Our Return From OZ: or, “How can I ever thank you enough?”

(In which a two-page class exercise on using humor to diffuse stressful situations lends legitimacy to the showing of The Wizard of Oz to adult male prisoners in a medium-security walled facility….)

Last night, we completed a class exercise called “Popular Media and Its Uses in the Identification of Countervailing Humor Types.”  The countervailing humor types are constructive and destructive humor.  This particular use was in the form of a Blu-Ray disk.  And the specific medium used was an educational film for therapeutic purposes called The Wizard of Oz.

Prior to spinning the disk at 300 rpm, I distributed the above-mentioned exercise, containing 11 questions about how Dorothy & her companions use humor in dealing with the stressful situations they need to overcome.  I wasn’t sure how these men would take to answering questions while the lights were low and they were in the process of viewing a beloved movie that most of them haven’t seen since their childhoods.

But most complied, and some of their responses were spot-on, and even surprising.  One question reads:  “What do you consider to be the funniest spoken line in the film?  Does the line make you laugh out loud?  Is the humor constructive or destructive?”  One participant responded thus:  “The funniest line is when Dorothy says, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’  It did not make me LOL.  The humor is destructive–shows her stupidity.”  This response made ME laugh out loud.  Stupid?  Dorothy?  Whaddaya DO with something like this?  The individual in question is from a country on the African continent, so the cultural gap may explain most of it.  But he reports that he’s lived here nearly twenty years, and he’s not even out of his 20s yet.  “Aw shucks, folks, I’m speechless!”  The following day, he tells me this was his first time seeing the movie.  That, in my view, explains it all.  We who have grown up with the film have emotionally invested in these characters.  What would we have thought of them if we were seeing the movie for the first time in our late 20s?  AND through the lens of a cultural gap?  Probably the same way as this young man.  We’d see Dorothy Gale as a stupid farm kid.  When I tell him, however, that Judy Garland was playing a character much younger than her actual age, that gives him pause.  “OK, now it all makes sense,” he says.  Finally.

To the question of How Uncle Henry uses humor when dealing with Miss Gulch at the farmhouse gate, one fellow writes: “She doesn’t find the humor amusing.  This is probably destructive, because the thrust of it is that she’s talking like a fool.”

The first question reads:  “Dorothy and her companions deal with considerable stress on their journey, yet manage to work in some coping humor along the way.  Name one scene where a character uses humor as a stress reliever.”  A student writes, “When it snows in the poppy field, the Lion awakens & says ‘Unusual weather we’re having.”  Another response: “When they meet the Lion and he’s bullying them, the Scarecrow cracks wise.”  Another:  “When the Lion has to lead the way into the Witch’s castle, he pretends to be all for it, but then asks the other two to ‘Talk me out of it!’  And then what I consider to be a strange response:  “The Wicked Witch of the West uses humor when she is stressed about the ruby slippers.  She laughs as she threatens Dorothy & her dog.”  WTF?   Another student responded, “When the Lion sings his song about his lack of courage, he calls himself ‘a sissy’ and ‘a mouse.’

About five minutes into the film, one prisoner in his 50s tells us: “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this.”  Incredulous, I ask, “How did you avoid it!”  He says, “I didn’t watch TV a lot!”  Tellingly, his was the loudest and most frequent laugh heard during the showing of the film.

The following day, my ILL clerk, who is a course participant, says: “Hey, I wanted to sincerely thank you for the film last night.  I haven’t seen that in ages.  It was good to see it again.  And I am impressed with Blu-Ray!  I have never seen such rich colors in a movie before!  That was somethin’ else!”

Praise, and for such a simple thing like showing a film, and introducing folks to new technology.  This job teaches me in many ways to never, never, ever take my freedom–and all concomitant blessings–for granted.

no place like it

“Hope eternal, in the strangest of places”

(In which we are reminded that, in the face of tragedy and disaster, attitude is everything….)

An inmate with throat cancer lives in the same block as one of my class assistants.

The other day, the assistant tells me: “We hide his speech pen all the time.  He larynges penknows to check with me first, because I’m the one who usually has it.”

When the clerk sees that I’m horrified at this, he laughs and explains: “He knows we mean no harm.  It’s the opposite.  We want him to feel normal.  We prank each other all the time.

We’re not gonna let something like cancer or any disease get in the way of life.  What good does it do to weep, or say ‘I’m sorry’?  So we tease.

bitch cancer

 

 

It’s our way of saying “It’s not so serious that we can’t be normal.  You’re gonna make it.”

 

 

Curses in Captivity #2 : “Live FOREVER!”

My ILL clerk is perpetually bugged by my cataloger, because they share space in my Lending Library office and the cataloger’s wit is quick & nasty. 

Whenever the cataloger slings one his way, the ILL clerk says “Keep talking, I hope you live to be 100!  Live forever!” 

eternityThey’re both lifers.  So the one is wishing immortality on the other.  He’s saying, “I hope you suffer in prison for eternity!” 

It’s the only place on the Earth where you can wish someone long life and have it be a curse. 

Curses in Captivity #1 — “If he only had a brain!”

Friday afternoon, I’m in the process of locking up a reference cabinet.  At the same time, rather than wait for me to finish and move out of the way, my 6’5″ ILL clerk hook-shots a discarded hard cover into the cardboard box marked ‘Hospital’ which rests directly above where I’m standing about eight feet high on top of this same cabinet.  Luckily, the book sails directly into the box. 

One clerk sees this & says “That would’ve been nice: You miss, it hits Bill, he’s out for a month.” 

My cataloger chimes in “Yeah, but now we’re talking brain damage.  You gotta have a brain to begin with!”

He’s calling his boss brainless, and in his presence.  That’s political suicide.  Which is why they do it.  That’s why it’s funny.  What’s he got to lose?  A dollar-a-day prison job?

About 10 minutes later, the cataloger’s there (doing nothing, BTW) when I again walk into this office for something.  “How you doing?” I ask.  But I’m almost out of the room before it dawns on me to add  “And thanks for calling me an idiot 10 minutes ago, appreciate it.”  We laugh. 

My point is, I was going to just come in, do my thing, and go back to my law library office without comment.  His previous ‘insult’ never phased me.

I say to my bookbinder in passing:

Amazing, how many times we slag each other off without taking offense.  It’s just taken in stride.” 

The bookbinder, who is a very polite, quiet man, smiles as he continues his binding and says, “Sometimes we could do with a little less slagging.”
being slagged off

“Think so?  You’re probably right….Nah.  Just bind your books.”

The bookbinder laughs.  For a polite and quiet man, he has a decidedly boisterous, explosive laugh.  Which I proceed to tell him.  But not in those words.

“Hey, nice laugh.  Keep it to yourself, please.” 

More boisterous laughter.  “I guess there’s no hope of the slagging lessening off!”

“Amen.” 

Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here.

 

‘Escape’ is a bad word

…but it gets your attention.

At least the folks at the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals in London must think so, judging by the title of this interesting March 23, 2015 post about prison Librarians.

“The Great Escape”

 

jonathan-robinson-quote

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

LoveThyNeighborAsThyself

 

 

 

 

 

When the Department of Correction must decide where to place a prison, most citizens have the NIMBY attitude.  Fred McFeely Rogers–“Mr. Rogers” to you and me–thought of the children, no matter whose rogers5children they were. 

In the 1970’s, Fred Rogers was instrumental in changing how the State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh approached the nurturing of the children of inmates. 

 

Mr. Rogers and The Children of Prisoners

 

I took my internship in prison library management at this prison in 1985-86.  I remember the resentment of some SCI-P staff over this change that Fred Rogers was able to effect.  Some employees felt that, for the sake of the victims, the children of inmates should suffer along with the inmate. I doubt these folks considered that the children of inmates were suffering. 

Fred Rogers did.

Even now, 30 years later, some staff still feel that, for the sake of the victims of violent crimes, nothing should be done for the inmate, let alone for their children.  Obviously, inroads have been made, and corrections has come a long way.  But crime is emotional. 

Because he lived & recorded his program in my hometown, I grew up watching and listening to Mr. Rogers, never suspecting that our paths would cross– however indirectly–in a prison. 

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers. March 20, 1928-February 27, 2003.

Considering what the man accomplished, Fred was a force of nature.  The wonder of it is that he’d never agree with that statement.  What he wanted was for those of us listening to realize that we are all of us remarkable, and to live caring, compassionate lives for those who need us.  Fred knew that the kids need us.

Below is a link to an ordinary video, ordinary to all but those who grew up watching the show.  If you watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred’s words will challenge you, convict you, encourage you, and move you.  If you didn’t grow up in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, this will show you the man (with heartfelt thanks to Raymond Dean).

“I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life”

 

 

“Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It’s Twister™!”

“Sheep are very dim; once they get an idea in their heads, there’s no shiftin’ it.”   — Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Flying Sheep” skit.

 

My poor interlibrary loan clerk.  This was the man who, one solar day before the humor-as-therapy program begins, comes to my office:

HE:   “Sign me up for that thing you’re doin.’  Whaddaya call it?  ‘Happy Time’?”

“‘Happy Time’?  It’s ‘Skill-Building Techniques for Stress Reduction.’  How’d you get ‘Happy Time’ out of that?”

“I couldn’t remember all that.  All I know is we’re supposed to laugh a lot.”

So I sign him up for ‘Happy Time,’ so he can laugh a lot.

A few weeks into our program, I ask this same ILL clerk if he’s completed his ‘Observing Your Personal Humor Style’ assignment for the week.  This assignment asks inmates to be aware of countervailing humor types (constructive & destructive) while watching TV, listening to the radio, hearing funny comments or observing practical jokes in the Unit or the Yard, as well as funny things they say, do, or think.  They are to keep a tally of each time they witness or participate in either constructive or destructive humor.

“I’m still doing it.  I hear a lot of negative humor all around me is what I’m learning.  There’s so much, I’ll have to use another page!”

“Just write in the space, ‘Too many to list.'”

“Oh!  We can do that?”

“That’s what I’M doing.  Especially with my thought life.  Lots of destructive humor swirling around in there.”

“OK, good, thank you.  That makes it a lot easier.”

“So, how’re you enjoying the course so far?”

“I like it!  I like when you showed the cartoons.  I laughed at almost every one of those.”

“Happy Time.”

“You’re not gonna let me forget that, thanks!  I like that you can laugh and learn new stuff at the same time.  Just don’t expect me to do Twister™.  I was talkin’ with some of the guys.  They’re gonna push back on that one.”

It is here that we must pause our narrative, and interject some much-needed-or-the-rest-of-this-won’t-stand-a-chance-of-making-the-slightest-bit-of-sense back story. 

In the previous class I mention that, when we finally do a Laughter Yoga session, we’ll need to remove the tables & chairs to make space for laughter exercises.  I also mention that, when I participated in a laughter yoga session at Walpole Pubic Library, at the end of it all we lay on mats and practice deep, relaxing breaths as a cool-down from all the belly laughter.  But In this man’s twisted mind, upon hearing the word mats and then the word exercises his thoughts twist to Twister™.

1966 Twister GameME:   “Twister™?  What the hell are you talking about?”

HE:   “You said we had to play Twister™.”

“Never.  Mother of God!”

“You told us last class.”

“Look, I created this program.  Like I’m gonna have adult male prisoners playing Twister™ with each other.”

“Everyone else think so, too.  They think you’re gonna make us play Twister™.”

“If they think that, it’s because of you!”

This past Friday, I mention to my course assistant that the ILL clerk refuses to understand that I never referred to, joked about, or even thought of Twister,™ “The Game That Ties You Up In Knots,” by Milton Bradley.

ME:   “He’ll go to his grave believing that!”

ASSISTANT:   “He’s a bug.”  (Usage note:  In New England, “He’s a bug” means “He is certifiably and dangerously insane”).

“He’s also the one who keeps advocating for us to screen The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Hey, at least that has a twister in it.”oz twister<laughs>  “THAT’S what he’s up to!  He’s talking about twisters to make you show the film!  Whadda they call that?  Subliminal! He’s manipulating you!”

 

Nah.  He’s just a bug. 

BTW — Here in New England, they call it ‘Twist-ah.’  Of course they do. 

They also raise children, some of whom end up in jail believing that their rnG3Y6Librarian could even conceive of seeking written approval to supervise games of Twist-ah™ in an adult-male prison.

Humor-as-Therapy, indeed.

 

 

The Wonderful Home Brew of Oz

(in which it is driven home that word choice matters, even when discussing American cultural archetypes….)

 

WWOO2

Today with my course assistant, talk turns to our next humor-as-therapy class.  Last class meeting, our group decides in a future class to watch The Wizard of Oz as an object lesson for identifying instances of destructive & constructive humor.  I mention that, from a selection of 30 DVDs purchased for the program, their choice of this particular film surprises me.

“Bill, you can only see it on cable.  THAT’S why they wanna see it.”

“Yeah, but it was weird.  That was the first film I mentioned, and I suggested it as a joke, really.  But then every hand went up.”

“They miss it.”

 

 

Talk then turns to the performance of Judy Garland.  My assistant mentions that MGM originally wanted Shirley Temple for the role of Dorothy Gale.  I said that, as an old man, I now respond to her character from the point-of-view of a protective father.

“FYI — I won’t be able to see this film without tearing up.”

“Bill, I tear up at almost everything now.  TV, books, movies, don’t matter.  I’m a big lush.”

<pause> “So, you’re a drunkard now?  Since when?”

“What?”

“That’s what ‘lush’ means.  You’re a drunk.”lush

<laughs> ” Oh!  I thought it meant you cry easily!”

“What you mean to say is ‘I’m a wuss.’ ”

“OK–”

“–who likes drinking to excess.”

<laughs>   “Yeah!  I’m just a big lush!”

“I’m telling!”

“You probably will!”

 

hooch

Pruno.  Hooch. Home Brew.  And the score of other jailhouse nicknames for sugared fruit left out on the window sill to ferment into alcohol.  I doubt anyone’ll be drunk while OZ is playing.  Not even the ‘big lush,” who’ll be too busy crying.

 

 

darkoz1But I’m waiting for someone to suggest we synch the film to Dark Side of the Moon

How would you write the Authorization to Enter form?

“ITEM TO BE BROUGHT IN:  Pink Floyd CD to use as soundtrack to Wizard of Oz.”  They’d call a Code 99 & truck me away. 

 

 

WWOO

Unless they’re fans of the Trailer Park Boys.

Dark Side of Oz | “In Popular Culture”

 

 

You Get What You Need

Today, I receive a PDF file in my work email containing a letter to an inmate in response to his complaint that more typewriters should be placed in the population law library.  No this may come as a shock, but I do not believe that this is a very professional way of communicating a change in service with your professional librarian.  Because I believe this, I am furious.  Dismissing the letter-writing impulse to the Superintendent, I feel that the direct way is best, and decide on the day following to call his secretary to make an appointment to meet & discuss this.

micromanagers

Next afternoon, while walking through our staff parking lot toward the front door–a walk of about 100 yards–it occurs to me that my input was in fact solicited by my boss.  Not only was it solicited, it had been mentioned more than once over the past two months.  It took a while for this to surface, because of the casual way in which these conversations were held, almost as an afterthought.  So it isn’t that the Librarian’s input was not sought; it was that a decision was made that did not jibe with the Librarian’s input.

So I have that to stew over.

But that’s much easier to deal with than having not been asked in the first place.  In this case, Administration does the professional thing and asks the front-line employee for input before weighing the alternatives.

Do I think that their decision caves in to the demands of a few loud-mouths?  Of course I do.  But you can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometime, you just might find — you get what you need.

I need some sleep.

cant-always-get-what

Smells Like Teen Spirit

(In which an associate asks, “Do you feel that your parenting experiences helped inform your role of correctional librarian and dealing with inmates?”

This same associate says: “I am not equating dealing with my daughter with dealing with narcissists, sociopaths, and misogynists.” Whyever not?  EYE do.  Teenagers are narcissists, and I argue that they’re sociopaths until they learn to show real concern and compassion.  And many teen boys have never been taught to treat their female counterparts with the respect they deserve.  Parenting is an apt analogy. 

Prison is akin to a dangerous day care center, where the 10 year-olds are 6’5″, 235lbs, don’t read well, think the universe revolves around them, cry to their Mommies (i.e., file grievances), and hit instead of think.  It’s arrested development.

Hey — ‘arrested.’   Get it? arrested