12 December, 2015

A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors Now Available

My essay “Lasting Impressions of L.” is one of almost seventy that make up this great anthology, just published by University of Massachusetts Press. Some other contributors include George Saunders, Aimee Bender, James Franco, Sheila Heti, and Henry Rollins — an apparent hodgepodge, but each of us with an anecdote worth relating about someone who profoundly influenced our writing. The little pieces that make up A Manner of Being shine, like their authors, from all points of the writerly spectrum and are noteworthy no matter your relationship to the writing life. Order your copy from the publisher or your bookseller of choice.

07 December, 2015

A Poem More or Less About Borrowed Words, but Not Really

The Japanese Have Words

Words as tangled line art, words
to describe the queerest things — ideas
Western thought cannot or won’t
dignify by naming. English speakers, we’re
cozy with taxonomy, clinical verbosity, and,
if need be, eponymity (think:
the tidy indictments that are
Asperger’s syndrome,
Freudian slips,
and Crohn’s disease). But, as though ashamed
to invent our own, we ripped off
German Schadenfreude — a patch
to mend our holier-than-thou-ness.
No new offense. More recently
it took savoring Asian tongues and lips
to bring umami to the States.
O friends of the East! Tell us
crude convenience-whores
just what we’re placing in our mouths.
And clarify, if you please, our desires. Destigmatize
these private yens with your hentai and
with yaoi. The culture of otaku, too.
Here long taunted, bullied, jock-jerked into lockers
but bearing the indignity with oft-bespectacled calm, nerds in Japan
command a reverence, an almost fetishistic awe. There’s
mainstream celebration of shy organic chemists,
all-night PC programmers,
and pale-as-mushroom manga-reading shut-ins
whose barricaded doors define
hikikomori, the antisocial acme.
Gaijin may call them sad.
But me, I’m confessing that I envy them,
those vitamin-D deficients
with their honest hermetic hearts, free
to be the monkish keepers
of the true, unspoken language of the world.

* * * * *

A note on the terminology: Schadenfreude is the uniquely German term for pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune. It’s use in English is common enough that you can now find it in most dictionaries. Umami refers to the fifth category of taste, in food (the others being, of course, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter), that of savoriness. Probably thanks to the ubiquity of cooking shows on American television, its use is also quite common in English. Hentai is an overtly sexualized subgenre of manga (comic books focused on sci-fi or fantasy themes) and anime (TV programs and movies focused on same). Yaoi is female-oriented, usually female-authored, fiction involving homoerotic (typically young) male relationships, and enjoys a surprising popularity in contemporary Japan. An otaku is a young person, usually a male, who is obsessed with computers or very specific aspects of pop culture, to the detriment of his social skills. The increasingly prevalent phenomenon of hikikomori in Japanese society has many sociologists stymied. It refers to the abnormal, extreme avoidance of social contact by what are, more often than not, adolescent males. Lastly, gaijin is the pejorative Japanese term for foreigners.

04 December, 2015

Doing Time

I once bought a cheap Casio for a pouch of roll-your-own tobacco, from a guy transferring to another facility. I thought the watch would be handy for keeping track of my used phone minutes. Eventually, though, I sold it to another prisoner. I didn’t care for how conspicuous the black band looked against my arm, plus there was more utility in the eight postage stamps I made off the deal.

Steve wears a blue-faced Seiko, all shiny and silver and missing its hands. It’s a digital-analog with little LCD windows that accurately show the hour, minute, second, day and date, but Steve’s eyes aren’t what they used to be, and he refuses to carry his reading glasses with him outside of the cell. For him, then, it’s as though time only exists, officially, when he’s locked down — the very worst time to think about time.

Missouri prisoners used to be allowed to mail order wristwatches. What the canteens at every facility in the state now sell — overpriced, easily broken, transparent pieces of junk that gain and lose minutes willy-nilly, and the bands of which quickly yellow and crack — are the only timepieces available to us, outside of the anemic black market. Timekeeping falls to clock radios and guesstimation. Few things here happen on schedule anyway. The only consistent aspect of this place is its inconsistency.

“What is today?” asks Jerry. Just like he asked yesterday. Just like he asked the day before that. Just like he asked every one of the days I’ve known him. He’ll ask again tomorrow, in all probability.

In the hours between when he eats dinner and when his head crash-lands on the pillow, Billy at some point marks a blue X on his calendar, as crooked as he himself is, using a pen he stole from a caseworker’s office. His markings are so emphatic that every page turn reveals a crosshatching of them, pressed through to the blank grid of a new month. It’s like he thinks that the harder he presses the pen, the more days he’ll get through at once. But every time he pulls out a new piece of scratch paper to recalculate the remaining years of his sentence the answer’s always the same.

Crossroads’ only housing unit with clocks in the wings is the Hole. Where the clocks hang, above the wings’ doors, is visible only from about half of the cells. Periodic shouts go out for time checks, from prisoners confined to blind spots. The times shouted back are often wrong, but you can’t blame the guys reading the clocks. Maintenance never resets the clocks after Daylight Savings Time. Why should they, when they’d just have to set them again next year?

15 November, 2015

Eight Weeks to Mindfulness, My Ass!

For thirteen years I avoided any and all programs offered to the prison population. With titles such as Thinking for a Change, Impact of Crime on Victims, and Emotional Regulation, they sounded both painfully remedial and ill-suited to someone unjustly imprisoned. I considered my uninvolvement a personal point of pride: they could lock me away with criminals but they could not treat me like a dog in need of obedience lessons.

Then up went a notice, this summer, of four brand new programs. I eyed it with ambivalence until spotting Mindfulness Teachings on the list.

Practicing mindfulness — a state of being that is instead of does, accepts instead of strives, observes without analyzing — involves daily meditation. Mindfulness is a facet of Eastern religion co-opted by Western culture once the benefits to mind and body that a certain type of meditation confers were noticed. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown mindfulness practice's effectiveness at reducing or eliminating anxiety, depression, dependence issues, negative moods, feelings of alienation, attention deficits, mental inflexibility, obsessive thought patterns, and even the prevalence of cancer and cardiovascular diseases among its practitioners. Why wouldn’t I want in on some sweet wellness action?

An eight-week program. The class was even agreeably scheduled: Wednesdays at 2:30 PM. I considered the unlikelihood of a Department of Corrections-chartered program actually teaching me something. Then I signed up anyway. If it sucked, I’d at least have tried something different and given my cellmate a little extra time to himself.

Our first day, I lingered in the long, narrow cinder-block Education hallway with seven other guys who’d enrolled. Each had folders, notepads, and pens in hand. I asked Scotty, a balding scatterbrain who lived downstairs from me in the honor dorm, if we were expected to bring supplies and I didn’t get the memo. He just shrugged and said, “I bring ‘em to all the classes.”

“Well,” I said, “this is my first DOC program.”

“Ever!?” Scotty looked like I’d just shown him my second pair of hands. “I sign up for ‘em all.”

A round-headed man tipped vaguely in our direction to ask, “Ay, which class is this ‘pose to be, anyway?”

Someone else spoke up. “Overcoming Trauma.”

It turned out that everyone present had signed up for all four of the new programs, indiscriminately. Apparently I was the only person interested in acquiring knowledge and usable life skills. The rest of them were in it solely for the impression their certificates of completion might make on the parole board.

Our facilitator was a mumbler. I have a terrible tendency to misunderstand the most clearly spoken, but the compact thirtysomething seemed intent on minimizing his presence, verbally as well as physically. He addressed the class in a voice that sounded like a bad imitation of South Park’s Mr. Mackie, or Bill Lumburgh, from Office Spacemmm-kay? — muffled by a short dark beard. He frequently mispronounced words. I gently corrected his pronunciation of tyranny, but he continued saying “tie-runny.” That may have been the point at which I gave up.

The first class lasted just twenty-five minutes, a span devoted to his explanation of how to sign the class roster, and a rundown on ways he judged whether someone was paying attention to his droning, repetitive, lectures. Oh, and this would be his first time teaching Mindfulness, so we might run longer than eight weeks, or we might wrap up early. Whichever, mmm-kay?

The second class challenged me. To stay awake. The facilitator (whose name got lost in his beard, the one time he said it) scratched poorly arranged sentence fragments on the blackboard, often with misspellings, in assorted bright colors. He droned on and on. Things livened up for a few minutes when we were interrupted by a fit of guttural screams. Someone in the hall outside pitched some sort of fit and had to be maced. Class was dismissed, on account of chemical irritants. We held our breath, departing through the cloud.

Week three, class was canceled.

Week four, class was canceled and then rescheduled without notice, the following morning. I had just placed a phone call when a guard handed me a pass and said, “Uh, that pass is for, like, right now.”

Week five, class was canceled.

Week six, we got passes for the class on Tuesday afternoon but nothing on Wednesday.

Week seven, amazingly enough, class was held as scheduled.

Weeks eight and nine, nada.

You get the idea. This went on for three and a half months. The other afternoon I was walking laps on the yard when I crossed paths with a classmate. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. There were still two classes remaining. My expectation was to finish the program sometime before Halloween, possibly. But my classmate had news. “I was up there this morning,” he said, “and the dude said he was just gonna send us our Mindfulness certificates. We done, I guess.”

All that for nothing, then. Who’d have thought enlightenment would be so hard to come by?

30 October, 2015

Writer’s Cramp #41

Yes, this actually is the last Writer’s Cramp strip. It’s hard for me to believe I was doing these every week of the past ten months, and yet it feels somehow like an eternity. What started as a stopgap measure to get content on my blog while my typewriter was in the shop took on a life of its own. The strip wasn’t meant to last. I was having fun with it for a while, though, so I didn’t notice how much effort was actually going into it until last month, when a bout of mental reorganizing led me to conclude that there were better investments of time I could be making. I’ve got a novel crying my name at night. I’ve got letters pawing for my attention. I’ve got a Twitter feed to throw crumbs to. It isn’t often (or ever) that you’ll hear a prisoner say he needs more time, but I’m hardly your typical prisoner.

To the few who were actually following the anti-adventures of my poorly drawn stick figures I will make no promises but point out that this ending doesn’t necessarily keep me from venturing back into the questionable avocation of webcomic authorship. It could be that someday I’ll pick up another pen and doodle additional installments of the Writer’s harrowed existence. Possibly. Maybe. But don’t hold your breath, and please don’t wish ill on my typewriter — that’d be totally bad for your karma, or something.

01 October, 2015

The List: Reading July Through September 2015

Sarolta Bán

Among the reasons I like putting together these posts about my reading every three months is the revelation of unexpected patterns, digressions, and occasionally jarring contrasts that come to light when all the books I’ve been through are considered, one by one and as a motley whole. The timing of their subjects, too, is sometimes surprising.

In the wake of such major news items as the outing of the NAACP Spokane chapter’s president as white, the church massacre by racist creep Dylann Roof, and the much-belated lowering of the Confederate flag (we hope for good), my intention wasn’t to pick up two successive novels that meditate on American blackness — it just happened as a result of liking those authors’ previous work. And somehow it makes sense that I would progress from there to mysteries and science fiction (a stack of old Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, and Asimov’s issues finished out the month), genres that often challenge the reader with ideas only occasionally more outré than the concept of racism.

So: these “List” posts illustrate reading as Rorschach test. Reading as weathervane, too. Reading, also, as tarot, runes, bones.

My hearty thanks to Kristin S., Tom at Prospero’s, and Bridget S. this quarter, for sending me so many exceptional books. I can hardly wait to devour them all.

* * * * *

Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel
There’s too much here to neatly encapsulate. All of Lethem’s prodigious talents are brought to bear, and the story he’s set down swells with commensurate energy and scope. To call this a corning-of-age novel denies the complexity of its sociological perspectives. To say it’s about 1970s Brooklyn is to shrug off its sense of timeless intimacy. To zoom from its wide panorama to its addressing of racial identity or relations devalues its treasures. Although, to do any of the above would be technically accurate and therefore excusable. How do you write about a life? Obituary writers have their way, directed more by word count constraints than fidelity. Biographers have another, bound to a preconceived narrative arc. Lethem, with The Fortress of Solitude, gives us something altogether more vibrant, more meaningful, by way of Dylan Edbus and his friendship with Mingus Rude.

Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist: A Novel
On the strength of Zone One, Whitehead’s insightful zombie novel of a few years ago, I insisted on reading this, his debut novel, set in what could be an alternate-history Manhattan of the 1960s. I wasn’t disappointed. Whitehead’s prose is alive and his plotting deft. The story of Lila Mae Watson, this nameless metropolis’s first black female elevator inspector, getting swept up in political conspiracy — a game piece fought over by multiple feuding factions — has all the briskness of a beach read. But its uncanny way with irony and subtlety belie the book’s status as literary fiction.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (Edmund Wilson, editor), The Crack-Up
Before this, my familiarity with Fitzgerald was nil. The Great Gatsby, probably his most lauded work, might’ve been on the syllabus at my high school, but I left too soon to find out. Wide-ranging though my subsequent reading has been, it never included so much as his Benjamin Button. I’ve written here before about my tendency to approach from strange angles, not least (as is the hallmark of the autodidact) in matters of literature. Coming at Fitzgerald via his personal essays, letters, and unpublished notes, as they’re collected in The Crack-Up, often rough and rugged, is like ransacking the man’s bathroom — inspecting his medicine collection, checking his bathtub’s cleanliness, and itemizing the contents of his wastebasket. In other words, it may be the best way to get to know him.

Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Yet another writing project led me to reread this. The first time was at least twenty years ago. A Study in Scarlet, for anyone who doesn’t know, marked the world’s first encounter with Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t make his acquaintance until I was eleven or twelve years old, almost 100 years later, when another fictional character introduced us. My favorite TV series at the time was Star Trek: The Next Generation, on which the android Starfleet officer, Data, spent occasional off-duty hours role-playing Holmes mysteries on the Enterprise D’s holodeck. Because I strongly identified with Data’s social misadventures, it stood to reason I’d appreciate Holmes’s exploits, too.

As it turned out, we had a lot in common. Holmes
  • is an outsider;
  • is often misunderstood by those around him;
  • is passionate about his interests, to the point of being consumed, and ignores most everything outside their sphere, no matter how commonsensical or culturally relevant;
  • is begrudgingly acknowledged by others for his talents, but gets little or no reward for his successes;
  • lives a rich inner life;
  • has keener-than-average senses; and
  • plays the violin well, but only in private, for his own pleasure.
Because of how we met, it’s damn near impossible for me to think of the Sherlock Holmes adventures as anything but YA fiction. (Yes, even with the myriad obscure references and untranslated passages in French and Latin. And of course I’m only assuming there are no hidden allusions to Euripides and his Hippolytus in The Hunger Games. Correct me if I’m wrong.) It was kind of fun to revisit 221B Baker Street, though. They were some of the best research hours I’ve had in quite a while.

Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams
How might time behave, and what might its nature be, in other worlds? While working in that Swiss patent office, Albert Einstein certainly gave this question lots of thought, and from that was birthed his theory of time. What Alan Lightman does here is imagine, in essence, Einstein’s dream journal — all of the ways time might work elsewhere, and what life would be like for the people in those other worlds. Lightman presents these flights of fancy with a lyricism and sensitivity not often seen from scientists (he’s not only a novelist but a theoretical physicist, and I found Einstein’s Dreams to be echoed by another physicist’s lovely work, Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives). This book is a minor treasure, as a result.

Kevin Brockmeier, The View from the Seventh Layer
His breathtaking novel-in-stories, The Illumination, told me everything I needed to know about Kevin Brockmeier: that he possesses a near-supernatural sense of his characters’ inner lives, which are usually glossed over by lesser writers; that he understands how, more than by almost anything else, we are shaped by our flaws and pains; that he is able to tell a story without being limited by any particular genre, which resonates as deeply as a bell gong struck in the pit of your stomach. I knew these things. Reading The View from the Seventh Layer just strengthened my conviction.

Thirteen stories, about aesthetic rebellion, the value of unfulfilled desire, the meaning(s) of life, identity versus external perception, and the precious mundanities of existence make up this collection. It’s forty-three, if you count every possible iteration of “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story.” To paraphrase Donald Bartheme, I loved each of them, strange objects that they are, covered in fur, which broke my heart.

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves
If anyone in contemporary sci-fi could pull off a multigenerational epic spanning 5,000 years, it’d be Stephenson. He’s been toying with such grand visions for years — from the spans involved in his present-day/World War Two-era Cryptonomicon (itself loosely connected to his Baroque Cycle novels), to the temporally cloistered monks of Anathem. Spanning centuries seems to come naturally to his restless mind.

Even the most rigorous completist is bound to overlook a detail or two while wrangling five millennia of culture, language, and technology into fewer than 900 pages. I found a few minor points to quibble with (one of which, early in the story, I actually tweeted him about). For all I know, though, some of these were deliberate liberties Stephenson took, in the interests of plot or readability. In any event, Seveneves made for good summer reading.

30 September, 2015

Spiders: Some Thoughts

Eight. That’s how many spiders a person is said to ingest in an average year. The presumption is that everyone sleeps with his or her mouth open, I suppose. (How else would you ingest a spider if not in your sleep?) But even if we grant this much as true, how does a person not feel the tickling of eight little hairy legs picking their way through hills and valleys of facial fuzz? If one were a heavy sleeper, maybe. Otherwise, I’m not buying it. Spiders could, theoretically, descend on silk threads in the dead of night, like Navy SEALs from helicopters, into the pit of a sleeper’s gaping craw, but this seems exceptionally unlikely. Not that their aim is bad. Arachnids like warm, dark places. A mouth also has a dampness factor. Who wants a wet cave when two dry ones — the ears — lie just downhill and a couple of slightly weedy ones — the nostrils — are right next door?

No one touts figures for how many spiders lodge themselves irretrievably in human orifices. We’d all call bullshit if they did. Hospital ERs don’t fill with panicked patients begging for arachnid extractions, and few people sleep with screens over their head holes. The idea that spiders are simply drawn to mouths, in which they’re sleepily pulped and swallowed, sounds silly to me.

I don’t have any particular fear of spiders. This is good, since “they” also tell us there’s always one within five feet of you. Small spiders, even if they had a mind to, lack the mandibular fortitude to pierce human skin. The bigger ones tend not to be aggressive unless you make sudden movements into their territory. Generally hermetic creatures, spiders are content to hide within walls and under floorboards, between rafters and behind refrigerators, for the duration of their lives. I prefer a few spiders around than a thousand insects, so whenever one happens to cross the path of my domestic duties I stop what I’m doing and perform a relocation. Scooping it up (or trapping it under a cup, if it’s a potentially venomous variety) for transplant to an out-of-the-way site is no major operation. I don’t understand the instinct to squash or spray. One leaves a disgusting mess, the other releases toxins into your immediate environs. Neither of these seem preferable to simply knowing there’s a spider over there.

Don’t think this is an effort to brag about how enlightened I am. I once put on a shirt that had been folded in a drawer, only to find every visible inch of my skin suddenly teeming with waves of white specks. Spider babies. I promptly tried to shimmy out of my skin. When that didn’t work, I ran to the shower, fully clothed, and washed the itsy-bitsy spiders out. I left the shirt in a wad under the running water for another twenty minutes before re-entering the bathroom. For years thereafter I had intermittent nightmares about spider-blankets, spider-socks, spider-pillows, and spider-underwear. I habitually turned clothes inside-out before putting them on. I never found anything but lint balls, so eventually I gave up looking.

Of course, I’m fascinated by spiders’ grotesque forms. It’s one of those things — they’re so alien that they’re kind of alluring. Like Anne Hathaway. I can watch their biomechanical motions for hours, rapt with revulsion, and often do. Several have taken up residence in my window, which faces north and catches a decent breeze that blows all kinds of delicious flying bugs into it. The perfect place for a web. At least until a good, driving rain. Like Angelinos, who tolerate the occasional earthquake for the privilege of mild weather and a bit of cultural cachet, the spiders in my window know the first rule of real estate and rebuild accordingly.

The webs that currently enmesh my window have been, for the most part, difficult to see in certain light. Now that it’s mosquito season, though, they are revealed by a bandolier of desiccated husks — a diagonal swath of dead Anopheles like a beaded curtain in the wind. There are too many corpses to count. Other bugs the spiders charge out for, trussing them with the practiced dexterity of long-fingered department-store gift wrappers, then haul the parcel away, out of sight, for leisurely consumption. Instead of feeding on the mosquitoes, the spiders leave them out to rot, like so many unwanted hors d’oeuvres at a banquet, cluttering the tables. Apparently spiders dislike the Winged Plague as much as I do. But that’s a whole other essay.

10 September, 2015

Mouse in the House

Two turds and a drying yellow puddle at my elbow, noticed with a start while I sipped my morning coffee, were the first sign that we’d had an overnight guest. Disgust at finding mouse excretions on the surface that must serve as my kitchen counter, writing desk, and breakfast table took a back seat to amazement: How did the little bastard get up here, anyway? I’d already removed the evidence and sterilized the entire desktop by the time my cellmate woke up. He asked the same question, only I got the impression he didn’t entirely believe me.

The following day I found a single mouse dropping on my left shower shoe, under the bunk. Somewhat perversely, I left it laying. My cellmate got an eyeful as soon as he wiped the sleep away. See, see, I nearly pleaded. There really was a mouse! I suggested he move his packages of ramen from the desk’s bottom, floor-level cubby, into his metal footlocker, at least until we know the rodent threat has passed.

After that we promptly forgot all about it. Until Tuesday night.

We’d just watched my guiltiest of TV pleasures, America’s Got Talent, and I was rising to change over to The Daily Show when my cellmate blurted, “There’s that damn mouse!”

I looked down from the top bunk just in time to see a drab little shadow dash diagonally across our floor. It disappeared into under-bed dimness beside a Rubbermaid wash basin.

“We need to catch him,” I said, “and put him outside.”

With his legs retracted up to the mattress and a startled look on his face, my cellmate practically squeaked. “Be my guest. I ain’t touching it.”

A middle-aged man in a maximum-security prison, terrified of a two-ounce ball of fur. Stereotype: obliterated.

Someone might as well have soundtracked the slapstick scene that followed with a frantic Vaudeville piano score. I shuffled, enormous and ungainly, from one side of the cell to the other, in pursuit of the four-legged blur. At one point it hid beneath the sole of my empty boot at the food of the bunk. I should’ve been able to snatch him up then but was a millisecond too slow. He careered between my legs, darting across my foot as he went for an exit — the two-inch gap under the cell door. In my flailing, a fingertip grazed his sleek coat.

“You petted him!” laughed my cellmate, but nervously. Our tiny tresspasser remained at large.

Next it was my turn to be greeted with unbelievable news first thing in the morning. “I thought I heard a noise,” he related to me before emerging all the way from under his covers, “so I opened my eyes and, sure enough, there he was, that little fucker. He climbed right up that leg of the desk and crawled onto your shelf. So I laid here and watched, and after about a minute he came over and sat there, at the edge of the shelf, staring.”

“He crawled up the desk? You mean right here?” I pointed, skeptical. But when I pulled every item out of my cubby — from soapdish and cotton swabs, to saltines and Folgers — I discovered the evidence. One package of chili-flavored ramen noodles, all the way at the back of the shelf, bore a mouse-sized hole. Its contents, the brick of dry noodles, had been eaten half away. Now it was personal.

I improvised a barrier out of a couple of old file folders and scavenged Scotch tape scraps, which I folded over my cubby’s entire front opening. The trap I set was a cleaned-out peanut butter jar with a single dollop smeared across the inside bottom. I propped it horizontally on its lid so that, whenever our nocturnal visitor scurried in for a nosh, the jar would tip and make a small hollow bonk. As light of a sleeper as I am, this was sure to wake me. I could then leap from bed to seal him in his holding cell until morning. The plan was as foolproof as my folder-barrier was mouseproof.

Red digits on the clock radio glowed 12:46 when my eyes shot open. Had I dreamed it or had there actually been a plastic clattering just a moment earlier? Stealthily as possible, I took a raptor’s vantage point high above, stepping not onto the floor, where any mouse would flee the sight of my tremendous foot, but onto the stool near the center of the cell. I strained to see in the dark. Propped there like a ridiculous statue, wearing nothing but boxer shorts, I waited for movement.

It didn’t take long. The mouse appeared at the corner of the desk and sped into my cellmate’s cubby. But there was no longer any ramen there. I descended into my slip-ons and grabbed a rag in which to net him.

He launched himself in an arc and hid behind the trash can. I moved the can. He darted to the opposite side of the desk. I pursued. The chase went on for several minutes. At last I decided on a different tactic — that of the patient cat. Squatting near the door, where I had an unobstructed view of most of the cell floor, I held very, very still.

If you’ve never seen a mouse loose in a domestic environment when it thinks it’s not being watched, you would be surprised at the athletic prowess such a creature has. Also at its daring. For nearly two hours I hunched in the shadows and watched a small furry acrobat walk electrical-cord tightropes, scale sheer vertical surfaces, leap headlong from heights more than ten times his body length, and fearlessly tread wide-open spaces, in the spotlight of the cell window. Multiple chances to seize him presented themselves, yet I kept waiting to see one more trick, to avail myself of the next moment he made himself vulnerable. At some point, I even sat down on my footlocker and leaned back to enjoy the show.

The overhead light flicked on at the 2 AM custody count. The two guards probably thought I was smoking, flicking ashes into the toilet bowl, because why else sit near the door, half naked, in the middle of the night? When the fluorescent glare went out again a few seconds later, I’d gone blind.

Unable to see, I had my first chance to think introspectively about all this. What was I doing? Not that I had anywhere to be that morning; I’d committed to Sunday being a rare sleeping-in day. But how desperate was I to catch this mouse, if I was willing to forego large quantities of rest in favor of exorcising its presence? Was this mouse the white whale to my Ahab?

My mental cost-benefit analysis determined that this vigil was worthwhile, though. I’d woken too many times, on previous nights, thinking I heard rodential noodle-feastings. This could not stand. A man needs his rest, even if that man isn’t doing crap the next day. This ends tonight, I vowed.

While my cellmate slept soundly, I, with renewed vigor, stalked and pounced and scrambled the whole length and breadth of our cubical domicile, driving the mouse under this, behind that, and around that other thing — all to no avail. After he vanished somewhere in the nether regions of the bunk, I sat tensely for a full forty minutes, anticipating his emergence. With no sign of my wily adversary, it seemed my vow had been for naught. So I amended it to: This ends tonight (provided that he reappears by 3 AM to chase down, because, really, I’m too drowsily befuddled to know if he’s even still in here, and may be wasting precious dream time with this Byron the Night Stalker schtick), or possibly some other time.

Thus I turned in and fell immediately into such a deep sleep that my cellmate had to knock on the bunk for me to sit up for the 5 AM count. Blissful, uninterrupted, late sleep was not to be mine, however, simply because I gave up.

My wee nemesis, emboldened by his victory and probably thinking that he had evaded me for good and all, made a critical misstep shortly after 8 AM. I erupted out of unconsciousness to a papery scraping. At first I thought my cellmate was stirring at an uncharacteristically early hour, but when I heard the sound a second time I opened my eyes and, instead, saw him — the mouse — clamber up one leg of the desk and effortlessly slip behind a crease in what I’d naively believed was my impenetrable shielding.

I sprang, thinking, I’ve got you this time, and yanked the folders down. Item by item, again, I cleared everything off my shelf, assured of imminent success. I was coming for him. He had nowhere to run.

He ran. Again, I followed, moving all the same large objects I had before. This time, though, I had the presence of mind to stuff my rolled-up coat under the door. There would be no escaping. Our rapid game of Hide and Seek Tag lasted an hour. All the while my cellmate slept, oblivious to the action going on around him.

Maybe I wore my quarry out. Maybe it was just dumb luck. But when I finally cornered the mouse and flicked my rag in his direction he bolted right for me. He grazed my hand and reversed course. He saw my other hand coming for him. He turned again, confounded by mortal fear, zigging when he should have zagged. My hand came down. I had him.

Soft and squishy, he was breathing so fast that it felt like a vibration in my palm. My fingers closed around him and placed him in the jar he’d visited earlier. I slapped the lid on and took a breath of my own. We locked eyes awhile after he calmed, beady black orbs taking in the horrible sight of his gigantic captor. Did he wonder if I planned to devour him? Did he have any concept at all of what was happening? Do mice understand trapped? I set the jar down under an unwashed pair of pants in my laundry basin so he’d have darkness to feel safer in, washed my hands, and laid back down to sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Later, when I finally awoke to face the day, I made some instant oatmeal and set the jar in front of me on the desk. It seemed like the right thing to do, having breakfast with him, showing that there were no hard feelings. My cellmate, for his part, remained pressed as far against the opposite wall as physics permitted.

Breakfast done and 11:15 count cleared, I pushed our call button and took my captive out to the housing unit’s control module. “I can’t share the cell with this guy anymore,” I told the bewildered guards there. The jar was in my back pocket. “I absolutely refuse. He keeps me up half the night, eats my food, refuses to clean up after himself. You’ve got to do something. Either he goes or I go.”

They blinked a couple of times. One asked, “Are we talking about the same guy here?” They knew my cellmate to be no trouble at all.

I produced the jar. “No, him.”

They opened the front door of the housing unit. I treaded over to the yard’s short grass and crouched. After all this build-up it felt almost wrong to set the mouse loose so unceremoniously. I spun the lid off. He moved right away to the mouth of the jar and sniffed. Although I’d poked several holes in the lid the day before, in preparation, I’m sure the outside air smelled better than the staler stuff he’d been inhaling. Both of us squinted in the morning sunlight. We’d had a long night. I aimed the jar at the opposite side of the housing unit and brought it nearer to the ground. Like a fired projectile, the mouse rocketed out with a kick and bounded three times above the green before I lost sight of him.

We joked that the mouse was so smart that he might find his way back. It wouldn’t surprise me. As a precautionary measure I’ve been leaving my coat along the bottom of the door every night since. I’m taking no chances. Our neighbor spotted a mouse slipping under his door the following morning, and of course I wondered. If it is the same one I evicted, I’m glad he’s found another cell to haunt. I don’t have the money to keep giving ramen away.

14 August, 2015

Writer’s Cramp #29 and #30

Two for the price of one this week!

02 August, 2015

The List: Reading April Through June 2015

Master Leiden, Still Life of Books

If books were money, my little personal library during the past three months would have made me feel like a multimillionaire. So many to choose from! Unfortunately, this embarrassment of riches was untouchable, thanks to one maddeningly time-consuming undertaking, doctoring a friend’s book manuscript, which took away any prospect of leisure reading. To complete it, I even put aside my own writing projects. It made for some extraordinarily trying weeks. Dropping that fat envelope in the mailbox (it wouldn’t fit through the slot; I needed a guard to unlock the box’s lid for me) was a literal and figurative weight lifted, a liberation from bondage.

And so, at last I can get on with reading all the books that piled up, finally sit down with them and fully appreciate my riches, eyes, fingers, nose, mind, and heart.

For the books I received between April Fool’s Day and now, I want to thank Ben T., Sarahberry (twice), the Freethought Books Project, my dear friend Mike, Kyra at Midwest Pages to Prisoners, Lady Val, and my incomparably wonderful mother, Evelyn. Your spontaneous gifts made me feel like a suddenly wealthy man.

* * * * *

Fred Chappell, Familiars: Poems
“It’s all about cats!” Lefty said when he lent me his copy of Chappell’s latest collection. I think he was a little let down. After the noteworthy Midquest, which I read and reviewed here last year, Lefty expected more grandness than ailurophilia out of his favorite poet. Familiars isn’t without worth, though. The poems’ frequently simple structures and rhyme schemes make them accessible, while Chappell’s wit gives readers craving depth a little nook in which to sink. A forward tells us that most of the pieces here originally appeared in a limited-edition book cleverly titled Companion Volume, the paper for which was made out of cat hair.

Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost
I like novels like this, about things that didn’t happen but also, in a way, did — that happened maybe in ways different in the details of names, words spoken, thoughts had. Sri Lanka has seen such bloodshed and horror, and Ondaatje comes at his native land unflinchingly. His characters shadowed and unknowable (though not unrelatable for that), his country appalling and beautiful, Ondaatje’s written a book that’s very much like life itself.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road
My first encounter with Kerouac, the man credited with naming and embodying the Beat Generation. The book contains its own synopsis in these three lines of dialog from its penultimate act:
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
I wanted to tell Jack that it was okay, that he could calm the hell down and take a breath or two, but of course he can’t, having now been dead for forty-five years.

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Although I was a young weirdo of eighteen when William Seward Burroughs died, I wasn’t versed in the Beats or familiar enough with 1950s counterculture to recognize the significance of this event without someone explaining it to me. My car only had a factory AM/FM stereo in it, on which I listened to a lot of KKFI, Kansas City’s independent radio station, though, and late into the night, for the entire week of Burroughs’s death, they broadcast readings of the poet’s work. I have distinct recollections of hurrying to the employee parking lot when my late shift at Kinko’s ended, so I wouldn’t miss one minute more of Bill’s terse, nasal recitations than absolutely necessary. What was it I was listening to? I couldn’t have told you — not satisfactorily — but the language was insane, obscene, and still, forty years after its writing, at least for a young would-be poet sitting in his piece-of-shit car behind a copy shop at 1 AM, entirely new.

Is Naked Lunch a work of literary art or a disgusting stream-of-consciousness hodgepodge? “I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity,’” Burroughs himself admits on the page. “I am not an entertainer.” But aren’t these impositions the very stuff of being a writer, an artist? The Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in 1966, declared the book to have at least one iota of redeeming social value, in its decision not to ban it as obscene. So that’s one thing, but the fact that the question can still be legitimately asked….

Magdalena Zyzak, The Ballad of Barabas Pierkiel: A Novel
Publishers Weekly declared that Zyzak’s debut novel would “infuriate as many readers as it delights.” For this reader, it did both. Funny, yes. Clever, yes. But even the funniest book needs to ease up on the humor and offer something solid, something real that makes you feel that what you’re reading isn’t purely a lark, bereft of purpose or point. After a while I wanted Zyzak to give it a rest with her yokel poking (I get it — the villagers in her Eastern European town are dumb!) and give us a sympathetic character worth rooting for. By the novel’s end, after hundreds of pages’ wishing, she reveals what I feared all along: none of what has gone before matters in the least.

Bill Cheng, Southern Cross the Dog
Episodic and supremely atmospheric, Cheng’s first go at a novel chronicles a young black man’s coming of age not only the twentieth-century American South but also under terrible bedevilment. The novel’s voices ring clearly. Cheng has a real knack for dialog that brings to life the fetid swamplands and small-town nights in which his characters swelter. He conjures a bluesy brand of magical realism. And he never tips his hand as to whether the vexations his protagonist, poor Robert Chatham, endures throughout are the work of an otherworldly curse or just really bad luck. It’s an ambiguity that only adds to the book’s appeal.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Just the encouragement I needed. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Dillard offers essays on writerly existence, which zing around hilariously, sit stoically pondering, and marvel at its strange little wonders. Readers who are writers will come away from these pages refreshed and emboldened. Those who aren’t may gain a new perspective on this obsessive, misguided, solitary, masochistic avocation.

Taner Edis, Science and Nonbelief
Aside from having a name suspiciously resembling an anagrammatical nom de plume, Taner Edis is also notable for his work in the field of theoretical physics. His subject here is the meeting and diverging of two realms of thought — science and religion. I was surprised by the noncommittal stance he takes. He makes only a few implications about his opinion, which seems to coincide with biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (the idea that science and religion address entirely separate interests and competencies, and therefore cannot encroach on one another’s territory). Rather than preach, Edis teaches the controversy, so to speak, offering what I consider even-handed considerations of competing ideas. Starting with a succinct history of science, philosophy, and doubt, Edis wends his way through human thought patterns, evolution controversy, consciousness, fringe science, religious meaning, and morality, and lets you reach your own conclusions.

Bill Henderson (editor), 2014 Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses
The 2013 Pushcart Prize collection made a real impression on me, such that I said in my review from that quarter, last year, that I was going to have to make the series an annual tradition. The selections from 2014 are, at worst, pretty damn good. At their best, they’re amazing. I was most affected by Pam Houston’s essay on truth in nonfiction (“Corn Maze”), Sarah Lindsay’s marvelous “Origin,” Bob Hicok’s “Getting By,” and the Bill Cotter essay from The Believer, “The Gentleman’s Library, a Nowaday Redux.” I was also surprised to see my friend Davy Rothbart’s “Human Snowball,” from his entertaining collection of personal essays, My Heart Is an Idiot, as the volume’s very first offering. I hadn’t even known he’d been nominated.

Miranda July, The First Bad Man
July’s debut novel reads a bit like a contemporary, feminized Confederacy of Dunces, which is good, since it was talked up to me so much that I was afraid it might not live up to the hype. I delighted in Toole’s posthumous novel even as I rolled my eyes at its protagonist, and The First Bad Man had a similar effect.

The meek, lonely Cheryl Glickman (great name, right?) finds herself saddled with a repellent, disrespectful houseguest without actually consenting to take her in, which results in one of the strangest fictional relationships I can recall. Cheryl is kind of an everywoman, hearteningly human, a character you can’t help but cheer on. By the time it’s all said and done, July’s given us a novel that ends exactly how it should, with a satisfying inevitability.

Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance
Any work that takes as one of its building blocks a seventeenth-century metaphysical philosophy like Monadism, the theory that perceptions exist independently of the act of perceiving, thereby creating reality in the most literal possible meaning of that phrase, probably oughtn’t have been given this much of my time. But Tiffany’s subject was too intriguing to pass up: lyrical obscurity in poetry, and its connection with the underworld of criminals, queers, and pariahs, whose dialects and ways of seeing the world color their conversations in ways that need not be literally understood to be aesthetically pleasing.

Literary criticism is always such a dense, unwieldy, even ugly genre. I confess to not understanding all of the nuanced points Tiffany sought to make, but Infidel Poetics was hardly a slog. If nothing else, his references saw to that, such as this translated stanza from François Villon, addressing a tavern scene peopled by a nefarious “canting crew” (known today as criminals):
Seekers after money, make-believe cripples,
Thieves too and cutpurses,
Beggars perpetually on foot
who on the road have demanded in jargon
hand-outs of food, where you’ve been
out in the fields to hunt for coins
and who, to support your girls,
have reached for bread — and handcuffs —
For all that, they make themselves feared,
the cops, crooked, tough, and cruel.
Not even academic prolixity could sap the vibrant life from verses like this.

Haruki Murakami, The Secret Library
A lovely little book with a fantastic contemporary collagelike design by Chip Kidd, the Murakami content is almost eclipsed by its packaging. But the literary surrealist’s short story, about a young man who’s taken captive by a sadistic quasi-librarian, reads like a wondrous fable of old. Read it after dinner, finish it before bed, read it again before breakfast, and savor the book’s look and feel for days afterward.

28 June, 2015

Some Awful On-the-Job Awkwardness

The lock on the kitchen entrance to the staff dining hall clicks several times, but the door doesn’t open. I hear the keys on the opposite side, jingling as though a baby’s gotten hold of them and is having a blast. Immediately, I know who’s coming in. And because I know, I don’t hurry to slip plastic serving gloves on, the way I would for almost anyone else coming to eat, because negotiating the whole process of finding a key and turning it is going to take this guy a minute.

Whether his hiring speaks to the Department of Corrections’ affirmative-action policies or its desperation, I can’t say. I’m not being mean-spirited, this particular guard just isn’t terribly bright. You could ask anyone here — employee or inmate — and they’d tell you the same, except using more profanity.

Once he finally gets the door open, then secured behind him, the portly young fellow inquires about the menu. I run it down: roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots, lima beans, and brownies.

“Is there marijuana in them brownies?” he asks, for which I’m at a loss of appropriate responses before he goes on. “Because I wouldn’t wanna be high at work, y’know? Might get into trouble, lose my job.”

He stares me down, blank as a fresh piece of typing paper, and there’s a droplet of spittle adorning his bottom lip.

With my practiced customer-service smile, I tell him, “There’d better not be, or we’d both be in trouble,” and plop his potatoes down. Is it weird that I take a modicum of pride in being able to serve a volcano of mashed potatoes with a perfect gravy crater, a little caldera brimming with savory brown magma? Probably. Still, when I pass him his tray with each item of food neatly in its allotted depression, I think, Another job well done.

He immediately pokes his spork at a small curl of celery in the gravy. “What’s this green shit in this?”

I tell him they also put onions in it.

“I guess it won’t kill me, right?” He holds up tiny plastic cups of peanut butter and jelly, and requests four pieces of bread. “Got my PBJ, just in case.”

He takes his tray to a table and curls himself protectively around it, eating with his humped back to me. The dining hall is predictably vacant at this time, pre-count, and I’m relieved the emptiness doesn’t compel him to make full-mouthed small talk. When he’s scarfed everything down, he comes and sets the tray in my bus tub, behind the counter.

“Pretty bad when the potatoes, gravy, and roast beef are better than PBJ,” he says, turning to me. He takes a gulp from his iced beverage and, with orangey dew on his upper-lip peach fuzz, ups the awkwardness with: “How many years more do you got left?”

I hate this question even when it’s grammatically correct. I hate this question almost as much as I hate its inevitable antecedent, which this guard, of course, follows up with. “Life without!? What did you do?”

There are a hundred different ways I might answer this, but I’ve spent the last thirteen years answering it, and it’s gotten a little old. The energy necessary to defend myself to every nosy parker who wants to know, if I didn’t do anything, how I ended up in prison — exactly the direction this conversation will go if I’m incautious. So I gloss.

“It’s a long story.”

Rather than just throw the containers, still partially full of peanut butter and jelly, into the trash, he takes the trouble to crush them and squeeze the contents out of each. And there’s something in this act — this refusal to acknowledge my basic dignity, presuming that I am not above digging through garbage to claim his sloppy seconds — that transforms my annoyance into resentment. It’s compounded by his next remark.

“You got life without, but they put you in staff dining?”

Although Crossroads is a maximum-security prison, recent adjustments to the custody-level system mean we now get a lot of short-timers, kids with a handful of years (or mere months) to serve, whose untamed antics landed them alongside murderers, serial rapists, and child molesters with multi-decade sentences. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the inmates with the most serious charges are, generally speaking, better-behaved, less apt to act out or do stupid, disgusting things to staff members’ food. I could explain this to the guard, maybe even tell him that, notwithstanding my innocence (which means nothing here, anyway), my exemplary prison work record and paucity of conduct violations makes me one of the best possible choices for staff dining hall server. But I don’t feel like justifying myself to this man.

I shrug. Because the container of peanut butter gave him trouble, he wipes brown goo off his fingertips with a paper towel. The dull, unblinking gaze he maintains gives our exchange the offbeat feeling of a conversation you might have with a dancing dwarf in an unsettling dream.

“Drugs?” he asks, stepping closer.

“Excuse me?”

“Was you high on drugs and shot a police officer?”

What a question! “No, my case doesn’t involve anything at all like that,” I say, right away regretting having disclosed even this much.

“Because I could see, like, if you was a kid, like eighteen, and there’s a twenty-five-year-old in your gang, hands you a gun and says, ‘Kill him.” I can see you not knowing no better and shooting the guy.”

It’s obvious he won’t give up this line of inquiry. Even if it weren’t against the rules for him to ask these questions, I’d feel just as uncomfortable being asked them. I give the guy the gentlest verbal shove I can. Looking at my wrist, I check the time on the watch I’m not wearing, and say, “Well, I’ve got all day to talk, but you’ve got a post to get back to.”

That inscrutable face reveals nothing of his thoughts (or does it reveal no thought?), and for an instant it isn’t at all clear if he got the hint or not.

“I’m gonna tell you this,” he says then. “Everybody’s done a crime. You ask the officers, the caseworkers, the warden, and they tell you they never done nothing illegal, they’re a damn liar. The only difference between you and everybody else is, they didn’t get caught. You can believe that.”

If I had any doubt that this was how he acted on any given day of the week, I’d question his current sobriety. What I do believe, however, is that this is his natural personality. I nod and wish him away. He goes without another word, his key chain jangling wildly on the other side of the kitchen door.

23 June, 2015

Toilet Paper Tuesday

Without fail, an inmate worker slings two small bars of white unscented soap through the two-inch gap under my cell door every Tuesday. Our weekly allotment. My cellmate and I only use it for washing our hands, yielding as it does unsatisfactory results in the shower. Dial, it ain’t. But we do use it, contrary to what the stack of extra bars implies. Nuisance contraband is what the guards call our excess. They take the little tower in their monthly search; we begin rebuilding it the following Tuesday.

It seems silly that we can’t just decline to take the unneeded bars, opting out of the give-and-take cycle, but I suppose they need to report on their cell search forms that they confiscated something. It’d be nice if the guards also had to write one positive thing about each cell they were in. Balance might improve prisoner-staff relations. 5D172: confiscated 2 bottles ink, latex gloves, 1 tattoo gun; noticed cell smells good. Or 6A212: removed 5 bars soap; footlockers very tidy. Admittedly, there are probably many cells you’d be hard pressed to say anything complimentary about.

After the soap is flung in, the toilet paper comes. I’ve carped about the toilet paper situation in prison before and won’t flog that particular dead horse any more.

The prisoner who drops our rolls outside the door is an acquaintance, a clean-cut kid who can often be spotted doing yoga on a grassy area of the yard. Where for the rest of the wing he stays hunched over the big cardboard box he nudges along the walk, when he reaches my door he rises up, smiles toothily through the window, and waves. It’s an all right way to initialize my civility subroutines. I’m usually part-way into my second cup of coffee by this point, finally ready to peek out and acknowledge a reality beyond my skull stuffings.

Hello, fellow human, I wave back. My acquaintance drops out of sight and pushes on. Then the door’s opened long enough for me to bring our rolls inside. And that’s all the excitement Tuesday morning has to offer.

18 May, 2015

Life in the Fish Tank

Since I got out of the Hole last year, my assigned cell has been in the wing where the prison's new arrivals are placed when they get here from one of Missouri's two DOC diagnostic centers. Those fresh off the bus are installed in one of about thirteen cells (the number fluctuates, depending on space requirements) on the ground floor of the thirty-six-cell sub-unit. This is where I came through, thirteen years ago, and now I see an average of eight total strangers arriving each week, a continual rotation. New prisoners come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, just as those who've been temporarily quartered for two weeks or so are cycled out to (theoretically) permanent assignments in the prison's four general population housing units.

They don't generally have much in the way of possessions. Diagnostic centers don't sell the appliances that make prison live more livable — clock radios, CD players, TVs, typewriters — meaning, if you'll forgive the metaphor and vernacular, that the fish get bored, trapped for twenty to twenty-two hours a day in their spartan bowls. I remember how it was for me. My cellmate had only been here a week himself, but that was enough time to have a little money sent and make a trip to the canteen. He had a deck of playing cards and some snacks. I don't even like card games, and I liked him even less, so it speaks to my mental state that I played countless hands of rummy with him before he was moved. 

Boredom being the best excuse to smoke, the crisscrossed strings of Cadillacs stretch across the floor at various times throughout the day, evidencing quests for tobacco, rolling papers, lighters. Sometimes someone unwilling to part with his lighter for even a few minutes will send a wick, or west side — a flaming twist of toilet paper tied to a buddy's string and shot back. That noxious burning smell fills the wing, sometimes (but not always) setting off the fire alarm. The fire alarm means nothing. Guards running the housing unit are so desensitized to its frequent squeal that they often won't bother turning it off for several minutes. This is particularly annoying when I'm on the phone or trying to scrub down in the shower, out of my cell for the allotted thirty minutes, and compelled to plug my fingertips into my ears at the same time.

Not everyone's circadian rhythms adjust quickly to the more regimented schedule here, so it isn't rare to hear two men yelling at each other late into the night, coordinating an exchange by Cadillac.

"It's right by your door. No, the other way. Yeah. Now pull." 

"I can't see it."

"You're right on top of it. Just pull."

"I don't have it."

"Ah, shit, man. You lost it, bro. Shoot out again. Now left. No, other left! You stupid...."

And so on. 

With regard to noise, the past month hasn't brought me the best luck with downstairs neighbors. First, a diminutive twenty-something with dreadlocks and what I discovered later, in passing, was a serious body-odor issue, moved in, into the cell that shares the same ventilation duct with mine. Li'l Greasy fancied himself a rap star. Every day, from early-afternoon to late at night, my cellmate and I heard him spouting whatever off-key rhythmic nonsense was in his head. Twice he managed to wake us both in the night, spitting rhymes and laughing at his own wordsmithery. We couldn't understand why he wasn't getting a cellmate, someone to entertain or at least distract him, maybe quiet the little bastard down. We decided to be inconsiderate pricks right back, launching a three-day counterattack of nuisance sounds to keep him awake through the morning, when he was trying to recuperate from an exhausting midnight rap battle against himself. I periodically threw my stool against the floor, or swung it into the metal vent hood to produce a resounding CLANG! that he could not possibly sleep through. My cellmate, a member of the housing unit's laundry crew, knocked on Li'l Greasy's door three times in three days, pretending to be confused about whether a pair of pants belonged to the kid, just for the excuse of interrupting his rest. He didn't turn quiet, but the hours he kept became more reasonable.

The cellmate Li'l Greasy got the following Monday did not have the hoped-for muting effect, but he wasn't there soon enough. Li'l Greasy was moved just days later. He was replaced by someone who drives his Cadillac around as a purely recreational pastime, like a man with a new, real car, who looks for any excuse to take it for a spin, even if just down the driveway, to his mailbox. I was ready to turn in at my usual 10:30 bedtime last night; he was not. Instead, he was laboring to coordinate a three-man operation to get his "car" into a hard-to-reach cell. I let the back-and-forth shouting go on until after 11 PM, then, too irritated to hold my tongue any longer, rolled over and mustered my most stentorian "SHUT UP!" from where I lay, startling the hell out of my cellmate, up watching his typical late-night TV, but getting the point across nevertheless. A moment later, our downstairs insomniac announced an end to his errand-running for the night. To his comrades he said, "Ay, I can't be doin' this all night, y'all. This is the last try, a'ight?" And not another peep thereafter. 

For all this, I actually don't mind the new-arrivals wing. It sometimes feels like living in a wing that's half the usual size. People naturally gravitate to the familiar, so the new guys tend to associate with whoever they rode in with, while we upstairs perms hardly bother looking down. I certainly don't take the time to learn their names. I scarcely recognize their faces. My thinking is, if they're going to be around awhile I might eventually have cause to get to know them. For now, though, I'm not interested. My circle is remarkably small. I'm good with that. 

03 May, 2015

Getting Properly Wired and Hooked Up in Prison

There’s a popular misconception that prison life, especially in a maximum-security facility, is barely contained chaos — riots, brutality, and rampant criminal scheming. Other prisons probably do deal with such problems on a daily basis, but Crossroads is another species of penitentiary. Here, things are rigidly controlled and minor infractions are treated with relative severity. (Witness my trip to the Hole last year, which lasted thirty days, for making a three-way call during a podcast interview.) And every so often comes another tightening of the thumbscrews.

Last week the tightening took the form of a visit from the new housing unit manager — our equivalent of an overbearing landlord — who came on a tour of everyone’s cell, to ensure that all of us were in compliance with the posted regulations. His special peeves: paper bags used as trash receptacles, extension cords draped across cells, and sticky-backed plastic wall hooks adhered to any but three particular areas of one’s living quarters.

A few of us got advance notice of the walk-through. In my cell were a few unauthorized hooks still hanging where a previous cellmate left them, so I temporarily disassembled my fingernail clippers and used the handle as a prying tool to take the hooks off the wall. (Note the irony of making contraband to remove contraband.) My current cellmate had an extension for his headphones, so he could silently watch TV from the bunk. The cord was hidden behind his footlocker and resurfaced at the head of the bed but was nevertheless immediately seen and remarked upon: “Find something else to do with that, or it’s a safety violation.”

Now his headphone cord drapes across the cell, precisely in the way of my moving from this typewriter. This is somehow safer. I’m having a hard time adjusting to the new placement of my drying clothes, since the spot I used for hanging damp apparel this past year is no longer acceptable. What would the inmates at Pelican Bay do in this situation? Probably burn something. Being no pyro, I’ll just sit here and take it. There are worse obstacles and unpleasantries that prison can impose on a guy.

20 April, 2015

The List: Reading January Through March 2015

Edward Gorey, Real Men Read

What began as a perfectly cheery reading selection this quarter took an unexpected dour turn, sometime back in February, with a book on the philosophy of pessimism, from which I didn’t bother to steer away. As always, though, it’s interesting to see how trends and patterns in reading material develop without conscious intent.

I have, as usual, several people to thank for gifting me much of the printed matter that I list below (plus some that I don’t): my dearest Mum, John A., Meg F., the Freethought Books Project at Amherst’s Center for Inquiry, Lady Val, the ever-generous Mr. Wayne at Prospero’s, and William Y. Without their kindness and consideration my hours locked in this cell would be largely idle ones, rather than the enriching investments in productivity that they are. (Because, really, everything I read feeds my writing, which most readers of this blog know is what sustains me in the intellectual desert that is prison.)

* * * * *

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking
The carpet in my parents’ living room, in the house where I grew up, was soft and beige and deeper than you’d get away with having in any twenty-first-century home. You could lose things in that carpet — cookie crumbs, beads, those smallest of Lego pieces, and all sorts of other minute doodads. This stuff could get lost for good, provided the exact combination of time and foot traffic, angle of descent, and other factors conducive to knotting little sharp things into the high pile, beyond the capability of our 1970s-orange Hoover upright to extract. I know about the retentive qualities of the carpet because I was on it one day, drawing, and somehow managed to slice open the the top of my right foot on an unseen object in its depths. I hardly felt the cut. When I spied the glaring red stream flowing between my toes, though, I recognized the urgency of getting up and doing something about it. I was, I’m guessing, seven. Instead of running into my parents’ bedroom and shrieking, “I’m bleeding!”, I heel-stepped across the linoleum floor of our dining room, to the bathroom where we kept the cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide, and Band-Aids. I cleaned and dressed the cut myself, propped on the rim of the claw-foot bathtub, then retraced my spattered path through the house with a few wads of moist toilet paper. My parents never knew, until I told them that we should all be careful around that particular spot in the living room, unless we had shoes on. No one ever found the sharp thing that cut me, but I still have an obvious keloid scar there, about three fourths of an inch long.

This is the sort of kid I was, not going into hysterics over a minor wound, taking care of myself, and almost never even considering that someone else might be able to help — not even when I’d tried everything I knew to try. I wasn’t stubborn, per se, just oblivious to the fact that others might have different strengths. And this, to a large degree, carried over to my adult life. It isn’t that I don’t want anyone else’s assistance but that I don’t think to ask for it. Periodic reminders that others can do stuff I can’t, either because of talent or resources, are good for me.

Amanda Palmer, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, gave a TED talk about her own historic inability to ask others for… you name it: favors, money, love. She evidently struck a nerve with a lot of people, because the video was viewed more than 100,000 times within twenty-four hours of being posted, and over eight million times within a year. Her conclusion? “Everybody struggles with asking.” And so, this book. It’s her candid, romantic, vulgar, fascinating, self-indulgent, universal tale of (as the cover’s subtitle declares) how Amanda Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. Well done, Amanda, and thank you for the much-needed reminder.

David Markson, Vanishing Point
It opens with a heavier dose of practical exposition than can be found anywhere else in the book: the words Author has finally started to put his notes into manuscript form. What follow are exactly that — notes on creativity and artistic futility, collated in a way that comprises an abstract story, with dialog provided by copious literary quotations. Markson called Vanishing Point a novel, but the impression I have is of collage. It’s conceptually clever but never attains more impact than, say, reading an encyclopedia, even as the metacharacter “Author” makes more and more appearances, lamenting his aging state and immanent decrepitude.

Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
I have a theory. Robin Sloan, a few years ago, kidnapped Neal Stephenson, author of the high-tech adventures Anathem and Cryptonomicon, and locked him in a room in his basement. Sloan provided Stephenson a typewriter and several reams of paper, some Ensure, and a plastic bucket, telling him that he could earn his freedom by writing an entertaining present-day novel about the idological war between old-school bibliophiles and bleeding-edge technorati, without making it too, y’know, thinky.

Stephenson did a bang-up job, and Sloan, as per his promise, released him from bondage. Stephenson has thus far remained silent on the matter only because he wants his forthcoming novel about a fiction writer’s harrowing year as a basement prisoner to seem like an original idea. You’re of course welcome to argue against this theory, but until Stephenson’s whereabouts throughout 2011 can be verified as not being under Sloan’s house, I’m sticking with it.

Greg M. Epstein, Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
Between his roles as Harvard University’s humanist chaplain and columnist for the Washington Post’s regular “On Faith” column, Epstein is used to being a compassionate voice for reason, and Good without God does a fine job of both defining and defending secular humanism in the context of the (troublingly still common) misapprehension that disbelief in a supernatural higher power somehow equates to moral bankruptcy. He engages readers with his warm, often funny conversational tone, covering humanism’s ancient history and evolution, calling not for religious tolerance — just a nice way of saying “putting up with” those whose beliefs differ — but for religious literacy and religious pluralism. The takeaway here is enormously positive, a far cry from the next book to hold my attention….

Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
“To salve the pains of consciousness, some people anesthetize themselves with sunny thoughts,’’ writes Ligotti.
But not everyone can follow their lead, above all not those who sneer at the sun and everything upon which it beats down. Their only respite is in the balm of bleakness. Disdainful of the solicitations of hope, they look for sanctuary in desolate places — a scattering of ruins in a barren locale or a rubble of words in a book where someone whispers in a dry voice, “I, too, am here.” However, downcast readers must be on their guard. Phony retreats have lured many who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. Too often they have settled into a book that begins as an oration on bleak experience but wraps up with the author slipping out the back door and making his way down a shining path, leaving downcast readers more rankled than they were before entering what turned out to be only a façade of ruins, a trompe l’oeil of bleakness.
The Conspiracy against the Human Race is by no means such a book. Leaning on the philosophical writings of names as recognizable as Friederich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, and as unfamiliar as Philipp Mainländer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, Ligotti makes a case for philosophical pessimism, the stance that consciousness is a curse, that free will is an illusion, and that existence is malignantly useless.

Dour stuff. So why read it? The fact is, I’m terribly entertained by the bleakest outlooks. Recall for a moment A.A. Milne’s stuffed donkey, the Hundred Acre Wood’s resident nihilist, Eeyore, who provided so much of the comic relief among Pooh and friends, and you’ll start to understand how Ligotti’s hyperbolic phrasings — such as, “We are […] horrors that poison the world by sowing our madness everywhere we go, glutting daylight and darkness with incorporeal obscenities’’ — can bring a smile, a chuckle, even a delighted snort, to a reader who holds, as I do, that worse is always possible.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Man’s inhumanity to man. The madness lying in wait beneath the surface of the self. The surreal nature of reality. This dreamlike novel’s infamous Mr. Kurtz sums it up best in his dying words, “The horror! The horror!”

Robert Burton, Some Anatomies of Melancholy
Originally published in 1621, The Anatomy of Melancholy (or at least this short selection therefrom) offers little value to contemporary readers. Unless you want to snicker at the naiveté of humanity 400 years ago — believing that cabbage “sends up black vapours to the brain”; that God reliably strikes all wicked men with blindness, leprosy, and dysentery; or that a woman possessed by evil once “purged a live eel[,] vomited some twenty-four pounds of fulsome stuff of all colors, twice a day for fourteen days, and after that she voided great balls of hair, pieces of wood, pigeon’s dung, parchment, goose dung, coals; and after them two pounds of pure blood, and then again coals and stones, of which some had inscriptions, bigger than a walnut, some of them pieces of glass, brass, etc.” — I personally see no point.

H.P. Lovecraft (Leslie S. Klinger, editor), The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft
Familiarity with Lovecraft within popular culture, where there is any, is focused more on the ideas that are part of the writer’s invented mythology than with the tales of cosmic horror that framed them. What’s now recognized as his Cthulu Mythos — short fictions sharing the backdrop of a chaotic universe whose monstrous elder races, worshipped today by underground pagan cults, induce madness and mortal fear in those unfortunate enough to uncover their existence — overshadows Lovecraft’s not-very-good writing. His exposition is clunky. His sentences are pendulous with adjectives. His tales hew to formulaic plots of mind transfer, unearthed relics of “blasphemous” antiquity, and men obsessed with forbidden eldrich texts like “the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” Still, the man has fans and they are legion. What’s interesting is that the last twenty-five years have seen a marked increase in scholarly interest in Lovecraft’s fiction. I’ve personally seen the term Lovecraftian used in contemporary journalistic work — once to describe the form of a very large, ugly sculpture, and once to describe a giant squid. Why all this attention for a long-dead pulp writer?

Forty bucks buys an answer, in the form of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. This handsome, heavy, hard cover collection of twenty-two tales from what Lovecraft called his Arkham cycle (fictions set in, around, or with some relationship to the fictional Massachusetts city of Arkham) is richly annotated in red and illustrated in full color. With movie posters, magazine covers, space photography, pictures of New England buildings referenced in the stories, maps, and so many other visual intrigues, Les Klinger’s notes do a fantastic job of bringing to light the concepts within Lovecraft’s prose. They give first-time readers, like me, a leg up. And let me just say that my reading was by no means torturous. Lovecraft’s earlier stories, especially “The Nameless City” and “Nyarlathotep,” are often dramatic and entertaining. But what does it say that Klinger’s seven appendices prove more consistently interesting than the text to which they refer?

Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning
Like a digestif to help the rich, gravy-drenched bizarrerie of my recent reading go down, Gaiman’s newest collection of “short fictions and disturbances” was just what my palate needed. There’s a little of everything on offer here, from a Doctor Who story to an especially good Sherlock Holmes tale (Gaiman’s a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, so his skill with a Holmes story should come as no surprise), to another of his reliably fulfilling American Gods quasi-epilogues. Gaiman does so many flavors of fantasy that his collections can go kind of uneven in places, but I think it’s their unexpected, wonky patchwork feel that makes them so winning.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Constance Garnett, translator), The Brothers Karamazov
There’s really nothing I can add to the 135 yeas of criticism and analysis that this novel, widely regarded as Dostoyevsky’s greatest, has undergone — no perspective that hasn’t already been provided, no observation that hasn’t already been stated and debated — except to say that the year and a half it loomed, heavy on my shelf, untouched, before I finally picked it up, was far too long. In the end it was by no means an onerous chore to read; if anything, it heightened my adamance that literature has the capacity to pierce to the heart of the human condition, flaying it for all to see its secretest parts, as life rarely does. The cast of characters here is so vividly rendered, right down to the last tic and bawdy foible, that you can’t shake the impression of familiarity and stop yourself thinking, I know this person! And this makes for an astounding reading experience. The cover copy from the Signet Classics edition I read is spot-on: The Brothers Karamazov is one of literature’s finest works.