18 September, 2020

Stepping Out of the House

The skin of my arms excites at morning's sudden coolness. This week heralds the end of summer, and the gooseflesh that rises at the moment I walk outside is less from the change of ambient temperature than from my delight at the coming season. I do love the fall.

An irrepressible smirk crawls over my face. A passerby probably thinks I'm mentally unsound, but if I'm mad – by whatever standard you choose to judge it – I'm mad from joy. I take a deep, almost shaky breath. It's good to be alive.

11 September, 2020


Many animals in the wild are territorial. They establish particular ranges for hunting, mating, and general wanderings, into which others may stray at their own peril. Other animals understand territorialism's rules and can infer, from subtle environmental clues, when another creature calls that area home.

Walking through the park, I once encroached on what I quickly understood was the territory of a little brown-and-black bird. It fluffed up its feathers, spread its wings, and cheeped at me in a way that I'm sure other birds found threatening as hell. And the little peeper was right to do that. Gigantic, heavy-bodied human that I am, I had no business galumphing through its space, potentially endangering grounded chicks, smashing tasty bugs, or just messing up the environment, as we humans have a tendency to do. The little bird probably thought itself a real hard-ass after running me off, later bragging to all its feathered friends – as they bathed in dust or milled around, ingesting gravel – about the enormous creature it intimidated away.

Humans are territorial, too – intensely so. We have border wars, Zionism, tribal conflicts, and a thousand unique flavors of internecine struggles. Understanding this doesn't require a study to be conducted, nor even that you follow international news. But it's interesting to note that other animals generally settle territorial disputes in more humane ways than we humans employ. When a wolf shows its neck to his rival, the fight generally ends. In a squabble over land, can you imagine a person showing such leniency?

This tendency to latch onto one's immediate surroundings becomes really pronounced in prison, where gangbangers beef over what block of a street someone used to live on. I've seen vicious fights break out over matters as small as which man's turn it was to use a weight machine in the gym. Also, woe betide the man who accidentally sits down in the dining hall where another usually does.

This mad craving for anything to call one's own also contributes to the prisoner's hoarding tendency. Many tend to collect soap, plastic bowls, pens, bread ties, and countless other, often less useful, things – especially those who've been locked up awhile. It's ugly. I try mightily to avoid falling into the trap of maximalism, at least in part because I recognize the futility of seeking happiness in things.

Still, I've never been comfortable with people coming into my cell, or with stepping into someone else's. Cell searches by guards and visits from a neighbor make me feel equally uneasy. Both feel wrong in some visceral way, as if they're violations of the natural order. Practical concerns, such as COVID-19, don't factor in; I just like my space, even if I'm not currently occupying it. Since I don't consider myself a territorial guy at all, this just illustrates my point. The desire to possess runs deep.

Nobody pisses on the floor, but the ambiance turn does weird when new people move into a wing. Card players start shouting at one another. Buddies bunch close together and talk, casting wary looks toward the newbies. The volume of TVs and stereos is bumped up a notch or two. Someone does a set of pushups in view of the newcomers. Just like that little bird, people puff up and make a lot of noise.

I thought about this when a slew of new faces appeared in my wing the other day. (Look at that language: "my wing" – as if it were property that I held!) About half of the men I saw were new arrivals. One third of them I'd never seen until the day they moved in. I didn't like the unease that this fact triggered in me. Why am I trying to get comfortable here? Unlike most of those around me, I don't intend to stay. Either the administration will decide to move me again, or, in the longer term, I'll overturn my wrongful conviction and get out of prison entirely. In either event, this wing and its occupants, none of whom I really know, are merely a passing aspect of reality, which itself is in a state of constant change. Considering instability in this way, ironically, is a source of comfort.

03 September, 2020

Getting Out of the Cleaning Business

Prison jobs are generally unpleasant, unpaid affairs. Kitchen work, groundskeeping, and janitorial duties are the usual categories it falls under. I've done a little of each.

For the last two years, I cleaned the offices of ERDCC's administrative-segregation unit. My responsibilities were to empty trash cans, sweep and mop, shred papers, occasionally file away document folders, and clean one overused – not to say abused – employee restroom. The schedule was two or three hours a day, five days a week. I was paid only $20 a month, but it still beat working eight-hour shifts in the kitchen and having no time for myself.

My friend and neighbor Luke, who maintains the system that controls ERDCC's seven in-house movie, series, and information channels, offered me a job with him about a year ago. Experience with Windows computers was a must. Working knowledge of JavaScript helped. The only catch was that I had to wait for one of Luke's three subordinates to leave. Two were short-timers and bound to go at any time, but "any time" in prison terms is ambiguous. Those guys could be around for a month as easily as for a year or two.

This was the thinking, anyway, until mass transfers last week removed hundreds of low-level prisoners from the ERDCC population. One of Luke's coworkers disappeared in the process. His loss was my gain. Last Thursday, I was paged to the recreation department and given a tour of the media room: workstations, drive arrays, DVD library, the works. This was a formality; the staff had already vetted me. All that was left was the paperwork.

A set of doors in the gym opens into the Learning Center, a large room lined with TVs, where prisoners can watch therapeutic and educational videos during their recreation times. On one side of the Learning Center stands a grated metal gate. Someone hung a sign there: The answer to your question is NO. Tucked beyond it are two small, warm rooms of computer equipment – my new place of employ.

Monday was Day One. Sitting at a keyboard, being gently embraced by two curved 24-inch monitors, felt weird in the best possible way. Clicking my way around and typing experimental commands in the unfamiliar database was like blowing dust off some forgotten machine. My brain hadn't worked like this in nineteen years. I started out tentatively, as wobbly as a kid on his first bicycle. Luke had me input TV listings for our scrolling daily TV-channel guide. I made good enough time with that, they assigned me other tasks.

By Day Two I was digging into my bag of power-user tools. I even showed Luke a trick that he hadn't known existed. It was a good day. The first, I suspect, of many. The pay's better, the work's mentally stimulating, and the environment's fun. Best of all: I don't have to clean someone else's toilet.

16 August, 2020

Weekend from Heck

I already told you how my wing was on quarantine status after someone tested positive for COVID-19. It was great, like being promised a two-week staycation. Then came Friday afternoon.

I was looking forward to washing some clothes, eating dinner, taking a shower, and having the rest of the evening to play with however I pleased. When custody count cleared at 4:50 PM, the appropriate time, everyone's cell door clicked open. Everything seemed on track. Within a minute of opening our doors, however, the intercom shrieked, and the voice of the guard working the control module resounded.

"Everyone needs to lock back down," she said. "There is no inside recreation at this time. Return to your cells and secure the doors. Now."

Cries of dissent went up.

"Get the captain down here to tell us that!"

"She ain't talkin' to us."

"Bullshit, we're honor status!"

"She don't know what she talkin' about."

"None of y'all better move. Nobody lock down."

And so on. Everyone wavered as the compunction to obey battled the urge to defy what we all felt sure was a mistaken directive. It just had to be a miscommunication; good-conduct wings aren't subject to the same restrictions as general population, and staff have been mistaking us for GP in all sorts of ways since the day we moved into this house. Surely this was just one more.

Jeff and I stood on our doorstep, wondering what the hell was happening. We watched the guard get on the phone and wave her hand around, pantomiming frustration. A couple of minutes passed before she repeated the announcement, adding, "This is per the captain, guys. He said everybody's supposed to be locked down."

Slowly, reluctantly, everyone made his way to his cell. The snaps of door locks came like fat raindrops on a tent, sporadic at first, with increasing frequency. Within three minutes the wing looked uninhabited. All of 4A had complied; although, none of us knew the reason.

There's a story about the Buddha, which says that a monk with a habit of coming to ask for reasons – why this, why that, what if this other thing – was chided by the Enlightened One. "If you were shot with an arrow," the Buddha gently told him (I'm paraphrasing), "you would want to know who shot it, from what distance, and with what kind of bow string, and therefore die before permitting the arrow to be removed."

Neither Jeff nor I bothered with speculation. We've both been imprisoned for long enough to know the madness awaiting those who futilely seek those answers. Instead, we sat and waited to see if some inconceivable bullshit might shake loose of the bureaucracy tree.

A couple of nurses had wheeled a little supply cart into the wing and conducted nasal swab tests on ten random prisoners two days prior. I should've guessed that the lockdown would be related to that. Sure enough, the assistant warden, gloved and hidden behind an N95 mask, but still identifiable by his striped pink shirt, strode in to tape sheets of paper to doors downstairs. Each read "ISOLATION" in bright red block letters.

There goes the neighborhood, I thought.

We were released to the dining hall for dinner at 7:45 PM – over two hours later than usual. The breaded fish patty was warm enough, but the black-eyed peas lifted off my tray as a single lumpy brown mass, the pasta salad smelled four or five days off, and the vanilla pudding swam with alarming pea-size red shapes that reminded me too much of burst blood vessels to be edible. On the way back from dinner we spotted that pink shirt again and asked the assistant warden if we'd be allowed showers. In impeccable Bureaucratese, he responded, "We're not making plans for that at this time."

Peering into the wing an hour later, schadenfreude tickled my spine. Two telephone handsets dangled from their cords, left there by a couple of hopefuls willing to stoop to tactics to ensure they get phones without having to run when the doors open. By then I knew that we wouldn't be released from our cells that night. No shower for me wasn't so terrible, knowing there'd be no phones for them. (My frustration with the phone situation here is a matter of record.)

I did sleep poorly. I always do when I go to bed feeling less than clean. Such is my First World curse. Waking up on Saturday, I rolled out of bed, washed my face in the sink, sat zazen, and steeled myself for uncertainty.

We weren't allowed to bathe that day, either, as it turned out. Some sort of major move was in the works – the first weekend cell swaps I've seen in all my nineteen years. The idea, as I gathered, was to make enough room in Housing Unit 1 to turn it into an isolation unit, so that any prisoner who tests positive can pack his property and move there for long enough to get two negative test results. After that, he'll be moved to yet another cell, this one "permanent," with a new cellmate and all the problems that come with that.

I spent the day bouncing between books, a long magazine article on COVID-19 in China, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches (the unavoidable brown-bag staple in these situations), and the cell window. Jeff or I would periodically glance outside and sight a prisoner pushing a cartload of his possessions from 1-House. We had fun trying to identify each guy from a distance. I was winning until Jeff put on his glasses.

The safety and security of this institution take a backseat when the administration wants something done. Jeff was released to hazmat duty a few minutes past 9:00. In his absence, I swabbed parts of myself somewhat clean at the sink, sufficiently so for a night of sound sleep. When the thunder of my COVID-19-positive neighbors' footlocker sliding down the stairs woke me, at 1:34 in the morning, Jeff still hadn't returned. Nor was he back by 2:44, when the clatter of a different infected neighbor loading a cart awakened me again. The restlessness of my most sleepless night in months continued when Jeff finally came back, surrounded by a cloud of bleach, and reported some news. "The sergeant told me over half the night shift got laid off because so many people tested positive," he said. "They got one sergeant running both yards. It's crazy."

After four and a half hours' work, in the middle of the night, with strong chemicals in potentially infectious environments, he was at least permitted a shower. I'm pretty sure that we both fell asleep before he even climbed into his bunk.

On Sunday, Day Three, the craziness continued. Our door opened at 7:40. Jeff's name over the intercom meant he had to go disinfect more freshly vacated cells. Caseworkers, guards working mandatory overtime, and recreation staff bustled around our wing, sweeping up trash and distributing brown-bag breakfasts. (PB & Js again, naturally.) The housing unit manager, an office job whose scheduled days are Monday through Friday, worked the control module. She announced the plan to open three cells at a time, for everyone to get fifteen minutes to shower and place our canteen orders for the week. When Jeff returned from his morning labors, he relayed that an all-staff meeting was taking place. Things were happening – different things. Different was good.

Residents of the lower tier got their showers that morning. We upper-tier people had to wait. Kitchen workers booted up and were released to their regular assigned jobs right before noon, and for the first time since Friday we all got a hot meal, followed, an hour and a half later, by that long-awaited shower. The water felt hotter than usual, perfect for soothing the sore neck caused by Saturday night's tossing and turning.

A couple of those Friday phone jockeys jumped on to attempt a quick ride, but the phones were switched off. Once again, I shook my head and smiled.

Sunday ended with a whimper. A little writing, a little reading, a little night music. I went to bed feeling clean, braced for whatever Monday had in store. The critical staff shortage promises more of the same throughout the next couple of weeks – maybe better, maybe worse. Oh, what I would've paid to give the administration my two cents at Sunday's meeting!

With full appreciation for the seriousness of the novel coronavirus, its potential threat to both short- and long-term health, it's safe to say that the way that this situation is being handled here (or the powers that be at the Missouri Department of Corrections) shows the same disorganization and lack of foresight we see at every level of Missouri's prison system. Isolating the sick is good, but consolidating those who test positive only works if everyone else in their immediate surroundings tested negative, and if the people you're replacing them with tested negative, too. Otherwise, you're just muddying the water. Sending COVID-19-positive employees home is good, but why not give asymptomatic ones the option of working in the prison's isolation units, so as not to place uninfected staff at risk?

I almost feel like writing a cutesy picture book, á la Dr. Seuss: If I Ran the Prison. (Rule Number One: isolate people in their own cells!) It'd probably sell like hot cakes, but I've already got avocations, obligations, and chores to keep myself amply occupied. We'll call this a working staycation, then.

12 August, 2020


The distant ripping noise that woke me repeats, then repeats again, and I roll over on my bunk, suddenly alert and curious about this sound that roused me from what in retrospect felt like a deep sleep. What the hell's going on out there? A series of radio chirps, blurts of static, and indistinct, tinny voices precede a thump, instantly recognizable as the sound of a Rubbermaid tote full of someone's property set down on the wing floor.

This is common on the Department of Corrections' designated transfer days. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, guys get shipped to another prison. Something else is going on here.

Enough passivity. I sit up and pivot out of bed to see whose stuff is being packed up and taken away. Jeff, my cellmate, is almost as light a sleeper as I am, but try as I might to be quiet, my rubber sandals scrape the concrete floor with every step I take across the cell. Bleary eyed, I bring my face close to the door's narrow glass pane and look around.

The guard's downstairs, right on the other side of the wing, wearing a blue trash-bag smock, gloves, and N95 mask while she supervises the packing. The packer is Levi, one of the guys who attends my Buddhism service (or used to, before COVID-19, when we still had services). He's shirtless and displeased, and I immediately know what's happening. Levi isn't transferring; his elderly cellmate, Anthony, who was taken via ambulance to the hospital yesterday, must've tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital; Levi's being relocated to an isolation cell in 1-House, the unit we all moved from two Fridays ago.

I lie awake for many long minutes, considering the implications of this turn of events. The way ERDCC operates now, if anyone tests positive, his entire wing is placed on quarantine status for fourteen days – four days longer than the period currently recommended by the CDC. That wing eats separately and has a separate recreation period from the rest of the house. It gets no use of the gym. It's barred from Clothing Issue, the library, and the property room. Activity within the wing, from card games to walking laps, continues as usual. It's life as usual, then, except none of us goes to work.

For me, this means another two-week vacation. I'm perfectly okay with that; I occupy myself quite well. But poor Levi, trapped for a fortnight in the plague house! And poor Anthony, suffering unknown torture in the hospital's ICU. Thinking, What a mess, I finally fall asleep. It's an uneasy rest, and my alarm clock seems to rouse me far too soon.

04 August, 2020

You Can't Polish a Turd, but a You Can Polish a Rusty Desk

Friday's mass move by my wing to another housing unit was the one, in my nineteen years' experience of moving cells, for which I was best prepared. This isn't to say that this go-round was especially easy, nor in any way fun, but it went off much, much better than most.

I have my neighbors to thank. While most people in the wing made do with what tiny containers they already had, the guys next door found several moving boxes to pack our stuff in. We also had an array of cleaning supplies at our disposal, for scrubbing and wiping away the filth of our new cells' previous occupants. We had improvised drain plugs for janky sinks, and extra shoelaces and twist-ties for bundling errant power cords and co-ax cables. Someone found a bottle of glue, for securing handy wall hooks. Someone else scored a bottle of floor wax, which, in a fine display of prison ingenuity, proved useful for sealing the large and copious rust spots covering the desks, thereby keeping shirtsleeves and skin from picking up orange smears of iron oxide every time they brush the desks' surfaces. You make use of what you have.

Not all wings are equal, and our new habitat has other minuses as well. At the moment you walk through the front door, the telephone situation becomes apparent. Rather than being mounted at a respectable distance from one another, like they are everywhere else, all four phones here are clustered on one side of the wing. Their placement is unfortunate for reasons of privacy and social distancing alike. If I can reach over and touch my neighbor's shoulder in the midst of a call, overhear the sweet nothings he's whispering to his boo, or take the brunt of his uncovered sneeze (because, despite COVID-19 and the disapproval of society at large, there are definitely people still guilty of committing that unhygienic atrocity), it should go without saying that we're too close.

Telephone proximity aside, this new wing is actually different from our old one in several ways. The doors are everyone's favorite of them. The housing unit where I spent the last year and a half used to be an administrative-segregation unit. Its boxcar-style sliding doors, whose bang upon opening was a hazard for anyone with a heart problem or some type of incontinence, frazzled many nerves. Anytime my door popped open, expectedly or otherwise, was a nasty jolt. (Yesterday I heard someone joke that they left him shell-shocked. I can't overstate the unease those doors brought; kidding aside, PTSD seems like an actual possibility.) The locking mechanisms in our new housing unit open as quietly as knuckle-raps on a pane of glass.

Everything here is flipped, a mirror image of what I got accustomed to. On the first morning my alarm clock beeped and beeped and beeped while I searched with a drowsy hand for the off button. Oh yeah, I belatedly realized, it's on the other side of the bed. If Jeff, my cellmate of the past year, was irritated by my tardiness at silencing the noise, he didn't complain. The sleepy errors continued the next morning when, stuck on autopilot, I failed to judge the distances involved after making the bed, bumping my head on the underside of his bunk. Fortunately, it was a low-speed collision.

The first night in any new cell can be difficult. The slow, quiet drip of the sink threatened to keep me up on our first night here, but my epic tiredness after a day of near-constant activity and low-grade stress won out. The almost chilly air helped. I've heard a lot of complaints about the temperature here, but I sleep poorly in warm rooms and was glad that our vent kicks out the cool. I've been consistently sleeping like the dead, maybe even better than I was before we moved.

31 July, 2020

Prison's Perpetual Relocation Program

There stood the assistant warden, at the front of the wing, telling us the news. His presence in the wing was unusual. Ordinarily, the higher-ups don't visit the housing units of prison's unwashed masses. I suppose this was a display of personal concern, less offensive than a diktat from on high. He asked, not especially loudly, for everyone's attention, then told us that we're all moving. Again.

If this seems like a repost of an old entry from a year or so ago, you're not just experiencing déjà vu. The ERDCC administration can't seem to run things without shuffling the prison's whole population around every few months. In the last mass move (of which I, thankfully, wasn't a part), they consolidated the good-conduct wings from all general-population housing units — a move akin to hitting "Undo" on the chaos from the previous major relocation, which took place just a few months prior.

We should all have moving down to an art, yet some still have difficulties, both with the mechanics of the thing and with change in general. The noise level in the wing has been high ever since, as prisoners whose heightened emotional states struggle for any possible release. Most of these guys aren't so good at emotional regulation. That's what landed many of them in prison in the first place.

A generous neighbor asked if I wanted a box. He'd found several large brand-new unassembled boxes somewhere. He sneaked the cardboard contraband back to our housing unit specifically for today's move. I was the lucky other person to benefit from his find. My clothing, bedding, and canteen all fit perfectly. Without it, I'd have to just pile random stuff on top of my packed footlocker and hope it didn't fall during the long haul across the yard.

That's what we're waiting for now: the go-ahead to load everything we own into a canvas-sided laundry cart and push it to the opposite side of the facility, where an empty wing awaits. Then there'll be a day of cleaning in store. For how long will this residency last? Someone asked the assistant warden that yesterday, when he stood there delivering the news. "It's permanent," he answered — exactly what the administration said the last two, three, or more times.

24 July, 2020

The Pandemic Has Ended!

That, at least, is what the prison administration at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center seems to believe, as normal operations resume throughout most parts of the institution. It's weird to think that, as the spread of COVID-19 reaches new daily record highs in certain regions, the Missouri Department of Corrections and ERDCC's warden have basically stopped trying to protect the 2,800 prisoners here — but that's exactly what's happened.

Individual wings of housing units no longer have separate recreation times. The table occupancy at meals is no longer being limited. The rule about masking in the dining halls was rescinded after less than a week and a half. Even as the US president eases up on his longtime obstinacy and calls for Americans to wear masks, the guards here are still not being required, nor even asked, to do so at any time. Few — maybe one in thirty — do so by choice.

"They're not making the offenders wear them," a caseworker was heard complaining yesterday. "I don't see why I'd have to."

That same morning, another guard, a sergeant, poked fun at a subordinate whose face was appropriately covered. The only part of the mockery that I found remotely funny was, "That's gonna be a real problem once the tan lines start to show." Otherwise, this person just fed my disappointment with humanity.

If such maskholery is prevalent among "correctional" employees in general, it's no wonder that (according to the Journal of the American Medical Association) state and federal prisoners are 5.5 times more likely to become infected than the average US citizen. Prisons are petri dishes, ideally structured for maximum viral and bacterial spread.

Fun fact: according to that same study ("COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons," posted 8 July), regardless of age or race, we're also 300% more likely to die from COVID-19 complications. Thanks for that nifty opportunity, all you contracted for-profit medical care providers out there!

I wash my hands until the skin's tight and itchy. I wear a mask despite the jokes. What else can I do? I'm not worried about myself so much, but there are a lot of older, high-risk people around me in these close quarters, and I'd hate to think that I could be partly responsible for their contracting a potentially lethal virus. Someone should be concerned for their well-being.

15 July, 2020

The Game of Telephone, Prison Style

Seventy-two prisoners sharing four telephones seems like someone's idea for the setup for an ultraviolent action movie, but that's what we contend with at ERDCC. This makes an eighteen-to-one ratio of prisoners to phones. Someone's always waiting in line. You're lucky when it isn't you.

There's a system, of sorts. The phones, each one a tough black archaic payphone-style receiver attached via metal cord to a stainless steel box on a pole, flank the wing entrance, two on the left, two on the right. The unofficial waiting area is by the support beam between them. Those disinclined to stand sometimes sit on the footlocker full of games no one plays, up against the front wall. It's common courtesy to ask, when coming to take your place in line, who all is waiting on a phone. At a glance, you can't always tell the difference between those standing around bored and those standing around with purpose. The system works adequately, most of the time. Breakdowns are generally the fault of two types of people.

The first type is what I call the Camper, the man who, once he takes a seat on the stool in front of the phone, might just as well be readying the space for an overnight stay. He has his address book, his tablet, headphones, some photos, a notebook and pen, a batch of personal letters, a bowl of food, a mug of some colored beverage or other, a pitcher of ice water, a damp washcloth, and maybe something to pick his teeth with after eating his meal there. He turns his back on everyone waiting. He kicks up his feet. He holds his headphones up to the receiver, to share a song he recently downloaded. He pointedly avoids looking at the clock.

The other type of problem caller is what I've dubbed the Teleporter. This is the guy who tells the last person line, "I'm after you," then vanishes and does something else. The Teleporter might not be seen for a half hour or forty-five minutes thereafter, rematerializing only after what had been the last guy in line gets a phone, thereby taking the current line's constituency by surprise: Where the hell was this guy five minutes ago? And now he wants to jump in front of me? The Teleporter breeds discord and dissatisfaction, and we all wish he'd get off his high horse to wait alongside the rest of us.

For the many years I lived in good-conduct wings at Crossroads Correctional Center, the prisoner-to-phone ratio was a far more workable twelve to one — 50% better than at ERDCC. During peak hours at Crossroads, such as right after coming in from meals, someone might wait ten or fifteen minutes, a perfectly reasonable amount of time, before making their call. Here, there are periods of the day when one is lucky to get a phone at all.

Requests for additional phones to be installed in ERDCC's good-conduct wings, which are open and active all day long, meet solely with stonewalling. "A feasibility study would have to be done," said one official response, as if Crossroads' performance, and that of its sister facilities, was insufficient proof of concept. ERDCC could cut down on a great deal of tension if its residents could more easily contact the people in their support system. More importantly, though, is that mounds of evidence show outside connections being one of the most effective elements in prisoners' rehabilitation. If a correctional center wants to live up to its name, why would it hamper its own efforts at effective correction? Unless, of course, it's not really trying to correct at all....

02 July, 2020

Prison Race Relations in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter

As demonstrations sweep cities around the world, as monuments are pulled down, as rioters run roughshod and arsonists set buildings ablaze, as a dangerous pandemic sweeps through the world, as citizens sit at home, either out of work or working too much, and the grind of domesticity, of children, of spouses, of the hobgoblins of their own boredom and self-doubt, wears at the last shreds of their ability to cope, the message that penetrates prison's walls and razor-wire fences is this: it's bad out there.

It's bad in here, too — worse than usual. We worry about our loved ones, about their health and their jobs and their homes. Since most of the staff seem to care about their political alignment too much to wear a piece of cloth on their faces, we worry about getting sick ourselves. We worry about our neighbors' every sneeze or cough, about the general lack of adequate cleaning supplies, and about cohabitating, for an average of twenty-two hours each day, in a space the size of a home bathroom, usually with a near-stranger who likely committed some heinous crime and doesn't have our best interests at heart. We get few exercise opportunities, fewer opportunities to call the people we care about. We're afforded limited access to showers. And now we worry about racial tensions — a significant prison problem in even the best of times — flaring.

I wasn't at ERDCC in 2016, when riots rocked Ferguson, Missouri, fifty-odd miles north-northeast of here, but anyone who was could describe the tension that gripped the prison during that period of unrest. Any prisoner putting his hands up — whether or not he intended to signify "Don't shoot!" — was immediately whisked away to the Hole, under fear of him trying to incite something. Outside circumstances had the prison administration jumpy. What's discussed in meetings here now, I can only speculate. This climate of uncertainty at least has the prison population more sensitive than usual, particularly to matters of race.

On the yard last week, I heard a man preaching to several younger prisoners. He told them, "The white man is not your friend." He said, "The white man is pure evil." He looked right at me with such a look of unabashed hatred as he said it; although, I've only ever seen him around the yard from a distance. How should I feel about this?

Another person, a neighbor with whom I'd never spoken, let alone treated with less respect or cordiality than I give every other stranger, approached me, smiling like a child with a secret, to say, "You're a racist." With wide-eyed bewilderment, I asked, "What makes you say that?" His answer was a shrug as he turned and walked away. What would've been a more appropriate way of handling this exchange?

I hear racist remarks all the time, from prisoners of many races. Sometimes they're "jokes." Sometimes they're mumbled slurs. Sometimes they're aggressive taunts. I don't deal well with racial discrimination, nor hate speech. I speak out in criticism of them — I always have. My list of reasons for disdaining small-mindedness is decades long.

I've been mocked. I've been harassed. I've been discriminated against. I've been ostracized. I've been targeted by security guards and police. I've been physically assaulted. I've spent the last nineteen years of my life corralled, demeaned, and dietarily and intellectually malnourished within maximum-security prisons, at least partly because of the way others have perceived me. I hear the cries for justice going up, and I say, "I feel your pain." My differences can't be seen on my skin, but the frustration and suffering that comes with being "other" is very real to me.

Growing up with an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder, I used to get so frustrated that I couldn't make myself fully understood, that my heartfelt intentions and desires couldn't be picked up telepathically by everyone around me. Why did I need to explain my thoughts so often? Why were my intentions consistently misread? This imbued a fundamental feeling of unbelonging, which sank into my bones, ultimately becoming as deep and integral as an identity. Being different, my mother cautioned me at an early age, would be difficult, that my "gifts" would be weights that bore down when others felt confused or threatened by them. My mother, the prophetess.

Civil-rights activist Jan Willis writes, in an article for the Buddhist publication Lion's Roar, "The root of this problem is the very root cause of [suffering] itself, namely, the overexaggerated investment we each make in our respective Is." Until we are able to relinquish our obsession with conditioned identities — the idea that these things that make me me are somehow better or worse than those things that make her her, or him him — and that our identity is precious and unique, rather than a fragile soap bubble that conditions have blown a certain way but that ultimately is made up of the same stuff as every other precious and unique bubble, we're going to encounter division and strife.

Addressing a recent viral video of racism in action, in his recent personal essay, "Homecoming", the writer Hilton Als echoes Willis's point, imploring readers facing discrimination or harassment, "Listen to yourself, not to your accuser, because your accusers are always listening to their own panic about your presence. And if what they are saying — or shouting — threatens your personal safety, protect yourself by any means necessary. If you can protect yourself, you'll be around to love and take care of more people, and be loved and taken care of in return."

On the two days last week when those men made me the target of their frustrations, I didn't take it especially personally. I understand how frustration demands an outlet, and that the more intense the feeling, the more forcefully it demands. Better those men's ire fall on me, I thought, than someone with a chip on his shoulder, a fragile ego, or something to prove. But that misunderstood sense from childhood did arise. Strange to feel it after such a long time. I even wondered, Why me? Can't they see I'm not like that? I ought to have known better. As if any of us wears ourselves on our skin!

25 June, 2020

The COVID-19 Shutdown of ERDCC

With last week's COVID-19 testing out of the way, a total of thirty-odd prisoners and employees show positive for the novel coronavirus. The warden and the Department of Corrections alike assure us that these people have been removed from the general population, with staff quarantining at home and the prisoners isolated in two specially designated units.

And what of the people who might've had contact with the infected in the week and a half that passed before all the test results came in? The administration has a solution to that, too. Every wing that housed someone who tested positive is now under quarantine. As I write this, two wings of 1-House, three wings of 3- and 4-House, and all of 2-, 5-, and 6-House are confined to those locations. The rest of us are beginning out third month on daily five-cell rotations — only ten people out at a time, for a half hour or less.

Staff are required to wear masks and gloves anytime they walk into a wing on quarantine status. In my house, they wear their gloves but usually don't change them after leaving a quarantine wing, such as when they hand out our mail or search our cells. As with so many other standard operating procedures here, I have to wonder, What's the point? The administration's ideas might look good on paper, but in practice they're fouled up beyond sense.

Like most prisons throughout history, this facility relies heavily on the labor of the people confined to it. The mass moves forced on ERDCC's population, consolidating specific types of laborers in specific wings, thereby putting all of the institution's eggs in one basket, have now come back to bite the administration in the ass. Naturally, no prisoner was afforded a voice at the meeting where they ratified that terrible decision, so I can't really say "I told you so," but I did predict that moving all canteen workers, laundry workers, and factory workers into a single wing would cause problems sooner than later. Now, here we are.

With the population of just a few wings able to move around the institution, the slack has to be taken up by volunteers. Line servers in the dining halls are working extra shifts, as are cooks and dishwashers. This week's canteen orders have been packed and delivered to the quarantined units by an all-volunteer crew. Laundry is being done by an interim group of interim workers. A caseworker came through my wing, door to door, asking for assistance on behalf of the overtaxed kitchen.

The facility is as close to a standstill as possible without actually imposing a full lockdown. Meanwhile, as the number of cases continues to rise, the State of Missouri's opening up. If life at ERDCC is this restrictive now, what's going to happen when the virus really hits here?

20 June, 2020

Fourteen Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Brace yourself. My reading, these past three months, was intense. Most of it was nonfiction. At one point, though, I started reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, which is reportedly among the great Russian novelist's most esteemed works, and passed page 183 before realizing that the book wouldn't move past the sitting room. I love Dostoyevsky's other works — The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment — but the mannered doings and misunderstandings of prerevolutionary Russia's upper class, which seem to comprise the entirety of The Idiot's plot, reminded me a little of Anna Karenina, a book that tortured me for 800-plus pages. I was not going to live through that again.

Buddhist works, with their often repetitious nature, sometimes plod along, but at least I feel like I'm growing when I read them, rather than just growing moldy.

Consider Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination, an interpretation that I can definitely get behind. The Buddhist concept of dependent origination (also called "dependent arising," "interdependency," or any number of variations on this, based on who's translating Paticcasamuppada, a Pali term), refers to the Buddha's realization of the origins of suffering. In this book, Buddhadasa Bhikku cites ancient Pali sutras to boldly dispute the common Buddhist belief that one complete "turning of the wheel," an individual's attainment of enlightenment, takes three lifetimes. In plain English, he argues that reincarnation is a mythical remnant of the Hindu culture amid which Buddhism arose. He writes that this misunderstanding can be traced back to a mistranslation of the Pali word for "birth" that happened two millennia ago, circa 300 CE. To support this theory, Buddhadasa quotes multiple canonical passages attributed to the Buddha, but, really, the argument comes down to this: because Buddhist belief holds that there is no self, inherent being, or soul, what can be said to continue on after bodily death? Buddhadasa suggests that we "die" and are "reborn" with every moment, a marvelous flow of conditions stretching on and on, for as long as we do — you know, life.

The Soto Zen perspective in Grace Schireson's memoir, Naked in the Zendo: Stories of Uptight Zen, Wild-Ass Zen, and Enlightenment Wherever You Are, offered still more for me to enthusiastically engage with. Dr. Schireson's practical anecdotes, spanning her three decades' teaching and seven decades' living, are often deceptively simplistic. Her account of a Japanese teacher and hippie student's interaction at one particular retreat left me awed. Her story of a stray tomcat that terrorized her own feline friends inspired me as a small example of perfect magnanimity. Naked in the Zendo is a thin book that's much, much larger on the inside.

America in the 1960s was just being introduced to Buddhism, and, midway through that decade, Philip Kapleau returned from thirteen years of Zen training in Japan to compile The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment as an introduction to the practice for Westerners. His book is still considered Zen's most influential English-language text, next to Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (which I really want to read). Kapleau delves into esoterica, including practitioners' self-reported kensho (budding enlightenment) experiences, which Westerners probably ate up because they saw Zen as a mystical practice from an exotic place. Eventually those seekers probably fell away as they learned that Zen is actually a pragmatic, subtle thing quite at odds with their expectations. Alongside transcriptions of once-secret dokusan teacher-student interactions, however, The Three Pillars of Zen does offer sound, detailed practical instructions for developing skillful meditation practice. For all the book's shortcomings, it did answer a lot of my questions. It just raised even more.

After that, I read Riding the Ox Home: Stages on the Path of Enlightenment — essentially a short picture book by John Daido Loori.

The ten Ox-Herding Pictures (that's Scene Five, above) and their accompanying poems are considered a 500-year-old map to how one develops in Buddhist practice. The ox here is a metaphor for enlightenment. Daido Loori presents his usual clear, concise commentary at each step. The overall effect is inspiring for anyone engaged in Zen practice.

I also appreciated Daido Loori's overview in The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training. This book details the ways of the monks, trainees, and students at Zen Mountain Monestery, which Daido Loori founded and where he taught until his 2009 death. The Eight Gates of Zen addresses Zen practice with the author's typical poetic perspective. I loved his writing, as well as the helpful appendices that included a zazen checklist, lists of liturgies that readers can employ, and a long list of recommended reading organized by level of depth and complexity, so that anyone, from newcomers to more advanced students, can locate suitable material.

The question of why I don't claim M. John Harrison as my favorite SF writer is complicated, and it came up several times as I read his gorgeous little novel Signs of Life, a gift from the kind Constance M., whose acquaintance I'm very glad to have made. (Thanks again, Connie.) Harrison's deep characterization, in works whose prose rivals fine literary novels, sparks an emotional attachment that few other writers are capable of engendering. Signs of Life almost made me weep with its narrator's longing and frustration. That character's difficult, complex friendship with an erratic sociopath, and unrequited love affair with a moon-eyed dreamer seem to doom him from the start, and the book's all the more engaging for this. It bears mentioning, too, that the great majority of Signs of Life reads nothing like sci-fi. There were moments when I wondered how it got labeled as genre fiction at all. The answer comes late, and almost subtly. As for not considering Harrison my favorite, it comes down to pure unfamiliarity. Maybe once I read everything else he's done....

In The Buddha's Dream of Liberation: Freedom, Emptiness, and Awakened Nature, James William Coleman, cofounder of the White Heron Sangha, in San Luis Obispo, California, examines the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, the Sutra of the of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets. This sounds like what cloaked figures in a 1970s Hammer Films production might use in black-magic rituals; it's actually a breakdown of the three turnings of the wheel of dharma, on which Buddhist teachings are based.

The first turning was the Buddha's introduction of the four noble truths (that life has suffering, that the cause of suffering is craving/attachment, that there is a remedy to life's suffering, and that that remedy is the noble eightfold path). The second turning was the Buddha's revelation that he, in fact, had nothing at all to teach anyone. The third turning was the Buddha's clarification of the apparent contradiction between the first and second turnings, by describing awakened (small b) buddha nature, which is the ultimate realization and embodiment of the dharma. Coleman's book, The Buddha's Dream of Liberation, gives a concise, comprehensible, and seemingly comprehensive unpacking of these tricky concepts.

Albert Camus might best be known to college undergrads as that dude who wrote about an Algerian man who's shot dead on the beach for no reason (that novel being his first, The Stranger). The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a slew of noncollegia readers to buy his novel The Plague. I'd already read some Camus in years past, both fiction and non-, and thought this period of social isolation was as good an excuse as any to join the mob — as it was translated by Stuart Gilbert. Other than being a little musty, with outmoded spellings and euphemisms, there's a lot here to identify with. I wrote a little on this subject in an April blog post on prison quarantine, so I won't retread that ground here. Suffice it to say that the novel is quite good, regardless of how one reads it — or in what proximity to a pandemic.

Almost inevitably, I circled back around to John Daido Loori. His Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat deepened my understanding of Zen, with transcriptions of real teacher-student encounters at Zen Mountain Monastery. Despite its name, "dharma combat" is a nonviolent encounter in which students face their teacher in public one-on-one exchanges that demonstrate their understanding of Zen. Because they defy dualistic, linear thought, these exchanges might seem confounding, mysterious, profound, or even asinine to an outsider. They struck me as all of those, at different times, but I came away feeling much more aware within my practice.

Plainspoken talks by Charlotte Joko Beck, at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, make up Everyday Zen: Love & Work. Beck's teaching style was straightforward, no-nonsense, and lacking the inscrutable qualities others teachers' lessons often have. She didn't talk much about enlightenment, the precepts, or koans. Instead, she was interested in conveying the essential nature of practice, usually in the form of sitting zazen. As the book's title implies, there are no esoteric teachings here; this is Zen for daily living, because Zen, after all, is daily living.

Zen Training, by the Japanese lay practitioner Katsuki Sekida, answers fundamental questions about the methods and philosophy of Zen, from the physiologies of sitting and breathing, to working with the koan Mu and comprehending the levels and varieties of consciousness. There's even a whole chapter on laughter. Sekida left little out, and his modern approach, while methodical, affords just the right amount of flexibility. This book would kick-start any logical thinker's Zen practice. Quite a bit here also enriches the existing practice of one who lacks a teacher.

After coming to the US in 1959 to teach, Shunryu Suzuki became an influential figure in the development of American Zen Buddhism. His Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, mentioned above, is considered a cornerstone English-language text on the subject. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai collects his lectures about the 1,200-year-old Chinese poem, the Sandokai, by the great Zen master Sekito Kisen. The wisdom found in the poem earned it the status of Zen scripture. Monasteries around the world regularly chant it, and its final couplet ("I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, / do not pass your days and nights in vain.") is often written on the wooden board that's struck to signal the beginning of group meditation. Meanwhile, Suzuki's affable teachings guide readers through the poem, line by line, to help us understand, and maybe penetrate, its layers of meaning.

Finally, in the mood for some silliness, I picked up the Tom Robbins novel Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. Although I distinctly recall the comic novels Jitterbug Perfume and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues sitting beside brainier fare on my father's bookshelf, I didn't read Robbins until the year before last. I was amused, once I did. And I zipped through the 445 pages of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates this week. It amused me, but I don't necessarily recommend it. Some books are like that. This one's about a degenerate Buddhist ex-CIA "errand boy" who eats his grandmother's parrot while under the effects of a powerful hallucinogenic drug in Peru, ends up wheelchair-bound by a shamanic curse, seduces his underage stepsister, and, on a mission to Iraq for an American gunrunner, falls in love with an excommunicated expatriated middle-age French nun — one hell of a trip, for sure.

16 June, 2020

It's a COVID-19 Test, Not a Peepshow!

The assistant warden, his voice slightly muffled by a mask, asks the crooked line of prisoners I'm waiting in, "Can I get you guys to kinda swing over this way?"

We're snaking all over the gym floor, each of us with our face covered and a little sticker in our hand, just given to us by a panel of young female nurses. The stickers bear each of our names, birthdates, and DOC numbers, and are to be given to the nurse or med tech who performs our nasal swab.

Now, if we can just get our shit together and move, as the assistant warden asked us to, instead of jockeying for the best angle from which to stare under the nurses' table. Someone should've thought to drape a cloth or some paper over the front of it, because the animals in front of and behind me are ogling the nurses' legs with an all-encompassing rapaciousness normally only seen during Discovery Channel's Shark Week. I'm genuinely concerned someone here will pounce and cop a feel before guards can whisk him off to the Hole. This is a "grab 'em by the pussy" moment if ever I've witnessed one, and it’s both worrisome and repellent.

In a hormonal daze, the line shuffles a few steps to the left, inching into some semblance of order. The tall guy in front of me stoops down for a better angle, whipping his long dreadlocks out of his face so quickly that one hits my arm. He doesn't apologize because I doubt he noticed. The guy behind me is at least peripherally aware of my presence (and my race), because he literally pushes me forward with his chest as though we're playing half-court.

"Damn, get out the way, white boy, " he says, pushing me bodily aside. "You blockin'."

The tall guy in front of me, now stooped so low that his hands grip his knees, says, "All the rest of them wearin' black pants, but she got on that colorful shit. You can see all the way up." It's the least crass thing that I hear come out of his mouth.

Thank goodness the line moves quickly. When I get to the front of it, the major, who's posted there, directing traffic, says hello. He's not wearing a mask; although, all of the nurses and med techs do, in addition to nitrile examination gloves. The major doesn't even stand six feet away as he points queued prisoners to open chairs.

I'm consistently amazed at the apparent distaste for masks that the guards here display. Behaviorists should study the phenomenon of certain subcultures' reluctance to mask themselves. Is it about perceptions of their authority, or about appearing submissive to a trend? Is it about desiring visibility, or about susceptibility to discomfort, or even about misplaced political pride? I'd like to understand it. Part of me wants to ask the major his reasons, but I bite my tongue. He'd probably take it as a provocation, and besides, it's my turn to take a seat and have my nostrils Roto-Rootered.

The whole operation takes seconds and doesn't hurt at all. My eyes water the tiniest bit, a problem solved by a couple of blinks, and the nurse who held my head back pats me on the shoulder.

"A-plus. You took it like a champ," she says, and I wonder if this is her stock line for everyone who doesn't cry, moan, squeal, scrunch up their face, grunt, or otherwise react negatively.

Whatever, I'm just glad to have this test out of the way. I head back to the housing unit, listening to the people I was just in line with express their displeasure at their experience of the test.

"It burned!" said one.

"It felt like it sometimes do when you take a hit off a blunt and it go up into your sinuses," laughed another.

"Man, I never smoked no blunt that burned like that!"

And so on, the nurses all but forgotten.

In another couple of days the whole population of ERDCC should have been tested, after which it'll just be a matter of waiting for results. The state doesn't do much of anything quickly, but we'll see how this goes. The way I understand it, if no one in the prison tests positive, ERDCC's ineffectual not-lockdown will come to an end. I don't have some delusion that this novel coronavirus won't wreak plenty more havoc in the coming months, but a break from the current restrictions on recreation, showers, and telephone use, even if only for a week or two, would feel like a deluxe all-inclusive vacation to paradise.

12 June, 2020

Two Noisy Neighbors Plus Three Phantom Flushes Equal Zero Sleep

Any rest that a person gets in prison is going to be hard-won. This goes as much for fulfilling sleep as for mental rest. I do okay with the latter, with relaxation and meditation, but getting a decent night's rest seems to have become next to impossible.

Jeff and I got a new neighbor on Monday — a skinny kid of about twenty, with short, short dreadlocks and a friendly smile. His cellmate, however, is our least favorite person in the wing, advertising his selfish attitude in almost everything he does, from dragging his feet at lockdown times, to cutting in front of people in line for meals, to frequently shouting back and forth with our neighbors across the walk, to camping on the phone without a care for who's waiting. His consistently shitty behavior makes us wonder how he ever made it to the honor dorm. Some guys just get lucky.

After about two days of the new kid's acclimation, Jeff and I started hearing shuffles, thumps, laughter, and shrieks through the wall. Great, we thought, our neighbors are roughhousers. Throughout the day, their spirited conversations carry easily from their cell to ours. They stay up late into the night, too. I woke to their excited hooting on three separate occasions during the past eighteen hours alone. The last time, I rolled over on my bunk, seized the handle of my metal footlocker, and, as hard as I could, slammed it three times into the wall. Finally, the children quieted down. The damage was done, though; I lay awake for more than an hour afterward, my body piqued with adrenaline, cortisol, and whatever other stress-related chemicals my system churns out when I'm incensed.

Sometime after 1:30 AM, perhaps, sleep's sweet embrace once again enfolded me. I had a dream about my favorite park, about walking through its rose garden and feeling blissfully at ease, free and completely comfortable. All around me, birds came to land in numbers unheard of — sparrows and pigeons, as well as blue jays, grackles, and cardinals by the score.

What might it mean? I asked my dream self. I extended a hand to pet one of the birds' beaks that seemed to be waiting for my touch. It closed its tiny eyes, and other birds came nearer. A feeling of acceptance and trust by these often-timid creatures overwhelmed me.

Then a gurgling rose from nearby, rapidly growing louder and louder, until it became a muted roar. I awoke and still heard the sound: our toilet flushing. By itself. On the top bunk, Jeff turned on his reading lamp. We both stared at the commode flushing itself. It kept going and going, and for a brief period I wondered if it would stop at all, or if we'd have to try to get the institution's plumbers to our cell before breakfast. After a minute or two it let off a high-pitch squeal, then stopped.

I looked at the clock. 3:18 AM. The toilet fell silent. Then it flushed again, for a normal duration. Then it flushed a third time, and was still.

"Our plumbing is haunted," Jeff said.

I grumbled back, "This whole place is nightmarish."

Neither one of us managed a productive sleep after that. I can only imagine what horrors tonight's going to bring. That's prison for you.

05 June, 2020

A Strange Poem for a Strange Moment in Time


The visage of Iggy Pop once appeared to me
on a 1977 Lincoln's quarter panel, his sunken-in jowls
marked by where rust had eaten through.
The "Lust for Life" singer talked for the better part of
a half hour, beside the wheel well, about criminal
jurisprudence and reform. I tried to get it all on video.
It came out too dark, but look: doesn't
the voice sound just like his?

At seventeen I died — a wakizashi through the heart.
My body lay twelve minutes in the grass
before the paramedics came, in which time some
part of me, my soul, drifted out and up like a child's
helium balloon lost after the birthday party. I described,
when I came to, the sight of them huddled around my bloody corpse
— the tall man's bald spot when, for a second, he removed his cap,
the woman's sigh and suggestion they pick up Chinese after their shift —
in such shocking detail that both will tell you now that they
have no remaining doubt about the reality of NDEs.
Here are their phone numbers.

My grandmother, maybe on some folkloric impulse,
shoved a bean up her infant daughter's left nostril
to ward off evil. Probably this was a symptom of her as-yet-
undiagnosed schizophrenia, but regardless of the reason,
my mother's resulting rhinolenticula went untreated all her years.
Each spring there was a quickening that her hands played often
at her nose to feel, and I, one morning, sneaked this photo
before her morning trim. That dark spot you see is
not her nose ring but her sprout.

In the coffeehouse, at a table across from mine,
she often sat reading books on philosophy. Her outfits
drove me bonkers, and she was easily the most
gorgeous woman in the place — a model,
I surmised, which turned out to be true when I answered
a Craigslist ad for a nice bookcase and found her
at the door, in one of those skirts I'd previously
stared at from afar. We flirted like foxes, then
went on a date, then two, three, four.
We fell quickly, madly, and the rest.
A yachting accident later left her
in a persistive vegetative state.
The nurses at Saint Mary's were kind,
when I visited every Saturday with Kant
and Kierkegaard, and cleaned up the spittle
dribbling from those pouty lips gone slack.
Her parents pulled the plug, but I still keep
her contact sheets around,
plus countless eight-by-tens.

* * * * *

"Veridical" was inspired by an article I read about near-death experiences (the NDEs mentioned at the end of the poem's second section), and it obviously took on a life of its own. It became an offbeat commentary on what we accept as truth and what proof we demand in the process. Outlandish stories get passed off as factual all the time, often backed up by shaky circumstantial evidence. Pressed to defend their claims, the storytellers resort to solipsism. "Maybe it's like you say, or maybe it isn't," they might assert, as if indeterminacy were any kind of argument. I've also heard, "You can't prove what I say isn't true, so...."

This poem isn't about politics or current events, big-fish stories or outright lies. It's just a poem depicting four pemises of dubious veracity. You can make it about whatever you like, as long as you enjoy it.

29 May, 2020

Too Much TV for Me

Having been locked down (or not, if you use the prison's questionable terminology) for a month and a half, I'm suffering a variety of the quarantine fatigue that has most of the rest of America uneasy, and, again, like most of the rest of America, I've been seeking at least some relief in the form of television.

I haven't quite decided how to feel about this. I grew up in a household that generally considered TV a last refuge. As if to prove how low-priority we considered televised entertainment, our one TV set was small and janky, a portable black-and-white model with a clothes hanger for an antenna. And of course we didn't have cable. You could make the argument that a child of the '80s raised in a home without MTV is no true child of the '80s. My childhood was atypical in a lot of ways; not being glued to the tube was a very minor one.

Today, bingeing entire seasons, or even whole series, in a few days, carries more than the whiff of a guilty pleasure. I try to convince myself that there's only so much a shut-in can read, but I have a hell of a time trying to truly convince myself of that. My critical mind can be a real hardass. Throughout this quarantine, whenever I turn on the TV, it's said, You could draw instead, or write some e-mails, or reorganize your footlocker, or, basically, do anything else at all. I don't always listen, but the criticism creeps to the back of my mind and stays there.

There are videos online (I see clips on TV) of ordinary people in their homes, getting creative in occasionally stunning ways. Admittedly, my options are a bit more limited than your average joe's. In prison, raw material is generally contraband, and is in short supply. So is range of movement. I'm sure that I'd innovate the shit out of some things if I had a kitchen, workshop, garage, or parking lot or backyard at my disposal. I'm not an uncreative sort. But is this just an excuse to rewatch Tim Burton's Batman, or to check out an episode of Ru Paul's Drag Race on a lazy weeknight?

In Season Three of The Americans [spoiler alert!] Martha's exfiltrated to Moscow after the FBI learns her secret, Pastor Tim and Alice learn about Philip and Elizabeth being deep-cover KGB officers, the Centre demands delivery of a horrific virus, and even though I watched this amazing Soviet-era drama years ago, with bated breath, seeing it again now feels fresh and even richer, somehow, than during the first go-round. I don't feel a shred of guilt for squandering time by watching it. Does not feeling guilty mean it's not a waste? I'll think about it later. The next tense episode is calling my name.

22 May, 2020

A Word on Words

There's an apparent paradox in writing. To write effectively, you have to intimately know the limitations of the craft, understand that your words will never, ever equal the experience behind them.

Novelist John Updike summed this up perfectly when he observed, "Language is intrinsically approximate, since words mean different things to different people, and there is no material retaining ground for the imagery that words conjure in one brain or another."

We all have different minds, operating under different perspectives, with different biases, filtering everything through different processes of thought. My "little red wagon" is different from your "little red wagon," and that's okay — provided you understand that writing "little red wagon" isn't going to amount to your reader picturing the same old-school Radio Flyer you had as a kid, with its missing plastic hubcap and rusty scrape across the lip in the rear. That little red wagon is forever trapped in your mind.

Remember Paul Cezanne, the French painter? He did this famous image:

Translated into English, the text says, "This is not a pipe." And of course it isn't; it's an image of a pipe. No big deal, right? But to put this idea out there, right at the turn of the twentieth century, was borderline audacious, like pointing out the emperor's nakedness. It wasn't so much the idea of representations being distinct from reality (which was pretty obvious, once everyone thought about it), as Cezanne's writing it on a canvas and hanging it on a gallery wall.

Today, one and a quarter centuries later, Cezanne's non-pipe is still not a pipe. So too with your memory of a little red wagon. It's just the memory of a little red wagon — not the wagon itself, but a firing of electrical impulses in the brain that conjures up your idea of "little red wagon."

Here's a fun fact: every time you remember something, you're actually only remembering the last time you remembered that thing. The only time you remember a person or event accurately is the very first time. After that, you're building a mirage of a mirage. It's like playing a game of Telephone with yourself — always a little less accurate than the time before.

It's similar with words. Words aren't really things, they're concepts. They point to ideas about things, they don't represent those things. Conjuring representations is the work of yet another mental process, related to language but not part of language.

What I'm talking about here seems very Zen. Again and again, the teachings of Buddhism refer to nonexistence. Things are not things, says the Diamond Sutra. Things are made up, exclusively, of non-things. Vietnameze Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn often used the example of a flower, which is "made only of non-flower elements." Water is not a flower, but a flower is made up, in large part, of water. Ditto carbon. And minerals. Even an atom is not an atom. The finger pointing to the moon is not the way.

Zen teachings make frequent references to what's called buddha-nature (i.e., absolute reality). These teachings hold that reality's true nature is indescribable, since to describe it depends on the existence of a perceiver who exists apart from reality, rather than part of it, which, no matter how much we regard ourselves as separate from it, we are. Not to delve too deep into this, but it seemed like a fitting parallel to draw.

So, if any idea we put into words is doomed to fall short, then why bother writing? I ask myself this question a lot, especially since the apparent breakdown of temporal reality under quarantine. Stimulation for the creative mind is difficult to come by, here in this concrete box with the partial view of a parking lot, a narrow rectangle of sky, and some patchy grass. The closest thing to exotic scenery I get is watching Ancient Aliens on mute.

Coming up with material for writing projects is trickier than usual right now. Reporting only my day-to-day activities, the bread and butter of every lazy letter-writer, is out of the question, unless I decide to relay ridiculous conversations my cellmate and I have, or tell you about the giant hairball I found rolling around the floor at work. Trust me, blog posts about that stuff would get old really quickly.

The reason that I write is the same reason that Zen teachers say they practice: because it's what one does. If you're a practitioner of Zen, you practice; if you're a writer, you write. You just do. I don't know if this means that I'm enlightened or just some doofus who's stuck doing the thing he does because he can't be bothered to conceive of worthwhile alternatives. For whatever it's worth, I continue putting my words out there, hoping that one or two of them resonate with you, and that they, for however brief an instant, draw a direct line between my thoughts and yours. Maybe our little red wagons will even turn out to be similar.

18 May, 2020

Synopsis-Writer's Cramp

There are a lot of things you don’t think about while writing a novel — the number of snow leopards still alive in the wild, what your face was before your parents were born, what Nickelodeon slime is made out of.... As a writer, hard at work on a novel, when you do inevitably dream about crossing the finish line, polishing that last little rough spot out of your manuscript, your mind might conjure book signings, readings, or receiving a lucrative advance, but I guarantee that no one in the history of ever thinks, "How am I going to write this book's synopsis?"

For those who don't know, the synopsis is a punchy summary of the book's plot, beginning to end, that's essential for finding a literary agent and courting potential publishers. It's not as easy as it sounds. In fact, as I just spent a couple of days learning, it's what ten-hour tension headaches are made of.

My novel clocks in at just under 110,000 words. (It took eight years to write, which is very different than saying that I worked on it for eight years.) It features ten narrators and scores of ancillary characters. It features text-message bubbles in one part, Arabic text in another. How could I possibly distill its fine-wrought plot, replete with echoes, overlappings, and allusions, to a few hundred words? The literary snob in me cried foul.

I did it, though. I hacked and I whittled, and, like a sculptor who just keeps chipping away at the stone until the artwork within is exposed, after a couple of days, I have a two-page synopsis that's coherent, free of adverbs, and, I hope, fascinating enough to attract a literary agent. Now I send it off and find something else to occupy my mind for three months while waiting for a response.

13 May, 2020

Technical Difficulties

I had a blog post typed and ready to go, and, wow, was it good. It was so good that I congratulated myself, saying, "Hell of a job, Byron!" for how well-written, entertaining, and informative it was. I blog about funny stuff, and I blog about serious matters, and I blog about things that you on the outside might find in some way informative, but rarely do I compose a blog post that represents a confluence of all three of these features. This was, I'm telling you now, one hell of a post.

All that remained was to proofread it and send it on its way, via the JPay e-mail app. This app, however, is janky as all get-out. One of its worst handicaps is that it doesn't allow users to save drafts for long periods of time. When I hit the Save icon, this message pops up: "You have 1 day to send this email draft, otherwise it will be deleted." I hit OK, then a second popup box appears: "Your message has been saved as a draft." I hit OK again. After that, the app takes me back to the Drafts screen. The whole process can be pretty annoying.

Even more of a pain in the ass is when you've spent an hour composing what seems like a really clever post, a topical one with lots of your trademark wry wit and humorous sarcasm, only to save your work as an e-mail draft intended to be sent the very next day, then sit on it for what couldn't have been sixty minutes (all right, I'll grant you that it might've been an hour and a half) too long.

I woke up from a nap and went straight for my tablet. It took a century to boot up. The e-mail app took three decades to load. I tapped the menu and selected Drafts. Nada. My post — more than an hour's worth of top-quality writing, replete with the kind of witty narrative that would've had you ROTFLing and jamming the comments section with adulation and love — was gone. Vanished. Auto-deleted. One with the digital void.

I wept for what the world had lost. Then I ate some peach cobbler and set my jaw, resolved to the onerous task of writing of this replacement post, which pales in comparison to the awesome brilliance of what you almost got to read. Think of all the writers throughout history whose works were lost by moldering in forgotten drawers, landing in garbage dumps, burning in fires, sinking into the seas, or, as often happens in our age, getting backspaced out of existence. We can now add another cause to the long list of literature's enemies: getting JPayed.

24 April, 2020

From the Plague House

Albert Camus wrote his novel The Plague in the aftermath of his native Algeria's occupation by Nazis in World War Two. It's a parable of wartime occupation that reads like a contagion drama. The COVID-19 pandemic has probably changed the way that most people see the world, so of course people are reading The Plague literally — as a straightforward account of a nasty viral outbreak. There's no reason for the book not to work both ways.

"And then we realized that the separation was destined to continue, we had no choice but to come to terms with the days ahead," reports the narrator of The Plague, regarding his fellow townspeople's response to quarantine. "In short, we returned to our prison-house, we had nothing left us but the past, and even if some were tempted to live in the future, they had speedily to abandon the idea — anyhow, as soon as could be — once they felt the wounds that the imagination inflicts on those who yield themselves to it."

It's tricky, getting by, making do, not succumbing to the pitfalls of WITBO (Wishing It To Be Otherwise). The very real prison of ERDCC has been closed to visitors for over a month, and we're two weeks into the not-lockdown I blogged about last week. Aside from meals and my eight-hour-a-week janitorial job, the time I spend out of my cell adds up to fifty-five minutes a day — for showering, using the phone, and taking care of miscellaneous wing matters, such as syncing my tablet, placing canteen orders, or checking the balance of my prison account. Fifty-five minutes, even if I chose not to clean my body, doesn't meet the needs of a person's social health, especially if one has, like me, connections to the outside. I feel out of touch. It's very unfamiliar and very unpleasant.

A little creativity, then: I write when the words come. E-mails get more attention than this blog, which gets more attention than tweets, which get — it shames me to say — more attention than my novel. Inspiration enough to break out pencils and draw would be nice, but visually satisfying marks on paper, or even unsatisfying ones, have yet to manifest. Stealth-mode bodyweight workouts, in the mornings after work, lift my mood while my cellmate sleeps deeply. Otherwise I do a lot of reading (Camus, literature's King of the Absurd, being just this week). I meditate. I try to let go of the ache of missing those who are most important to me.

Shortly after this period of isolation began, I thought a lot about the future, about how nice returning to what passes here for normal would be. But the wounds made by the imagination, as Camus wrote, were too deep. Without even willing it, I recoiled from such fantasies and stuck myself in a here-and-now mindset. It's dull and it's tedious, but it beats the pain of wishing for something more. We all deal as best we can.