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.