06 January, 2022

Prison Programming with a Mission

Beginning on 1 January, I took over as the custodian of XSTREAM Therapeutic, one of twelve closed-circuit TV channels broadcasting to the population of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center. I willingly traded my previous responsibility, the prison's all-animation channel, for this one. In a true win-win-win situation, XTOON went to our resident anime fanatic, Jacob, who gave our sci-fi nut Paul his own movie channel, so that Paul didn't have to keep justifying the therapeutic value of, say, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Obviously, we get broad latitude in our programming choices, so handling XSTREAM Therapeutic ("XT" to us insiders) means big fun for me. It might not be so cool, except that we recently started receiving educational videos from the Web. How it works is, we give our boss a list of subjects, he goes into his office and returns an hour or so later with a hard drive full of MP4s for us to broadcast. This is a breakthrough that's opened up a veritable universe of possibility.

I've designated Monday as "Art Day," with documentaries on artists, "Great Paintings Explained" videos, poetry readings, and a drawing how-to thrown in here and there. That's followed by TED Talk Tuesdays. Thursdays are for nature and anthropology docs of the Nature and National Geographic sort. "Science Fridays" came from their equivalent on NPR. (We just got the Hubble IMAX documentary I never got to see, as well as cool videos on neuroplasticity, quantum physics, and microorganisms.) I also have a few academic lectures to satisfy the handful of lonely intellectuals skulking around this place. It's a good mix.

People often talk about things resonating with them based on their relatability. With this in mind, I've tried to get more BIPOC-generated content – especially when the subject is academic or falls within one of the fields typically associated with "white culture," such as publishing or classical music. I want this stuff to draw people in, then expand their horizons. Ultimately, I want to promote the empathy that's so sorely lacking in this place.

Because I'm a subscriber to the theory that no discipline better fosters empathy than the humanities do, I'm especially focused on the arts. With their woven webs of words, storytellers, poets, and writers offer real talk. Painters show us new perspectives. Musicians give us novel compositions packed with meaning. By repeated exposure to others' ideas beyond the hand-to-mouth reality of the streets, maybe the seeds of change will take root. Maybe self-esteem will grow. Maybe due consideration for someone else will gain foothold. Maybe inspirational fruit will be born.

Except in states like Vermont, it's an unfortunate reality that far too many of those identified as BIPOC in this country are imprisoned. (Although even in New England, black people constitute a disproportionate percentage within the criminal system.) I believe that XSTREAM's broadcasts should reflect this fact – albeit, without pandering to anyone. It's a point I've been tacitly making with a lot of choices on the job. And I think it's having an influence. Joining the push for inclusivity, our ad-hoc concert curator, Luke, has a growing list of black musical artists for the boss to seek out. (XT plays concerts on weekends.) I also run the Mix, another channel on our network, where I try to play mostly movies and series that feature black faces.

This whole effort could be nothing more than a quixotic attempt by a well-meaning but tone-deaf white person to do what he's deluded into thinking is right. No one's said anything to the contrary yet. In the meantime, if anyone has content suggestions, by all means, leave them in a comment below!

21 December, 2021

Six Books I Spent My Fall Reading

There's a little story that goes along with the first book I read this season. My mother, wanting to contribute to literary well-being, ordered The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, by Stacey D'Erasmo, from the section of my Amazon wish list that includes books on writing. Weeks later, I still hadn't received it. I joked with Mum that whoever inspected the package on its arrival probably saw that word, "intimacy," and assumed they were holding a sex manual. We had a good laugh.

Then Mum called the prison and learned from someone in the institution's mail room that The Art of Intimacy really had been flagged as potential violator of censorship guidelines. The book was "under review," proving yet again that assuming the absurd is often a very sane way of coping with reality.

D'Erasmo's little book was eventually cleared, and I read it with gusto. Her argument is that simple, standalone phrases, such as I love him, aren't automatically meaningful. Nor is merely adding names sufficient. "In order to feel the weight," D'Erasmo writes, "we sometimes have to use a mirror, a distorted image that will make the 'true' image appear. She claims that we grow closer through distance, through a gap of time or space or context across which we are somehow better able to apprehend a connection than if that which we seek were directly at hand."

Those words resonated with me. My world (or my concept of the world, which, it can be argued, amounts to the same thing) is largely defined by its distance – from those I love, from activities that most enjoy, from involvement with society at large. Yet I feel an intimacy with the world. I've often been asked how. I never had the words to explain. In her writing here, D'Erasmo exposes the necessity of separation in feeling close to something or someone. The space makes it possible.

An altogether different perspective on space (and time, and basically everything else) came from Buddhist philosopher David R. Loy's Nonduality: In Buddhism and Beyond. The author points out the similarities and differences between several Eastern ontological systems, including Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Sankhya-Yoga, Advaita Vedanta, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a part), before briefly discussing aspects of mystical Christianity – all in service of his argument that they share comparable concepts of nonduality. Along the way he cites a veritable who's-who of philosophy: Plato, Plotinus, Nietzsche, Heiddeger, Hegel, Kant, Derrida, Spinoza, Eckhart, Descartes, Wittgenstein, Suzuki, and others.

The premise of nonduality, essential in Buddhism, is basically that the subject is the object, and vice-versa. All is one. There is no inside and no outside. (Leonard Cohen wrote a nice poem about this, which was also about a lady friend's vagina.) In every pair of opposites, each contains the other: in emptiness, fullness; in darkness, light; in birth, death. It's that simple. And that complex.

Nonduality began life as Loy's doctoral dissertation. It's not-so-catchy original title was Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. Unsurprisingly, it reads a lot like the scholarly paper from which it evolved. It took me a while to read. Like oases in the desert, flickers of the poetic kept popping up amid the dry bits, particularly when he quoted Zen Master Dogen. But the words from the book that most deeply struck me were Loy's: "We look for compulsion in the world and therefore find it, because freedom explains nothing and gains us nothing."

Satisfying in their own way were the linked stories in Sherwood Anderson's classic collection Winesburg, Ohio. By accretion they take on greater significance, greater weight, as the reader slowly approaches an intimacy with the town and its inhabitants. In that way, Winesburg, Ohio is a lot like the Spoon River poems of Edgar Lee Masters. Both books are of a type; the fictional characters who populate them get under your skin. You share something with them that can't be communicated. That, or they speak to you in a visceral way, which says, I am not real, but I am most assuredly human.

It was thanks to the kindness of Kristie H., a fellow book lover whom I don't even know, that I was able to finally read Winesburg, Ohio. I'm grateful for the other book she ordered for me, too, Dance, Dance, Dance, by Haruki Murakami. It's the seventh Murakami title that I've now read, a sequel, of sorts, to A Wild Sheep Chase. Here too appears the nameless, mostly aimless protagonist. Here too appears the (correction: here too appears a) Dolphin Hotel. Here too appears the Sheep Man. It was a far more mystifying, more entertaining read, for me, than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was. I apologize to no one for saying so.

Dean Young's voice in Elegy on Toy Piano is similarly unapologetic. This collection of his often-surreal poems dates from the dawn of the millennium but bears a few elements that seem to anchor it to an even earlier period. Among these are references to VCRs, AIDS medication, and Fritos, a corn chip whose popularity, I'm sure, peaked in 1994.

Some poetry has a shelf life. At their best, though, Young's poems feel timeless and, if not universal, then at least specific to a point that I'm able to comprehend them. In this collection, I especially love "Alarm Clock," which takes what the reader thinks is a familiar subject and turns it on its side a few times before righting it again, a divertissement before setting the table.

"Alarm Clock"

     I felt like a raven going on revelation alone.
     Deep forest I was in deep forest chased.
     In my mouth-hole an alarm clock.
     I couldn't stand the ticking.
     The earliest I ever set one was 3 for an airplane,
     4 for a pill, 5 to write fast without thinking
     but generally I do without.
     Orpheus, in disgust, threw his alarm clock
     into the river where it went on ringing.
     Time is honey so the clock buzzes.
     Naked beside me! Naked beside me!
     Da Vinci's sketch of an alarm clock –
     still not fully understood.
     Voice command.
     Croak coax.
     The wind blows the curtains
     making it easier for ghosts to appear.
     Clank of the lightning factory, clank
     of the leopard's leash.
     There is no pleasure like leaving
     before dawn in last night's clothes.
     Light snow or thick dew in the grass –
     no one's passed this way before.
     The note you left needed only a few words,
     no explanation where lies could creep in.
     Your eyes, blinked clear, won't squint or glance off,
     it's the stars that turn their faces away.
     He or she is or is not the one you love
     and you cannot stay. The dark
     turns to mist and the mist cannot stay
     but for once there's no need for alarm.
     You're getting a good head start.
     Maybe the world isn't made of dust.
     Maybe you won't make another mistake.
     You're as young as you'll ever be.

Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive came (thanks to Kristie H. for this great read as well) heaping with accolades and awards. It was among the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2019 and a bunch of other best-ofs, and I get why. Luiselli writes here in a formally inventive style, framing her book with an atypical family road trip set against the silent epidemic of disappearances by Mexican children at the US border. In this way she makes the impersonal very personal. I enjoy reading books by BIPOC writers with strong voices, like Luiselli's, because they permit me, a white, cisgender, middle-aged male, to visit another body for a while and come closer, by however small a degree, to understanding other humans' lives.

17 December, 2021

Showering in Prison

At some point in recent history, architects got together with state officials and decided to start building prisons without communal showers. Whoever thought those were a good idea in the first place? Everybody standing around, damp and vulnerable in their birthday suits, seems like a veritable invitation for those with predatory inclinations to rape, assault, or otherwise harass the prisoners around them.

Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center is fewer than twenty years old. The now-shuttered Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years before ERDCC, was built just six years previous. Both were constructed as maximum-security facilities, complete with lethal electric fence; both were equipped with individual stalls for scrubbing oneself clean. My only experience with group showers was the demoralizing intake process, when I first entered the Department of Corrections' custody and was made to rinse off the sheepdip they drenched me with a few minutes prior.

Many years ago, in school, I failed multiple Phys Ed classes because I refused to dress out for activities. I wasn't embarrassed to change clothes in the midst of classmates; doing so just felt like a violation. Some teachers ridiculed me for this, and some issued punishments, but I stuck to my guns. These days, a more considerate attitude prevails. General awareness of mental health issues and neurodiversity mean that fewer kids now are likely to be terrorized by such rules (which strike me as borderline creepy, anyway). Prison seems to be headed the same direction. But there are holdouts.

The other night I was crossing the wing, wearing a T-shirt and boxers, fresh out of the shower. A guy from upstairs asked why I didn't acknowledge him earlier when he said hello.

"When?" I asked, genuinely wondering.

"Just a few minutes ago! You were in the shower."

"Oh, well that's why," I said. "If I'm in the shower, that's 'me time.' Everything outside of that stall might as well not even exist."

"You didn't come through MSP, did you?" he asked, referring to the old Missouri State Penitentiary, "the Old Walls," a brutal and bloody place right out of a movie, from a time before "correctional center" became the government's euphemism of choice.

I told him no, but added, "We're not there, though, are we? Things have changed. You've got to adapt." I kept walking.

He closed his eyes, shook his head, and like a stubborn child, muttered, "No, no, no, no, no!"

Even if I hadn't been that kid who refused to put on shorts for Gym, is it too much to ask someone not to acknowledge me when they pass the row of showers where I'm standing naked behind a chest-high curtain? In that situation, who the hell considers it rude if passersby don't stop? Are we so desperate for interaction that, even those ten to twenty minutes under a jet of water are too much time to bear being alone?

I cherish the pseudo-solitude of daily showertimes – almost as much as I appreciate the few hours each week that I'm alone in my cell. How to convince people that neither is aberrant behavior? I could just as well ask why we fear ourselves, our own thoughts. Why do we find it weird to prefer being away from strangers, clothed or unclothed? The man who can't accept showering as a reason for privacy has become institutionalized. It's a sad fate. I check myself for it often. As long as I keep enjoying those quiet, peaceful moments alone, I'm probably good.