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.