20 January, 2015

Photo Op

You can snap a selfie and post it to your social media site of choice, no sweat. I’m not so fortunate. Never mind that I’ve never held a phone with a color screen, I haven’t even touched a camera since my job as the prison’s visiting room photographer ended — in early 2005. To get a picture of myself, as I was asked to do around the holidays, the process is a tad more nuanced than choosing whether or not to do a duck face in my bathroom mirror. And if I want to share one, that involves an envelope, a first-class USPS stamp, and three to five business days.

I could’ve refused or ignored the request for a recent photo, I suppose, but it was really the least I could do. I decided to take the picture.

To start, I needed to buy a ticket. The canteen sells them for $1.50 apiece — little pink receipts spit out with the purchasers’ names and DOC numbers printed along the bottom. They also declare themselves NON REFUNDABLE, as though everything from the canteen isn’t sold as-is.

The week after entering the UPC on my canteen list, I had my picture ticket in hand. All that was left was to figure out when I could do the deed.

Photos are taken in the gym three days a week, exclusively during morning and evening recreation periods. Rec days are staggered, and my work schedule leaves few opportunities for photo sessions. The next Monday I had free looked promising, but that ended up being canceled by an institution-wide lockdown. The lockdown lasted seven days, after which I planned for a Tuesday morning. That was foiled by a surprise appointment to see the nurse at exactly the time I’d intended to be in the gym, cheesing it up. Making some copies in the library precluded anything else the week after that, and the week after that I had an important phone call to place immediately after the call to recreation went out. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Finally, though, the stars aligned. I crossed the yard, headed gymward, the frigid arctic wind whipping over the Midwestern plains, rosying my cheeks (I hoped) handsomely.

There are several reasons I avoid the gym. Noise is one. The smell — or smells — is another. Also, there’s the fact that whenever our prison writers conferences are interrupted by an urge to use the restroom, my friend Lefty follows me past the weight piles, across the basketball court, to the wall of urinals. This may sound creepy, but the fact is, the gym’s restroom is tucked away, out of view of staff or cameras, and as such is sometimes the site of hurried sexual rendezvous and beef-settling throwdowns, and Lefty’s just playing his role in the buddy system. Besides all this, I have no interest in sports or weight training. Staying out of the gym isn’t exactly a challenge for me.

The gym doors are opened for a few minutes every half hour, so I brought a book. I wandered in search of the man with the camera, his trademark red and black jacket, owned-since the days when prisoners could mail order clothes. He was playing cards on a four-top in the game room when I found him. A table tennis ball pinged against my shoe and I ponged it back to the players. The photographer pocketed my ticket and we walked to the designated wall. In years gone by, the whole institution could’ve been our studio — out on the handball courts, beside the textured tan wall of a housing unit, on the grass of the softball field, at the outdoor picnic tables — but now the administration quite literally has us with our backs to the wall. It’s the same ugly gray concrete wall every time.

“Can I hold my book, or is that against the rules?”

“Uh, no, you gotta set it down someplace.”

“Can I sit?”

“No, you have to stand.”

“I can’t crouch, even?”


“If I wanted to send a picture where I’m staring dead ahead into the lens, I’d just forward my mugshot from the DOC website. How about this?” I tried a couple of poses, alternately silly and serious.

The photographer was game for anything that wasn’t explicitly against the rules, but he couldn’t frame a shot to save his life. When I mentioned the rule of thirds his response was a blank stare. Not that I expected Annie Leibovitz, but I didn’t anticipate the top of my head getting lopped off in every single image, either.

Fifteen minutes, many shutter snaps, and one minor tension headache later, I had a couple of photographs of myself that weren’t too bad — or didn’t seem that way. The camera has a three-inch screen but finished prints never have quite the same values as you remember okaying. I would know for certain four days later, after the flash card went to the printer and the photos, in physical form, made their way to the gym for distribution. It felt a little like the anxiety I recall surrounding school photos. Maybe the process is less harrowing for students these days, but when I was in middle school in the early ’90s you wore your winningest smile and hoped for the best.

I’ve done all of this many times — buying the tickets, finding the time, running up against draconian rules, waiting eagerly for the final product. Somehow it’s always so anticlimactic. The expression printed on that glossy paper never resembles the person I think I am.

12 January, 2015

The List: Reading October Through December 2014

Bob Lescaux, Writing

Every so often I stumble into an existential conundrum as a writer. More texts exist than there is time enough in even several lifetimes to read, with more disseminated daily. And that’s just books. Look at the whole textual output of the human race — from the lowliest Justin Bieber fan site to the most well-reasoned, erudite wiki — you might have to ask yourself why anyone in his right mind would willingly drag his sorry ass into the fray by proclaiming himself a writer. It’s a losing proposition. The odds against even minimal success are staggering. Writing doesn’t guarantee publication, publication doesn’t guarantee readers, readers don’t guarantee success, success doesn’t guarantee relevance, relevance doesn’t guarantee a literary legacy. The writer at the table next to you at Starbucks? You‘ll never read his stuff. If you do, it probably says more about your reading habits than about his talent.

So why write? Why fill up page after page with these little squiggly characters, deluded into thinking (for whatever reason) that my particular arrangements of them is special, meriting any attention at all when there’s so much on TV? Why even dream that my abilities to string sentences together into coherent ideas are greater than, or even equal to, those of the millions of others who’ve already done so? What hubris! And then I go and pick up a book that really wows me, and still I have the gall to go on calling myself a writer, thinking that I actually have what it takes to make from this delusion a life.

Some days I feel bad for myself, toiling away like I do, like Sisyphus with his rock. Once in a while I’ll even grow discouraged and, in a masochistic fit, will pick up a good book to read. These past three months have been rough for me, creatively speaking, and I haven’t even read as much as usual. These two facts could, of course, be interconnected. Maybe my creative drive is directly proportionate to the degree of futility I perceive in my labors. Seeing the stone roll down the hill for the umpteenth time, Sisyphus is emboldened and says, “All right, this time I’m gonna get this bastard to the top.” Actually, that could make a pretty great story….

For your outstanding generosity with printed matter this quarter, thank you, Caleb, John A., Jersey, Kat (many times over), Mum, and Tom at Prospero’s Books. The six of you have helped stoke my fire. I’m warmed.

* * * * *

James W. Pennebaker, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us
Does getting older change a person’s language patterns? How do men and women differ in their word usage? What linguistic quirks signify an individual’s social status within a given group? In what ways are thinking styles revealed by word choices? These were my questions. I wanted answers. Although I’m told that I have a keen ear for dialog, the further along I progress with my novel’s loose arc, the less certain I am that its multiple narrative voices are as distinct as they ought to be. The Secret Life of Pronouns helped, surprised, and sometimes reassured me. (Word nerds, for a good time, visit the author’s website.) I picked it up thinking I’d just skim, picking specific nuts and bolts to help me tweak my prose; I ended up scouring Pennebaker’s entire tool shed.

Robert Kirkman, et al., The Walking Dead, Book One
The AMC series was days away from starting its fourth season and the Image Comics had already reached their milestone hundredth issue, so it’s safe to say that I was a little late to the party. This hard cover compendium (containing the first two trade paperbacks, Days Gone Bye and Miles Behind Us) was a loan from a neighbor who learned about my own zombie novel and Walking Dead fandom while we were standing around, waiting to use a telephone. How cool to finally learn what the fuss was about!

I like Tony Moore’s clean, expressive art in Chapter One better than Charlie Adlard’s more muddled work in Chapter Two, but Kirkman’s writing and plot development definitely flourish in the latter. Differences in the story lines of show and comic are interesting, including the unfamiliar characters (Chris, Allen, and the twins haven’t appeared in the show), strange relationships (Dale and Andrea having sex!?), and a more natural passage of time (the group’s first winter was glossed over in the show; in the comics, it’s clearly a hard one). The upshot of all this is that I may now be the only person whose Amazon wish list includes a Babylonian epic, the poems of Wallace Stevens, and a graphic novel about people fleeing reanimated corpses.

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
The history of the nautical chronometer and how its invention came to revolutionize global navigation wouldn’t necessarily interest everyone, but the surprise gift of this book revealed to me a subject that’s actually quite fascinating. If Sobel’s very condensed account of John Harrison’s mechanical innovation were much longer, it might only appeal to scholars and watchmakers. As it is, Longitude constitutes a sort of historical amuse bouche that finishes moist and savory.

Naoki Higashida (K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell, translators), The Reason I Jump
Using an alphabet grid drawn on a card and laminated, the thirteen-year-old author pointed to each letter of every word of this book about living with autism in a neurotypical world. While many find the young man’s observations intriguing, I was more compelled to read The Reason I Jump because of how its text was composed, which is similar to the technique used by Jean-Dominique Bauby when he wrote his extraordinary memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about his “locked-in syndrome.” The Reason I Jump may not be a literary masterpiece, but it is a major personal achievement for a boy trying to make himself understood in a world that itself defies understanding.

Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Blindness by Giovani Pontiero, 1984 by George Orwell — I love literary novels set in not-so-distant futures, which explore large moral or social issues through whatever central conceit they introduce. I expected On Such a Full Sea to be more than it is, based on when and where it’s situated. Lee is an adept prose stylist, and his tale does offer moments of quiet profundity, but these points only make me more disappointed that the novel falls short of being stunning. I blame its distant narration (by a collective “we”) and its nearly mute protagonist, a stoic young woman, which never allow the book to feel greater than its one-thing-after another parts.

Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology
Voices from the graves of citizens of a fictional Midwestern town comprise this collection of more than 200 free-verse poems. Theirs are mostly hard lives — of politicians, pastors, housewives, drunkards, soldiers, newspaper men, lovers. Their epitaphs are brief, affectingly told. Did Masters get his inspiration from strolling through an Illinois graveyard? I can’t imagine the lives of Spoon River arising from any other source. I love that this book came to me in the midst of my own project involving a motley chorus of characters.

Italo Calvino (William Weaver, translator), If on a winter’s night a traveler
Certain poems are nothing but beginnings, I once read. But what about works of prose? Can a book of fiction, say, be coherent and effective if it’s made up of only introductions, intimations, premonitions, the setting of scenes, promises never to be fulfilled? Calvino, the Italian fabulist, with this novel from 1979, proved that it can. Difficult as it is to summarize what is essentially the beginnings of ten related but disparate novels, I guess I can say that it’s a love story, not necessarily involving people (although, that’s also an element) as much as the love of literature, and the many forms that love can take. If on a winter’s night a traveler is a hall of mirrors, a labyrinth, a bewildering chase, and a cri de cœur for us to think of reading as a sensual delight.

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2
A mid-’90s reinvention of the Pygmalion myth (the tale of the Greek king whose prayer to Aphrodite brought the very literal object of his affection, an ivory statue of a woman, to life), involving a cognitive neuroscientist, a computer-based neural network, and a novelist who just happens to be named Richard Powers. The story follows a straight enough line to its obvious end, even with the apparent digressions into the novelist’s failed relationship with a former student. What brings it to life is the dexterous prose Powers employs, adventurously and with confidence, while exposing the message at the novel’s core: that life may be nasty, brutish, and short, but through our never-ending striving, willful questing, and following of sometimes quixotic whims we make it also something exquisite.

Alice W. Flaherty, The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain
Music appreciation, religious ecstasy, schizophrenic hallucination, drug abuse, evolutionary biology, and other related matters. Flaherty has written a neuroscience text that addresses questions on the minds of so many writers, which she herself agonized over after experiencing bouts of hypergraphia (compulsive writing) and creative block. It’s a scientific perspective on the humanities — nothing I’d encountered before.

The Midnight Disease takes its fitting title from Edgar Allan Poe, who coined the term to describe his own insatiable writerly urges. The book explores numerous creative phenomena and their origins within the brain, quite a few of which are fascinating. For instance, I learned that poets are basically self-medicating when they compose elegies, since all acts of bereavement trigger the release of endogenous opiates in our gray matter. Also, I was surprised to find out that two destinct parts of the brain control language production and language reception — Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, respectively — and that damage to one or the other impacts very different aspects of one’s communication, not in the way you’d probably expect.

If this sort of thing sounds over-technical or tedious, I’m willing to bet that you’re not a writer. To me, though, who gets succor and challenge, frustration and fulfillment in striving to make literature, this new way of thinking about the inner workings of mind and brain in the process of creation is the bee’s knees. I recommend The Midnight Disease for anyone existentially driven to write or who suffers occasional run-ins with block.