10 June, 2012

In Defense of My Indelicacy

You know, I’m aware that there’s still a world beyond these walls. It comes as no surprise to me that, after the morning of my arrest, eleven years ago, people continued commuting to work, embarking on road trips, buying home electronics, walking their dogs, making love to their significant others (or others they met in bars, or both), visiting museums, et cetera. Nor am I pained to acknowledge that my removal from circulation in the world failed to bring everything else to a grinding halt. I’ve got no delusions about my importance to the Grand Scheme, so how could I be upset to hear you effuse about how life’s treating you?

A certain delicacy. That’s what some treat me with for being locked away. As though I need shielding from their joie de vivre, these people censor what a nice time they had at the park, redact their account of the exciting birthday party they attended, and treat their recent upstate getaway like covert ops in my presence. Well, it gets old. I neither require nor desire a hermetically sealed existence to keep from contracting a virulent case of envy. I’m not nearly so delicate as that. If anything, I have an appetite for vivid reports from the outside. This place, this prison, with its never-changing-ness and nullity of spirit, is a drag. A mighty craving for stimulation is one of the main reasons I turn to the mail.

I am probably in the ninety-ninth percentile, among the one percent of prisoners here who send and receive the most stuff by post. If I’m not getting letters or cards, delivery days bring magazines, books, literary journals, friends’ zines, requested copies of writers guidelines, rejection and acceptance notices, subscription offers, invitations to writing conferences, catalogs. You know, mail. It comes regularly enough that, on days my name isn’t shouted by a guard at mail call, I suspect there’s been some mistake, that someone else could have been accidentally given something addressed to me.

Personal correspondence means the most. My cellmate doesn’t understand the logic of my system of prioritization for opening mail. He questions why I always save for last whatever I’m most looking forward to reading. For similar reasons, at different points, some have accused me of masochism. I’m just a pleasure delayer. Blame my mother, who taught me that the best way to appreciate something was to postpone it, let the anticipation build and build. Her example was a piece of pastry or cake, of which she advised me to leave the bit with custard, or the rosette of sweet, buttery icing, for last. Everything else followed from that. At five years old, I remember, there were adults who envied my will power. But my restraint was virtually effortless. I understood intuitively what it meant to savor the moment, rather than anticipate what lay ahead. Chocolate could melt gradually on my tongue because doing so prolonged its flavor without diminishing its intensity. Licks of ice cream were superior to bites, for a similar reason: the frozen-solid mouthfuls were less creamy and harder to fully taste. Postponement just made sense. To this day, I’m the only person I know who takes twenty minutes to eat a Snickers bar.

Sorting through the mail is no different. The periodicals and catalogs get set to the side for later perusal, then I open any self-addressed envelopes, which I know contain word from editors or publishers. Those out of the way, I scan for junk. I whittle every pile down, as though peeling the bitter rind from an orange to expose its succulent core. What’s left are pieces of delectable correspondence. Any cards are reviewed first; they’re quick reads. Letters from friends are the last pieces I attend to.

My friends are, by and large, a wordy bunch. Their missives often run for pages and pages. The mail rules at Crossroads don’t limit how long letters can be, even if enclosures (such as newspaper clippings and Wikipedia articles) are capped at five sheets. I once got a fourteen-page letter that was handwritten on college-ruled, loose-leaf notebook paper. Yesterday a letter from a different friend arrived, which was seven single-spaced pages of twelve-point text that, by its conclusion, left me wishing it was twice as long. Stories, jokes, complaints, anecdotes, rants — the sights, smells and tastes of everyday life: my imagination gleefully fills in anything my friends might leave unmentioned. And it is a transcendent state I enter when visiting the New York, the Seattle, the Los Angeles of my mind. I don’t have to have seen these places first-hand to be given memorable tours by their denizens. I love tasting the product of the little dumpling shop around the corner, smelling the salty ocean air gust inland from the west, hearing the distant sirens and helicopters of a low-speed car chase. I don’t think I could do without this proxy sense of living.

How could I survive this prolonged captivity, if not for such lurid, subtle, emboldening, heartbreaking, hilarious, somber, ramshackle, luxurious, petty, monumental accounts of the lives beyond these walls? Stripped of my vicarious joy, I might forget how life is supposed to be. Then, if I forget, how will I know what I’m supposed to be fighting to get back? Take off the kid gloves, friends, and let’s talk.

1 comment:

  1. Easily my favorite post by you thus far; particularly because I love hearing that you received a large amount of mail on the daily.

    Oh, and I think Andy Warhol said it best when he stated "The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting."


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.