22 July, 2021

Homeschool May Have Saved My Life

My parents encouraged me to be honest about everything... except one. They said that if I was ever approached by an adult and asked why I wasn't in school on a weekday morning, while we browsed through the public library or shopped for groceries, I should definitely always lie.

Telling the bald-faced truth came pretty easy to a tactless little boy on the autism spectrum. Doing otherwise took some coaching. The response to strangers' inquiries that my parents concocted for me was, "I had a doctor's appointment, but I'm feeling better now." After that, Mum and Pops would fend off further interrogation by what I assumed were more sophisticated means.

In 1983, the year I started kindergarten, most Americans could still be taken to jail for homeschooling their kids. The state of Kansas, where I grew up, required state certification in order for anyone to teach. This requirement was only rolled back a few years later. Sad old Michigan didn't legalize homeschooling until 1993. Considered in this light, my parents' decision to keep me out of the public school system represented quite a little rebellion, hardly a minor risk to the well-being of our little family.

Most families choose to homeschool their children for religious reasons. Statistically, the majority of them are white Christian conservatives. We were of another sort: progressives whose closest involvement with organized religion involved frolicking in our own lush backyard Garden of Eden. Although we steered clear of dogmas, my parents' most impious acts involved occasionally name-dropping Mother Nature and referring to the Schmutz on people's faces on Ash Wednesday. I'm saying, amoral heathens we were not. Their reason for keeping me out of public school was to avoid what they considered the spirit-deadening effects of institutionalized learning.

My parents paid what must've been a handsome sum for the privilege. Every August, UPS delivered the secular curriculum to our front porch, heavy on ancient history and multiculturalism. I used to love opening those boxes. After prying three big copper staples out of their top flaps with a butter knife, each box opened to reveal stacks of brand new textbooks. The books all but bulged with knowledge, and it thrilled me to think that I'd be assimilating their contents over the coming months. I sniffed their aroma of glue and paper, and hefted their weight in my little hands. I riffled pages to peruse the illustrations. I didn't want to set them down.

Mum was my first teacher, as any mother should be to her child. She and my father ran a business out of our home, but his work involved full-time bustling around the city. In the evenings, he offered more help than she did at math, but staying home to run the office during the day meant she handled the biggest part of my instruction.

I couldn't have asked for a better teacher. Her patience brought us through the most frustrating lessons untraumatized, and the boundless enthusiasm she turned to my classwork helped me power through even my times tables. She also took me on mini adventures several times a week – to the health food co-op, to the auto mechanic's, to the bank, to pet stores, and wherever else the day took us. Sure, we took trips to local parks, museums, art galleries, and the zoo, but she taught me that even errands could become field trips, if one applied a smidgen of creativity.

Neither of my parents knew that I had a neurological condition. (In all fairness, they couldn't have; diagnostic criteria for Asperger's syndrome was still almost two decades away.) My enthusiasm for discovering even the most tedious minutiae about subjects that interested me awed adults. Rather than a child on the autism spectrum, they considered me a brilliant little professor. And my parents felt lucky to have a son so well-behaved, who didn't run wildly around the house or demand twenty-four-seven attention; I just read books, wrote my little stories, or drew quietly in my room. That I had to sleep on my back, with my hands folded together, was peculiarly sensitive to sounds, and had no filter in social settings didn't seem like a big deal. What did it matter if the smell of baby powder made their son angry – he started reading before age three. Sometimes weaknesses look like strengths.

My homeschool career ended after my parents’ divorce, when I enrolled at my first public institution, in Windsor, New South Wales, Australia. At first, being a foreigner seemed to afford me carte blanche. Anything unusual that I did was waved away as "just an American thing." But there are only so many personal tics that can be blamed on nationality before people realize that, no, you're just a weirdo.

After I found pariah status with my so-called peers, teachers started worrying that I spent too much time away from others, reading on the far edge of the schoolyard. One of my greatest strengths, my preference for being alone, looked to them like sadness at being cast out. Sometimes strengths look like weaknesses.

Had the other students just left me alone, public school wouldn't have been so bad. Early IQ tests showed that I had exceptionally high intelligence, so it's not like I couldn't do the work. Subjected to the cruelty of classmates and the tyrannies of abusive teachers, however, I started to circle the drain. Depression was just the start. Everyone who knows me knows what happened next: I washed down.

Dropping out of high school meant being seen by some as a loser or a failure, but public school was killing me. My parents had been right about its deadening effects all along – more so than they even knew. If we'd have been rich, I might've gone to the Montessori school they talked about, where my intellect could flourish in unhindered learning. "We aren't rich," Pops told me once, "but we're rich in culture." A fat lot of good culture did for my social standing with a bunch of ninth graders.

The argument my parents always heard was that, by homeschooling me, they deprived me of socialization skills crucial for my psychological growth. I might not be a pillar of social standing today, but I call bullshit. In light of my atypical neurology, the negative experiences I had in public school would've simply arisen earlier, probably at an age when I was less resilient. Delaying my entry to the public school system probably prevented years' worth of behavioral, emotional, and health problems, a few of which might've led to irreversible trauma.

American education has improved a great deal since the days of one-room schoolhouses and corporal punishment. Most of the necessities of modern life continue despite a global pandemic, thanks in part to technology, but mostly to humans' creative drive. Distance learning gave kids and parents a taste of homeschool. If it wasn't to everyone's liking, I'd venture to say that critics' idea of what school should be (in this case, a taxpayer-funded babysitting program) might benefit from revision.

I don't want to tackle the complex economic issues of school vouchers or educational coalitions in this blog post. I hardly claim to have all the answers to the country's ongoing education crisis. I just felt like voicing an opinion about a life-affirming experience that enabled me to excel in the areas of study that interested me most, drew my parents and me closer together, and quite probably diverted me from a path on which I'd have known a lot more pain, a lot earlier in my life.

I loved homeschool. I wish more kids who could benefit from it were in a position to, and that more parents were able to appreciate it as much as mine did.

09 July, 2021

Back to the Lectern

Hands up, who remembers my posts about Speak Easy Gavel Club! A few of you do; that's cool.

For those who don't, here's a brief overview: a few years ago I joined the prison's Toastmasters affiliate to bone up on my public speaking and leadership skills. Gavel Club presented an interesting scene. Members take turns delivering speeches, both prepared and improvised, within the formal structure of meetings. The whole setup is a hell of a lot more fun than it sounds, and was occasionally quite challenging.

But I got kicked out, my rapid ascendance through the club's ranks cut short, after I allegedly overstepped my bounds while performing my duties as a club officer. The Institutional Activities Coordinator gave me a rather unceremonious boot and said I could "maybe" sign up again the following year. (To save time, here's a quick and dirty account of the kerfuffle.) I wasn't happy, but what was there to do except heed the Dragon Lady's decree?

Looked at from that end, a year seemed like an eternity. Will I even still be at this prison then? I wondered. Shortly thereafter came COVID. Following that, the year that never was. Days and weeks and months merged into an even more than usually undifferentiated blur. If it was bad for you out there, restrictive official responses to the pandemic felt significantly worse here. One effect of this was to focus my attention on matters far removed from the revocation of my little speechifying club membership. I buried my "Competent Communications" and "Competent Leadership" handbooks deep in my footlocker and let the matter slip from my mind.

Until this week, when I saw a jumbo flyer posted in my wing. A smartly dressed clip-art man at a lectern appears on it, announcing that the Speak Easy Gavel Club is holding a membership drive. The message got to me. It triggered that old feeling of – what's patriotism called when it's directed at a small group of people with common goals? Yeah, I felt that. I'm so busy these days, but could I carve two hours out of my workweek to rejoin the Gaveleers, Tuesdays at 1:30 PM, in pursuit of personal excellence?

I talked it over with the handful of people who'd be affected by my stepping out; then, with their collective blessing, I dropped my request into the mailbox. I'm already contemplating my welcome-back icebreaker speech.

30 June, 2021

Them!

When the invaders came, their approach, from deep in the earth, was utterly silent, and by the time we saw them it was too late.

They came crawling, each of them on six hinged legs, enormous heads brandishing pincers strong enough to lift many times the creatures' own bodyweight, threatening to carry away our precious food. Thick armor covers their triple-sectioned bodies completely. Worst of all, their numbers are incalculable. Everywhere they're seen, they teem.

Our cells might be impenetrable, but they're not impermeable. The creatures find ways in. They're able to winnow through almost any crack, crevice, and hole in the building. As prisoners, so few options exist for shoring up our defenses against the invasion. We use what we can. First was vinegar, swabbed around the doorframe in an attempt to sabotage the trails of formic acid that they leave for each other to follow. That effort failed. Next, quantities of soap were used to seal the fire door through which most of them get inside. Still they came, black trails underfoot like living veins, pumping food crumbs and tiny biological materials.

Watching my cellmate crouch near the sink, crushing the intruders with little wads of toilet tissue, unsettled me. I prefer to leave bugs be if they're not harming or hindering. (I catch spiders and set them gently outside.) But no amount of talk would deter him from his genocidal fixation, which was when I saw that another, more direct tactic was called for. We had to deter, not annihilate.

A neighbor brought over a dish soap bottle filled with watered-down muscle rub. This, he assured me, would keep our floor insect-free. He squirted the milky liquid along the bottom of our doorframe. It left our living quarters smelling like an old taxi driver but would be worth the less-than-ideal olfactory situation if it kept the ants out.

Every morning since then, my cellmate and I check the floor before taking a single step. We periodically do this throughout the day, also, paranoid that the powerfully scented ointment hasn't done the trick. Yet it seems to be working. No tiny black forms have turned up in my cracker box, on my mint candies, or near the trash can – a definite win, for however long it lasts.

Now we know: muscle rub repels ants. If only there were something to be done about the drain flies darkly spotting our porcelain sink. Curse this winged scourge!

20 June, 2021

Eight Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Haruki Murakami has written very fine, very bizarre works of short- and long-form fiction, of which I've read over half. I feel confident in saying that I know his work well. So when my mother made a birthday gift of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (translated by Jay Rubin), from my Amazon wish list, I thought that I knew roughly what I was in for. More than 600 pages later, I realized how wrong I'd been. For my taste, the story of Toru Okada, an aimless thirty-something protagonist (like almost all of Murakami's narrators), and his search for, first, his cat, then his wife, meandered along, in stilted prose, for far too long before arriving at its propulsive ending. Part of me wants to blame the translation, the language of which feels stilted and out-of-date. The story never cohered for me. I found myself wondering if other readers agreed, so I had it googled. As it turns out, a majority of his fans call The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle their favorite Murakami book. I'm baffled as to why; it's easily my least.

For no reason but to be nice, a fellow book-lover named Kristy H. sent me several titles. I dove straight into Junot Díaz's story collection This Is How You Lose Her. I first read several of its stories in The New Yorker, about a decade ago. These tragic, profane monologues about love and loss confirm that Díaz is a writer with a unique voice, a prodigious talent deserving of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize he won for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I also read – and relished).

Kristy also sent the classic Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid's Tale. This was a reread, too. The narrative of a woman subjugated and half-brainwashed by an oppressive religious regime in what used to be the United States was worth revisiting. Last time, I'd been seventeen or so, and the book seemed like more of a warning against the perils of theocracy; this time, possibly because of post-#MeToo awareness, its central horror seemed more the mistreatment of women. Either way, Atwood was at the absolute top of her game when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale. I don't know if I'd want to watch the TV series, though. The novel's ending seems too perfect a thing to change for the sake of reaching a different audience.

On the opposite side of the spectrum sits Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's infamous tome, The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It had a lot going for it – the recommendations of not one but two friends, enthusiastic blurbs from reviewers, and a longstanding reputation as a cult classic. But a lot of the book, a fantastical tale of conspiracy and absurdity aswim with references and concerns that were probably foremost on the minds of its readers in the late '70s (the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Black Power movement). These bugbears have since lost dramatic punch. Or, maybe, I'm just not as easily amused as I used to be by absurdity and dirty jokes for their own sake. In either event, I wish The Illuminatus! Trilogy hadn't taken up space on my Amazon wish list for as long as it did.

The last book in "the Kristy Trove," Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes (translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin), contains a better brand of weirdness. Its first story, "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women," is actually an excerpt from the novel I started this quarter reading. (The excerpt, standing alone, is much more enjoyable.) I usually enjoy Murakami's short fiction quite a bit, and this great collection was no exception. Thank you for these months of good reading, Kristy! I really appreciate them.

At various points along the way, I had my nose in dharma teachings. Because of popular misunderstandings about enlightenment (as the term is used in Buddhism) most people, especially in the West, are surprised and a little confused by the Zen tenet that we are – every single one of us – already enlightened, pure and complete, lacking nothing. Our enlightenment is just asleep, lulled into its inactive state by a world of phenomena and conditioning. In his Essentials of Transmitting the Mind-Dharma, the ninth-century Zen master Huangbo Xiyun reminds us again and again that there's nothing we have to do, nothing we need to attain, in order to cultivate our enlightenment. We already have what we need, right here, right now.

Commenting on this, the Korean Zen master Subul Sunim writes, "After having an 'experience' through your meditation practice, there is nothing you need to do but pass the time by going along with the flow of causes and conditions." The book I'm quoting from is A Bird in Flight Leaves No Trace, translated by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Seong-Uk Kim, a collection of commentaries (originally delivered as lectures) on the text by Huangbo mentioned above. I read just one account in A Bird in Flight each day, every time I locked down for the 11 o'clock count, then sat with it awhile, letting my mind orbit what it just took in.

Since I was usually in a receptive state after reading Sunim, noontimes often found me picking up Timothy Donnelly's latest collection, The Problem of the Many, and reading one or two of his poems in that particular mindset. This book came as a gift from Emily C., a delightful mid-spring surprise. (Thank you, Emily.) I love the voice that Donnelly writes with – by turns academic and plainspoken, mating in his poems the highbrow and the low-, to breathtaking effect. (I described his work as "breathtaking" before, when I wrote this May blog post in response to "Bled." It's true here, too) His newest collection seems less emotionally fraught, and less personal, than The Cloud Corporation, which I loved. But poems like "Diet Mountain Dew" and "Chemical Life" offer similar syntactic and linguistic delights without weighing as heavy on readers as many of those earlier poems did. Nevertheless, from here, too, points an accusing finger, drawing attention to our shirked responsibilities as stewards of history, of our race, of the environment, and referring back, again and again, to a hope that we flawed humans aren't a lost cause, and to a belief that all that exists is connected. The opening poem's final lines (following references to the Ridley Scott prequel Prometheus, a snake in Texas, and Baudrillard's America) phrase it well: "let particles of us entangle / knowingly with those of a gold encyclopedia / in the ruins of Vienna or an ear of teosinte across /an open border, a common source of being, before I / die – let us be, let being be, continuous, continuous."

The simply titled Look and See by Myokyo-ni is made up of twenty-five Buddhist teaching stories, with a commentary on each. The author, a Zen master from Austria, studied for more than a decade in Japan before becoming a nun and assuming the position of abbess at a British monastery. She practiced in the Rinzai tradition, which places particular emphasis on discipline. This, coupled with certain biographical facts, could be responsible for the old-fashioned writing style here. The stories are certainly ancient. Some, like "The Blind Men and the Elephant," are even familiar to Westerners. All have an invaluable lesson to impart.

11 June, 2021

A Travesty at Twenty

The fact that I am a murderer is well established. You can learn from many sources about my three-day trial, about how a jury of my peers decided that I must be guilty of killing my friend Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, of shooting her in the head just to see what it felt like to end another person's life. Not just any murder, either. Those jurors found me guilty of murder in the first degree – a killing accomplished after some calculation, homicide committed after a period of cool deliberation. Those dozen people on my jury had the power, as all juries do, to define what thereafter is called the truth.

In the decades since, courts either found nothing procedurally unsound in my jury's verdict, or they otherwise declined to review my case. Because the courts didn't dispute it, the verdict stands. It follows, therefore, that the jury's opinion must be true. And here we are.

Saying "my jury" implies ownership. Nothing could be less accurate. I don't even remember "my" jurors' names. The same goes for "my" case. I lay no claim to the events leading to my imprisonment, and certainly not to the cause of Anastasia's death itself. The vast majority of those things happened without my participation, beyond my knowledge.

The Internet, the great democratizer, offers enough information on which to base an informed decision about everything from politicians to peanut butter brands, if you pick decent sources. Because such information is free, the group convinced of my innocence, the Free Byron Case campaign, is bigger than the group that believes I murdered my friend. Unfortunately, fifty thousand people could believe in my innocence; it wouldn't outweigh the hope of the handful who want me to die in prison. Nor would numbers below a certain threshold change the fact that a conviction – any conviction – is far easier to get than to shake off.

I've tried, believe me.

Wait, do you believe me? Check your preconceived ideas. Are you part of the "Keep Byron Case In Prison" group, hate-reading my blog because the all-consuming fires of righteous indignation in your heart are easier to stoke than your grief and guilt are to assuage? Emotion has to come out somehow. I forgive you your wrongs against me, but is this the healthiest way to live?

Even before my arrest and trial, you people just knew that I was guilty. And you refused to rest until my guilt was declared. A couple of you interviewed friends and acquaintances, searched my car in my driveway, took photographs of my vehicles, dug through my trash, pushed the case's investigators to more deeply scrutinize me, and probably took other steps that I'll never find out about. If not for you, the authorities might never have suspected me of anything but dressing oddly.

I write this in "my" cell in a maximum-security prison. The date listed for my earliest possible release, in the Missouri Department of Corrections database, is 99/99/9999. It might as well be the thirty-second of Octember. My sentence of life without parole will allow me to leave prison only on the day that employees of the county coroner wheel my corpse out on a gurney, bound for some cold storage vault, and points beyond. And although this is exactly what certain of you asked for, you remain restless and unsatisfied.

These words don't come from a place of malice; despite my reputation as a provocateur, in this post I want only to point things out and ask questions that spark radical honesty. I want you to consider what is meant by "fact," by "peers," by "truth." Certainty plays no part. Records of my case exists, but what do they say? Interpretation is required, but who can we trust to perform it? Contrary to the popular conception, justice isn't about right and wrong. It's about who can deploy a more convincing argument. If we dispute one court's ruling, which court do we trust to decide otherwise? And what do we do when that court's rulings are questioned?

Who thinks of corporations as people, following the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, which gave corporations the same rights as individuals? If I were exonerated tomorrow, cleared of wrongdoing by a court of law, I'd be released from prison and the fact of my conviction would be removed – stricken, erased, undone. It will be as though it never happened. Would my memories of these lost decades be wrong? And who'd accept my new status? Would your mind change about me, based on that decision? If you say yes, isn't that just letting others do the thinking for you? If you say no, then what would it take to change your mind? If you know, why wait? What's stopping you from changing it now? How committed are you to your ideas? From where do your thoughts about my guilt or innocence arise?

These aren't easy questions. What makes life most worth living doesn't benefit from asking easy questions. The hard ones are another story, and the ones you can't answer at all are the ones that best define you.

I'm an innocent man who's been locked in prison for twenty years. I was twenty-two on the day armed men in black body armor thundered into my bedroom to take me away at gunpoint. I haven't been home since. I'm now forty-three. Despite years and years of emotional trauma, I have neither nightmares nor panic attacks, lasting depression nor crying jags, disruptive compulsions nor fixed obsessions, outbursts of rage nor periods of withdrawal. I doubt anyone would fault me if I did. But in reality my mental health is quite good.

I wake up in the morning and make my bed. I dress. I meditate. I make a cup of black coffee. I eat breakfast in a loud dining hall, surrounded by myriad human beings, some of whom don't bathe, many of whom are ignorant of inside voices, and I don't hate them. At 8 o'clock I go to work. I love my job; I like my coworkers. We laugh a lot together and do good things that affect a lot of people, whether they recognize it or not. When I'm not at my job in the Media Center, I'm reading or writing. The people I love keep in regular contact. I'm very fortunate to have a lot of good, caring people in my life.

If you think I killed Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, you're mistaken. Yet I'm also unequivocally guilty. I'm a murderer who didn't kill anyone. Am I making myself understood? If so, how can you stand it? Answer the question!

03 June, 2021

User Review of Prison Showers in Housing Unit 6B

Although the differences between the shower stalls, from one wing to the next, at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center would be unknown to the non-resident, they nevertheless abound. The canny, experienced prisoner will test each of the nine showers in any wing at ERDCC that he moves into. The following are my reviews, following research gathered from routine personal hygiene since I moved to Housing Unit 6B last month.

Shower SH130
Pros: This shower closest to the utility closet offers a strong spray of adequate width.
Cons: There is a noticeable smell of rotting food, possibly because its proximity to the wing's microwave provides a convenient pasta-draining station. Like all downstairs showers, SH130 affords a bare minimum of privacy from passersby on the top walk.
Verdict: Use it if you have to, but don't expect to come away feeling satisfied.

Shower SH131
Pros: This middle shower on the ground level features a spray that continues for at least one full minute after you press the button.
Cons: The spray is too wide to seem as if it's cleaning effectively. Gaps at the curtain's edge limit privacy even further.
Verdict: While using this shower, stand two feet or more from the showerhead, in the middle of the stall, to avoid exposing yourself.

Shower SH132
Pros: Some water does come out after you press the button, making this, technically, a functioning shower.
Cons: In addition to the usual privacy issues of a downstairs stall, SH132's water pressure can be described as piss-poor at best, possibly due to a blocked or faulty showerhead, which causes it to emit not a spray but an ultra-fine three- to five-second mist.
Verdict: Pretend this shower isn't even there, since, in a way, it isn't.

Shower SH140
Pros: The wing's handicapped-access shower is cramped and, because it's located behind a set of stairs to the top walk, can almost be thought of as secluded. Upper and lower showerheads can be activated simultaneously, for a sample of something that, in this environment, passes for luxury.
Cons: Because of the bench fixture and the semi-privacy, illicit smokers and masturbators frequent the handicapped-access shower. Slivers of state-issued soap bars and other, less pleasant signs of their presence are often left behind.
Verdict: Don't use SH140 unless you're indifferent to the idea of contracting hepatitis.

Shower SH230
Pros: Showering upstairs is an inherently more dignified experience. This shower at the top of the stairs delivers a moderately wide stream (as opposed to a spray) of acceptable force.
Cons: After the button's pressed, it stays on for just a handful of seconds, somewhat complicating the act of shaving. Very dim fluorescent lighting gives this stall the ambiance of a backwoods bait-shop restroom.
Verdict: The third-best shower in the wing is, nevertheless, a distant third.

Shower SH231
Pros: An agreeably strong spray of sufficient duration, and the appearance of relative cleanliness, makes this one of the three most popular showers for those seeking skin-cleansing.
Cons: There's often a line to use SH231.
Verdict: A prime time to get a good shower in this stall is fifteen to twenty minutes before the end of a recreation period, before the crowds clamor for it.

Shower SH232
Pros: No one want to use this shower
Cons: No one wants to use this shower.
Verdict: Don't use this shower.

Shower SH240
Pros: The spray duration and water pressure here are comparable to those of SH231, making this another popular choice for residents' shower times. Its bright light and apparent cleanliness seem inviting.
Cons: A very wide spray is fixed at an awkward downward angle that leads to fleeting, accidental bodily contact with the shower wall.
Verdict: Don't even bother.

Shower SH241
Pros: A powerful spray feels as if it's blasting the dirt off, and lasts just long enough, after each press of the button, to satisfy. Also, is it my imagination, or does the water seem hotter up here?
Cons: That this is the darkest shower stall in the wing isn't helped by the presence of what, possibly, could be black mold thriving in the back corners, near the floor. This does nothing to deter people from using it; it's the most sought-after shower in 6B, by far.
Verdict: Despite how it looks, SH241 is totally worth the wait.

01 June, 2021

Mandatory Breaktime on a Moment's Notice

We're in the middle of five different things at work, in the prison's media center, when our boss, one of several Recreation officers who oversees our area, pops his head in. "You gotta go, guys," he says. "They're sending everybody back to their house."

We each mutter our own profanity of choice before going through the steps necessary to shut down while also ensuring that no one's movie or TV series gets interrupted.

"Here," Luke says, passing Jacob a loop of co-axial cable before picking himself up off the floor. He'd been working on an RF modulator, to activate a new channel in our closed-circuit lineup.

"This sucks," Jacob says, turning to put some parts back in a box.

"Is everyone out of the database?" I project to the room.

Gary turns to Twon and asks, "Are those MP4s done ripping yet?"

"No response doesn't necessarily mean yes," I say when no one acknowledges hearing my question. "Okay, I'm backing up in five, four, three..."

Twon sighs, "It's at ninety-three percent, Gary."

"'...two, one. I'm backing up the database."

"Paul, did you turn off the vinyl cutter?" Luke asks our intern.

"Yeah. I pushed the roller arm down and put away the roll of red after I flipped the switch, too."

"Where's the mouse for 63?" Jacob want to know.

"Backup's done." I push my keyboard in and do a rush job of tidying the paperwork on my desk.

"Over by the... yeah, there."

Jacob wonders aloud, "I wonder what happened this time."

"Probably another staff assault."

"That'd be the forth in a week," says Gary.

"Did anyone check the volume on 70?" Luke asks.

"Who'd have thought? Violence in prison! Tsk, tsk," exclaims our sarcastic new guy, Paul.

"I did," I answer, regarding the troublesome channel that I manage. "It's good."

"Everybody got everything?"

Gary looks around and gravitates to possibly the most trivial detail. "Mouse check?"

"Are we leaving the monitors on?" Jacob asks.

"You gotta go, guys. It's a campwide lockdown," says our boss. "Leave 'em," he tells us.

"It's always something."

"I love this job, some days."

"Other days, not so much?"

"Man, I think I might've finally worked out this annoying-ass JavaScript string."

"That about sums it up."

"Do you think you'll be able to pick it right up when we come back?"

"Who got the viewing stations? Anybody?"

"I sure hope so."

"They're good. Door?"

"Got it."

"See you in a bit. I hope."

"See you guys soon," says the boss.

"I hope so," I tell him, and mean it.

Back in the cell, I sit alone and type a blog post to convey just an iota of the profound uncertainty that I live with. I've said before how inconsistencies are the only consistent part of life in prison. Not even a thirty-two-hour-a-week job can shield me from them.

Maybe when I finish this post I'll prepare a hot beverage and crack open a graphic novel to read – make a coffee break of this whole morning. Yes, that sounds like a great contingency plan.

19 May, 2021

A Timothy Donnelly Poem Pulled from My Files

Bled

by Timothy Donnelly

Thereafter it happened there would be no future
arrangements made as the present had begun
handing itself over to then past with such vehemence
whatever happened already happened before
or stopped its happening the moment it began.
To look forward meant looking in where you stood
astonished to be looking behind you instead
into the distance where the water's surface split
and spread to a pane of undisturbed waters.
Arguments among half-thoughts could continue
then as now and did, scattering particles
of gray on more gray, an expanse pinned down
at the corners but taught by a sea-wind to shudder
nonstop. To stand an oculus among that sea's
gray arrangements meant scattering half-
thoughts to such astonishment that whatever
began to happen split, spread, and handed itself
over to a past where having happened meant more
being stopped. To look with vehemence
disturbed the water's surface as arguments
wind made of the future now shuddered
distantly behind you. To look forward back into
the expanse of such waters meant to want
momentarily not to continue, seeing as to continue
meant what it did, but thereafter already
even to want that bled to no particular gray.


* * * * *


This poem comes from Timothy Donnelly's breathtaking collection The Cloud Corporation, a book of poems I stalked through some time ago. (I use "breathtaking" in both of its senses, because Donnelly's poems often consist of long, sinuous sentences that writhe and wriggle wonderfully, like those by no other poet I've read, and leave out-loud readers who don't pace themselves gasping.) Even though my take on "Bled" is of a poem specific to a place and time – possibly written during, or soon after, a long, morose seaside contemplation of life's ultimate futility – its subject is time, or, more specifically, the speaker's remembrance thereof. This is particularly fitting subject, in light of my frame of mind in recent days.

Zen studies lead one to understand that emptiness is clear and transparent, without quarters such as north, south, east, and west, nor separate time periods of past, present, and future. And since emptiness, in the Zen sense of the term, pervades everything, the idea time itself can be said to be meaningless. (Most theoretical physicists, and Mr. Donnelly, in this poem, probably agree.) But here we are, human beings stumbling around in the phenomenological universe, and what've we got? Nostalgia, homesickness, worry, fear – a host of emotions tied to time, and not a whole hell of a lot we can do about it. Write a poem, maybe. Sit with yourself, quietly, for a while. There are things, not all of them equally effective.

I think that's what Donnelly is getting at, here. He comes off, at times, in his work, as a fatalist, and "Bled" certainly shows us that side of him. There's an almost audible sigh of futility in the poem's denouement, those last lines where he declares that, although making an effort in life is meaningless, wishing that things were otherwise is equally meaningless. I love this poem for its resignation to what Albert Camus called the Theater of the Absurd, and for its bitter-heart-on-its-sleeve honesty.

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.