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.