21 March, 2024

Four Books I Read This Winter

Without the book club that I joined last year, this and the previous post about my reading habits would probably be shorter. We used to meet biweekly. Since December, to accommodate the professor's teaching schedule, our meetings went monthly. I read at the same pace, but now I eagerly anticipate the second Wednesday of the month.

Our club's selection this go-round was actually one that I suggested. I'd wanted for several years to read Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's novel about the identity and status of a black man in a society that only sees in him what they find personally or ideologically expedient. The other members of the club assented, and Saint Louis University bought enough copies of the book to supply our needs and then some.

From its opening pages to its harrowing epilogue, satire, symbolism, and seething anger suffuse Invisible Man. In between, the unnamed narrator recounts the long series of ordeals he's endured at the hands of people who seem to have more control over his life than he himself does. The man is villainized, fetishized, and bullied at every turn, and only in the final scenes does he come to a crucial realization and act in his own best interests. The book was written in the early 1950s but remains relevant. It fueled long, trenchant conversations with my fellow book clubbers and made for an enriching, eye-opening read. At several points in my literary travels over the years, I encountered references to a highly regarded work of social criticism, Amusing Ourselves to Death, written in the early '80s by a man by the name of Neil Postman. The author published a number of books that decried television's deleterious effects on society, the declining quality of education, and the ethical poverty of news media. I had to read it. Amusing Ourselves to Death sat quietly on my wish list for years before I found myself in the mood for a media studies text. (You know, as one does.) Since no one else saw fit to do so, I eventually just bought it for myself. The method that Postman uses in this short, sometimes quite funny book, is a systematic one. He first describes how our minds are shaped, then lays out his theory that TV is ruining both our attention spans and our expectations of what media should be, as well as eroding our receptivity to education. After that, he traces the history of American discourse from the highly literate pamphleteers among the American colonists, all the way to "PBS News Hour." There are times when Postman's subject matter will raise skeptical readers' eyebrows. Not sounding like a cranky old fart is hard whenever you're arguing that time has changed things for the worse. Postman fights this fight unflaggingly, however, and those who stick with him, even through his fartiest-sounding claims, will eventually be won over. It's difficult to disagree with the rationale of his ultimate conclusions. There's a reason that Amusing Ourselves to Death is still assigned in colleges today, decades after Postman wrote it. If anything, he's even more relevant in our current era of the listicle, the news blast, and the fifteen-second commercial. The now-deceased writer David Markson came to my attention through a David Shields book that impressed the hell out of me thirteen years ago, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Shields's book implicitly asks readers what they think about when they think about literature — what forms, what meanings, what rules? The two books I read by Markson ask these same questions, ostensibly in novelistic form. Both This Is Not a Novel and its sort-of sequel, Vanishing Point, try to be works of fiction without characters or plot. The degree to which Markson succeeds depends on what you think fiction is and how you define "characters."
This Is Not a Novel starts off with the line, "Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing." There's nothing quite like ennui to fuel a good book, but Markson doesn't give two shits about narrative. He writes it all ("with no intimation of story anywhere") from notes on index cards collected and meticulously assembled by the character he names Writer. This was clearly Markson's method, also. And Vanishing Point does the same thing all over again. The smell of metafiction is strong on these books. There's also a lot about death. Assuming that Markson did good research and isn't trying to dupe anyone, we readers learn from him that Darwin wrote of being "nauseated" by poetry, that Italo Calvino died of a cerebral hemorrhage, that Mitsubishi manufactured the torpedoes used in the Pearl Harbor attack, that Abraham Lincoln never saw Europe, and a thousand other seemingly random facts, quotes, and observations that comprise these two weird little books. I've got another one still waiting for me, Markson's The Last Novel, the final work in a triptych he completed before his 2003 death.

13 March, 2024

The Great Spork Shortage of 2024

Call them disgusting, call them malnourishing, or call them gross, but prison meals, regardless of the facility serving them, have been consistently eaten at the same times of day for as long as the carceral system has existed. Routine is the foundation on which prisons traditionally operate; however, time changes all things, and even the most fervently held tradition is no exception.

There used to be a time when a prison meal being postponed for anything less than a full-on security breach was unimaginable. The phrase "like clockwork" applied very well. And now? It can be argued that there's no good time to come to prison, but this is an especially bad time for it — at least in Missouri, and particularly at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center, where it seems that everything is in a perpetual state of falling apart. This includes the dining experience.

We eat from brown, five-slot plastic trays. When I arrived at ERDCC, in 2018, cafeteria-style utensil cups occupied a cart, midway through the line, where there were bright orange sporks to eat your food with and eight-ounce aubergine tumblers for drinking the watered-down Kool-Aid. But allegations of utensil theft eventually prompted the kitchen staff to relocate the sporks to the serving line, where they began doling them out, one per tray. This worked fine but did little to stop anyone from taking stuff out of the dining hall. A person used to catch a conduct violation if they brought their own cup or utensil to the dining hall — or anything personal, for that matter, including canteen-bought condiments. That policy hasn't changed. The second rule painted in big, black letters on the beige brick wall (right after "NO HEADGEAR") still clearly reads, "NO PERSONAL ITEMS," it's just that no one enforces it anymore. Less than a year since I last saw someone turned away for having a coffee mug in his hand, bringing one's own personal cup and spork is now actively encouraged. Guards frequently make announcements over the intercom before releasing the housing unit to a meal, saying that the kitchen has no clean sporks or cups. Consistency in the institution's day-to-day operations has slowly, frustratingly, eroded since I arrived here, but this just seems ridiculous. Irregular mealtimes and staff's frequent failure to announce important events are bad enough, but when institutional amnesia about mealtime must-haves takes complete hold, what's a hungry guy to do? I purchased my own sturdy plastic spork from the canteen for 23¢, but I'm not always packing. Yesterday morning's oatmeal presented a challenge that I didn't care to answer, but when they caught me off guard on chili mac day, a couple of weeks ago, I was happy to have clean hands. My fingers smelled like onions and spices for the rest of the day, but I didn't miss that meal.
The odds of not getting a spork with any given tray are now close to fifty-fifty. I should know better than to come unequipped, but stubborn expectations keep winning out. The DOC's new fiscal quarter starts in April; maybe they'll invest in a remedy to this issue then.

07 March, 2024

Losing: It Gets Easier with Practice

Just a week and some days after my last post, the Missouri Court of Appeals issued a two-paragraph opinion denying my motion to recall the trial court's mandate. The judge's ruling said, in essence, that my claims of fraud on the court weren't appropriate for that venue. It wasn't that the issues I brought to them were invalid but that another court would have to decade them.

This is exactly what the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, under a different judge, decided about different issues, the last time I filed anything in my case. In my appeal of the Missouri Court of Appeals' 2004 mandate, the court declined to make a ruling and passed the buck to the US Supreme Court with all the judicial thoroughness of someone in a hurry to get back to his lunch. I was as confused as I was angry. <<i>>They get to just do that!? They get to just say, "Nah, I don't feel like deciding"!? After that, I spent a several weeks preparing to submit my case to the highest court in the land — which rubber-stamped it the first day back from its summer recess. My lawyers scheduled a call with me last week. On the phone, they sounded nervous about breaking the news of this latest denial. I can't imagine how difficult it must be, delivering that kind of message to someone who's entrusted you with winning back their freedom. They did a good job. They always do a good job. "How are you feeling?" one wanted to know. "It gets easier," I told them. After twenty-three years of this, I'd be in a pretty pathetic state if I hadn't developed a decent level of resilience. My first line of defense against crushing disappointment is refusing to let hope develop into expectations (which are by their nature always unrealistic). The American court system is going to be the American court system, a source of some illogical, unjust, or otherwise shitty rulings. When that happens and deals a blow to hope, it helps to be okay with sitting in sadness awhile, giving myself permission to feel the all-over hollow ache of such a loss. It's been a week since the ruling. My lawyers are already hard at work, retooling our motion to submit a habeas corpus petition. The same day that I learned about the court's non-decision, I had to chair a business meeting in Gavel Club. Then I had to meet with the chaplain and try to arrange reinstatement of Buddhist services, which were suspended in January due to low attendance. Then I had to conduct interviews for onboarding a new hire at my job. Then I had work of my own to do — TV programs to produce, events to organize, data to crunch, deadlines to meet. Then I went to sleep. I did more the next day. The show must go on. So must I. At this point, going on is just kind of my thing.