05 April, 2021

Why I'm a Terrible Blogger

Pariahblog.com has come a long way since its start, about a hundred years ago, on the MySpace page a friend set up for me. Back then, I'd snail mail a short piece of writing from my prison cell (you can still read those 2007 posts – just check the archive) at a rate of about one per month. Then my friend would dutifully transcribe, spell-check, and post them for all to read.

Those early posts were necessarily sporadic. I had no Internet. For the record, I still don't. I didn't want to exploit my friend's generosity by making him type stuff all the time, so I kept my posts to a minimum. Writing one every few weeks wasn't good SEO strategy, but it had the benefit of being easy for us to maintain.

When he got busy with life and had to bow out, another friend took over. The person responsible for maintaining my blog actually changed many times over the years. Eventually someone took charge who could scan my typewritten pages. That system wasn't perfect – we still dealt with occasional typos, and the speed of the US Postal Service occasionally seemed glacial – but it felt pretty cool to still have a voice when circumstances conspired to bury me alive in a kind of silent grave. Now I have what passes for e-mail, and the whole process is an order of magnitude easier.

I fully recognize how fortunate I am. Not every prisoner, wrongfully convicted or otherwise, has the wherewithal to write regular dispatches, let alone ones that the outside world might read. And yet, for all this, I sometimes find myself squandering this fortune.

That I toil on this blog more than I do on my dark fantasy novel-in-progress, – which has all but stalled, two chapters in – is bad enough. Worse is the time I devote to any given post, which, if it's an especially deep dive, can take days. My reading list posts, such as this one, from last month, are the result of several months' notes, compiled over several days. The words you're reading at this very moment came together only after much humming and hawing, and represent a third revision of a much more generalized piece, a lament on time squandered when one should be writing.

I kept parts of the earlier drafts. Here's one now.

Advice for writers: start a blog. Also: don't spend more than an hour a day working on it. I take both of these messages to heart but am clueless about how to reconcile them. For instance, I sat down to compose this post a week late. All last week I'd been down on myself for getting too wrapped up in my job to come up with a post. Screw it, I finally thought, just write about how you wish you had more creative energy to spare, outside of work. That tuned into a slew of thoughts and reconsiderations, drafts and redrafts. Meanwhile, Chapter Three of my second attempt at a novel languishes. I know where it's going, I just haven't dedicated the time to see that it gets there.

And now here we are, with another blog post. It doesn't say much, really, because I don't believe I've got much suitable to relay right now. You've almost certainly not been entertained by it. For wasting your time I apologize. It seems that I've succeeded only in crafting an excuse, a copout, another drop in the bucket.

17 March, 2021

Three Books I Spent My Winter Reading

Why so few books? Well, work had a lot to do with that. I lost a little sleep. I also let myself get so preoccupied with job stuff that I actually managed to forget a friend's birthday. My priorities got a little scrambled. I did read a few books, though.

When my boss told my coworkers and me to create a way for us prisoners to watch a selection of on-demand movies in the gym, it was up to me to design the computerized viewing station's interface. In preparation for this project, my compatriots and I all read UX for Beginners: A Crash Course in 100 Short Lessons. It gave us a lot to consider. "UX" stands for "User eXperience" – the study of user behaviors, and the application of practices that ensure websites, games, and applications work in ways that users find meaningful and fulfilling. UX goes deeper than design but isn't as technical as actual programming; it's more about psychology than craft, with a little cartography thrown into the mix. The author of UX for Beginners, Joel Marsh, apparently blogs about this stuff in an engaging way at TheHipperElement.com, and this irreverent little book with funny illustrations gave us lots of ideas for how best to engage the viewing station project, as well as the five or six others overflowing our plate at the moment.

A lot of my reading this quarter was in the form of dharma materials, provided by places like the National Buddhist Prison Sangha, part of the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen. One of the Order's founders, John Daido Loori, wrote The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life a few years before his death. To present the many creative aspects of Zen Buddhism, the book introduces artwork created in the Zen tradition (like Otagaki Rengetsu's Dried Persimmons, above), mixed with the accessible, intimate teachings that make Daido a wonderful personal teacher even in his absence. The Zen of Creativity was the fourth or fifth of his many books that I've now read, and, like the others, it left me feeling a bit more enlightened and educated than I did before picking it up.

When free moments appeared, usually in the evening, I also picked through a nice, 1,336-page Everyman's Library edition of sixteenth-century humanist Michel de Montaigne's Complete Works, translated by Donald M. Frame. I love how Montaigne could take almost anything and turn it into an essay subject: sexual desire, parleys during wartime, sons' resemblance to their fathers, jealousy, his own nose.... Referring to the essays, journals, and letters that brought him literary acclaim, he wrote, "Je peins le passage" ("I paint transience.") Impermanence. It’s suddenly appeared wherever I look. That could be considered the whole "point" of Buddhism: once you start looking, impermanence appears everywhere.

Our viewing stations have become a hit with prisoners who can't afford their own TVs, as well as those who do but just want to watch something on a screen three times as big as their own. So far, no one's needed instructions on how to use them, which I consider a UX win!

Less exciting: despite Daido's teachings in his wonderful book, I don't yet feel I've succeeded in painting transience. I guess that's why it's my practice.

12 March, 2021

Flipping the Script

As I sip the day's first cup of coffee, Jeff surfs past channel after channel of dissatisfying morning television. The only significant sound I'd been aware of, to this point, was the occasional tinny peep from his headphones. Suddenly, we hear something else. He perks up in his plastic chair and goes, "What's that noise?"

Why I take my eyes off the page to listen is a mystery, the same as why people turn down car stereos when they're trying to locate an address, or talk louder to distract others from a fart. Nevertheless, I look up from the book I'm reading. A deep, rhythmic rumble pervades the whole cell. I might've been cool with letting its provenance go unexamined, but now that he mentions it....

The rhythm continues, like what you'd hear down in the hold of a steamship: thoom, thoom, thoom. What the hell could it be?

Jeff stands up and cracks our cell door to survey the wing. He peers one way, then another, before looking directly downstairs.

"Oh, fuck," he says, rolling his eyes. The source of the resonance is, at least in part, our building itself. One of the wing's four hollow steel support pillars is being repeatedly hit, punched again and again, by a downstairs resident. The syncopation is so regular, you could record it to back a song about modern prisons' crappy construction.

The prisoner in question is one whom Jeff can't stand. I know the guy only by the disrespect and arrogance he displays as he saunters around the facility, camps out on the telephone, and unapologetically elbows strangers while cutting in line in the dining hall. The editorial pieces he writes, which are often published in prison-reform periodicals, make often cogent points but undermine their own arguments by blaming every vicissitude except rainy days on systemic racism. He clearly has a chip on his shoulder, is what I'm saying.

"What the hell's he doing?" I ask.

"Just flexing," Jeff scoffs. "Showing the wing he's a bad motherfucker."

"I wish he'd do it more quietly." Yesterday, with his cell door propped wide open, this man piped slow jams out of a tinny speaker at maximum volume, from 6:30 to 7:45 in the morning. The day before that he hooked the same clock radio up in the middle of the wing while the barber cut his hair there. His is a very confrontational, taunting sort of indiscretion.

"I'd love to go down there and punch him in his smug face."

Hiding my disapproval with the most neutral expression I can, I say, "He's already clearly suffering. You want to add to it?"

In practicing equanimity and withheld judgment, this is the kind of thing I say now. I've even come to believe it, most of the time.

"Man, screw that. He's down there, deliberately trying to annoy the whole wing."

"And succeeding with one man," I say. "What'd really be really good is if we all went down there and offered him hugs and told him, 'I love you.'"

Jeff's face puckers like the words taste lemon-sour in his mouth.

"If it makes it more palatable, you could say 'wuv' instead."

"We wuv you!" Jeff says, then laughs.

"Wuv woo!" I say, all singsong-y, and follow it up with the lip-smack of a cartoon kiss. "Mmmmmmwah!"

Imagining a crowd of people waiting to hug and kiss our haughty downstairs antagonist's cheeks, Jeff starts laughing hard enough to snort. I start soon after.

Jeff says, "That'd piss him off so much, a bunch of white guys at his door." He grabs his side, as if to steady himself. "He'd want to start swinging, but he'd be too confused to even react. Oh, that'd be priceless."

It's as if our wingmate's dejected by our dismissal of his attempts at aggravation. As his boxing match with the structure ends, our giggles dissipate. Just like that, Jeff and I have successfully transformed animosity and annoyance into laughter and delight – ah, the power of wuv!