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?