29 December, 2023


At Crossroads, the prison in Cameron, Missouri, where I spent almost seventeen years, the residents made a kind of hooting woop-woop sound to alert people in the wing when a guard or caseworker was doing a security walkthrough. The prisoners in question might as well have been telling everyone, "Hide your tattoo gear! Fan away that smoke! Pretend you weren't just masturbating!"

The staff hated it. Not that they rely on secrecy or stealth to carry out their daily duties, but those siren-esque noises kept guards from making busts. The way the staff viewed it, warning wing residents that the cops were on the move made you an accomplice to their wrongdoing. Thus why the head of the last Crossroads housing unit I lived in threatened a conduct violation to anyone who issued a "wing alert." This was nearly impossible to enforce and stopped absolutely no one from whoop-whooping.

I've been at ERDCC since the 2018 Crossroads riot, and while many things are very different here in Bonne Terre, wing alerts are still a staple of daily life. No one makes siren noises, though. Here they shout, "Twelve!" In the years before I came through this facility's gates, the preferred alert, at least in the honor dorm, was to yell, "Microwave!" The ruse, of course, lay in the plausibility of someone having forgotten a cup or bowl they'd been warming up. Therefore, the implicit hope was that the guard doing a walkthrough wouldn't be tipped off to the malfeasance that was possibly afoot in the wing. Pretty slick. But at some point, the cops caught on — big surprise — and a new wing alert had to be invented. How they settled on "twelve," I'd love to know. No one seems able to tell me definitively. My cellmate, Bob, suggests that it may have arisen from the old TV series Adam 12. When he was living in a different housing unit, the standard call was "microwave." By the time he moved to this house, a couple of years later, "twelve" was already in effect. It confused him then, and its origins continue to elude. Stranger still, the institution staff are well aware of what it means and why residents shout it when a guard comes through, yet they seem not only unconcerned about it but to actively encourage its use. Some take it upon themselves to announce their own entry. Others make it a joke, treating it like call and response, signifying that they're not coming in to cause a stir: "Twelve!" "Eleven! I'm just collecting a paycheck, guys." Still other guards, those with an elevated level of self-importance, add rather than subtract, a math game to signify that they aren't messing around: "Twelve!" "Twelve, nothin'! I'm thirteen, assholes!" I don't know quite which of these approaches I like less. It's hard to appreciate someone who's puffed up with a frankly exaggerated sense of their own authority, but it can also be tricky to respect someone who doesn't take their work seriously. In twenty-two years of being locked up, I've never jumped the chow line for a second helping of food, never gotten a tattoo, never had a sexual encounter with another person, and never issued a wing alert. Not that I actively oppose wing alerts, I just consider them part of prison life, which I'm mindful about not getting too involved with. If I'm being honest, though, I do think they've recently got a little out of hand. As though it wasn't enough for them to shout "Twelve!" every time a guard opens the wing door, a couple of overeager watchdogs have taken it upon themselves to add a kind of early-warning system to their wing alert practice. Now they even sound an alert when they see a guard head into the wing adjacent to ours. "Twelve going into A-Wing!" is a call I hear way more often than I'd prefer. A lot of the time, A-Wing visits are exactly that: visits to A-Wing, starting and ending over there. In certain settings, these A-Wing alerts in B-Wing would be consiered false alarms, something that, if repeatedly committed, would be reprimanded or even punished.
I like to think that I wouldn't mind so much if I knew what "twelve" meant, but I'm pretty sure that's bullshit I tell myself because I want permission to complain about the unnecessary noise.

21 December, 2023

Two Books I Read This Fall

Hit with a full load of responsibility in September, when I was unexpectedly appointed team leader at my job, I really didn't expect to have enough energy for much leisure reading this season. Too often I come in from work, make a large cup of coffee, and open a book, only for my eyelids to start dropping after a few pages. Where did I find a special reserve of oomph to concentrate on two decent-sized works of fiction? Sometimes I amaze myself.

In September I started the fantastical, darkly inclined fiction of China Miéville. I've read several of his novels before this. They all feature something gruesome, at least one grim aspect that forces readers to take stock and, as though standing at the mouth of a poorly lit alley, to ask themselves, "Is this really where I want to go?" With Miéville, one proceeds at one's own risk.

There are alleys aplenty in Looking for Jake, Miéville's story collection from 2003. We find literal dark alleys in "Reports of Certain Events Around London," his captivating story in which a narrator named China Miéville learns of a secret society devoted to finding and studying feral streets, which move from place to place, roaming wild and free in the world. It's a mind-bending notion that I think only Miéville could've dreamed up. Here, too, are stories about temporal rifts, punitive surgery, the ugly lives of witches' familiars, and children's ball pits that just happen to be haunted. How could I not love this stuff? Unfortunately, I found The Buried Giant: A Novel, by Nobel Prize- and Booker Award-winning Kazuo Ishiguro, less lovable. I didn't think I had any preconceived ideas when I picked it up, but apparently Ishiguro's previous success with breathtaking books like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go subconsciously set me up for something greater. This is always a danger when reading the work of a writer you believe can do no wrong.
Arthurian legend meets contemporary ambiguity in this one, set a few short years after a war between the Britons and the Saxons. An aging couple leave home to reunite with their estranged adult son in a faraway village. The whole land seems afflicted by a kind of amnesia — a fog, they call it — rumored to be caused by an old she-dragon. The doting couple don't even clearly remember their own years together, but as their journey unfolds, memories threaten to surface and expose transgressions from their past. Along the way are ogres, hellhounds, dragons, and a creaky Knight of the Round Table, but the story wears its elements of high fantasy lightly. So much here seems just out of reach. The Buried Giant is a good book by a great writer — the one black mark against it.

15 December, 2023

Prison Pizza Party

We had been saddled with a tedious task of some enormity. When I say "we" I mean my tirelessly toiling compatriots at XSTREAM, and when I say "enormity" I'm talking about capturing more than half a million freeze-frame images from movies and TV series in our extensive library of media. Nobody wanted to do this now. Some questioned the necessity of doing it at all. Group morale made a small splashing sound as it landed in the toilet.

The images in question are used by our in-house TV channels, which my coworkers and I maintain for the prison. How the channels work is, one block of programming a movie, say, or up to three hours of a specific series plays on repeat for twenty-four hours before changing to something else. Everything we show starts on the hour. During dead time between showings, the channel displays a description of the next scheduled media, along with previews (if we have them) and snapshots that give viewers some idea of what they're about to see. It was those snapshots that needed to be taken. We had them already, mind you. Unfortunately, for reasons unknowable, the man who built most of our database wasn't aesthetically inclined. He made some ugly stuff. Rather than find a solution to a confounding display issue he was having, he designed our system to only accept images with a weird aspect ratio, all squished and funky-looking. Snapshots were taken at that weirdly crushed size for years. In the interest of improving the system, our resident code guru proposed that we correct that ugliness. Although I objected stridently and with much profanity, the idea was deemed actionable. Even for us ten diligent people, taking over 500,000 was going to take a while. The task was slow going. When we lost two men to unrelated and somewhat complex circumstances, it got even more daunting. Eight of us remained. Morale flagged even more. Something had to be done. After crunching some numbers to determine a feasible outcome, I proposed food. "I'm imposing a target date," I told the team in an impromptu meeting. "If everyone finishes their snaps list before close-of-business that day, I'll treat you all to a pizza party." It was a goal that'd require speed and dedication, but based on average per-movie completion times, it was doable. "What if only I finish my snaps?" asked Kenny, ever ready with a quip. "Will you throw me a pizza party?" "No deal. It's all or nothing. Now get to snappin'." And snap they did. Aaron finished his list first, then Rodney, then Diego. As the days dwindled and the target date drew nearer, the three of them saw the other guys struggling to meet their daily goals and stepped in to accept some of the burden. They did this (as far as I could tell) without complaint or expectation of being paid back, but just because it's what teammates do. They took snaps all the way until the evening of the target date, but they made the goal. Making pizza for ten prisoners five of them serious pepperoni fans, two of them Muslim is trickier than it ought to be. I like to make my crust by adding a small amount of water to heavily seasoned breadcrumbs, but the canteen only sells one loaf of bread per person, per week. Thus, I had to wheel and deal. A neighbor bought me a loaf in exchange for a box of snack crackers. Someone else in my wing gave me a loaf and a package of pepperoni for a pouch of shredded beef that I had on hand. My cellmate supplied me with summer sausage and olives, both of which were sold out in the canteen last week. On the day of the party, I prepped for three hours at my desk, shredding two and a half pounds of mozzarella and three loaves of wheat bread while watching The Mandolorian Season Three. After kneading sufficient water into the breadcrumbs, I tore two small trash bags along their seams and smashed dough into a pair of flat rectangles on them. I squirted pizza sauce from bottles and spread it thick. Then came the toppings: copious amounts of cheese on both, pepperoni and olives on one, ground beef and summer sausage on the other. "Damn, Byron," said Twon, taking in the sight of my five square feet of food. "You're putting in work!" I waved it away. "It's just my way of thanking you all for yours."
Josh brought sodas. We dug in. It wasn't much, but in the days since eating that pizza together, everybody has seemed more cheerful at work. Not having an insane schedule of repetitious on-the-job nonsense to deal with probably helps, too.

05 December, 2023

Back in Court, Back in the News

Before yesterday, the last media interview I did was with a podcaster, ten years ago, on the subject of my then-newly published book, The Pariah's Syntax (from which this blog takes its name). Then Monday rolled around, and I gave another.

Kansas City Star journalist Katie Moore got me on the phone to talk about the filing of a long-awaited motion by my lawyers, who've been working on the details of this 130-something-page document for months. In the motion they lay out evidence of the fraud that the Jackson County Prosecutors Office committed in order convict me of a murder that probably never happened, the 1997 death of my friend Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. We show how the state withheld evidence, conspired to falsify documents, suborned perjury, and more all to close a case that authorities felt had remained open for too long.
Ms. Moore had questions to ask about the facts of the case, of course. It might sound weird, but these feel secondary to the reality of my imprisonment. The narrative of my case has been related again and again, in story after story, and seems at this point to have lost a lot of its former import. 22 October, 1997, exists in a past that's now over half of my lifetime away, so forgive me for feeling somewhat detached from it. Nevertheless, I trudged though yet another recitation of the facts. Where things got tough was in talking about my friends Anastasia and Justin, both of whom I lost in such a sudden, ugly way. My voice broke unexpectedly as I remembered them. My throat tightened. It's been so long, yet I still consider the months that I squandered in the company of those two kids as being among the happiest of my otherwise difficult teenage years. "Are you okay, Byron?" one of my lawyers asked. I wasn't sure then; I'm not sure now.
Ms. Moore's story was published today. More importantly, my lawyers also filed their motion. At the time of this writing, I haven't read either one. I can't fathom the most likely outcome of either, but you can find the former online at kcstar.com.

23 November, 2023

Birth Day

The morning that I was born in a Kansas farmhouse on a snowy morning in 1978, my parents called in a request to the local rock 'n' roll radio station. My mother had spent a portion of her pregnancy listening to AM Gold and participating in call-in contests. The deejay probably knew her by voice. To every listener tuned to his signal amplitude, the deejay announced that the Cases didn't have a turkey on Thanksgiving but "a bouncing baby boy." I was there, but I don't remember any of it. What was I doing to have been so inattentive?

When my friend Mike turned forty-five (he's in his sixties now), he asked friends to come over and bring him 45rpm records as gifts. He dragged out an old suitcase record player and they had a party, rockin' and rollin' till the break of dawn (or maybe more like 10 PM, because adults often have jobs to get to). For my birthday celebration, I won't be doing anything quite so socially involved, nor so musical. I'm just hoping to enjoy some pumpkin pie and leisure reading. Mike, my mother, and my godson, will all visit me on Friday afternoon, which should be wonderful.
So here's a question that keeps coming to me: how's a forty-five-year-old "supposed" to think and act? Now isn't the first time I've asked how my mind is similar to those of the average adult in middle age. Or, going in the opposite direction, what similarity is there between me now and fifteen-year-old Byron, a person so distant that I no longer have access to his perspective? Can we even be considered the same person? Is a shared love for coffee enough? Except for in the structure of our DNA, we're different in almost every way. A thought experiment: if it were somehow possible to put someone in a room with their younger self, what would they have to talk about? We share the same birth, the same parents, and the same childhood experiences, yet I'm confident that young Byron would hate me, and I'd just pity him. Who am I, if not him? And yet, who else would I be? Turning another year older has me thinking a lot about self and nonself in the continuum that is life. The Buddha famously raised the issue of nonself in a talk to the five ascetics that he hung out with before he found enlightenment. (They became his first students
the earliest sangha, or Buddhist community.) He said that the five parts of selfhood embodiment, feelings, perception, will, and consciousness fool us, with their irresistible allure, into thinking that self exists. But there is no fixed, constant self, just a long series of variations on a theme, merely echoes and iterations. What a fifty- or sixty-year-old Byron might be like, how he might view the world, I can't even imagine. There are too many variables. Futures branch out with every moment, in a perpetually widening tree of possible realities. The theme evolves, succumbs to entropy. All lights burn out in the end. This, too, gives me pause.
Forty-five years old. Forgive me for not dancing.

07 November, 2023

The Karaoke Threat

The stage is set, and it's green green floor, green wall, and green gaffer's tape covering the flaps we rigged to cover electrical outlets in what used to be the prison's barber shop. A microphone stand breaks the monochromatic expanse, standing alone in front of the unnaturally verdant backdrop. LED fixtures shine from every angle, and the lenses of three cameras impassively wait to take in today's performance.

Opposite the stage is an eight-foot-wide black desk fronted in smoky gray Plexiglas, where the two judges sit in front of black drapes. Their microphones aren't on, and they're discussing unrelated matters while a crew bustles in attendance to last-minute details. Just off-camera, in a cramped semicircle of six stackable, tan, plastic chairs, sits today's motley assortment of contestants, excitedly chatting amongst themselves. The setting described here is XSTREAM Media's studio, where my coworkers and I in the prison's media center record shows on topics that run a gamut from in-cell cooking (THIS IS FIRE) to conversations about music (The Playlist), to embarking on needle-and-thread projects (Sew What?). I currently manage the whole fiasco, scheduling, setting up for, and directing shows, then doing most of the editing and compositing that comprise the post-production process. I do all this, but I'm hardly the star. The distinction of top billing belongs today to the half dozen people readying themselves to appear on what is arguably XSTREAM Media's most daunting production. The Karaoke Threat is a singing competition. It demands that participants bring their A-game, brace themselves for the unexpected, and leave self-seriousness at the door. Round One starts with six. Each wrote their name a song selection on the signup sheet that hung in the gym for the past month. Our two judges my fellow Team XSTREAM member Kenny and the winner of the show's last go-round score every contestant on voice quality, technical accuracy, and "wow" factor. Only half of the people who sing in Round One move ahead to Round Two. In Round Two, the judges choose the three remaining contestants' songs, then someone else gets eliminated. The final round is a zero-sum affair where each singer chooses what song their opponent will perform. Round Three can get a little crazy. Whoever wins gets to not only return as a judge in the next installment but also to call out, or "threaten," someone else to sign up and compete. XSTREAM Media offers a trivia competition (I Knew That!), a weekly panel discussion (4Thought), a cheekily hosted movie of the week (Spotlight Cinema), video-game walkthroughs (The Game Corner), life-coaching (Real Talk), daily five-minute news broadcasts, and more. It's little wonder why Prison Journalism Project called XSTREAM "a media giant." But it's The Karaoke Threat, our felonious riff on shows like The Voice and American Idol, that holds the honor of being our audience favorite. From behind a literal curtain, I cue up everyone's selections. Jackie's opening the show with "One Love," by Trey Songz. Then Greg, an older guy in my wing, is performing the New Edition throwback "Candy Girl." Chelsea, a transgender woman, is doing Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" after that. Next is Brian, the clean-cut host of the XSTREAM series Spotlight Cinema, doing the Rollins Band hit "Liar." Arthur, a developmentally disabled man, is giving his best to R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." And last up is resident goofball Kenyatta, singing "Forget You," by Cee Lo Green. The studio's desktop computer, where I'm posted, has access to hundreds of karaoke videos on XSTREAMnet, sourced from YouTube by our bosses and saved in a growing library. I can't watch the performers from where I sit, but I can see what they see on the display mounted to the judges' desk. I notice every time they screw up the words. The judges don't. Sometimes I think it allows me to appreciate the performances on a different level; sometimes I think it just allows me to deduct more points for inaccuracy. Not that it matters, either way. My scores are the karaoke equivalent of fantasy football. A lieutenant approached me one morning at breakfast, last month sometime, to say that even the guards who work the midnight shift are Karaoke Threat fans. She said that after the prison quiets down, they sometimes get together in the custody complex and watch a little TV. If The Karaoke Threat is on, they usually root for the prisoner who shines boots for the staff, who appears regularly on the show and never fails to get fully into the spirit of things. Music truly can bring people together, and the lineup today represents a unity and diversity that XSTREAM tries to foster with everything we do. When Jackie, Kenyatta, and Arthur qualify for Round Two, the tiny studio erupts with almost deafening applause. In a few weeks, this episode will broadcast throughout the facility, and everyone will momentarily see Arthur as a hero a status his life has rarely permitted him to have. As for Chelsea, even though she doesn't get a score high enough to advance, it's not because she's trans but simply because her singing is howlingly bad. She still has fun and sticks around to cheer on her former competition.
Jackie and Kenyatta enter Round Three, having chosen Katy Perry's "Roar" and Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." I've actually never heard either of these sung by the original artist, but having no basis for comparison might be good thing, considering.

20 October, 2023

A Friend Trapped in the Bardo

We were at work last Thursday morning when he was taken away. A guard in black-and-gray camouflage appeared in the doorway next to our shared desk, told Luke to come with him, then disappeared with my coworker and friend. Luke hasn't been seen or heard from again. As I write this, he's in the Hole, under investigation, not for a conduct violation, nor even for any suspected wrongdoing on his part, but for the nebulous charge of "staff familiarity" a major threat, we are told, to the safety and security of Missouri's prisons.

I've been trying to organize my thoughts for days but still haven't arrived at a stable position. My friend, coworker, and fellow traveler of the Eightfold Path is suffering even more greatly than usual right now, stripped of his purposeful routine, his meaningful job, and even his clothes. (Prisoners in the Hole at ERDCC only get boxer shorts and a T-shirt to wear.) Worst of all might be the likelihood that Luke hasn't been fully apprised of the circumstances. What is it about law enforcement that they can't even be bothered to explain why they're locking someone up? They don't inform you of much here, they just do things. The last time I went to the Hole, eleven years ago at Crossroads Correctional Center, I wasn't informed of the circumstances of my confinement. That trip to administrative segregation echoed the circumstances of my initial arrest, over a decade prior; for my first couple of weeks in jail, I wasn't told why I was there, either. Luke doesn't use drugs, steal, gamble, or tattoo. He meditates. He's almost paranoid about having contraband and assiduously follows the many rules of prison, both official and un-. He's celibate. He freely gives his labors to our community of malcontents. He does CrossFit. He's an active member of Gavel Club. He goes to bed before 8:30 almost every evening. In most ways, he's the kind of prisoner that every employee of the Department of Corrections should want more of. Is the problem that he's worked in the Recreation Department for eight years? That he led XSTREAM from literally nothing, to being what the Prison Journalism Project dubbed a "media giant"? That he has made himself a respected member of the ERDCC community? That, despite his sentence of life without parole, he just earned a rare and much-coveted spot among the latest cohort of students with Saint Louis University's Associate of Arts program? The Department's prohibition on familiarity between institutional staff and the prisoners that they oversee might've been put in place with the best of intentions, but, at least as it applies to workers, the policy flies in the face of everything that corrections should stand for. If someone takes a job and proves themselves worthy of increased trust, even extra privileges, through exemplary performance during years of doing the job, shouldn't that be worthy of commendation? Luke is hardly perfect if anything, he's deeply flawed but if there's anyone I know who deserves somewhat elevated status, it's him. We all have a choice to either endure the uncertainty we encounter, or to lose our shit. I worry for Luke's sanity. He was supportive of me when I went through my midlife crisis. A week or so ago, he seemed mired in much the same mental swamp as the one from which I just emerged. We talked candidly and in depth about it, the way that only two people trapped in similar circumstances can. His job at XSTREAM meant more to him than almost everything else in his life. Our weekly Buddhist service kept him grounded as much as it did the other attendees. Knowing that these things have now been taken from him and him from us is difficult.
Prison strains all relationships, not just those with people on the other side of the fence. In the twenty-two years of my prison career, I've been separated from three friends by sudden turns of circumstance. Ben, at least, went willingly, when he signed up for the Intensive Therapeutic Community at Jefferson City Correctional Center. Zach stayed at Crossroads after the 2018 riot that resulted in my transfer here. I stayed in touch with them for years. Then the DOC instituted a ban on communicating with people in other prisons. There's now a chance that Luke will be transferred to another facility before he's released from ad-seg. There's also a chance that our paths won't cross again. I await with bated breath some word of his circumstances, desperately hoping that they turn out for the good and that Luke, no matter where he ends up, lands on his feet.

29 September, 2023

Synthetic Drugs and Books – What's the Connection?

The year was 2009 when the Missouri Department of Corrections finally reversed its longstanding position and allowed prisoners to receive books ordered by people on the outside. I wrote a blog post expressing my joy at the change and, in the years that followed, more than once called it one of the best things that the state ever did to improve the conditions of confinement for those in custody. Can I take back that praise

The DOC announced in its August "Friends and Family" newsletter that, effective 25 September (i.e., this past Monday), prisoners would no longer be allowed to receive books ordered by people on the outside. Books now need to be purchased by the prisoners directly, using a certified check from their institutional accounts. Any books sent to us by caring, considerate people out there must be mailed off, thrown out, or sent away with a visitor.

Since the world's largest retailer, Amazon, hasn't accepted checks since 2004, this limits prisoners' options. Having to order from smaller venders with limited stock and higher prices, although good for local economies, is a notable hardship for those of us who count our every dollar. It also means that people will feel less inclined to send prisoners gifts. The DOC itself tells people not to send prisoners money unless they feel confident about how it will be spent. Removing people's option to order a book likewise removes the personal touch, in the same way that some say gift cards do.

And here's a funny thing: no one saw fit to tell us prisoners about what's being called a "transitional operation procedure" until two days after it went into effect. I only heard about it from my mother, who subscribes to the Department's newsletter. In the days that followed the announcement, news sources, such as Kansas City's NPR station and the Kansas City Star, started reporting on it.

Just today I learned that used books are prohibited as well, reversing twelve years of departmental precedent. Thanks a bunch, fentanyl.

That's right. A supposed uptick in drug overdoses is being blamed on books by the Department. I'm not making this up. A DOC representative claims that parties unknown are lacing the pages of books, magazines, and newspapers with synthetic drugs that they mail to the facilities, leading to increased overdoses in prisons across Missouri. (There's also some question about whether the numbers are actually increasing, or just being more frequently reported. I'll leave that for journalists to determine.) How method of payment for the books might change this is unclear.

The only meaningful outcome of this "transitional operation procedure" is a limitation on the volume and frequency of prisoners' access to reading material of their choosing. We're limited to the number orders we can place each year and limited in the number of books we can have in our possession at one time. Before this ban, people could order a book for someone in prison once a year or once a week and never have it count against that prisoner's order limit, because an order is defined as something purchased with money from the prisoner's account. It was win-win: case managers didn't have to trouble themselves with processing orders, and, assuming the books didn't violate censorship guidelines, prisoners got whatever books they wanted.

This decree by the Departmental powers that be should be troubling on a number of levels. It's not about prisoners getting to read a limitless string of bestsellers. It's about the ability to choose how and what one learns while imprisoned. Books offer an effective means for achieving the fundamental change in thinking that most prisoners so desperately need. This ban severely limits the potential for that change. Exactly what kind of people is the Missouri DOC trying to create here?

The Department representative quoted in that KCUR article mentioned above said that facility libraries make plenty of books available. I call bullshit. There's a reason that, until last month, I hadn't visited the library at ERDCC in three years – and it wasn't COVID. I would argue that most of what are considered essential texts in education are missing from prison library shelves. For example, ERDCC's library has no titles by Noam Chomsky, Marshall McLuhan, Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, or Howard Zinn. I don't think there's a single nonfiction feminist text in the whole room. Nothing in queer studies, either. We do have a W.E.B. DuBois collection and a Ta-Nahisi Coates title, but not much else that might fuel a burn-off of someone's racist ideas.

In literature, the situation is even bleaker. There's some Nathaniel Hawthorne and dusty old Homer, but no Wallace Stevens, Ralph Ellison, Sylvia Plath, or Philip Roth. And forget about finding any daring, experimental, or milestone literary fiction more recent than about 1990. For a truly avid reader, the window offered on the world has become very small indeed.

There is a reason that Freedom Libraries are being installed in prisons all over the country and that numerous independent bookstores run programs that send free books to prisoners. They know both the power of books and the need for them. If only we could show the Missouri DOC.

22 September, 2023

Four Books I Read This Summer

Buddhism boasts a larger body of writings than any other belief system. Practitioners, of course, regard certain texts as more essential than others, and in Zen (called Ch'an in some other parts of the world), the most venerated of these are arguably the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, the Record Of The Transmission Of The Lamp, the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, and Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. The Diamond Sutra represents a small section of the very long Prajna-Paramita Sutra, from which the renowned Heart Sutra also comes.

The translation of the Diamond Sutra that I read back in July is by Venerable Cheng Kuan, a Taiwanese monk ordained in Japan, who's lectured and taught in both America and Taiwan. His bio says he has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, which makes it all the more puzzling that he would render this already challenging text the way that he has. Venerable Kuan chose to invent his own terms that he believes approximate those for which no direct English equivalents exist. It doesn't make for easy comprehension. Where most translators would use a term such as "sentient beings" to refer to all life forms, Venerable Kuan goes with the unusual, inexplicably capitalized "Mutibeings." Where other translators leave the title "Tathagatha" (one of the Buddha's ten epithets, meaning "one who has thus come" or "thus-comer") as-is, Venerable Kuan dubs the Buddha the "Thus-Adventist," a term I've never seen or heard used before. It's just weird. The frequency with which Venerable Kuan does this kind of thing makes reading his odd translation of the Diamond Sutra somewhat difficult. I'll have to give this one another go later, with a different translator's rendering.

Using more natural language but focusing on a similarly incomprehensible premise is The Shapeless Unease, a delirious, haunting, beautiful memoir by Samantha Harvey. The book covers a yearlong period during which Harvey suffered crippling insomnia. You could call her experience a nightmare if that word didn't land too painfully far from the truth. This book is a wonder. The author's literary product is no mere procedural, that follows her means and methods of seeking relief. In another writer's hands, this might've ended up a blandly straightforward account of not being able to sleep and getting increasingly frustrated with that fact. Instead, Harvey brings a discursive, poetic flair to the matter, making this memoir a must-read.

From Act II, Scene Seven, of As You Like It come the famous lines

All the world's a stage And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts

We know them even if we're not well versed in the Bard's work, and many of us recognize that even in Shakespeare's time the idea of humankind as a great acting troupe wasn't particularly original Ol' Billy just said it prettily. Until the mid-1950s, however, no one seems to have ventured a systematic look at selfhood through this particular lens. Enter Dr. Erving Goffman, stage right, wearing a perfectly nice bowtie, to deliver his monograph The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the third book I read this season.

Goffman's sociology text takes the metaphor made so famous by Shakespeare's play to its logical extreme, positing that, in what he calls "Anglo-American society," selfhood is an imputed image based on a character played within a given field of action a result of a given situation, not the cause of it. He goes into great and often amusing detail to illustrate the point, citing studies, anecdotal evidence, and historical precedent. I liked how closely Goffman's conceptual framework aligns with the Buddhist idea that inherent selfhood is an illusion. I found a lot to appreciate about Goffman's study, in fact, and read much of the book with a knowing smirk intended for an audience of myself alone.

I wonder for whom I was performing when I agreed to partake in another round with the prison's book club. Our previous book was a short story collection by local writer (and super nice guy) Ron A. Austin. This time we went big, tackling the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Not only did I read this version once before, about ten years ago, I also tried to read the not-especially good Constance Garnett translation a couple of years before that. After that initial reading, this translation became my favorite work of Russian literature more unruly than Tolstoy's tedious Anna Karenina, more soul-stirring than Solzhenitsyn's harrowing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Considering how busy I am, reading a dense 800-page novel and going to biweekly meetings to discuss it may seem foolhardy. It's too much fun to say no to, though. Our book club is a collaborative project between Saint Louis University and XSTREAM Media. SLU's Prison Education Program supplies the books, and XSTREAM broadcasts every meeting on TV, in an effort to generate more interest in reading. The University sent a professor to lead the club meetings for The Brothers Karamazov, which made for an even richer experience that I was happy to be a part of. Our often lively discussions made decent television, too.

02 September, 2023

Half Life

Not to say that I've dreaded it, but I have not looked forward to today. After this, the balance tips. A younger, more pessimistic version of myself might've offered up a grim little quip in response something ironic like, "It's all downhill from here." My perspective now is a bit broader than it used to be. Still, by this time tomorrow, and for every day that follows, unless my circumstances drastically change, I will have spent more time in prison than I've spent free.

Forty-four years after my birth, and twenty-two after my wrongful arrest, today marks the midway point between two important dates a mathematical truth with which I'm finding difficulty coming fully to terms. It seems only logical that someone who's spent the greater part of his adult life imprisoned would be substantially changed (not to say wounded; not to say stunted; not to say irreparably damaged) by the fact, but I'm less concerned with what effects such a long period of imprisonment has wrought than I am with how one should feel about crossing this particular threshold. That distinction is one of immediacy. I have the rest of my life to deal with results, but in the here and the now my mind is reeling with conflicting thoughts.

We humans are pattern-seeking creatures. In the absence of visible order, we endeavor to impose our own. The zodiac, numerology, the I Ching, Libertarianism, psychology, Freemasonry, and other disparate systems represent society's attempts to wrangle reality into a quantifiable order, to make predictable the apparent chaos of our universe. To what extent they succeed can (and will) be argued elsewhere, by someone else. My concern is what to do about 2 September.

Surely this date means something, or should mean something. An anniversary is observed with intent, but this isn't an anniversary. An expiration date serves to predict a product's usability, but I'm not expiring, and neither is my sentence of life without parole. What, then, does 2 September represent? What is its ultimate import, and what is the most healthy way to process something of that significance? And so, uncertainty.

Like California's electrical grid, I've been experiencing rolling periods of inactivity. For several days in a row, at times when I should be most active and alive, I've experienced the greatest strain. Motivation is low. There's a strong desire to sleep more. The tendency is to pessimism. On Wednesday, rather than risk irritation with my coworkers, I chose to take a half day off. I washed some laundry, read forty pages of a sociology text, then sat in meditation, hoping that by setting an intention to befriend, and thereby release, the worry, resentment, and inferiority that arise when I think about 2 September, I might go forward without its weight on my back, no longer moved to be surly and uncommunicative with people because of something I alone feel. I don't know if it helped or not.

Oftentimes, the only way out is through. There's no breath exercise that will blow this insidious feeling away. Like a storm, it probably just has to be weathered. That's cold comfort for a man out in the rain, but it is a truth. Tomorrow I'll wake up and see the world with eyes made new by the myriad subtle changes that happen in every moment, always. There's some solace in that and in the hope that it engenders that the me who wakes up on 3 September easily finds the path forward and takes his step with grace and dignity.

15 August, 2023

I rise before my alarm goes off. Moving like a man oblivious to time, I unfold gray clothes and dress myself. Outside of the cell window, dark grass claws its way free of the soil, newly fed by summer rains. I piss. I pour a cup of water. The pungence of instant coffee soon fills the space. I sit in darkness, thinking assailable thoughts.

2. A jingle of some guard's heavy brass keys wakes me with a start. The clock at the end of my bunk reads 3:18 AM
still more than two hours before I usually wake up. I lie prone, eyes closed, listening to the whoosh of air from the ducts. Several cells down the row, a toilet flushes. From far away, sleep taunts me with a call of "Catch me if you can!" 3. In the grand scheme of things, this day won't matter. These breaths I'm taking now are nothing, from the unfathomable perspective of the universe's infinite void. Why bother at all with this alarm, this pathetic little device created to instill in the humans who use it a vain sense of purpose as we stumble about our minuscule lives? Why get out of bed? Why dress and shave and all the rest if this, in the cosmic sense, will all be over soon anyway? My stripped-clean bones' ultimate disintegration, these concrete walls' crumbling to dust, and the heat death of the universe itself are all inevitabilities so why expend the energy to get up? Yet somehow, I muster enough fortitude to open one eye.... 4. There was a song. Now I don't remember how it went. We were singing it together, the cast of The Simpsons and myself. I don't mean the voice actors who perform as characters for the show, but the characters themselves. We were in a Matt Groening version of Denny's, performing terrible, croony songs for the elderly midday diners. I wake up wondering whether it's stranger that my mind could envision me singing alongside cartoon characters or that I might dream about a TV series I haven't watched in more than twenty-four years. 5. Morning. The bed is the perfect temperature not so warm that I risk sweating, not so cool that I'll bother dragging my blanket up from the foot. I also, somehow, have found a comfortable position. The sheets are clean and still fluffy from yesterday's washing. I could stay right here, just like this, until noon except there's work to be done. 6.
I bolt upright and slap my alarm clock. I lie back down and stretch my arms, my neck, my legs, my spine. A thought crosses my mind: Exactly when did I become someone who doesn't care to sleep in?. Climbing down from the bunk, I slip. In the awkward process of righting myself, I twist my wrist to a point just this side of painful. For a moment, the temptation is to pre-emptively resign myself to a cavalcade of minor failures today. A moment later, I reconsider, regroup, and find my center. I embark.

31 July, 2023

A President's Vision

The twentieth annual Speak Easy Gavel Club awards and swearing-in banquet was held in the visiting room at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center yesterday afternoon. It's tradition for the incoming president to give a vision speech that gives club members a sense of what they might expect to see in the coming year. Here is the vision speech that I delivered to my fellow Gaveliers and the prison's Institutional Activities Coordinator, Deputy Warden, and Warden. Afterward, the warden twice said to me, "Let me know what you need." I'll take that as a sign that the club put our best face forward.

* * * * *

In the five years since I joined this club, I've witnessed a lot of changes in our fellow members, in our leadership, in our meeting times. My earliest meetings were attended by a VIC, a Volunteer in Corrections, Mr. Dan Curry, who came every week and not only oversaw our activities but walked the Toastmasters education path alongside us, fulfilling assignments in the manuals as he worked toward his Competent Communicator and Competent Leader certification. The enthusiasm he displayed was inspiring to a new member like myself, especially since I didn't fully know what possessed me to sign up for an organization that I always thought was for corporate management wannabes and aspiring youth pastors.

That's not me. I never had corporate ambitions or a yearning to spread the Word. The fact is, as some of you know, I'm a bit of an oddball. I grew up kind of quiet, kind of quirky, more solitary reader than team leader. Yet here I am, speaking to you as the president of the Speak Easy Gavel Club, at our twentieth annual banquet.

I don't want this to sound like an icebreaker speech, because those of you who are members already know me. I assume you do, anyway, and that that's why you asked me to run, then elected me to this office.

In the past year and a half, first as an interim officer, then for a full term, I served as this club's Vice President Education. I loved being VPE, and I think my experience typifies what the club experience is about. You know that old saying about there being those who are born great and those who have greatness thrust upon them? It's the same with leadership. I never wanted to hold office in anything. Then a previous VPE pulled me to the back of the room and basically told me to perform his duties for the three months before he went home. People saw that I was doing his job, so they made his job my job.

This is how it is, a lot of times. One piece of wisdom that I took from Mr. Curry, the VIC I mentioned a moment ago, was to ask of every situation, "What have I learned from this?" The thing I learned from being thrust into the office of VPE was that we often don't know what we're capable of until someone says, "Do this." How will you find out what you can do if you never try?

As VPE, I tried to introduce a variety of special meetings about one per month that stretched the boundaries of what members thought themselves capable, or of what they believed might be interesting, but still involved the communication skills and quick thinking that Toastmasters is known for. It was the belief of Mr. Ralph Smedley, who founded Toastmasters in 1924, that we learn best in moments of enjoyment. In that spirit, I tried to bring fun into the meetings while staying true to our educational mission.

My one-year term as VPE ended on the first of this month. I had to pass the responsibilities along, so I did that in the same way as it was done to me, by pawning the role off on some poor schmuck. Thank you, Mr. Peirano, for taking the mantle and bringing your attentiveness to that important position.

So, the presidency. The membership has chosen me to lead our club into 2024. I had an opportunity last Friday to meet with what incoming board members we currently have, and at that meeting I made clear my expectations of as well as my hopes for each of them as club officers. To sum this up in three words, that's: persistence, professionalism, and perspective.

Think about these clichés. "You get what you give." "It works if you work it." "You get out what you put in." Is there anyone in this room who doesn't believe that we'll improve ourselves if we fully embrace our responsibilities in this club? Is there anyone here who thinks we're in anything other the business of self-improvement? What I tried to do as VPE, and what I will continue to do as president, is remind every member of this club as often as I can that we became Gaveliers to improve our communication and leadership skills.

Okay, maybe that's not entirely true. Transferred here from a facility on the opposite side of the state, I signed up to meet people and to network. You might ask, "Why not just do that on the yard? Why sign up for a callout?" The answer's simple: a Gavelier has at least a spark inside that they're trying to coax a fire from a fire of enthusiasm, a fire of rhetoric, a fire like a phoenix, rising up from the ashes of another, former self, the self that came though that gate one, two, twenty, or however many years ago.

This club is a tool for self-betterment. We can use it to its fullest extent, but we that means work. And this involves more than just showing up every week, maybe being asked to serve as timer or to count speakers' crutch words or to deliver a TableTopics speech. It means planning what you're going to do and then doing it. I see a Gavel Club that's not afraid of taking personal risks if you were at our April membership drive event, or you saw it on TV, you see the superhero aerobics-class improv skit. That was silly, and those guys who got up to participate threw everything they had into the bit. That's the kind of fearless energy I love to see in meetings. I'd like to see it displayed more outside of the club, too.

I have a vision for this club that lies outside the scope of what we've been comfortable with so far, and what previous ERDCC administrators have allowed. I see our members not as mere Gaveliers but as future community organizers, business managers, peer counselors, heads of families, influencers, church leaders, city councilpersons, and so much more. I plan to invite guest speakers from outside and inside the facility, to host seminars that break down barriers and encourage productive conversation across boundary lines, and to nudge us all past our comfort zones to find the places where real growth takes place. I want to make an independent leader out of every single member of this club.

That's my vision, but how do we achieve it? How do we travel from one place to another? How do we build a house? How do we start a movement? How did I, as a new club member, become Vice President Education, or President, for that matter? How does a person do anything? It's actually the easiest thing in the world. You do the thing by doing it.

I want to do the thing, and I want you all to do it right alongside me. I see changes coming to ERDCC, and more importantly, I see a real hunger among its population for positive activity and meaningful structure. This club is uniquely positioned to give them both. That's the thing. I want to do it. Who's with me?

14 July, 2023

Swing, Batter! Suffer, Byron!

One of the most popular XSTREAM Media programs is easily Game of the Week. This in-house production produced by my coworkers and me is nothing more than video footage of a Recreation Department-sanctioned team sport being played in the previous seven days of its broadcast. Sometimes the game is Pickleball, at other times it's basketball. Whatever the sport, I dislike having anything to do with it.

For years, every annual "King of the Hill" sports event at ERDCC was recorded with a single video camera, then broadcast without graphics on the person's closed-circuit TV system and it was fine. That all changed when one of my coworkers bragged about the last prison he was at, saying in our boss's presence, "Back at Potosi, we used to tape every basketball game." It wasn't a week before the boss bought two $1,200 shoulder-mounted Panasonic video cameras and told us to start producing weekly sports broadcasts. So we do. I designed a logo for XSTREAM Sports that transformed the head of our vaguely menacing octopus logo into a basketball. Then I made a Pickleball version. Then I did one for softball. If they ever allow prisoners to play soccer in Missouri, I'll probably have to make a version for that, too.

If only that's where my responsibility ended. Every Tuesday, because no one else is available, the three members of Team XSTREAM who are too nerdy and/or crowd-averse to play team sports
Ridhwan, Jason, and myself gear up and head out to the diamond to record another "exciting" round of ball-and-stick. For the record, for those who don't know me or haven't followed this blog long enough to know, videotaping a summer softball game is pretty close to being as un-Byronic as an activity can get. (Attending the performance of a Journey cover band, accompanied by two excitable children, would be one that goes a step further.) I'm basically a human-mushroom hybrid and thrive in cool, dark places. There are three simple reasons why: (1) I don't tolerate heat, (2) I quickly scorch when exposed to direct sunlight, and (3) I don't understand the rules nor the mass appeal of sport in general. Nevertheless, there I go, every Tuesday, up onto the volleyball stand, to train a camera over a fence and record two back-to-back games of slow-pitch softball. The camera I run sits just beside the batting cage. The commentators who mike up and feed audio into my camera are a couple of wise-asses intent on roasting every player they can: "His teeth look like he just ate a box of Cheez-Its and didn't brush." "Here comes Charles Manson up to the plate." "Armstrong is a terrible player. Terrible." "His pants are so tight, they're cutting off circulation to his brain." "It's Sammy's birthday today. He's 88 years old and still pitching." And so on. About half the time, I get a headache hearing their yammering through my headphones for two hours at a stretch. It would help if they were at least funny.
Alas, sunburn and a sore neck seem to be my weekly lot in life now. It's a peculiar place to be. We don't have Nielsen ratings, just word on the yard. Like I said, though, the population seems to like it which is what really matters.

27 June, 2023

Two Books I Read This Spring

In the first chapter of Walter de la Mare's 1922 novel Memoirs of a Midget, the female narrator says, "It is true that my body is among the smaller works of God." (A journalist, we are told, once wrote this about her.) She adds, "But I think [the journalist] paid rather too much attention to this fact."

Indeed, Memoirs of a Midget runs from front to back with that sentiment. It imagines the life of a little person and her closest associations. The title today sounds outdated; at worst, even offensive. Such is the fate of a lot of literature that's fortunate enough to survive into subsequent centuries. Moving past the wording of the book's title, though, I found a lovely, bittersweet, compassionate story that treats its narrator's minuscule stature as secondary to the point that she's a complicated person with a deep inner life. Yes, Memoirs of a Midget encroaches at times on the borderlands of twee, owing mostly to its sentimentality characteristic of a lot of books of its time but it never quite goes over the edge. I'm glad I took the recommendation of the New York Review of Books on this one.

Toiling over the works of John Berryman for months gave me an appreciation for the poet, as well as for the origin of the Nick Cave lyric, "Bukowski was a jerk; Berryman was best / He wrote like wet papier mâché / but he went the Hemingway / weirdly on wings and with maximum pain" (from the excellent song "We Call upon the Author"). This is not to say that I enjoyed what I read, but I respected it.

The volume that I combed, Collected Poems, 1937-1971, edited and annotated by Charles Thornbury, brings together what I can only call the lesser work of this tortured, enraptured soul. It includes Berryman's collections The Dispossessed, Sonnets to Chris, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, Love & Fame, Delusions etc of John Berryman, as well as excerpts from Short Poems, His Thought Made Pockets & the Plane Bukt, Twenty Poems, and Poems
a veritable Berryman trove. Conspicuously absent is The Dream Songs, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Thornbury writes that he omitted that work because Berryman didn't personally select and arrange that collection. I'm skeptical. Thornbury's introduction employs a quote from the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in which she writes of Berryman, "I have been struggling with these sonnets many beautiful lines but I do find him difficult." If Thornbury intended to (as I suspect he did) emphasize how challenging this work can be, avoiding Berryman's most read, highest-awarded, and, arguably, most respected work makes good, strategic sense. Accordingly, this collection feels at times like a test. Berryman owes a debt to Shakespeare, and his reliance on form and frequent use of bardic language give his poems a trying air of fustiness. I get the most out of him when he seems to try the least hard. In spite of how stuffy the fourteen-line structure can feel in other poets' hands, Sonnets to Chris, the 117 sonnets written for his mistress over the course of just six months, seem to mark Berryman at his most relatable, probably because the sonnets expose his humanity amid a torrid extramarital affair he was having at that time. I won't likely be reading the fantasies or children's books of Walter de la Mare. If I read anything more by John Berryman it'll be his much-lauded Dream Songs (and that probably not for several years). These high-flying books have put me in the mood for some very grounded nonfiction.

13 June, 2023


Within a couple of days of D.R. moving into the wing, I got to see the range of this young man's talent and humor. We met when he leaned his lanky frame through the open doorway of the production studio where my coworkers and I had just taped another episode of our in-prison cooking show, THIS IS FIRE. D.R. had been lured away from the basketball court by the smell of a Tex-Mex pizza our host had just made.

"What goes on in here?" D.R. wanted to know. In the dreary, do-nothing environment of prison, the bright lights and big green screen of our studio attract a lot of attention. Clipboard in hand, oversized headphones around my neck, I explained THIS IS FIRE's premise, then summarized the other TV programs that we create and broadcast. "Man," he said, "you're like a real producer!"

He and I ended up talking for a half hour, right then. I learned that D.R. was twenty-three years old about the same age as I was when I came to prison. He was an aspiring rapper from Saint Louis. He showed me, on his tablet, some clips of music videos that feature him rapping about being broke, having personality crises, and living as a young black man in a mad world of biases and belligerence. The kid had bars. I expressed sincere praise.

D.R lived upstairs in my wing. The administration moved him in as part of the mentorship program recently begun here at ERDCC. He was a mentee, a first-time offender who staff believed could benefit from being housed in an honor dorm, undertaking a regimen of self-reflection, and being advised by older prisoners with a good deal of experience doing time. It's weird to think that I now meet the criteria and have been made a mentor. I took a genuine liking to D.R. and spent some time with him, talking about his music, his ideas about living, his dreams, and making TV. He could rap off the cuff as well as write solid rhymes, and was serious about honing his skills. He also had a mischievous streak. As he told jokes, he slung his limbs around with an artless grace that I admired. He laughed freely and often. But I saw anger in him, too. When a guard asked him, more gruffly than necessary, why he was taking two dinner trays at the serving window, D.R. copped an attitude. He could've instead just pointed to the guy on crutches he was helping out. Just as it seemed as if a shouting match would develop, D.R. evidenced some restraint. I told him later that he handled it all right but had enough wherewithal to control his temper better in the future. I knew that involvement with positive activities now could set the stage for his whole sentence. It was all the more important because of the long road that D.R., fresh to prison, now faces. After he and I got better acquainted, I approached my boss to see about inviting D.R. to cohost a show we're developing, The Karaoke Threat, which is basically our answer to Wild'n Out. The boss said yes. I was thrilled to tell D.R. the news. Here was a chance for him to get in at the ground floor and establish himself as a personality with plenty to offer the ERDCC community
an opportunity that, had it come my way, might have changed the whole trajectory of my early years in prison. Like an excited kid, D.R. went around, crowing how he was going to be XSTREAM's first megastar. A couple of days after I introduced him to his cohosts, Luke and Kenny, my XSTREAM teammates, D.R. brought me a crude little illustration of himself onstage with an XSTREAM octopus logo behind him. He couldn't wait. "Just be patient," Luke told him one day. "We're waiting for a couple more people to sign up. Then we'll start taping." D.R. was itching to flaunt his hip-hop chops to the population. Meanwhile, life in the wing was tedious. There's only so much pinochle a guy can play every day before he needs to get out and start doing something. D.R. wanted a job. I advised him to wait until something better came along, but he got antsy. Since the kitchen's always hiring, that's the job he went after, to work the lunch shift. I wanted so badly for D.R. to outshine the image of the angry young black man that some people perceived him as. He could use his talent to such great ends. But when the guards hoisted him off the kitchen's greasy floor and took him to the Hole, D.R.'s first day on the job, any immediate hope for that disappeared.
It's been a week; I still don't know what exactly transpired that afternoon, why the guards used force to restrain him, or what initially sparked the conflict. I might never find out. I do know that we tape Episode One of The Karaoke Threat on Saturday. It won't be nearly as good without D.R. and his freestyling. I hope he's doing okay.

25 May, 2023

A Prose Poem


Listening to ten-year-old music podcasts can inspire melancholia.

This is particularly true when unmoored and far from any cultural shore. Music, technology, habits. When my thoughts drift to freedom, I consider the ethics of gas versus electric, methods for socializing, personal finance. The popularity of fitted shirts inspires minor anxiety. To be a stranger in that strange land! To shroud myself and adhere to wayward genres and write missives to a world that can never understand. To wake at an unseemly hour, meditate and stare into the predawn dark as if in defiance of all that's been done. (Notice I'm not directly blaming.) To return to the town, a nobleman of no rank, a man with dreams, however ostentatiously realistic. A cup of coffee. A splay of fruit on a white ceramic plate. A sunrise.
If this seems like nothing to you, old friend, wait till you get to be my age.

19 May, 2023

No Rest for the Weary

By the bylaws of the Speak Easy Gavel Club, I couldn't run for a second full term as Vice President Education. Not that I wanted to; being VPE takes work. After serving as an interim officer for seven months and then for a full term, I've done my bit to further the membership's communication and leadership goals. It's time for someone else to make the schedules, plan special meetings, and track members' progress along the Toastmasters education track.

I was fully prepared to kick back and rest on my laurels. The idea was to work on speech projects from Toastmasters' Storytelling and Communicating on Video manuals and that's all. I wanted a breather. Instead, a clubmate nominated me for President. One by one, over a period of a couple of weeks, almost half of the active members approached to ask me if I'd run. I caved. They voted me in. So much for kicking back.

Outgoing President Roberts is leaving office while the club is on an upward trajectory. Our previous president left in ignominy a minor scandal resulting in the club's first-ever disciplinary hearing, which I, in the capacity of VPE, had to chair. Roberts returned to active membership after a years-long absence, to run for and ultimately serve out the nine months remaining in our ousted leader's term. We were grateful, but not enough to keep him in office for another year

This is not to say that Roberts wasn't a good president. He succeeded in getting a state politician to RSVP as a guest for our annual awards and installation banquet. He also kicked the club's ongoing fundraiser into high gear with the purchase of a deep freeze for storing frozen foods that provide a higher profit margin than Mrs. Freshly's fruit pies offer us. It's no surprise, Roberts was expecting to be re-elected to serve a full term. I understand his disappointment, even though I think a little too much ego-fulfillment fueled his efforts.

Luckily, a Gavel Club or Toastmasters President does less than their Vice President Education has to. I've been training what I hoped would be my successor for months, and now he's taking my place in the role. I can hardly wait to hand over to him the massive black accordion folder that's taken up space beside my desk for a year and a half. The first thing I have to do is compose a vision speech for our upcoming awards and installation banquet.
I have plenty of ideas about how to improve and expand our club doings, including how to better the club's reputation among the prison's population. We'll see how successfully I can herd these cats. Maybe I'll get a chance to present a few speech projects too. Wish me luck!