but it's the responsibility of the poet to follow where the art leads, rather than stick closely to fact. There's a reason that police reports and news articles are so tedious. Interestingly, even though we think of those forms as being factual, neither one is inherently accurate. Police get things wrong, or simply lie. Journalists miss key details, ignore them, or have their diligent fact-finding obviated by the propaganda machine that is the media. This poem, about a girl I once knew, only flirts with truth – and in so doing, it says something deeply true.