30 June, 2021


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.