My Life is a Creative Constraint

May 24, 2017

She gave me these items to read hoping that they would help me gather ideas for a class presentation on the use of creative constraints in the writing process. (Down Rodeo~Rage Against the Machine) Mostly craft essays, they offered suggestions like cutting 30-50% from an existing piece, using a different, shorter format. (I Hear the Bells~Mike Doughty) I settled on an idea I stole from David Henry Hwang, writing a flash piece and then editing three random words from the dictionary into the piece. But I digress. The process left me feeling unsettled. I went rummaging around between the fibers of my muscle until the following mess emerged. (Think Twice~Erykah Badu)

(To Love Somebody~Nina Simone) Take now for instance. I’m not plugged into the internet. I’m unable to put any of these words to you without first filtering through a security layer or two. (PoW WoW~B.O.B) I have a digital device that operates according to a set protocol. My hands are a digital device operating to subvert a set protocol. They also read my analog mail and they record every single one of my phone calls. My night life ends at (Meeting in the Aisle~Radiohead) 21:30 every single night. The bars are obvious. The walls are obvious. My condition is apparent, and this is not a whine on my behalf. These things simply are…constraints. But that is only part of how they get you.

They get you by the (Wheels~Foo Fighters) filters you implement on your own. Like how my instincts for self-preservation are a muscle group that is always under tension. Or that my closest of friends are always held at an arms length. What about the lost children and the dregs who turnover at staff security positions? Their constant inexperience making a moving target of how we’re supposed to act from moment to moment. Still, these feel incidental compared with the one that upset me. The one that stuck in my craw actually had something to do with the woman who challenged me to constrain myself. (Tennessee Whiskey~Chris Stapleton) While having nothing to do with her, personally and little to do with any one thing that happened between us, our exchanges were the meeting grounds nonetheless.

A difference between where I’m kept and other facilities is how many female staff and volunteers we interact with on a regular basis. (Lithium~Nirvana) There are plenty of guys who attempt and some who succeed at connecting with these women on a different level. I don’t want to leave you feeling as though I’ve spent the past few years without spending time around women, without female companionship. That just isn’t so. (Gun Street Girl~Tom Waits) But that is not the same thing as ‘normal’, to say nothing of ‘healthy’, to say nothing of ‘love’.

Did you know that the state considers our population as “vulnerable adults”? There are sound protective reasons for this, but a consequence of this designation is that I am legally incapable of consenting to sex with a staff person. While explaining this to a young blonde woman in uniform, I questioned whether love could ever really be part of our relationship. I don’t know that I could put someone I truly loved at risk for the humiliation of termination, criminal prosecution as a sex offender, and a life with that kind of jacket on her shoulders.

When I first met the woman delivering my writing assignments I immediately saw there was something more to her. Without composing an ode, she was attractive in her own right, and all the more beautiful for her intellect and her wit. We tended to spar in class, which only made her more alluring to someone who experiences healthy conflict as an expression of love. I remarked early to a friend of mind that I would have to be sure that I don’t fall in love with her. (Escape~B.O.B) And I haven’t. Though that proved to be a conscious decision that required reinforcement. To willfully inhibit my instincts and emotions.

I am not attracted to beautiful women who are empty inside. I am aroused by the intrinsic value of substance. And I know I can be a handful. I need a love that can keep up. That I felt the stirring in the pit of me left me shaken. (Why~The Roots) Pretending I wasn’t flying a kite from inside the eye of a hurricane.

There are many pains a person can learn to grin and bear provided they persist without further aggravation. I know that I am mostly isolated because not many people think about things the way that I do. I know that I am mostly fascinated by life in silence because usually no one around me is interested in listening. (Seven Nation Army~The White Stripes) I live in the absence of pursuing exceptional women for the dearth of opportunity. But this was something different.

I pulled most of my punches around her. I allowed just enough of me to slip through the grate to leave an impression of who I am. I would deliberately restrict my breath, wearing a corset of prudence. I poured the greater measure of my interest in her into an empty cask, threw it into the darkest coldest corner of me, and braced myself while listening to the wood creak and groan as the contents froze and expanded, reckoning to burst. Constrained.

I am safer and stronger for the constraints. The man I produced in her presence was likely a better version of myself. A revision of sorts. How much of me was gone while pretending to flirt innocuously? Did I cross the 30-50% threshold to become a piece that reached its essential parts? A fatalist might argue that were a love to be, it would have suggested itself in a place where it could thrive, not a place where it might destroy the lovers for their sake of loving. But I do not lament the missing chance, even though it hurts. For she was, and is lovely in all of the ways that I would pray for. I am fine with the pain of lost things. I know that it must be aggravated to remind me that it is still there. This woman had a knack for handing me novel suggestions that struck in me a chord, playing the nerves back to the source.

My life is an exercise in compression. I have always wrestled my desires, with limited success. I mourn the passing of my reckless heart, and its eager spirit in the face of ache and loss. I wonder whether my reticence will linger beyond my walls…my boundaries. I keep choosing restraint, to the point that I wonder if this is just who I am now. A life defined by creative constraint. Promising myself that if things were just a little different I would maybe even try and learn to love. Or at the very least, allow for more of me to filter through the edit when the aggravation beckons.



Gravity of Place

May 26, 2017

One morning I woke up and all of the mechanical clocks I saw were approximately five minutes behind the digital ones.

There are many mechanical clocks that still hang in the facility. In the living units, in some of the classrooms, in the chapel, and a few offices. They are not on a linked network. They are not connected in any way other than their general location and their type of manufacture.

The other night I watched Neil deGrasse Tyson answer Charlie Rose’s question about the existence parallel universes by describing the theoretical effect of gravity from one dimension upon another, unseen except for the resultant evidence.

I did not say, “Eureka!” and claim an interdimensional event. I was only reminded of the interview and given to wonder at the cause that might only affect mechanical timepieces.

Suspect of my own perception, I was then given to wonder at whether I was actually seeing what I thought I was seeing. Then I forgot to remember any of it until I sat down to write this for all of you.

This place has its own weight. Perhaps not a gravitational pull beyond the mass of its construction. I would still like to feel as though I have discovered its center. Or at least my own.

There is a mechanical clock in my workspace that doesn’t move at all.


Fecklessness Is Not A Muse

May 22, 2017

Her love was like a three-walled room. Decorative in all the right ways to always keep me facing forward. Resplendent with reflective surfaces angled to capture my own gaze in the very best of lights. This way I would satisfy my repressed need for freedom by keeping my escape route within my line of sight but only ever in my periphery. A willing slave to the notion of completion by the hungry devoted.

But a lover’s hunger never satisfies the meal. A lover’s hunger only ever lures the prey to the table. Enticements to be devoured.

She made me wait. She played it cool. The distance and aloof attitude making me believe that she could have gone either way.

The sex that followed was everything you could imagine. Landing hard in the heretofore forbidden territories. Imaginative and hungry both, newly unburdened slaves always run the hardest.

I knew from the beginning that such a thing was not meant to continue. That a thing is not beautiful because it lasts. Content with the feral wandering into what felt like emotional freedom. I pretended to be open but I had already made up my mind. I had misgivings, but then, I was not the only liar in our bed.

There is a dark secret to our tenuous little enterprise. When it comes to Love, not the romance but the sustenance of being; by the time we get to an age where we can forage for ourselves we are most of us starving already. Everybody builds their own coping mechanism. We find ways to mask and channel our needful hunger into other things. Most people leave their youth without a map, but instead a menu, written by someone unfamiliar with their specific dietary needs, prescriptive of all kinds of unhealthy indulgences.

Her hunger led with desperation. She put on sobbing displays trying to persuade me of the value of us…the value of her, really. I confess to being selfish, and enjoyed the sex. My first couple tries to leave didn’t take.

Later, after having finally broken free, she called me, stranded on the side of the road. Her windshield wiper motor having failed in the rain. A metaphor that ought to have been heeded. I was a fool, and I went.

Finally, on the cusp of liberation, during what would prove to be my penultimate effort, she drove to a client event for a sales weekend. Late that Saturday night I got a cryptic and emotional voice mail. I couldn’t understand what she’d tried to tell me. When she got home she told me that she’d been raped by one of the men from the company she’d visited. My ensuing fury and sense of protective loyalty were the railroad spike through my heart, nailing me to the inexorability of a fixed rail. It wouldn’t occur to me to leave her again until years later. Long after it was too late for me. Long after the facts of her story dismantled the lies that she’d told me.

She conned me into believing that birth control stays in your system for a month after you stop taking the pill. It does not.

She thought that she could get herself straightened out if she quit her job to focused on her art and herself. She could not. Fecklessness is not a muse.

She SWORE that she would leave me if I ever cheated on her. She did not. That was her red line and she balked.

There is no license for the things I put her through as revenge for having held me for so long when I had the option to leave the entire time. Not that I needed a relationship to excuse my exit, but there were plenty of excuses. There was the literary genius, with Anne Hathaway eyes, who was going home to Chicago and left open the gate behind her. There was the former gymnast from my high school who wanted nothing more than to offer patronage for my fledgling music career and worship in the bedroom.

The last exit was a law student who applied to Tulane at my suggestion. Were she accepted I promised I would go with her, finally decisive in my exeunt from the psychodrama I’d been living in.

Once, we sat in the car to finish a discussion over the possibility of divorce. She asked, didn’t I want to try and make it work. On cue, the transformer on the main power line into our neighborhood blew out, plunging twelve city blocks into darkness. This sign I saw, clear as day in the depth of night. Not if it’s going to be like this, I said.

I had a lover ask me about the good times with my ex. Weren’t there any good times I shared with this woman? Partner in my walk. Mother of my son. Didn’t we fall in love? Weren’t you ever happy? Maybe. I can’t see those moments anymore without the fact of her living doldrums coloring the lens.

She conspired to get me fifteen years in prison, and that isn’t even why I used to hate her. The act of destroying my life is easily the most passionate thing I’ve ever seen her do. I can respect that even though it came at my expense. But the resentment cum loathing is the result of years and years of wasted time. I can look now and see that she was never worth the trouble. That my shadow made sure that I was weakest just when she was a most clever meal. I always kept one foot out the door, but I had forgotten it was there, and I allowed myself to be persuaded to stay.

I was angry for a long time before I was able to see how I was responsible for the way things played out. She was never going to be enough, because she simply never had what I needed. She was a decorative prison with a complicit warden, who just happened to also be the ward. I have forgiven myself for being stupid and foolish. After years of choosing to drown in the ocean of her uselessness, how could I blame her for not throwing me a life preserver?

Regardless of the sizeable outcome, I would still choose a prison of stone where my heart is free and my conscience is clear, over a rotting bamboo pit in a jungle of confused and manipulated emotions. Every time.

Not that this is a binary choice. I still have other options. I will totally leave here if they let me 😉


I Just Want to Change the World

May 17, 2017

The world seems like a massive target, ‘ripe for disruption’ as the kids like to say. Forget about the people who have been driven into hibernation. I know we all want them to rise up and join in the revolution to take back our (neighborhood/city/state/nation), but let’s be honest. The kinds of awful that need to happen to inspire a ‘get off the couch’ movement are still more distant than us subversive types might want to admit. Our jobs are easier when everybody’s hair is on fire. Some people (mostly Bond-villains and neocons) even advocate setting the fires just to get the ball rolling. But for the rest of us, the first challenge is to just find out how to take that kind of well-intentioned ambition and carve it down into manageable portions.

My guy, Jimmy, was breaking down the notion of discipline. He’s got talent. He’s done a lot of the work to cultivate his talent into channels of expression. He’s an artist, musical and visual. He was drifting on about how focused he once was. Twenty years in with twenty years to go can burden a spirit, you know. He thought of himself, not as a failure, but as having lost something essential. He and I are working on a project together, and he’s still shaking off some of the rust, working to get back up to speed. I’m grateful for his help. He says that he’s grateful to be invigorated.

I told him that many things changed for me after I learned to accept failure. Not so much in the big things, those too, but as part of the daily grind. A person just can’t be at 110% every single day. I know that might sound obvious to the dreamers and the builders of the world, but prison is an albatross, swinging from a Dickensian chain around our spectral throats. Step wrong and the momentum of the swing can cost you years of struggling just to get back on your square.

Jimmy wasn’t depressed, because he’s always a little depressed, just like I am. Because, you know, prison. He was just feeling sedentary by comparison to his own memory of feeling engaged with Life. My specific suggestion related to failure is a way of steering into the skid. Sometimes you have to wake up on a Saturday morning, turn on the television, and stare at it the entire day without ever really watching a thing. Not because it’s healthy, but because it isn’t. A deliberate distraction can help inoculate against the beginnings of a spiral. Allowing for the world to be uneven sometimes means acceleration in the face of obstacle. You have to do what you need to do in order to survive to see another day.

We have programs in our facility. We have classes and events that serve to make this feel like more of a community, at times, than just a prison. These opportunities only exist because a group of like-minded inmates and staff did the work to establish something to last beyond their time here. I benefit from this by inheritance of responsibility and obligation. There is good created by giving men an environment in a class or a small group to be invested in changing their lives. In the process of making my own changes I came to understand how I need to put in work to make sure the next person to come through the door has the same, if not a better chance than I did. For what it’s worth, there are people in charge of our lives who want to make things better for society by making things better for us. Sometimes I want ‘the revolution’ too, but when power is actively willing to negotiate in good faith, you owe it to your people to take your seat at the table.

I sometimes describe this place as ‘North Korea with American television’. The steep barriers of bureaucracy and the inconstancy of staff mirror the kinds of infrastructure you might find in your run of the mill totalitarian regime. A guard may not be right, but they’re never wrong. So we rely on a sort of color revolution to further the big ideas. Working slowly (very slowly) from the grass roots up to grind out a little bit of meal. It’s difficult, frustrating, sometimes tedious work. There is a sort of zen to navigating an idea through the proper channels. Infinite patience toward indefinite obstruction. A special wu wei absorption of the energies that unconsciously flow through the pores of the concrete. But when the pinnacle of completion is reached, nirvana may be the appropriate concept. For the moment happens and changes and begins again. I often feel relief as much as anything after a success over time.

I get to claim an outsized effect for my minor accomplishments (and they absolutely rely on devoted cooperation with others) because the light you shine from the darkest corners can’t help but shine brighter. The reality is that while this may be true, it is only true from one perspective. Part of what informs my own method is to observe those angles, yet remain focused on the confines of my cell and the limits of my influence. My prison is tiny next to the billions of lives who don’t even know that I exist. But then what is the Earth in the eyes of an oblivious universe?

There is value in reminding Jimmy that not every breath has to inspire a masterpiece if all he needs to do is paint. Sometimes a simple song played on a cheap guitar is enough to bring tears to the man who couldn’t find them on his own. Who’s to say that the world isn’t wholly changed by the smallest flicker in the blackest of nights. I am inclined to accept ‘yes’ for an answer, especially when it complements my failure so well.


Quick Hits #1 Set to: Best of You – Foo Fighters

May 16, 2017

This morning, after a set of twenty-five at the heaviest setting on our Paramount-brand leg press machine, a small Asian man jogged up from out of nowhere and clung to the arm of the weight bar like a macaw hanging from a cypress limb. He called me out, “Come on Arthur, come on man!”

I responded by resetting my feet and dropping another seven reps before his tiny grip gave out.

As he walked away, I called after him.

“You’re a sexy beast, Chao.”

“What’s that, Arthur?” leaning into a flex pose for effect.

“You a sexy beast, man.”

He spun and sauntered toward the guard desk.

“You know it, P…you know this….”


Dog Psychology

May 15, 2017

I used to drive a cargo van for a courier company. One day I got a package to this hobby farm just outside the city. The farmhouse was unassuming enough, gave off an historical vibe, looked every bit the part, right down to the picket fence around the yard.

I walked through the swinging gate and up the path. By the time I reached the door to the screen porch, a commotion had raised from around the back of the house and was obviously making its way toward me. The disturbance appeared as a fully grown bull mastiff, clearly aggravated by my presence. Each bark and snarl was punctuated by lunges and leaps, complete with bared teeth slinging drool into the dust of the yard.

A woman in her early forties burst through the front door, alternating between yelling at the dog and apologizing to me. She grabbed his collar with one hand and snaked her other arm around his throat and hauled him into the backyard before returning to sign for her package. She continued apologizing for not having the dog secured and began asking me if I was all right. When an attractive woman of any age asks an American man in his early twenties whether he’s all right, upon pain of death, the answer is always, yes. It occurs to me now that I might have played shaken to flirt the sympathy card. But the words that actually came to my lips were, “If he meant to bite me, he would have just run around the corner and bit me. He was just trying to show me who’s boss.” Satisfied, and with my manhood properly intact, I thanked her and drove off.

I cannot overstate the truth of the matter, that were my bladder full before the dog rounded the corner, after he arrived it would not have been. The meaning of my own words didn’t really sink in until later, as I told the story to others. Almost twenty years later, I am frequently given cause to resurrect the story when explaining the behavior of certain people in this environment. The question being whether you really want to fight or you just want to appear to want to fight. Most often it’s the latter. My number of personal scrapes might surprise you. They are astonishingly low, largely because I’ve learned to distinguish first, the threshold for what merits actually fighting over (hint: nasty words are NOT). Second, the above observation as it relates to the behavior of people.

Most often, somebody’s feelings get hurt. Especially when that someone is wrestling with mental health issues. By the way, I owe you a polemic on untreated mental health issues and warehousing in prisons. Many of these guys are so emotionally fragile and hyper-protective of their soft centers that they’ll flare up over seemingly inconsequential things. Or, they get a sliver of paranoia wedged in their thoughts and let that fester into a bursting sore of resentment and violence. It’s ugly and frequent but manageable, for the most part.

This past week a guy was absolutely certain that I had conspired to prevent him from an opportunity to speak at an event for a program in here. Full disclosure, I had not. He managed to fixate on the idea and obsess to the point where he was asking everybody around him whether he should confront me about it. To a man they told him, no. Chiefly because I’m generally known for being honest and transparent, and no one would corroborate his delusion. By the time he worked himself up to come bounding round the house at me, I was prepared to confront him.

The part that gets left out of that anecdote is that a barking dog can still be provoked into biting. And just because I’m generally unwilling to fight someone over bullshit doesn’t mean that I’m going to ignore abject nonsense accusations when they’re thrown in my face. I think that he was unprepared for me to be as forceful as I was in dismissing him, or that I would turn his weakness for self-importance against him. Despite his three inch height and forty pound weight advantage, my words boxed him in rather easily. He sputtered and fumed and completely lost his mind at having walked right into a brick wall. When he started making physical threats the argument was over, because I began the debate prepared to let him be angry and let him be wrong on his own time, and prepared to walk away without having to provoke him into making a mistake he couldn’t take back later.

What matters in the aftermath is using his eventual shame over the incident to reinforce that I never had taken up to keep him out of anything. Waiting for the opportune moment to come back around and guide someone to be rational where before they were incapable of reason, that takes patience, and compassion – a form of love.

It is a lifelong challenge to keep your priorities in perspective so as to avoid rising to the wrong challenges and ending up exhausted or worse because of the wasted effort. It can be exhausting in itself to live in an emotional minefield, fraught with pathology and conflict. There is a daily investment in managing the tension, the risk, and the sometimes violence of a warehouse filled with broken people. There is craft in remembering what’s truly important, what has objective human value, and what should be let go in the context of the grand scheme of things.

I won’t lie. It helps when you are able to sit back and write things down….


Heart at Risk

May 11, 2017

She asks about taking risks. What are the risks I am not taking. I immediately think of two people who are something of a third rail for me emotionally. I don’t write about them I say. Which, when I reflect on my answer, isn’t accurate in the sense that I meant it. She had spoken of an exercise where she’d flushed a whole category of her own work to excise an issue, and then of unnamed things that she avoided, saying those dark corners probably contained her best writing. I threw up the relationships as my own dark corners to pass the question along to the next person, trying to respond in a constructive way.

The only risks I won’t take anymore are the one’s that seem obviously to follow in failure. Let’s not be stupid. I don’t risk scaling the wall because it seems probable I will be shot. I don’t punch everyone in the face every time I think about it because it produces limited results with outsized consequences. I don’t write about those people because their time just hasn’t come yet. I’ve started farther out, cutting my teeth on settled events, asking questions I already understand. I don’t avoid anything out of fear. I am only waiting for the moment to arrive.

In describing my relationship with risk, I tell her about being broken. I tell her that my response to being broken is learning to stay broken. You may decide then that my risk might be doing the work to eventually heal. I think I will, when the time comes. Until then I stay with the notion that my vulnerabilities ought to be kept near the surface. Sunlight disinfecting away the risk of necrosis. My reaction to loss is to take everything I can find and throw it on the table. I’m not interested in hurting less, I want to do the work. I’m not afraid to be ruined, I’m afraid of wasting the experience.

I am not a morose person. I am not depressed beyond the persistent disenchantment of living in a cage. Learning to be content requires a willingness to accept that some things just are. Beginning from Truth opens a great many inner doors. When you are your only audience the time for dishonesty and cowardice has ended. We mistake the things that give us comfort for things that make us happy. We mistake happiness for validation. We mistake contentment for satisfaction.

Much of what defines a life can be taken away. If a person or a thing can be so easily lost, what is the value of building a life around it? Buddhists would say that the attachment causes suffering and so we should let go the attachment. I disagree. I think the beauty and joy of life lies in the ebb and flow of our tragedy and our joy. I think part of the value lies in the possibility and sometimes the experience of loss. For some of us, it is only after we have lost everything that we can truly do anything. I think the problem is when we mistake the house for the foundation. Especially when nobody does good stone work anymore.

Being torn down all the way to the basement gives a person a different sort of notion of what matters in life. I’m telling you, most houses are suspect. What I’m saying for myself is, I am unafraid to live in an open basement. Sheee-it, I’ll live in a hole in the ground if I need to. If I need to start on bare rock and carve myself a fresh dugout in the canyon wall, using only the tools of my ancestors, I will…if I need to.

So when it comes to taking risks, particularly in my writing, or anything creative for that matter: The only ones I’m missing are the ones I don’t yet understand. After all; I’ve already lost everything I loved, and everything I was, on more than one occasion. I am built to be ruined and built back up again with the prospect of being ruined once more. What have I got to lose?


I Am From…

May 8, 2017

There’s this common exercise for intro writing classes called “I am from…” where you use the title as an anaphora to describe an image or metaphor for your identity of origin. I wrote this one on the fly during a Spoken Word class this evening.

I am from the crumbling facade of miseducation
Duck and cover til the dust settles and the classroom clears
I am from an inimitable carbon copy
Rolled out in mimeo prequel to a prefab fantasy island

I am from an archipelago of ruined feeling
A loosely held confederation of land masses
Strung together just beneath the surface
But all my lives are underwater for the moment

I am from the insecurity of underformed emotions
My underperformance game ascends and warms to former notions

I am from the heliosphere, the edge is cold, in darkness
These wings of wax and ribbon carried me here
Flown too close to the source
I melted through to find myself on the other side

I am from the memory of shape remembering my way to begin again
To build once more toward becoming the right facing sail
Sober faced and clear eyed I turn into the skid and let myself slide
Unafraid to let the sun rise behind me

I am from the old light of a distant star
Loneliness and the cold comfort of a boot heel pressed into the dust that the wind will never carry
Permanent and empty I am


My Father’s Eye

May 6, 2017

Our phone calls last a maximum of fifteen minutes. They cost “five cents for the first minute and fifteen cents for each additional minute”. Imagine your generic, female, tele-voice reading you those words with the usual stops and starts of the buffering audio file catching up through the slow connection. I have gotten so I can mimic the anticipated pauses verbatim. I can tell how many rings are happening on your end by the length of silence in my ear while I wait. I can recite the “one minute” warning. I can time my closing statements with such precision that if there were a category of performance for bits that end with a disconnection, I would be Seinfeld+C.K.+Pryor of that shit.

I was on the phone with my mother this afternoon. Usually my dad answers the phone and talks for fourteen minutes, handing the phone off after the one minute cue, leaving my mom to get cut off trying to squeeze a weeks worth of words into less than sixty seconds. This sounds mean but my mom had a stroke a few years back. It took her a long time before she could navigate her end of a conversation again. And, if I’m being honest (and posting here I always will be), before the stroke I didn’t like her very much.

I think a lot of people have mixed feelings about their parents. I feel fortunate to have long since resolved things with both my parents (the stroke helped). We have healthy adult relationships. I have never questioned whether they loved me or whether they tried their best. They have always stood by me, and I was never an easy kid. I love them unconditionally.

I am acutely familiar with all that I had to overcome to outgrow that phase of young adulthood where I realized all of the very human mistakes my parents made along the way. It is not their fault they are human, any more than it was mine for being born. Growing up meant taking responsibility for shaping my own character and deciding who I was going to be. Lately, I have started a fire on one of the back burners of my mind. I have been trying to think of the good things I have learned from my parents, my father in particular.

He was out at the far end of their backyard when I called, so my mom got her own fifteen minutes. She was telling me how beautiful the front of their house looked with all of the flowers my dad planted. She groused over how my dad never seemed able to accept the compliment as to how well he’d done, or how his work affected others. It bears mentioning that my father has won statewide awards in horticulture and floral arrangement. He forgets this as quickly as the petals themselves wilt. I recognized myself in her complaint. Or rather my father in me.

I imagined my dad considering a daffodil and knowing, not thinking but knowing, that despite its splendor there is always room for improvement. Never questioning the myriad factors that were entirely beyond his control, but always looking for the way that he could have done better. I describe this in myself as “always being content but never being satisfied”. My father never held much interest in the humanities or philosophy. He rarely questioned the meaning of life and tended to focus on the clockworks instead. He was, he is, an engineer. I am an artist. Though, he is an artist in his way. I believe that any genuine expression of the self is an art form. And I know that as I engineer these words for a final edit before sending them to post, I will be content with their arrangement but invariably miss some aspect, preventing them from ‘perfection’. I will have to remember to thank him for that.


The Forest for the Trees

May 4, 2017

My morning ritual consists of waking before the dawn. The open bars of my cell are eastern facing. I always know which direction to face in my prayers. I am a ‘man facing southeast’. I always know whether I have beaten the sun to my salvation.

I watch the news because CBS hired Charlie Rose to present me with it. And the local girls that precede the national broadcast are fetching in their High Definition earnestness. The news, and sometimes Walter Mitty. Because my fantasy of freedom has an archetype with a shifting face, and a spirit animal with a changing identity.

The bells ring and the doors open. Most switch out to breakfast before they switch out to work. I put a tablespoon of cocoa and a teaspoon of french vanilla creamer into a single serving pouch of dry rolled oats and chew it up as such in single mouthfuls, washing it down with forty ounces of brownish water from the faucet in my cell. I eat a generic Excedrin to get me started and a vitamin C to tamp down the risk of illness from living in such close quarters.

I work out most mornings. When I was younger I wanted to be the biggest and the strongest. These days I just want to hold my body together well enough to survive another ten years of sitting and sleeping on steel and concrete. It gets tougher as I get older, so I work harder.

Bells ring in succession to announce the switch outs for the rest of the facility. When the flow of labor to their stations has drawn to a close, the unit is silent for the absence of several hundred voices. The persistent din has drifted elsewhere for the morning. For the compression of lives upon lives in such a small space, the quiet is a weightlessness of open air.

If you were to stand here next to me, back against the wall, staring up at tier after tier of empty cells, you could be forgiven for imagining that this prison has been decommissioned, families reunited, and justice restored.

If you were to look at the shadows cast from the windows on the stone floor beneath us, you would see the shape and arrangement of the bars on the windows, angled with an impressionist’s eye for the position of the sun in the sky of an early day.

If you were to step slightly to either side and with me into the casting rays of light, we would share in the part of my ritual where I remember my place in the universe. That the light journeyed millions of miles to fall on us alike. And that the shade of the bars is lost in the warmth of the springtime sun; the forest for the trees.