09 July, 2017

The List: Reading April through June 2017

Midway through May, a yearning for greater depth and meaning seized me, and I felt my mind give entry to some darkness. It felt futile to look for anything more than intellectual cotton candy around here. "Prison," I once wrote, "is no haven for the intelligentsia." It's just as true today as it was ten years ago, when that essay, titled "Literacy," was published. You would expect me to have learned sly tricks for overcoming mental stagnation, but my means are limited, and my best efforts are sometimes not enough. 

Prison food is awful, as are prison libraries. By what others have told me, Crossroads' are better than most. Having picked clean the shelves here, for the most part, only a couple (okay, exactly five) books are in circulation that I'm interested in reading. This recent hunger for meaty subjects brought me to finally check out the weighty volume of Emerson, which went a long way toward filling me up. Books that my friend John, and the ever-gracious Tom Wayne of Prospero's, provided were a real boon, too. 

This bout of heavy reading isn't done. If anything, I feel insatiable. Maybe I just haven't run across the precise philosophical meditation that'll tip me over, or the right poetry collection to shift my perspective just so. Maybe this hunger will fade, like so many moods, and I'll settle into a simple novel for some summer reading. If you've been paying close enough attention, though, you'll probably know as well as I do that this is a silly idea. I basically need a steady supply of reading that makes me think, if I'm going to stay sane in this stultifying isolation. 


Umberto Eco (Richard Dixon, translator), The Name of the Rose
My praise, in an earlier review of Eco's nonfiction, was unequivocal. The man was a brilliant, thorough scholar, and losing him, as the literary world did last year, bleeds a measure of contemporary letters' life away. Reading this, his debut novel, for the first time in April, I was struck not just by the intricacy of its central whodunit puzzle, but also by the prominence of certain preoccupations — literary lists, specifically, and medieval legends — that still held Eco in thrall thirty-odd years later, when he published those outstanding works, The Infinity of Lists and The Book of Legendary Lands. His fixations, bordering perhaps on obsessions, make The Name of the Rose the most substantive mystery novel I've ever read. 

J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
To describe this vaguely surreal novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Coetzee, telling about its plot seems unfair. On the other hand, he probably didn't intend for the book to be strictly allegorical — and possibly not even metaphorical. It dances along a line between story and idea, never quite entering fully into the category of either. There is no Jesus here, only an orphaned refugee stripped of his true name and called Daniel. A benevolent older man called Símon looks after him as they struggle to make a way for themselves in a foreign country. But biblical allusions abound, and the parallels are sometimes striking.

Coetzee (whose work I waited years to read) plays with the flow of narrative and with readers' expectations, maintaining a flux at once disorienting and engrossing. Never, ever does he dispense what could be described as a certainty, which, for a certain type of reader, might be infuriating, but I relish this ambiguity for its truthfulness. As Chekov once put it, lilt's about time that everyone who writes — especially genuine literary artists — admit that in this world you can't figure anything out." Coetzee understands this and brings his canniness to the page memorably.

Randall Munroe, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
What would happen if you set off a nuclear bomb in the eye of a hurricane?

What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?

How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?

Former NASA engineers don't generally retire to become cartoonists, but if Randall Munroe is anything like his former colleagues in aeronautics and space flight, the future of quality webcomics is assured. I assume that checking out this guy's very popular website, xkcd.com, will give you a healthy (or not-so-healthy, if you really get into it) dose of his super-geeky humor. If it's your cup of tea, buy his books. They're as funny as they are fascinating &mdashj also, they're useless. Could you ask for a more ideal diversion?

Christy Wampole, The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation
A tide of vacuity has washed over society. Chronic distraction, knee-jerk insincerity, consumerism, indiscretion, and anti-intellectualism plague even the American universities, former hotbeds of enlightened thought. Our culture is empty. Our minds are atrophying. Our bodies are decomposing mannequins over which to drape the latest fashions. Our homes are mix-and-match simulacra of individual taste. Our workplaces are fluorescent-lit tombs. Our institutions and mass media are perpetuators of false dichotomies. And all of this is our fault, because we haven't done our due diligence, questioning, assessing, and appraising the vapid bullshit masquerading as substance in our lives.
You are by birth a card-carrying member of civilization and are thus responsible for it. No one really wants you to know this; things would be easier if you'd just passively accept your assigned role as a low-standards consumer, a human Pac-Man stuffing your face with pixels. There are other ways to go about life, like being three notches smarter than you thought you were and investing everything you do with aesthetic sensitivity.
Failure to do this, Wampole writes, means "a pointless life." It isn't a new idea that she puts forth, but the passion she musters to express it should be enough to wake even the lazy-minded and compel an emphatic yes. So rarely do I come away from an essay collection believing that its author and I see eye to eye, and yet Wampole's philosophy seems to exactly parallel my own. The Other Serious is a book about how to live, and why, that I wish could foist into the hands of every literate American and exhort them, "Read this!"

George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone and Lincoln in the Bardo
I'd hoped that the essays in The Braindead Megaphone would be deeper than they turned out. Saunders's reportage work was superior, ripe with nascent meaning (particularly "Buddha Boy," which he wrote for GQ, about the fifteen-year-old Nepalese kid much of the world believed meditated his way out of eating or drinking for nine months). Unfortunately, this wasn't the bulk of the book. Blame my disappointment on its misleading title, plus the introduction, which asks, "Does stupid, near-omnipresent media make us more tolerant toward stupidity in general?" My pump was primed for lacerating social criticism. What I got was mostly a succession of short humor pieces suited to The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" department. I felt duped.

Lincoln in the Bardo, on the other hand, was stimulating. The novel's clever premise hinges on the death of Willie Lincoln, the young son of America's sixteenth president, and his burial in Lot 292 of Oak Hill Cemetery, where his soul is trapped. (The bardo, in Tibetan Buddhism, is a state of existence between life and death. Conduct, age, and the manner of one's death determine how long it lasts.) As little Willie is interred, the voices of others entombed and buried at Oak Hill narrate his arrival. None acknowledge their deaths, believing instead that they're simply convalescing in "sick-boxes" and will soon be well enough to return to their lives. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, Lincoln in the Bardo intrigued and delighted me so much, read its entire second half in an afternoon.

John Cheever, Falconer
Whether true or fictional, accounts of prison life are generally avoided. Why read about the same circumstances in which I'm languishing? Ah, but there's the rub: no one's experiences are ever exactly the same, and sometimes there's an unconsidered truth in another's observations of what otherwise appears identical. So I conceded to read Falconer, a selection by my bookstore guy, because you just don't know about most things until you give them a go. And there it was, right at the end of the first hopeless chapter:
Like everything else, [the cellblock] was shabby, disorderly, and malodorous, but his cell had a window and he went to this and saw some sky, two high water towers, the wall, more cellblocks and a corner of the yard that he had entered on his knees. His arrival in the block was hardly noticed. While he was making his bed, someone asked, "You rich?" "No," said Farragut. "You clean?" "No," said Farragut. "You suck?" "No," said Farragut. "You innocent?" Farragut didn't reply.
While Cheever's protagonist is a retired man of means, a heroin addict in a loveless marriage, and probably guilty of killing his brother in a drunken fight, there's much in Farragut's way of thinking that I identify with. That is, Farragut's arrival at Falconer Prison was as shocking to him as it would be to anyone far-removed from the criminal element, and his existential crisis thereafter feels authentic. You don't have to serve years of a life sentence to imagine what goes on in the head of someone who has, but Cheever did so with such empathetic élan that I'd swear the man did a stretch behind bars. Farragut's dealings with the "fucks, freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses […] phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts" of cellblock F ring true. And even though pre-1970s prison life was vastly different than prison life today, incarceration's effect on the human psyche will never change.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (David Mikics, editor), The Annotated Emerson
So heavy as to be uncomfortable to hold, so festooned with explanatory footnotes as to be disorienting, and so inclusive as to verge, at points, on irrelevancy, this fat volume of America's (arguably) best-known essayist was nevertheless a profoundly fulfilling read. Coming to Emerson much sooner, I might have pooh-poohed his fervent advocacy for toil, for communing with nature, for putting down the book and learning from the world. Having had the experiences I've had, though, I'm now more than ready to say that a strain of Emersonian self-reliance would do today's America good.

Chuck Klosterman, But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past
Two qualities I appreciate in a person quite a bit are prominent in Chuck Klosterman: a propensity for deep thought about unexpected subjects, and a wry sense of humor. This is the fourth of his books that I've devoured, and it rivals his previous excellent work, I Wear the Black Hat, for poignant insights on an area of thought not much considered. But What If We're Wrong? draws to the reader's attention how society and its individual constituents always assume that they know the truth about x, that their predecessors' ideas about x were all wrong, and that nothing could ever come along to change what is "known" about x today. As examples of this phenomenon, he cites the cultural significance of rock music, the history of astrophysics, and the surprisingly authentic-seeming nine-season run of the TV series Roseanne. I would love to sit down for a beer with this unique thinker.

23 June, 2017

Creep Alert

Every morning, not long after everyone locks down for the 7:30 custody count, the wing's loudspeaker squawks, "There will be both male and female staff members working in the housing unit today."

This message is brought to us by former president George W. Bush and our concerned friends at the United States Department of Justice, who, several years ago, effected a piece of legislation called the Prison Rape Elimination Act — a bureaucratic dog and pony show predicated on the adorable idea that all we needed, to end sexual assaults in America's prisons, was to tape up a shitload of photocopied "STOP SEXUAL ABUSE! REPORT IT!" notices where prisoners could see them.

To be fair, I've never read the actual language of PREA. I assume that it's intended more to safeguard prisoners from staff members drunk on power than from our depraved fellow inmates. Why? Because when the DOJ conducted its preimplementation survey, I was one of the random prisoners who got a package of cookies for answering their anonymous questionnaire. It dwelled a lot on staff abuse, not so much on what happens behind closed cell doors. Here's another observation: Oreo Thins taste terrible.

Guards, cooks, and caseworkers have been escorted off these premises several times during my years at Crossroads, after inappropriate goings-on came to light. No surprise, they've all been women. I'm not taking a controversial position by saying that female prisoners get victimized more often, at least by staff. Around here, though, a sexual encounter with a staff member is something guys fantasize about. The upshot? PREA isn't meaningless to me — only for me.

No one in prison has ever sexually assaulted or coerced me; although, a few did threaten, back when I was fresh. More just flirted. So often was the ostentatious interest of an openly gay inmate directed my way, I got the joking label "fag magnet." Predators who tested me, all those years ago, all had reputations for accosting young white guys. They tended to play things cool, their technique being to stand aloof until the time was right, then act like some distant potentate descending from his throne to claim due tribute. Curiously enough, the (generally) heterosexual miscreants who stalk and ogle prison employees tend to be socially hyperengaged, with an apparent need to be seen and heard by everyone at all times. What this dynamic says, clinically, about the two personality types, I haven't figured out. But I see plenty of both.

Prairie-dogging is common, usually in the dining hall, which is fronted by windows facing the main boulevard. Female guards, caseworkers, and nurses stroll past regularly, and turn many heads when they do. Some of us dressed in gray aren't content to gawk from a seated position, though. They leap to their feet and crane their necks until the women are out of sight. Loudly enough that these lechers can hear, I start counting: "One creep, two creeps, three creeps, four creeps…" (I typically stop at eight or nine.) They never pay me any mind; their brains are otherwise engaged.

In the Hole, "gunning down" is fairly common. 1 wish I could blame sheer boredom-induced insanity, but no. Blatantly masturbating in the presence of or within sight of a female staff member somehow registers as acceptable behavior to those guilty of it. If the episode of Lockup I saw is to be believed, certain prisons in the South have a real problem with this practice in general population, not merely in segregation units.

I did once watch a team of guards in tactical gear perform a cell extraction. It took two cans of Mace to subdue their target and get him handcuffed, after which they led him to an observation cell. Wearing only boxer shorts and shower shoes, drenched from head to foot in burning orange chemical, the prisoner was incapacitated, scarcely able to walk a line, but he managed to maintain his full erection. On so many levels, it was a terrifying sight.

This kind of obscenity isn't sanctioned by the powers that be, yet behavior that I think should merit, at minimum, a verbal warning is tolerated. In this way, the less blatant stuff seems more insidious. Someone in a crowd leaving the chapel remarks loudly about a nurse's backside. A kitchen worker explicitly details what he'd like to do to his housing unit's caseworker. Rather than step over to be patted down by a male guard, a prisoner in line waits to be searched by the female, saying that he hasn't "felt a woman's touch in a long time." Staff members heard each of these but didn't make a peep about them. For reasons of prison politics and my own well-being, I kept my mouth shut, too.

It's no secret that I don't belong here. Nor do I leave any room for doubt that I want out more than I've ever wanted anything else. But witnessing these things makes me glad that these creeps are in here, setting my teeth on edge, not out there, doing real harm.

16 June, 2017

A New Poem on an Old Midwestern Custom

For the Album

The Man Upstairs must've run out
Of quarters to feed the machine.
So the rain stopped,
And pufferfish-faced aunts in rayon
Emerged to assail our virgin faces,
Hand-fluff their bouffants, and finally
Consent to being photographed.
Curious that no one thought to preserve
For posterity the impressive mass
Of flies descending on the deviled eggs.

* * * * *

From what I understand, it doesn't matter who your relatives are — family reunions all take place in one of the outermost circles of Hell. The kids have fun, visiting cousins not seen in a while, but the older you are, the more burdensome it becomes to make conversation with people whose lives intersect your own solely by dint of genetics. Between Uncle Joe's odious politics and Grandma Millie's casual racism, Cousin Gina's drinking and her husband Chauncy's efforts to sell everyone insurance, few moments of easy pleasure are had. Who doesn't breathe a little sigh of relief as their car pulls away from the park, content at being a distinct segment of the larger familial mass?

Maybe this is why people do it, reuniting the smaller parts of the unit as a reminder, a reassurance that your life may not be what you'd prefer but at least isn't like those people's.

09 June, 2017

Giving Yoga Another Go

Christina Brown's Yoga Bible was a gift to me, prompted by my wondering aloud, "Are there any Yoga for Dummies books that are worth a crap?" I'd been curious to know the answer for years — eight, to be exact — ever since the painful failure of my initial yoga experience.

To the surprise of everyone who knows me (myself included), I eventually got into bodyweight training. This mostly happened because I didn't want to invite early decrepitude. (Being a prisoner is bad enough for one's health, but I also led a stereotypically inert literary-geek lifestyle.) Bodyweight training was perfect for me, given my limited space, lack of equipment, and long-harbored fantasy about joining a circus.

My regimen now incorporates time with the gym's weight pile and a bit of cardio. As helpful as any exercise is for overall flexibility, my range of motion is more limited than the average man about town. I'm about as supple as a steak from Denny's. Also, how could I live with myself, forever cowed by a pulled… whatever had me hobbling for that week, in 2007, following my failed Triangle Pose? I had to give yoga a second chance — at least for long enough to make an informed decision.

I had a heads up that The Yoga Bible was on its way to me. New experiences in prison being a precious luxury, it was kind of an exciting wait. I tempered my enthusiasm with pragmatism, working out the logistical issues I foresaw:
  1. When would I practice?
  2. What would I wear?
  3. What would I use for a mat?
To the first: when something's important, you make the time for it. I committed to carving half an hour out of my non-workout mornings, when my cellmate's at work. This meant sacrificing precious writing time, but I've certainly squandered that in less rewarding ways. No excuses!

To the second: ash gray sweatpants and a T-shirt would suffice for yoga-wear. They'd have to. Nothing else I own is remotely suitable for stretching, folding, twisting movements.

To the third: since Department of Corrections policy doesn't allow for them, the prison canteen doesn't sell mats and I can't mail order one. Thoroughly wiping down the cell's concrete floor, I would lay down my state-issued fleece blanket, folded twice in half, and make do until figuring out something better.

On the morning that the book arrived, I leapt right in, cueing up an environmental-soundtrack CD for meditative ambiance, and settling on the blanketed floor.

Breathe in, breathe out. Abs firm and still. Ujjayi Pranayama took some getting used to. Once I was hissing through my nose well enough, it was time for Sun Salutations. Then I tried Cat Pose, various "releases," Mountain Pose. Then more Sun Salutations. For continuity's sake. For getting the feel for flow. Then I just sat, breathing on the floor, being.

Looking over at my cellmate's alarm clock, I was amazed: I'd been doing yoga for a full hour — twice as long as I'd intended. Not bad for a do-over.

I couldn't wait. The next day's practice began a half hour earlier.

03 June, 2017

Canteen, the Small Mercy

Lawsuits have kept prison food from becoming altogether malnutritious, but flavor and texture are hazy concepts and, therefore, hard to litigate. So, just because it will keep prisoners from dying doesn't mean the difference between slop and steak. (Consider, for example, the ongoing "meal loaf" dispute.)

I've had to stop eating most of the meat on the Department of Corrections' menu. Other guys say that the TVP — textured vegetable protein (AKA soy) — gives them wicked gas, but trial and error showed that it was the institutional-grade ground turkey making me feel gut-stabbed. The vegetarian options aren't guaranteed to please, either. While Crossroads' cooks make decent oven-browned potatoes, grits, and cabbage soup, they manage to foul up, with dismaying regularity, almost every variety of bean.

Compared to others here, I'm on velvet. Not only does my current job in the staff dining room afford me daily fresh fruit and the occasional raw vegetables, in whatever quantities I feel like eating, I also receive enough money to skip chow-hall meals, on my days off, now and again. Like it does everywhere else, money, in prison, buys choices for those who've got it. At no time is this more obvious than on Crossroads' "spend days," when the bulge of each bright red mesh bag emerging from the canteen to cross the yard announces who has the funds to furnish comfort and who's barely scraping by.
RC Cola — $.38 per can
Moon Lodge Hot BBQ Chips — $1.37 per bag
Jack Links BBQ Beef Steak — $1.31 per package
Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls — $1.61 per box
Bar-S Hot Dogs — $1.99 per package
Big Daddy Charbroil Cheeseburger — $3.69 each
Banquet Fried Chicken — $7.99 per box
I've never bought any of these things, nor most of what else is on offer. The list goes on for pages, roughly 85% of it junk. The canteen's selection does change by degrees throughout the year, to keep total monotony from setting in; however, staples like ramen soup and summer sausage never go away, no matter how much I might wish they'd be replaced with miso mix and cashews.

For being a maximum-security facility, surrounded by a lethal electric fence, and housing "society's worst," Crossroads' wards appear well cared for, humping Santa sacks galore back to their housing units. Mine stay small. I keep meals eaten in the cell simple, with staples of rice, mackerel, instant oatmeal, powdered milk, roasted peanuts, and sundry spices — boring, maybe, but healthful-ish. Recipes invented by the general population are sloppy, oily variations on themes. Most are some kind of burrito thing, nacho thing, spaghetti thing, or throw-stuff-in-some-ramen-and-whip-it-into-a-slurry thing. (That last one's especially popular.) The two microwave ovens in my wing stay busy.

Cellmates have accused me of being a cheapskate for not splurging on treats. "I can't afford it," I tell them. It's a lie. Stuff like beef tips and pre-cooked bacon wouldn't be too rich for my blood if I simply switched to generic hygiene products, stopped buying stationery to write with, cut out postage stamps for correspondence, and gave up making phone calls. I could suck down up to two pints of ice cream each week — vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. I could heat honey buns for breakfast, nuke popcorn for movies, nibble candy bars for after-dinner snacks. I could build prison "pizzas," using crushed snack crackers for crust. I could be fat and… happy?

We make choices. We live with them. Clean and lean, maintaining a sense of purpose and social value — those are mine. But when the chow hall serves us cheeseburger macaroni that smells like cat food, I'm relieved to have some small luxury of choice.

22 May, 2017

The Astonishing Kindness of Sacred Bones Records

I'm limited. What little I can do is therefore cherished. Sometimes someone else's willingness to take an extra step allows me to have a smidgen more than usual, and these instances are like shooting stars in my fixed sky — reminders to keep looking up.

A recent letter from Sacred Bones Records, the boutique label in Brooklyn, New York, that releases albums by filmmakers David Lynch and John Carpenter, as well as those by less recognizable (to most) artists such as Moon Duo and Pharmakon, was one such bright appearance. "We would be more than happy to get music to you," it said, "and hope that it can take you out of your situation, even if only briefly." 

Wow. Amid all there must be for a record label — even a small one — to fuss with on a daily basis, to agree to some prisoner's request to accept a piddly cashier's check, then pack and ship a couple of CDs… then astonish that prisoner with offers to substantially reduce their prices and send demos to him for free — that is simply beautiful. I hadn't even dropped pariahblog.com into my signature when I reached out, because it didn't seem relevant. They just thought my earnest request was enough. 

The CDs arrived on Wednesday morning. At the special price, I ended up with four for what I anticipated paying for two: albums by Pop. 1280, Zola Jesus, Case Studies, and a compilation of vintage goth and post-punk groups. 

There are so few opportunities for new music to come my way, and hardly any of what I hear is the sort of thing that stirs me. This stuff, though — this is the bee's knees. So thank you, Caleb and everyone else at Sacred Bones, for setting me abuzz with happiness. 

20 April, 2017

The List: Reading January through March 2017

Alicia Martin, from the artist's Biographies series

By the generosity of Veronica S., John A., Kristin S., and, as always, my extraordinary, incomparable Mum, I swam, delighted, in the flood of books that poured in at the start of the year. And what a selection! Many came off my Amazon wish list and were guaranteed to please, but more than a few surprises ensured that my reading went in unusual directions. (A confession: I put my best into reading that volume of history and the little book on spelling oddities, and failed miserably. Even my wide-ranging tastes have limits.) Finishing with each of the books listed below, I got such a thrill from sliding a finger along the spines of those yet unread, musing over which would most satisfy the particular literary craving felt in that moment, and finally selecting the exact right one. I don't get that luxury often. When I do, I savor it like something I may never get again.

* * * * *

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
No philosophy seems to come about except in response to, or building off of, a preexisting one, and Mill's utilitarianism is no exception. His mentor, the English jurist Jeremy Bentham, is best remembered (by someone, I assume) for his Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation, probably a real page-turner in its day. Bentham developed utilitarianism, but Mill refined it. Originally published serially in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Mill's Utilitarianism is densely written, even for its era, the 1860s. We can probably blame this as much on its high-minded subject matter as on Mill's intellectualism, itself attributable to his father, who raised him in the strictest homeschool environment, isolated from other children, spoken to exclusively in Greek, and taught the principles of logic as life guides.

In a nutshell, utilitarianism, the "Greatest Happiness Principle," holds that what is moral comes from that which is determined to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Because it demands situational morality, not hard rules carved into stone tablets, Christians in particular took issue with utilitarianism. Mill countered their assaults by writing that even Christians' objective sense of wrong and right can only be as firmly adhered to as their belief demands: "The question, Need I obey my conscious? is quite as often put to themselves by persons who never heard of the principle of utility, as by its adherents. Those whose conscientious feelings are so weak as to allow of their asking this question, if they answer it affirmatively, will not do so because they believe in the transcendental theory, but because of the external sanctions." Amen.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Course curricula at Autodidact University (student body: me) are intellectually rigorous, with a strong a priori bent — meaning that the reading lists are killer. Nowhere are these lists more voluminous than in AU's English Department. Poets, from Kazim Ali to Dean Young, make up a good twenty-five percent of the names in them, and Thomas Stearnes Eliot loomed well above most. The man's work is canonical.

Wonky meter and erratic rhyme abound in this selection (a Signet Classic edition) of early poems. Even after multiple readings of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the simple profundity of lines like "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" moves me. The title work, Eliot's ostensible masterpiece, however, is too fussy. His 1922 publication of "The Waste Land" featured no addenda, yet when he published it in book form, pages on pages of end notes appeared, clueing readers in on every biblical and operatic allusion, translating its French, German, and Latin lines, and generally presenting the work as pedantry rather than poetry. I'm not against poems that resist immediate comprehension — far, far from it! — but give me Eliot's straightforward ''Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" any day, over the closing lines of "The Waste Land":
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiarn uti chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories
The poet renowned for "Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night" also had a way with prose. He might've finished the wry, wild picaresque novel that he intended ''Adventures in the Skin Trade" to be, but for his 1953 death — as good a reason as any to quit writing. The other stories on offer in this collection of gems are polished beauties. I told friends, in the midst of my reading, that you could frame almost any sentence from the book, hang it on your wall, and appreciate it as a work of art unto itself. This was no exaggeration. Thomas was known for agonizing over his word choices. At the level of the story, his religiosity is present but unobtrusive. Most obvious is his consummate humanity, the dovetailing of his mythology and mystery with lots of depravity and "the terrors of the flesh."

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
In the early 1900s, first-generation immigrants from Japan — Issei — joined the American laborer class, picking the produce that Mexicans, Filipinos, Hindus, Koreans, Blacks, Okies, and Arkies, en masse, couldn't. Prosperous prewar appetites were hard to sate. Japanese "picture brides" left home on ships, lured stateside by misleading letters and photos from prospective husbands whose promises of luxury and prestige, opportunity and abundance, proved false as soon as the mail-order brides stepped onto land and met their new mates — not captains of industry but migrant workers. And you thought the liars on MTV's Catfish were cruel! The Buddha in the Attic fictionalizes these truths and, in doing so, makes them real. In my ignorance of history I'd assumed that only American men wooed Asian brides to the US. The chorus of voices in Otsuka's novel reveals another story altogether, an overwhelmingly cruel, sad one, then tells of what happened next, as World War Two erupted and these hard-working, long-suffering women were wronged yet again. This book offers the kind of history lesson that I find most effective: no arbitrary dates, no names of faceless so-called heroes, just human stories, raw and relentless.

Albert Camus (Justin O'Brien, translator), The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
In an absurd universe without what Camus called "eternal values," can meaning be found, or are we all just what the nihilist say: pointless nothings, deluded that we actually exist? (I pick some cheery stuff, don't I?) Camus was attuned to the questions of existential futility; his every work of fiction drips with ennui. The long-form philosophical essay lending this collection its title asks why conscious people in this incomprehensible universe, being aware of our human limits, exist without hope but nevertheless go on existing rather than commit suicide. What is the role of hope? Of the supernatural balms of gods and prayers? Of aesthetics? After concluding with those heaviest of concerns, Camus turns tour guide. Sensory-rich essays about his hometown of Algiers, the country of Oman, the city of Tipasa, are philosophical ruminations in disguise — the best kind. I'd willingly play Theseus to his Ariadne any way, following the labyrinthine passageways along which he lays his thread, whether they be the stone-and-mortar variety or the kind that's as intangible as thought. Either makes for worthy adventure.

Ellison Rooke, Once-a Ponce-a Time… and Other Bean-isms
How many six-year-olds have collections of their quotes published? My friend's daughter, Bean, is the only one that I know of. Considering that she's the source of nuggets like "pretty please, with pepper on top," "how's your meatball doin' in that oven," and (one of the world's best-ever exclamatory phrases) "bust my brains," you can understand why.

Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea: Stories
This man writes characters the way that Rolls-Royce makes cars — meticulously, in a spirit of polished ostentation, with what can only be called sumptuous interiors. A few of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker, where I recognized Marcus's amazing skill for rendering third-person narratives as intimate mental excursions. His protagonists are deeply flawed; they're often out-and-out failures. Many of them you can't possibly like. Still, thanks to how Marcus ensconces the reader inside his characters' fucked-up minds, you find yourself won over, a party to their struggles, with a vested interest in their well-being, time and time again. Reading Leaving the Sea is like a crash course in empathetic responses: afterward you feel sore and fatigued, but the bruises are totally worth it, considering the ride.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Nostalgia is what drives some to revisit fondly recalled books. Others want to re-experience the mood those books evoked the first time through. Still others, experimentalists, are curious about which aspects of the books they'll perceive differently after so many years. My freshman year in high school, over two decades ago, I read only about half of Lord of the Flies. What stopped me from finishing is now a mystery. Until February of 2017, I never went back to that isolated island with its imaginary beastie, its intermittent fire, its near-feral tweens running amok. What I found was Golding's lush prose, and that the beast in man is still very much at large. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic
Certain essays (the best ones) have a power. They transform their subject, like a magic trick, from something recognizable, into a fascinating never-before-seen abstraction that you suddenly want to turn every which way, inspecting for other angles that might reveal its secrets. A Muse ana a Maze performs this sleight-of-hand with the craft of writing, particularly literary fiction-writing, by inviting readers to play at puzzles, riddles, and thought experiments that, as Turchi reveals with a flourish, share vast common ground with the creation and appreciation of fiction. Erudite yet accessible, with eye-pleasing art throughout, this is an endlessly recommendable book, perfect for lit lovers at both ends of the process, who relish fresh perspectives.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Without resorting to sensationalism, like a lesser writer might, Eugenides tells a tale — a family history, really — from the perspective of a middle-aged man with 5-alpha-reductase pseudohermaphroditism, born to second-generation American immigrants a girl. Like its narrator, Cal/Calliope, the novel manages to be both one thing and another, conversational and complex, epic and intimate, funny and tragic. This really is a stunning work of fiction, and it makes me intensely curious to see whether his debut, The Virgin Suicides, approaches a similar level of excellence.

Wilkie Collins, The Dead Alive
Legal thrillers aren't my thing. Precedent-setting works of fiction, on the other hand…. Published in 1874, The Dead Alive is among the first in the genre that would achieve ubiquity in airport bookstores and on suburban nightstands, in addition to being based on the United States' earliest recorded case of wrongful conviction. Collins was a popular mystery writer. In other words, The Dead Alive is no great literary achievement. Evidently the last 143 years haven't seen the genre evolve beyond an idle diversion. As a historical tidbit, though, this brisk little novel holds up well enough and brings to readers' attentions the dire flaws in Western jurisprudence — flaws that also, discouragingly, remain much unchanged by time. The modern-day reader will be forgiven if she comes away from Collins's book impacted less by its plot than by the persistence of injustice in our system of criminal law.

Curt Vonnegut Jr., Player Piano
Peeking through the cracks in this bland tale of one man's ennui in a retro-futurist dystopia of boredom, the satirical specialist Vonnegut would become (Player Piano is his first novel) was the only thing holding my interest to the end. The punch-card machines he envisioned conquering the American job economy, although not far from the realm of prophecy, now seem like quaint speculations from the era of Formica and malt shops. The real bar to enjoyment here is the heavy-handed praise, weighing down every other page, for "the two greatest wonders of the world, the human mind and heart." Ten years later, in the 1960s, Vonnegut gave us Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, so at least there's that to be grateful for.

Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby
Around Halloween, Roman Polanski's film version of Rosemary's Raby usually airs as part of some cable network's seasonal lineup. I watch it every year, if I can. Never had I felt compelled to check out the novel on which it's based, though. Having read so many stilted, inartfully written horror novels I'm basically wary of the whole damn genre. (And genre fiction in general, truth be told.) What surprised me, when the novel happened to fall into my hands, was how faithful the film version is to its source material. Whole paragraphs of dialog made it onscreen. The unspoken elements found their way there, too — a cinematic rarity. It's nearly word-for-word. Only the novel's final scene, in which Rosemary discovers the shocking truth about little Andy, runs a smidgen longer, with just a daub of additional color, than the one in the movie. In it you can almost see Levin's grin as he toes that finest of lines between horror and hilarity.

01 April, 2017

Before Breakfast, at the Old-Man Table

Another morning in 3B. Three plastic mugs of coffee steam on the table in front of us, still too hot to swig from. Jim is filling little squares with letters. Opposite him, Chris's glasses perch at the tip of his nose as he studies the latest New York Review of Books. I'm focused on blinking, following six and a half hours of having my eyes closed. Our usual fourth is unusually absent from the table. Larry's usual laundry day is Friday, tomorrow, yet I spot him (fuzzily) wringing out a T-shirt in the utility closet. He'll be along shortly.

"Okay," Jim pipes up, pausing to ensure that we're paying attention. "The clue is 'Tesla CEO Musk.' Four letters. I think the third one's — "

"Elon," I tell him. "E-L-O-N."

"Sounds like a cologne. Who the hell is Elon Musk, and why should anybody know?"

"The CEO of Tesla," says Chris. "Pay attention."

"As in Nikola Tesla, the electricity guy? I think I went to school with him." Jim's absurd exaggerations might mitigate his unease about getting older; he turned sixty-seven last month.

Chris says, "I have no fucking idea what Tesla is." His face reveals evidence of appreciating ten thousand bygone jokes.

"Well then how do you know who's its CEO?" Jim demands, setting down his Bic in exasperation.

"Because Byron just said."

"Oh, fine. Fine. Let's ask the nerd a question about something not computer-related and see how he does."

"Tesla makes electric cars," I say, and both of them suddenly register total recall. Typical. "Jim, why don't you just give up crosswords and take up a more age-appropriate hobby — like cave-painting or inventing the wheel?"

"Or getting your affairs in order," Chris adds.

One of Jim's most amusing characteristics is a willingness to let his sarcasm unspool gradually. "I'm pretty sure my affairs are about as ordered as they're gonna get, in this place. My legacy will be you guys squabbling over my newspaper clippings and half-eaten bag of pretzels. And that's only if you're lucky enough for me to die before I can eat them. Granted, that's looking pretty likely."

"Pretzels? Woo-hoo!" It's Larry, joining us at last, his Droopy Dog features perennially at odds with his six-shots-of-espresso enthusiasm.

Jim flails his arms like a windblown scarecrow. "Oh, great, now Larry's here. Can my day get any worse?"

Larry ignores the slight. "You know, I did two years in the service — airborne division — and never once jumped out of an airplane…"

"Oh, here it comes." Chris covers his eyes.

"…they had to push me every time."

Groans all around. Jim says, "God damn it, Larry, nobody laughed at that last week. What, did you think it'd be funnier a second time, or are you getting too senile to remember who you tell your shitty jokes to?"

"I told you, but Chris and Byron weren't around to hear it."

"And our lives," I say, "were measurably better for that fact."

"No doubt," says Chris, ruffling his paper like a man shaking off an unpleasant memory.

Jim invokes his usual archaic stereotypes, calling Chris on his failure to side with a compatriot. "Or is it only when there's whiskey involved that you Irishmen ride together? Bunch of potato-eating hypocrites."

"Sour old Kraut."

"Sour, yes," Jim concedes, "but at least we Germans aren't lazy bottle-suckers."

"No, of course not. Whoever would associate the inventors of beer halls with drinking?"

"Well, we're industrious and efficient, anyway."

"Then why," I ask him, "aren't you finished with that crossword? It's almost time for breakfast."

"I'm taking it slow, letting you help, because I want you guys to feel like you're actually useful."

It's Chris who puts the brakes on this frivolity, asking Jim if he watched last night's episode of Nova. An earnest back-and-forth about science ensues, by a couple of blue-collar sexagenarians. Since Larry and I had no PBS in our Wednesday-night lineup, we're treated to a muddled (but amusing) recap before the table returns to silence — Jim to his crossword puzzle, Chris to his reviews, Larry to a new issue of Smithsonian, me to my janky eyesight. It's quiet enough that I hear someone's stomach rumble for food.

"Okay," says Jim, after a bit. "Here's one: 'Sailor, e.g.' Three letters."

All those nineteenth-century naval novels he reads, and yet… "Tar," I answer.

"Ohhhhhh, of course."

"See, this nerd knows all kinds of stuff, not just computers."

He squints. "What d'ya know about sailing, ye cack-handed lubber?"

"All kinds of stuff," I repeat. "I've even got jokes: which is a pirate's favorite letter of the alphabet?"

Rolling his eyes, Larry takes the bait. He growls "Arrrrrr!" with aplomb.

"You might think it'd be R," I tell him, "but it's actually the C!"

More groans. I go for a sip of my coffee and think, This is why I fit in so well at the old-man table.

17 March, 2017

Comic-Book Adventures and Aspirations of the Phenomenal Fanboy

No cosmic rays, no secret government experiment, no ancient amulet, no genetic anomaly (that I know of) is to blame. Simple exposure is what transformed me, when a stranger aboard a flight to Amsterdam shared some comic books. One look through the pages of those four-color marvels and I was no longer a mild-mannered Kansas kid but

At every page of my seatmate's Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, Excalibur, et cetera, I pointed and asked characters' powers and origins. The urge of the fan to talk comics dwells deep. It knows no age. For anyone else, a hyperinquisitive nine-year-old could be a drain, but the tourist beside me was patiently indulgent. By the time we deplaned I felt like an expert in superheroics. Silly me. That stack of comic books barely skirted the labyrinthine Marvel universe, never mind those of other publishers. Still, this peek into a fictional reality was huge and couldn't be unseen.

What kid hasn't read a comic book? At least in this respect I was typical. Asterix and Obelix was a favorite, as was The Adventures of Tintin. A few kiddie comics, like Uncle Scrooge and Casper the Friendly Ghost, also entered my possession here and there, thanks to neighborhood yard sales. One time, too, I found a lurid Tales from the Crypt knockoff so creepy that I buried it in a box of books in my closet and, when I uncovered it again, months later, just glimpsing the cover startled me. But the comics on that transatlantic flight, my first encounter with superheroes, appealed to that primal myth-making urge. In our secular age, comic-book characters' costumed adventures stand in well for bardic tales of derring-do. The distance between Beowulf and Wolverine isn't so great as scholars might prefer to think.

The form that comics take, coupling words with pictures, is also sometimes considered remedial, the stuff of ABCs and Dick and Jane, but the history of humanity since it discovered written language is replete with "mature" examples of images paired with language: the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, twentieth-century pop art…. Comics are highly malleable, too, allowing any style or story, as simplistic or sophisticated as you could ever want. They're limitless. An artist can contain a whole narrative in a single panel, or stretch one moment across the panels of an entire page. And it's not just time that comics have the power to subvert. A conventional book is read a certain way, left to right, top to bottom. With comics, sequence is fluid. A page may start in the lower left and proceed clockwise, with panels' shape and content prompting you in the appropriate direction, while the next page may go all Snakes and Ladders, or radiate simultaneous panels from a central hub, or offer a disorienting hodgepodge — all in the service of the story. The order, the shape, the proximity of panels — none are arbitrary; each has meaning. You learn how to read a comic book whenever you open one for the first time, inferring and adapting as you go, propelled by the visceral, almost physical momentum of the story being told.

Naturally, I drew my own comics, tinkering with this protean storytelling method. Entire afternoons winked by, on the floor of my room, pens and markers arrayed around me, a large white page filling with elaborate color. You could illustrate it as a splash page. In childhood's omnivorous creativity, I was just as apt to steal ideas from books, TV, and movies as to invent my own. One strip that I did was Dr. Droid, a sci-fi serial about an alien scientist whose spacecraft crash-lands on Earth. The gentle three-foot-tall humanoid is discovered by fearful humans who, mistaking his cybernetic implants for weapons, hunt him through the woods, to his crippled ship, and blow him up. The end (with shades of Frankenstein).

Years later I did a much more ambitious comic, a proper twenty-two-page book entitled Animal World. It imagined a posthuman future Earth on which anthropomorphic lions and tigers and bears (and cockatoos and crocodiles and chinchillas and… ) waged high-tech Darwinian war against each other — carnivores versus herbivores, with the omnivorous species forced to commit to one side or live as outcast "primitives" in the wild. I used themes from the classic Greek and Roman sagas that thrilled me — heroism and villainy, political intrigue, blood feuds, even a little forbidden love between the herbivore's leader, Keras, and Ghi'ra, one of the carnivores' royal family.

Through some Dungeons-and-Dragons nerds in my sixth-grade gym class, I learned about Clint's Books and Comics. My father, the afternoon I asked him for a ride, told me about buying Mr. Natural comics there in the ’70s. I had no idea what those were, but he smiled as though recalling a fond memory. While he hit the used-record store next door, I entered Clint's solo, in search of Usagi Yojimbo, the adventures of a masterless samurai rabbit in a feudal Japan "peopled" by animals — ninja bats, vampire cats, Panda Khan. I'd read about the series someplace or other. My first impression on walking through the door was that Clint's would have it, because it looked like Clint's had everything.

Every square inch a stereotypical comic-book shop, the place was a Shangri-La. Posters layered its black walls — Vampira, Green Lantern, X-Force, Bone, the Joker and assorted Batman variants, Conan the Barbarian, Captain America, the obligatory Superman. Polyvinyl (oh, magical word!) sculptures held aggressive, anatomically suspect poses everywhere. Action figures wielded claws, swords, guns, and ion blasters on the glass counters that displayed myriad trading cards — hologram, oversized, foil-stamped, ultragloss, and more — plus pogs. Comic books (did you forget the reason you came?) screamed for attention along every wall, lunged forth from spinning wire racks, and massed in row after row of black two-tier wooden shelves spanning one full side of the shop. In the back were source books and supplements, dice and lead figurines — the role-playing paraphernalia those kids from school dealt in. In the basement, adult fare. Over, around, and through everything hung the inextricable smells of aging paper and stale cigarette smoke.

A nice Usagi Yojimbo collection, a trade paperback, was available for cover price. When I went to ring up, the man at the counter, ponytailed, bespectacled, bearded, black-clad, cannily suggested another black-and-white animal-martial-artist title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. "It's not like the cartoon," Ponytail intoned, his voice roughened by authority and Marlboros. "In fact, it's fairly gritty. Dark, even." He knew who he was selling to. I bought two back issues.

Free for the taking, in a basket by the door, issues of the eight-page Comic Shop News hung, packed full of reviews, artist and writer interviews, convention info, and handy checklists of next month's must-haves. I studied the paper all weekend long, in my father's passenger seat, at the dinner table, in my room, until not one word remained unconsumed, like Galactus devours planets. I had to know all, all, all. About every publisher. About every title. About every limited series, one shot, exclusive, ashcan, and TBP. Bitten by the comic-book bug (it wasn't a radioactive spider), I was suddenly ravenous.

But decades of back issues from the Big Two intimidated me; how could anyone start his collection with, say, Action Comics #308 (let alone #8) and not know what happened in previous issues? And what if those previous issues weren't to be found or afforded? Then there were crossovers and tie-ins to consider. Even if TPBs collecting every single story arc were available, the commitment required was staggering. Instead of taking an impetuous leap, I satisfied myself with once-removed comic-book geekery, reading the Wizard guides and Comic Shop News every month, talking the trade with old-guard fanboys at Clint's, cadging rides to conventions — sad little affairs in hotel suites and big trade-center events alike. Those tantalizing superhero comics remained beyond my summer-job budget and bedroom-closet storage capabilities, until Image came along.

Written and drawn by Todd McFarlane (renowned for his work on Spider-Man), the first Image Comics title hit shelves in May of 1992. Spawn is the Faustian tale of a murdered government assassin who bargains to see his wife again, only to be conscripted into Hell's army and discover that his widow went on to marry his best friend. Critics raved. To me it appeared sufficiently "gritty" and "dark," and because Image was a blank slate, with no burdensome back list of titles to beggar a beginning collector, I baby-stepped into the genre that, for better or worse, defines the form. Spawn #1 was mine. After that it's kind of a blur. Image burgeoned into a major publisher, and I bought everything they brought out.

Collecting in general was out of control then. Fans watched prices on precious vintage books go up, up, up, and inferred that all their favorite titles would be worth a mint someday. Vendors did nothing to disabuse them of these delusions; there was a fortune to be made in storage supplies. Every book had to go in a polybag — a clear plastic sleeve made especially for comic-book preservation — with an acid-free backing board. Issues thus packaged went into a sturdy, dark box stored somewhere cool and dry. Obsessives with money to burn could buy $400 vacuum sealers (as seen in Comic Shop News!) for keeping their paper treasures free from air, starch-hungry insects, and oily human touch forevermore. Polybags not included.

I drank this Kool-Aid. Each issue I bought got read once, cautiously, laying atop a clean, flat surface, then — thwip — slipped with a backing board into a polybag that, in turn, slid into one of five meticulously labeled Comic Defense storage boxes in my closet, beside my dresser. On rare occasions I'd treat myself to staring at covers through ten-mil ultraviolet-blocking plastic, wistfully.

Unable to reread the books in my collection, I created superhero characters of my own. The first was another alien, Shifter, whose power was to rapidly change shape. He could grow gills to breathe underwater, camouflage himself like a chameleon, morph his face to mimic a human's…. His two partners in the hero-for-hire field were a debauched telekinetic, Adrian d'Arq, who insisted that his psionic ability was really sorcery, and a genetically optimized swordsman named Yang, whose blades were second only to his wit in sharpness.

Others followed — a whole constellation in the Case Comics universe: the 1960s cyborg, Dreadnaught; the wind-wielding Gail Two Hawks; the conjoined (yes, I went there) psionic Serinkov Twins; the mute madman, Andre Chevalier; the hulking Megalith; the extraterrestrial Guise, Shifter's ex-colleague; the gaseous murderer, Nobody; the cthonic mutant Demiurge; the psychotic battle-droid, RAndoM; the (literally) explosive Ryott; and more, even less interesting to read about in the abstract.

Digging deeper, I pored over books on the technical aspects of comics, their forms throughout history, their cultural influence, and culture's influence on them. I bought VHS cassettes on how to draw in comic-book styles, how to break into the industry as an artist. My parents bought me a drafting table and chair. I hung a chart of the human muscular system, for reference, on my closet door. I blew an entire month's earnings on a set of markers. Later money went to pens, a forty-dollar mechanical pencil, drawing paper. Other fourteen-year-olds had friends; I drew, every evening, for hours. That I was going to someday draw comics for a living was commonly accepted among my family.

It seems a foregone conclusion that anyone this focused on his goal is going to, if not succeed, at least admirably fail while trying. The life I fell into admitted of little vocational planning, however. Profligacy killed my juvenile dream — a death from which, unlike a beloved superhero's, there would be no astounding resurrection.

Can you ever really outgrow comic books? Even at thirty-eight, I still get a little excited whenever a new X-Men tie-in comes to theaters. Drawings of stylized Spandex-wrapped physiques affecting action-ready postures still momentarily snag my attention. Still, from time to time, the face I find myself mindlessly doodling is Shifter's. The Phenomenal Fanboy may have hung up his cape decades ago, but the iconic imagery, the outlandish premises, the devoted geekery required and rewarded, the timeless good-versus-evil struggle we humans exist in thrall to — they shine like a beacon against dark, looming clouds overhead, signaling to the former Fanboy in his lonely hideout. He looks up and feels the old rush of adventure, remembers his erstwhile compatriots' heroic exploits. A mysterious smile teases up the corners of his mouth.

25 February, 2017

Memories of Bast

I knew it was love when she acted embarrassed for shitting on my leg. Little Bast hid in the closet for nearly an hour after that, impossible to cajole out even with canned tuna. It wasn't her fault she came from the shelter with an upper-respiratory infection and lower-intestinal parasite. Our first few weeks together, every time she sneezed — well I spare you the details. This affectionate six-month kitten was no less adorable for having a minor soiling issue. Even then, I could tell that she was the perfect cat for me.

Bast quickly learned that I sleep like a corpse, and took to sphinx-posing overnight in the furrow between my legs. (Fitting, since I named her after a gentle cat-goddess of ancient Egypt.) Often she was still there when I woke up. If not, no matter; we always met in the kitchen for coffee, kibble, and a brief chat. "Morning," I'd say. "Mrrrow," she'd reply.

She always met me at the door with that aloof gaze, chest puffed imperiously, but I knew she'd been sitting there for a while, awaiting my return from work. The whole thing was an act; my absences weren't actually held against me. She'd soon enough be perched on my lap, playing predator with the cursor on my computer monitor until I persuaded her to stow the killer instinct in favor of behind-the-ear rubs and — her favorite — under the chin nuzzles. We'd have been satisfied to sit like that for hours at a go, Bast's was the softest fur of any animal I've had the delight to pet.

After my abduction, Bast got another excellent, loving, attentive home with my godmother, Judy. Photos and regular updates on my velvety little darling (and she was always that — my cat — no matter how long we'd been apart) came in the mail like a time-lapse film of Bast's sleek black coat turning brown and discomposed. Increasingly, my knee hurt and her back legs wobbled. She needed shots every month, for a recently developed disorder. I took daily pills for chronic heartburn. Our bodies were betraying us. I wondered so many times whether or not she'd remember me if I got out of prison today. Those bittersweet reminders of passing time, of mortality. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss her terribly.

Judy wrote last week. My little Bast, at nineteen, has finally died. In truth, I'd been waiting to hear this for so many years, worrying how it might hit me when word came, that its sting was absent. There's only this fat, dull ache in my throat, this warm pressure behind my eyes. I remind myself that it's better to be a degree removed from grief, separated, like this, by time and physical distance, but memories and the foiled daydream allure of could-have-been adds back what detachment takes away. Grief's toll is always paid somehow.

23 February, 2017

Last Night on Earth

Why, still, the lifelike memory of that last night? It wasn't special, just a drive through town and a couple of hours with a friend. With renewed energy, at the conclusion of a long, violent week in bed (or, by appearances, in a grave), it was a kind of liberation: out of bed; black pants, black T-shirt, black Docs; earrings; concealer, power, eyeliner; away.

"Hey, you pale and sickly child," sang Martin Gore. "You're death and living reconciled." In the car, the new Depeche Mode album compelled me along the streets and terraces. I could've driven anywhere — dropped in on the Captain, rang up Brahm, invited out that girl from the art museum, stopped by the coffeehole — except I wasn't fit, not yet, for that level of interaction. My friend F.C. was chill. F.C. was unambitious. F.C. was the perfect person to hang out with while affecting a resurrection. Such was his ease, when I showed up on his porch, he gave no sign of noticing, until "Coffee?"

We watched Requiem for a Dream on rented VHS. Darren Aronofsky directing the adapted Hubert Selby Jr. novel. Everyone in it loses their mind (and body) to drugs. One character overdoses on diet pills and hallucinates what's likely cinema's only scene involving, according to the credits, a "refrigerator puppeteer." Some have called the film depressing. I recall it being wonderful — the last thing I watched as a free man.

No want of a cigarette afterward, which felt weird. Being sick had kicked the habit — two and a half packs (or more) a day, for longer than I kept track — right out of me. It was a conspicuous absence. I wasn't sure what to do with my hands, so I knifed them into my pockets and told F.C. I'd see him around.

The car, my enormous silver car, belched a plume of exhaust. I tingled with amusement at the absurdity of it, the stink of wasted gasoline (eleven miles to the gallon, new, in 1974), the engine's out-of-tune havoc. I left F.C.'s driveway without cueing up a different soundtrack than its mechanical one.

There was swirling fog when I plunged into a low section of the barren expressway. Here was where the night was at its most potent, across that span of solitude, unfettered by any more pain or fatigue from illness. Here came the full appreciation for my liberty. I was piloting into the night, waves of mist sweeping around my vessel, which bobbed along nautically, like a boat on dark seas through which I could travel in any direction — any direction at all.

Foot off the gas pedal, for the neighbors' benefit, it was 1:30 in the morning when I coasted down my street. Ever the insomniac, inside, I logged on the usual IM clients and my webmail: four unread e-mails waiting — a band's tour dates, pics from my recent ex, adult-site spam, notice of a software update. I surfed art and humor sites until yawning.

I undressed. I slipped into bed. I slept dreamlessly. I woke up to guns. To shouting. To something altogether different from anything I'd known.

And that's where some think the writing ought to begin, yet here we are at an ending. Retrospect alone — the thereafter and the heretofore — is what gives these paragraphs relevance. I'm haunted, as I have been for almost sixteen years, by that simple night. Worse is not knowing when, or if, the memory will ever leave me be.

14 February, 2017

An Occasional Poem, Unfortunately Relevant Again

Sick in Stir

Some chicken soup would be nice.
Also a capful of NyQuil. A better

Bed on which to sleep — not that sleep
Comes easily. Last night, flipping

This way and that in my stricken state,
Insomniac scrapings and thumps from

My cellmate not helping matters,
Scratchings in my throat, I wondered if it's

Feed a cold, starve a fever,
Or the other way around. No matter

The comfort-foodstuffs I have can be
Accounted thusly: four bricks of ramen soup,

Sugar cubes, saltines, instant coffee, nothing
Wholesome this worn-out body needs. I'm well-

To-do by the standards of a few, "doin' bad" by more.
No TLC from an attendant (those ministrations

Are a weaker man's refuge), bedside. So I hack
And spit, Ahem and sigh, too weary to keep

Up with the prison banter hurtling by, just
Making do, hanging on, being of

The moment as much as a windup mind
Like mine allows, sick and doing time.

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Originally published in autumn 2014, in issue 9 of the literary magazine Trajectory, "Sick in Stir" is obviously my response to a nasty cold suffered in an even nastier place. A couple of nights ago I felt the familiar sinus pinch and slight itchiness, harbingers of the full-on festival of snot and fatigue that not even bingeing on seven oranges and taking several hour-long naps could stave off. Considering that everyone around me seemed to be infected, last year and the year before, I've been lucky to have kept my health. Now's just my time. Please excuse me while I go blow my brains out.

05 February, 2017

Signs of Life


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CDV - Will be issued
If contaminated items are left on floor

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No Sunglasses

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Tranquilidad por favor
Quiet please

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NO EXCEPTIONS! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

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Only Offenders assigned to work Staff Dining admitted without escort!
CDV's will be issued.

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06 January, 2017

The List: Reading October through December 2016

Jacek Yerka, Bible Dam

In the years since I started posting these reading lists, I doubt there's been one as illustrative of my crazily wide range, as a reader, than this. The Halloween season meant watching more TV, my November birthday meant more visits and phone calls with friends, and the holidays meant, well, more eating. Also, my early-morning reading time disappeared when Brett, my occasional workout partner, moved into the wing with me, eager to talk and stroll around before breakfast. By evening, more often than not, I'm too worn down to keep my eyes open while moving them across pages. Still, what books I did read are so wildly diverse as to make you shake your head in disbelief, wondering how the same guy enjoying books of poetry and literary criticism can also read comic-strip collections about a lobotomized cat who loves Star Wars

For several of these titles, I owe thank-yous to my ceaselessly thoughtful mother (who knows my literary tastes, insane though they may be, better than anyone) and the lady with the out-of-this-world hair (who sometimes spoils my appetite with cotton candy).

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James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War
Purveyor of current television's most consistently awful programming, Syfy astounded critics and me, premiering a high-value series last year, The Expanse, a well-written and capably acted space opera about a mining ship's crew and a hardboiled detective who get swept up in interplanetary political intrigue threatening every colony in the solar system. The series is based on these James S.A. Corey novels, a rare adaptation that's actually better than the source, and it's no Z Nation.

I'm picky about my science fiction, generally preferring the literary strains. Although big, loud, and prone to explode, Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War aren't dumb. I was able to overlook Corey's repetitive use of a few go-to phrasings — characters muttering "something obscene" and smiling in a way that "doesn't reach [their] eyes" — more easily than the atrocious first chapters of Caliban's War, but all was forgiven in light of these books' edge-of-your-seat twists and turns, and their skillful pacing.

Berkeley Breathed, The Bill the Cat Story and Bloom County Episode XI: A New Hope
Such is my Bloom County fandom that Bill the Cat would've had my vote in the 1984 presidential election, if only he hadn't died in that horrible cocaine-fueled car accident that claimed the life of an innocent prostitute. (It also would've helped to have been old enough to reach the voting-booth lever.) But Opus, Steve, Binkley, Oliver, Milo, Cutter John, and the rest of the gang kept me reading the strip. I was overjoyed when a new Bill was cloned, using the severed tongue found in the wreckage at the bottom of the cliff, and Berkeley Breathed's 2016 resurrection of this hilarious comic was an even more welcome return from the dead.

Leo Tolstoy (Lynn Solotaroff, translator), The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Anna Karenina's mannered tedium didn't affect me (precisely why can be read in this reading list post, from last year), but like the fever of a sudden illness, Tolstoy's little novel seizes the reader with life's profoundest, most harrowing drama — the one we've all got to face, eventually and in one form or another: the end.

This passage appears in chapter nine, describing the titular judge's deathbed thoughts:
And in his imagination he called to mind the best moments of his pleasant life. Yet, strangely enough, all the best moments of his pleasant life seemed entirely different than they had in the past — all except the earliest memories of childhood. Way back in his childhood there had been something really pleasant, something he could live with were it ever to recur. But the person who had experienced that happiness no longer existed. It was as though he were recalling the memories of another man.

The familiarity I have with this sentiment validates my own thoughts. At best, life in prison is a gimpy, fucked-up kind of living, and the gulf between who I now feel myself to be and the fragile, gullible young man first brought into this place is an unfathomable abyss of years. Some late nights, when I wake for no reason, it yawns like the grave. By bringing across the universal in the specific, Count Tolstoy succeeded here. What a book!

Ed Tato, True Stories of la Cosa Nostra: Poems

I don't know whether the family profiled in these poems is a fabrication, like the Spoon River decedents written about by Masters, or a real object of genealogical study. I don't know if it matters. As with The Spoon River Anthology, Tato's True Stories are more conceptually engaging than as poetry qua poetry. Was this Tato's intention? I don't know his work beyond this collection, and (although I'm on such intimate terms with his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, that I get to call it Larry) I don't know the man.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

I love this:
We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality. We must proceed on the assumption that almost all prose popularly acclaimed as beautiful ("she writes like an angel") is nothing of the sort, that almost every novelist will at some point be baselessly acclaimed for writing "beautifully" as almost all flowers are at some point acclaimed for smelling nice.

Wood's survey of literature's wide swath, from the Bible to John Updike, examining the mechanisms by which fiction does what it does, is a must-read for all serious readers who want to better understand fiction and its truths. 

Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer

The Gothic novel to top all Gothic novels — that's what Maturin, an Irish clergyman, set out to write in 1818. Not three years later, the publication of Melmoth the Wanderer met with outright vitriol from reviewers, one of whom accused Maturin of blasphemy, brutality, and "dark, cold-blooded, pedantic obscenity." In other words, this is good stuff.

Olivia Liang, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Having heard me summarize this utterly engrossing 2016 history/memoir/meditation on loneliness, which wends through the lives of artists from Andy Warhol to Henry Darger in its exploration of loneliness, my neighbor Jim rolled his eyes. "Oh, great," he said. "Hanging out with suicidally depressed artsy-fartsy people is what put you in this mess to begin with!"

Touché, Jimbo. Although reductive (and missing the point) my curmudgeon pal's quip had the effect of validating my enthusiasm for the book. Yes, I do have more friends and associates now than at most other points in my socially awkward life, but I still exist in a persistent state of what psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan defined as "the exceedingly unpleasant and driving experience connected with inadequate discharge of the need for human intimacy." We all do. To what degree, and in what way it's dealt — these are areas Liang crawls into and peers around. 

There are names here of varying recognizability: Billie Holiday, Edward Hopper, Josh Harris, David Wojnarowicz, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo…. The Lonely City wends its way through the lives of these lonely souls, a path that reveals the ways in which we — human beings — live without that "discharge" the psychiatrist wrote about, the forms of our connections when we do have it, and the role played by society in perpetuating the exclusion of what Liang terms "unwieldy and strange" people. Her eye is keen, her mind is lucid, and the product of her studies is easily the best work of nonfiction I read all year.