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.