Untitled Spoken Word Piece

June 05, 2017

Good morning, all. I haven’t a title for this piece yet. If anyone has any suggestions I welcome them. We have a reading in a couple weeks. I promise to honor the chosen suggestion with a dedication before I begin.

Oddly enough, you have to read the ‘spoken word’ piece rather than hear my delivery. My apologies, the world being what it is. I’m on my third revision. Here goes:

The greyed dawn is long gone, the curtain of night drawn close
Your echoing frustration and papering comments thrown down
A gauntlet of wishing you could compare

A gust blown through the captain’s cabin and we become navigable
Imagine that you and I are a “we”
Without asking whether or not you see me
The way that I see…you

Perhaps your idea of darkness deserves revision
(your) Decisions in ignorance build bridges of confusion
(my) Derision of you born of retribution

You think being Billy badass has made you hard
You are made weak by your stupid stubborn failure
Absent of self-regard

Everybody wishes they could be strong without sacrifice
I question how much you value life until you’ve died twice
To realize to suffer yields the means to be alive

How bout you hollow out that loud mouth and take a ride
Will you remember to breathe like me after you’re dead inside

I am a dimensional membrane through which passes the gravity of the unseen
Didn’t you know, dark matter and energy rend the fabric of being
Madness is a tapestry
A compendium surmised the greater scene

Until you are able to sit patiently while you bleed out
Until you learn to exchange everything for a simple glimpse over the fringes
Until you summon the courage to annihilate your soul
Just to learn to start from scratch and then
Will yourself to begin again
From nothing

Your god is fear
Your god is selfishness
All praises to Allah (SWT) for His patience
That he allows us to exist

You don’t need me to point out that your life means nothing/If you want it to/A remedy exists/Within your grasp/Of all things spiritual/You just happened/To waste all this time/Getting to the point/Where your lizard brain was/Capable of standing firm/In the face of certain death/You need to look yourself in the eye/And be prepared to lose everything

You don’t need me to point out that your life means nothing if you want it to.
A remedy exists within your grasp, of all things spiritual.
You just happened to waste all this time getting to the point where your lizard brain was capable of standing firm.
In the face of certain death you need to look yourself in the eye.
In the face of certain death you need to look yourself in the eye.
And be prepared to lose everything

There is no secret to consciousness
Constant vigilance and a vigilante
Spirit to spring upon your shadow
A commensurate trap for all the
Sabotage it deservedly plagued on
Your sleeping soul

Sunlight disinfects where the basement
Once refused all egress
But you escape the dank corners where
The new life took hold
A bacterial reboot
Rebreaking the existential mold
Old habits will die hard
If the crucible is left cold

But a blue flame,
a diligent heart,
and a watchful I
could still transform this materia gold


Always Only Ever Eating Hot Lunch

June 3, 2017

I thaw and peel a pound or so of large-to-jumbo size shrimp. I turn the stove on ‘high’ underneath the large skillet. I watch for a moment while at least one but no more than two generous pats of butter chase their way around the warming surface into sizzling liquid oblivion. I take a handful of shredded coconut from the bag I keep in the fridge and drop it into the center of the coated pan, distributing the pieces along the bottom like hash browns.

As soon as the coconut begins to fry evenly, I add the shrimp. The blending oils force the water out of the mix in wafting steam filled with the rich buttery smells of food happening. Before the shrimp can cook in earnest, I generously squeeze lime juice from a little green plastic bulb. The sputtering hiss of citrus from the milky white tropical broth transmutes the silence of my kitchen into the gentle breezes of an island coast.

Finally, I sprinkle brown sugar over the simmering reduction and marvel as it melts and disappears into my creation. The shrimp firms and the coconut crisps and it all ends up on the plates of my children. They scarf ravenously, unburdened by any distraction with craft. The smells of the cooking having triggered something primal in order to guide them toward joy.

My parents were not cooks. By that I mean that all manner of their food decisions and preparation were suspect. My mother labored under the delusion that she was able to make and keep a home (one of many similar delusions), including her ability to make delectable meals, or successfully bake anything that did not come from a box. My father suffered from none of this confusion. He knew he had no place in the kitchen.

For my mother this meant the persistence of the white, four-fingered mascot of Hamburger Helper on the boxes in our overfilled trash can. I was twenty before I learned how vegetables were supposed to be prepared (besides flavorless mush and fried in cornmeal), and began to love them. And there were a handful of occasions where, rather than shifting the morning menu around, she insisted on serving us Bisquick pancakes…with corn syrup, demanding we accept it was the same as maple.

My father was more gender-stereotypical. Breakfast meant breakfast cereal (occasionally in bowls of juice when we were out of milk). We went to McDonald’s on weekends. Lunch meant Campbell’s and Chef Boyardee. I grew up playing favorites with the different pasta shapes believing there was any difference in the sauce or noodle composition. When we were alone for dinner, we spent an inordinate amount of time at the Hardee’s that sported a ball pit. What can I say, the man knew his limitations. I respect him for that.

To their credit, my brothers and I never knew what it means to be hungry. I was fat the way that America is now fat. It matters that I never, ever worried where my next meal came from. I can bitch about the food, but at least I always had some.

It is also with some ambivalence that I join our modern chorus against the hyper-preserved, meal-in-a-box, fast food ubiquity, model of factory-farm-to-table. I embrace the movement toward healthy eating. I live it as much as I can from where I’m at now. Still, I wonder whether I owe the agribusiness of instant meals my life. I was raised according to their easy-to-follow instructions after all.

It will not surprise you to know that I exclusively ate ‘hot lunch’ at school growing up. I wasn’t on a program or anything. I just ate exclusively from the school menu at lunch time, for the twelve years I went to public school.

The food here is basically ‘hot lunch’ three meals a day, seven days a week. The culinary category, then and now, is “institutional”. There are a litany of inmate complaints that comprise a spectrum of legitimacy. As the DOC has wrestled costs over the past twenty years, the portions have gotten smaller, and processed food has taken over more of the tray. The closest we come to real cheese is when we get a shredded ‘fiesta’ mix that goes with most Latin-themed, sloppy joe meat selections. The food is not great. I don’t want to pretend we’re on the cusp of gourmet here.

The other night we had a breakfast meal for dinner. The scrambled eggs were a single mass in the shape they were scooped from the large pan they were steamed in. Jiggling and bouncing the way old mattress foam used to before it came with memory. You have to mash it into little rubber pellets before you can work clumpy salt and the dozen flecks of pepper from the single-serving packets still wet from your tray. The hash browns are soggy tater tots that sit in a greasy pile of potato gems that once held form in baked cylinders. The turkey bacon, a wizened pastiche of bacon, sits curled in its corner, begging for an end to the madness of its life’s charade. Last there were a few French toast sticks, holding to theme in their foamy composition. Their most surprising feature to me is their resistance to absorbing the kitchen-made syrup. You cut them into pieces and they just float atop the brownish puddle. You hold them under with your orange plastic fork and they bobber back up, surfacing in chemical defiance of design and expectation.

Switching to the spoon to foil the resistance of the bread, you notice your mouthful of cake and sugar is a little off. It takes a moment to place the flavor with the Karo label from a distant and backward memory…but you do.

The food is always enough to sustain, even if never to satisfy. Even apart from privation and hunger, the situation could be much, much worse. Have I lowered the bar in order to successfully navigate the chow hall? Absolutely, I have. Managing expectations is ninety percent of life anywhere and ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of survival in here.

My mother forgets our conversations these days, so she constantly worries whether I’m getting enough to eat. I always answer the question as though I am hearing it for the first time. Wrestling the notion in the back of my mind that whoever makes the syrup in the kitchen seems to think my mom was on to something.


I Am Not Suicidal

May 31, 2017

When I was a teenager, struggling with identity and angry without knowing exactly why, I contemplated suicide.

When I sat in front of a counselor (he was one of the good ones) and told him I was thinking about it, he blew me off. He said that I was way too in love with myself to ever actually attempt anything. And he was right.

Still, there was this one time. I must have been fourteen or fifteen. I was at this big youth conference. The long weekend was held on the campus of a large Midwestern university. I was still too young to get into any serious trouble, but somehow managed to find my own version of serious trouble.

There were these kids from North Carolina. There was a girl from North Carolina. Heather. I called her Heathen. Not because she was an apostate, pagan, or heretic; it just sounded cool to riff on her name.

There were these guys from Nova Scotia. Totally cool, similarly misbehaviored as me. One of them went by “Pokey”. When you asked him why they called him Pokey, he just grinned. One of those guys hooked up with Heathen’s friend. He looked just like Kurt Cobain.

We all hung out for the time we had. Got on well. There may have been making out. And stealing cigarettes from a gas station. Harmless bullshit. Kid things.

There was a big open athletic field where rain and hoses had made a giant mud pit. There were crowds of people horsing around, having a clean Christian time of things. Heathen got smart as we crossed so I had to take her down.

To be fifteen and mud wrestling a cute girl from North Carolina, laughing and knowing how she’s into you. There are only so many moments like that in life.

That night I climbed as high as I could into a tree in front of the girls dorm, and fell.

I couldn’t breathe. I had hit a branch or two on the way down. They walked me to the hospital. X-ray was clear. They gave me a bottle of pills for the pain. Here’s where it stops making sense (to me too).

In my dorm that night I ate all the pills. Every single one. I don’t even remember their name. I was very high. I felt certain of my death. I left the room to be somewhere else when I passed.

I found the field where I’d wrestled Heather. By accident. There were these big hay bales around the mud pit where people had sat in the sun and been muddy. They were unwieldy. Weighed seventy-five to a hundred pounds.

I was dope-strong. Driven by my impending doom. I arranged a couple dozen or so in the shape of a cross while feeling penitent. I wonder if my counselor would have called bullshit.

I did not die. I don’t remember how bad I wanted to. I remember being sick though. Not-Heathen and Not-Pokey spent the day with me while I dry heaved every few minutes. I pretended not to know why I was sick.

I missed my goodbyes with the North Carolinians due to the odd schedule of bus departures. I had theirs and the Nova Scotian’s numbers though. I called a couple times.

That next week a hurricane made landfall not far from where the girls were from. I called just to make sure Heathen was okay. She was.


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?