28 December, 2020

Imprisoned Artists and Crafters, Rejoice!

Paging through a Blick Art Materials catalog, I feel like a kid in a candy store, clutching a thousand-dollar gift card. This shopping spree was made possible by two recent developments: a prison policy change and the first round of 2020 economic stimulus checks.

To the first of these we owe an interesting bit of happenstance. In my many years' imprisonment, I never before witnessed a wholesale administrative turnover like the past few months at ERDCC have seen. Within a couple of months we lost the warden, deputy warden, institutional activities coordinator, chaplain, recreation director, and education director. And that's just the positions that I know about.

Historically, someone assuming a position of authority in a correctional center tends to assert that authority in some significant, usually unpleasant way – getting rid of a privilege the prisoners enjoy, or curtailing movement around the institution. When the last warden of Crossroads Correctional Center assumed power, her first decrees cut recreation times in half and instituted mandatory institution-wide lockdowns when fistfights broke out. Subsequent years did nothing to save her reputation among the population.

ERDCC's recent changeover has been painless. Every change I've seen so far has been positive. The most inclusive of these actually has the potential to change people's whole outlook on life: an expansion of the prison's "in-cell hobby craft" procedure.

When I first came to this facility, two and a half years ago, I was amazed to learn that prisoners here could order colored pencils and drawing paper from outside venders. It was the most meaningful approach to facilitating prisoner self-improvement I'd ever seen. Then my friend Zach, who was at Crossroads with me, wrote and said that Western Missouri Correctional Center, the prison where he ended up, allows its residents to mail order supplies ranging from acrylic paint and calligraphy pens to glitter glue and cross-stitch stuff. Reading his letter, I very nearly got jealous.

There was no reason to get emotional. About a month ago, ERDCC started letting us send off for a slew of different arts-and-crafts supplies. Charcoal, paint, markers, glue, origami paper, sketch boards, yarn, crochet hooks, needlepoint hoops, puzzles, snap-together model kits, popsicle sticks and so much more – there's hardly any medium, or tools for working with it, that aren't at least partly permitted now. Best of all, government stimulus checks, as well as any government payments yet to come, guarantee that anyone who wants to create will be able to unleash that creativity.

In the good ol' bad ol' days, Missouri State Penitentiary ("the Walls," where a lot of old prisoners did time) offered options galore to the creatively inclined. A guy I knew who did time there used to build grandfather clocks. Another tooled leather for wallets, purses, and saddles. One friend and former cellmate of mine remembers etching glass and making Tiffany-style lamps. A display case showed visitors these goods, with price tags attached, so the creators could profit from their work. The days of prisoners' self-sufficiency are probably long gone, but ERDCC's enabling of people's creative ventures marks a major turn for the better.

The Blick catalog has pages upon pages of artists' pens. I think I'll order five.

18 December, 2020

Five Books I Spent My Fall Reading

Taking up a new job really changed my reading habits. While it didn't take away so many hours, it did refocus how I spend them. Much of what I read these past three months was computer-coding material for work – dense manuals of instructional, logical language that I picked through intently, deliberately, often doubling back in recursive bouts of questioning, of either the text or of my own coding aptitude.

Besides this, though, there were "real" books. Really good "real" books, even. First was The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, translated and with commentaries by the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In its original Sanskrit, this sutra is known as Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita: the Diamond Sutra. It chronicles a discussion by the Buddha about the emptiness of teachings and of concepts in general. Some call the Diamond Sutra confounding. Followers during the Buddha's lifetime were unsettled by the section of the teaching that reads, "Tathagata [the Buddha] means the suchness of all things [dharmas]. Someone would be mistaken to say that the Tathagata has attained the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, since there is not any highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind to be attained." Referring back to his own teachings, the Buddha went on: "This is why the Tathagata has said, 'All dharmas are, in fact, Buddhadarma.' What are called all dharmas are, in fact, not all dharmas. That is why they are called all dharmas."

It's about the idea of a thing versus the thing itself, not mistaking the map for the destination, and not getting all tangled up in motives... I think. Anyway, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion might not be a thick book, but this essential Buddhist text packs a lifetime's worth of teachings into its few pages.

The debut novel of Dutch poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, in a very different way, has a lot to say. The Discomfort of Evening won the 2020 International Booker Prize. A preteen farm girl's depression and desperation in the wake of her younger brother's death held some interest for me, but the Booker Prize-win attracted me more than the novel's synopsis did. Booker winners are typically excellent. The Discomfort of Evening is a very good, very dark book about the ways in which repression and isolation ruin lives.

Susanna Clarke's amazing first novel, the fully realized fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with its historical richness and intricacy, blew me away. I looked forward to buying and reading her next, but nothing else by the reclusive British author seemed forthcoming. A profile of Clarke I read this year in The New Yorker revealed that she suffers from a mysterious condition and spends days at a time shut away in a dark bedroom. Nevertheless, a new book was finally coming: Piranesi, Clarke's first novel in sixteen years. I mentioned the New Yorker article to several people and, without telling me beforehand, the generous Emily C. made Piranesi a surprise gift. (Thank you, Emily!) And what a gift! Mysterious, magical, startlingly funny, and somehow both simple and labyrinthine at once, the novel held me rapt from start to finish – well worth the wait.

Then came my birthday, when even more books flew in. For three of them I have my mother to thank. (Thank you so much, Mum!) The first of those was a book-length philosophical essay by John Gray, entitled The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom. In well under 200 pages, Gray traipses through subjects as seemingly diverse as Jewish mythology, the novels of Philip K. Dick, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Aztec history, prison, reality television (which Gray describes as its own sort of prison), Gnosticism, AI, and the surveillance state – all in service of his wildly entertaining, thought-provoking discussion of whether or not humankind has free will. No spoilers!

Also from Mum was Hermann Hesse's classic Steppenwolf, which had been on my list for a decade. Maybe because of my own Buddhist studies, I spotted shadows of the dharma in the Eastern philosophies vaguely espoused by the author. Only shadows, though. Hesse's book is a novel, not a 2,500-year-old sutra. As a general rule, a person should avoid works of fiction whose purpose is purely to preach (the Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, or anything by Ayn Rand), and, unfortunately, what Hesse seems to have attempted with Steppenwolf was less to tell the semi-autobiographical story of sad old Harry Haller than to promote a particular way of living.

A tantalizing Murakami novel still sits waiting for me. I've already started reading the long-awaited Sandman Omnibus, Volume III, as well as a fat collection of various writings by Montaigne. When these appear in my next reading post, three months from now, they're all but certain to get rave reviews.

16 December, 2020

Bloody, Awful Morning

Buddhism's first precept, "Refrain from killing," isn't what I think of first. That comes later, when I set the little mouse in the grass. She got stuck on one of the gym's glue traps overnight, and my coworker Gary made the grim discovery beside a supply closet. He lifts the paper trap two-handedly, holding it level while traversing the basketball court.

"What's that?" I ask as he passes me.

"We caught a mouse. I'm looking for someone to take care of it."

I feel sadness drape me like a soiled old shirt. "Take care of it?"

"I can't," Gary says, sounding so much like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh that a moment passes before I register what he's saying. "I just – I can't."

Sighing heavily, I consider what's going to happen. No good outcomes are possible. Whether or not Gary and I act, the mouse will die, and die awfully. She's been on the trap long enough that her tail, her feet, her belly, and even her little face stick firmly to the glue. An extraction attempt will probably cause injuries worse than death. In an even more urgent sense than applies to the rest of us in the world, she's doomed.

Glistening black beads, her little eyes, peer uncomprehendingly at this terrific world. Inside her, I imagine, ticks a tiny terrified heartbeat, lightning-fast. My own heart breaks. I don't want this. But what else is there?

We work in a gym, not a kitchen. There are no foodstuffs here for her and her rodent kin to despoil, no real harm to be done by their gnawing and nesting and other mousy business. Why must we have traps set at all? Must we humans exploit our primacy on Earth at every single opportunity? Is coexistence so untenable?

When I was three or four years old, my parents took me on a month-long Jamaican vacation. Our budget globetrotting skirted what most would call "roughing it." My parents had no problem sleeping every night, side by side, in a tent barely made for two.

One of the places where we spent a week was a coastal town whose cliff face was ceaselessly massaged by Caribbean waves. Free-range chickens had the run of the property where we stayed, fluffy chicks trailing them like iron filings drawn to a magnet, and I, in turn, was drawn to them – to almost every animal I encountered, really. But my inept fingers, when I reached down to cuddle one of the skittering yellow puffballs, either grasped too hard, or the animal writhed exactly the wrong way in my hands, and suddenly it lay, warm but still, in my open palm. I ran, crying, to my father, cradling its limp body like my most precious possession, now broken. As if Papa could undo what I'd done. As if anything at all could.

My father held me close. He reassured me. I wasn't bad; I hadn't done this on purpose. I had been clumsy, though. That alone fueled my sense of shame; I was normally such a conscientious boy. When my sobs eventually diminished, Papa walked me to the cliff. We cast the dead chick into the blue sea and I watched it bob along on the swells while the weight of the world pressed down on my narrow shoulders and I wished the little bird could just be okay again, just as it had been before my hand carelessly ended its life. This first encounter with death lingers with me somehow, like a phantom limb that tingles weirdly before a hard rainstorm.

My throat constricts as I walk out of the gym with the pitiable creature on this despicable trap. Lunch is finished. The yard is almost deserted. The bracing morning air stinks of a nearby trash fire. The mouse appears petrified, and so many things run through my head as I set the trap down on a firm patch of level soil. I think of pets I've loved and meat I've eaten, of dead philosophers and living dharma, of the insects I so often move from sidewalks to safety and that chick I killed thirty-eight years ago. I open my heart to the tiny creature whose impulses and terror I will never be able to comprehend. Tears blur my vision. Welling with a primal sadness that I haven't felt in years, I fold the trap in half and do the awful thing that has to be done. The entire world fails to fall silent in its grieving.

11 December, 2020

Add "Producer" to My Resume

In the wake of a rash of staff assaults, prisoner stabbings, and general badness, the warden and deputy warden of ERDCC were demoted or fired this fall. As a new administration takes the reins, changes loom. Astonishingly, the changes we've seen in the first month have been positive. The biggest, as far as I'm concerned, is the green-lighting of a multimedia-production studio to be staffed by my coworkers and me, aka Team XSTREAM.

Jefferson City Correctional Center has had a full-featured studio since the '80s – Jefftown Productions, which distributes such scintillating one-off videos as "Progressive Relaxation Techniques," "ParentLink," and the blockbuster hit of 2018, "JP5 Tablet Demo." A couple of other Missouri prisons recognized the benefits of this and followed suit. Various parties have striven to get a studio at ERDCC for years. Even with the full support of the Recreation Department, and a pledge for the donation of all necessary equipment by Saint Louis University's Prison Education Program, the previous warden denied every proposal that came his way. Our incoming warden seems more interested in progress and reform.

And so, earlier this week, Team XSTREAM rallied to adapt the large office that abuts the gym, moving furniture to accommodate a green screen, lighting, microphones, tripods, et cetera, leaving just enough room for what work the staff members need to do in that space. A couple of days after that, we set up cameras. Physical setup was the easy part. What proved to be more involved was the paperwork.

My coworkers brainstormed programming ideas – simple stuff that the four of us, none of whom have done video work, could produce and distribute via the prison's in-house cable system. We tried to think about diversity: a show hosted only by deaf and hearing-impaired prisoners, an LGBTQ+ program, an homage to Mystery Science Theater 3000, a special on positivity and purpose, a collection of tutorials on tricky school subjects, a how-to video on self-care and hygiene.... Our list of proposed titles and one-line blurbs ran to three pages. We didn't even include the programming that Saint Louis University, the Inside-Out Alliance, Ashland University, the Restorative Justice Organization, or the Speak Easy Gavel Club might want to generate.

I made official-looking Word forms for proposals, releases, and program approvals, created a production-schedule Excel spreadsheet, wrote the XSTREAM Media mission statement, and sent invitations for various staff members to appear on our casual interview series ERDCC Profiles, starting with our incoming warden and the new head of Recreation.

I also created an end-credits production logo to tack on to the first programs we produce. Sepia-toned footage of an octopus (the XSTREAM mascot, which we call Hank) hurry-scurryies across the ocean floor; our name flickers underneath, to the clatter of an old-timey film projector. It looks cool, in a ridiculous way that I deeply appreciate. Almost as importantly, my coworkers also like it.

Midweek, we recorded a demo, a silly proof-of-concept thing. First, Luke interviewed me on camera, then our coworkers Gary and Twon did the same. Quick-and-dirty drum-and-bass intro music was set atop a passable graphics intro, and the boss said, "Looks great, guys." He signed off on many of our development ideas right away.

Now the fun of creating those programs begins. I keep remembering the not-great "Weird Al" Yankovich movie UHF, in which a burger-flipping loser gets a job as programming director of a tiny failing public-access station and turns it into a smash hit, developing shows about every stupid, insane thing he can imagine. Could XSTREAM Media be my UHF?

Meanwhile, the Raspberry Pi situation (which sounds like a '70s prog-rock band) continues to develop, step by tiny step. Now if we could just set the damn things' clocks....

04 December, 2020

A Poem That Flirts with Meaning


There is much I mean to tell you.
Please take hold of my hand.
Follow as it points to the moon and we'll
share its meaning. Echoes, maybe egrets,
or rickets. Can we even know?

Long shadows cast at four disappear
before dusk. A trail of sundry shed skins
left in the wake – this burdensome embodiment.
Who was me at breakfast? At noon?
He navigated the catastrophe well enough,
and now I'm here. And now.

If anyone were keeping track I could
thank him and the host of others
who helped us through.
I'm just not interested.
With time and great effort, "they"
can become "we." To meld the universe
this way is too much for most,
flailing while snared in the shiny traps,
calming briefly when presented treats.

Bitter, bitter, and sometimes sweet,
the oft-handled mind melts fully away,
exactly like chocolate doesn't.

* * * * *

The last class before my cellmate earns an Associate of Arts degree from Saint Louis University is Philosophy of Art. He has the sometimes exhausting habit of sharing with me, no matter what I happen to be doing at the time, passages from every text he finds interesting. (I find this curriculum more interesting than World History, 1500 to the Present.) We've had a few in-cell philosophical discussions about import and meaning.

From neighborhood bookshop readings to MFA programs, questions about this stuff constantly dog poetry. Conversely, the teachings of Buddhism tell practitioners that this kind of intellectual searching is ultimately unimportant, that meaning exists with or without our cogitations, that mind-made distinctions are the root of our suffering, and that tranquility lies in learning to accept the perfection what is, as it is.

The poem above, entitled "Import," is a response to this, exploring briefly the machinations of the interpretive mind and conventional notions of meaning – not seeking answers, just exploring the question. But you probably figured that out yourself by reading it.