25 February, 2021

A Poem on Language, Perfectly Encapsulating What Language Means to Me

There Is No Word
By Tony Hoagland

There isn't a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

– so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it's only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits.

There is no single, unimpeachable word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you

as it exceeds its elastic capacity
– which is too bad, because that is the word
I would like to use to describe standing on the street

chatting with an old friend
as the awareness grows in me that he is
no longer a friend, but only an acquaintance,

a person with whom I never made the effort –
until this moment, when as we say goodbye
I think we share a feeling of relief,

a recognition that we have reached
the end of a pretense,
though to tell the truth

what I already am thinking about
is my gratitude for language –
how it will stretch just so much and no farther;

how there are some holes it will not cover up;
how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference of almost anything –

how, over the years, it has given me
back all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the

misunderstandings and secrets
I have willingly poured into it.

* * * * *

The aim of a lot of poems, especially in contemporary poetry, is to point out a universal truth by providing the reader with very specific details. The poet Tony Hoagland puts his love of language on explicit display in the above piece, "There Is No Word," and the poem succeeds, on multiple levels, in bringing his point across.

I posted my own poem about vocabulary options in various languages several years ago, but Hoagland gets at something more. His warts-and-all love of language, what it can and can't do, is evident, brought to the fore by those concluding pairings: "hours and days," "plodding love and faith," "misunderstandings and secrets." How could we not see Hoagland's tenderness and be moved?

"There Is No Word" is one of the poems I keep a copy of, for rereading whenever the mood strikes. This past weekend was just such an occasion. I had my "Favorite Poems" folder out and was reading, on the bed, more or less at random – poems by Timothy Donnelly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucia Perillo, Vijay Seshadri, Dean Young, and, of course, Tony Hoagland. By the time I looked up at the clock, a whole hour had passed and it was time for work. I could've spent all morning there, doing only that, which is testament enough to the love I'm talking about here.

16 February, 2021

The Eighty-Fourth Problem

A friend I've known for more than ten years remarked on the lightening he recently noticed in my overall perspective. He attributed the shift to Buddhism, which I started practicing a couple of years ago. I didn't argue, even though adopting the label "Buddhist" was only a recent formalization of ideals and precepts that evolved from a decades-long chain of life events. I might not have been reading sutras, sitting zazen, or reciting mantras, but practicing mindfulness, mental discipline, and moderation has carried me through twenty years' imprisonment pretty well.

The question comes often enough: How do I cope? You won't understand unless you live it, and even if you did (which I hope never, ever happens), that understanding will be yours, not mine. Only certain mundane similarities between them will exist. So, what possible answer can I provide, except to say that I just do. The way out is through.

There's an old folk tale about the Buddha traveling with his followers to a farming village. He was sought out by a farmer there, who asked him about some personal problems. The farmer complained that whenever he wanted to plant, the rains fell without end, and when he finally did sow his crops there wasn't enough rain.

"I can't help you with that," the Buddha said.

The farmer realized that the Enlightened One might not control the weather, but other problems should be possible to get help with. So he said to the Buddha, "Other things have been bothering me, too – my wife, for one. She complains all the time. I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough for her. And my kids, they're too lazy to work in the fields. And my son drinks too much. And I have a neighbor who's making threats because my cows get into his fields all the time."

Gently, the Buddha held up a hand to silence him. He said, "I can't help you with any of those things."

"Well, what good are you, then?" the farmer spat.

The Buddha replied, "Everyone has eighty-three problems. When one of them gets better, another gets worse. It goes on and on like this forever. You haven't even mentioned that you're going to die someday and your land will go to your troublesome children. Everything you have ever worked for will be lost. Those are your eighty-three problems."

"Can't you help me with any of them?"

"I might be able to help you with the eighty-fourth problem."

"What's that?" the farmer begged.

The Buddha gazed with perfect equanimity. "The eighty-fourth problem is that you want not to have any problems."

This equivalent to a Buddha mike-drop ends many popular Buddhist stories.

I consider institutionalization a dirty word. For the same reasons as I refuse to call my housing unit "home," or to rely on the prison to provide me everything, I reject any suggestion that I'm less than vigilant against becoming institutionalized. It takes tremendous, continual effort not to let imprisonment define me. Still, by seeming not to let being locked away trouble me, by refusing lease to bitterness, by not letting myself get mired in self-pity, I defy people's expectations of how an innocent person in prison acts. My thinking is simply that, wrongful conviction or not, I'm here. Why make it worse by stewing over the hand I've drawn?

There's another Buddhist tidbit – this a little more official – in a Pali text called the Sallatha Sutta ("The Arrow," or "The Dart," as English translations have it). In it, the Buddha's speaking to his followers about how pleasant, neutral, and painful feelings are all felt by the untaught layperson and the well-taught disciple alike.

"When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful feeling, he worries, he grieves, he laments, he beats his breast, he weeps, distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It's as if a man was pierced by an arrow and following the first piercing, he is hit by a second arrow."

He goes on to say that the well-taught follower of the Noble Eightfold Path, given the same circumstances, won't fall into throes of woe.

"It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by an arrow who was not hit by the second one, following the first."

This sutra is also sometimes called the Sutra of the Second Arrow, and it's a prime example of what Buddhism teaches: shit's bad enough without us making it worse by dwelling on it. It's not about indifference or being callous, just about acceptance – which is not the same thing as surrender. These are fine distinctions to make, but I trust that you have at least an inkling of what I'm trying to get across.

Problems are going to come along, no matter who you are. That's living. There will be arrows shot at us. Some will pierce their targets, while others will miss. When they hit us, it'll hurt. Paying attention to how we respond to that pain, realizing that we have some choice of how we react, can be life-altering, which is precisely what my friend believed he saw at work in me.

05 February, 2021

Writing My Own TV Program

The stakes are low when the program you're writing is deliberately low-budget and features episodes that're only sixty seconds long, but they feel high. The Mountain Man Minute is the show in question, a collaboration between me and a former compatriot from the Speak Easy Gavel Club. It puts a spin on survival-based reality TV by presenting well-researched information with pasted-on backgrounds and a dash of twitchy-eyed insanity.

The idea arose in line for breakfast, as Mountain Man (which is not, in fact, his real name) and I joked about the multitude of possible life forms in his Duck Dynasty-worthy beard. The prison's video production studio (which my job requires me to make videos for) was weeks away from opening. Everything had the potential to be a TV show. Why not something absurd about surviving in the wilderness? Taking a cue from 1980s and '90s public access television shows, Mountain Man and I decided that a straight-faced, didactic approach to survivalism would be funniest. We threw ideas at each other for weeks, passing notes back and forth between our wings.

"Greetings and salutations, citizens," the script for Episode 001 begins. "This is The Mountain Man Minute, your port in the storm of society's collapse." It goes on to discuss what contents make the ideal "bug-out bag" – including Febreze, since it covers up your thoughts from the invading aliens, who are able to smell them.

Tips from subsequent episodes include: telling time with sticks, avoiding snow blindness with cardboard, trapping bait fish in a plastic bottle, filtering water with tampons, and all the ways in which "Moss is your friend!"

Because we only ever see each other for a few minutes a day, at meals, the method by which Mountain Man and I have agreed to cowrite the show is this: we each write half of the episodes on our own, then turn the pages over to the other. Then we critique and rewrite as needed. Scripting my twelve episodes took me a couple of hours, unevenly distributed over a three-day period, and was a lot of fun.

For the green screen work that The Mountain Man Minute requires, we're waiting on a shipment of additional studio lights to come in. I'm somewhat too enthusiastic about whenever we might start shooting. Meanwhile, writing the show is a fun diversion. With any luck it'll even make someone (besides us) laugh.

28 January, 2021

Hopes about Art, Dashed

Did it seem too good to be true when word came down that ERDCC was easing restrictions on what art supplies prisoners could buy? Sure, it did. I started out skeptical, but even the deputy warden confirmed that paints, fabric, measuring tools, and so forth would be allowed from now on. Everyone I know grew more and more excited, eager to put our hand to all kinds of new media. So great was our enthusiasm that it inspired a big meeting among the powers that be.

Admin meetings rarely seem to have positive outcomes for the facility's population, and this one was no exception. Yesterday's memo from the warden's office reached the media center, where I work, and instructed us to add an "In-Cell Hobby Craft" slide to channel 64, the institutional information channel. The only approved hobby crafts approved are still drawing and origami. So much for my fantasies of painting with acrylics, drawing with decent pens, and learning how to sew and stuff my own tentacular, bead-eyed, hideous Lovecraftian plush monsters.

Now, guys who availed themselves of the policy by going crazy with art-supply mail orders have sixty days to dispose of their treasures before the stuff will be considered contraband again. What the hell.

The whole misunderstanding arose from a confusingly written policy. This is what happens when a document is edited too many times, by too many bureaucrats who don't understand the particularities of life on the ground. I imagine the same thing happens all the time in corporate America, the military, and various state legislatures. The more-permissive hobby craft policy that everyone was going off of – the one that confused even the deputy warden – supposedly applies only to lower-level Missouri prisons, not to level-five institutions, where people are in for murder, rape, and possession of methamphetamine.

Except not. See, my friends Zach and Jim transferred to Western Missouri Correctional Center after the 2018 Crossroads riot. Both of them are serving life sentences in a level-five prison, the same as me; both of them report that WMCC allows all that stuff that we here at ERDCC were so jazzed to order. Why the discrepancy? Someone should form a committee and find out. Me, I'm going back to the drawing board – except, wait, drawing boards aren't allowed here. Shit.

21 January, 2021

The Best Job I Ever Had

In my last months of freedom I was living in Kansas City, doing medical claims repricing in an office on Ward Parkway. Medical claims repricing sounds complicated to a lot of people, maybe even slightly impressive. It shouldn't; it's glorified data entry, is all. Very tedious. But my ten-key skills were top-notch, honed by thousands of hours of online gaming and chat, so the job paid my bills. It even permitted me to set part of each paycheck aside.

Computer skills didn't notably enhance employment opportunities for a high-school dropout in Missouri, back in the '90s. So between ages seventeen and twenty-two, I worked a whole series of unrelated jobs: copy writer, toy-store warehouse drudge, restaurant host, tech support representative, photocopy monkey, telemarketer, convenience store attendant, video-rental clerk, retail sales manager, record-store guru, and a few I can't even remember. The best was managing the front office of a neighborhood hotel.

I collected some good stories in the year and a half I manned that front desk. A post about one memorable shift at the hotel showed up here in 2012.) That was a great year and a half, both in my personal life and my professional one. My arrest followed soon after. You'd think I'd never work a decent job again. I sure thought that.

At Crossroads Correctional Center I once quit a good position in the food-service warehouse, which I held for a year and a half, because I didn't want my longest-ever employment to be a prison job. That was my ego talking. I was still clinging to stubborn, ultimately meaningless principles then. The job was fine; it was I who had the problem.

My mother asked last week about my work. We talked a little about my hours and the recent discovery that, if I held my current job on the outside, I'd be making a salary at least in the high five figures, and it'd be several orders of magnitude easier because I'd have more resources at my disposal. (We can't even google shit.) Then I told her the bizarre truth: "Things are great. I'm excited to go in to work every day. It sounds weird to say, but this is actually the best job I've ever had."

I've blogged a few times about my position in ERDCC's media center – first when I landed the ideal prison job for a geek like me, then about the thrill of unboxing a new computer, and then how my horizons recently broadened to include video production. Even if you read these posts, you still have only the vaguest idea of what my work actually entails. I've considered doing a timeline post of my average day at work (similar to the one I did in "Anatomy of a Bad Day," eight years ago, except with a more positive spin). The biggest problem with that is, I don't have an average day. We do new, totally different stuff all the time. This job's unpredictability aggravates and delights me in equal measure.

But here's the thing: those words. "The best job I've ever had" wasn't hyperbole, wasn't my ignorance, wasn't me just saying shit to put Mum at ease about her son's circumstances. The sentiment was genuine. Never mind the rest, the dreary, tragic overarching circumstances of my life; I consider myself so fortunate to have the position that I do, to be able to do something for the community, which happens to bring me joy in the process. Regardless of their surroundings, how many people in the world are able to say that?

07 January, 2021

A Poem Possibly Kind of Inspired (in Part) by J. Alfred Prufrock's "I Have Measured My Life in Coffee Spoons"

[This poem was originally published in J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Volume 8, Number 2, published in the Fall of 2015.]

The Best Part of Waking Up

Some day I'll get bored
and tally up the exact weight and volume
of the freeze-dried coffee I've drunk during
my years' imprisonment:

the same stained plastic mug
every morning identical
for a decade and a half.

A packet of sugar crinkles in the dark.
Almost no light slips through
the cell's lone window. A slightly heaped
plastic sporkful of Folgers
dumped, dissolves.

* * * * *

I started and finished "The Best Part of Waking Up" in a single sitting – one of those poems that practically wrote itself. Even today it reads, to me, like someone else's work. Of course, I'm not delusional; intellectually, I know it's mine. That's why I'm asserting my post-publication rights now, putting it out into the world again.

2015 was a while ago. I still drink from the same red-lipped white mug; although, I don't put sugar in my coffee anymore. We can also add five years to the poem's "decade and a half." Otherwise, plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.