05 May, 2021

Back at the End of the Walk

While brushing my teeth with the teeny, tiny toothbrush I bought in the prison canteen, I notice a piece of paper reflecting from over my shoulder, in the mirror. I haven't noticed it there before now, yet it definitely isn't new. Its yellowing corners curl inward; the paper looks exhausted, as if it can't wait to turn in for the day. Although the words are bold and black, it's curled so much that I can't read the message.

A cell is a cell is a cell. Sometimes, though, you spend longer than a few months there and you settle in. You get to know, from wiping it clean every few days, the topography of a particular concrete floor. You learn the bumps and divots of certain walls, spots where paint was torn loose as someone ripped down a hook, a handmade shelf, or other contraband amenity. You come to know the steel desk's rust spots too well. Then the prison administration moves you – because someone in a wheelchair needed your bottom bunk, or because there was a classification issue, or because someone in power just got a big idea to restructure the housing arrangements... again – and you learn such details afresh, in another cell that's exactly like the one before it, except not.

I moved to 6-House two Fridays ago. This is my first bottom-walk cell in fifteen years, and only the second at the far end of a wing. We don't see a lot of traffic in the form of passersby, which is how I prefer it. Streams of visitors cramp my style. My new cellmate's not especially fond of them, either, thank goodness.

There's a lot to notice about a wing when you first move in. If you're smart, the people are what you pay the closest attention to. In criminal parlance, you case the joint. You want a decent picture of what awaits in your new digs. How much attention are the neighbors paying you? Is the attention simply curiosity about you, or does it seem aimed at the belongings you brought along – appliances, clothes, and canteen foodstuffs? Watch the watchers. After that, check the overall state of the place.

The day I moved in, waxed and buffed floors reflected the damp laundry draped over top-walk railings. B-Wing presents an interesting juxtaposition: a kind of industrial-chic-meets-scrubwoman's-hovel ambiance. There are worse places. At least I lived around half of these guys before, from my last stay in 6-House.

I found my toehold quickly enough, this go-round. As usual, this mainly consisted of establishing routines with my cellmate, the same little pas de deux one always does while getting situated in a room that's halfway occupied. A series of questions beginning "Do you mind if I..." and "Can you..." ultimately leads to either successful cohabitation or someone nursing bruises while he seeks out another abode.

By the time my mouth is clean and rinsed, curiosity has got the better of me. I swing open the cell door to investigate what turns out to be a Missouri Department of Health notice. "Wash your hands," it reads, and presents a nine-part set of instructions on how to do so. Most likely, the page got taped to the fire-exit door as part of the Department of Corrections' "aggressive strategy" for handling the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: signs, hand sanitizer stations, a two-month mask mandate, and assigned dining-hall seating for half that time. "Aggressive," indeed. Whether my new cellmate read it or not, I can't say; he does know how to keep clean.

Take my sarcasm as a good sign. I'm able to notice absurdities such as this because I've reached the point here where I can let down my guard somewhat. My friend Luke was finally moved last night and ended up in a squalid rat-hole. He said that the corners of his cell had piles of compressed filth that required digging loose. He'll be on high alert for days yet. My coworker Gary, whom I mentioned in last week's post about settling in, moves today. I wish him the best, but I'm pretty sure, based on everyone else's luck, that I already got it.

28 April, 2021

All Good: An Update on Basically Everything

Fallout from last week's transfers was widespread but in my immediate surroundings has included: a gutting of ERDCC's Buddhist community; a looming, very valid fear that Team XSTREAM will lose two of its members (one temporarily, one permanently); and me not just getting a new cellmate but having to move to a whole other housing unit.

The first of these upsets might've been the biggest. In addition to being my cellmate of the last twenty-two months, Jeff was a member of the sangha and someone whose comments in our Buddhist group's discussions of history and the dharma was valued. Tim, my friend Luke's cellmate, is a good man whose company I always enjoyed. Our newest member, Sam, was just getting comfortable with the six white guys he sat with in weekly meditation. He said I was his most trusted friend here, which meant so much to me.

At Monday's Buddhist service, the chapel felt empty with only four bodies occupying it. Such was the unease that we felt (and because service started late), we didn't even meditate, we just talked about impermanence and the ultimate nature of reality until Luke struck the bell. Then we packed up our altar and made room for the Christians, whose turn in the chapel it was next.

"There are more transfers coming," is the rumor everyone's repeating. True enough, Round One left a lot of the lower-level prisoners that it was supposed to remove from our midst. At my Media Center job, our coworker Gary is the lone level-two among us maximum-security level-fives. Like Jeff, he was part of the latest cohort of Saint Louis University students here, who recently graduated with an AA degree in Liberal Arts. The Department of Corrections kept a transfer hold on SLU students, specifically to keep them from being swept up in the midst of their educations. No more. Tim and Jeff, Gary's fellow SLU alumni, had taken post-graduation jobs as teacher's assistants, this fall. The university assured them that their holds were secure. The DOC, however, doesn't make promises it's unwilling to break. So Team XSTREAM is now in the difficult position of having to consider replacement options for if and when Gary goes. Where does one find trustworthy prisoners with computer experience, a modicum of creative drive, top-notch time management skills, and solid work ethic? Truly, we have our work cut out for us.

And then there's the cellmate situation. They attain usefulness – those words, cellmate situation – way too often. Upheaval plagues prison life. I wish I earned a dollar every time I spoke the words in a sentence. I'd buy solace in the form of endless pints of chocolate ice cream.

But where was I? Oh, right, I was in Housing Unit 4A, where Jeff and I moved amid the last big inmate shuffle. I'm not there anymore. Jeff left, and then, after spending two days alone, wondering the whole time who I might get as a replacement, an announcement came over the intercom that twenty people were moving to 6-House. The names came in no discernable order, mine among them. Forty-eight hours' fretting left me surprisingly equanimous. Has anyone ever conducted a study on Tetris as a stress mitigation device? They should. I fit my stuff with less concern for where I was going than how I positioned things in my footlocker.

And when I got to where I was going, lo and behold, the cell smelled clean. Its occupant was at work in the factory, a neighbor told me. The bottom bunk was neatly made, the toilet bore no stains, and no nuisance clutter accreted in the corners, the way it does in some guys' cells and rodent nests. After wiping things down with disinfectant, my rag lifted away almost nothing. When my new cellmate came in from work, I recognized him from an earlier stay in this house, when he'd been a downstairs neighbor, never conversational but always cordial. I approve.

22 April, 2021

Waiting for Another Cellmate Is Nervewracking

The human with whom I've shared my immediate space for a year and a half just up and left – but not by any intention of his own. I think Jeff hoped to stay my cellmate until the day he paroled. The staff woke him from a dead sleep Tuesday morning (I was at work) and told him to pack his stuff. On my way back from work I saw him pushing a canvas-sided cart out of the house.

"I guess I'm on the transfer list," he said. "Been nice knowin' ya."

A year and a half, and that's how it ends. Jeff and I weren't close, but we were friends. His habit of playing devil's advocate could be infuriating, as was his tendency to turn every conversation into a verbal sparring match, but we got along. We had some very intelligent conversations. We also had fun. We could (as the vernacular has it) jail. This is no easy thing. I wasn't teary-eyed to see Jeff leaving, but I'll certainly miss him.

There were other moves. Four members of my Buddhist group left, leaving the sangha a shadow of its already rinky-dink former self. My friend and coworker Luke's cellmate, Tim, was one of them. Both Jeff and Tim thought their teaching assistant jobs for the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program were supposed to hold them here. So did the school, apparently. There might be significant fallout from all of this. We're likely also losing a valuable coworker, whose departure will put us at a disadvantage on several fronts, not least of which is finding a trustworthy, competent replacement.

Amid all the hullabaloo it's almost possible to forget my situation and put aside the anxiety about what this spin of the cellmate-roulette wheel might bring me. My first night alone in years wasn't anything to write home about. I'd considered staying up very late, burning the midnight oil to get work done on my novel. I ended up tuning just past the usual time. My eyes were burning from a long day's overuse, and I felt a slight tension headache coming on, so it was for the best. An extra-early morning, accompanied by Beethoven and the blackest of coffee was a far better decision.

I'm in a better headspace today. Now if I could just get past my nervousness at what the afternoon might bring...

16 April, 2021

Showering Is My Favorite Part of Prison

"Don't drop the soap," people joke – a sure sign that they don't actually know the first thing about prison. One assumes that drunken guffaws often follow the remark, when they imagine a bunch of naked, sudsy men standing elbow-to-elbow in a big steamy room. I'm here to tell you, it's not funny.

Group shower areas do still exist in some American prisons; ERDCC isn't one of them. I shower every day, mercifully alone, in a stall fronted by a thick gray vinyl curtain that comes up almost to my chest. Figments of the public's homoerotic imagination notwithstanding, no one leers at me while I lather, scrub, shave, and rinse. I'm far more exposed while I making my way down the walk, from my cell to the shower, wearing only a T-shirt, boxers, and shower shoes, than I am in the shower itself. If this wasn't the case, I might be less inclined to enjoy shower time as much.

I used to use bath gel, which the prison canteen sells. Then I became conscious of how wasteful it was to throw so many plastic bottles away. Now I use bar soap exclusively. It leaves my skin dry, forcing me to use more lotion, which comes in its own plastic bottle that has to be thrown away, but at least I use fewer bottles this way. Sometimes I do drop the soap. It sucks, but only because of the little bits of grit and hair that I sometimes have to thoroughly scrub and rinse off of the bar before using it.

In an environment where peace and quiet are a near-impossibility, and solitude scarcer still, the thirteen- to twenty-minute periods I get to spend under a stream of water every evening are highlights of my days. Prison showers offer no temperature control knob, just a single button, but my body can relax under what is usually warm water, and my mind follows suit. I sink to a level of mere doing. I let awareness of my skin, of the rhythm of my breathing, of my sense of embodiment come to the fore, but I try not to attach myself to these things.

Thoughts inevitably arise, and when they do, I let them run their course. I file them away for later, when I'm in a position to consider their meaning and practicality. Showers are, for me, very meditative. Sometimes, though, I'll hum. Yesterday the prelude to a baroque cello suite came to mind, so I hummed Bach. Tomorrow's shower might be silent, or accompanied by a tune by Concrete Blonde. There's no telling what might spring up from the depths. Either way, I come out feeling refreshed, enlivened, and, above all, – clean.

When the institution's under lockdown, such as when one prisoner badly assaults another, or when staff shortages dip below the minimum required to run the facility, I'm not so bothered by being confined to my cell (where all my books, devices, and drawing and writing supplies are) as I am by feeling the day's dirt coating my body. It's not that I'm an especially oily person, just that I'm more sensitive to the oil than most. I never sleep well without a shower.

Decades ago, I was in a single-car accident, an end-over-end flip in a two-door sports coupe that could've killed both the driver and me. We clambered out, amid the tinkle of broken glass and loose change, and stood staring, in moderate shock, until the ambulance and tow truck arrived. After the ER, my apologetic friend took me to a twenty-four-hour diner, then home, where the first thing I did was peel off those bandages and run some warm water. It's no secret that a shower can be cathartic.

In prison it's no different. True, I don't have the daily traumas that some prisoners experience – I don't dodge gangbangers, sadistic guards, or butt pirates – but I appreciate the few minutes of me time when I'm alone and can let my guard down a notch, when my muscles relax and I can enact my routine: face rub, head shave, body scrub, rinse off, towel down, lotion up, and venture at last to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Every problem seems manageable after a shower, every worry fades just a bit. What's not to love?

05 April, 2021

Why I'm a Terrible Blogger

Pariahblog.com has come a long way since its start, about a hundred years ago, on the MySpace page a friend set up for me. Back then, I'd snail mail a short piece of writing from my prison cell (you can still read those 2007 posts – just check the archive) at a rate of about one per month. Then my friend would dutifully transcribe, spell-check, and post them for all to read.

Those early posts were necessarily sporadic. I had no Internet. For the record, I still don't. I didn't want to exploit my friend's generosity by making him type stuff all the time, so I kept my posts to a minimum. Writing one every few weeks wasn't good SEO strategy, but it had the benefit of being easy for us to maintain.

When he got busy with life and had to bow out, another friend took over. The person responsible for maintaining my blog actually changed many times over the years. Eventually someone took charge who could scan my typewritten pages. That system wasn't perfect – we still dealt with occasional typos, and the speed of the US Postal Service occasionally seemed glacial – but it felt pretty cool to still have a voice when circumstances conspired to bury me alive in a kind of silent grave. Now I have what passes for e-mail, and the whole process is an order of magnitude easier.

I fully recognize how fortunate I am. Not every prisoner, wrongfully convicted or otherwise, has the wherewithal to write regular dispatches, let alone ones that the outside world might read. And yet, for all this, I sometimes find myself squandering this fortune.

That I toil on this blog more than I do on my dark fantasy novel-in-progress, – which has all but stalled, two chapters in – is bad enough. Worse is the time I devote to any given post, which, if it's an especially deep dive, can take days. My reading list posts, such as this one, from last month, are the result of several months' notes, compiled over several days. The words you're reading at this very moment came together only after much humming and hawing, and represent a third revision of a much more generalized piece, a lament on time squandered when one should be writing.

I kept parts of the earlier drafts. Here's one now.

Advice for writers: start a blog. Also: don't spend more than an hour a day working on it. I take both of these messages to heart but am clueless about how to reconcile them. For instance, I sat down to compose this post a week late. All last week I'd been down on myself for getting too wrapped up in my job to come up with a post. Screw it, I finally thought, just write about how you wish you had more creative energy to spare, outside of work. That tuned into a slew of thoughts and reconsiderations, drafts and redrafts. Meanwhile, Chapter Three of my second attempt at a novel languishes. I know where it's going, I just haven't dedicated the time to see that it gets there.

And now here we are, with another blog post. It doesn't say much, really, because I don't believe I've got much suitable to relay right now. You've almost certainly not been entertained by it. For wasting your time I apologize. It seems that I've succeeded only in crafting an excuse, a copout, another drop in the bucket.

17 March, 2021

Three Books I Spent My Winter Reading

Why so few books? Well, work had a lot to do with that. I lost a little sleep. I also let myself get so preoccupied with job stuff that I actually managed to forget a friend's birthday. My priorities got a little scrambled. I did read a few books, though.

When my boss told my coworkers and me to create a way for us prisoners to watch a selection of on-demand movies in the gym, it was up to me to design the computerized viewing station's interface. In preparation for this project, my compatriots and I all read UX for Beginners: A Crash Course in 100 Short Lessons. It gave us a lot to consider. "UX" stands for "User eXperience" – the study of user behaviors, and the application of practices that ensure websites, games, and applications work in ways that users find meaningful and fulfilling. UX goes deeper than design but isn't as technical as actual programming; it's more about psychology than craft, with a little cartography thrown into the mix. The author of UX for Beginners, Joel Marsh, apparently blogs about this stuff in an engaging way at TheHipperElement.com, and this irreverent little book with funny illustrations gave us lots of ideas for how best to engage the viewing station project, as well as the five or six others overflowing our plate at the moment.


A lot of my reading this quarter was in the form of dharma materials, provided by places like the National Buddhist Prison Sangha, part of the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen. One of the Order's founders, John Daido Loori, wrote The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life a few years before his death. To present the many creative aspects of Zen Buddhism, the book introduces artwork created in the Zen tradition (like Otagaki Rengetsu's Dried Persimmons, above), mixed with the accessible, intimate teachings that make Daido a wonderful personal teacher even in his absence. The Zen of Creativity was the fourth or fifth of his many books that I've now read, and, like the others, it left me feeling a bit more enlightened and educated than I did before picking it up.

When free moments appeared, usually in the evening, I also picked through a nice, 1,336-page Everyman's Library edition of sixteenth-century humanist Michel de Montaigne's Complete Works, translated by Donald M. Frame. I love how Montaigne could take almost anything and turn it into an essay subject: sexual desire, parleys during wartime, sons' resemblance to their fathers, jealousy, his own nose.... Referring to the essays, journals, and letters that brought him literary acclaim, he wrote, "Je peins le passage" ("I paint transience.") Impermanence. It’s suddenly appeared wherever I look. That could be considered the whole "point" of Buddhism: once you start looking, impermanence appears everywhere.

Our viewing stations have become a hit with prisoners who can't afford their own TVs, as well as those who do but just want to watch something on a screen three times as big as their own. So far, no one's needed instructions on how to use them, which I consider a UX win!

Less exciting: despite Daido's teachings in his wonderful book, I don't yet feel I've succeeded in painting transience. I guess that's why it's my practice.

12 March, 2021

Flipping the Script

As I sip the day's first cup of coffee, Jeff surfs past channel after channel of dissatisfying morning television. The only significant sound I'd been aware of, to this point, was the occasional tinny peep from his headphones. Suddenly, we hear something else. He perks up in his plastic chair and goes, "What's that noise?"

Why I take my eyes off the page to listen is a mystery, the same as why people turn down car stereos when they're trying to locate an address, or talk louder to distract others from a fart. Nevertheless, I look up from the book I'm reading. A deep, rhythmic rumble pervades the whole cell. I might've been cool with letting its provenance go unexamined, but now that he mentions it....

The rhythm continues, like what you'd hear down in the hold of a steamship: thoom, thoom, thoom. What the hell could it be?

Jeff stands up and cracks our cell door to survey the wing. He peers one way, then another, before looking directly downstairs.

"Oh, fuck," he says, rolling his eyes. The source of the resonance is, at least in part, our building itself. One of the wing's four hollow steel support pillars is being repeatedly hit, punched again and again, by a downstairs resident. The syncopation is so regular, you could record it to back a song about modern prisons' crappy construction.

The prisoner in question is one whom Jeff can't stand. I know the guy only by the disrespect and arrogance he displays as he saunters around the facility, camps out on the telephone, and unapologetically elbows strangers while cutting in line in the dining hall. The editorial pieces he writes, which are often published in prison-reform periodicals, make often cogent points but undermine their own arguments by blaming every vicissitude except rainy days on systemic racism. He clearly has a chip on his shoulder, is what I'm saying.

"What the hell's he doing?" I ask.

"Just flexing," Jeff scoffs. "Showing the wing he's a bad motherfucker."

"I wish he'd do it more quietly." Yesterday, with his cell door propped wide open, this man piped slow jams out of a tinny speaker at maximum volume, from 6:30 to 7:45 in the morning. The day before that he hooked the same clock radio up in the middle of the wing while the barber cut his hair there. His is a very confrontational, taunting sort of indiscretion.

"I'd love to go down there and punch him in his smug face."

Hiding my disapproval with the most neutral expression I can, I say, "He's already clearly suffering. You want to add to it?"

In practicing equanimity and withheld judgment, this is the kind of thing I say now. I've even come to believe it, most of the time.

"Man, screw that. He's down there, deliberately trying to annoy the whole wing."

"And succeeding with one man," I say. "What'd really be really good is if we all went down there and offered him hugs and told him, 'I love you.'"

Jeff's face puckers like the words taste lemon-sour in his mouth.

"If it makes it more palatable, you could say 'wuv' instead."

"We wuv you!" Jeff says, then laughs.

"Wuv woo!" I say, all singsong-y, and follow it up with the lip-smack of a cartoon kiss. "Mmmmmmwah!"

Imagining a crowd of people waiting to hug and kiss our haughty downstairs antagonist's cheeks, Jeff starts laughing hard enough to snort. I start soon after.

Jeff says, "That'd piss him off so much, a bunch of white guys at his door." He grabs his side, as if to steady himself. "He'd want to start swinging, but he'd be too confused to even react. Oh, that'd be priceless."

It's as if our wingmate's dejected by our dismissal of his attempts at aggravation. As his boxing match with the structure ends, our giggles dissipate. Just like that, Jeff and I have successfully transformed animosity and annoyance into laughter and delight – ah, the power of wuv!

05 March, 2021

The Neighborhood

Apparently, there are whole Facebook pages devoted to my teenage years. Kind of. The Hurricane, arguably the most popular live-music venue in Westport, until its closing in the early aughts, has a remembrance page there. As a prisoner, I don't have access to the Web, but I hear that a community of 1990s nostalgists maintain a lively conversation there. There's a Facebook page for fans of the Broadway Café, too. "The Broadway," however, remains in business today. In fact, it seems to be thriving.

During what many consider the heyday of both places, my mother and I shared a three-story redbrick apartment building a quarter of a mile away. As a mature-for-his-years teenager, I owned no car but was prone to roaming. Acutely grateful to be within walking distance of Kansas City's premier entertainment district, I took full advantage of our close proximity to hipster havens such as these. When I stayed with my father, in the other Kansas City, no such freedoms presented themselves.

It always struck me as ironic that Kansas City, Kansas, located in the state that gave the city its name, is the lesser of the two Kansas Citys. That Kansas City, Missouri, surpassed it in cultural relevance and sheer population alike must've been a slap in the face to the Wheat State, which worked so hard to get to the mediocrity that obtains there today.

Gen-X students from the Art Institute and the University of Missouri-Kansas City played chess and smoked (indoors!) at the Broadway's mosaic-tiled tables. The same man with a dark ponytail, glasses, and a single name made everyone's drinks. He always struck me as prickly, but any other kid wearing heavy eyeliner and all-black clothes, as I did, might've felt the same.

I went to the Broadway to people-watch. Enough regulars came that I got to recognize a few faces – the twenty-somethings who parked their baby's stroller in front, the Rastafarian chess master who schooled countless newcomers, the gutter punks who'd spanged enough that day to share a cup of espresso, the goth girl I spent whole minutes staring at before she looked up and my eyes darted away.... The place offered comfort to all, drawing suit-wearing professionals and homeless people, disaffected teens and bubbly teachers, Mormon missionaries and queer activists, med students and drug addicts. The coffeehouse somehow catered to this variety of patrons, who all behaved themselves enough to sit side by side with nothing more heated than an occasional ideological debate flaring up.

The neighborhood is called Westport, a historic area of Kansas City that was once a town. There are statues and plaques, but few who live there today could tell you that Westport got its name for having been a gateway, back in the 1800s, to the Santa Fe Trail. Nor could they tell you much about the Civil War battle waged there.

Nineteenth-century merchants and settlers traveled the Santa Fe Trail en route to America's untamed West, and the westward migration of people seeking better lives endured even in my time, in the form of young runaways aspiring to better lives in Portland, Oregon. I befriended several of them. Some kids, unshowered but not unfriendly, hung out in the miniature labyrinth of brick corridors behind the Broadway. (See "Double Life, Part Two" for an earlier post about them.) At some point I fell into their circle, or at least into its periphery, and was made to feel welcome whenever I came around.

The Jerusalem Cafe, right around the corner, offered salubrious Mediterranean food at fair prices. Across the street, Vulcan's Forge sold handmade jewelry, incense, and New Age books, while down the block was a shop named Zowie!, which sold "SCREWING THE NEXT SEVEN GENERATIONS" bumper stickers and Urban Decay hair dye to a more jaded clientele. (I once bought some incense, a satin shirt, and a studded collar with five feet of chrome dog chain there.) A block away, Pyramid Pizza sold big two-buck slices from a window counter until mismanagement led to bounced paychecks. The cleaner-looking Joe's Pizza took its place overnight, but Pyramid's unruly, freewheeling vibe was gone.

Neighborhood nostalgia seems silly when deeply considered. The word, neighborhood – a static concept of a group's agreed-upon perception – does it really refer to anything of value? Why are the memories we accumulate in a given place, at a certain time, prized more than certain others? Those Facebook pages for bygone zeitgeists are efforts to trap lightning in a bottle, to recreate what their members miss. It's all gone, really. In another sense, it – that specific time and place, the ephemeral subject of this little meander – was never there at all.

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.