21 June, 2019

Two Books I Spent My Spring Reading

I wouldn't have thought it would be hard to best my meager reading list from last season — I just had to read more than three books this spring. It didn't happen. One big obstacle (nearly removed) was polishing and sending off the final pages of my novel-in-stories. How can a guy read when he's wrapping up a nine-year literary project? Then the ever-generous Veronica S. surprised me with another order of some delicious-looking sci-fi, and I had to read a couple of the books she so kindly sent.

One was As She Climbed Across the Table, which vindicated Jonathan Lethem completely after the disappointment that was Amnesia Moon. I'm almost ashamed that I ever found fault. This short novel has just about everything one wants in a Lethem book. It has a fanciful premise: a woman falls in love with a incorporeal area of null space. It has quirky wit (such as when the narrator muses, "Do you think there are bootleg tapes of Muzak outtakes? Maybe they get excited by the groove and really cut loose sometimes. And the producer says, okay, boys, that was swell but now let's try to get this wrapped up so we can all go home. I'll bet that happens all the time."). It has outlandish character names (Carmo Braxia, Georges De Tooth, Gavin Flapcloth). And it has emotional sincerity that never devolves into gross sentimentality. Yes, I was pleased.

Neal Stephenson wrote Zodiac, a so-called eco-thriller, just a few years before Snow Crash, his prescient novel about VR and the future of the Internet. Snow Crash and William Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic were hugely influential on my growth as a geek, so reading pre-Snow Crash Stephenson risked tainting my opinion. Zodiac has action aplenty, accented by Stephenson's sarcastic wit. But it did pale in comparison to Snow Crash. To be fair, Zodiac, a 316-page novel, took me almost all May to read. I clearly couldn't give it my usual close attention. Even so, a couple of editorial gaffes — extra spaces, a misspelled name, and other such relatively minor typos — leapt off the page at me. This is what happens when you're polishing your own manuscript while trying to read for pleasure. I don't recommend it. It's why I read nothing else this spring. There was other demanding business in my life, which, combined with finishing my novel, demanded maximum focus.

20 June, 2019

Gavel Club Epic Fail; or, Why Ambition Doesn't Always Pay

It's the morning on which I'm scheduled to speak this month. My speech is well prepared, sure to entertain and inform, and I feel confident that a Best Speaker honor will be mine at the meeting's end. I'm oblivious to the fact that reality's about to prove all these beliefs wrong.

I shake a couple of the other members' hands but don't make it into the meeting room before being pulled aside. The Institutional Activities Coordinator stands in her office doorway, looking terribly stern. Her eyes burning holes through me.

"Are you Case?" she asks. "You're no longer in Gavel Club. You've been removed from the call-out. It's been approved by admin."

My poor, beleaguered heart sinks. I suspect that this has to do with my recent inquiry, via e-mail, into Gavel Clubs' place in Toastmasters' district structure. Our president told me that she'd gotten wind of this and did not approve. But to revoke my membership over it, without any warning? This seems unduly harsh.

In her next breath she confirms my fear. "You had e-mails sent to Toastmasters through an outside party, and that is not allowed. You're out. Go back to your house."

What else can I do but tell the truth? In an even tone, I say, "I understand if I overstepped, and I apologize for that. I didn't know I was doing anything wrong by contacting Toastmasters. Is there any way I can appeal this decision?"

She walks me to the door, in a huff. "Maybe in a year."

A couple of the members watch me, confusion all over their faces, as I exit the hallway. It was challenging fun, gentlemen, I want to tell them, but can't.

This is what happens when you try to do good things around here.

17 June, 2019

On Missouri Prisoners' Bizarre Cleaning Methods

A six-year veteran of the Department of Corrections recently told me that a cellmate spitting toothpaste in the sink after brushing was his biggest peeve. I asked how he rinsed his toothbrush. This confused him. I explained: "When you rinse your toothbrush under the faucet, the bacteria that were in your mouth swirl and splash all around the basin you're refusing to spit in."

He said, "Yeah, but I guess not as much."

I don't know whence the compulsion springs, but nearly every prisoner whose acquaintance I've made has been downright fanatical about the cleanliness of his sink basin. He won't spit in it after brushing his teeth — heavens, no, that's what the toilet's for! — and wipes every drop of moisture out of it after washing his hands. Why?

No inmates have been able to satisfactorily explain the anti-spit policy. The most insightful acknowledge it's a psychological quirk, but even they can't enlighten me further.

I've been imprisoned now for eighteen years. Many have been the occasions when I've used the water faucet in the utility closet. Many have been the occasions when I found soggy noodles, tiny cauliflower florets, or a sliver of roast beef stuck in the drain grate. Such is their aversion to using their own sink that these people will drain excess liquids from their dinner bowl into a communal sink. Very few seem to clean up their messes afterward. Worse, as sometimes happens, that stuff will end up clogging a shower drain. Any port in a storm, I guess.

On a seemingly related note, I have watched with my own eyes as the same characters with clean-sink fixations sop water from their toilet with a rag they then use to "clean" their cell floors, walls, and doors. To rinse his rag, each has an identical method, dunking the cloth and flushing two or three times.

There are some around here, I've heard it said, who use a similar technique to wash laundry in the toilet. How they also might feel about the subject of sink cleanliness is not a subject I'm knowledgeable enough to address at this time.

10 June, 2019

Conversing Like the Planets

The prisoner drifts in variably sized ellipses. He drifts among other bodies, around a common center, just as planets in our system orbit the sun. The prison system, with its focus on segregation and minimal contact, can be as lonely and vacuous as outer space. Occasional alignment constitutes an event.

Simpatico prisoners will engage for a bit, on the yard, queued for a visit, or in the dining hall. Ascendency is followed by retrogradation. They're soon pulled elsewhere. The next event might take place in weeks or months — perhaps even years — depending on the unique particularities of each body's orbit. Only the most complex telemetric calculations might predict when.

I see my former neighbor Ed. We wave in passing. Ed asks about my loved ones and the novel I'm finishing. I ask about his parole hearing. A guard yells for us to move along. Perhaps Ed will be ascendant again before summer's end, and we can improvise another back-and-forth before flying onward. Round and round we go — when we stop, nobody knows.

04 June, 2019

I Love Bad Movies

What's the worst movie you can remember seeing? It's not that easy to answer. There are far more terrible movies than good ones.

Probably the worst movie I ever saw was called Plan 9 from Outer Space, directed by the legendary filmmaker Ed Wood in 1959. Calling this movie bad is no stretch. It's about alien vampires, which might've worked out fine, except that Wood was known for making schlock. He was careless, keeping shots in which set pieces fell down, actors bungled their lines, and you could clearly see daylight through windows in scenes set at night. All this, and he considered himself an artist. A lot of critics call Plan 9 from Outer Space the worst movie of all time. It's great. I've seen it in theaters twice.

I'm hardly alone in my love of bad movies. Fans have made The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released in 1975, the longest consistently running film ever, in theaters for about forty years longer than the one a lot of people guess, Gone with the Wind. It's about a couple whose car breaks down in the rain on their honeymoon and forces them to venture out for a phone. They end up at a castle that's home to a cross-dressing mad scientist and his servants, who are brother and sister lovers. Spoiler alert: the three of them turn out to be aliens.

Rocky Horror is a tribute to the black-and-white science fiction and horror movies of Ed Wood's era — movies with names like It Came from Outer Space and I Was a Teenage Zombie. There are hundreds of independent theaters around this country screening it this and every weekend, in midnight showings that fans come out for in packs. The die-hards even wear costumes.

More recently we can see the same idea at work in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse movies, Death Proof and Planet Terror. Perhaps you've seen one or both of these. Their directors used the same idea. They wanted to make homages to the cheap, action-packed movies they loved as teenagers. They didn't set out to make good movies, they wanted to make bad ones.

The Internet knows quite well that there was a series on Comedy Central in the early '90s called Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you could say it was about anything, the show was about a guy and two smart-aleck robots who were launched into space on a satellite by their evil bosses and forced to watch movies like Son of Godzilla and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The reason to watch MST3K wasn't to find out if the guy escaped from the satellite, it was to watch those awful movies right along with him. Your TV screen showed the movie, and at the bottom were the black silhouettes of the guy and his robots in a row of theater seats, making jokes about every ridiculous line and rubber monster suit. Mystery Science Theater 3000 ran for twelve seasons.

Let me shift gears for a minute here and say that few agree about what makes a good or a bad movie. I happen to really like Groundhog Day. A lot. There are plenty of people who think it's a fly-infested pile of garbage. By comparison, one movie I hate and wish I could erase from cinematic history is a lot of people's favorite, Forrest Gump. What both of these movies have in common is that they're Hollywood products with big budgets and big names attached to them. One of my favorite movies is a sci-fi production made by two amateurs, seventeen years ago, for about $5,000. Primer is well-written and wickedly smart, with a fascinating time travel story line. It grossed well over a hundred million dollars after being shown exclusively in independent movie theaters. My point is, budget alone can't make a movie good or bad.

There are bad bad movies and there are good bad movies. Think of a movie that bored you to tears. That's not the kind of movie I'm talking about. A bad bad movie just makes you angry for wasting your time, not make you laugh at how stupid it is. A good bad movie, on the other hand, brings on the sad special effects, the unnatural dialog, the insane or incomprehensible plot, then doubles down by being completely serious. I love ridiculous movies that the cast and crew believed would be works of cinematic art. Their straight-faced absurdity is icing on the bad-movie cake.

I once went with a few friends to see this sci-fi movie called Species 2. None of us had seen the first one. When we took our seats, it just so happened that some people we knew were in the row right in front of us. We must've all been in good moods, because the second the alien-human lady-thing mated with and killed her first victim, then left his body in a barn, the jokes started flying. We were too immature, and it was too racy for us to watch with straight faces. By the time the top-secret government project killed their runaway creation, we had the whole theater lobbing smart remarks at the screen.

Species 2 was so bad it was good. My friends and I, plus about forty strangers in a dark movie theater, shared a fun experience for an hour and a half. That's why I love bad movies.