23 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Anastasia WitbolsFeugen

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a clever, spirited girl. In school she joined the National Junior Honor Society, Latin club, and academic competitions of all sorts. A couple of months before her untimely death, she started classes at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. The world had been her oyster.

A different version of the truth is less palatable.

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a temperamental depressive for at least a year. In her diary and in e-mails to close friends, she romanticized death, expressed emotional volatility somewhat greater than typical teenage impulsivity, and fixated on a fickle boyfriend. For weeks before her seemingly inevitable death, she spiraled into a textbook example of suicidal behaviors, isolating herself, dropping out of college, and talking openly (and often) about killing herself. She didn't stand a chance in this indifferent world.

The dead have it easy — their reputations are projections of might-have-been, forever idealized, unburdened by their foibles or survivors' beliefs that anything but the best had been in store for the beloved deceased. The culture fetishizes potential. While those who die young remain for all time in grace, the living must forge our legacies through successes and failures — the actual.

Which is fine. Whitewashing who Anastasia WitbolsFeugen was wouldn't be terrible, just an anodyne comfort, except that another life hangs in the balance between her pristine reputation — Anastasia, the young light extinguished too soon — and the ugly alternative — Anastasia, the doomed soul. Mine is no longer young but had (and still has) potential at least equal to hers. By not allowing her to be seen from less-flattering angles, her eulogizers obscure the truth that contradicts the righteousness of my imprisonment.

Anastasia was my friend. We hung out in coffeehouses, discussing our naive ideals and cackling at life's absurdities. We went to movies together. We lent each other books that we each considered essential reading. We commiserated about shittiness and shared the happiness that kept us going. When she died, it was like no grief I'd yet known. I struggled to cope, to keep myself together in the aftermath. Even in that confused state, I clearly saw that the Anastasia portrayed by the funeral sentiments was a caricature, largely unrecognizable to many of us at the service. Frankly, she was no one special. The Anastasia we knew was complex, flawed, and passionate to a fault — a person we all thought eminently worth being friends with.

After two decades lived in the shadow of her death, having matured and made discoveries against which ordinary relationships are immune, I'm now less sure of my friendship with her. Personal documents seized during the authorities' homicide investigation showed me yet another facet of Anastasia. She lied about people behind their backs. She engineered squabbles between friends, probably for drama's sake. She had terrible self-esteem and vied for attention at every opportunity. Her flaws go on and on. She was, after all, only human.

Teenage relations, those gossipy, mercurial, emotionally heightened filters that distort one's world like the wildest Instagram effect — they don't even begin to explain why the night we parted ways struck me as both perfectly typical and utterly unexpected. Knowing what I now do is similarly befuddling. Was her death planned? If so, by whom — her or Justin, or by both, mutually? Either she wanted him, her flaky, intermittent love, to put her out of her misery, or she intended to do the deed herself with him looking on. Or, just as they decided one day to pack and move to New Orleans by the weekend, the two of them might've intended, with no plan whatsoever, to wing it, take a gun to a cemetery, one after the other welcoming oblivion.

So much for the pretty notion that there are no secrets between friends.

Ten years back, I wrote in this post about Anastasia's death, "the ever-widening wake of her death laps onward, continuing to rock and capsize in spite of the distance. Meanwhile, her memory on our horizon gradually melds with the glare of the sun." Pretty words for the gruesome results of teenage self-centeredness. I can't muster this kind of poetry for it anymore. Anastasia WitbolsFeugen died, but I'm the one who's rotting.

13 October, 2017

Quit Smoking... or Your Prison Job

I saw word of the lawsuit's results before the memo about them was posted to the wing's bulletin board. I was relieved.
Subject: Notice of Tobacco Ban

As part of a settlement agreement in an offender lawsuit, the Department of Corrections has agreed to implement a policy banning the sale, possession and use of all tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaping devices inside correctional buildings and on the grounds inside the correctional perimeter. The only exceptions to this ban will be for authorized religious purposes. The effective date of this ban will be April 1, 2018.
No more sudden windpipe closings, then, as I happen to walk through someone's noxious cloud en route to breakfast. No more fretting, before a cell move, over how I'll breathe if my new cellmate's a smoker. No more annoyance at being touched by stinky hands when a guard pulls his cigarette out of his mouth just long enough to call me over for a random pat-search.

Of course, there are rumbles of discontent. I've heard prisoners discussing how they'll stash their tobacco to forestall the inevitable (see my 2010 post about illicit tobacco use if you need this explained). More of the grumbling is being done by staff members, however. And I guess that I get a part of their argument: they're just working a job here and don't deserve to be penalized. But at the same time, there are tons of things that people can't do on the job, which no one complains about because, for instance, no one wants to hear some coworker's seven-hour acid jazz playlist blaring from speakers around his neck. At least acid-jazz guy's particular brand of workplace pollution won't give you a disease.

My cellmate, Doyle, told me about a guard posted at his work site, a man I've seen around here forever, who's been bragging about his "perfect solution" to this tobacco ban. The guy's made countless attempts at quitting smoking over the years; it's never worked longer than a week. Now that the DOC's taking his smoke breaks away (meaning they're leaving him no excuse to fuck off 80% of the workday), he's just going to retire. It isn't a joke, he's really planning to throw in the towel. In a bizarre way, I admire his level of commitment.

Working for the Department of Corrections, at least as a guard, has got to be an intensely boring job. Maybe at other prisons, in states where gang activity and rampant violence factor more heavily, there is little down time — but here? One sees staff, in front of the housing units and outside of the central services building, wreathed in clouds of smoke and vapor more often than one doesn't. What happens when this tiny pleasurable distraction from their tedium is taken? Will they give up and vamoose to some alternative place of employ, or will they stay, tough it out, and vent their nicotine withdrawal irritation inappropriately? I'm betting on the latter.

10 October, 2017

Ghost Story

There was a girl with beautifully sculpted eyebrows who worked at the neighborhood donut shop. It wasn't love because I didn't really know anything about her: she lived alone in a sad Missouri town, sold knives door-to-door on weekends, and drove a 1986 Dodge Omni. That's practically nothing.

Certain days, I walked to the shop right as she was closing up. While she talked, I held the thirty-gallon trash bag for her to dump that day's donuts in. The pieces of her life that she shared were sweeter to me than all of that wasted icing — like that her favorite thing on rainy nights was to climb atop her trailer home and lie so the falling water in her face felt like being propelled skyward, to the clouds.

One night she invited me to her place. I was fifteen and had no car. We clattered along rural roads in incomprehensible darkness until turning up her long gravel drive, then there it was: her boxy hideaway in the weedy field. Inside were stacks of Dickinson and Plath, a saggy couch, some records, and a tidy kitchenette where she made us herbal tea and smiled at my earnest attention. I silently hoped for rain.

She gave me a blanket but my rest on the couch was fitful. After what felt like hours she called from the bedroom, a soft voice, somehow pained. I went, unsure, and held her. This was all that she wanted. “You’re safe,” she murmured. It didn't occur to me, the number of meanings this could have.

In the insect-riddled morning she took me back. A lingering hug, after which she shrank into herself and disappeared from my life as quietly as she entered it.

25 September, 2017

Twelve Books I Spent My Summer Reading

Never one to shy from an intimidating text, I'd had James Joyce's Ulysses on my wish list forever, until my friend Zach ordered a copy and loaned it to me. After slogging through those 800 pages of intermittent coherence, I handed it back to him with the pride of a wounded soldier returning from a decisive battle: I had faced the enemy and survived. PUSD ought to be declared a real thing, though, because I definitely needed a little talk therapy to work through my post-Ulysses stress.

Then there was a major fight and Crossroads was locked down for the better part of a week. By an astonishing stroke of luck, the prison library had just shelved a Virginia Woolf volume that included Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando — arguably her three best-known novels — and I'd checked it out a couple of days before my cell confinement began. A lot of guys deplore lockdowns, but I relished those days of silence, having every meal delivered to my door (although, cheese sandwiches do turn tedious pretty quickly), and being temporarily released from all obligation. It felt like a four-day hotel stay, except for the part where I had to bathe in the sink every night. At least the entertainment was top-notch: Woolf wrote gorgeously.

Some research for my eternal work-in-regress, the novel I seem incapable of writing, then led me through The Book of Hadith — sayings attributed to Muhammad in the Mishkat al-Masabih, selected by Charles le Gai Eaton. And because that was such a heady thing, I followed it with Marion Herbert's German translation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I almost never read anything in German, so it's reassuring that my second-language literacy is still intact. Thanks to John A., for surprising me with the gift of this modern fable.

John also ordered me Umberto Eco's sinister quasi-historical fiction The Prague Cemetery (as translated by Richard Dixon), because he and I are both so taken with Eco's genius. The Prague Cemetery turned out to be my least favorite of his novels, but even Eco at his worst is better than many writers at their best, so thank you, John, for that.

A couple of fantastical reads followed — Jennifer Egan's vaguely Gothic novel The Keep and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde and Other Stories. Neither struck me as exceptional, but Stevenson's Scottish-dialect ghost story, "Thrawn Janet," succeeded on numerous levels and is highly recommended late-night reading for fans of supernatural tales.

My first experience with William Faulkner ended very well. I shut the cover of As I Lay Dying with a contented sigh. What a masterpiece! Faulkner surprised me by flirting with magical realism in this novel of poor Southerners' hardship. I'd supposed that his was a more terse, factual style of writing. In reality, Faulkner seems to me quite dreamily impressionistic. Marvelous stuff!

Switching gears, I moved on to a memoir. Missouri's governor, Eric Greitens, is the author of four books, including The Heart and the Fist, which details his extensive humanitarian aid work, training as a Golden Gloves boxer, Oxford University attendance as a Rhodes scholar, agonizing conditioning to become a Navy SEAL, and cofounding the nonprofit The Mission Continues with a friend. I came away with an affinity for the man I wouldn't have thought possible after seeing last year's campaign ads on TV — proof that politics exists in a different sphere of reality than the one where people actually live.

Then Nicholson Baker's novel Traveling Sprinkler proved an offbeat delight. (I'd expect nothing less from an author who once used for a novel's entire plot a businessman's trip up an office-building escalator. That book, The Mezzanine, was also a joy to read.) Thomas McCormack's thick-tongued advice, in The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, counterbalanced it. My mother gifted me the latter because, well, you just don't know where fresh knowledge is going to come from. At least she got it for cheap.

Gearing up for a slog through serious work in October, I didn't want to commit to any long-form fiction. The Best American Short Fiction 2014, despite being three years old, showed up on the library's New Books shelf and was just the thing. Jennifer Egan and Heidi Pitlor edited these phenomenal pieces from the usual assortment of magazines — Meridian to The New Yorker, and everything in between. The Best American series have yet to let me down, but the short-story collections are perennial sources of excellence.

There's also something to be said about having my morning coffee with RED MEAT, the collection of Max Cannon comic strips that makes up in flavor what it lacks in taste. Emily C. surprised me with this, and it was more fun than a mouthful of crickets. I did what I could to savor the strips, reading no more than two each day. I failed at restraining myself. RED MEAT is addictive. In the end, I binged, not even bothering with excuses. My nerves are a wreck from all that caffeine, but at least I had some good laughs.

19 September, 2017

A Freshly Scribbled Personal Poem with Nowhere Else to Go

"When I Was Young…"
The words slipped out before their import struck.
Further utterance obstructed, I clutched my face And slumped.
A low groan deeper than any half-assed laugh
Rose as camouflage.

There it is, I thought, cradling my skull.
Embodied gray in one point five kilograms,
Almost four decades a little more tattered
By every peek, reconfigured subtly by the act of reference.

Mutti, did you really used to call me Kleiner Mann,
Or was it someone else who aged me prematurely?
To a lover, once, who declared that mine
Was an old soul, it's true I offered a bag of prunes.

The boy with his slippers and robe, and his
Antiquarian collection of fossils and rocks,
Used to shred bread for ducks at the park.
He had in mind a future as an Egyptologist.

In mummification the brain was the first thing to go
Because ancient Egyptians believed it served no purpose.
Other organs were preserved in jars for the soul's journey.
Anubis, jackal-headed assayist, weighed one's vital baggage.

Immortal at sixteen, I dressed and rimmed my eyes in black,
I kept, as a pet, a rat. Rattus rattus was once deified,
Symbolic to the Egyptians as representing wise judgment and,
Further reading in adulthood reveals, also utter destruction.

* * * * *

The seed from which this poem grew was a conversation I had, sitting at the Old-Man Table. The topic that day is irrelevant. What matters is that I began a sentence with the four words that became this poem's title. There was no turning back; once you acknowledge that you're no longer young, it's all downhill. And so this poetic tumble through weedy memory, flowery patches of erstwhile interests, and past-life brambles, ending in the discovery, at the bottom, of a happenstantial connection that won't completely make sense unless you understand how I was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Predicting the future is largely impossible, but scouring the past for signs of a now-inevitable present can be all too tempting. There is nothing to stem our sense that we're onto the true reasons for everything that came to pass. As if we humans need something else to think we've got all figured out!

08 September, 2017

A Call for Inaction, Following Robert WitbolsFeugen's Indictment

According to MissouriCaseNet, Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's father, Robert WitbolsFeugen, is facing charges for statutory sodomy in Jackson County, Missouri. The incident these charges stem from allegedly took place in 2015. A lot of people in the Free Byron Case camp have believed for a long time that he has a history of child sexual abuse and are now relieved that "he finally got caught." My own opinion is different, and because it concerns a relevant, topical issue I'm dispensing with my usual policy of avoiding legal matters in blog posts. I want my supporters, the general public, and those "Keep Byron Case in Prison" people to know where I stand.

A friend recently called me the least angry person he knew, with the best reason to be angry. Of course this referred to my wrongful conviction for murder and how I move through life without the caustic bitterness that might eat a less levelheaded person alive. Kelly Moffett, the ex-girlfriend whose lie let prosecutors close a pesky three-and-a-half-year-old case, may deserve my hatred for the damage she's done, but I have (I might as well be blunt) nobler ideals. Kelly is mentally ill. The extent of her illness isn't for me to diagnose or discuss here, but it's an irrefutable fact, based on documentation and anecdotal evidence, that she's a sick woman. My belief is that Kelly should have intensive psychiatric treatment on an inpatient basis, as she's a danger to those around her and, as her behavior over the past decades has shown, to herself.

But what's Kelly Moffett got to do with Robert WitbolsFeugen's criminal charges? you ask.

Robert is unquestionably one of the reasons that I'm typing this post in a prison cell. It was Robert who harassed the Jackson County Sheriff's Department to close the case, then, when no immediate results materialized, started pointing the finger at me and my friends, whose goth mien — black clothes and hair, pale skin, makeup, and piercings — made us seem like potential subjects of interest in a case whose principals hung out in cemeteries, coffeehouses, and (maybe most pernicious) video rental stores. It was Robert who invented theories of cultish goings-on, to pique investigators' interest. It was Robert who hounded county and state officials well beyond a job offer from the Jackson County Legislature and the passage of Interim Senate Resolution Number CL3777, which begins, "WHEREAS it is with heavy hearts that the members of the Missouri Senate pause to recognize the life and lifetime achievements of a remarkable young woman, Anastasia Elizabeth WitbolsFeugen of Independence, Missouri." It was Robert who forced authorities into an apparent ethical bind over the case and engineered the political pressure to close the fucking thing ASAP.

I have every reason to want both Kelly Moffett and Robert WitbolsFeugen to suffer the kind of torture that's been inflicted on me because of their actions…but I don't.

I especially don't share the notion that Robert's criminal charges are anything more than a curiosity at this point. There was a lot of scuttlebutt about allegations of child sexual abuse — of neighbor kids, of Robert's own daughters — sparked by statements made during the Sheriff's Department investigation. Any truth in these allegations would slightly bolster the already-established belief that Anastasia was suicidal, the whole week before her death, in that breaking up with Justin Bruton forced her to move back in with the man who may have molested her for years — but this is speculative at best. Besides, the man hasn't even had his pretrial hearing yet, at which the admissible evidence will be discussed in court. With what I'm big enough to admit is my own smug piety, I want everyone who reads this to know that I believe Robert deserves the benefit of the doubt. He crusaded against it for me, but our criminal justice system is based on certain principles, one of which is the presumption of innocence. A person who stands accused of a crime must be considered innocent of that crime unless sufficient evidence is presented by the prosecution to eliminate all reasonable doubt. I believe in this right even more fervently because it was denied me and led to my being imprisoned for the rest of my life simply because I befriended two kids my own age whose problems were beyond their abilities to grow beyond.

Robert WitbolsFeugen is a profoundly damaged human being who's done despicable things. He's also, presumably, innocent. Please, everyone, let the justice system grind its way to a conclusion in this matter without interference. Overemotional activism has led to enough injustice already.

01 September, 2017

An Autoerotic Poem… of Sorts

The Boy Racer

The leather shift knob in his feverish palm
Grows hot, having once itself lived (though, never
This much). Last month he installed a dual exhaust
And an intercooler — thrills and chills. The turbocharger's whine
Is his ecstasy given voice, as the two clutches in a single year
Worn out, the three torn tires, and that rubbed-raw shifter
He's so fond of jerking before punching hard through
Corners — that rush of gravity! — can all attest.
The boy fills with only premium.
He spends Saturdays massaging
Mink oil into the black fleshy seats
To keep them supple, tender as a lover.
And lovers, his ladies, titter at first, then take offense
When he doesn't let them light their cigarettes
And dust up the ashtray, maybe burn a little circle.
The girls are soon enough replaced; the car's his true darling,
Responsive recipient of his ministrations. Her specs are
To his fine-tuned ears poetic: octane rating, degrees
Fahrenheit, revolutions per minute, foot-pounds….
And he's thinking into the distance, half-fantasy,
About running with a sexy ten-speed tranny,
Because he's fueled with a lust, adrenaline combusting,
And will go until the wheels come off.

* * * * *

"The two are mutually exclusive," a friend responded to my rhetorical question, but why should there be such incompatibility between an interest in motorsports and an interest in literature? A guy who takes his car to the track, on weekends, can spend Monday through Friday writing novels. Surely there exists a crossover demographic (tiny niche though it must be) of NASCAR fans conversant with the works of Baudelaire. I can't accept that my own appreciation for the written word, combined with the fact that the exhaust note of a well-tuned V-8 can give me gooseflesh, makes me some kind of unicorn. And yet, I have never met anyone else who shares such a love.

Whether or not my friend's notion of exclusivity holds true has, obviously, nothing to do with "The Boy Racer." This just seemed as good a time as any to revisit the subject. The poem's about a young man's monomaniacal, fetishistic fixation on his car. That is all it's about. Well, that and giving me an excuse to conflate the shared slang term for transmission and transvestite — how could I pass that up?

23 August, 2017

Pain Rains from the Sky, Come Summertime

I've seen the injuries, from bruises the size and color of plums, to lips cleaved bloodily open, so I know what a dangerous place the prison yard can he. Fortunately, it's only for a few months each year, then softball season's over.

A track, handball courts, a big paved walkway, basketball courts — everything on Crossroads' two yards encircles the softball field occupying each side of the facility. This means that pop flies, when the softball gets hit at an odd point and launches up instead of out, can hurt people in any direction. Everyone freezes when one's sent flying, their eyes frantically scanning the sky for that day-glo yellow orb of pain hurtling along in an errant arc. It's usually older prisoners who get beaned, unable to hear the players shouting "Heads up!" again and again. Someone seems to get hit every game, yet the administration hasn't banned the bats, balls, and gloves.

Softball for some, dodgeball for the rest of us. And because of players' work schedules, games mainly take place in the evening, during the otherwise enjoyable three-month "night yard" period when the powers that be deem daylight sufficiently long for Crossroads' population to spend one hour of our evening recreation outdoors. I look forward to night yard not because I delight in summer temperatures or want to OD on vitamin D, but because it's my only way to get any rec on worknights.

The way that movement is controlled (a hallmark of maximum security is its limitation of prisoners' ability to go from here to there), after being released from the staff dining room, I usually return to my wing and stay there. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, however, I can wait around in my cell for about twenty minutes before there's a loudspeaker announcement of "Rec!" and brief hysteria to get out the wing door. Then I'm out and free to my thing.

The air is Missouri-muggy, the beating sunlight is only slightly refracted through the atmosphere, and the yard is kicking up the heat that its concrete spent all day absorbing. None of these conditions speak to me, but rec is rec. I like walking laps, stopping to do two or three sets of bodyweight exercises every time I pass the south picnic tables. My friend Zach often tags along, for conversation. We circle until my muscles give out or the yard closes, whichever comes first. Either way, four eyes are better than two, and Zach's presence also protects me, in vulnerable positions such as handstands, from catching a rogue softball in the face.

So there's a good-with-the-bad component to my evening rec, just as there is with everything else. Pro: I get some physical exercise and stimulating verbal exchange. Con: my nerves become frayed, tuning one ear for so long to that frequency voices reach when potential hloodshed is imminent.

Nowhere on the yard is safe, but I'm only too happy to trade a modicum of freedom for a proportionate risk. Hot, jumpy evenings of fun, here I come!

18 August, 2017

On Ten Years of Blogging from Prison

I hate this blog. I hate its title, its subtitle, its content. I hate writing posts for it, month after month, year after year, and checking its stats to see that visitors still aren't crashing the servers with their sheer numbers. I hate the rarity of comments on posts, even though I recognize this as more of a reflection of Internet culture than of my readership's engagement.

I hate paying for this ostensibly free service — for the pariahblog.com domain, for paper, for envelopes, for postage, for ribbon, and for the wear and tear on the typewriter I have to use because personae non grata like myself aren't trusted with even the most rudimentary Internet access.

I hate the delay that snail mail imposes between my writing of a post and that post's appearance online. I hate how slow this makes the process of correcting the typos that sometimes pop up. I hate that this slowness hinders me in addressing timely topical issues.

I hate the prevalence of this one enormous overarching issue in my life — being wrongfully convicted — which affects no one outside my immediate circle, and how hard it is to get strangers meaningfully engaged with an idea as abstract as "some innocent guy in prison for the rest of his life." I hate feeling like a demanding toddler or prima donna because I'm constantly vying for a place in the spotlight.

I hate the economics of empathy, the signal-to-noise ratio among the world's causes. I hate resenting every abused animal, sick kid, and unfunded filmmaker for whom public attention comes more easily.

I hate slacktivism. I hate false promises. I hate that others' good intentions don't make for viable currency in the justice-campaign marketplace. I hate that signing an electronic petition for a governor's pardon represents a significant inconvenience, given today's rapid-clickthrough habits.

I hate that a human life is weighed against political gain and, more often than not, found lacking.

I hate the endless task of figuring out new ways not to talk about my case with the idly curious who surround me. I hate other prisoners asking, when they haven't seen me in a while, why I haven't gone home yet. I hate going to bed at 10:10 every night, wondering when this will end, then waking up at 4:55 AM and wishing that it would, because, fuuuuuuuuuuuuck, this is no way to live.

I hate anyone saying that prison has "preserved" me, when I am terrifyingly aware of every iota of stress and anxiety that I endure every day, plus the countless hairline cracks from having aged sixteen years here.

I hate that my mother has to see me this way, and that I have to see her troubled by it. I hate being an inconvenient friend to the people I love. I hate not being able to do more for them all, and for myself.

I hate being in no position to decline anyone's generosity. I hate having my hands tied when it comes to supporting myself or doing good deeds. I hate this prison's lack of activities and programs — almost as much as I resent the hostility it levels on individual efforts to better oneself or one's surroundings through educational, creative, enriching, vocational, or philanthropic endeavors. I hate that Crossroads doesn't even have a consistently open law library in which to do the research that might change one's circumstances.

I hate having strayed so far from my topic. I hate that there are so many ways in which I could've written a tenth-anniversary post for this blog, which all would've said the same thing — that I have no desire to go on blogging, because this outlet for my observations and memories and laments and celebrations hasn't quite succeeded as my supporters and I hoped, and because there are so many other, more enduring ends that I could be working toward, but that I'm still going to release these dispatches from my cell indefinitely. I hate my sense of commitment. I also hate to admit this, but some irrational part of me believes that The Pariah's Syntax is actually an important part of my quest to retake my stolen freedom.

12 August, 2017

The Eternal Search

Contraband takes myriad forms, from the dangerous (shanks, zip guns) to the innocuous (excess photos, empty boxes), and guards' mission to rid the prison of it all is as Sisyphean as it is multifaceted. Still, they persist.

It seems that I can't leave the housing unit without someone wanting to touch me all over. Pat-downs are such a regular part of life at Crossroads, I almost don't resent them to the core of my being anymore. Walking to breakfast, at not quite 6:00 in the morning, one of the assembled badge-wearers smoking outside the dining hall will probably wave me over. Nothing's quite like a good manhandling, when it comes to waking a fellow up whose coffee has yet to do the trick. The popular prisoner will often get a second frisking on his way out. Who knows what malfeasance an apple-smuggler might get up to, after sneaking a Red Delicious back to his cell.

Showing up for my job, there's usually a queue of kitchen workers relinquishing their ID cards at the door and assuming the position. It's against the rules to bring anything into Food Service except the state-issued clothes on your back, but this rule wasn't always strictly enforced. Workers used to load up on crossword puzzles and sudoku, instant coffee and sugar, Bibles and Our Daily Bread booklets — to get through the many idle hours of their shift, when they're forced to just sit in one of the dining halls. To judge from the current tedium, you'd think the guards patting down deserve commendations. They pat-search everyone again at the end of every kitchen shift, but enough tuna, egg mix, and sliced cheese makes it back to the housing units (usually in plastic "diapers'' made of bread bags) to make you reconsider any reward for apparent thoroughness.

While stolen food is a perennial issue, some prisoners' cells pile up with other stuff that the administration prohibits. Being deprived of so much inclines one to hoard the littlest things. This so-called nuisance contraband is the first to get thrown away during routine cell searches. You probably have a junk drawer, or a whole closet of crap, at home. It's no different for the imprisoned person, who might keep a small Tupperware bowl filled with bread ties, thread, used batteries, fingernail clippers, broken headphones, adhesive wall hooks, empty bags, spare cords, et cetera, buried in his footlocker. I do. So does every cellmate I've ever had. Certain objects come in handy only infrequently. But the rules demand that everything in a prisoner's possession be kept to a minimum. Having more than one bowlful of miscellanea invites hassles.

Bigwigs in Jefferson City, the state capital, have enumerated the limit for each possible item a Missouri prisoner may own (e.g., one transparent-plastic TV, twenty CDs or cassette tapes, fourteen ramen soup packets, two bars of soap, seven pairs of underwear, two jars of peanut butter, one hundred postage stamps, two sets of headphones, ten pouches of loose tobacco, one tube of toothpaste, two jewel-free stud earrings, one cooler, fifty #10 envelopes, and on and on, surpassing tedium, into outright microscopy). I once had a guard confiscate a single package of ramen because I was in possession of fifteen after buying my allotted limit at the canteen that morning. The following week, the property room summoned me to determine what would be done with it. The staff member working the window rolled her eyes at the pedantry of the confiscating guard, slid the package across the counter, and said, "Eat it." So I did.

Some cell searches are excessive, even by the standards of the most slavish henchman. Policy states that cells are to be left in orderly condition when the guards exit, but I have survived incursions that left my space looking as if a natural disaster — a tornado or an earthquake of significant magnitude — had struck. Individual pages were strewn from folders, bags of foodstuffs had been pulled from sealed boxes and crushed, photos were removed from my album, splayed-open books sprawled over random objects, CD cases sat cracked underneath heavier things, laundry detergent and oatmeal was spilled, an eating utensil floated in the toilet, and everything else — everything else — was heaped on the bunks, irrespective of whether the stuff was mine or my cellmate's. Sorting out whose towel was whose came down to a sniff test.

Then there's the strip-search procedure endured before and after every visit. A guard has to watch me disrobe, waggle my tongue, show my open palms, expose my armpits, lift my soles, hoist my scrotum, and, in a final indignity, squat and cough, before he'll provide me with a set of visiting clothes. Strip-searches are also done, in cells, during shakedowns, when entire wings at a time are subjected to intensive cell searches by specially trained guards wearing camouflage fatigues — this composite violation being proof that, in prison, personal space is at best a temporary privilege, at worst a total delusion.

03 August, 2017

It's All in the Presentation

Smoked turkey medalions in a creamy tomato sauce with green bell pepper, white onion, and celery segments, served atop a bed of long-grain white rice. That's dinner — the entrée, anyway — except the prison's menu calls it "Creole." When I slide the tan plastic tray over Staff Dining's stainless-steel counter top, it's with a kind of flourish, and my plating is (considering what I'm working with) superb. The guard pronounces it "artistic."

Making prison food sound and look okay isn't something I'd ever call a talent. It doesn't have much applicability outside the restaurant business, which, no thanks. Staff members who are willing to eat institutional food prepared by prisoners wouldn't bat an eye if I served hastily slopped trays, so why do I bother?

This work ethic of mine is silly, like putting so much lipstick on a pig, but as long as I'm trapped in this sty....

09 July, 2017

The List: Reading April through June 2017


Midway through May, a yearning for greater depth and meaning seized me, and I felt my mind give entry to some darkness. It felt futile to look for anything more than intellectual cotton candy around here. "Prison," I once wrote, "is no haven for the intelligentsia." It's just as true today as it was ten years ago, when that essay, titled "Literacy," was published. You would expect me to have learned sly tricks for overcoming mental stagnation, but my means are limited, and my best efforts are sometimes not enough. 

Prison food is awful, as are prison libraries. By what others have told me, Crossroads' are better than most. Having picked clean the shelves here, for the most part, only a couple (okay, exactly five) books are in circulation that I'm interested in reading. This recent hunger for meaty subjects brought me to finally check out the weighty volume of Emerson, which went a long way toward filling me up. Books that my friend John, and the ever-gracious Tom Wayne of Prospero's, provided were a real boon, too. 

This bout of heavy reading isn't done. If anything, I feel insatiable. Maybe I just haven't run across the precise philosophical meditation that'll tip me over, or the right poetry collection to shift my perspective just so. Maybe this hunger will fade, like so many moods, and I'll settle into a simple novel for some summer reading. If you've been paying close enough attention, though, you'll probably know as well as I do that this is a silly idea. I basically need a steady supply of reading that makes me think, if I'm going to stay sane in this stultifying isolation. 

***** 

Umberto Eco (Richard Dixon, translator), The Name of the Rose
My praise, in an earlier review of Eco's nonfiction, was unequivocal. The man was a brilliant, thorough scholar, and losing him, as the literary world did last year, bleeds a measure of contemporary letters' life away. Reading this, his debut novel, for the first time in April, I was struck not just by the intricacy of its central whodunit puzzle, but also by the prominence of certain preoccupations — literary lists, specifically, and medieval legends — that still held Eco in thrall thirty-odd years later, when he published those outstanding works, The Infinity of Lists and The Book of Legendary Lands. His fixations, bordering perhaps on obsessions, make The Name of the Rose the most substantive mystery novel I've ever read. 

J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
To describe this vaguely surreal novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Coetzee, telling about its plot seems unfair. On the other hand, he probably didn't intend for the book to be strictly allegorical — and possibly not even metaphorical. It dances along a line between story and idea, never quite entering fully into the category of either. There is no Jesus here, only an orphaned refugee stripped of his true name and called Daniel. A benevolent older man called Símon looks after him as they struggle to make a way for themselves in a foreign country. But biblical allusions abound, and the parallels are sometimes striking.

Coetzee (whose work I waited years to read) plays with the flow of narrative and with readers' expectations, maintaining a flux at once disorienting and engrossing. Never, ever does he dispense what could be described as a certainty, which, for a certain type of reader, might be infuriating, but I relish this ambiguity for its truthfulness. As Chekov once put it, "lt's about time that everyone who writes — especially genuine literary artists — admit that in this world you can't figure anything out." Coetzee understands this and brings his canniness to the page memorably.

Randall Munroe, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
What would happen if you set off a nuclear bomb in the eye of a hurricane?

What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?

How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?

Former NASA engineers don't generally retire to become cartoonists, but if Randall Munroe is anything like his former colleagues in aeronautics and space flight, the future of quality webcomics is assured. I assume that checking out this guy's very popular website, xkcd.com, will give you a healthy (or not-so-healthy, if you really get into it) dose of his super-geeky humor. If it's your cup of tea, buy his books. They're as funny as they are fascinating — also, they're useless. Could you ask for a more ideal diversion?

Christy Wampole, The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation
A tide of vacuity has washed over society. Chronic distraction, knee-jerk insincerity, consumerism, indiscretion, and anti-intellectualism plague even the American universities, former hotbeds of enlightened thought. Our culture is empty. Our minds are atrophying. Our bodies are decomposing mannequins over which to drape the latest fashions. Our homes are mix-and-match simulacra of individual taste. Our workplaces are fluorescent-lit tombs. Our institutions and mass media are perpetuators of false dichotomies. And all of this is our fault, because we haven't done our due diligence, questioning, assessing, and appraising the vapid bullshit masquerading as substance in our lives.
You are by birth a card-carrying member of civilization and are thus responsible for it. No one really wants you to know this; things would be easier if you'd just passively accept your assigned role as a low-standards consumer, a human Pac-Man stuffing your face with pixels. There are other ways to go about life, like being three notches smarter than you thought you were and investing everything you do with aesthetic sensitivity.
Failure to do this, Wampole writes, means "a pointless life." It isn't a new idea that she puts forth, but the passion she musters to express it should be enough to wake even the lazy-minded and compel an emphatic yes. So rarely do I come away from an essay collection believing that its author and I see eye to eye, and yet Wampole's philosophy seems to exactly parallel my own. The Other Serious is a book about how to live, and why, that I wish could foist into the hands of every literate American and exhort them, "Read this!"

George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone and Lincoln in the Bardo
I'd hoped that the essays in The Braindead Megaphone would be deeper than they turned out. Saunders's reportage work was superior, ripe with nascent meaning (particularly "Buddha Boy," which he wrote for GQ, about the fifteen-year-old Nepalese kid much of the world believed meditated his way out of eating or drinking for nine months). Unfortunately, this wasn't the bulk of the book. Blame my disappointment on its misleading title, plus the introduction, which asks, "Does stupid, near-omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general?" My pump was primed for lacerating social criticism. What I got was mostly a succession of short humor pieces suited to The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" department. I felt duped.

Lincoln in the Bardo, on the other hand, was stimulating. The novel's clever premise hinges on the death of Willie Lincoln, the young son of America's sixteenth president, and his burial in Lot 292 of Oak Hill Cemetery, where his soul is trapped. (The bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism, is a state of existence between life and death. Conduct, age, and the manner of one's death determine how long it lasts.) As little Willie is interred, the voices of others entombed and buried at Oak Hill narrate his arrival. None acknowledge their deaths, believing instead that they're simply convalescing in "sick-boxes" and will soon be well enough to return to their lives. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, Lincoln in the Bardo intrigued and delighted me so much, I read its entire second half in an afternoon.

John Cheever, Falconer
Whether true or fictional, accounts of prison life are generally avoided. Why read about the same circumstances in which I'm languishing? Ah, but there's the rub: no one's experiences are ever exactly the same, and sometimes there's an unconsidered truth in another's observations of what otherwise appears identical. So I conceded to read Falconer, a selection by my bookstore guy, because you just don't know about most things until you give them a go. And there it was, right at the end of the first hopeless chapter:
Like everything else, [the cellblock] was shabby, disorderly, and malodorous, but his cell had a window and he went to this and saw some sky, two high water towers, the wall, more cellblocks and a corner of the yard that he had entered on his knees. His arrival in the block was hardly noticed. While he was making his bed, someone asked, "You rich?" "No," said Farragut. "You clean?" "No," said Farragut. "You suck?" "No," said Farragut. "You innocent?" Farragut didn't reply.
While Cheever's protagonist is a retired man of means, a heroin addict in a loveless marriage, and probably guilty of killing his brother in a drunken fight, there's much in Farragut's way of thinking that I identify with. That is, Farragut's arrival at Falconer Prison was as shocking to him as it would be to anyone far-removed from the criminal element, and his existential crisis thereafter feels authentic. You don't have to serve years of a life sentence to imagine what goes on in the head of someone who has, but Cheever did so with such empathetic élan that I'd swear the man did a stretch behind bars. Farragut's dealings with the "fucks, freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses […] phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts" of cellblock F ring true. And even though pre-1970s prison life was vastly different than prison life today, incarceration's effect on the human psyche will never change.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (David Mikics, editor), The Annotated Emerson
So heavy as to be uncomfortable to hold, so festooned with explanatory footnotes as to be disorienting, and so inclusive as to verge, at points, on irrelevancy, this fat volume of America's (arguably) best-known essayist was nevertheless a profoundly fulfilling read. Coming to Emerson much sooner, I might have pooh-poohed his fervent advocacy for toil, for communing with nature, for putting down the book and learning from the world. Having had the experiences I've had, though, I'm now more than ready to say that a strain of Emersonian self-reliance would do today's America good.

Chuck Klosterman, But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past
Two qualities I appreciate in a person quite a bit are prominent in Chuck Klosterman: a propensity for deep thought about unexpected subjects, and a wry sense of humor. This is the fourth of his books that I've devoured, and it rivals his previous excellent work, I Wear the Black Hat, for poignant insights on an area of thought not much considered. But What If We're Wrong? draws to the reader's attention how society and its individual constituents always assume that they know the truth about x, that their predecessors' ideas about x were all wrong, and that nothing could ever come along to change what is "known" about x today. As examples of this phenomenon, he cites the cultural significance of rock music, the history of astrophysics, and the surprisingly authentic-seeming nine-season run of the TV series Roseanne. I would love to sit down for a beer with this unique thinker.

23 June, 2017

Creep Alert

Every morning, not long after everyone locks down for the 7:30 custody count, the wing's loudspeaker squawks, "There will be both male and female staff members working in the housing unit today."

This message is brought to us by former president George W. Bush and our concerned friends at the United States Department of Justice, who, several years ago, effected a piece of legislation called the Prison Rape Elimination Act — a bureaucratic dog and pony show predicated on the adorable idea that all we needed, to end sexual assaults in America's prisons, was to tape up a shitload of photocopied "STOP SEXUAL ABUSE! REPORT IT!" notices where prisoners could see them.

To be fair, I've never read the actual language of PREA. I assume that it's intended more to safeguard prisoners from staff members drunk on power than from our depraved fellow inmates. Why? Because when the DOJ conducted its preimplementation survey, I was one of the random prisoners who got a package of cookies for answering their anonymous questionnaire. It dwelled a lot on staff abuse, not so much on what happens behind closed cell doors. Here's another observation: Oreo Thins taste terrible.

Guards, cooks, and caseworkers have been escorted off these premises several times during my years at Crossroads, after inappropriate goings-on came to light. No surprise, they've all been women. I'm not taking a controversial position by saying that female prisoners get victimized more often, at least by staff. Around here, though, a sexual encounter with a staff member is something guys fantasize about. The upshot? PREA isn't meaningless to me — only for me.

No one in prison has ever sexually assaulted or coerced me; although, a few did threaten, back when I was fresh. More just flirted. So often was the ostentatious interest of an openly gay inmate directed my way, I got the joking label "fag magnet." Predators who tested me, all those years ago, all had reputations for accosting young white guys. They tended to play things cool, their technique being to stand aloof until the time was right, then act like some distant potentate descending from his throne to claim due tribute. Curiously enough, the (generally) heterosexual miscreants who stalk and ogle prison employees tend to be socially hyperengaged, with an apparent need to be seen and heard by everyone at all times. What this dynamic says, clinically, about the two personality types, I haven't figured out. But I see plenty of both.

Prairie-dogging is common, usually in the dining hall, which is fronted by windows facing the main boulevard. Female guards, caseworkers, and nurses stroll past regularly, and turn many heads when they do. Some of us dressed in gray aren't content to gawk from a seated position, though. They leap to their feet and crane their necks until the women are out of sight. Loudly enough that these lechers can hear, I start counting: "One creep, two creeps, three creeps, four creeps…" (I typically stop at eight or nine.) They never pay me any mind; their brains are otherwise engaged.

In the Hole, "gunning down" is fairly common. 1 wish I could blame sheer boredom-induced insanity, but no. Blatantly masturbating in the presence of or within sight of a female staff member somehow registers as acceptable behavior to those guilty of it. If the episode of Lockup I saw is to be believed, certain prisons in the South have a real problem with this practice in general population, not merely in segregation units.

I did once watch a team of guards in tactical gear perform a cell extraction. It took two cans of Mace to subdue their target and get him handcuffed, after which they led him to an observation cell. Wearing only boxer shorts and shower shoes, drenched from head to foot in burning orange chemical, the prisoner was incapacitated, scarcely able to walk a line, but he managed to maintain his full erection. On so many levels, it was a terrifying sight.

This kind of obscenity isn't sanctioned by the powers that be, yet behavior that I think should merit, at minimum, a verbal warning is tolerated. In this way, the less blatant stuff seems more insidious. Someone in a crowd leaving the chapel remarks loudly about a nurse's backside. A kitchen worker explicitly details what he'd like to do to his housing unit's caseworker. Rather than step over to be patted down by a male guard, a prisoner in line waits to be searched by the female, saying that he hasn't "felt a woman's touch in a long time." Staff members heard each of these but didn't make a peep about them. For reasons of prison politics and my own well-being, I kept my mouth shut, too.

It's no secret that I don't belong here. Nor do I leave any room for doubt that I want out more than I've ever wanted anything else. But witnessing these things makes me glad that these creeps are in here, setting my teeth on edge, not out there, doing real harm.

16 June, 2017

A New Poem on an Old Midwestern Custom

For the Album

The Man Upstairs must've run out
Of quarters to feed the machine.
So the rain stopped,
And pufferfish-faced aunts in rayon
Emerged to assail our virgin faces,
Hand-fluff their bouffants, and finally
Consent to being photographed.
Curious that no one thought to preserve
For posterity the impressive mass
Of flies descending on the deviled eggs.

* * * * *

From what I understand, it doesn't matter who your relatives are — family reunions all take place in one of the outermost circles of Hell. The kids have fun, visiting cousins not seen in a while, but the older you are, the more burdensome it becomes to make conversation with people whose lives intersect your own solely by dint of genetics. Between Uncle Joe's odious politics and Grandma Millie's casual racism, Cousin Gina's drinking and her husband Chauncy's efforts to sell everyone insurance, few moments of easy pleasure are had. Who doesn't breathe a little sigh of relief as their car pulls away from the park, content at being a distinct segment of the larger familial mass?

Maybe this is why people do it, reuniting the smaller parts of the unit as a reminder, a reassurance that your life may not be what you'd prefer but at least isn't like those people's.

09 June, 2017

Giving Yoga Another Go

Christina Brown's Yoga Bible was a gift to me, prompted by my wondering aloud, "Are there any Yoga for Dummies books that are worth a crap?" I'd been curious to know the answer for years — eight, to be exact — ever since the painful failure of my initial yoga experience.

To the surprise of everyone who knows me (myself included), I eventually got into bodyweight training. This mostly happened because I didn't want to invite early decrepitude. (Being a prisoner is bad enough for one's health, but I also led a stereotypically inert literary-geek lifestyle.) Bodyweight training was perfect for me, given my limited space, lack of equipment, and long-harbored fantasy about joining a circus.


My regimen now incorporates time with the gym's weight pile and a bit of cardio. As helpful as any exercise is for overall flexibility, my range of motion is more limited than the average man about town. I'm about as supple as a steak from Denny's. Also, how could I live with myself, forever cowed by a pulled… whatever had me hobbling for that week, in 2007, following my failed Triangle Pose? I had to give yoga a second chance — at least for long enough to make an informed decision.

I had a heads up that The Yoga Bible was on its way to me. New experiences in prison being a precious luxury, it was kind of an exciting wait. I tempered my enthusiasm with pragmatism, working out the logistical issues I foresaw:
  1. When would I practice?
  2. What would I wear?
  3. What would I use for a mat?
To the first: when something's important, you make the time for it. I committed to carving half an hour out of my non-workout mornings, when my cellmate's at work. This meant sacrificing precious writing time, but I've certainly squandered that in less rewarding ways. No excuses!

To the second: ash gray sweatpants and a T-shirt would suffice for yoga-wear. They'd have to. Nothing else I own is remotely suitable for stretching, folding, twisting movements.

To the third: since Department of Corrections policy doesn't allow for them, the prison canteen doesn't sell mats and I can't mail order one. Thoroughly wiping down the cell's concrete floor, I would lay down my state-issued fleece blanket, folded twice in half, and make do until figuring out something better.

On the morning that the book arrived, I leapt right in, cueing up an environmental-soundtrack CD for meditative ambiance, and settling on the blanketed floor.

Breathe in, breathe out. Abs firm and still. Ujjayi Pranayama took some getting used to. Once I was hissing through my nose well enough, it was time for Sun Salutations. Then I tried Cat Pose, various "releases," Mountain Pose. Then more Sun Salutations. For continuity's sake. For getting the feel for flow. Then I just sat, breathing on the floor, being.

Looking over at my cellmate's alarm clock, I was amazed: I'd been doing yoga for a full hour — twice as long as I'd intended. Not bad for a do-over.

I couldn't wait. The next day's practice began a half hour earlier.

03 June, 2017

Canteen, the Small Mercy

Lawsuits have kept prison food from becoming altogether malnutritious, but flavor and texture are hazy concepts and, therefore, hard to litigate. So, just because it will keep prisoners from dying doesn't mean the difference between slop and steak. (Consider, for example, the ongoing "meal loaf" dispute.)

I've had to stop eating most of the meat on the Department of Corrections' menu. Other guys say that the TVP — textured vegetable protein (AKA soy) — gives them wicked gas, but trial and error showed that it was the institutional-grade ground turkey making me feel gut-stabbed. The vegetarian options aren't guaranteed to please, either. While Crossroads' cooks make decent oven-browned potatoes, grits, and cabbage soup, they manage to foul up, with dismaying regularity, almost every variety of bean.

Compared to others here, I'm on velvet. Not only does my current job in the staff dining room afford me daily fresh fruit and the occasional raw vegetables, in whatever quantities I feel like eating, I also receive enough money to skip chow-hall meals, on my days off, now and again. Like it does everywhere else, money, in prison, buys choices for those who've got it. At no time is this more obvious than on Crossroads' "spend days," when the bulge of each bright red mesh bag emerging from the canteen to cross the yard announces who has the funds to furnish comfort and who's barely scraping by.
RC Cola — $.38 per can
Moon Lodge Hot BBQ Chips — $1.37 per bag
Jack Links BBQ Beef Steak — $1.31 per package
Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls — $1.61 per box
Bar-S Hot Dogs — $1.99 per package
Big Daddy Charbroil Cheeseburger — $3.69 each
Banquet Fried Chicken — $7.99 per box
I've never bought any of these things, nor most of what else is on offer. The list goes on for pages, roughly 85% of it junk. The canteen's selection does change by degrees throughout the year, to keep total monotony from setting in; however, staples like ramen soup and summer sausage never go away, no matter how much I might wish they'd be replaced with miso mix and cashews.

For being a maximum-security facility, surrounded by a lethal electric fence, and housing "society's worst," Crossroads' wards appear well cared for, humping Santa sacks galore back to their housing units. Mine stay small. I keep meals eaten in the cell simple, with staples of rice, mackerel, instant oatmeal, powdered milk, roasted peanuts, and sundry spices — boring, maybe, but healthful-ish. Recipes invented by the general population are sloppy, oily variations on themes. Most are some kind of burrito thing, nacho thing, spaghetti thing, or throw-stuff-in-some-ramen-and-whip-it-into-a-slurry thing. (That last one's especially popular.) The two microwave ovens in my wing stay busy.

Cellmates have accused me of being a cheapskate for not splurging on treats. "I can't afford it," I tell them. It's a lie. Stuff like beef tips and pre-cooked bacon wouldn't be too rich for my blood if I simply switched to generic hygiene products, stopped buying stationery to write with, cut out postage stamps for correspondence, and gave up making phone calls. I could suck down up to two pints of ice cream each week — vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. I could heat honey buns for breakfast, nuke popcorn for movies, nibble candy bars for after-dinner snacks. I could build prison "pizzas," using crushed snack crackers for crust. I could be fat and… happy?

We make choices. We live with them. Clean and lean, maintaining a sense of purpose and social value — those are mine. But when the chow hall serves us cheeseburger macaroni that smells like cat food, I'm relieved to have some small luxury of choice.

22 May, 2017

The Astonishing Kindness of Sacred Bones Records

I'm limited. What little I can do is therefore cherished. Sometimes someone else's willingness to take an extra step allows me to have a smidgen more than usual, and these instances are like shooting stars in my fixed sky — reminders to keep looking up.


A recent letter from Sacred Bones Records, the boutique label in Brooklyn, New York, that releases albums by filmmakers David Lynch and John Carpenter, as well as those by less recognizable (to most) artists such as Moon Duo and Pharmakon, was one such bright appearance. "We would be more than happy to get music to you," it said, "and hope that it can take you out of your situation, even if only briefly." 

Wow. Amid all there must be for a record label — even a small one — to fuss with on a daily basis, to agree to some prisoner's request to accept a piddly cashier's check, then pack and ship a couple of CDs… then astonish that prisoner with offers to substantially reduce their prices and send demos to him for free — that is simply beautiful. I hadn't even dropped pariahblog.com into my signature when I reached out, because it didn't seem relevant. They just thought my earnest request was enough. 

The CDs arrived on Wednesday morning. At the special price, I ended up with four for what I anticipated paying for two: albums by Pop. 1280, Zola Jesus, Case Studies, and a compilation of vintage goth and post-punk groups. 

There are so few opportunities for new music to come my way, and hardly any of what I hear is the sort of thing that stirs me. This stuff, though — this is the bee's knees. So thank you, Caleb and everyone else at Sacred Bones, for setting me abuzz with happiness. 

20 April, 2017

The List: Reading January through March 2017


Alicia Martin, from the artist's Biographies series

By the generosity of Veronica S., John A., Kristin S., and, as always, my extraordinary, incomparable Mum, I swam, delighted, in the flood of books that poured in at the start of the year. And what a selection! Many came off my Amazon wish list and were guaranteed to please, but more than a few surprises ensured that my reading went in unusual directions. (A confession: I put my best into reading that volume of history and the little book on spelling oddities, and failed miserably. Even my wide-ranging tastes have limits.) Finishing with each of the books listed below, I got such a thrill from sliding a finger along the spines of those yet unread, musing over which would most satisfy the particular literary craving felt in that moment, and finally selecting the exact right one. I don't get that luxury often. When I do, I savor it like something I may never get again.

* * * * *

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
No philosophy seems to come about except in response to, or building off of, a preexisting one, and Mill's utilitarianism is no exception. His mentor, the English jurist Jeremy Bentham, is best remembered (by someone, I assume) for his Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation, probably a real page-turner in its day. Bentham developed utilitarianism, but Mill refined it. Originally published serially in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Mill's Utilitarianism is densely written, even for its era, the 1860s. We can probably blame this as much on its high-minded subject matter as on Mill's intellectualism, itself attributable to his father, who raised him in the strictest homeschool environment, isolated from other children, spoken to exclusively in Greek, and taught the principles of logic as life guides.

In a nutshell, utilitarianism, the "Greatest Happiness Principle," holds that what is moral comes from that which is determined to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Because it demands situational morality, not hard rules carved into stone tablets, Christians in particular took issue with utilitarianism. Mill countered their assaults by writing that even Christians' objective sense of wrong and right can only be as firmly adhered to as their belief demands: "The question, Need I obey my conscious? is quite as often put to themselves by persons who never heard of the principle of utility, as by its adherents. Those whose conscientious feelings are so weak as to allow of their asking this question, if they answer it affirmatively, will not do so because they believe in the transcendental theory, but because of the external sanctions." Amen.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Course curricula at Autodidact University (student body: me) are intellectually rigorous, with a strong a priori bent — meaning that the reading lists are killer. Nowhere are these lists more voluminous than in AU's English Department. Poets, from Kazim Ali to Dean Young, make up a good twenty-five percent of the names in them, and Thomas Stearnes Eliot loomed well above most. The man's work is canonical.

Wonky meter and erratic rhyme abound in this selection (a Signet Classic edition) of early poems. Even after multiple readings of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the simple profundity of lines like "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" moves me. The title work, Eliot's ostensible masterpiece, however, is too fussy. His 1922 publication of "The Waste Land" featured no addenda, yet when he published it in book form, pages on pages of end notes appeared, clueing readers in on every biblical and operatic allusion, translating its French, German, and Latin lines, and generally presenting the work as pedantry rather than poetry. I'm not against poems that resist immediate comprehension — far, far from it! — but give me Eliot's straightforward ''Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" any day, over the closing lines of "The Waste Land":
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiarn uti chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories
The poet renowned for "Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night" also had a way with prose. He might've finished the wry, wild picaresque novel that he intended ''Adventures in the Skin Trade" to be, but for his 1953 death — as good a reason as any to quit writing. The other stories on offer in this collection of gems are polished beauties. I told friends, in the midst of my reading, that you could frame almost any sentence from the book, hang it on your wall, and appreciate it as a work of art unto itself. This was no exaggeration. Thomas was known for agonizing over his word choices. At the level of the story, his religiosity is present but unobtrusive. Most obvious is his consummate humanity, the dovetailing of his mythology and mystery with lots of depravity and "the terrors of the flesh."

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
In the early 1900s, first-generation immigrants from Japan — Issei — joined the American laborer class, picking the produce that Mexicans, Filipinos, Hindus, Koreans, Blacks, Okies, and Arkies, en masse, couldn't. Prosperous prewar appetites were hard to sate. Japanese "picture brides" left home on ships, lured stateside by misleading letters and photos from prospective husbands whose promises of luxury and prestige, opportunity and abundance, proved false as soon as the mail-order brides stepped onto land and met their new mates — not captains of industry but migrant workers. And you thought the liars on MTV's Catfish were cruel! The Buddha in the Attic fictionalizes these truths and, in doing so, makes them real. In my ignorance of history I'd assumed that only American men wooed Asian brides to the US. The chorus of voices in Otsuka's novel reveals another story altogether, an overwhelmingly cruel, sad one, then tells of what happened next, as World War Two erupted and these hard-working, long-suffering women were wronged yet again. This book offers the kind of history lesson that I find most effective: no arbitrary dates, no names of faceless so-called heroes, just human stories, raw and relentless.

Albert Camus (Justin O'Brien, translator), The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
In an absurd universe without what Camus called "eternal values," can meaning be found, or are we all just what the nihilist say: pointless nothings, deluded that we actually exist? (I pick some cheery stuff, don't I?) Camus was attuned to the questions of existential futility; his every work of fiction drips with ennui. The long-form philosophical essay lending this collection its title asks why conscious people in this incomprehensible universe, being aware of our human limits, exist without hope but nevertheless go on existing rather than commit suicide. What is the role of hope? Of the supernatural balms of gods and prayers? Of aesthetics? After concluding with those heaviest of concerns, Camus turns tour guide. Sensory-rich essays about his hometown of Algiers, the country of Oman, the city of Tipasa, are philosophical ruminations in disguise — the best kind. I'd willingly play Theseus to his Ariadne any way, following the labyrinthine passageways along which he lays his thread, whether they be the stone-and-mortar variety or the kind that's as intangible as thought. Either makes for worthy adventure.

Ellison Rooke, Once-a Ponce-a Time… and Other Bean-isms
How many six-year-olds have collections of their quotes published? My friend's daughter, Bean, is the only one that I know of. Considering that she's the source of nuggets like "pretty please, with pepper on top," "how's your meatball doin' in that oven," and (one of the world's best-ever exclamatory phrases) "bust my brains," you can understand why.

Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea: Stories
This man writes characters the way that Rolls-Royce makes cars — meticulously, in a spirit of polished ostentation, with what can only be called sumptuous interiors. A few of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker, where I recognized Marcus's amazing skill for rendering third-person narratives as intimate mental excursions. His protagonists are deeply flawed; they're often out-and-out failures. Many of them you can't possibly like. Still, thanks to how Marcus ensconces the reader inside his characters' fucked-up minds, you find yourself won over, a party to their struggles, with a vested interest in their well-being, time and time again. Reading Leaving the Sea is like a crash course in empathetic responses: afterward you feel sore and fatigued, but the bruises are totally worth it, considering the ride.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Nostalgia is what drives some to revisit fondly recalled books. Others want to re-experience the mood those books evoked the first time through. Still others, experimentalists, are curious about which aspects of the books they'll perceive differently after so many years. My freshman year in high school, over two decades ago, I read only about half of Lord of the Flies. What stopped me from finishing is now a mystery. Until February of 2017, I never went back to that isolated island with its imaginary beastie, its intermittent fire, its near-feral tweens running amok. What I found was Golding's lush prose, and that the beast in man is still very much at large. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic
Certain essays (the best ones) have a power. They transform their subject, like a magic trick, from something recognizable, into a fascinating never-before-seen abstraction that you suddenly want to turn every which way, inspecting for other angles that might reveal its secrets. A Muse ana a Maze performs this sleight-of-hand with the craft of writing, particularly literary fiction-writing, by inviting readers to play at puzzles, riddles, and thought experiments that, as Turchi reveals with a flourish, share vast common ground with the creation and appreciation of fiction. Erudite yet accessible, with eye-pleasing art throughout, this is an endlessly recommendable book, perfect for lit lovers at both ends of the process, who relish fresh perspectives.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Without resorting to sensationalism, like a lesser writer might, Eugenides tells a tale — a family history, really — from the perspective of a middle-aged man with 5-alpha-reductase pseudohermaphroditism, born to second-generation American immigrants a girl. Like its narrator, Cal/Calliope, the novel manages to be both one thing and another, conversational and complex, epic and intimate, funny and tragic. This really is a stunning work of fiction, and it makes me intensely curious to see whether his debut, The Virgin Suicides, approaches a similar level of excellence.

Wilkie Collins, The Dead Alive
Legal thrillers aren't my thing. Precedent-setting works of fiction, on the other hand…. Published in 1874, The Dead Alive is among the first in the genre that would achieve ubiquity in airport bookstores and on suburban nightstands, in addition to being based on the United States' earliest recorded case of wrongful conviction. Collins was a popular mystery writer. In other words, The Dead Alive is no great literary achievement. Evidently the last 143 years haven't seen the genre evolve beyond an idle diversion. As a historical tidbit, though, this brisk little novel holds up well enough and brings to readers' attentions the dire flaws in Western jurisprudence — flaws that also, discouragingly, remain much unchanged by time. The modern-day reader will be forgiven if she comes away from Collins's book impacted less by its plot than by the persistence of injustice in our system of criminal law.

Curt Vonnegut Jr., Player Piano
Peeking through the cracks in this bland tale of one man's ennui in a retro-futurist dystopia of boredom, the satirical specialist Vonnegut would become (Player Piano is his first novel) was the only thing holding my interest to the end. The punch-card machines he envisioned conquering the American job economy, although not far from the realm of prophecy, now seem like quaint speculations from the era of Formica and malt shops. The real bar to enjoyment here is the heavy-handed praise, weighing down every other page, for "the two greatest wonders of the world, the human mind and heart." Ten years later, in the 1960s, Vonnegut gave us Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, so at least there's that to be grateful for.

Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby
Around Halloween, Roman Polanski's film version of Rosemary's Raby usually airs as part of some cable network's seasonal lineup. I watch it every year, if I can. Never had I felt compelled to check out the novel on which it's based, though. Having read so many stilted, inartfully written horror novels I'm basically wary of the whole damn genre. (And genre fiction in general, truth be told.) What surprised me, when the novel happened to fall into my hands, was how faithful the film version is to its source material. Whole paragraphs of dialog made it onscreen. The unspoken elements found their way there, too — a cinematic rarity. It's nearly word-for-word. Only the novel's final scene, in which Rosemary discovers the shocking truth about little Andy, runs a smidgen longer, with just a daub of additional color, than the one in the movie. In it you can almost see Levin's grin as he toes that finest of lines between horror and hilarity.

01 April, 2017

Before Breakfast, at the Old-Man Table

Another morning in 3B. Three plastic mugs of coffee steam on the table in front of us, still too hot to swig from. Jim is filling little squares with letters. Opposite him, Chris's glasses perch at the tip of his nose as he studies the latest New York Review of Books. I'm focused on blinking, following six and a half hours of having my eyes closed. Our usual fourth is unusually absent from the table. Larry's usual laundry day is Friday, tomorrow, yet I spot him (fuzzily) wringing out a T-shirt in the utility closet. He'll be along shortly.

"Okay," Jim pipes up, pausing to ensure that we're paying attention. "The clue is 'Tesla CEO Musk.' Four letters. I think the third one's — "

"Elon," I tell him. "E-L-O-N."

"Sounds like a cologne. Who the hell is Elon Musk, and why should anybody know?"

"The CEO of Tesla," says Chris. "Pay attention."

"As in Nikola Tesla, the electricity guy? I think I went to school with him." Jim's absurd exaggerations might mitigate his unease about getting older; he turned sixty-seven last month.

Chris says, "I have no fucking idea what Tesla is." His face reveals evidence of appreciating ten thousand bygone jokes.

"Well then how do you know who's its CEO?" Jim demands, setting down his Bic in exasperation.

"Because Byron just said."

"Oh, fine. Fine. Let's ask the nerd a question about something not computer-related and see how he does."

"Tesla makes electric cars," I say, and both of them suddenly register total recall. Typical. "Jim, why don't you just give up crosswords and take up a more age-appropriate hobby — like cave-painting or inventing the wheel?"

"Or getting your affairs in order," Chris adds.

One of Jim's most amusing characteristics is a willingness to let his sarcasm unspool gradually. "I'm pretty sure my affairs are about as ordered as they're gonna get, in this place. My legacy will be you guys squabbling over my newspaper clippings and half-eaten bag of pretzels. And that's only if you're lucky enough for me to die before I can eat them. Granted, that's looking pretty likely."

"Pretzels? Woo-hoo!" It's Larry, joining us at last, his Droopy Dog features perennially at odds with his six-shots-of-espresso enthusiasm.

Jim flails his arms like a windblown scarecrow. "Oh, great, now Larry's here. Can my day get any worse?"

Larry ignores the slight. "You know, I did two years in the service — airborne division — and never once jumped out of an airplane…"

"Oh, here it comes." Chris covers his eyes.

"…they had to push me every time."

Groans all around. Jim says, "God damn it, Larry, nobody laughed at that last week. What, did you think it'd be funnier a second time, or are you getting too senile to remember who you tell your shitty jokes to?"

"I told you, but Chris and Byron weren't around to hear it."

"And our lives," I say, "were measurably better for that fact."

"No doubt," says Chris, ruffling his paper like a man shaking off an unpleasant memory.

Jim invokes his usual archaic stereotypes, calling Chris on his failure to side with a compatriot. "Or is it only when there's whiskey involved that you Irishmen ride together? Bunch of potato-eating hypocrites."

"Sour old Kraut."

"Sour, yes," Jim concedes, "but at least we Germans aren't lazy bottle-suckers."

"No, of course not. Whoever would associate the inventors of beer halls with drinking?"

"Well, we're industrious and efficient, anyway."

"Then why," I ask him, "aren't you finished with that crossword? It's almost time for breakfast."

"I'm taking it slow, letting you help, because I want you guys to feel like you're actually useful."

It's Chris who puts the brakes on this frivolity, asking Jim if he watched last night's episode of Nova. An earnest back-and-forth about science ensues, by a couple of blue-collar sexagenarians. Since Larry and I had no PBS in our Wednesday-night lineup, we're treated to a muddled (but amusing) recap before the table returns to silence — Jim to his crossword puzzle, Chris to his reviews, Larry to a new issue of Smithsonian, me to my janky eyesight. It's quiet enough that I hear someone's stomach rumble for food.

"Okay," says Jim, after a bit. "Here's one: 'Sailor, e.g.' Three letters."

All those nineteenth-century naval novels he reads, and yet… "Tar," I answer.

"Ohhhhhh, of course."

"See, this nerd knows all kinds of stuff, not just computers."

He squints. "What d'ya know about sailing, ye cack-handed lubber?"

"All kinds of stuff," I repeat. "I've even got jokes: which is a pirate's favorite letter of the alphabet?"

Rolling his eyes, Larry takes the bait. He growls "Arrrrrr!" with aplomb.

"You might think it'd be R," I tell him, "but it's actually the C!"

More groans. I go for a sip of my coffee and think, This is why I fit in so well at the old-man table.

17 March, 2017

Comic-Book Adventures and Aspirations of the Phenomenal Fanboy


No cosmic rays, no secret government experiment, no ancient amulet, no genetic anomaly (that I know of) is to blame. Simple exposure is what transformed me, when a stranger aboard a flight to Amsterdam shared some comic books. One look through the pages of those four-color marvels and I was no longer a mild-mannered Kansas kid but


At every page of my seatmate's Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, Excalibur, et cetera, I pointed and asked characters' powers and origins. The urge of the fan to talk comics dwells deep. It knows no age. For anyone else, a hyperinquisitive nine-year-old could be a drain, but the tourist beside me was patiently indulgent. By the time we deplaned I felt like an expert in superheroics. Silly me. That stack of comic books barely skirted the labyrinthine Marvel universe, never mind those of other publishers. Still, this peek into a fictional reality was huge and couldn't be unseen.

What kid hasn't read a comic book? At least in this respect I was typical. Asterix and Obelix was a favorite, as was The Adventures of Tintin. A few kiddie comics, like Uncle Scrooge and Casper the Friendly Ghost, also entered my possession here and there, thanks to neighborhood yard sales. One time, too, I found a lurid Tales from the Crypt knockoff so creepy that I buried it in a box of books in my closet and, when I uncovered it again, months later, just glimpsing the cover startled me. But the comics on that transatlantic flight, my first encounter with superheroes, appealed to that primal myth-making urge. In our secular age, comic-book characters' costumed adventures stand in well for bardic tales of derring-do. The distance between Beowulf and Wolverine isn't so great as scholars might prefer to think.

The form that comics take, coupling words with pictures, is also sometimes considered remedial, the stuff of ABCs and Dick and Jane, but the history of humanity since it discovered written language is replete with "mature" examples of images paired with language: the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, twentieth-century pop art…. Comics are highly malleable, too, allowing any style or story, as simplistic or sophisticated as you could ever want. They're limitless. An artist can contain a whole narrative in a single panel, or stretch one moment across the panels of an entire page. And it's not just time that comics have the power to subvert. A conventional book is read a certain way, left to right, top to bottom. With comics, sequence is fluid. A page may start in the lower left and proceed clockwise, with panels' shape and content prompting you in the appropriate direction, while the next page may go all Snakes and Ladders, or radiate simultaneous panels from a central hub, or offer a disorienting hodgepodge — all in the service of the story. The order, the shape, the proximity of panels — none are arbitrary; each has meaning. You learn how to read a comic book whenever you open one for the first time, inferring and adapting as you go, propelled by the visceral, almost physical momentum of the story being told.

Naturally, I drew my own comics, tinkering with this protean storytelling method. Entire afternoons winked by, on the floor of my room, pens and markers arrayed around me, a large white page filling with elaborate color. You could illustrate it as a splash page. In childhood's omnivorous creativity, I was just as apt to steal ideas from books, TV, and movies as to invent my own. One strip that I did was Dr. Droid, a sci-fi serial about an alien scientist whose spacecraft crash-lands on Earth. The gentle three-foot-tall humanoid is discovered by fearful humans who, mistaking his cybernetic implants for weapons, hunt him through the woods, to his crippled ship, and blow him up. The end (with shades of Frankenstein).


Years later I did a much more ambitious comic, a proper twenty-two-page book entitled Animal World. It imagined a posthuman future Earth on which anthropomorphic lions and tigers and bears (and cockatoos and crocodiles and chinchillas and… ) waged high-tech Darwinian war against each other — carnivores versus herbivores, with the omnivorous species forced to commit to one side or live as outcast "primitives" in the wild. I used themes from the classic Greek and Roman sagas that thrilled me — heroism and villainy, political intrigue, blood feuds, even a little forbidden love between the herbivore's leader, Keras, and Ghi'ra, one of the carnivores' royal family.


Through some Dungeons-and-Dragons nerds in my sixth-grade gym class, I learned about Clint's Books and Comics. My father, the afternoon I asked him for a ride, told me about buying Mr. Natural comics there in the ’70s. I had no idea what those were, but he smiled as though recalling a fond memory. While he hit the used-record store next door, I entered Clint's solo, in search of Usagi Yojimbo, the adventures of a masterless samurai rabbit in a feudal Japan "peopled" by animals — ninja bats, vampire cats, Panda Khan. I'd read about the series someplace or other. My first impression on walking through the door was that Clint's would have it, because it looked like Clint's had everything.

Every square inch a stereotypical comic-book shop, the place was a Shangri-La. Posters layered its black walls — Vampira, Green Lantern, X-Force, Bone, the Joker and assorted Batman variants, Conan the Barbarian, Captain America, the obligatory Superman. Polyvinyl (oh, magical word!) sculptures held aggressive, anatomically suspect poses everywhere. Action figures wielded claws, swords, guns, and ion blasters on the glass counters that displayed myriad trading cards — hologram, oversized, foil-stamped, ultragloss, and more — plus pogs. Comic books (did you forget the reason you came?) screamed for attention along every wall, lunged forth from spinning wire racks, and massed in row after row of black two-tier wooden shelves spanning one full side of the shop. In the back were source books and supplements, dice and lead figurines — the role-playing paraphernalia those kids from school dealt in. In the basement, adult fare. Over, around, and through everything hung the inextricable smells of aging paper and stale cigarette smoke.

A nice Usagi Yojimbo collection, a trade paperback, was available for cover price. When I went to ring up, the man at the counter, ponytailed, bespectacled, bearded, black-clad, cannily suggested another black-and-white animal-martial-artist title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "It's not like the cartoon," Ponytail intoned, his voice roughened by authority and Marlboros. "In fact, it's fairly gritty. Dark, even." He knew who he was selling to. I bought two back issues.

Free for the taking, in a basket by the door, issues of the eight-page Comic Shop News hung, packed full of reviews, artist and writer interviews, convention info, and handy checklists of next month's must-haves. I studied the paper all weekend long, in my father's passenger seat, at the dinner table, in my room, until not one word remained unconsumed, like Galactus devours planets. I had to know all, all, all. About every publisher. About every title. About every limited series, one shot, exclusive, ashcan, and TBP. Bitten by the comic-book bug (it wasn't a radioactive spider), I was suddenly ravenous.

But decades of back issues from the Big Two intimidated me; how could anyone start his collection with, say, Action Comics #308 (let alone #8) and not know what happened in previous issues? And what if those previous issues weren't to be found or afforded? Then there were crossovers and tie-ins to consider. Even if TPBs collecting every single story arc were available, the commitment required was staggering. Instead of taking an impetuous leap, I satisfied myself with once-removed comic-book geekery, reading the Wizard guides and Comic Shop News every month, talking the trade with old-guard fanboys at Clint's, cadging rides to conventions — sad little affairs in hotel suites and big trade-center events alike. Those tantalizing superhero comics remained beyond my summer-job budget and bedroom-closet storage capabilities, until Image came along.

Written and drawn by Todd McFarlane (renowned for his work on Spider-Man), the first Image Comics title hit shelves in May of 1992. Spawn is the Faustian tale of a murdered government assassin who bargains to see his wife again, only to be conscripted into Hell's army and discover that his widow went on to marry his best friend. Critics raved. To me it appeared sufficiently "gritty" and "dark," and because Image was a blank slate, with no burdensome back list of titles to beggar a beginning collector, I baby-stepped into the genre that, for better or worse, defines the form. Spawn #1 was mine. After that it's kind of a blur. Image burgeoned into a major publisher, and I bought everything they brought out.




Collecting in general was out of control then. Fans watched prices on precious vintage books go up, up, up, and inferred that all their favorite titles would be worth a mint someday. Vendors did nothing to disabuse them of these delusions; there was a fortune to be made in storage supplies. Every book had to go in a polybag — a clear plastic sleeve made especially for comic-book preservation — with an acid-free backing board. Issues thus packaged went into a sturdy, dark box stored somewhere cool and dry. Obsessives with money to burn could buy $400 vacuum sealers (as seen in Comic Shop News!) for keeping their paper treasures free from air, starch-hungry insects, and oily human touch forevermore. Polybags not included.

I drank this Kool-Aid. Each issue I bought got read once, cautiously, laying atop a clean, flat surface, then — thwip — slipped with a backing board into a polybag that, in turn, slid into one of five meticulously labeled Comic Defense storage boxes in my closet, beside my dresser. On rare occasions I'd treat myself to staring at covers through ten-mil ultraviolet-blocking plastic, wistfully.




Unable to reread the books in my collection, I created superhero characters of my own. The first was another alien, Shifter, whose power was to rapidly change shape. He could grow gills to breathe underwater, camouflage himself like a chameleon, morph his face to mimic a human's…. His two partners in the hero-for-hire field were a debauched telekinetic, Adrian d'Arq, who insisted that his psionic ability was really sorcery, and a genetically optimized swordsman named Yang, whose blades were second only to his wit in sharpness.

Others followed — a whole constellation in the Case Comics universe: the 1960s cyborg, Dreadnaught; the wind-wielding Gail Two Hawks; the conjoined (yes, I went there) psionic Serinkov Twins; the mute madman, Andre Chevalier; the hulking Megalith; the extraterrestrial Guise, Shifter's ex-colleague; the gaseous murderer, Nobody; the cthonic mutant Demiurge; the psychotic battle-droid, RAndoM; the (literally) explosive Ryott; and more, even less interesting to read about in the abstract.

Digging deeper, I pored over books on the technical aspects of comics, their forms throughout history, their cultural influence, and culture's influence on them. I bought VHS cassettes on how to draw in comic-book styles, how to break into the industry as an artist. My parents bought me a drafting table and chair. I hung a chart of the human muscular system, for reference, on my closet door. I blew an entire month's earnings on a set of markers. Later money went to pens, a forty-dollar mechanical pencil, drawing paper. Other fourteen-year-olds had friends; I drew, every evening, for hours. That I was going to someday draw comics for a living was commonly accepted among my family.

It seems a foregone conclusion that anyone this focused on his goal is going to, if not succeed, at least admirably fail while trying. The life I fell into admitted of little vocational planning, however. Profligacy killed my juvenile dream — a death from which, unlike a beloved superhero's, there would be no astounding resurrection.

Can you ever really outgrow comic books? Even at thirty-eight, I still get a little excited whenever a new X-Men tie-in comes to theaters. Drawings of stylized Spandex-wrapped physiques affecting action-ready postures still momentarily snag my attention. Still, from time to time, the face I find myself mindlessly doodling is Shifter's. The Phenomenal Fanboy may have hung up his cape decades ago, but the iconic imagery, the outlandish premises, the devoted geekery required and rewarded, the timeless good-versus-evil struggle we humans exist in thrall to — they shine like a beacon against dark, looming clouds overhead, signaling to the former Fanboy in his lonely hideout. He looks up and feels the old rush of adventure, remembers his erstwhile compatriots' heroic exploits. A mysterious smile teases up the corners of his mouth.