22 March, 2022

Four Books I Spent My Spring Reading

A lifelong bookworm, it's become my pattern in recent years to forego reading in favor of tending to the business of life. Still, somewhere between Buddhist practice, Gavel Club responsibilities, work hours, researching and writing a suicide-prevention video, sleep, essays and blog posts, personal correspondence, and keeping up with the periodicals that I subscribe to, I manage to carve out a little time for reading books of all sorts.

It might be easy to assume that poetry, given its short form, could squeeze in whenever a busy person like myself could spare five minutes. Maybe they're right. Maybe I just give poems too much elbow room. When I read a poem, I never stop after its first read-through. I usually give it three or more reads, two of them very slow, to peel away the layers and gain a better understanding. Cultivating the right mood for the experience helps with my comprehension and appreciation of the work.

Like otherworldly spirits, the poems of Belarusian poet Valzhynia Mort rose with grim faces from her recent English collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, to meet me. This was the first poetry collection I'd read in a while. It came as a gracious gift from Emily C., and it didn't disappoint. Mort writes with what feels like the collective grief of her family's last three generations. With this collection she seemingly becomes a poetic planchette that her ancestors use to spell messages from beyond the grave. Several times Mort (what a fitting name!) summons the voice of a deceased relative to relate a wartime anecdote. Her poems read like lived history through a dark lens. While my inept description makes them sound ghoulish, the poems in Music for the Dead and Resurrected are in fact hauntingly tender, a beautiful requiem for those who've gone before.

Poetry elevates and enlarges my life, but sci-fi is one of my truly great loves. Jeff VanderMeer's Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy is sci-fi of the finest sort. A strange phenomenon has taken over a small region of coastal land in what might be Florida, exterminating all human life while allowing animals and plants to flourish. An organization known as the Southern Reach sends in periodic research missions. Partly because all of them result in death or madness, I was reminded of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, especially those tying in with his Cthulhu mythos. Make no mistake, Area X is dark. The jacket copy calls it "almost unbearably suspenseful," which is 100% true. At many times I just wanted it to be over – not because it wasn't any good but because VanderMeer delights the reader with revelations while withholding even more. I desperately wanted answers; I got some.

My friend and coworker Paul had seen the movie based on Area X's first book, Annihilation. After I loaned him my copy of the trilogy he maintained a vision of Natalie Portman as the twelfth mission's biologist until the story took a particular, very dark turn. "I can't help thinking of her eyes!" he said, after he read one particularly haunting chapter. We got a lot of enthusiastic discussions about how crazy effective we found VanderMeer's storytelling, about terrestrial life forms, and about the absence of attention to the natural environment in most science fiction.

If sci-fi is one of my greatest loves, fantasy was one of my first. I still turn to the genre, usually when drudgery stupefies my day-to-day. A couple of story collections sent from a stranger, Jordan S., served as tonic during a recent slog. I don't know why you chose these particular books from my wish list, Jordan, both with their beastly titles, but thank you.

The first of them was North American Lake Monsters: Stories, by Nathan Ballingrud. Hulu subscribers might recognize this title from the credits of a show called Monsterland. I've never seen it. A positive review from a trusted source attracted me to the book, which turns the monster story on its head by shifting the focus from creatures to the people whose lives are affected by them. In the title story a former prisoner finds himself unable to relate to his edgy thirteen-year-old daughter, especially in light of her reaction when a huge slimy thing beaches itself on the shore near their cabin. In "The Monster of Heaven," a couple's rocky married life slips further into dysfunction when they place a sickly, mute humanoid creature in their dead son's bedroom. Ballingrud's are basically stories about human life and its messiness, with the occasional werewolf. I think the collection's a bit hit-and-miss, but the not-great stories aren't bad and the good stories are quite good – an overall win.

The other book Jordan sent was Fierce Creatures, a harrowing collection by Brandon Taylor. While not fantastical in any way, these heavily physical stories of everyday people occupy significant mental space – that is, psychological territory – to an almost overwhelming degree. Conversations between lovers, parents, and family members turn on a dime, and characters' minds rattle and shudder like a wooden roller coaster. Everyone in Fierce Creatures seems uncertain, unstable. I'll just say that if Taylor's noteworthy fictions represent what interactions are like for real-life neurotypical people, I'm relieved to have the brain that I do.

10 March, 2022

My Contribution to the Speak Easy Gavel Club's March Newsletter

The Speak Easy Gavel Club used to have a newsletter. During my brief turn as interim Vice President Public Relations in 2021, I resurrected the years-dead practice. (The VP PR is responsible for maintaining the club's website, but since ours is a prison-based club and lacking Web access, I figured a newsletter to be the next best thing.) Every month now offers helpful or informative excerpts from Toastmasters International, a member spotlight, a vocabulary-building Word of the Month, and articles on the monthly theme, written by club members.

I'm pleased to say that our newsletter just entered its second volume and is flourishing. Not only does our membership eagerly await new issues, we've been given ongoing permission by the administration to display current issues in a rack of pamphlets in the institution's programs/chapel hallway. Anyone can pick one up and enjoy the nuggets of wisdom within. That, and they'll get an idea of what Gavel Club's about.

When the new Vice President Public Relations asked me to contribute a piece on "growth" for the March issue, I enthusiastically said yes. I figure that it has a broad enough applicability to share with you, so here it is.

* * * * *

The Astonishing Availability of Growth Opportunities
By Byron Case, Vice President Education

This month's theme for our club is growth, the enlarging of our being. Growth means building on everything we've learned in the past and allowing ourselves to be shaped anew in every moment. Growth means changing to be more than we were. Every day – every moment – is a fresh opportunity for it.

But change can be scary. We get stuck in a mode of thinking that we have to be a certain way just because that's who we are. There's an old saying, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten." By doing the same-old, same-old, we'll stay exactly as we are. That's the very definition of stagnation.

Think of a bucket of water. When water sits for a long time without moving, all sorts of things end up in it – leaves, dirt, bugs, algae. After a while, it'll even start to smell bad. Now think of a river. Even though the river gets all that stuff in it too, it stays much cleaner. The difference is that the river is constantly refreshed. It's constantly flowing, fed by freshwater from upstream. The river exists in a state of continual change.

Of course, people aren't rivers. We can't always pour fresh experiences into ourselves and be renewed. We have responsibilities that stick us in routines; there are habits that we let ourselves get stuck in. But even though our day-to-day lives might be lacking in variety, we can still open ourselves up to new perspectives and ways of thinking.

Try reading a book about something you aren't especially interested in the library's full – and occasionally open! Learn a new skill; there are teachers all around you. Have a conversation with someone you might disagree with, and listen without debating or arguing.

There are countless means for growth available to us. We just have to be open to them, every day, every moment.

03 March, 2022

Not the End

If loving parents, not well-to-do but rich in culture, take their young son backpacking through Europe and Mexico for thirty days at a stretch, if they tour the American South with him in a van, if the three spend a month in a tiny tent on a Jamaican beach, rising each morning at sunup to the calls of venders hawking peanuts, pastries, and fruits, what will that boy come to learn about life's bounty?
          If a mother nurtures her only child's inborn talents by keeping him out of public school and, instead, teaches him herself so his precocious mind can feed as avidly as it wants, on real-world exploration and studious reading alike, how wide will the son's knowledge about life grow?
          If a sensitive seven-year-old's pet hermit crab – a creature few might find lovable – dies in its terrarium overnight, what will the ensuing three days' crying jag do to bring the boy closer to grasping life's incomparable preciousness?
          If the same youth, a decade on, loses his two closest friends to gunshots, and his father to HIV sixty days later, how fervently will he then believe that life must be lived with urgency, since it could at any point end?

Whatever ideas I had about life by age twenty-two proved largely worthless after the third day of trial, when the judge pronounced my sentence: life without the possibility of parole. In the state of Missouri it means exactly what it sounds like, and it's mandatory in cases of first-degree murder when prosecutors decline to pursue execution. I hadn't killed anyone, and staunchly maintained my innocence, but this was beside the point.
          A prodigy, a skilled artist, a gifted writer. By the time I stood in the courtroom that nightmarish morning, I'd been called all these things. Joining the workforce hadn't been my only priority when I tested out of high school my freshman year. My motivations lay elsewhere. Reading science and philosophy texts, coding JavaScript applications in my bedroom, debating political theory at coffeehouses, and frequenting local art gallery openings are not the pastimes of your typical dropout. Up until that day before the judge, everyone – everyone – promised me a bright future, saying I had my whole life ahead of me.
          My whole life. Suddenly it felt like a threat.

The initial years in prison were a hell. A nervous condition I developed made my legs itch so fiercely that I often went without sleep. The long stretches of inactivity were punctuated by periods of mortal dread, as I weathered the kind of storms all pretty boys encounter when they first come down.
          One night as I sat reading in my cell, a sexual predator barged through the door and grabbed my throat. "Fuck or fight," he hissed into my face. I dropped A Brief History of Time and obliged him with Option B, the first fight of my adult life. I came away with five pink crescents on my neck from his fingernails, but no significant physical wounds.
          Arguably, the tedium was more damaging. There are any number of ways to combat boredom, and I tried many of them. Crossword puzzles, drawing, writing letters to friends and my mother, watching TV, making tapes off the radio, playing SCRABBLE with my cellmate, sleeping long, and daydreaming about the reversal of my conviction that just had to be in store were enough to get by on. In the world of prison but not of it, I had no desire to join the drug or gambling circles, which felt beneath me. But my occupations were scarcely different from those, in principle. Everyone in prison is just looking for distraction, ignoring the fact that, even if we succeeded in passing today away, there would still be tomorrow to contend with. And what then? What was the point?
          The prison offered programs with names like Cognitive Thinking, Pathways to Change, Impact of Crime on Victims. All were insultingly remedial and lacking even a modicum of interest in participants' improvement. I vowed never to attend one. Surely I could do better on my own.
          Job opportunities were scant and, where available, often sad. Paying ones were rarer yet. And working as a line server in the chow hall, scrubbing shower stalls in the housing unit, or handing out sheets on laundry days were simply different meaningless preoccupations. When I took a position in the visiting room, snapping pictures of prisoners as they stood beside their loved ones, my twenty-five-dollar monthly paycheck bought some instant ramen and snack crackers from the canteen, but nothing meaningful or lasting.
          Patterns emerged in the pockmarked concrete ceiling above my bunk. My dreams took on unsettling vividness. I dwelled on memories of pleasures now denied. The people I love stared back from the pages of my photo album, untouchable and far, far away. Always something of a masochist, I held tightly to these moments of grief and near-madness. However bittersweet they tasted, they were unequivocally mine. No one could take them away.

The poet John Berryman, writing about the role of suffering in art, said that "the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business."
          I took my misery and turned it over and over, probing each crevice and raking every point of its topography. Prison, an environment like none I'd previously experienced, threw all distinctions into stark contrast. As an inveterate observer, I couldn't help but hone my perception to a razor sharpness. The edge of it cut through everything: priorities, expectations, delusions, certainties, desires, and all manner of bullshit. Gradually, I flensed away the superfluous, like a butcher removing fat from meat. I wanted to see how lean life could get.
          Spartan living became the norm. There was a petulance behind it, admittedly. I thought that this choosing to do without was how I loosened my captors' hold. But mostly the deprivation games were tests, challenges to myself. And to prove that what I wanted and what I needed weren't necessarily one and the same. I quit smoking, cold turkey. I gave up coffee for no other reason than to enjoy it more whenever my abstinence ended. I went on a multi-day fast, to see how long I could go without eating.
          Know thyself, says the ancient maxim. Prison offers more opportunity for this than anyone but the most obsessive ruminator might want. By experiencing pain and unease an introspective soul grows. With a deeper knowledge of myself came insights about the world.
          I committed almost all of mine to paper.

"How do I know what I think," asks one author, "until I've written it?" Ordering words to articulate thoughts leads to countless minute discoveries. The process is an intellectual delight even when the realizations are less than friendly.
          Unlike the Sisyphean effort of time-passing, the rewards of writing endure beyond the here and now. After the process of composition – which is, for me, always meditative – my essays, poems, fictions, and letters find their way into the world and are read. From this comes a sense of accomplishment, and, consequently, one of purpose.
          I could say that writing saved me, but oversimplifying my salvation that way would be as fatuous as it would be misleading. I saved myself. Writing is just a facet of who I am, inseparable from the whole. It's the outcome of long years of contemplation and suffering, testament to one man's journey through himself and the world that up to this point has helped shape him. It's also the product of that precocious youth's travels around the globe and his development of an early sense of value and discernment. It's both a distillation and an expansion, a means and an end.
          What will tomorrow bring? Will my wrongful conviction be overturned? If it is, what shape might my days take? How easily will I adapt to that brave new world? While these are natural questions to spring to mind, I'm not preoccupied by them, because they're pointless.
As a human being, all I can do is venture to stretch my limits a little each day and maybe help someone else do the same. If I get a tomorrow, I'll do it then, too. Ditto the day after that. Whatever comes, comes.
          I've got my whole life ahead of me. It feels like a promise.

02 March, 2022

By Restricting Communication, the Missouri DOC Claims It's "Helping" the Prison Population

In an e-mail blast to prisoners' tablets, the Missouri Department of Corrections feigned concern for our best interests by announcing that, effective 14 March, all inmate phone calls will be limited to fifteen minutes. "After 15 minutes, your call will be disconnected," it read. "After a 3-hour time period, you will again be able to make a 15-minute call."

This is just another in a long line of examples of the Department inflicting punitive measures on a group because of the bad behavior of a few. In my sixteen years at Crossroads, before I came to ERDCC, we almost never saw arguments or fights over telephone use. The good-conduct wing at Crossroads wasn't much different from the one I'm in now, except we had six phones to share, not the usual four. Here at ERDCC, the number of phones is one-size-fits-all affair. For years, people here have been asking for extra phones to be installed in the housing units. The institution's answer was either that this was a provider issue or that a feasibility study would have to be done. In other words, "We don't give a shit. Go lie down somewhere."

The Department absolutely should care. This new call limit widens the distance between prisoners and their loved ones. Studies show that such gaps adversely affect rehabilitation efforts. I don't know what kind of conversations the people who thought up this practice are accustomed to having, but a fifteen-minute limit will severely obstruct sustained dialog, which is exactly the kind of deep, meaningful exchange that keeps human connections healthy and strong.

Even after all this time, the half-hour phone conversations I have feel uncomfortably brief. When my loved ones and I get deep into ethics, philosophy, feelings, or matters relating to my case, even forty-five minutes seems too brief. I always keep an eye on the phone line, to ensure no one has to wait longer than fifteen minutes behind me. I realize that this consideration makes me an exception, but surely there's another way to stop people fighting over phones.

DOC bigwigs might ask, "So what?" I can practically hear their shrugs of indifference. But the new practice will create other problems that directly (and negatively) impact the Department.

Cell phone use in prisons is not allowed, and contraband phones have plagued administrators since the devices became small enough to conceal on one's body, after which prisoners use them for all the usual stuff – Facebook, e-mail, TikTok, and, yes, a variety of illegal activities. Poorly paid prison staff take payments to bring burner phones into their faculties. Just like in tech-deprived countries around the globe, the prisoners with phones often get their money back – and more – by renting them out for an hour or two at a time.

What's interesting is how innocent the vast majority of those calls actually are. After investigating calls made from confiscated cell phones, the Texas DOC reported ten years ago that over 80% of those unmonitored "security risks" were actually just people calling their mothers and other loved ones. Texas installed more phones in their facilities and illicit cell phone use plummeted. It's safe to say that the same will happen here in reverse, after mid-March.

Once phone time becomes scarce, its value will increase. Like every other precious resource, more people will seek to collect more of it. Theft and intimidation will proliferate as the opportunists acquire extra PINs for extra calls. New arrivals to prison once had to worry only about being coerced into gangs and sexual servitude. Now they'll also need to closely guard their PINs. I wonder if these issues were given any consideration before someone in the capital decided a fifteen-minute limit would solve anything.