Monday, November 24, 2008

A Camp of One

November 24th, 2008

Have you ever seen one of those Rube Goldberg devices before? You know-- an incredibly overcomplicated series of wheels, ramps, widgets, tubes, and other whimsical devices that are combined with the goal of delivering a marble (or whatever) through this dizzying obstacle path in order to open a bottle of soda (or some other simple activity). They are marvelous feats of engineering, but they are, by definition and design, so inefficient that the entire apparatus can only be looked at as a joke. (If you have no idea what I am talking about. Google "Honda's Superbowl ad" from a few years back; it's great fun.) I was trying to describe Texas prisons to a friend of mine from overseas, and I thought instantly of these devices. It is a very apt analogy, in all seriousness. Scores of little gray men spinning about in circles, making lots of noise, spending ungodly amount of money, accomplishing nothing. At no point is this more obvious than during Lockdown. We have come up twice, only to go back under Lockdown status after a few hours. The old Lockdown is dead! Long live the Lockdown! The guy who started all of this mess, one Richard Tabler, is again causing drama. He was the inmate who decided it would be a grand idea to use a smuggled cell phone to call and threaten a state Senator's daughter, thus provoking the late unpleasantness. He has since also sent threatening letters to the same Senator, which makes no sense, until you realize that he had begun the process to forfeit his appeals BEFORE he made the initial calls. I suppose this all was his way of expressing his hatred for the other men on the Row, which is not surprising, as he was easily one of the most reviled inmates in 12-Building. He has forged a reputation for stealing from other inmates, and for being a rat. It is true that some men here have no desire to change, and for all of my progressivism this thought, I do not honestly know what we as a society are to do about them. I only know that I feel in my heart that sinking to his level and killing him is wrong. I think that it is safe to say, however, that such a man should never again see the light of day. He seems to revel in causing chaos and pain, which I find extremely difficult to understand. I can empathize with the men who snap and do something, which they regret, but men who choose not to learn what they can from their falls are beyond me. They have no grounding, it would seem. No desire to ever be better than they were yesterday, a subject that is constantly on my mind. They have him in a section by himself, with only a towel, a mattress, and some sheets. A more pitiful existence I cannot imagine.

They do seem to be learning some new tactics, however, all our kings men. They still won't ever to be able to put Humpty-Dumpty together again, but they are honing their brutality to a razor's edge sharpness. Last week, they stripped us down to our boxers, and started to place all of our belongings down in the dayroom, on top of our mattresses. They then handcuffed us, and lead us into the hallway that connects C-Pod to the rest of 12-Building. There, about 40 TDC guards made us strip, and step forward one by one to be scanned for metal. The first man in line is a very large gentleman... ah, who am I kidding, he is a blimp. I shall call him El Panzon for now. Some of the female officers started mocking him, and I could tell that he was embarrassed, as his face turned bright red. They continued with the taunting, the crowd starting to get involved. I suppose it was meant to look spur-of-the- moment, but I believe it was planned, as there was no need for so many women officers to have been present in that hall (by the way, women officers aren't even supposed to be strip searching male inmates, but nobody really cares about the rules around here). Things were getting out of hand, and it seemed as if they were taunting him into doing something foolish. El Panzon started to get really agitated when a female officer made a comment about pitying his wife. I started doing my imitation of "Fat Bastard" from the Austin Powers movies (I do accents pretty well). "Coome on, lad! Shake eet fur me, now...yoo ken yer ded sexah!" The other inmates started cracking up, and the spell was broken. El Panzon started smiling, even doing some form of imitation pole dance, which was really quite revolting, but at least he wasn't going off. Being made fun of by the guys (which happens all of the time) trumped the guards, basically. Bomb defused. I caught the eye of the only ranking officer in the hall, and winked at him. Check. Your move, jerk.

We kept up the banter, each man first getting insulted by the guards, and then we would reply. They kept telling us to shut-up, but it turns out that being naked and deprived of all dignity is the point that men finally realize that there is nothing left to be taken from them, and so authority loses its power. The subject matter of their attacks was easily anticipated, and therefore dispersible. The intellectual capacity of most of these people falls somewhere in the range between pond scum and small rodentia, so they stuck to the easy stuff: obscenely small genitalia, pale skin, love handles, man boobs, etc., etc. I was actually pretty amused by some of the stuff my team came up with. We have a guy on one-row who's... um... "facial symmetry" is a few degrees out of whack, let's say. When it was his turn, someone called out, "Sloth loves Chunk", a delightful reference to the 80's movie "The Goonies," which almost had me crying. Wish I had come up with that. For my part, I missed the memo that modern man was supposed to be completely hairless, so there were some remarks about my being a wolf-man (I'm not THAT hairy, but I began to howl, anyways), as well as a comment or two about my scars, which were so apathetic I do not think I even responded. I think that they had mostly lost interest by the time they made it down the line to me. After the scanning, they let us out to one of the outside dayrooms where we sat as they finished transporting our stuff to the day room.

It took them a while, but eventually they completed the task. We were led back to our cells, and given our boxers. It is fortunate for us that the temperature outside was only in the upper 50's, as concrete walls transmit the cold to an extremely efficient degree. Basically, the inside temperature is the same as the external temperature, minus the wind-chill factor. One at a time, the guards would wheel large carts in and take an inmate's stuff down to be X-rayed. When they have completed this task, they would return the items to the day room. This went on all day. They finished scanning my section by 4:30 PM, but refused to return our items; orders from the Warden. Most of us spent the time running in place, doing squats, anything to stay warm. By midnight, the temperature in our cells was in the upper 30s. Now, this building IS equipped with heat, but they will not turn it on. They claim all manner of things: no money for natural gas, it's not cold enough, the heater is broken. None of that is true. This is revenge for Tabler, and for the media hopping all over the story of what idiots they are. (Shock, Horror!)

About the time the sun went down, I had come to the conclusion that running in place was not going to help me much anymore, so I settled down on the concrete floor and attempted to meditate. I've only been seriously practicing Vipassana for maybe eight months, so I was not as successful at finding some level of sati as I would like to claim, but it did settle me down a lot. I will admit that my usual calmness had started to fray. The men around me weren't helping, either. They were screaming and cursing, and many of their complaints mirrored my own, albeit worded differently. On one hand, I recognize how otiose complaints are in this situation, but sometimes it feels just splendid vent. I kept thinking about President-Elect Obama talking to an interviewer about shutting down Guantanamo and about how "we don't torture in America." Right, like it was an accident that they stacked up all of our stuff in the part of the day room that is visible from our cells, with our jackets resting on top of everything.

Eventually, I found a sort of rhythm, and was able to phase the cacophony out, to a certain degree. About 3:00 AM, this greasily unctuous officer came around, entering from D-Section. By this point, most of the men had recognize that the concrete floor was slightly warmer than the steel of our beds, and were huddled down into balls, trying to maintain some measure of body warmth. He asked me if I was cold. I didn't see any reason to answer such an obvious question, and just wished he would do what he came for and leave me alone

"If you want your stuff back, all you have to do is tell me who's got a cell phone in this section." Good cop. I let him go on, about how he could at least get me my jacket out of my stuff. All he wanted was a little bit of information. My dignity finally snapped. I am somewhat ashamed by this, but all I can say is: we all have our limits, and I am doing the best I can. "You want a cell phone? Okay, you can have mine." I pretended to look around, patting my non-existent pockets. "Hmm... I must have left it at your house, when your wife invited me over." Bad inmate. He was less amused than I was, and everybody on two-row laughed, some mimicking my wolf howl. He huffed and puffed, but he was the piggy, not me. He proceeded down the row, and the responses got somewhat viler as he went through. I wish, now, that I had maintained my composure, but even metal becomes brittle at low temperatures, and any time you can see both your breath steaming up the air as you exhale and your boxer shorts, it's bloody COLD. Plus, my tongue is a real smartass, and I haven't yet figured out how to reign him in completely yet. I think he got the message, though: I am not a dog. I do not beg for treats. I am the same man, with or without a radio. I am the same man, with or without clothes. I am the same man, with or without a mat to sleep on. If I am strong enough to transcend your petty attempts to break me, you have no one to blame but yourself, TDC. You have helped me become this. You will not minimize all of the work I have had to do to get myself to this point, but I cannot ignore your contribution to the effort. You have tried to ruin me. You failed. I will never again hand you my dignity, or my anger. You are worthy of only my scorn, my disgust. I am not an animal, no matter the cage you place me in. In fact, you bear far more of the qualities of a wild beast than I do. Fas est et ab hoste doceri.

Rant off.

I know that there exists a threshold where anger becomes justified, but where does it lie, exactly? Jesus went off when he saw all of the vendors hawking their wares inside the temple (Mark 11:15-17). Obviously, there is a bit of a double standard when it comes to convicts. Acts which are acceptable or understandable in your world cause most people to say, "Well, this just proves how unredeemable he is" when I even think about the same action. I've really been trying to get a handle on myself the last few years. It is not easy, being mindful every second of the day. A quick example for you to try their home: relax in your seat. Close your eyes. What are you really feeling? What are you really thinking? Perhaps you are sensing the texture of your hands as they stretch across your knees. Maybe you feel a little discomfort in your back. Can you even identify one single thought, before your mind takes off with it, connecting it with something else? Thoughts have a way of connecting together with a frightening rapidity. Try to focus on just one single thing. Maybe a single word, maybe you're breathing (I highly recommend the breathing). Can you even concentrate on just the breaths for 30 seconds? Or does your mind take off on a tangent? If we are not able to concentrate on something as simple as breathing for a lousy half-minute, what does that say about us? Completely insane isn't too far off the mark. All of us: barely controlled chaos, masquerading as rational beings.

Most of my Christian friends are confused because I also study Buddhism. They think it is weird, unnatural. They think this, and yet they have never read a single word of Buddhist literature, or know anything about the practice other than what they have seen in movies. That's cool. I usually just respond that I do not turn away from wisdom because the source has a name that is hard to pronounce. The ironic thing is, if you put a true Christian and a true practitioner of the Dhamma through a series of morality tests, how they respond would be somewhat different, but the answers would be the same. Hell... I am a weird Christian, no "if's", "and's", or "but's" about it. I didn't set out to be this way. I do not know why I question everything, why I cannot engage in a smidgen of the "suspension of disbelief" my friend Diyon talks about. I can't just read the Bible, or something by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi or Bhante Henepola Gunaratana without dissecting the text, propelling my essence further and further out into the deep waters where the harbor lights do not reach. Once you get out there, you realize there are no benchmarks to guide you; even the stars are invisible behind the clouds. The shoreline is a gray blur, and you know in your heart that you are way past the point of no return, where the only option left for you is to keep paddling forward and hope for land. Some turn back, but I have this fragile, yet certain, logic that the shore behind me is not my home, but rather the place where the ghosts of all the mistakes I thought would save me dwell. (The human condition summed up in one sentence.) And so I find myself pretty much alone in my faith, which actually doesn't bother me at all. I get asked all the time what my denomination is, which club I belong to. I don't really know what I am. I have no church home. Nearly every letter that I have ever sent to a church has gone unanswered. If you live in Houston and watch Sunday services on the television, you have seen some of the organizations that decided that they wanted nothing to do with me. A while back, I started listing the basic tenets of my faith, and comparing them to the stated doctrines of the various camps. I know what I am not, certainly. I am not a fundamentalist, and I never will be. Socrates believed that the overriding cause of evil was ignorance, and to that I shout, "Hallelujah!" Such people have ever been an anchor on human progress, always clinging to the memory of "better days", totally ignoring the fact that those days never existed. I went to Catholic Church when I lived in Mexico, so I can safely say that I am not of the Pope's flock. I don't seem to fit in very well with the Baptists, though that may have a lot more to do with their desire to have me killed more than anything else. I feel little closer to the Methodists, and closer still to the Unitarians and the Episcopalians, though I am by no means a perfect fit. I am an unabashed progressive Democrat. I believe in Theistic Evolution (which is not at all the equivalent of the pseudo-scientific "Creation Science" nonsense that was crammed down my throat at my private high school). I am very secular, and I do not see science as the enemy of God, but rather as a lens through which we see him with greater clarity. I like Buddhists, Humanists, and Homosexuals, and I think Christ loves these people, too (Matt 5:44), and wouldn't be advocating the war in Iraq as a "Mission sent from God", or holding "Pray Away the Gay" conferences. (A gold star if you can guess which former vice-presidential candidate is adamant about both. Hint: the only 3 AM phone call she ever received dealt with a moose getting stuck in a trash-can.) Anyways. So, I don't really know what I am. I only know that I cannot find God in any other way than on this path I am taking.

When I try to read most mainstream Christian literature, I never make it past the first few chapters, disgusted. It is just too formulaic, too contrived plastic. The only Christian writer I have ever read that didn't leave me feeling like my soul was something the cat dragged in is Donald Miller ("Blue Like Jazz" is excellent, by the way). If we do not question, do we really care? I think not, and we as a religion have an absolutely dreadful record of admitting when we are wrong, and about being tolerant of other beliefs. The list of atrocities done by "Christians" who were convinced of the rightness of their beliefs is too long to mention here... it is the history of the last 1800 years, or so. Think about the Crusades. The virtual elimination of the Aztecs at the hands of Cortez (and others) comes to mind, as does the Spanish Inquisition. Not to mention the entire time period after the Byzantine empire fell apart and before the Enlightenment, when Europe seem to attempt to institute St. Augustine's whole "City of God" thing. Kings being subject to the rule of the Church... great idea, guys. They were called the Dark Ages for good reason. It was not dogma, which moved the progress of society out of the ceaseless cruelty and violence of those days. It was reason, logic, and science. Theocracies are clearly the most dangerous and unstable political structures. Go read the story of a Hypatia (370 about or 415, I think), who was the daughter of a mathematician and astronomer at the Alexandrian Museum (the Harvard, Oxford, and MIT of the ancient world... Christians burned it down, it is estimated that human progress was set back by more than half a millennium). She was a Neo-Platonist, but not religious. Since she was a pagan, a philosopher, a scientist, and a mathematician, St. Cyril (patriarch of Alexandria) ordered her dragged from her chariot, stripped naked, cut up alive with sharpened shells, and finally burned. This is what was meant by brotherly love. Talk to the Lombards about this; or the Saxons. Or, I might add, to African Americans living in the South during the civil right movement (Hell, talk to them today), or prison inmates in Texas. I hope that you have the wisdom to understand that when I say that certain aspects of the First Republican Church of Americanized Jesus scares the hell out of me, I am not talking trash about God. I am speaking only of the application of what people are convinced is right.

Ajahn Chah, a Buddhists of the Thai Forest tradition, gave a pretty good description of practicing the Dhamma, and I am going to rip them off and modify the analogy to include all religion. He described it as a bottle of medicine. The bottle has detailed descriptions on how to take the pills: what time of the day to take them, what types of food to take them with, etc. If the patient only reads the directions, without taking the medication, it won't do him any good. He could even die. Before he dies, he complains bitterly about the medications ineffectiveness. But he never took it inside him! Only when the patient reads the instructions and take the medicine will it help him. I figure the sicker he is, the more he will need to take. I add my own two cents to the teachings of the Bhikku by saying that certain types of pills can make the symptoms worse, if used incorrectly. You would not take a blood thinner to cure athlete's foot, would you? So, be careful how you apply religious teachings to matters which are modern... you may be overextending what God intended to the point that you are totally losing your way.

I guess that what I would like for each of us to do it this: take a deep breath when someone says something that you do not like. Especially if it is a subject you know nothing about. Try to see things from their point of view. Stop thinking you, or me, or anyone, has absolute monopoly on truth. Find the truth for yourself, and recognize that while absolute truth may be real, don't be convinced you are in possession of it. Life becomes a lot more beautiful when we can accept each other's oddness.

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content with doubts, he shall end in certainties."

Francis Bacon

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© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
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