21 December, 2022

The Only Book I (Tried to) Read This Fall

Just a few visits to this blog will tell you that I appreciate a good, heavy read. (Maybe this is why a lot of visitors here at pariahblog.com are librarians.) I like my books in the way that Second Amendment nuts like their guns with stopping power. The material doesn't have to be difficult, but it should engage my intellectual faculties somehow. I believe that a truly worthwhile book enlarges my world, or at least changes my perspective in some way. Even so, every couple of years I'll take up a volume that really tests my literary mettle. This tendency has been called masochistic by some, but I prefer to think of it as ambitious.

On to Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace the man, the myth, the legend built his contentious reputation on this doorstop of a book. Was Wallace a bloviating bro or a mad literary genius? The MacArthur Foundation awarded him a grant, so one could argue that the latter applies, but legions of disgruntled, even disgusted readers shouldn't be ignored. Infinite Jest, his dispiriting 1996 novel of the near future, is considered Wallace's magnum opus. Yet, if you type this partial search phrase into Google: "Why is Infinite Jest...," auto-complete will suggest several revealing options. These are reason enough to question the position of Infinite Jest indeed, of Wallace himself in the literary canon.
The mid-'90s in American literature seem, in retrospect, to be the autumn years of the straight, white, upper-middle-class, cisgender male enfant terrible. Into this scene dropped Infinite Jest, which immediately won a reputation for being an unlikeable, not to say unreadable book. Implanted by the controversy, a simmering desire to read it grew within me the year of its publication, when critics everywhere leapt from their chairs to spar over its literary merit. I was young and ignorant; I believed that any book with such power to polarize readers had to be worth checking out. When I went to the public library, however, other, more arresting books invariably caught my eye. Fast-forward twenty-five years. Wallace is long dead by his own hand. A forty-four-year-old me finally gets his hands on Infinite Jest and is totally stoked. Imagine, then, the disappointment of this anti-sports fanatic at finding that 60% of the book relates, directly or indirectly, to tennis. It's narrative chronology is a mess, too. I'm cool with nonlinear storytelling, but this book garbled "plot" is something else altogether. I gave it an honest go. For three months I strived mightily to get through just the first quarter of the book. I refused to give up. Greater books had failed to best me. Despite hating every page, I read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Battling its often-incomprehensible style, I read Alan Moore's Jerusalem. I even read the entirety of James Joyce's Ulysses, for crying out loud! There was no way that Infinite Jest could keep me from finishing it. Except I really couldn't finish it. In truth, I barely made it past page 200, where a narrative about Tiny Ewell's revelations at Ennett House on concentration, tattoos, addictions, cockroaches, acceptance, angels, et cetera delivered the killing blow. I was beaten. I know Infinite Jest offers biting criticism of consumer culture, trenchant commentary on the nature of mental disorders, and a conspiracy of Canadian wheelchair assassins, but I just couldn't muster enough give-a-shit to get that far.
I spent three months forcing myself along, only to fall to the side of the road, gasping for breath. Desperate for an antidote to Wallace's mentally imbalanced self-seriousness, I pulled up some pulpy Philip K. Dick stories on my tablet's e-reader and read those a far more enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

19 December, 2022

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

A box of Banquet fried chicken flies my way from a friend at work, quite by happenstance and without expectation of reimbursement. "Here you go, Byron," is all he says.

Free food is rare, especially in prison. Here, even a "free" chow-hall meal can be something you pay a price for eating. This box of chicken is doubly awesome for that fact. I offer sincere thanks and immediately start making dinner plans.

An hour an a half later, when I return to the cell, my cellmate, Bob, is vegging out on the bottom bunk. I announce that dinner's on me. Without actually moving from his supremely kicked-back position, he seems to sit up a little straighter and ask, "Do you need me to do anything?" "Just lie there and be cool." "Can do, boss," Bob answers back. There's a reason that I don't often cook my food in the wing. It's people. Merely walking the thirty-five feet from my door to the microwave attracts the gaze of every looky-loo in the place. As off-putting as cooking in front of a slew of hungry eyes might be, up-close questions about my meal make it even less appealing. I prefer not having to ask people to not talk directly over my food, which happens more often than you'd guess. Standing at the microwave in the middle of the wing, nuking four pieces of genetically modified fowl, a neighbor who's pathologically prone to argument hits me up for advice on how to properly format a survey. (There truly is no limit to the number of odd scenarios one encounters in prison.) This man has been known to turn "It's a nice day!" into a heated dispute, so I try to avoid extended conversation with him, knowing that every passing second puts me at greater odds of an unpleasant exchange. I explain to Captain Querulous why the precise wording of survey questions matters, all the while periodically checking my poultry. There's an instant when he takes a half-step back and turns his body 30° to the right
an avoidant posture that body-language analysts call "blading." I quickly change tack. He starts to sputter a refutation, but I barrel past the part he wants to disagree with, not letting him get a word in. Amazingly, it works. I change the subject and he seems none the wiser. A minute or so later, the beep affords me all the excuse needed to slip away before the exchange becomes a dispute. "Hot chicken, coming though!" Loitering conversationalists part to grant me passage. Someone clucks at me excitedly, and I pretend not to hear. I return to the cell just as the water for our instant mashed potatoes starts to boil. Setting the hot box to one side of the desk, I pour two cups, measured as precisely as my eyeball could manage, into the bowl containing a pouch of Idahoan Roasted Garlic and Parmesan mashed potatoes. I stir like mad to keep it from clumping. People on the outside know how important food is to the imprisoned. What they don't realize is the extent of the options available to us here. I've posted about the canteen before ("Prison Canteen Food Roundup," anyone?), but this was just a sampling of the four-page shopping list available to a Missouri prisoner every week. It's more than chips and cookies. Items like chili, beef stew, and lasagna all in pouches, like military MREs sell pretty well, and an assortment of shelf-stable meat and fish sells even better. Fried chicken is a twice-a-month treat, a fundraiser for the Puppies 4 Parole program, but even so, I've only bought it once in all my years. I'm worried that I might not have warmed it up properly. Bob produces a big bowl and accepts his half of the chicken pieces with a hungry smile. The mashed potatoes plop satisfying next to them. "The presentation isn't much," I say, "but enjoy." He shrugs. "I don't give a shit about presentation. This is better than what the chow hall's serving."
I do a little bow in acknowledgment of the creatures that lost their lives for it, the people who worked to prepare, cook, and package our little feast, and the friend who spent good money to give it to me, then bend to eat. Without question, it is better than dining hall food. I go to work with a full belly, walking proof that a person can find satisfaction in even unpleasant places.

09 December, 2022

The Perks and Pitfalls of Becoming a People Person

"Nobody gets in to see the Wizard," the guard tells Dorothy Gale at the front gates of the Emerald City. "No way, no how." Of course, as anyone who's seen The Wizard of Oz knowns, Dorothy and her intrepid friends eventually finagle their way inside. The scene that meets them there is of the Great and Powerful Oz, a giant green face, suspended in billows of smoke, whose voice booms through the great Technicolor hall. He scowls from on high and flickers the lights to great effect. He isn't happy to see them.

I understand why Oz would feel this way. I've always felt myself to be an introvert. Being around other humans is often a drain. I don't do especially well in crowds. My emotional and physical energy used to plummet at parties, family get-togethers, workplace meet-and-greets, conventions, and crowded bars anywhere people mill around, looking to strike up conversations with the guy sitting peacefully by himself, counting down the minutes until he can make a strategic exit. Find me in the corner seat, possibly in the dark, far removed from the hullabaloo and contentedly aloof.

I do well enough one-on-one. Catch me in a coffeehouse or at the park and strike up a conversation, and I might even charm you. Personal discourse makes sense in these settings, where there's usually just one conversational thread that needs following. I can focus on you then, offer the attention you deserve. Splitting my gaze and my speech between you and three other people hovering around the hors d'oeuvres table won't end disastrously, but it's guaranteed to tucker me out. A stand-alone guy can only take so much togetherness. At work, I'm at my best behind the camera and at the desk where I handle post-production matters. One coworker has taken to calling me "Magic Man" for the way I seem capable of transforming what was thought to be unusable footage into high-quality video sequences. Random viewers do regularly complement the production values of projects I handled. For someone not altogether comfortable with accepting praise from unknown so-and-sos, it can feel awkward in the moment. This isn't to say that I'm unappreciative. The position I hold on the board of the Speak Easy Gavel Club, ERDCC's Toastmaster affiliate, is Vice President Education. I schedule the various roles for every meeting
Ah-Counter, Grammarian, Timer, Speakers, Evaluators, TableTopics Master, and Toastmaster and ensure that everyone gets a fair share of the responsibility. I also track every member's progress in the Toastmasters education track. It's not an invisible job, but all of the heavy lifting takes place outside of members' view. This is how I like it, pulling the levers, occasionally talking into the microphone, but ultimately taking a seat there, behind the curtain, where no one bothers to look. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's little black terrier, Toto, mischievously pulls back the draperies to reveal a frantic old man controlling the big face and its pyrotechnics. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," he stammers into his microphone, flailing to restore his privacy. But the jig is up; Oz has been outed. I had a couple similar moments this past week. In the first, I was asked to join a fledgling peer-support organization that's just getting off the ground at this facility. It would require a great deal of organization, no small amount of effort, and a willingness to devote time to the formation of a therapeutic community a tempting offer but a big ask for anyone, let alone for someone as solitary (and as busy) as I am. In the second step-into-the-light moment of this week, a former Gavelier volunteered that they'd only come back if I became the club president. They'd urged me to run in a recent interim election, when the presidency was vacated suddenly, but I couldn't see abandoning my current office when other qualified candidates stood so readily at hand. The conversation this week was as much a pep talk as a plea: "I know you like working behind the scenes," they said, "but you need to step to the fore. And I'm not just talking Gavel Club. You have so much to offer people. It's time to let yourself be seen." All this got me thinking. I'm told that I give too much to others consideration, attention, time. Conversely, I feel that I'm still too stingy with these things. I want to do more to help people, and I simultaneously want more time to myself. I feel so torn. Near the end of The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard emerges from his fortress to present Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man with gifts. For all his fanaticism about privacy, the Wizard's gift-giving is a very public affair. He doesn't seem in the least bit troubled by the gawking bystanders of the Emerald City, and seems to have warmed right up to our Kansas girl and her compatriots. Growth is often about taking risks and doing things that don't feel immediately gratifying. The Wizard realizes that his history as the proprietor of a carnival suits him to a life on the move. He abandons the Emerald City in the very hot-air balloon that brought him there in the first place, and no one seems the slightest bit bothered by the power vacuum that his departure leaves.
Oh, if only I had a balloon.

11 November, 2022

Irregular Spaces

Among the many tidbits I absorbed during my insatiable reading as a curious kid, who labored to understand people and their motivations, was that interior spaces with geometrically irregular floor plans are more likely to be declared "haunted" than square or rectangular ones. A five-walled room, a room with sloping ceilings, a room with a crooked floor these are where, according to superstition, spirits are wont to play. Take one look at the weird geometries of the famous, supposedly haunted Winchester house, in California, and you can see how someone might be unsettled by architecture.

I don't know if real research has ever gone into the allegedly disorienting effect that bizarrely shaped rooms have on the psyche, but what firsthand effects I've experienced seem very real indeed. While I haven't seen any ghosts, I've felt the subtle yet undeniable pull of madness from occupying oddly shaped rooms for too long. No prison cell that's held me has been perfectly cubical. Plumbing seems to be the main reason for this. Modern cells are designed with an eye toward crude efficiency
efficiency of construction, not in terms of occupants' convenience. Closets housing pipes, valves, conduits, and cables impose themselves on our living areas in the form of diagonal walls. My cell alone has seven wall segments, which just seems excessive. My window looks more or less to the west how directly west I can't say. Another housing unit blocks my view of the sunset (and most of the prison yard). Nothing here runs north-south. For that matter, nothing even aligns with other features of the facility. Every building sits at a funky angle to every other one. The interior spaces defy reasonable dimensions. Hallways run at wonky angles. I have to assume that his design strategy is meant to impart a subtle but notable sense of disorientation in the prisoner population. Maybe its psychological warfare, but, more likely, it's a passive defense against escape attempts. I believe it succeeds on both counts. Windows in prison are a mixed bag. In the Hole, every cell window has downward-angled louvers bolted over it, so you can look outside and see a patch of grass, or maybe concrete, below you but nothing more. I don't claim to understand how this kind of deprivation is legal. In general population units, a window might just as likely look out on a wooded stretch or trees as on a concrete wall, a stretch of highway, a wastewater reclamation facility, or the prison's pickleball court. Not having a decent view is one thing; not having a bathroom is another. At least the cells at Crossroads Correctional Center, while identical in layout, featured bunks that ran at a 90-degree rotation and allowed occupants to hang a sheet and bisect the space for bathing or elimination purposes under lockdown conditions. These ERDCC cells are impossible to do that with. If you're after a bit of privacy, you can either ask your top-bunk cellmate to cover his head (and trust he won't peek) or build for him a blanket fort on the lower bunk. One way, he'll feel inconvenienced; the other way, he'll feel confined. Either is less than ideal.
Prison life is all about abstaining, making do, inventing, and improvising. Anyone who does enough time will experience all four in varying degrees. Despite the terrible architecture and ambiance, the human spirit finds a way to flourish here. Sometimes its as simple as covering a window or sewing a pair of pockets into your pants. Both can result in a conduct violation, but this doesn't stop people from doing them. We all crave order and are often willing to sacrifice a measure of security for it. If it were possible to rotate the buildings or create more efficient, comfortable routes from one part of the prison to another, someone would've done it, violation be damned. I know I would.

31 October, 2022

The Halloween in the Hoosegow That Almost Wasn't

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Candy and costumes and creepy-but-playful aesthetics pretty much construe a trifecta, as far as I'm concerned. For ten years I've decorated my cell on Halloween and thrown together a massive mess of nachos to feast on. But everything ends. Entropy, that gray-faced, ruined daughter of thermodynamics, guarantees the gradual decline of all things. Why should my long-standing tradition be an exception?

Let me be clear: it's not that I wasn't feeling the spirit of the season. Mornings in Bonne Terre have been black and cold; the evenings have been darkly cloud-smeared. This is my kind of weather. I waited all summer for it, and now that it's here, I meet it with gratitude.

Still, I have been feeling distant. The twenty-fifth anniversary of two friends' deaths
– the catalyst for much teenage misery and my twenty-one-year wrongful imprisonment passed like a dim shadow over last week. I dwelled in it, a houseguest aware that he's outstayed his welcome. Feeling down, but not completely dour, at least I moved through my days with purpose. I threw myself at work with the usual appreciative attitude and followed my joy into the free hours. Then, at some point I read about an ancient Buddhist exhortation to "dance in the charnel ground" that is, in a graveyard. That's a close approximation of the attitude I seek to cultivate. It's not about loving misery, it's about loving your life and living it, fully awake in every moment. There's only so much that an imprisoned All Hallow's Eve aficionado can do, but something clicked for me in that moment I read that, and I resolved to, if not dance, at least do a little two-step on the prison yard. Considering how much time I spend at work, and the few waking hours I'm actually in the cell, decorating in the housing unit seemed kind of futile. So, a week ago, I carried all of my decorations to work with me and asked my coworkers if they'd be interested in spookifying the place a bit. They threw themselves into it. We put skulls on the server cabinet and hung origami monster heads from the big screen. We stuck spider cutouts to the walls. A paper jack-o'-lantern leers from the refrigerator door in the kitchenette. Suddenly, every member of Team XSTREAM has caught the spirit of the season. Everyone wants to talk about spooky movies. A few of them are throwing in together to make a Halloween pizza.
And me? I broke down and bought the ingredients for nachos that I'd been thinking of doing without. I also scheduled a Bauhaus concert film to play on one of the TV channels that I run. Between the gothy music, the gluttonous junk-food gorge, and several other great entertainment options (my coworker scheduled David Lynch's Eraserhead for his channel), it seems that my feet have found their rhythm tonight.

14 October, 2022

Busy, Busy Me

"You're a busy man," an old friend wrote, astutely, in a recent letter. He must've seen that pie chart a few weeks ago. But what makes me so busy?

The crush of extra stuff to handle at work has finally wound down, but that doesn't make me any less busy. Luke and I undertook the production of a new TV series a biweekly, hour-long talk show for the prison population, which delves into important subjects such as purpose, rehabilitation, institutionalization, and so on. This in addition to our weekly cooking program, This Is Fire; our weekly music-exploration show, The Playlist; our intermittent computer how-to series, Tablet Talk; and the monthly Saint Louis University Speaker Series events that we video-record, package, and broadcast in-house. YouTube doesn't know what it's missing.

Sometimes I worry about burnout. How much dedication to the job is too much, before I'm considered a workaholic? Would I work this hard or this much if I wasn't limited to this prison life? And it's not just work that's keeping me occupied, either. I also have my duties as an officer of the Speak Easy Gavel Club.

When the club received its first written complaint about officer misconduct, it was my responsibility as Vice President to chair a disciplinary committee, which first had to determine the merit of the complaint, then hear evidence for and against the accused, and finally render a judgment that resulted in the club voting to suspend two officers' membership for one year. A friend suggested that I blog about the experience, but by the time the smoke cleared I was ready to shelve Robert's Rules of Order and never again say the words "deliberative standard." I'm sorry if that makes you feel cheated. Auditing the records of members' progress along the Toastmasters education track, putting together the club's 2023 yearly plan, and typesetting our newsletter in Microsoft Publisher have taken some time, too. I should have my Advanced Leader Bronze certification before the year's out. This may seem like a lot. It's not enough to stop me, though. Thanks to Saint Louis University, which I mentioned above, Shaheen Pasha, founder of the Prison Journalism Project at Penn State, will be here on Monday to discuss the history of journalism in prisons. My hope is that she mentions the current state of prison media, exemplified by San Quentin, which produces the excellent podcast Ear Hustle. A podcast or publicly available video production from ERDCC would make for a phenomenal opportunity
for the facility, for its population, and for the Missouri Department of Corrections as a whole. If Ms. Pasha touches on this, the information she shares could be crucial to the proposal I hope to write for the warden's consideration. If you've been reading this blog over the past several months, you might've noticed a slight inclination to thinking about a future outside of my current environment. Last night I had a dream that a coworker gifted me two pairs of shoes to wear when I get out of prison a dress pair and a casual pair. Both pairs were hideous, and I was overjoyed to receive them. No matter how ugly the shoes, they were a symbol of my immanent release. This from my sleeping brain. As much as I want out, I'm here now. And this is the point I'm trying to make. Even though I'm fixated on getting out of prison, I feel no less driven to change this environment for the better. There are people here who genuinely want to improve how they live, whether they're paroling in six months or sentenced to die in prison. The urge to live a life of purpose exists independent of one's legal commitment. Helping them to realize that feels like the right thing to do.
By staying busy helping them, I'm helping myself as well, in both the short term and long term. Who knows, maybe soon my ambition and intention will carry over into the outside world, where they can benefit the imprisoned and the free alike. In the meantime, I'll just maintain this slightly crazy schedule and continue to wear this small, contented smile.

30 September, 2022

Aggressive Cheer

"Have a spectacular day."

"Damned it if I'm not just overjoyed to be here."

"These are the best grits I've had in my life. In my life!"

These are quotes from people who've presented examples of a phenomenon I call aggressive cheer. I could offer you more of them, but you get the general idea. Each of the sentences above belong to a species of overcompensation that flourishes in prison, an ironic use of joviality, intended as a funny counterpoint to the undercurrent of misery in this place. They come not with a smile but with a grimace. The guys who deploy this kind of forced, faux bonhomie have usually done a lot of time. Over the decades of their imprisonment, they seem to have moved past active self-pity, into a realm of begrudging acceptance of their situation. Still, they know prison sucks, and so they bare their teeth, crinkle up their eyes, and hiss "Oh, peachy!" in response to your question of how they're doing today. At least it sounds less disagreeable than the truth would. It took me a while to understand this. A born literalist, my first encounters with aggressive cheer found me oblivious to the underlying sentiment. I thought these guys were actually stoked about greeting the day. What I learned over the years of being locked up was that, in fact, aggressive cheer is just another in the long list of coping mechanisms brought to bear against prison's daily grind, another technique for fending off despair. There's a version of aggressive cheer that I consider aspirational. Those who display it are members of the fake-it-till-you-make-it school of personal development. They want desperately for it to be true, but as they force a grin and an overly nice sentiment, the effect ultimately rings hollow. This is especially heard from people who wrap themselves up tight in a security blanket of religion.
I used to ask a neighbor, "How are you this morning?" Every time, without fail, he replied, "Blessed by the best, Mister Case, as we all are." I soon stopped asking. He wasn't giving me a response; he was reciting a slogan. Since he never thought to ask my religion (or my perspective on it) before telling me how I should feel, his answer also seemed a little bossy and self-absorbed. A more polite, cognizant response would've been, simply, "I feel blessed." Not even that would've been true, however, because this is a man I never hear speaking unless he's complaining. A more honest answer might've been, "Well, Mister Case, I feel like shit, but I'm making do and keeping my trust in God that things will turn around." Those are good words I could appreciate.

Many perpetrators of aggressive cheer, such as the guy I just described, probably don't even realize what they're doing when do it. This is why I now satisfy myself with telling him, "Good morning" simply, and with sincerity when we cross paths en route to breakfast.

Years ago, an exaggerated "Good morning!" held a certain appeal for my cynical temperament. It afforded me the appearance of not being miserable, which seemed like half the battle won. What I realized, though, was that the underlying problem remained. I eventually found within myself the means to meet my day-to-day with equanimity. It just took a while.
Today, when I ask people how they're doing, it's not perfunctory; I actually want to know. I'm nothing if not a sincere person. If someone replies by spreading a hard grin across their face and spitting empty words of happiness, I understand where they're coming from; but it's empathy without endorsement. I can no longer relate.

22 September, 2022

Five Books I Read This Summer

This summer was good to me; I didn't pass out from the heat, I wasn't bitten by any bugs, and I only got sunburned once. I even carved out a little time, between work and sleep, to read. What's more, the things that I read were of a particularly good variety.

When I learned from The New York Review of Books a few months ago that David Shields had published a new book, The Very Last Interview, reading it right away felt like an imperative. Twelve years ago, his much-praised literary "manifesto," Reality Hunger positively blew my mind. Critics said that The Very Last Interview was the best thing he'd written since. I haven't read anything Shields wrote in those intervening years, but I suspect they could be right.

Similarly to how Shields "wrote" the chapters of Reality Hunger by collaging snippets of other authors' work (flying in the face of what I once considered originality), he compiled The Very Last Interview from questions other have asked him during what seem to be downright torturous interviews. The result is a fascinating, surprising work that examines the nature of notoriety, the responsibility of the interviewer, and the narrow power of inquiry.

Albeit with less fervor, I also wanted for quite some time to read Toni Morrison, especially her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, about young Pecola Breedlove, a black girl who wishes more than anything else to have blue eyes. From its first scintillating pages, I understood myself to be setting off into a dangerous work of literature. No wonder Morrison caught the world's attention! She renders with uncomfortable closeness the details of poverty and decrepitude in which, in mid-century Ohio, several poor black families live. Where I expected a somewhat domestic book told straight, Morrison tipped me right over with her gorgeous, fluid prose. I could scarcely set The Bluest Eye down. When I did, feeling fairly bruised and battered by its unsettlingly beautiful ending, there was little in the way of cozy resolution on offer. All I can see fit to say is that Morrison clearly earned every bit of the praise she received.

Turning from the past to the future, I reached next for another 2022 release, a wonderful, unexpected gift from Emily C., who evidently pays keen attention to the titles of books that I mention in passing. In the hands of a less skillful author, the title of Olga Ravn's The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Cenury (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken) might be a giveaway of the big story within this small book. Not in Ravn's. What we have here is an expertly written, quietly experimental work of what I'll call literary sci-fi.

In a nonchronological series of numbered reports, the employees of an unnamed organization take turns detailing their interactions with several alien objects aboard the spaceship on which they work. The reports are anonymous. Some are as short as a single sentence. They document, in chilly, disconnected corporate fashion, degrading morale among the ship's human and synthetic workers, until the situation ultimately moves past the point of no return. Ravn's The Employees is space-faring speculative fiction not quite like any other I've read, and I want more.

It's a shame that The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by British fantasist Angela Carter, didn't feel quite so unique. Until her death in 1992, Carter wrote a breed of high Gothic fiction that lingered in murky dungeons and in the high, crumbling towers of damp castles. What she seems to have been known for was more her substance than her style. It was arguably Carter who first returned fairy tales to their dark roots, retelling the familiar stories of Snow White and Red Riding Hood with unsettling, sometimes nightmarish twists. The Bloody Chamber, from 1979, offers versions of "Bluebeard," "Puss-in-Boots," and multiple different takes on "Beauty and the Beast," each of which infuses the dry old stories with blood and other bodily fluids, and in doing so renders them sometimes all but unrecognizable.

It's Carter's style that I had a hard time with. The first paragraph of one story here, "The Erl-King," contains this sentence about late October, which typifies how she wrote: "There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approach of winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezes it tight." Such ornate verbiage, like the impassable brambles surrounding Sleeping Beauty's castle, impeded my getting into these stories. I read them all, though, and found plenty to admire in this writer's ideas and her willingness to do what poets have always done: make it new.

After reading a couple of Franny Choi's pieces in The New Yorker and Poetry, I sought out her debut collection, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, with only the vaguest idea of what lay in store. The book contains one of those poems, "To the Man Who Shouted 'I Like Pork Fried Rice' at Me on the Street," Choi's response to a man who apparently accosted her on the street with a racist, sexually provocative remark. It's a strong poem, a thoughtful, witty rejoinder to a particularly odious brand of cretinism. I wish the rest of the collection were half as provocative. A dismaying percentage of Floating, Brilliant, Gone is given over to work that feels like juvenilia stuff that I imagine a younger Choi toiling over in great earnest after completing her geometry homework; stuff quite similar to what I committed to a purple crushed-velvet notebook that, mercifully, posterity didn't deem fit to preserve. Choi clearly has talent and a level of introspection that can serve a poet well, and I hope that this first published collection served her well on her journey to grow as an artist and human being.

30 August, 2022

What Future?

Maybes and what-ifs don't get us very far. While its possible to predict, to a limited degree, what'll happen in the next few minutes, at the end of the movie, or in tomorrow's Zoom meeting, what happens next is unknowable. Anxiety and expectation remove us from the here and now, transporting our minds to a realm of fantasy that we call the future. Tomorrow is an obscure subject, even less trustworthy than a dream. Even so, I can't help but let my thoughts run away with me as I prepare to file a habeas corpus petition in the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Habeas corpus (literally "have the body," from Latin) is a legal process in which, basically, a prisoner shows the court why no legal reason exists for them to be held. In my case there are several of these reasons, based on newly discovered evidence, that show my accuser's tale of murder to be the fabrication that it is. Since a blog post wouldn't be a prudent venue to divulge particulars, suffice it to say that my issues are significant. They could well get me out of prison.

While being mindful not to lose myself in fanciful ideas, I still find it hard not to think about how life would be if I were suddenly released. A life untethered! Free, after twenty-one years in captivity! What would that look like for me, now? Dare I even imagine it? Against my best judgment, I dare. Exactly where would I live? What would I do for work? What kind of schedule would I keep? Would writing still play a big role in my life? How involved might I get with a real-world Buddhist community? What kind of car would I drive? Would I consent to reconnecting with old friends who dropped out of contact during my decades in prison? How mindfully would I shop? Would I expose any of my day-to-day life on social media? From the crucial to the trivial, nothing escapes notice when you're thinking of how to create a fully fledged life from scratch. Without chastising myself for having these thoughts, I gently explore them, peering into their motivations and conditions, watch their rising and falling away. In thinking about these (largely material, often insignificant) matters, I smile generously at my own habitual grasping. I've said before that prison's what you make it. Anyone being intellectually honest has to agree that there are far worse places to be trapped. Naturally, the philosopher in me asks, "What's out there that you don't have here?" If you're shocked, you don't understand the question. It's rhetorical. This is not an effort to talk myself into or out of anything. I'm just challenging myself, offering up a test, checking up. It's not pass/fail, it's just the stuff of an examined life, the kind we're told is the best lived. I've said before that there isn't much else of use that this environment can teach me, and I still stand by that assessment. Of course, even with the most solidly ironclad evidence, filing for a writ of habeas corpus can be a crap shoot. I'm not building myself up to be knocked down
not again. This time, I'm looking as much at possible futures as I'm looking at the here and now. What can I do, today, in this moment, to reap the most benefit for everyone? Whatever the answer is in a given moment, that's what I do. And then I'll do something else. Then something else.
Driving down an unlit highway late at night, you can't see past the reach of the headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way. Our lives are like that, too, whether we're moving at 75 miles per hour or sitting in a concrete box.

05 August, 2022

Prisoner, Inmate, Offender – Why?

Just as all words in English have, popular terms for the incarcerated have changed over time. Not long before I came to prison, people in Missouri's carceral system were referred to as inmates. Years before that, the official term used was prisoner. There were, when I first came down, still a few official forms with "Inmate Name" fields on them; however, preference for a different euphemism had been decreed from on high. I'm guessing that someone in the capital formed a committee to come up with it. For several reasons, I don't find it appropriate.

I remember watching an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (this was years ago, obviously) on which Jon discussed with a guest the isolation of sex offenders in America. The guest explained how, due to registration laws and parole conditions governing people convicted of sex crimes, ad-hoc communities of sex offenders have formed around the country, in locations sufficiently distant from schools, playgrounds, et cetera, to satisfy legal restrictions. It was an interesting subject, but what stuck with me was Jon's linguistic sidebar. He asked if offender was the best word we could use, as in: "Oh, I'm so offended!" He raised a good point.

Offender does seem simultaneously inadequate and overbearing. Maybe societal associations are responsible. Years of referring to the most odious crimes as sex offenses might've tainted the word. Now, labeling someone an offender for stealing a lawn mower sounds needlessly extreme. At the same time, offended hardly describes a victim of sexual assault. Especially considering how motivated people are to quell imprecise language these days, I'm surprised that no one's rallied for a change in this instance.

Oxford defines a prisoner primarily as "a person legally held in prison as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial." Prison itself traces its linguistic roots to Latin – prensio, "laying hold of." We can find the origin of offender in Latin, too. Offendere meant "strike against," which seems almost sensible in this context, until you think of those prostitutes, drinkers, and petty thieves who get the same label. Against whom did they strike?

Or is morality the thing struck against? There's no question that America's a country greatly concerned with matters of morality, particularly with whose form of morality deserves primacy. I can't possibly hope to argue with the egoism brought to bear on that particular fight. The point of this blog post isn't to launch a salvo at law-and-order types holding firm to loaded language. But I can hope that reason wins out in the end.

All I have to say is that behind the words are people. Not all of us are innocent. Most of us have done bad things some of them horrific but we're all people nonetheless. To lump together the imprisoned multitudes under the offender umbrella is wrong on so many levels.

I propose we return to that straightforward universal standard, prisoner. It neither sugar-coats nor damns. It acknowledges the unvarnished fact: this person is in prison. Well, I suppose many will argue against prison as well, since we now have the correctional center, but that's a dispute for another day.

14 July, 2022

Strange But True

Spending decades in prison lets a person say all kinds of slightly bizarre things that also happen to be true. Consider the following statements.

You can make glue from coffee creamer and water.

My annual job salary is $1,020. The last time I threw up was in February of 2001. These are three facts I can state, which also happen to be true. The first is something I learned by accident. The second is an unfortunate symptom of the carceral environment. The third seems like an unlikely bit of luck, combined with a fairly consistent diet of institutional food. I wash laundry in the shower. I have to get naked to see my friends.
Somewhere between the central joke of a "Seinfeld" episode and a throwaway line from a Chuck Palahniuk novel, these statements are also factual. If I thought harder about it, I could come up with a sizeable list of facts about my life that would seem strange to the average person all made possible by my being in prison.

Being here can definitely feel like some kind of freaky alternate dimension. Many prisoners make pizza crust from pulverized ramen noodles, stab each other over cellphones, and store illicit narcotics in their rectums. More than once, I've declared in a loud voice, "It's a madhouse!" without sounding even a little bit melodramatic.

However, it's possible to remedy one's sense of the otherworldly by taking a walk around the yard during a recreation period. I liken this to strolling through a park in a neighborhood that, although not the safest, lets you see people playing Frisbee, strumming guitars, shooting hoops, sunbathing, lifting weights, jogging, and hanging out with friends. The most normal moments here are often the ones spent outside the prison cells that have come to define us.
An interesting thought experiment: take the prisoner out of prison what do they become?

05 July, 2022

Pets in Prison

Here's something that you may not know about life inside the fences: all physical contact between people in prison is against the rules. This goes for headlocks, handshakes, and hugs alike just one more example of unhealthy psychology as it proliferates here, one more reason why prison is such a shitty place to be.

I don't see this as malicious. The rule probably came about because the Missouri Department of Corrections wants to make prison workers' jobs a little easier. For instance, let's imagine that a guard sees two people locked in what looks like an embrace near the handball court. She doesn't need to debate whether it looks more like knifing or necking she only has to respond to malfeasance. Reducing variables is a tried and true method of law enforcement, a culture that prison guards consider themselves a part of.

Streamlining is good and fine, it just doesn't usually lend itself to healthy interpersonal relationships. Although most prisoners have at least one truly bad deed in their past, they're still people. They still have human needs. How on earth does a person in this environment find nurturing or give it, which may be equally important?

There's the Puppies for Parole program, which gives qualifying prisoners the opportunity to train antisocial shelter dogs for human interaction. There's also a garden that uses the labors of a select few low-security prisoners to cultivate vegetables for local food pantries. These are options limited to only a handful of people. What about the rest of us?

Necessity is the mother of all invention. Accordingly, there's no shortage of ingenuity in the spiritual wasteland that is a maximum-security prison. Decades back, when the high gray walls of Missouri State Penitentiary still contained its bloody acres, guys made pets of a veritable menagerie of animals and insects mice, birds, spiders, cats. Pets weren't allowed, but that didn't stop many prisoners from using cheap tobacco in a shoebox as kitty litter, or from building their own cages out of tightly rolled newspaper strips.

It was easier to get away with things then. Less intensive training meant that guards were often more willing to look the other way when they saw someone just trying to make a home for himself in an inhospitable place. These days, permissiveness is the rare exception. Fat Moe, a guy I knew years ago, at another facility, holds the distinction of being the only person I've seen go to the Hole for holding a contraband kitten.

Moe worked Maintenance. He found the little orphan tottering around on the yard, behind a housing unit where he was mowing grass, and he instantly scooped it up into his coat pocket. He fed it milk and gave it love and played little games of chase and hunt-the-string with it, but after a couple of weeks "Cellie" was discovered by two guards on a round of random searches. Some case manager at the prison adopted the cat, and Moe spent six days in administrative segregation, denied showers and time outdoors, while staff debated his fate.

As much as I love animals and would love to share my time with a small furry (or scaly, or invertebrate) friend, I refuse to risk my relative freedom for one. That said, about fifteen years ago I had a praying mantis friend for a while. She had a damaged wing and couldn't fly, so I put her in a safe place and would stop by every day with gifts. "Here's a water bug," I'd tell her, or "I brought you a juicy cricket!" Feeding her was high drama, a literal life-and-death struggle right before my eyes, and she got pretty fat as a result. Then one day she died, either of illness or natural causes. I'm no entomologist.

My first summer here at ERDCC, a caterpillar showed up in my cell and I found myself taking care of another wayward little creature. This was, thankfully, an herbivore. I could get away with bringing back leaves and little wildflowers and grass blades for the terrarium my cellmate and I made from a peanut butter jar. Little Squirmy didn't stay squirmy for long; after about a week of gorging herself, she wrapped up tight in a cocoon and took an unfathomably difficult nap. We kept a close eye on her transformation, but there wasn't much to see. The brown package just hung there, unmoving. I had to have someone google how long the average pupation period lasted, just to be sure she hadn't died in there. When she finally did emerge, a beautiful black, orange, red, and white specimen, I let her crawl into the window beside my bunk and sit for hours, drying her wings with gentle, languorous flaps. That night we set her free on a flower bush outside the library.

For as much brutality as exists in prison, there's also tenderness. A lot of people here are simply damaged. Many were deprived love as kids, or given the wrong kinds of love. They might have mistreated people, but there's therapy to be found in the unconditional love of an animal. Entrusted with the opportunity to nurture another living being even a potted plant might be the first significant step toward their true rehabilitation.

Personally, I'd like to care for a cat. I don't want one for rehabilitative purposes, just for its companionship. To be sure, though, I'd like a great many things. The irony is, I don't feel that now is the time for them, nor the place.

27 June, 2022

The Difference Between Acceptance and Institutionalization (And Why I Still Want Out of Prison)

People first coming to prison enter a world of pain and anxiety. Even the biggest badass passes through the gates with a sense of trepidation, unsure about what, exactly, he's walking into. Will there be violence? (Answer: almost certainly.) Will personal dignity be threatened at every turn? (Without a doubt.) Will privacy become a dimly remembered vestige of a past life? (Do you really have to ask?) Depending on the kind of person you let prison mold you into, your fear will probably transmute as the years go by into either get-them-before-they-get-you aggression or some species of outright paranoia. Neither is pretty, and neither serves very well the person feeling them. They're nothing more than survival tactics. I've said this many, many times before: survival is very different from living.
Anything can become a habit, and I'll venture to say that more destructive habits exist in the world than constructive ones. It's no different for prisoners. If anything, people in prison have a higher-than-average tendency to develop self-destructive, dangerous, or otherwise gross habits. Blame it on laziness, mental illness, poor coping skills, life experience, hopelessness, or any combination thereof. The walls and fences can't talk, but these environs seem to suggest, to all of us hemmed in by them, that operating from a continual state of desperation is a valid solution to our woes. Therefore we face a decision every time we wake to the sight of these concrete walls. The choice seems simple: succumb or resist. Although few consider it, there is a third option. When you're frazzled, at your wits' end, and nothing in the world seems to want to go your way, it's possible to make a conscious decision to be okay with it, to look at your situation with equanimity and say, "Well, this is how stuff is right now, so I'll ride it out." This isn't some next-level Buddha shit, but it is a tricky skill to develop. I started doing zazen (seated meditation) about three years ago, and I can't say whether it's made much difference in my patience. I certainly haven't become the embodiment of serenity or anything. For my ability to face with calm demeanor even happiness most of what the days subject me to, I attribute my broad perspective.
Right now, I'm not in pain. I'm not crying with grief. I don't fear for my life. My stomach isn't growling with hunger. I'm not even all that warm, even though it's the middle of June. I'm sitting calmly, with a clear mind, things are pretty quiet, and I'm sharing with my fellow humans a bit of wisdom that I've realized. Things are okay. Let me say that again, so that the full meaning of this radical phrase can sink in. I'm in a maximum-security prison, and I'm telling you that I'm doing pretty good. You probably think I'm out of my mind. Far from it. Let me be clear about this. In my situation, radical acceptance does not equate to institutionalization. For a person to become institutionalized, they must forget how to function outside of prison, where "three hots and a cot" are guaranteed and you don't even need a job to get by. Institutionalization means that a person has given in, capitulated, allowed themselves to be reduced to the very thing that the system considers them a convict, a number, a criminal. I don't think of myself as any of these things. They haven't broken me.
I look at the day and see promise. I laugh at the absurdities that make other prisoners so angry. I don't get wrapped up in gossip, which just fuels dissatisfaction. And I certainly don't follow the news, which basically guarantees you a miserable morning. I hardly watch TV anymore, in fact. A good movie will sometimes come on; otherwise, I stick with books and podcasts for my leisure-time enjoyments. If I got out of prison tomorrow (something I dearly want), I'd do fine. I'm driven, creative, responsible, and adaptable. I shine especially brightly when challenged. Even my social skills are better now than they were twenty-one years ago, when I was wrongfully arrested for a crime I never committed. Whatever livelihood I sought to undertake, I'd excel at it. Most importantly, I don't feel or think in any way that I belong here. These are not the traits of one who's institutionalized. The gray-faced men who call prison their home (as opposed to somewhere they just are) can't claim to feel the same way. These are the traits of someone dynamically alive, who's ready for the world. Don't you dare confuse the two.

21 June, 2022

Three Books I Read This Spring

"What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?" This question has been posed by Buddhist teachers to students in the Zen tradition for 1,500 years. It's a koan, a question unanswerable by intellectual means, designed to short circuit a student's questing mind and bring them one step closer to the essence of being.

Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism (which we in America call Zen) Buddhism. He was a redhead of royal birth, either Indian or Iranian, who likely traveled the Silk Road to teach his "wall-examining" style of Buddhism in Northern China. During the country's T'ang Dynasty, Buddhist practice typically involved the endless study of texts and recitation of mantras. Bodhidharma's teachings took a more direct approach, de-emphasizing intellectualization and focusing instead on seated meditation. He taught practice over theory.

A short biography makes up part of The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, a deceptively small book containing the world's first writings about Zen's first teacher. Jeffrey L. Broughton's translation, which I read in April, took a little while to read, even though I skipped the many appendices. Ironic that a text eschewing complexity and one's intellectual grasping at Buddha's teachings should be loaded with scholarly whatnot. Still, this is the stuff of history; I paid it the attention it deserves.

Translation is such an underappreciated (not to say invisible) art. Like almost any car part, you usually don't notice it's there unless it goes bad. Broughton's translation ancient Tibetan and Sanskrit reads well. The contemporary poet John Ashbery's impactful translation of Arthur Rimbaud's surreal masterpiece, Illuminations, reads altogether differently.

Before the ever-generous Emily C. sent me this version of Illuminations as a gift, it had been on my wish list for years. That often happens with books recommended by other writers and poets recommend but no one else understands the relevance of. Rimbaud is truly a poet's poet. We envy the freedom he found within his chosen forms. Even his life was poetic. He published his first work at seventeen, after traveling with the older poet Paul Verlaine to Belgium, where the two had a torrid love affair. Then Verlaine shot Rimbaud during a quarrel and the young man returned to his family farm to convalesce. Thereafter, he basically gave up poetry altogether and died, at age thirty-seven, in the Horn of Africa, done in by a tumor on his knee.

Rimbaud's original French on the facing pages of this version of Illuminations allows the reader to sit, sounding out bizarre poems in a language one hardly understands, until, as the poet (via Ashbery) writes, "A white ray, falling from the top of the sky , wipes out this little bit of theatricality."

Comparatively, there are books that don't age well, and Tom Robbins's Jitterbug Perfume is one of them. I remember several Robbins titles on my dad's bookshelf, when I was a kid – Skinny Legs and All, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Their titles alone were sublimely ridiculous; I had no idea what kinds of stories they foretold. Then I came to prison and decided to see what had so clearly interested my father. Jitterbug Perfume is the fourth Robbins book I've read, and it's by far my least favorite.

Basically, Jitterbug Perfume concerns the quest for eternal youth by a couple of ancient narcissists. One is a former king of a pre-European tribe; one is an Indian widow from an undescribed mid-level caste. Along the way, they meet the Greek god Pan, go to prison, narrowly escape being burned alive by superstitious townsfolk on numerous occasions, become embroiled in the perfume business, and dress up for Mardi Gras as giant beets. I expected silliness, but the sexism and casually racist garbage that ran through the novel didn't pass muster. I finished reading it mostly just to avoid thinking of myself as a quitter.

02 June, 2022

And the Apps Just Keep on Comin'

The Missouri DOC once lost a lawsuit and had to allow prisoners to receive books that others ordered for them. For a long time, that held the record for the best development during my imprisonment. Now, though, we have the JP6S tablet and its cloud-based interface, and I'm thinking this might be a new high-water mark for the incarcerated.

The transition wasn't the smoothest. Everyone that I communicate with via e-mail had to manually migrate their user account from JPay to its parent company, Securus Technologies. Going several days without service sucked. On the day the new tablets arrived last week, the only thing we could do with them was read the terms of service, play sudoku or Chompin' Chaz, do math on the calculator, and listen to FM radio. I did a lot of reading.

After setting everyone up with the basics, the music player app appeared and allowed me to download MP3s bought with my previous tablet. The crush to download songs and albums lasted a couple of days. Then e-mail and the photo gallery showed up. Then VideoGrams and the newsstand.

New apps have appeared on my tablet at a rate of about two per day – an e-book reader with access to roughly 100,000 titles from Google's Gutenberg Project, TV show and movie rental, Khan Academy videos, and links to a few hundred podcasts. Today, if all goes according to the plan that Securus reps described to us last Thursday, I should have the long-awaited phone app.

Aging lifers with faded tattoos, who've never so much as touched a cell phone, loiter in the wing, poking at seven-inch screens, watching videos and reading e-books and trying to figure out how to change their wallpaper. There's a new player on the yard, and its name is Wi-Fi. I'm interested in seeing its long-term effects.

Someone from the Marshall Project approached me with the same question, shortly after Missouri announced its "Media Incentive Matrix." This was the name given to the DOC's planned system of virtual rewards for good conduct. The Marshall Project wanted to hear about any changes I'd seen – in existing privileges, in the facility's visiting policy, or in my fellow prisoners – since the implementation of the Matrix. I told them I'd love to participate, but the Media Incentive Matrix hadn't been implemented yet. It never was.

Nearly two years later, the apps are here and there's not a peep about the Matrix. Like so many other great plans hatched by the DOC's revolving brain trust, I suspect digital incentives to be a forgotten notion. With drug overdoses and general disorder on the climb throughout the system, now might be a good time to revive it.

17 May, 2022

The End of Cards (and More)

Restrictions on having nice things are nothing new for anyone in DOC custody. Prison is, after all, one big, long exercise in deprivation. There's almost nothing that being confined here doesn't deprive a person of.

Even back when prisoners could mail order certain articles of clothing, I declined to buy a coat or a more comfortable boots, because I thought that my appeals would soon establish my actual innocence and I'd be released. Keep your creature comforts, I thought, I won't be staying long.

I haven't indulged in much over the years. One of the few pleasures that I never denied myself from the world outside came to me through the mail. There are so many creative minds in my circle. We're not really Hallmark fans, so I love the cards that they've crafted for me. Drawings, too. Letters from one friend were often scribbled on blank spots found in his sketchbook; more than a few people sent little drawings (or even paintings, back when those were allowed).

As of 15 June, however, all that's going to stop. The Missouri DOC's new mail policy imposes sweeping change to what used to be one of the most meaningful ways for prisoners to maintain relationships with their loved ones despite the distance between them. The policy bans incoming greeting cards and directs that every piece of incoming snail mail be sent to some processing center in Tampa, Florida. There, letters from loved ones will be scanned and forwarded to our tablets within three business days of receipt.
Privileged mail, magazines, and newspapers should still be addressed to the prison.

I get it. The DOC wants to remedy its massive drug problem by preventing paper and card stock drenched in roach spray out of the hands of the prisoners who smoke it for a cheap high. But what happens when these prisoners get out? Most of them have parole dates. Some are going home within a year or two. It'd be immeasurably more sensible to instill in them an appreciation for sober living and teach them the necessary skills to achieve it. Rather than address the underlying cause of these people's self-destructive substance abuse issues, however, it's cheaper – if only in the short term – to stop one of those substances from coming in.

Who needs to receive postcards of support, drawings from kids, or cards from friends anyway?

04 May, 2022

Prison Dreams

Rodney's been down, as we say, for over forty years. He says that he doesn't dream anymore, but I'm not sure if I believe him. Years on death row, plus two more in solitary confinement seem to me as though they'd inspire the wildest flights of fancy. Then again, I know how creatively stultifying my own surroundings sometimes feel, day in, day out, and what a tonic pictures of elsewhere (whether physical or mentally conjured) can be.

A couple of days ago, my friend Paul said, "I think I've transitioned to dreaming exclusively about prison." I doubt this, too. I don't think that Paul, scarcely locked up for a year and a half, is in a position to know what influence his fresh memories of freedom might yet exert on his dreams.

Even after twenty years, my dreams aren't usually restricted to this world of walls and chain link and razor wire. The people in them are only sometimes inmates. I once wrote a blog about my weird dreams that still paints a pretty accurate picture of my nightly subconscious adventures.

Last night's dream was decidedly a prison dream.

The prison in it wasn't a real prison. It looked instead like an amalgam of the three very different facilities where I've been confined. While I walked around it, doing whatever daily tasks the dream-me did, a large group of angry prisoners took up occupation in a particular zone and refused to move. They shouted obscenities at passersby – myself included – and put on their most menacing faces; however, their purpose wasn't clear.

What was clear was that they were doing a good job of intimidating everyone. Members of the prison staff spoke about getting home to their families before violence broke out, while they packed up office supplies like Ukrainian refugees before a bombing attack. I just drifted from point to point, watching wordlessly, a spectator, but with the sense that I wasn't quite there, as though I occupied another plane of existence, which only intersected with this one.

That was it – just a series of observations. No riot ever took place, nor did I never get away from the fearful chaos. I simply stood by, watching and waiting for the seemingly inevitable. Because of that, it felt a little bit like real life.

Maybe it was the execution that the state carried out yesterday, here at ERDCC. Protesters massed in front of the facility, behind sawhorses and faced with armed guards – an unsettling scene from TV, remixed by my brain at some point in the night.

Or it could've been yesterday's breakfast-table topic about State Representative Kimberly Ann Collins, the legislator championing Missouri House Bill 1922 to form an independent committee overseeing the Department of Corrections. That conversation had me thinking for much of the day about things I've seen since being transferred to ERDCC, the ways that this facility operates, and the ways in which it's broken.

Sometimes I do wish that, like my coworker Rodney, I didn't dream. The lasting effect of dreams often feels like a daytime haunting. Even the best of my days are freighted enough.

19 April, 2022

Keeping Bitterness at Bay

Locking someone away is a good way to make him a bitter man. And the longer the sentence, the more bitter he can become. Few doubt this, or that prison is a hard place. These gray walls and fences threaten daily to kill whatever softness resides within. Whoever's heart hardens after years of imprisonment, especially when their conviction is wrongful, as mine is, should be excused the hardening. It isn't easy to nurture a self under such conditions.

Still, I've somehow grown throughout these past decades. It hasn't been easy. My struggles were anything but steady. Lows were abyssal. Pains were crippling. I weathered intimidation, assaults, treachery, and wild slander by inmates. I incurred degradation, minor torture, coercion, threats, insults, and deprivation from my warders. My basic human psychological and social needs were ignored, and sometimes assaulted.

Despite this treatment, soft things within me have become softer with the passage of time. When I sit up in the morning and glance out the window, I greet most days with equanimity. I don't complain about the endless waiting – in line for meals, on a list for medical care, or for the return of my physical freedom. I'm grateful for the terrible food. More than once in recent years, expressing gratitude for a simple act of kindness has brought me near to tears.

People I knew before prison can tell you, I was the guy who could (and usually did) see the dark lining around every silver cloud. Some friends gave me the longest, most ridiculous nickname as a result: Byron the Blackhearted, Dark Cliffs upon which the Waves of Hope Break. Funny, right? Ha ha.

Except I was a miserable wreck. Oh, sure, I could smile and laugh and have fun, but these were each fleeting, hollow acts, lacking substance or depth. I had enjoyment aplenty; what I didn't have was joy. One is to the other as a fish is to the skill of fishing – the outcome and the source.

Before prison I was often bored. I did things to kill time. I squandered hours, days, and weeks. I believed that life was about pursuing hungers and thirsts (which I fancied up by calling "acquiring experience"). I hunted down and devoured what I called fun. In doing so, I occupied a kind of existential vacuum. Yes, I was young. And yes, it's the way of young people to mindlessly seek out indulgence and good times.

The more you make satisfaction a target, the more you miss that target and find yourself feeling that it's not enough, that just a little bit more might make you complete. Of course it doesn't. Still, this does nothing to dissuade from the pursuit. Then the snake eats its own tail. The cycle continues.

People who develop fatal disorders or diseases sometimes have experiences similar to mine with prison. It's been shown that knowledge of an imminent death gives a greater sense of meaning to people's lives. Some go so far as to say that they're grateful for their sickness, that they hadn't seen, until they became ill, what was truly important in life. These people have envisioned for the first time in their lives some kind of purpose. Whether that purpose is earthly or spiritual doesn't matter, only that they feel it.

The realization of a meaning, the placement of oneself in a framework that includes being of use and having some kind of future – these bring contentment to even us so-called hopeless cases. I have a great job, my writing, and relationships with people I love and care about. Above all, though, I have hope.

A friend who totaled her car in an accident took the loss of her independence pretty badly. When I called her, a few days after the accident, she voiced her worries about getting to work, running necessary errands, and just maintaining a social life without a car.

"The insurance company only provides a rental for two weeks. I'll have to take the bus to work," she cried, sounding for all the world like a woman on the brink of ruin.

"Well, there's your first mistake," I told her. "You're thinking about this wrong. Instead of saying, 'I have to take the bus to work,' you ought to say, 'I get to take the bus to work!'"

She fell silent. I couldn't blame her for feeling tipped over. Ten years earlier, the Byronic thing would've been to serve her the same reply awash in a tureen of sarcasm. My friend expected commiseration and instead got a friendly rebuke. Prison life had changed me. I was no longer Missouri's reigning Prince of Pessimism. I was someone else entirely. In her silence I heard the unspoken question, Who the hell am I talking to?

So who am I? Who is anyone, for that matter? Buddhists espouse the philosophy of no-self, the idea that because there are no definitive, fixed qualities that define "me," selfhood is just an abstract concept and can't be said to exist in any real sense. But of course – and here's the rub – Buddhism doesn't claim that we don't exist, because what we experience is being processed by someone. Thus we have at the core of existence a paradox: we simultaneously exist and don't exist.

Uncertainty tends to make logical people very nervous. We fear what we don't know. Because the future's arguably the most uncertain thing of all, we shore up our psychological defenses with lists, savings accounts, insurance policies, itineraries, investments, contingency plans, and more. When we're not busily preparing for the unknown future, we're lamenting the unchangeable past. The here-and-now becomes almost an afterthought.

Being present in a given moment involves a kind of surrender. It means abandoning the urge to impose oneself on what is, and letting it happen. Some find it terrifying. The desire to control is strong. But control is an illusion. Circumstances are like the winds and the currents. At any time, a storm could tear out of the west, or uncharted water could pull our little craft off course. The most influence that we can hope to exert is a little direction, when conditions are favorable. To fear winds and currents, therefore, is to suffer. To expect a certain set of outcomes is to deny possibilities.

Remember Groundhog Day? It's a comedy but offers profundity that a lot of viewers overlook because they're hung up on the big rodent and the high-concept humor. In the movie, cynical TV weatherman Phil Collins (perfectly played by Bill Murray) travels to cover a Groundhog Day festival in rural Pennsylvania. First a blizzard that he predicted would miss the area traps him in the town he so despises, then an inexplicable time loop forces Phil to relive the same day there, with no hot water, no real entertainment, and surrounded by the "hicks" he so despises. For Phil, it's a hell. He kills himself repeatedly but always ends up right back in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the morning of February second.

But when Phil discovers purpose and begins acting on it, within the bounds of what's available to him, his day-long prison becomes a universe of infinite possibility. He comes to appreciate the people and forms bonds with them. He takes up piano lessons. He reads poetry. He learns to ice-sculpt. Forced to relive the same day unendingly, he pushes aside his cynicism and chooses to make his little world better, bit by bit. He saves a man from choking to death. He spends time with a homeless man he knows will die that night. He replaces someone's flat tire. He treats the woman he's come to love with respect and decency. Only after finally living what he calls "the perfect day," Phil wakes up, for the first time in a small eternity, on February third, the day after Groundhog Day.

How often are comedies that are actually funny give us the meaning of life without overt schmaltz and sentimentality? Even film critic Leonard Maltin thought Groundhog Day deserved an Oscar.

Unlike Phil, my prison isn't temporal but physical, made of concrete and steel. Being confined here, I could just surrender to despair and let myself languish. So many other prisoners do. Instead, I've learned how to make my world a powerfully dynamic one. I can still learn and teach, be of help to people, love and be loved.

My mind – my not-self – exists without boundaries. So what's to be bitter about? There are people living out there who can only dream of freedom like this.