08 May, 2019

Meet the Veep

Expressing myself in writing has always come more easily for me than for the average person, but effective face-to-face communication is trickier. I joined ERDCC's Gavel Club because Toastmasters International (with which Gavel Clubs are affiliated) has a sterling reputation for empowering members' development as communicators and leaders. I assumed I'd get something good out of joining. What came as some surprise, though, was others getting something good from me joining.

At last week's election there were two nominees for vice president education. According to Toastmasters' constitution, the VPE "is responsible for planning, organizing, and directing a club program which meets the educational needs of the individual members." In our club, this means maintaining a schedule of members' roles in meetings (which is tricky in prison, a volatile, protean environment requiring lots of last-minute changes), facilitating and tracking members' educational achievements, and organizing speech contests. It can get to be a lot of work.

My fellow Gavel Club members obviously trust that I'm up to the task. They elected me their next VPE. It was my first time being voted in as anything, ever. That kind of validation felt pretty good.

New executives are traditionally sworn in at the annual banquet; however, our outgoing VPE has already stepped down. As I write this, my predecessor is a free man, probably enjoying some fresh air and sunshine in bluegrass country. Nature abhors a vacuum; so do executive committees. As a result, I went from VPE-elect to sitting VPE one month early. Thank goodness he trained me, over the past three months, to succeed him. I'm glad his confidence wasn't misplaced, or I'd now be training someone else.

Not even a year after joining, I hold the Speak Easy Gavel Club's second-highest office — proof that the Toastmasters slogan, "Where leaders are made," isn't hyperbole. It's an honor and a thrill to serve.

26 April, 2019

Menu Subject to Change without Notice

Since when are there red beans in tuna salad? Come to think of it, this sausage is probably barely 15% fish. And what about the sides — cole slaw that looks like corn, macaroni and cheese bearing a striking resemblance to boiled cabbage, bizarrely fruitlike cookies?

Egad, the old switcheroo! This is a completely different meal! 

The ERDCC kitchen diverges from its posted menu with irritating frequency. Some days you trek across the yard, through pelting rain or blazing heat, having put off some important bit of personal business, anticipating one of the especially edible meals on the six-week menu cycle, only to be greeted by an unexpected smell and a surprise foodstuff. No warning was given. You just got duped.

Similarly, there are times when you're scared of the planned meal and make other arrangements, resolved not to even set eyes on, say, that inedible brake pad they call meatloaf, only to find out after lunch that the kitchen manager substituted the more palatable vegetable soup and sandwich, and that you just cooked something with canteen foodstuffs that would've been better reserved for leaner times.

This happened at Crossroads periodically — usually just with a side, such as beet-and-onion salad or corn relish, which few cared about. Fresh fruit was also substituted for cake pretty often, to the dismay of many a sweet tooth. Here, though, it's about once a week that someone with authority veers hard off-menu.

I haven't seen peanut butter in months, though it definitely remains part of the printed meal plan. Instead, we've been given bologna or scrambled egg mix on the regular. One time they slapped slices of turkey ham (something else against which my digestive system revolts) on the trays where peanut butter should've been. During my initial months here, the institution was out of black-eyed peas. Because the menu didn't reflect this, I was tricked again and again, only to wind up with trays piled with pinto beans instead, which was fine, if not ideal. I love me some dirt-flavored legumes.

This week I skipped a movie on basic cable because there was a chance that lunch's cardboard pizza would be replaced by that rare treat, a pepperoni pizza pocket. It wasn't. And while this sort of thing isn't that big of a deal, it's just another item in the long, long list of tetchy bullshit that I abide, living this life locked away.

17 April, 2019

My First Translated Poem

Deer Grove

by Wang Wei

Unpeopled, unseen mountain
Echoing with distant voices, pierced
By us returning to its depths,
Casting our refulgent selves
In spots on blue-green lichen.

* * * * *

Monday's SLU Speaker Series event brought poet and translator Aditi Machado to speak about the art of translation. She began her talk with a fifteen-minute exercise. The twenty or so ERDCC prisoners in attendance were given a 1,250-year-old poem by the Buddhist painter and calligrapher Wang Wei, then encouraged to try our hand at translating it. (We also got a crib, as, unsurprisingly, there were no readers of classical Chinese among us.) What's interesting is that even Wang Wei's original, painted on a massive horizontal scroll, has been lost to time. The earliest copy of his poem that still exists is from the seventeenth-century, itself no doubt changed many times over those 900 years. The poem's still alluring to many translators, who keep reinterpreting it in fresh ways. I understood its voice as belonging to the collective of rays of a setting sun. Others at the event adopted the perspective of the vacant mountain. One guy who'd been watching too much History Channel interpreted it as an account of alien abduction. There was much to discuss.

My relationship with translation is fraught and complex and very, very Western. I have a craving for certainty, for fidelity, for empirical, inarguable, capital-T Truth. I want the original. I want to download Wang's intentions and thoughts into my head, uncompressed and ultra high-res. As such, I want the impossible. People misunderstand and reinterpret everything, even in their own language, even in their own time. So how can anyone read a translation and say that they've experienced a particular work? No language equates to another on a one-to-one basis. There can be no "true" translation of a work, only approximations, interpretations, which are filtered through other minds before getting scrambled and remixed in our own.

The very popular Penguin Classics translations of books are so often read because they're uncontroversial, not necessarily good. The average reader doesn't become aware of the translator's role, of the tremendous difference he or she makes in a given text, until sampling multiple translations of the same title. I've read three different versions of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (including Penguin's), but it was the gorgeous one by Catherine Liu that brought me genuine delight. Reading a work of literature in translation is like looking at a painting through someone else's prescription eyeglasses — maybe it'll speak to you, maybe it won't.

Regardless, I brought my translation of Wang back from the event to rework it a little more. This version won't win any awards, but I felt that my experience creating it, and what I learned from doing so, was worth sharing.

10 April, 2019

Today's Gavel Club Speech: "Bend or Break"

The fourth project in Toastmasters' "Competent Communication" manual is simply to craft a five- to seven-minute speech that makes use of metaphor, simile, and alliteration. I spent two weeks mulling over what topic best suited this, finally deciding only this past weekend. Preparation is for amateurs! (Or so I keep telling myself.) In any event, the speech I hastily wrote for today's meeting of the Speak Easy Gavel Club appears below.

* * * * *

"Don't push the river, it flows by itself." These words of wisdom were handed down to me by my father, the guru of the suburbs. You see, growing up I was always trying to stay on top of a situation. I needed the security of feeling in control. The unexpected made me nervous. Just ask the friend who threw me a surprise party when I turned nineteen and got a bloody nose as a thank-you.

Here's another example: grits. I didn't grow up in the South. My dad might've been Missouri born and raised, but you'd never have known it. My mother is German, and if you'd asked her, back when I was young, she'd have answered your question with a question: "What's a grit?" So I don't know where I picked it up, but from the time I moved out on my own and had to stock my own kitchen, I ate grits for breakfast every single morning. I ate them out of the same white-and-black bowl, using the same slender-handled stainless steel spoon. I ate them only with butter and sugar. To me, that was grits. Put anything else on them, such as cheese, onions, or green peppers, and I wouldn't touch the stuff. Put them in another bowl and I might eat them, but I'd be upset about it — like, stomach-turning upset. It was a whole thing.

I called these routines my "systems." I had a "right way" of doing everything from getting dressed to calling for pizza delivery. And before you go thinking "OCD," I'll just say that OCD had nothing on me. People with obsessive compulsive disorder do what they do because they feel something deep inside them say they have to, kind of how you or I feel an urge to use the toilet. We all know that you turn a lightbulb clockwise to screw it into the socket, and that's how my systems seemed to me — sane and practical, while any other way of doing a thing seemed just plain ridiculous.

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans," John Lennon sang. Because I had plans — aka systems — for socializing, showering, sex, and a slew of other stuff, I was just setting myself up to be knocked down by circumstance.

I was talking with a friend the other day who told me about this idea some therapists call "radical acceptance." How many of you know about Alcoholics Anonymous' Serenity Prayer? Radical acceptance is just a technical-sounding name for the same thing. It's seeing the things you can't change and letting your mind be at ease about them. It sounds so obvious: if you can't change a thing, why try? But all of us struggle against the flow at one time or another.

You've heard that phrase, right, Go with the flow? When I first came to prison, almost twenty years ago, I was a night owl. I'd wake up in the late-afternoon, eat dinner, then stay up writing, reading, drawing, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee, until it was time for breakfast. After a shower, I'd go to bed at about 9:30 in the morning. Standing-only custody counts didn't exist back then, not at the facility I was in. Sleepers didn't even need to sit up in bed, so this worked. Except when it didn't. Caseworker hours, cell searches — these all would interrupt my sleep, and I'd complain. Even visiting hours required me to adjust my schedule. But if I had to wake up and haul myself into the back office for legal mail at noon, whose fault was that? I had to realize that I was the one being unreasonable, fighting the flow. I had my system, but the prison had a system far bigger than mine. In fact, prison basically is a system. And here's the thing: once I realized that and adjusted my schedule to match the institution's, my day-to-day stopped being such a struggle. I got uninterrupted sleep. I wasn't a zombie on visits anymore. Win-win, all around.

Sleep is a rhythm you keep time to. Changing the beat, from one where I lived like an owl, up at sunset, to one where I lived like a rooster, awake before dawn, was tricky. In the end, though, it took less effort than fighting daytime hours would have. We get into these habits and they become part of us. Breaking them feels like we're tearing away a part of ourselves. It's uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. We resist. We tell ourselves stuff like, This is impossible! We dig in deeper, dead set against changing ourselves. Maybe we think it means we've lost, like we're surrendering, like we're weak. But really, the fight's not with stuff imposed on us, it's with ourselves.

And yes, now that I know this, I will eat my grits off a plastic tray with a spork.

01 April, 2019

Regarding the Missouri DOC's Concern for Butt Hygiene

An announcement is now on display in prisons across the state, that affects a substantial portion of the imprisoned populous. Naturally, I'm reading into it more than was probably intended. In full, it says:

To All Offenders

The sale of fragrance (prayer) oils in the Canteen has been discontinued due to safety and security concerns.

Offenders will have six (6) months to use the oils they currently have in their possession, and as of September 1, 2019, oils will be considered contraband.

Personal cleansing wipes will be available for sale in the Canteen for offenders to use for quick and convenient personal cleansing. The wipes are NOT to be flushed down the toilet, as they can cause problems to the septic system. Offenders will now have access to a cleansing product in addition to soap and deodorant, as part of a particular faith practice and/or other personal cleansing needs.

To parse the burocrat-speak and get down to brass tacks, does this mean that people were just dribbling perfumey oil on themselves instead of keeping their butts clean? Are those who opt to use these wipes actually expected to, rather than flush them, keep the moist little squares in their cells until they can throw them in a trash can? Will biohazard bags be provided? What's to prevent the scandalous from stashing their contraband in those bags of used wipes (because what guard is actually going to search in there)? I have so many questions! I suspect that the answers, once I see them with my own eyes, will also leave me baffled.

22 March, 2019

The SLU Speaker Series Asks, "What Is Knowledge?"

It's not every day that a prisoner in a maximum-security institution gets to sit in on a philosophical talk with speakers from Ivy League schools. My experience yesterday afternoon, auditing a discussion by five philosophy professors and two students of the SLU Associate of Arts Program here at ERDCC, therefore constituted a real event.

"What is knowledge?" was the theme of this month's SLU Speaker Series event, and this question, posted on the prison's information channel, definitely caught my eye. I'm a knowledge buff, always questioning, always acknowledging the limits of my knowledge — I'm one rung, perhaps, above an armchair philosopher. This seemed right up my alley. Even Hopper, my cellmate, said so when encouraging me to attend.

Available seating, the TV said, was limited to forty. I didn't know if there was much chance of me getting in, especially submitting my attendance request a day and a half late, as I did. Surely (surely?) applicants would be beating down the door. The memo from the Institutional Activities Coordinator, confirming that I was on the list of attendees for 21 March, was as unexpected as it was delightful. Receiving that sheet of paper made my night.

Enrichment opportunities like this simply didn't exist at Crossroads. There, education and personal improvement weren't even afterthoughts. The expectation was that you sit in your cell, maybe go out to recreation for a handful of hours a week, and otherwise be quiet and while away your time. There were limited programs, and even fewer opportunities to enliven your mind. This is just another way in which ERDCC gets things right: the option, for those willing to take it, for the cultivation of thought and growth as a person.

How'd it go? Well, shortly after lunch, I walked around the corner of my housing unit, to the visiting room. The strip-search I endure for a visit wasn't involved; this was run like any other program, where each attendee just came in, showed his ID, and took a seat. Mere minutes later, the moderator, Professor Chad Flanders, of the Saint Louis University School of Law, introduced himself and the panelists: Professors Ekow Yankah, of Cardozo Law School; Tommie Shelby, of Harvard University; Erin Kelly, of Tufts University; and Eric Miller, of Loyola Marymount University.

The panel opened with a summary of what knowledge is and isn't, distinguishing it from wisdom or belief, then branching off into Plato's allegory of the cave, the value and purpose of knowledge, whether it's possible to attain true knowledge, what knowledge can and can't do for us — you know, stuff easily covered in two hours of a Thursday afternoon. I even got to pose the day's last question: Is the attainment of knowledge possible for everyone, irrespective of what kind of existence they're living? It was great.

The signup sheet for next month's event is already out. The editor of the poetry journal Asymptote will be here, speaking about the art of translation in poetry. Of course my signature's on that list. I can hardly wait.

Three Books I Spent My Winter Reading

"You only read three books in three months?" you ask in astonishment.

Yes, I did. Now close your mouth before some small flying insect thinks it's an invitation. It's spring, you know. Bugs are a thing now.

There were several good magazine articles that passed under my newly prosthetically enhanced eyes during that time. But I've really been too busy writing to fit in my usual volume of reading. Try asking me about my nearly complete novel-in-stories if you want a lengthier response. Oh, but you wanted to know what books I've read since I posted last season's reading list, or else you wouldn't have made it three paragraphs into this one.

First was Amnesia Moon, Jonathan Lethem's second novel. It marked my fourth experience with a book he'd written. (Yes, that's probably too many ordinals. I've been prioritizing more than usual lately.) This particular one is a post-apocalyptic phantasmagoria involving a man with no memory who, with a furry little girl in tow, escapes the desert hellscape he's been calling home, only to find the rest of the world very different from what he dreamed. Misfortune and confusion find the pair at every turn. Nightmares become reality... or something very much like it. By the end, too many hallucinatory detours into fantasy and sci-fi left me, as a reader, on shaky ground. Years ago, Lethem's Chronic City left me awestruck. Amnesia Moon just seemed unfinished. I hope that it's the least of his books, because I know he's capable of so much better.

Speculative fiction has always been woefully lacking in minority voices, but when Octavia E. Butler wrote Kindred some forty years ago, a black woman's time-travel narrative was sui generis. That alone merits acclaim. This much-lauded "grim fantasy" still makes for harrowing SF, as well as a gut-wrenching history lesson, which just adds to Butler's credit. I'm glad that I finally made time for it.

Next was The Enchantress of Florence: A Novel. Salman Rushdie's prose enchants, no matter the genre. Part of the secret to his magic lies in the blending of the crassest profanity with mannered English prose. The effect can be laugh-out-loud funny. As is often the case with Rushdie, fable and fact also interweave here. The wild, intricate, phantasmagorical tale-within-a-tale (plus other tales within that one, besides) treats historical figures, including Andrea Doria, Niccolo Machiavelli, Vlad Tepes, and Giuliano de' Medici, as players in the farce. Notwithstanding his so-so novel on last year's reading list, reading Rushdie has always been a joy for me.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some writing to do.

12 March, 2019

Stop and Go

Hurry up, get out of bed! Feet on the floor! Lights on! It's 6 AM — count time! Two guards will be walking past your cell to verify your presence inside... sometime. It could take seconds. It could take minutes. Meanwhile, stand at the back of your cell and don't move.

Count clears and the doors crash open. The two-minute window for those leaving the wing for breakfast will be announced... sometime. It could be any moment now. Or an hour from now. Don't start reading, playing a game, washing clothes, or doing anything you're unprepared to drop at a moment's notice.

Race to be close to the front of the dining-hall line. Never mind that the workers serving this morning's meal aren't assembled yet. They'll find their positions and start throwing food on the trays... sometime. Meanwhile, occupy yourself by listening to everyone talk the same tired shit about kitchen staff not knowing we were coming.

Here's your tray of food. Eat fast and get out. People need those seats!

Back at the housing unit, stand beside your cell door and wave for the attention of the guard in the control module. She'll unlock it... sometime. Until then, just think of this as a very light workout for your triceps and try to ignore that full-bladder feeling.

What's your hurry? Where've you got to be? Work? A pharmacy pick-up? A medical appointment? HiSeT class? Leave your shoes on. Sit down, but don't get too comfortable. They'll page you when they're ready, not before. When? Oh, you know... sometime.

Your class or program or job starts in twenty minutes. No guard's there to unlock the gate or door for you yet, but we still need you there half an hour ago. Why? Because. Go now! Hurry up! Yes, there's a line, but you need to be in it — not just walking in that direction, actively participating in the formation of a queue for the thing.

Now what're you waiting for? Let's go! Quick! Stand there! We haven't got all day!

05 March, 2019

Bespectacled, Bothered, and Bewildered

Listening to the eye doctor's spiel about how, as we age, the lenses in our eyes become less flexible, I had expected a moral along the lines of "You'll just have to deal with a little blur, Mr. Forty-Year-Old." Instead, he gave me a prescription for reading glasses.

You're allowed to mail order your own pair from an outside vendor, but when you let The Missouri Department of Corrections furnish your glasses, there's a choice of two frames styles: the Turbo Nerd 5000, or some creepy pinkish mock-tortoiseshell "unisex" number acquired secondhand from an opticians' supply clearinghouse that shuttered in 1981. Basic black seemed like the obvious choice.

It's been two weeks since I started wearing mine. It hasn't been the easiest adjustment. Harder to handle than janky optical inputs is having to put something on my face every time I pick up a book, magazine, tablet, pen, or pencil. I'm trying to treat it like a mindfulness exercise, similar to eating with deliberate slowness or showering with my eyes closed. Transferring them from the bridge of my nose to my forehead every time I look up still takes the greatest amount of effort. I'll get it eventually.

Of course, it doesn't help that the frame shape is completely wrong for my face. I'm not trying to make a fashion statement when I read — let alone when I read in prison — but these Turbo Nerd 5000s are so large that they hide my perfect eyebrows, which borders on unconscionable.

23 February, 2019

Exile in Creepville

Institutional changes forced Hopper and me to move, first out of our wing, and then out of 6-House altogether. Neither was cause for celebration.

After having lived for one full month in Housing Unit 1, I feel qualified to make some observations on these environs, and on my fellow inhabitants thereof. You wouldn't think so, but the differences between two virtually identical housing units in the same facility can be stark.

To start with, the doors here are not the same as those in any other general-population house. 1-House was built as a segregation unit — ad-seg, or, even less formally, "the Hole." (Why this necessitated sliding doors is beyond me. I was absent on the day they taught prison architecture in school.) These doors are a nightmare.

Rather, they would be a nightmare if they let a guy sleep through their explosive opening. Imagine an M-80 firecracker going off, each time one of the wing's seventy-two residents comes back from an appointment, a visit, work, or recreation — things that those of us in honor dorms have more of than average prisoners. The cascade of doors unlocking after free movement resumes, following custody counts, sounds like an aluminum stepladder tumbling down a stairwell.

The loudspeaker in 1A renders the voices of all who use it incomprehensible. This deters no guards from doing so, or from getting pissed off when they're not understood. I'd ask them not to mistake our confusion for obstinacy, but I don't want to end up with a conduct violation for insulting behavior.

The intercom also beeps and squawks in the middle of the night, sometimes for unnecessary one-way conversations with early workers heading for the kitchen at 3 AM. Daywalkers like me toss and turn through it all, hopeful that sleep will quickly take us again.

The telephone situation in this wing is different from that of my previous housing unit. As far as whether it's better or worse, the jury is still out. Here, one of the four phones is frequently available without a wait. Word has it, however, that snitches who see anyone talking at length will "drop kites" on him, hoping to get him in trouble. If such notes are really dropped in the caseworkers' inbox, I can't say. The idea alone is distracting. When I'm on the line, conversing, and a guy stands nearby, I start fretting. Is he waiting to make a call? Does he look impatient enough to go scrawl a pissy note about me? Might someone else hang up first, to give him a shot? I've always tried to be considerate with my telephone use, but now I'm downright paranoid.

It's impossible not to wonder who the aforesaid kite-droppers are. You couldn't throw a glazed honey bun across the wing without hitting a likely suspect. Creeps abound. Maybe it's the man with the limp, who glances a little too frequently at people in the shower. Maybe it's Down Syndrome Colonel Sanders. Maybe it's Lurch, the tall, drugged-looking guy down the walk. Maybe it's the Human Liver Spot who's always smiling. What's that old guy got to be so cheerful about? Whatever he claims it is, I'm dubious.

Stereotypes in prison generally prove accurate. Do enough time and you'll develop a kind of sixth sense about them. I profile other prisoners on a daily basis. Give me seven days in someone's vicinity and I'll correctly tell you their crime, seven out of ten times.

That said, there seem to be an inordinate number of sex offenders in this wing. There's one (or two) in nearly every cell. They hold forth at great length, either mushmouthed or with exaggeratedly precise diction, about the most mundane or esoteric topics: baseball, carpentry, national politics, jadeworking in ancient China, Alicia Silverstone's filmography, Sailor Moon. These people tend to be easily slighted and almost comically passive-aggressive. I hear them en route to meals, waiting to use the JPay kiosk, and while making laps around the wing so Hopper can use our toilet in privacy. They never fail to skeeve me out.

At the top of my list is the peacocking egotist, the piece of shit with the entitlement complex, who I overhear complaining about whatever perceived injustice befell him this week. The guy who thinks the world owes him, gripes about it nonstop, and makes oblique threats about his opposers getting what's coming to them — he's probably the one I need to watch my phone use around. Ironically, he devours phone minutes while manspreading in his seat, taking up as much of everyone else's space and time as possible. The worst part is that he's not even just one person. There are several of him in this wing, with different names, in different cells. He's all over the place, there are just fewer hims in other wings.

I'd prefer to not be in the wing with him — with any of these creeps — at all. Once I change jobs, I can live on the opposite side of the prison again. So I solicited Hopper's thoughts on the matter. He's the best cellmate I've had here, after all, and I'd like to keep him a while longer. When I asked what he thought of requesting a move elsewhere, he was unequivocal. We're staying in 1A. Creeps or no creeps, moving seriously sucks.

13 February, 2019

Places I’ve Been

To shut our eyes is Travel — EMILY DICKINSON

I go so many places. I can understand why you might be jealous.

Just last week I was in Berlin, this perfect little third-floor apartment off Alexanderplatz, writing late into the mornings, fueled by bottomless cups of fragrant black coffee. Sunrises spilling over rooftops and updrafts of diesel fumes from below were my cream and sugar. I go there often.

A while before that, I was in, of all places, the Australian desert, following the straight-as-a-plumb-line highway north from Sydney in a rental car. Road trains whipped past like giant mythological pachyderms, their two- and three-trailer tails roaring terribly. My father was there. He drove. We passed the time in silence, mostly, but there’d be occasional moments of mild excitement when one of us would spot a bend on the faraway horizon — a shift of a few meager degrees in the road’s direction — and say something with mock-delight about the sudden variety. The trip was an echo of the one we took when I was eleven and we came to Oz for Christmas: we drove to visit the Great Barrier Reef, just he and I, and besides the accident that burned my hand and took us to the emergency room, it was perfect.

I’ve trekked through the forests of Hokkaido, communing with the spirit of the Japanese wild. I’ve flown over the Mongolian steppes with my mother, thousands of feet above where hordes once led their hard, nomadic lives under the Golden King. I’ve stalked the midnight streets of London, ascended narrow footpaths to secluded Alpine retreats, and watched ghost crabs scuttle along moonlit beachfront while cool Caribbean breezes treated my skin.

I’ve done these things, and so much else, without leaving my prison cell. Although the scenery here sucks, my mind encompasses a number of universes, each more enticing than the last. It’d be wasteful to sit dwelling on reality.

31 January, 2019

Black Celebration: A Personal History of Goth

Can someone join a subculture without knowing it exists? Is it possible for a single person to comprise a sub-subculture — a clique of one? These are questions I contemplated a lot, based on how I spent my teens and young adulthood.

The riotous colors of 1993 hurt my eyes. Worse yet, its hot dance-poppy tracks (think: Haddaway, Tag Team, Ace of Base) burned in the open cut of my deepening depression. I rejected all of it. The alternative was literal: alternative — as in, alternative music, as in, more specifically, grunge, which to most minds meant Nirvana, a band I could barely stand. Mainstream culture left me feeling conspicuously out of place. Aimless and alone, I stumbled down the gloomy, unlit path of goth.

Before all-black clothes and eyeliner became my daily wear, I'd never heard the word goth. It's likely that I encountered the iconic look — the pitch dark hair, the deathly complexion, the silver-buckled, -spiked, and -chained accessories — in a movie, on TV, in a book, or on the streets of a foreign city before adopting goth's dark splendor for myself. But contrary to what you'd expect, I never set out to dress that way. My transition was organic, a product of several factors.

I came by the pale skin honestly, thanks to genetics and insomnia. Being an overweight tween had inclined me to wear black, which seemed to slim away a bit of my huskiness. The mysterious, the Romantic, the (I'll just go ahead and say it) Byronic had always compelled me. Temperamentally speaking, autism spectrum disorder and major depression made me standoffish. Through my father's broad musical tastes and penchant for nightlife I was exposed to pulsing, subversive-feeling stuff that struck nerves I hadn't known I possessed. Shut in my candlelit room, writing tormented poems while darkwave beats, borrowed from my dad's music library, trembled from the stereo, I was like a caterpillar in its cocoon. All the stuff swirling around in there was bound to solidify into some new form of life eventually.

I emerged as a beautiful black butterfly shortly before turning fourteen. As my personal mythology has it, the trigger was seeing a daytime talk show on which a "troubled" teen spoke about why he wore that ghastly makeup and black velvet, lace, and leather. The dramatic monologue he delivered, about coping with darkness by embracing darkness, was my own angst given voice. Before that epiphanic Oprah episode (or whatever it was) I'd believed myself alone in feeling this way. In the egocentrism of youth, what teen doesn't think he's the first, the only — even when that exclusivity is to his detriment? Regardless, from that day forward, every time someone asked why I dressed all in black, I answered in one of two ways: either "Color is nothing more than trumpery and lies," or "Because the price of tomatoes has fluctuated again." I was a blast at parties. (No one invited me to parties.)

Better than any other lesson, school taught me that I did not fit. The adjective peerless implies good — unequaled, unrivaled. But I dropped out of my academically prestigious high school in large part because I had neither equals nor rivals. To be an outcast, that is, to be cast out, you have to first be in. I'd joined no clubs, hitched myself to no teams, took part in no extracurriculars. I'd walked to classes unaccompanied, literally on the fringe. Except in the eyes of one accidental girlfriend who mistook my awkwardness for cool, I was a non-entity.

I was eventually old enough for the clubs that, if only one night a week, played the darkwave and industrial (i.e., goth) music that lured palefaced youth out of seclusion. In preparation, I'd powder my nose, smear my eyes with kohl, take one last appraising look at myself in the mirror. My studded collar and high Doc Martens looked suitably fetishistic. My silver rings glinted. My lacquered fingernails reflected darkly. I'd head for the car, slipping a Djarum Black from its box. I'd light the clove cigarette and inhale. I'd turn the ignition key. I'd crank up the music and drive.

The parking lot would be scattered with vehicles and little groups of black-clad twenty-somethings, all rendered paler than normal in the sulfurous light. Most showed up every week, drawn by the camaraderie of other gothic oddities. The DJ was basically irrelevant; no one ever really danced. Like me, they huddled at the periphery of the dance floor and watched the poseurs do their thing. The poseurs were the worst. The poseurs were whoever they suspected of wearing color during the week, and anyone deemed insufficiently cool. Which was everyone.

Inside, the club's red lights would smooth and unblemish every face. "This Corrosion," a Sisters of Mercy song so stereotypical as to be almost a joke, would crash along while everyone feigned indifference. I'd stand, drinking my nonalcoholic drink, not talking to any of the people milling around, ignoring me. Many hugged each other, displaying affection more freely than you might expect from people wearing spikes and claw rings.

Although I looked the part, my club experiences were from a certain standpoint no different from school. Perhaps recognized by sight, I remained unacknowledged, unknown. I returned, week after week, in the hope of making a friend, yet lacked the wherewithal to break the ice. After a few hours, I'd go home feeling more alone than when I arrived.

Online newsgroups and IRCs (Internet chat groups) opened the world of goth to me, in the form of band recommendations, links to clothing boutiques, recipes for cocktails, lots of biting social criticism, and tips for coloring everything, from clothes to flowers, black. Goth's online contingent was even more fiercely cliquish and territorial than the clubgoers, but as long as I didn't try joining in, I could slink along the virtual periphery, reading their tips, quips, and laments, and silently judge those self-appointed arbiters of gothic taste and macabre fashion.

I couldn't stand those elitists' mentality, the way they gazed down with gother-than-thou scorn from their obsidian tower. I soon disassociated myself from the lot of them, the online contingent and their real-life counterparts. I continued to dress the part, and certainly didn't give up the music I loved so much, but I wouldn't permit anyone to mistake appearance for substance. For instance, my father was on the phone in the next room one afternoon, talking to a friend about me. I heard him say, "He's too goth to go see Mrs. Doubtfire with us." Without getting up from my computer desk, I shouted, "I'm not goth!" And I meant it. However, this irony was not lost on me: in my browser window was a man in black lipstick, modeling a very tall pair of boots beside a crying angel statue. That picture made me really want to buy those boots. Deep down, I was goth as fuck. No impassioned arguments would change that.

A thousand essays and academic papers have been written with the title "What Is Goth?" Debates over what (or who) does and doesn't qualify as goth continue to rage on the Internet. Goth is what was once freely called a lifestyle — heavy on the style. It's precisely this quality of insubstantiality that I believe has made it so difficult to define. It's shallow, and you can't base an ethos, and certainly not a philosophy, on black clothing and minor-key music. So, what happens when the kids who dress in impractical, pseudo-archaic outfits and head for the club, as I once did, realize the vacuousness of this aesthetic ideal they've built their lives around?

I chose to dance to the beat of my own drum machine. I toned down the eyeliner. I put away the spiked leather collar. I embraced my ungothly geekiness full-on, with Frisbee in the park, They Might Be Giants on my stereo, and posters of the periodic table of elements in my kitchen. I grew up and all but forgot about the subculture that had seemed so tantalizingly close to my heart.

It sounds like a riddle: I clothe myself in shadow but will not be overshadowed. My sound is dark as night itself. I am forty and still love The Nightmare Before Christmas. What am I?

24 January, 2019

A Guy Just Can't Get Settled

January's been a busy month. Exactly twenty days after our unceremonious exile from one side of our housing unit, Hopper and I were served another eviction notice this morning.

Today's move was rumored for a couple of weeks beforehand, Phase Two of ERDCC Great Glorious Plan to consolidate workers on whichever side of the prison their job is located. For reasons obscure, all canteen workers now must live specifically in 6A. A week back, Hopper lost his industry job, and I took a promising position in recreation (more about which I'll say later), placing us at the top of the bed broker's list of possible victims.

I was reading when a guard dropped the news: "You're moving." We packed yet again. We grumbled yet again. We pushed a cart with a wobbly caster yet again. Away we trekked to 1A, the former ad-seg unit at the other end of the camp, where sliding doors and stainless-steel toilets remain standard. The crash and bang of doors is going to be an issue. Extra-powerful flushes, not so much. At lest they aren't making us adjust to a whole new cellmate to boot. Hopper's perfectly agreeable and I'd like to keep him awhile.

We live like hermit crabs here, packing at a moment's notice and going wherever they tell us to go, just to curl up until the next big idea by the powers that be. Prison sucks.

23 January, 2019

Crafting the Personal Letter: My Second Gavel Club Speech

The second project in Toastmasters International's "Competent Communication" workbook is to give a speech that follows some kind of order — chronological, spatial, logical, et cetera. This morning's Gavel Club meeting marked my second time as a scheduled speaker. I gave the following seven-minute speech on a subject I happen to know quite a lot about. It went a little like this.

Good morning Gavel Club and guests, especially the generous Mr. De Jarnette, who volunteered to be here while Mr. Curry's out of the country.

By a show of hands, who here writes personal letters? Okay, and how many of you get replies thanking you for being so engaging, so entertaining, that your letters are passed around for people you don't even know to appreciate? I write a lot of personal letters and actually do get that kind of response. Today I'm going to clue you in on some techniques for writing the kind of correspondence that someone you care about will want to show around, possibly to people who don't even know you. That's the true power of the personal letter: to bring people together in a meaningful way, to bridge a gap of time and the broadest distance.

We begin at the beginning. Looking at a blank sheet of paper, some guys take one look at it and mentally freeze. It might seem obvious, but quite a few people neglect to put a date at the top of the page. Why is this important? There are a couple of reasons. The first is to fix its place in time. It gives your reader a concrete reference point. They can see this and think, "He wrote this on Wednesday." If they happen to pause for a moment and think back to what they were doing on this particular date, it means that they're already engaging. Tiny details like this matter. Also, success in writing a standout letter means that the person it's addressed to hangs on to it. A really good letter is a meaningful keepsake. The date anchors your letter in time, just like on a precious picture in your photo album.

People let the page and the idea of letter-writing bully them into doing things a particular way. To give someone a memorable, moving, or entertaining experience, you've got to break with the norm. Give them something new and a little different. Just like with writing a speech, your opening sentence should pique curiosity. This is where a lot of guys get stuck. I cannot even tell you how many times I've heard someone say, "I don't know what to write about, because nothing ever happens — it's the same thing, day after day." They're letting the events of their day control the contents of their minds, which sounds pretty miserable, if you ask me. Why limit yourself?

Start with a thought, an inspirational quote, a random fact, a weird dream you had, a news item — something that jump-starts your mind and gets you moving. Whatever you do, do not begin How are you? I am fine. Not only is that not entertaining, it's a dead end. Where can you possibly go after that, except right on the track of relaying events: This happened, then this happened, then this happened. True, you've got to put some facts in your letter, but too many people forget that it's a letter they're writing, not an article. Leave the reporting to the news media. A great letter is made up more of impressions and ideas, the content of a mind. Give opinions, recap an interesting conversation you recently had, write out a poem or a rap, tell a story. What makes a letter personal is how you express yourself in it.

There are three things that your letters should always include. The first? Description. You want sensory stuff: sights, sounds, smells. These are relatable things that put whoever you're writing right into the factual content of your letter.

The second thing is paragraph structure. A lot of letters are just these long big blocks of words, one thought rammed up against another that might not have anything to do with the one before it. On this goes, right down the page. If you indent or insert a line break when you're about to change subjects, a reader will absorb more of what you're trying to get across. The organization lets them pause and consider what they just read.

The third and most important feature of every good letter is curiosity about the recipient. Ask questions! Invite their opinions on subjects you believe interest them. You know how good it feels when someone expresses an interest in your life? Give your recipient that feeling. Always remember that your letter is for another person. It should interest and, if possible, entertain.

You don't have to be a great writer to write a great letter, you just have to keep these five things in mind: put the date at the top, include ideas and opinions, use lots of description, organize your subjects, and ask questions. I promise, the responses you get will be positive.

Like the letters it encouraged my audience to write, the speech was well received.

07 January, 2019

D-Wing Exodus

Rumors of the move had circulated for weeks. High muckamucks allegedly wanted A-Wing of each housing unit at ERDCC to become an honor dorm. This would mean an en masse cell-swap for those of us in incentive wings 1B, 3B, and 6D, and the GP inhabitants of 4A, 5A, and 6A — an operation involving a total of 432 prisoners. The purported reason was that houses full of well-behaved prisoners require less work by staff; most other houses are full of psychos, creeps, and assholes. But since 6-House already had one so-called incentive wing, moving us from D-Wing to A-Wing seemed so phenomenally nitpicky as to be absurd, like some obsessive bureaucrat's dream of perfect order. What difference could it make, which side of the house we're on? I wouldn't believe it until a guard told me to pack my stuff.

That happened first thing, Friday morning.

Pandemonium ensued. Beginning at 7:30 AM, all 144 prisoners in A- and D-Wing simultaneously packed and moved their worldly belongings out one set of doors, and straight through another. The activity, noise, and proximity of so many people in such a small space had me on edge, fighting back anxiety, as my cellmate and I waited for a cart with which to schlep our stuff.

Although it finally came, promising relief from the madness, a disaster occurred. Owing to distraction, I'd set my precious typewriter in a precarious spot. One nudge by my cellmate's footlocker, as we lifted it onto the cart, sent my typewriter crashing to the concrete floor. Plastic pieces scattered. A chorus of hoots and curses went up. Being in full Self-Control Mode kept me from freaking out at the potential loss of this irreplaceable asset. I decided to wait, deal with the tasks immediately at hand, then, later, plug in Old Faithful and see if she still worked. A neighbor handed me a little piece of the typewriter I'd missed. I accepted it from him with what probably looked like disinterest.

The new cell, when we reached it, stank like a mead hall. Vikings had left their hair and detritus everywhere. Hopper, my cellmate, swept up two dustpans of the stuff — the remnants of a Viking funeral, for all we knew. There was evidence of fire. The underside of Hopper's bunk had DAVE LOVES DE'S NUTS! written on it in soot. The last occupants had been two very classy guys. We purged the place of their residue with only about three and a half hours' worth of sweat. Fully settling in will take a bit longer.

As for the typewriter, it's unusable. I'm hoping that prison ingenuity can help me find a fix. Because it's not the brand and model currently sold by the prison canteen (an almost useless piece of crap), ERDCC won't let me send it out for repair. So I've got a grievance to file and desperately hope that I win. Meanwhile, my long-delayed novel (and so much else) will have to wait a while longer still. I'm trying very hard not to panic.

03 January, 2019


My mother's apartment, where I can allege to have lived in my tempestuous mid-teens, was in a six-unit walkup. It was nice enough, just old and not as well maintained as it deserved to be. Cherry wood floors and accents couldn't compensate for a structural problem that made half of my bedroom look to be gradually splitting away from the rest of the building. On the south wall, a crack ran from ceiling to floor, like a vertical canyon. The plaster patch job was sub-par and had to be hidden behind an abstract charcoal artwork seven feet high.

Those richly textured walls were flimsier than they looked. There were many afternoons when I had to turn up my stereo, even when I wasn't in the mood for music. It was the only way to drown out that damned Cranberries album the next-door neighbor liked so much. The vocals he contributed to Zombie were hard to overpower. That guy had enthusiasm.

The floors insulated no better. Downstairs lived a couple, an artist and a musician, with no idea how much of their private lives telegraphed upward: indistinct conversations, arguments, moans of pleasure from biweekly love acts. My own day-to-day constituted a string of inconceivable conditions that were, at least on the home front, less sonically varied. If the couple heard anything of me, it was all heel-clops on hardwood, some melancholic music, the rolling of my desk chair, the connection-establishing screeches of dialup Internet. My mother probably made even less noise than I did. I don't know. At that age, I stayed on the move. Home was for computing, for eating, for bathing, for sleep. Mum had a boyfriend and was sometimes out. I didn't entertain guests.

By contrast, the couple downstairs always seemed to have company, gaggles of creative types spilling out their back door and onto the building's wide wooden landing. Coming home sometimes meant apologizing my way through those crowds. Their smiles were enviously easy, lubricated by Coronas and Heinekens. Social groups were tough for me. I clammed up in a crowd, overwhelmed by stimuli. I believed that a normal person might stop by and say hello, Ned Flanders-like. "Hi-diddly-ho, neighborinos!" Then he'd stay a while and gab. Well, okay, even I knew that normal people would consider the friendliness of the Simpsons' cheery neighbor unacceptable.

Coming in late was my habit. I had another, worse habit then as well, which confused my hours of waking and sleeping, and left me bedraggled after days of high flying. With feet safely back on terra firma, I'd undress and shower in the dark. I never bothered turning on lights. Nighttimes were nice. Meditative. Solitary. Recuperative.

Bathed and dried, I'd shrug into my robe and swing open the bathroom door. I loved how the apartment's cool dry air would swirl in, pimpling my follicles as the chill passed through me. It always felt like a renewal.

On one night that I recall particularly well, along with the chill that poured in was noise — the muted, bassy sounds of the party below. Quite suddenly, I very much wanted to be down there, in the company of people I'd never met. Of course, I couldn't possibly bring myself to go and introduce myself. I'd be the odd man out, on so many levels. I stood there, listening, for a full minute before an idea came to me.

Where had I seen it done before — a bad '80s comedy, some black-and-white suspense film? Barefoot, I took a flat-bottomed glass from the kitchen cabinet and padded to the dining room. Beside the table I knelt and set the mouth of the glass against the floorboards. While my knees said no to the unforgiving wood, my palms said yes, meeting its surface and relishing its coolness. Much like my mind, my body was not in accord with itself. My ear touched the base of the glass. The cold shock of it made me rear back. I set my ear down again, this time better prepared, and strained to hear.

The sound dispirited me terribly: the thwump-thwump of my own elevated heartbeat, imparting secrets I already knew.