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.