14 July, 2024

The Get-It-Done List

Historically, I've prided myself on being able to maintain in my head an accurate running list of everything I needed to do in the coming days and weeks — but that was before I assumed the mantle of team leader for what is arguably Missouri's most prolific and innovative prison-based media group. Now I make notes to keep track of it all. Lots of notes. Lists, too. I begrudgingly make use of Microsoft Outlook multiple times throughout the day and feel my spirit inch a little bit closer to death every time I do.

Ah, well. It's a living.

My current list of short-term reminders stares me in the face from a series of PostIts on my center monitor. The list is as fittingly eclectic as my job has become.
  • 2× shirt
  • New riddle
  • OMS notifications?
  • GLS test dates/times?
  • Wade's peer reviews
  • Guide training
  • Real Talk intertitles
  • Twon's disclaimer
  • That's Debatable meeting
  • Writer's Block signage
  • Chapel service policy
  • Book Club promo questions
  • Musician qualifications, format, application
  • Kaiju skit – need boxes
  • Keynote speech
  • Talent show graphics
  • Video strategy game?

That's basically the next three weeks. I'd explain what all of these seemingly random items are and what their respective relevance is, but I don't have the time. If you happen to know of a good freeware planner that doesn't leech your vital essence, however, I can spare a minute to read about it.

06 July, 2024

Old Home Week

To make a full revolution through the Department of Corrections takes some people a decade or more as they're bounced from one facility to the next. Ten years is about how long Reggie took, anyway.

Reggie's now a sixty-year-old, but he was still in his late forties when I met him in the kitchen at Crossroads Correctional Center. He was a cook. I manned the staff dining room. Our paths crossed intermittently and inconsequentially, like ants clambering past each other at a nexus of colony tunnels. Then I took a library job, Reggie transfered to a different prison, and neither us thought of the other again.

He appears out of nowhere and sits down at my dinner table, slimmer than I remember (but by no means thin), looking nevertheless worse for the wear. This is last Friday.

"I know you from someplace," he rasps. "It was Jeff City, wasn't it?"

"Crossroads," I correct him. "We worked in the kitchen."
"Damn, that's right. Man, you ain't changed at all," Reggie says. "Like, at all! How old is you?"

I take a second to do the math. "Uh, forty-five."

"What you mean, 'uh'? Don't you know how old you is?"

"It's just a number. I don't think about it much."
"Yeah, but you look exactly the same," Reggie reminds me.

"Healthy living," I say and pivot away from my appearance. I don't want to have to say how broken-down he's looking these days. "How long have you been here?"

"About a month. I seen you workin' in the gym. You got a good job there?"

"The best I've had."
The old guy shakes his head. "They stole my TV, my first week here. These kids, man, they just darin' you to put your hands on 'em. I'm not trying' to go that way. I'm tryin' to get down to where you at. I put in application for the honor dorm and the drug treatment program both. I gotta get the fuck up outta 4-House!"
I nod. ERDCC's general-population housing unit is a well-known nightmare of violence, filth, and smoke. "Nobody should have to live like that."
In truth, however, a lot of people choose to. I could argue that another old acquaintance, Tyler, is one of them. I run into him in the gym, quite unexpectedly, after not having spoken to him in at least six years.
"Do you recognize me?" he asks.
I actually picked him out of a lineup a week prior, when he came into the dining hall looking waxy and emaciated. Up close, his teeth are in even worse shape. It's clearly been a rough six years for him.

"Yeah, man," he says, "I can't stop going to the Hole. I got hooked on deuce. I really let myself go to shit."

Older prisoners here talk about "deuce" in the same terms as people once spoke about the crack cocaine epidemic. It's nominally synthetic marijuana, but is in reality roach spray or some other super-toxic substance soaked into paper and smoked. It seems to be dangerously addictive, and a lot of people OD when they get a batch containing fentanyl.

Tyler's sunken face and gray teeth aren't the effects of time alone. He truly has let himself go. He says he's trying to get his life together now.

"Keep trying," I say, wishing him luck and meaning it. He tries to rekindle some nostalgic ember, recalling the wing at Crossroads where we used to live, and several of the people who lived around us there. But I have other things to do than reminisce about my cell assignment in 2014.

I tell Tyler that I have to get back to work, and he says he wants to come back up and talk. "I'm trying to get my life together," he says again. It's one of the saddest things I've witnessed in months.

These people that I orbit, however erratically, are profoundly damaged, struggling beings. Sometimes, amid all of the malicious fuckery that goes on here, I lose sight of that fact. Then a Reggie or a Tyler comes back within range, after tracing a long ellipse in what might as well be the nether regions of space, and I'm reminded of the pain and stress that my fellow inmates are often saddled with. What slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have missed striking me over the years? Encountering these two old acquaintances gives me some idea.

26 June, 2024

Two Books I Read This Spring

Since I wrote this post about the Missouri Department of Corrections' book ban, I haven't had a hard time finding reading material, but that's more because I lack leisure time than because I'm book rich.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is the 2020 novel by the phenomenal speculative fiction writer M. John Harrison. I mail ordered it last year but only just got around to reading the thing. Nearly two decades ago, I fell in love with Harrison's work via Light, his brilliant take on transhumanist science fiction. I renewed my vows with The Course of the Heart, Harrison's melancholy novel about a failed romantic affair and the characters' unsettling history with dark magic. Somewhere between were other books that moved and fascinated me.

At the level of the sentence, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again bedevils and delights in equal measure. What's it about? I suppose I'd say its about a second set of hominids inhabiting the earth, how human relationships work (and don't), a secret society, Brexit.... Yeah, I'm not sure Harrison has written here what one could properly call a plot. The book contains intimations of movement, sightings and discoveries and mysteries from which the curtains teasingly part just enough for occasional peeks — but nothing's ever really revealed. Regardless, I'll still read anything the man writes.

A Small Place, by Jamaica Kincaid, was my first encounter with the Antiguan author. This book-length essay is Kincaid's ambivalent love letter to her home country and her visceral takedown of colonialism. It was also our May selection for the ERDCC Book Club. From its slender binding we managed to wring two meetings' worth of discussion. Funny, smart, and justifiably pissed, Kincaid brings an ironic sensibility to bear on her small island birthplace; the astute reader, if they've traveled anyplace where the culture's demonstrably different, may experience a frisson of shame at ever having fed into the fiasco that is the tourism industry.

Next up, a Flannery O'Connor novel — assuming I can get through these back issues of The New York Review of Books in a reasonable amount of time.