23 November, 2023

Birth Day

The morning that I was born in a Kansas farmhouse on a snowy morning in 1978, my parents called in a request to the local rock 'n' roll radio station. My mother had spent a portion of her pregnancy listening to AM Gold and participating in call-in contests. The deejay probably knew her by voice. To every listener tuned to his signal amplitude, the deejay announced that the Cases didn't have a turkey on Thanksgiving but "a bouncing baby boy." I was there, but I don't remember any of it. What was I doing to have been so inattentive?

When my friend Mike turned forty-five (he's in his sixties now), he asked friends to come over and bring him 45rpm records as gifts. He dragged out an old suitcase record player and they had a party, rockin' and rollin' till the break of dawn (or maybe more like 10 PM, because adults often have jobs to get to). For my birthday celebration, I won't be doing anything quite so socially involved, nor so musical. I'm just hoping to enjoy some pumpkin pie and leisure reading. Mike, my mother, and my godson, will all visit me on Friday afternoon, which should be wonderful.
So here's a question that keeps coming to me: how's a forty-five-year-old "supposed" to think and act? Now isn't the first time I've asked how my mind is similar to those of the average adult in middle age. Or, going in the opposite direction, what similarity is there between me now and fifteen-year-old Byron, a person so distant that I no longer have access to his perspective? Can we even be considered the same person? Is a shared love for coffee enough? Except for in the structure of our DNA, we're different in almost every way. A thought experiment: if it were somehow possible to put someone in a room with their younger self, what would they have to talk about? We share the same birth, the same parents, and the same childhood experiences, yet I'm confident that young Byron would hate me, and I'd just pity him. Who am I, if not him? And yet, who else would I be? Turning another year older has me thinking a lot about self and nonself in the continuum that is life. The Buddha famously raised the issue of nonself in a talk to the five ascetics that he hung out with before he found enlightenment. (They became his first students
the earliest sangha, or Buddhist community.) He said that the five parts of selfhood embodiment, feelings, perception, will, and consciousness fool us, with their irresistible allure, into thinking that self exists. But there is no fixed, constant self, just a long series of variations on a theme, merely echoes and iterations. What a fifty- or sixty-year-old Byron might be like, how he might view the world, I can't even imagine. There are too many variables. Futures branch out with every moment, in a perpetually widening tree of possible realities. The theme evolves, succumbs to entropy. All lights burn out in the end. This, too, gives me pause.
Forty-five years old. Forgive me for not dancing.

07 November, 2023

The Karaoke Threat

The stage is set, and it's green green floor, green wall, and green gaffer's tape covering the flaps we rigged to cover electrical outlets in what used to be the prison's barber shop. A microphone stand breaks the monochromatic expanse, standing alone in front of the unnaturally verdant backdrop. LED fixtures shine from every angle, and the lenses of three cameras impassively wait to take in today's performance.

Opposite the stage is an eight-foot-wide black desk fronted in smoky gray Plexiglas, where the two judges sit in front of black drapes. Their microphones aren't on, and they're discussing unrelated matters while a crew bustles in attendance to last-minute details. Just off-camera, in a cramped semicircle of six stackable, tan, plastic chairs, sits today's motley assortment of contestants, excitedly chatting amongst themselves. The setting described here is XSTREAM Media's studio, where my coworkers and I in the prison's media center record shows on topics that run a gamut from in-cell cooking (THIS IS FIRE) to conversations about music (The Playlist), to embarking on needle-and-thread projects (Sew What?). I currently manage the whole fiasco, scheduling, setting up for, and directing shows, then doing most of the editing and compositing that comprise the post-production process. I do all this, but I'm hardly the star. The distinction of top billing belongs today to the half dozen people readying themselves to appear on what is arguably XSTREAM Media's most daunting production. The Karaoke Threat is a singing competition. It demands that participants bring their A-game, brace themselves for the unexpected, and leave self-seriousness at the door. Round One starts with six. Each wrote their name a song selection on the signup sheet that hung in the gym for the past month. Our two judges my fellow Team XSTREAM member Kenny and the winner of the show's last go-round score every contestant on voice quality, technical accuracy, and "wow" factor. Only half of the people who sing in Round One move ahead to Round Two. In Round Two, the judges choose the three remaining contestants' songs, then someone else gets eliminated. The final round is a zero-sum affair where each singer chooses what song their opponent will perform. Round Three can get a little crazy. Whoever wins gets to not only return as a judge in the next installment but also to call out, or "threaten," someone else to sign up and compete. XSTREAM Media offers a trivia competition (I Knew That!), a weekly panel discussion (4Thought), a cheekily hosted movie of the week (Spotlight Cinema), video-game walkthroughs (The Game Corner), life-coaching (Real Talk), daily five-minute news broadcasts, and more. It's little wonder why Prison Journalism Project called XSTREAM "a media giant." But it's The Karaoke Threat, our felonious riff on shows like The Voice and American Idol, that holds the honor of being our audience favorite. From behind a literal curtain, I cue up everyone's selections. Jackie's opening the show with "One Love," by Trey Songz. Then Greg, an older guy in my wing, is performing the New Edition throwback "Candy Girl." Chelsea, a transgender woman, is doing Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" after that. Next is Brian, the clean-cut host of the XSTREAM series Spotlight Cinema, doing the Rollins Band hit "Liar." Arthur, a developmentally disabled man, is giving his best to R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." And last up is resident goofball Kenyatta, singing "Forget You," by Cee Lo Green. The studio's desktop computer, where I'm posted, has access to hundreds of karaoke videos on XSTREAMnet, sourced from YouTube by our bosses and saved in a growing library. I can't watch the performers from where I sit, but I can see what they see on the display mounted to the judges' desk. I notice every time they screw up the words. The judges don't. Sometimes I think it allows me to appreciate the performances on a different level; sometimes I think it just allows me to deduct more points for inaccuracy. Not that it matters, either way. My scores are the karaoke equivalent of fantasy football. A lieutenant approached me one morning at breakfast, last month sometime, to say that even the guards who work the midnight shift are Karaoke Threat fans. She said that after the prison quiets down, they sometimes get together in the custody complex and watch a little TV. If The Karaoke Threat is on, they usually root for the prisoner who shines boots for the staff, who appears regularly on the show and never fails to get fully into the spirit of things. Music truly can bring people together, and the lineup today represents a unity and diversity that XSTREAM tries to foster with everything we do. When Jackie, Kenyatta, and Arthur qualify for Round Two, the tiny studio erupts with almost deafening applause. In a few weeks, this episode will broadcast throughout the facility, and everyone will momentarily see Arthur as a hero a status his life has rarely permitted him to have. As for Chelsea, even though she doesn't get a score high enough to advance, it's not because she's trans but simply because her singing is howlingly bad. She still has fun and sticks around to cheer on her former competition.
Jackie and Kenyatta enter Round Three, having chosen Katy Perry's "Roar" and Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." I've actually never heard either of these sung by the original artist, but having no basis for comparison might be good thing, considering.

20 October, 2023

A Friend Trapped in the Bardo

We were at work last Thursday morning when he was taken away. A guard in black-and-gray camouflage appeared in the doorway next to our shared desk, told Luke to come with him, then disappeared with my coworker and friend. Luke hasn't been seen or heard from again. As I write this, he's in the Hole, under investigation, not for a conduct violation, nor even for any suspected wrongdoing on his part, but for the nebulous charge of "staff familiarity" a major threat, we are told, to the safety and security of Missouri's prisons.

I've been trying to organize my thoughts for days but still haven't arrived at a stable position. My friend, coworker, and fellow traveler of the Eightfold Path is suffering even more greatly than usual right now, stripped of his purposeful routine, his meaningful job, and even his clothes. (Prisoners in the Hole at ERDCC only get boxer shorts and a T-shirt to wear.) Worst of all might be the likelihood that Luke hasn't been fully apprised of the circumstances. What is it about law enforcement that they can't even be bothered to explain why they're locking someone up? They don't inform you of much here, they just do things. The last time I went to the Hole, eleven years ago at Crossroads Correctional Center, I wasn't informed of the circumstances of my confinement. That trip to administrative segregation echoed the circumstances of my initial arrest, over a decade prior; for my first couple of weeks in jail, I wasn't told why I was there, either. Luke doesn't use drugs, steal, gamble, or tattoo. He meditates. He's almost paranoid about having contraband and assiduously follows the many rules of prison, both official and un-. He's celibate. He freely gives his labors to our community of malcontents. He does CrossFit. He's an active member of Gavel Club. He goes to bed before 8:30 almost every evening. In most ways, he's the kind of prisoner that every employee of the Department of Corrections should want more of. Is the problem that he's worked in the Recreation Department for eight years? That he led XSTREAM from literally nothing, to being what the Prison Journalism Project dubbed a "media giant"? That he has made himself a respected member of the ERDCC community? That, despite his sentence of life without parole, he just earned a rare and much-coveted spot among the latest cohort of students with Saint Louis University's Associate of Arts program? The Department's prohibition on familiarity between institutional staff and the prisoners that they oversee might've been put in place with the best of intentions, but, at least as it applies to workers, the policy flies in the face of everything that corrections should stand for. If someone takes a job and proves themselves worthy of increased trust, even extra privileges, through exemplary performance during years of doing the job, shouldn't that be worthy of commendation? Luke is hardly perfect if anything, he's deeply flawed but if there's anyone I know who deserves somewhat elevated status, it's him. We all have a choice to either endure the uncertainty we encounter, or to lose our shit. I worry for Luke's sanity. He was supportive of me when I went through my midlife crisis. A week or so ago, he seemed mired in much the same mental swamp as the one from which I just emerged. We talked candidly and in depth about it, the way that only two people trapped in similar circumstances can. His job at XSTREAM meant more to him than almost everything else in his life. Our weekly Buddhist service kept him grounded as much as it did the other attendees. Knowing that these things have now been taken from him and him from us is difficult.
Prison strains all relationships, not just those with people on the other side of the fence. In the twenty-two years of my prison career, I've been separated from three friends by sudden turns of circumstance. Ben, at least, went willingly, when he signed up for the Intensive Therapeutic Community at Jefferson City Correctional Center. Zach stayed at Crossroads after the 2018 riot that resulted in my transfer here. I stayed in touch with them for years. Then the DOC instituted a ban on communicating with people in other prisons. There's now a chance that Luke will be transferred to another facility before he's released from ad-seg. There's also a chance that our paths won't cross again. I await with bated breath some word of his circumstances, desperately hoping that they turn out for the good and that Luke, no matter where he ends up, lands on his feet.