Monday, June 11, 2012

Worse Than Senseless

A critique by, and of, Jeff C.

"You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things."

Maybe it was the irony of hearing that particular biting line from the stage that drew my attention to the crowd I was sitting amongst. There were well over a hundred and fifty of us khaki-clad convicts seated, sprawled, and splayed upon the gymnasium floor for the Freehold's Engaged Theatre Program production of the bard's "Julius Caesar." In the middle of the fourth row of carefully laid out dyed grey DOC sheets that we normally sleep on, I was close enough to hear nearly all of the action of the partially amplified and modern interpretation of the play. But after hearing that specific line of the play, my focus remained ever diverted by the addled crowd--especially after the first time they responded, en masse (and evidently sans irony) with raucous laughter to their own collective comforting cognizance to Casca's line, "For mine own part, it was Greek to me." Finally, a bon mot they could all digest.

During Brutus' eloquent soliloquy, the fine flock of gentlemen directly in front of me had their attention diverted by the actors "offstage" when their facially-tattooed doyen fingered past the stage and my unresponsive eyes reluctantly followed along with the drove. With not much of a backstage, some of the actors stood still in the far back, facing the wall, as the action on the stage played on. I had already noticed this, and thought nothing of it, except that because they stood absolutely still and then ultimately moved at t'ai chi ch'uan speed, they possessed an enviable level of self-control. But this particular patrician pointed not at this feat, but at the actor in the corner, near the placid punching bags, who was changing her clothes unhurriedly in front of the gated emergency door. Nothing emerged as to why this was worth noting--let alone worth snickering about--until I saw that the emerging sunshine made her dress almost pellucid.

Trying to tune out the audience's confabulations--and the eminently respectful fellow who was evidently compelled to throw balled up bits of the program at his colleague in front of him throughout the play, I wondered if the Globe Theater's crowds (who were, according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature's Hallet Smith, accused by the Puritans of "riot, fire, accidents, ungodliness and the spread of the plague") would have comported themselves in such an elegant manner or if, as I suspect, most of our crowd would not have patronized the Globe, but would have crossed the Thames and slavered at the bull- and bear-baiting instead.

I held my breath in concentration during the dueling dialogue between Portia and Brutus not only to appreciate the acting, but also to test if I had any psychokinetic powers that would allow me to carefully control the crowd from making the expected august miscegenation remarks about Sarah Hartlett and Reginald André Jackson when they embraced. Astonishingly, at least in my section of the crowd, my powers proved potent. But with my newly acquired extrasensory aptitude unequivocally fatigued, once Brutus dismissed Portia and commanded, "Portia, go to bed," the multitude boisterously guffawed and guffawed. In fact, one stentoriously voiced grandee with an undoubtedly refined sense of humor felt that this comment was worth echoing for well over a minute, repeating this phrase long after even his obsequious minions stopped chortling at his hilarious resonating impersonation. I wondered--after he had trailed off and then began amusing himself yet again, reprising this fresh joke--if he somehow envied Brutus or if, to him, the subjugation of women is inherently hysterical.

After the first hour, during the institution movement period, many of the more urbane folk left and inevitably interrupted the climactic scene--but Portia and Brutus managed the astonishing feat of ignoring their insolence. Perhaps appropriately, it was shortly after the exiting crowd's cacophony that I noticed that the three Butoh dancers had slowly moved off the top of the prepossessingly decorated scaffolding and Eris, the goddess of discord--played with a quiet subtlety by Vanessa Skantze--delicately clung to the scafolding; while Ares, the god of war--played by the lithe Lin Lucas--with her navel aimed skyward, suggested the St. Louis Gateway Arch. But my quiet appreciation of the company's coryphées was sullied by two callow youths--who had a lean and hungry look about them--who chortled behind me with salacious and uncouth pantings in reference to how flexible the Butoh dancers were--but said in such a sordidly indecorous manner that I was disgusted by the inelegance, ignorance, and lack of imagination.

Since it must surely have been taxing holding up the sides of the buildings with their lustrous jackboots and costive stares, some of the more corpulent correctional officers retired forward--away from the opportunity to see anything but some peripheral action--to their guard cage commissioned to protect them at their action desk from errant convict handballs and basketballs. Minutes later, when Caesar--played by the redoubtable Kevin McKeon--was stabbed, even I chuckled briefly at the proffered witticism, "Somebody call a code"--which is prisonspeak for, "Call 911." However, the artful subtlety of this sole wry observation was drowned out by the frothy frenzy over the subsequent stabbings and then a riot of boisterous, boyish belly laughs at Calpurnia's bloodcurdling scream over her husband's dead body. Kjerstine Anderson's cool composure under the assailment of such protracted childish laughter was veritably laudable.

Indubitably, the gracious gentlemen's glorious glee gained vigor in Act III after Marc Antony cried, "'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war" and their already inordinate response crescendoed when the Butoh dancers growled. For some reason I was reminded of observing the nervous laughter of immigrants who do not know the language well and simper at any recognizable phrase or tone that might be meant to be comical--even if it couldn't possibly be classified as funny. More of this lovely rabid cachinnation broke out when the Roman plebeians, dressed in black coats, hemmed along the side of the crowd and one young woman talked to a hoary Hispano who gaped at her in amazement that was seemingly--to the vast swell of the roaring audience--the epitome of hilarity.

During the resplendent Sylvester F. Kamara's Marc Antony speech, the institution's prisoner-address system squawked "Med lines are open," and I naively hoped nearly all of the gabbling gaggle would arise and chevy after their colloquially called "ding biscuit" antipsychotic pills. Regrettably, they remained--obviously yet another dereliction of the croaker community to properly diagnosticate--but my hope recrudesced with the glorious thought that the imminent DSM-V will alleviate what ails them and, therefore, aggravates me.

When Marc Antony pointed out the bloodstains on Caesar's robe (which disappointly looked like it came from a picnic lunch) I heard the inevitable and I earnestly hope rhetorical question, "Is he TELLING right now?" As if Marc Antony were the despicable big house rat that so many in this place have a caustic phobia of--or possibly a terror of merely being labeled as such and therefore exclaim the initial, "J'accuse!"

While I admired the immediate Che Guevara T-shirt quasi-merchandising of Caesar's image strung up onstage, and I thought how it must be meant to symbolize the gullible despotism of the bleating masses, the Jesse Sherfey-Hinds choreographed chaos of combat began. Behind me one of the canaille barked piercingly at one of the actors, "Yeah, muck her up!" Although, unquestionably, it was a significantly more repugnant word that that oh so honorable man thought was appropriate to ejaculate into our ears.

Later, when Gaius Cassius--reimagined as Cassia in a way that worked in all ways except for making her the sister of Brutus--unfastened the top button of what could pass for a state-issued khaki "work shirt," she pleaded for her dagger to be plunged into her breast, I was subjected to the ignominy of hearing how one genteel gentleman wished that the actor playing Cassia was better endowed--though, of course in verbiage that contained the subtle grace and class of an aspiring shock jock. I forcibly refocused my attention back on the action onstage and noted that the DOC red visitor badges actually added to the military effect of uniforms that the director, Robin Lynn Smith, afterwards admitted aiming for--although with more of a post-bin Laden era than a post-Hitler era effect. Others, however, interpreted the current action a bit more liberally than I felt comfortable doing, such as when Cassia was being embraced by another female actor in response to her plea for death, and one coxcomb declared, "Dude, they're making out right now.”

After the second hour, during the next movement, the Butoh dancers answered my stilly prayers and space opened up in the second row, away from my dear, dear new friends whom I'll forever regret never getting to fully bond with as it is quite apparent from their insightful and apropos comments that we've so much in common. The musicians, Beth Fleenor and Whitney Lyman, distracted me from this grievous thought and continued to provide a nearly flawless accompaniment to all the scenes, perhaps only drowning out the more timid voices. Or in the case of Metalla Cimber, played by Kirsten McCory--who didn't project into the tumultuous crowd enough from the start--they overpowered her with their musical enhancement. But the musicians more than made up for this unavoidable occurance in the echoingly interfering gymnasium with their beautifully haunting vocalizations at Brutus' death. It was after the speeches following Brutus' death that the prisoner-address system again shrilled--this time with the fitting and surreal irony, "Movement is closed." Undeniably so.

Once the merited standing ovation ended--which wasn't entirely the result of four score men reluctantly rising from the comfort of resting on the padding of nearly twenty thread count sheets on top of a basketball court--the first audible eloquence from the first row, and thus clearly heard by the entired gathered cast, was the meticulously deliberate, "That was pretty darn good." The probing supplemental question by the same estimable savant was accompanied by a stained, stubby, sausage-fingered jab at the Butoh dancers and a mumbled, "What's up with these guys?" Thankfully the director was trained to recognize the disparate types of savants and parried with the answer of "What do you think?"

Further superbly sagacious questions were asked--including the haplessly obligatory, "Do you know karate?" to one of the Butoh dancers. Perhaps due to these initial stunted questions, which included a smattering of straightforward questions that were actually answered, the director and others resorted to the immediately annoying refrain of "How do YOU think that question should be answered?" Therefore, when I asked what the press symbolized (played with appropriate vulturous verve by Lori Ellen--with the intriguing technological ingenuity of a distorted amplified microphone), I prefaced my question with the riposte, "Without asking me to answer it myself" statement. Mercifully, this worked and Robin Lynn Smith proved she was clearly capable of doing that thing that artists often--and directors always--do best: explaining their art. In this case she justified the press' anachronism as a way to amplify and symbolize Caesar's celebrity.

But all too soon the pablum interrogations recommenced. One such quizzical query was, "Why do you do this?"--meaning act. To which Reginald Andrè Jackson quipped, "Because I can't do anything else." But then the banality of the questions and comments from the crowd elicited the obsequious praising by the director of "amazing audiences like yourselves"--a repugnant conceit, if true. Although, to be equitable, the director did mention that they had previously performed at, I believe, a children's hospital, so knowing which audience inevitably had more immature outbursts and callow cackles, I refused to blame the director for this polite prevarication. Besides, when pressed by a rare audience member who wanted an actual answer--not just a chance to talk--about the ambiguity of Marc Antony, Robin Lynn Smith admitted that, "to me, he learns a lesson over the course of this play." I only wish that our own amazing audience was capable of such a faculty as well.

I am concerned that the Freehold's Engaged Theatre Program will discover during the forthcoming "writer's workshop" that without the movement, sounds, and colors of the stage, many of their captive audience will reveal themselves as lecherous curs that do not deserve--because they cannot appreciate--the elaborate production that was generously given to us.

As a postscript, when I entered the living unit I asked an acquaintance of mine what he thought of the play and aside from his universal praise he asked me if I could write a play as good as that one. Not sure if he even knew who had actually written the play, I said, "No. He's considered by many to be the best author in the English language, ever." This comment was met with silence. A silence that I wish there had been more of during the actual play.

"Back home, broad-minded is just another way of saying a feller is too lazy to form an opinion."
--Will Rogers

KICK MY ASS? Was it possible that this little critique could incite such a response as that? Would somebody really "lay hands on me" for a bunch of words about a play and the response to it?

These were my jittery thoughts during the week after letting that review be released into this little prison community of ours. It wasn't even intended to be either a final draft or mass distributed, though it never was revised and it absolutely got passed along.

What was also passed along was that I'd infuriated some convicts and I'd better "get ready.”

It started of simply enough. In the Advanced Creative Writing class, our teacher, Carol Estes, asked what we thought about starting a newsletter for the University Beyond Bars with some original content. We talked about different features and suddenly I found myself nominated for editor. To be sure, it was a self-nomination.

I knew we had the "Julius Caesar" production in a couple of weeks and I wasted no time in flexing my bulging new editorial muscles and gave my erudite friend Atif the "assignment" to write a review of the play. During the play I took copious notes as well, scheming for an editorial column.

I had no idea what my topic might be since Atif was going to cover the actual play. Then the theme literally screamed out at me.

I admit I came under the influence of this new little power. This was accelerated by the intoxicating rush of the introduction into my life of a new-to-me Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. This potency, mixed liberally with access to the absolute best digital thesaurus in existence, created a blissful buzz. (The Encyclopaedia Brittanica comes with a cheesy Webster's dictionary but an insanely addictive thesaurus; you've been warned, logophiles - beware of succumbing to unrepentant epeolatry.)

At our next Advanced Creative Writing class I had done what we normally do: I passed out about ten copies of my critique for the writers and Carol to read and mark up with any comments and constructive criticism for the following week. They knew what it was intended for, but we'd all previously agreed that we'd have a consensus before anything went in the newsletter.

I heard about the impending confrontation before it happened.

On the other side of the prison, Sam, one of the writers in our class was flying from cell to cell making all sorts of guys read my critique, some who didn't know me--let alone anyone in the writing class. While they read it, Sam asked each one, "Can you believe the arrogance of this guy?"

Before the next class my good friend PJ approached me about it, willing to listen to my side, but clearly upset by what he'd been shown. This wasn't easy for me because I deeply respect PJ. (Not only is he my art-sensei, but I look up to this years-younger-than-me man on how one should do time.)

With a distinct discomfort, I explained as best I could, there on the spot, what I had intended and why. Atif was doing the "normal" review, I was attempting a social commentary critique. I tried to justify the vocabulary and the amplified, ironically affected style as an attempt to...well, it's difficult to know what I initially explained to PJ that finally convinced him that it was worth getting past this, and that I didn't think I was better than him.

That is certainly a healthy percentage of what bothered most people that reacted to my critique. That I, like others, was setting myself above them all. Society, the media, politicians--they (mostly) all look down on us here in prison, but there's a (mostly) accepted common justification for that. The same thing, of course, occurs in prison in how many differentiate from others in here. To be clear, I'm not defending any of this.

In all the "How to be a Better Writer" books I've devoured they often talk about how an antagonist never thinks of himself as totally evil, worthless, and irredeemable. Whether or not they're right, that does seem to be how many people operate in here: I may have committed the act of attempted murder but at least I'm not a --.

Fill in the blank with whatever that heinous guy over there is that in comparison makes you feel incrementally better about yourself. Not that that's a conscious thing in all this self-segregation by one's crime, for one example. Call it a defense mechanism. Call it the "natural" way humans behave. Or simply say that it's emotionally dangerous to allow yourself to be considered--rightly or no--as the lowest of the low without putting someone else below. Again, not defending this (he added, perhaps defensively).

But talking with PJ let me know that if my friends were this concerned then guys like Sam (who isn't exactly someone I "kick it with") would require more than a rambling, disjointed explanation--let alone a completely unwaverable "justified" stance.

I arrived at that next writing class prepared to defend myself, in whatever way necessary. In whatever way I could. Because there weren't enough classrooms we had to share the room with another class, so we had to keep our voices down--likely a good thing. Especially considering it's not as if I ever have to be asked to assert my opinion or to do so with more volume.

We were crammed close around a round table in the corner, about eight guys and Carol. Sam was there, visibly eager and happy to admit it, along with a couple of younger guys that nodded at everything he said.

Sam is a very intentionally laid-back guy with a slightly affected swagger (even while sitting, if you can picture that posture). He seldom fully joins the group, but keeps an eye on everyone from a distance and from behind his amber-tinted glasses. If I consciously remember not to slouch and stretch to my full height of 6'1", I would say Sam isn't all that much bigger than I am, but he carries his broad-shouldered bulk with a calculated detachment that can be intimidating.

What's really intimidating about Sam and convicts like him is that I can't figure them out. I don't know when that "cool" veneer will crack or snap--or what will cause it. When I encounter this attitude outside the classroom comfort of the UBB (where the Convict Code is dramatically lessened) I tend to control myself more, as a few misplaced syllables can and does incite violence.

Unlike normal when he'd hardly say anything at all, Sam started the class by reading from a short, anonymous, typed critique of my critique and his own longer critique while Carol (who had mislaid her copy) was catching up by reading an extra one. As I was taking notes I noticed (and I believe that only I noticed) that the adrenaline caused my hands to shake.

With a distinct smile, Sam's typed and additional comments poured forth, with echoing interjections by a few others. I was an arrogant prick. I was showing off by using thirty words that needed to be looked up. I think I'm better than everybody else. I had been seen checking women out on the "breezeway" so I'm in no position to judge. I wasn't really that offended by the crowd's behavior. I'm a judgmental snob. My pretentiousness only shows my own insecurity. I'm a hypocrite. It wasn't fair of me to criticize these guys who had never seen that type of language before. There's something missing or wrong with me for needing to lash out like that. I shouldn't blame them for how they act because what I expect of them just isn't what's common or normal. And when I confirmed that I had indeed given a copy of my review to the director at the "writer's workshop" we'd just had, I was the one making the crowd look bad and why we'll never have this kind of thing again.

While this all poured out, I corrected the belief that I had used some of the words incorrectly by referring to my prepared list, thinking that might be needed. I did, in fact, know what "cur" meant. And "pablum" is an accepted alternate spelling to "pabulum"--one with an ironic secondary definition. But otherwise I allowed all that to wash over me, uninterrupted.

Carol had completed reading it during all this and clearly thought it was funny. Her laughter during this onslaught quelled my hand some. As did her adding that she felt it was less harsh than some of the others thought. Though to be fair, she didn't need it pointed out that lines like the "two callow-youths" weren't my wording, but were borrowed from the play. She later added that, "What Jeff's doing is being a critic."

My friend Atif had helped me focus what I'd written in an earlier draft to be tighter, more consistent, and even actually convinced me to tone it down some (rightly claiming that I wasn't a good enough writer to pull off my initial full satirical stance). He pointed out to the table that no one was claiming that these things didn't happen. And no one was defending the behavior of those select crowd members because it was indefensible.

Carol and Atif didn't seem to convince them, though.

Nor did my not exactly well-reasoned but consciously calm explanation.

I absolutely do enjoy the whimsical play of language (I like to think that that does show--even if sometimes annoyingly so). Following the examples of many authors (like Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, and David Foster Wallace) I believe any word in the dictionary is fair game, if used for a precise purpose.

You would have to have a pretty low opinion of yourself not to think that you're better than some in here who are not only defiantly proud of what they did to get here, but hope to do it again. And any sort of politically correct pleading that we're all equal is either monumentally misinformed or simply disingenuous.

One inevitably makes judgments in everything. "Non-judgmental" and "judgmental" are not genuine alternatives; they are words used when someone dislikes the judgments somebody else makes. In fact (and this is a well-worn point I love to riposte with) not to judge what's right or wrong or socially acceptable is impossible--that is, the common ways in which these words are used are incoherent. It's typical for people to have judgments that their knowledge doesn't warrant, and if they never air them they will never be available for criticism from others. Judgment that escapes the crucible of social criticism will never develop into judicious discernment. And that's how we, collectively, improve ourselves and our behavior.

To be sure, I have looked at attractive women and "checked them out." But I believe there's a difference between an appreciative glance from afar and disrespectful, juvenile catcalls. Or worse. But even if there's not a distinct enough difference, does that really negate my right to say anything about anyone else's behavior? Even though I'm not perfect, should my fear of being accused of hypocrisy silence my criticisms?

Regardless of whether one has ever heard Shakespearian language or been to any play, anyone older than twelve knows what's considerate, polite, appropriate behavior--and this is true even if they, individually, disregard that knowledge when in the safety of a large crowd.

As for my giving a copy of my critique to the Freehold's Engaged Theatre people, I had no defense. But Carol later said the director appreciated both Atif's and my reviews (though we didn't know that then).

Certainly the "discussion" wasn't this linear, but even with interruptions and leading questions we never drew attention to ourselves among the other class in the room. No (severely) raised voices. No threats, vocalized or otherwise. And little actual critique of my writing (as opposed to the obvious opposition of my content, vocabulary, and arrogance). Though they may not have been convinced by any rebuttals to their complaints, they seemed pacified. Their fuss and fury fizzled.

Then our time was up and so too, right around that time, was our collective motivation for our newsletter. At least in that form, for then.

But as for my critique, it's still known and spoken of some nearly two years later, legendary in its notoriety.

"(W)e've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious, and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands." --Neal Stephenson,"In the Beginning...Was the Command Line"

WHAT STUCK MORE than the potential physical and the actual verbal confrontation and more than the reverberating reactions I elicited is my own questioning of what my motives were for writing that piece. Or rather, whether or not that particular critique was all that it was accused of being, why do I derive pleasure out of arguing, debating, and all those related confrontations?

I hate that I actually can enjoy these sorts of verbal and mental battles--at least I hate how willing I am to attack. So I am trying--always consciously and sometimes desperately--not to be the argumentative asshole that I know I can be. That I can be phenomenally well.

I don't know if I learned it from my father, but I certainly can default into that whole attitude of finding some lone line, some illogical belief, some frayed thread of conversation and pull on that perceived flaw until it unravels. But what's worse than succumbing to that character flaw is knowing why, exactly, I have done that.

Because it's one thing to honestly believe that someone else is wrong and go about in a non-hurtful attempt to correct that behavior or attitude or belief, if only even slightly. But it's an entirely different thing to lay in wait for some weakness to present itself (or to intentionally, methodically, drop depth charges searching out those submersed vulnerabilities) all in order to relieve some boredom. Or worse.

There's something in particular that scares me about this. I've been locked up, essentially, since before the internet burst forth. Yes, my sister kindly prints out copies of some of her favorites, funny blogs. And I see on TV and read what's to be found on all those shiny corporate sites advertised on the surface of the internet. But what's intimidating is what lurks deeper, where corporate sponsorship dare not dwell, where bottom feeding bullies pray for the chance to prey on the weak.

It's the concept of those predatory fanatical diatribes that scare me the most. Oh, not what they say, because I'm assuming that it's easy enough to avoid those sometimes anonymous angry people spewing vitriolic venom in the dark.

No, what scares me is that I know that, if I so let myself, I could become one of those shrill, ranting, bitter men lashing out from the comforting safety of the darkness. I can disassemble a series of statements down to their raw nerves and grind rock salt in the wounds. I can lay verbal traps and then pounce in "victory." Better than even my own well-experienced father.

I have used arguments as entertainment. And the only thing more disgusting than my deft destructiveness in that is the temporary selfish pleasure it has given me.

Perhaps an illustration will not only prove what I'm capable of, but also get you to feel as disgusted with my (hopefully only) former self as I am.

A few years ago I had an office job where we had more time to talk and debate than do much of that "work" stuff.

I had, some years prior, made a decidedly sharp break from my adult-onset Christianity experiment here in prison. It didn't take. Like a mismatched transplanted organ, my body eventually rejected this foreign tissue, violently.

I've since stabilized down to an accepting, calm, and unobtrusive agnostic/atheist--a vacillation that depends on my willingness to commit to something so intangible as an absolute emphatic declaration of non-. But back then, after not only no longer being a Christian anymore, but also gladly renouncing being a (reluctant) Bible Study teacher, I was rinsing out some of the acerbic aftertaste. Unfortunately for the people around me then, I spat some of that vile bile out at them.

One day, a couple of co-workers and I got to talking about rape and/or religion. And as fast as the thought flashed, I declared, "God's a rapist."

I outlined my reasons for this and I was then challenged, "I bet you won't tell that theory to Dave."

I'm not one who often succumbs to such social pressure. I certainly could have backed down under such an accusation. But even knowing the discomfort (if not pain) I was about to inflict didn't stop me. I sent for our extremely Christian friend. Dave's a hard guy not to like: always asleep, or happy. And he's the rare human who gives you his full, undivided attention all the time. Plus, he never forces his religion on anyone, even though he's an emphatic capital-B Believer.

When he arrived, expectantly, I restarted my theory. I asked the question, "If you could wave a magic wand over a sleeping woman and without touching her in any way yet still get her pregnant, then would that be a type of rape?"

It doesn't take much to get from that premise to the Holy Spirit committing a type of rape on the Virgin Mary, if and only if she didn't give her permission. (And add to that the prison stigma of rape for an extra twist of the knife.)

But what was so gut-twistingly horrible to me was watching my likely-not-for-long friend's face go from happy and smiling to tight and red. Even as I was laying out my unhumble claim I wanted to stop, but I either couldn't or wouldn't let myself.

Coercing an answer to my hypothesis, as I did, likely could've killed the friendship between Dave and I except that overnight somebody performed that unheard of check-the-source research feat and I was shown that Mary was, indeed, asked and she was all kinds of willing. So I took that verse to Dave and apologized. Being who he is, he of course forgave me. (Though I should have apologized without that verse.)

Now, some years later, I no longer have such a spirited enmity with that religion. I believe I fully entrusted myself to it for many futile years, but then I came to believe that it not only gave nothing back, but that it couldn't. So I eventually spewed it all out like the proverbial lukewarm water.

But my point here isn't about religion, it's that no matter the topic I now know I must be wary of those potential arguments that are so often pointless (because my oh so sage counsel convinces none), and destructive (to healthy relationships), and mean (because of how hard I'm capable of hitting).

I don't resort of arguing out of boredom anymore (I'm not only far too busy for that, I have learned to recognize the warning signs and defuse that dangerous powder keg). But I still have to consciously control myself from ever getting personal, vicious, or just plain disrespectful in any "legitimate" debates or disagreements that I allow myself to enter cautiously.

More than that, though, I know that going forward in my conversation or writing I'm okay with having and expressing my (yes, judgmental) opinions--and, of course, willing to defend them if, indeed, they're justifiable--but there's nothing wrong with pulling my punches some. There's nothing wrong with making sure I'm not carpet bombing, with nukes, a pesky flea in the rug. And there's nothing wrong with realizing that such hollow, bland "victories"--in person or on paper--have a half-life shorter than any half-chuckles my logical or literary loop-de-loops might've elicited.

I can't say that I'm now "saved" from all this bestial behavior or that I'll never backslide, but no matter how mawkish it might seem or trite it actually is, I know that what's important to me is wanting to be a better, not a bitter, man. Right now and going forward. Because not to want to continually strive to be more kind and compassionate and empathetic (even if right reason might be on your side) is truly to be senseless. Or worse.

          --May 2012

Jeff C.


Bonnie said...

I am a faithful follower of Thomas's website. I generally enjoy reading all the stories that are submitted. That is until now.

I'd like to give you a little constructive criticism on your story "Worse Than Senseless". While taking an English writing class in college, we were told not to use ten dollar words when ten cent words will work. The majority of the population reads on a sixth grade level. If people have to continually stop reading in order to look up the meaning of words, or if they choose to skip over them, the point you are trying to make in your story becomes lost. So, if you want to have followers, and want to be remembered as having said something worthwhile, I would lay off of the dictionary and thesaurus. It does not make you look smart, it makes you look like a man who has a dictionary and thesaurus!

A Friend said...

The following is Jeff's response to Bonnie's comment:

Firstly, thank you very much for your comments, Bonnie. I appreciate you sharing your opinion.

I have some friends who are major math geeks--like if given even the slightest encouragement they will blather about "the beauty of math" until they (eventually) stop when they realize that I'm looking at them with as much foreignness and total NON-understanding as if they were proselytizing members of N.A.M.B.L.A. Well, I am well aware that my own love of "the beauty of words" can sometimes seem equally freakish (and elitist and off-putting and challenging and just plain frickin' annoying).

For those readers who could make it past my initial section's word jumble I hoped they could see that: I admitted I was intoxicated by my new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) and an addictive thesaurus, and what I'd written two years ago (the actual review; not the, um, review of the review--which was new), I admitted was a bloated vocabulary (and "style"). I'd like to think that the last two sections show less "showing off"--because that was part of my point: showing that I had (for lack of a better, maybe bigger word) grown in that time.

But does thatt now mean that I feel an absolute need to--and I'm sorry but I don't know of any other way to put this--"limit" my vocabulary and therefore myself? Uh, no.

You stated the well-known, but certainly not well-condemned fact that, "The majority of the population reads on a sixth grade reading level." This is not, to me, the most compelling argument because (and I could be wrong, I frequently am but) it seems to imply that I, as a writer, should limit myself to only what a sixth grader can understand (assuming I want to be read by "the majority of the population"). That's something I don't feel comfortable doing for many reasons--at the top of the list that's simply disrespectful of people's intelligence. At least in my use of big words I'm not assuming my readers are dumb (or uneducated, if you prefer), I am only expecting them to not be lazy. And really, if you're already on a computer and can't get to a definition of a word in 5 clicks or less (or worse, never need to) then maybe it's time to put away the sixth grade curriculum and read something a bit more engaging.

There absolutely is an interesting debate to be had (for those few of us who care) about whether it's "better" to use a--not "limited" but more "accessible"--vocabulary (as did Mark Twain in "Huckleberry Finn") or whether Nabokov (who did not, by the irrelevant way, have English as his first language) and other writers are right when they say that any word in the dictionary is fair game.

But instead of boring you ("too late," you say?) with that, allow me to bore you with this attempt at "proof": at times and for specific reasons (admittedly sometimes obscure and inscrutable ones), there is just the most perfect, precise, and/or, well, pretty word that once discovered, understood, and loved, it simply cannot be replaced with those clunk word-combos that, meh, mostly mean the same thing.


A Friend said...

Jeff's response continued...

Perhaps I might let the, uhh, words speak for themselves, as it were. Please allow me to close this by proselytizing from the SOED a few of my freakish fun favorites all over y'all:
1.) agelast=a person who never laughs[PR]
2.) brekekekex=the croaking of frogs {used by Aristophanes}[PR]
3.) defenestration=the action of throwing a thing or (usually) a person out of a window[PR]
4.) eructate=belch
5.) epanchement {True, this is a borrowed French word (but so, too, is cafe--and both have the accent mark on them--on the first "e" please) but it's sooo good and who wouldn't WANT this?}=An outpouring or disclosure of one's thoughts or feelings. Also, a relationship marked by mutual trust and the exchange of confidences.[PR]
6.) horripilation=the condition of having goose pimples[PR]
7.) tyromancy=divination by watching cheese coagulate[PR]
8.) osculation=the action or an act of kissing[PR]
9.) eleutheromania=a frantic desire for freedom[PR]
10.) snollygoster=a shrewd unprincipled person; especially a politician of this nature.

But I'll stop now, because if I couldn't get you to laugh, smile, or even TRY to pronounce at least ONE of those words then you're clearly, merely a math person and you cannot be converted to my weird worship of words (and yes, there's a word for that: epeolatry).

But if you're not an agelast (sorry, couldn't resist), then here's some bonus awesomeness: dasypygal, exceptious, ergophobia, eudemonics, epizeukis, belle laide / jolie laide {oh, the French}, onolatry, onomatomania, onychophagist, picaro, philocynic, philtrum, plutomania, susurrus, sesquipedalian, schlimazel, tegestology, torve, titman, & taradiddle.

Happy hunting. Sincerely, Jeff Conner (aka Thesaurus Rex) :)

Bonnie said...

It is obvious that constructive criticism is not appreciated by you as a writer. I could spend ½ the day responding to you with inflated verbose, but I do not possess that much free time in my life. I can certainly understand how someone in your situation could spend many hours every day reading or creating stories, letters, articles and manifestos with prolixity. I was under the assumption that the general purpose of Thomas’s site was to enlighten the masses on the life that is lived behind bars, throughout our country. A porthole, if you will, to things the majority of us readers have never experienced and probably won’t.

You seem to postulate the notion that because you liken yourself to a word-smith that others do as well. The lack of response to your posts should be taken as a sign that most do not enjoy what you’ve written or have stopped reading after the first couple of daunting sentences. It is not about ignorance or intelligence, it is about enjoyment. If you want readers to revere your writing, you must conform to prosaic standards of expression when you post on a public forum. Unless you provide your stories more for your own self-regard then for others to gain any knowledge or insight.

For the record, I am an educated person, although I do not think a catalog of my credentials is necessary to read or post on this site. During my many years of academia, I’ve had to read a multitude of literary genre. Some I enjoyed and others I did not. The one thing they all had in common was a purpose for writing/speaking the way they did. It coincided with the time period of the writing. Your writing on the other hand is written with the intent to impress. The point I was trying to make to you in my original post was this…I believe everyone has something worth saying and those who are not familiar with the subject (assuming they are curious) can garner some level of knowledge from what others have to say. If you can’t get anyone to read what you have written then it is simply a waste of paper, ink and time.

A Friend said...

The Yale Law Journal has just announced that Jeff Conner is a finalist in their 2012 Prison Journal Writing Contest. Congratulations Jeff!

Julie Tackett said...

I read the whole article and enjoyed it very much. Thanks Jeff!