A few interesting things I’ve learned by volunteering in a prison


In this state, prisoners can knit or sew clothing in their cells. They can purchase yarn to do this, except for green yarn.


One inmate told me this is because the prison administration is worried that men will knit entire camouflaged outfits that will blend into the green lawns surrounding the prison and sneak away.


Prisons sometimes receive funding for educational programs and then take months or years to provide any classes for inmates.


Prisoners were banned from growing Jalapeño peppers in the prison gardens becuase the administration was worried they could “weaponize” them. On the other hand, hot sauce and pickled Jalapeños are available from the commissary


A man who’d served over 13 years told me about the warm summer during which the prison’s farm grew over 3,000 lbs. of squash for food banks.  Nevertheless, the entire horticultural program was cancelled and all the gardens allowed to go to seed when a few prisoners began distributing surplus organic produce to each other for free in contravention of the rules.

In a prison there are very few sacred spaces where the nature of a prisoner’s charge doesn’t matter, his race doesn’t matter, where he comes from and who he is doesn’t matter. At the best of times, one of these few places is the classroom, particularly in the presence of outside visitors.

A few interesting things I’ve learned by volunteering in a prison

A few words about each person in this cafe right now

Edward Hopper Nighthawks — not the cafe in question, this one’s more crowded

studying awkward part black hair
looking toward friend straw suck
speaking Korean animatedly, still boring
young fella leans sideways at girl
girl crosses arms defensive posture
awkward asian guy displays girlfriend
girlfriend puffy jacket makes decision
tight bun noise cancelling headphones
petite barette handbag over-gesture
solid Korean guy full smile
androgynous spindly woman academic scoliosis
fish mouth man eats soup
grad student 1: blonde, quiet
grad student 2: NEW YORK
grad student 3: verbal backpedal
obease hypertensive L. Ron Hubbard
hippie husband formal lumberjack shirt
hippie wife intense organic shampoo
silent boy book, pizza slice
student reading plays with hair
large depressed bowl-cut face in iPad
pensive girl reads squishes mouth
long beautiful hair dark skin
short shorts distracts herself stares
nursing student salmon pullover stuck
tall thin leading discussion boy
small Chinese girl flops on tabletop
attentive woman stares at know-it-all
unseasonable sweater gamer eats pie
large skirted girlfriend can’t decide

A few words about each person in this cafe right now

The Crimes of Joe Orton

The playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell spent six months apiece in Her Majesty’s prisons for defacing library books.  Far from representing crime, these were acts of civil commentary and genius, sadly ahead of their time.


Here’s Orton discussing his acts of creative vandalism in a 1967 interview:

Well, yes I used to do very strange things on library books.  It was really a joke.  I used to take lots of books out of the library — I used to smuggle them out in a satchel, and then I used to paste a picture over the picture of the author …

…  I remember one of them was by Lady Lewisham, a book on ettiequte actually, and um …  it showed a picture of lady Lewisham in her garden.  And I pasted in a picture of a great nude woman cut from a nude book … people must have been very surprised.

Also, I didn’t like libraries anyway.  I though they spent far too much public money on rubbish.  I didn’t like the books, I mean I don’t think people need books on etiquette anyway.

I have no regrets at all, I had a marvelous time in prison.

You can read more about Orton’s life in and out of the theater in John Lahr’s excellent biography.

The Crimes of Joe Orton


Did you know that until a few decades ago there existed a secret gay language called Polari?   More properly a cant, Polari is thought to have originated in East London as a private means of communicaton among gay men.

In the old days — meaning any time before about forty years ago when being gay in any open sort of way could get you locked up or worse no matter how famous and important you were — Polari allowed gay and bisexual men to communicate with each other in safety, without the straight world knowing what they were saying.

along with Hugh Paddock, the actor Kenneth Williams somewhat popularized Polari in the late 1960s in the UK through his character on the BBC radio show Round the Horne 

The code’s vocabulary was somewhat tilted toward the practical:  parts of the body, times of day, words for sex and words covering social matters.  It included quite a bit of backslang (English words in reverse) but also borrowed in a loose way from various romance languages, particularly Italian and certainly a decent amount of nonsense.  Here’s a sample sentence (via Wikipedia)

As feely ommes…we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth

which translated is

As young men…we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth

There are certainly older men still living who can still speak Polari — though in a few decades this may no longer be the case.  Here are two such men, Stuart Feather and Bette Bourne:

Bourne in particular is pretty unsentimental about the language and its purpose:

So it’s good to have your own language, and those things are not … they’re forced.  They’re forced upon you by circumstances, they’re not just invented as a camp joke.  They’re very practical.

I have various feelings about Polari — reverence and respect for the ingenuity and survivorship of those who used it, sadness that all first hand knowledge of it may be lost (though there seem to be some attempts to preserve it), surprise that I’d never heard of this language before.  But I think I’ll take a cue from Bette and focus on gratitude — mostly for the fact that it’s no longer required for survival.


The infinitely disgusting horror of the tulip [UPDATED]

Today while digging a small trench into which I was to transplant some salvaged lavender, I happened to glance over at a massive red and black tulip.  Have you ever done, this?  If not, here is what you will find at its flowery heart:

The naughty bits of the tulip in my yard

My brother Ben, possessed as ever of a particular kind of excellent timing, recalled the sentiments of the Slovenian psychoanalytic Salvoj Žižek on the subject to tulips as vagina dentata. 



My friend Hannah responds to this with a link to Sylvia Plath’s poem Tulips, in which the hospital-bound Plath engages in a lengthy hallucination/fantasy involving a bouquet of tulips brought to her by some well-wisher, but which she transforms into a monstrous presence:

The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.


The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
which all got Hannah and I talking on the social mediaz about this thing with tulips:
H:  I want to take Zizek to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum and leave him there. Haha! !!!
Me: Yah he has some issues.
H:  whereas Sylvia Plath – no issues there. haha! 

Me: perhaps over-identification with or hostility towards nearby tulips should be added to the DSM
H:  there are some pretty good lines in that poem that would be good crazy blog comments when written in all caps…
H:  THEY HURT ME aaaaaah
The infinitely disgusting horror of the tulip [UPDATED]

Church: some feedback


Dear Church,

Having by now experienced well over a thousand of your services, meetings and gatherings and having over the several decades of my life participated in no small number of your rites, initiations, sacraments and ceremonies, I’ve got some feedback for you:

Let us begin with the bad:

  • Does anyone like pews?  Hemorrhoids.   Lack of circulation to the legs.  Not great.
  • The pipe organ is a questionable instrument — more interesting architecturally than musically .  Granted, your average pipe organ must be quite difficult to replace or decommission, but all good things must come to and end.  It’s time.
  • Most of your buildings seem to be too large for the crowds they attract.  Perhaps they were built for a time when more people were interested in you.  I would consider downsizing — perhaps all the excess real estate could be used to house the poor?
  • It often seems that you would rather your members adopt the worldview of a person from the 15th century — what with all your contextless talk of the supernatural.  I’m afraid that this has become a problem for me because I happen to be sane.  (This probably bears some relation to the previous point.)
  • I am alarmed that you’ve been complicit in such a panoply of acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, cultural genocide and exclusivism.  Might I suggest that you consider renouncing violence in all of its forms and become less of a dick?
  • Honesty seems to be hard for you.  Take the Bible for instance — a  book I believe is somewhat important to you as an institution.  Can we all admit that there’s a ton of crazy and evil stuff in there that should be disregarded and denounced?
  • Please define the following words since you use them so often.  Alternately, please admit that like me, you don’t know what the fuck the following words mean:  God, soul, miracle, heaven, hell, prayer, angel and spirit.  I could go on.

And now, the good:

  • I would like to congratulate you on your influential role in western civilization, music, art, philosophy etc…  Sure there were blips: purges, witch hunts and the like.  But overall, I’d have to credit you with doing more good than harm.
  • You’re faithful, I’ll give you that:  you flung your big wooden doors open when I was born, gave me friends, helped me fall in love, caught me when I fell out of it.  You’ve never left me — and I’m sure you’ll help me die.  This sounds flippant but I mean it.
  • Jesus: worthy of followers.  Every religion needs a main character and one could do a lot worse.  From you I learned about a man obsessed with healing, poor people, justice and the end of the world.  Three out of four ain’t bad right?
  • Bread.  Wine.  Water.  You’re at your best when you keep it simple and keep the food coming.
  • You seem to traverse cultures pretty well which is more than be said of most institutions.
  • Potlucks.
Church: some feedback