25 June, 2020

The COVID-19 Shutdown of ERDCC

With last week's COVID-19 testing out of the way, a total of thirty-odd prisoners and employees show positive for the novel coronavirus. The warden and the Department of Corrections alike assure us that these people have been removed from the general population, with staff quarantining at home and the prisoners isolated in two specially designated units.

And what of the people who might've had contact with the infected in the week and a half that passed before all the test results came in? The administration has a solution to that, too. Every wing that housed someone who tested positive is now under quarantine. As I write this, two wings of 1-House, three wings of 3- and 4-House, and all of 2-, 5-, and 6-House are confined to those locations. The rest of us are beginning out third month on daily five-cell rotations — only ten people out at a time, for a half hour or less.

Staff are required to wear masks and gloves anytime they walk into a wing on quarantine status. In my house, they wear their gloves but usually don't change them after leaving a quarantine wing, such as when they hand out our mail or search our cells. As with so many other standard operating procedures here, I have to wonder, What's the point? The administration's ideas might look good on paper, but in practice they're fouled up beyond sense.

Like most prisons throughout history, this facility relies heavily on the labor of the people confined to it. The mass moves forced on ERDCC's population, consolidating specific types of laborers in specific wings, thereby putting all of the institution's eggs in one basket, have now come back to bite the administration in the ass. Naturally, no prisoner was afforded a voice at the meeting where they ratified that terrible decision, so I can't really say "I told you so," but I did predict that moving all canteen workers, laundry workers, and factory workers into a single wing would cause problems sooner than later. Now, here we are.

With the population of just a few wings able to move around the institution, the slack has to be taken up by volunteers. Line servers in the dining halls are working extra shifts, as are cooks and dishwashers. This week's canteen orders have been packed and delivered to the quarantined units by an all-volunteer crew. Laundry is being done by an interim group of interim workers. A caseworker came through my wing, door to door, asking for assistance on behalf of the overtaxed kitchen.

The facility is as close to a standstill as possible without actually imposing a full lockdown. Meanwhile, as the number of cases continues to rise, the State of Missouri's opening up. If life at ERDCC is this restrictive now, what's going to happen when the virus really hits here?

20 June, 2020

Fourteen Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Brace yourself. My reading, these past three months, was intense. Most of it was nonfiction. At one point, though, I started reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, which is reportedly among the great Russian novelist's most esteemed works, and passed page 183 before realizing that the book wouldn't move past the sitting room. I love Dostoyevsky's other works — The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment — but the mannered doings and misunderstandings of prerevolutionary Russia's upper class, which seem to comprise the entirety of The Idiot's plot, reminded me a little of Anna Karenina, a book that tortured me for 800-plus pages. I was not going to live through that again.

Buddhist works, with their often repetitious nature, sometimes plod along, but at least I feel like I'm growing when I read them, rather than just growing moldy.

Consider Paticcasamuppada: Practical Dependent Origination, an interpretation that I can definitely get behind. The Buddhist concept of dependent origination (also called "dependent arising," "interdependency," or any number of variations on this, based on who's translating Paticcasamuppada, a Pali term), refers to the Buddha's realization of the origins of suffering. In this book, Buddhadasa Bhikku cites ancient Pali sutras to boldly dispute the common Buddhist belief that one complete "turning of the wheel," an individual's attainment of enlightenment, takes three lifetimes. In plain English, he argues that reincarnation is a mythical remnant of the Hindu culture amid which Buddhism arose. He writes that this misunderstanding can be traced back to a mistranslation of the Pali word for "birth" that happened two millennia ago, circa 300 CE. To support this theory, Buddhadasa quotes multiple canonical passages attributed to the Buddha, but, really, the argument comes down to this: because Buddhist belief holds that there is no self, inherent being, or soul, what can be said to continue on after bodily death? Buddhadasa suggests that we "die" and are "reborn" with every moment, a marvelous flow of conditions stretching on and on, for as long as we do — you know, life.

The Soto Zen perspective in Grace Schireson's memoir, Naked in the Zendo: Stories of Uptight Zen, Wild-Ass Zen, and Enlightenment Wherever You Are, offered still more for me to enthusiastically engage with. Dr. Schireson's practical anecdotes, spanning her three decades' teaching and seven decades' living, are often deceptively simplistic. Her account of a Japanese teacher and hippie student's interaction at one particular retreat left me awed. Her story of a stray tomcat that terrorized her own feline friends inspired me as a small example of perfect magnanimity. Naked in the Zendo is a thin book that's much, much larger on the inside.

America in the 1960s was just being introduced to Buddhism, and, midway through that decade, Philip Kapleau returned from thirteen years of Zen training in Japan to compile The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment as an introduction to the practice for Westerners. His book is still considered Zen's most influential English-language text, next to Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (which I really want to read). Kapleau delves into esoterica, including practitioners' self-reported kensho (budding enlightenment) experiences, which Westerners probably ate up because they saw Zen as a mystical practice from an exotic place. Eventually those seekers probably fell away as they learned that Zen is actually a pragmatic, subtle thing quite at odds with their expectations. Alongside transcriptions of once-secret dokusan teacher-student interactions, however, The Three Pillars of Zen does offer sound, detailed practical instructions for developing skillful meditation practice. For all the book's shortcomings, it did answer a lot of my questions. It just raised even more.

After that, I read Riding the Ox Home: Stages on the Path of Enlightenment — essentially a short picture book by John Daido Loori.

The ten Ox-Herding Pictures (that's Scene Five, above) and their accompanying poems are considered a 500-year-old map to how one develops in Buddhist practice. The ox here is a metaphor for enlightenment. Daido Loori presents his usual clear, concise commentary at each step. The overall effect is inspiring for anyone engaged in Zen practice.

I also appreciated Daido Loori's overview in The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training. This book details the ways of the monks, trainees, and students at Zen Mountain Monestery, which Daido Loori founded and where he taught until his 2009 death. The Eight Gates of Zen addresses Zen practice with the author's typical poetic perspective. I loved his writing, as well as the helpful appendices that included a zazen checklist, lists of liturgies that readers can employ, and a long list of recommended reading organized by level of depth and complexity, so that anyone, from newcomers to more advanced students, can locate suitable material.

The question of why I don't claim M. John Harrison as my favorite SF writer is complicated, and it came up several times as I read his gorgeous little novel Signs of Life, a gift from the kind Constance M., whose acquaintance I'm very glad to have made. (Thanks again, Connie.) Harrison's deep characterization, in works whose prose rivals fine literary novels, sparks an emotional attachment that few other writers are capable of engendering. Signs of Life almost made me weep with its narrator's longing and frustration. That character's difficult, complex friendship with an erratic sociopath, and unrequited love affair with a moon-eyed dreamer seem to doom him from the start, and the book's all the more engaging for this. It bears mentioning, too, that the great majority of Signs of Life reads nothing like sci-fi. There were moments when I wondered how it got labeled as genre fiction at all. The answer comes late, and almost subtly. As for not considering Harrison my favorite, it comes down to pure unfamiliarity. Maybe once I read everything else he's done....

In The Buddha's Dream of Liberation: Freedom, Emptiness, and Awakened Nature, James William Coleman, cofounder of the White Heron Sangha, in San Luis Obispo, California, examines the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, the Sutra of the of the Explanation of the Profound Secrets. This sounds like what cloaked figures in a 1970s Hammer Films production might use in black-magic rituals; it's actually a breakdown of the three turnings of the wheel of dharma, on which Buddhist teachings are based.

The first turning was the Buddha's introduction of the four noble truths (that life has suffering, that the cause of suffering is craving/attachment, that there is a remedy to life's suffering, and that that remedy is the noble eightfold path). The second turning was the Buddha's revelation that he, in fact, had nothing at all to teach anyone. The third turning was the Buddha's clarification of the apparent contradiction between the first and second turnings, by describing awakened (small b) buddha nature, which is the ultimate realization and embodiment of the dharma. Coleman's book, The Buddha's Dream of Liberation, gives a concise, comprehensible, and seemingly comprehensive unpacking of these tricky concepts.

Albert Camus might best be known to college undergrads as that dude who wrote about an Algerian man who's shot dead on the beach for no reason (that novel being his first, The Stranger). The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a slew of noncollegia readers to buy his novel The Plague. I'd already read some Camus in years past, both fiction and non-, and thought this period of social isolation was as good an excuse as any to join the mob — as it was translated by Stuart Gilbert. Other than being a little musty, with outmoded spellings and euphemisms, there's a lot here to identify with. I wrote a little on this subject in an April blog post on prison quarantine, so I won't retread that ground here. Suffice it to say that the novel is quite good, regardless of how one reads it — or in what proximity to a pandemic.

Almost inevitably, I circled back around to John Daido Loori. His Cave of Tigers: The Living Zen Practice of Dharma Combat deepened my understanding of Zen, with transcriptions of real teacher-student encounters at Zen Mountain Monastery. Despite its name, "dharma combat" is a nonviolent encounter in which students face their teacher in public one-on-one exchanges that demonstrate their understanding of Zen. Because they defy dualistic, linear thought, these exchanges might seem confounding, mysterious, profound, or even asinine to an outsider. They struck me as all of those, at different times, but I came away feeling much more aware within my practice.

Plainspoken talks by Charlotte Joko Beck, at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, make up Everyday Zen: Love & Work. Beck's teaching style was straightforward, no-nonsense, and lacking the inscrutable qualities others teachers' lessons often have. She didn't talk much about enlightenment, the precepts, or koans. Instead, she was interested in conveying the essential nature of practice, usually in the form of sitting zazen. As the book's title implies, there are no esoteric teachings here; this is Zen for daily living, because Zen, after all, is daily living.

Zen Training, by the Japanese lay practitioner Katsuki Sekida, answers fundamental questions about the methods and philosophy of Zen, from the physiologies of sitting and breathing, to working with the koan Mu and comprehending the levels and varieties of consciousness. There's even a whole chapter on laughter. Sekida left little out, and his modern approach, while methodical, affords just the right amount of flexibility. This book would kick-start any logical thinker's Zen practice. Quite a bit here also enriches the existing practice of one who lacks a teacher.

After coming to the US in 1959 to teach, Shunryu Suzuki became an influential figure in the development of American Zen Buddhism. His Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, mentioned above, is considered a cornerstone English-language text on the subject. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai collects his lectures about the 1,200-year-old Chinese poem, the Sandokai, by the great Zen master Sekito Kisen. The wisdom found in the poem earned it the status of Zen scripture. Monasteries around the world regularly chant it, and its final couplet ("I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, / do not pass your days and nights in vain.") is often written on the wooden board that's struck to signal the beginning of group meditation. Meanwhile, Suzuki's affable teachings guide readers through the poem, line by line, to help us understand, and maybe penetrate, its layers of meaning.

Finally, in the mood for some silliness, I picked up the Tom Robbins novel Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. Although I distinctly recall the comic novels Jitterbug Perfume and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues sitting beside brainier fare on my father's bookshelf, I didn't read Robbins until the year before last. I was amused, once I did. And I zipped through the 445 pages of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates this week. It amused me, but I don't necessarily recommend it. Some books are like that. This one's about a degenerate Buddhist ex-CIA "errand boy" who eats his grandmother's parrot while under the effects of a powerful hallucinogenic drug in Peru, ends up wheelchair-bound by a shamanic curse, seduces his underage stepsister, and, on a mission to Iraq for an American gunrunner, falls in love with an excommunicated expatriated middle-age French nun — one hell of a trip, for sure.

16 June, 2020

It's a COVID-19 Test, Not a Peepshow!

The assistant warden, his voice slightly muffled by a mask, asks the crooked line of prisoners I'm waiting in, "Can I get you guys to kinda swing over this way?"

We're snaking all over the gym floor, each of us with our face covered and a little sticker in our hand, just given to us by a panel of young female nurses. The stickers bear each of our names, birthdates, and DOC numbers, and are to be given to the nurse or med tech who performs our nasal swab.

Now, if we can just get our shit together and move, as the assistant warden asked us to, instead of jockeying for the best angle from which to stare under the nurses' table. Someone should've thought to drape a cloth or some paper over the front of it, because the animals in front of and behind me are ogling the nurses' legs with an all-encompassing rapaciousness normally only seen during Discovery Channel's Shark Week. I'm genuinely concerned someone here will pounce and cop a feel before guards can whisk him off to the Hole. This is a "grab 'em by the pussy" moment if ever I've witnessed one, and it’s both worrisome and repellent.

In a hormonal daze, the line shuffles a few steps to the left, inching into some semblance of order. The tall guy in front of me stoops down for a better angle, whipping his long dreadlocks out of his face so quickly that one hits my arm. He doesn't apologize because I doubt he noticed. The guy behind me is at least peripherally aware of my presence (and my race), because he literally pushes me forward with his chest as though we're playing half-court.

"Damn, get out the way, white boy, " he says, pushing me bodily aside. "You blockin'."

The tall guy in front of me, now stooped so low that his hands grip his knees, says, "All the rest of them wearin' black pants, but she got on that colorful shit. You can see all the way up." It's the least crass thing that I hear come out of his mouth.

Thank goodness the line moves quickly. When I get to the front of it, the major, who's posted there, directing traffic, says hello. He's not wearing a mask; although, all of the nurses and med techs do, in addition to nitrile examination gloves. The major doesn't even stand six feet away as he points queued prisoners to open chairs.

I'm consistently amazed at the apparent distaste for masks that the guards here display. Behaviorists should study the phenomenon of certain subcultures' reluctance to mask themselves. Is it about perceptions of their authority, or about appearing submissive to a trend? Is it about desiring visibility, or about susceptibility to discomfort, or even about misplaced political pride? I'd like to understand it. Part of me wants to ask the major his reasons, but I bite my tongue. He'd probably take it as a provocation, and besides, it's my turn to take a seat and have my nostrils Roto-Rootered.

The whole operation takes seconds and doesn't hurt at all. My eyes water the tiniest bit, a problem solved by a couple of blinks, and the nurse who held my head back pats me on the shoulder.

"A-plus. You took it like a champ," she says, and I wonder if this is her stock line for everyone who doesn't cry, moan, squeal, scrunch up their face, grunt, or otherwise react negatively.

Whatever, I'm just glad to have this test out of the way. I head back to the housing unit, listening to the people I was just in line with express their displeasure at their experience of the test.

"It burned!" said one.

"It felt like it sometimes do when you take a hit off a blunt and it go up into your sinuses," laughed another.

"Man, I never smoked no blunt that burned like that!"

And so on, the nurses all but forgotten.

In another couple of days the whole population of ERDCC should have been tested, after which it'll just be a matter of waiting for results. The state doesn't do much of anything quickly, but we'll see how this goes. The way I understand it, if no one in the prison tests positive, ERDCC's ineffectual not-lockdown will come to an end. I don't have some delusion that this novel coronavirus won't wreak plenty more havoc in the coming months, but a break from the current restrictions on recreation, showers, and telephone use, even if only for a week or two, would feel like a deluxe all-inclusive vacation to paradise.

12 June, 2020

Two Noisy Neighbors Plus Three Phantom Flushes Equal Zero Sleep

Any rest that a person gets in prison is going to be hard-won. This goes as much for fulfilling sleep as for mental rest. I do okay with the latter, with relaxation and meditation, but getting a decent night's rest seems to have become next to impossible.

Jeff and I got a new neighbor on Monday — a skinny kid of about twenty, with short, short dreadlocks and a friendly smile. His cellmate, however, is our least favorite person in the wing, advertising his selfish attitude in almost everything he does, from dragging his feet at lockdown times, to cutting in front of people in line for meals, to frequently shouting back and forth with our neighbors across the walk, to camping on the phone without a care for who's waiting. His consistently shitty behavior makes us wonder how he ever made it to the honor dorm. Some guys just get lucky.

After about two days of the new kid's acclimation, Jeff and I started hearing shuffles, thumps, laughter, and shrieks through the wall. Great, we thought, our neighbors are roughhousers. Throughout the day, their spirited conversations carry easily from their cell to ours. They stay up late into the night, too. I woke to their excited hooting on three separate occasions during the past eighteen hours alone. The last time, I rolled over on my bunk, seized the handle of my metal footlocker, and, as hard as I could, slammed it three times into the wall. Finally, the children quieted down. The damage was done, though; I lay awake for more than an hour afterward, my body piqued with adrenaline, cortisol, and whatever other stress-related chemicals my system churns out when I'm incensed.

Sometime after 1:30 AM, perhaps, sleep's sweet embrace once again enfolded me. I had a dream about my favorite park, about walking through its rose garden and feeling blissfully at ease, free and completely comfortable. All around me, birds came to land in numbers unheard of — sparrows and pigeons, as well as blue jays, grackles, and cardinals by the score.

What might it mean? I asked my dream self. I extended a hand to pet one of the birds' beaks that seemed to be waiting for my touch. It closed its tiny eyes, and other birds came nearer. A feeling of acceptance and trust by these often-timid creatures overwhelmed me.

Then a gurgling rose from nearby, rapidly growing louder and louder, until it became a muted roar. I awoke and still heard the sound: our toilet flushing. By itself. On the top bunk, Jeff turned on his reading lamp. We both stared at the commode flushing itself. It kept going and going, and for a brief period I wondered if it would stop at all, or if we'd have to try to get the institution's plumbers to our cell before breakfast. After a minute or two it let off a high-pitch squeal, then stopped.

I looked at the clock. 3:18 AM. The toilet fell silent. Then it flushed again, for a normal duration. Then it flushed a third time, and was still.

"Our plumbing is haunted," Jeff said.

I grumbled back, "This whole place is nightmarish."

Neither one of us managed a productive sleep after that. I can only imagine what horrors tonight's going to bring. That's prison for you.

05 June, 2020

A Strange Poem for a Strange Moment in Time


The visage of Iggy Pop once appeared to me
on a 1977 Lincoln's quarter panel, his sunken-in jowls
marked by where rust had eaten through.
The "Lust for Life" singer talked for the better part of
a half hour, beside the wheel well, about criminal
jurisprudence and reform. I tried to get it all on video.
It came out too dark, but look: doesn't
the voice sound just like his?

At seventeen I died — a wakizashi through the heart.
My body lay twelve minutes in the grass
before the paramedics came, in which time some
part of me, my soul, drifted out and up like a child's
helium balloon lost after the birthday party. I described,
when I came to, the sight of them huddled around my bloody corpse
— the tall man's bald spot when, for a second, he removed his cap,
the woman's sigh and suggestion they pick up Chinese after their shift —
in such shocking detail that both will tell you now that they
have no remaining doubt about the reality of NDEs.
Here are their phone numbers.

My grandmother, maybe on some folkloric impulse,
shoved a bean up her infant daughter's left nostril
to ward off evil. Probably this was a symptom of her as-yet-
undiagnosed schizophrenia, but regardless of the reason,
my mother's resulting rhinolenticula went untreated all her years.
Each spring there was a quickening that her hands played often
at her nose to feel, and I, one morning, sneaked this photo
before her morning trim. That dark spot you see is
not her nose ring but her sprout.

In the coffeehouse, at a table across from mine,
she often sat reading books on philosophy. Her outfits
drove me bonkers, and she was easily the most
gorgeous woman in the place — a model,
I surmised, which turned out to be true when I answered
a Craigslist ad for a nice bookcase and found her
at the door, in one of those skirts I'd previously
stared at from afar. We flirted like foxes, then
went on a date, then two, three, four.
We fell quickly, madly, and the rest.
A yachting accident later left her
in a persistive vegetative state.
The nurses at Saint Mary's were kind,
when I visited every Saturday with Kant
and Kierkegaard, and cleaned up the spittle
dribbling from those pouty lips gone slack.
Her parents pulled the plug, but I still keep
her contact sheets around,
plus countless eight-by-tens.

* * * * *

"Veridical" was inspired by an article I read about near-death experiences (the NDEs mentioned at the end of the poem's second section), and it obviously took on a life of its own. It became an offbeat commentary on what we accept as truth and what proof we demand in the process. Outlandish stories get passed off as factual all the time, often backed up by shaky circumstantial evidence. Pressed to defend their claims, the storytellers resort to solipsism. "Maybe it's like you say, or maybe it isn't," they might assert, as if indeterminacy were any kind of argument. I've also heard, "You can't prove what I say isn't true, so...."

This poem isn't about politics or current events, big-fish stories or outright lies. It's just a poem depicting four pemises of dubious veracity. You can make it about whatever you like, as long as you enjoy it.