23 April, 2013

Free at Last, Free at Last

“Free” is, of course, a relative term. Three months after I came out of retirement, taking another prison job after more than three years of full-time writing, I find it an apt term. These ninety-some days I’ve suffered (yes, suffered) latex-scented hands, desiccated cuticles, and a whole miserable array of annoyances relating to the job I took when my preferred position proved unavailable — they’re finally at an end. I have thrown off the soggy shackles.

It was easy to do; I had only to wait for an opportunity. Today, after one of the serving line workers got caught with a bag full of processed chicken chunks (no accounting for taste), I leapt to speak with the sergeant in charge of hiring. A white-haired corpulent man whose aspect, even when standing upright, is of a man having himself a hard-earned sit-down, Sarge and I have spoken about a job change so many times since he hired me to wash pots and pans that I hadn’t even crossed the threshold of his office when he said, “It’s Sundays and Mondays off. Do you even care?”

“I do not.” My sad, desperate truth.

“Okay,” he said, eyes never leaving his computer screen. For an instant, I marveled at his laxness. It occurred to me that I’d never witnessed him in the act of rising from a chair, nor dropping into one. Weird. “Line server it is.”

“Thanks, Sarge,” I practically sang. Extra quietly, I pulled his door closed, not wanting to risk the slightest imposition, lest he change his mind.

It will take Sarge a couple of days to complete the paperwork. Then one of the caseworkers in my housing unit will have to make the change to my institutional file. I’ll have to endure uncomfortably dry hands and occasional splashes of filthy dishwater in my face for just a short while longer. After that, though, my pots-and-pans internment ends and I’ll take up a ladle of what’s sure to feel to me like liberty.

18 April, 2013

Worst Day at Work, Ever

Nubbins of barbecue pork swim in grease. Sheet pans on which the potatoes were baked in the oven are double-stacked thirty high, pooling at each layer with grimy vegetable oil. Enough margarine adheres to the sides and bottom of a single pan to satisfy ten or more of the most exuberant bread-and-spread fanatics. The brownie remnants demand a long soak in scalding water before we can fish them out, scour off the chunks, then drop them in the wash sink. Tenacious canned-spinach bits refuse to yield to a stainless-steel scrubber pad without a fight, and, somewhere in the kitchen, there’s a sadistic cook who likes to drain off some of the spinach juice using a strainer pan that’s already a pain to clean when caked with food the inmates actually eat. Any one of these items on the menu make for a longer workday in the pots-and-pans area. Tonight’s dinner consists of all five.

Of course everyone comes to eat. Meal attendance isn’t mandatory at Crossroads, as it is in other prisons, and much of the food here is stomach-churning enough that the affluent inmates often stay in their housing units and cook up meals of canteen-purchased food — beef stew, chicken burritos, cheeseburgers, tuna salad, nachos, et cetera. (My inexpensive preference for meal substitutions is Prisoner’s Thai Noodles, the recipe for which was published here last month.) The menu planners know how terrible certain entrĂ©es are, so, to ensure their numbers and state funding stay constant, they literally sweeten the deal by adding desirable desserts, such as cake or fruit crisp. The barbecue pork draws white inmates like flies to a turd but repels the Muslims and (such as it is) the prison’s Jewish population — ergo: brownie.

There’s a crush to get through the dining hall doors.

These two coworkers and I perform well together, never falling far behind, despite the waves of soiled pans thrown empty or, as is sometimes the case, half full onto our four-tiered rack. We even joke with one another at times, but no so much tonight, when the throngs of diners keep us mute in our activity. Goateed Stan fills what few lulls we experience with typical new-guy questions (“What do I have to do to get, like, a job that pays?”) and obvious comments (“I guess, in a place like this, nothing should surprise me.”) while Ryan tries to stretch a kink out of his prematurely arthritic back and I take the briefest of breaks on an overturned pot big enough to hide inside. Our industrial-sized fan kicks out all the air it can; though, we’re still uncomfortably warm.

Then two carts of pans arrive, loaded down with empties and a few fulls to dump, and it’s back to work.

“Is this the last of it?” asks Stan, hopeful as he picks up a scrubber.

“Not hardly,” Ryan answers.

When both serving lines do finish feeding the hungry masses, our rush begins. A small chaotic crowd forms around us. Inmates from other parts of the kitchen swarm our area to catch whatever leftovers they can before everything ends up in the dumpster. Every time Ryan, Stan, or I turn around in the narrow aisle between the sinks and drying racks, someone blocks our way, trying to shove brownie-pan scrapings into a bread bag, or wrapping some chicken dinner sausages (mysteriously reappeared, six hours after they’d been lunch) in a plastic apron. It isn’t unusual for three or four inmates to stop in at the end of our shift to scavenge, but this is insanity. Carrying a scalding pan from cart to dumpster, I nearly collide with two brownie vultures who placed themselves directly in my path, heedless of my repeated calls of “Hot spinach coming through!”

On similar days, I have been known to get flustered by the tumult, let whatever I’m holding clatter to the floor, and just walk away until the raiding party disburses. (Mobs make me nervous and irritable.) Tonight’s annoyance does not, amazingly, get the better of me. I power through, scrub-busting with vigilance until it’s once again just the three of us surrounding the sinks, the fan roaring above the sounds of nothing but underwater metal-on-metal thumps. And we’re making real progress. I remark to Stan that it looks as though he’ll make it back to his housing unit in time to get a shower, when a couple of the blue-shirted kitchen guards show up looking like Laurel and Hardy — one big, one bony.

“All right, guys, come on. Take a break,” says Hardy, his brushy mustache twitching. “Looks like it’s gonna be a long night.”

To our looks of confusion, Laurel responds, “We need everybody out in B Dining Hall now. Just leave your gloves and aprons and stuff here.”

Our shift’s forty-some kitchen workers stand in a row on the L-shaped railing that runs the length and breadth of the dining hall — the world’s most absurd police lineup — scrutinized from halfway across the room by five low-level guards and the ruddy-faced lieutenant whom everyone calls “John Wayne” for how he looks in his ridiculous wide-brimmed hat. Other lieutenants and a captain bustle back and forth, speaking in the low tones of a clandestine tactical operation. No one deigns to communicate with the inmates about what’s happening, but those of us who have been imprisoned for any length of time know a shakedown when we see one. Why the staff are expending themselves this way is a matter open to speculation.

Such discussion will have to wait until later, though, because right now no one is permitted to speak. I take a spot at the tail end of the line and stand there waiting, like the others, our butts to the railing, waiting for someone in charge to do whatever it is he’s going to do.

Ten, maybe fifteen minutes in, John Wayne motions for the six inmates at the opposite end of the railing from me to accompany him and five guards back into the kitchen. They disappear. We wait some more. Several minutes later, a different lieutenant emerges and orders the next three guys back. This process continues, with high-ranking guards in stupid hats periodically beckoning for the next few inmates standing against the rail. My knee has ached all day; I am impatient to be done with this show of force, to shower the grime of work off my body and make a telephone call for which I’ve waited all week long. Sleep will be nice, too. But here I am, plans deteriorating right before. my eyes, as this line wends its way toward the door with all the speed and vigor of a chilled, overfed python.

I must wear annoyance and exhaustion on my face, because, as the line wanes, one of the blue shirts stares at me and asks, “Are you all right? You need to sit down? You can sit down if you need to.”

“No, I’m fine,” I say. I hate this question. I get it often. I’m slender, I’m pale, my eyes are somewhat deep-set, but I have a healthy appetite and am not, thank you very much, stricken with plague. There should be a word in English to convey this and save me from having to explain myself. There should be a lot of words in English.

“Are you sure you’re feeling okay? I’ve seen guys pass out just from standing too long.”

“I’m fine,” I say again, hoping that standing up straighter illustrates my point well enough for this blue shirt to leave me alone. “It’s just been a long day.”

The sallow, sunken-faced codger ahead of me surreptitiously drops a small container of jelly he evidently planned to smuggle back to his cell, but my interrogator-cum-physician is too preoccupied, watching me for signs of faintness, to notice.

When my turn finally comes and the dining hall is at last left vacant, I’m led by a heavyset lieutenant and Laurel, the same skinny guard who pulled me away from my post, into a staff locker room marked OUT OF BOUNDS. Alongside a very confused middle-aged black man, I’m subjected to a strip search. Laurel rifles through the pockets of the gray pants and shirt I handed him, asking the lieutenant if he wants my pen and notepaper confiscated.

There goes an hour’s worth of writing, I think. But the lieutenant shakes his head, suddenly staring me down.

“You sick or something?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” I say yet again, this time through my teeth. I make it a point to dress rapidly, the way someone less sleepy and in a better mood might. The lieutenant’s gaze is palpably skeptical as I pull up my pants with an imitation of gusto probably ill-suited for the circumstances.

When Laurel asks, I confirm for him that there were three of us working in the pots and pans area. He asks, “Are you cool with staying and finishing up what’s left over there?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Yeah, sure,” he says, astounding me with his unconcern. “If you wanna go in, that’s fine. It’s late, man.”

Too bad I’m afflicted with this stupid compulsion to finish tasks I start. I rejoin my coworkers at the sinks, just in time to haul the last two unwashed pots over to them and get to work cleaning the filthy tile floor. Being so close to the end of the day elevates my mood. Then I discover the long squeegee handle to be inexplicably slathered with margarine. So much for that.

Floors thoroughly degreased, I try to do the same to my hands, briskly washing them with a sliver of waxy state-made bar soap before going to claim my ID card from Laurel.

Out the door at last! Or at least I think I am. A gauntlet of blue shirts immediately outside the dining hall exit accosts my coworkers and me for rough pat-downs. I grit my teeth through the brief manhandling and am sent gruffly on my way.

My return to the cell is an hour later than usual. Longer. My cellmate glances at the LCD alarm clock, looks me up and down, and says, “Damn, I was about to send out a search party.”

I sniff. “Yeah, well, one found me anyway.”

He nods, inferring my run-in with the goon squad. Then: “Hey, you look a little — I don’t know. You feelin’ okay?”

08 April, 2013

The List: Reading January Through March 2013

As it often does, thanks to my usual subscriptions, the generous staff at a couple of literary journals, and friends with Amazon accounts, the new year brought me ample reading material. But as the year bringeth, the year taketh away.

Returning to what passes for a workforce has robbed me of my prime reading time over the past two months, so I’ve had to do some jury-rigging to my schedule in order to keep up. Not that I mind all that much, in retrospect; the shake-up has led me to write more short-form posts for this blog and a great deal more poetry, which, in turn, freed some of my writing hours for reading, instead. After a period of adjustment, I’m reading less than before I took up the mantle of pot-scrubber, but still managed to read the nine books I’ve reviewed here.

* * * * *

Don DeLillo, White Noise
Some of the white noise that fills DeLillo’s incandescent comedy of horrors:

“If it breaks into pieces, it is called shale. When wet, it smells like clay.”

“Until Florida surgeons attached an artificial flipper.”

“Kleenex Softique, your truck’s blocking the entrance.”

“There are forms of vertigo that do not include spinning.”

“And other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio.”


A band played live Muzak.

“This is American two-one-three to the cockpit voice recorder. Now we know what it’s like. They didn’t prepare us for this at the death simulator in Denver. Our fear is pure, so totally stripped of distractions and pressures as to be a form of transcendental meditation. In less than three minutes we will touch down, so to speak. They will find our bodies in some smoking field, strewn about in the grisly attitudes of death. I love you, Lance.”

“Convulsions, coma, miscarriage.”

“It’s the rainbow hologram that gives this credit card a marketing intrigue.”


“Meanwhile here is a quick and attractive lemon garnish suitable for any seafood.”

“A California think-tank says the next world war may be fought over salt.”

“Did you remember: 1) to make out your check to Waveform Dynamics? 2) to write your account number on your check? 3) to sign your check? 4) to send payment in full, as we do not accept partial payments? 5) to enclose your original payment document, not a reproduced copy? 6) to enclose your document in such a way that the address appears in the window? 7) to detach the green portion of your document along the dotted line to retain for your records? 8) to supply your correct address and zip code? 9) to inform us at least three weeks before you plan to move? 10) to secure the envelope flap? 11) to place a stamp on the envelope, as the post office will not deliver without postage? 12) to mail the envelope at least three days before the date entered in the blue box?

“Now we will put the little feelers on the butterfly.”

“In the four-hundred-thousand-dollar Nabisco Dinah Shore.”

“Now watch this. Joanie is trying to snap Ralph’s patella with a bushido stun kick. She makes contact, he crumples, she runs.”

A cold dry sizzle. A sound like some element breaking down, resolving itself into Freon vapors.

“They’re not booing — they’re saying, ‘Bruce, Bruce.’”

All sounds, all souls.
How did I make it this far in life before reading White Noise? How many benighted years! What a pity.

Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters
Chuck Palahniuk novels are like M. Night Shyamalan movies: read any one and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect when you pick up the next. But I like Palahniuk’s formula — the invented almost-credible-sounding facts and figures; the demented archetypal characters bent on self-destruction; the chains of revelations, one after another after another, until readers have discovered so much shocking information they can scarcely tell anymore which way is up. Fiction that disorients can be instructive, a fact that Palahniuk all but writes on his books’ covers.

“Our real discoveries come from chaos,” says Brandy Alexander, Queen Supreme, in Invisible Monsters, a madhouse of a novel by the same man who brought us the eminently filmable Fight Club and Choke, as well as a slew of other anarchic romps that have yet to be made into movies. And discoveries certainly abound in this one, most of them of course meant to shock. Imagine if Shyamalan’s interests turned to making queer soap-opera camp; this book is sick and twisty. It’s also fun in ways you’ll be ashamed to admit lapping up.

Jhonen Vasquez, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut
On a park bench, fourteen years ago, my friend Anna handed me an issue of the Johnny comic book series and said, “You have to read this. It’s soooo funny.”

I did, and, in the most questionable way, it was. And that was that, until, a couple of years later, I started dating a girl who shoved a hardcover edition of the collected JTHM into my hands, saying, “If we’re going to get serious, you have to read this first.” I liked her, so I spent a week reading the whole series in that one volume, chuckling intermittently and wondering what was wrong with me that I found Johnny’s existential torment so amusing.

At least I was not alone in having a twisted sense of humor — the JTHM comics first published in the ‘90s are still in print today; though, Slave Labor Graphics could just be churning out reprints to pile in landfills, in some diabolical scheme to destroy the environment in one of the most tasteless ways possible. Rereading Johnny now, well into adulthood, was a deliberate effort to remember my friend Anna (it worked, and she’d smile that little sideways smile to know this is how I did it) and of the wonderful long-ago I spent with that so-serious girl I fell in love with (she may find this funny, if she ever reads these words). Jhonen Vasquez, Johnny’s creator, surely never intended ‘Nny to rouse sweet, mushy, hug-hug feelings in readers, so learning that it did might freak him out. Possibly, his head could explode, then he’d do a headless spite jig at me and I would be sad again.

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
There is a recipe for this kind of participative journalism that I’m apparently incapable of resisting. Mild-mannered reporter Foer writes here of his immersion in the peculiar subculture of mental athletes, where he learned and practiced their memory-enhancement techniques — techniques pioneered by the ancient Greeks and still employed today — to ready himself for entry into the US Memory Championships. Moonwalking is heavy on anecdotes, not on the boring how-to approach implied by the book’s misleading subtitle, so it’s better than it sounds. Foer’s history lessons and digressive fact-finding along the way make for an entertaining jaunt reminiscent of Stefan Fatsis’s journey through the wilds of tournament SCRABBLE competition, Word Freak, which I read a decade ago and also recommend.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms
In his elegant 2009 book, The Black Swan, Taleb expounded on how unexpected events shape our lives, teaching valuable lessons about the ludic fallacy, the dangers of implied narratives, and false pattern recognition. Writing The Black Swan, he came to realize how well his thought process lent itself to constructing aphorisms — pithy, self-contained bits of ostensible wisdom — and so pieced together The Bed of Procrustes, a notebook’s worth of thoughts, an empiricist’s bathroom reader. Morning constitutionals could only be enhanced by musing over propositions like these: “Half the people lie with their lips; the other half with their tears”; “Don’t talk about ‘progress’ in terms of longevity, safety, or comfort before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness”; and “They read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall on an eReader but refuse to drink Chateau Lynch-Bages in a Styrofoam cup.” Very clever. The rest of the pages can be torn out to improve your bathroom time in other ways.

Philip K. Dick, The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories
PKD was nothing if not a prolific writer, authoring, in addition to his many novels, what I suspect are hundreds of short stories in the sci-fi genre, and, as with his longer works, many of these stories resonate at frequencies that penetrate the reader’s mind like radiation, quietly mutating the gray matter to delayed but significant effect. The upshot is that the story on which you later reflect stands out not for its hard technical data (Dick was no technologist; he expertly obfuscated the science in his science fiction) but for its paranoia, delirium, or isolation — the themes he dealt with best. Standout stories in this generous collection of early PKD include the haunting time-travel tale “Captive Market,” the title story that was adapted into Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie, and the Kafkaesque “What the Dead Men Say.”

Just as in all near-future SF, it’s easy enough to point out the ways in which the author’s speculation about a future thirty, fifty, or even ninety years away failed. Dick didn’t predict the Internet, DNA forensics, the uninhabitability of Venus, Soviet Russia’s demise…. However, we still watch Twilight Zone episodes whenever Syfy reruns them, and suspend our disbelief for classic SF cinema, such as This Island Earth. There’s a timeless je ne sais quoi in black-and-white futurism, on the screen or on the page, which has nothing to do with anything as pedantic as accuracy.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
For how many English lit courses is this 1898 novella required reading, I wonder. I’ve encountered its title, and James’s name generally, for years and years, without having a clue to what the book is about (and even less interest in finding out). Had I known it to be a ghost story — and my reading leaves little doubt about the paranormal nature of the malevolence with which the tale concerns itself, never mind the rhetoricians who think it’s a case of hysteria, delusion, or whatever else — I’d have gotten around to it earlier.

As it happened, I was several chapters into A Rhetoric of the Unreal (see below) before I realized that three whole chapters of that book are devoted to analysis of The Turn of the Screw. In a sense, then, this became required reading for my self-administered, ongoing course in English literature. Posthaste, a friend went online and ordered a cheap paperback edition for me.

In the simplest synopsis I can give, it’s the story of a governess charged with caring for a wealthy bachelor’s orphaned niece and nephew. She takes the job in “a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-replaced and half-utilized,” only to be seized by dread at the appearance of two sinister apparitions — former employees of the bachelor, it seems. The governess maintains, externally, the utmost poise and decorum, spending the remainder of the novella quite privately losing her shit. Keeping her composure becomes all the more challenging once the angelic children are implicated in a conspiracy of knowing what’s really happening. It’s all very dramatic and suspenseful, if a tad fusty.

Although the dusty syntax of a century-old book takes some getting used to, once I grasped James’s style, immersing myself in his cinematic plot was as easy as tumbling from a ramshackle manse’s widow’s walk. (I’m merely illustrating a point; there is actually no such fall in this story. Sorry to disappoint you.) The Turn is very episodic, and I kept envisioning its scenes like those of a movie, probably a BBC affair, on par with Downton Abbey, as far as production values go, and wondering if a film version was ever made. If not, why not? I’d watch.

Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic
Education options for the incarcerated are few. My discovery of this fact occurred around nine years ago, when I was in the doldrums, awaiting the circuit court’s decision on my direct appeal — an awful period in which I sought only distraction, in the form of crossword puzzles, games of SCRABBLE, and all the literary classics I could get my hands on. When I thought to make more edifying use of my time, I considered reapplying myself to formal education by way of a correspondence course. Doing so would have many benefits, I thought, not least of which were better job options (if certain crucial improvements to my circumstances were also made, that is) and my casting off of the label “high-school dropout” that’s clung to me like a scarlet letter ever since I opted to forgo three more years — of teachers who couldn’t engage me, classmates who couldn’t tolerate me, and schedules that couldn’t accommodate me — in favor of a GED and the honest, well-intentioned goal of enrolling at a two-year college sometime before I turned seventeen. So, locked in a prison cell, seven years after clearing the books and the M.C. Escher postcard out of my locker, I wrote away for information on schools.

When the stacks of brochures, pamphlets, and course catalogs arrived, though, my enthusiasm diminished in inverse proportion to the volume of data provided. These days, nearly all of the correspondence involved in taking a correspondence course is web-based, with a few that require students to at least have e-mail. But yours truly lacks any computer access. My options were therefore narrow: (a) business management or (b) nothing. If you remember those midday and late-night TV ads from the ‘80s — the ones in which Sally Struthers flogged courses in gun repair, locksmithing, TV/VCR repair, shoegazing, saw sharpening… “or you can major in business management or accounting” — you’ll understand why I went with option b. Call me elitist, but I could never subject myself to a class I’d seen hyped during a commercial break from Night Court. Deciding against a correspondence course ultimately proved practical, because my direct appeal was quickly denied, reducing me to a braindead mourner, too wrapped up in suffering to devote brainpower to anything more academic than my navel.

Eventually I came back around. I also changed my mind about formal education. For me, given what I want to do with my life, whether or not it’s ever fully restored to me by the State, earning a degree would largely be a waste of money and time. (Establishments of higher learning, take note: I will still happily accept any honorary diplomas you see fit to offer me.) My middle name might as well be Autodidact, considering how rigorously I pursue the self-instruction that works so well to cram information into my miswired brain. And it’s books like this one, A Rhetoric of the Unreal, that allow me to get knowledge and understanding at the speed I prefer, by the terms I dictate.

Friends agree that my taste in reading material sometimes skews to the masochistic. The friend who ordered me this book from my Amazon wish list did so because, in his words, no one else would. He was probably right: people tend to get me the books they themselves would like to read, and I don’t imagine there’s much demand for in-depth rhetorical analyses of sci-fi, fantasy, or other written works that make use of fantastical elements, among you who read this blog. But I was challenged (pleasantly so) by Christine Brooke-Rose’s semiotic studies of works ranging from James’s The Turn of the Screw (as I mentioned above) to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, stories from Poe’s “The Black Cat” to Lem’s “The Twentieth Voyage,” and style exercises from Reed’s Yellow Black Radio Broke-Down to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, in dense, imposingly titled sections (e.g., “The Fantastic as Theoretical Genre: The Three Requirements,” “Ambiguity as Distancing,” or “Metafiction and Surfiction: A Simpler Formal Approach”). I can understand how this kind of thing might put a purely pleasure-seeking reader off his or her breakfast. Me, though? I ate it up.

Davy Rothbart, My Heart Is an Idiot
When you know the author, it’s basically impossible to critique a book objectively. When an author has written about you in that book, it’s more difficult still. Davy Rothbart is my friend, and in his collection of autobiographical essays is a piece about how he and I got to know each other after he learned about my wrongful conviction for first-degree murder. How could I review My Heart Is an Idiot fairly?

I can’t. Instead, I’ll just use this space to effuse about my friend’s newest book.

Davy is a phenomenal entertainer whose adventurous spirit leads him through one bizarre circumstance after another, and these situations make for very amusing story-fodder. I laughed — actually laughed out loud — twice before reaching page ten. Davy’s such an adroit storyteller because he embeds his idiotic heart in every one of these essays — sometimes in ways that make you think you should be embarrassed for him, sometimes in ways that make you want to curl up in a corner and hide under a blanket, but always in ways that make you feel something.

He wrote “The Strongest Man in the World” about how his research into my case led him to know me and a few of the people who most fervently believe in my innocence. Certain individuals who make a profession of reviewing books for major media outlets have called this, the book’s longest piece, its best. I personally preferred “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall,” which didn’t leave me despondent beneath the aforementioned blanket. You know what they say about opinions, though. Buy a copy of Davy Rothbart’s book right now and develop your own unique scent.