07 August, 2019

The Old Cellmate Switcheroo... and Some Dogs

For the sixth time since transferring to ERDCC fifteen months ago, I moved. Like any real-world move, packing up, transporting, and unpacking stuff in prison is no cakewalk. Usually the new cell needs serious cleaning. This time, at least, my move was by request.

The prison administration reserves the right to relocate people willy-nilly. A guy can ask to be randomly assigned another bed, but so-called convenience moves, those with a specific destination, require a form. (Almost everything in prison requires a form.) For this, a guy wanting to move has to not only write down where he's assigned to live and where he wants to be assigned, whoever he's switching places with also has to sign it. So do both his current and prospective cellmates. Getting all parties to agree to the arrangement can take effort. Tensions sometimes rise. Tempers sometimes flare.

My latest move came about because Hopper, my more-than-acceptable cellmate of the past year, had had enough of our housing unit — its sliding cell doors, its staff, its population of creeps and assholes. That these problems were largely isolated to one wing made no difference to him. He wanted out any way he could. Volunteering to leave this housing unit, regardless of who he might get as a cellmate, seemed to belie his claim that I'm easy to live with. But Hopper was a cypher in many regards, possibly because even he had a hard time recognizing his motivations for doing most things.

I might've been stuck with some Brando had it not been for Jeff. He'd been on my trivia team, back in February. As it happens, he was eager to replace the insufferable goon he cohabitated with. Jeff and I get along well and, for reasons of his own, the goon badly wanted to move to my wing. So our plan looked like an easy one-for-one swap. Then someone else heard about it.

Starved for excitement, many prisoners turn into gossipmongers. I've met more than a few "static addicts" in my time, who rile people up and generally make more out of situations than is warranted. Despising drama as I do, I steer clear of that type. But the moment that word about Hopper leaving the house and me switching with somebody in another wing got out, the dramatists came to us.

Weeks passed, during which Hopper and I got barraged daily with questions. Some wanted to know if we'd had a falling out. Others wanted to know who was moving over in our place. A few wanted to take over our cell, somehow, after we left. The more people get involved, the more apt a plan is to go bad, and for a while it looked as if one desperate party, who were flailing to realize their scheme for a parallel move, might foul up what Hopper and I had set in motion. He and I even had an argument, sparked by the pressure they, perhaps unwittingly, put on us.

Caseworkers generally get in no hurry to handle convenience moves, even though the procedure takes mere minutes to complete. The day I came back from work and was finally told I was moving felt like a great unburdening. I packed my footlocker in less than an hour and a half, then tamped down the lid. Since I was only moving into the adjacent wing, I carried everything over by hand — my footlocker, TV, boombox, typewriter, fan, canteen food, cooler, and trash can — rather than use a cart. Jeff and I deep-cleaned the cell, to get the remnants of the last guy out, and I settled in before evening.

It's better here. There are dogs. The animals being trained for the Puppies for Parole program live in the cells downstairs. Sometimes I pet them. Luke, the closest thing to a friend that I've made here so far, is just across the walk. We talk multiple times a day now. The wing itself is quieter and houses fewer abrasive personalities than the one I moved from. This is important. Crucial, though, is that Jeff is clean, even-tempered, fair-minded, and possessed of above-average intelligence. He's turning out to be a very good cellmate. As long as I've got peace of mind in that regard, most every concern can take a backseat. I can live like this.

26 July, 2019

Buddhism Behind Bars

There is religion in prison. Some might say that prisoners are the most faith-filled people one could meet, and I wouldn't automatically have reason to disagree. To be sure, these circumstances will try a man.

Weekly services for several different faiths, plus a handful of interfaith services, are offered at ERDCC. Some of my wingmates supplement their worship with mornings hunched at tables, studying Bibles and Korans. A nightly prayer circle also forms in my wing at 9 PM sharp. Some pray in their cells, hidden from sight. That's them — what about me?

Thursday mornings occasion a two-hour Buddhism service in the chapel. When I walk in, the carpeted floor of the big room is clear of all but eight comfortable cushions and a folding table draped with a flowery aquamarine altar cloth. On the table sit a foot-high wooden Buddha, a book of scripture, the seven copper cups representing the seven-limbed prayer, and a stupa. Our singing bowl sits with us on the floor, atop a little blue and red satin pillow and sounds, when it's rung before the "Refuge" meditation, like thoughts dropped into a deep well. I like the singing bowl a lot.

Attending these services is a new thing for me, even though I knew six of their attendees before I joined. Apparently my inclination is toward Buddhist philosophy as well as toward those with the mentalities of its practitioners. (Like minds and all that.) After all these years of living by precepts integral to Buddhism, officially declaring myself a Buddhist still felt life-altering. I'm just constitutionally averse to joining stuff. Groupthink freaks me out.

Our group has no leader; although, it would be nice if someone from the outside world came in to offer us occasional guidance. We're a motley collection of individuals now. A different person each week volunteers in advance to open and facilitate, usually with a reading that we then discuss. Then there's meditation of some sort. Sometimes we discuss our meditation, too — what sensations we noticed, what thoughts came to the fore, what difficulties we experienced. The atmosphere is relaxed without being slack, sincere without being stuffy. We follow the Middle Path — one of the nicest walks I take all week.

12 July, 2019

Thoughts About Dying

My recent thoughts have been fixed to an inordinate degree on death. Not Death, the cute, down-to-earth goth girl from the comic books, I mean my death, the big sleep, the end, the cessation of my vital functions and the profoundest nothingness that follows. I've been thinking this multiple times a day, in the middle of otherwise pleasant phone conversations, while I'm reading a good book in my cell, when my sleep breaks at odd hours of the night: Byron Case, you are going to die.

The specter of death looms over my days' bland landscape like the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (One key substitution, courtesy of my sardonic mind: the soundtrack isn't Strauss but that song from Sesame Street, "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.") Death is big and weird and doesn't fit. I don't like it.

I ask myself, What if up until right now was all that I got? Let it be placed in the record that I don't believe in a hereafter. We shuffle along, taking our roughly twenty-five million breaths, eating things, doing stuff we enjoy, doing stuff we don't enjoy, having stuff done to us, and meeting a few people along the way who, if we're very fortunate, value our company enough to shuffle side by side awhile. Then we lie down or collapse somewhere, and the show goes on without us. The shuffling along is what we get.

And so I think about my footwork. I know that I'm a terrible dancer. Much has been made of the time a girl cried just because I performed a little soft-shoe in front of her. Dancing, however, is something else, laying the flattering unction to one's soul. I'm talking about shuffling and how well we do it.

Between there and here, I've generally kept my head up and paid attention to my surroundings. I've also tripped and fallen... a lot. One could actually say that my life's been a succession of sometimes elaborate pratfalls followed by recoveries of questionable elegance. My continued imprisonment, while being a travesty of justice that's hurt worse than any other tumble I've taken, is also the best example of recovery I can point to. I could have let myself be mired in woe-is-me bullshit and cried myself to sleep every night of the last eighteen years, mourning the loss of all that I love — but no. I keep shuffling. My eyes don't drop below the horizon. Sometimes I even look at the sky.

I've lived a rich life despite my poverty. Even trapped like this, under lock and key, I managed to find deep fulfillment. I rose above my situation. Here's a revealing tidbit: I had a dream, last week sometime, that I had a fatal heart attack while typing the final pages of my novel. Somehow it was scarier to leave the work undone than to simply kick the bucket. Purpose matters. Mine comes from writing and from the meaningful connections I forge with people beyond the boundaries of prison. These pursuits offer moments of beauty. They're what give color to the void.

Regarding shuffling, I admit that I tripped some people over the years. Several times it was deliberate. Long before I learned how to be happy (and oh, it's an acquired skill, believe me), I got a sad satisfaction out of watching someone I disliked stumble. Once upon a time I slathered someone's Land Rover with five gallons of lard after he rear-ended my friend's new car and didn't apologize. I don't regret stuff like this, but I also wouldn't think of doing its like again. I prefer to maintain a certain high-mindedness. It's about personal dignity and sense of scale.

Regrets constitute a whole other kettle of fish. I think the person who lives without regret is either a sociopath or engaged in some seriously unhealthy compartmentalization. You need regret for growth, to learn what not to do in the future. I cherish my regrets; they're rare jewels in the crown of a life well lived.

I regret throwing that rock at the neighbor kid just because he pushed me down. I regret not kicking Happy in the balls when I had the chance. I regret the shitty coping mechanisms Young Byron got stuck relying on. I regret not telling Brooke, Dave, and Corbin to shove off. I regret not taking Justin and Stasia's problems seriously. I regret breaking Molly's heart. I regret ever feeling sorry for Kelly. I regret giving Tim (and a host of others, really) the benefit of the doubt. I regret throwing only the third or fourth punch. I regret every time I took the short way home. I regret how little time I spent drawing. I regret doing less than I could have to show my love. I won't go on, even though my list does.

Certain myths hold that a man (it's always a man — one way you can tell it's a myth) at the gate, mouth, or shore of an afterlife waits to judge the souls seeking entry. If I fell dead at this very moment, and found myself face to face with this celestial bouncer, I'd justify my existence to him by pointing out that the balance of good and bad tips at a rather acute angle to the side of the former, that my shuffling has been, if not consistently then at least mostly of an agreeable variety, and he'd grant me passage, no sweat.

Of course, that's easy to say. It actually sounds flippant, like I'm ready for that big, creepy black block to tip over and crush me whenever. That's not the case at all. I've got an indisputable, stubborn attachment to living. I want as much life (while remaining cognizant and in control of my bodily functions) as I can have. There's so much left to do — so much more to write, so much more to make of myself, so much more to give the world, so much more love to show those in my life who matter most.

I'm not afraid to die, I'm just not ready for it yet. I'd tell this to the black thing looming over my shoulder in the mirror when I'm brushing my teeth, except it wouldn't listen.

03 July, 2019

How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel?

How long does it take to write a novel? I didn't note it on my calendar, but a peek back in time turned up this blog post first referencing what became the seed of my manuscript. The answer, therefore, if you're me and you're writing a 300-something-page novel-in-stories set against society's collapse amid a fast-spreading pandemic, is this: it takes about eight years.

I put the final touches on the last page yesterday. How to describe the feeling of putting a project like this to bed, after every day of the last ninety-five months involved the application of thought to it? It still doesn't feel real.

Friends tipped off about my project's wind-down asked me what near-, medium-, and long-term plans I had for afterward. I hadn't given it a lot of thought. Working on the manuscript occupied significant mental resources. I kept pushing other things aside in order to make room for writing, but the work only involved some actual writing.

Halfway through, in 2015, I drew a little comic about writing on one's feet. I drew a lot of comics that year. Too many, really. Once I realized that, I drew a comic announcing I was done drawing comics for a while. You know, as one does.

I engrossed myself in weird, wide-ranging, seemingly irrelevant research, from survivalism to trangenderism, from satellite navigation to garden irrigation, from neurophysiology to Islamic theology. You've got to turn over an entire library, some sage soul said, to create a single book. That applies to scholarly works and works of post-apocalyptic zombie fiction equally, I discovered.

The characters this research allowed me to write are like parts of my self. I know them intimately — arguably too intimately, since so much of who they are, from their histories to their favorite smells, although known to me, never made it onto the page. Is this the sense that every writer experiences at the end of a long literary journey? These nonexistent characters were alive in my head. As of yesterday, because they have no possible future, they face a type of purgatorial, eternal now, having ceased to be. Is this what parents feel like, sending their kid off to college?

Nature abhors a vacuum. Another project (courting publishers doesn't count) will fill the void left by this one soon enough. I have no plan to force it. It'll come when it comes. Meanwhile, as my latest post on recently read books attests, I have ample leisure reading at my disposal and plan to indulge in it... just in time for summer.

21 June, 2019

Two Books I Spent My Spring Reading

I wouldn't have thought it would be hard to best my meager reading list from last season — I just had to read more than three books this spring. It didn't happen. One big obstacle (nearly removed) was polishing and sending off the final pages of my novel-in-stories. How can a guy read when he's wrapping up a nine-year literary project? Then the ever-generous Veronica S. surprised me with another order of some delicious-looking sci-fi, and I had to read a couple of the books she so kindly sent.

One was As She Climbed Across the Table, which vindicated Jonathan Lethem completely after the disappointment that was Amnesia Moon. I'm almost ashamed that I ever found fault. This short novel has just about everything one wants in a Lethem book. It has a fanciful premise: a woman falls in love with a incorporeal area of null space. It has quirky wit (such as when the narrator muses, "Do you think there are bootleg tapes of Muzak outtakes? Maybe they get excited by the groove and really cut loose sometimes. And the producer says, okay, boys, that was swell but now let's try to get this wrapped up so we can all go home. I'll bet that happens all the time."). It has outlandish character names (Carmo Braxia, Georges De Tooth, Gavin Flapcloth). And it has emotional sincerity that never devolves into gross sentimentality. Yes, I was pleased.

Neal Stephenson wrote Zodiac, a so-called eco-thriller, just a few years before Snow Crash, his prescient novel about VR and the future of the Internet. Snow Crash and William Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic were hugely influential on my growth as a geek, so reading pre-Snow Crash Stephenson risked tainting my opinion. Zodiac has action aplenty, accented by Stephenson's sarcastic wit. But it did pale in comparison to Snow Crash. To be fair, Zodiac, a 316-page novel, took me almost all May to read. I clearly couldn't give it my usual close attention. Even so, a couple of editorial gaffes — extra spaces, a misspelled name, and other such relatively minor typos — leapt off the page at me. This is what happens when you're polishing your own manuscript while trying to read for pleasure. I don't recommend it. It's why I read nothing else this spring. There was other demanding business in my life, which, combined with finishing my novel, demanded maximum focus.

20 June, 2019

Gavel Club Epic Fail; or, Why Ambition Doesn't Always Pay

It's the morning on which I'm scheduled to speak this month. My speech is well prepared, sure to entertain and inform, and I feel confident that a Best Speaker honor will be mine at the meeting's end. I'm oblivious to the fact that reality's about to prove all these beliefs wrong.

I shake a couple of the other members' hands but don't make it into the meeting room before being pulled aside. The Institutional Activities Coordinator stands in her office doorway, looking terribly stern. Her eyes burning holes through me.

"Are you Case?" she asks. "You're no longer in Gavel Club. You've been removed from the call-out. It's been approved by admin."

My poor, beleaguered heart sinks. I suspect that this has to do with my recent inquiry, via e-mail, into Gavel Clubs' place in Toastmasters' district structure. Our president told me that she'd gotten wind of this and did not approve. But to revoke my membership over it, without any warning? This seems unduly harsh.

In her next breath she confirms my fear. "You had e-mails sent to Toastmasters through an outside party, and that is not allowed. You're out. Go back to your house."

What else can I do but tell the truth? In an even tone, I say, "I understand if I overstepped, and I apologize for that. I didn't know I was doing anything wrong by contacting Toastmasters. Is there any way I can appeal this decision?"

She walks me to the door, in a huff. "Maybe in a year."

A couple of the members watch me, confusion all over their faces, as I exit the hallway. It was challenging fun, gentlemen, I want to tell them, but can't.

This is what happens when you try to do good things around here.

17 June, 2019

On Missouri Prisoners' Bizarre Cleaning Methods

A six-year veteran of the Department of Corrections recently told me that a cellmate spitting toothpaste in the sink after brushing was his biggest peeve. I asked how he rinsed his toothbrush. This confused him. I explained: "When you rinse your toothbrush under the faucet, the bacteria that were in your mouth swirl and splash all around the basin you're refusing to spit in."

He said, "Yeah, but I guess not as much."

I don't know whence the compulsion springs, but nearly every prisoner whose acquaintance I've made has been downright fanatical about the cleanliness of his sink basin. He won't spit in it after brushing his teeth — heavens, no, that's what the toilet's for! — and wipes every drop of moisture out of it after washing his hands. Why?

No inmates have been able to satisfactorily explain the anti-spit policy. The most insightful acknowledge it's a psychological quirk, but even they can't enlighten me further.

I've been imprisoned now for eighteen years. Many have been the occasions when I've used the water faucet in the utility closet. Many have been the occasions when I found soggy noodles, tiny cauliflower florets, or a sliver of roast beef stuck in the drain grate. Such is their aversion to using their own sink that these people will drain excess liquids from their dinner bowl into a communal sink. Very few seem to clean up their messes afterward. Worse, as sometimes happens, that stuff will end up clogging a shower drain. Any port in a storm, I guess.

On a seemingly related note, I have watched with my own eyes as the same characters with clean-sink fixations sop water from their toilet with a rag they then use to "clean" their cell floors, walls, and doors. To rinse his rag, each has an identical method, dunking the cloth and flushing two or three times.

There are some around here, I've heard it said, who use a similar technique to wash laundry in the toilet. How they also might feel about the subject of sink cleanliness is not a subject I'm knowledgeable enough to address at this time.

10 June, 2019

Conversing Like the Planets

The prisoner drifts in variably sized ellipses. He drifts among other bodies, around a common center, just as planets in our system orbit the sun. The prison system, with its focus on segregation and minimal contact, can be as lonely and vacuous as outer space. Occasional alignment constitutes an event.

Simpatico prisoners will engage for a bit, on the yard, queued for a visit, or in the dining hall. Ascendency is followed by retrogradation. They're soon pulled elsewhere. The next event might take place in weeks or months — perhaps even years — depending on the unique particularities of each body's orbit. Only the most complex telemetric calculations might predict when.

I see my former neighbor Ed. We wave in passing. Ed asks about my loved ones and the novel I'm finishing. I ask about his parole hearing. A guard yells for us to move along. Perhaps Ed will be ascendant again before summer's end, and we can improvise another back-and-forth before flying onward. Round and round we go — when we stop, nobody knows.

04 June, 2019

I Love Bad Movies

What's the worst movie you can remember seeing? It's not that easy to answer. There are far more terrible movies than good ones.

Probably the worst movie I ever saw was called Plan 9 from Outer Space, directed by the legendary filmmaker Ed Wood in 1959. Calling this movie bad is no stretch. It's about alien vampires, which might've worked out fine, except that Wood was known for making schlock. He was careless, keeping shots in which set pieces fell down, actors bungled their lines, and you could clearly see daylight through windows in scenes set at night. All this, and he considered himself an artist. A lot of critics call Plan 9 from Outer Space the worst movie of all time. It's great. I've seen it in theaters twice.

I'm hardly alone in my love of bad movies. Fans have made The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released in 1975, the longest consistently running film ever, in theaters for about forty years longer than the one a lot of people guess, Gone with the Wind. It's about a couple whose car breaks down in the rain on their honeymoon and forces them to venture out for a phone. They end up at a castle that's home to a cross-dressing mad scientist and his servants, who are brother and sister lovers. Spoiler alert: the three of them turn out to be aliens.

Rocky Horror is a tribute to the black-and-white science fiction and horror movies of Ed Wood's era — movies with names like It Came from Outer Space and I Was a Teenage Zombie. There are hundreds of independent theaters around this country screening it this and every weekend, in midnight showings that fans come out for in packs. The die-hards even wear costumes.

More recently we can see the same idea at work in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse movies, Death Proof and Planet Terror. Perhaps you've seen one or both of these. Their directors used the same idea. They wanted to make homages to the cheap, action-packed movies they loved as teenagers. They didn't set out to make good movies, they wanted to make bad ones.

The Internet knows quite well that there was a series on Comedy Central in the early '90s called Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you could say it was about anything, the show was about a guy and two smart-aleck robots who were launched into space on a satellite by their evil bosses and forced to watch movies like Son of Godzilla and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The reason to watch MST3K wasn't to find out if the guy escaped from the satellite, it was to watch those awful movies right along with him. Your TV screen showed the movie, and at the bottom were the black silhouettes of the guy and his robots in a row of theater seats, making jokes about every ridiculous line and rubber monster suit. Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran for twelve seasons.

Let me shift gears for a minute here and say that few agree about what makes a good or a bad movie. I happen to really like Groundhog Day. A lot. There are plenty of people who think it's a fly-infested pile of garbage. By comparison, one movie I hate and wish I could erase from cinematic history is a lot of people's favorite, Forrest Gump. What both of these movies have in common is that they're Hollywood products with big budgets and big names attached to them. One of my favorite movies is a sci-fi production made by two amateurs, seventeen years ago, for about $5,000. Primer is well-written and wickedly smart, with a fascinating time travel story line. It grossed well over a hundred million dollars after being shown exclusively in independent movie theaters. My point is, budget alone can't make a movie good or bad.

There are bad bad movies and there are good bad movies. Think of a movie that bored you to tears. That's not the kind of movie I'm talking about. A bad bad movie just makes you angry for wasting your time, not make you laugh at how stupid it is. A good bad movie, on the other hand, brings on the sad special effects, the unnatural dialog, the insane or incomprehensible plot, then doubles down by being completely serious. I love ridiculous movies that the cast and crew believed would be works of cinematic art. Their straight-faced absurdity is icing on the bad-movie cake.

I once went with a few friends to see this sci-fi movie called Species 2. None of us had seen the first one. When we took our seats, it just so happened that some people we knew were in the row right in front of us. We must've all been in good moods, because the second the alien-human lady-thing mated with and killed her first victim, then left his body in a barn, the jokes started flying. We were too immature, and it was too racy for us to watch with straight faces. By the time the top-secret government project killed their runaway creation, we had the whole theater lobbing smart remarks at the screen.

Species 2 was so bad it was good. My friends and I, plus about forty strangers in a dark movie theater, shared a fun experience for an hour and a half. That's why I love bad movies.

29 May, 2019

Writing My Way to "The End"

Friends know that I'm writing what might be the world's first novel tap-typed on a tablet PC. (Calling it a zombie novel is on par with likening The Hunchback of Notre Dame to a romance novel.) I wrote how my typewriter crashed and burned in January, a catastrophe that left me no real choice than to use the JP5s tablet I blogged about receiving last year to finish the final draft of my novel-in-stories. That's exactly what I've been doing, these past four months, and it's been even more challenging than you might expect.

The JP5s has a seven-inch screen. Without my pinchy new nerd glasses, writing on it sometimes makes my eyes hurt. Never mind the slowness of dispensing with my lightning-fast keyboard skills in order to thumb the onscreen Android keyboard like a maniac. I might be getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

My tablet features no word processor program. That would be too much like right. Instead I've had to type hundreds of pages into JPay's proprietary e-mail app, which limits each e-mail to 6,000 characters — roughly two and a half typewritten pages. Special characters like ñ and é are for some reason deleted by the app when a message is sent. Worst of all, there's no spell check. Good thing I'm fastidious.

Nevertheless, the final draft is about twenty-five pages from being done. Oh, wait, make that twenty-seven. My finger slipped. I accidentally deleted an e-mail in my Drafts folder yesterday. In my defense, it was right above the e-mail I intended to delete, which was pointless and silly and had nothing at all to do with this nine-year project I'm striving to get done. There's no message-recovery option; gone is gone.

Today I retyped the missing bits, hoping like hell that I recall the good revisions I originally made. What I have now is pretty close to what was there before that errant finger did its thing. The zombies still kill pretty much everyone. It's all in a day's writing.

23 May, 2019

Do All Bald White Guys Look Like All Other Bald White Guys?

What is it about white guys with shaved heads? Even if there's no real resemblance beyond the shiny dome, we get compared to other white guys with shaved heads all the time. Or at least I do. It's ridiculous.

Since I first took a razor to my scalp at nineteen, I've been likened to a slew of other men with prominent pates, fictional and otherwise:

1. Household product mascots

2. Cinematic misfits

3. Angry young men

4. Pod people

5. The undead

6. Comic book aliens (technically not white at all)

7. Teen drama supervillains

8. Video game characters

9. Rock stars

10. Anime heroes

I only kind of agree with that last one, and I've never even watched the series.

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.