22 December, 2012

Tidings of Comfort and Schadenfreude

You might never know the Yuletide was upon us. No one here trims a tree, hangs mistletoe, lights candles, or carols merrily. No one wraps presents. No one strings blinky lights. Except, in prison, the spirit of the season glows from our TVs — endless faux-festive commercials, news broadcasts of Christmas tree lightings, and Miracle on 34th Street marathons. The joy wafts over the airwaves, to our radios, in cycles of “Winter Wonderland” covers and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” A few candies, chips, and single-serving freeze-dried coffee packets come in the treat bags distributed by the prison’s staff about one week before Christmas, and these are the closest we prisoners come to happy holidays.

Tensions tend to run higher here, beginning around Thanksgiving, escalating around year’s end. In the free world, families are gathering together (or planning to), coalescing in spirited reunions that are off-limits to those of us locked away. For the convicted, there will be no candied yams or prickly kisses from matriarchs, and they’re unhappy about this fact. Unwilling or unable to talk about the seasonal depression brought about by isolation, many let their frustrations build, or seek succor in mood-altering substances. I imagine the drug trade always picks up, this time of year. Certainly there are fewer silent nights, as I see more arguments, more fights, and animosity so thick in the air you can taste it. It tastes nothing like egg nog.

I have gorgeous memories of childhood Christmases with my parents. We celebrated in the way my mother had grown up with, having our family dinner and opening our gifts to one another on the evening of the twenty-fourth. Every year we had a live tree, tall and hardy, festooned with silver tinsel, handmade German ornaments, and real candles. Brightly wrapped presents ringed the tree’s blanket-covered root ball, and the thick scent of pine filled our candlelit living room. Mum, being such a traditionalist, played an LP of German carols as my father stoked logs in the fireplace. Right before we surrounded the tree to unwrap gifts, she’d open a tin of Lebkuchen that had been air-mailed to us by family, then slice a stollen bought from our local German market the week before. When both sides of the record played through and all the treats were eaten, my father put on a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and I danced like a drunk ballerino, leaping and kicking until I fell down on the carpet, warm, full, and happy.

As an adult, though, I’ve been content to have my Christmas dinner alongside the Jewish families and Middle Eastern med students at a Mongolian barbecue place. Christmas just doesn’t interest me as it did when I was little. I’ve even been accused — perhaps not without due cause — of humbuggery.

But in a mildly ironic way, being locked away means I have reason to be glad of my disenchantment. While the hearts of my fellow inmates are being gnawed at by every Christmastime jingle and “Ho, ho, ho!” they hear, feeling for perhaps the first time all year the chilly distance between them and the people whose lives they are no longer an immediate part of, I suffer only mild annoyance at what I consider so much dutiful, forced, fake cheer.

All the reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life will not get me to finally watch that treacly mess of a movie. A new rendition of “Silent Night” will not move me any more than the old ones do. Another candy cane, in a plastic sack full of salty snacks and cheap sweets, won’t do anything for me but make my breath minty-fresh for a half hour. Unlike most around me, this is the one time of year when I feel almost protected, sheltered from smarmy sentiment and out-of-control consumerism, not overwhelmed by the perpetual sense of missing out. And since I’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

18 December, 2012

Front Desk Cupid

I still think of them often, the couple from the hotel. Although I can’t remember his name and never learned hers, I like to think I made their night extra special, working all around them, unobtrusively as oxygen, essential and unseen. If they’re still together and think of that night at all, these thirteen years later, if I did everything right, if their engagement was every bit the event it was supposed to be, then they might not even recognize what follows as being about them.

Another Friday at the hotel, and our forecast was for a full house. I took my post at the front desk, beside my friend and coworker Madeline, to review reservations. Through the windows across the marble lobby loomed a gray December late-afternoon. Another type of forecast called for that, and worse, as the evening drew on. Having just relieved the day shift to go tromping through the dampness and chill, Madeline’s round cheeks blushed bright pink. She frowned at her computer terminal, an amplification of her usual edge of surliness, upset at having to be solicitous and fake professionalism instead of being at home, sunken into her old sofa, a Camel alight in one hand, an open bottle of icy Woodchuck in the other, punishingly loud punk rock stabbing her ears — her preferred way to relax on a foul day. I worried that anyone daring enough to approach her during that shift ran the risk of being greeted with an upthrust middle finger.

Not that I was exactly brimming with smiles and sunshine. It was only the middle of my work week and I already felt drained, unenthusiastic about working the desk, on what was certain to be a harrying shift, as revelers, undaunted by the temperature or stinging precipitation, planned their hot time at the nightclubs and bars up the street, only as an afterthought seeking a warm bed within stumbling distance of the city’s most popular entertainment district.

I was encoding key cards in preparation for the hotel’s Priority Club check-ins when a chill washed over Madeline and me. A young man entered through the front doors, stylishly underdressed for the weather, and came to my side of the desk. He was a walk-in, looking for a room with a king- or queen-sized bed — preferrably one with a view of something other than the parking lot. On any weeknight, when our occupancy was spotty with corporate travelers, conventioneers, and the occasional touring band, this wouldn’t have been such a tall order. But Fridays and Saturdays were another story altogether, as we overbooked by as much as four percent as a matter of course.

“I’ll see what I can do for you, sir,” I told him. A few keystrokes pointed me to our only unassigned room: a third-floor affair overlooking the low rooftops of the residential neighborhood to the south. As I described the accommodations to the man, twenty-five or -six years old at most — just a few years my senior — he creased his forehead like someone three times our age.

“See, the thing is,” he began, and my back stiffened, a conditioned response to bargaining by would-be guests, “I’m proposing to my girlfriend tonight.”

My spine relaxed. This was one claim I had not expected.

“We’re going to dinner, then to Harry’s for drinks, up the street, there. Afterwards, I want to come here and propose in the room. I thought a nice view — the Christmas lights on the trees and everything — would be kind of, um, romantic.”

I rubbed my fingertips together behind my back. I did not consider romance to be my forte. Sure, I was good at the little spontaneous gestures, being prone to the gifting of flowers, jewelry, stuffed animals, chocolate, to say nothing of the random adventures on which I’d been known to lead dates — the kind that can lead to lots of kissing in strange places — but planning a grand romantic sweep, not knowing how the object of my affections might react, moment by moment, to any of the innumerable intermediate phases of said plan, seemed too far against the odds to be successful. I weighed the options, then said, “Let me check something else for you.”

The room with the king-sized bed at the northeast corner of the hotel’s top floor, room 609, had exactly the view the young man was hoping to get. A few more keystrokes changed its status to vacant as I reassigned a random reservation to the third floor. It felt as though I’d done something tremendously helpful. Tamping down my self-satisfaction, I handed him a key card and said, “Enjoy your evening, sir, and good luck.”

“Oh man, thanks!” the guest said, clapping his hands as if a prayer had been answered. “Now, I’ve just got one more thing I’ve gotta ask: is there any way to have someone put a bottle of champagne in the room, and a couple glasses?”

Ours was a small hotel, fewer than 150 rooms, without a concierge on staff to carry out such requests, but I could not let the lovesick man down. I took the three ten-dollar bills he proffered. “Not to worry,” I told him. “I’ll see to it myself.”

Madeline waited until he’d existed the lobby, back out to the bone-chilling grayness from which he’d come, before she said, “Well, that sure was weird.”

“What was?” I asked. “We do all sorts of stuff for people.”

“Yeah, but that guy didn’t just want a wake-up call, Byron. You totally fell for his bullshit. What happened to your being the Dark Cliffs Upon Which the Waves of Hope Break? He probably doesn’t even have a girlfriend.” She wore a feral grin. Madeline was poking fun at my reputation for being rigid and unapologetic when it came to turning people away. “You’re going soft on me, buddy. Are you gonna go up and fluff their pillows, too? Maybe give them foot rubs?”

While my friend cracked wise, I was preoccupied by the task to which I’d been entrusted. Those two people were getting engaged. One of the most monumental experiences of their lives had just been placed partly in my hands. I had to begin my preparations right away.

“You got the desk for an hour, Maddy?” I asked, already fingering my car keys and heading for the office cloakroom. If she protested, I didn’t hear.

The thirty dollars given to me by the guest would barely cover a bottle of Korbel and a pair of plastic flutes. At the liquor store, I searched for anything better in the same price range. They can’t toast with cheap champagne, I thought, puzzling over how to carry out my mission on the tight budget I’d been given. Scanning the expanse of green bottles on the racks, the solution popped into my mind like an uncorking. I reached for a small bottle of Moët & Chandon, making up the difference, at the register, with several bills from my own wallet.

After pulling cautiously out of the parking lot of the liquor store, I lost traction on several sheets of ice slicking the streets, but kept the car between the lines all the way to the supermarket, nearly two miles distant. Strawberries being long out of season, I settled for a pound of cherries. I paid with my debit card. The cashier’s heavy-lidded boredom was all wrong for the occasion; I wanted to tell her, “Look alive, woman! Don’t you know these are for a couple’s engagement?” but reminded myself that my concerns are not necessarily shared by others. I took the plastic sack from her, sighing into my scarf as the store doors slid apart and a buffeting wind snatched greedily at my purchase.

My apartment was blocks away. Even set on high, the windshield wipers could scarcely grant a clear view of the road ahead. Headlights from oncoming cars glazed my vision as, almost by feel, I navigated through palpable gloom to reach my back door.

Understandably curious as to why I was home, hours before my usual lunch break, bustling around the kitchen, still darkly bundled in my long coat, my roommate asked, “What the hell are you doing?”

She’d walked in on me tying a ribbon around a cellophaned crystal bowl of cherries. That much was obvious. Rather than go into whys and wherefores, I said, “It’s for a guest’s room. He’s proposing to his girlfriend tonight.”

“Um, okay. So why are you using your own crystal?”

Having no answer that might satisfy, I went to the pantry and collected two champagne flutes from a box on the top shelf.

My roommate shuffled back to her computer, where I assumed she’d been having an IM conversation or three — her favorite online pastime. From the other room, she called out, “I’ll just message everybody, then, tell them you’ve lost your mind. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of your cat while you’re in the asylum.”

Back at the hotel only slightly later than intended, having breezed past Madeline at the front desk, encoded a key card, and marched straight into an available elevator, I drew back the curtains on the twinkle of white Christmas lights along the uphill street room 609 overlooked. The room looked as much like a love nest as my hour and twenty minutes’ preparation could make it. An ice bucket offering good champagne sat on the coffee table, alongside two sparkling crystal flutes and a couple of handmade chocolate truffles from a local chocolatier I adored (but more recently from my refrigerator). The bowl of luscious, deep red cherries graced the bed. I stopped shy of setting out an arrangement of candles only because of the building’s hypersensitive smoke detectors.

Two steps back, to survey, first from the sofa, then from the door, told me I had done well.

“Welcome back, Lover Boy,” quipped Madeline, once I finally returned, without outerwear, to the desk. “You sure took long enough.”

As anticipated, the weather did little to keep away the hardcore Friday-night partiers. We were busy enough that I never noticed the young man come through the lobby with his fiancée. I clocked out without learning how his proposal went.

There was no note of thanks awaiting me at the desk the next day, nor did anyone record anything relevant in the shift log. I called housekeeping within minutes of clocking in; they reported finding no stemware, nor a crystal bowl, in the room, but said an ice bucket and empty bottle were on the floor beside the bed.

A standing ovation greeted me when I entered the office. Madeline (she of the ordinarily profound cynicism) had arrived at work early to gush to the GM, front office manager, sales staff, and everyone on the desk crew about my intrepidity in going above and beyond the call of duty… in the name of love. The little group of my coworkers had been waiting, eager to clap me on the back, smile, and speak words of high praise for what I’d done. When they quieted down at last, the front office manager said, “I never knew you were such a hopeless romantic.”

And really, until that moment, neither did I.

10 December, 2012

Mr. T and Me

Mr. T’s fourth birthday was in September, and the gift he got in the mail from his godfather was a sticker activity book. In seeking the right present, I was acutely aware of his new obsession with all things Star Wars (now that he regards Disney/Pixar’s Cars as kid stuff); however, I found it tough to shop for a child-sized lightsaber from prison. The sticker book, despite its dearths of Darths Vader, Sidious, or Maul, was reported by my friend, Mr. T’s mother, as a perfect gift — something he can do alone, quietly, for a span of time roughly equivalent to Mom’s ideal nap length. My gift being well received is a victory I chalk up as my second successful significant act in my role as a godfather. It is a role I take very, very seriously.

My first successful act, I believe, was holding him. Never having held a baby before, I was nervous. His parents had brought Mr. T all the way across the state for a visit, and the last thing I wanted to do was drop him or break him or something. Not quite a year old and wriggly, he didn’t make it easy on me at first, but as I read to him The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the German translation of which I remember from my own childhood, and talked as encouragingly as I could to him about his questionable motor skills (“Don’t worry,” I said, when he fussed at my not surrendering the utensil to his grasp, “people won’t have to spoon applesauce into your mouth all your life”), he came around. Mr. T left that visit without incurring apparent physical or mental trauma, and I left it with a smile on my face.

This interaction is kind of a big deal because, historically, I have felt terribly awkward around, and, in all truthfulness, with the very idea of, children. My discomfort started when I was a child myself, averse to noise, befuddled by impetuousness, and uninterested in the group activities that developmental specialists say are so important. Unlikely, then, as my nomination for a Kids Choice Award might seem, children have delighted in my attentions ever since I became a teenager. I don’t know why this is, but I have a few simple theories. The first is that I talk to them, to tweens and infants alike, just as I talk to everyone else. My voice doesn’t ascend two octaves when I come in the presence of a newborn, I don’t do baby-talk, and I won’t dumb down my conversation for anyone. Kids seem to like this, that I treat them as equals. Second, like cats, whom studies show are drawn to the very humans who pay them the least attention, children may perceive my comparative indifference to their antics as puzzling: Every other grown-up pays attention to me as soon as I come near, but that man doesn’t care — how interesting! Third, kids may appreciate that I’m easy to make fun of.

A former girlfriend of mine had an eleven-year-old sister who took a preteen’s uniquely sadistic delight in mocking my old-mannish ways and overall unhipness. (“Did you just say ‘neat?’ Who says ‘neat?’ God, Byron, what are you, like, seventy? ‘That’s really spiffy-keen neat-o.’ Ha!”) She and her cadre of friends, collectively called “the Little Girls” by my girlfriend and me, got no end of pleasure from my annoyance at their nickname for me, “Unkie Byron,” and went to great lengths to try publicly embarrassing me, especially on occasions I was recruited by someone or other’s mother to drive the troublesome troupe to the mall. Whatever points I won for coolness, during those outings, were always deducted as soon as we returned to my car.

Turning the ignition key, I took note of dashboard indicators. “Who doesn’t have a seat belt on?”

“Why do we need seat belts,” one of the Little Girls would groan from the back, ‘’if you’re supposedly such a good driver?”

“Because the road is full of idiots, and I don’t want to get Little Girls’ viscera all over me if one of them crashes into us while he’s picking his nose.”

“What’s viscera?”

“Viscera are internal organs. So keep your intestines to yourself and buckle up.”

A chorus of giggles. “Okey-dokey, Unkie Byron.”

And so on.

There’s that cliché about kids, how they grow up so quickly that one often won’t recognize the changes until the kids aren’t kids anymore, until they’re grown up and away. It won’t be long before my godson, Mr. T, will be old enough to dislike that I call him Mr. T, rather than his real, full name. And of course he’s far too young to get the flattering ironic association it makes between him — gentle and contemplative — and the loudmouthed one-time professional wrestler and A-Team star. But that’s a minor concern. I worry more about being limited in what I can do with him, and for him, as he gets older, if I remain imprisoned. I want to be able to take him on fun, educational day trips, on tours of neat (neat!) places like bookstores, museums, train yards, farms, and factories, and to be a boon to his parents, if and when they want a break, by looking after the little guy for a bit. I want to, but I realize I may never be able to, which is why I take my responsibility as his godfather so seriously — it might take extra effort for me to be good at it.

Fortunately, Mr. T and I are well suited to one another, with him evidencing enough nascent geekitude — a precocious love of reading, a prodigious curiosity, a thing for spaceships — that we can easily relate. Being amply versed in Star Wars lore made my third significant godfatherly success, carrying on a bidirectional telephone conversation with the young Padawan for the first time, as casual as the dress code at Jabba the Hutt’s palace. I’m not a natural phone-talker, nor are four-year-olds renowned for their telephonic chops. Mr. T begged for the phone, though.

“I wanna talk to Byron,” I heard him say, in the background.

His mother laughed. “What would you even say?”

But the distance did nothing to diminish our rapport, which was as strong as ever, as I barraged him with questions about his Jedi Halloween costume and his favorite aspects of the Lucas-verse, while trying not to rebuke his childish preference for Han Solo over Boba Fett. As is probably inevitable whenever one generation extends a hand to welcome the next, our first long-distance exchange did provide one humbling moment for me when he broke the news of Disney’s newly begun production of Episode VII. He’s four! How could he know such a thing before I did, even with the Internet at his wee fingers? Clearly the Force is strong with this one, and I’ve got my duties cut out for me.

25 November, 2012

The Ways Justice Fails

They come for you when you’re sleeping, bursting into your inner sanctum and surrounding your bed with their black presence. They paralyze you first with terror, then with bonds of steel, and ferry you away to an inquisition where they work their every scheme to break you.

Or they come for you in the settling dusk of a long day, as you depart cheerfully from dinner with an old friend. They set upon you in the restaurant parking lot, forcing the flesh of your cheek into grit and coagulated motor oil. You cry out in alarm, involuntarily, but it only enhances the spectacle for passersby.

Or they do not come for you at all but bring you, instead, to them. An unexpected stop. License and registration, please. In a few moments, another car. Pistols in your face. Shouting. You have the right to remain silent. Your spouse in the car, frantic to know what’s going on. Anything you say can be used against you. Everything recedes through the rear window — everything bathed in red and blue light — as the cruiser pulls away, toward uncertainty.

Either you know or you don’t know. Whichever, they do not believe you. Even though it’s the advice of everyone you’ve ever heard discuss the matter, your asking for a lawyer only invites suspicion. Your not asking for one lets them corral you into statements that will later be misconstrued. Later comes slowly.

Once they have you, even if only by a shirttail, the gears of the system, turning punishingly slow, pull you further in, bit by bit, like a wood chipper the size of a courtroom. You will lose dear things: money, time, reputation. This is an inevitability. You will learn that guilt and innocence play small parts in this theater of strategy and social standing. How much justice are you able to afford?

The sleepless nights, the interminable days of jailhouse existence. You shake; though, it is not cold. Your lawyer, when you have occasion to see each other, seems concerned. Still, you wonder how much of that is merely professional courtesy. Is your innocence believed by this person entrusted with your life? Oh, but how could it not be, since you’ve only been truthful? Then again… (and again, and again, and again).

Everything is uncertain, and this makes you feel like you’re clinging to a pendulum, swinging back and forth ad nauseam, and moving unmistakably in a third direction: down. You try to remain strong, resolute in the face of more opposition than you have ever known.

The trial. He didn’t cry, the jurors say. Or, He cried too much. Cold as ice or emotionally exaggerated. Either way, you’re sunk. The jury sees what it’s told to, facts being immaterial when there are gut feelings at play.

So it’s guilty even when it’s not, and you’re led out in shackles as some cry and others stoke the fires of their anger with the sight of you abased in chains. Inside, your own fire gutters. How did this happen? you think, as well as the opposite: This can’t be happening! But it did and is, and there is nothing to be done about that now.

In prison you box yourself in to survive. A piece of yourself hidden away, safe, you become an automaton that performs its tasks because tasks are what it does. You downplay hope for fear of failure (hope not being hope until all grounds for hope are gone), but it’s irrepressible and so still there as appeals go out and denials come in. Each time the courts deny you, you look ahead to next time, like a runner crashing through hurdles, failing but determined. You write brave letters full of bromides like, Better luck next time; justice must prevail!

You watch loved ones age. Some fall away. You wonder where the time has gone. You’re a leaking hourglass, weeping dry nothing. It would be easier if you had a crime to regret committing.

When will it end? you wonder. When it ends.

19 November, 2012

A Movable Feast

We call it a “food visit,” but that term is too unrefined, too underwhelming, too boring to describe an event so rare and exciting as a prisoner’s chance to have brought in, from the world beyond, a full meal of real food. Food visits here are an incentive for good behavior, a privilege bestowed only on those of us who remain free of conduct violations for six months. If we mind our Ps and Qs, we’re allowed to schedule two food visits a year. And while some like to expend both of theirs in a single weekend of gluttony, perhaps to accommodate out-of-towners who bring their jailbird acquaintance a grab-bag of barbecue or a bunch of Big Macs, I prefer to space mine out — one in the spring, the other around my birthday, in the fall. It’s the end of November now; guess what’s just around the corner.

Certain of my previous posts expose me as a foodie. I make no bones about my love of eating, and, for being such a slender thing, I can really pack away the grub. In my prior life I ate out at least every other day, cooked frequent meals with friends, delighted in market hopping and grocery shopping, and explored edibles the way BASE jumpers explore tall structures. I considered myself a budding epicure, a gourmand-in-training, a gastronomy wannabe whose idea of a good time involved putting good things in my mouth and chewing them up. Getting full was just a pleasant side-effect. Well, finding good things in prison, edible or otherwise, is hard, so the twice-annual food visits I earn are not only precious for being palate-pleasing, they also allow me a taste of that deep happiness I used to get all the time from communal meals with special people. What I’m saying is that food visits are a big deal.

Mum always brings too much, and I always show my gratitude for her efforts by eating until I can’t. In years past, when the number of allowed visitors was higher, my group of feasters made the event into a spectacle, crowding as many as six chairs around a coffee table stacked high with containers of sumptuous edibles, talking and laughing, our faces flushed with the delight we all felt. Photographs taken of us in the visiting room show us all with expansive smiles, not caring that the space around us is part of a maximum-security penitentiary. I’m not implying that we were the most joyful people in the room, but if pleasure was a contest we’d at least have won some kind of award.

As to the menus, I’ve been treated to all sorts, familiar and strange, over the years: styles from cheap Chinese take-out to Mediterranean delights, meats from skewered lamb to roasted Ecuadorian cui, treats from chocolate-coated marzipan to Indian soan papdi. Just because I’m imprisoned, eating year-round crap, doesn’t mean I must crave the old standbys; comfort food has its place, but sometimes I only want something that’s vibrant with taste, no matter how unusual.

This year, I was very lucky. The prison administration approved me for a food visit on my birthday, the day after Thanksgiving. Four hours with my mother and two dear friends, around a table covered in Mum’s home-cooked German favorites, plus what’s sure to be a mouthwatering Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (a rich Black Forest cake, my very favorite dessert) from a fine Kansas City bakery — what a special birthday it’s going to be. I’m actually excited about turning thirty-four. My stomach is, anyway. Can you hear it rumbling expectantly from there?

11 November, 2012

The Brains Challenge

Unusual as our being out in the middle of the afternoon may have been, several aspects of our togetherness on that particular day were quite typical for Brahm, Kelly, Carol, and me. Perhaps most obvious to an outsider would be that all four of us entered the diner wearing head-to-toe black, but this was irrelevant, save for in its scene-setting value to a lazy writer (who does not now need to provide you, his reader, the ages and various descriptive particulars of his friend, girlfriend, girlfriend’s friend, nor himself, since you will have taken this shorthand, perhaps rightly so, to mean that these were the sort of kids sometimes seen in public spaces, like ink spots on a nice shirt, where “normal” citizens give them a wide berth while simultaneously pretending to ignore them, as if averting their eyes might keep them from catching whatever sickness causes the kids to mutilate their deathly pale skin with all those silver piercings). The diner was just a diner, as diners all looked, thirty years after their last renovation. Of course, there’s no extraordinary relevance in telling you these things; what I think was extraordinary was how a sort of third-rate local tradition was born at our faux-woodgrain Formica table mere minutes after our dark foursome was seated.

It happened something like this. Inveterate cheapskate that he was, my friend Brahm perused the diner menu not from left to right, like most people in the Western world, but from right to left — price then description. Whether or not he did this every time we went out to eat, I can’t be sure, but he always had his eyes open for a bargain. He was still scanning for agreeably low figures on the menu when the waitress came to take our orders. After Kelly and Carol had placed theirs, he said, “I mean, I’m hungry, just not three-dollars-and-forty-cents-for-three-pieces-of-fried-chicken hungry, you know?”

Carol, installed beside him in our booth, rolled her eyes — often the only part of her that moved. She laughed with Kelly, my girlfriend, however, because Brahm’s pathological unwillingness to part with money frequently took strenuous efforts that never stopped being comical. Our waitress was less amused, almost certainly wishing we’d wandered instead into a Denny’s, or at least into a different server’s section. She nevertheless stood by, armored with the thick skin formed from decades of table-waiting in shabby establishments, her ballpoint pen hovering steadily above the pad, while the long-haired tightwad made up his mind.

In an effort to prod Brahm along, Kelly floated a couple of suggestions. “What about an omelet?” she tried. “That’s only two eighty-five.”

Brahm pursed his lips. “I’m not really in an omelet mood, though.”

“Pancakes, maybe?”

“Hmm,” he mused. “Yeah, except they probably use a premade batter mix, so their markup is huge. Besides, I’ve got Aunt Jemima at home.”

Brahm and I knew the patterns of this diner’s brown-and-orange tile work and drop-ceiling stains by heart, yet until that moment, somehow, one item on its menu had escaped our notice. Spotting it was a revelation. Wide-eyed, I looked up at my friend and said, “What about brains and scrambled eggs?”

The waitress leaned in, causing an intensifying of the odors of stale cigarette smoke and onion rings in my airspace. “That’s not really on there, is it?” she asked, as though I was the sort to just make up menu selections, as though I’d further delay, for the sake of a jokey hypothetical, the placement of my order. I pointed her to “Eggs and Such” on the laminated sheet. She said, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

Brahm responded, “I’ve never eaten brains before.” Grinning, he was visibly intrigued. “But if I won’t pay three forty for the fried chicken, which I’m sure I’ll like, then I’m certainly not gonna gamble three thirty on brains, which I’m pretty sure I won’t.”

Carol elbowed him. “Oh, come on, be adventurous! Look, they come with toast and hash browns.”

Turning down a novel meal ran as counter to Brahm’s values as did expending personal funds. Kelly made his choice easier by producing a few folded bills from her purse and asking, “Okay, so how about if I’m buying?”

“Buying me brains and eggs?”

“Yeah, sure. Except you have to eat the whole thing,” Kelly said. “Otherwise you’ve got to cover it yourself.” This reminded me of the time, in a different, far nicer restaurant, Kelly offered five dollars to the young women at a neighboring table to stop giggling so obnoxiously — a confrontation that evolved into a near-brawl between myself and the women’s angry boyfriends in the parking lot. Fortunately, Kelly’s pet cruelties could also be funny.

“What about a drink?” Brahm asked. Haggling now, she had him on the ropes.

“No drink.”


“You’re already getting hash browns and toast.”

“Yeah, but what if brains turn out to be, like, completely unpalatable?”

Kelly reached over me for the condiments. The bottles and shakers in the wire caddy rattled to a stop directly in front of him. She fingered each container in turn: “Salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, A-1, syrup — that ought to be enough to get you through.”

The order was placed. If the anticipation of seeing this mystery meal came close to killing us, the smell of it traveling across the diner came even closer. A light stink, like warm pond water, wafted over our table before the waitress was halfway from the kitchen. Then the plate of brains and scrambled eggs was set down, and Brahm said, flatly, “I was hoping somebody had ordered fish sticks or something.”

The waitress set our table’s other, better-smelling plates before us; though, it was the brains and eggs that held our collective attention. Chunky and gelatinous, with an oily sheen, they steamed like the remnants of a disintegrator-blasted alien in a cheap sci-fi film. The waitress, departing, said, “Enjoy.” She laughed. No food-service employee should ever laugh that way on the job — it does not instill comfort.

Poking and prodding the pale yellow-gray mess before him, Brahm sniffed, then hefted a forkful to his mouth. He made a spasmodic shrugging motion and put the back of his hand against his lips. He chewed with his eyes squeezed shut. “Oh man,” he finally managed to moan. “This is awful.”

We each sampled a tiny bite; we each gagged and spat into a paper napkin. It was agreed that Brahm faced a challenge.

Spectators turn out by the thousands to watch people eat competitively — hot dogs, watermelon, pie, anything — and in the coming years I would see the debut of TV shows like Fear Factor, on which contestants ingest bugs, blood, and bull penises for a chance at a cash prize. But we four teenagers were mostly oblivious to food’s potential as vicarious entertainment until Brahm gave us an epic dinner show. Gagging, gasping, blinking back tears, taking frequent breaks to drown the squishy mass of befouled eggs with sluices of steak sauce, picking out fragments of skull, then tucking back in with soldierly resolve, he put on such a performance that a bystander would have been forgiven for thinking there was far more at stake than three dollars and some change.

The fork clattered noisily as he dropped it on his plate, a kind of victory gesture, and belched. His face immediately twisted. “Ugh, it tastes even worse coming up.”

“I can’t believe you finished it,” said Carol, long since having forked up the last of her French fries and retouched her blood-red lipstick.

“It was like eating mushrooms and cartilage… marinated in fish sauce.”

Belying her usual poise, Carol’s hands flailed, as though to shoo away the sensory memory of her sample. “God,” she said, “that’s so gross.”

Brahm belched again. “Hey, you asked.”

“Braiiiiiins!” I groaned, zombielike, but no one else laughed at how it sounded just like Brahm’s burp. Perhaps mockery was in bad taste, considering how my friend was suffering.

With the matter of indigestion relief foremost on Brahm’s mind, and with a change of venue on everyone else’s, we paid our bill to the smirking waitress at the register and left.

The interesting thing about rituals is always their origins. All the best ones develop naturally, gradually, as the events that inspire them marinate in people’s minds, like so much cartilage and mushrooms in fish sauce, over a period of days, weeks, or months, until someone gets the bright idea to stage a re-enactment and recapture the spirit of the earlier events. In the case of the brains and scrambled eggs, the catalyst was a night visit to some friends’ house, regaling them with a vivid retelling of Brahm’s heroic overcoming, when naive young Robert took a long drag from his cigarette, scratched his four-day stubble, tipped back his fedora, and said, “I think I could do it; I think I could eat the brains.”

Within the half hour, Robert, his two housemates, and Brahm packed themselves into my car and we sped off, diner-bound. To cheers and claps, Robert retched his way through the plateful of gray matter — beef or pork, no one knew — and unfertilized chicken ova. A good time was had by all. Except, of course, by Robert. But even he attained a state of joy the next week, when he witnessed one of his housemates attempt and fail to complete the Brains Challenge (as it had come to be called), as well as the week after that, when Tara, Brahm’s ex-girlfriend, chewed her way through the disgusting dish like a veritable garbage disposal before chugging a full glass of ice water, cubes and all, offering as her only comment on the experience an understated “Ick.”

The Brains Challenge became an institution. Rules were established. Someone thought to print and frame certificates that read, This Is to Certify That _______________ Successfully Completed the Brains Challenge at Nichol’s Lunch, on _______________,1999, in the Esteemed Presence of the Previously Challenged Witnesses _______________ and _______________. Take Pity. Many of those challenged, myself included, failed to clean their plates, but none ever demanded a rematch. Pride is only worth so much.

An occasion arose, more than a year after Brahm was fooled into thinking he was getting a free lunch, on which it occurred to me that someone enjoyed the diner’s brains and scrambled eggs, or else why would they be on the menu? I happened to make this observation aloud in the presence of Mike, a mutual friend of Brahm’s and mine, while the three of us were whiling away another evening at the coffeehouse. To this, Mike responded, “Oh, brains and eggs aren’t bad. I’ve eaten them lots of times.”

We doubted. (Who wouldn’t, honestly, after eating that phlegmy mush?) However, we did wonder: might the diner’s brains and eggs be representative of all brains and eggs, instead of being the aberrance we believed them to be? We challenged Mike then and there. His acceptance of the Brains Challenge, to be taken on the following night, would prove to us that the brains in question were empirically worse than just about any other foodstuff, thereby validating our bravery and endurance.

The next evening, Mike and his girlfriend joined Brahm and I in a booth, squeaking across the vinyl bench cushion too casually, in my opinion, for the momentous adversity about to be met. The orders arrived. Mike’s girlfriend scarcely watched as he took up a fork and ate of the infamous entrée, chewing without effort, swallowing without histrionics, biting a corner off one triangle of toasted wheat bread, sipping his water, and obliterating our tough-guy pride with three little words: “Not too bad.”

02 November, 2012

Possessions, Prison Policy, and Grief

For over a decade I’ve been living out of a box — the gray metal footlocker that’s followed me for twelve years. Its limited space must hold everything I own (TV set, radio, and fan excluded), according to the policy of the Department of Corrections. Living under such restriction has forced me to weigh the importance of every card, every photograph, every meager scrap of paper I keep, because it’s the little things that are most apt to accumulate, quietly, into big things. I’ve been diligent, so my property has never exceeded my storage capacity. Whoever writes Departmental policy would be pleased by my compliance.

Never one for hoarding, I have always preferred to keep material possessions in my life to a relative minimum. What I do own, I keep organized. My childhood playroom was a neat space lined with crates and spruce shelves. My father’s space, the garage, was the opposite. A practical pack rat of the venerable, age-old This will come in handy someday!” school of thought, I can’t say it was from him that I learned what not to do, since it was, if anything, by the example of my German mother, whose memories of her formative years seem to involve an inordinate amount of polishing, that my inner neat-freak was encouraged. Any influence my father had on my aversion to accumulating stuff would have been posthumous, after his death, when I was eighteen and forced to make a salvage operation of his house — the home in which I grew up — and that damned garage.

In short, the things I have around must have real value, real importance to me on a practical or emotional level. I set the bar high. Here, in prison, I set the bar even higher. For me to keep something around, it must have passed the test. Some of what I keep is therefore precious.

Attachments beget sorrow, say the Buddhists. To divest oneself of material things is to take a step toward enlightenment. Unless they mean “enlightenment” in terms of a lightening of my life’s carefully selected cargo, then the last thing I felt when I lost everything and was locked away in a prison cell was enlightened. It must sound petty to you, but I still miss my pocket watch and my satiny brushed-stainless flatware. I don’t habitually complain about how much I miss the stuff of my former life, though, because I know that the absence of ticking in my pocket and the heft of those utensils in my hands are just symptoms of the larger problem, the perpetual state of loss that I’m finding prison life to be — perhaps no more so than life anywhere else, but certainly easier to dwell on than in other circumstances.

Obviously, though I live abstemiously, I’m no Buddhist. When we were teenagers, it was this sort of morbid stewing that led my friend Anna to title me Byron the Blackheart. Not that she had room to talk. Her favorite poem was that one by Stephen Crane, probably best known (though, I have no idea why) as the author of The Red Badge of Courage, “A man said to the universe.” You know the one:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”
After struggling with a vicious depression for far longer than even our decade of friendship, Anna killed herself in the summer of 2008. The batch of letters and cards I kept, written in her minuscule cursive handwriting that was almost illegible in its perfection, took on talismanic power, as if the sheaf of papers were imbued with some essence of her. I imagined I could smell her in the creases of the cards, on the surface of the pages, which were nearly as white as her skin had been.

Anna’s correspondence, hidden safe inside a folder inside a ribbon-tied portfolio inside a sturdy footlocker for four years and four months after she told the universe she’d had enough, was precious. But the Buddhists are right about attachments. Having held tight to those mementos of my friend, I invited the sorrow of additional loss, almost like losing her all over again. Whoever writes Departmental policy would be pleased by my compliance.

New property limits were posted a few days ago, for all prisoners to read. No more than twenty-five personal letters, it says. As if I had not already lost enough. I took a few deep breaths and tried to ignore the crumbling of more pieces away from what she jokingly called my black heart. I read her words one last time, then I tore them to bits. I poured this sad confetti into the thirty-gallon Rubbermaid trash can by the door of the wing, the pale sprinkles cascading over an empty bag of microwave popcorn and some candy wrappers. When I returned the empty portfolio to its place in my methodically organized footlocker, I barely noticed how much space I’d cleared up.

21 October, 2012

Fifteen Life Lessons Prison Has Taught Me

  1. Never share anything with anyone unless it’s something you’re prepared to lose.
  2. Privacy, like joy, is a privilege, a precious resource.
  3. Given sufficient hunger, even a taste for something like pickled beets can be acquired.
  4. The criminally minded have a disproportionate statistical likelihood of really, really hating cats.
  5. A disturbingly high number of men have a disturbingly low standard for personal hygiene.
  6. Computer access is not, strictly speaking, required for survival.
  7. Watching hometown news for glimpses of old stamping grounds is a sad, ineffectual way to preserve memories.
  8. It is possible to make watercolors from the dyes in the shells of M&Ms candies, as well as to make paintbrushes from #2 pencils and your own hair, but the results are never satisfying.
  9. That which you love most has the greatest potential to be your ruin.
  10. Where half of everyone claims themselves “innocent,” innocence is meaningless.
  11. The line between boredom and depression is razor-blade thin; finding purpose can save your life and make it worth living.
  12. How casually someone breaks their word is directly proportionate to the cruelty of their betrayal.
  13. The goals of toilet training are not standardized, and not everyone’s toilet training was devoid of subtle trauma.
  14. It’s an acceptable trade-off to spend several undignified moments being strip-searched every weekend, before and after a few hours spent visiting with good people.
  15. Victimhood is a choice.

11 October, 2012

The Dolorous Debut of Frankenweenie, and Other Sufferances

I wasn’t present for the 5 October opening of Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion animated feature, Frankenweenie, but I dearly wanted to be. Back row, center; 3D glasses askew from my lopsided ears; a ginormous bucket of popcorn rapidly emptying in my lap; a cup of Dr. Pepper — no ice — beside me, large enough to ensure at least ten missed minutes of the IMAX experience due to restroom trips; an expression of blank rapture on my face — I’d have waited in a line around the block to make sure all of this came true, because I loved the original, live-action Frankenweenie and find that even Burton’s worst output (I nominate the crushing disappointment that was his Planet of the Apes remake) cannot stem the effluence of enthusiasm I get for any new project he releases. The announcement of a new Tim Burton movie is one of those rare events with the power to turn me back into a seven-year-old boy.  

Oddly enough, I know of no other creator whose body of work is tied to so many firsts in my life. It was a Tim Burton movie, Batman, that I watched the first time I went to the theater alone. (I was eleven years old, not seven, but that’s hardly the point.) My first celebrity crush was sparked by a Burton movie I saw when I was thirteen: Winona Ryder, in Beetlejuice. The first DVD I ever bought was Mars Attacks!, his hilarious, underrated satire. Big Fish, with its plot that surrounds a son’s coming to terms with his father’s death, was the first film to make me cry. If these connections cast me in a certain light, I think I could do worse than for that light to be Burton’s signature bluish hue — the light of dawn and of twilight, and of forests in snowfall.

When I was young, mine was a downhearted soul. I read Poe by candlelight, “secretly” smoked clove cigarettes in my room while listening to Mozart’s Requiem all night, and thought often about the boundless iniquity of existence. The works of Tim Burton — his films as well as his illustrated storybook, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy — all but categorically focus on the travails of the outsider, the leper, the ugly duckling. You don’t have to meet Burton in person to understand that his was a childhood beset by ostracism, through which he’s still working, in ways. The stories he creates therefore seem made purely for himself. That they happen to resonate with those of us well acquainted with otherness is merely a byproduct, which we can call “success.” Burton’s creative output deals in the placid sadness of being alone, in the celebration of difference, in childhood’s innocent magic, in the often ill-fated clambering for acceptance, in the giddiness of unfettered self-expression — in short, all of the themes to which a weirdo like me would rise from his slouch and say aloud, “Yes, this is for me.” 

The seven-year-old boy in me did not get his ticket to the latest addition to Burton’s cabinet of curiosities. He did not get to stand in line, breathing the heady scent of popping corn, nor to find that perfect seat, all the way in the back of the theater, where he could feel comfortably out-of-the-way. He did not get to find out if modern 3D glasses make him as nauseous and headachy as the old polarized blue-and-red ones did. He did not get to find out how Victor and Sparky reunite and get on, in this retelling of a favorite tale. It’s a small disappointment, like Jack Skellington’s, in Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, when dense Halloweentown neighbors completely misunderstand Jack’s proposal for a magical Yuletide celebration, but what it portends is outright dejection.

07 October, 2012

The List: Reading July Through September 2012

Somewhere in the world, probably in an apartment ceiling-high with Robotech models, Doctor Who paraphernalia, or worn Del Rey paperbacks, sits someone who would respond with a derisive snort — if the question were deemed worthy of a response at all — when asked if it’s possible to OD on SF. (For the uninitiated, “SF” is “speculative fiction,” which itself is the blanket term for written works of sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history, and all points in between.) We geeks believe we have our addictions under control. Overlooking for a moment that I’ve had actual Star Trek-induced goosebumps, that I’ve unironically decorated a Christmas tree with officially licensed TNG starship ornaments, and that I’ve taken under serious consideration my onetime fiancée’s suggestion of a Las Vegas Star Trek Experience wedding, I think I know when I’ve had enough.

Even while continuing to focus on genre novels, I can temper my intake with a soupçon of nonfictional and literary sustenance. Take my previous three months’ reading as proof.

* * * * *

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
Not an especially engrossing read, but a useful one if you’re in need of a refresher on near-future science. Kaku, one of the fathers of string theory and the host of many science-centric Discovery Networks programs, interviewed dozens of futurists and fellow scientists before writing this eminently reasonable prediction about the next century’s beginnings. The result is as wide-ranging as it is scattershot. Being a hodgepodge isn’t the book’s failing, though. A hit-and-miss outcome is to be expected when explaining to a lay readership everything from DNA manipulation to terraforming.

The sci-fi novel I can’t shut up about writing is set in the late twenty-second century. A lot of the predictions Physics of the Future makes are invaluable to my project, in that they gave me a strong source from which to extrapolate even further ahead. Kaku’s book is full of interesting facts, and it works well as a sampler for any troglodytic reader who’s not moved his rock to peek out at the world of science recently. It also seems hastily written, with lots of repetitious phrases, several typos, and (here I go again) repellent cover art. The publisher, Doubleday, ought to have provided a man of Kaku’s stature a better editor. A qualified graphic artist couldn’t have hurt, either.

If you’re after a glimpse at the discoveries and innovations that will change the world, you could do far worse than to pick up Physics of the Future — it’s like a World’s Fair in book form. For your own good, though, avoid its short final chapter, in which Kaku tries his hand at writing a science fictional slice-of-life "story" that’s supposed to work as an overview of the predicted future but really only makes you wish the future would get here so you could be finished reading this thing.

John Clute, Appleseed
For years before making this novelistic 2001 debut, John Clute was a literary critic, as well as co-editor of the Hugo Award-winning Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. His work elsewhere won him the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contribution to fantasy and sci-fi scholarship. Or so I gather from this book’s dust jacket. I was away, for awhile, from what could be regarded as sci-fi’s galactic center — where all its heat and motion are — and hadn’t seen the name John Clute on anything until a few months ago, when Locus praised his more recent nonfiction book, Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (which sounded sufficiently excellent to add to my wish list). What’s this Clute guy all about? I wondered. So I picked up Appleseed.

At it’s core, Appleseed is standard space opera: lone interstellar pilot of a one-of-a-kind ship gets wind of a lucrative contract job and ends up out of his depth when said job pits him against a powerful enemy consortium that wants what he’s got (though pilot has no inkling what that is), and a universe is saved in process. Ho-hum, except not really. Some tales rest in the artistry of their telling. One maxim that keeps popping up in Appleseed says, “Sacred is the new.” Clute set this story thousands of years in the future, therefore the settings, the technologies, the languages, and even the physiologies of characters are so foreign and new that his reader can’t help being a little awed by the spectacle. Prose-wise, Clute’s posthuman tale is thoroughly postmodern, setting the linguistic bar high, which only adds to the pleasant disorientation, as in:
He was a figurine of porcelain in a maze of light, one whose corridors darkened into the fluted coral chambers of a spiral staircase, which was the inside of a cornucopia tiled with a story, and which grew larger the further he climbed, and made the sound of an ocean, and lo! he was peering through the crown of a great Tree, for he had in fact been climbing upside down. Here are the roots of the Tree (a voice said in his ear), once made of time, now made of weather. Help (scoffed the voice) if you can, little marmoset. What big eyes you have! Tell me (said the voice, diminishing into the cackle of a crone) a story.
At times I became frustrated with the free-associative poetics and pined for some straightforward storytelling to let me know what the hell was happening. But I suppose that writing about the quantum world of simultaneous states — things existing in one form and that form’s opposite at the same time, like Schrödinger’s poor dead/alive cat — is difficult without ambiguity. I excuse Appleseed’s occasional excesses. Simultaneously, I also don’t.

Joe Haldeman, A Separate War and Other Stories
Haldeman’s career in sci-fi started in 1969, when he sold his first piece of SF, “Out of Phase,” to Galaxy. Another SF story he wrote around the same time eventually became an episode of The Twilight Zone. His novel The Forever War was critically lauded as a sort of rebuttal to Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Haldeman went on to win Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Awards, teach writing at MIT, and, after thirty-six years of publishing in the genre, release this fourth collection of stories. If I read anything of his, prior to July 2012, may I be forgiven for not remembering it.

The fact is, what little I’ve now explored of his work is as competent and thoroughly thought-through as it is unremarkable. But this is unfair of me. Certain stories in this collection — the title piece, the unrelated-but-similar “Finding My Shadow” and “Faces,” and all of his two- and three-page works — are quite good. The stories here that don’t work for me have language, a central idea, or some combination of both, that leaves me underwhelmed. Too, his repetitive tropes get tiresome: must everyone in the future be gay? Haldeman’s stories move at a good pace, for the most part, but rarely let me shake free of the acute awareness of reading a science fiction tale. I was rarely in danger of losing myself in his myriad universes. Perhaps his reputation promised too much.

David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (editors), Year’s Best SF 15
This is more like it. Twenty-four stories representing the editors’ choices of the finest short-form speculative fiction to appear in any magazine, webzine, or anthology in 2009. I can’t speak to the quality of the rest, but that year’s sci-fi seems well represented.

Only three stories strike me as not belonging here — two of them being engaging-enough alternate-history tales, one being just plain cheesy — but the other twenty-one are truly outstanding and worthy of the distinction “best.” I especially like the work here by women authors, whose characterization and focus on the interplay of relationships lends them greater sophistication: Vandana Singh’s superlative “Infinities,” Mary Robinette Kowal’s touching “The Consciousness Problem,” and Genevieve Valentine’s ingenious, understated “Bespoke.” It isn’t often that I’m led to an author by an anthology, but several of those appearing here went on my list for further reading. I’m most excited about the aforementioned Professor Singh and Ms. Valentine, and Alastair Reynolds, whose dreamlike meditation on entropy, “The Fixation,” was inspired by the same 2007 New Yorker article that prompted a story of my own (far inferior to Reynolds’s, I freely admit). I also added the other sixteen volumes of Year’s Best SF to my must-read list, the expansion rate of which must now rival that of the universe itself.

Roger W. Shuy, Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom
I’ll save you thirty-five dollars and 205 pages of fairly dry reading about a small, highly specialized field. What forensic linguists do is systematically analyze the language in recorded video and audio evidence, in criminal cases, then share their findings with juries (or at least advise the lawyers who hired them to study the recordings). It’s a nuanced process. This becomes evident when you consider that forensic linguists are called in when cases — indeed, people’s lives — hinge on whether parties’ definitions or understandings of a phrase, or even a single word, are the same. (Examples cited in Language Crimes show that two people having a conversation can have radically different definitions of promise, it, him, or even kill. Try to remember that, next time you speak ill of an ex-lover.) Shuy covers matters of bribing, perjuring, threatening, admitting, promising, testifying, and questioning — in the process laying bare some shocking and not-so-shocking misconceptions about how language is used.

Lawyers, judges, true-crime addicts, and the insatiably knowledge-starved may find Language Crimes a worthwhile read. Other than confirming that a forensic linguist’s help with my case would be beneficial in proving my innocence (and confirming my hard-won impression of America’s judicial system as a theater of pomposity, willful misunderstanding, and cynicism), this book didn’t do much for me.

Edwidge Danticat and Robert Atwan (editors), The Best American Essays 2011
The day I checked out this installment of the always-excellent Best American Essays series from the prison library, I was joined at “the nerd table” by one of my usual sexagenarian cohorts. (“The nerd table” being what we call wherever we sit together to thumb through the communal issues of Popular Science and Discover.) He spotted this book atop my stack, picked it up, and mused, “Well, well, well. What have we here — essays?”

A brief perusal followed. He read off titles. “‘Topic of Cancer,’ ‘Grieving,’ ‘What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?’ Wow, this is some morbid shit.”

Who was it who posited that it’s impossible to produce good literature about a happy man? In all fairness, though, this volume isn’t all metastasization, mourning, and murder — not by a long shot. Forget my acquaintance’s first impression; much of this book is transformative (Victor LaValle’s “Long Distance”), inspirational (Pico Iyer’s “Chapels”), edifying (Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?”), and just plain funny (Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay”), and I recommend this one as confidently and heartily as I do any other year of the Best American Essays series.

Neal Stephenson, Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing
When I read Stephenson’s cyberpunk epic, Snow Crash, my typically understated reaction was a dry “Oh, yes, I like this.” Inside, though, I was giggling and swooning like a preteen girl in line at the gate of a Ricky Martin concert (it was 2000, so this reference is actually timely). That novel read like hackers and VR and mirrorshades, all packed up in a matte-black carbon-fiber attache case expressly for my delight. Stephenson became my hero the way William Gibson had, eight years prior.

The bad thing about reading such a phenomenal book is that everything its author writes will be in silent competition with what has gone before. The three Stephenson novels I’ve read in the last twelve years lacked Snow Crash’s kinetic verve, and one of them, The Diamond Age, I thought was downright disappointing. Some Remarks is a different sort of book, so perhaps I expected less — or at least different. If Snow Crash is a briefcase full of bleeding-edge tech, Some Remarks is a two-wheeled carry-on. Its contents include articles written for Slate, Salon.com, and Wired, plus a couple of vintage cyberpunk stories and much miscellanea. Including a 117-page trek through the fascinating world of undersea-cable laying, which I thought was totally awesome, this book fulfilled my nigh-boundless desire for intellectual exploration and just-right doses of smartassery.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
There was a time when I was a card-carrying member of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Society — secular libertarianism’s cult of personality. Like the good little acolyte I was, I read anything and everything I could concerning the Randian ideals of rational self-interest, laissez-faireism, and objective morality, beginning with Rand’s novels (Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) and nonfiction (The Virtue of Selfishness, Return of the Primitive, The Romantic Manifesto), then branching off into tangentially related texts, from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Somehow, though, I never made it around to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress until now, a decade and a half after my Objectivist Society membership lapsed.

The 1997 Orb Books edition of The Moon declares itself “[Heinlein’s] classic, Hugo Award-winning novel of libertarian revolution,” but, besides some antiregulatory talk and a few barbs aimed at collectivist commies (it was written in 1966, after all), The Moon is more about freedom from tyranny and class exploitation than about anything Rand would have put her name to. First and foremost, the book is an adventure about a former Lunar penal colony’s revolt against Earthside controllers, which features plenty of fast-paced subterfuge, a little rioting, a smidgen of bawdiness, and only a dash of Heinlein’s notorious sexism. Sixteen years ago, I’d have been disappointed by The Moon’s lack of didacticism. Today I think it’s one of the best things Heinlein ever wrote.

Neal Stephenson, Reamde
It’s a brick. It’s a book. It’s both. Boo.

20 September, 2012

Another Man’s Boxers: A Sartorial Lament

The inaugural washing precedes the inaugural wearing, always. If the article must be dry-cleaned, then the inaugural wearing will have to be postponed even longer. I will wear nothing straight off the rack. There’s no telling how many bodies have slithered through, nor how many hands have felt over a garment before my own. Washing also removes that intolerable starchiness, the telltale creases of articles that came in a package, and the whiff of plastic that all new clothing seems to carry.

Before the inaugural washing, there is a procedure to be followed — a preparation. Pockets must be checked for slips, collars for stays, folds for pins, hems for tags. I abhor labels, inside or out, and take great care to undo the stitching that affixes them, regardless of whether I bought the articles from a department store, a punk shop, or an upscale fashion boutique. My standards are uniform; I am very particular about my clothes. And yes, I recognize the apparent contradiction in paying $190 for a designer shirt, only to strip it of its fashion-house identification within moments of taking it out of the bag. It might even seem a tad rebellious — an act of protest against materialism, albeit a conflicted one, since I did buy the thing to wear — but all it is is an equal aversion to the scratchiness of clothing tags and the concept of becoming an uncompensated walking billboard.

Why buy designer clothes if I’m not interested in showing off a label’s name? I choose clothing solely based on whether it meshes with my personal aesthetic, and if I could do that by shopping exclusively at, say, Old Navy, I’d be fine with that. Unfortunately for my bank account, the clothes that tend to fit my self-image best can be a little spendy. On the ultra-rare occasions when I flip through a men’s magazine, like GQ or Esquire, my eye is only ever drawn to ads for military-inspired Burberry coats and the rock-and-roll schoolteacher look of the latest Belstaff line (yet indifferent to the presence of Ewan MacGregor therein). When I spot an item, in these magazines, that I fancy myself wearing, a glance at the retail price almost always sends me into sticker shock. It’s my haute couture taste versus my notoriously thrifty ways. Then, of course, there’s the further complications of black.

Waiting with a limo driver outside of a downtown Chicago bus depot, when I was twenty-two (a mildly amusing anecdote that will today go untold), I was asked, “So, are you in a band or something?” Calf-high Doc Martens, velvet trousers, a ribbed T-shirt, an ankle-length autumn coat — I suppose strangers should have been forgiven for mistaking one black-clad lad for the drum-machine programmer in some goth-industrial group. More often than I got the band question, though, I received disapproving looks. These generally failed to register. I only recognized the glaring physical difference between myself and Average Joe, ahead of me in line at the bakery, when he wouldn’t stop turning around to check that I was maintaining a safe interpersonal distance. Piercings, eyeliner, and occasional black nail lacquer didn’t help me blend into the crowd, either. So it was: I was a weirdo. At least I stayed true to myself.

I’d begun experimenting with my wardrobe palette shortly before my abduction by the state. Colors still tended to freak me out — wearing them felt somehow vulgar and false — but I had a handful of shirts in my closet that didn’t: one in a mute red, one in bluish gray, one in deep burgundy. I was becoming very comfortable with charcoals. The ties I donned for work constituted my most garish peacocking. A week’s worth of Brooks Brothers white button-downs hanging beside them were further proof of my assimilation efforts. Then, pow, all choice was taken away.

I spent more than a year wearing short-sleeved orange jumpsuits with “DETENTION CENTER” stenciled on the back, along with pinkish T-shirts, boxer shorts, and socks that, the previous week, had been worn by someone else. The tags in them could not be taken out, nor could the tang of cheap industrial laundry detergent. The scratchy collars and waistlines couldn’t distract me from my fretting about what festering lesions or microscopic parasites the clothing’s last wearer might pass along to me.

Then I arrived at prison. I was given a uniform — three of them, in fact, all in gray. It felt so good to be out of the jumpsuit, with its eye-searing color, its lack of pockets in which to relax my worrying hands, its baggy midsection that I unnecessarily grabbed to keep from sagging every time I stood up. The prison uniform’s battleship gray was a relief, too. I knew some prisons issued uniforms in blue, some in white, some in green, some in tan. I knew also how much wearing any of these colors would depress me, as daily reminders of how far outside of my element I was being forced to live. Gray doesn’t deserve its drab reputation; I was actually happy about this chromatic bit of compatibility. It almost made up for my continued deprivation from long sleeves.

Better still, the prison clothes were issued to me. They even had my name printed on the pockets, below my assigned DOC ID number. It would be my responsibility to keep them in good condition, to wash them, to not lose them. No one else had worn them, and no one else would. The clothing situation could have been so much worse. I was even allowed to remove the tags, first thing.

Years went by. Those uniforms have been replaced, piece by piece, many times since. There are schedules that dictate how long each article must be kept — boxers and socks, six months; T-shirts, a year; gray pants and shirts, three years — and I have mostly exchanged my old for new as those time frames allow. Financial cutbacks changed things. Staff who issue clothing here may now hand over an allotment of used T-shirts as likely as they might new ones. Ditto for gray pants, gray shirts, and underwear. Going to trade in my fraying, worn-thin items, I have thus far been lucky to get replacements that are still stiff from the box. I’ve hung on to a number of clothing articles for longer than most would. I have no desire to be given pre-worn boxers.

About the boxers, it’s tempting to joke, “There are many pairs like them, but these are mine.” Except they aren’t mine. They belong to the state of Missouri, the same as gave me a number that I wear because the rules here demand it, but to which I lay no claim. I wear these cheap white boxer shorts because there’s no alternative. If I’m ever handed a pair someone else has worn, I suppose I’ll wear those, too, for the same reason. For now, I’m trying to make the pairs last that I’ve already got. There’s no way for me to know if my next clothing exchange will yield more unworn stuff, or if my luck will hold. This strategy is a gamble, like a game of roulette. I hold tightly to the hope that I’ll one day soon have the option back to bet on black.

07 September, 2012

A Poem I Didn’t Write but Wish I Had

Science Fiction
By Les Murray

I can travel
faster than light
so can you
the speed of thought
the only trouble
is at destinations
our thought balloons
are coated invisible
no one there sees us
and we can’t get out
to be real or present
phone and videophone
are almost worse
we don’t see a journey
but stay in our space
just talking and joking
with those we reach
but can never touch
the nothing that can hurt us
how lovely and terrible
and lonely is this

* * * * *

This poem is one of the 150 or so that I keep filed away in a folder of my favorites. Every week or so, when I return for one reason or another to the folder, I never fail to reread “Science Fiction” — it resonates with me that much. Its message about the singularity inherent to human existence, particularly in our wired Western culture, is one thing, but these lines of Murray’s have another layer of meaning for me, which comes with the limited meaningful contact I have with the world outside these prison walls. I know more, perhaps, than Murray intended to convey about “how lovely and terrible / and lonely” it is to literally stay in my space while reaching out. I try to express this as succinctly in some of my own poetry. Whether or not I succeed isn’t this post’s subject, though. I just want to share with you what I think is a very good poem.

19 August, 2012

Things I Write When I Should Be Writing Something

In late June I began writing a science fiction novel. Sort of. “Writing,” in the sense I mean it here, translates to “outlining and amassing copious notes for.” To claim that the work I’ve put into the project thus far has involved much actual writing — that is, the construction or arrangement of sentences that might end up in even the roughest of manuscript drafts — would basically be lying. I’ve written one sentence. Mind you, I think it’s quite a qood sentence, meeting all the criteria prescribed by so-called experts for a quality opening sentence for any narrative: inviting inquiry, stating something integral to the plot without giving anything away, providing characterization for the protagonist, sounding good…. So I have been working on my novel, completing steps that are part and parcel of the writing process. My attentions are simply elsewhere.

For my reading, these past four months, I’ve chosen exclusively sci-fi and fantasy books. “Priming the pump,” is how I described it in my latest posted reading list. The tactic worked too well, though. Yes, reading all that speculative fiction caused my ideas for the novel to flourish, but ideas for other projects did, too. The story collections I’ve been enjoying so much unintentionally focused my mind on the short form, so even though I have all these notes and printed encyclopedic articles relevant to my novel, and am intellectually prepared to bend to that work, short stories have seized my exclusive interest. It’s frustrating. And incredibly fun.

My short-fiction jag began when I went back to revise a somewhat surreal 2,000-word story — “Remembrance” — about artificial intelligence and grief, which I wrote nearly two years ago. The editorial feedback from the magazines I sent it to, in the only round of submissions I sent the story on, was encouraging. For unremembered reasons, I never got around to making the suggested changes — foolish of me, no matter what my excuse was. Now, having finally (I hope) repaired what in the first version was broken, I’ve sent the manuscript back to one of the original commentators. Maybe “Remembrance” will make the cut now. I’m pleased with the changes I’ve made to it, particularly the 500-word increase in length and the removal of some ambiguity I’d initially mistaken for compelling mystery. This manuscript has been out for several months, which I can barely resist thinking means it’s being seriously considered for publication.

Motivated by how good I believe “Remembrance” turned out, I spent a week writing an atmospheric 4,000-word story titled “Dragons” — a fireside tale of off-world colonization gone genocidally wrong. It’s pretty grim. To balance out that gritty creation, I tried my hand at writing a humorous piece of flash fiction. The result of that is a trifle of urban fantasy I call “Doorbell, Book, and Candle.” Preliminary reports are that it’s a fun read, so I consider it a success. But will these two pieces meet editors’ approval?

The work receiving most of my attention for the previous weeks represents yet another leap of imagination: a satirical 11,000-word work in progress involving a young autistic man, the zombie apocalypse, and one very late grocery delivery. I feel hobbled when the time comes to title my stories, and the struggle to name this one is almost as protracted as anything in its plot. I don’t know if this should worry me or not. Thus far, I’m pleased with the story, even though it’s longer than it will probably need to be for publication. People who give writers advice about such things say it’s best to just tell the story that’s begging to be told, and worry about submission guidelines later. That’s exactly what I’m doing, and my unnamed adventure through the world of the undead is proving very fun to write, as a result.

Will I get back to my novel soon? Absolutely. But it’s been so long since I’ve been this prolific with fiction of any length, so I’m allowing my muse to run her course, whatever crazy route she chooses to take.

08 August, 2012

Those Noisy Aleve Commercials Are Killing Me

Arthritis sufferers deserve relief — I’m not disputing that. I only wish my daily Jeopardy! viewing didn’t subject me to the amplified slurping and swallowing made by the purportedly arthritic as they ingest their palliatives.

For those of you not in the know, no, I don’t watch this, one of my favorite things on TV, with a group of geriatrics. What I’m referring to are Jeopardy!’s commercial breaks, which are frequently sullied by the show’s principal sponsor, Aleve. The Aleve ads feature enhanced audio of pills being shaken out of an easy-open bottle, then taken with a super-loud gulp of coffee. Twice within thirty seconds. It’s too much. These awful adverts make it very hard to get back into a quiz-show mindset. Sometimes they even make me forget my score.

I am not a marketing genius. I am not even a marketing idiot. (I am not in marketing.) But I think a more positive association might have been made by starting the Aleve ads with the sound of creaky knees ascending stairs, then pills dispensing, then the nice silence of knees experiencing whatever is the opposite of inflammation (unflammation?) to illustrate that the pill stops a problem. As they are, Aleve’s commercials are memorable only for being disgusting.

Is there any noise the ad execs could have agreed on that would have been even less appealing than beverage slurping? At least Aleve isn’t foodstuff, or they might have used chewing noises. There is already too much of that on TV. Those Kit-Kat ads, with that percussive crunching, snapping, tapping, and whatnot — you know the ones — are abominations I don’t watch enough television to have gritted my teeth through more than once. Thank goodness. What I’m curious to know, however, is whether I am the only person in North America who is driven to near-mortal terror by the gloopy noises of mastication and imbibement Aleve sees fit to air. If not, why were my sensitive-eared brethren and sistren not invited to participate in the focus group before these nauseating spectacles left studio hands? Someone should be called to account. As punishment, I suggest muzzling.

02 August, 2012

Abbreviation Agitation

I.D. is, we all recognize, the shortened form of identification, and TV is the abbreviated form of television. Both are truncations of single words, so why does one merit periods and the other doesn’t? My preferred at-hand reference, The New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition, informs me that the commonest abbreviation of air conditioning is a/c — no periods, weirdly lowercase, and employing an inexplicable slash. The latest edition of the venerable grammar and usage bible, The Chicago Manual of Style, proclaims that morning times may be indicated with the writer’s choice of a.m., A.M., or AM, in roughly that order of preference. The inconsistency is maddening, and I know I am not the first or last writer who’s equally flummoxed and infuriated by such agonizing ambiguity. My solution? I manifest an almost pathological insistence on spelling words out whole.

Addressing envelopes is where this habit is most apparent. It bothers me (probably unreasonably) that the abbreviations of Street, State, and Saint are identical, and I get no small satisfaction from bucking that particular convention. Ditto for Apartment and Suite, Fort and Mount, Avenue and Lane. I do use the standard two-letter postal designations for states; however, that is a matter of systemic concordance. They’re technically not abbreviations but codes. And I’ve got me some mad respect for proprietary code systems.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style stresses to writers the importance of remaining stylistically consistent, no matter how idiosyncratic your chosen style might be. Pick one and stick with it, to paraphrase. This explains why the often fusty New Yorker, at which White was once an eminent personage, uses an awkward mix of archaic and contemporary abbreviations that make the reader wonder if the editor cultivates a handlebar mustache and rides a velocipede to the office yet also possesses lifetime tickets to TED Talks. For example, the confused New Yorker style is to use A.T. & T. but LLC, Ph.D. but DNA, and N.Y. but CBGB. To this, I ask, WTF?

The magazines and publishing houses can’t agree. My personal reference, though it may be criticized by the Punctuation Police and Grammar Gestapo, is to do away with periods in abbreviations altogether, on those rare occasions when I lapse into Abridgment Mode. I submit to the Powers That Be that, if clarity is the goal of the writer (as it surely should be), then what’s wrong with, say, calling instant messages IMs, instead of I.M.s? What literate individual could possibly be thrown off by that? While editors adhere to their patchwork approach, I try for a little standardization, tidying as I go, not rushing like a literate lemming for an American Heritage whenever the situation calls for a term to be shortened. Why defer to convention when my way is better for everyone?

But what about acronyms? you cry. I think they speak for themselves often enough that we needn’t worry much about them. No one of reasonable mental capability and cultural hipness would spell out NASA as N-A-S-A, DARPA as D-A-R-P-A, or NAMBLA as — never mind, I just ate. As long as it looks pronounceable, with consonants and vowels in some semblance of order, the brain will likely perceive it as a word. That’s fine. Strings of seemingly random letters make lousy mnemonics, so that abbreviation’s resemblance to a word was probably deliberate. In the case of abbreviations like CIA and CEO, both of which make intelligible, if somewhat foreign-sounding acronyms, readers first encountering them chould default to their language instinct and read them as such: See-ah and Say-oh. (Two very different types of company men reading this sentence will get indignant. I don’t care.) This is merely further standardization, further simplification. This just makes sense.

Texting and typing online have gone a long way toward making periods in abbreviations obsolete. Unfortunately, capitalization has largely fallen out of practice, too, which has the potential to be even more detrimental to clarity than a few extra periods ever could. I would love to see a shift away from periods, to all-capital acronyms, but I recognize that this would only alleviate part of the abbreviation problem. Street, State, and Saint are still at issue. I can’t very well expect people to start spelling things out all the time, as I do. There’s laziness to account for, and I suspect a good-sized portion of English speakers don’t know what etc. stands for, nor how to actually spell miscellaneous. So I sigh in resignation while at the same time raving about all the ways stuff could be better if only.... For those of us in love with language, it has always been thus. It probably always will be.

17 July, 2012


The dining hall fills. Nearly 140 convicted men hurriedly eat the dinner they’ve been issued, then wait for the exit door to be opened. On any other evening there would scarcely be time to choke down half of what’s on my tan plastic tray before guards rushed us out. Because we’re about to be released to our recreation period, though, the fifteen-minute limit alotted by policy for each mealtime is not applied by the guards in charge. Staff enforce their rules selectively.

I clench my jaw and rub my thumb the way I do even when I’m not anxious. Earplugs aren’t allowed here, and the noise of so many impatient souls in such a cavernous space is just shy of painful. The crowd’s not usually this loud. It is turning into an evening replete with exceptions

Twenty-five excruciating minutes crawl by. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. Then thirty. The basketballers are itching to play their game, the weightlifters are fidgeting in their seats, the library-bound are flipping idly through borrowed books. Conversations have grown even more emphatic. I’m about to put my fingers in my ears when there’s a lull.

The lull lasts. What? Something is happening. I turn and scan for the sight that has calmed this madding crowd. A brewing fight? Someone being taken to the Hole? The sighting of a woman whose appearance wouldn’t sour milk? No.

A downy tuft. One of those wispy, floating white globes of seed that are distributed on the wind — from what kind of tree or weed I’m too botanically ignorant to know. Someone must have kicked it up after it wafted through the door with us, over a half hour ago. Now it’s suspended in midair, between tables, and nearly everyone is watching it drift. They’re transfixed.

One lanky man with glasses blows at it and grins as the feathery little orb catches in his airstream. It sinks abruptly, then, and another man stretches out a tattooed hand to fan upward. Those within the tuft’s proximity are united in unspoken urgency to keep it aloft. The scene is vaguely aquatic. Arms extend almost delicately from tables, like the undulating tentacles of octopuses, and smiles sprout with the suddenness of sea anemone blooms. The puff itself — langorous, incidental, aimless — reminds me of a jellyfish.

I’m not going to call this moment beautiful. Video of a discarded plastic grocery sack buffeted by breezes, performing air ballet, is a better (and similar) exemplar of accidental profundity in that which has been discarded. I won’t go there. Nor will I stretch to comment on the essential undercurrent of innocent joy in even society’s most nefarious outcasts. (I’m not a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of guy.) But in the full ninety seconds that that tiny seed holds the prisoners in delighted thrall, before it’s forgotten and borne away by everyone’s crushing move for the at-last-opened door, there’s — I don’t know — a kind of peace. And it’s nice.

08 July, 2012

The List: Reading April Through June 2012

Priming the pump. That’s probably the best metaphor for my speculative-fiction-reading jag, these last couple of months. After I completed work on my memoir manuscript last year, I was nagged persistently by the thought of what book-length writing project to tangle myself up in next. I was certain I wanted to try my hand at a novel — perhaps a sci-fi novel. Science fiction, as I like to tell people, was my first love. The Tripods, Asimov’s Robbie the Robot books, The War of the Worlds, and classic movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still — my early childhood memories of these are perfectly preserved even while those of most family gatherings, many special outings, and several birthday parties are but hazy half-recollections. I’m not adequately credentialed to assess what this says about me, except that my geek pedigree is solid.

But months dragged on without inspiration striking for my next writerly undertaking. It could be that I had focused for so long on essays and literary fiction that I was hobbled, unable to envision scenarios ungrounded in the here and now. A friend suggested this, then offered a solution. “Read more high-quality genre fiction,” she advised. “Maybe something will come to you.”

So I shifted my reading habits for awhile, picking up nothing but books of fantastika that were critically lauded, in the hope that doing so might jar a wild idea or two loose from my stuffy, logical brain. I started reading Locus, a monthly magazine of speculative-fiction criticism and related book-industry news. I also re-watched, on a whim, Aliens on Syfy, just to see if it would put me in the mood. (Forget Ellen Ripley, that xenomorph queen is the real babe of that film.) Whether or not all this was the cause, I had a breakthrough in mid-June: I’ve officially begun writing a sci-fi novel. Check back with me in a few months and you’ll be bound to read all about this endeavor’s progress. For now, though, you can see below what books I transitioned to in order to break free of the gravity of my sci-fi writer’s block.

* * * * *

Søren Kierkegaard (Alastair Hannay, translator), The Seducer’s Diary
One of the fathers of existentialism in the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard’s first major work was Either/Or, an exploration of ethics versus aesthetics from which The Seducer’s Diary is excerpted. It so happens that a copy of Either/Or found its way to me when I was in jail awaiting trial. It was wheeled in on the meager book cart that made the rounds every other week, and, because it was one of the few titles that didn’t bear a cheesily embossed, foil-stamped cover, I snatched it up thinking to distance myself from my daily bouts with that peculiar admixture of ennui and anxiety. I was facing double life sentences; existential philosophy was, as it turns out, something of a back-burner topic at the time. I scarcely read past the book’s first fifteen pages, and so never read the portion comprising The Seducer’s Diary.

It’s exactly what it sounds like, though. The book’s fictional narrator, Johannes, poetically describes his first sighting of the lovely young Cordelia, then his calculation to win her heart utterly, then, finally, at the point she is irrevocably his, his rejection of her. Johannes is the very model of an aesthete, his only interest in women being the beauty of the dance that is their seduction. In Johannes’s defense, he’s no libertine. Not in any strict sense, anyway. If anything, he has a very thoroughly developed sense of propriety, saying at one point that to make outwardly amorous advances, even after he secures an engagement to Cordelia, “would be really outrageous,” as it would “insult her profound femininity.” To him, romance is an art, nothing more, and this fictional diary reads with all the subversiveness and outrageous humor you’d expect to result from such a perspective. Assuming, that is, you’re in a calm enough mindset to assimilate it.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Consider for a moment a man named Steve. Steve is described by his neighbor as “very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” So, is it more likely that Steve is a farmer or a librarian? If you are like most people, your answer will be based on the resemblance of Steve’s noted personality to the profile of a stereotypical librarian. The trouble is, the question is one of likelihood, not profiling. Steve’s neighbor’s description is irrelevant to determining his occupation. Therefore, if you are like most people, your answer was probably wrong. In the United States, librarians are outnumbered by farmers by a ratio of more than twenty to one, yet most people tend not to think in terms of statistics, even when they believe they’re doing so — even when the alternative is more direct.

People are prone to the sort of simplifying and substitution in mental behavior that appears in the Steve question (the technical term for which is heuristics) because intuitive thinking is less resource-intensive than statistical thinking; and this is as straightforwardly as the subject of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s eye-opening book can be stated. Not that it’s a terribly complicated work. Kahneman does an outstanding job of making the fascinating concepts of loss aversion, duration neglect, and availability bias exceptionally easy for laypeople to grasp, avoiding the pedantic tone that would drag down a less well-written effort. He even introduces some humor, here and there, which is no mean feat for a text equally suited to be shelved in the psychology and economics sections of the bookstore.

A bonus source of interest to me was the striking frequency with which my own cognitive processes failed to jibe with those of the study subjects cited in this book. (Research questions are posed frequently throughout, allowing readers the chance to be surprised by their own responses.) Granted, I hardly needed a book to tell me I’m a more rational, analytical thinker than the average human. A single, early reference to a study of people’s impressions of causality fleetingly mentioned that people with autistic spectrum disorders were often exceptions to the rules defined in Thinking. It could have distracted somewhat from the author’s points if he’d contrasted neurotypical and autistic cognition further, but I’d still have been interested in reading such a divergence.

Phillip Lopate (editor), The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present
I think that when many people encounter the word essay, uncomfortable memories of high school English class come flooding back. That, or what comes to mind is some dry, didactic treatise they once read, which addressed a subject as tedious as the varieties of plumage observed in the European swallow during the writer’s two-week birdwatching tour of the United Kingdom. Either way, the essay has a bad rap. I blame the type of literary Ambien just mentioned — a case of a few boring apples spoiling the whole bunch. But some of the most entertaining and enlightening writing I’ve encountered has been essayistic in nature. There are a lot of great things to be said for the Best American Essays series of books, a new volume of which is published each year. In those I’ve found many pleasant surprises from pieces that begin with an apparently unpromising subject (a New England lobster festival, say) and, by virtue of a unique perspective and an amusing, conversational tone, are rendered remarkable. This is the essay’s power.

In the instance of this collection, The Art of the Personal Essay, the focus is on that subcategory of the essay form that implies, or speaks directly to, a certain universal human condition by dealing in autobiographical detail and avoiding formal, fusty language (unless it’s for laughs). This is a hefty book, packed as it is with selections from as far back as the first century. Two selections are by Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century patron saint of the form. His “On Books” and “On Some Verses of Virgil” failed to impress me. Better examples could almost certainly have been found. Plenty of other pieces here were a pleasure to read: Seneca’s relatable “On Noise”; Maria Edgeworth’s facetious sexism in “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification”; George Orwell’s study of English boarding-school life, “Such, Such Were the Joys…”; Sara Suleri’s meditation on bull testicles, “Meatless Days”; James Baldwin’s powerful race-relations treatise, “Notes of a Native Son”; Annie Dillard’s sensory paean, “Seeing”; and Richard Rodriguez’s affecting, unsentimental view of San Francisco during the early AIDS epidemic.

While I may have read anthologies that were more fun or that I believed more effectively curated, The Art of the Personal Essay succeeds at least in being a broad-ranging introduction to the form — a good dock from which a novice may kick off his or her shoes and dip a toe into the essay’s open ocean of possibilities.

David Rakoff, Half Empty
“Warning!!!” reads the bright yellow seal on the cover. “No Inspirational Life Lessons Will Be Found Within These Pages.” And this is true; the contents of this collection of loosely interlinked personal essays (some previously published in well-known magazines) live up to its cover’s alert. Rakoff — journalist, author, frequent This American Life contributor, and sometimes actor, — is at his sardonic best here. Half Empty reads like I imagine David Sedaris might, if the edge of Sedaris’s bleak wit were honed on the whetstone of being a Jewish pork-lover and three-time cancer survivor. Although I got this book under the misapprehension it would be a tongue-in-cheek manifesto for pessimists, this quick read was nevertheless a dark delight. I lost track of how many times my bursts of laughter earned quizzical looks from my cellmate, who doubtless silently questioned why Mister Intellectual was reading a book with a cartoon bunny on its cover.

David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Imagining what becomes of us after we shuffle off this mortal coil has preoccupied humanity since before recorded time. Disagreements between factions with incompatible theories blemish our history as well as our present-day, frequently causing believers from every camp to personally find out, a bit earlier than may have been hoped, whether or not their guesses were right. As fiercely as some hold to their belief in an afterlife, and given the preponderance of largely homogenous ideas those believers hold, this short collection of alternatives brainstormed by Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist David Eagleman is a refreshing reminder of just how unimaginative those beliefs are.

Its subtitle tells you exactly what this book holds in store: forty vignettes about different versions of the Great Beyond. Each averages a couple of pages and posits its own theoretical hereafter. Despite their profound differences — some are warm and fluffy, others cold and bleak — every one of Eagleman’s ideations is a testament to humanity. Each should also prompt a reader to think, perhaps uncomfortably, about life.

The first sentence of the titular chapter, “Sum,” reads, “In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

“Metamorphosis” begins, “There are three deaths.”

The melancholy “Spirals” starts with the humorous conceit, “In the afterlife, you discover that your Creator is a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures.”

In “Scales,” Eagleman flirts with transcendence, writing, “For a while we worried about a separation from God, but our fears were eased when the prophets revealed a new understanding: we are God’s organs, His eyes and fingers, the means by which He explores His world.”

Then he goes in exactly the opposite direction, in “Microbe,” a few chapters later: “There is no afterlife for us.”

Big ideas presented by the simplest prose. Sum is witty, quietly provocative, and highly recommended.

M.R. James, Collected Ghost Stories
It was interesting to transition from Sum’s tidy syntax to this collection’s nineteenth century linguistic sprawl, while staying (in a sense) on the topic of afterlives. More than just in style, I hardly think these two books could be less similar.

A distinguished medievalist and internationally renowned scholar of biblical, antiquarian, and historical subjects, M.R. James took to writing spook stories on a lark, in the late 1800s, as after-dinner entertainment for his literary colleagues. So effective were his understated-yet-descriptive tales of terror that James was prompted to publish them, and a succession of four ghost-story volumes ensued, plus the stories’ various appearances in journals of the day, before his 1936 death. Collected Ghost Stories brings together his entire output of horror, save for the three stories he wrote after its 1931 publication. And quite the collection it is.

Readers know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I couldn’t help myself in this case. The paperback copy from Wordsworth Editions’ 2007 “Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural” series, which I received, is ugly — not just ugly, but cheesy: a skull and a spatter of dripping blood are embossed here, where the badly photoshopped British country inn and ominous evening sky alone would have better fit James’s writing. There is scarcely a hint of blood in these tales, and of skulls only slightly more. James wasn’t interested in gross Lovecraftian exposition. He described only what was necessary to set a scene, then subtly, almost casually, unloosed precisely enough detail at the dramatic climax as to let readers’ imaginations deliver the chills.

From “The Diary of Mr Poynter”:
James Denton, not yet inclined for bed, sat him down in an arm-chair and read for a time. Then he dozed, and then he woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him.
And this is as explicit as James ever gets.

Subtle, conversational, and, above all, very, very British, Collected Ghost Stories represents what I believe is some of the best horror writing of all time. Hardly any wonder why James is still regarded as one of the genre’s greatest.

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
This debut novel kept popping up on readers’ lists of 2011’s best books, yet I confess to having acknowledged it with an initial dollop of skepticism. The title, The Night Circus, I thought belonged on a particularly awful Dean Koontz thriller. Circuses and carnivals have been the backdrop for innumerable crap-fests on page and screen alike. The off-kilter setting naturally appeals to writers who want to set a fantastical story where the otherworldly is credibly commonplace. Except it takes more than some popcorn and striped tents to create an effective atmosphere of this kind. The numinous isn’t easily invoked. Until I found a review of Miss Morgenstern’s literary talent, I was satisfied ignoring this book’s existence. I’ve never taken well to what some readers call “guilty pleasures.”

This novel begins in 1873, in New York, when a wager is made by two very old rivals. We’ll call them magicians. A complex strategy game is to be played; however, we’re not privy to its mysterious rules. Only the pair of bettors know what is to come — the instruction of their players, Celia and Marco — and the field in which the challenge will unfold, Le Cirque des Rêves. (I suspect this, French for “The Circus of Dreams,” may have been Morgenstern’s superior first choice of titles before Doubleday questioned its mass appeal. A pity, if true.) From there, abrupt shifts and gradual progressions of time treat the reader to a story replete with charms, illusions, and star-crossed love, but it’s the circus itself that’s the real star of this book.

According to the New York Times Book Review’s Terrence Rafferty, literary fiction “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” The Night Circus’ gossamer plot is frequently blown aside by its heady atmosphere of magic. Morgenstern is a deft spellcaster, placing before her reader sights and smells so evocative that attractions within the black-and-white tents of Le Cirque des Rêves feel tangible. Ginger and cream and caramel confections tantalize. Velvety curtains part at a touch. Clouds of mist fill a tent of living creatures made from paper. A bonfire in the circus courtyard burns white as new-fallen snow. It’s all a sumptuous banquet for the senses that should meld itself with any reader’s dreams.

China Miéville, Kraken: An Anatomy
When the preserved specimen of Architeuthis dux — a twenty-eight-and-a-half-foot giant squid — suddenly vanishes into what seems to be thin air from the Darwin Center at London’s Natural History Museum, it looks like the end of the world to curator Billy Harrow. Because it is. In the aftermath of the squid’s disappearance, formalin-filled tank and all, Billy finds himself enmeshed in a looming apocalypse and hunted by an increasingly abnormal assortment of law enforcement, underground cultists, freakish gangsters, paranormal assassins, and casual practitioners of arcane magic. They all think he knows something special about the squid, something dreadfully important. At a loss for what the End of Days might have to do with him or his pickled cephalopod, Billy has a hard enough time staying hidden from the forces chasing him down. The places in which he holes up show him a side of London he never could have dreamed existed.

Kraken, by my new favorite fantasist (sorry, Neil Gaiman; your Sandman graphic novels are wondrous, but these days I crave a touch less whimsy), is an adventure in more than just the sense of plot. If Miéville’s tortuous story of warring fringe religions, tenuous alliances, and red herrings — er, squids? — isn’t enough to hold a reader’s attention, his always-dynamic prose is a particular delight. Dialog crackles these weird and sometimes horrifying characters to life, imbuing each with a vivid, distinct personality. Too, the author is generally a brilliant stylist. Every other page offers some clever turn of phrase, punning neologism, or postmodern kick. Kraken’s storyline takes some dark turns, but by the time its breathless conclusion is reached, the fact is undeniable that it was, throughout, some wild kind of fun.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One
In an essay that he wrote for The New Yorker’s special science-fiction issue (“A Psychotronic Childhood,” June 4 & 11, 2012), Whitehead wrote
I never lost sleep over humanoids from the deep, or murderous, severed hands, but I didn’t lose my fear of people. Some people have anxiety dreams about being late for a class they forgot they’d enrolled in, or about giving a speech stark naked. I had zombie anxiety dreams. They started after I saw Dawn of the Dead, in 1979, and kept coming back. For decades. Depending on what was going on in my life at the time, I was pursued by fast zombies or slow zombies. I was alone or with a group. I got away or didn’t. For me, killer robots and giant grasshoppers had nothing on people. I had those dreams until I wrote Zone One and finally found somewhere else to put them.
He distills this off-brand misanthropy into a potent elixir of cynical end-of-the-world action for this compulsively readable novel.

Most of the beloved zombie-story devices are in play here. The uniqueness of Zone One is that the three-day period of its principal plot is set in a period of reconstruction, when the aftereffects of the worst days of chaos and bloodshed are declared PASD — Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder — and the bureaucratic oversight of New York’s provisional government is more concerned with the well-being of its few surviving corporate sponsors than of its hoi polloi. Parts of this book were reminiscent of Max Brooks’s excellent “oral history,” World War Z, but even for Brooks’s canny imaginings, his world trying to recover from the ravaging of the walking dead never felt as true as the one brought to life by Whitehead, in this grisly, perfectly paced tale of existential tumult. Only an accomplished author of literary fiction could have known how to make a story of the undead move with such meaning and life.

Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man
What is it about Bradbury’s writings I can’t warm to? An esteemed member of sci-fi’s golden generation, he has millions of fans the world over. His decades in the field have yielded hundreds of stories and dozens of books. He’s been honored by the National Book Foundation, received a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and was declared a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French (oh, the French). And yet, and yet. Some je ne sais quoi keeps me from enjoying his tales as much as seems commensurate with his purported greatness. For me, Bradbury’s simply blah.

Is it the era? The stories in The Illustrated Man certainly are superannuated, having first seen print in magazines between 1947 and 1951. They’re accordingly full of the trappings of atomic-age imagination: characters smoke cigarettes onboard rockets being guided to Mars by jumpsuited white men; vacuum modules propel residents to their homes’ upper floors, to be bathed and dressed by machine; beings from the inhabited worlds of our solar system — Venusians, Martians — are primarily bipedal and speak English. It all smacks of EPCOT Center’s “World of Tomorrow!” Except I enjoy even the most hopelessly dated  Twilight Zone reruns that Syfy airs periodically, so age shouldn’t be a substantial factor.

Is it Bradbury’s prose style? Doubtful. He is sometimes wooden (a shortcoming he all but rubs in the reader’s face by way of exclamation points thrown onto the ends of otherwise drab declarative sentences), but he’s also capable of rendering some downright poetic passages. I’d say his technical skills are therefore fairly sound.

Is it that he’s a mediocre storyteller? Not hardly. Granted, with a couple hundred plots to his name, a few are bound to miss their mark (here it’s “The Man,” which hinges on a spaceship captain coming unhinged in a context that makes no sense, and “The Long Rain,” which, though an interesting concept vividly delivered, failed for me by letting life-or-death stakes assume the duty of making characters interesting). He’s usually adept with the twists and turns of narrative.

So we’re left with attitude. Not the attitude of Bradbury’s stories, for these veer from comic to melancholy, but the apparent attitude of the writer himself. With vision aplenty, he nevertheless renders his tales without a futurist’s thorough foresight. He’s cavalier and slapdash. We get rockets like they’re going out of style, but their crews’ sidearms are projectile guns rather than ray blasters. We get a man who lives by a busy highway and receives frequent stop-ins from travelers, yet he somehow doesn’t know there’s a world beyond the desert expanse he calls home. We get a sentient twenty-century-old city that possess the bodies of nine men who happen into its boundaries, and, although they share one consciousness, the unfortunate automatons spend the rest of the story explaining their plan to one another and calling each other by their dead human names. It’s clumsy. I want my sci-fi to be thorough, very thorough. Bradbury tosses out a couple of golly-gee technologies here and there, and expects the tech to be taken at face value. Technology begets change, though — often widespread and sometimes surprising. This childish lack of analytical consideration on the author’s part, with both his old-time high-tech and his more general conceits, is what keeps me from leaping aboard the Bradbury bandwagon.

Philip K. Dick, Now Wait for Last Year
Time travel. Precognition. Artificial intelligence. Telepathy. Alternate realities. The continued relevance of The New York Times in 2056. The sheer number of out-there concepts in this uneven novel is outrageous, even for Dick, the mad emperor of gonzo futurism. The plot centers on an organ-transplant surgeon named Doctor Eric Sweetscent (one of my favorite Dickian character names, along with Horselover Fat, from VALIS) and his efforts to end his hellish marriage to a drug-addicted psychopath. (For a while, I really empathized with him.) An ideally timed job transfer allows Sweetscent to get away from his psychologically abusive wife for awhile, but it also places him in a position to influence the interstellar war to which Earth has been bound for years as an impotent ally. This is all harrowing enough before his wife shows up at his door, addicted to a weaponized opiate that sends users on a real trip…through time.

Will he help her or won’t he? That’s the question the rest of the story devotes itself to asking, never mind that piddly matter of whether the classified information Doctor Sweetscent discovers along the way, in a subplot about Earth’s leader’s perpetual verge-of-death health status, will be of any use to save humanity. Will he or won’t he? — nearing the end, I wished the Doctor would swallow that toxic G-Totex blau and put us both out of our misery.

Charles Stross, Wireless
Before a search on the prison library’s computer (search term: “futurist nonfiction”) inexplicably turned up this short-story collection, I don’t know that I had ever seen the name Charles Stross; though, he’s evidently a somewhat highly awarded sci-fi writer. Wireless seemed an opportunity to expand my horizons, as well as a chance to get the lingering bad taste of Bradbury out of my brain.

I’m glad I checked it out. Stross’s style — generally brisk and unforgiving of ignorance — took a bit of getting used to, like stepping into an icy bath, but I took to these stories and novellas quickly enough, making a short read of this 352-page sampler, once his techniques became evident. Uncharacteristically for me, it was the more lighthearted stories in this collection I most enjoyed. “Rogue Farm,” about a freakishly consolidated community’s harassment of a rural couple and their hookah-smoking dog, showed off Stross’s knack for satire. Ditto, “MAXOs,” a parodic letter he published in the august pages of the science journal Nature (I’d love to learn how). His take on the old deal-with-the-Devil tale, “Snowball’s Chance,” was similarly amusing. If Stross is as consistently clever a novelist as these stories of revisionist history, deep time, and the multifarious potentialities in between lead me to suspect he is, I’m going to feel like an absolute troglodyte for taking this long to find out.