26 April, 2019

Menu Subject to Change without Notice

Since when are there red beans in tuna salad? Come to think of it, this sausage is probably barely 15% fish. And what about the sides — cole slaw that looks like corn, macaroni and cheese bearing a striking resemblance to boiled cabbage, bizarrely fruitlike cookies?

Egad, the old switcheroo! This is a completely different meal! 

The ERDCC kitchen diverges from its posted menu with irritating frequency. Some days you trek across the yard, through pelting rain or blazing heat, having put off some important bit of personal business, anticipating one of the especially edible meals on the six-week menu cycle, only to be greeted by an unexpected smell and a surprise foodstuff. No warning was given. You just got duped.

Similarly, there are times when you're scared of the planned meal and make other arrangements, resolved not to even set eyes on, say, that inedible brake pad they call meatloaf, only to find out after lunch that the kitchen manager substituted the more palatable vegetable soup and sandwich, and that you just cooked something with canteen foodstuffs that would've been better reserved for leaner times.

This happened at Crossroads periodically — usually just with a side, such as beet-and-onion salad or corn relish, which few cared about. Fresh fruit was also substituted for cake pretty often, to the dismay of many a sweet tooth. Here, though, it's about once a week that someone with authority veers hard off-menu.

I haven't seen peanut butter in months, though it definitely remains part of the printed meal plan. Instead, we've been given bologna or scrambled egg mix on the regular. One time they slapped slices of turkey ham (something else against which my digestive system revolts) on the trays where peanut butter should've been. During my initial months here, the institution was out of black-eyed peas. Because the menu didn't reflect this, I was tricked again and again, only to wind up with trays piled with pinto beans instead, which was fine, if not ideal. I love me some dirt-flavored legumes.

This week I skipped a movie on basic cable because there was a chance that lunch's cardboard pizza would be replaced by that rare treat, a pepperoni pizza pocket. It wasn't. And while this sort of thing isn't that big of a deal, it's just another item in the long, long list of tetchy bullshit that I abide, living this life locked away.

17 April, 2019

My First Translated Poem

Deer Grove

by Wang Wei

Unpeopled, unseen mountain
Echoing with distant voices, pierced
By us returning to its depths,
Casting our refulgent selves
In spots on blue-green lichen.

* * * * *

Monday's SLU Speaker Series event brought poet and translator Aditi Machado to speak about the art of translation. She began her talk with a fifteen-minute exercise. The twenty or so ERDCC prisoners in attendance were given a 1,250-year-old poem by the Buddhist painter and calligrapher Wang Wei, then encouraged to try our hand at translating it. (We also got a crib, as, unsurprisingly, there were no readers of classical Chinese among us.) What's interesting is that even Wang Wei's original, painted on a massive horizontal scroll, has been lost to time. The earliest copy of his poem that still exists is from the seventeenth-century, itself no doubt changed many times over those 900 years. The poem's still alluring to many translators, who keep reinterpreting it in fresh ways. I understood its voice as belonging to the collective of rays of a setting sun. Others at the event adopted the perspective of the vacant mountain. One guy who'd been watching too much History Channel interpreted it as an account of alien abduction. There was much to discuss.

My relationship with translation is fraught and complex and very, very Western. I have a craving for certainty, for fidelity, for empirical, inarguable, capital-T Truth. I want the original. I want to download Wang's intentions and thoughts into my head, uncompressed and ultra high-res. As such, I want the impossible. People misunderstand and reinterpret everything, even in their own language, even in their own time. So how can anyone read a translation and say that they've experienced a particular work? No language equates to another on a one-to-one basis. There can be no "true" translation of a work, only approximations, interpretations, which are filtered through other minds before getting scrambled and remixed in our own.

The very popular Penguin Classics translations of books are so often read because they're uncontroversial, not necessarily good. The average reader doesn't become aware of the translator's role, of the tremendous difference he or she makes in a given text, until sampling multiple translations of the same title. I've read three different versions of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (including Penguin's), but it was the gorgeous one by Catherine Liu that brought me genuine delight. Reading a work of literature in translation is like looking at a painting through someone else's prescription eyeglasses — maybe it'll speak to you, maybe it won't.

Regardless, I brought my translation of Wang back from the event to rework it a little more. This version won't win any awards, but I felt that my experience creating it, and what I learned from doing so, was worth sharing.

10 April, 2019

Today's Gavel Club Speech: "Bend or Break"

The fourth project in Toastmasters' "Competent Communication" manual is simply to craft a five- to seven-minute speech that makes use of metaphor, simile, and alliteration. I spent two weeks mulling over what topic best suited this, finally deciding only this past weekend. Preparation is for amateurs! (Or so I keep telling myself.) In any event, the speech I hastily wrote for today's meeting of the Speak Easy Gavel Club appears below.

* * * * *

"Don't push the river, it flows by itself." These words of wisdom were handed down to me by my father, the guru of the suburbs. You see, growing up I was always trying to stay on top of a situation. I needed the security of feeling in control. The unexpected made me nervous. Just ask the friend who threw me a surprise party when I turned nineteen and got a bloody nose as a thank-you.

Here's another example: grits. I didn't grow up in the South. My dad might've been Missouri born and raised, but you'd never have known it. My mother is German, and if you'd asked her, back when I was young, she'd have answered your question with a question: "What's a grit?" So I don't know where I picked it up, but from the time I moved out on my own and had to stock my own kitchen, I ate grits for breakfast every single morning. I ate them out of the same white-and-black bowl, using the same slender-handled stainless steel spoon. I ate them only with butter and sugar. To me, that was grits. Put anything else on them, such as cheese, onions, or green peppers, and I wouldn't touch the stuff. Put them in another bowl and I might eat them, but I'd be upset about it — like, stomach-turning upset. It was a whole thing.

I called these routines my "systems." I had a "right way" of doing everything from getting dressed to calling for pizza delivery. And before you go thinking "OCD," I'll just say that OCD had nothing on me. People with obsessive compulsive disorder do what they do because they feel something deep inside them say they have to, kind of how you or I feel an urge to use the toilet. We all know that you turn a lightbulb clockwise to screw it into the socket, and that's how my systems seemed to me — sane and practical, while any other way of doing a thing seemed just plain ridiculous.

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans," John Lennon sang. Because I had plans — aka systems — for socializing, showering, sex, and a slew of other stuff, I was just setting myself up to be knocked down by circumstance.

I was talking with a friend the other day who told me about this idea some therapists call "radical acceptance." How many of you know about Alcoholics Anonymous' Serenity Prayer? Radical acceptance is just a technical-sounding name for the same thing. It's seeing the things you can't change and letting your mind be at ease about them. It sounds so obvious: if you can't change a thing, why try? But all of us struggle against the flow at one time or another.

You've heard that phrase, right, Go with the flow? When I first came to prison, almost twenty years ago, I was a night owl. I'd wake up in the late-afternoon, eat dinner, then stay up writing, reading, drawing, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee, until it was time for breakfast. After a shower, I'd go to bed at about 9:30 in the morning. Standing-only custody counts didn't exist back then, not at the facility I was in. Sleepers didn't even need to sit up in bed, so this worked. Except when it didn't. Caseworker hours, cell searches — these all would interrupt my sleep, and I'd complain. Even visiting hours required me to adjust my schedule. But if I had to wake up and haul myself into the back office for legal mail at noon, whose fault was that? I had to realize that I was the one being unreasonable, fighting the flow. I had my system, but the prison had a system far bigger than mine. In fact, prison basically is a system. And here's the thing: once I realized that and adjusted my schedule to match the institution's, my day-to-day stopped being such a struggle. I got uninterrupted sleep. I wasn't a zombie on visits anymore. Win-win, all around.

Sleep is a rhythm you keep time to. Changing the beat, from one where I lived like an owl, up at sunset, to one where I lived like a rooster, awake before dawn, was tricky. In the end, though, it took less effort than fighting daytime hours would have. We get into these habits and they become part of us. Breaking them feels like we're tearing away a part of ourselves. It's uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. We resist. We tell ourselves stuff like, This is impossible! We dig in deeper, dead set against changing ourselves. Maybe we think it means we've lost, like we're surrendering, like we're weak. But really, the fight's not with stuff imposed on us, it's with ourselves.

And yes, now that I know this, I will eat my grits off a plastic tray with a spork.

01 April, 2019

Regarding the Missouri DOC's Concern for Butt Hygiene

An announcement is now on display in prisons across the state, that affects a substantial portion of the imprisoned populous. Naturally, I'm reading into it more than was probably intended. In full, it says:

To All Offenders

The sale of fragrance (prayer) oils in the Canteen has been discontinued due to safety and security concerns.

Offenders will have six (6) months to use the oils they currently have in their possession, and as of September 1, 2019, oils will be considered contraband.

Personal cleansing wipes will be available for sale in the Canteen for offenders to use for quick and convenient personal cleansing. The wipes are NOT to be flushed down the toilet, as they can cause problems to the septic system. Offenders will now have access to a cleansing product in addition to soap and deodorant, as part of a particular faith practice and/or other personal cleansing needs.

To parse the burocrat-speak and get down to brass tacks, does this mean that people were just dribbling perfumey oil on themselves instead of keeping their butts clean? Are those who opt to use these wipes actually expected to, rather than flush them, keep the moist little squares in their cells until they can throw them in a trash can? Will biohazard bags be provided? What's to prevent the scandalous from stashing their contraband in those bags of used wipes (because what guard is actually going to search in there)? I have so many questions! I suspect that the answers, once I see them with my own eyes, will also leave me baffled.