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.

13 April, 2020

A Lockdown by Any Other Name...

The prison's not under lockdown but might as well be. ERDCC just took its "Viral Containment Action Plan" to the next level. Last Tuesday a mass e-mail landed in every prisoner's inbox, announcing the details of the Plan: "Feeding will be completed by one wing at a time per housing unit schedule. Canteen will be completed on a one walk at a time schedule, bottom walk then top walk. In house recreation will be on a Five Cell Rotation." The e-mail later mentioned, almost as an afterthought, "Yard recreation will be two wings at a time, on a rotation schedule."

In point of fact, by institutional policy, recreation can't begin until after every housing unit has been fed — a process that, under the current limitations, consistently takes most of the time allotted for outside rec. Administrative personnel can claim that this isn't a lockdown, gull ERDCC's population into believing that we'll get more than a few blinks of sunlight or a gasp of fresh air a couple of times a week, but in reality we're screwed.

A prime example was Saturday night. Shortly after dinner I removed my shoes and sat on my bunk to read. It was 7:30, and I expected no activity until our nightly allotted twenty-five-minute shower period, scheduled for an hour and a half later. Suddenly, everyone's door slammed open, startling me so badly that I fumbled the book in my hands. Then the guard in the control module announced, "Yards are open, gentlemen; you got two minutes to exit the housing unit," and really lit a fire under my ass. It had been a long day. Time outdoors would do me good. Still untangling my ear buds, I stepped out onto the yard, feeling considerable relief. Cool, breezy, overcast — this was weather I loved. Taking a counterclockwise course along the walk, I made one and a half revolutions before the yard lights came on, signaling recreation's end. I checked my tablet's clock; nine minutes was all the time we got.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciated those minutes beyond another human's immediate proximity. I also enjoy being able to take a shower more than once every three days. The degree of lockdown ensuing from, say, a riot or staff assault wouldn't afford such luxuries, but being locked in one's cell still equals a lockdown. Dishonest language and semantic games irritate me. Reporting to work five days a week, going to meals, bathing regularly, and making short phone calls a few times a week constitute more than what Missouri's Director of Corrections' Friday e-mail termed mere "operational adjustments." Let's call this period what it is.

08 April, 2020

Missouri Prisons' COVID-19 Preparations

If COVID-19 breaches the gates of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center — or, really, any prison — those of us confined would likely be screwed. There's too much common space. What space each person can call his own is intensely cramped. Everyone here shares his living quarters with another human. Three cramped dining halls serve the entire 2,800-man population. Half of us use the same gym, chapel, library, medical facility, and classrooms. How could one hope to stem the spread of a virulent contagion under these circumstances?

There's only so much that can be done, but steps are being taken. The Missouri DOC calls its efforts against an outbreak a "Virus Containment Action." It's shitty language to describe a good idea that's being inconsistently enacted.

A properly answered questionnaire and a temperature check are required before any employee gets past the gates. Hand sanitizer dispensers suddenly appear throughout the facility. Assigned seating in the dining hall mostly separates the occupants of one wing from another. At my janitorial job, where I tidy offices, wiping all surfaces with bleach solution is now part of my daily responsibilities. And still more changes are promised. Yesterday's e-mail from the Director of Adult Institutions says that masks for staff and prisoners will soon be distributed. Okay, I thought, but will it be soon enough?

Amazingly, the DOC's considered the social impact of this coronavirus. The Department went so far as to arrange limited free communication for all 34,000 prisoners in its custody. Every prisoner is now getting two free ten-minute phone calls and one free JPay e-mail per week. The average Missouri prisoner has to buy every necessary hygiene product (except soap and toilet paper) with an $8.50 monthly stipend. The small benefit of free calls and e-mail makes a major difference to those who can't afford regular contact with loved ones.

The DOC's commitment to minimizing the effect of COVID-19 on Missouri prisons impresses me, but its employees' enforcement of the Virus Containment Action are, at the institutional level, half-assed and inconsistent. No one responsible for putting the Action into action seems to put any thought into it. Temperature checks were implemented very late in the game. (That's what I've been told, anyway. It's not like I get to see the guards and caseworkers reporting to work.) Just as bad, the separation of housing units at meals and other times isn't rigorously enough enforced to make a real difference. One day we're segregated while eating — A-Wing on one side of the dining hall, B-Wing on the other — while the next day we're ordered to lump together in one big, germy group.

I wipe down the boss's keyboard and mouse with bleach solution, but he enters in the mornings without washing or sanitizing his hands after touching who knows how many door handles and surfaces between his car and his office. Heading down this epidemiological rabbit hole could drive a person mad, but we've got to follow it a little way down; the current state of the world demands we make a serious effort, or else we might as well be making none at all.

01 April, 2020

New Prison Rules as Precautions Against the COVID-19 Pandemic

It took this coronavirus to break my three-and-a-half-year news blackout. I felt its terrible relevance quite powerfully after a friend, a few weeks ago, sent me hard numbers for its predicted impact. With one look, I saw: everyone I know would be affected by this pandemic, one way or another. Now here we are, with most Americans anxiously sheltering in place, and I'm back to following the media coverage of current events. Like a fractal design, the crisis unfolds and unfolds and unfolds — every day, a little more reveals itself, seemingly without end.

The latest news at ERDCC came today. At this month's "Offender Council" meeting, one representative posed the question of whether a quarantine lockdown might take place. It might, came the answer. I can just imagine the squirming that resulted.

Meanwhile, however, we prisoners are not to play card games or have more than two people sitting together at any table in the housing unit. Cell visiting — hanging out in someone else's place — isn't allowed anymore, either. Despite the library's "one table, one man" rule, people still line up to enter like they line up for meals: close enough to smell if the guys behind and in front of them recently brushed their teeth.

I wonder what they're expected to really accomplish. The prison's administration seems to be saying, This, but not that. That, but not this. It's so much like the states of the Union all putting different policies in place, at different times, without any coordination. These efforts seem so foolhardy and illogical, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

If quarantine procedures do come to ERDCC, the kitchen will serve brown-bag meals of bologna sandwiches for the duration. For me, this was all it took. I finally caved, breaking into my emergency fund for last-minute canteen-list additions. By the time you read this, I'll probably be picking up my order for instant ramen, refried beans, canned chicken and fish, beef jerky, crackers.... If only this splurge felt like an indulgence! Instead, it feels like an obligation.

26 March, 2020

Coronavirus: A Prisoner's Perspective

While COVID-19 continues its rampage, governments institute shelter-in-place orders, and people hoard enough toilet paper to get their households through months of nonstop diarrhea, I sit safe and sound in prison, concerned about the tumult but feeling a little detached. As a prisoner, I've basically been quarantined since 2001. I pity the nonessential-business owners and wage workers whose lives the virus is turning upside-down. In a different way, I also pity the fortunate salaried workers losing their minds after being stuck at home for a few days.

Adding to my sense of detachment, an e-mail I got from the Missouri Department of Corrections last week announced, "At this time, our goal is to continue to offer the same services and maintain normal operations to the extent possible. There are no plans to eliminate programming, recreation, canteen services or other functions." Although I can't go for a walk in the park, I can still hit up the library and attend Thursday-morning Buddhist services in the chapel. On the inside, right now, little is changing.

I heard a staff member complain how good he thinks we prisoners have it, because we, unlike him, aren't yet restricted from using the gym or hanging out in groups. Even under normal circumstances I dislike this type of shallow assumption. If prisoners really have it so good, why isn't a jealous public continually beating down the gates to get in here? Tempted as I felt to point out to that man the rule against gatherings of more than three inmates, I let his ignorance be.

At the time of this writing, one person in the Missouri Department of Corrections' custody (a male prisoner at WRDCC, in Saint Joseph) has tested positive for coronavirus. To the best of my knowledge, he was whisked away for real medical care quickly, but prisons are petri dishes; widespread contagion throughout that institution seems inevitable. We live in such closed quarters, and so few of my neighbors have even rudimentary hygiene. (I can't even count those I've seen sneeze without at all covering their mouths this week.) Frankly, I'm amazed that an endless, perpetual, all-out war against typhoid and dysentery isn't part of prison life. This place is filthy.

My janitorial job in the offices of its administrative segregation unit (aka "the Hole") now demands that I show up two extra days a week, just to wipe down every surface — from door handles to computer mouses — with bleach solution. At the end of each day's work, I initial one form and write down on a different one how much of which cleaning products I used. The thoroughness of my labor can't always be seen, but the offices do smell like a public swimming pool when I leave.

Most of the prisoners scoff at the notice on ERDCC's closed-circuit TV channel that says, "We have hand sanitizer strategically placed around the institution and flyers indicating the correct procedure to wash your hands." No one I know has seen any of the former. We all joke that the placement of hand sanitizer was "strategic" in that the administration deliberately put it where no prisoner could get to any. As for the flyers, I suspect that it'll take more than colorful pieces of paper to convince the slobs to scrub their greasy mitts once in a while.

Missouri prisoners are just waiting for contagion to sweep their facilities. Even with employee screening in place, COVID-19's speed and spread have most of us feeling like it's just a matter of time. With no grocery stores to decimate the shelves of, we instead stockpile Top Ramen and summer sausage from the prison canteen, prepping for the doomsday scenario that is a lockdown. But I, for one, refuse to panic-purchase. If (or when) a lockdown comes, I have enough savories to supplement the brown-bag meals of PB & J sandwiches they'll feed us for weeks. I'll stay busy, too, with books, art supplies, and, of course, my writing. It won't be too bad. It's you out there I worry about.

19 March, 2020

Five Books I Spent My Winter Reading

My neighbor and Buddhist acquaintance Tim brought me the first book on this season's reading list. Humanistic Buddhism: Holding True to the Original Intents of Buddha looked interesting enough. I don't generally judge books by their covers, but the delightful photo of its author, the happily aging Venerable Master Hsing Yun, could win over even the hardest heart. There was also that subtitle. I subscribe to a kind of originalist thinking where Buddhism is concerned, so of course "The Original Intents Buddha" also hit a nerve.

After the Buddha's enlightenment, there were schisms and geographic divergences. It's impossible today to speak to a stranger about one's own idea of Buddhism and be immediately, fully understood. To start with, there are Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana flavors of Buddhism, each of which divides into its own traditions, schools, and lineages. Having come from deeply irreligious tendencies, I appreciate how Buddhism recognizes the individual as being uniquely empowered to help him- or herself find liberation from the suffering that pervades existence. Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical figure (not to be confused with a prophet or deity), had a profound experience that he went on to teach as a philosophy, a simple way of life. Buddhism's religious trappings seem like so much gilding of the lily. Why embellish what's already perfect?

Humanistic Buddhism, as translated by Venerable Miao Guang, of Fo Guang Shan Monastery, wasn't quite what I'd hoped. The history of Chinese Buddhism featured heavily, and that was interesting enough. The book began with an explanation that Master Hsing Yun's "Humanistic Buddhism" is effectively a universal Buddhism, dispensing with the sectarian divides and embracing Buddhism's fundamental similarities. Cool, but the book soon devolved into an unfocused rant against politicians and other Buddhist organizations that, in his eighty years as a monk, Hsing Yun ran afoul of. Not so cool. I read it all, but by the end was disappointed that no uniting wisdom was forthcoming.

Less delightful in photos is Alan Moore:

You get the impression that from his pen flows brilliant madness. He wrote the excellent graphic novel V for Vendetta and coauthored the landmark series Watchmen, both of which went on to have successful lives as motion-picture adaptations. And yet his 1,260-page Jerusalem: A Novel won't likely go from page to screen in any era. A love letter to Moore's UK hometown of Northampton, Jerusalem taipses across centuries, playing fast and loose with history and conventions of readability alike. Moore's family, as well as past and current residents of "the Burroughs," as Northampton is sometimes called, might be tickled by his countless references to the city's cramped and crooked streets; I wasn't. My reason for finishing this tome was twofold: (1) hope would not die that a plot might congeal amid the happenstantially connected vignettes, and (2) I am frequently stubborn in the face of literature.

One of multiple positives to being confined at ERDCC, as opposed to Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years, is involvement with the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program. I've blogged about SLU events before, but this whole semester is devoted to the Big Read — an initiative by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, to bring communities together with a good book. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, was the book in question. Even though I don't usually enjoy historical nonfiction, I tore though this excellent, harrowing account of nineteenth-century survival at sea, and had a lot to discuss, afterward, with other prisoners and the professors who visited us.

Going back to reading alone, I turned to the comparatively tame writing of Richard Peabody, a minor figure in contemporary American literature, who founded Gargoyle Magazine in the mid-'70s. Edited by Peabody's longtime friend in letters, Lucinda Ebersole, it collects stories, poems, and a novella — almost forty years of Peabody's writing, which, given the large span it covers, felt uneven, its high points rising from the imaginative form certain pieces take, its low points lurking in certain characters' overwrought emotional responses. Lauri B. thoughtfully ordered The Richard Peabody Reader for me, from my usually carefully curated Amazon wishlist. I didn't relish this collection, but Lauri's generosity (last year she gave me a thoroughly fascinating and quite helpful book about the cultural history of zombies) remains deeply appreciated.

Constance M. then delighted me with a Michel Houellebecq novel, The Possibility of an Island (translated by Gavin Bowd). Back in the summer of 2013 (as my reading list for that season shows), I read Houellebecq's dour metafictional take on the detective procedural, The Map and the Territory. That book deeply frustrated me on certain levels, but I recognized the seething intelligence of Houellebecq's writing and was intrigued by The Possibility of an Island's apocalyptic sci-fi premise. "The most important French novelist since Camus," Houellebecq's been called. That's not a comparison I'm prepared to make; however, The Possibility of an Island deals in existential theories and even deconstructs love, breaking it down to its most fundamental elements. A lesser writer would've fallen flat on his face, trying. The ground across which The Possibility of an Island traipses is rich with ponderings of several difficult, or at least uncomfortable, questions. It can't be denied that, however unlikeable Houellebecq's political or social ideals might be, he sees the Western world through eyes unafraid to peer beyond the veil of propriety by scrutinizing values, taboos, authorities, and sacred cows of every type.

The reclusive medieval Buddhist monks Yoshida Kenko and Kamo No Chomei, respectively, wrote Essays in Idleness and Hojoki. Meredith McKinney translated the Penguin Classics volume that includes both. These works paint a fascinating picture of two complex, surprising, often very funny humans. Both were recluses. Chomei lived alone in a hojo, a ten-square-foot hut, in the forest. Kenko, a well-known poet in his day, retained his highbrow social circle after abandoning worldly life in what's now Kyoto, and many of his fourteenth-century thoughts feel Twitter-ready, or at least suitable for microblogging. One extremely brief entry amid the 243 Essays reads, "A certain recluse monk once remarked, 'I have relinquished all that ties me to the world, by the none thing that still haunts me is the beauty of the sky.' I can quite see why he would feel this." It's tempting to imagine that his hashtags were edited out for print publication.

12 March, 2020

Cable Outage Means Convict Outrage

The TVs go black on a clear, sunshiny day, but I'm busy writing and don't know about it until my neighbor comes to the door. "Wha'cha think about the cable?" he asks, his rural Missouri twang slurred by lack of teeth. I peer at him over my glasses in a way that I hope conveys impatience.

You'll never see a man's mood turn quicker than when a prisoner starts missing his cable TV. On the rare occasion when the facility's cable goes out, the first resort of the TV addict is to games, music, telephone calls, or a nap. (Almost none will read.) My neighbor is one such person. After whole minutes of silence in his cell, he emerged, hoping to commune with someone as miserable as he is.

"I didn't even know it was out," I say. "I'm busy doing my own thing."

"Phew! Cable's been out since lunch. I don't see how you can go that long."

"My TV's been off since 5 o'clock yesterday," I tell him. Might it inspire him to questioning of his own viewing habits?

Taxpayers in Missouri don't contribute to amenities in their state's prisons. While I can't obliterate the suspicion that we prisoners are coddled with good food, full medical coverage, and free cable, I can point cynics to these qualifications: the food is mostly edible, the privatized medical care is shamefully inadequate, and that I'm paying an exorbitant price (just not in money) for this "free" subscription. For the record, I'd happily trade these luxuries for a cardboard box under a railroad bridge in a heartbeat.

My neighbor, maybe not so much. He rubs his mouth like a crackhead waiting for another rock and says, "Yeah, well, some of us can't just sit around like that."

This feels silly, giving life advice to a man fifteen years my senior, but I shrug and offer him one of my shiniest nuggets of wisdom: "Sometimes you've got to make your own fun."

"Fuck that," he says. "I'm gonna go ask them what's the deal."

The cable is paid out of a dedicated account fed by 20% markups to items sold by the institution's canteen, as well as to media for our tablet computers. It's a large account. Also paid out of it are gym equipment, library books and furnishings, board and card games for the housing units, religious service paraphernalia, and visiting room amenities — anything deemed nonessential to the running of the institution, in other words. But even if it's not officially acknowledged as such, the powers that be are fully aware that uninterrupted cable TV service is crucial to maintaining order.

My neighbor ventures out of the wing to harasses a guard in the control module and I think, That won't be the last I hear about it.

My prediction bears out. The evening's a loud one. Twice as many people as usual mill around the wing, desperate for distraction, seeking entertainment in the company of their cohort, left adrift by blank screens. I hide out in my cell.

Peace comes the next morning when many sleep in, unwilling as they are to endure a few hours without someone else putting the thoughts into their heads. Unconsciousness seems to me like a sad pastime. Yet again I wonder what's so scary about being alone with oneself.

Throughout the walk to the dining hall at breakfastime, every conversation I overhear is about how "crazy" it is that we're still unplugged after almost fifteen hours. The man behind me in line stops literally every guard he sees, to ask, "What's up on the cable?" Most of them arrived for their shift a half hour earlier and have no idea what he's talking about, yet still he fishes for... what, exactly? Even if someone were to say that Spectrum techs are on site, replacing filters or whatever, he won't be satisfied until he's sitting in front of his TV, images flashing at his eyes and sounds firing into his ears. Does he even realize that his hunger's insatiable?

"Crazy," he mutters. "Fuckin' crazy. They just hopin' some shit kicks off so they can lock everybody down and not have to worry 'bout us anymore."

This sort of threat of flipping out is common but mostly empty — passive-aggressive venting born of powerlessness. But idle hands being the Devil's playthings means that the vidiots will remain unoccupied for only so long before they do something stupid. My reason for wishing the cable repaired is different from most guys'.

Crazy, indeed. This is the world I live in.

02 March, 2020

A Personal Poem That Might Be Better Left Unshared

Joy Buzzer

Shelved at the video-rental store I worked at, at nineteen,
Were all the movies you'd expect, plus thousands
In a special section walled off from the general population
But accessible through a door, unlocked remotely
From behind the counter by a plastic doorbell-button.
The pornography the store carried was triple-X,
And the manager, whose lisp like dragon's breath singed up close,
Touted free employee rentals and the city's largest selection
Of bisexual flicks. He fished, but all I ever took home
Were Bowie's Ziggy Stardust concert film
And a Siouxsie & the Banshees compilation.
Some guys (of course it was always guys)
Strode across to the door, took the knob in hand,
And waved. For them I pressed the Joy Buzzer
Without delay. But with the skulking meek
Picking up DVDs of Antz and Apt Pupil and not reading
The plot summaries but, rather, casting glances
At nearby browsers before scurrying to the door the second
Backs were turned, I pretended pressing the button,
Seized by invisible laughter as they futilely tugged
And mugged aghast. We did a dance at that distance:
I shook my head, mimed confusion, then stooped again
In imitation of admittance, and they either tried the door
A second time or first spun to verify that eyes remained averted.
I tell you, I craved catharsis — for the shamed to see my thoughts
And know the one and only thing keeping them locked out.
But months of workdays went by without it, and I returned
To my cat and single-bedroom unit, to nights
Avoiding calls and company y in favor
Of sticking binoculars through the blinds
And reading smiling couples' lips
At the café across the street.

* * * * *

The situations depicted in this poem are, oddly (and sadly) enough, altogether fact-based. Maybe that's why I was never able to find a poetry journal or literary magazine interested in publishing it: they picked up on its reportorial vibe. This is why I decided it makes a better blog post than poem. Still, by virtue of form and language it is a poem. Can the poet say anything for himself that the poem itself doesn't reveal? Sure. That's the stuff of autobiography, though, and I'm not writing one of those

26 February, 2020


It was the time I staggered up the cracked and buckled sidewalk, having just drank too much Congress vodka and Coca-Cola in the backseat of a friend's VW, and strove to keep my steps straight until the police cruiser passed or turned the corner. It was a miracle that the three flights of steps to my apartment didn't involve a tumble, and doubly astonishing that I successfully found the toilet in which to experience my first glorious, life-altering purge.

Or it was the time I occupied a Formica-topped table at Sydney's, with a rotating cast of the diner's regulars, for seven straight hours, drinking cup after cup of brackish coffee and excusing myself every half hour to "powder my nose." The lights there might've seemed too bright, but I felt incandescent. At dawn I couldn't find a toilet fast enough.

Or it was the time someone's mother asked me, after I inadvertently broke her backyard fence and terrified the family dog, to take my cocaine and devil-may-care attitude out of her house. Her daughter, the girl throwing the party, wasn't pleased, either, and would've given me an earful at school the following Monday, had I not dropped out the summer before.

Or it was the time I was a drunk (not to mention very high) passenger in the woefully inadequate backseat of my friend Abraham's old Datsun, singing "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" all the way through. In a British accent. While sitting upside-down.

Or it was the time I walked to work, in wrinkled chinos, from an acquaintance's apartment, the thick taste of the night before still at the back of my throat, then spent eight hours shilling Barbie dolls and remote-control cars to parents whose children's allowance exceeded my own income, even before you deducted for drugs.

Or it was the time I awoke fuzzy-headed on the floor of a bedroom belonging to a girl I didn't remember meeting, in a different city than the one in which the excitement of the night before began. Her pretty sister drove me home — a great personal inconvenience about which she didn't try to hide her vexation. I never saw either of them again.

Or it was the time Jason and Ash, humming in their respective intoxications, laughed in giddy falsettos at my tissue-plugged nostrils. They pointed out to me the blood-spattered carpet all the way to the bathroom. We resumed band practice once they caught their breath, forgetting my bloodstains on the basement floor, which had, by the next time we played together, darkened to resemble soy sauce, brown calligraphy ink, or oil leaked from a slowly dying machine.

Or it was the time I blacked out at an illegal warehouse party and came to on cold concrete, staring up into unfamiliar flashing multicolored faces — none of whom I recognized — and believed that my pathetic life was not my own.

What do these sad instances, and countless intoxicated others, add up to? How many years of ignorance before I reached this point! How much suffering! And while I might sometimes wish that those regrettable years had gone differently, that I had found a way to avoid so much more — and more enduring — agony, I always remind myself of their necessity. Without them, I couldn't have arrived at the mental peace I now know, free to live a life of deeper meaning, where the importance of certain things previously taken for granted has been rendered as clear and as bracing as cold water from a deep spring. That's well worth the streak of sad senselessness.