28 November, 2020

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything Is...

Turning forty-two in prison could've been an invitation for depression. Just as likely, it could've simply passed without fanfare, an otherwise unremarkable Monday in a place renowned for fostering undifferentiated days. Something like a conspiracy unfolded, though. The people I love took steps to make my forty-second special. They made not only the day great but the week as well.

Goodness began trickling in last week, with the first of the birthday cards and a bizarre video on my tablet. Those colorful greetings came from all over, from neighboring states and countries on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean alike, all of them wishing me good cheer, good health, and, of course, impending freedom. Each card I opened brought a smile, so very appreciated. In the middle of one night, I awoke to several envelopes slid across the floor by the door. I had gone to sleep assuming that a guard delivered Friday's mail without me noticing. That hadn't been the case. (Like most things here, mail delivery times are wildly inconsistent.) Curious, but not wanting to wake Jeff with the crinkling of paper at 2:30 in the morning, I had to be content with stacking the mail on my footlocker and waiting until closer to sunup before opening my little trove.

Then, on Friday my Amazon wish list shortened with a single visit to the prison's property room. I left work early and crossed the yard, expecting to pick up a book; the officer brought out a small stack instead. I suddenly found myself at my allowed limit. As I've said many times before, this is a nice problem to have.

"Don't make any plans for dinner Saturday," said Luke, apparently eager to add "personal chef" to the descriptors I already have for him – neighbor, work supervisor, Buddhist services facilitator, friend. "I'm making lasagna and garlic bread. Happy early birthday."

He spent hours prepping. Near the end, I watched him carry a stack of bowls full of sausage to the microwave, what must've been six pounds of meat. My friend went all out. He presented me with a casserole-dish-sized Tupperware container full of the end product, plus two garlic-dusted bagels, for Jeff and me to share. Normally I get a food visit from my mother and friends. COVID-19 prevented that this year. But my early-birthday lasagna made for a good-enough substitute. Afterward, stuffed almost to the max, Jeff and I concluded the feast with some Little Debbie Star Crunches.

The mood that I met Monday with was one of quiet pleasure. Contentment. This is forty-two, I thought at my reflection above the sink. Not too shabby.

"I didn't get you anything," Jeff said by way of good morning, "But happy birthday." This sentiment from my cellmate, who usually just frowns on birthday celebrations, was cool. Maybe we can consider it progress.

At work I just loafed. My three coworkers offered me a free day, to let me just sit at my desk and watch whatever I wanted at the computer. I'm now nearly through all of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. Since I accepted that I'd never get answers after the original run ended, being so close to them now, twenty-five years after I first saw the series, is a uniquely fulfilling gift indeed.

Later, once I came back to the house, I made phone calls, read a bit, and began making thank-yous for the many people who made the day extra special – because what better way to celebrate the anniversary of my birth than by appreciating everyone who contributes to this precious life?

20 November, 2020

The Chow Line

Certain people in prison don't follow the rules. They make what should be a simple procedure – waiting in line for food, taking the tray when it's shoved out the window – a thrice-daily struggle by the rest of us to maintain our patience.

Wheelchair pushers and those with special diets may jump to the front of the line. There's no rule saying that this is okay, it's just a custom that's developed over the years. Most everyone accepts it. But because it's an unofficial practice, there are no checks against others going to the front of the line, too, people without exceptional needs, who nevertheless seem to think of themselves as exceptional. They walk right past the rest of us, indifferent or oblivious to our frustration. It might actually be less offensive if they flipped us all the bird as they sauntered by. There's something to be said for honesty.

At popular meals, line-jumpers are especially prevalent. The moment a guard's not looking, they duck under the railing at the first available gap. Some are less blatant, only shuffling ahead a spot or two, to where their buddy's standing. After all, who wants to wait for food alone? I see at least a couple of double-tray getaways at any given meal, so the guard posted beside the window, tasked with ensuring that no one steals an extra tray, clearly isn't having the desired effect.

No line-jumper gets so much a finger wagged at them. In the two years I've lived here at ERDCC, I've never seen anyone reprimanded for that. The line only gets longer as more of those with special needs (and those who simply believe that they're special) pile in. I've actually seen the line-jumpers amass their own crooked line, approaching from the opposite side of the window. Ironically, as I waited and watched, it grew to be longer than the legitimate one. At that point you really have to wonder.

A couple of my acquaintances with money are fed up (no pun intended) with the hassle. They avoid ERDCC's dining hall as best they can, instead eating canteen-bought food in their cells. I've blogged before about the questionable food offered for sale here (see "Canteen, the Small Mercy" or "Prison Canteen Food Roundup"). There's some variety, but nutrition takes a backseat. The inventory mainly just allows for minor variations on the burrito.

Because I've got to have my vegetables and fresh fruit every day, I bear the line, hungry amid the unwashed masses. When the queue barely moves ahead, we ask ourselves, Are there no clean cups again? The kitchen's forever running out of something. Maybe it's sporks this time. Last week, the excitement for a unheard-of treat – enormous Famous Amos soft-batch chocolate-chunk cookies – was palpable. Rampant theft and line-jumping, however, cleaned out almost every last package. My wing was the second-to-last released to eat. With fifteen people remaining ahead of me, the line suddenly froze, then didn't move for twenty-one minutes. Everyone before us had gotten their gigantic calorific treats; once movement at last resumed, the rest of us got some stale off-brand vanilla sandwich cookies that cooks scavenged from the warehouse. I ate the chili but gave the cookies away.

When you're in line, you're in line, notionally locked in by a waist-high railing. It's almost like a Seinfeld scenario, if Seinfeld had been broadcast on HBO. The guy behind you, without exception, stands way too close. He sometimes has such bad halitosis that you'd swear someone soiled their pants – until he stops talking and the stench-cloud dissipates. Occasionally someone nearby farts. If the frustration of waiting in these conditions becomes too much, it'd take nothing to swing a leg over the rail and leave.

But often I feel like I've invested too much time to give up. I feel a sense of commitment. I say to myself, I'm gonna eat that shit if it kills me. Really, though, I hope it doesn't.

18 November, 2020

A Poem


Her name wasn't Dorito, but that's what I'll call her here
to preserve some semblance of childhood innocence.
She was in my gym class, Dorito was, and smelled
so nice to my eleven-year-old olfactory system.
Hyacinths and coffee beans, roasted dark, like
I eventually came to love. And back then I loved
watching Dorito's long blond braid
sway with each of her metered footfalls as we circled
the track. It was incentive enough for my frail
young self to stay close behind and catch her
scent after every few breaths gulped. Was it her
shampoo? Her mother's perfume? A rare disease
that altered her body chemistry in such a tantalizing way?

Pathetic Tantalus was condemned to spend forever up to his chin
in water, beneath delicious fruit hanging just beyond
his reach. The children of Zeus rarely
fared particularly well. And I, pasty, frail,
increasingly uncertain boy, never
caught up to Dorito. I resigned myself
to run along behind and hope
that she might slip, defying Newtonian physics
by falling backward into my arms, and that I
would somehow manage not to drop her.

* * * * *

"Crush" came in response to a conversation about the girl with whom I was naively smitten in sixth grade. How her memory arose, after thirty-one years, baffles me. Memory's strange mix of potency and frailty is ceaselessly astounding. For instance, I remember the black-and-white polkadot bow "Dorito" left behind on the bleachers one afternoon (which I took home, slept with, and sheepishly returned the next day), but not where I learned to ride a bike, nor what my father's voice sounded like.

06 November, 2020

A Direct Route to Madness

"I haven't seen you in so long," my mother lamented. She and I talk on the phone every other day, but COVID-19 procedures of the Missouri Department of Corrections include a moratorium on visits that's been in place since February. "Have you heard anything about when they're going to lift the visiting ban?" she wants to know.

In a certain famous play, an anxious king, hoping to avoid contemplating the unthinkable, waved the thoughts away while remarking how such hypothetical thinking was crazy-making. That old playwright (whoever he was) knew a thing or two about human nature, cutting straight to the heart of dissatisfaction when he wrote the king's line.

The Buddha also spoke about accepting what is. He taught that setting aside intellectual abstractions and doing things for their own sake was a key part of realizing contentment. Don't overthink shit, he said, more or less. Some of us might've heard this before.

Consider this anecdote. My dad and I were film buffs. Our wallets bulged with membership cards for movie-rental stores large and small. We also went to the theater about twice a month. After a late showing, one dark summer night, as we crossed the parking lot outside a local multiplex, I brimmed with complaints, as I frequently did, about scientific inaccuracies in the sci-fi flick we'd just sat through. As I remember it now, some scenes egregiously violated the law of gravity – seeming more fantasy than science fiction – and thereby got my dander up. I was roughly twelve years old.

There are so many tidbits that I came to understand only after my father's death. I wonder at times if I'd have realized what he sought to teach, even if he never said anything. In this particular instance, he casually opened the driver-side door of his little Honda and pierced me with one of those offhanded shards of wisdom that penetrates to your core without you feeling a thing until years later, when you're right in the middle of household chores or some utterly mundane, mindless activity, and you suddenly realize that wisdom for what it is. "It's called 'suspension of disbelief,'" my father explained, that night in the parking lot. "If you can't even stop picking things apart long enough for a movie, you're never going to enjoy anything in life."

I seem to recall someone once saying that ignorance is bliss. The trick just lies in accepting that not-knowing, in embracing it when you encounter it. This takes effort. Experience in the dark (figuratively speaking) can be good training. For the record, Pops was no bodhisattva. I'm hardly some enlightened sage, either, but I do have nearly two decades' experience living with uncertainty, thanks to prison's rampant inconsistencies. Heedlessness to the physics of zero-gravity no longer ruins movies for me; now I can usually recognize what's not worth fretting over.

I want to see my mother again, but she wants to know when we'll see each other again. Maybe that's too fine a distinction, but I think it makes all the difference. There's a little set of rules that I made up and try to live by.

Rule Number One: accept what you can't do anything about.

Rule Number Two: do what you can with what you can.

Rule Number Three: recognize when to employ Rule Number One and when to employ Rule Number Two.

How can I possibly answer my mother's question? Engaging in wild speculation has never been my bag. Anyone predicting the future, or how the post-pandemic world will look, is either lying or delusional. And yet people persist. The craving for certainty runs deep. If I tried to give Mum's question a meaningful response, it'd be nothing more than guesswork, which could only inspire unwarranted hope or invite despair. I want to keep it real.

So I tell her the truth – an answer, just not the answer. I let her know that her suffering isn't unique, telling her how no other Missouri prisons are allowing visits right now either. I tell her that I love her, that I miss her, and how glad I am to be afforded the multiple phone calls per week that we get. Many families have suffered far more painful, more complete separations than ours. We should consider ourselves lucky and focus on the good. There's certainly enough of the alternative in the world.

And then Mum sighs and concedes that I'm right, and we move on from there with somewhat lighter hearts. It's a disagreement I'm happy to have won – for both our sakes.