I Am Sisyphus

It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I am sitting at the desk in my office. I’m not at work officially yet, won’t be for another hour or so. Then the race will start. Kara had asked me if I wanted to go to a meeting this morning, to pick up my fifteen year coin. I didn’t. She said, “The day can look however you want. I have a babysitter, so if you want to go out after work and celebrate, then we can do that…or nothing.” I said that I thought that this year I just wanted it to be a day, just to be a day like any other day. Sometimes I really want the celebration, but this year, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to come in here and sit and think and spend some time alone.  So, I woke up early, my daughter’s warm, tiny body next to me through the night sleeping heavily after a late evening of trick-or-treating excitement, costumes, candy, and other children running wildly through the streets. Kara still exhausted is next to her, a new puppy sleeping soundly at her shoulder. There is a cat at her feet curled up contentedly as all cats sleep. Last night we went to bed laughing about this- the animals, our child, about the busy place that our bed has become. I pointed out that nine years ago this would have been an absolute dream come true.

Kara said, “Nine years ago this couldn’t have even been imagined!” and we laughed together at our own amazement.

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my sobriety.  It is a date that is perpetually entwined with gratitude and sorrow.  This is a date that I will always celebrate and mourn. My sobriety cost too much; I have always believed this and now, after fifteen consecutive years, I am sure that I always will believe this.

Sobriety always comes at a cost.  I’ve been around enough 12-step rooms and other sober support communities to know this.

It is veritably impossible to hear a person’s recovery story without being very often stunned and amazed by the levels of grief and despair that their recovery has cost. The cost of my own sobriety was lives. I still shake my head fifteen years later even as I write those words. It just doesn’t seem possible still. I can just never make it better. Not ever.

I am Sysiphus, eternally condemned to pushing a boulder to the top of this mountain.

But it is also great, which is an odd dissonance. It’s a perpetual mourning, but it’s also an absolute celebration, and discovery, and adventure.

I work with people daily in very early recovery. They sit in my office and cry and are angry and are desperate and scared.  They sit across from me and I see myself. It would be impossible not to. The words they use, the language they use, is a close memory hermetically sealed forever in my mind. I listen to them and I hear myself. I feel sad for them, and grateful that for me that the chaos has ended. It has finally ended. I remember how it felt to have the heavy fog of eternal delusion lift and what it felt like to start to see for what felt like the first time ever. And I am so grateful for the utter simplicity of today’s problems.

But again, I question the cost.

One simple decision.

One very simple, very wrong, decision.

And some poor soul never gets to see their child again, their parent again, someone they love ever again, and there is no way to ever make that better. That can never be made better again.

After taking Story trick-or-treating last night she climbs excitedly into her car seat and asks for her bounty, her new treasures, her bucket of goods scored on a lively Hallows Eve. Kara tells her that she doesn’t want Story to eat all of that candy and make herself sick. Story insists that she won’t. We relent and let her have her reserve. On the way home we are absolutely charged. What a great night! We tell Story what a good kid she was and how much we appreciated her saying “thank-you” to all of the people that gave her candy. And because I never want her to forget it I remind her of all of the great things we did leading up to this night. I ask her to join in with me, and we laugh about corn-mazes and hot apple cider. We talk about apple picking and candy corns. We revel in her having been read the entire first Harry Potter book not once, but twice! We remember carving pumpkins and roasting pumpkin seeds. Occasionally, Story asks if she can turn the light on in the van so that she can carefully pick her next treat. Kara says she can do it as long as she does it quickly, and I can hear the crinkling of tiny brown wrappers behind me and I am filled to the brim with love and joy and just Life!

And then I wonder…

Was this what it was like for them?

Fifteen years later this is what I have to offer not just my own victims, but the world. This is what I owe:

My boundless gratitude.

My eternal apologies.

My diligence and determination.

My thankfulness.

My joy.

My promise.

My sobriety.

 

Thank you to everyone, friends, and families, my victims, just everyone, who has made this incredibly magical, and far too meaningful journey possible. Thank you all. And please don’t drink and drive. Please. Just don’t.

Peace.IMG_0995

One Tow In The Water

IMG_1478I first encountered meditation when I was around eleven or twelve years old.  I didn’t know what it was, but I recognized it as something important.  I discovered it through an old western that they used to re-run on Sunday afternoons called Kung-Fu.  Now, if you don’t remember Kung-Fu, it was a pretty simple premise.  In the time of the “wild, wild west” a student, having returned from an exotic distant land, where he had studied under a wizened “Sensei” would find himself involved in physically, and ethically, challenging dilemmas: a bar-room brawl, a bank robbery, or the chastisement of some poor widow’s daughter by bootleggers and horse-thieves.  Having no gun to defend himself with he would have to whip out the ole Kung-Fu on the assailants.  At the end of the episode they would inevitably flash to some scene of the Kung-Fu master, “Young Grasshopper” sitting quietly in meditation; having managed his external conflicts, he had now turned to the more contentious, deeper strain of sitting in this dark stillness.  I didn’t know what he was doing, but it seemed important.  I wanted to know what was in there.

I didn’t have any money at the time.  I did not have any kind of steady income at the time or an allowance to speak of that I really remember.  I shoplifted a book and cassette tape combination from a local bookstore that promised to teach me how to meditate. (This probably says as much about where I was in my life in those days as anything ever could.) I remember listening to it intently night after night, but not understanding what it meant to do when it sagely instructed me to. “Clear your mind of all of your thoughts…”  There were other things on the B-side of the cassette, maybe even a little more useful.  There were a couple of classic zen stories and it was my first introduction to the phrase “What is the sound of one-hand clapping?”  I have to confess, I still don’t know the answer to this one.

I had given up on meditation, or rather, my life took multiple turns away from that particular path.  Mostly, I discovered mood-altering drugs, and alcohol which delivered the instantaneous relief that all of the other spiritual avenues I had explored seemed to be promising me.  I didn’t reject meditation whole-heartedly; mostly I was indifferent to it.  I had tried yoga on a few separate occasions.  I recall one class taught by an older, rotund, fellow who sat in a rocking chair in the front of the class, instructing us through the various asanas.  Mostly, I was irritated through the roughly hour-long course.  He pretended at being enlightened quite well.  His students seemed to devour his acumen.  I simply resented him and never returned.  Later, through my own experiences with meditation I would come to see this as a rather fascinating personality trait that I have.  I like to call it “Getting in my own, damn, way!” It seems to be one thing that I am highly skilled at, a kind of natural ability.

Instead of following any path that he may have intended, I followed the only one that seemed real.  I got high.  Some people self-identify as cocaine addicts or alcoholics, or pot-heads, whatever, my drug of choice was “more”.  Honestly, I’d pretty much do anything that was put in front of me.  I huffed dangerous aerosols, and did too many hallucinogens.  I’d take different colored pills and mix them up to see what would happen; truly, horrifying, dangerous stuff.  There’s a clinical term for this; it’s called poly-substance use, but we just referred to it as being a “trash-can junkie”.

In my early thirties I had lost my house to foreclosure, I had lost my romantic relationship of nine years, my employer had told me that he had kind of had it with me and suggested that I get help, but I was sure that he had no idea what he was talking about, even though I was homeless at the time.  This had been the second occasion in my life at being homeless. I even had a girlfriend who told me with exasperated frustration that she refused to be homeless with me. I got a different, more understanding girlfriend.

Whatever I was doing just was not working.

And then the worst happened.

The very worst thing that could have ever happened…happened.

On November 1st, 2003 I was in a drinking and driving accident.  Two cars had collided on highway 54 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A person had been pretty seriously injured in that initial accident and many people had stopped to help.  They had pulled him into the road and were desperately awaiting help to arrive.  My van had crested a hill, and there were the people in the road, and I couldn’t stop in time.  I just could not stop in time.  I tried swerving, tried to miss, but it was too late.  And for that I will always be sorry.

Many people lost their lives that night.  Because of me, it was my fault.  It should have been different, but it wasn’t.

I spent most of my thirties in a state prison, but there was nothing that I could say about that.  They could lock me up forever; what could I possibly say?

I spent most of the first two years of my incarceration obsessing about suicide.  Sometimes the very worst thing that can happen is that you have to wake up again to another day.

A friend of mine had sent me the book We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff.  It teaches basic yoga and meditation techniques to people who are incarcerated.  For me it was invaluable.  The most important thing that it taught was that if I had some time to do in prison, I could turn it into a kind of monastic retreat.  I started seeing myself less as a convict, and more as a monk.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing meditation correctly.  For one thing, everyone seemed to be having such a great time at it, but that wasn’t my experience at all.  I’d sit quietly and work on counting my breath; Then my face would start itching, or I’d get a cramp, or anxiety would set in.  I couldn’t figure out if I should count my breath in and out as “one” or just the in-breath as “one” and the out-breath as “two”.  Also, when I saw images of people doing meditation on television, or talk to other guys about meditation on the yard, they would all appear to be so into it.  They’d talk about how relaxing they found it to be.  Well, it wasn’t relaxing to me; I had to be doing this wrong!

I kept at it.  I have some great meditation stories to tell you.  Some of them were profound, life-changing, realizations that I had through doing a full Rohatsu sesshin all by myself, while following the schedule of a local zen center; but one of my favorite meditations happened when they had decided to wax the floors of one of the dorms lived in right in the middle of my daily forty minute sit.  “Bird”, one of the guys that I was locked up with, had decided to use the industrial grade floor buffer around me rather than ask me to move, so I sat there quietly trying to count my breaths as I worried that his floor polisher would somehow catch my mat and send me flying, spinning across the cell block.

I spent one practice period with another inmate who was also interested in zen, sitting in the phone room during the very early morning hours.  We would tap a plastic coffee cup with a prison grade spork three times to start and end our rounds.

We arranged to occasionally have all-day sits at the prison, with me and a few other guys, which even included a work schedule where we would voluntarily go and clean the yard.  I’m sure the guards either loved us or thought we were nuts!

Eventually, I was moved to minimum custody. As I got closer to my release date the prison started letting me out with community volunteers.  I had a regular practice of attending the Chapel Hill Zen Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and to me this was where my practice really began.  I would be allowed to go two or three times per week for occasionally up to six hours.  I’d frequent part of their all-day sits, and I’d occasionally have Dokusan there.  My wife and I were even married there, which again, is part of a much longer story, but it had been such a healing part of my life.  I had honestly thought that I would eventually get out and try to become a Buddhist priest or something like that.  It was the path that I felt most drawn to at the time, and sometimes I still have the yearning to be a monastic, but this is not anywhere in my future at this time.

Not long after I was released I was back in school full-time.  My wife, Kara, and I had moved to Rochester and in fact the Rochester Zen Center had played a pretty significant role in our decision to move here.  She had a job opportunity here and Brockport had the degree path that I was pursuing in drug and alcohol counseling.  We had investigated the city over a few days before making our decision to move here, and had gone to a Saturday morning service at RZC.  It was very different, but it had a lot of things that we both loved.

This is funny.  The place where we had been practicing was in the Soto Zen tradition, so lots of bowing, eating with chopsticks, lots of Japanese EVERYTHING.  It was my biggest complaint about the practice at the time.  I felt like I was always walking around pretending at being Japanese.  Then we came to the Rochester Zen Center.  Nobody bowed!  We ate with forks!  There was nothing Japanese about it, and all of my insides screamed “Heathens!”  That’s what helped me realize that nobody can win with me.  This is my lifelong practice of getting in my own way.  I can always find a reason why the way someone else is doing it is wrong.

My practice slipped away.  I’d love to tell you it was finally having freedom, or my busy school schedule, or finding employment or something like that.  The truth is that Kara and I had a child together, and from that point on we both have always been trying to squeeze our practice in around the edges, just trying to make it fit.

I’ve been out for five years now. Our daughter just turned four this July.  Kara and I have a nice little meditation spot in a guest room upstairs in our house and sometimes we manage to sit there pretty regularly for 10-15 minutes at night before we go to sleep.  When we do, we both usually find that our meditation turns into a sitting nap, but it’s okay.  I don’t push that away anymore.  Sleepy zazen counts too for me these days.

I work as a Behavioral Health Therapist today.  I actually am an addiction counselor, so I spend a lot of time talking to others about anxiety, stress, meditation and sober support meetings.  I’m an addiction therapist in the middle of an opioid epidemic unlike this world has ever seen. It’s something that I am very passionate about in part because of my own experiences, but honestly because my internal mantra through much of my incarceration and my ensuing education had been part of our vows: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” That became my practice, whenever things would get difficult or I would start to feel like I was overloaded, I would return to that particular line of our vows.  Going to school directly out of prison was just absolutely overwhelming.  I didn’t know how to do anything.  I started school five days after I was released; classes had begun the previous week.  My first day back to school was a disaster.  Professors were speaking a foreign language.  One of them said, “All of your assignments must be submitted through D2L on Dropbox.”  I didn’t know what a D2L was or a dropbox.  I really didn’t know how to use the internet.  Most significantly, I didn’t know how to tell the teachers WHY I didn’t know how to use the most basic of technologies.  I went home that afternoon, burst into tears, and confessed defeat to my wife.  “I can’t do this.  There’s no way that I can do this.”  Then I would return to my vow, the only real practice I had left at the time.  “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.”  If I was going to help people with addictions, I simply would have to learn, and learn fast.

Then we had our daughter, Story.  I remember about 48 hours after she was born some friends came over who had a long history of involvement with the Rochester Zen Center.  They sat on our couch admiring this new person. I had innocently asked them how they managed to maintain a practice when their own daughter had been born many years ago.  They didn’t really answer, but rather, looked at each other knowingly, kind of shrugged.

That had been their answer.

Practice has been such a significant part of my life for so long now, but I honestly feel like I am always just trying to squeeze it in around the edges.  I have meditation cushions at my office and a co-worker and I try to sit together for twenty minutes two times per week, but do to time constraints, meetings, and as I mentioned before, the opioid epidemic, it’s just not always feasible. Sometimes I come in early and sit by myself, but sitting alone is hard.  There’s so much offered through the silent support of a Sangha.

About a year ago some friends of mine and I started a local Refuge Recovery meeting together.  Refuge Recovery is not a 12-step meeting, but rather a Buddhist inspired recovery meeting that explores the correlation between Buddhist teachings and the recovery process.  We were looking for a location, and a friend of mine who had just moved into the Zen Center had stated that he would see if we could have our meeting there.  Honestly, I wanted it to be anywhere else, mostly because I had been away so long that I was embarrassed to go back, but the Rochester Zen Center seemed to make the most sense.  He discussed it with a few people and it was agreed.

When I walked back into Rochester Zen Center this time it felt different.  Somehow in my absence those many months it had grown more familiar.  I was happy to walk through its quiet walls.  I had missed this, and hadn’t even known it.  I had initially renewed my membership so that I could feel comfortable having the codes to the doors, so that I could allow people in for the Refuge Recovery meeting, but it rapidly became more for me.  I needed this back in my life, not just the heavy smells of many years of lingering incense, or the beauty of the back gardens.  I needed the support of the Sangha.  I bumped into familiar, but not too familiar faces, and everyone seemed happy to see me, which was nice, and inviting.  I went to a few early morning sits, and realized how much I missed our chants.  My wife suggested that I sign up for a two day sesshin at Chapin Mill, which is the only sesshin that I have done entirely outside of prison.  I remember one of my favorite conversations with Wayman during that sesshin vividly.  I shared some of my story with him and he looked at me familiarly and said, “Oh, you’re like me.  You HAVE to sit.  That’s very lucky for you.” But my legs hurt and I was feeling frustrated with my meditation, and I didn’t feel very lucky at all, even though he was right.

I’ll be honest, I’d like my practice to be more rigid and structured than it is.  If I could I would probably go to the morning services four to five times per week.  I’d attend Dokusan regularly, and have a great and familiar relationship with Roshi who would guide me easily in my practice.  I might even talk him into calling me “Grasshopper” every once in a while.  This isn’t where I am.  Not yet.  I try to go at least once a week.  I can’t even commit to a regular day.  One morning as I was downstairs changing into my robes I started talking to a long-time member about his own practice. I see him at the Zen center a lot.  When I mentioned my daughter, he said that he didn’t come for many years when he was raising his children.  Somehow that gave me hope.  He didn’t sound like he was any less committed to his practice during those years, and somehow it made me see that through all of this, prison, my release, college, my career, I have been practicing all along.  Maybe it is not the practice that I want, or envision for myself.  Maybe it’s not the time for that yet.  Not yet.  But it is there, and it is real, and I am committed to it, and I have been all along.

So, for me it is not so much that I am returning to practice.  I have been practicing somehow all along.  It’s more like I have a foot in the water, and then I find a way to put another foot into the water, and someday I’ll find a way to wade in a little deeper, and who knows, maybe someday, I’ll take one deep breath and dive all the way under.  Someday, I will go for a swim.

 

  1. Robert Veeder

 

 

 

 

On Drinking and Driving and Gun Violence!

On November 1st, 2003 I was involved in a drinking and driving accident. I had drunkenly drove a white, Econoline, work van into a pre-existing accident on Highway 54 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  It was a horror show, devastating, a living nightmare.  My decision to drive while intoxicated that night cost 6 people their lives.  I managed to hit nine people altogether.  Two of them were seriously injured.  I spent most of my thirties in a state prison; they could have locked me up forever.  There was really just nothing that I could say.

That was a long time ago and I still think about it every day.  I always will.  When I laugh, which is often, I wonder if I have earned the right to feel joy.  When I hurt, sometimes I simply think that I deserve it.  I always will.

The thing that I have found most baffling however has been other people’s reactions.  For the most part people have been kind, and forgiving and understanding.  I’ve heard people confess to me more times than I could possible count, that it could have easily been them driving that evening.  And that’s true.  The people that have caused me the most confusion however, have been the ones who were outraged by my decision that night.  They pretend at being shocked that ANYONE would ever drive while intoxicated.

My wife and I have had this conversation frequently.  We understand that while we as a culture can pretend that we won’t tolerate drunk drivers, the reality of this is very different.  That fateful evening was not even close to the first time that I had gotten behind the wheel while intoxicated.  I’ve also driven other people who knew that I was too drunk to drive, and I’ve gotten into cars with others, whom I knew were too drunk to drive.  My wife and I have left concerts where we’ve watched people by the hundreds stagger through the parking lot towards their cars, a lone police officer at the bottom of the hill directing traffic to assist them back onto the highways.

We don’t hate drunk drivers.  We only hate them when they turn out to be bad at it.

I recall once leaving a party, weeks after I was released from prison, where people who knew my story, professional and well educated people who knew my history, people who are DOCTORS, were getting into their cars to drive home…intoxicated.

Kara and I came to a solution for this. We don’t go to parties, and when we do we show up early and leave early.  I simply can’t bear watching it, and I can’t stand at the end of driveways having everyone arrested.  So, we leave early.

I no longer have any illusions about driving while intoxicated.  This is a part of our culture that, whether we admit it or not, we have come to accept. I would challenge anyone reading this who does not believe it to go to any bar or club this evening, any evening, and count the people that you know are intoxicated who leave, only to get behind the wheel of their own car and drive home, putting all of us at risk.

I have suggestions on how we could practically eliminate drinking and driving, but really, I know that this would involve changes that as a culture we are simply not willing to make.  This is our ugly reality, and so when I hear that someone is killed by another drunk driver, well, I am saddened.  I’m saddened for the loss. I’m saddened for the families. I’m saddened for the driver.  But I’m not shocked.  I am not angry.  This is an ugly reality, but it is one that as a culture we have uniformly made.  We absolutely will tolerate drunk drivers.  We do so every single day, and we only place minimal efforts at stopping them.  We are not willing to change.

I’ve had it with the hand wringing and empty prayers for the victims of the latest mass shooting.  I’ve heard all of the now repetitive and boring arguments about the 2nd amendment and our constitutional rights, and gun laws.  I’ve had it with all of the empty arguments about why THIS shooting was different than whatever the LAST mass shooting was.  I simply don’t care anymore.  I think it’s time that we admit to ourselves that this is simply a reality that we are absolutely willing to live with. It’s an ugly truth, but let’s face it head on…we are not willing to change.

We already know another mass shooting is in the works, and really we aren’t going to take one single step towards stopping it.

My wife and I were discussing this yesterday as well, and I’ll tell you we implicated ourselves as guilty and complacent in this as well.  We simply aren’t willing to move.  Statistically we have a pretty good chance of not getting killed by a gun, but we both realize that this could happen. We could be the next victims in some senseless act of violence, because let’s face it, we simply aren’t willing to make any efforts to change this.

I call bullshit on anyone who says that there is nothing that can be done.  We are the same people who built the pyramids. We are the people who created the hanging gardens and have dammed up entire rivers.  We can harvest energy from the sun.  We can split freakin’ atoms for crying out loud.  We took photographs of Pluto and Pluto’s moon!  There is very little that we cannot do with our big, creative, monkey brains.  If we wanted to reduce gun violence, I am absolutely convinced that we could do that too. So, let’s just be honest with ourselves.  We don’t want to.  We don’t really care that much.  It’s just easier to pray for the victims and hold our loved ones that much closer today.  Those things won’t help anything, but they probably won’t hurt, and we can pretend like we really care.

We don’t.

We don’t care.

If we cared, if we really cared, we would work to change it.

Maybe someday we will care enough to change it.

I hope so.

I really hope so.

 

Why I Ride Motorcycles

IMG_0995
I was in the parking lot getting ready to go, pulling on my gloves, adjusting my saddlebags.
A grizzled local, a western New Yorker, peppered beard a little too long and mirrored wraparound sunglasses, dirty jeans, shouts out to me enthusiastically across the lot walking towards me: “How ya’ like being back on the road again?” referring to the sunny skies and the at least warmer temperatures.
I answer a little embarrassed. I never quite know how to say this up here, where we get so much snow and the temperatures are commonly in the single digits. I say, “Um, well, I’m kind of a year round rider. I mean, I have a winter suit and everything, so as long as the roads are clear I ride…”
He says, “I’ve got a Harley.”
“Yeah? What kind?”
“A newer model Electra-glide. Man, that thing cost more than my truck! I don’t take it out until ALL of the salt’s off the roads.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame you. I love those things; all that chrome, the big sound.” We look at my bike. There’s not much impressive about it. It’s dirty from riding on the muddy streets where the snow is melting away. It’s rusty in spots. The head is covered in grease and carbon. The tires are white with salt from the roads. I finish with, “That’s the nice thing about this old beater bike. No one’s gonna notice a little more rust and dirt.”
He says that he used to have one of these, an old Yamaha Maxim, but his was a 700cc motor, as opposed to my 650. I say, “700…that must have been an ’84 or, what, maybe ’83?” (There’s no magic here. In 1983-1985 the U.S. raised taxes on any imports above 700 cc’s. The manufacturers answered this by building more powerful 700 cc engines.So if someone says they owned a 700 it was inevitably an ’83-’85)
He says, “Yeah. It was an ’84 I think.” Then he tells me about how his new Harley will do 80 on the highway so smoothly that it feels like you’re cruising at 20 miles per hour. I laugh and tell him, “Not this thing. 80 miles per hour and it’ll beat you half to death.” He laughs and says he knows. He remembers. His was like that too.
He says “good-by” and I say “by” too. I strap on my helmet, crank up my bike and rev my way out of the parking lot feeling warm, satisfied, a strange friendship with a complete stranger.
Camaraderie.

Finely Broken (Full essay- written while I was still incarcerated)

*Warning* I decided to just post the entire thing. It’s a lot longer but has a better flow. Hope you enjoy!IMG_1478

Okay, boys and girls. I’m armed with a brand new Bic Round Stic, medium point ink pen, a Tops 3M legal pad (which advertises itself as “the legal pad PLUS”. I have yet to figure out what the PLUS is), and an Oxford “Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

 

I swear by Oxford. I was turned on to Oxford dictionaries years ago by an astute English professor, who passionately claimed that all other brands of dictionaries were only suitable for kindling. Don’t run out and burn your Webster’s yet. There have been times in my life, when in a crunch, I have been forced to stoop so low as to consult other inferior brands, and I have to admit that I have seen very little difference among them. Gasp! No, it’s true. However, I still prefer my Oxfords, if only out of habit, and they really have been good to me, so, I’m a loyalist.

 

Today, kids, we’re going to explore a long, difficult and interesting subject: recidivism. Say it with me now. Re-cid-i-vism. It is kind of a pretty word, but it’s an ugly subject. Hold on. Here’s the Oxford “Advanced Learner” definition:

 

Re-cid-iv-ist/ri’sidivist/noun (formal) a person who continues to commit

crimes, and seems unable to stop, even after being punished –

re-cid-iv-ism/izem/noun

 

That’s right. Habitual felons, career criminals, wheels (that’s what they’re called in here) “and the wheels on the bus goes round and round and round.” When will it stop? Nobody knows.

 

It’s a real phenomenon in here. I’ve met so many guys who are on their second, third, and fourth tours of our state’s lovely facilities that I thought it would be interesting if we sat down and discussed it together, once and for all, just you and I. Don’t worry. I’ll do all the talking. You just try and keep up, okay?

 

Let’s start with my buddy, “Cornbread”. We’ve known each other for close to two years now. We actually hung out some, for about the first month or so, of these two years. I quickly had to distance myself from him.

 

Cornbread is on his third tour of our esteemed institution. There is not a doubt in my mind that it won’t be his last time up this particular river.

 

The thing is that Cornbread is absolutely innocent! Just ask him. I mean, sure, he was busted with a bunch of meth (this time), and he’s certainly traveled down “the junkie’s highway.” But as he states (oh, so often!), his was a “victimless, non-violent crime.” I mean, he HAS alienated his entire family, and anyone else who spends any time at all with him, but that is NOT, I repeat, NOT, his fault. He got “hit with a bitch” (a habitual felon charge), and they cruelly loaded him up with time.”Those bastards!” He only has about three years left, and normally he would be eligible for minimum custody, but people keep starting fights with Cornbread. I mean, what’s he supposed to do? Should he just stand there and take it. He doesn’t start the fights. He never does. He’s the victim here.

 

As I’m writing this, our hero is locked away in the hole. He had a confrontation, this time, with the guy who runs the clothes house. Cornbread punched the guy a couple of times, in the mouth. Well, the clothes house guy had it coming. He refused to give Cornbread an extra pair of pants and an extra t-shirt. I mean, any of us would have done the same thing were we in poor Cornbread’s shoes. It’s just the right thing to do. Right?

 

This is actually the third time this month Cornbread has been placed in segregation (poor guy). They really have it in for him.

 

Well, you guys won’t have to worry about the big lug for too long. In a few short years, he’ll max out and be safely out of here and back on the streets with you, where he belongs.

 

My friend, “Big Wheels” – man, they did him wrong! They gave him almost fifteen years. Charged him as a habitual felon. He had taken up stealing. Mostly, it was big items. He stole music equipment from churches, a lawn mower here and there. It escalated because it was so simple. Well, it finally ended after he stole a jet ski from the local mayor’s house. Now, I suppose that does deserve some time, but fifteen years?!? Isn’t that carrying it a bit far, and especially charging him as a career criminal? Sure, he did some time before this, but that was ten years prior. He hadn’t bothered anyone in those ten years. He just laid back, grew his own pot, did a little coke here and there, a little meth (not much at all, really). He drank some, sure, but he doesn’t have a problem or anything. He was just minding his own business. Oh, yeah, the other reason he shouldn’t have been charged, as a habitual felon is his two felonies weren’t even similar. I mean, how can you consider someone a career criminal when the crimes weren’t even similar? That’s just crazy.

 

Well, good ole Big Wheels has got Jesus now. He had Jesus before, the first time he was in prison, bit it wasn’t like this time. This time, it’s real. He has been trying to put that fire under his two sons, but, well, he has done this a few too many times, and they’re just not buying it anymore, but it really is really real this time – really.

 

His oldest son has started smoking pot recently (shrug). What can you say? There ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little weed, and at least he’s honest about it, right?

 

Well, that’s neither here nor there. It’s not any of his business, really. He has other things to worry about.

 

Like the chipped bone in his leg. Now Big Wheels is a big boy, about three hundred pounds of big boy, but he just has a healthy appetite, and he HAS always been big-boned. It’s not his fault. Nothing he could do about that.

 

Now, carrying around all that weight wears him out fast, but he does like to eat and he hates, just hates, to see food going to waste, even if it’s the terrible stuff “they’re trying to kill us” with in here. (He tells me that, back in the day, the food was much better.) We all hate to see him go hungry. It would break your heart to see how hungry he gets. So everyone chips in here and there to make sure B.W. gets fed. Just anything that’s not going to get eaten, thank you very much. Praise Jesus!

 

Here’s the thing: The medical staff here, they refuse to operate on that chipped bone in his leg. Okay, they said they’d do it – IF he went on their “special diet” and lost some weight. He tried that “special diet” and lost some weight. Do you know they feed you the same stuff over and over every day? Who could stand that? Not you or I. We wouldn’t stand for it! Well, neither will he.

 

In fact, he doesn’t. There’s this old guy who lives in the same block as Big Wheels, and the medical staff have assigned him a wheel chair, but the old guy never uses the thing. He can’t even stand using it. So, Big Wheels really does need himself a wheel chair ‘cause it hurts so darn much to walk anymore. The medical team doesn’t even have the heart to give him a wheel chair. I know, I know. I couldn’t believe this either, but it’s true. All they’ll give him is a can, or a crutch – and they call themselves doctors!

 

Fortunately, the kind old man could see our friend’s anguish and he has very considerately given Big Wheels the wheel chair to use. Thank Jesus for that!

 

Huh! Would ya look at that! Here we were talking about recidivism and somehow or another we ended up talking about B.W’s diet and how he got in the wheel chair and all that. Now how did that happen? I mean, that’s got nothing to do with crime, now does it? Certainly not. No way.

 

You know, one day I did ask B.W. about his last crime. I mean, honestly, he’s a pretty smart guy, so I couldn’t figure out how he did something as dumb as robbing the mayor’s house. So, I asked him.

 

I said, “What exactly were you thinking? I mean, why HIS house?”

 

He said, “Hmmm…I don’t know.”

 

And I’ll tell you what, folks; a truer statement has never left that mouth. He really doesn’t know.

 

I said, “You, uh…. you might want to think about that? Just if you get some spare time. You really might devote a little effort to thinking about that.”

 

Well, B.W. is one career criminal you won’t have to worry about for too much longer. His health is failing quickly. He hasn’t had a good day in years. Besides that chipped bone in his leg, his ‘ol ticker has been acting up. His arthritis is getting progressively worse. His lungs are beat all to hell. In fact, he can barely navigate that wheelchair all by himself these days. He has to have a pusher. Just anyone will do as long as he doesn’t have to do it himself. He doesn’t have to go far – just to the chow hall, and maybe a push back to his room.

 

No sir, no ma’am, you don’t have to worry about Big Wheels committing any more crimes. He’s done. He’s got Jesus now.

 

Let me tell ya ‘bout “Revolution”. He’s not a repeat; in fact, this is his first time down. They loaded that sucker up with six years just ‘cause he’s black! That’s how racist those crackers are who run the show. I mean, yeah, he shot a guy but it’s not like he killed him or anything. He just shot him in the leg. He’s shot a couple of people, in fact, but they couldn’t charge him with those ‘cause he never got caught, so they just gave him the six, but really, that wasn’t even for shooting that guy. You know how THEY are – rich ‘ol white guys, scared of a brother trying to make a decent living for hisself.

 

Here’s the proof. When he was arrested, they had a bunch of pictures of him all over town, on different street corners, slingin’ his dope. They had actually been watching him! You won’t believe what they did next. They tried to get him to roll on his friends! Well, not Revolution. He don’t play that. Naw, he ain’t no snitch. He’s a martyr. He took the hit for everyone, and they gave him six years. White trash, bunch of rednecks in bed sheets. That’s all they are.

 

Well, Revolution is gonna fix all that. He signed up for the educational program. He was gonna get hisself one of those degrees ‘til he figured out that’s what they want you to do. Do you know that if you enroll in school, they expect you to show up every day? Ridiculous! I mean, there’s other stuff going on around here, like basketball, and…well, there’s basketball. A lot of times they have games at the same time they’re having class. What’s a brother to do?

 

Revolution stuck it out for a little while – as long as could be expected of him. He didn’t get no degree or nothin’ like that, but he got a certificate and he made hisself a plan.

 

That’s right. ‘Ol Revolution got it all worked out. The problem was he tried to get too big, too quick. He was sellin’ dope to just anybody ‘cause he had to get those Benjamin Franklins. What ya really gotta have is a front, something legit, so that you can ring the cash registers while you make all your big money out the back door. That’s what those rich ‘ol honkeys do. Everybody knows that.

 

So now that he has a vocational certificate in the culinary arts, he’s just gonna lay back for a while and plan his future. These other cats – that’s why they keep coming back. They’re stupid. They don’t plan.

 

See, Revolution is smart. He ain’t coming back. He’s gonna open up a little restaurant, just a little joint, so he can be legit. Then, while that place runs itself, he can be makin’ the real money hustlin’ dope. He ain’t gonna do it like last time – no, sir! This time, he’s only gonna sell in large quantities, to a very select few. I mean, when he first gets out, he’s gonna have to start small just to raise the money to open his restaurant, but that’ll take no time at all, really. Sure, he could try and get a loan from a bank, but crackers and Uncle Toms run all the banks. He knows better. He knows those guys don’t want nothin’ to do with a Bro-ther!

 

You folks be sure to check out Revolution’s diner. It should be opening up in a few short years.

 

Let me tell you about my new buddy, “Jr.” Even though technically, he isn’t a habitual felon, he used to be.

 

This is his third time living “the easy life.” He just came back a couple of months ago. Now, like I said, he used to be a habitual felon, but he was broke of all that mess the last time he was down. This time, it was different. This time, it really wasn’t his fault. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, but you couldn’t be more wrong. I mean, mostly, Junior’s back in here because of politics and all that nonsense. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here, let me tell you what happened.

 

See, Junior and his girlfriend, they was ridin’ down the road together. They hadn’t been drinkin’ or nothin’ like that, but they got into an argument. Well, it was a big ol’ argument and she just wouldn’t let up. Turns out she was what you might call “bi-polar” but poor ol’ Junior didn’t know all that. All he wanted her to do was just shut up. But she was crazy mad and he was trying to concentrate on driving. Well, she just WOULD NOT shut up, so he did what any of us would have done, really; he busted her in the side of the head, just to get her to calm down, so he could drive (that’s how the blood got in the car.)

 

Well, like I said, Junior didn’t know she was crazy or anything. You’ll never believe what she did. She jumped right out of the car while it was still moving. Can you believe that? What a nut! Accidents happen, I suppose. The car ran right over her head and killed her, instantly. It wasn’t his fault. How was he supposed to stop that?

 

Junior panicked and split. He got out of there slick as snot.

 

That’s why he got pulled over to begin with. But he ‘fessed right up. He didn’t try to run from the law or anything. So they put him in jail.

 

Normally…normally, when something like that happens to, say, just a regular ol’ Joe, they’d charge him with involuntary manslaughter, but Junior was an ex-con, so they threatened to charge him as a habitual felon, which would have landed him in here for the rest of his life, probably.

 

Now, this is where the whole thing gets political.

 

See, you probably don’t know it, not having any first-hand experience in it yourself, but there are all kind of little deals that get made, behind the scenes, between lawyers and district attorneys. This stuff happens all the time. They’re all a bunch of crooks just scratching each other’s backs to get by. Just ask any of the cons in here. They’ll tell ya.

 

This is what typically happens. Say you have a lawyer who has ten easy cases, and he has one hard case. Well, he’ll work it out with the D.A. (like over golf, or dinner), so they can both come out looking good. The D.A. will go light on the ten easy cases, and then, just so he doesn’t look bad, he’ll slam the harder case. It happens all the time.

 

That’s what happened to our boy, Junior. They kept threatening him with “a bitch” ‘til he had no choice but to take the plea. He was scared not to take the plea, which was murder II, and got him twenty-five years. They scared him into it so that ten other cases could walk. So, you see, truly, Junior took the fall for a lot of guys. They probably don’t realize that. If you happen to bump into any of them, you might be kind enough to point this out. They’ll appreciate his sacrifice, I’m sure.

 

In the meantime, Junior, who used to be a habitual felon, is working as hard as he can to get back to court. Keep your fingers crossed for him. I know I will.

 

Okay, look. I’ve got to stop this nonsense. When I first started this rant, I intentionally chose to use sarcasm because I felt that it would help me convey my anger, while at the same time allowing me to be a little humorous. I thought the use of humor would make the subject matter a little more palatable. Here’s the problem. I have one more guy to write about, one more “example”. The thing is that he’s a dear, dear friend of mine. I know I’ve been a little harsh, but truthfully, I care about all of the guys I’ve written about so far. Some of them have been close to me. Some of them are still close to me. In a way, that’s why I find it so easy to be sarcastic about their circumstances. I care about them. If I didn’t care, it wouldn’t piss me off so much to know that they’re coming back. If I didn’t care, I could just say “hey, not my problem”.

 

Look, the thing is that, whenever I watch someone leave this place; hell, whenever ANY of us sees someone go home, we ALL get excited for them. Part of us leaves with them. I’ve walked out of that gate with a bunch of guys, and it has felt great every time. But, man, when you hear they’re back…well, it means none of us could make it out there, and that hurts, and I’ve had to come back a bunch!

 

A while ago, I guess it was about a year ago, actually, I was in the chow hall having dinner when this cat came in yelling. He had his hands up over his head. He was waving them and yelling, “I’m going home! I’m going home! You don’t have to look at my ass anymore!”

 

He went on and on like that.

 

Guys were laughing. I was laughing. It took a while for the place to quiet down. When it finally did, there was one single spontaneous clap. Before I knew it, all of us were clapping. We were all going home. That felt good.

 

Then, three months later, you flip on the TV to watch the morning news, and there he is. Just robbed a gas station, or stole a car, or killed someone. It shatters you.

 

My friend, Al, is 62 years old. He has been doing time for half his life, under “the installment plan”.

 

Al has probably been the closest friend I’ve had in here. I took a long time to figure out why that was. You see, Al and I really don’t have much in common. I’m an avid reader, and always have been. Al has only ever read one book – the Bible. It’s the only book he cares to read. Al grew up in a poor, rural, Florida farming community. He was a sharecropper’s son. I grew up in middle-class suburbia, the son of a nuclear consultant. Al is religious almost to the point of fundamentalism. I prefer to think of myself as spiritual. I have a very personal, very private relationship with my God.

 

So why did Al and I start hanging out together? I really don’t know why he hangs out with me. I suspect, in some ways, I fill a paternal need in him. A few times, when I haven’t felt the desire to attend church services, Al has become visibly upset with me, though he has only spoken openly about the subject on the rarest of occasions. Usually, the only real evidence of Al’s despair was the clench of his jaw, or the grief in his eyes. He wasn’t angry with me, as much as he was displaying a fatherly concern. I’ve always appreciated him for that. At times, I’ve been tempted to remind him that I have a father, a very good father, but so far, I’ve refrained from doing so because I know that it would only hurt him, and I don’t want to do that.

 

I started hanging out with Al because I love stories, and Al has some stories. One nice thing about this place is the stories. Everyone has some, and they are all fascinating. I learned a good while back to hang out with people older than I, not because they have more or better stories than people my age, but because they have developed the fine art of telling them, which only comes with time.

 

The first summer I was here, Al and I would get together every night after dinner and walk the perimeter of the fence. Lap after lap, hour after hour, I would ask Al questions and we would leave the prison together as he spoke of the hog slaughtering days of his youth, or the time his brothers brought the milk cow into the living room and put lipstick on her (jus’ ‘cause they was bored.)

 

He told me about his crazy sister who, one time, chomped down on her boyfriend’s thumb and refused to let go. She threatened to bite it off (she would have, too!) if he didn’t drive her clear across town. Well, he obliged, and unable to shift gears because his thumb was still between her teeth, drove her all the way across town in first gear.

 

When Al was a small child, his daddy would take him to juke joints. He’d put little Al up on the bar, and Al would dance to the music of guys playing “a box” (guitar) and some spoons, and “people would be a jumpin’ and a hollerin’”, and they’d throw coins at Al’s feet, up on the bar there, while he danced for’em.

 

One time, at lunch, we had been served oranges. Al started in on a story about how, at one point, he had lived on oranges for a whole week. He had sworn he would never eat another orange, but he still eats one every now and then. I asked why he had to live on oranges. He told me he had spent a whole week in an orange grove, and that’s all there was to eat. I asked why he had spent a whole week in an orange grove. He told me he was on the run from the law.

 

Al’s got all kinds of stories about being on the run. He has been on the run a lot. A whole lot. He has been in prison a lot, and has some great prison stories, too. Some of his stories are sad, some of them are scary, but a lot of them are funny – only because he makes them funny.

 

He’s soft-spoken. At times, he barely speaks above a whisper, and I have to ask him to speak up.

 

He reads his Bible every day. I think I’m one of the few people he has told this to – he was ashamed of himself when he told me …Al taught himself to read by going to church. He would memorize verses out of the Bible when they were read out loud in the prison church services. Then, he would go back to his cell and repeat them, over and over, committing them to memory. He’d mark pages to refer to and then look them up later. Slowly but surely, he started to put together simple words and phrases. Those led to sentences, and those sentences became his religion. I have a few pages of Al’s notes in my possession. At best, I think he’s about at a third grade reading level. In all fairness, for someone self-taught, who started so late in life, I don’t think that’s doing too bad. Al reads his Bible every day. He is sitting there reading it when I step out of my room in the morning. He reads it off and on throughout the day, and I have no doubt that if I were to go knock on his door right now, I’d find him with his Bible stretched out across his lap, with him carefully taking notes.

 

Here’s something to keep in mind before I go on. Just keep it in mind. You don’t have to think on it, or anything. One of Al’s sisters has been to prison for killing a man. Both of Al’s brothers have been locked up. One of them is currently on death row in Florida. Prisoners are not allowed to write each other. Al can’t write to, or receive letters from, his brother. It is very unlikely they will ever see or hear from each other again (until they meet at Zion’s gates). One of Al’s two sons has been to prison twice so far. Like I said, you don’t have to think on it or anything. It probably doesn’t mean anything.

 

I also need to explain a few things about “the new law”, just some things that people who have never been to prison don’t usually know.

 

I think the new law, or structured sentencing act, came about around 1996, in North Carolina. Other states have it. Some states that used to have it have repealed it.

 

What happened was that the taxpayers had gotten absolutely fed up with the prison system’s revolving doors. The stories all became too familiar: some guy would commit armed robbery, be sentenced to ten years. He’d stay infraction free and be back on the streets in a mere two or three years.

 

That’s why state officials came up with structured sentencing. They classified all the different crimes they could come up with, everything from murder 1 to returning videos late, and set specific lengths of time for each crime. They eliminated parole. Instead, you are now handed a minimum and maximum date. If you get a job and stay out of trouble, or stay in school and stay out of trouble, then it is possible to work your way down to your minimum from your maximum. Confused? It took me a while to understand it. I’ll use my own case as an example to clarify things.

 

I had never committed a felony before. When I was sentenced, I was given eight and one-half, to ten and one-half, years. That means that if I came to prison and did nothing but read books, watched TV, and slept, then, in ten and one half years, the state would have to let me go, no matter what. Also, if I came here, got in fights, hustled dope and homemade wine, then in ten and one half years, they would STILL have to let me go. However, if I get a job or go to school, then slowly but surely, I can reach my minimum date of eight and one-half years. Like right now, I’m assigned to school, so I “earn” six days a month off the ten and a half years, down to the eight and one half.

 

Now, once I’ve reached that eight and one half mark, I’m home free. I have no more incentive to do anything. There’s no parole. I can’t get anymore days knocked off. I’m going to do eight and one half years, no matter what. I’ve been down two and a half years now, and I’m about six months away from hitting that point. Personally, I’ll stay in school as long as you good taxpayers will fund it. I enjoy it. I would die of boredom without it. I can’t speak for my buddies, though.

 

Similarly, if you happen to be pulling a really long bid, say twenty-five to thirty years, there’s not a lot of incentive to do anything. You’ve got plenty of time to get around to it. Besides, when you’re looking down a thirty-year barrel, what’s another year here and there?

 

Philosophically, I’ve argued both for and against the new law. Obviously, the majority of inmates hate it. One time, I was standing with a group of guys who were complaining about it, and I said, “Yeah, but you gotta look at it from the taxpayer’s point of view. They got tired of watching us come in, get a slap on the wrist, and walk out.”

 

One of the other guys pointed out, correctly, that so far the new law has had no effect on the recidivism rates. My argument was that the reason for this is, no one knows about it yet. I mean, it’s only ten years old. My friend, Esa, was standing there with us. He had more time to do than all of us (I think thirty years). I said, “Hey, Esa, when you get out, you plan on doing anymore crime?”

 

Esa said, “When I get out, I ain’t even gonna litter!”

 

My argument against the new law is that, like my friend said, it’s ineffective. The only incentive to really do better is the motivation that some of us possess naturally, and others don’t. The prisons are becoming overcrowded war zones.

 

Actually, there are a lot of reasons. If you’re interested, you can do the research yourself. I want to get back to Al.

 

I asked Al one time if he thought he had grown up in an abusive home.

 

“Well”, he said thoughtfully,

“I suppose people might call it abusive this day and time. My daddy and mama fought, and he would hit her sometimes, but she would beat him just as bad as he beat her, sometimes.”

 

Like I’ve said, Al has been in trouble a lot. He wasn’t a drinker and he never did drugs, but he was a fighter. He’s got all kinds of great “liquor house fight” stories and more than a few “prison fight” stories. He has been shot and stabbed more than most of the guys I know who have been shot and stabbed – and that’s a lot!

 

Here’s what happened to land him in here this last time. I’ve got to omit some of it because I’m just not clear about it. Neither is Al.

 

Al was in minimum custody right before he got out last time. He was on work release, where he worked as a dishwasher and busboy for Shoney’s.

 

He had met a strong, Christian woman while he was in prison, and they had gotten married. He would get weekend passes, and they would spend the weekends together, and a few hours in the afternoons during the week, after he got off work and before he was required to get back to the prison.

 

Not too long before he was released, her diabetes, or, as he calls it, “her sugars”, had taken a turn for the worse. She had to have her legs removed. Al told me that they would sit in her room together for hours on end, reading the Bible to each other, and just talking. He told me this was the happiest time of his life.

 

A few months before Al was released, she passed away. I asked him once if he ever talked to her now, when he was alone – just curious.

 

He said “Yeah, most days.” Smiling, he told me, “Sometimes she even talks back.”

 

He went to Florida to visit his family. He spent some time with one of his sons. His niece drove him to different thrift stores and bought him clothes.

 

He came back to North Carolina and became very involved in his church.

 

For reasons still very much a mystery to Al, one night he just lost it. He doesn’t recall what happened. All he knows is that he flipped. A close friend of his from the church tried to subdue him, tried to control him, tried to stop him. Al beat that friend into a coma. He has no idea why he did it. He doesn’t remember it at all. I bet I know why. I bet you do, too. We’re not going to tell Al, though. He has been through enough.

 

In his very late fifties, under the new law, Al was sentenced to about thirty-five years in prison. He should get out when he’s about ninety years old. I’m sure he’ll do very well.

 

I never hear Al complain about time, not like the other guys.

 

Al likes his soap operas, his “stories”. He watches them every day after lunch. He has a job working as the chaplain’s assistant. It doesn’t require a lot. He sets up chairs for the services, and during the day, he shows inmates where the birthday cards, Christmas cards, Valentine’s Day cards, and get well cards can be found. The rest of the time, he’s busy reading his Bible and taking his notes. Sometimes he falls asleep on the job. He tells me he’s about ready to “retire.” Al’s getting old. Maybe he has been old.

 

The last day of autumn, the guards left the yard open a little late. During the winter months, we’re not allowed outside after three-thirty in the afternoon. This was the last day we’d be allowed outside until the following spring. It’s also the closest I’ve come to seeing the night sky since I’ve been down.

 

Al and I were walking together. They sky was a deep azure and burning orange. Beneath the prison lights, the dying grass glowed a vibrant green; it crunched beneath our feet as we walked the fence together.

 

I said, “Al, when do I get to laugh again?”

 

In his quiet, soft-spoken voice, barely above a whisper, he said, “Yeah, that can be hard.”

 

And we kept walking. We just kept on walking.

 

 

 

“And then the wall rose,

Rose slowly,

Slowly,

Between me and my dream,

Rose slowly, slowly,

Dimming,

Hiding

The light of my dream.

Rose until it touched the sky –

The wall.

 

(From “As I Grow Older, by Langston Hughes)

 

L’ Robert Veeder