09 July, 2018

Rocking the Pasty-Ass-White-Boy Look: Thoughts on Sun Exposure and Prejudicial Views of Pale People

The distinction between needs and wants, as in: "You need to get you some sun, white boy." I could write a fucking dissertation. Instead, I just lie. It's easier to tell someone that my fair complexion is the necessary result of — not a condition, exactly, but a propensity to crisp. I reference my last sunburn. September of 2002. Purpling was involved. Afterward, dramatic peeling. I pulled small, thick sheets of skin from my agonized scalp and neck for days. (Oddly, my arms were unaffected.) This I got from a half hour outside, on a not particularly bright afternoon.

My account of sunstroke usually does the trick, eliciting sympathies from melanin-rich interlocutors who can't imagine a life deprived of regular, prolonged direct sunlight, and lets me go about my day in the shade.

Let's get this straight now: I'm not freakishly pale. Placed in a lineup of albinos, I'd stand out prominently — even wearing pink contact lenses. I'm just not what you could call tan. Not by a long shot. And I happen to take pride in my pallor. It's at least part of the reason that people take me for younger than I am. (Someone very recently guessed that I was twenty-eight, a full eleven years off.) Sure, it's probably mostly genetic, but my legs haven't seen daylight since Bill Clinton was in office, so I'm giving circumstances some credit.

What's this fixation that Americans have with tans? In many Asian cultures, deeper skin tones have historically signified lower status. Field workers toiled under the harsh glare of Sol; the high-born's milk-white hue was the product of pampered indoor lives. Look at any Renaissance painting — go on, I'll wait — and you'll see the same standard of beauty at work, with every fair young maiden and overfed king as white and luminous as the moon. The West wasn't always obsessed with appearing sautéed.

All racist interpretations (which, for the record, are bullshit) aside, there's good reason to appreciate paleness. Skin tans because it's working to protect itself from further harm. Calluses form for the same reason, but who thinks those are sexy? Hands that labor's rendered as numb and inflexible as a catcher's mitt shouldn't be any less attractive than epidermis discolored by damage. I find this a counterintuitive, just plain weird double standard.

And don't get me started on bronzer, spray tans, or fake-baking in general. Pourquoi the aesthetic appeal of the Oompa Loompa? As out-of-place as my whiteness makes me in a crowd of sun-worshippers, at least I come by it honestly without resorting to chemical or otherwise extraordinary measures. The same vain people of gold who flock to tanning salons today will tomorrow populate dermatologists' and plastic surgeons' waiting rooms, desperate to repair the signs of abuse — premature wrinkles, dark spots, sagging, disconcertingly shaped moles. Mine is the body pristine. This guarantees nothing, of course, but a life in the shadows definitely improves my odds. (Plus, my shirt collars don't discolor, and I can walk through sudden rainstorms without fear of streaking.)

Regarding the down side of extra-whiteness, the endless comments, I remain baffled. A certain lack of pigmentation invites "helpful" criticism like no case of leather-face will.

"You know, you're allowed to come outside once in a while."

"Damn, you're white!"

"Sunshine's free, dude."

"Did you ever see that movie, Powder?"

"What are you, a vampire or something?"

And so on, often not as polite. Not even ridiculous, extreme, or outré hairstyles, the closest analog I can think of, meet with others' outspoken opinions on such a regular basis. Most remarks about someone's 'do happen, mercifully, behind that person's back. Whispers about my skin tone would be preferable. They're at least proof that those doing the psst-psst-psst recognize the limits of acceptable behavior.

21 June, 2018

Fifteen Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Last season's reading list ended with some speculative-fiction collections. The SF trend continued into this season, beginning with the tense, eerie China Miéville novella This Census-Taker. Miéville's novels, most of which I've read, have made him my favorite SF writer, edging out M. John Harrison by a mere hair's breadth (an irony, since Miéville's bald). This Census-Taker reminded me of why. It's as powerful as it is short, as vivid as it is obscure, as touching as it is unsettling — a perfect balance, especially since I don't want too much of any one thing while engaged in my own novelistic effort.

The next book I read was David Mitchell's 2015 novel, Slade House, which occupies a prominent place in the world Mitchell's built with his other novels, Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and so on. Their interconnectedness rewards ardent fans, but I wonder if Slade House isn't too reliant on that mythology. Newcomers might not appreciate this quasi-haunted-house story's grand climax, dependent as it is on the appearance of a very, very old friend to those in the know. Being in the know, I enjoyed every page.

Then NW: A Novel, by Zadie Smith, revealed the sort-of sordid world of British government-housing residents. That same week, Sigmund Freud's essay collection The Uncanny (as translated by David McClintock) offered up the Austrian psychoanalyst's examination of the mind's approach to strangeness. The latter was a delightful surprise gift from Emily C., whose curiosity about human psychology rivals my own and leads us to some truly great conversations. I absorbed the Freud book in two sittings, during the second-to-last institutional lockdown I endured before my unceremonious transfer from Crossroads Correctional Center. With my cellmate so present it was hard to shift my mind into novelist mode. I sublimated the urge to write and did some research instead — something old Siggy probably would've had a thing or two to say about.

Before that lockdown was lifted, I'd borrowed a Christopher Hitchens book from Crossroads' library. The late bon vivant wrote Mortality, a short collection of atheistic deathbed essays, over the agonizing months he languished from esophageal cancer. I tore through it in a night and, the following morning, picked up the most recent fantasy by Hitchens's friend and fellow member of the unbelieving literati Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which didn't stir me as much as Rushdie's previous novels have — but they can't all be masterpieces.

To wit: the good Lady V. indulged my deathless inner fanboy with the gift of Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's massively successful '80s-obsessed sci-fi adventure. My curiosity had been eating at me for years. Finally getting my hands on a copy, though, was a mixed bag. I can't remember another book that I liked so much even while wincing at its many flaws. Judicious editing would've caught the factual/continuity errors and, maybe, massaged the obnoxious exposition smoothly into the streamlined story line. Will Steven Spielberg's film version be as fun? I'll give it a watch, even though I'm leery.

Alternating between lowbrow and highbrow for a few days thereafter, I bounced between Stephen King's Desperation and Markus Gabriel's anti-"neurocentric" I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century (translated from the German by Christopher Turner) as my mood demanded. I'd never read any of King's horror, so my friend Jenna recommended that I jump right into Desperation to see what I've been missing. The Gabriel book was from my wonderful mother, who knows so well my tastes and ordered it from my Amazon wish list. No shocker here: the philosophy book's oppositional stance to the increasingly popular idea that the fatty goo of the human brain constitutes the mind made a deeper impression than the gore-fest. At least now I know what readers get from King's fiction that draws them back again and again, even though one round was quite enough for me.

Following the riot at Crossroads was another lockdown. About sixty hours later I was en route to a different prison altogether — time used for handwriting some long-overdue letters and cards to friends, and for reading. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from a Dead House (as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but commonly titled The House of the Dead) might not seem like ideal literature for someone under lock and key. It's Dostoyevsky's novelization of the eight years' hard labor he served, a political prisoner, in a Soviet gulag in Omsk, after sharing a letter criticizing Stalin. I was halfway through the book on the day of my transfer and finished Part Two on the opposite side of Missouri, the week after. Whether or not it's ironic that the novel ends with its narrator's escape I leave to minds more inclined to long associative leaps.

Having gotten a high enough dose of literary masochism to last me awhile, I picked up several pleasure-reads at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center as soon as I could: Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun (translated by Philip Gabriel), A Wild Sheep Chase (translated by Alfred Birnbaum), and the disappointing After Dark (translated by Jay Rubin); the late, great George Carlin's hilarious hodgepodge, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?; and Colson Whitehead's stunning speculative pseudohistory The Underground Railroad: A Novel. ERDCC's library is roughly three quarters the size of the one I left behind at CRCC, but there are enough books of interest on its shelves to pack these quarterly reading lists for a while yet.

One book that I began to read but, much to my own disappointment, abandoned after 149 pages deserves mention: Swann's Way. I had the best intentions. In truth, though, this first volume of Marcel Proust's seven-part Remembrance of Things Past, in which he writes in minutest detail and at great length about his childhood, recalled abruptly and all at once after taking a bite of a little tea-cake, was just too much for me to handle. It felt like a grind the instant its novelty wore off. Conceptually, I think it has value; as a readable work, though, I find it lacking. A pity. I really wanted to enjoy this one.

15 June, 2018

Fifty Favorite Films

My parents started me out young — so young that my feet didn't even touch the sticky floor when I took my seat beside them. The theaters were small, always. I didn't see the interior of a multiplex before age eleven, whereas I could describe for you, in immense detail, the lobbies, the concession counters, and even the uniforms worn by the young adults who tore our tickets in half as we passed into the sancta santorum and seated ourselves among the twenty or thirty seats of the Bijou, the Fine Arts, or the Tivoli. These places ran all-weekend screenings of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Spike and Mike, Fritz Lang, Ed Wood, Frederico Fellini…. We watched so many subtitled foreign films that, to this day, I'm still more apt to read words that appear on a screen before placing full attention on the images surrounding them. I do really well watching closed-captioned TV.

An indoctrination into the world of limited-release, foreign, and revival cinema endowed me with broad-ranging tastes and an eye for color, for style, for symbolism. I like films that take risks. The more a movie lets its audience come to its own conclusions, make its own interpretations, instead of prodding it down the narrow road of plot by means of musical stings or sentimental yanks (for his abominable Forrest Gump, Robert Zemekis earned permanent shit-list status), the more I appreciate it. Several people have asked me, over the years, what my very favorite films are, so I figured that a list was in order. I did the same with my forty favorite fiction books a few years ago and got some positive feedback. Whether this is as interesting or not remains to be seen.

* * * * *

Such a weird concept: a hidden door in an office building leads down a tunnel, into the perception center of a well-known actor. Being John Malkovich is as brilliant as it is bizarre.

Big Fish is director Tim Burton's paean to the power of storytelling. Its premise — a father who teaches his practical son to find enjoyment in the suspension of disbelief — echoes a debate my father and I used to have, and the movie is one of just a few that's made me teary-eyed.

I'm a fan of Philip K. Dick's trippy sci-fi novels and stories, and the writer's fingerprints are all over Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's fine adaptation of his work. As of this writing, I have yet to see the sequel. I have, however, seen all three edits of the original and insist that The Final Cut is the best.


As the rest of this list shows, I'm kind of a David Lynch enthusiast. The first of his movies that I saw was this one, Blue Velvet, arguably his best-known, in which Dennis Hopper gives the most unsettling performance of his career, Dean Stockwell flirts with androgyny, and suburban idealism gets a nasty black eye.

I concede that Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder mangling British accents threatens the ambiance of this movie at countless points, but Francis Ford Coppola manages such gorgeously stylized imagery, and Gary Oldman is pitch-perfect as the undead Count in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Ex-Python Terry Gilliam's made a number of surreal movies in his day. None, for my money, beats the futuristic high jinks he (metaphorically speaking) filmed through a fish-eye lens, in Brazil.

Moody, artful, and generally sublime, Bride of Frankenstein is easily the best of all Universal Sutdios' classic monster movies.


Playfully dark cinematography pairs with a plot about a mad scientist who steals children's dreams because he can't have his own. Whimsical use of the butterfly effect, oafish dwarfs, and Ron Perlman as a big lummox with a heart of gold keep the material from slipping into ghoulishness. There are more smiles here than scares, in The City of Lost Children.

Compare that to A Clockwork Orange. This notorious adaptation of Anthony Burgess's controversial novel about one juvenile delinquent's arrest and experimental "reform" in a near-future Britain was rated X when first released in the United States. There was just a jot too much of ultraviolence for the MPAA's taste. Forty-odd years later, viewers see more graphic sex and violence while watching Wednesday-night cable.

Coraline is a stop-motion fantasy based on Neil Gaiman's children's novel of the same name, but Laika's animation is spectacular and I think there's plenty here for adults to appreciate.

The first time I saw Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas, my ticket cost a buck. The dollar theater's sound system sucked, but still: $1 for two hours of highly stylized, genre-bending noir that twists and coils until you can scarcely be certain of what's what was a bargain.

Forget the early-aughts remake starring Keanu Reeves; the 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Michael Rennie and a flesh-and-blood human inside the big silver Gort costume, is classic, meaning-rich science fiction. Klaatu barada nikto! Because there's hope for humanity yet.


Tangent universes, scary bunny-men (plus Echo & the Bunnymen on the soundtrack), plummeting aircraft, and the most beautiful phrase in the English language — cellar door — make Donnie Darko a film too compelling to keep from discussing for days after watching it.

The local public library, where I grew up, loaned VHS cassettes of hundreds of classic movies, and young Byron loved taking his library card out for them. Some that I returned to again and again were the Universal Studios monster movies. Tod Browning's Dracula, with the incomparable Bela Lugosi, earned its place on this list early.

One could call Edward Scissorhands a study of how fragile society's conditional acceptance of difference is. One could say that Edward Scissorhands advocates self-isolation by those with extraordinary qualities, that its message is that the world doesn't deserve what unique people bring into it. Or one could declare Edward Scissorhands a beautiful, tragicomic suburban fantasy and walk away, at the end credits, carrying the glow of that.

Another Tim Burton delight is Ed Wood, his black-and-white biopic of the infamous director who brought us such schlock as Glen or Glenda? and the truly awful Plan Nine from Outer Space (neither of which appear on this list).

Decidedly more fraught than the life of a cross-dressing Hollywood director is the one dramatized in David Lynch's second most straightforward film, The Elephant Man. The tone is also a lot less jokey. A lot less.

It's doubtful that any remake will equal the finesse with which 1931's Frankenstein was scripted, acted, and filmed. There's a good reason that it's Boris Karloff's flat-headed, bolt-necked, sunken-eyed portrayal of the monster that comes to mind when we think of that character.


Not many people seem to know about Freaks, the early talkie about love, camaraderie, and revenge among members of a traveling circus. They should. How many other movies this old have the power to astound jaded modern audiences? Freaks is melancholy, heartwarming, and horrific in the perfect proportions.

Gattaca is the type of pensive science fiction that I love watching, as it grapples with big moral questions at the level of the individual. In this case, the issue is human genetic engineering. A lesser film would've been fine with leaving ethics behind as it related one poor, unenhanced man's audacious journey to pass as one of society's gene-perfect elite. Gattaca has movement and suspense, but the human element never takes second place to them. It really is extraordinary.

The story of a young woman's mental breakdown and resulting institutionalization in a 1960s American mental facility, Girl, Interrupted is one of those rare movies that's as good as the novel it was adapted from. I think it's also the last worthwhile thing Winona Ryder appeared in.

Laugh all you like, but I admit it unreservedly and without shame: I've watched Groundhog Day well more than fifty times. Seven of those were in a theater, when it was still in wide release. Then I wore out a VHS copy. Then I bought it on DVD. I still feel disappointed when it doesn't appear in the TV listings on any given February second. Outdated as they are, I also continue to drop references to the movie during conversations. What's wrong with me?

Fake suicides never seemed as funny as when the young male lead in Harold and Maud stages them for the benefit of his wealthy, seen-it-all parents. Except he really is suffering, and they can't see that past the theatrics. Enter Maud, an elderly iconoclast, living her life to the fullest, happy, free, and completely in the moment. The two strike up a friendship, then a romance, and the story that unfolds makes Harold and Maud the closest thing to a romantic comedy on this list.

The Hudsucker Proxy is a delightfully quirky satire, starring Tim Robbins as a peon who finds himself neck-deep in corporate scheming.

Released in 1956, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers played off the rampant paranoia sweeping the United States during the McCarthy era, resulting in a taut, tense alien-invasion movie that holds up well to this day.


Anticipating invasion, all of the residents abandon their small French town during World War One, but neglect to evacuate the local insane asylum, where the committed finally decide to take charge of their lives. That's the premise of King of Hearts, a lovely, delirious comedy that I can't recommend highly enough.

Jim Henson's Creature Shop provided the fantastical beasts that inhabit it, but it's David Bowie's turn as the Goblin King that really made Labyrinth. Sure, it's a kids' movie, but I'm far from the only adult to tell you it's worth watching even if you think you've outgrown fairy tales.

My friend Brahm and I used to make a point of watching Monty Python's Life of Brian every Easter. What better way to celebrate the holiday than with this hilarious, irreverent comedy about a thirty-something Judean man who gets mistaken for the Messiah and ends up, accompanied by one hell of a catchy musical number ("Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"), crucified?

For his role in The Machinist, a disorienting waking dream of a film about a man who hasn't slept in a year, Christian Bale starved himself until he weighed less than 100 pounds. The grim determination of the actor is matched by his character, a man haunted — in a very literal sense — by the past.

Perhaps equally haunting, and certainly just as sad, is Magnolia, a gorgeous movie comprised of several separate but linked episodes about the ordeals of everyday people.

Another favorite film of mine that happens to star David Bowie is The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Thin White Duke plays an extraterrestrial living incognito among humans, wracked by ennui and homesickness. The movie is languid and poetic, with long shots devoid of dialog or action, so be prepared, if you're going to watch it with a date, for her to fall asleep beside you on the couch. Take it from a guy who did, and wasn't.

Like just about everyone else in Western society, I was blown away by The Matrix (less so, its sequels). Despite its turn-of-the-millennium trappings, I find that the groundbreaking special effects, classic myth-inspired storytelling, and advocacy of disillusionment are timeless.


Several silent films came very close to making this list, but there was no question about 1927's Metropolis. Fritz Lang directed this stunning sci-fi paean to the working class, creating imagery that burned itself into my mind at a young age. I first saw it at Kansas City's Fine Arts Theater (the one I mentioned at the top of this post) when I was seven. I was rapt. From the film's shimmering skylines to the final flickering of the flames of revolt, Metropolis astounds. I've read that Criterion recently released a new, extended restoration of the film that's become definitive, which I long, rather powerfully, to see.

Someone once said that discussion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, specifically the sort that includes (as is virtually unavoidable) quotes from the movie, is like a black hole: nothing within a certain range of it can escape; and the more it absorbs, the larger and denser it grows. At a minimum, it's like Spanish flu: highly contagious and apt to make you die… from laughter.

Monty Python's Meaning of Life isn't as consistently hilarious, being a collection of skits relating to the different stages of life — from the rousing "Every Sperm Is Sacred" musical number, to John Cleese's concluding monologue about how best to live. Nevertheless, none of the bits land flat, and the Pythons' signature absurdity reaches such heights that the film as a whole is raised to the level of art.

I'm ordinarily allergic to "cute," but Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom manages to tell the story of a runaway scout and his quest for independence without devolving into a treacly mess, thanks to its top-notch cast and relatively light touch of twee.

Far on the opposite end of the spectrum is Mulholland Dr., David Lynch's surreal murder mystery. Nothing cloying to be found here, just confusion, suspicion, and existential dread.

A taxi driver in Los Angeles. A taxi driver in Rome. A taxi driver in Helsinki. Night on Earth is made up of five distinct vignettes about taxi drivers, these and two others, and one memorable fare that each takes. One is funny, one is tragic, and the others fall somewhere in between. Like life, this film runs the gamut of human experience.

George A. Romero's 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, set the bar and spawned an entire genre of horror that, in my opinion, would never quite equal its progenitor.

Stop-motion animation hit a new high point with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie's craftsmanship is incredible, its story is utterly winning, its songs are hummable.

Jack Nicholson embodies the unregenerate R.P. McMurphy from Ken Kesey's novel perfectly, and I remember thinking that no one but Louise Fletcher could've been a better fit for the part of Nurse Ratched. The first time I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I missed Big Chief's perspective from the book for a while. The movie's so good that I quickly got over that.


I have never seen another sci-fi film that so perfectly mates plausibility, ingenuity, suspense, and a budget so meager that it makes those of most student films seem lavish — yet that's what Primer, quietly released in the early aughts, does. It's demanding, yes, refusing to dumb down the logistics of time travel for its audience, and delivering exactly zero fancy effects to wow your eyes, but, holy crap, is it ever rewarding of your attention!

Another genre that I don't much get into is family drama. The Royal Tenenbaums, about one man's questionable tactics for getting back into his family's good graces, proves an exception. I've got the writing and directing of Wes Anderson, who knows how to create characters we like despite their unsavory traits, to thank for this fact.

Slickly remade thirty-some years later, with extra star power, my preference is for the original Solaris, released in 1972. This beautiful, contemplative Russian sci-fi film grapples with loss and attachment better than any other movie I've seen in the genre, and presents a magnificent panorama in the process.

I watched a fair amount of anime in my teens. A lot of it was the stereotypical mix of science fiction and action — geek catnip. Spirited Away is anime of another sort, a gorgeous Japanese fairy tale about a young girl lost and trying to find her way out of the Spirit World. Its detail is stunning; even the color palette of the animation feels ethereal.

After one tenant of a creepy Paris apartment commits suicide there, a hapless office drone moves in. He becomes obsessed with the former resident while nursing a growing paranoia about the neighbors. The Tenant, a sublime suspense by Roman Polanski, is a work of art deserving of our attention even if its creator's an odious human being.

THX 1138 was George Lucas's first film and surpasses much of what came after. In a future society, people live underground. Computers regiment the onscreen entertainment that pervades their existences. Pharmaceuticals regulate everyone's emotional states. No one has a proper name, just a letter-and-number designation. Then THX 1138 falls in love, violating the social order, and flees. Risking everything for love isn't a new story, but it can make for a really good one.

Since Franz Kafka's novel The Trial was never finished, Orson Welles adapted it at his own peril. Anthony Perkins plays the falsely (?) accused Josef K. to a T in this imperfect film. There are a few issues with continuity, but it's supposed to be expressionistic, and its vibrancy makes me love it too much not to have on this list.

Twelve Monkeys is the second Terry Gilliam movie to appear here (or the fifth, if you include his Monty Python work). It was probably his biggest commercial success. I mean: time travel, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe…. He had me at "time travel."


A retrospective of Stanley Kubrick's movies would be one long look at greatness, but to my mind it all started with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director's legendary fastidiousness fills this (I'll say it) masterpiece, all the way down to the silverware. Less sci-fi than a hypnotic meditation on time, with near-infinite sweep, it's poetry, visual poetry, plain and simple. Don't try to solve the mystery, just let yourself be drawn in by it.

07 June, 2018

Ch-ch-changes (Turn and Face the Strange)

I mean, of course it was going to be different: new prison, new policies, new people. For most of the years I've "been down," my number one rule has been Don't get too comfortable. Spend long enough in the same place, though, and certain mores and means are going to worm their way into even the most mindful lifestyle.

I spent almost exactly sixteen years at Crossroads Correctional Center, in the podunk nowhere that is Cameron, Missouri, one hour north of my hometown. I heard countless complaints over those years — about Crossroads' food, its policies, its staff, its job availabilities, its canteen selection, its yard, and anything else you can imagine. I chalked this up to bellyaching. Many prisoners, maybe even most of them, just can't accept that prison is supposed to be unpleasant. For me, being so close to home meant getting a lot of visits. As long as I had the company of my mother and my dear friends, I'd have put up with any number of worse torments than Crossroads could dish out.

After my comrade in the literary craft jumped ship — not abandoning writing, only boarding a lifeboat to Jefferson City Correctional Center, nearer his familiar shores — Lefty wrote that he'd try to persuade me to follow if not for my mother. JCCC's computer center, extra recreation hours, and all-around modernity sounded good, but he knew that regularly seeing Mum meant much, much more than any of that stuff could. I never even thought about leaving, except in the sense of leaving prison altogether.

Then leaving was forced upon me. A whole other set of parameters thrown into my face, I was so tipped over that, for a short stretch, I couldn't even reliably keep track of the day and date. Sleep came fleetingly and without much depth. I was relieved that at least there's no 5 AM head count here — it's 6:00, and the added hour makes a world of difference now that I'm approaching normal sleep again. Part of the trick lay in finding a position where light from the wing and the yard, blasting through the cell windows, didn't shine right in my face.

The cells here at ERDCC are slightly more versatile than I'm used to. The metal desks aren't bolted down, and an honest-to-goodness chair (plastic, armless, beige) can be set wherever. The bunks running widthwise, not lengthwise, took some getting used to. Because there's no shelving, everything has to fit in or on the desk and our footlockers.

When I got around to hooking up and turning on my TV, I was pleased to find not only AMC and FX, which show the only series I care to watch, but also TCM , three channels of in-house movies, two channels that play music and music videos (Gothic, Industrial, Electronic & New Wave, every Thursday and Sunday!), and one that plays entire TV series, for bingeing things like all three seasons of Fargo, or the anime series Bleach.

Being relegated to general pop means more restrictive conditions than life in the honor dorm entailed. Until my status can be upgraded, as I'm working toward now, being locked down for eighteen hours a day (and a less unpleasant fifteen hours, on recreation days) is my new normal. My current cellmate isn't very clean, so I do a lot of spill-wiping and hair-sweeping when I'm not writing, but at least he stays out of my stuff and respects typing time. A short-timer here on a parole violation, he's got other shit on his mind. I let him watch my TV and he mostly stays quiet. Quiet is key.

The forty-minute periods we're out, morning, afternoon, and evening, to shower, use the telephones in the wing, get ice, play games, socialize, enter our canteen orders for the week, or see a caseworker, are always over too quickly. I can hardly wait until the tablet PCs arrive and make e-mail possible, so that some of the disconnect I feel will diminish. The Wi-Fi antennas are already installed in the wings and outside of every housing unit. It shouldn't be much longer….

My first week wasn't out before I hit the gym. Everyone gripes about its size, but it not only seems comparable to Crossroads' (minus one basketball court — good riddance), there are more available machines here. Moreover, acoustic tiling keeps the ballers' screaming from deafening anyone nearby. I'm still not sure if it's my imagination or if ERDCC is just a cleaner, better maintained facility. All of the equipment looks new.

The library actually is small, but there's a selection that'll keep me reading awhile. On my first trip there, I found eight books that were on my wish list. That was just from a five-minute perusal of the fiction shelves. The legal computers sat empty, every one. Research is going to be a breeze. I even submitted a job application while I was there. Unlike at Crossroads, the honor dorm here strictly requires residents to have jobs. I'm laying a foundation for greater freedom here, as well as for in the world at large.

Everyone knows about prison food. The word was that ERDCC's was some of the worst. Sorry, but I happen to find most of it a marked improvement. Besides the fresh bananas, Granny Smith and Fuji apples, and, improbably, kiwis, there's actually onion in things here. And meat. Only two entrées have put me off, so far: the tamale pie and the chili. One look at either one and you'd understand why.

No one prepared me for the visiting situation, how informal and unintrusive an environment the visiting room would be. When Mum got that wild hair and packed the car for a Saint Louis road trip, then tooled down I-55, bound for Bonne Terre, on the first Sunday of my stay, I fumbled my way to the opposite side of the facility and onto the visiting room floor virtually blind. Sitting down beside Mum's wonderful, familiar face, I was not overcome by the sense of being scrutinized at every moment (even if we were), but of sitting in on a spaghetti dinner in a church basement. Maybe the Sunday afternoon crowd was responsible — grandparents, children, mothers, a wife or two, babies. At our table, with smiling, friendly people milling around, Mum and I studiously took in our surroundings, then lost ourselves in conversation for the next three hours. It was a period during which I felt myself again, totally comfortable, in spite of where I was. That felt different, too.

21 May, 2018

Moving Day

An inauspicious start to your day is being awakened, at 4:38 AM, by a voice calling your name from outside your door, saying, "Pack up all your property; you're transferring this morning."

Cue instantaneous alertness. Cue dry mouth. Cue unmitigated fatalism.

They gave me fifteen minutes. The goon squad was on its way into the housing unit, camouflaged and equipped with big-ass cans of Mace, ready to show some force to the residents of Crossroads Correctional Center in the wake of the riot, the six-hour pandemonium that had erupted two days before. My cellmate and I had anticipated shock-and-awe reciprocation, as well as a purging of the prison population. We hadn't expected long-time residents of the honor dorm to be among those outsted, though. Life, someone famous once said, is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

I wished Doyle, my cellmate of the past three years, luck in the looming shakedown. "Write and let me know where you land," he said by way of goodbye.

It was a curious amalgamation of expressions that watched my escort walk me down the transfer processing hallway. Some of the prisoners occupying the benches wore handcuffs, shackles, and excited grins, pleased as anything to be leaving, never mind to where, because the consensus (particularly among the rioters) was that Crossroads blows. Others sank against the wall, grim and taciturn. I joined neither group, instead sitting tall, unsmiling, mute to any but official questions, steeling myself for the inevitable.

At the last available moment before my turn came for cuffs, I had the presence of mind to request a restroom break. No matter what part of the state I was being shipped to, the bus ride was going to be considerable. Our departure time alone, after boarding the Gray Goose, dragged on till sunrise. When breakfast arrived in brown bags, I held off drinking the little carton of milk. A few unthinking souls used theirs as chasers for their danishes. In short order, if they didn't need a toilet soon thereafter, most of them ejected their breakfasts onto the floor of the bus. The windows proved to be bolted shut, so the sugary smell of regurgitated pastry had to be endured.

I was indifferent to the passing hours, for the most part. My last trip beyond the boundary of Crossroads took place in wintertime; this ride's scenery was lush, verdant, alive, and accompanied by a nausea of indeterminate provenance: nerves, or my seat's location near the back, could've been to blame. At least I didn't puke. Instead, I exercised a bit of mindfulness, practiced being in the moment.

This is Middle America, I thought, as fields and truck dealerships passed my view. Paying attention to this held much of my worry at bay. Nothing could be gained by obsessing over what this relocation would do to those I love — those effects would be felt, and dealt with, in their course.

There went a tumbledown double-wide. There went a church sign proclaiming, GOD IS PRO-LIFE AND SO ARE WE!. There went a murder-red barn. There went a farm store called Dickey Bob, a kiddie slide into an algae pond, the last video rental store in the country, a stick man beside his little house, wearing cutoff jeans and a black stetson. These things did me good to see.

Bladders throughout the bus expanded to the limits of tolerance. Transfer buses, however, pay no heed to posted speed limits and stop for no man. So several prisoners contorted themselves, handcuffed left hand over right, to piss into their emptied milk cartons. The guard riding shotgun kindly passed a clear plastic trash bag through the grate at the front of the bus, which, when half-pint relief proved unsatisfying, became an improvised Porta-Potty. I let my pee-shy seatmate huddle with the bag in my spot next to the window, hoping that the road immediately ahead was free of dips or potholes.

Before all was said and done, I got a whirlwind tour of Missouri prisons — Algoa, Jefferson City, Potosi — that included an hour-long layover in a nine-by-thirteen holding cell with twenty-three other ex-Crossroaders. It was far more than I wanted out of my Tuesday. The terminus came twelve hours after it began, when the bus pulled through the gate of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center — colloquially known by its milieu, the old mining town of Bonne Terre. My first thought: It looks like Crossroads, only bigger.

The staff at Bonne Terre had a quandary on their hands but made room and provisions for us, their last-minute arrivals, that kind of impressed me. It's too soon yet to claim that day-to-day conditions are in every way superior to the place that just evicted me. (For sure, Crossroads will be a place of misery for several months to come, owing to numerous factors.) But all appearances imply that they represent a considerable improvement.

As for my relationships, being on the opposite side of the state from my mother and several friends means drastically fewer visits. Losing my honor dorm status (even if my record does fast-track me back to it) means a period of seriously limited phone contact. Being a fresh face means lacking the connections that ease the impositions of prison life. I'm starting over — with the edge provided by nearly seventeen years' experience, it's true, but starting over just the same.

Making the best of a bad situation is what I've been striving to do since my sentencing. This latest turn is only different in type. So: lemonade, anyone?

04 May, 2018

Home

"Anywhere I lay my head, boys," sang Tom Waits, "I'm gonna call my home." Mine is not the easy sentimentality of the vagabond, however, and I'm hardly cavalier with language. What I consider home is a sanctuary, a space consecrated and made my own. It's the difference between an outhouse and a castle: one is rough-hewn and invites only the briefest of visits, the other is regal and endures. How could anyone conflate the two?

And yet, all the time I hear references to one's cell as "home." This was especially prevalent during the years that I worked in Crossroads' kitchen, around what were generally short-timers. Kids on the serving line, talking about their evening plans, let garbage like this fall out of their mouths: "I'm gonna go home and get me a shower and watch me some Empire tonight, boy!" The guys in gray weren't the only ones guilty of this slip; guards did it, too. On the rare occasions when the kitchen had a surplus of workers, "Who wants to go home?" was the question put to us. My hand always went up, but not for the reason they thought.

My cell can't be home. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects one's home and property against unwarranted searches and seizures, while the little concrete box in which I live is subjected to frequent turnings upside-down by uniformed goons. As if that weren't reminder enough that this is no proper home, I'm also required to share it with a stranger. (That Doyle and I get along and have simpatico routines is irrelevant.) The bed and bedding I'm allowed are terrible, the lighting sucks, I can't adjust the temperature, and the lares and penates, those treasures that make a house a home, are altogether banned. I don't even get to paint the walls a different shade of gray.

My home no longer exists. Its only remnants have been kept safe in my mother's keeping since my abduction by the state. Material goods being low on my list of concerns, I've asked her to divest herself of, or use, what she could. Someone might as well appreciate them. What's now left are several boxes of clothing, a few decorative tchotchkes, and several hundred CDs. Whatever home I'm able to build once this purgatory's past will have to be made from scratch.

If that sounds especially sad, consider that every move a person makes in a lifetime involves exactly this. The same stuff may follow from domicile to domicile, but it's not the stuff that matters. You could say that it's the arrangement of that stuff, the investment of care into establishing what comfort one desires, and the life lived around that stuff that constitutes home. My eventual freedom would include the freedom to create home on a completely featureless foundation — an exciting prospect, not one to be melancholy about.

Meanwhile, I continue referring to my cell as exactly that, the same as I reject the labels "inmate" and, worse yet, "offender" on the grounds that I'm unjustly being held captive, a prisoner. Euphemisms won't make me any less uncomfortable. Then again, why would I want to get cozy and settle in here?

03 May, 2018

This Novel Won't Write Itself

Those who asked after the progress of my novel, in the years since I wrote the accidental first piece of it, were usually told that I'd finish it sometime between next month and the inevitable heat death of the universe. I would not be pressured. Ever capricious, the Muse visits episodically.

Being beholden to the Muse's comings and goings is a terrible way to write. Some days I'd manage to bang out pages of content and feel as though I finally had some momentum going. Then months would pass while I futzed around with nonsense. Research made a handy excuse: "I can't write that part until after reading the Koran" and "I'm stuck here until someone sends me that information about injectable testosterone" were both effective stalls. Most often, though, my available time to write got arrogated by personal correspondence.

The realization struck me hard, about a month ago, that I was never going to be a novelist at this rate. Something had to change, and only I could change it.

Finding time is one matter, but when a thing's important enough you make time for it. True to form, I buckled down and made ready. I blocked off weekdays, from 8 AM to 2 PM, as dedicated writing time. I made a sign to hang on my door, which reads, WRITING — DO NOT DISTURB. I decided in advance that my only allowable deviations from routine would be for institutional appointments, unavoidable phone calls, and, once a week, an hour of morning recreation.

I mailed out a final batch of letters. I told my friends that I was embarking on a long trip in my one-man craft, during which time I'd be, as though on a long sea voyage, largely incommunicado. The responses that I got back were encouraging. "See you on the other side" and "May the wind be always at your back" were my favorites.

The novel, I'm pleased to report, is coming along well. I don't find it unreasonable to think that I'll have a polished manuscript ready by year's end. (I'm already ahead of the loose schedule I set myself.) The trick is not taking my eyes off the horizon.

15 April, 2018

What Not to Wear

While they don't allow prisoners to mail order personal clothes anymore, the Missouri Department of Corrections does sell its own "brand" of casual wear through its institutions' canteens. This stuff is as well-made and stylish as prisoner-manufactured clothing sounds, a lot of it making off-brand factory seconds look like Prada, but being the only clothing option available means it sells like crazy. What the state issues us is, astonishingly, even less desirable.

You don't get to buy a wardrobe of Missouri Vocational Enterprises-made shirts, shorts, and sweats, then swagger around the prison in comparative comfort all day, every day, though. Rules dictate (of course they do) where and when "state grays" have to be worn. A lot of prisoners were real clothes horses on the street, and old habits die hard. Living prison-fabulous means enduring more daily outfit changes than a staging of Anna and the King.

Full grays must be worn in Medical, Education, and the library. You can layer this with a personal coat or jacket in the first two, but not the former, where only brown state-issued duck coats are permitted.

Around the housing units, you get to wear whatever you like, at least unless you're headed to the caseworkers' offices, which demand state-gray pants and some kind of shirt — even a tank top or sleeveless T-shirt will do. Unless you're going to, or coming from, a shower stall, or hanging out in your cell (where it seems that anything but full nudity goes), a shirt's necessary at all times. As soon as you go outside, however, bare torsos are permitted. I wish they weren't.

The state-gray pants-only policy also applies to Maintenance and the toilet-paper factory, and to anyone eating breakfast or lunch in a chow hall on weekdays that aren't state holidays. Hats are always verboten, yet any other clothes can be worn to meals the rest of the time. Open-toed sandals must be accompanied by socks, and shirts must have sleeves.

Nothing personal, except for stocking caps, can be worn to visits, even though the white T-shirt, gray pants, and navy blue slip-on deck shoes that you're admitted onto the visiting room floor with are issued on-site. They're provided to you after a strip-search, then returned before you leave the building. But presumably the rules exist for a reason, however stupid.

Got all that? Good. Now, just don't let your pants sag below your waistline at any point and you'll be golden.

29 March, 2018

More Ridiculous Administrative Typos

This is nothing new; I've written about the many unintentionally hilarious signs and memos around the prison before — in my book, for instance, or in this 2017 blog post — but this time Crossroads' revised visiting rules crossed a line. They went into effect months ago but have stared me in the face long enough that I can no longer fight the urge to share them with you. Anyway, check out this incredible twofer:
  • Visitors must clear the mental detectors to enter.
  • No arms are hands on the back of the chairs
Although some truly weird stuff does go down in prison, it's not quite to the sci-fi level of oddity implied by these imaginative malaprops.

23 March, 2018

Fifteen Books I Spent My Winter Reading

Not that I believe in making New Year's resolutions, but I want 2018 to be the year I finish writing the novel that's often seemed doomed to languish in its folder since I started it, accidentally, in late-2012 (ack!). With resumption and completion of that project in mind, I hit the research materials early. Although somewhat dated, Elaine Sciolino's Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran gave me a better grasp of contemporary Iranian culture than any other source I'd found. (Thank you, Mum, for sending it.) Then I boned up on matters survivalist and scavenger-related, using generously given birthday funds: Emergency, by Neil Strauss, and the fascinating true story of one man's twenty-seven-year hermitage in Maine, Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods.

Breaking from this nonfiction jag, I tried to savor the novels sent to me by Lana C. three months back (which I mentioned in my fall reading overview). Books this good are hard to read sparingly. The Course of the Heart, a gorgeous metaphysical fantasy by the masterful M. John Harrison, whose work in SF never fails to leave an indelible impression on me, was quickly followed by Jesse Ball's compelling How to Set a Fire and Why. Ball has written so many surreal, dreamlike novels that this one's more straightforward story line surprised me…but not by any means in a bad way.

Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl's Holocaust-survival-account-cum-existential-philosophy-treatise, validated many thoughts I've had about my life and how I share it with others. The Viennese psychiatrist's therapeutic method was familiar, in a way. Are all imprisonment experiences ultimately alike, psychologically speaking? Do those of us subjected to unjust sequestration have the same fixed number of possible responses? It certainly looks that way. But how inspirational Frankl's book is, just the same!

My friend John always sends me the sorts of uber-geeky books that no one else would. This time around, it was Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log, by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The long-defunct blog on linguistic concerns from dangling modifiers to hierarchical ontologies (you know, all the fun stuff) now exists only in part, in this paperback collection of posts that will interest virtually no one…except John and me. So, thanks for the gift, John.

The Vanishing American Adult, by prolific tweeter Senator Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, wasn't quite what his BookTV interview last year led me to believe. I expected a general-interest book of philosophy on living well and fully; I got a set of suggestions for parents hoping to inculcate character and a sense of meaning in their teenagers' lives. Still, the senator's greater points about what gives life substance and richness remain valid. Tidbits from his book fed into later thoughts that I had about how best to spend time, and about my visceral fear of squandering the minutes of my precious days.

A measure of my adulthood was temporarily relinquished for what came next. If you read my post on being an eternal and unabashed comic-book fanboy, then you can imagine the fun I had when I finally got to read the first Cerebus collection, by Dave Sim. There was an aura of legend surrounding the comic even in the mid-'90s, when my collecting peaked. This past December, the fortieth anniversary made my foray into the barbarian aardvark's realm kind of timely. Book One collects the first twenty-five issues — a two-and-a-half-year run — enough to see the art improve, the characters evolve, and a comprehensive world of magic and absurdity take shape. It was entertaining in a very different way from Daisuke Sato and Shouji Sato's zombie manga, Highschool of the Dead, loaned to me by Bobby and the Grub. (Astute readers will recall these wingmates of mine, from when I blogged about their handmade holiday-themed hanging heads, in last year's installment of "Halloween in the Hoosegow." They're into all kinds of nerdy shit, obviously.) It was my first manga and required some explaining. You read manga backward, I already know, because they're translated from Japanese, but a few quirks of the genre had me asking questions. For instance, why the fixation on enormous breasts?


Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer) started out, "The Part About the Critics," like a dry cough. Some of this was comparative, I admit. It's worlds apart from the graphic novels above. But by degrees 2666 developed into a full-blown fever. My patience and resolve to turn all 900 pages were rewarded with a modern masterpiece that's by turns brutal, tender, baffling, and trenchant. Another translation, Coda: A Novel, is René Belletto's sixty-nine-page experimental work that, in my opinion, Alyson Waters needn't have wasted her prowess with the French language on. The book's basically a mélange of suspense, absurdist comedy, existential intrigue, and familial melodrama. Like I say about so much French cinema, Ça ne me plaît pas.

And finally, because short-form SF is a mode of a genre I'm apparently incapable of ever tiring of, I finished off the season with a couple of fat collections, the Al Sarrantonio-edited Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction and the phenomenal duo of David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best SF 17. The former was more of a mixed bag — maybe this is why it was a one-off anthology, rather than a series like the latter — but both carried me through the damp and dreary days of a waning, lackluster winter's end. Alternate history, extraterrestrials, interdimensional travel, near-future dystopias, the Singularity, and so on and so forth — all the themes and more. Imagining futures. There are worse ways to start a year. 

19 March, 2018

Living under the Thumb

Little no-nos that can get you a conduct violation and disciplinary sanctions here at Crossroads Correctional Center:
  • Leaving your hat or sunglasses on when you enter the chow hall
  • Repurposing a brown paper bag from the canteen as a trash or storage receptacle
  • Showing a tablemate at the library something in a book you're reading
  • Having more than twenty-five loose photos
  • Bringing a packet of sugar back to your cell after breakfast
  • Sewing pockets into your personal clothes
  • Failing to report a bruise, scrape, or cut, even if you don't know how you got it or that it's there at all
  • Exiting your cell without turning off your TV, radio, lamp, et cetera
  • Borrowing a CD
  • Being too close to someone else's cell door
  • Drawing a map, any map, even if it's a map of Middle Earth
  • Sleeping too deeply to hear the announcement of a custody count
  • Keeping a rag in your cell
  • Keeping any cleaning solutions in your cell
  • Not keeping your cell clean
  • Draping a cord or wire across your cell
  • Holding on to medication issued to you more than a month ago
  • Doing anything crafty or creative with stuff you've got lying around
  • Using the toilet when a guard walks past your cell, even if the guard didn't announce his or her presence in the wing
  • Forgetting to sign out after using a typewriter or law-library computer
  • Setting anything on your window ledge
  • Covering your shadeless lamp to block the glare of a bare forty-watt CFL bulb

  • Standing too close to the front of the wing when you're not on the phone, using the touch-screen canteen kiosk or one of the clothes dryers, or looking at the bulletin board
  • Placing anything under your cell door to dampen the shouting and noise of the wing
  • Tearing a page from a magazine, whether it's yours or not
  • Hanging a picture a few inches too far to the left, or the right, on your cell wall
  • Not letting a door close behind you
  • Leaving your ID in the pocket of your other pants
  • Keeping a bottle, box, tub, or bag after the foodstuff originally packaged in it is gone
  • Having a hole in your bed sheet
  • Loaning someone your pen for a moment
  • Arriving more than fifteen minutes late for a medical appointment
  • Wearing headphones in the wing
  • Amassing more than two bars of soap
  • Picking up basically anything you find on the yard
  • Hanging wet clothes to dry
  • Sitting on the stairs
  • Exercising in the wing
  • Letting more than six magazines stack up in your cell
  • Drinking too much before a guard comes to give you a random surprise drug test
  • Pulling your shirt over your nose to filter a bad smell
  • Walking too quickly
  • Walking too slowly
Sometimes the fact that I've only gotten three conduct violations in sixteen years (all of them minor) astounds even me.

15 March, 2018

Scrambled Eggs with a Side of Savagery

With pillow imprints on our faces and 5 AM coffees scarcely swallowed, we file into the chow hall, take our trays, and sit. It's pointless to call them the usual crowd; Frenchie, Dave, and I surrounding the same table, in the same seats, day in and day out, like everyone else at his own table, all that ever really changes is the prison's menu.

"Morning, gents," I tell my senior-noncitizen tablemates. Or maybe it's "Greetings and salutations," or "Howdy," or an ironic "'Sup witchoo, Bloods?" We're not robots, after all, and I like to mix things up a little. "Anyone care for more toast?"

For a grizzled biker with a WHAT THE FUCK, RUN AMOK tattoo, Frenchie's got decorum to rival Emily Post. "I would," he says. "But just one slice, thank you. May I have some of that jelly, too?"

Frenchie sporks grape jelly off my tray, pinkie extended like a well-bred lady at tea, as I offer Dave the other slice. Even with teeth, the pale rubbery squares that masquerade as toast around here are a challenge to gnaw apart. I'm not shocked that toothless Dave declines.

The three of us salt and pepper our mess of eggs. Frenchie butters his eggs and lays his toast on top — a trick picked up from bygone cohort Jim (of the Old-Man Table, who transferred before Christmas). Eggs hold heat better than bread, so the margarine melts onto his toast, but the arrangement makes me think of building a sand castle. I toss Dave my five packets of sugar. He empties them into his oatmeal and drowns the lot in skim milk. We tuck in.

Not halfway through the fifteen-minute meal, the chow hall goes quiet. Around me, other prisoners prairie-dog, rising from their seats to get a better view. I hear that familiar arrhythmic squeak-squeak of sneaker soles on concrete: a fight.

I turn without getting up and see a couple of guys in state-issued grays and brown duck coats dancing around each other like boxers in the ring, but the lion's share of the action here's already over. Guards swarm from every direction to break it up, and both combatants surrender without fuss.

"Wasn't much of a fight," says Dave, while the scufflers are handcuffed and led to opposite sides of the chow hall.

I point out that one guy's eye is bleeding profusely. "He caught at least one good blow."

Two guards escort him out past our table. A rivulet of dark blood forks down his left cheek, jaw, and neck. He's squinting as though they'd sprayed him with Mace, yet no one had.

"A knife," mutters someone nearby.

So, he'd been stabbed in the eye. Once he was out, guards led his assailant through the same door. This one's boastful posture and smirk belong to a man who's just accomplished something big, but no one cheers as he makes his exit.

Dave makes a noncommittal grunt before attending again to his milky, oversweetened mess. Frenchie and I exchange a glance, then go back to our breakfast.

"What're they serving tomorrow morning, do you guys know?" asks Frenchie, after a bit. As if it matters.

28 February, 2018

Tablet PCs for Missouri Prisoners Will Be a Mixed Bag

After learning, four years ago, that the Keefe Corporation was selling prisoners tablet PCs and offering secure service to go with them, I wrote, "When Will Missouri Let Its Prisoners Join the Electronic Conversation?" Not that anyone at the Department of Corrections back then actually read my post, but a new Director of the Division of Adult Institutions did express an interest in acquainting prisoners with technology, which seems to have been the driving force behind the recent announcement that 2018 will be, for those of us imprisoned in Missouri, the year of the tablet.


A multi-page FAQ about the JP5s — the tablet that prison profiteers Jpay will soon issue us free of charge — went up on Crossroads' bulletin boards a while back. It verified a lot of speculations I made when Jpay became the state's contracted provider of online money transfers and "print-and-deliver" e-mail services for prisoners. (Let it never be said that I can't read the tea leaves.) Some things surprised me, though.

The tablets' promised features include:
  • secure e-mail (with image and "VideoGram" attachments available on incoming messages);
  • music and e-book downloads (with movie and game downloads as a behavior-based privilege);
  • KA Lite videos;
  • individualized assignments from education instructors;
  • some variety of daily news feed;
  • electronic access to the prison health and grievance systems, as well as caseworker communications; and
  • (eventually) phone service.
Jpay kiosks set up in the prisons will make video visits available, too.

Except for the education material (which apparently doesn't include the e-books), all of these things will cost money. Prisoners will pay 25¢ to send an e-mail, and who knows how much to download a song from what Jpay brags is "the largest music catalog available in corrections." The state says that its take from these features won't contribute to the DOC's general revenue but stay in the Offender Canteen Fund, which covers things like gym equipment, games and kids' toys for the visiting room, cable TV, and library books — all funded solely with markups on products sold in the prison canteens.

Prisons are full of people with addictive personalities and poor impulse control. Tablet PCs are going to be the best pacifier the DOC has ever seen. With their slack faces aglow above bluish screens, thousands of prisoners will join the ranks of the device-dependent, zombified and utterly inert except for their swiping, tapping, hovering index fingers, too entranced to kick up a fuss. I hope it renders them at least partially mute, also. I could use some peace and quiet.

As far as how a tablet will change my prison existence for the better, well, I'm looking forward to doing away with much of snail mail's delay, and if the Jpay app and website allow for cutting and pasting of text at the recipients' end these blog posts will become a hell of a lot more timely. Because the music I most enjoy tends to be pretty far outside the mainstream, I do worry that my listening pleasures will be diminished. (Somehow it seems unlikely that I'll find the Bolshoi, Xiu Xiu, or even Zola Jesus in Jpay's catalog. We'll see.) Depending on the educational videos' subjects and sophistication, that could be interesting, but I'm not holding my breath.

The rollout's going to take a while. No specific date's been announced. The bureaucracy first has to amend many long-standing DOC policies, and Governor Eric Greitens even has to get involved, revoking the 2007 executive order I posted about the effects of here, which was issued by a predecessor who thought video games and R-rated movies were somehow responsible for prisoner's continued bad behavior.

There is an incentive for the powers that be to quickly get their ducks in a row, though. A settlement between the DOC and a Missouri prisoner led to the Department banning all tobacco products and smoking/vaping accoutrements in its so-called correctional centers. Testy convicts with one less distraction and a dwindling number of incentives to play nice might prove to be more of a handful than 37,000 five-inch tablets.

16 February, 2018

The Whistling Plague

Those cherubic heads drawn in the corners of old maps, representing the four winds, with their puckered lips and Louis Armstrong cheeks? The little man who moved into my wing a few weeks back makes the same face but contributes nothing aesthetically pleasing by doing so. In fact, his presence only taints the already iffy wing ambiance.

Can a person ever be said to whistle aggressively? To rephrase: can someone whistle in such a way that the sound constitutes a deliberate imposition, a taunt, a challenge — a sonic fuck you to all within earshot? This loud little prick seems to spend all day blaring a tuneless mess out of his face. And now he's not alone.

Bad behavior is contagious. Suddenly, every guy running around with a chip on his shoulder has a song in his heart that he wants to share, however inartfully.

Noise is, across personality types and constitutions, a universal irritant. The louder it is, the more stress it induces. Ask the abused detainees of Abu Ghraib prison about AC/DC, or Navy SEALS about Hell Week's cacophony, or Manuel Noriega about the heavy-metal onslaught of his compound by U.S. forces' loudspeakers in 1989 — prolonged exposure to high-volume sound will drive you out of your mind.

Because of my neurological "complications," whistling of any volume or musical competency is generally on par with the smell of baby powder or, perhaps more relatably, biting a nice, big piece of aluminum foil. I dislike most of the people in my wing anyway. They act as if the world owes them something; they disregard the most common courtesies. The eruption of largely atonal whistling by people whose presence was already powerfully unpleasant is just shit-icing on the turd cake.

Why whistle in public at all? Like humming or singing to onself, it's a form of expression that's okay when you're alone — and basically not at any other time. Consider that no sane, reasonable human would, say, walk through their workplace honking at random. How is whistling different? In whose mind is whistling as piercingly as possible acceptable? And yet I am surrounded on all sides by those oblivious to their own behavior, and those too arrogant to care who's put off by it. Either failing goes a long way toward an explanation of why they're in prison in the first place.

Patient Zero, the small-statured man who brought the Whistling Plague upon us, moved in two months after someone assaulted him. He threatened and insulted a man using "his" shower, and that man leapt out, stark naked and dripping, to beat him down. Maybe someone else will get fed up with his dissonance, but even if I were that lucky there'd still be the remaining infected. My only hope against the Whistling Plague is my over-the-ear headphones.

13 February, 2018

They Treat My Prison Cell Like It's a Model Home

I'm feeding a sheet of paper into my typewriter, first thing after my cellmate leaves for work, when the door cracks and our housing unit's Lilliputian day-shift sergeant peeks in.

"Mister Case?"

"Good morning," I say, expecting her to tell me I'm needed in the caseworker's office, at Medical, or any of the half-dozen places at Crossroads that might, on any given day of the week, surprise me with a pass. But no.

"I have a young gentleman here who just started," she explains, opening the door to another very small person, this one in civilian clothes, with a coiffure like Superboy's. "Would you mind if I showed him your cell?"

The paper wound mechanically around the platen. Oh, this again. "No, not at all."

Just like the lowest-numbered cell on the bottom walks tend to be the first searched in routine shakedowns, my cell, the first one on the upper tier, gets this type of attention often. I suspect that the bigger factors in its demo-model status are that I'm not a surly fuck all the time, and what the tiny sergeant tells her trainee as I step out for her guided tour: "It's very clean. They're usually not like this."

The two staff members point and gesture — at the arrangement of our footlockers, at my shelf of books and CDs, at Doyle's terrible fantasy art, and at other stuff I don't pay attention to because I use this time out as an excuse to head downstairs and add a couple of last-minute items to my canteen order. Before I'm done at the touch screen at the front of the wing, the sergeant singsongs, "Thank you!"

I half turn. Unable to think of anything more appropriate, I give a thumbs-up. This is not what people expect prison to be like.

30 January, 2018

Fiction Contest Frustration

I submitted my short story "Such Misery Moves through the World" to Glimmer Train's New Writers Contest last October. It was my very first time entering a writing contest. As exciting as you'd think this was, I put it out of my mind the moment the envelope went out.

A willed forgetfulness is a crucial skill for all writers who want their work to be published: we send out the submission, we log it in our records, and we move on to the next piece of writing that calls for our attention. Dwelling on the odds of a forthcoming acceptance is a sure-fire way of going insane — and not the good, clever kind of insanity, the checking-your-box-every-ten-minutes-while-pacing-a-furrow-into-your-floor kind. It isn't productive or pretty.

So I waited patiently. A few @Free_Byron_Case followers saw my #ByronSays tweet about the contest and probed for updates, otherwise I might've forgotten it altogether. My writerly anticipations lay mostly in wondering when the essay and poems already accepted elsewhere would be published. Whether this constitutes another kind of madness is debatable, but at least it's based on the written agreement to publish my work, not just wishful thinking.

Three months flew by. Then the envelope arrived. I managed my expectations by thinking, They returned the whole manuscript, but at least they'll have included criticism on the story.

The thirty pages of "Such Misery Moves through the World" were held together by a mini binder clip, my cover letter at the back. A printed announcement of winners had been stuck into the envelope, on top. My name wasn't on it. I read it twice to be sure. Riffling the manuscript pages revealed no footnotes, marginalia, symbols, underlinings, Doritos dust, or dried bodily fluids. I was disappointed.

I hadn't actually expected to win. Glimmer Train attracts a crowd of fiction writers who've yet to publish stories, so the competition is stiff. Also, the story I submitted is pretty fantastical — "Neil Gaiman channeling Garrison Keillor" is how I've described it, and speculative fiction is not the most likely to win over the magazine's editors. For the $18 entry fee, though, I'd think some indication that my manuscript was read by a conscious, literate, human being would've been a given. Other contests' entry fees entitle entrants to one-year subscriptions or copies of the publication they submitted work for. I only got that binder clip.


These things are contraband. Crossroads' mail room should've confiscated it but was apparently in too great a hurry. So, yeah, the one thing my first writing-contest entry got me I had to throw away. That kind of irony is almost good enough to put in a story.

15 January, 2018

Ever Faithful, My Brother Typewriter Returns to Me

When the correction ribbon started popping off at random times, uncoiling its spool quite inconveniently, I decided it was time to send the workhorse, my typewriter, away for a while.


I knew I'd miss it, but repairs had to be made. I rely on this machine too much — for typing this blog, journal submissions, personal letters, manuscript drafts for my endlessly unfinished novel, and more. It's the tool with which I daily ply my trade, writing. It's my avocation and my primary method of communication. Imagine your cell phone taken away and you'll get a pretty good idea of how I felt about setting Old Faithful in a box and shipping it to one of the last remaining typewriter-supply businesses in existence.

And then it was gone for a month and a half. How did I not lose my mind?

Thankfully, there was no shortage of excellent reading material on hand. I gobbled up a number of books. I even drew a little. Guys in my wing noticed that I came out of my cell a little (a very little) more than usual, too, so I suppose it was good for my social life.

Social, schmocial, though; I wanted to work!

I got a pass to pick up my typewriter from the prison property room, at long last, on Wednesday. I was downright giddy after carrying it back to the housing unit, plugging it in, and hearing the familiar buzz-click-click-click-buzz-buzz of its mechanical power-on sequence, and fell immediately to the task of clearing out my backlog — "triage for my to-do list," I called it.

All may be far from right in the world (I'm still innocent in prison; hey, details), but things in Cell 236 just got a hell of a lot better.