23 November, 2008

The Agony and Ecstasy of Appetite

There is more than a hint of masochism in my predilection for watching Food Network programming. Not that I am a regular viewer, but in moments of intellectual laziness, when I'm searching aimlessly for something to watch on TV, food rarely fails to capture my attention. Against my better judgment, I am a slave to my salivating sensibilities. Happening upon the culinary alchemy Iron Chef America or the goofy genius of Good Eats, I can't not stop to stare. The slight initial shame at watching a program as inartfully named as Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is thrown to the wind when Guy Fieri, the amply fed host, visits a little greasy spoon in Middle-of-Nowhere, USA, which serves some little artery-clogging marvel like deep-fried Ahi burgers or rum-raisin pizza. Even the frequently unappetizing production line fare of Unwrapped, with the waxy Marc Summers, lures me in with the tantalizing knowledge of how Funyons are made, or the arcane processes involved in the packaging of Harry & David pears. It is hard to pass such stuff by.

On the Travel Channel, I confess to being perversely fascinated by Bizarre Foods — enough to have sat through more than one episode of Andrew Zimmern's lip smacking as he devours durian and ingests invertebrates. My real interest on that station, however, is Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the only travel show I can comfortably watch. In fact, it is one of the mere four series on television to which I tune in unfailingly. Bourdain's snarky culinary adventures, though sometimes a little too heavily scripted, are enjoyable for someone who, like me, is kind of a foodie and a firm believer in the "get lost" doctrine of travel. And while the man displays an enthusiasm for offal I do not share, most of the traditional indigenous cuisine he samples in his wanderings looks absolutely delicious to my hungry eyes.

But me, in my predicament — why on earth do I watch? The appearance on TV of even the simplest dish — an omelet, say, or some variety of grilled chicken — that would drive the average hungry viewer into their kitchen to whip up the same remains for me a hypothetical Wow, I'll bet that's tasty. I have no refrigerator full of ingredients to raid, just a barely used six-pack cooler; no pantry laden with dry and canned goods to work with, merely a two-by-two shelf bearing quick oats, some ramen soup, creamy off-brand peanut butter — enough that I can make two or three different rudimentary meals, but that is all.

Prison food — mushy, leached of color, taste, and appealing aroma — is everything any teen ever derided school lunches for, but worse by several orders of magnitude. To look at the Missouri Department of Corrections' nutritionally "balanced" master menu is to be deceived. Witness this misleading excerpt from a recent week's menu:

½ cup Pineapple
1 cup Hot Wheat Cereal
1 Pastry Item
2 oz. Turkey Sausage
2 pc. Toast
2 tbsp. Jelly or Diet
1 tbsp. Margarine or 3 Pats
5 pkg. Sugar or 3 Sugar Substitute
16 oz. Milk

¾ cup Beef Pot Pie over
2 Biscuits
½ cup Peas
½ cup Lettuce Salad with
2 tbsp. Dressing
1 pkg. Cookies

½ cup Scrambled Egg
¾ cup Creamed Meat Gravy
½ cup Home Fries
2 Tomato Slices or
½ cup Chilled Canned Tomatoes
1 pc. Fresh Fruit
2 pc. Toast
2 tbsp. Jelly or 2 Diet
1 tbsp. Margarine or 3 Pats

On paper it's a hell of a spread for the 1,500 convicts here, at Crossroads, to be treated. In reality, the breakfast "pastry" is a doughy pound cake; the "pot pie" is mixed vegetables with cubes of mechanically separated, reconstituted chicken in a starchy broth, atop two pieces of leftover hard tack; and there is no meat in the "creamed meat gravy," just Imagic Imitation Sausage Flavor Crumbles. What is perhaps the most frightening is that these meals happen to be three of the very best offered. No grilled chicken or fluffy omelets here, that's for sure.

Still I watch in agonized rapture as Mario Batali works magic with eggplant, as Alton Brown lectures on avocado's chemical composition, as Guy Fieri buries his face in yet another sumptuous specialty burger. I watch and I daydream, and my stomach, displeased and avaricious, snarls testily, plotting its revenge.

17 August, 2008

An HO-Gauge Meditation

There was a model train expo in Kansas City recently. I wouldn't have known except that a glimpse of an H-gauge coal locomotive as I was channel surfing sent me back-tracking to the footage KMBC, the local news channel, was airing of the event. The video showed several clips of miniature trains emerging from tunnels and traveling through tiny scenery. Interspersed were shots of little boys watching with their eyes wide, their mouths agape. One was absently gnawing on his own finger. As a boy, I was fascinated with trains of all sizes myself, and there are some childhood loves whose vestiges stay with us our entire lives. Suffice it to say I know precisely how they felt.

My own model train set was relatively basic: a four-by-eight tableau with grass and a mountainous tunnel, and an oval track that featured a couple of switches for offloading cars. It was a much more elaborate setup than most kids that age probably have, but nothing compared to the detailed vistas of the serious hobbyist I dreamt of becoming. So earnest were my intentions that, at seven or eight years of age, I drew out a three-phase plan for urban development, beginning with the addition of paved streets and some commercial buildings, and culminating in an art-deco skyscraper and the replacement of my red-and-yellow Santa Fe diesel with a streamlined 1920s steam engine, preferably in dark blue. That, I figured, or maybe a contemporary foreign express, like the TGV.

At the time of my second trip to France, the TGV — an acronym for Train à Grande Vitesse — held the record for being the fastest train in the world. I was ecstatic for the opportunity to say I'd ridden it before the Japanese reclaimed the title with their own bullet train, which was more or less the sole reason my mother and I were in Paris at all. The day trip we planned was to take us from Paris to Dijon, where we would stop for lunch, then continue on, via regular train, into Switzerland. On our way to the boarding platform, something caught my eye.

A shop within the station had in its window display an HO-gauge TGV — one locomotive, two passenger cars, and a rearward-facing faux locomotive (sans motor, and made to resemble the powered locomotive at the front). It was cheaply made — I could tell by the look of the box through the store window — and priced especially for tourists, but it was still the TGV, and hence my opportunity to jump straight to that pièce de résistance I'd been fantasizing about. I could even say I bought it in Paris. "Tres apropos, n'est-ce pas?" So I did some rapid calculation. By sacrificing two thirds of my spending allowance for the trip (my mother and I would be in Europe for another two weeks), I could afford it. Visions played through my head of the little orange blur whipping around my track like its full-size counterpart tore across the French countryside. To my nine-year-old sensibilities it was alluring, but I ultimately decided it wasn't worth the extortionist asking price. Whatever misgivings I might have had as I trudged away from the shop were obliterated upon reaching the platform, where the fastest train in the world awaited.

Each time I have been to Europe, the rail system has provided the lion's share of my transportation. It's been awhile, but my understanding is that a Eurail Pass remains the most inexpensive option for backpackers and others looking to cover a great deal of ground in under a month and a half. And although such a pass will provide trips via other means of public transport within participating systems (imagine a bus pass that also works for taxis, trams, light rail — right on down the list), it's the train that I've always used and enjoyed most. Watching from the comfort of a spacious six-person cabin as scenery passes, all the while relaxing with a good book, a game of Mau Mau, a leisurely snack, or just using the time to contemplate where you've been, where you're going — it's an unparalleled travel experience.

That the United States has never really embraced passenger rail is a shame. I will be the first to extol that singular bliss known so well by Americans, the road trip. My acquaintance with the national privilege of strapping in behind a steering wheel and going is an intimate one. I know first hand that picking a destination or a meandering route, then driving for days without need of a passport or paperwork, is as near to absolute freedom — travel-wise, anyway — as the modern world can know. But there is a certain romantic quality to even the dirtiest, smokiest railway platform to which the chicest gas station cannot hope to compare, and a pleasure in subdued clacking and subtle rocking on tracks for which monotonous highway hum is no substitute.

True, America has recently tried to stoke the fire of interest in rail travel it once had, with fast inner-city lines and upgrades to its "transcontinental" service, but the flame will not catch. There are myriad reasons, as anyone who has ridden Amtrak can attest, but I believe it comes down to an unwillingness to let go of the wheel. Ours — America's — is a culture of fiercely individualized assertiveness to which leaning back and watching things happen is anathema. Everything is about control. So many crave the full agenda, the pressing deadline, the gridlocked traffic. They have either forgotten or never learned how to exist within the moment. Being still, cogitating, existing for a time, in silence —these things somehow terrify.

Control, however, is fleeting and illusory. Confinement to linearity, either metaphorically or on physical tracks, is a situation we may find ourselves in more often than we are aware. Life itself is frequently on rails in spite of our fidgety efforts at affecting change. At those times we are swept along under the power of circumstance, bound for the unknown and all points in-between. On the faces of those little boys in awe of the spectacle of a little electric toy going around and around can be witnessed the unadulterated bliss attainable through passive observation. Absorbed in the thing itself, not contemplating it nor employing it as an object of focus while their mind lingers elsewhere, they lose themselves in wonder.

The TGV, ultimately, was a letdown. Sure it was fast, but the ride was bumpy and the upholstery mismatched, and the experience lacked any of the armrest-clutching excitement I'd anticipated. There hadn't even been scenery (I managed to fall asleep en route). When my mother and I stepped down onto the platform in Dijon it was with memorable disillusionment — it was the emperor's nakedness, the nonexistence of Santa Claus, the first school dance gone horrifyingly awry. What then had been the point? But a lesson had been learned: speed has its place in the world, often quite apart from pleasure.

I venture now to stretch my lesson further by offering a corollary that to savor a thing is to take the time, and a warning, trite, obvious, and perhaps too often repeated, but heartfelt all the same: take the express, but take care. Too much speed will numb you. Unlike with those scale models, no real-world track is oval — none runs forever. Take in what scenery you can, because there's an end to every line.

19 July, 2008

Saturday Night, Riding the Red-Eye

The FM signal pops and hisses subtly, so I move the antenna and nudge the tuner a couple of times in each direction. Clunky headphones are an umbilical, link me to my Panasonic as I ready a blank cassette in deck two. The cell is dark, save for the forty-five watt lamp at the desk. I am awake enough, thanks to the ritual eight o'clock coffee — sufficiently caffeinated to ride the airwaves into the small hours. The familiar voice of a friend and some favorite music will be my companions along the way.

It may be difficult to recognize as a scenario from this post-millennial decade, not from twenty years earlier. Radio? Cassettes? But each and every Saturday night this is how it goes. The station, an independent, listener-supported outfit, has an eclectic schedule, offering programming as diverse and divergent as techno, Tejano, and talk. Nowhere on commercial terrestrial radio (not in this Midwestern market, at least) could I hear album tracks from Peter Murphy, Depeche Mode, New Order, nor anything at all, for that matter, by the Legendary Pink Dots, Cocteau Twins, or VNV Nation. My friend's show features mostly a mélange of that sort of retro, electro, New Wave, New Romantic, post-punk fare, as well as contemporary acts inspired by the same. She and I often joke about the "format-free format" of her if-I-like-it-I'll-play-it approach.

As scattershot as Sunshine’s playlists might seem, they’re often replete with the stuff of my life’s soundtrack. Many of the songs are bound up inextricably in the strands of my memory, and lead me every week on a tangled, tangential tour of the past as I follow each thread.

Learn to love me / Assemble the ways / Now, today, tomorrow / And always My father has just given me my first Smiths album, Louder Than Bombs. We are seated on the giant sofa in the living room, all ears. I study the album’s scant liner notes while Pops walks me through the band’s history, their monumental relevance, and the reasons they will never, ever get back together. Morrissey is crooning about a quiet revolution of shoplifters, Johnny Marr is jangling his guitar around. I am fourteen. In a few years, I will own every Morrissey CD available, and most of the Smiths’ studio output. Pops will become the biggest influence on my musical taste, and I will forever love him for that.

I feel so extraordinary / Something’s got a hold on me / I get this feeling I’m in motion / A certain sense of liberty My friend Jamie and I are driving her Barbie-pink Ford Taurus station wagon down Clayton Road, headed for our new apartment in University City, Saint Louis. The city, our adopted home now for nearly a full week, sprawls out in every direction, replete with exciting promise. Autumn air gusts through the car’s open windows, and I breathe so deeply that I almost choke. Life, since I moved away from my hometown, is suddenly no longer tinged with the sadness of tragedies endured — an electrifying contrast every time I walk into a new bookshop to peruse the shelves, every time I turn the corner of another unfamiliar city street, every time my cats come to welcome me in the doorway of our still-novel apartment. The car stereo suddenly surprises us with the ecstatic synth-pop of New Order’s “True Faith.” Smiling like idiots, Jamie and I sing along. We’ll never be twenty-one again.

We have a random on the west side / Personality malfunction / He says, “I can’t give you anything at all / Just a room with the perfume of you” My roommate and I are playing the Star Wars: Episode One edition of Monopoly on our dining room table. On the walls hang movie posters — Star Wars as well as David Lynch’s Eraserhead — and from the adjoining living room beats the track “We Have a Technical,” from our favorite Gary Numan album, Replicas. Even though I hate Monopoly, and let my roommate win almost every time, just to be done with our games quicker, my geeky proclivities prevent me from being truly miserable: we say “Croissant,’’ instead of “Coruscant,” because we think doing so is terribly droll (and might piss off George Lucas, who we suspect is sensitive about his legendary space opera). What we consider our mundane existence is, in fact, the stuff that memories are made of. In ten years’ time, playing stupid board games, drinking hard cider with a good friend, while electronic music squiggles and beeps delightfully in the background, will be something cherished more dearly than all the galactic credits in the Empire.

Now tune back to the moment. The final song of the hip-hop show is fading out. I shift in my seat and glace at the darkened world outside my window, anticipating what comes next.

A brief, nearly imperceptible instant of dead air, like an intake of breath.

Shh! The show is starting!

06 July, 2008

Those Were the Days... or Not

The inmates here, they miss how prison used to be, back when the reins were looser and a man could "do real time." The blind corners and open-front cells of the decrepit, turn-of-the-last-century institutions still have their hearts. It pains them that they can no longer revel in the unchecked anarchy of open yards, the permissiveness of bygone wardens, and on and on — a litany of reasons then was so much better than now. Via television, they vicariously relive the glory days of danger, with shows like Prison Break, and take heart in knowing there are other, rougher prisons elsewhere, such as San Quentin and Stateville, as evidenced by MSNBC's pride and joy, Lockup. Places like those, inmates and staff maintain a precarious stalemate, and it makes the career criminals here salivate.

Stories abound of life at "The Walls," the sprawling relic once dubbed Missouri State Penitentiary but now, thankfully, abandoned. Inmates who have been in the system long enough usually know the place all too well. Conditions were appalling. In the winter, toilets in the cells would ice over, at night; in the summer, pieces of the crumbling building itself were thrown through windows to catch a breeze. Except in the communal shower room, hot water was unavailable. Mice and cockroaches reigned.

But, to hear many of its erstwhile residents' nostalgic accounts, one might be tempted to believe none of these things mattered. For many, aquariums and console TVs in some cells, stray cats as adopted pets, endless drugs and hooch, and the insignificant threat of a single night in the Hole for fighting made an idyllic parallel to whatever gladiatorial existence they'd been living in the free world; prison was literally a home away from home.

"This ain't prison," comes the tired lament, "it's day care." Of course, they're right to note the differences. Prison reform, arguably begun in earnest (but undeniably first felt) in the early 1980s, introduced a completely different dynamic to how prisoners were dealt with and how the facilities were run. The most notable change was evident in the shift from active reform efforts, which have been proven time and time again to work, to human warehousing. Vocational training and self-help programs were too expensive, which meant they were expendable under new incarceration standards. This, combined with an inrush of nonviolent POWs from America's ill-fated, ill-conceived War on Drugs, brought varying degrees of success to the measures being employed to exact control over the once-uncontrollable inmate populations. The comparatively docile prisoners acted as a statistical buffer on the reformers' charts and tables, nicely watering down those violent statistics.

In the comparative calm, the ever-wakeful gears of the great bureaucratic machine continued to spin, however. Docility was not enough. Absolute order had yet to be imposed, so the focus shifted to a higher magnification. More than ever, uniformity has become the prime concern. All property is governed by strict limits, down to the number of rolls of toilet paper or bottles of vitamins a prisoner is allowed to keep on hand. Personal clothing may only be worn in certain places, at certain times a day, and is itself limited to a handful of articles. There even exists a multiple-page list that dictates explicitly what may be placed where, within one's cell, and in what condition it must be. Movement outside of the housing units is closely observed and regimented.

Micromanagement is the new way. Hardened convicts (labeled "offenders" in the modern industry jargon) have witnessed the end of an age. Unfortunately for them, and for the society to which many will eventually return, this new way is no better than the old.

04 June, 2008

A Penitentiary Glossary

The vernacular of prison is a nasty melange of street slang, backwater babble, and major malapropisms – from a grammatical standpoint, the worst of all worlds. Often confusing, sometimes shocking, it comes to the uninitiated as a completely foreign tongue.

I present this glossary to appease curiosity. As evidenced by the popularity of television shows like MSNBC's "Lockup" and its new broadcast equivalent, "Jail," there are those for whom prison, as a distinctly other culture, holds a great deal of interest. Armchair linguists are also likely to find this entertaining. Neither group is likely to find it especially useful, however. Just as ordinary regional dialects vary, so too will those of prisons in other locales. This list is intended only as a curiosity, neither unabridged nor universal. Should you ever find yourself detained or imprisoned, you would be ill-advised to try these terms out. The results might not be what you were hoping for.

Note: Children, as well as those with puritanical ideals or sensitivity to coarse language should read no further than this point. Much of what follows is, in a word, foul.

* * * * *

bake cakes v. engage in homosexual acts, especially intercourse.
bit n. any uninterrupted period of time spent in prison on a charge or a series of related charges.
book n. a magazine.
booty bandit n. a predatory homosexual.
boy n. one who is tied (see below) to another, usually an older inmate.
box n. a carton of cigarettes.
bullet n. a small, tightly packed ball of any illicit substance, contained within a rubber or plastic casing, and intended to be swallowed or keistered (see below) for hiding or transporting said substance within one's body.
Cadillac n. any item tied to the end of a long piece of string, swung or slid from cell to cell in a locked-down environment, in order to transport said item: When Baker ran out of tobacco, Jones sent him a pinch by Cadillac. v. send something to someone in this manner: Hey, Smith, Cadillac me a lighter!adj. of high quality; indulgent or expensive: A cup of Taster's Choice with cocoa in it? Damn, that's a Cadillac coffee!
camp n. a prison.
cellie n. a cellmate.
cho-mo n. one convicted of any sexual offense against a child; a child molester.
coal hauler n. one who is not himself black, who is perceived as associating with
black inmates to an excessive degree, or who has a black daddy (see below).
creep n. a sex offender.
daddy n. the dominant figure in an exploitive homosexual relationship.
dime n. a ten-year sentence: He's doing a dime for burglary. • (drop a dime)snitch (see below) on someone: Dude dropped a dime on his partner, got him busted on a dope deal.
eat-em-up n. another term for booty bandit (see above): That guy's an eat-em-up from way back. You don't want anything to do with him.fifi n. any assemblage of materials, such as latex gloves, trash bags, empty bottles, pillow, and so on, used to simulate female genitalia for the purpose of masturbation.
flag n. a piece of paper or cloth displayed in or on one's cell door to indicate to passers-by that privacy is desired: Joe must be using the toilet; his flag's up.
flick n. a photograph.
freak n. a homosexual. • (play the freaks) make false sexual comments or passes for humor effect or to make someone uncomfortable.
freecase v. blame or sentence for an offense one did not commit: They tried to freecase him with another robbery, but he wasn't even in this state when it happened.
hole n. a housing unit or other specified area in which inmates are held in segregation from the prison's general population for disciplinary or protective reasons. • (make a hole run) smuggle an illicit substance into a segregated area for the express purpose of selling it for substantial profit.
house n. a housing unit within the prison. • n. one's cell.
hustle n. a method, usually illicit, of making money or doing business: George had himself a good little hustle selling sugar packets out of the kitchen. Too bad he got fired.
keister v. insert (something) into the rectum, usually a bullet (see above).
kite n. any note or memo sent elsewhere within the prison: To get a copy of his account information, Rusty had to send a kite to the caseworker.
metal n. a shank (see below).
minute n. any excessive length of time: That old man's been doing time for a minute; he knows what's up.
motor oil n. strong, thick coffee.
mud n. coffee.
old head n. an older inmate, especially one who has served a lot of time.
pull chain v. leave prison, usually to transfer to another.
rape-o n. a sex offender.
roll n. a hand-rolled cigarette. • v. transfer to another prison, often one with a lower security level: They're gonna roll him to Charleston tomorrow morning, I heard.
shank n. any improvised stabbing or cutting weapon. • v. use such an item.
square n. an employee of the prison, who is neither a correctional officer nor administrative personnel (i.e.: cooks, recreation staff, maintenance engineers, et cetera). • n. a pack of cigarettes.
stinger n. an electric immersion element with which to heat water for soup, coffee, noodles, and so on.
store n. the prison commissary. • n. an illicit operation run by an inmate, typically selling foodstuffs and tobacco, for trade or on credit, at exorbitant rates.
tailor (also tailor-made) n. a name-brand cigarette, such as Marlboro or Newport.
tied v. in a position of subservience to another inmate, usually sexually: I heard the new kid's tied with Jackson now.
wild adj. (as multiple sentences) consecutive, rather than concurrent: He got twenty-one years—two eights and a five, all run wild.
wobble head n. one taking medication for a mental health condition.
yard bird n. chicken, especially fried chicken.
yard dog n. a correctional officer assigned to supervise or patrol the prison yard.

25 May, 2008

A Life Amphibious

My father was born with gills and webbed feet, the son of a mermaid and a merchant marine. The earliest photograph of him I have seen was a grade school portrait, which suggests those features — the gills, at least — atrophied as he got older, for they were nowhere to be seen by then. For the entirety of his life, though, as with any creature born of the sea, my father would remain drawn to water and all things aquatic. At eighteen, he enlisted in the United States Navy, where whatever vestigial toe-webbing remained would have been perceived as an asset. He dove freely into untested waters, canoed down rolling river rapids, fished with nets. He collected seashells and coral. He kept tropical fish. I remember the way he'd whisper to them while sprinkling in their food, inviting them to dinner by invoking their secret names: to him they were not angelfish, gourami, or tetra but Streamer-Tail, Little Bubble-Maker, Prism-Darter. They were his piscine friends, exiles from the same kingdom, and they kept him company in his home on dry land.

Of course he owned vessels — a fifteen-foot aluminum canoe, an inflatable raft, a small sailboat. These were the only way my mother and I could accompany him on his watery communions. Creatures of terra firma is what she and I were — awed by the shadowy ubiquity of water in the world, shaky on deck, barely submersible. My father was our fearless captain, ready to brave the storms and show us landlubbers there was little to fear from the murky depths. When he would change tack to head into a squall, or paddle us towards the rocks, we had to wonder whether he hadn't momentarily forgotten our handicap. But always he brought us through, dampened by the spray, most likely, but quite alive. Being with him in the presence of water meant knowing fervency for life; his enthusiasm was contagious.

We towed the sailboat with us one year, on a family vacation to the Florida Keys, when I was a boy. Our first night at the coast, my mother and I slept in the van. Displaying uncharacteristic childlike eagerness, my father spent the night in a sleeping bag on deck, docked in the marina a few hundred feet away. Mosquitoes, of course, left him unmolested. It was blood they craved, not the clear salinity of what his veins pumped. As the sun rose from the center of the Atlantic, Mum and I stumbled salty-eyed into the morning. We found my father already unmoored, gliding aimlessly around the marina on a steady wind he'd been loath to let pass unavailed. He waved to us. There was no telling how long he'd been out. He had to have woken at least an hour before dawn, in order to have time to erect the mast and secure the rigging. Out on the blue, his sails were brimming, his smile gleamed.

The day was long and humid, and by late afternoon had given way to the slate horizon of an impending storm. Since that morning we'd been skirting the coastline. Because we had no radio, no compass, no map — indeed, no navigational equipment of any sort (what kind of an adventure would it have been, otherwise?) — we dropped anchor off a tiny, sandy island with a sliver of clear beach large enough to pitch our tent and light a cookfire. We ate thin vegetable soup with crackers and nibbled on roasted peanuts. The soup scalded my tongue as I sipped too eagerly from a battered tin cup. When the rain came, at first with uncertainty, we retreated but left the tent flaps open so we could watch the clouds tumble and the far-off waves clash. I fell asleep to the popping of fat drops on the canvas and the thick air of our gradually smoldering fire. I dreamt of wild seas.

In the small hours, the three of us awoke startled. The tide was coming in. It lapped inches from the front of the tent. Already the remains of the fire had been swallowed; now, ever hungry, the water was reaching for us. Pattering rain kept on as we hurriedly pulled stakes and carried our shelter several feet back, to the tree line. As the beach gradually disappeared, we looked on, unsure if the high ground we'd claimed would be high enough to avoid a late night escape back to our boat. I fell back asleep eventually, as did Mum, but Papa was vigilant. His silhouette at the front of the tent reassured me when I woke again, later, to the sound of his whispered supplications to the waves.

The scene at dawn was much different. By that time the tide had gone out so far that it had stranded the boat, dry and resting pitifully at an angle, on its keel. Seaweed draped the line to the shore, imparting a look of abandonment, like a ghost ship in spite of its cheerful blue hull. Not knowing when the waters would again rise, my father set to work righting her, the way people attend to a beached whale. Now pushing, now rocking, now patting her belly, he coaxed the boat back into her element.

Packed in and hungry, we set course for the mainland beyond our horizon. Arcane sailor knowledge or natant instinct guided my father at the tiller as he steered us toward the marina from which we'd put out. The wind that morning was robust and consistent. I stood aft of the small cabin, catching briny air in my nostrils. In my ears was nothing but that whooshing roar. Then Papa said something indistinct and my mother laughed. I turned, hoping to hear. They were smiling — such wide, open smiles! — and with the sun radiant on his face I watched my father draw a deep, contented breath, and surveyed his neck and jawline for the row of fishy slits I knew just had to be there.

11 May, 2008

My Mother, Dynamo

The last Mother's Day we had together before my abduction, Mum and I brunched by the fountain at Roselle Court, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Since I was a little boy, the museum has been a special place for both of us. On weekends we'd often come to see the exhibits and, during the week, there were wonderful art classes for children — pottery, figure drawing, and so on — that I was privileged enough to enjoy. Afterwards Mum would often take me for a croissant or some other kind of treat in the softly lit neoclassical courtyard that opened off the museum's main hall. The place holds fond memories for us, as a result. Upon leaving that final time, I presented her with a large potted gardenia. It was in a full bloom of tiny white blossoms and was redolent of wild honey. Because of its size, she could not take it with her just then, so it endured the better part of a day riding around in the cavernous back seat of my old car. Eventually, though, it ended up in Mum's bedroom, where it's delicate perfume could carry her into peaceful, pleasant dreams every night.

One month later, I was gone. During the nightmarish year to follow, she came to visit me twice a week in the county jail as I awaited trial. Often she would come with friends of mine who were there, I imagine, as much in support of her as of me. We all cleaved to one another — it was the only way to make it through. But mostly it was my mother whose face through that half-inch-thick safety glass both reassured and broke my sickened heart. For as long as I can remember, she has said that she's a survivor, and that time was my opportunity to witness firsthand the full reserves of her indomitable inner strength.

The gardenia I had given her, fragrant and soft with its hundreds of petals, soon shed and grew sparse with some unknown botanical illness. Strange white film had started forming on the leaves, like wax. Mum would deliver updates on its deteriorating condition: "I think it's dying." Not long after, it was moved to the glassed-in patio, where she would tend carefully to it, wiping each individual leaf clean. Even with that attention, the prognosis looked grim. It would have been nothing for her to abandon it to chance rather than dote on it the way she did.

Giving in is not generally part of her repertoire. The gardenia was finally able to be moved back indoors, able once again to cense her to sleep, in due course. She brought it back.

With me as well, her resolve has yet to flag, even these seven years later. Still she makes the hour-long drive every week to see me, still we talk often on the phone, still she finds within herself energy enough to actively crusade for justice in the face of such obstacles as would drive most to discouragement. She is like a force of nature. From her own resilience I get so much of my own — not in some sociobiological sense of inheritance, but that I am emboldened by knowledge of her strength. And, for whatever it's worth, I wear for her my bravest face so she may take heart in the reciprocity of endurance.

We abide balanced upon one another's resolute love, and on the tenacious hope that, someday soon, I too will be brought back from my sorry condition, able on days like this to honor her the way she so rightly deserves. And, of course, to give her flowers.

Danke für Alles, Mutti. Ich liebe Dich

25 March, 2008


[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow,"  "In Memory of Monuments," "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper," and "Only a Fleeting Thing." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
It is freeze dried and comes in a resealable yellow bag that proclaims "100% Colombian." Conveniently omitted are specifics, as though, at least where coffee production is concerned, the country is peerless in its inability to do wrong. The dubious provenance becomes all the more worrisome at first taste, which assaults with a body of what can only be described as meatiness before fading to a distinct note of soy sauce. Could they have been rejected beans from another, more finicky brand? Do the fields in which they were grown lie adjacent to a reservoir of industrial run-off? Does Monsanto have a presence in Colombia? (An absurd question; never mind.) Assuming nothing, this terroir is still a terror.

The canteen sells four brands of coffee — Taster's Choice, Folgers, Nescafé, and this yellow-bag stuff. It's all instant, all representative of varying degrees of unpleasantness, but this one is by far the most popular. Price plays a larger role than palate; most inmates will spring for the high-dollar product when they're flush with funds. Personally, I am not enthusiastic about any of it. My first two years of captivity were determinedly caffeine-free specifically because my elitist taste buds insisted they were too good for such swill, that dump-and-pour would reduce me to some kind of oral paroxysm that would leave my poor tongue flaccid and useless in my mouth. Better, I thought, to go without.

At some point, however, I broke down. So much time had passed since a truly decent coffee had touched my lips I wondered whether the difference wouldn't just go unnoticed, as if all that gourmet Guatemalan could be expunged from my sensory memory by anything short of catastrophic brain damage. I sipped and winced like an alcoholic resorting to mouthwash, but, all the same, I did sip.

Of course, there was guilt: What would my barista say? There was even a nightmare about coming clean to friends at a celebratory dinner, opening up with prison horror stories.

"So after the stabbing on the yard, even though I knew it wouldn't do my stomach any good, I went straight to my cell for a hot cup of coffee, some music to lose myself in. I couldn't believe what I'd just seen."

"Oh my god, that's awful."

"It was. I mean, it happened right in plain view but nobody seemed to care what was going on. The guy was covered in blood, and —"

"No, I meant about the coffee. You actually drank instant?"

To which my only possible reply, like some sad, grizzled veteran defending wartime atrocities, was, "If you had been there, you'd understand."

09 March, 2008

The List

In a "Talk of the Town" item from The New Yorker's 28 January issue, much was made of the reading list of folk-rock icon Art Garfunkel. Since 1968, Garfunkel has kept a record of every book he's read — all 1023 of them, all in chronological order. Given today's profusion of frantic schedules and the apparent decline of interest in the written word, his average of just over two books a month is laudable and impressive. It also got me thinking about my own reading habits and why I've not kept a list of my own.

Having taken to avid reading at a young age, there have been very few times in my life when at least one book was not to been seen atop my desk, beside the bed, or in my hands at some stage of mid-read. By age twenty, keeping my bookshelves from overflowing was already a struggle: if left to the voracious acquisitiveness of my literary appetite and perpetual willingness to learn, the shelves would become unruly and start to bow under the weight. Every few months, with a judicious eye, I would grudgingly pull the titles most recently purchased, and weigh their importance, and ask the hard questions. Do I absolutely have to have this copy of
Common Sense? Will I, at some foreseeable juncture, need to reference The Dragons of Eden for any reason? It pained me to regularly say goodbye to so many wonderful books, but the local used-book vendors loved me.

When my selection diminished nearly seven years ago, a result of what I call my "abduction," the escapism of literature became correspondingly more tantalizing. I've since read several books I'd never otherwise have considered, which is not necessarily a bad thing. T.K. Kennett commented once that those of us who do not read that which we might find objectionable "are no better than those who cannot read at all," and I happen to agree. (A couple of dime-store novels never killed anyone, even if reading one sometimes might feel like a slow death.) Certainly a few have broadened my horizons in thoroughly enjoyable ways.

Reading about Art Garfunkel's voluminous list inspired me to compile my own, retroactively. Friends are always asking what I'm reading, and they are almost as often surprised that a prison library should be so well appointed (though never quite well enough, if you ask me). The list that follows is incomplete and, instead of chronological, ordered alphabetically, as it was brought forth entirely from my imperfect memory. It covers only the years of my incarceration. Also, it does not include any title I did not read in its entirety, simply because listing such would be disingenuous. To appease curiosity and, perhaps, to show off a little, here is my imperfect list. Thanks for the inspiration, Art.

* * * * *

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe • Life, the Universe, and Everything • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish • Mostly Harmless

Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties

Dante Alighieri (Elio Zappulla, translator), The Inferno: A New Verse Translation

Isaac Asimov, It's Been a Good Life

Andrew Behrman, Electroboy

John Biguenet, The Torturer's Apprentice

David Blaine, Mysterious Stranger: A Book of Magic

David Bodanis, Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Arthur Bradford, Dogwalker

Dan Briody, The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group

Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske, Howard Hughes: The Untold Story

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors • Dry • Sellevision

James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

George Carlin, Brain Droppings • Napalm and Silly Putty

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Dan Chaon, Among the Missing

Clay McLeod Chapman, Rest Area

Susannah Clark, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama • 2001: A Space Odyssey • 2010 • 2061 • Imperial Earth • The Fountains of Paradise

Billy Collins, Nine Horses: Poems

Eddy Joe Cotton, Hobo: A Young Man's Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America

Jim Crotty, How to Talk American

Deborah Curtis, Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division

Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions

Cathy Day, The Circus in Winter

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Phillip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said • VALIS • Counter-Clock World • The Man Who Japed • The Zap Gun

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground • Crime and Punishment

Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo • The Three Musketeers

Umberto Eco, Baudolino

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Stefan Fatsis, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players

David Friedman, The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and The Daring Quest to Live Forever

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera • One Hundred Years of Solitude

Martin Gardner, Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?

Mary Ladd Gavell, I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly

William Gibson, Neuromancer • Idoru • Mona Lisa Overdrive • Pattern Recognition • Spook Country

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

Stephen Jay Gould, I Have Landed

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

John Gribbin, The Birth of Time:How Astronomers Measured the Age of the Universe

Richard Hack, Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos, and Letters

Daniel Hall, Under Sleep (poetry)

M. John Harris, Light

Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time • The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe

Robert Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon • A Door into Summer • Friday

Ernest Hemmingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Frank Herbert, Dune • Dune Messiah • Children of Dune

John Hodgman, The Areas of My Expertise

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America

Franz Kafka, The Trial • The Castle

A.L. Kennedy, Original Bliss

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis

Rudyard Kipling, Kim

Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Dennis Lehane, Coronado

Jimmy Lerner, You Got Nothing Coming: Notes from a Prison Fish

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Matthew Lewis, The Monk

Russ Madison, Chapter 11

Roger McDonald, Mr. Darwin's Shooter

James McKean, Quattrocentro

Peter McWilliams, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do

Cornelius Medvei, Mr. Thundermug

China Miéville, The Scar

Adrienne Miller (editor), Esquire's Big Book of Fiction

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Haruki Murakami, After the Quake • Kafka on the Shore

Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind

Anaïs Nin, Henry & June

Wendy Northcutt, The Darwin Awards: Evolution in Action

The Onion, Our Dumb Century • Finest News Reporting

Susan Orlean and Robert Atwan (editors), The Best American Essays, 2005

George Orwell, 1984 • Animal Farm

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club • Lullaby • Choke • Rant

Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High-Finance Fraudsters

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Michael Paterniti, Driving Mister Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Terry Pratchett, The Thief of Time • The Fifth Elephant • Night Watch

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Harvey Rachlin, Jumbo's Hide, Elvis's Ride, and the Tooth of Buddha

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We're Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with your Future

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead • Atlas Shrugged • Anthem

Fredrick Reuss, The Wasties

Richard Restak, MD, The Naked Brain: How the Emerging Neurosociety Is Changing How We Live, Work, and Love

Yasmina Reza, Desolation

C.S. Richardson, The End of the Alphabet

Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

Phillip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint • Goodbye, Columbus

Davy Rothbart, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Salman Rushdie, Fury • The Moor's Last Sigh • Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 • The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Marquis de Sade, Justine

Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are (with Ann Druyan) • Contact • Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, Actual Innocence: Five Days to Executin and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted

Nina Shandler, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus,

Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things

Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man

K.M. Soehnlein, You Can Say You Knew Me When

Dana Spiota, Lightning Field

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Lesley Stern, The Smoking Book

Mark Strand, A Blizzard of One (poetry)

Darin Strauss, Chang and Eng

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit • The Lord of the Rings

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero-Tolerance Approach to the English Language

Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court • The Diaries of Adam and Eve

Jules Verne, Mysterious Island • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle • Slaughterhouse-Five

Brad Watson, Last Days of the Dog-Men

H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds • The Time Machine

Elie Wiesel, And the Sea Is Never Full • Night

Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature • Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Mark Winegardner, That's True of Everybody

Richard Wolfson, Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified

26 February, 2008

With Apologies to Hasbro

The prison canteen doesn't sell SCRABBLE sets, so we made our own. Tiles, stenciled and meticulously cut, came from the backing of a forty-two-cent writing tablet. A grid, drawn on a legal-sized file folder, glued to the reverse of a checkers board and shaded with colored pencils became a passable simulacrum of Hasbro's. The process took days — me lettering and coloring, my cellmate, Jamie, gluing and cutting. The thought crossed our minds, but we stopped short of coating the tiles with floor wax to make them smoother and appealingly shiny.

We got a copy of The Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary, Third Edition, to settle challenges. The Official Word List, that SCRABBLE aficionado's bible, was beyond our ability to acquire, owing to the prison's restrictive mail policies. We made lists for ourselves of every playable two-, three-, and four-letter word. We did drills. We anagrammed relentlessly, often unconsciously. We read about fanatical tournament players in the compelling Stefan Fatsis book Word Freak, and were less mortified than we should have been to identify so much with its insane subjects. We were, it's safe to say, obsessed.

For two years a nonsmoker, I started again. Locked down in a nine-by-twelve space for twenty-one hours a day, wits and creativity will take you only so far before options seem to run dry, before vice starts looking like a virtue. Besides that, our two-man marathon tournaments demanded we have something to do with our hands as we played into the gray hours of dawn. Filterless, hand-rolled cigarettes of cheap tobacco stained our fingers. Freeze-dried coffee bittered our palates. Once in a while we would venture to ingest solids, too, usually in the form of breakfast — served here at 5:30 in the morning.

Even with the best books and a voracious appetite for literature, one can only read so many hours a day. SCRABBLE left us with none of the numb-headed guilt of watching television; though, most nights our TVs stayed on, muted. They were for visual stimulus while formatting plays, and, aside from occasionally distracting us with the antics of an impossibly adorable kitten on The Planet's Funniest Animals, they served well for that purpose. For aural input we had our many eclectic mix tapes, recorded with care from a fantastic nearby independent radio station.

We became word-crunching, chain-smoking, overcaffeinated, kitten-loving machines.

As involved as we were, it feels like a personal failing that I'm now unable to cite specific plays. Neither can I retrieve from memory exact scores. True SCRABBLE enthusiasts remember these things as second nature. Jamie did once challenge a bingo (a single play that uses all seven of a player's tiles) of mine that put an S at the end of his BLOODLETTING and crossed a Triple Word Score premium square. Why that single instance stands out in my mind has more to with his disgusted reaction to losing the challenge (and his next turn) than with any cleverness of the180-plus-point play itself.

Jamie went home, in December of 2003, on probation. We've kept in touch. To this day he is still the best cellmate I've had. After him came a string of individuals I'll charitably describe as less than literate. There was simply no one able or willing to play. My handmade SCRABBLE set was retired. I quit smoking almost immediately. For nearly two years, through institution-wide shakedowns and monthly cell searches alike, it sat at the bottom of my footlocker despite its contraband status as an altered item. In the end, I gave the entire bundle — board, tiles, book, everything — to old Mr. B., with whom I'd played many games in the county jail, the two of us awaiting trial. I knew he would get more enjoyment from it at that point than I. And, sure enough, the following day he let me know how funny it had been to look over the old score sheets I'd left in the box, and to see the plastic bag of checkers still sealed from the factory.

That was the spring of 2006 — two years ago, now. Too many times to have kept track, I've seen Mr. B. since then. Somehow it's never occurred to me to ask him if he still has the board, or if he's played any particularly good games on it. I'd like to think, after all, that it helped someone other than Jamie and myself pass the time, even if it was with decidedly less fanaticism.