21 December, 2021

Six Books I Spent My Fall Reading

There's a little story that goes along with the first book I read this season. My mother, wanting to contribute to literary well-being, ordered The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, by Stacey D'Erasmo, from the section of my Amazon wish list that includes books on writing. Weeks later, I still hadn't received it. I joked with Mum that whoever inspected the package on its arrival probably saw that word, "intimacy," and assumed they were holding a sex manual. We had a good laugh.

Then Mum called the prison and learned from someone in the institution's mail room that The Art of Intimacy really had been flagged as potential violator of censorship guidelines. The book was "under review," proving yet again that assuming the absurd is often a very sane way of coping with reality.

D'Erasmo's little book was eventually cleared, and I read it with gusto. Her argument is that simple, standalone phrases, such as I love him, aren't automatically meaningful. Nor is merely adding names sufficient. "In order to feel the weight," D'Erasmo writes, "we sometimes have to use a mirror, a distorted image that will make the 'true' image appear. She claims that we grow closer through distance, through a gap of time or space or context across which we are somehow better able to apprehend a connection than if that which we seek were directly at hand."

Those words resonated with me. My world (or my concept of the world, which, it can be argued, amounts to the same thing) is largely defined by its distance – from those I love, from activities that most enjoy, from involvement with society at large. Yet I feel an intimacy with the world. I've often been asked how. I never had the words to explain. In her writing here, D'Erasmo exposes the necessity of separation in feeling close to something or someone. The space makes it possible.

An altogether different perspective on space (and time, and basically everything else) came from Buddhist philosopher David R. Loy's Nonduality: In Buddhism and Beyond. The author points out the similarities and differences between several Eastern ontological systems, including Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Sankhya-Yoga, Advaita Vedanta, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a part), before briefly discussing aspects of mystical Christianity – all in service of his argument that they share comparable concepts of nonduality. Along the way he cites a veritable who's-who of philosophy: Plato, Plotinus, Nietzsche, Heiddeger, Hegel, Kant, Derrida, Spinoza, Eckhart, Descartes, Wittgenstein, Suzuki, and others.

The premise of nonduality, essential in Buddhism, is basically that the subject is the object, and vice-versa. All is one. There is no inside and no outside. (Leonard Cohen wrote a nice poem about this, which was also about a lady friend's vagina.) In every pair of opposites, each contains the other: in emptiness, fullness; in darkness, light; in birth, death. It's that simple. And that complex.

Nonduality began life as Loy's doctoral dissertation. It's not-so-catchy original title was Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy. Unsurprisingly, it reads a lot like the scholarly paper from which it evolved. It took me a while to read. Like oases in the desert, flickers of the poetic kept popping up amid the dry bits, particularly when he quoted Zen Master Dogen. But the words from the book that most deeply struck me were Loy's: "We look for compulsion in the world and therefore find it, because freedom explains nothing and gains us nothing."

Satisfying in their own way were the linked stories in Sherwood Anderson's classic collection Winesburg, Ohio. By accretion they take on greater significance, greater weight, as the reader slowly approaches an intimacy with the town and its inhabitants. In that way, Winesburg, Ohio is a lot like the Spoon River poems of Edgar Lee Masters. Both books are of a type; the fictional characters who populate them get under your skin. You share something with them that can't be communicated. That, or they speak to you in a visceral way, which says, I am not real, but I am most assuredly human.

It was thanks to the kindness of Kristie H., a fellow book lover whom I don't even know, that I was able to finally read Winesburg, Ohio. I'm grateful for the other book she ordered for me, too, Dance, Dance, Dance, by Haruki Murakami. It's the seventh Murakami title that I've now read, a sequel, of sorts, to A Wild Sheep Chase. Here too appears the nameless, mostly aimless protagonist. Here too appears the (correction: here too appears a) Dolphin Hotel. Here too appears the Sheep Man. It was a far more mystifying, more entertaining read, for me, than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was. I apologize to no one for saying so.

Dean Young's voice in Elegy on Toy Piano is similarly unapologetic. This collection of his often-surreal poems dates from the dawn of the millennium but bears a few elements that seem to anchor it to an even earlier period. Among these are references to VCRs, AIDS medication, and Fritos, a corn chip whose popularity, I'm sure, peaked in 1994.

Some poetry has a shelf life. At their best, though, Young's poems feel timeless and, if not universal, then at least specific to a point that I'm able to comprehend them. In this collection, I especially love "Alarm Clock," which takes what the reader thinks is a familiar subject and turns it on its side a few times before righting it again, a divertissement before setting the table.

"Alarm Clock"

     I felt like a raven going on revelation alone.
     Deep forest I was in deep forest chased.
     In my mouth-hole an alarm clock.
     I couldn't stand the ticking.
     The earliest I ever set one was 3 for an airplane,
     4 for a pill, 5 to write fast without thinking
     but generally I do without.
     Orpheus, in disgust, threw his alarm clock
     into the river where it went on ringing.
     Time is honey so the clock buzzes.
     Naked beside me! Naked beside me!
     Da Vinci's sketch of an alarm clock –
     still not fully understood.
     Voice command.
     Croak coax.
     The wind blows the curtains
     making it easier for ghosts to appear.
     Clank of the lightning factory, clank
     of the leopard's leash.
     There is no pleasure like leaving
     before dawn in last night's clothes.
     Light snow or thick dew in the grass –
     no one's passed this way before.
     The note you left needed only a few words,
     no explanation where lies could creep in.
     Your eyes, blinked clear, won't squint or glance off,
     it's the stars that turn their faces away.
     He or she is or is not the one you love
     and you cannot stay. The dark
     turns to mist and the mist cannot stay
     but for once there's no need for alarm.
     You're getting a good head start.
     Maybe the world isn't made of dust.
     Maybe you won't make another mistake.
     You're as young as you'll ever be.

Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive came (thanks to Kristie H. for this great read as well) heaping with accolades and awards. It was among the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2019 and a bunch of other best-ofs, and I get why. Luiselli writes here in a formally inventive style, framing her book with an atypical family road trip set against the silent epidemic of disappearances by Mexican children at the US border. In this way she makes the impersonal very personal. I enjoy reading books by BIPOC writers with strong voices, like Luiselli's, because they permit me, a white, cisgender, middle-aged male, to visit another body for a while and come closer, by however small a degree, to understanding other humans' lives.

17 December, 2021

Showering in Prison

At some point in recent history, architects got together with state officials and decided to start building prisons without communal showers. Whoever thought those were a good idea in the first place? Everybody standing around, damp and vulnerable in their birthday suits, seems like a veritable invitation for those with predatory inclinations to rape, assault, or otherwise harass the prisoners around them.

Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center is fewer than twenty years old. The now-shuttered Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years before ERDCC, was built just six years previous. Both were constructed as maximum-security facilities, complete with lethal electric fence; both were equipped with individual stalls for scrubbing oneself clean. My only experience with group showers was the demoralizing intake process, when I first entered the Department of Corrections' custody and was made to rinse off the sheepdip they drenched me with a few minutes prior.

Many years ago, in school, I failed multiple Phys Ed classes because I refused to dress out for activities. I wasn't embarrassed to change clothes in the midst of classmates; doing so just felt like a violation. Some teachers ridiculed me for this, and some issued punishments, but I stuck to my guns. These days, a more considerate attitude prevails. General awareness of mental health issues and neurodiversity mean that fewer kids now are likely to be terrorized by such rules (which strike me as borderline creepy, anyway). Prison seems to be headed the same direction. But there are holdouts.

The other night I was crossing the wing, wearing a T-shirt and boxers, fresh out of the shower. A guy from upstairs asked why I didn't acknowledge him earlier when he said hello.

"When?" I asked, genuinely wondering.

"Just a few minutes ago! You were in the shower."

"Oh, well that's why," I said. "If I'm in the shower, that's 'me time.' Everything outside of that stall might as well not even exist."

"You didn't come through MSP, did you?" he asked, referring to the old Missouri State Penitentiary, "the Old Walls," a brutal and bloody place right out of a movie, from a time before "correctional center" became the government's euphemism of choice.

I told him no, but added, "We're not there, though, are we? Things have changed. You've got to adapt." I kept walking.

He closed his eyes, shook his head, and like a stubborn child, muttered, "No, no, no, no, no!"

Even if I hadn't been that kid who refused to put on shorts for Gym, is it too much to ask someone not to acknowledge me when they pass the row of showers where I'm standing naked behind a chest-high curtain? In that situation, who the hell considers it rude if passersby don't stop? Are we so desperate for interaction that, even those ten to twenty minutes under a jet of water are too much time to bear being alone?

I cherish the pseudo-solitude of daily showertimes – almost as much as I appreciate the few hours each week that I'm alone in my cell. How to convince people that neither is aberrant behavior? I could just as well ask why we fear ourselves, our own thoughts. Why do we find it weird to prefer being away from strangers, clothed or unclothed? The man who can't accept showering as a reason for privacy has become institutionalized. It's a sad fate. I check myself for it often. As long as I keep enjoying those quiet, peaceful moments alone, I'm probably good.

06 December, 2021

Missouri Prisoners Get Smart Toilets

Flush once and the green ring around the brushed-steel button will blink three times, almost approvingly, then turn red and cut off the flow of water. It's tempting to touch the button again, just to watch it do its thing. Do that, though, and the red ring returns. You'll lose the ability to flush for a full hour. Any subsequent attempts to flush will restart the one-hour countdown from the top. Why? Well, I'm no prison profiteer, but I imagine it's to teach water-squandering serial flushers a lesson... or something.

An electronic toilet flusher – what a fancy twenty-first-century twist on thousand-year-old tech. ("Fancy," in this case, being a euphemism for "dumb.") If someone in the Department of Corrections didn't think the investment in flush kits will somehow save Missouri money, ERDCC's plumbers and electricians wouldn't be crawling around the institution, doing actual work for a change.

Although I got mine last Wednesday, the process of installing the kits has been ongoing for weeks. Already there are problems. A few nights ago, my neighbor's toilet exploded at 3:15 AM, nearly flooding my cell as water cascaded from his bowl and the access panel between our doors. One of my coworkers' power went out when a breaker in his house blew, leaving him without TV, hot coffee, or the ability to flush for the entire holiday weekend. He was thankful to be the only one living in the cell right now.

I have to wonder about the new flush kits' lockout feature. Why isn't it enough to prevent our toilets from flushing more than once every five minutes? Why impose the one-hour penalty? It seems punitive, not to say cruel. If the state intends to save water costs, it would do just as well to shut our water off completely at certain times of day. Long hours without the ability to drink or flush or wash our hands would save money, too. No one's proposing that, though. It sounds too much like what it already is.