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 backward, 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.