The celestial debut of Sirius the Dog Star in Canis Major heralds the Dog Days of summer, The Great British Baking Show, and some long-awaited captive culinary arts.
“The raging rocks, and shivering’ shocks, shall break the locks
Of prison gates,
And Phibbus’ star shall shine from afar and make and mar
The foolish Fates.”
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)
When the idea of These Stone Walls was first proposed to me in the summer of 2009, I was very skeptical that I could write a weekly post. I thought it would take me only six weeks to run out of things to write about. When I protested, Suzanne Sadler, TSW’s publisher, said, “Don’t be afraid to write about mundane things.” This is a blog, after all, not the New York Times Book Review. There is always something to write about.
The word, “mundane” comes from the Latin, mundanus-a-um,/em>, meaning “of the world.” Its opposite would be “celestial,” meaning, “of the heavens.” I have written a lot about the celestial – some might say I’ve written too much – but the mundane affairs of this world do make an occasional appearance here. I’ve had posts about missing socks, prison food, and prison baseball. These Stone Walls has been no stranger to the mundane.
I mentioned in a recent post that I am unable to retain hard copies of what I write so I have only a list of my titles. I somehow had it in my mind that I try to write shorter posts with light-hearted topics for the month of July. One of my mundane summer posts had readers atwitter in lurid expectation of “The Birds and the Bees Behind These Stone Walls.” But alas, it really was only about birds and bees. And it was written in a time and place of confinement in the extreme.
For the nine years of this blog’s existence, visitors to TSW are much diminished in July. It makes sense. Who wants to read much ado about nothing written from inside a prison on a nice beach day in July? But every July something seems to happen to defy my plan for nice, simple posts that are controversy-free.
A year ago this week, we posted the phenomenal “How Our Lady of Fatima Saved a World in Crisis” by guest writer and historian, Craig Turner. I feared no one would read this tour of the 20th Century, but readers flocked to it by the tens of thousands.
July posts of other past years also included hot topics such as “Why Are so Many Catholics so Angry with so Many Priests?” Despite the fact that it was first published in 2012, it today shows up week after week among our most popular posts six years after it was written. I still don’t have a clear answer to the question it asks, but everyone agrees that it’s a good question.
CANIS MAJOR & CANIS MINOR
So I am breaking with TSW’s July trend toward hot topics to write this simple post about whatever comes to mind. It’s hot and humid up here in New Hampshire this week, and plugging in my old Smith Corona typewriter means having to unplug the 8-inch West Bend fan I bought when we moved here last year. It doesn’t take much of a fan to move hot air around a 60-square-foot cell, but it quickly becomes stifling in here without it.
In these hottest days of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, Sirius, the “Dog Star,” makes its annual appearance in the constellation, Canis Major, Latin for “the Great Dog.” Sirius (from Greek, seirios meaning “scorching”) is the brightest star in the pre-dawn sky this time of year. As I have written before, its heliacal rising (meaning it appears before the predawn sun) is the origin for the term, “The Dog Days of Summer.”
Sirius, the Dog Star, was highly venerated by the ancient Egyptians who regarded it as a token of the rising of the Nile River and a good harvest. Many Egyptian temples were constructed in a way that the light of Sirius reached their inner chambers. The distance of Sirius from Earth is 8.7 light-years, or 51 trillion miles (51,000,000,000,000) making it one of the closest stars to our own in this galaxy.
The constellations, Canis Major and Canis Minor are Latin for “greater dog” and “lesser dog.” If you have been following some of Father George David Byers’ more mundane posts, then you know he has his own version of Canis Major (Shadow-dog) and Canis Minor (my apologies to Laudie-dog) to illustrate the point.
Sirius is in Canis Major southeast of the constellation, Orion. According to ancient mythology, these constellations represent dogs trotting at the heels of the Greek hunter Orion. Sirius, in Canis Major, is the brightest star in the heavens. Canis Minor contains the star, Procyon, which is far less bright. (Again forgive me, Laudie-dog for the implied slight!)
You may recall that the constellation Orion is mentioned by none other than God Himself. The famous question was posed by God to remind Job of his place in the Universe as cited in my post, “Finding Your Peace in Suffering and Sorrow”:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Have you ever in your life commanded the morning or shown the dawn its place? Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38:4,12, 31)
THE GREAT BRITISH BAKING SHOW
Oops! I have lapsed into the celestial again when I promised the mundane. Along with the Dog Days of Summer, a few other realities of summer in the slammer arrived just behind the rise of Sirius. What follows occurred on the hottest night of summer last week:
It was 10:00 PM in Concord, New Hampshire. The still quiet of a late summer nights welcome relief from the noise and chaos as day 8,670 came to a close behind these stone walls. My friend, Pornchai “Max” Moontri, had drifted off to sleep just three feet above me. I was not far behind since the day for both of us began at 5:00 AM. The little flat-screen TV I bought last year was tuned to PBS. Sleep beckoned, and PBS was helping it along.
But what was that strange empty sensation? It had been over six hours since my last meal in the prison “chow hall,” and it was meager: two small slices of prison pizza. That’s something you will never see on a menu at Papa Johns.
It consisted of two four-by-six inch rectangles of cardboard-like dough with a little spaghetti sauce and shreds of strange yellow processed cheese substance sprinkled about. With some shards of wobbly lettuce tossed on the side, this was the main meal of the day at 3:45 PM for 1,500 hungry men.
So six hours later at 10:00 PM, Pornchai-Max was snoring up above in what sounded like the purr of a very large tiger. The accompaniment of my growling stomach created a sort of symphony in the dark some six hours after “dinner.” It was this moment that PBS chose to air its Season Three debut of my favorite, edge-of-your-seat, gripping television drama from across the pond: The Great British Baking Show.
Father George David Byers, who does not own a television, pokes fun at me whenever I even mention The Great British Baking Show. He simply does not understand its mesmerizingly addictive lure. On that summer night this week, my gastronomical philharmonics reached a crescendo as I watched contestants skillfully concoct all the things I should not even be thinking about eating anyway.
But the true addictive nature of The Great British Baking Show is not just about flour and sugar. Season Three, which had never previously aired in the United States, was actually filmed in 2012. The chemistry is not just in its cakes and crumpets, but also in its characters, tone, and production style. It stands out beyond anything on American TV. It is relentlessly civil.
The two British hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, and the two culinary judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, have created a perfect chemistry. TV Critic, Damian Holbrook, in a recent review of the show for TV Guide, described Paul Hollywood as “suave and silver-fox cool” and Mary Berry as “regal and delightfully cheeky.” There is also a “camaraderie among the chefs vying for the crown, a quality rarely seen on U.S. reality competitions.”
Father Byers is likely smirking right now as he scans this and readies it for publication. He just doesn’t get it, but he is not alone. That night, from my hard prison bunk where I sat in the dark, I felt driven to reach out and share the experience. So I reached for my new GTL tablet and started a message to Clare Farr, our friend and Pornchai’s attorney in Australia.
Using my thumbs in the dark on the 6-inch screen’s tiny virtual keyboard, I typed my message that Pornchai is fast asleep above me while I am engrossed in The Great British Baking Show. The next morning, the response came from Western Australia.
My friend, Clare Farr, found my description of that scene to be hilarious. But she did promise to find an episode or two on Netflix to help her understand why I would spend half the night watching in sleepless, hunger-driven deprivation.
So after 8,670 days on the dark periphery of unjust imprisonment, I have just one question: What on Earth is Netflix?
FAKE NEWS AND THE MELTING OF HOPE
Most readers likely know by now that I serve on a committee of nine prisoner-representatives who meet monthly with the Warden and Department of Corrections Commissioner to seek resolution of issues that affect prisoners. One of our more popular results is the allowance of two semiannual 25-pound food packages that we may purchase from Union Supply, a supplier to U.S. prisons.
Each year, most prisoners here spend much of June and December in anticipation of supplementing their food supply. The pre-Christmas package in December is available for purchase by every prisoner who can afford one, and most scrape and save all year for it. The July package, however, comes with conditions. It is incentive-based meaning that for six months before placing an order, prisoners may not receive any disciplinary infractions.
About eighty percent end up qualifying while the other twenty percent are left to ponder the error of their ways. Of course, being the nice guys that we are, most of your friends behind these stone walls qualify.
Pornchai Moontri (“I Come to the Catholic Church Looking for Healing and Hope”), Evenor Pineda (“Evenor Pineda and the Late Mothers Day Gift”), Darryll Bifano (“For Darryll Bifano, the Currency of Debt is Mercy”), J.J. Jennings (“The Days of Our Lives”), and others about whom you have read in these pages all work for the Recreation Department that manages distribution of the packages like a well-oiled machine. Without a hitch, these guys coordinate the semi-annual sorting and delivery of 12 to 15 tons of purchased food items to 1,300 prisons in a single morning.
So we placed our orders in mid-May, and as I write this, the shipment of orders was due four days ago. “Was” is the operative word in that sentence. The gymnasium was reserved. The team was in place. 1,300 prisoners were ready in wild anticipation. And then… nothing! The truck did not arrive on the established day. Nor the next day. Nor the day after that.
Being a rather efficient representative – not to mention having played the role of President Trump in a stage production (photos and a post are still coming), I seemed the natural go-to guy for answers. And so they came – in mobs – first inquisitive, then impatient, then ready to burn someone in effigy. Fake news had taken over.
Prisoners amassed like barbarians at the gate to ask me whether it was true that the packages were cancelled because the ice cream had melted in the heat causing the entire shipment to be rejected at the prison gates. Pure reason was not prevailing. There was no ice cream. There has never been any ice cream in any of these orders. It wasn’t even on the order form.
Nonetheless, “ice-cream-gate” became the scandal of the day. The fake news spread in the heat like a wildfire. No matter who I spoke to, the cause of their angst was melted ice cream and its resultant anguish and the dissolving of all hope.
On day four, the packages arrived. 1,300 grown men descended upon the prison gymnasium like bees into a giant hive. The team was ready as always, executing distribution to 1,300 enthralled prisoners in just three hours. It was a marvel to behold.
Throughout it all, I stood off to one side observing the scene and ready for a barrage of questions. But there were none. Only smiles, and an occasional thanks for whatever part I might have had in it all – which wasn’t much. Max used his package to stock up on Thai hot sauce which he puts on everything. If he could get the tubing, I think he would set up an IV drip!
For my part, I stocked up on real coffee, a luxury here brewed by my friend Max using an old sock. Like so much of the mystery that is this prison, I try not to think about it too much.
Editor’s Note: Please share this post. Please also follow These Stone Walls on Facebook and on Twitter T_S_W_. You may also wish to review new and revised Mail Rules for contacting or assisting Father Gordon MacRae. These are posted at the CONTACT Page for These Stone Walls.
You might also like these other TSW summertime classics:
- Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World
- From a Prison Library, the Stories that Set Us Free
- Dostoevsky in Prison and the Perils of Odysseus
- Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places