30 April, 2012

Hidden Pictures of an Elusive Past

After my abduction by the state, I granted indefinite use of my computer to my mother, whose creaky desktop system was generations out-of-date. It made sense that someone should be using my PC, rather than let all those potential clock cycles go to waste. I have always been bothered by devices left to rust, so to speak, while there remains some usefulness in them, and my workhorse of a computer was no exception.

Mum isn’t the tech-savviest person on the planet, so an old friend made a DVD-ROM backup of my documents, image files, and locally saved websites. (If you didn’t already know, I had been an aspiring professional web developer.) The last thing I wanted was to be released from captivity only to discover precious data wiped by some Trojan horse that had promised my credulous mother virus protection. I was relieved by my friend’s foresight when my computer actually self-destructed a few years later. The backup disc remained safely stored, and while I never forgot about it, I did put it and its priceless contents out of my mind for awhile.

You don’t need to do time to understand how reflecting on past glories can preoccupy the man whose present is far from glorious, how the remembered self holds power over one who is locked up. I wear gray today, with white underclothes, but, like the visual representation retained by freed minds, in The Matrix, of their virtual selves, I too have a darkly clad residual self-image that favors tall boots — worlds removed from the prisoner in Chinese tennis shoes who does all he can to blend in. Just as the movie’s character Neo is unsettled by the data port implanted in the back of his head, the feeling of my earlobes without the five rings I used to gently tug for comfort remains alien. Looking at my face in the scuffed metal mirror every morning, performing my pre-coffee ablutions, I know it isn’t the true me gazing back, only an avatar, a construct designed by a system of repression. The real me is all in my head.

In escapist moments, when this system has the least control over my mind, I summon mental snapshots with all the specificity I can muster — of evenings spent cavorting goofily, of meaningful conversations, of past inspirational flashes, of sights seen in travels — and these happy entries from what Oscar Wilde termed “the diary that we all carry around with us” lift me out of purgatory for awhile. But even having a better-than-average long-term memory, I lose the fidelity of long-ago events. Like ancient ink on parchment, many details are missing or illegible.

I came to suspect that indelible images, such as those preserved digitally, would serve me well as mnemonics for certain times I’ve let fall away.

“See if you can find that disc,” I requested of my mother during a visit. I had been leafing through photographs that morning and was suddenly fixated on all those pictures sitting unviewed on the DVD-ROM my friend burned.

The blog on the personal site I maintained until 2001’s interruption, was chockablock with pictures; I used to keep my digital camera at hand, because I never wanted to miss a photo op. I knew that my site had been preserved in its entirety, on disc, but couldn’t remember offhand what candid shots awaited there, other than a couple from a trip to Chicago with friends, one of a fried-foods stand across from my apartment, and one of my cats sunning themselves on a light-streaked floor rug. Mum and I scheduled a time and date for her to talk me through the disc’s contents, over the phone.

“I don’t see that,” she said, when I asked Mum to click on the Windows Explorer desktop icon.

“Okay, so do a search for it,” I suggested.

She found the program, but what was in the window she described was nothing like what I expected. Where I’d wanted a straightforward directory tree that listed every file in a neat and sensible hierarchical structure, what was presented on Mum’s screen was a menu of imprecise “user-friendly” options I didn’t understand. I asked, “What the hell version of Windows are you running, anyway — Vista?”

Her response was silence.

We pressed bravely forward. I was reminded of why I used to be somewhat sought-after by acquaintances for tech support: I’m tenaciously unwilling to accept defeat, especially by a machine. “Try the name of my site, Monochromatic. It was also the name of the folder I had it saved to.”

After a short delay, Mum spoke. “‘No results found,’ it says.”

“Okay, then try the filename index.html. That’s the splash page.”

She sounded almost as dispirited as I was becoming. “No, Honey, it’s not giving me anything.”

For nearly another ten minutes, Mum played the role of my eyes, describing everything she saw onscreen, which I upsampled into a mental screenshot and converted into instructions I tried to make comprehensible. I wanted to find those pictures so badly! Once we found out how to access them, getting her to print and snail-mail them to me would be no trouble at all. The disc they were on was right there. I would find them in seconds, on my own at the keyboard, even using an unfamiliar operating system, but our little game of high-tech blindman’s bluff made me feel like a total Luddite.

Abruptly, then, a breakthrough. Mum said with a giggle, “Oh, wow, it’s a slideshow!”

“What? What did you click?” I asked, desperate to know what she’d done. We wouldn’t be able to repeat the results later if we didn’t keep track of every action now.

“I don’t know. There was an arrow,” my mother answered. “Oh, here you are, playing the violin!”

“So you clicked a button with an arrow? Was there — “

“Now it’s a photo of Anastasia.”

“Okay, just wait a moment. Is there anyth — “

“Here’s you in the back of a limo. I’ve never seen these.”

She could have, of course. All of them used to be accessible to anyone who desired to keep up on the doings of one Mr. Byron Christopher Case. When I moved to Saint Louis, the year before my abduction, I redoubled my efforts at Internet visibility so friends back in Kansas City could at least be involved in my life vicariously. Some of them did, but Mum scarcely acknowledged e-mail’s existence back then. These eleven-year-old pictures were all new to her, as evidenced by the enthusiasm with which she proceeded to narrate the slideshow: my friend Brahm on a telephone pole; my ex-fiancée, Bianca, hiding behind a graphic novel; my former roommate making an obscene hand gesture; my friends Mike and Chris cavorting on a seesaw; me posing absurdly on a park sculpture. It was too much.

“Mum,” I said, “I’m going to let you go.”

“What? Why?”

“I can’t sit here and have you describe these pictures to me if I’m not going to be able to see them myself. It’s depressing. I don’t even remember some of the situations you’re telling me about. It’s like being taunted by the past.”

We had come too tantalizingly close to the goal, and had spent so much phone time pursuing it, yet she understood. Always willing to visibly express emotion when I cannot, my empathetic mother’s voice quavered on the· other end of the line. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. I wish we didn’t have to end like this today.”

“It’s all right,” I said, in what I hoped was a reassuring tone. “Just pack the disc away again. I love you, and I’ll see you Saturday.”

I could have predicted that I would spend the rest of that day abiding one of my tension headaches. The weight pressing me down, following our photo-search debacle, wasn’t too much to bear, though. I’m not generally one to dwell in states of ennui anymore; my depressive years are ancient history. It’s true I began the day with an ill-fated phone call, which unfurled a host of frayed narratives in my mind, but it’s also true that, in spite of that insidious headache, I donned my headphones, cued up a CD (one by a band recently enough formed to lack associations with pre-prison life), and threw myself into the preparation of some poems for submission to a literary journal. There is nothing quite like being in the flow of productivity, of being wholly in the now, to help me forget the then and the photographic evidence thereof.

19 April, 2012


Rumors I heard in the first two hours of my waking today concerned the introduction of a bill to ban tobacco products in all Missouri prisons, and a plan by the administration of this particular facility to increase the occupancy of its segregation unit by fifty percent. By lunchtime I was hearing blow-by-blow accounts of fights that took place yesterday… from someone who hadn’t witnessed them. The fact that the substance and spirit of these juicy tidbits are in doubt does not alter my point: when it comes to gossip, bored old ladies at kaffeeklatsches cannot compete with prisoners. 

I have heard variants of the smoke-free rumor ever since I came into the custody of the Department of Corrections. In 2004 and 2005, when I had a job in the prison’s visiting room, taking photos of inmates with their loved ones, the guards I worked around were all dedicated smokers and were arguably more worried about a supposed executive order banning tobacco than the prisoners. Word of the Governor’s alleged anti-smoking stance was apparently making the rounds on some online corrections-officer discussion board. None of the guards questioned its veracity, even as the proposed date slipped further and further into the future — first September, then November, then July. Among the prisoners was talk of how best to weather the storm. Several spoke of buying up as much tobacco as the canteen would sell them, hiding it until the smokers’ supplies ran out, then selling their stock at extortionist prices to live penitentiary fabulous on the profits. All that anxiety and daydreaming went up in smoke when it became evident no ban was forthcoming. 

Another popular recurring bit of buzz involves a repeal of Missouri’s eighty-five percent rule — the one that deems the perpetrators of certain crimes ineligible for parole until they’ve served eighty-five percent of their sentence. Every couple of years, word crosses the yards of prisons across the state, like a roaring plains fire, that the rule is history. It never is, but hope springs eternal. 

It’s these canards born of wishful thinking that evidence the greatest staying power. Each time the repeal of Ol’ Eighty-Five is on the prison population’s lips, it clings there for a month or more, until everyone finally convinces themselves it’s bunk. However, the negative rumors are far, far more rampant. Word that the administration is plotting to further limit recreation periods, that the canteen will soon do away with a certain much-enjoyed item, that an institution-wide shakedown by the “goon squad” is scheduled for one of the days ahead — the doomsayings are popular. 

Not terribly long ago, I read a magazine piece by a prisoner who described himself falling for a rumor about his state eighty sixing its version of Missouri’s eighty-five percent rule. After hearing this bruited around for a couple of days, he excitedly phoned home to tell his family he’d be out sooner than anticipated. He walked the yard for almost a week, thinking of all those years he’d gotten back. Then his lawyer cleared things up. Several of the attorney’s clients had asked him about the fictitious reform over the years, but it remained as untrue as ever. The disappointed prisoner wrote that he blamed the tenacity of hope — that the imprisoned wanted so badly to believe in a brighter future that they were willing to impart credibility on any cock-and-bull story told them, as long as it sounded promising. Call me cynical, but I see it as a matter of boredom, not hope. In the absence of much real drama or excitement, the overactive minds invent their own, either to watch others squirm or for the thrill of telling a lie. 

Of course, rumors good and bad occasionally turn out to be true. In these rare instances, I can’t keep from wondering whether the buzz had been based on accurate information from the start, or if people in positions of influence caught wind of it and thought, Hey, that’s not a bad idea. Maybe if a source accepted as credible were to implement a rumor that the prison’s gossip is meticulously monitored by the Powers That Be, and that certain otherwise false rumors are made reality just to keep everyone nervous and guessing — a kind of meta-rumor, if you will, with an ironic twist — then the tenor of all the rumors would turn positive. Some might even come true, like self-fulfilling prophesies. 

Changing the world for the better, through judicious application of happy little lies: it sounds like a high-concept family film. I nominate Jack Black to star. 

Incidentally, I just heard they’re going to start giving laptops and free Wi-Fi to all Missouri’s well-behaved prisoners. Also catered meals from Spago. Pass it on.

10 April, 2012

The List: Reading January Through March 2012

If you’re acquainted with my conventional year-end postings of all the books I read in the previous twelve months, this sudden appearance of “The List in April should surprise you. I first posted a long alphabetical inventory of every book I could recall reading since my imprisonment — the period spanning from June of 2001 to that early 2008 date — after learning from a magazine piece about the practice of sharing reading lists. It seemed like a nifty idea. And a challenge: could I remember every title I’d read during those prior five and a half years? More recently, though, I’ve come to question the value of just tacking up a list of forty-some titles bereft of substantial comment or any critical insight.

Sure, there’s something fun about adding another line to my list as I close the cover of each book. Doing so adds to the feeling of satisfied completion. But then what? Who benefits? Certainly my friends like to know imprisonment hasn’t forced upon me crap books, but I prefer to think that there is more than a mere curiosity factor involved.

So we come to this list: ten books in three months. Except it isn’t only the length of this list that’s different. From here out, every book I read gets a review. This is bound to be more interesting and worthwhile for everyone. Followers of The Pariah’s Syntax who are avid readers (and few of you aren’t) may come away with recommendations to add to your own wish list, while I’ll get an acceptable excuse to monologue at great length about something I love (or hate, as the case may be).

* * * * *

Bill Brown, Dream Whip Issues 1-10
In this fat little DIY travelogue compilation from zine publisher Microcosm, the author — sketchbook aficionado, wandering poet, and lonely adventurer — muses on his sojourns across the widest expanses and teensiest pockets of North America. An index at the back lists such subjects as “coffee, black” (page 48), “dead people, machine for picking up voices of” (page 147), and life, as sweet, scummy bog” (page 210). Those for whom staying in one location very long is a spirit-crushing prospect will empathize when Brown, writing in third-person, muses, “His joints ached, and he wasn’t sure if they ached from too much wandering, or if they ached to be going again….”

Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti, The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City
It isn’t a how-to, doesn’t concern itself overtly with capital-P Philosophy, and tends not to dwell on “issues,” yet I found this compendium of superficially disparate essays/monologues/riffs oddly important. Throughout its seventy-two chapters — many of which are comprised of a single page — on topics as varied as partygoing, game theory, quitting smoking by wearing a suit, experimental music, and the virtues of miscommunication, Chairs delivers a sort of quiet profundity that’s well worth experiencing.

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
As a fan of PKD’s deft handling of the uncanny, I can scarcely believe how long it took for me to get around to this affecting, Hugo Award-winning alternate-history novel. Distinct from his blatantly sci-fi works, yet just as compelling (if not more so), this tale unfolds in 1962, in a North America under joint Japanese and German rule following a loss to the Axis in World War Two. With adroit balance, Dick mixes political intrigue with the deeply human, ultimately transcending these genre-defining elements by posing that eternal and quintessentially Dickian question: What is reality? It is a book, foremost, of ideas — the kind that Dick always wrote well.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
This was my first foray into the work of Germany’s treasured national poet. I found it a little trying. An epistolic romance (the story is primarily told in the form of letters to a friend) of the terminally lovestruck eponymous young man, it was a short tale that seemed to me too much a reminder of departed friends. I ought to have gotten my introduction to Goethe through Faust, instead.

Larry Smith (editor), The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure
My moment, “The Verdict,” appears on page 205 of this great anthology from Harper Perennial, which I blogged about back in February. Check it out.

Haruki Murakami (Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, translators), 1Q84
I ♥ Murakami. His straightforwardly surreal stories bring a contemporary tweak to the mold set by Kafka, and I’m a sucker for them.

1Q84 (the title refers to the year in which the story is set: a subtly different version of 1984) tells the tales, in alternating chapters, of a young Tokyo man and woman whose lives become increasingly intertwined through a convoluted series of seemingly random happenings. This being a Murakami book, the happenings aren’t random at all, of course, and over its 925 pages it becomes clear that almost nothing in the plot is accidental. Along the way are a dead goat, a town of cats, and a reclusive religious group that worships the mysterious — oh, but I’ve already said too much.

An instant bestseller in the author’s native Japan, it’s a pity the translation 1Q84 received for its English-language readers was “off” at times. A couple of stylistic inconsistencies that should have been caught by the editor bothered me, too, but readers less fanatically observant of such things won’t even notice them. I ♥ this book somewhat less than Murakami’s others, but it remains an enjoyable, enigmatic epic.

Timothy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation
The poems of Timothy Donnelly are, to my mind, thoroughly modern. Yet on the occasions he turns his thoughts to antiquity, writing about ancient Egyptian or Central American culture, as he does a couple of times in The Cloud Corporation, this modernity makes his subjects crackle with life. Other pieces in the book are not (to use a dirty word) confessional, but, when they veer into the realm of the personal, they vividly reveal. It’s all quite a feat.

I am endlessly gratified by the writer’s playful pragmatism. This trait is most on display in the poems that might crudely be called mash-ups — works that juxtapose bits of disparate text, such as fragments from an Osama bin Laden tirade and sequential lyrics culled from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. Such efforts make several appearances in the book. Where Donnelly impresses me most, though, is in his inspired originals. My favorite is “Fun for the Shut-In,” which takes its title from an article in a children’s magazine and runs with it like a pair of scissors, beginning straight away with the grimly manic initial stanzas:
Demonstrate to yourself a resistance to feeling
unqualified despair by attempting something like
perfect despair embellished with hand gestures.

Redefine demonstration to include such movement as
an eye’s orbit around the room; the pull of red
through drinking straws or the teeth of a comb;

random winces, twitches, tics; the winding of clocks
and tearing of pages; the neck hair's response
to uninvited sound, light, and the scent of oranges

where none in fact exist.
Could lines like these be written by a man who has never known the consuming madness of hyperawareness? I doubt it. At their best, these are exquisite renderings of dissolution (in every sense of the word); at their worst, they’re still delightfully clever wordplay.

Philip K. Dick (Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, editors), The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick
Truly, I got more than expected with this excerpt from PKDs 9,000-page search for meaning in psychosis. The author’s visionary experiences in early 1974 — in which he believed, among many other things, that God had exposed itself as a pink beam of light in his Orange County apartment, that he’d temporarily shared his mind with the biblical Apostle Thomas, and that the fictional worlds of many of his sci-fi books were literal depictions of reality — prompted much self-questioning. The Exegesis is the written account of that eight-year inquiry.

Probably never meant for anyone’s eyes but Dick’s, it’s fascinating as a glimpse into the inner thoughts of a man at odds with his own convictions and concept of the empirical. As a work of literature, however, it’s tedious and repetitive, with sporadic glints of brilliance occluded by all the surrounding crazy. one editor’s annotation sums it up: “We wanted readers to experience a bit of what it’s like to read the original manuscript, page after page after page. It wouldn’t be the Exegesis if there wasn’t too much of it.”

An exemplary passage by Dick, from page 761, reads
Ill bet I never figure it out; it may take centuries of human thought and work after the Ditheon superman (or God) comes into existence. We may be faced with the true ruling (and truly most advanced) life form on this planet, which the mono-psyche human could not apprehend. It is also possible that now we meet our Creator and the entity that has guided and directed and determined and caused our evolution, like the great black slab in 2001.
Dick died in 1982 without the answers he so fervently sought, and I never figured them out, either. After nine hundred pages of delirium about the I Ching, the book of Acts, Richard Nixon, secret Christian cults, government thought-control implants, and reality’s resemblance to a ham sandwich, my own dreams were taking on decidedly erratic themes. I was relieved to move on to…

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Just what the world needed: a light, funny novel about Armageddon. The plot of this farcical tale radiates outward from a mix-up at a hospital run by the Satanic sisters of the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl. On the night the Antichrist is to be switched with the just-born son of a wealthy and privileged American diplomat, there to be raised with all the resources he’ll ever need to secure his title as Destroyer of Kings, Sister Mary Loquacious accidentally replaces the wrong baby and forges the first link of a chain of confusion that has world-changing consequences.

As if to settle once and for all the old nature-versus-nurture debate, the Antichrist is raised without the corrupting influences of Hell while the perfectly normal boy with whom he was switched grows up being groomed by the most devilishly devoted nannies and tutors. When the latter fails to meet expectations (although, he’s evidently good at math), and the signs of the apocalypse begin nevertheless appearing, several parties with vested interest in the outcome — an angel and a demon, a practical occultist and a private in the Witchfinder Army, and four “Apocalyptic Horsepersons” — figure things out and converge willy-nilly on an idyllic, unsuspecting village.

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
Like a nexus point of Victor Hugo’s squalid medieval Paris, the ingenious London of H.G. Wells, and Philip K. Dick’s psychedelic San Francisco, the city of New Crobuzon in Miéville’s books is a festering steampunk Babel. Its streets and dank alleys teem with bizarre residents the imagination balloons to accommodate — scarified, beflowered cactus-men; a race of scarab-headed women and their grublike male counterparts; gross little sentient waterborne blobs; an ostracized criminal class whose offenses are punished surgically, by way of catastrophic mechanical or animal grafts. The author’s bachelor’s in social anthropology informs him well, and he renders these denizens so evocatively that their impossible nature becomes believable, even common-seeming, as though the reader were surrounded by them daily.

The story here, in brief, centers around an unorthodox scientist the nature of whose work attracts a plea for help by a crippled creature from a distant land. In the ensuing research he does to mend the stranger, our man of science involuntarily unleashes something dark and arcane on New Crobuzon — something so terrible that the city’s much-feared militia cannot stop, and against which Hell itself will not intercede.

Miéville’s literary talents are prodigious. It’s no wonder why Perdido Street Station won the British Fantasy Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He writes with the versatility demanded of one whose work brilliantly defies anything as pedestrian and small-minded as genre boundaries.