05 December, 2016

Awful, Contemptible, Foolhardy Hope

Hope is the best-smelling meal you've ever salivated over, which riddles you with intestinal parasites. Hope is the cutest girl in your third-grade class, approaching you at recess just to kick you in the nuts and run away giggling. Hope is the stingray you mistake for a sand dollar. Hope is the big, frosty orange-sherbet tub in Grandma's freezer, from which you scoop a bowlful and discover, too late, is frozen chicken fat. Hope is the beauty spot on your cheek that metastasizes.

You might've been surprised to read, in my September post about MTV's Unlocking the Truth, that the series had me "excited for the future," since I normally eschew such hopeful abandon. If you later scratched your head at the series finale, aware of what producers cut from the show, you'll understand now why my September enthusiasm turns my stomach.

Hope is the imprisoned innocent's daydream of freedom.

As a recovering pessimist, I nevertheless consider wide-eyed, credulous hope a failure to maintain perspective. My perspective was warped when I unquestioningly believed that, with access to all our information, Unlocking the Truth would at least mention certain witnesses, certain critical points, even if television's strict time constraints prevented lengthy discussion of them. As long as all of the information got out, I'd have been satisfied with whatever interpretation of it the series came to. The narrative only goes one way, so I naively waited, episode after episode, for them to show the rest of the picture.

The night of the finale, credits rolled, a Catfish rerun began, and I sat stock-still on my bunk, in the TV's flickering, trying to work out what I missed. I thought, That can't be it. But, somehow, it was.

Street demonstrations, benefit concerts, candlelight vigils, #FreeByronCase trending on social media, donations piling in to cover my lawyer's fees, mailbags bulging with viewers' expressions of solidarity, flurries of messages to the governor and tweets to @GovJayNixon — none of it happened. But, then, since Unlocking the Truth left out essential facts, and since Ryan Ferguson concluded that the evidence didn't establish guilt or innocence in my case, I was hardly surprised. Impassioned responses don't usually result from a shrug.

Then the election came and went, and I couldn't stop thinking about my pardon application, submitted to Governor Nixon in August of 2011 and still under consideration. Plenty of prisoners and parolees have filed and been denied in the five years since I filed that document and its fat appendix, setting out a pretty solid argument of innocence. The governor's legal advisor, after meeting with my people in 2012, seemed to believe that mine is a wrongful conviction, that I didn't murder Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. He must've told Governor Nixon the same, so why this delay?

Missouri has another highest officeholder now. Is Governor Nixon planning to leave my case untouched, a sticky wicket for his successor, Eric Greitens, to deal with? Or is he going to dignify my plea for freedom with an answer? With less than two months before the powerful Governor Nixon reverts to being plain ol' Jay, every day that passes adds weight to that question.

Since day one (that's 11 June 2001, as anyone paying attention already knows), I've maintained that I had nothing whatsoever to do with Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's death. It was true then, it's true today, and it'll still be true in another fifteen years, whether I'm locked in this box or living a life of rightful freedom. It'll be true no matter what stories Kelly Moffett tells, no matter how many distortions the Antibyron Clique posts online, no matter which of my personality quirks gets mistranslated, no matter who steps out of my undignified past to say what an asshole I was, no matter when (or if) the evidence of my innocence is finally shown to be incontrovertible.

Moreover, I'll keep saying it until the public, the Missouri courts, Governor Nixon, Governor Greitens, or whoever else has power enough to change my circumstances sees my innocence for the absolute truth that it is. That such a day comes is the one and only hope I'm willing to keep close to my heart, without regret, without embarrassment, without reservation, unflaggingly, for as long as it takes.

28 November, 2016

A Different Kind of Love Poem

The Animals the Animals Loved

Ask Frenchie about Rootin' Rudy,
the potbellied pig allowed to sleep in the biker's bed many nights,
before he shot and stomped a man to death,
and Frenchie will dig out the photos
of his black porcine pal
kissing him, proper as a beldam.
His eyes will twinkle.

Or Mustache Jerry, so taciturn,
who murdered a man outside a bar
and needs no invitation to share with you
a story about Boots, who'd pull a dead
truck as well as he could hump
a plow along a rut
but was stubborn as the day is long.
Evenings, Jerry brought apples in a basket
and they'd watch the sun descend on
the hills while the man liquored up
and the mule chowed down.

Or broad-as-a-barn James, with
his murderous leer and short fuse,
easily slighted and, on the prison yard, best steered
clear of: he had a cat, an enormous tabby — Tut —
that believed itself a dog. They went
for walks together, and James would feed Tut
flank steak when he grilled, out back.
The cat was his friend, and James
wept babylike when he died after
a fight (a coyote, the culprit), but not
after sticking four holes in Earl McCann,
The fucker, he had it comin'.

Hard men. Hard men all,
and beastly.

* * * * *

Does a poem need a disclaimer? Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental ought to cover it, if so. But you do hear some stories from questionable individuals (nearly the only kind, in prison) if you do enough time, and the three I cannibalized for "The Animals the Animals Loved" remain largely intact, right down to the incriminating facts.

31 October, 2016

Halloween in the Hoosegow III: Fresh Blood

Rain claws my window as October's final light, shocking crimson, bleeds away. I am too intent on the task at hand to be distracted by Nature's fit, and barely notice when a crash of thunder tears the air outside. Tonight's operation is urgent and nearing its tantalizing end.

Chunks of once-living tissue are piled in the bowl at my elbow. I work my instrument — quick, deft incisions — through the green flesh on my workspace, transferring each sliver to the vessel containing the others, pieces destined to soon be hungrily devoured. My hands are slicked in their briny fluid. The scent is ripe and thick in the close atmosphere of the cell. Each excision makes me salivate a little more.

I turn, retrieving a second pouch, tearing it open and letting its contents, like small discolored eyeballs, roll onto my worktop, then resume cutting olives.

For years, the monstrous, unholy feast of Halloween night has been a rite I observed alone. Certain circumstances separated me from my longtime cohort, Zach, but the ritual's draw was more powerful than solitude, and I pressed on, constructing my cyclopean heaps of nachos — impossible for any mortal man to altogether consume — for myself. It was not always easy. The pendulous burden of so much refried beans, cheese, shredded chicken, picante sauce, olive slices, and ranch dressing laid to rest on a wide plot of tortilla chips was often nigh on too much for my body and soul to bear. Some nights I pushed away from the piles of it, gasping, fingers smeared with evidence of my atrocious hunger, and felt a sulfurous flare from the Abyss belch out of my throat, demonic and fulminant, then resumed my ravenous feasting.

Tonight, though — tonight will be different. Mine will not be the only constitution tested by this ritual of gross overconsumption.

My youthful initiate is named Brett. He came to me wearing innocence on his face, all wholesomeness, but I saw within him an emptiness, a kinship. Beneath Brett's aura of good health and respectability, a voracious beast-man, kept under psychic lock and key, howled and grasped for hot, melty, fatty cheese food product over corn chips. He'd read foul texts on my impious All Hallows Eve exploits. His curiosity about them was not idle.

In the weeks leading to tonight, Brett became my willing acolyte, and under my tutelage subjected himself to the fell rituals: Hersheys bars with Hellraiser, jelly beans with The Shining, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups with It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Brett is as prepared as any man could be. I have shown him the ways. Tonight he will prove himself.

Lightning shatters the gloom as a knock — a barely-there rapping — comes at the steel door. The look in exposes his fear at what he will see. I tell him he will have to stanch that timidity, standing aside so his widening eyes can apprehend this year's creation splayed across the surface where I've been toiling.

A profane word escapes his lips, further language beyond reach. Before such an abomination as I have made, its unspeakable dimensions, its colors beyond description, all utterances are meaningless. This way, dear reader, lies madness.

Brett hands me what he's brought: an icy Pepsi. I crack it open and the insanity begins.

27 October, 2016


In days of yore, stout scrubwomen squatting by the water gossiped and kvetched to quell the tedium of pounding their husbands' smallclothes against a rock for hours. Later, nuclear-age housewives, in Benzedrine daydreams of lives less laborious, mooned over the newest DeLuxeCo Auto-Matic Clothes-Washing Machine in their Sears Roebuck catalogs. And today, if the TV commercials are any indication, people still aren't content with the ease of washing their laundry, because Samsung has upgraded its machines with a small port in front, so you can add clothing items to loads without the agonizing burden of opening a regular-sized washer door!

The future is here, people. I, for one, am uneasy.

My upbringing left me leery of certain levels of convenience. Blame the semi-crunchy environment my parents raised me in, which instilled an appreciation for the handmade, the homegrown, the slow-cooked. To wit: until age eight, I had no idea what Ho Hos were (and when I found out, their oily sweetness made me spit). One takeaway from my youth can therefore be summed up as “good stuff is worth waiting for.” The converse was implicit: what's readily had is better left alone.

Every morning, cell doors in Crossroads’ honor dorm open when the 5 AM custody count clears. Like a horse charging from the gate, I race the other early risers to the laundry closet downstairs, where I scrub and rinse yesterday’s wearables in my green Rubbermaid wash basin before breakfast. Others take less time. My bar is just higher. Can I drink the rinse water yet? If not, I rinse again, repeating until the answer’s yes. It's a chore that takes me twenty minutes, on average.

A chore — the word connotes drudgery, unpleasant obligation, routine. I used to like doing laundry. There's nothing quite as reliably comforting as the smell, texture, and temperature of a fresh load pulled from the dryer.

Modern laundry-washing is nothing. You drop clothes into a machine, you wait, you transfer the clothes into another machine, you wait again, you retrieve the clothes, you fold or hang them as necessary. It’s easy as pie — easier, in fact, since pie involves an iota of finesse. Any imbecile can do a load of whites. “Oh,” you cry, “but the wait is so annoying!”

Even when you do actually need to stay in the vicinity while your clothes tumble, as in laundromats where sketchy characters might filch unattended garments, a wait is only a wait when you’re not creative enough to otherwise occupy yourself. The way things are now, I’d be moved near to tears by the freedom to surf the web, sit people-watching, or play a Donkey Kong arcade game while a machine saved me hours of effort. Who in their right minds complain about such First World privilege?

Most here can’t bear the thought of doing laundry by hand when the institutional laundry service will take their bags of dirties and, a couple of days later, bring them back somewhat less dirty. They don’t care that everything comes back as crumpled as blow-in insulation. The service is free of charge and hassle… except when laundry workers rip bags open to thieve any less-than-yellow T-shirts.

There's a third option for getting your clothes clean in prison: using a Maytag. Some convicts hawk their artwork, some sell sex, some run gambling operations, some deal drugs. There are as many ways of making money in the joint as there are types of people. Maytaggin’ — hiring out your services as a human washing machine — hasn’t always been known by the same name, but it's as old as penitentiaries themselves.

In my wing lives the Laundry Gnome, a fuzzy little guy with glasses and graying red hair that nearly matches his raw skin. He looks like, before his incarceration, he might’ve smoked an itty-bitty corncob pipe. Now he smokes what he earns from scrubbing stains and body soil out of other prisoners’ workout gear and underthings. His knobby knuckles may always be cracked and angry, but he never wants for tobacco. I admire his dedication, if not the addiction driving it.

The Laundry Gnome scrubs his fingers to shreds because his customers want what you, dear reader, have: the luxury of dropping off a dirty load and picking it up wearable, no agitation necessary. He doesn't charge much. I could probably afford to hire him. The way I do it now, laundry’s become a grind, leeching time that'd be enriching if only I spent it with my nose in a good book. (I have nowhere near the number of leisure-reading hours I’d prefer.) But I couldn't stand myself if I paid to save a trifling fraction of an hour per day, solely in order to be lazy. Scrubbing in suds may dry my hands something fierce, sometimes, but it keeps my conscience and my socks clean.

14 October, 2016

The List: Reading July through September 2016

Maria Friberg, Still Lives #3

Surrounded by good books this summer, I nevertheless read less than usual. At times I felt guilty for letting so much worthwhile literature sit unregarded while I absorbed myself in other concerns (time-sensitive and fairly important though they were). There was a two-week stretch during which I only worked out once and didn't leave the housing unit for a single rec period — a pretty good indicator of my monomaniacal drive. But dammit, I got done what I set out to do.

As they so often do, my dear Mum, the good Lady Val, and Prospero's Tom Wayne collectively sent more books than my busyness allowed me to read before this quarter was up. I did my level best. Two still sit on my shelf as I type this. There's a temptation to take one up right now, but with the completion of my latest big project (HTML-related — don't even ask) I've felt the return of my muse and have been daily progressing on my long-unfinished novel, ignored these many months. The fiction on my shelf can wait a little longer.

* * * * *

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
The way it crackles with possibilities and breathes with Egan's multifarious, lifelike prose, I hardly wonder why A Visit from the Goon Squad won so many prestigious awards (National Book Critics Circle, New York Times Book Review Best Book, the Pulitzer). She created a veritable solar system when she wrote this novel, an intricate series of orbits — some closer, some farther distant — with her character Bennie Salazar in the role of its sun. Bennie's rise and fall and resurrection in the music business is the novel's ostensible plot. Leaping, skipping, shuffling, and spinning around years and continents, the book's numerous voices resolve themselves into a chorus by tantalizing degrees as their interconnectedness dawns on us, a brilliant and subtle affirmation of life's ephemerality and infinite potential.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
His luminous language always delighted me before, and this, Rushdie's second novel, from 1981, proves to be no exception. It won the Booker Prize then, and got voted "Best of the Booker" in 2008, probably because it's practically the Platonic ideal of a novel.

The story of Saleem Sinai, a "nine-fingered, horn-templed, monk's tonsured, stain-faced, bow-legged, cucumber-nosed, castrated […] grotesque creature," whose destiny and India's tragicomically mirror one another bore some superficial similarities, in its telling, to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. It's not derivative, though. Not by a long shot. And the only thing about reading Midnight's Children that I didn't like was the impossibility of ever reading it again for the first time.

César Aira (Katherine Silver, translator), Dinner
Twee turns sensational, then ruminative, in this novella by the prolific Argentinian, which landed flat, for me, after a perfectly nice setup: an aging bachelor and his mother, just back from dinner with a rich friend, return home and see live television footage of risen corpses slurping the brains of panicking townsfolk.

"Was it a nightmare, the result of a bad case of indigestion, poor television programming, or did something truly scary happen in Pringles that evening after dinner?" asks the back-cover copy. Thus the story plays fast and loose with certainties, dreamlike, in the manner of David Lynch films or Jesse Ball novels, only without those works' usual credulous perspective. Midway through Dinner, narration switches to an omniscient voice implying that what we're reading is only a dream, which robs everything that follows of any consequence (as well as my interest).

Amber Sparks, The Unfinished World: And Other Stories
Many short-fiction collections start strong as hell, then rapidly devolve into mediocrity…or worse. Not so, this one. The first story here risked losing my interest from the get-go. It took me two more before The Unfinished World, Sparks's genre-agnostic second published book, offered anything memorable.

By the collection's end, I understood why. Despite her often-ingenious premises — space-station janitors, Arthurian heroes resurrected to aid treasure-seekers, unrequited love between famous Victorian naturalists, an Eternal Library that physically houses abstract concepts — Sparks shines when her tales have room to spread out and develop those ideas' potential. She's competent at short-shorts and flash fiction, but since when does "competent" stir readers? The longer stories here, particularly the novella that lends the collection its title, are engaging, darkly beautiful pieces that lift The Unfinished World to another plane altogether.

Jon Duckett, HTML & CSS
Being locked away and denied computer use for an indefinite period hasn't dampened my interest in all things webby. CSS had yet to be widely adopted by web developers in 2001, when Missouri took me captive. XML was just coming into use. Flash held boundless promise. People still liked RealPlayer.

My, times have changed.

Once I got past the remedial opening chapters (this colorful book being an extremely beginner-friendly how-to), I had quite a few fun aha moments, taking me back to an uber-geeky past life when I could roll around in code for hours on end and not realize five minutes had passed. Nostalgia meets enrichment — it doesn't get much better than that.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Like Orwell's 1984, this novel deserves several readings per lifetime. (Both are on my list of forty favorite fiction works.) Vonnegut was a satirist nonpariel, and Slaughterhouse-Five is a fine reminder of how effectively humor communicates ghastly truths. His life's work consisted of fourteen novels, several story collections and plays, and some nonfiction, and although he was old when he died, in 2007, it seems like there should've been so much more.

So it goes.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas: A Novel
Wait, a novel? More like a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale, then back again. The connective tissue of these nested narratives is the lives of the souls the book follows, the echoes and repeating motifs occurring from one incarnation to the next. Mitchell does the voices and cleverly frames them so well, the recurrances strike the reader like lightning even though they're written as mere dejá vù.

Rainer Maria Rilke (Joan M. Burnham, translator), Letters to a Young Poet
Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke's six-year correspondence with an admiring unknown sparkles with wisdom and friendly tokens of affection, and it's so rewarding to read. I hesitate to say more. In his inaugural letter to his young acolyte, Rilke cautioned:
Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no words has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
These letters have long outlived their sender, their recipient. They endure for precisely the reasons art does, because they are art.

Robert Kirkman, et al., Outcast by Kirkman & Azaceta, Vol. 1: A Darkness Surrounds Him
Highbrow to low-, my reading habits surprise even me at times. This comic was loaned to me, but don't be misled: I'm a true-blue comic-book geek from way back. Funnily enough, the last comic that I read was also borrowed from another prisoner, and it, too, was written by Robert Kirkman.

COO of Image Comics (Marvel and DC's only serious competition), and creator of, basically, every human being's favorite TV series, The Walking Dead, Kirkman's kind of a hot commodity at the moment. Until my friend Zach told me about Outcast, though, I was oblivious to its existence. (My subscription to Wizard lapsed a while back. I don't know if Comic Shop News even survived the '90s. I'm out of touch.) It's cool stuff.

The comic's laconic bits-and-pieces disclosure style would be familiar to Walking Dead fans. The similarities end there. Outcast is supernatural horror — The Exorcist meets Constantine. For all the demonic possessions, you'd expect more action, and my take is that twenty-two pages (the standard length of contemporary comics) is nowhere near enough for this story to gather its momentum. If I had picked issue #1 off the rack and perused it, I'd have left the shop with a back issue of Spawn instead.

The thing is, fans collect issues and read trade paperbacks like this volume, which collects the first six issues. Before I reached the end of Vol. 1, the only quibble I had was not being able to stroll over to Clint's Books & Comics, my old fanboy haunt, and buy Vol. 2.

A.C. Grayling, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible
During an appearance on The Colbert Report, Professor Grayling described his impetus for "making" this book, a distillation of hundreds of distinct philosophical works, as being a desire to see a single-volume secular guide to living a good, meaningful life. The Christians have their Bible, the Muslims have their Koran, the Hare Krishnas have their Bhagavadgita, and so on, so why shouldn't humanists have our own collection of parables, proverbs, histories, and general wisdom, just without all that supernatural stuff? Grayling acknowledged how ambitious, even arrogant, the idea sounds, and confessed that the end result falls well short of perfection, but it's nevertheless an impressive undertaking and an inspiring text to absorb. Who knows, maybe a couple of thousand years' edits, additions, and redactions at the hands of others will render The Good Book a monument of human brilliance, industry, and loving kinship. We have to start somewhere.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy, editors), The Blithedale Romance: A Norton Critical Edition)
Most high-school English classes have Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter on their reading lists. I dropped out of Lincoln College Prep before any introduction to the harrowing ordeal of Hester Prynne, and didn't get around to Hawthorne until last month. In keeping with my curious tendency to not begin with authors' better-known work, The Blithedale Romance is probably his most critically derided novels (one of his peers called it "the slightest and most colourless" of Hawthorne's novels). You might ask why I do this to myself; I might be at a loss to answer.

The Blithedale Romance is, for sure, a mess, heavy on overwrought Gothic trappings and! until a totally uncalled-for death scene near the end, light on action I've heard that Hawthorne wasn't the best at structuring his plots. No one warned me, however, that I risked physical injury by reading this book. Again and again I tipped bodily forward, nearly hurling myself off my bunk, dozing. Lying down to read was safer. It was also the reason I took weeks to read this book. Being horizontal only made me fall asleep faster.

28 September, 2016

When Prison Culture Meets Black Lipstick

Tony and I were walking from the dining hall to the housing unit when he caught up to me. He'd seen the teaser for MTV's 7 September episode of Unlocking the Truth, the one introducing my case, and of course wanted to tell me so.

"They showed a picture of you in drag, all painted up."

I practically snorted, thinking, Good one, Tony. The photo in question shows my pale young face, cheekily glancing away from the camera, wearing eyeliner and a black-lipped smirk. My black velvet shirt and black coat can barely be seen. My fifteen-hole Doc Martens are out of the shot altogether, as are the silver chains draped from my right shoulder. I don't recall wearing jewelry more outrageous than my everyday piercings and two handfuls of silver rings that evening, but that doesn't mean I didn't. Jokingly calling this gothy getup drag was typical Tony, and I accepted the dig amiably.

Only later, replaying our conversation in my head, did I realize that Tony might not have been kidding around. He's been locked up for a long time; might he not know the vast difference between drag and goth? And if he doesn't, what could that mean for others who see the show — people around the prison who don't even know me as tangentially as Tony does?

For the very first time since Unlocking the Truth started delving into my case, I was nervous.

The average convict isn't known for his open-mindedness or reasonableness. Penned in by razor wire and walls, the tattooed swastikas, neighborhood affiliations, and gang code on most prisoners' bodies speak to their intolerance of the Other. Ask almost any citizens on the street and they'll likely supply two accurate facts about prison life: (1) it's governed by a rigorously enforced power dynamic; (2) it's run through with a current of barely contained sexual frustration. What might the sight of me in the summer of my eighteenth year, made up and dressed for a party, inspire in the mind of Billy Badass, DOC number 40926, who's been down since 1981 and ain't never seen no shit like that in his jerkwater hometown, where only whores and queers wear makeup, and the livestock are all a little jumpy? Would his shuttered mind compute? Or would he default to the old mental schema, Lipstick is for girls. The boy in the picture wears lipstick. So he must want to be a girl. I will make him my girl, thereby inciting an unpleasant circumstance for all involved? You can understand my concern.

The episode in question, when it aired, glossed over any meaningful definition of goth, probably because MTV's demographic has grown up in a culture that's more inclusive than those of previous generations. I suspect that every Millennial had at least one goth kid at their high school. My lawyer's description alone, that labeling someone "goth" was how law enforcement, post-Columbine, branded that person as "bad," didn't seem like enough for the population of Crossroads Correctional Center to comprehend the goth subculture.

Walking the yard with my friend and former cellmate, Zach, the following morning, every comment that came my way (there were more than I anticipated) was complimentary.

A neighbor said, "I loved how, in your interview, you threw in a little humor. When you said, 'I was a weirdo — I'm still a weirdo,' that really got me."

Some guy I'd never before spoken with said, "That's exactly what prosecutors do: they dehumanize you to prejudice the juries. You got right to the heart of it, there."

Another guy: "When they came, at the end of the show, and played that phone call, I was like, 'Damn, people, he didn't answer her question because he doesn't respond the same as other individuals would: he's weird.' I just needed to let you know, I believe you, man. Fuck that lying crackwhore."

And so on, from countless strangers and acquaintances alike, for days. No one made so much as a peep about the party photo Tony saw in the teaser. If anyone was struck by my smoky-eyed makeup in almost every other pic, they uttered not a word about it to me. It seems like my concession to weirdness wiped away any questions about my particular, peculiarly dandyish, brand of masculinity.

For decades I've held that the elegance of honesty needs no adornment. My outspoken truthfulness sometimes lands me in trouble, but this time the maxim is right.

19 September, 2016

The Fragile Collection

Where we lived in southern Wyandotte County, Kansas, was quiet without being too quiet. The suburban houses were widely spaced, constructed in a mishmash of styles, over multiple decades, an architectural grab bag. Most of our neighbors were older, and I was one of maybe five kids within a one-mile radius. A lot of the neighbors we knew by name but weren't close enough for block parties or borrowing cups of flour. What the neighborhood did have was an ample selection of nooks and semi-hidden passages that would've been irresistible to any free-range seven-year-old.

Mama and Papa's ease with their little boy's unsupervised traipsings wasn't negligent or crazy. The kid whose room was as organized as an entomologist's specimen drawer, who once laid a trash bag on the foyer floor before going tromping through backyard mud, and whose reaction to the "stranger danger" talk was a faintly irritated "I know" — he needs minimal minding.

I was forever picking up stuff while roving. Of the random rusty machine component half buried until my inquisitive fingers pried it free, I wondered what it did, then visualized some Rube Goldberg contraption it operated inside. If I found an out-of-place rock in a sand heap, I'd theorized about freak geological events that could've brought it there. Every child's curious about the whys and hows of things, and at least in this respect I was no different.

Lots of the objects I gathered got imaginatively repurposed. A seafoam-green glass insulator off a power pole became a bookend. Ball bearings found their way into my bag (which itself once sheathed a Crown Royal bottle) of marbles. A length of flex tubing made an arm for my robot costume. But not every object had practical potential. My "useless" finds usually gained a place of honor in the box.

If the box smelled weird because of what it held, I considered it a good weird. That scent: dry paper, soot, a hint of vinegar. Just sniffing the box could be gratifying. Careful not to tip it and disturb its contents, I liked lifting it from the shelf, bringing it near my nostrils, and taking in a deep breath. Maybe the box smelled the way Egyptian mummies do, the way ancient scrolls do, the way treasure buried on a desert island does. I fancied likening my stuff to priceless antiquities, since what I kept in the box was priceless — at least to me.

FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE, read the lid. Without measuring, I had concentrated very hard on making my letters big enough to span its width precisely. I also put permanent-marker cautions on the sides. Who might go into my room and rummage through its shelves of bric-a-brac, I hadn't the faintest idea, but wasn't safe better than sorry? Further insurance: a lining of cotton balls glued to the underside of the lid, and to the box's interior bottom and sides.

To open the box you pulled forward a fold on the front. Two tabs slid up, then the lid clamshelled open, revealing the trove within: my Fragile Collection.

My mental inventory of the box is still mostly intact, thirty years later:
  1. Ant, large unknown species
  2. Ash, volcanic (Mount Saint Helens)
  3. Butterflies/moths, various species
  4. Coral, fan
  5. Egg, robin
  6. Egg, quail
  7. Flowers, various species
  8. Honeybee, queen
  9. Honeybee, worker
  10. Honeycomb
  11. Nest, mud dauber
  12. Nest, unknown bird species
  13. Nest, wasp
  14. Oil, crude
  15. Poop, moose
  16. Quills, porcupine
  17. Skin, garter snake
  18. Skin, reticulated python (partial)
  19. Skull, mouse
Excessively keen of touch, smell, and hearing, my affinity for the delicate makes sense to me now. Saying that my sense of life's hardness developed prematurely, leading young Byron to marvel at how soft, brittle, gossamer, crepey, precariously formed things flaunted their easy destructability in our red-in-tooth-and-claw world, would be overstating it. But I had an inkling. When I weighed the robin's egg in my palm, feeling its tiny earthward pull, a kind of empathy was at work. We're all just barely here, flying through the void on this sphere, minuscule marvels of chemistry and physics. The blown-empty eggshell was a memorial to a life that might've been — except it, too, was doomed to destruction. The world couldn't let it last.

My Fragile Collection survived as long as I was its curator. Whatever happened to that box? Has the papery wasp nest crumbled to dust? Did the plastic bottle of Mount Saint Helens ash crack open and scatter its ultrafine contents with the wind? And what about me? Consigned to fire, I was somehow tempered, rather than charred. In the process I realized that the naive young collector's kinship with those fragile things was misplaced. He didn't consider the wide gulf, between existence and death, called living.

07 September, 2016

The Truth Will Set You Free: Will MTV's Unlocking the Truth Crack the Door for Me Tonight?

The last time a television series addressed the death of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, the teenage friend I was wrongfully convicted of murdering, viewers got a sensationalistic crap-fest that On the Case with Paula Zahn titled "Betrayal and Regret." I was not impressed, and hammered out my response to Ms. Zahn's journalistic improbity, relying on numerous summaries from friends who actually watched. After getting those thoughts off my chest, the world looked bright and rosy again.

A year and a half earlier, Sharp Entertainment (a production company not affiliated with Scott Steinberg Productions, which excretes On the Case each week on Investigation Discovery) had contacted me by snail mail. They wanted me to submit to an on-camera interview for a new ID series that was in development. The producer who wrote was cagy about its title, though, which sent up a red flag. Following a bit of phoned-in googling, I learned what he'd been reluctant to reveal: the series was Dates from Hell. (David Randag, if you happen to be reading this, you're a shitheel.) I declined more respectfully than was deserved.

With two strikes against the TV weasels, a third production company reached out to my supporters last year. Their proposed series' format was pitched as "Serial for TV." We tentatively agreed to participate, but they were still shopping their concept around to various networks when a producer from Unlocking the Truth called.

The new MTV series wasn't called that yet, of course. It's working title was pretty meh, meaning that, unlike with Dates from Hell, there wasn't any way of knowing what might be in store if we signed on. Our only assurance was the producer's word that this investigative series would strive for an unbiased examination of the facts.

For years, my supporters and I have subscribed to the maxim that "Facts are our friends." As long as MTV hewed close to empirical truths, I felt at ease.

Multiple interviews followed. The familiar visiting room, cleared for cameras, light rigs, sound equipment, and coils on coils of wire, bore a slightly eerie resemblance to its usual bright, crowded self. But the interviews went well enough. The crews were professionally friendly to the point that I, having been duped more than a few times, began wondering when their line of questions would turn hostile.

It never did. Nor did they shy from asking the crucial questions (it was an investigation, after all). My lawyer turned over all sorts of information, but when it came to interpreting the evidence, they consulted their own experts, hired at MTV's expense. We don't know what all Unlocking the Truth learned, but we'll start finding out tonight, when the first of several episodes focusing on my case airs.

For the first time in a long time, I'm excited for the future.

Previous episodes of MTV's Unlocking the Truth can be seen on the network's website, while new ones live stream on the show's Facebook page and air Wednesdays at 10:00 PM Central Time.

31 August, 2016

Frisbee Goth

Springtime! The yellow sun smiled down from a sky as blue, blue, blue as a robin's egg. Little birds flitted to my neighbor's windowsill and peeped at each other, exhorting the beauty and promise of the season. High gentle breezes herded puffball clouds around like sheep in a field. But, peering through the slit my sleepy fingers found between the bedroom curtains, it wasn't a playful baaaaaah that I intoned but a Scroogelike bah!

No matter how well adapted I felt to living nocturnally, every so often there'd be a morning when, after my overnight shift at the hotel's front desk, my circadian rhythm dropped a beat and left me lying in bed, staring in the inky vicinity of the ceiling, curious to know what the hell was wrong with my brain that it wouldn't reliably shut down. This was one such morning. Hence the exploratory gander at the bright world of daywalkers.

"Experts" say that the best thing the sleepless can do for themselves is to just get up and go do something until they get tired. As much as it felt like acquiescing to the oppressive diurnal-normative agenda intended to marginalize us self-identified nyctophiliacs, I decided to get my ass out of bed. Slipping into my black kimono, I ventured from my Stygian hideaway to see if my roommate had brewed any coffee.

The Captain squatted in the hallway, elbows-deep in a cardboard box she'd pulled from the closet, and surrounded by books, electronics components, and geeky miscellanea. If the guys on The Big Bang Theory prepped for a rummage sale, it'd look a lot like this.

"The fuck?" she said at the sight of me. "No sleepies for owlie?"

Like creepy twins in a supernatural suspense movie, the Captain and I had our own special means of communicating. I answered, "Blarg."

She made sad-face, her small mouth curling down to the points of her jet black bob, empathizing with my pain. (Every ninety days, her job made her work a month of nights, and the insomnia was brutal.) She hitched her thumb kitchenward. "Fresh pot."

When you work overnight, you get a different perspective on the world, civilization, infrastructure, and even biology. You don't take for granted that anyone shares your lifestyle, too, because it's painfully obvious that most don't. I couldn't say how many accusations of laziness I got for not answering my phone during "normal" hours. Incredulous friends didn't get how I slept the days away, even after I pointed out the equivalence of my 2:30 PM to their 2:30 AM. Some people are stubborn in their ignorance of how the world works.

But coffee? Coffee is a universal. Coffee is critical for all late workers, all predawn risers — for burners of the midnight oil, and early birds alike. Coffee, we can all, I think, agree, is life.

I was on my way to loving life when I returned to the hallway with a mug of strong Guatamalan in one hand, a lit Turkish Special in the other, my cats doing synchronized figure-eights around my naked ankles. Everything would be okay, I thought, as long as I had the three Cs — coffee, cigarettes, and cats — close by.

I nudged kitties back to clear space for myself on the floor. Bast nuzzled my chin; Isis sniffed my bare toes; the Captain extended a Ziploc bag and shook it at me, the way you do when you're offering someone a potato chip: "Capacitor?"

"Thanks," I demurred. "I've got my power breakfast right here. What is all this stuff?"

"It's from Mom's basement. Old stuff from school, et cetera," she sighed, repositioning her wire-rimmed glasses. "I'm deciding what to keep and what goes to Defenbaugh."

I read the spines of a few books beside her. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Semiconductors. A Dame to Kill For. Eclectic selection the Captain had.

A black-and-silver plastic something in the box caught my eye. I pointed. "What's that?"

I'd seen Frisbees in all colors, plus a few knockoff "flying saucers" with gaudy decals (typically at Everything's $1-type places), but never in black, with faux-chrome accents. This one, which the Captain introduced as not just a Frisbee but her Frisbee was an actual brand-name Frisbee Frisbee with grooves on top and a metallic silver design in the center, in imitation of that little three-armed plastic device you snap into vinyl singles to play them on a standard turntable. The Captain's Frisbee looked like a record.

It was cool, so I said as much, then added, "We should go down to Loose Park and play sometime."

Since way before I stopped wearing clothes with color, keeping my complexion milky with mail ordered Japanese SPF 70 sunscreen, and dying my hair a shade or two darker than India ink, I'd been going to the Jacob L. Loose Memorial Park — a scenic parcel of nearby land offering leisure-seekers a one-mile loop of pavement to bike or jog or promenade or walk dogs or push strollers; herb and rose gardens for olfactory pleasures; tennis courts; a picnic pavilion, complete with public-use barbecue grills; swingsets; fountains; a placid, attractively landscaped duck pond; ample rolling green lawns; a clutch of shady, fragrant pines; and a memorial to the historic Battle of Westport, with an account of the conflict presented on a series of large brass plaques alongside an authentic Civil War cannon that reeked of ammonia throughout the summer until park officials decided to plug the barrel, thus curtailing after-dark revelers' drunken games of Let's Urinate in the Most Inexpedient and Socially Unacceptable Places We Can.

Loose Park was great. Just because you're goth doesn't mean you can't enjoy scattering bread crumbs for ducks. Frisbee, though? That might have been pushing it, which is precisely the message I read in the Captain's eyes before she said the words "Are you fucking kidding me?"

Sure, my manifestly common-sense sunblock use, not to mention my clunky waffle-soled leather footwear's suitability for any number of potentially rough-and-tumble environments (most of them clubby or mosh-pitty, it's true), could seem to be born of a desire to be prepared, but I was not what you'd call outdoorsy. The Captain and I spent our workdays in front of computer screens; when we came home, it was to our PCs and hours of Internet, lobbing instant messages back and forth to each other from adjoining bedrooms — with the connecting door open. I'm saying ours was a sedentary existence. Yet somehow my roommate and best friend, a young woman who refused to order anything more adventurous than spaghetti red at every Italian restaurant we ever went to, believed that my all-black wardrobe and eyeliner made me less inclined to do something out of character than she was. I was almost offended.

What I thought: I can be spontaneous! I can cast off my gothy mantle whenever I want — go ride the bumper cars at Worlds of Fun, be the only white guy in a sketchy neighborhood's fried-chicken place, sing along with some poppy ’90s hit playing over a store PA, catch a demolition derby, make snickerdoodles, I don't know. I'm not a slave to my subculture, dammit!

What I said: "Whatever," then took a nonchalant drag of my cigarette.

A half hour later we were cruising up Broadway in the Captain's car, windows down, Gary Numan yowling from the stereo:
Down in the park
Where the chant is
"Death, death, death"
Until the sun cries morning
Down in the park
With friends of mine
Was it stupid to soundtrack our lives by picking a song "for the moment"? Probably, but we did it all the same.

We waited in our parking spot while the track played through, then set out on calf-high booted feet for where dogs ran and picnickers picnicked on weekends, this midday abandoned but for us, a couple of oddballs in black, come to toss around a color-coordinated Frisbee.

It's the kind of skill that sticks with you, Frisbee-throwing. Like riding a bike. I was never especially good at that, either. My Frisbee flings banked right too often, crashing into the grass and rolling far afield of their intended target, but the Captain didn't complain about chasing them down, so long as I cast a few into her waiting hands. Don't let her long-sleeved Nine Inch Nails T-shirt fool you; over-the-shoulder slings, boomerang flicks, behind the back catches — the Captain's masterful discmanship exposed her secret teenage flirtation with hippiedom. (And I happened to know she also played a mean game of hacky-sack.)

Beneath my velvet pants, my skin was feeling a little dewy, to which the Captain responded, "Eew!" She was feeling the effects of our fun under the sun's cheerful beaming, too, so we retired to a concrete bench in the umbra of tall pines, blanketed all around by their shed needles. Light gusts of air stirred their fresh scent, and I yawned. So quiet, so dim. I could just lie down right....

"Hooman?" the Captain prodded my elbow. Translation: Are you ready to sleep yet? I nodded, suddenly feeling drained.

She drove us home. Without another word I shut my bedroom door, barely getting my laces undone and boots off before collapsing into bed like a corpse. I didn't even care that I was damp; more laundry for later, was all. The only thought in my head, just before I lost consciousness and plummeted through enough restful hours' sleep to get me through that night's work, was, Huh, the experts were right.

29 July, 2016


I dreamed that I was back in the city. I saw friends long gone and missed. And in this dream they led me by the hand, under an autumn sky, wandering streets strewn with dry leaves. Together we came to our old haunt, where more friends greeted us; when they saw us coming, smiles lit their faces. They pointed us to seats at the far corner and produced pints of coffee-dark beer. They said, “None of you has changed.” They lamented that joy can’t stay, that friends meet only for a while before having to part again. “There’s hardly time to say hi before it’s ending,” said one. And then I woke and stretched my hands out to them, and there was nothing there at all.

04 July, 2016

The List: Reading April through June 2016

Andre Martins de Barros, La philosophie

Heavy reading predominated this quarter’s reading, for reasons that I couldn’t begin to tell you. And by heavy I mean literally weighty. Have you ever tried holding a two-and-a-half-inch-thick hard cover over your face while lying in bed, barely fending off sleep? There’s nothing quite like the worry of getting smashed in the face to keep one’s attentions piqued, as I discovered.

A byproduct of focusing on big, epic tomes for three months is that this may be one of the shortest “List” posts I’ve done. Is that ironic? Probably not. But limiting the number of books I read meant turning down offers by friends to send me others. Now that I’m past this little phase, though, feel free to indulge me with some summer reading fare if you feel like doing so. Not to seem desperate (merely pretentious), I should point out that the next book in my queue is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of several hundred pages, after which I can always turn to the prison’s long-ignored library.

* * * * *

A.J. Arberry (translator), The Koran Interpreted
What had I expected? Islam’s holy text was both less and more than my Western understanding led me to believe before actually reading it. If the Bible is the greatest story ever told, the Koran is the greatest praise song ever sung. Neither a narrative nor (to my eyes) a metaphoric puzzle, the Koran, as rendered in English for this well-regarded translation, moves through cycles of verses in praise of God that repeat again and again, perfectly suited for chanted prayers. Although, as one of the unbelievers to whom the book promises “a great chastisement” in due course, as well as not experiencing it in the original, “true” Arabic, I’m sure that there’s a great deal of missed beauty here.

Bruce Cohen, Imminent Disturbances, Impossible Numbers, & Panoramic X-Rays
”I love reading books no one else finds interesting,” begins Cohen’s “Beach Day,” the sixth in this new collection of thirty-nine poems. He and I share the sentiment. My appreciation for obscure, ponderous, or otherwise unpopular books is a repeated subject on this blog and in my real-time conversations, and knowing that I’m in the company of readers of Cohen’s caliber makes me happy.

His poetry, in its long lines and hyperobservant perspectives, reveals a surplus of patience. He writes the way you’d probably expect a middle-aged white American man to write... but in the best possible way. On their surface, his poems deal in matters of a superficially prosaic nature — married life, phone calls from friends, growing older and out of touch, fatherhood, et cetera. But being a poet of some skill, Cohen employs these leaping-off points to associate, juxtapose, and pontificate widely, often quite deftly. Like origami in reverse, he unfolds the universal tucked within humdrum specifics.

When his poems don’t work as well it’s because certain lines stray not far enough from the well-worn path: “One way or another, everyone is an understudy”; “It’s the ambiguity of life that drives us insane”; and “Does your mind trick you into pleasure, is the perceived actuality any less // Than the actuality?” Blah. The rest of the time, however, they do succeed, becoming not mere poems but spotlights whose beams writhe and twist, defying physics to illuminate the elusive, otherwise unseeable.

Leo Tolstoy (Richard Pevar and Larissa Volokhonsky, translators), Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts
In an interview published this year in Poets & Writers Magazine, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, said, “I very much want to reread both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, because I think those are two novels that really evolve along with the reader. Anna Karenina read at age twenty is very different from Anna Karenina read at age forty.” By Ms. Paul’s thinking, I missed out on a delightful exercise in perspectival contrasting, not reading this much-praised romance at a younger age. My twenty-year-old self begs to differ.

I’d never have been able to stomach Tolstoy’s classic before learning a certain level of tolerance for what a young Byron would call “irrelevancies.” Anna Karenina overflows with conversations bearing no direct relationship to anything like plot, with diversions and delays, as its author immersed readers in the blithe concerns of Russia’s aristocracy. Only when the scandal of an extramarital affair shakes things up do we have reason to be interested. Before that, it’s all dinners and balls and hunting trips, and it’s all terribly, terribly dull. Young Byron was by no means a thrill-seeker when it came to reading — he actually enjoyed Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — but this novel’s preoccupation with status and societal pressures would’ve meant nothing to his autistically indifferent mind. (And I’m pretty sure he would have closed the book with annoyance as soon as Tolstoy presented that dog’s interior monolog. Even thirty-seven-year-old Byron had a problem with that incongruity.)

As it was, I waited, with increasing impatience, for the moment when Anna finally threw herself in front of that train, not because I wanted the story to end but because I wanted it to get started.

Sir Thomas Malory (Keith Baines, translator), Le Morte d’Arthur
Chivalry is dead, and thank goodness. Like a fifteenth-century Pulp Fiction, this flinty Middle English epic of Arthurian legend revels in casual bloodshed, sex, and an abstruse code of conduct that makes me wonder how English society ever survived.
Sir Palomides and Sir Gonereyes entered the field, jousted, and broke their spears. Then they both drew their swords; with his first stroke Sir Palomides knocked his opponent to the ground, and with his second stroke beheaded him. Then Sir Palomides went to supper.
Tra-la-la, another day in the life of a knight.

Late in the book Malory saw fit to introduce the famous quest for the Holy Grail by the Round Table knights, and the civil war that led to King Arthur’s demise. The several hundred pages prior to that are thronged with lists of Sir So-and-sos who battle each other for duty, for honor, or for fun, often losing their heads in the process. It was hard to keep track of who’d successfully pleaded for mercy after being unhorsed (and thereby been rechristened a knight of the Round Table), and who’d got his melon cleaved. Although technically still English, I don’t think I’d have been able to read “THIS BOOK OF ARTHUR AND HIS KNYGHTES FROM THE BEGYNNYNG TO THE ENDYNGE” in the original. It was tough-enough going in this modern rendition.

Andy Orchard (translator), The Elder Edda
Since my knowledge of that culture was largely founded on historically questionable sources (Thor: God of Thunder comic books and the occasional movie about Vikings), millennium-old heroic and mythological Norse poems sounded like a worthwhile read. I was fascinated to find that, for all their brutal intensity, the pre-Christian Icelanders were a funny, bawdy bunch whose national sport might as well have been playing the dozens. Between the many dismemberments and poisonings here, plenty of insult humor smoothes the rough patches.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
Like climbing a steep hill, the poems in this collection by the man some call America’s quintessential twentieth-century poet, get more rigorous (i.e., difficult) the further you go. I had no idea what I was in for. A lot of us know “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and the oft-anthologized “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” but nothing else Stevens wrote. That was me, anyway. So I wasn’t expecting the dense, often high-flown pieces packed into these 534 pages.

Stevens had an ear, and a penchant for obscure verbiage. I had to look up many of his choicest words: diaphanes, cantilena, tutoyers, cribled. But far more naturally came my appreciation for his — I guess you could call it his secular spiritualism. It’s on display in “Sunday Morning,” a poem from Harmonium, Stevens’s debut collection, originally published in 1923: “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires.”

Meanwhile, I did my level best to write off his casual racism as a cultural influence of his time, as unavoidable as it is unfortunate, and to avoid feeling cheated by his frequently too-tidy denouements (which, there again, were sort of fashionable then). I don’t care about his reputation, that the man was made a marble bust in his lifetime; he eventually tipped into pomposity, and in-fucking-comprehensible poems like “Puella Parvula” are useless to me (“Keep quiet in the heart, o wild bitch. O mind / Gone wild, be what he tells you to be: Puella. / Write pax across the window pane. And then // Be still. The summarium in excelsis begins… / Flame, sound fury composed… Hear what he says, / The dauntless master, as he starts the human tale.” Uh, what?). But I’m glad to have at long last read him and grasped what the Great Poet’s name was built on.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
My intro to Woolf, one of fiction’s greats. Now this is ironic, considering that A Room of One’s Own isn’t a work of fiction but an essay, addressed to writers and would-be writers of the female sex, advocating greater creative and financial freedoms for women. Woolf’s prose is distinctive and deft, to be sure, but, dammit, I want to get hold of Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, and, in particular, Orlando (“minor Woolf,” as I understand, but with SF elements that I find compelling), so I can see her renowned talents for fiction on full display.

21 June, 2016

Opinions Aren’t Like Assholes After All

When other prisoners see the volume of letters I drop in the mailbox, or note the frequency and length of my visits and phone calls, they often express a kind of low-grade awe. “I just don’t have that much to talk about,” they say.

This baffles me. How can you not have anything to say? I ask, and they always — always — respond in the same way: they say, “Nothing happens around here,” then run down everything they’ve done since waking up that morning. As if what happens in your day is the sole determinant of content in your personal exchanges!

Conversation, oral or written, isn’t reportage. It’s not an interrogation, either. Timelines are boring, and boring equals no friends. I tell my mentally constipated fellow prisoners that they need to dig deeper, roam farther afield (or even take to the air), if they want to escape the taciturnity shackling them. For an example, I invite them to share something they thought about in the shower, lying in bed last night, or watching the news. “Expound on those thoughts,” I tell them. “People crave others’ opinions, so give them yours.”

They glaze over. It’s as though I was urging them to norph spoot hibbledin eeb kronk. Weird, since we were speaking the same language a moment before.

I’d love to riffle through a bundle of correspondence from years ago and reread stuff I’ve sent out from here. How much line space have I devoted to institutional gossip, denunciations of prison food, or enumerations of environmental irritants that work their way under my skin like so much glass dust? It wouldn’t be much — less than I now spend writing friends about, say, my workout progress. Rather than reporting on happenings, I tend to opine. About everything. (I’m a very opinionated guy.) And maybe that’s where the difference between these inmates and me lies: I think critically and therefore have ideas. I’m not at the whims of circumstance, thoughtwise.

It makes me wonder how to effect a perspectival shift. How do you teach someone to think in a fundamentally different way? Awareness, of course, paves the way to change. But there also has to be willingness. The old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb (only one, but the light bulb must want to change) isn’t actually a joke at all.

Not everyone has the chops to be a writer or a fluent conversationalist. Not everyone can play in the NFL, either. This doesn’t mean that those avocations can’t supply examples for the average joe to model, for personal improvement. Life’s not a zero-sum game. Because of this, I’m sickened by unpopular guys bemoaning short visits and infrequent mail. “You have to give to get,” I tell deaf ears. They’ve already acceded to defeat. The tyranny of I can’t makes pathetic serfs of whoever bows to it.

04 June, 2016

I Just Adore a Penthouse View

You’d think that someone in the prison’s administrative staff had asked what features I most desired in a cell assignment, then granted every request on my list — my new digs are just that great.

The night I carted my footlocker and property across the yard to 3-House, I halfway expected to enter an awkward living arrangement, one necessitating major compromises. Instead I was met at the wing door by Doyle, a laid-back guy I’ve known casually for years. Doyle’s a fastidious fifty-something-year-old who long ago gave up his stereotypical convict lifestyle for sobriety and an all-day factory job. He doesn’t smoke, and when he smiled and said, “Well, I guess you’re with me,” I breathed a little easier.

Together we humped my stuff up a flight of stairs to a cell with an eastward view. As we set down my footlocker Doyle confessed, “I was about to have a panic attack, wondering who they were gonna put in here with me.” There was peace of mind, all around.

Literal and metaphorical unburdening thus out of the way, it was time to be social. Several guys I hadn’t much seen during my years’ absence from the honor dorm — Jim, Larry, Chris, Billy, and others — came by to say hi, welcoming me back with genuine smiles. A lot of people approached me over the next few days. I was starting to feel like some kind of politician on the campaign trail, what with all the glad-handing. (Since when am I so widely liked?) Now that pretty much everyone who knows me has seen me, the back-pats and handshakes have ended and, frankly, I’m relieved. I’m ready to settle in, as though none of that mess ever happened.

I’m gradually making progress toward that end. My new cell is several square feet larger than most, having the same floor plan as the wheelchair-accessible one below. And, thanks to its orientation, radio reception is excellent. I can finally listen again to the public radio stations my last cell staticked out of existence, KCUR and KKFI. Doyle complains about the noise, but it’s minimal in comparison to the wing I just moved from. (No more motormouth right next door, jabbering all day long about the canteen food he plans to buy, arguing about a pinochle game, and kicking out the slow jams. Good riddance!) I have yet to be stymied by unavailable telephones. Clothes dryers in the wing mean I finally gave my fleece blanket a wash and had it come out fluffy. It’s the little things.

Over in lockdown, my cellmate’s lack of inertia and personal discipline were wearing on me. If you keep up with this blog, you know that I wasn’t writing like I should. I’d started taking more naps. Because my cellmate rarely went anywhere, except to the dining hall at mealtimes, there was scant room to let my thoughts wander freely, without distraction. (That annoying neighbor wasn’t any help, either.) All I need to do now, if I want a bit of privacy, is close the cell door — the universally acknowledged DO NOT DISTURB signal here. And with Doyle working his factory job until midafternoon, I finally have time and space enough to unfurl my mind’s sails and let the breezes of whim carry it wherever they may.

13 May, 2016

Eight Rites for Getting By

I. For being tallied four times daily: the Assumption of the Position.

II. For calming, in lieu of privacy or space: the Osculation of Thumb and Fingertip, repeated.

III. For sustenance: the Salisbury Renunciation, followed by the Feast of Bread and Beans.

IV. For preparation to be visited: the Observation of Minutes Passing.

V. For nostalgia’s pernicious ache: the Cherished Songs Devotional.

VI. For sleep, when sleep won’t come: the Silent Litany of Hopes.

VII. For reluctant waking on dark mornings: the Acquiescence, the Taking-in of the Black Invigorator, the Reading of Ill-Illuminated Words.

VIII. For all the rest: the Unsaid, Unheard Prayer for Ending.

04 May, 2016

Leaving Lockdown

I'm finally honor-dorm material again, in the eyes of prison administrators, having gone two years without a conduct violation since my release from the Hole (an experience I detailed here). So, of course, I've submitted an application and been accepted to move, and now it's only a matter of waiting for an opening.

Surprisingly, my cellmate doesn't care to secure a replacement, finding someone agreeable to switch places with me before I jump ship. He's determined to accept whoever he gets. I suspect he's simply too antisocial and lazy to seek someone out. It's needlessly risky if you ask me, but I'm not about to tell him how to serve his time.

As for me, no gambler by nature, moving to another housing unit means taking a chance. I'm not entirely comfortable with it, but so what? If I'm moved in with a chain-smoker, a sleep-all-day depressive, an old goat, a mooch (or, worse yet, a thief), that's life. I can deal with things as they come. The benefits — greater phone access, more freedom of movement, a somewhat higher caliber of associates — outweigh any risks.

Will I miss anything about this housing unit I'll soon leave? Not likely. When I first moved in I was surprised by the periods of quiet that stretched through the wing, in between the daily shower/phone rotations. I even sent word back to my friend and former cellmate Zach: "Hey, remember silence? I found out where it's been hiding all these years!" Everyone's doors, in the honor dorm, remain unlocked for the greater part of the day, so there's always at least a murmur. In general population wings, though, the ambience is almost sepulchral at times, with most of the inmates sleeping their tedium away or otherwise playing dead.

But that kind of quiet is overrated, I find. I have made my choice and locked it in. I'm ready. Bring the noise.

20 April, 2016

Late to Bed and Early to Rise

Too much on my mind, I haven’t slept well (or long) in weeks. At some point after 11:30 I drift off, usually dreamlessly, until the shout of “Count time!” So ingrained in me now is this 5 AM rising that sometimes I’m up before they call it. I gulp some water as I wait for the guards to pass, then piss and make a cup of coffee, because that’s preferable to lying there, wishing sleep upon myself until there’s no time left for sleep.

For fourteen years I’ve sworn that getting up that early for breakfast was for chumps. Sure, the lure of French toast, biscuits and gravy, eggs and potatoes, pancakes, et cetera tempts me, but adequate rest holds greater appeal. Suddenly my body — or is it my mind? — is rebelling. I’m up anyway. Might as well get a bellyful for my trouble.

There’s a meditative aspect to this, I’ve discovered. Pre-dawn, the prison is quiet and dim. The only distractions are the ones you admit — TV, radio, conversation (if your cellmate’s awake). Your thoughts, basically, are your own. I choose to sit in the dark with my mug of steaming-hot Folgers, just being. After the call to breakfast, once I’ve sallied to the chow hall and back, then I’ll pick up a pen, a book, or the latest New Yorker, and train my brain on the page. Like a series of hyperoxygenating breaths before diving underwater, the dead time seems to keep me going through the day.

I still work out just as thoroughly as ever; I still eschew naps. How I’ve been functioning so well on only five and a half hours’ sleep per night is a mystery. For how long will I keep it up? I’m not complaining, nor am I worried, only curious. The way I think of this sleeplessness is no different from the way I think of the great majority of life’s issues: it’ll work itself out, one way or another.

If only I could be so at peace with all of my circumstances!

01 April, 2016

The List: Reading January through March 2016

Medieval readers were among the first to recognize the transformative power of text. They saw how reading facilitated raw knowledge by way of the facts laid down by authors, of course, but they were also perceptive enough to notice how reading inspired original thoughts, independent from the ideas explicit in the text. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria likened reading to a dream: “I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent to me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.”

In that placid realm we readers know so well, there’s an exhilarated activity. Readers only appear inert. Inside, our minds are churning.

A study published a few years ago in Psychological Science confirms this. Researchers found that we readers “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about action and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.” As this empathetic activity takes place, the regions of the brain at work are the same as would be engaged if the reader were doing or watching the goings-on in real life. Reading, you might say, is being.

Unless this is your first encounter with my blog, you know how important the written word is to me, both as intellectual sustenance and emotional lifeline. I post these quarterly reading lists because I want people to see where my mind has been recently. My “List” posts are mental itineraries, and friends say they enjoy observing my travels from afar (although, not as much as I appreciate their accounts of life beyond Crossroads Correctional Center’s walls and fences). Sometimes they follow along, if the sights are compelling enough, but usually my journeys are solo affairs. What’s important is that these people care and take an interest, despite how peculiar my tastes and habits tend to be, in reading and in life — same thing.

For the life support they’ve sent this year, I owe thanks to Adam M. and my dearest Mum. And now, on to my voyagings.

* * * * *

Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker (editors), A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors
For anyone who feels a deep connection to the craft, this anthology will hold meaning. A Manner of Being presents a trove of anecdotes, witticisms, wisdom, and writers’ testimonies about those inspirational souls who nudged, cajoled, or bullied them to higher literary planes.

As a contributor (my tribute to L., a family friend, begins on page 108), I’m recusing myself from a proper review of the book, except to say how honored I am to be published alongside such estimable names as George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Tony Hoagland, Tobias Wolff, and Tibor Fischer. Thank you, Jeff and Annie, for including me in your labor of love.

Charles Simic, Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems
Too often I arrive at a poet’s oeuvre, or am smitten by the glimpse afforded by a newly published or reprinted selection, right around the time that poet dies. It’s enough to make a man cry out, “Poets, please, stop dying!” In the case of these Selected Early Poems, the book was already on my shelf, awaiting my attention, for a good month before Simic’s death last year. A superstitious sort might make something sinister of that. I was just disappointed that the world had reached its maximum allotment of distinctive works like
Gallows Etiquette

Our sainted great-great
Used to sit and knit
Under the gallows.

No one remembers what it was
They were knitting
And what happened when the ball of yarn
Rolled out of their laps
And had to be retrieved.

One pictures the hooded executioner
And his pasty-faced victim
Interrupting their grim business
To come quickly to their aid.

Confirmed pessimists
And other party poopers
Categorically reject
Such far-fetched notions
Of gallows etiquette.
It’s a poem that actually made me laugh — to say nothing of the other 150 or so poems, dated between 1967 and 1989, in this collection. Simic was never stodgy or grimly “poetical.” His way with words was astonishing.

In the four instances here when a poem failed to resonate with me, I think Simic’s surreal juxtapositions got too dense or random-seeming, but it speaks to his tremendous talent that the bizarre imagery that was his hallmark almost always accentuated the poems’ emotional heft. At their most unreal they grab you and hold you, and you never want them to let go.

Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor (editors), 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories
Anthologies purporting to be the best of the best can’t help but disappoint on some level. Either the editorial selections aren’t diverse enough to let a reader breathe fresh air, or they’re so self-consciously pluralistic as to verge on schizophrenic. I enjoy every title I read in the Best American series, which has presented a broad spectrum of voices without apparently resorting to affirmative action. This selection from the past 100 years of the series intelligently sticks with the demographics of authors most emblematic of their era. Moore and Pitlor include plenty of white males — Carver, Updike, Fitzgerald, Cheever — but segue into the contemporary multi-culti literati without it feeling forced. That every story her is a true gem helps. If any imbalance exists here, it’s in the abundance of stories first published in The New Yorker. I didn’t really mind rereading the superlative fictions that ran in the magazine over the course of my twelve-year subscription. 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories is the most delightful form of reiteration I can imagine.

Jonathan Lethem, Men and Cartoons: Stories
Some might call this collection of nine wildly entertaining tales uneven. But it is a testament to Lethem’s virtuosity that the contents of Men and Cartoons leap around in time, space, and form the way they do. Here the fantastic abuts the absurd, which itself neighbors poignant realism, which precedes straight science fiction, with the author’s witty, inquisitive voice the only thread necessary for tying the collection together.

Friedrich Nietzsche (Walter Kaufman, translator and editor), Basic Writings of Nietzsche
There’s too much to say about Nietzschean philosophy than could be encapsulated in a blog post (not one you’d want to read, anyway), let alone in my review of this collected volume. I won’t even try.

What I will remark on is how differently I read Nietzsche now than the first time. The vague transgressiveness I felt at sixteen, paging through his Beyond Good and Evil, eclipsed any significant understanding of the book’s message. I wanted to understand, but the philosopher himself commented on the futility of scholarly understanding without life experience. And what did I know about life then? Mired in depression and single-mindedness, the central formula within Nietzsche’s philosophy — revaluation of one’s ideas — was beyond my ken. I hadn’t yet endured enough. In the intervening years I suffered some truly wretched states and, by surviving them, learned and grew, just as Nietzsche describes in Ecce Homo: “[I]t was during the years of my lowest vitality that I ceased to be a pessimist; the instinct of self-restoration forbade me a philosophy of poverty and discouragement.”

The guy’s hard not to quote. It’s his aphoristic style, how he strung together clever phrases, one after another, to approach his ultimate point, that worked so well for and against him. Nietzsche worked by accreting refinements, coming at his subjects gradually, with finesse, like building a house by gluing single wood chips atop one another. Many readers ignored the structure and, instead, glommed on to single chips — lines or passages that seemed, divorced from their context, to support certain ideologies. Although he was unequivocal in his opposition to nationalism, anti-Semitism, and even the “Germanness” later readers attributed to him, Nietzsche’s still egregiously misappropriated and misread today.

Of course he set himself apart:
The spiritual haughtiness and nausea of every man who has suffered profoundly — it almost determines the order of rank how profoundly human beings can suffer — his shuddering certainty, which permeates and colors him through and through, that by virtue of his suffering he knows more than the cleverest and wisest could possibly know, and that he knows his way and has once been “at home” in many distant, terrifying worlds of which “you know nothing” — this spiritual and silent haughtiness of the sufferer, this pride of the elect of knowledge, of the “initiated,” of the almost sacrificed, finds all kinds of disguises necessary to protect itself against contact with obtrusive and pitying hands and altogether against everything that is not equal in suffering. Profound suffering makes noble; it separates.
Sardonic, complex, and, above all, honest, Nietzsche was practically destined for a bad reputation he didn’t deserve.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks: A Novel
Its back cover declares The Bone Clocks to be the story of Holly Sikes, “once contacted by voices she knew only as ‘the radio people,’” who has now “caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics.’’ This makes it sound like a Dean Koontz book. Terrible. I trusted David Mitchell to deliver more (and better) than Random House’s marketing department promised, and I’m happy to say that he did exactly that, most spectacularly. Not fantasy nor thriller, not sci-fi nor literary novel, The Bone Clocks is somehow also all of these — a multivoiced, labyrinthine saga, touching and intimate, violent and raw, snarky and dispassionate — that plays with genre as much as with mood, and is all the more engrossing for this multifariousness.

Frank Lima, Angel
The bowled-over feeling I got from reading Lima’s poems in November’s Poetry — astounding examples of that meaningful surrealism I mentioned above — didn’t revisit after I ordered this 1972 collection. There was no magic here for me, despite the heavenly title. Maybe I should’ve waited for the posthumous Incidents of Travel in Poetry, just published in January. As of this writing (hint, hint), that one’s still on my wish list.

Alan Weisman, The World without Us
How disappointed I was to realize that this wasn’t exactly what I wanted, researchwise, nearly made me lose interest before I began reading. But I took the plunge, and not only did I pick up several useful tidbits for my perpetually in-progress zombie novel, Weisman’s exhaustively researched thought experiment — What would happen to Earth if humans suddenly vanished from its face? — astonished and freaked me out. No wonder it won so many nonfiction-book-of-the-year kudos. The World without Us is a reality check that ought to be required reading for everyone alive.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe {Walter Arndt, translator; Cyrus Hamlin, editor), Faust: A Tragedy: Interpretive Notes, Context, Modern Criticism
You know the old story: a learned man exhausts all the common areas of study — philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and theology — and so turns to magic in his boundless hunger for experience, only to wind up in a diabolic deal for his eternal soul. Goethe knew it, too. The folktale captured his imagination as a young writer, and he published fragments of his own dramatic interpretation to some acclaim, beginning in 1787. As decades passed, he composed a patchwork of scenes for the drama’s second part {today we’d call it a reboot of the franchise), which took Faust and Mephistopholes far, far from their original setting, making them almost ancillary characters in an allegorical sprawl, alongside classical myths and burlesques of Goethe’s contemporaries.

The Norton Critical Edition I was fortunate enough to get my claws into granted insight that otherwise would’ve eluded my grasp. Goethe himself told a friend, “all attempts to bring it nearer to the understanding are in vain.” He was speaking about Part Two, because Part One, for its somewhat patchy nature, at least carries emotional weight and coheres as a drama. Part Two rambles and rollicks so many different ways, and reeks of a poetic decadence almost too stifling to tolerate; it could never be staged.

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Depth of thought. Attentiveness versus automation. The mechanisms by which we arrive at meaning in our lives. The value of literature in contemporary society. I’ve been preoccupied with these themes for years, but until hearing about this Pulitzer Prize finalist during a lecture on C-SPAN 2 (BookTV is my jam, yo) I knew of no grand unified theory for them all. As it turns out, they’re not only closely connected issues, I’m also by no means the first or only person to lose sleep thinking about them.

Carr’s subtitle for The Shallows sounds, somehow, simultaneously alarmist and anodyne. His book is neither. Rather, it’s a well-reasoned, provocative look at the culture and science of wired life. Slate dubbed it “Silent Spring for the literary mind,” and I can’t do much better in summarizing its disturbing importance. What Silent Spring warned, ecologically, parallels the mental pollution Carr shows is a byproduct of the Internet age. I wish I could place a copy in the hands of everyone I meet. The book, however, makes clear that few would read it, and substantially fewer still would hearken its message by taking conscious steps back from the intellectual precipice world culture is blindly scampering toward.

27 March, 2016

Another Prison Poem


Mean Shh, hear that?
Mean someone’s coming,
Mean something probably
A search, a strip-out, a
Drug test — Here,
Piss in this. Jingle-
Jangle, atonal. In other
Realms it might be
Jaunty, but brass
Against brass dangling
Bodes ill for us bodies
In storage.

The hush
Descends utter.
It’s nightfall
Of the short, dark

Books closed.
Pencils down.
Devices off.
Ears cupped, anxious.

A toolbox clatters.
A sigh escapes.
Only the plumber.

Where was I?

* * * * *

Anyone who’s done time in prison could likely tell you how the metallic rattle of guards’ keys obliterates concentration. Downright Pavlovian, we hear it and tense with anticipation. At night it pulls us from deepest sleep. During the day it distracts from everything — letter-writing, job duties, a rerun of Maury, the song blaring through our headphones, drawing, our 10,000-point game of rummy, scrubbing laundry…

I often wonder how much of what prison life has inculcated in me might follow me out, if and when I’m freed. Will I need to sleep alone? Will I wake at odd hours for head counts that never occur? Will I take longer showers than intended, having forgotten for a moment that the water at home doesn’t shut off automatically? “Keys” came about during one such musing. If the sound causes mental disruption now, what instants of minor havoc might it wreak on me as a free man?

12 March, 2016

Mindful Eating: A Rumination

I once took forty-five minutes to eat a Snickers bar. And before you ask, no, it wasn’t a king size. It was, however, my first taste of chocolate in something like eight months. The county jail’s canteen sold candy bars aplenty, but my money went to stamps, stationary, and overpriced ramen noodle cups to fill the gastronomic void the jail’s kindergarten portions wouldn’t. So when the kind facilitator of my mental-health group smuggled in a bag of Mars and Nestlé sweets for us to enjoy during that day’s session, I wanted to make mine last as long as possible.

Before Bobby worked out that he was feeling x, y, and a little bit z that afternoon, most of the group’s wrappers were crumpled in the wastebasket. I had barely peeled away enough slivers of milk chocolate to expose the pristine, gray-brown layer of delicious nougat. By the time we got around to discussing Tom’s relationship with his wife, mine was the only mouth still working at anything pleasant. There was still an inch and a half of my Snickers remaining when the facilitator turned to me and, laughing, said, “I’m really glad you’re enjoying your candy bar so much, but I need you to hurry up and eat the damn thing before we finish, all right?”

Stuffing the rest of my Snickers into my face felt shameful, base, criminal. It also reminded me, when I reflected on it later, of the overlong breakfasts my father used to chide me for, in my tween years.

Cream of Wheat cooled under a thin layer of milk in my bowl as I ate, watching dawn give way to day outside of the sliding glass door of my father’s dining room. Each smooth spoonful, spiced with cinnamon and slightly sweetened with wild honey, was worth savoring. Before I knew it, though, the yellow bus to Highland Middle School was rolling past our house. Pops then exasperatedly prodded me along as he double-checked the contents of his briefcase, after which I once again had to endure that lecture about what he mistook for my passive-aggressive rebellion. (My rebellion turned out to be of a much more in-your-face variety.) Oddly enough, Pops never acknowledged how much longer than him I always took at the dinner table.

Prison food is hardly worth licking off your fingers, but scarfing is anathema to me. Even after all these years locked away, it’s still hard to finish meals in the fifteen minutes prisoners are given. (Soft-taco days are especially challenging, owing to having to assemble that meal’s contingent pieces. I’ve resorted to bulldozing everything into a heap on my tray: a sporkable slurry, of sorts.) Being compelled to snarf down my food is a source of much resentment. The alternatives — returning half full to my cell, or going to the Hole for disobeying the order to rapidly vacate the chow hall — are just nasty enough to keep me wolfing.

Wolfing — no wonder why we have that term. Think of a dog: feed it a Milk Bone and the biscuit’s gone in seconds, nothing left but the animal’s eager look that begs, “More?” On evidence are no satisfaction, no gratitude, only greed. This is the reason why I don’t give animals treats. I recently stopped sharing goodies with my cellmate, also. (The decision had nothing to do with a more recent confrontation over his repeatedly stealing nibbles of my foodstuffs whenever I was away; although, it might seem more justifiable in light of that.) This morning I saw him pour boiling water over some Always Save oatmeal as I prepared to wash my face. He had it eaten in less time than it took me to soap up and rinse, never mind toweling dry. He’s the king of mindless eating.

The $20 of candy, soda, and ice cream I estimate my cellmate to buy every month usually disappears within the week. Last Wednesday he emptied a bag of Atomic Fireballs in forty-eight hours, unwrapping one cinnamon ball after another, after another — even in bed, a half hour after I turned out the light. I’m unsettled by the way he eats, never setting down the spoon, cupping the bowl under his chin, and mechanically shoveling until nothing’s left. A very grim affair.

The Brains Challenge and a hundred similar atrocities willfully committed on my digestive system would make me a hypocrite if I claimed slow, careful eating was all about pleasure. It’s not; it’s about discernment, restraint, consciousness. It’s about what separates human beings from beasts.

When I work out, I move with maximum deliberation, slowly, registering every twisting and tautening of tissue, every heartbeat, every breath. If I didn’t there’s an excellent likelihood that I’d hurt myself. When I feed myself a handful of roasted peanuts afterward, I go one at a time, first sucking the salt off, then tonguing apart the halves to release that savory droplet of oil trapped between them, then tumbling their smooth geometry around awhile before at last crushing them to fatty, earthy, delicious paste between my teeth. Paying close attention is clearly as essential to safety as to sensuality, and I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Awareness preserves life, in addition to enriching it. The effort put forth to achieve either result is approximately the same, therefore it stands to reason that we should value health and growth equally. To live, like my cellmate does, gobbling food, expressing no desires or ambitions, watching TV (or doing anything equally mindless) until mental apathy melts into sleep — in other words, relying on fleeting, petty comforts in lieu of having experiences — is a living death. Just thinking about it makes me want a Snickers. Fun size will do. I know how to make it last.

17 February, 2016

Tapping Out

The novelist boxes up his notes and inters them in the musty depths of a self-storage facility. Then he moves, retiring to some sleepy New England hamlet. He’s convinced that the book labored over for the better part of a decade can’t actually be written. He takes up a new, all-engrossing avocation — beekeeping — and spends the remainder of his years in an approximation of satisfaction, selling jars of dark wildflower honey and beeswax candles from the barn beside his house. His notes and manuscript draft molder and are eventually recycled by his next of kin, who aren’t interested in literary stewardship.

Or the poet for whom words were always lifeblood: he stares at the same vacant page for months, searching his soul for the language that suddenly won’t come. He quits publishing poems. In fact, he doesn’t write at all anymore, save for the occasional critical essay solicited by old acquaintances in the magazine world. His favors to these editors are prompted more by a need to fill empty hours than by creative drive. So he spends his efforts on the work of others, and, although he doesn’t admit as much, what he dreams of finding there is a soupçon of the pleasure he once obtained from his own poems.

Inspiration comes and goes. Creativity needs periodic refueling to keep running, and every writer has his or her preferred depot. (Some lucky bastards refuel midair, impressively enough, like long-distance military planes, but most of us lack the budget and auxiliary support for such maneuvers.) Parks, cafés, mountainsides, parties, beaches, libraries — wherever happens to take you out of your own headspace for a while works. In prose and poetry, perspective is everything. Changes in scenery are crucial… but they aren’t always enough.

Sometimes the tank goes unexpectedly dry, or there’s a mechanical failure, and the writer’s mighty efforts to remedy the problem come to naught. It must feel like a death in the family, to lose a part of one’s self integral to identity and sense of purpose — a horror beyond imagining.

Of course I imagine it all the time. There’s a mytho-romantic element to writer’s block, the tragic drama of a tortured artist pushing forward despite opposition from within. It’s like a Wagnerian opera. What would it be like to sit at the desk, clutching my head in my hands, and staring blankly at typewriter keys taunting me with their untapped potential, the creamy void of a fresh sheet of paper curling from inside the machine, beckoning me, as if from a great distance, to fill it with genius thoughts and ideas? I can see all this so clearly; it looks like I have a migraine.

Maybe more often than it perturbs the average writer, this sad vision preoccupies me. Unlike you, it’s not possible for me to pop outside whenever my low-fuel indicator dings. I can’t take a vacation, a pottery class, a walk down the street. I can’t, in fact, move beyond these four walls most of the time. Every day it’s the same scenery for me, much like Groundhog Day, except at least Bill Murray’s character in the movie had a whole town to call purgatory.

Prison provides a lot of material, from a writer’s perspective. I work with it because it’s what I have (that, plus an active mental life). Yet the images of the exhausted novelist and poet haunt me. Did they see their inactivity coming? Had they heard indicators chiming? More frightening still: were they aware, trying with all their resources to refuel, only to find nowhere offering the type of fuel their craft needed?

I don’t know how capacious my tank is. I suspect that none of us do. The sputtering of a craft running on empty probably feel identical to one merely bogging down for a moment. This indeterminacy makes both equally mortifying. What I’m running on will have to last me the duration of my trip through limbo. One distress I can’t imagine is getting stranded out here.