21 December, 2018

Nine Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Continuing through the surprise package of books From Lori B. (mentioned in my last reading-list post), I finished Bram Stoker's lesser-known Gothic horror, The Lair of the White Worm. It's basically a reworking of Dracula, with a serpentine female villain. There's good reason the novel is all but forgotten, but I was grateful for Lori's gift just the same. The subject matter helped put me in the Halloween spirit I love (and love writing about, as I did here, in October) so much.

Karen Russell's cutely uncanny 2007 debut story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, didn't contribute to the Halloween mood as much. Maybe if her protagonists weren't all children.... On the other hand, the stories of Sylvia Jackson that appear in Dark Tales are unsettling in the best possible way. Jackson had such a knack for conjuring eerie atmosphere amid familiar settings. On par with ghost-story maestro M.R. James, she was truly a master of the uncanny.

Next, I moved to nonfiction. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World might sound hyperbolic, but Jane McGonigal addresses her subject in a reasoned, almost philosophical way, analyzing games' (mostly video games', but also party games' and ARGs') methods of bringing people real happiness and fulfillment. Using a fascinating cross-discipline approach, she culls from positive psychology, historical studies, and other seemingly disparate areas, to bring her subject into the reader's grasp. This book actually helped me to feel less guilty about all those hours of my life lost to The Sims (a phenomenon the journalist Clive Thompson dubbed gamer regretin a 2007 Wired article).

Then I read these stirring words, written by Friederich Nietzsche in the late-1800s, which encapsulate and typify a large chunk of his philosophy:
I have often asked myself whether I am not more heavily obligated to the hardest years of my life than to any other. As my inmost nature teaches me, whatever is necessary — as seen from the heights and in the sense of a great economy — is also the useful par excellence: one should not only bear it, one should love it. Amor fati: that is my inmost nature. And as for my long sickness, do I not owe it indescribably more than I owe to my health? I owe it a higher health — one which is made stronger by whatever does not kill it. I also owe my philosophy to it. Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit, as the teacher of great suspicion which turns every U into an X, a real, genuine X, that is, the letter before the penultimate one. Only great pain, that long, slow pain in which we are burned with green wood, as it were — pain which takes its time — only this forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and to put away all trust, all good-naturedness, all that would veil, all mildness, all that is medium — things in which formerly we may have found our humanity. I doubt that such a pain makes us "better," but I know that it makes us more profound.
Substitute "wrongful imprisonment" for his "sickness," and the thought could well be mine. With The Portable Nietzsche, another of the books from Lori B. (whom I now thank once again), I was finally able to finish my quest to read all of the philosopher's major works. That it happened in the lead-up to my fortieth birthday, a period during which I felt particularly speculative and pensive, was a fortuitous bit of happenstance.

Joy Williams was not a writer whose work I knew before November. At some point, somewhere, I must've read a highly favorable review of The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, because it had been on my Amazon wish list for a while. That another vendor had a better price for it isn't the point; I bought it and was bowled over. Williams's style is deceptively spare, even simplistic-seeming at first, as she tells her subtle, disjointed tales. Short declarative sentences accrete, butting against each other until texture emerges and the reader very suddenly goes, "Wow." There's so much going on here. I reread several stories, just to see how Williams pulled them off.

Although The Encyclopedia of Coloured Pencil Techniques, by Judy Martin, was inspiring and helpful, the other birthday gift Emily C. sent was a genuine treasure. The Sandman Omnibus, Volume I collects the first thirty-seven issues (plus Sandman Special #1) of the classic lush fantasy comic written by Neil Gaiman. The series and its spin-offs, taken in total, comprise a high-water mark in the world of graphic novels.

The first time I read The Sandman was by candlelight in my bedroom, a pale seventeen-year-old waif in all-black and eyeliner. I smoked clove cigarettes as I turned the pages. My pet rat sniffed at each new issue as I laid it reverently on my desk. The stories were enrapturing. Those nights felt like a fever dream. Twenty-three years later, rereading it in a place of often smothering reality, The Sandman proved no less transporting. Thank you, Emily.

Finally there was Jesse Ball's A Cure for Suicide: A Novel, a gift from my mother. (Thanks, Mum!) Unless he's published another in the last three years, I've now read all but one of his peculiar novels. You might call me a fan. A Cure for Suicide was structurally and conceptually unique, while (delightfully) borrowing certain elements from other Ball novels. Despite what the title implies, the book's got nothing to do with recalling from the dead those who've taken their own lives. Rather, it's a beautiful little love story about two very hollowed-out people who find themselves, after a fashion, in each other. Ball's off-center version of romance is one I don't merely tolerate but actually relish.

04 December, 2018

Kiosk Chaos

Prisoners in Missouri can pay for music and download it to their new JP5s tablet, but the shopping involves a trip. And a wait to use this hideous thing.

JPay installed multipurpose kiosks just like this one in prisons throughout the state. One is in each wing of the housing units I've seen. Although the tablets have Wi-Fi connections to JPay's secure e-mail service, video transfers and monetary transactions require a physical syncing. I have to take my device downstairs, wait in line, plug in the USB cable that dangles so awkwardly from the kiosk's side, and wait a minute or so for data to be exchanged. Only then can I browse the media catalog.

The men with no imaginations and even less money seem to spend the most time on the kiosk, wishing for music they can't afford, and sampling those songs in fifteen-second intervals. The only way to hear anything on the kiosk is to lift its retro-style telephone handset to your ear and hope the wing's background noise isn't at screamy levels. Thus the bored music-samplers are not only getting a very abbreviated experience of their chosen material, the tracks' audio is also piss-poor. They're missing out quantitatively and qualitatively. This deters none of them.

Each prisoner gets a maximum of five kiosk logins per day, at ten minutes per session. It's still too much. The line forms early, usually right after the 6 AM count clears. At any given time, no fewer than two people stand waiting. This endures until evening lockdown, when guards practically have to pry someone's fingers off the metal trackball before he'll retire for the night. Whoever had been next in line has to then come to terms with squandering another stretch of time, and hope he can make it to the line earlier tomorrow.

In general, we residents of the honor dorm comport ourselves with more restraint and respect than prisoners in general population. Problems nevertheless arise. Keeping track of who's next in line gets tricky when someone promises the next spot in line to his buddy instead of the man who's been standing patiently nearby, waiting his turn. Being no doormat myself, I've had one tense exchange resulting from this. At least two confrontations over the JPay kiosks have escalated into fights in honor dorm units. In one, a man almost had an eye thumbed out of his skull. His opponent must've really, really wanted whatever song that was.

I've blogged here before about
the surprising amount of music suddenly available to me. Having some expendable funds means contemplating what amazing music I might spend them on. I'd also prefer to avoid grievous bodily harm. The most certain way that I know is to keep off the kiosk as much as possible. It's not an easy temptation to avoid.

01 December, 2018

A Poem


"I remember your son well," says one.
"We weren't friends but worked great together. He

was the perfect man to manage the front desk —
handsome and always willing to go that extra mile

for a guest." The mother smiles and nods
in the way one does, accepting condolences.

The elderly woman he's with looks elsewhere.
"How long has yours been gone?" the first mother

asks her, wincing, knowing the wound's too fresh.
The second works her toothless mouth in preparation,

then mutters, "Fifteen years last January."
She still burns a candle almost nightly,

lights a little flame for him, her youngest,
taken in his prime. And the mothers

look around them then and apprehend
the gathered. Those come to pay respects

are brothers, daughters, sisters, sons,
pals, partners, mothers too —

everyone attired for this occasion
differently. The charity jog freebie T-shirt,

the patterned dress, the hipster jeans, the inevitable
blue suit. Conversation ranges. Insurance, love

lives and lacks thereof, TV, illness, children —
one of whom looks up to see, in a flash like

a fish in an aquarium, his father's face
in the window glass. He cries out,

"Daddyyyyyy!" and the whole assembly turns
to watch him pass with Mama through

the waiting room's double steel doors.
Another family reunited for a few hours on

the prison's visiting floor.

* * * * *

The term visitation is defined by Oxford thus:

n. an official or formal visit, in particular: • (in church use) an official visit of inspection, esp. one by a bishop to a church in the bishop's diocese. • the appearance of a divine or supernatural being. • a gathering with the family of a deceased person before the funeral.
Multiple meanings of a word are like catnip for poets. I wanted to play with this one because its use by prison administrators has seeped into the vernacular. A lot of everyday people use "visitation" when they're talking about going to see little Johnny in the slammer. A lawyer or politician going to see a prisoner is one thing, but not Mom and Dad. The formality of this usage always put me off, the same way that saying "utilize" does, when "use" works perfectly well.

There are of course parallels between someone dying and someone going to prison. In the event that the sentence is life without parole (as mine is), even the courts formally acknowledge the similarity, employing the grim term "civil death" when addressing one's diminished Constitutional rights. So I set out to write "Visitation" as a poem that upends the reader's expectation — it starts out with all the trappings of a funeral gathering, then reveals the true circumstances only in the final lines. Whether or not it's successful I'll leave for you to decide.

28 November, 2018

The Icebreaker Speech

Today I completed my first project for Gavel Club: the five- to seven-minute autobiographical speech that Toastmasters International calls "the icebreaker." I brainstormed for weeks, trying to come up with the perfect gimmick for my monologue, before settling on something simple, straightforward, and maybe even good. It went a little something like this:
Good morning, Gavel Club members and guests, and our generous VIC, Mr. Curry, and thank you for this opportunity to officially introduce myself. For those of you who don't know — which is quite a few of you, since this is only my sixth meeting — my name is Byron Case.

Five days ago, I turned forty. Now, they say that age is just a number, but I remember my dad's fortieth birthday. His friends threw him a party, with black balloons and a cake in the shape of a gravestone. At least for him, forty seemed like a big deal. Maybe it is. The average male in this country lives to be about eighty. That means I'm either right at my peak or halfway to my end. The glass is half full or it's half empty.

I used to be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, through and through. "Negative" doesn't even begin. You've heard that old saying, "Every dark cloud has a silver lining"? Well, I was such a pessimist that I saw dark linings around every silver cloud. My friends even had a nickname for me: Byron the Blackhearted, Dark Cliffs upon which the Waves of Hope Break. (Ridiculous, I know, but my friends were kind of weird.) If you told me that you were getting a raise at work, I'd shoot right back with something like: "Too bad taxes will take most of it." If you announced that you were getting married, I'd probably ask, "Can I be invited to your divorce party?"

With an attitude like this, it's surprising that I had friends at all, weird or otherwise. But I don't want you thinking I was some grim character. I knew how to have a good time, and did. I had hobbies and interests. Writing, live music, dinners with friends, racing my car, reading, anything involving computers — I stayed busy. I even had a job in the hospitality industry, managing the front desk of a popular hotel in my hometown, Kansas City. What I'm saying is, terrible attitude that I had, I could still summon up a smile.

I was twenty-two when I came to prison — green as your neighbor's lawn. Before this, the closest I'd ever come to thug life was when I was fifteen and got my wallet stolen at knifepoint in the parking lot of a Wonder Bread store. I felt totally lost here. I did a lot of crossword puzzles, waiting for my appeals to make their way through the courts. At some point, though, I realized that I had to do something with myself. So I threw myself into the one favorite pastime that these circumstances allowed.

After about a year of sending my manuscripts out, I published a short story. The magazine paid me fifty-five dollars, but so much more important than that was knowing that my words were still relevant beyond the prison walls, that I could still speak and be heard by people beyond these boundaries. Writing became my lifeline, my purpose, the thing that I wake up excited for, then go to bed feeling good about. It turned my whole life around.

These days, friends call me an optimist. Some even say I'm too positive. They don't understand how anyone in my circumstances, facing life in prison without parole, can feel so much happiness. The well-being I feel today is greater than it ever was when I was free. Mr. Glass-Half-Empty is long gone. It took imprisonment for me to realize what's truly important in life, and in that way to find my purpose.

Five days ago, I turned forty. It feels like my prime. Life is good.

20 November, 2018

Life in Prison with a Tablet PC

On Thursday afternoon, three caseworkers entered the wing with a couple of large, nondescript cardboard boxes and an air of impatience. The JP5s tablets we ordered in October (first blogged about here this past February) had finally arrived!

"Go to your cells, gentlemen, and stand by your doors," an earnest woman in civilian clothes told us. "We'll call you by cell number. You'll come down here and sign for your tablet, then go back to your cell until the rest of the tablets have been passed out."

The occupants of 6D complied with a swiftness that I found amazing. Normally, getting prisoners corralled is a process requiring minutes on end, but this was different — our yearlong wait was at its end.

The caseworkers set up camp at a central table, spreading out packing slips and the kind of redundant paperwork that keeps bureaucrats in business. Noise in the wing died to stage whispers, with the occasional snort of muffled laughter, as the apparatchiks made ready.

Minutes passed. Then the woman squawked, "One-oh-one."

Flouting the directive, I left my door wide open but poured a glass of iced tea and sat back down with the book I'd been reading. Nietzsche made interesting company as the trio worked their way to 208. Only after Cell 206 went downstairs did I set my glass on the desk and stand as assigned.

The trade was more than fair: my signature, DOC number, and the date on a little square of paper, for a seven-inch Android device, charger, and pair of ear buds — all in a resealable plastic bag. The accompanying "Quick Start" information card was several steps down from the thoughts of the German philosopher, and didn't say a thing about charging the lithium-ion battery before syncing the tablet. I did so anyway, while the rest of the wing — more than fifty men, some of whom had taken the day off work specifically for this — impatiently queued for the
JPay kiosk. Owners' haste caused a few tablets to die mid-sync. It took less than twenty minutes for mine to reach 100% charge. So when my turn at the kiosk arrived, everything went off without a hitch.

What's it like, having my first handheld touch-screen device? It's definitely a novelty. I once blogged about being "
A Very Technical Boy," so I do have thoughts beyond the "This thing's so cool!" variety. Most of them come down to technical matters: the JP5s tablet I got for free last week is faster, more powerful , and sixty-four times more capacious than the first PC I built. (If that's not something to make a guy feel out-of-date....)

A friend sent me birthday money with the condition that I use it to buy music for what he calls my "wannabe iPad." It'd been many moons since I last acquired new tunes, so I responded eagerly: "Can do!" And I did. As I thumb-type this,
Savages' outstanding album Adore Life is propelling me like a cattle prod to the brain. Thanks again, John, so very much!

JPay's music selection — basically iTunes for prisoners — is big, even impressive. It makes the acquisitive music lover in me want all the things. I'm not alone in this. For years, Missouri prisoners have been limited to buying CDs from catalog vendors, which is about as limiting as you'd expect. It's especially bad if your tastes, like mine, range far afield of radio hits. The floodgates now have opened. Overheard conversations reveal that some other honor-dorm residents have already blown their entire month's budget, solely on music downloads. Do we blame poor impulse control, or freshly liberated zeal?

For sure, the mood around here has been jovial. Spontaneous dancing is not uncommon. It wierded me out, the first couple of times I witnessed it. Now I know better: the telltale white dots of ear buds confirm that a person's not experiencing a schizoid auditory-delusion, just bumping sick beats. A downcast gaze, likewise, no longer means that a person's in the dumps, only that he's engrossed in whatever's on his little LED screen.

I don't know how the scene might look in another month or so, after the tablets' newness wears off. There's already been a dropoff of kiosk use in the first forty-eight hours, as guys' digital wallets are emptied by media purchases. More settling could still occur. Of course, it could be that JPay is deliberately withholding services, waiting until the initial rush dies away before reinvigorating sales with movie downloads and game apps, both of which have been promised. Just alert me when there's a word processor with a print-on-demand feature — or at least when the e-reader app is available. Meanwhile, I'll be in my cell, luxuriating in fine sounds as I continue trying to write my way out of prison.

13 November, 2018

Something Old, Something New (Sonically Speaking)

When the iconic British post-punk/deathrock band Siouxsie & the Banshees entered Surry Sound to record their 1981 album Juju, — nine spiky guitar- and drum-propelled tracks that epitomized the sound of my teenage years — I shat myself. Of course I did; in '81 I was still a baby, squirming on the carpet of a three-bedroom house in suburban Middle America, with no awareness of Siouxsie Sioux or her band. I must have soiled fifty diapers in the weeks it took them to lay down all of Juju, never mind the time it took to master the tapes.

Fourteen years after Siouxsie & the Banshees' first show, at
the 100 Club Punk Festival, I fell hard for their melodic take on punk. (Siouxsie's innovative mix of Queen-of-the-Nile makeup and bondage gear helped.) As my musical tastes developed, they stuck close to the period and the place — bands and artists who got their start in late-'70s, early-'80s Britain. My horizons expanded as I got older, but I still love that old-school goth sound. Juju never got old.

We were talking about
the tablet computer I'll have any day now, and my mother asked about downloadable songs: "Do you even want new music? I thought you were stuck on that old stuff."

I guess that
last week's post about meeting my musical kindred confused her. Hearing some old favorites for the first time in decades has been unbelievably cool, sure, but there's a huge difference between still loving Siouxsie & the Banshees and listening to nothing else.
Suddenly being able to buy music whenever, rather than only three times per year, and (if the album isn't up to par) on a track-by-track basis, changes everything. I'm no longer held back by the twenty-CD limit the Missouri DOC imposes. Now there's a new dilemma. I tweeted about it, here, last Tuesday: how's a guy to choose, given JPay's selection?

So many contemporary groups and artists I've wanted to sample are available now, including
Youth Code, Savages, Silent Servant, Vatican Shadow, Anasazi, the Chameleons (UK), and the Soft Moon. My musical wish list will have to be kept in check. A preliminary search also showed pages of Siouxsie stuff, including some released since my imprisonment... and a 2006 remaster of Juju.

Balance, I tell myself, and take a few cleansing breaths. Balance and restraint. You've still got to use soap and eat. Oh, but you do have a birthday coming up.

05 November, 2018

P2P (Prisoner to Prisoner) Music Sharing

"What'd you bring me, Byron?" he asks, his squinty smile not quite reminding me of someone. "Am I gonna cry with joy?"

This is only my third time speaking with Luke, and already we're first-naming it — a rare thing in prison, where surnames without the honorific "Mr." are the norm. Luke's a friend of a friend of my cellmate's. He's also in Gavel Club. But what brought us together in conversation was overhearing him run down a few of the music acts he searched for, the day that JPay opened its MP3 library to Missouri prisoners last week: the Legendary Pink Dots (and Tear Garden), the Sisters of Mercy, Front 242, and other decidedly Byronic favorites. Weirdly enough, it ended up being him who cornered me at the next Gavel Club meeting.

That was then. Today we're in the Learning Center, where he works and where I watch occasional Great Courses lecture videos. I've bought a handful of CDs — Chelsea Wolfe, Xiu Xiu, the Cure — for him to rip to the institution's virtual jukebox. (Fun fact: per US copyright law, prisons and oil rigs aren't public spaces. Copying my discs to our TV guide's "Gothic, Industrial, Electronic, New Wave" playlist is totally legal.) He's impressed by my offering, and the expression on his face clarifies things for me: Christian Bale and Ed Norton's love child — that's who he looks like.

"Pornography? Man, what a great album."

"A wrist-slashing masterpiece," I say, quoting some forgotten music critic.
"Do you know who Gary Numan is?"

"I have Replicas and Telekon back in the cell."

He squints, skeptically. Definitely Ed Norton. "What's your favorite Ministry album?"

"With Sympathy. Their synth pop stuff is more my speed. 'Every Day Is Halloween'? Come on!"

Suddenly it's like we're in a scene from High Fidelity. Luke wants my top five electronic acts. After a couple seconds' delay, I tell him "Okay, of course Gary Numan, godfather of the genre. Then I'd have to say Depeche Mode, New Order, Kraftwerk —"

"I was thinking of, like, bands on Metropolis, Nettwerk, Projekt. But old school — that's nice."

"— and Björk."

"She's not really an electronic artist. Was it Medulla that she recorded with those a cappella singers?"

Before I open my mouth to defend my position, and before Luke brings out a stack of his own CDs for me to plunder in exchange, I know that he and I are going to get along great.

31 October, 2018

Halloween in the Hoosegow V: The Festival

[With apologies to H.P. Lovecraft]

I was far from home, and the spell of the season was upon me. In the twilight I felt it all around. And because my custodians had forced me to this old town of Bonne Terre, to my new prison, I was compelled to make the most of Halloween alone, without my compatriots in the Octoberfeast Cult. We were now scattered, and shared only the rituals of mysteries that none else alive could understand. At ERDCC, I was the only one.

The mad Arab Abdul Alhazred's forbidden Necronomicon, in the awkward Low Latin translation of Olaus Wormius that I have read only fearful excerpts from, offers means by which to summon things too hideous for sanity or consciousness, but because an old tradition compelled me, I resolved myself to strange feasting on this night.

When I added tortilla chips, nacho cheese, chicken meat, and the blasphemous motley of other ingredients to my canteen list I was half afraid. Some fear had been gathering in me, perhaps because of the strangeness of my surroundings, and the bleakness of my company, and the queerness of their disinterest in basic cable's spooky October movie lineup. And when I saw how much my canteen order totaled I was fully afraid, because I had never carried the entire cost of the Octoberfeast before. But I was not afraid long, for my Southern-accented cellmate had a glad response to my Halloween decorations that reassured me; and though he made remarks that he was a dumb country boy, he expressed a quaint and ancient welcome of my weird fanaticism, saying, "It sounds good. Hell, I'll throw in with you on that!"

The calendar taunted me. After Thursday's canteen pick-up I needed to wait six days before I could commence the festival. Madness threatened to consume my soul. I felt ferocious and inexplicable cravings.

When the day arrived and five o'clock struck, however, Hopper, my cellmate, stood up, glided to his footlocker in the corner, and got two containers of cheese. Then he started for the microwave. The tortuous line to that incredibly coveted appliance formed quickly. I looked out, amid hushed summonings of the nachos' oozing brown refried-bean soul, and saw Hopper's progress along that sinuous line of dinner-marchers seemed very horrible, and as I strewed the lurid shimmering shreds of chicken across the vast expanse of that unimaginable meal, the wait seemed more horrible still. I thought I heard muffled taunting: The beans are getting cold! But what frightened me most was the flaming column our cheese could become if Hopper wasn't mindful of the timer. For in all that seething combustion no warmth would lay, but only the clamminess of an unsatisfied stomach.

Presently Hopper returned with the cheese and pointed to the heap of deeply buried chips that no sound eye could ever wholly grasp, or sound brain wholly remember. "That's all mine?" he gasped. I nodded in response. That he did not scream and bring down upon us all the hungry legions the neighboring cells held was a wonder.

When I went delirious at eating too much unthinkably processed, preservative-laden foodstuffs, I rested. There is something on my calendar about The Pit and the Pendulum on TCM tonight. So I will watch that nerve-shattering film, and shudder doubly because Poe's tale is indeed not new to me. I have read it before, let the years conceal what they might; and I know too the mad Arab's charnel work, full of phrases I dare not quote. Abdul Alhazred writes, I will only say, a recipe for deluxe nachos that is delicious.

25 October, 2018

Voted In

I was never much of a joiner, but the moment I saw Gavel Club (an affiliate of  Toastmasters) among the available programs at ERDCC, my new digs, I had to sign up. Public speaking is neither something I'm great at nor a phobia I harbor. I don't care for mediocrity, so there's room to improve. Gavel Club seemed like just the ticket. Maybe I'd meet some intelligent people in the bargain.

At first I was wait-listed. But my first meeting, 3 October, I dove right in. When volunteers for an informal debate were called for, my hand shot up. Later, I gave a two-minute "Table Topics" speech on the assigned subject of what type of animal I'd most like to be. ("So, in conclusion, meow.") This was fun stuff — thinking on my feet, tailoring my remarks to suit a diverse audience, learning the ins and outs of meetings' structure. The longer I sat watching and listening, the more I knew this would be worth two hours of my week.

Yesterday was my third meeting as a guest, and, in accordance with the club bylaws, the "Gaveleers" voted on whether to grant me membership. The Seargeant-at-Arms led me into the hallway so everyone could talk about me behind a closed door, while the day's Toastmaster (basically an emcee) chatted with me about what ten years' membership has done for him. When I re-entered, it was to the room's applause.

My friend John laughed when I told him I'd joined. "Toastmasters is so pompous and affected," he said, "but of course you like all those rules of order. Discipline. Restraint." He wasn't wrong.

In a few weeks I'm scheduled to deliver my first proper speech, a four- to six-minute autobiographical "icebreaker." My $3 annual dues will be paid on the first. My cellmate, Hopper, suspects that I'll be an officeholder within six months. I told him, "I don't share your confidence, but thanks for your vote."

16 October, 2018

The Ice Brigade

Desperate men do desperate things. Men in prison seem to live in desperation, make a tenuous home there, furnish it sparsely, and, on occasion, enjoy a nice, cool beverage there.

In my wing, where cell doors come open at 6:40 AM and the inhabitants are free to move about until almost 11:00, the line forms early. It runs up the center of the wing: thirty-some Coleman six-pack coolers and Rubbermaid pitchers and insulated mugs — a perfect row of multicolored plastics set on the polished concrete, in preparation for the big moment. The men whose containers these are want what’s coming.

A low-grade viciousness possesses the assembled, behind masks of bonhomie. One prisoner nonchalantly sets his cooler on the floor in front of someone else’s in the queue. Eyes everywhere watch to see who’ll be the one to call him out. The cricket in one of the shower stalls is chirring, and an alarm clock beeps from behind someone’s closed door. No one speaks.

Some of the men take up space on stools by the phones, some lounge on the stairs, others lean on the desk that stores the wing’s meager board-game collection, still more slouch at the four little tables anchored to the floor several yards away. They have their eyes closed, braving the morning for the coming scarcity; or they’re alert and indifferent to the rule against wearing headphones in the wing, and their heads nod in time with beats bumping from hidden CD players. Real subtle, guys, I think, yet none of the guards in the control module notice or care.

Then comes the double sneeze of the door’s pneumatic lock. Shouts go up — “Ice! Ice!” — and everyone’s on his feet, moving for his container. The porter wheels in an insulated brown cart the size of a newspaper box. He parks it along the front wall, then gets the hell out of the way. The throng surges forward. Boy band fans jockeying for a glimpse as their heartthrob exits the tour bus would be only slightly more avid. Feet nearly touching, they stop, assembled in a staggered line, lost in anticipation. One by one, but barely, they step up.

Each man takes his turn with the red ice scoop. Because the rolling Cambro cooler’s small, shoveling more than one container’s worth of ice from it meets with round scorn and loud derision — double-dippers have to return after the rest of the line’s shuffled away. There’s mild jostling. Surprisingly, though, no one is ever outright belligerent. The ice brigade carries off its chilly plunder without incident.

Relief! The wing’s sodas, burgers, pizza rolls, no-bake cheesecakes, chicken sandwiches, stolen kitchen food, and sundry leftover prison-burrito fixings will keep for another twelve hours. By that point the day’s second bin will be wheeled in for plundering. And the cycle continues.

04 October, 2018

A Seasonal Stew of Spooky Cinema

For the first time in sixteen years' imprisonment, October will be chockablock with shocks, thanks to my move to a new prison with a superior cable package. This Halloween aficionado and movie buff was pleased, after coming through one TV programming guide, to find so many of the suspenseful, horrific, and just plain eerie films that I love filling the weeks leading up to the thirty-first. I'm excited. Not counting the classics that'll show up all month long on the in-house movie channel — stuff like Carnival of Souls and Black Dragons — here's my must-watch list:
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
  • The Lady Vanishes
  • The Thing from Another World
  • Nosferatu
  • The Seventh Victim
  • The Night Digger
  • Faust
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Return of the Living Dead
  • 28 Days Later
  • The Old Dark House
  • Isle of the Dead
  • Bedlam
  • The Dead Zone
  • The Witches of Eastwick
  • Fright Night (1985)
  • White Zombie
  • Mark of the Vampire
  • Hellraiser
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (three different productions!)
  • Curse of the Cat People
  • The Bad Seed (1985)
  • Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte
  • Island of Lost Souls
  • Mad Love
  • Spirits of the Dead
  • Black Sabbath
  • The Pit and the Pendulum
There's also a PBS miniseries, The Woman in White, and my trashy FX pleasure, American Horror Story, to follow. No way could my little stash of movie snacks hold out through all of these. I wouldn’t want it to. Eating too much junk too early would spoil me on that epic junk-fest that is Octoberfeast. (Stay tuned for the fifth of my "Halloween in the Hoosegow" posts, by the way, coming in four short weeks!)

29 September, 2018

Guidelines for Adjustment to Incarceration

From the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center Offender Orientation Packet (featuring snarky commentary by me):
Avoid Getting in Debt. Avoid gambling, borrowing, and lending. Be aware of inmate protection groups that promise to provide you safety in exchange for money, cigarettes or canteen items.
[“Be aware” isn’t helpful. Beware is more direct and has another, more pointed meaning. You should be aware of things like 30% discounts on Little Debbie Zebra Cakes nearing their sell-by date; you should beware a bunch of guys you don’t know, offering to take those Zebra Cakes — and more — off your hands.]
Substance Abuse. Drugs and alcohol; Prescribed medication should be taken according to the authorized Doctor’s orders only. Drugs and alcohol are not permitted. Possession/use of controlled substances is against Missouri Statutes and may result in prosecution.
[Beware unauthorized “Doctors.” This place is crawling with faux physicians. Many will promise you a scrip for OxyContin in exchange for a physical examination. Be aware that this medication is not generally considered an effective treatment for prostate issues.]
Unauthorized Organizations. These organizations will want you to become a member. It is your responsibility to choose your friends wisely as these individuals might not have your best interest in mind.
[In seventeen years I’ve never been approached by anyone representing a gang. I feel a little rejected, frankly. What’s wrong with me that I’m undesirable to these groups? I can get thug nasty! I can wear my trouser waistband below my butt! I can gesticulate with my hands in ways that imply I have some variety of palsy!]
Verbal and Physical Harassment. Harassment and /or strong-arming may occur. In the event of such harassment should occur and you think you need assistance in handling this problem, contact a staff member for help.
[You might be harassed because other prisoners think you’re weak. Take your problem to prison staff and you’ll be harassed because those other prisoners know you’re weak.]
To Avoid Sexual Assault. Choose your company carefully. Avoid being alone. Avoid any -qpe of indebtedness. Do not borrow anything.
[“Choose your company carefully” — that’s good, solid advice. While imprisoned, the last thing you want to do is put yourself at unnecessary risk. Do not, for instance, engage with any convicted criminals.]
Mind Your Own Business. Don’t discuss your personal business such as money, sentence/offense family, career, or criminal history.
[The perennial getting-to-know-you question is “What’re you in for?” Don’t answer this! Make that busybody guess and then go bruiting around the yard that your secrecy must mean you’re a sex offender. An alternative to discussion might be to start a fun game of Charades.]
Keep Your Possessions to a Minimum. The more you have, the more you become a target.
[This is why billionaires traditionally own only one set of clothes and take the bus to all their big, important business meetings — so they won’t be targeted for…whatever they might be targeted for.]
Avoid Idle Time. Get involved in self-improvement activities such as education, vocational training, recreation, jobs, and religion.
[Actually, it’s my opinion that the vast majority of prisoners could use a lot more idle time — specifically, the kind that encourages introspective thought and self-analysis. A mandatory hour-long period of silent contemplation, after some variety of daily group therapy session, would go a long way toward improving the average prisoner’s behavior, thought processes, and emotional stability — at least the ones who didn’t just use their hour to masturbate.]

21 September, 2018

Eighteen Books I Spent My Summer Reading

What better way to start the summer than with neuroscience? Longtime Pariah's Syntax followers know that I'm too big a book snob to fool around with thrillers, courtroom dramas, or anything by Dan Brown, which is why so few people recommend stuff to me — they think I'll snub their picks. At least this is my suspicion.

In any event, under my own advisement and typical degree of enthusiasm for promising reading material, I went all in on brain food (pun intended), with Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek, who pair neuroscientific fact with fictional flesh-eaters for educational effect. The Zombie Research Society should've been my first stop, looking for information to help me with my novel; although, I can at least boast that there's nothing I've written so far, using my existing knowledge of biological science, that needs rewriting.

I followed this kind-of fanciful material with a more grounded book by David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. If you want to know why schizophrenics can tickle themselves, why low-interest Christmas banking clubs are popular, or how real-time brain imaging can curb impulse eating, Incognito might be the book for you.

Despite my interest in the subject matter, neither of these titles thrilled me, unfortunately. Drown, on the other hand, the debut short-story collection by the peerless Dominican American author Junot Díaz was an unsentimental look at immigrant life, alive itself with Díaz's vibrant prose, that I finished in a day and a half. Its stories made me think seriously about the voice of one of my novel's characters, who's also bilingual. More than an excellent read, Drown also gave me the reassurance to stay true to that character's inner dialog, irrespective of which language it flows in.

With Milan Kundera's earthy and profound novel of ideas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (translated from the Czech by Michale Henry Heim), which masquerades as a love story, I shaved another book off of the "Reality Hunger" cagegory of my Amazon wish list. "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE," touts the cover of my 1984 edition, but I'd like to know how that happened. The book is internalized and ruminative. (I love its passages meditating on the concept of kitsch.) However sexy, the film has got to be a shallow simulacrum.

Next on my ''Reality Hunger" list was the Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Wow. When the seemingly freewheeling school-days narrative of Barnes's novel, having ratcheted up with a species of intrigue in the narrator's later years, lifted its final veil and lay bare the true import of all that'd come before, it nearly stole my breath away.

Moving down the list of Booker Prize-winners in the prison library, I lit on Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. It's a gorgeous, emotionally exhausting epic. Afterward, the conceptual majesty of Exit West: A Novel, by Mohsin Hamid, rejuvenated me. I'd read an excerpt from it in The New Yorker a while back and was still stunned by the beauty of this magical-realist tale of lovers on the run. Thanks go out to V.V., who ordered me this phenomenal text. Every page transported me.

And Emily: I know you selected the Kevin Brockmeier book Things That Fall from the Sky because it was on my wish list, but I really enjoyed critiquing its stories with you. In the end, it was almost like the first copy you ordered me hadn't even been destroyed in that Crossroads riot. Almost.

Kat the Human also got me a couple of books this summer. The first was the Raymond Carver collection All of Us. I can now say that I've read all of Carver's published poems. I might even be a better poet for having done so. At a minimum, some of his poems inspired new ones of my own, which, really, is how it always should be.

Back in July, when the blast-furnace heat absolutely drained me of any inclination to be outdoors, I sequestered myself with the fantastical imagination of China Miéville, which delivered me to worlds previously unthinkable (albeit no less miserable than mine). His 2016 novella, The Last Days of New Paris, a conceptual master stroke, I read in one night. His earlier, more deeply explored sci-fi novel Embassytown took somewhat longer and, surprisingly, pleased me less. Running low on Miéville novels to read, as I now am, feels like cause for worry.

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life misled me with that subtitle, which all but promises a collection of essays on the literary craft, by the venerable author and critic Joyce Carol Oates. It turned out to be a compilation of Oates's writings for The New York Review of Books, with a smattering of pieces from elsewhere. Of the former, her reviews, several read like stand-alone works in their own right: solid, entertaining, worth my time. But the book ends with three very blah boxing-related pieces, then a Lonely Planet essay, entitled "A Visit to San Quentin," that reads like what any moderately competent journalist could produce after a prison tour — not what I expect from a writer of Oates's caliber.

The young Londoner who authored What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories, Helen Oyeyemi, on the other hand, wowed me with these nine fantastic almost-fairy tales. She writes like a dream, lush and unsettling, and I'll be on the lookout for her other work, for sure.

Thanks to L.B., who follows @FreeByronCase on Twitter and likes all of my #ByronSays tweets (she's obviously too generous), a couple of surprise books came in August. In André Breton's short novel Nadja (translated by Richard Howard), the Surrealist offers a narrative of a relationship dubbed the epitome of Surrealism, the movement as a way of life. Funny, I was reminded, by passages like this one, of the kinds of romances I entered as a very young man:
[O]ne evening, when I was driving a car along the road from Versailles to Paris, the woman sitting beside me (who was Nadja, but who might have been anyone else, after all, or even someone else) pressed her foot down on mine on the accellerator, tried to cover my eyes with her hands in the oblivion of an interminable kiss, desiring to extinguish us, doubtless forever, save to each other, so that we should collide at full speed with the splendid trees along the road. What a test of life, indeed!
I used to think that interesting was everything, that anything less was as good as death. Breton writes, "It is by an extreme capacity for defiance that certain unusual people who have everything to hope and everything to fear from one another will always recognize one another.'' So of course I sought and found romances born of bizarrely destructive circumstances — but was my life, then, Surreal?

The other book that L.B. had sent was The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Great title, right? It's a quasi-memoir by David Shields, who wrote the book that recommended every title now listed under "Reality Hunger" in my wish list (and provided that category's name). The Thing About Life filled me with no small amount of existential dread, thanks to its barrage of actuarial data, but I'm fine with that. Sick, I know.

The second of the books sent by the aforementioned human, Kat, was another poetry collection, this one by Ann B. Knox. The listless, pastoral poems of Staying Is Nowhere did nothing for me, aesthetically, I'm sorry to say, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the gesture.

Much, much more to my liking was Zombies: A Cultural History, a surprise gift from an entirely different L.B., written by Roger Luckhurst. It wasn't materially helpful with my novel-in-progress but did enrich my understanding of the zombie genre/phenomenon in ways that'll doubtless improve the manuscript and (I hope) eventual book.

I finished out summer's last days wrapped in William Faulkner's sweltering world, with his breathless masterpiece Absalom, Absalom! — a gift from my mother (thanks again, Mum), who might know my tastes better than anyone.