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.