28 November, 2019

A Prison Thanksgiving

The smells of turkey and liquid disinfectant vie for dominance in the dining hall. If anyone wanted ambiance, he came to the wrong place. There's a weeks-old blob of margarine disintegrating down the wall and a petrified mustard smear on the spork holder. This is barely an area suitable for human occupation, let alone for eating in. As my housing unit files through the door, a kitchen worker in a white bouffant cap and beard guard is lazily wiping crumbs and gravy spatter off the few unoccupied faux-woodgrain tables.

Housing Unit Three was called to eat first today, and it looks (and sounds) like half of them are still here. There's supposed to be a rotation, but none of the guards ever keep track of who went first yesterday. Because of this (and several other factors), meals are never at the same time, from one day to the next.

Seats are at an unusual premium this afternoon. Normally, my Buddhist cohort and I sit at the third table from the exit, but today, because everyone's crawled out of the woodwork for this special holiday meal, "our" table's occupied. It looks like the four of us will be eating separately. I'm fine with that. It's just another meal, as far as I'm concerned.

I scan for the open seat that offers the least objectionable dining companions. There's time to look around a bit. The line's barely moving. Prisoners whose job is to scoop and ladle out the food seem easily distracted. They need to be reminded over and over again by the guards and cooks: "Let's keep those trays moving, gentlemen!" If there weren't a concrete wall keeping us diners from seeing how the servers treat the food going onto our brown plastic trays, there'd probably be all kinds of fights. I'm often glad there's a wall. Ignorance is bliss.

The first two neon-orange sporks I grab have food stuck to them. You just have to keep drawing handles from the cups until you find a good one. Prisoners in front of and behind me complain. The prisoner in front of me remembers how "the Old Walls" (Missouri State Penitentiary) baked its own bread and gave every man a tray heaped so high with Thanksgiving vittles that he could barely even carry, let alone eat, everything on it. The prisoner behind me doesn't like the look of today's portions. "Man, they tryin' to starve us to death in this bitch!" I shuffle closer to the window. I'll be thankful to reach a table, preferably a fair distance from anyone wanting to bitch.

It's Thanksgiving, so we get a couple of ounces of sliced turkey, a glob of mashed potatoes and gravy, a spoonful of gelatinous cranberry sauce, soggy iceberg lettuce salad, some canned corn, two slices of white bread, and a little slice of pumpkin pie. Everyone looks forward to it, yet everyone expresses dissatisfaction when it's served, even though year after year after year this meal and its portions stay exactly the same. I carry mine to a table where a pair of Three-House residents are finishing up. There are a couple of empty seats, and I hope that no one sits adjacent to me who wants to kvetch about serving sizes. I'm grateful when none does.

As off-putting as the other prisoners' bellyaching can be, I try to be compassionate. Most people in this sour place haven't developed the same perspective as I have. They're still slaves to their negativity, helpless against it. Giving thanks for what they've got would be so foreign to them as to seem downright otherworldly. Only they can change their minds. I let them carp while I enjoy the meal. It's ironic that I, who never felt any love for this holiday, am one of very few here who understand and appreciate its purpose.

20 November, 2019

Happy Birthday, Dear Byron

Getting older is no picnic. Most Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers will probably tell you that after they turned forty, happy birthdays got a little harder to come by. This is at least doubly true in prison, where joy is thought to be as mythical as Santa Claus and racial equality. Somehow, though, I manage to summon enough happiness to smile about turning another year older. You might reasonably ask how the hell I do it.

When I was a teenager, people often thought I was ten years older than I was. Now that I'm "over the hill," everyone thinks I'm ten years younger than I am. Both perspectives have served me well. Appearances aside, however, age is taking its toll. My hair is thin. My vision sucks. My knees ache and crackle. My lungs are bad. Et cetera, ad mortuum.

Whatever. Age happens to the best of us. There are worse things, besides.

One of my lowest points, since the abduction that landed me in a prison cell, was my twenty-fifth birthday. I'd recently lost both an appeal and contact with a close friend. I slipped into a profound depression. Hitting the quarter-century mark seemed like a significant life event, and here I was, locked in a cluttered cell for days on end with a madman, not even allowed out for a shower, in the wake of a prisoner's vengeful assault of a guard. My severely mentally ill cellmate, Hoss, had schizophrenia and a hoarding problem, however, and being trapped in his presence, with his sloppiness and selfishness and constant whining about imagined injustice and persecution, made the pain of my wrongful imprisonment sting that much more sharply. Another item on my list of woes was that the institutional lockdown forced a cancelation of the special food visit I was expecting. Birthday cards and friendly letters poured in from all corners of the globe, but they only reminded me of all that I was being kept from.

Instead of wallowing for weeks in that gray torment, I turned to creative ventures. Art and (of course) writing got me through the worst of it, implicitly reiterating that old truth: that in life, ultimately, no one's responsible for your shitty moods but you. The next year, I took fun into my own hands. I bought some special foodstuffs from the prison canteen and shared a little birthday feast with my new cellmate. I also splurged by mail ordering a few music cassettes. (This was a long time ago.) The love and well-wishes my friends sent that year had their intended effect, and I sailed happily through my twenty-sixth birthday.

I can't legitimately claim all the credit for this. It'd be impossible to enjoy myself so much without that crucial ingredient to any happy birthday: love. Everyone out there who knows me personally or frequently reads this blog knows that I'm graced with the friendships of many smart, resilient, caring people. My connections to them are the glue that holds me together. To what state might I be reduced if not for them? On the anniversary of my birth, they shower me with cards, letters, and e-mails, as well as money, packets of pictures, and books — every type of gift that the Department of Corrections allows me to receive — and these mean the world to me. Locked in here, alone with society's dregs, my friends make me feel like a prince.

This Saturday I'll turn forty-one. Three of these wonderful people will be here to see me and share a meal made with love by my mother. We'll sit around a table and eat and talk and laugh. The joy of those hours will be palpable. Afterward, I'll sit in my cell, listening to an album I downloaded that morning, reflecting on forty-one years of life, grateful for everything that I have.

Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me.

13 November, 2019

Last Bites: A Different Variety of Prisoner's Dilemma

Away with the notion that prisoners bound for the death chamber request kingly feasts: one of the most common last meals in America is a humble cheeseburger with fries.

Few situations are more harrowing than anticipating one's own execution, so we can understand why the condemned man, whiling away his final hours, would want the comfortingly familiar. Who caves to exotic cravings at such a time, let alone thinks of eating at all?

Tricksters throughout the long history of capital punishment have tried gaming the system, making outré requests to delay the process or piss off whoever would see them hanged, beheaded, shot, what have you. Gradually imposed restrictions curbed such efforts, so that modern last meals often have to come from vendors in the vicinity of the prison doing the killing. Since US prisons aren't constructed, by and large, in bustling cosmopolitan areas, last-meal options are frequently limited to drive-through fare. There's typically a low budget cap, too. No clever forestallments by demanding bird's nest soup, Mr. Multiple Murderer; you'll be lucky to get some KFC and a smirk from the warden.

Although sentenced to life without parole, I'm not in the precarious position of awaiting formal execution by the State of Missouri. I can swear, however, that the chance I'd opt for a burger at death's door is exactly zero.

Granola. That was my parents, growing up. We had VW Microbuses in the driveway, a prodigious vegetable garden out back, and rice cakes and lentils in the kitchen. Mama swore by the health benefits of eating bee propolis; Papa built his own food dehydrator. This is relevant because I was eight years old on the weekend I tasted my first soda and nearly gagged on its sweetness. My cousin gave me a withering look, then slugged hers straight from the three-liter bottle. I poured myself a nice glass of milk. Later, between turns at Super Mario Bros., she offered a Swiss roll. I took one bite, nothing at all like the cakes Mama made, then I ceded to my cousin the uneaten portion.

Mama did a lot of baking, especially through the winter. Much of our heat came from a living-room wood stove with baking racks behind its firebox. When I was very small I sat close to it, enraptured by the flames. Their warmth was as much a comfort as the aroma of Mama's sweet whole-grain loaves. When the time came to pull the bread and let it cool, I was quick with the oven mitts. This makes for fine memories, but best of all was when Mama cut the first slice with her big round-tipped bread knife: that curl of steam escaping through the dark crust, that scent like no other, the slight bowing of the heel before it fell away and exposed the hearty inner substance, rich brown and supple, almost spongy. With a pat of salted butter melted across the surface and glistening, Mama presented that first slice to me. This remains my ultimate sensory memory, from a near-perfect childhood replete with them.

I was arrested when I was twenty-two years old. The circumstances leading to and arising from this comprise a story already widely told, immaterial to this essay except to say that, after being tried by a jury and convicted, then sentenced to two life sentences, my diet radically changed.

All the Sunday mornings Papa made from-scratch waffles or pancakes, all the bohemian get-togethers where friends gravitated to our vibrant kitchen, all the German dishes — Linsen und Spätzle, Zwiebelkuchen, Kalter Hund — on which Mama raised me, all the trips to the market, where farmers hawked their wares by the riverfront: flats of berries; boxes of leafy greens; brown eggs nested by the dozen in shredded newspaper; plump tomatoes in a hundred sizes and shades of red, yellow, and green; caged, round-eyed rabbits, adorably doomed to be stewed; squash in an earthy kaleidoscope of hues; nectarines, peaches, and melons so ripe that their scent carried thickly into the next row of stalls; eggplants like balls of night; plump, bright peppers; baked goods ranging from zucchini bread to strawberry rhubarb pie; myriad root vegetables like the toes of giants; and on and on, as far as I could see from atop Papa's shoulders. These experiences instilled in me a love for the beauty of food.

By the time I struck out on my own, my first apartment's kitchen lacked a microwave but featured a small arsenal of cutlery, mixing bowls, and saucepans. I might have been the only teenager in the city who owned an Italian marble cutting board, a pasta machine, and a mandoline. I still shopped the market. I considered culinary school.

Miniscule portions of the lowest-quality stuff legally classifiable as food made up meals in the county jail. The olfactory trauma I suffered from the bologna's kerosene stink there will never fade. An already slender young man, after my arrest I lost weight at a startling pace. My cheeks hollowed. My ribs showed. I'm not sure now if, in the days leading up to my trial, I ate anything at all.

I fell into the Department of Corrections' custody thirteen months later, and my body nearly went into shock. In prison they served occasional fresh vegetables and fruit, and the portions, while hardly large, were comparatively generous. While the institution's food wouldn't win any awards, it was edible more often than not. Every so often it verged on tasty.

As an incentive for good behavior, Missouri prisons grant inmates without conduct violations a couple of special opportunities each year. Food visits allow loved ones to bring four "food items," plus bread, butter, and individually packaged condiments, with them into facilities' visiting rooms. In eighteen years I've only missed two, due to minor infractions, and both instances felt like grievous losses.

Food visits are a gustatory lifeline, my one real chance to feel anything akin to that long-distant pleasure once found in a kitchen full of friends. Invitations go out weeks in advance, and the guest lists are, by necessity, short. RSVPs are booked on a first come, first served basis. The meals we gather around aren't of cheeseburgers or fried chicken, popcorn shrimp or pork chops, but more salubrious fare, oftentimes lovingly prepared by my mother, who makes the five-hour drive to see me every month.

Lamb rogan josh, chipotle meatloaf, vegetarian brick-oven pizza, fresh-from-the-butcher Knackwurst, big bowls of baba ghanouj, roast Guinea pig, lasagna and cannoli made by an old Italian woman who really knew what she was doing, grilled halibut, Black Forest gateau, Godiva chocolate cheesecake, soan papdi, croissants with Nutella and raspberry preserves — the years' standouts are too numerous to recount, and my mother laughs at how often I've declared, "This is the best food visit yet"; although, it so often is.

Other food-visit tables end up littered with crumpled Sonic bags, Styrofoam take-out clamshells, and cardboard boxes from Imo's Pizza. After institutional rules changed, disallowing my mother's big, bright Frieda Kahlo bag, she started bringing transparent totes still brimming with enough colors to constitute exotica in this drab place. Wandering eyes take note. Even the prison guards overseeing visits often stop by our table to gawk, then crack wise about the shittiness of their own lunches. What does it say when a prisoner's meal elicits jealousy from someone who can eat almost anything, anywhere they desire?

An argument can be made for the cruelty of capital punishment. Another can be made, likening life without parole to an execution of inhumane duration. If the latter holds a kernel of validity, either I'm exceptional for using adventure, variety, and spice to plan food visit menus, or existential terror takes longer than eighteen years to set in. Maybe my deadening is still in its early stages. What I'm certain about is that I'd choose an atypical last meal.

On the eve of my death, what better than one of humanity's most basic foodstuffs: bread, oven-warm, if possible, with a dish of salted butter? The type of bread wouldn't especially matter. Whether it's rye, sourdough, toasted-seed nine-grain, challah, focaccia, Irish, or French, bread is bread. Bread fostered society's growth. Bread is good. Bread is (to wax poetical for a moment) life itself. In this choice would lie an irresistible symbolism, a nod to the cyclical nature of things — ending with the beginning.

A soft center is revealed as the serrated blade splits the crust. A whiff of heaven floats free in a wisp. The slice falls, instantly cooling. This image compels and comforts me. It's no cheeseburger, but death and food are uniquely personal. It's a last meal. You should have it your way.

31 October, 2019

Halloween in the Hoosegow VI: The Ritual

In prison, a mask is escape paraphernalia, even if it's just a paper cutout. If you're caught with one, you'll catch six months in the Hole. Giving anything away is similarly against the rules, assuming you're unlucky enough to be seen by a staff member petty and bored enough to write the conduct violation. Point being, taking trick-or-treaters at your cell door on Halloween can be a small challenge. I accepted it with childish eagerness befitting the season.

Housing unit rules be damned, on the first day of October, I hung six monstrous heads from the doorframe, stuck spiders and skeletons everywhere, and put a jack-o'-lantern on the desk. If guards wanted to act like Halloween haters, I vowed, let them come and tear my decorations down! They're not dangerous or offensive, and they all come down after a month, regardless.

I've been blogging about my love of Halloween for years. This semiannual series — my "Halloween in the Hoosegow" posts — has run the stylistic gamut, from straightforward nostalgia to overwrought horror-fiction parody, and, like the holiday itself, never gets old for me.

It takes a while to get settled, to find a groove in any new place. I celebrated my first Halloween at ERDCC in what's become my traditional way, sharing mega-nachos with my cellmate, the only guy here with whom I was really acquainted at the time. And while that was a fine, filling evening, Hopper wasn't the kind of guy who made much of a fuss over All Hallow's Eve (or any occasion at all). A certain élan is called for, nights like tonight, which is why this year is kind of special.

After a year and a half, I know some people. Several are in my sangha, the Buddhist group that meets in the prison chapel on Thursday mornings. I wanted to do something nice for them, so I bought some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and jelly beans from the canteen yesterday and went full-on Martha Stewart, wrapping a Reese's and one of each flavor of jelly bean (except black) in a baggie, which I cinched with white thread and attached a black paper spider cutout to. I made seven bags — one to give to each member of the sangha.

While I crafted giveaway candy bags, Jeff, my cellmate of the past three months, busied himself making sour taffy for trick-or-treaters. His ingredients? Powdered peach drink mix, powdered lemonade mix, coffee creamer, and water. Where there's a will, there's a way. I was surprised by how well it turned out. We discussed how to deal with those who come to our cell door. Jeff proposed requesting paperwork proving they're allowed to participate in Halloween (i.e., no sex offenders). It's Jeff's candy, so I'll let him handle that bit on his own, if he chooses to impose restrictions.

I'll likely be too full to care what he does. The refried beans are already warming up. I'm prepping the rest of our copious nacho toppings, bumping my Halloween playlist as I slice the olives, mouth watering in anticipation. I'm cooking for four here. Luke and Tim, our neighbors across the wing, are going in on this meal. Preparing it early was necessary to accommodate their work schedules. The hour doesn't matter, though. Halloween is Halloween, no matter what time of the day you choose to celebrate it.

And as the dark of night creeps on, I'll slip into a comfortable position for the lineup of horror movies on cable TV, my hunger thoroughly satiated and my burst of seasonal rebellion ended. Tomorrow morning, I'll pack up the decorations and bury them in my footlocker. There's a time and a place. Of course, sometimes it's not the place, then you've got to make it the place — hence, "Halloween in the Hoosegow."

19 October, 2019

Halloween Hootenanny

Whether your Halloween plans include haunting the streets or lurking around your own home, a good playlist is essential. I spent some time curating a very Byronic one, heavy on the retro darkwave and post-punk sounds that I love, to soundtrack my spooky shenanigans. Since the Eve of All Hallows is the only time a year when other people don't seem to mind listening to the same music as me, I figure my playlist is worth sharing. Comments are encouraged (especially if I missed something)!
  1. Siouxsie & the Banshees, "Halloween"
  2. Ministry, "Every Day Is Halloween"
  3. Dead or Alive, "Something in My House"
  4. Killing Joke, "Night Time"
  5. Echo & the Bunnymen, "People Are Strange"
  6. The Cure, "Lullaby"
  7. Gary Numan, "Asylum"
  8. Rasputina, "Transylvanian Concubine (Yes Sir, Mr. Sir Mix)"
  9. Concrete Blonde, "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)"
  10. Depeche Mode, "Black Celebration"
  11. Oingo Boingo, "Dead Man's Party"
  12. Twin Tribes, "Shadows"
  13. Bauhaus, "Bela Lugosi Is Dead (The Hunger Mix)"
  14. Dave Ball and Jon Savage, "Dead Neon"
  15. 09 October, 2019

    The Only Consistent Thing in Prison? Its Inconsistency!

    Allow me to disabuse you of the idea that prison is a place of predictability and rigorously kept schedules. It's not. And while it's not quite twenty-four-hour-a-day havoc, either, a guy expecting dinner to be on time will grumble with disappointment just as often as he'll be satisfied.

    Custody counts here at ERDCC are scheduled daily at 6 and 11:15 AM, as well as at 4:30 and 10 PM. The facility's locked down for these, with everyone but kitchen, maintenance, and factory workers confined to their cells until each count clears. This happens within about forty minutes. Unless it doesn't. Because the staff is either incompetent or negligent, recounts, which drag the whole process out for at least an extra hour, seem to take place every week. Worse yet, the later a count clears, the farther back every other activity gets pushed — mealtimes, recreation periods, school classes, religious services.... Shit rolls downhill, always.

    A count can also begin late. On occasion, an ambulance has to drive in to handle an emergency beyond what on-site medical staff can handle. For institutional security reasons, all movement on the yard is halted until a visiting ambulance is back outside the fence. On days when the facility is below the minimum number of staff Missouri DOC is understaffed), guards have to shuttle from post to post, from housing unit to housing unit, to help out with counts. At least when delays are due to ambulances we're allowed back out of our cells before the next shift comes on duty. Staff shortages, on the other hand, suck for everyone, in both the short- and medium-term.

    Of course, drawn-out counts aren't the only interferences that spring up in the midst of prison life. Even more disruptive to prisoners' day-to-day existence are the lockdowns regularly called for less serious matters. Beginning a few weeks ago, the seventy-two residents of my wing have been made to lock down every time a guard wants to access the fire door. Guards have passed through this door multiple times a day for the past five months without it being a thing. Now, suddenly, prisoners in 1B have to pause their card games, cut short phone calls, turn off the microwave, leap from the shower, or log off the kiosk just so someone can briefly open a door to the outside — outside, yes, but still separated from freedom by two twelve-foot razor-wire fences and a lethal electric one. I guess this is what the "max" in "maximum security" refers to.

    As with everything else, I try to stay flexible. Getting my hopes up, developing expectations, or believing that I'm in some way entitled to more stability just because I'm innocent and wrongfully convicted won't get me anything but grief. This is the world; I'm just living in it.

    23 September, 2019

    Seven Books I Read This Summer

    Friends know that prison rules seriously limit the number of books that I can possess at any given time. There's only so much room in these cells and the footlocker that stows my stuff, so a DOC-imposed limit isn't a terrible impediment. But occasionally I'm caught off guard, such as when leisure time's been at a premium, with a full compliment of books on hand when an order of several more unexpectedly arrives. To keep my property numbers in line, I then have to hurriedly send an equal number out. People I know usually ask first, "How's your book situation?" Strangers surprise me.

    One such person is Veronica S., a person with whom I've never had any contact, who follows this blog and my case, and who has several times surprised me at random with orders of books from my Amazon wish list. The titles are obviously ones that I chose, but she seems to pick rather deftly, as if she knew what I was most in the mood to read at the moment. They delight and occupy me in the best way, but they also transport my mind from this place. When she — when anyone sends me a book, they're sending a fragment of freedom. It means so much.

    Dexter Palmer's novel The Dream of Perpetual Motion was one of the latest books that Veronica sent. It's sort of a steampunk revision of The Tempest, (yes, there's an airship), and while it had moments of literary beauty, Palmer seemed incapable of resisting a bit of goofball humor here and there that, for me, blunted the mood of this otherwise fine alternate-reality fantasy.

    Comparatively, Girl in Landscape engrossed me utterly. The third Jonathan Lethem novel I've read in a year, it's part parable, part coming-of-age story, part sci-fi, part Western — and it's every little bit as compelling as the last excellent Lethem novel I read, As She Climbed Across the Table. Both are highly recommended.

    And then there was the hard-bitten tech-noir of William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, who kind of returned to his roots in 2014 with the fast-paced The Peripheral. Gibson never did time travel before, and, technically, he doesn't do it here, either. The conceits at work here are quantum entanglement, the transmission of data streams to alternate timelines, and very, very rich hobbyists who get a kick out of playing god with those timelines by manipulating their financial markets and media. The fascinating concept, riveting plot, and trademark Gibsonian grit made a great, geeky alternative to summertime fun in the sun.

    The Civil War provides a backdrop for no other fantasy books that I know of. Chris Adrian, however, used it to great effect in Gob's Grief: A Novel, — part alternate history, part magical realism — about an optimistic young doctor's quest to resurrect his long-dead twin brother. The book's so large, so historical, so richly textured, so beautiful. That this was Adrian's first novel is nothing short of stunning.

    Neil Gaiman's The Sandman Omnibus Volume Two was a gift to me from the delightful Emily C., and equal in excellence to the previous volume. I adore Gaiman's graphic novels about Dream of the Endless and the people — well, not always people, but beings whose worlds brush against his realm of unconscious fantasy. Gods and demons, eyeless nightmares and ravens who used to be men, retired superheroines and creatures of folklore walk the pages of these tales. Rereading them for the first time in twenty-two years was such a treat. Thank you again, Emily.

    I wanted to feel my way around before I signed up for the prison's Buddhist services in July. To that end, I borrowed Buddhism, a 1961 history and what's-what compilation of scholarly works edited by Richard A. Gard. As introductions go, I could definitely have done worse, but what struck me most was how much history 2,500 years includes. This book doesn't scratch the surface.

    Several other books then came from Punker Bee, who follows @FreeByronCase on Instagram. For Read a Book Day, 6 September, I started and finished Jean-Christophe Valtat's English-language debut, 03 (translated by Mitzi Angel). A brief sprawl of a novel, it tracks a teenage boy's profound thoughts about the dark-eyed developmentally disabled girl across the street, while both wait for morning buses — his to high school, hers to a special-education academy. He calls what he feels for her love, and so he yearns for her notice, narrating, "[M]y own existence, hard enough for me to maintain with any robustness to myself, was, for those dark eyes — black as the inside of closed fists, reflecting less the outside world than the abandoned interior of a skull — a thing she never recognized but saw as a hazy blip on the landscape of those school mornings, an unremarkable little figure standing in front of the already shabby backdrop, a simple outgrowth, barely organic, of the bus shelter I leaned up against, my hands in my pockets, brain blowing on my eyes as though they were embers, trying to make my 'passion' seem that much more notable, more incandescent, but failing to send it over to the other side, across the cold magma frozen into tarmac by the organized disaster called society." It's that kind of book, and I loved it.

    So, to my three book benefactors, thank you, thank you, thank you! You made my summer something supremely special. I'm looking forward to this coming season of change, when I dive into the rest of those novels that Punker Bee sent.

    16 September, 2019

    Showering in Prison Just Got a Little Less Luxurious

    You've seen movies where prisoners stand naked, elbow to elbow, and soap up in a large steamy room lined with showerheads. Rooms like these are the source of that old "joke" about dropping the soap. Many old-timey hoosegows still employ that shower-with-a-shank model, but the Prison Rape Elimination Act that George W. Bush signed into law aimed to eliminate such dicey settings. Prisons being built today don't have shower rooms like this. The Missouri DOC's response to PREA includes policy mandating shower doors and curtains — all to the benefit of guys like me, who don't care for showering with one eye open and our backs to the wall.

    At Crossroads (which is now temporarily closed), and here at ERDCC, each prisoner bathes in an individual stall. The cinder block walls go all the way up. There's a modicum of privacy, thanks to a thick gray vinyl curtain. Creepy peepers will still walk too close and peep over — it's what the so-called shower sharks do — but at least my bare white ass isn't exposed to the entire wing. I can push the button and close my eyes and let the cares of the day wash down through the big brass Smith Company drain grate.

    Yes, I can push the button, for there are no knobs for turning the shower on or off, nor for adjusting the water temperature. There's only that single stainless steel button, and the water that flows when you press it is whatever temperature it happens to be. You won't know for sure until you're under the stream. It stays on for a predetermined period, thanks to an electronic timer. However long you need to soap up and rinse your face — it's about half a minute shorter than that. Then, like a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey While Streams of Watery Soap Sting Your Eyes (everyone's favorite!), you blindly poke around for that damn button.

    This was how it was for the longest time, and still I looked forward to showering, to the feeling of washing away the day's vicissitudes, and to those warm minutes of quasi-solitude. Last week, though, my daily respite took a hit. As part of a big-time money-saving plan, ERDCC maintenance workers just installed delays on all of the showers. Now, when my blind button-hunts end, I've got to wait twenty seconds before pressing it does any good. Standing there, soapy, blind, and shivering, I can mash that button all I want, but there'll be no more water until it's time.

    I'm enjoying my showers a lot less than I used to. On the bright side, what water I get is warm more often than not. There's also no limit on how many times I can press the button to get clean. Not yet, anyway.

    06 September, 2019

    Prison Politics Aren't What You Think They Are

    A general public sense exists of people in prison being ignorant of goings-on in the wider world. I get this all the time, friends asking if I've heard of a particular well-known app, if I'm informed about the scandal du jour, or if I understand a certain new slang term. Sure, there's a lot that I miss by being locked up, but I have my own TV, subscriptions to numerous magazines, and a diverse social circle. I probably stay better informed than the average prisoner.

    Until my 2001 arrest, I was very politically engaged. I had followed the latest presidential election very closely, attended political demonstrations, took fervent interest in civic matters, and frequently discussed local, national, and world politics with passion. (For context: my best friend went on to master in political science at Berkeley, and my ex-roommate became the administrator of a Planned Parenthood clinic.) Finding myself in prison didn't diminish my enthusiasm. I still listened to news on the radio, watched the twenty-four-hour channels in my cell, and conversed about policy and law with anyone willing to engage me on political matters. The lead-up to the 2016 presidential election changed everything.

    Maybe it was a matter of feeling disenfranchised and so far outside of the system. Maybe it was turning forty and realizing that (to paraphrase Emerson) the crack of doom heard around the country was nothing but the noise of a pop gun. Maybe it was a lack of patience with the infantile puling and name-calling of the candidates. I turned off my TV with disgust one day and swore off all politics. When I realized that you can't, in this country, follow any news without getting at least a little of the slime of something political splattered on you, I gave up news media altogether. My news blackout enters its fourth year next month.

    That big social circle I mentioned includes some who are very keen on politics. I don't have any problem voicing displeasure when they bring up a subject I studiously refuse to engage with them on. By and large, they respect my boundaries without complaint. However, in prison, it's said that there are no secrets. People talk. And as hard as I try, a guy can't help overhearing things.

    Ours are highly politicized times. I have no scientific basis for what I'm about to say, but there might well be more people in prison who take an interest in politics, per capita, than there are in the free world. Arguments spring up around me throughout the day, and I can't go a week without hearing mention of either the president's staggering inhumanity or his greatness of character. "Democrats!" one will spit. "Republicans!" another will growl. Asked where I stand on the issues of the day, I resort to my stock reply, "I heard that the price of tomatoes has fluctuated again." If pressed for an answer, I ask my inquisitor who he'll be voting for in the next senate race — a practice that, more often than not, shames him into adopting another, less fraught subject.

    Again quite unscientifically, it seems to me that the average prisoner here in Missouri leans Republican or identifies as a very conservative Independent. Those inclined to a Democratic perspective tend to be so more out of obligation, due to labor union ties, than because of progressive values. As far as apolitical prisoners are concerned, they tend to like the promises of Donald Trump quite a lot — particularly his anti-immigration stance — although none of his fans seem capable of enumerating any specific decisions or actions of note that the president has actually taken.

    I hear this hasn't been a good year for tomatoes.

    23 August, 2019

    Canteen Day

    Buying a few necessities in prison, at least at ERDCC, is less like popping down to the corner market than like calling ahead for your groceries and then, days later, standing out in the rain or hail or broiling sun, awaiting your pick-up. It's not ideal.

    On Saturday mornings, every man's issued one toilet paper roll and tiny bar of soap. Call me greedy, but I insist on having a toothbrush, some toothpaste to squeeze onto it, and soap that doesn't give me a rash. Lotion's also very nice to have. So is coffee. At least the prison canteen offers an alternative to state-supplied sundries, even if it is overpriced.

    The State of Missouri provides each prisoner a minuscule stipend every month ($8.50 for a high-school graduate), minus a percentage toward a mandatory savings account he'll collect upon release. I, on the other hand, have a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, and therefore no release date toward which the state can withhold money. I get my full stipend. Lucky me.

    The canteen sells virtually everything prisoners are allowed to possess — acne cream and alarm clocks, Top Ramen and acetaminophen, TVs and towels, snacks and socks — a variety rivaled only by very well stocked truck stops. I've blogged about a few items in the canteen's inventory, but the full list of products sold here is several pages long. My staples are peanuts, instant Folgers, mackerel, and rice. I've also got a history with Werther's Originals and enjoy having a bag of them on hand when I can afford to.

    Twenty-four hours is the cutoff for placing an order before canteen day. I prefer to lock mine in early. A touchscreen kiosk in the wing tells me in real time if the canteen's sold out of a particular item. They're perpetually out of something, and it's not always Little Debbie snack cakes. For my first three months at ERDCC, ink pens and typing paper were unavailable. Seventeen years' imprisonment has taught me to keep at least one month's worth of stuff on hand. You never know when a chink will appear in the supply chain.

    My housing unit picks up canteen during our Wednesday afternoon recreation period. On a slow week, about hundred and fifty people gather on a grassy area at the center of the yard and listen for their names to be called over a loudspeaker. Once it is, they show their ID at the canteen window to collect their prepacked bag (or bags) of stuff.

    There's no shade or shelter where we wait. That's why, on Sundays, I check the Weather Channel forecast. I was once bruised by hail on one arm and cut on the other, waiting to collect my order. That was unforeseen. If it's apt to be sunny and hot, though, I don't spend unless supplies are low. All this week, heat indexes are in the hundreds — brutal for someone as intolerant of summer temperatures as I am, but I'll risk a sunburn before I risk running out of dental floss.

    At the kiosk in my wing, three days ago, I entered the four-digit code for each item I wanted to buy. As a creature of habit, I know them by heart. Coffee went up 10% last month. Thank goodness it's still a luxury within my means. I'm even able to splurge this week, thanks to a certain someone's generosity. The code for donut sticks is 1723, the only code I have to look up.

    Over the loudspeaker in my wing, a guard announces that the yard's open for afternoon rec. That's the cue to grab my cheap Chinese sunglasses (code 1459) and go. The last time I waited for canteen was on a nice, cloudy day, and mine was the very last of about two hundred names called. It's a sunny 100° today. I wonder how bad the odds are that I'll be called first.

    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.