22 March, 2019

The SLU Speaker Series Asks, "What Is Knowledge?"

It's not every day that a prisoner in a maximum-security institution gets to sit in on a philosophical talk with speakers from Ivy League schools. My experience yesterday afternoon, auditing a discussion by five philosophy professors and two students of the SLU Associate of Arts Program here at ERDCC, therefore constituted a real event.

"What is knowledge?" was the theme of this month's SLU Speaker Series event, and this question, posted on the prison's information channel, definitely caught my eye. I'm a knowledge buff, always questioning, always acknowledging the limits of my knowledge — I'm one rung, perhaps, above an armchair philosopher. This seemed right up my alley. Even Hopper, my cellmate, said so when encouraging me to attend.

Available seating, the TV said, was limited to forty. I didn't know if there was much chance of me getting in, especially submitting my attendance request a day and a half late, as I did. Surely (surely?) applicants would be beating down the door. The memo from the Institutional Activities Coordinator, confirming that I was on the list of attendees for 21 March, was as unexpected as it was delightful. Receiving that sheet of paper made my night.

Enrichment opportunities like this simply didn't exist at Crossroads. There, education and personal improvement weren't even afterthoughts. The expectation was that you sit in your cell, maybe go out to recreation for a handful of hours a week, and otherwise be quiet and while away your time. There were limited programs, and even fewer opportunities to enliven your mind. This is just another way in which ERDCC gets things right: the option, for those willing to take it, for the cultivation of thought and growth as a person.

How'd it go? Well, shortly after lunch, I walked around the corner of my housing unit, to the visiting room. The strip-search I endure for a visit wasn't involved; this was run like any other program, where each attendee just came in, showed his ID, and took a seat. Mere minutes later, the moderator, Professor Chad Flanders, of the Saint Louis University School of Law, introduced himself and the panelists: Professors Ekow Yankah, of Cardozo Law School; Tommie Shelby, of Harvard University; Erin Kelly, of Tufts University; and Eric Miller, of Loyola Marymount University.

The panel opened with a summary of what knowledge is and isn't, distinguishing it from wisdom or belief, then branching off into Plato's allegory of the cave, the value and purpose of knowledge, whether it's possible to attain true knowledge, what knowledge can and can't do for us — you know, stuff easily covered in two hours of a Thursday afternoon. I even got to pose the day's last question: Is the attainment of knowledge possible for everyone, irrespective of what kind of existence they're living? It was great.

The signup sheet for next month's event is already out. The editor of the poetry journal Asymptote will be here, speaking about the art of translation in poetry. Of course my signature's on that list. I can hardly wait.

Three Books I Spent My Winter Reading

"You only read three books in three months?" you ask in astonishment.

Yes, I did. Now close your mouth before some small flying insect thinks it's an invitation. It's spring, you know. Bugs are a thing now.

There were several good magazine articles that passed under my newly prosthetically enhanced eyes during that time. But I've really been too busy writing to fit in my usual volume of reading. Try asking me about my nearly complete novel-in-stories if you want a lengthier response. Oh, but you wanted to know what books I've read since I posted last season's reading list, or else you wouldn't have made it three paragraphs into this one.

First was Amnesia Moon, Jonathan Lethem's second novel. It marked my fourth experience with a book he'd written. (Yes, that's probably too many ordinals. I've been prioritizing more than usual lately.) This particular one is a post-apocalyptic phantasmagoria involving a man with no memory who, with a furry little girl in tow, escapes the desert hellscape he's been calling home, only to find the rest of the world very different from what he dreamed. Misfortune and confusion find the pair at every turn. Nightmares become reality... or something very much like it. By the end, too many hallucinatory detours into fantasy and sci-fi left me, as a reader, on shaky ground. Years ago, Lethem's Chronic City left me awestruck. Amnesia Moon just seemed unfinished. I hope that it's the least of his books, because I know he's capable of so much better.

Speculative fiction has always been woefully lacking in minority voices, but when Octavia E. Butler wrote Kindred some forty years ago, a black woman's time-travel narrative was sui generis. That alone merits acclaim. This much-lauded "grim fantasy" still makes for harrowing SF, as well as a gut-wrenching history lesson, which just adds to Butler's credit. I'm glad that I finally made time for it.

Next was The Enchantress of Florence: A Novel. Salman Rushdie's prose enchants, no matter the genre. Part of the secret to his magic lies in the blending of the crassest profanity with mannered English prose. The effect can be laugh-out-loud funny. As is often the case with Rushdie, fable and fact also interweave here. The wild, intricate, phantasmagorical tale-within-a-tale (plus other tales within that one, besides) treats historical figures, including Andrea Doria, Niccolo Machiavelli, Vlad Tepes, and Giuliano de' Medici, as players in the farce. Notwithstanding his so-so novel on last year's reading list, reading Rushdie has always been a joy for me.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some writing to do.

12 March, 2019

Stop and Go

Hurry up, get out of bed! Feet on the floor! Lights on! It's 6 AM — count time! Two guards will be walking past your cell to verify your presence inside... sometime. It could take seconds. It could take minutes. Meanwhile, stand at the back of your cell and don't move.

Count clears and the doors crash open. The two-minute window for those leaving the wing for breakfast will be announced... sometime. It could be any moment now. Or an hour from now. Don't start reading, playing a game, washing clothes, or doing anything you're unprepared to drop at a moment's notice.

Race to be close to the front of the dining-hall line. Never mind that the workers serving this morning's meal aren't assembled yet. They'll find their positions and start throwing food on the trays... sometime. Meanwhile, occupy yourself by listening to everyone talk the same tired shit about kitchen staff not knowing we were coming.

Here's your tray of food. Eat fast and get out. People need those seats!

Back at the housing unit, stand beside your cell door and wave for the attention of the guard in the control module. She'll unlock it... sometime. Until then, just think of this as a very light workout for your triceps and try to ignore that full-bladder feeling.

What's your hurry? Where've you got to be? Work? A pharmacy pick-up? A medical appointment? HiSeT class? Leave your shoes on. Sit down, but don't get too comfortable. They'll page you when they're ready, not before. When? Oh, you know... sometime.

Your class or program or job starts in twenty minutes. No guard's there to unlock the gate or door for you yet, but we still need you there half an hour ago. Why? Because. Go now! Hurry up! Yes, there's a line, but you need to be in it — not just walking in that direction, actively participating in the formation of a queue for the thing.

Now what're you waiting for? Let's go! Quick! Stand there! We haven't got all day!

05 March, 2019

Bespectacled, Bothered, and Bewildered

Listening to the eye doctor's spiel about how, as we age, the lenses in our eyes become less flexible, I had expected a moral along the lines of "You'll just have to deal with a little blur, Mr. Forty-Year-Old." Instead, he gave me a prescription for reading glasses.

You're allowed to mail order your own pair from an outside vendor, but when you let The Missouri Department of Corrections furnish your glasses, there's a choice of two frames styles: the Turbo Nerd 5000, or some creepy pinkish mock-tortoiseshell "unisex" number acquired secondhand from an opticians' supply clearinghouse that shuttered in 1981. Basic black seemed like the obvious choice.

It's been two weeks since I started wearing mine. It hasn't been the easiest adjustment. Harder to handle than janky optical inputs is having to put something on my face every time I pick up a book, magazine, tablet, pen, or pencil. I'm trying to treat it like a mindfulness exercise, similar to eating with deliberate slowness or showering with my eyes closed. Transferring them from the bridge of my nose to my forehead every time I look up still takes the greatest amount of effort. I'll get it eventually.

Of course, it doesn't help that the frame shape is completely wrong for my face. I'm not trying to make a fashion statement when I read — let alone when I read in prison — but these Turbo Nerd 5000s are so large that they hide my perfect eyebrows, which borders on unconscionable.