31 December, 2017

Eight Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Birthday season, perennial bringer of many excellent literary gifts from loved ones and strangers alike, did not leave me without reading material worth crowing about. Sure, I finally got around to the Sherman Alexie collection Blasphemy (shipped to me six months prior, by Tom at Prospero's Books in Kansas City) and Anthony Doerr's magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. But more meaningful were the books sent by the people who care what literature enriches my days.

To wit: ever so thoughtful and generous, Emily C. ordered a trifecta of marvels into my hands. First was Joe Wenderoth's insanely clever (or, perhaps, merely insane) Letters to Wendy's, which includes such gems as
SEPTEMBER 18, 1996
I don't think Wendy's coffee has such a good taste. This is not to say I don't like it. I like it very much. Its poor taste keeps my intentions clear; I drink coffee for the enthusiasm-prod, not the taste. The taste, when it is too pleasant, can distract one from what matters most — the deep writhing jolt. Of course some taste is necessary so the jolt seems, at bottom, inadvertent.
and the poignant
APRIL 4, 1997
One is accused of sensationalism when one focuses on pain. Rightly so when one is using pain to re-create a pre-existing sensation. But in truth pain has never been before, exactly, and its shadow has always concealed its coming fullness. To know this is to haul out the most fundamental question a speaking animal can attempt. The question is not: what is creating pain? The question is: what is pain creating?
Then were the stimulating quasi-realities depicted in the short-story collections Tenth of December, by George Saunders, and Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Theodore Goossen). Both delivered just the type of eccentric, plausibility-agnostic tales I often need in my life.

Following those, I descended into playwright Jeff Jackson's dark, fraught novel Mira Corpora, a gift from the good Lady V., who'd never, ironically, read such a harrowing, nihilistic misadventure of wayward youth herself. Then I moved to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter — a gift from my mother, who read Mann in the original German long ago enough as to hardly remember his luxurious descriptive power or frank homoeroticism. Discussion followed.

Lana C.'s surprise to me was an Amazon package containing three books from my wish list.  Greedily, I propelled myself myself through Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins, before year's end. Robbins was one of my father's favorites — and now I finally know why. Fun, philosophical stuff.

2018 finds me with several more promising books on hand, and a few on the list to borrow. I can hardly wait.

15 December, 2017

What's in a (Prisoner's) Name?

You think of the nicknames, adopted or bestowed, that prisoners go by, and what springs to mind are probably tough-as-nails monikers like Hammer, Spider, and Snake. But there are many schlubs in the jug with names that wouldn't strike even mild concern in the hearts of those who hear them spoken. In my years among the criminal class, I've encountered a host of absurd and awkward aliases of which the following are highlights.

  • Bamm-Bamm
  • Dookie
  • Don-Don
  • Oreo
  • Titi
  • Cornbread
  • Bullethead
  • Stutterbug
  • Rainbow
  • Short Dog
  • Bad News
  • Droopy
  • Wrong Turn
  • Teddy Bear
  • Crock Pot
  • Teardrop
  • Peanut Butter
  • Boo
  • Big Bird
  • Cool Breeze
  • Can't Get Right
  • Smurf
  • Wood Chip
  • Shampoo
  • Boot Heel
  • T-Baby
  • Vaygo (which was somehow short for "Las Vegas")
  • Doorknob

01 December, 2017

Giving It All Up for a Desk Job

The perks of my job in the staff dining hall, where I served dinner to Crossroads' guards and late-working caseworkers, were by all accounts enviable. I got to eat what and however much I wanted (a mixed blessing, come bread pudding nights). My shift was a meager four hours a day, three or four days a week. It paid nearly twice as much as positions twice as coveted. It faced one with no coworkers to have to deal with. Only a crazy person would give it up.

Call me crazy; I took a prison library job on 6 November.

Weirdly, a lot of people think they remember me working in the library before, years ago. I didn't. Even the librarian, when I submitted the application, asked, ''Didn't we offer you a job here once before?" They didn't. Evidently, mine is just one of those faces — library face.

Certain others are surprised that I'd take any position in the library, considering previous complaints about the raging harpies who ran the place. I point out that they're no longer employed here and that the current librarian has yet to turn me to stone with her gaze; I think this will turn out fine. Besides, it's a job — I'm not trying to make friends and influence people.

My position is at the reference/periodicals desk. I hand out World Book volumes, prescription medication guides, and magazines (GQ, Muscle Car, National Geographic Traveler) and newspapers. It's a good gig. My friend Zach and I see each other every afternoon, when our shifts overlap. In between tasks we banter, debate, and collude on strategies legal and writerly.

To judge by the last few weeks, it's work I enjoy. And what philomath wouldn't like having hundreds of hefty, data-rich tomes at his back? On my first day, looking things up for others, I learned all about Aruba, that rottenstone is a silica-rich rock used in metal-polishing, and that Morrissey appears in a hilarious new ad for PETA. It's not Internet access, but it's close enough, for now.

Continuing to look on the bright side of this lifestyle tweak, I was happy to see that, a week after leaving Staff Dining, I lost three and a half pounds. Maybe now I can finally earn those eight-pack abs I've been straining my way toward.

19 November, 2017

Prison Canteen Food Roundup

The Crossroads canteen sells prisoners a variety of products that would surprise the average citizen — light bulbs, ice cream, bathrobes. Of course, surprise isn't desirable if you're a consumer. The list of canteen items here leaves much to the imagination. It doesn't list products' sizes and only infrequently refers to brand names, so a guy doesn't know what he's going to get unless he asks around a little first. Even then, there's no guarantee. I've wished many times that someone made available a report, grading and reviewing every new item in inventory, saving me from wasting precious money on garbage — something like this:

Fresh Catch Fillets of Mackerel in Brine
Who wants to eat anything described with a synonym for eerie? Yet because all Fresh Catch products come in pouches instead of (potentially weaponizable) cans, their slogan, "Uncanny taste and convenience" (emphasis mine), comes off as just an ill-conceived pun.

Less than $1 buys 3.53 moist ounces of omega-3-licious fish — a great, low-calorie, high-protein food. I like putting a pouch of this stuff in some rice, with minced onion, chopped jalapeño peppers, and a dash of soy sauce, for a satisfying substitution for the dining halls' more odious meals.
Product rating:
4 stars

Market Square Bakery Vanilla Wafers
Not to be confused with Nabisco's artificially flavored delights, in that lemon-yellow box, these crumbly little discs come partly pulverized in a maroon plastic bag. Flavorwise, they're fine — a tad greasy, perhaps, but with a not-unpleasant melts-in-your-mouth butteriness that says, "This bag's got another fifteen servings in it; keep eating, Tubbo!"
Product rating:
3 stars

Paramount Dairy Farms Instant Nonfat Dry Milk
Fans of buttermilk and whole milk may balk, but compared to every other powdered milk that this tester has tasted, Paramount's product offers flavor and consistency remarkably similar to its liquid counterparts. In cereal (specifically, Golden Valley Bran Flakes), it offers a rich dairy taste and pleasing creaminess, both of which are also detectable when sipping it solo, chilled in a bottle, after a strenuous workout.
Product rating:
4.5 stars

Back Country Pepperoni
"READY TO EAT" is what the label on this clear bag of what at first glance looks like kimchi. When has pepperoni required preparation? No one would print "READY TO EAT" on a bag of roasted peanuts or a pouch of beef jerky, so this exhortation seems silly. Getting into the bag takes teeth, plus paper towels or toilet tissue to mop up the resultant grease spill. The product itself is, for the most part, shredded beyond recognition. As for flavor, well, there's pepper aplenty, but the pork and beef the label alleges are present seem in short supply. Wet cardboard, on the other hand….
Product rating:
2 stars

Clear Choice Pre-Cooked Long Grain Rice
Its logo is a check mark and its packaging bears no sign of trademark designator, but this bland filler material is halal, so eat hearty, my Islamic friends! Will you find better rice in virtually any other place? Yes, but in prison many foodstuffs must be packaged in see-through containers (hence the double meaning of Clear Choice's name), so good luck finding any.
Product rating:
3 stars

Brushy Creek Beef Stew
Chunky, salty, meaty — this stuff is on par with Dinty Moore or Campbell's, which, if what those brands offer is a perfect product (i.e., perfectly acceptable canned analog to homemade beef stew), makes Brushy Creek Beef Stew equally perfect.
Product rating:
5 stars

Van Holten's Kosher Pickle (Zesty Garlic Flavor)
It's a pickle. Besides those bread-and-butter atrocities, have you ever known a pickle to be bad?
Product rating:
4.5 stars

Cactus Annie's Jalapeño Squeeze Cheese
Who doesn't like nacho cheese? Nobody, that's who. The agreement that those who eat nacho cheese make with their bodies, not to heed the other's discomfort through the various parts of the shameful ingestion/digestion process, nullifies all efforts at qualitative assessment or criticism beyond solely addressing said cheese food product's flavor. In the case of Cactus Annie's, I can tell you that it's nacho cheese, ergo: yum.
Product rating:
4.5 stars

Panola Soy Sauce
Rice without sauce is nothing. Unfortunately, Panola's sauce overdoes it on water, resulting in what may be humanity's least salty, least flavorful soy sauce ever. Best only used in dire circumstances, along with copious other spices.
Product rating:
2 stars

Golden Harvest Cheese Snack Crackers
Imitation Cheez-Its are bound to disappoint, and these bland orange squares are no exception. Texturally, they're similar to everyone's favorite Sunshine Bakeries snack, but crunching down is, unfortunately, only the first step. Next comes chewing.

Saliva production kicks into overdrive when you eat these, not due to any explosion of cheesy flavor but, rather, abundant salt embedded atop every cracker. This may be deliberate, to trick undiscriminating consumers into believing that they're eating a food so delicious it makes their mouths water. But no. These things suck. Think about licking clean the sweaty fingers of some guy who's just eaten three or four Cheetos — they taste like that.
Product rating:
1.5 stars

Moon Lodge Sour Cream and Onion Chips
To be sour-cream-and-onion — what does it mean? Can mankind ever hope to understand? Is the interplay between the two principal components the sine qua non of sour-cream-and-onion — a Platonic ideal of sour cream balanced just so with an elemental onionness, thereby producing a serendipitous admixture greater than the sum of its parts? Or are all variations on the ratio equally valid, with a spectrum as infinite as it is toothsome, for determining what makes sour cream plus onion equal sour-cream-and-onion? A tertiary possibility undermines these questions, being: is this entire debate merely a rehash of Nagel's, vis-à-vis perception and difference? If so, it could be that "knowledge" (as it is commonly regarded) represents only preferences, fictions, suppositions, and reactive impulses. Consider here the rise of "fake news" and "alternative facts." Montaigne mutters his "Que sais-je?" from beyond the grave; Diderot thrashes in his. Irrespective of which stance we adopt, these chips are bland as fuck.
Product rating:
2 stars

31 October, 2017

Halloween in the Hoosegow IV: Rise of the Octoberfeast Cult

Wolf slammed bones at his usual table, howling every time he scored. Batty flitted around the wing, searching for someone to bleed, the mooch. Some poor wretch wailed a forlorn dirge. The zombies trudged in circles. It seemed like just another evening in B-Wing of Housing Unit 3.

I was on the phone 1 discussing matters inconsequential with a friend. Idly, the way one does in voice-only conversations, I glanced about. The nothing-spectacle held little of interest, just the usual skulking creatures, the gargoyles peering from their vantage, and the ghosts of men drifting through my sight. Then there came, from the shadow of a doorway, two pale men.

Leading, looking chronically unrested, was the one of average build. His backswept black hair vaguely reminded me of some unplaceable movie star. His portly peon wriggled up the staircase behind him, protectively hunched over something gathered in the hem of his shirt. I thought of a child afraid that her skirtful of freshly picked daisies might blow away in an errant wind.

Both men reached my door at the top of the stairs, knocked, and sneaked sidewise looks in my direction. What was this? My mild amusement gave way to nascent suspicion.

Doyle, my cellmate, opened the door and they spoke. His expression, as he apprehended whatever the Grub's shirt held, bespoke doubt. The three of them turned my direction, said a few additional words, then averted their gaze again. It was starting to feel like a conspiracy, unfolding right before my eyes.

The Grub stepped into my cell. He re-emerged in a moment, shirt empty. I said goodbye to my friend.

We passed on the steps, the odd pair and I. The tired-looking superior smirked in response to my inquisitive look, exposing a single gleaming canine, but he said not a word. When I entered, Doyle, bewildered, was arranging several tiny heads on the desk.

"They heard you're into Halloween," Doyle said. He rotated an origami skull to face us. "The movies, the candy — they know about the nachos, Byron."

"Then these are an offering."

Doyle nodded. "Seems so. You gonna let 'em in?"

Dawn was hours away when I tracked them down, the men who left the heads. Bobby's eyebrow peaked and the Grub's cheeks plumped with a smile at my approach.

"We knew you liked Halloween," Bobby explained.

"Like, that you were super into it," added the Grub, obviously alluding to my infamous All Hallows Eve ritual.

"Well," I said, "I can't say I ever decorated my cell before. Besides putting up whatever Halloween cards I get from friends."

"We got this book of origami monsters — witches, demons, dragons. It's pretty cool." Bobby hiked his thumb at his larval companion. "All he's been able to make are the heads, though."

"The scarecrow's fucking impossible," the Grub said, scooting his wireframes up the bridge of his tiny nose.

"I draw the faces, then stitch the loop of string on top. We hang ours along our shelf, like little sombrero dingle-balls."

If they were trying to bribe their way into my Halloween-Night Nachorama, I thought, this was a soft pitch. Neither mentioned candy, chips, or Brett, the mutual acquaintance who no doubt spilled the beans to them about last year's celebration. (Although, anyone else might have. The whole wing witnessed us transporting his half of the feast like a corpse, on a beach-towel improvised stretcher.) Theirs seemed like genuine love for the holiday.

The Grub intimated that he had more decorations coming in the mail. Cardstock window dressing. He offered to share some with me, "Y'know, if you want."

I did want.

Bouncing around to Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party," I scattered olive slices. Above the desk dangled six grotesque little boxy heads on orange thread — a werewolf, a ghost, a reptilian beast, a rawhead zombie, a skull, and a ghoulish scarecrow. From the wall leered a magazine clipping of a Chris Mars painting. A paper cutout jack-o'-lantern seemed to laugh at the obscene size of my culinary monster.

This was the year of the largest nacho spread yet, big enough that one could use it as a crunchy bean-and-cheese-filled pillow. The Grub wriggled expectantly, hungrily watching me put on the finishing touches. In his fingers, the sheet that he and Bobby would use to move their third of this massive undertaking downstairs. Bobby and Doyle chatted about their hopes for tonight's American Horror Story. It did feel like a party.

I drizzled a perfect white zigzag of ranch dressing. Brett arrived.

"It's candy pizza," he told us, passing out everyone's container of his own outrageous invention. "The crust is graham crackers and vanilla wafers."

I inspected it through the plastic. "Peanut butter cups, Butterfinger, peanuts, M&Ms…. Are those jelly beans?" Brett nodded.

"I used Hershey's syrup, too. The white stuff is melted ice cream."

"You're a madman."

A neighbor peeked over everyone's shoulders to see what the fuss was about. "Holy shit," he laughed. "Y'all are goin' crazy with this Halloween thing."

Bobby wielded his menacing eyebrows. "You could join us…"

"Yessssss," I hissed. "We demand only the smallest sacrifice."

The neighbor vamoosed, and we descended on our frightful victuals.

24 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Justin Bruton

Twenty years after he blindsided everyone by sending a shotgun slug through his own skull, Justin Bruton is as much a cypher to me as ever, despite reams of police reports and the fact that there was a time, in the months prior to his terrible suicide, when I called him my best friend. Obviously, I didn't know what friendship really was.

Eighteen and socially handicapped, your "best friend" is the person who finally accepts you unquestioningly. Justin saw past my black-and-white screen-starlet makeup, conflation of funny ha-ha with funny strange, and adeptness at conversation equivalent to how well a three-year-old ballroom dances. He shrugged this stuff off and invited me to come throw powdered donuts at rich people. You know, what best friends do.

Look at the perpetual adolescents of Jackass, The Dudesons, and Can't Kill Yourself: lots of boys play rough. It could be that Justin wasn't trying to put out my eye when he embedded that blowdart in my brow from a few feet away. Maybe this was how he channeled his fraternal affection, through acts of minor violence. What to make, though, of his pain experiments, when he laughed in disbelief at my silent responses to various stimuli he administered — thumbtacks colorfully studding my forearm, hydrochloric acid drops eating the flesh of my open palm, electric shocks to wherever he could reach out and touch with his stun gun? Were these forerunners to the sado-motivational tactics of Tyler Durden, in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, or were they nothing more than cruelty to a trusting younger kid?

What did I know about Justin? At the time, virtually nothing. I knew that he'd lived in Tulsa and come from money. He disdained familial meddling yet depended on his parents for literally everything. He had a sister, my age. He once dated a girl who seemed cool, the first and only time we met, but whose name I subsequently forgot. He'd been suicidal on multiple occasions and was prescribed Prozac for depression. He dug PJ Harvey, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and French surrealist films. There was undoubtedly more to him, but this was all that he was willing to reveal.

Similarly, whatever his feelings about Anastasia, his girlfriend of maybe seven months, I was privy to only their external effects. The couple's countless arguments became almost normal, given his hot-and-cold affections, her fixed and potent passion. Justin never verbalized his feelings, for Anastasia or anything else of consequence. I'm unsure how much of that reticence was symptomatic of his unhappiness, and how much led him to collude with her to bring about their deaths.

So: Justin Bruton, question mark. Interested organizations with resources and authority far outstripping mine have looked into solving the riddle and come back empty-handed. His family won't talk, out of some sense of Southern propriety, embarrassment, fear, or snobbery — which doesn't help. The sole insight that I've gained since his death is that he'd been born in Texas. Thanks, Internet, for nothing.

Justin Bruton was my friend — or "friend." What's that even mean? Together we watched some great movies, had a few laughs, debated political and ethical systems, sang a few stupid songs, took memorable road trips, and drank too much coffee while daydreaming of lives with meaning. The way things ended up for me, though, leaves no doubt that our association was far from meaningless.

23 October, 2017

A Tragedy at Twenty: Anastasia WitbolsFeugen

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a clever, spirited girl. In school she joined the National Junior Honor Society, Latin club, and academic competitions of all sorts. A couple of months before her untimely death, she started classes at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. The world had been her oyster.

A different version of the truth is less palatable.

Anastasia died at eighteen, twenty years ago today. She'd been a temperamental depressive for at least a year. In her diary and in e-mails to close friends, she romanticized death, expressed emotional volatility somewhat greater than typical teenage impulsivity, and fixated on a fickle boyfriend. For weeks before her seemingly inevitable death, she spiraled into a textbook example of suicidal behaviors, isolating herself, dropping out of college, and talking openly (and often) about killing herself. She didn't stand a chance in this indifferent world.

The dead have it easy — their reputations are projections of might-have-been, forever idealized, unburdened by their foibles or survivors' beliefs that anything but the best had been in store for the beloved deceased. The culture fetishizes potential. While those who die young remain for all time in grace, the living must forge our legacies through successes and failures — the actual.

Which is fine. Whitewashing who Anastasia WitbolsFeugen was wouldn't be terrible, just an anodyne comfort, except that another life hangs in the balance between her pristine reputation — Anastasia, the young light extinguished too soon — and the ugly alternative — Anastasia, the doomed soul. Mine is no longer young but had (and still has) potential at least equal to hers. By not allowing her to be seen from less-flattering angles, her eulogizers obscure the truth that contradicts the righteousness of my imprisonment.

Anastasia was my friend. We hung out in coffeehouses, discussing our naive ideals and cackling at life's absurdities. We went to movies together. We lent each other books that we each considered essential reading. We commiserated about shittiness and shared the happiness that kept us going. When she died, it was like no grief I'd yet known. I struggled to cope, to keep myself together in the aftermath. Even in that confused state, I clearly saw that the Anastasia portrayed by the funeral sentiments was a caricature, largely unrecognizable to many of us at the service. Frankly, she was no one special. The Anastasia we knew was complex, flawed, and passionate to a fault — a person we all thought eminently worth being friends with.

After two decades lived in the shadow of her death, having matured and made discoveries against which ordinary relationships are immune, I'm now less sure of my friendship with her. Personal documents seized during the authorities' homicide investigation showed me yet another facet of Anastasia. She lied about people behind their backs. She engineered squabbles between friends, probably for drama's sake. She had terrible self-esteem and vied for attention at every opportunity. Her flaws go on and on. She was, after all, only human.

Teenage relations, those gossipy, mercurial, emotionally heightened filters that distort one's world like the wildest Instagram effect — they don't even begin to explain why the night we parted ways struck me as both perfectly typical and utterly unexpected. Knowing what I now do is similarly befuddling. Was her death planned? If so, by whom — her or Justin, or by both, mutually? Either she wanted him, her flaky, intermittent love, to put her out of her misery, or she intended to do the deed herself with him looking on. Or, just as they decided one day to pack and move to New Orleans by the weekend, the two of them might've intended, with no plan whatsoever, to wing it, take a gun to a cemetery, one after the other welcoming oblivion.

So much for the pretty notion that there are no secrets between friends.

Ten years back, I wrote in this post about Anastasia's death, "the ever-widening wake of her death laps onward, continuing to rock and capsize in spite of the distance. Meanwhile, her memory on our horizon gradually melds with the glare of the sun." Pretty words for the gruesome results of teenage self-centeredness. I can't muster this kind of poetry for it anymore. Anastasia WitbolsFeugen died, but I'm the one who's rotting.

13 October, 2017

Quit Smoking... or Your Prison Job

I saw word of the lawsuit's results before the memo about them was posted to the wing's bulletin board. I was relieved.
Subject: Notice of Tobacco Ban

As part of a settlement agreement in an offender lawsuit, the Department of Corrections has agreed to implement a policy banning the sale, possession and use of all tobacco products, e-cigarettes and vaping devices inside correctional buildings and on the grounds inside the correctional perimeter. The only exceptions to this ban will be for authorized religious purposes. The effective date of this ban will be April 1, 2018.
No more sudden windpipe closings, then, as I happen to walk through someone's noxious cloud en route to breakfast. No more fretting, before a cell move, over how I'll breathe if my new cellmate's a smoker. No more annoyance at being touched by stinky hands when a guard pulls his cigarette out of his mouth just long enough to call me over for a random pat-search.

Of course, there are rumbles of discontent. I've heard prisoners discussing how they'll stash their tobacco to forestall the inevitable (see my 2010 post about illicit tobacco use if you need this explained). More of the grumbling is being done by staff members, however. And I guess that I get a part of their argument: they're just working a job here and don't deserve to be penalized. But at the same time, there are tons of things that people can't do on the job, which no one complains about because, for instance, no one wants to hear some coworker's seven-hour acid jazz playlist blaring from speakers around his neck. At least acid-jazz guy's particular brand of workplace pollution won't give you a disease.

My cellmate, Doyle, told me about a guard posted at his work site, a man I've seen around here forever, who's been bragging about his "perfect solution" to this tobacco ban. The guy's made countless attempts at quitting smoking over the years; it's never worked longer than a week. Now that the DOC's taking his smoke breaks away (meaning they're leaving him no excuse to fuck off 80% of the workday), he's just going to retire. It isn't a joke, he's really planning to throw in the towel. In a bizarre way, I admire his level of commitment.

Working for the Department of Corrections, at least as a guard, has got to be an intensely boring job. Maybe at other prisons, in states where gang activity and rampant violence factor more heavily, there is little down time — but here? One sees staff, in front of the housing units and outside of the central services building, wreathed in clouds of smoke and vapor more often than one doesn't. What happens when this tiny pleasurable distraction from their tedium is taken? Will they give up and vamoose to some alternative place of employ, or will they stay, tough it out, and vent their nicotine withdrawal irritation inappropriately? I'm betting on the latter.

10 October, 2017

Ghost Story

There was a girl with beautifully sculpted eyebrows who worked at the neighborhood donut shop. It wasn't love because I didn't really know anything about her: she lived alone in a sad Missouri town, sold knives door-to-door on weekends, and drove a 1986 Dodge Omni. That's practically nothing.

Certain days, I walked to the shop right as she was closing up. While she talked, I held the thirty-gallon trash bag for her to dump that day's donuts in. The pieces of her life that she shared were sweeter to me than all of that wasted icing — like that her favorite thing on rainy nights was to climb atop her trailer home and lie so the falling water in her face felt like being propelled skyward, to the clouds.

One night she invited me to her place. I was fifteen and had no car. We clattered along rural roads in incomprehensible darkness until turning up her long gravel drive, then there it was: her boxy hideaway in the weedy field. Inside were stacks of Dickinson and Plath, a saggy couch, some records, and a tidy kitchenette where she made us herbal tea and smiled at my earnest attention. I silently hoped for rain.

She gave me a blanket but my rest on the couch was fitful. After what felt like hours she called from the bedroom, a soft voice, somehow pained. I went, unsure, and held her. This was all that she wanted. “You’re safe,” she murmured. It didn't occur to me, the number of meanings this could have.

In the insect-riddled morning she took me back. A lingering hug, after which she shrank into herself and disappeared from my life as quietly as she entered it.

25 September, 2017

Twelve Books I Spent My Summer Reading

Never one to shy from an intimidating text, I'd had James Joyce's Ulysses on my wish list forever, until my friend Zach ordered a copy and loaned it to me. After slogging through those 800 pages of intermittent coherence, I handed it back to him with the pride of a wounded soldier returning from a decisive battle: I had faced the enemy and survived. PUSD ought to be declared a real thing, though, because I definitely needed a little talk therapy to work through my post-Ulysses stress.

Then there was a major fight and Crossroads was locked down for the better part of a week. By an astonishing stroke of luck, the prison library had just shelved a Virginia Woolf volume that included Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando — arguably her three best-known novels — and I'd checked it out a couple of days before my cell confinement began. A lot of guys deplore lockdowns, but I relished those days of silence, having every meal delivered to my door (although, cheese sandwiches do turn tedious pretty quickly), and being temporarily released from all obligation. It felt like a four-day hotel stay, except for the part where I had to bathe in the sink every night. At least the entertainment was top-notch: Woolf wrote gorgeously.

Some research for my eternal work-in-regress, the novel I seem incapable of writing, then led me through The Book of Hadith — sayings attributed to Muhammad in the Mishkat al-Masabih, selected by Charles le Gai Eaton. And because that was such a heady thing, I followed it with Marion Herbert's German translation of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I almost never read anything in German, so it's reassuring that my second-language literacy is still intact. Thanks to John A., for surprising me with the gift of this modern fable.

John also ordered me Umberto Eco's sinister quasi-historical fiction The Prague Cemetery (as translated by Richard Dixon), because he and I are both so taken with Eco's genius. The Prague Cemetery turned out to be my least favorite of his novels, but even Eco at his worst is better than many writers at their best, so thank you, John, for that.

A couple of fantastical reads followed — Jennifer Egan's vaguely Gothic novel The Keep and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jeckyll and Mister Hyde and Other Stories. Neither struck me as exceptional, but Stevenson's Scottish-dialect ghost story, "Thrawn Janet," succeeded on numerous levels and is highly recommended late-night reading for fans of supernatural tales.

My first experience with William Faulkner ended very well. I shut the cover of As I Lay Dying with a contented sigh. What a masterpiece! Faulkner surprised me by flirting with magical realism in this novel of poor Southerners' hardship. I'd supposed that his was a more terse, factual style of writing. In reality, Faulkner seems to me quite dreamily impressionistic. Marvelous stuff!

Switching gears, I moved on to a memoir. Missouri's governor, Eric Greitens, is the author of four books, including The Heart and the Fist, which details his extensive humanitarian aid work, training as a Golden Gloves boxer, Oxford University attendance as a Rhodes scholar, agonizing conditioning to become a Navy SEAL, and cofounding the nonprofit The Mission Continues with a friend. I came away with an affinity for the man I wouldn't have thought possible after seeing last year's campaign ads on TV — proof that politics exists in a different sphere of reality than the one where people actually live.

Then Nicholson Baker's novel Traveling Sprinkler proved an offbeat delight. (I'd expect nothing less from an author who once used for a novel's entire plot a businessman's trip up an office-building escalator. That book, The Mezzanine, was also a joy to read.) Thomas McCormack's thick-tongued advice, in The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, counterbalanced it. My mother gifted me the latter because, well, you just don't know where fresh knowledge is going to come from. At least she got it for cheap.

Gearing up for a slog through serious work in October, I didn't want to commit to any long-form fiction. The Best American Short Fiction 2014, despite being three years old, showed up on the library's New Books shelf and was just the thing. Jennifer Egan and Heidi Pitlor edited these phenomenal pieces from the usual assortment of magazines — Meridian to The New Yorker, and everything in between. The Best American series have yet to let me down, but the short-story collections are perennial sources of excellence.

There's also something to be said about having my morning coffee with RED MEAT, the collection of Max Cannon comic strips that makes up in flavor what it lacks in taste. Emily C. surprised me with this, and it was more fun than a mouthful of crickets. I did what I could to savor the strips, reading no more than two each day. I failed at restraining myself. RED MEAT is addictive. In the end, I binged, not even bothering with excuses. My nerves are a wreck from all that caffeine, but at least I had some good laughs.

19 September, 2017

A Freshly Scribbled Personal Poem with Nowhere Else to Go

"When I Was Young…"

The words slipped out before their import struck.
Further utterance obstructed, I clutched my face and slumped.
A low groan deeper than any half-assed laugh
Rose as camouflage.

There it is, I thought, cradling my skull.
Embodied gray in one point five kilograms,
Almost four decades a little more tattered
By every peek, reconfigured subtly by the act of reference.

Mutti, did you really used to call me Kleiner Mann,
Or was it someone else who aged me prematurely?
To a lover, once, who declared that mine
Was an old soul, it's true I offered a bag of prunes.

The boy with his slippers and robe, and his
Antiquarian collection of fossils and rocks,
Used to shred bread for ducks at the park.
He had in mind a future as an Egyptologist.

In mummification the brain was the first thing to go
Because ancient Egyptians believed it served no purpose.
Other organs were preserved in jars for the soul's journey.
Anubis, jackal-headed assayist, weighed one's vital baggage.

Immortal at sixteen, I dressed and rimmed my eyes in black,
I kept, as a pet, a rat. Rattus rattus was once deified,
Symbolic to the Egyptians as representing wise judgment and,
Further reading in adulthood reveals, also utter destruction.

* * * * *

The seed from which this poem grew was a conversation I had, sitting at the Old-Man Table. The topic that day is irrelevant. What matters is that I began a sentence with the four words that became this poem's title. There was no turning back; once you acknowledge that you're no longer young, it's all downhill. And so this poetic tumble through weedy memory, flowery patches of erstwhile interests, and past-life brambles, ending in the discovery, at the bottom, of a happenstantial connection that won't completely make sense unless you understand how I was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Predicting the future is largely impossible, but scouring the past for signs of a now-inevitable present can be all too tempting. There is nothing to stem our sense that we're onto the true reasons for everything that came to pass. As if we humans need something else to think we've got all figured out!

08 September, 2017

A Call for Inaction, Following Robert WitbolsFeugen's Indictment

According to MissouriCaseNet, Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's father, Robert WitbolsFeugen, is facing charges for statutory sodomy in Jackson County, Missouri. The incident these charges stem from allegedly took place in 2015. A lot of people in the Free Byron Case camp have believed for a long time that he has a history of child sexual abuse and are now relieved that "he finally got caught." My own opinion is different, and because it concerns a relevant, topical issue I'm dispensing with my usual policy of avoiding legal matters in blog posts. I want my supporters, the general public, and those "Keep Byron Case in Prison" people to know where I stand.

A friend recently called me the least angry person he knew, with the best reason to be angry. Of course this referred to my wrongful conviction for murder and how I move through life without the caustic bitterness that might eat a less levelheaded person alive. Kelly Moffett, the ex-girlfriend whose lie let prosecutors close a pesky three-and-a-half-year-old case, may deserve my hatred for the damage she's done, but I have (I might as well be blunt) nobler ideals. Kelly is mentally ill. The extent of her illness isn't for me to diagnose or discuss here, but it's an irrefutable fact, based on documentation and anecdotal evidence, that she's a sick woman. My belief is that Kelly should have intensive psychiatric treatment on an inpatient basis, as she's a danger to those around her and, as her behavior over the past decades has shown, to herself.

But what's Kelly Moffett got to do with Robert WitbolsFeugen's criminal charges? you ask.

Robert is unquestionably one of the reasons that I'm typing this post in a prison cell. It was Robert who harassed the Jackson County Sheriff's Department to close the case, then, when no immediate results materialized, started pointing the finger at me and my friends, whose goth mien — black clothes and hair, pale skin, makeup, and piercings — made us seem like potential subjects of interest in a case whose principals hung out in cemeteries, coffeehouses, and (maybe most pernicious) video rental stores. It was Robert who invented theories of cultish goings-on, to pique investigators' interest. It was Robert who hounded county and state officials well beyond a job offer from the Jackson County Legislature and the passage of Interim Senate Resolution Number CL3777, which begins, "WHEREAS it is with heavy hearts that the members of the Missouri Senate pause to recognize the life and lifetime achievements of a remarkable young woman, Anastasia Elizabeth WitbolsFeugen of Independence, Missouri." It was Robert who forced authorities into an apparent ethical bind over the case and engineered the political pressure to close the fucking thing ASAP.

I have every reason to want both Kelly Moffett and Robert WitbolsFeugen to suffer the kind of torture that's been inflicted on me because of their actions…but I don't.

I especially don't share the notion that Robert's criminal charges are anything more than a curiosity at this point. There was a lot of scuttlebutt about allegations of child sexual abuse — of neighbor kids, of Robert's own daughters — sparked by statements made during the Sheriff's Department investigation. Any truth in these allegations would slightly bolster the already-established belief that Anastasia was suicidal, the whole week before her death, in that breaking up with Justin Bruton forced her to move back in with the man who may have molested her for years — but this is speculative at best. Besides, the man hasn't even had his pretrial hearing yet, at which the admissible evidence will be discussed in court. With what I'm big enough to admit is my own smug piety, I want everyone who reads this to know that I believe Robert deserves the benefit of the doubt. He crusaded against it for me, but our criminal justice system is based on certain principles, one of which is the presumption of innocence. A person who stands accused of a crime must be considered innocent of that crime unless sufficient evidence is presented by the prosecution to eliminate all reasonable doubt. I believe in this right even more fervently because it was denied me and led to my being imprisoned for the rest of my life simply because I befriended two kids my own age whose problems were beyond their abilities to grow beyond.

Robert WitbolsFeugen is a profoundly damaged human being who's done despicable things. He's also, presumably, innocent. Please, everyone, let the justice system grind its way to a conclusion in this matter without interference. Overemotional activism has led to enough injustice already.

01 September, 2017

An Autoerotic Poem… of Sorts

The Boy Racer

The leather shift knob in his feverish palm
Grows hot, having once itself lived (though, never
This much). Last month he installed a dual exhaust
And an intercooler — thrills and chills. The turbocharger's whine
Is his ecstasy given voice, as the two clutches in a single year
Worn out, the three torn tires, and that rubbed-raw shifter
He's so fond of jerking before punching hard through
Corners — that rush of gravity! — can all attest.
The boy fills with only premium.
He spends Saturdays massaging
Mink oil into the black fleshy seats
To keep them supple, tender as a lover.
And lovers, his ladies, titter at first, then take offense
When he doesn't let them light their cigarettes
And dust up the ashtray, maybe burn a little circle.
The girls are soon enough replaced; the car's his true darling,
Responsive recipient of his ministrations. Her specs are
To his fine-tuned ears poetic: octane rating, degrees
Fahrenheit, revolutions per minute, foot-pounds….
And he's thinking into the distance, half-fantasy,
About running with a sexy ten-speed tranny,
Because he's fueled with a lust, adrenaline combusting,
And will go until the wheels come off.

* * * * *

"The two are mutually exclusive," a friend responded to my rhetorical question, but why should there be such incompatibility between an interest in motorsports and an interest in literature? A guy who takes his car to the track, on weekends, can spend Monday through Friday writing novels. Surely there exists a crossover demographic (tiny niche though it must be) of NASCAR fans conversant with the works of Baudelaire. I can't accept that my own appreciation for the written word, combined with the fact that the exhaust note of a well-tuned V-8 can give me gooseflesh, makes me some kind of unicorn. And yet, I have never met anyone else who shares such a love.

Whether or not my friend's notion of exclusivity holds true has, obviously, nothing to do with "The Boy Racer." This just seemed as good a time as any to revisit the subject. The poem's about a young man's monomaniacal, fetishistic fixation on his car. That is all it's about. Well, that and giving me an excuse to conflate the shared slang term for transmission and transvestite — how could I pass that up?

23 August, 2017

Pain Rains from the Sky, Come Summertime

I've seen the injuries, from bruises the size and color of plums, to lips cleaved bloodily open, so I know what a dangerous place the prison yard can he. Fortunately, it's only for a few months each year, then softball season's over.

A track, handball courts, a big paved walkway, basketball courts — everything on Crossroads' two yards encircles the softball field occupying each side of the facility. This means that pop flies, when the softball gets hit at an odd point and launches up instead of out, can hurt people in any direction. Everyone freezes when one's sent flying, their eyes frantically scanning the sky for that day-glo yellow orb of pain hurtling along in an errant arc. It's usually older prisoners who get beaned, unable to hear the players shouting "Heads up!" again and again. Someone seems to get hit every game, yet the administration hasn't banned the bats, balls, and gloves.

Softball for some, dodgeball for the rest of us. And because of players' work schedules, games mainly take place in the evening, during the otherwise enjoyable three-month "night yard" period when the powers that be deem daylight sufficiently long for Crossroads' population to spend one hour of our evening recreation outdoors. I look forward to night yard not because I delight in summer temperatures or want to OD on vitamin D, but because it's my only way to get any rec on worknights.

The way that movement is controlled (a hallmark of maximum security is its limitation of prisoners' ability to go from here to there), after being released from the staff dining room, I usually return to my wing and stay there. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, however, I can wait around in my cell for about twenty minutes before there's a loudspeaker announcement of "Rec!" and brief hysteria to get out the wing door. Then I'm out and free to my thing.

The air is Missouri-muggy, the beating sunlight is only slightly refracted through the atmosphere, and the yard is kicking up the heat that its concrete spent all day absorbing. None of these conditions speak to me, but rec is rec. I like walking laps, stopping to do two or three sets of bodyweight exercises every time I pass the south picnic tables. My friend Zach often tags along, for conversation. We circle until my muscles give out or the yard closes, whichever comes first. Either way, four eyes are better than two, and Zach's presence also protects me, in vulnerable positions such as handstands, from catching a rogue softball in the face.

So there's a good-with-the-bad component to my evening rec, just as there is with everything else. Pro: I get some physical exercise and stimulating verbal exchange. Con: my nerves become frayed, tuning one ear for so long to that frequency voices reach when potential bloodshed is imminent.

Nowhere on the yard is safe, but I'm only too happy to trade a modicum of freedom for a proportionate risk. Hot, jumpy evenings of fun, here I come!

18 August, 2017

On Ten Years of Blogging from Prison

I hate this blog. I hate its title, its subtitle, its content. I hate writing posts for it, month after month, year after year, and checking its stats to see that visitors still aren't crashing the servers with their sheer numbers. I hate the rarity of comments on posts, even though I recognize this as more of a reflection of Internet culture than of my readership's engagement.

I hate paying for this ostensibly free service — for the pariahblog.com domain, for paper, for envelopes, for postage, for ribbon, and for the wear and tear on the typewriter I have to use because personae non grata like myself aren't trusted with even the most rudimentary Internet access.

I hate the delay that snail mail imposes between my writing of a post and that post's appearance online. I hate how slow this makes the process of correcting the typos that sometimes pop up. I hate that this slowness hinders me in addressing timely topical issues.

I hate the prevalence of this one enormous overarching issue in my life — being wrongfully convicted — which affects no one outside my immediate circle, and how hard it is to get strangers meaningfully engaged with an idea as abstract as "some innocent guy in prison for the rest of his life." I hate feeling like a demanding toddler or prima donna because I'm constantly vying for a place in the spotlight.

I hate the economics of empathy, the signal-to-noise ratio among the world's causes. I hate resenting every abused animal, sick kid, and unfunded filmmaker for whom public attention comes more easily.

I hate slacktivism. I hate false promises. I hate that others' good intentions don't make for viable currency in the justice-campaign marketplace. I hate that signing an electronic petition for a governor's pardon represents a significant inconvenience, given today's rapid-clickthrough habits.

I hate that a human life is weighed against political gain and, more often than not, found lacking.

I hate the endless task of figuring out new ways not to talk about my case with the idly curious who surround me. I hate other prisoners asking, when they haven't seen me in a while, why I haven't gone home yet. I hate going to bed at 10:10 every night, wondering when this will end, then waking up at 4:55 AM and wishing that it would, because, fuuuuuuuuuuuuck, this is no way to live.

I hate anyone saying that prison has "preserved" me, when I am terrifyingly aware of every iota of stress and anxiety that I endure every day, plus the countless hairline cracks from having aged sixteen years here.

I hate that my mother has to see me this way, and that I have to see her troubled by it. I hate being an inconvenient friend to the people I love. I hate not being able to do more for them all, and for myself.

I hate being in no position to decline anyone's generosity. I hate having my hands tied when it comes to supporting myself or doing good deeds. I hate this prison's lack of activities and programs — almost as much as I resent the hostility it levels on individual efforts to better oneself or one's surroundings through educational, creative, enriching, vocational, or philanthropic endeavors. I hate that Crossroads doesn't even have a consistently open law library in which to do the research that might change one's circumstances.

I hate having strayed so far from my topic. I hate that there are so many ways in which I could've written a tenth-anniversary post for this blog, which all would've said the same thing — that I have no desire to go on blogging, because this outlet for my observations and memories and laments and celebrations hasn't quite succeeded as my supporters and I hoped, and because there are so many other, more enduring ends that I could be working toward, but that I'm still going to release these dispatches from my cell indefinitely. I hate my sense of commitment. I also hate to admit this, but some irrational part of me believes that The Pariah's Syntax is actually an important part of my quest to retake my stolen freedom.

12 August, 2017

The Eternal Search

Contraband takes myriad forms, from the dangerous (shanks, zip guns) to the innocuous (excess photos, empty boxes), and guards' mission to rid the prison of it all is as Sisyphean as it is multifaceted. Still, they persist.

It seems that I can't leave the housing unit without someone wanting to touch me all over. Pat-downs are such a regular part of life at Crossroads, I almost don't resent them to the core of my being anymore. Walking to breakfast, at not quite 6:00 in the morning, one of the assembled badge-wearers smoking outside the dining hall will probably wave me over. Nothing's quite like a good manhandling, when it comes to waking a fellow up whose coffee has yet to do the trick. The popular prisoner will often get a second frisking on his way out. Who knows what malfeasance an apple-smuggler might get up to, after sneaking a Red Delicious back to his cell.

Showing up for my job, there's usually a queue of kitchen workers relinquishing their ID cards at the door and assuming the position. It's against the rules to bring anything into Food Service except the state-issued clothes on your back, but this rule wasn't always strictly enforced. Workers used to load up on crossword puzzles and sudoku, instant coffee and sugar, Bibles and Our Daily Bread booklets — to get through the many idle hours of their shift, when they're forced to just sit in one of the dining halls. To judge from the current tedium, you'd think the guards patting down deserve commendations. They pat-search everyone again at the end of every kitchen shift, but enough tuna, egg mix, and sliced cheese makes it back to the housing units (usually in plastic "diapers'' made of bread bags) to make you reconsider any reward for apparent thoroughness.

While stolen food is a perennial issue, some prisoners' cells pile up with other stuff that the administration prohibits. Being deprived of so much inclines one to hoard the littlest things. This so-called nuisance contraband is the first to get thrown away during routine cell searches. You probably have a junk drawer, or a whole closet of crap, at home. It's no different for the imprisoned person, who might keep a small Tupperware bowl filled with bread ties, thread, used batteries, fingernail clippers, broken headphones, adhesive wall hooks, empty bags, spare cords, et cetera, buried in his footlocker. I do. So does every cellmate I've ever had. Certain objects come in handy only infrequently. But the rules demand that everything in a prisoner's possession be kept to a minimum. Having more than one bowlful of miscellanea invites hassles.

Bigwigs in Jefferson City, the state capital, have enumerated the limit for each possible item a Missouri prisoner may own (e.g., one transparent-plastic TV, twenty CDs or cassette tapes, fourteen ramen soup packets, two bars of soap, seven pairs of underwear, two jars of peanut butter, one hundred postage stamps, two sets of headphones, ten pouches of loose tobacco, one tube of toothpaste, two jewel-free stud earrings, one cooler, fifty #10 envelopes, and on and on, surpassing tedium, into outright microscopy). I once had a guard confiscate a single package of ramen because I was in possession of fifteen after buying my allotted limit at the canteen that morning. The following week, the property room summoned me to determine what would be done with it. The staff member working the window rolled her eyes at the pedantry of the confiscating guard, slid the package across the counter, and said, "Eat it." So I did.

Some cell searches are excessive, even by the standards of the most slavish henchman. Policy states that cells are to be left in orderly condition when the guards exit, but I have survived incursions that left my space looking as if a natural disaster — a tornado or an earthquake of significant magnitude — had struck. Individual pages were strewn from folders, bags of foodstuffs had been pulled from sealed boxes and crushed, photos were removed from my album, splayed-open books sprawled over random objects, CD cases sat cracked underneath heavier things, laundry detergent and oatmeal was spilled, an eating utensil floated in the toilet, and everything else — everything else — was heaped on the bunks, irrespective of whether the stuff was mine or my cellmate's. Sorting out whose towel was whose came down to a sniff test.

Then there's the strip-search procedure endured before and after every visit. A guard has to watch me disrobe, waggle my tongue, show my open palms, expose my armpits, lift my soles, hoist my scrotum, and, in a final indignity, squat and cough, before he'll provide me with a set of visiting clothes. Strip-searches are also done, in cells, during shakedowns, when entire wings at a time are subjected to intensive cell searches by specially trained guards wearing camouflage fatigues — this composite violation being proof that, in prison, personal space is at best a temporary privilege, at worst a total delusion.

03 August, 2017

It's All in the Presentation

Smoked turkey medalions in a creamy tomato sauce with green bell pepper, white onion, and celery segments, served atop a bed of long-grain white rice. That's dinner — the entrée, anyway — except the prison's menu calls it "Creole." When I slide the tan plastic tray over Staff Dining's stainless-steel counter top, it's with a kind of flourish, and my plating is (considering what I'm working with) superb. The guard pronounces it "artistic."

Making prison food sound and look okay isn't something I'd ever call a talent. It doesn't have much applicability outside the restaurant business, which, no thanks. Staff members who are willing to eat institutional food prepared by prisoners wouldn't bat an eye if I served hastily slopped trays, so why do I bother?

This work ethic of mine is silly, like putting so much lipstick on a pig, but as long as I'm trapped in this sty....

09 July, 2017

The List: Reading April through June 2017

Midway through May, a yearning for greater depth and meaning seized me, and I felt my mind give entry to some darkness. It felt futile to look for anything more than intellectual cotton candy around here. "Prison," I once wrote, "is no haven for the intelligentsia." It's just as true today as it was ten years ago, when that essay, titled "Literacy," was published. You would expect me to have learned sly tricks for overcoming mental stagnation, but my means are limited, and my best efforts are sometimes not enough. 

Prison food is awful, as are prison libraries. By what others have told me, Crossroads' are better than most. Having picked clean the shelves here, for the most part, only a couple (okay, exactly five) books are in circulation that I'm interested in reading. This recent hunger for meaty subjects brought me to finally check out the weighty volume of Emerson, which went a long way toward filling me up. Books that my friend John, and the ever-gracious Tom Wayne of Prospero's, provided were a real boon, too. 

This bout of heavy reading isn't done. If anything, I feel insatiable. Maybe I just haven't run across the precise philosophical meditation that'll tip me over, or the right poetry collection to shift my perspective just so. Maybe this hunger will fade, like so many moods, and I'll settle into a simple novel for some summer reading. If you've been paying close enough attention, though, you'll probably know as well as I do that this is a silly idea. I basically need a steady supply of reading that makes me think, if I'm going to stay sane in this stultifying isolation. 


Umberto Eco (Richard Dixon, translator), The Name of the Rose
My praise, in an earlier review of Eco's nonfiction, was unequivocal. The man was a brilliant, thorough scholar, and losing him, as the literary world did last year, bleeds a measure of contemporary letters' life away. Reading this, his debut novel, for the first time in April, I was struck not just by the intricacy of its central whodunit puzzle, but also by the prominence of certain preoccupations — literary lists, specifically, and medieval legends — that still held Eco in thrall thirty-odd years later, when he published those outstanding works, The Infinity of Lists and The Book of Legendary Lands. His fixations, bordering perhaps on obsessions, make The Name of the Rose the most substantive mystery novel I've ever read. 

J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
To describe this vaguely surreal novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Coetzee, telling about its plot seems unfair. On the other hand, he probably didn't intend for the book to be strictly allegorical — and possibly not even metaphorical. It dances along a line between story and idea, never quite entering fully into the category of either. There is no Jesus here, only an orphaned refugee stripped of his true name and called Daniel. A benevolent older man called Símon looks after him as they struggle to make a way for themselves in a foreign country. But biblical allusions abound, and the parallels are sometimes striking.

Coetzee (whose work I waited years to read) plays with the flow of narrative and with readers' expectations, maintaining a flux at once disorienting and engrossing. Never, ever does he dispense what could be described as a certainty, which, for a certain type of reader, might be infuriating, but I relish this ambiguity for its truthfulness. As Chekov once put it, "lt's about time that everyone who writes — especially genuine literary artists — admit that in this world you can't figure anything out." Coetzee understands this and brings his canniness to the page memorably.

Randall Munroe, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
What would happen if you set off a nuclear bomb in the eye of a hurricane?

What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?

How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?

Former NASA engineers don't generally retire to become cartoonists, but if Randall Munroe is anything like his former colleagues in aeronautics and space flight, the future of quality webcomics is assured. I assume that checking out this guy's very popular website, xkcd.com, will give you a healthy (or not-so-healthy, if you really get into it) dose of his super-geeky humor. If it's your cup of tea, buy his books. They're as funny as they are fascinating — also, they're useless. Could you ask for a more ideal diversion?

Christy Wampole, The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation
A tide of vacuity has washed over society. Chronic distraction, knee-jerk insincerity, consumerism, indiscretion, and anti-intellectualism plague even the American universities, former hotbeds of enlightened thought. Our culture is empty. Our minds are atrophying. Our bodies are decomposing mannequins over which to drape the latest fashions. Our homes are mix-and-match simulacra of individual taste. Our workplaces are fluorescent-lit tombs. Our institutions and mass media are perpetuators of false dichotomies. And all of this is our fault, because we haven't done our due diligence, questioning, assessing, and appraising the vapid bullshit masquerading as substance in our lives.
You are by birth a card-carrying member of civilization and are thus responsible for it. No one really wants you to know this; things would be easier if you'd just passively accept your assigned role as a low-standards consumer, a human Pac-Man stuffing your face with pixels. There are other ways to go about life, like being three notches smarter than you thought you were and investing everything you do with aesthetic sensitivity.
Failure to do this, Wampole writes, means "a pointless life." It isn't a new idea that she puts forth, but the passion she musters to express it should be enough to wake even the lazy-minded and compel an emphatic yes. So rarely do I come away from an essay collection believing that its author and I see eye to eye, and yet Wampole's philosophy seems to exactly parallel my own. The Other Serious is a book about how to live, and why, that I wish could foist into the hands of every literate American and exhort them, "Read this!"

George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone and Lincoln in the Bardo
I'd hoped that the essays in The Braindead Megaphone would be deeper than they turned out. Saunders's reportage work was superior, ripe with nascent meaning (particularly "Buddha Boy," which he wrote for GQ, about the fifteen-year-old Nepalese kid much of the world believed meditated his way out of eating or drinking for nine months). Unfortunately, this wasn't the bulk of the book. Blame my disappointment on its misleading title, plus the introduction, which asks, "Does stupid, near-omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general?" My pump was primed for lacerating social criticism. What I got was mostly a succession of short humor pieces suited to The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" department. I felt duped.

Lincoln in the Bardo, on the other hand, was stimulating. The novel's clever premise hinges on the death of Willie Lincoln, the young son of America's sixteenth president, and his burial in Lot 292 of Oak Hill Cemetery, where his soul is trapped. (The bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism, is a state of existence between life and death. Conduct, age, and the manner of one's death determine how long it lasts.) As little Willie is interred, the voices of others entombed and buried at Oak Hill narrate his arrival. None acknowledges their deaths, believing instead that they're simply convalescing in "sick-boxes" and will soon be well enough to return to their lives. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, Lincoln in the Bardo intrigued and delighted me so much, I read its entire second half in an afternoon.

John Cheever, Falconer
Whether true or fictional, accounts of prison life are generally avoided. Why read about the same circumstances in which I'm languishing? Ah, but there's the rub: no one's experiences are ever exactly the same, and sometimes there's an unconsidered truth in another's observations of what otherwise appears identical. So I conceded to read Falconer, a selection by my bookstore guy, because you just don't know about most things until you give them a go. And there it was, right at the end of the first hopeless chapter:
Like everything else, [the cellblock] was shabby, disorderly, and malodorous, but his cell had a window and he went to this and saw some sky, two high water towers, the wall, more cellblocks and a corner of the yard that he had entered on his knees. His arrival in the block was hardly noticed. While he was making his bed, someone asked, "You rich?" "No," said Farragut. "You clean?" "No," said Farragut. "You suck?" "No," said Farragut. "You innocent?" Farragut didn't reply.
While Cheever's protagonist is a retired man of means, a heroin addict in a loveless marriage, and probably guilty of killing his brother in a drunken fight, there's much in Farragut's way of thinking that I identify with. That is, Farragut's arrival at Falconer Prison was as shocking to him as it would be to anyone far-removed from the criminal element, and his existential crisis thereafter feels authentic. You don't have to serve years of a life sentence to imagine what goes on in the head of someone who has, but Cheever did so with such empathetic élan that I'd swear the man did a stretch behind bars. Farragut's dealings with the "fucks, freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses […] phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts" of cellblock F ring true. And even though pre-1970s prison life was vastly different than prison life today, incarceration's effect on the human psyche will never change.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (David Mikics, editor), The Annotated Emerson
So heavy as to be uncomfortable to hold, so festooned with explanatory footnotes as to be disorienting, and so inclusive as to verge, at points, on irrelevancy, this fat volume of America's (arguably) best-known essayist was nevertheless a profoundly fulfilling read. Coming to Emerson much sooner, I might have pooh-poohed his fervent advocacy for toil, for communing with nature, for putting down the book and learning from the world. Having had the experiences I've had, though, I'm now more than ready to say that a strain of Emersonian self-reliance would do today's America good.

Chuck Klosterman, But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past
Two qualities I appreciate in a person quite a bit are prominent in Chuck Klosterman: a propensity for deep thought about unexpected subjects, and a wry sense of humor. This is the fourth of his books that I've devoured, and it rivals his previous excellent work, I Wear the Black Hat, for poignant insights on an area of thought not much considered. But What If We're Wrong? draws to the reader's attention how society and its individual constituents always assume that they know the truth about x, that their predecessors' ideas about x were all wrong, and that nothing could ever come along to change what is "known" about x today. As examples of this phenomenon, he cites the cultural significance of rock music, the history of astrophysics, and the surprisingly authentic-seeming nine-season run of the TV series Roseanne. I would love to sit down for a beer with this unique thinker.

23 June, 2017

Creep Alert

Every morning, not long after everyone locks down for the 7:30 custody count, the wing's loudspeaker squawks, "There will be both male and female staff members working in the housing unit today."

This message is brought to us by former president George W. Bush and our concerned friends at the United States Department of Justice, who, several years ago, effected a piece of legislation called the Prison Rape Elimination Act — a bureaucratic dog and pony show predicated on the adorable idea that all we needed, to end sexual assaults in America's prisons, was to tape up a shitload of photocopied "STOP SEXUAL ABUSE! REPORT IT!" notices where prisoners could see them.

To be fair, I've never read the actual language of PREA. I assume that it's intended more to safeguard prisoners from staff members drunk on power than from our depraved fellow inmates. Why? Because when the DOJ conducted its preimplementation survey, I was one of the random prisoners who got a package of cookies for answering their anonymous questionnaire. It dwelled a lot on staff abuse, not so much on what happens behind closed cell doors. Here's another observation: Oreo Thins taste terrible.

Guards, cooks, and caseworkers have been escorted off these premises several times during my years at Crossroads, after inappropriate goings-on came to light. No surprise, they've all been women. I'm not taking a controversial position by saying that female prisoners get victimized more often, at least by staff. Around here, though, a sexual encounter with a staff member is something guys fantasize about. The upshot? PREA isn't meaningless to me — only for me.

No one in prison has ever sexually assaulted or coerced me; although, a few did threaten, back when I was fresh. More just flirted. So often was the ostentatious interest of an openly gay inmate directed my way, I got the joking label "fag magnet." Predators who tested me, all those years ago, all had reputations for accosting young white guys. They tended to play things cool, their technique being to stand aloof until the time was right, then act like some distant potentate descending from his throne to claim due tribute. Curiously enough, the (generally) heterosexual miscreants who stalk and ogle prison employees tend to be socially hyperengaged, with an apparent need to be seen and heard by everyone at all times. What this dynamic says, clinically, about the two personality types, I haven't figured out. But I see plenty of both.

Prairie-dogging is common, usually in the dining hall, which is fronted by windows facing the main boulevard. Female guards, caseworkers, and nurses stroll past regularly, and turn many heads when they do. Some of us dressed in gray aren't content to gawk from a seated position, though. They leap to their feet and crane their necks until the women are out of sight. Loudly enough that these lechers can hear, I start counting: "One creep, two creeps, three creeps, four creeps…" (I typically stop at eight or nine.) They never pay me any mind; their brains are otherwise engaged.

In the Hole, "gunning down" is fairly common. 1 wish I could blame sheer boredom-induced insanity, but no. Blatantly masturbating in the presence of or within sight of a female staff member somehow registers as acceptable behavior to those guilty of it. If the episode of Lockup I saw is to be believed, certain prisons in the South have a real problem with this practice in general population, not merely in segregation units.

I did once watch a team of guards in tactical gear perform a cell extraction. It took two cans of Mace to subdue their target and get him handcuffed, after which they led him to an observation cell. Wearing only boxer shorts and shower shoes, drenched from head to foot in burning orange chemical, the prisoner was incapacitated, scarcely able to walk a line, but he managed to maintain his full erection. On so many levels, it was a terrifying sight.

This kind of obscenity isn't sanctioned by the powers that be, yet behavior that I think should merit, at minimum, a verbal warning is tolerated. In this way, the less blatant stuff seems more insidious. Someone in a crowd leaving the chapel remarks loudly about a nurse's backside. A kitchen worker explicitly details what he'd like to do to his housing unit's caseworker. Rather than step over to be patted down by a male guard, a prisoner in line waits to be searched by the female, saying that he hasn't "felt a woman's touch in a long time." Staff members heard each of these but didn't make a peep about them. For reasons of prison politics and my own well-being, I kept my mouth shut, too.

It's no secret that I don't belong here. Nor do I leave any room for doubt that I want out more than I've ever wanted anything else. But witnessing these things makes me glad that these creeps are in here, setting my teeth on edge, not out there, doing real harm.

16 June, 2017

A New Poem on an Old Midwestern Custom

For the Album

The Man Upstairs must've run out
Of quarters to feed the machine.
So the rain stopped,
And pufferfish-faced aunts in rayon
Emerged to assail our virgin faces,
Hand-fluff their bouffants, and finally
Consent to being photographed.
Curious that no one thought to preserve
For posterity the impressive mass
Of flies descending on the deviled eggs.

* * * * *

From what I understand, it doesn't matter who your relatives are — family reunions all take place in one of the outermost circles of Hell. The kids have fun, visiting cousins not seen in a while, but the older you are, the more burdensome it becomes to make conversation with people whose lives intersect your own solely by dint of genetics. Between Uncle Joe's odious politics and Grandma Millie's casual racism, Cousin Gina's drinking and her husband Chauncy's efforts to sell everyone insurance, few moments of easy pleasure are had. Who doesn't breathe a little sigh of relief as their car pulls away from the park, content at being a distinct segment of the larger familial mass?

Maybe this is why people do it, reuniting the smaller parts of the unit as a reminder, a reassurance that your life may not be what you'd prefer but at least isn't like those people's.

09 June, 2017

Giving Yoga Another Go

Christina Brown's Yoga Bible was a gift to me, prompted by my wondering aloud, "Are there any Yoga for Dummies books that are worth a crap?" I'd been curious to know the answer for years — eight, to be exact — ever since the painful failure of my initial yoga experience.

To the surprise of everyone who knows me (myself included), I eventually got into bodyweight training. This mostly happened because I didn't want to invite early decrepitude. (Being a prisoner is bad enough for one's health, but I also led a stereotypically inert literary-geek lifestyle.) Bodyweight training was perfect for me, given my limited space, lack of equipment, and long-harbored fantasy about joining a circus.

My regimen now incorporates time with the gym's weight pile and a bit of cardio. As helpful as any exercise is for overall flexibility, my range of motion is more limited than the average man about town. I'm about as supple as a steak from Denny's. Also, how could I live with myself, forever cowed by a pulled… whatever had me hobbling for that week, in 2007, following my failed Triangle Pose? I had to give yoga a second chance — at least for long enough to make an informed decision.

I had a heads up that The Yoga Bible was on its way to me. New experiences in prison being a precious luxury, it was kind of an exciting wait. I tempered my enthusiasm with pragmatism, working out the logistical issues I foresaw:
  1. When would I practice?
  2. What would I wear?
  3. What would I use for a mat?
To the first: when something's important, you make the time for it. I committed to carving half an hour out of my non-workout mornings, when my cellmate's at work. This meant sacrificing precious writing time, but I've certainly squandered that in less rewarding ways. No excuses!

To the second: ash gray sweatpants and a T-shirt would suffice for yoga-wear. They'd have to. Nothing else I own is remotely suitable for stretching, folding, twisting movements.

To the third: since Department of Corrections policy doesn't allow for them, the prison canteen doesn't sell mats and I can't mail order one. Thoroughly wiping down the cell's concrete floor, I would lay down my state-issued fleece blanket, folded twice in half, and make do until figuring out something better.

On the morning that the book arrived, I leapt right in, cueing up an environmental-soundtrack CD for meditative ambiance, and settling on the blanketed floor.

Breathe in, breathe out. Abs firm and still. Ujjayi Pranayama took some getting used to. Once I was hissing through my nose well enough, it was time for Sun Salutations. Then I tried Cat Pose, various "releases," Mountain Pose. Then more Sun Salutations. For continuity's sake. For getting the feel for flow. Then I just sat, breathing on the floor, being.

Looking over at my cellmate's alarm clock, I was amazed: I'd been doing yoga for a full hour — twice as long as I'd intended. Not bad for a do-over.

I couldn't wait. The next day's practice began a half hour earlier.

03 June, 2017

Canteen, the Small Mercy

Lawsuits have kept prison food from becoming altogether malnutritious, but flavor and texture are hazy concepts and, therefore, hard to litigate. So, just because it will keep prisoners from dying doesn't mean the difference between slop and steak. (Consider, for example, the ongoing "meal loaf" dispute.)

I've had to stop eating most of the meat on the Department of Corrections' menu. Other guys say that the TVP — textured vegetable protein (AKA soy) — gives them wicked gas, but trial and error showed that it was the institutional-grade ground turkey making me feel gut-stabbed. The vegetarian options aren't guaranteed to please, either. While Crossroads' cooks make decent oven-browned potatoes, grits, and cabbage soup, they manage to foul up, with dismaying regularity, almost every variety of bean.

Compared to others here, I'm on velvet. Not only does my current job in the staff dining room afford me daily fresh fruit and the occasional raw vegetables, in whatever quantities I feel like eating, I also receive enough money to skip chow-hall meals, on my days off, now and again. Like it does everywhere else, money, in prison, buys choices for those who've got it. At no time is this more obvious than on Crossroads' "spend days," when the bulge of each bright red mesh bag emerging from the canteen to cross the yard announces who has the funds to furnish comfort and who's barely scraping by.
RC Cola — $.38 per can
Moon Lodge Hot BBQ Chips — $1.37 per bag
Jack Links BBQ Beef Steak — $1.31 per package
Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls — $1.61 per box
Bar-S Hot Dogs — $1.99 per package
Big Daddy Charbroil Cheeseburger — $3.69 each
Banquet Fried Chicken — $7.99 per box
I've never bought any of these things, nor most of what else is on offer. The list goes on for pages, roughly 85% of it junk. The canteen's selection does change by degrees throughout the year, to keep total monotony from setting in; however, staples like ramen soup and summer sausage never go away, no matter how much I might wish they'd be replaced with miso mix and cashews.

For being a maximum-security facility, surrounded by a lethal electric fence, and housing "society's worst," Crossroads' wards appear well cared for, humping Santa sacks galore back to their housing units. Mine stay small. I keep meals eaten in the cell simple, with staples of rice, mackerel, instant oatmeal, powdered milk, roasted peanuts, and sundry spices — boring, maybe, but healthful-ish. Recipes invented by the general population are sloppy, oily variations on themes. Most are some kind of burrito thing, nacho thing, spaghetti thing, or throw-stuff-in-some-ramen-and-whip-it-into-a-slurry thing. (That last one's especially popular.) The two microwave ovens in my wing stay busy.

Cellmates have accused me of being a cheapskate for not splurging on treats. "I can't afford it," I tell them. It's a lie. Stuff like beef tips and pre-cooked bacon wouldn't be too rich for my blood if I simply switched to generic hygiene products, stopped buying stationery to write with, cut out postage stamps for correspondence, and gave up making phone calls. I could suck down up to two pints of ice cream each week — vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. I could heat honey buns for breakfast, nuke popcorn for movies, nibble candy bars for after-dinner snacks. I could build prison "pizzas," using crushed snack crackers for crust. I could be fat and… happy?

We make choices. We live with them. Clean and lean, maintaining a sense of purpose and social value — those are mine. But when the chow hall serves us cheeseburger macaroni that smells like cat food, I'm relieved to have some small luxury of choice.