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.