22 September, 2020

Four Books I Spent My Summer Reading

Compelling evidence for the argument that it's less what you say than how you say it, The Corrections could be summarized: "a novel about a dysfunctional white Midwestern family." That'd be an awfully poor description for a novel so masterfully written. Jonathan Franzen's saga of a fractious family of five captivates with its language, titivates with its story, and infuriates with its characters' passive-aggression toward one another, putting other, more plot-driven titles to shame. The Corrections is recommended reading for anyone intimately familiar with the hypocrisies of people who place extraordinary emphasis on looking "normal" and being "nice."

Purity: A Novel, Franzen's more recent book, portrays more messed-up family relationships, this time against a backdrop of what seemed to be low-intensity suspense. I say "seems" because I might be wrong. See, I set that book aside after two chapters, unable to get into it at all. Then I picked up Donna Tartt's The Secret History and was instantly swept up in its tale of tension: a college murder and the paranoia and double-crossing that its privileged young perpetrators fall into after doing the heinous deed. Narrated with great erudition by one haunted participant, the story's effect is bewitching. Tartt won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Goldfinch. Just in reading The Secret History, her debut novel, I can see why. This book held me in thrall. I read its last 150 pages in one go, and at the end exhaled, suddenly conscious of having held my breath for who knows how long.

Between 1966 and 1995, the venerable Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera, the German Buddhist Hellmuth Hecker, and the monk Bodhi Bikkhu wrote a series of profiles of the Buddha's disciples. Their primary source was the Pali canon, the largest collection of religious texts on earth. They also studied an ancient collection of stories known as the Jatakas, and several millennia-old Buddhist commentaries. Bodhi later compiled them as the book Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, which my friend (and new boss at work) Luke loaned me. You might expect that, with that title, the book would be cover-to-cover mythic exploits. And sure, there are flying monks, a man morphing into a woman (and back), and a woman so pious that not even boiling oil can harm her. These are, however, mostly human stories that give life and color to the pale, static mental picture of ancient India most of us probably have.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, might sound like about the driest damn thing a guy could read, but I find propaganda – the systematic creation and distribution of half-truths and untruths favorable to government interests – fascinating. Using as examples the news coverage of such twentieth-century travesties as Vietnam War atrocities, Salvadoran "free" elections, and Cambodian genocide, the authors break down how media coverage gets slanted, spun, and outright silenced in service to the powers that be. Although Herman and Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent before the Internet's democratizing effects changed the mediascape, the propaganda techniques that these scholars detail have actually spread and intensified. The book could actually be more relevant today than ever. Thank you, Elyse M., for this enlightening read!

18 September, 2020

Stepping Out of the House

The skin of my arms excites at morning's sudden coolness. This week heralds the end of summer, and the gooseflesh that rises at the moment I walk outside is less from the change of ambient temperature than from my delight at the coming season. I do love the fall.

An irrepressible smirk crawls over my face. A passerby probably thinks I'm mentally unsound, but if I'm mad – by whatever standard you choose to judge it – I'm mad from joy. I take a deep, almost shaky breath. It's good to be alive.

11 September, 2020


Many animals in the wild are territorial. They establish particular ranges for hunting, mating, and general wanderings, into which others may stray at their own peril. Other animals understand territorialism's rules and can infer, from subtle environmental clues, when another creature calls that area home.

Walking through the park, I once encroached on what I quickly understood was the territory of a little brown-and-black bird. It fluffed up its feathers, spread its wings, and cheeped at me in a way that I'm sure other birds found threatening as hell. And the little peeper was right to do that. Gigantic, heavy-bodied human that I am, I had no business galumphing through its space, potentially endangering grounded chicks, smashing tasty bugs, or just messing up the environment, as we humans have a tendency to do. The little bird probably thought itself a real hard-ass after running me off, later bragging to all its feathered friends – as they bathed in dust or milled around, ingesting gravel – about the enormous creature it intimidated away.

Humans are territorial, too – intensely so. We have border wars, Zionism, tribal conflicts, and a thousand unique flavors of internecine struggles. Understanding this doesn't require a study to be conducted, nor even that you follow international news. But it's interesting to note that other animals generally settle territorial disputes in more humane ways than we humans employ. When a wolf shows its neck to his rival, the fight generally ends. In a squabble over land, can you imagine a person showing such leniency?

This tendency to latch onto one's immediate surroundings becomes really pronounced in prison, where gangbangers beef over what block of a street someone used to live on. I've seen vicious fights break out over matters as small as which man's turn it was to use a weight machine in the gym. Also, woe betide the man who accidentally sits down in the dining hall where another usually does.

This mad craving for anything to call one's own also contributes to the prisoner's hoarding tendency. Many tend to collect soap, plastic bowls, pens, bread ties, and countless other, often less useful, things – especially those who've been locked up awhile. It's ugly. I try mightily to avoid falling into the trap of maximalism, at least in part because I recognize the futility of seeking happiness in things.

Still, I've never been comfortable with people coming into my cell, or with stepping into someone else's. Cell searches by guards and visits from a neighbor make me feel equally uneasy. Both feel wrong in some visceral way, as if they're violations of the natural order. Practical concerns, such as COVID-19, don't factor in; I just like my space, even if I'm not currently occupying it. Since I don't consider myself a territorial guy at all, this just illustrates my point. The desire to possess runs deep.

Nobody pisses on the floor, but the ambiance turn does weird when new people move into a wing. Card players start shouting at one another. Buddies bunch close together and talk, casting wary looks toward the newbies. The volume of TVs and stereos is bumped up a notch or two. Someone does a set of pushups in view of the newcomers. Just like that little bird, people puff up and make a lot of noise.

I thought about this when a slew of new faces appeared in my wing the other day. (Look at that language: "my wing" – as if it were property that I held!) About half of the men I saw were new arrivals. One third of them I'd never seen until the day they moved in. I didn't like the unease that this fact triggered in me. Why am I trying to get comfortable here? Unlike most of those around me, I don't intend to stay. Either the administration will decide to move me again, or, in the longer term, I'll overturn my wrongful conviction and get out of prison entirely. In either event, this wing and its occupants, none of whom I really know, are merely a passing aspect of reality, which itself is in a state of constant change. Considering instability in this way, ironically, is a source of comfort.

03 September, 2020

Getting Out of the Cleaning Business

Prison jobs are generally unpleasant, unpaid affairs. Kitchen work, groundskeeping, and janitorial duties are the usual categories it falls under. I've done a little of each.

For the last two years, I cleaned the offices of ERDCC's administrative-segregation unit. My responsibilities were to empty trash cans, sweep and mop, shred papers, occasionally file away document folders, and clean one overused – not to say abused – employee restroom. The schedule was two or three hours a day, five days a week. I was paid only $20 a month, but it still beat working eight-hour shifts in the kitchen and having no time for myself.

My friend and neighbor Luke, who maintains the system that controls ERDCC's seven in-house movie, series, and information channels, offered me a job with him about a year ago. Experience with Windows computers was a must. Working knowledge of JavaScript helped. The only catch was that I had to wait for one of Luke's three subordinates to leave. Two were short-timers and bound to go at any time, but "any time" in prison terms is ambiguous. Those guys could be around for a month as easily as for a year or two.

This was the thinking, anyway, until mass transfers last week removed hundreds of low-level prisoners from the ERDCC population. One of Luke's coworkers disappeared in the process. His loss was my gain. Last Thursday, I was paged to the recreation department and given a tour of the media room: workstations, drive arrays, DVD library, the works. This was a formality; the staff had already vetted me. All that was left was the paperwork.

A set of doors in the gym opens into the Learning Center, a large room lined with TVs, where prisoners can watch therapeutic and educational videos during their recreation times. On one side of the Learning Center stands a grated metal gate. Someone hung a sign there: The answer to your question is NO. Tucked beyond it are two small, warm rooms of computer equipment – my new place of employ.

Monday was Day One. Sitting at a keyboard, being gently embraced by two curved 24-inch monitors, felt weird in the best possible way. Clicking my way around and typing experimental commands in the unfamiliar database was like blowing dust off some forgotten machine. My brain hadn't worked like this in nineteen years. I started out tentatively, as wobbly as a kid on his first bicycle. Luke had me input TV listings for our scrolling daily TV-channel guide. I made good enough time with that, they assigned me other tasks.

By Day Two I was digging into my bag of power-user tools. I even showed Luke a trick that he hadn't known existed. It was a good day. The first, I suspect, of many. The pay's better, the work's mentally stimulating, and the environment's fun. Best of all: I don't have to clean someone else's toilet.