30 March, 2023

The Happy Man

Max Brod, literary heir to Franz Kafka, believed that diaries never record the highs of life, only the lows. He wrote that diaries "resemble a kind of defective barometric curve," recording only what is "oppressive or irritating" to their keepers.

Notwithstanding Brod's somewhat cynical take, we need only think about the rhapsodic diary entries of a teenager in love, or of a researcher hot on the trail of some long-sought bit of data, to see how wrong Brod's absolutism about diaries truly was. Still, the man got me thinking.

Sure, the twenty-first century has diarists (in the strict sense of the word), but one of our most prevalent forms of personal journaling may be the blog. Without too deeply analyzing what, exactly, this blog is, I can say that The Pariah's Syntax comprises a fractured but honest record of my life in prison, from 2007 to the present
the closest thing I have to a diary. Reading over old posts, I have to further question Brod's sentiment, because while I do often blog about weird and unpleasant stuff (prison's no picnic, after all), there are also quite a few posts about funny exchanges, serendipitous moments, and simple joy. Readers have commented on my sense of humor as much as, if not more than, on the tragedy of my wrongful conviction. And don't forget the weekly comic strip I drew here for almost a year. While it wasn't strictly biographical, it directly drew from my experiences in the literary world, inherently kind of a funny place. This inconsistent online diary obviously fails the Max Brod test pretty badly. Someone, somewhere else claimed that it's impossible to write a good story about a happy man. Their premise was that desire and conflict are necessary to storytelling. Ache propels narrative; characters that want for nothing permit no plot. A writer has to know what drives those who populate the work, so that those desires can be either met or withheld in service to the narrative. The same is true of all writing, whether novelistic, journalistic, or bloggy. In writing this blog, week after week, I feel obligated to give you something at least moderately interesting to read about. In years past, that seemed easier. I could jot down an indignant, maybe snarky account of some prison-yard happening, and that'd be that. Sometimes readers even left nice comments. As the twenty-two year anniversary of my imprisonment approaches, I find it harder to muster much indignation. I accept too much without complaint. Basically, I'm too happy. Its a weird concept, I realize, but true. And who wants to read the thoughts of someone who responds to stressful situations with calm, or who smirks and says, "So it goes," when others see catastrophe looming? I wonder if I'm doing you a disservice by not conjuring up a little more irritation now and again. People who see me every day have spoken about my "Zenlike calm" in the face of harrowing circumstances. A neighbor who recently learned that I practice Buddhism was like, "Wow. That explains everything!" (I had to laugh; exactly what needed explaining?) However, it's true that this practice can incline one's mind toward peaceful acceptance. Does this mean that Buddhists make shitty diarists?
Putting that fruitless question aside, the next imponderable that I present is how might a writer keep satisfaction and harmony from killing a narrative? I suppose I mean that to be rhetorical. This isn't a post about crafting a story, nor about finding happiness. Not directly, anyway. I'm in no position to write about either. I'm just sharing with you, dear reader, what thoughts have recently popped up in my mind. Your comments, of course, are welcomed.

21 March, 2023

Five Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Ever since my high-school girlfriend read the conceptually unique 1884 novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, it's been on my radar. I finally got around to reading Flatland during an afternoon lockdown this spring, exactly thirty years later. Some things just take a little time. Flatland's author, Edward Abbott Abbot, stretched readers imaginations and redoubled their perspectives with this whimsical piece of speculative fiction about the life of a square in a two-dimensional plane of existence. The square first theorizes then, suddenly and for no apparent reason, receives proof that a third dimension exists. He's visited by a sphere, a being with foreknowledge about the future, who speaks to the square about a matter of great import for every dimension of reality, hinting at, yet never revealing, a grand prophesy on the eve of coming to pass. He pulls the square into three-dimensional, one-dimensional, and, finally, single-pointed space, thereby blowing the narrator's flat mind. However, when the square returns to his native Flatland and reveals his knowledge to its rulers, he's judged a heretic and jailed. After its breezy beginning, Flatland grims things down significantly in its latter half, leaving me wondering what, if anything, Abbott intended as the message of this puzzling little novel.

Decidedly less ambiguous in its intent was the The Relive Box and Other Stories, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. Good ol' T.C. rarely disappoints. With stories focusing on illegal immigrants, ethically dubious technology, and so-so parenting, Boyle's all over the map with his subjects, but never unclear about what his stories are saying. I loved rereading some of these stories from The New Yorker and Pushcart Prize collections where I first encountered them, and those that I never read before made reading this book a bit like eating a box of assorted chocolates diverse, but always delicious.

I read Boyle's contemporary prose in a traditional format, but I turned to the e-book reader on my tablet to read (somewhat ironically) humanity's oldest known work of literature. The library of free public-domain texts offered includes An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic on the Basis of Recently Discovered Texts, compiled and annotated for the Yale Oriental Series of Researches, published in 1920 by professors Morris Jastrow Junior and Albert T. Clay. It's a long title for a short work, but maybe this ancient epic deserves a bit of pomp. My primary interest in Gilgamesh fell on how it bears the indisputable marks of one tale pasted onto another, even older story
that of Enkidu, a primitive savage who's tamed and domesticated by a sophisticated, worldly woman. (Literature's very first meet-cute!) This edition features a translators' introduction that points to numerous seams where the story of Gish, its hero, was likely grafted onto that of Enkidu which didn't diminish but, rather, increased my fascination with the work. I had conceived of starting a book club here at the prison a while ago, but it was my friend and coworker Luke who suggested that we proposition the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program to supply us with books for it. SLU does so much here, but the representatives and faculty are always welcoming of suggestions as to how they might do even more. A book club seemed like the perfect thing. We wrote a formal proposal to SLU and the ERDCC administration, requesting permission to video-record the meetings and show them on TV, and the University took care of the rest. Our first iteration met three times to discuss the story collection Avery Colt Is a Snake, a Thief, a Liar, by Missouri writer Ron A. Austin. SLU, where Austin teaches, supplied us with fifteen free copies. I'd be lying if I claimed that there's any way I would have picked this book up, otherwise. Its comic-inspired cover seemed too hodgepodge, and the mention of an MFA degree in Austin's bio made me wary. The graduates of MFA programs too often turn out blah, tedious, undifferentiated fiction. Austin's was hardly that. These linked, often harrowing stories, with their shared, put-upon protagonist, Avery, served as windows into a community (i.e., North Saint Louis) that I never might've otherwise glimpsed. Many of them are also pretty entertaining. The discussions held in our book club's three meetings made for a really engaging experience. I can hardly wait for the next title! Meanwhile, I turned again to my e-reader and read F. Max Muller's translation of The Dhammapada: A Collection of Verses Being One of the Canonical Books of the Buddhists, published, in 1881, as Volume X, Part I, of Oxford's Sacred Books of the East series. Orientalism was en vogue in Britain at that time, and this translation from Pali was probably an effort to cash in on the national fixation.
The first Buddhist texts were inscribed on palm leaves 2,300 years ago, roughly two hundred years after the Buddha's death. Fortunately, early Buddhism's emphasis on repetition to preserve the teachings (total memorization of the Dhammapada is common among Buddhist monks) means that we can be pretty confident in the verisimilitude of what's been preserved. Translations of the Dhammapada the original teachings of the Buddha that came after this one probably succeed in putting finer points on the language than earlier versions. For instance, I question Fuller's use of "law" for what later translators call "dharma" or "teachings," and of "church" for the untranslated "sangha" (a group of dharma practitioners). But I doubt anything egregious enough to lead a reader astray slipped into Fuller's translation. At least, it comports with my understanding of Buddhist concepts, which is what matters.

It's worth noting that several people have sent me books within the past few months
Valarie V., my mother, and Kristy H. and that I'm grateful for the generosity and thoughtfulness they showed in ordering me literature they knew I'd love. Prison is prison, however, and I still haven't received them. I do have a grievance pending against the prison's mail room, the black hole into which many people's books seem to fall. One guy in my wing had a book show up eleven months after Amazon reported it delivered. No explanation was given.
I have these e-books on my tablet, at least, to keep me mentally engaged until the literary cavalry arrives. Expect to see my thoughts on some century-old texts in the next reading list I post, but please wish me luck that I'll finish it out with those missing titles by Angela Carter, John Daido Loori, and Kazuo Ishiguro!

13 March, 2023

Shower Sharks

For how long have there been jokes (or "jokes") about taking showers in prison? The most popular has to be "Don't drop the soap!" Locker rooms are just as often mentioned in this context. Communal showers are really to blame, but this isn't a post about that.

Newer prisons at least the ones in Missouri steer away from this particular flavor of institutional demoralization, favoring individual stalls over the shower rooms that invite such a slew of unpleasant circumstances. But even though there's no en-masse nudity in these places, a form of moderate predation on the naked endures. Its name is shower sharking.

Simply put, a shower shark is someone who watches others shower. This doesn't have to be an up-close violation. In fact, most shower sharks engage in the practice surreptitiously and from afar, catching glimpses here and there as they walk past someone in a shower stall, or positioning themselves so as to have a good side-eye view, often from all the way across the wing. Arguably the worst shower sharks are the shameless ones who set a chair on an upper tier that let's them stare down, unabashedly, at an angle revealing more of their prey than mere eye-level sharking would
but they're all creepy as hell. The stalls at Crossroads Correctional Center, where I spent sixteen years, have doors that conceal an average person's body from chest to knee. The curtains here at ERDCC, the prison that's housed me since 2018, are comparable. Showers at both facilities are positioned near the front of the wing, at the end of each row of cells, which puts FM adjacent to a lot of foot traffic. Certain passersby like to sneak occasional peeks. One guy, whose cell is uncomfortably close to the shower with the wing's best water pressure (see my 2021 post on choosing a showers in prison for more on this selection process), often makes eye contact as he steps in or out of his door. On one uncomfortable occasion he paused to peer downward as I stood there, shaving my head, with my back to curtain. I spied his reflection in my shaving mirror and shouted, "What are you looking at, creep?" He hasn't peeked in on me since, but others haven't been so fortunate. A quick shaming of our local voyeur would probably do them as much good as it did me.
I suspect that shower sharks aren't all predators in the conventional sense. I doubt they'd seek out naked men to ogle if none presented themselves. Their sharking seems to be a crime of opportunity. Give us full-length shower curtains and the problem of shower sharking, like our naked bodies, will disappear.

01 March, 2023


"Care keeps his watch in every old man's eye," wrote Shakespeare, "And where care lodges sleep will never lie." This couplet from Romeo and Juliet encapsulates the nature of at least one form of insomnia, the scourge that is an overactive mind. The older I get, the less worry I feel, but this hasn't saved my sleep.

I lived through a period of chronic insomnia that lasted for about two years. High-dosage prescription sleep aids barely had any effect; restlessness stalked me through my days of walking death, fueled by caffeine and four hours' sleep, then hounded me in bed as I rolled and tossed fitfully, as though physical discomfort was my problem. Getting to sleep seemed impossible, most nights, even if I well and truly wore myself ragged during the day. This torture ended only after I sustained terrible loss and encountered real grief for the first time. As though I'd received shock treatment for my psyche, my mind seemed to reset after that, and I suddenly could sleep like the dead.

Things changed again upon my imprisonment. Jail sleep is a pathetic excuse for rest. Prison usually offers improved conditions, but not necessarily by much. Many factors here can interfere with the body's natural rhythm
light pollution, a cellmate's stirrings, guards' middle-of-the-night walkthroughs, neighbors' late nights, a heinously uncomfortable mattress, excessive or inadequate heat, and, yes, the care to which Shakespeare referred. With a wrongful conviction overshadowing one's life, as you can imagine, worry and woe tend to linger. Nevertheless, after a couple of years futilely pursuing acceptable sleep, I found rest again. I regained a state of mental peace, despite my circumstances, and slept soundly enough to forge a way through some of the most purpose-driven days of my life. Recently, though, for reasons obscure, the quality of my sleep changed yet again. In the 1992 movie Groundhog Day, the cynical weatherman Phil Connors, Bill Murray's character, finds himself physically and psychologically trapped in his least favorite place on earth, reliving the same day over and over (and over and over...). For the past month and a half, for no apparent reason, I've been sleeping the nonsleep that Phil suffers in Groundhog Day my eyes close at night, for no longer than a blink, then open in the morning, dearly wishing my alarm going off were just someone's idea of a joke. I've discouraged comparisons of prison life to Groundhog Day for a long time, because they always refer to its first half, in which Phil's pessimistic nature leads him to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Nobody talking about the movie is trying to invoke the positive, life-affirming message of the movie's latter half, which parallels that Miltonic phrase, "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." Regardless, I now admit to one similarity between my life and Phil's: we both sleep like shit. There doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. Unlike with the insomnia I suffered in the past, this is about the quality, not the quantity, of my sleep. The typical recommendations for solving this problem buy a new mattress, adjust the thermostat, take some melatonin, or simply wake up a bit later in the morning don't apply. Institutional regimen permits no such luxuries.
I'll be okay, though. I always am. And in those future moments when something like despair encroaches because my shut-eye sucks, I can at least take solace in knowing there's no Sonny and Cher song playing when I do rise to meet the day.