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 NestlĂ© 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.