Why Jokes Matter

***This was one of the first things I ever wrote that received any attention. I think I had been locked up about two or three years when I wrote this for a prison English class I was taking. I entered it in a state wide writing contest and it won first place. Hope you enjoy.


 

My father is an intelligent man. By trade, he was a nuclear consultant; at least, that’s how he earned his living. I always thought of him more as a Renaissance man. He’s a skilled carpenter who enjoys woodworking and cabinet making. He’s well versed in world history, geography, economics, political science and an assortment of other subjects. He has a boating license and a pilot’s license. On all accounts, he is a pretty remarkable human being.

 

This is not what I want to write about, though. What I want to write about are his jokes. For as long as I can remember, my father has been telling jokes. He tells good jokes, bad jokes, dirty jokes, politically incorrect jokes, and on the rare occasion – very rare – he even tells a funny joke.

 

The first joke I remember my father telling is about a guy who walks into a doctor’s office with a frog on his head. The doctor asks, “Can I help you?” and the frog says, “Yeah, can you get this guy off my tail?” This cracked my father up to no end. I was just a kid when he began telling it, maybe six or seven years old, but after twenty-some-odd year, I still don’t get it. It doesn’t matter, though. He loved telling it, and we loved watching him laugh.

 

Over the years I’ve heard hundreds, possibly thousands, of jokes. I’ve heard so many jokes that when somebody starts to tell me, “the one about the guy who walked into the bar…”, I can easily rattle off a dozen. If I’m asked “How many ___ (fill in the blank) it takes to change a light bulb” I request the person to take a seat – this could take a while.

 

Flash forward to the very worst period of my life. I had just been in a devastating car accident. I had been in severe shock for days. I was on the brink of suicide and had been grasping at straws to try to find a reason to live. My body was trembling, shaking and involuntarily convulsing. Tears continuously rolled down my face. To top it all off, I was locked up in jail.

 

My parents drove to the jail from Alabama, a nine-hour drive, to try to comfort me. We were only allowed a one-hour visit, and that was with a 1” Plexiglas barrier separating us while we talked over a telephone.

 

My dad sat down, calmly picked up the telephone receiver, and started telling jokes. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to scream at him – , “This is hardly the time, Dad! I was just in a car accident that killed people! I’m not sure that I can live through this! Are you insane?” but I didn’t. I just listened and sat there staring at him in silent disbelief.

 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and have recently come to the conclusion that not only was his joke telling sane, it was the most perfect thing he could have done.

 

Another man might have lectured me about the terrible thing I had done, which I certainly didn’t need at that time. Another man might have told his son that everything was going to be o.k., which would have been an obvious lie. Any other father might have wept with grief, asking, “Why? Why did you do this?” I couldn’t have handled any more grief right then. I had enough of my own. My father told jokes.

 

Today, I don’t recall a single joke he told that day, but I remember the punch lines to every one of them, because they were all the same – “I love you, son.” That’s what he said, over and over.

 

“Why did the duck cross the road?”

 

“I don’t know, Dad.”

 

(Because I love you, son.)

 

“Three priests walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the priests and says, (I love you, son.)

 

How many blonds does it take to change a light bulb?

 

(I love you, son.)

 

I love you, Dad.


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Locked Up! (Conclusion)

I’m not sure why it worked like this. I expected to stay in processing, like my friends, for months. It may have been the media attention surrounding my case. I also had a friend that I used to play music with that had once worked as a caseworker at this very prison, so for a while I suspected that maybe he had something to do with it. I never did find out why, but I didn’t spend much more than a week in processing. Early one morning, and by early I mean around 2:00 am, I was instructed to gather my things and get ready to ship out. I would have breakfast, and then board the bus to my new destination, wherever that happened to be.

After breakfast we were taken to a waiting cell. There were about eight or nine of us in there, sitting on concrete benches that were built into the walls. We stared awkwardly at the ground not quite knowing what to say. I didn’t know what to expect. Frightened, anxious with anticipation, still sad that this was my new life, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where we were going, how long it would take to get there. I had seen the rolling cages that are prison buses on the highways before, was that what we would ride on?

I’m not sure how long we were there waiting; It felt like hours. Eventually the awkward silences were broken and we guys started telling stories about their past lives prior to incarceration.

One guy said that this was his second time back inside. “That crack,” he explained. He said that he had gotten out and landed a good job driving an ice-cream truck, “mostly in the hood,” he said. Things had been going pretty good, but eventually he ran into an old friend that offered him a little blow. He took it, and one thing led to another and as he explained it he sat in that truck for about three days straight with a friend, smoking crack. He said,” Man little kids was walkin’ past us just shootin’ us da bird. They was pissed! We was out of ice-cream. What we couldn’t sell just ended up melting.” We were all falling over laughing, thinking of all of these kids looking at the empty ice-cream truck that had been sitting there for three days straight with the ice-cream man all jooked up on crack.

Another guy said for him it had been heroin. He told a story about him and this girl he had been shacking up with for a little while, “pretty girl,” he said. They ran out of heroin. He said that they came up with this idea where she would go to a local trailer park where a bunch of migrant workers lived and she would prostitute herself, so they could get enough money to buy some more smack. They had driven over there, and he had sat in the car waiting. “Man, she was gone for like 6 hours straight. I was thinking that we were gonna be rich! Sittin’ there, all excited. She came back and had like twelve dollars!”

“Twelve dollars?” Someone exclaimed with disbelief. “What was she doin’ in there all that time?”

“I have no idea. Never did find out. Fuck it, right?” We had a pretty good laugh over that too.

Finally, a guard came and we got on the bus. I was given a string of numbers and told to memorize them, but I wasn’t prepared for this. He just read them off to me and said, “Don’t forget these numbers!” as I boarded the bus, my little plastic shipping bag in my hand.

The inside of the bus was just a cage. The driver, and the guard that was riding with him were in a section completely separated from the rest of us. I could see a rifle up there. The rest of the inside just looked like an old school bus. About an hour and a half into the ride I started squirming, I had to pee so bad. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty certain that this driver wouldn’t pull over to a gas station for me. I busied myself by looking at the people in the cars out the windows as we traveled down the highway, wondering where they were going. I missed my life. I missed having a life to miss.

My bladder was going to explode. I was sure of it.

The guy in front of me woke up and sat up. I said, ”Any idea where we might be going, or how long it will take to get there?”

“Naw, not really,” he said.

I sat there uncomfortably for a few more minutes.

“Man, I have got to piss.” I said, hoping he would interject some idea of how to go about this.

“I guess you should just go.” He said, uncomprehendingly.

A few more minutes. Finally I couldn’t take it any more. There was a drink cooler in the back of the bus with some paper cups next to it. I would just have to go back there and fill up those cups. They would just have to understand. I wasn’t going to sit here and pee all over myself. I stood up and walked to the back of the bus making a beeline towards the cooler. When I got there, to my amazement, I saw a toilet! Thank goodness. I had missed it in the early morning darkness when we were boarding the bus. Oh my god. Relief. That might have been the best pee I have had in my life so far.

We made one stop at a strange kind of prison depot. I stepped off of the back of the bus and the guard asked me for my number, the one I was supposed to be memorizing. I tried. “0-8-6-7-1-2-4-something?” “Wrong.” He said flatly. He handed me a paper bag with some kind of food in it. “Get in the cage,” he said as he checked my name off of a list. There was a giant roofed cage with about a hundred other inmates inside eating, talking, sitting on toilets. I stepped inside with everyone else and they locked the gate behind us. The guards ate. We ate. Finally, our lunch break was over. We boarded our buses again and took off to our new destinations. In my case this would be Eastern Correctional Institute, in Maury, North Carolina, where I would spend about the next four and a half years of my life, and where I would eventually meet the love of my life for the very first time, the most incredible, thoughtful, and loving person that I have ever known. And now, today, as I write these words, she is standing in the kitchen, in our kitchen, just a few short feet away. My heart.

My wife.

Kara.

Locked Up (Part IIII)

The next day during breakfast a guard came to me and passed me a slip of paper, some sort of pass. He said, ”After breakfast you need to go directly to the medical unit and see the dentist.” This place was a fortress. Lots of long, dark tunnels. I had no idea where I was supposed to go, but I reasoned that I could ask and eventually find my way there. I was kind of looking forward to it. It would be nice to go somewhere alone, un-escorted. So, I hurriedly ate my eggs, gave my patty away, and rushed off to the dentist.

Once there I knocked on the door, and waited for it to be unlocked. I gave the officer my pass. The medical unit looked like little more than a long, narrow hall, with a few small rooms here and there. The guard pointed to one of the open areas and said, “Wait in there until I come get you.” I walked down the hall a little ways and made a left into the area that he spoke of. Inside there were a few chairs, one small wooden bench, and what looked like a giant birdcage, just big enough to fit one person. There was a man inside of this cage. He was wearing a yellow jumpsuit. I had no idea what a yellow jumpsuit meant. I sat down next to him on the wooden bench.

He said a happy, exuberant even, “Hello!” I said hi back, and continued staring at the floor. He explained happily to me, “I here getting’ ma sugars washed.” I explained that I didn’t know what he meant. He explained that he had, “the sugars” and that about once a week he had to come down here and “get ‘em cleaned”. Nice enough guy, he seemed a little challenged. I asked if he meant that he had diabetes and he affirmed that this was true. I asked him what the yellow jumpsuit was for. Explained that he was in PC. I didn’t know what that meant, and I wasn’t sure that this was the guy to explain it, so I let it go. Mostly, I sat there thinking about the wooden bench, how it came to be, how long it had been here. I wondered who had made it. It had a Quaker furniture appeal to it. It was simple, even a little rough, but it felt nice, in contrast to all of the cold smooth metal and concrete surrounding us. This bench felt familiar and warm and….

“Veeder?!?” An officer questioned.

“Huh? Yeah, that’s me.” I answered.

Annoyed, she said, “Follow me.”

So, I said good-bye to my friend in the cage, told him good luck with his sugars. He said good-bye to me with cheer in his voice and a glean in his eyes, and I followed the guard down the hall to the dental area. It was a tiny, cramped space. They instructed me to take a seat in the chair. I did. The dentist came in and explained that this was just a check-up for processing. He wanted to know the last time, if ever, I had seen a dentist. I explained that I had gone just a few months before I was locked up to have my wisdom teeth removed and for a cleaning. He harrumphed skeptically, and asked to look inside my mouth. I explained that I had just come from breakfast, apologetically, but he seemed to ignore me. I opened my mouth and he looked inside. Less than two seconds went by. He sat back up and angrily said, “Why didn’t you brush before coming to see me this morning?!?” I explained that the guards had said to come straight here after breakfast. I didn’t know that I could go back to my unit and brush first. It didn’t matter what I said. He wasn’t listening. He was busy doing other things, writing things down in a chart, and reorganizing his tools. Whatever we were here to do this morning, he had already done. I was excused and told to return to my unit.

Most of processing went something like this for me. I went to a medical examination where I stripped naked. The doctor stood about eight feet away from me, instructed me to grab my testicals, turn my head to the side and cough. I followed his instructions, but tried to explain that I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling for. He never responded, just told me to get dressed. We were done. I went to see a psychologist who asked me if I felt suicidal, informing me at the same time that if I did then they would put me on a suicide watch; So, of course, no, no, I did not feel suicidal at all.

Over a period of a week or so I went through processing. I was pricked and prodded, given eye-sight tests, blood tests, IQ tests, reading comprehension tests. I stood in lines talking to others about what they were going through. “How’d you get here? How much timed’ ya get?” I met a few guys that were still recovering from being shot by officers during their apprehension. “Got shot in the ribs, and they still gave me all this motherfuckin’ time!”

The guys that I was processing with were very nice to me. I think we were all pretty considerate to each other. We would have talks about what we wanted to watch on television that night, and these were always pretty considerate. They knew that I didn’t have any money so they took a collection up and bought me some rolling tobacco, and some snacks to tide me through. I told them that I really couldn’t pay them back unless we ended up at the same camp; They didn’t care though, they said just to pay it forward.

Eventually, I was taken to meet my caseworker. It was an odd conversation. She talked to me as if I had some idea of how this all worked. She asked if I wanted to stay at the prison that we were at so that I would be close to family and friends. But this prison only allowed one phone call a year! No thanks. I explained that most of my friends had fallen away over the past several months, and now mostly it was just my family that would be coming around. No, I didn’t really need to be here. What I really wanted, I told her, was to work on my education. I explained that when I was outside, I had always heard that people in prisons were going to colleges. I wanted to do that. I had had a little college back when I was nineteen or so, but I had dropped out during the second semester. I wanted to go to college. Was that an option? She looked skeptical, said that she would see what she could do, but that it really didn’t work like that, but she would try. Our interview was over. I was told to return to my cell.

 

Locked Up! (Part III)

We weren’t escorted back from lunch. Eventually, they just opened the doors and we were free to roam back to our block. It felt like such a luxury to be able to walk like this, so…human. Walking back to the block a guard appeared in the hallway. “I’m looking for two volunteers. Who feels like pushing a lawn mower?” I was not fast enough. Two of the guys from my block beat me out. They got to go outside.

I went back to the block. Waved at the guard who opened the doors and let me inside.

We could smoke in there too. This was changed while I was locked up. Eventually they took all of the tobacco off of state, but when I was first locked up we could buy cigarettes or rolling tobacco from the canteen. I didn’t have any, and I didn’t have any money in my account yet. I was actually pretty happy that I had finally managed to not be smoking. I had been trying to quit for years, and now after months in jail I didn’t feel the rage of a nicotine craving in my system anymore. Even the cigarettes that the guard had given me the day I had gone to court hadn’t tasted great. But now I really wanted a cigarette. It wasn’t that I wanted to start smoking again as much as I wanted to be able to make decisions about my life, or at least that was how I rationalized it. I liked the idea of the smoke taking up a little bit of space for me. I liked the idea of lighting a cigarette when I wanted to light a cigarette. One of the guys in the block was sitting at a table rolling cigarettes. He didn’t speak any English, but understood when I asked him for one. He nodded yes and slid a hand rolled cigarette across the table towards me. I lit it and drew in deep with satisfaction. Excused myself and went to lie on my bunk for a couple of hours. There was one book in the whole block. It was a western by Louis L’amour, Kid Rodeo, I think. It was kind of nice, lying back on my bunk, a cigarette and some old western. There was the hum of a giant fan. I drifted off.

When I woke up the guys were back from mowing. We all gathered around the table so they could tell us about it, what outside was like. They said they just mowed a big hill. They talked about lawnmowers and talked some about the lawnmowers they had owned before being locked up. Eventually one of them pulled a dandelion out of his pocket. We took turns passing it around, smelling it. Talking. We slowly wonder over the dandelion, pulling apart its tiny petals, stripping the stem to smell the greenness. We chat and get to know each other better. “How long were you in jail?” “Is this your first time down?” “What’d you get?” We talked about court, our trials, what we were in for. A couple of people had recognized me from the news, but some of these guys were from the other side of the state, so hadn’t really heard, which was kind of a relief. Raymond said that he had to get his case back to court. He said that he had been a photographer for a pornographic magazine company. His wife had been his assistant. He had been brought up on child sex charges. The story he told us was that he and his wife had photographed a girl that had turned out to be 17 instead of 18. It had happened a couple of years ago. She was twenty and in college now. At the time of the session she had provided them with what appeared to be valid ID, but wasn’t. She had been paid for the photographs and signed contracts and everything, but she had falsified her information. One afternoon a friend of her father’s had managed to run across the pictures of her in this magazine, and had realized that she was underage. This friend alerted her father, and now this guy and his wife were brought up on child sex charges together. The charges were worsened by the fact that he had repositioned her at some point during the shoot, so he had touched a minor. Well, he tells us, he was sure that this was an open and shut case. His lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t do any time over this. They had all of the documentation, copies of the contracts, copies of the forged ID. His wife had been released already, and had gotten time served after being in the county jail waiting for so long. A few weeks ago his biggest worry was how they were going to save the house, get his finances caught up, get going again after so many months in jail. He was ready for court. He showed up for court and his lawyer gave him a pat on the back and said, “Right, you ready to go home today?” He damn sure was ready!

Eleven years.

I don’t know if his story was true or not. That’s the other thing about prison stories. You never really know if you are being told the truth. At some point you stop caring about whether it is the truth or not. What does it matter? It was his truth. He told us a good story, and he seemed to believe it, and so I could believe it with him. Who cares about whether or not the story was true. I have my own time to do, my own stories to live; if he needed me to believe this with him, then I was absolutely willing to do just that. We could complain together with righteous indignation about the injustice, the unfairness, of the justice system. I usually ended up hoping that the stories I was told over the years were true. I always ended up hoping that the guys that I met over the years that swore they were innocent, really were. I had one friend that swore continuously that he was innocent of attempted murder. I remember walking the yard with him one Saturday morning, explaining to him that I wished that I had been wrongly accused. It would be much easier waking up in the morning knowing that you were innocent, knowing that everyone else was wrong.P1030257

Locked Up! (Part II)

IMG_0995

Around 11:30 am or 12:00 we all lined up at the door for lunch. This was another good rule of thumb for prison; just follow the guy in front of you. In jail lunch was brought to us, but here we would walk on our own, freely, to the chow hall. We lined up at the door to the block. Once we were all there the guard in the booth opened the automatic door, we stepped through cramming ourselves into a waiting area, chatting about whatever was on television, or what they had done in processing so far- medical checks, interviews with case-workers, drug-screenings. A few of these guys had been here for months, and had no idea when it would be over, or how long it would take. The prison we were in only allowed one phone call a year. You could call your family at Christmas, but that was it, and there were no “contact” visits. Your family could visit you on weekends, but it had to be through a plexiglass screen over a telephone. They told me that we could not send or receive mail while we were in processing. So, they had been here, completely cut-off from any outside contact. It was easy enough for us, we knew what we were going through, but we worried for our families outside who had no idea what had happened to us. Like me, all of these guys had gone to court, had been sentenced, and that was the last thing that their families had heard of them.

The door was finally opened and we were off. It was a crazy mad dash. We were doing a run-walk to the chow hall behind hundreds of other guys who were all doing this same crazy race to the finish. I would have asked what all of the rush was about, but between the pounding of hundreds of tennis shoes on concrete floors, the many conversations taking place simultaneously, and being nearly out of breath myself, I couldn’t do anything other than follow their knowing lead. Eventually we made it to the chow hall. Once we were all inside, they locked the door behind us, and started serving food.

Prison food is gruel. When they serve broccoli, you only get the stems, and it’s overcooked until it is a brown, messy, mush. Invariably, there is some kind of pasta mixed with; god knows what, something disgusting, or a patty: hamburger patty, turkey patty, veal patty, vegetable patty. But honestly, after jail, I made it my personal rule to never complain about the food. Prison food might be gruel, but hell, it was at least warm, and there was salt. I had just spent seven months eating two scoops of instant mashed potatoes a night, almost every night it seemed, with no seasoning, no salt, no pepper. By comparison, the slimy stuff on my plate right now might as well have come from the Ritz-Carlton and been peronally prepared by Escoffier. There were drink coolers with some kind of drink mix in them and we could go back for seconds on the drinks. There was a cake. Since I am a vegetarian, and because at this point the prison system didn’t know I was a vegetarian, and I didn’t know they offered a substitute, everybody wanted to be my friend. It meant that if they sat with me they could have whatever meat was on my plate.

I had one little moment though at lunch that afternoon. I was waiting in line to fill my drink cup. Some guy had left his tray in front of the drink coolers, and had gone to have a conversation with a guy at a nearby table, so the entire line had come to a stop. I stood there waiting politely for as long as I could, but the people behind me were starting to get impatient. Finally, I grabbed an empty Styrofoam cup, slid his tray cautiously down a few inches and…

“What the FUCK do you think you doin’, motherfucker! You don’t be touchin’ my motherfuckin’ tray motherfucker. What the fuck is wrong wit you. You wanna be startin’ some SHIT?!? Cause I will fuck you the fuck up!” Then to himself, “Goddamn! What the fuck is wrong wit people? Stoopid motherfucker.” I shrugged, not knowing what to say. Filled up my drink ignoring him while he continued his rant, and went and sat down with the almost familiar faces of the guys from my block.

“What did you do?” someone asked.

I couldn’t even explain. “I’m not quite sure…” I answered.

There were two separate chow halls separated by glass walls. Once the line cleared down and we were all fed, another group of inmates were let into the second area. They were all wearing red jumpsuits.

“Death-row,” one of the guys at my table explained, almost with a quiet reverence.

Someone else said, “Would you look at them. They actually look happy,” with wonder in his voice. I looked over. They didn’t look happy, or unhappy to me.

They looked like us.

Some of them were talking easily, others looked more isolated and alone. I saw one guy walking in what looked like some kind of chemical induced shuffle- Thorazine? Haldol? I couldn’t be sure. Other than the red jumpsuits, I couldn’t tell them apart from any other person that was here.

They looked, they acted, like us.

Locked up! (Part I)

*This is part of a longer piece that describes my first days in prison. More coming soon. 🙂IMG_0001

 

We are sitting at a stainless steel table. The walls are industrial grey, but the paint is peeling and you can see that there are many layers of paint under this. The room smells. It’s a mixture of human body odor, gas, mildew, sour mop water, and cleaning chemicals. There is a guard booth directly attached to this room, and a guard sits there a few feet away watching us all day, but unable to take part in the conversations. We are slowly dissecting a dandelion flower, feeling the tiny, soft, slippery petals in between our fingers; holding the tiniest pieces up to our noses attempting to smell spring, summer, the sun, whatever is left in that outside world that used to be so familiar, but now feels alien and unfamiliar, a thousand or so miles away.

Processing started out with the cop dropping me off into a large room, turning me over to various other authorities. I was directed to go to a series of rooms where they gave me my new clothes- prison “browns”, the brown color indicated that I would be in either medium or close custody. Both of these custody levels are colloquially referred to as “under the gun.” Minimum custody camps don’t have guard towers with armed personnel. They wear green clothes; Of course, every state is different when it comes to prisons. This was how it was done in the state that I was locked up in. One thing that was interesting over the years that I was locked up was, that because so many guys had been in and out of prisons for so many years in so many places, I got to hear different reviews of the various states’ penitentiary systems. Some places were much better to be locked up in than others. North Carolina was considered one of the better prison systems. Alabama, where most of my family lives, is considered one of the worst. I had considered putting in a request to transfer there so that I could be closer to my family, but after my mother looked into it she said, “Don’t bother. We’ll drive.” A friend of mine told me that in Alabama they don’t even have napkins to eat with. I was told that in Georgia they shaved everyone’s heads when they processed, though I have heard that those rules have changed. Then there was Texas, which I was told was extremely violent. Kentucky didn’t sound so bad. One friend of mine told me that in Kentucky you could buy your own personal television set, which they would take away as punishment for when you got caught violating the rules. And don’t even get me started on the Federal prison systems. Those places were considered to be the lap of luxury- swimming pools…movie stars… I was told that some had video games, and salad bars. I heard this so frequently that I had a patent response for when guys would start extolling the virtues of federal prisons, “That does it. You’ve made up my mind. Next time I get arrested I’m gonna make sure it’s a federal offense… No more state institutions for me! I’m robbing a bank.”

I was given a pair of tennis shoes in processing, the same ones that I had had to buy in jail. They were free here, and I was given a pair of “shower shoes”, which I also had in jail. They are little more than rubber sandals to wear while you take a shower. I didn’t really understand what shower shoes were for when I was given my first pair, and went to take my first shower in the jails general population. I started to walk into the shower barefoot, but someone stopped me and said,” You don’t want to go in there without your shower shoes on.” I said that I probably didn’t need them. I like being barefoot. He gave me a concerned, think about it for a second look, and repeated himself. “You don’t want to go in there without your shower shoes on,” followed by, “You don’t know WHAT’S on that floor.” It took a second, but finally it all clicked. I went back to my mat, slipped on my shower shoes. I learned how to wash my feet by balancing on one leg in the shower. That was a skill well worth developing. I don’t think I have ever touched a prison shower floor. Thank god.

Eventually I was escorted through a series of freight elevators and dark tunnels downstairs to the blocks that had used to house the old death row. There were still signs up in the hallways and even in the blocks stating that matches should not be used for vigils during executions. The block I was in only had about 16 cells in it, eight upstairs and eight down. The cells weren’t full, so I had my choice of cells. I took one that was downstairs and center. The set-up was identical to the cells in jail. There was a stainless steel toilet/sink combo, with push buttons for the water, which would only let out a trickle of luke-warm water, polished stainless steel mirror above that. A sheet metal bed frame mounted to the wall, but what I was most excited about was the mattress. It was a few inches thick, rolled up into a tight wad at the end of the bed. I unfurled it. It felt like it was stuffed with cotton, rather than foam. It was lumpy, but considering what I had been sleeping on, this was damn near heaven. One of the guys yelled into me that if I needed a hand fluffing the mattress, he’d be willing to help. We dragged the mattress outside, he grabbed two corners and so did I. We would lift the mattress high into the air and then sling it to the ground as hard as we could. We did this a few times. I thanked him and then carried it back into my cell, threw it on my bunk and stretched out on it. I hadn’t been given sheets yet, and I knew that this mattress was probably covered in forty years of funk, but at this point, I just was beyond caring. It felt so nice to be on something relatively soft.

Stop Killing My World!

IMG_E0092We lost a tree this week. I would have told you a few weeks ago that it was at least one hundred and twenty five years old. Its grey trunk was massive and hauntingly beautiful with twisted limbs and beautiful old knots. It was a walnut. My wife, Kara, hired a specialist to come in and try to save it. I was skeptical, telling her that it would be a waste of money; this thing was half dead, but Kara was insistent. We had to try, and somewhere inside I agreed and appreciated her unwillingness to compromise. At least we could say we tried everything we could for this old man. Unfortunately, I had been right on this one. The specialists came in and explained that this tree wasn’t really that old at all, thirty years or something. It wasn’t native to this area, and they reasoned that most of the walnuts around here were dying off because they couldn’t handle the frigid temperatures. This one would have to come down. If we didn’t do something about it then we were risking it being taken down by the high winds and it would more than likely hit our barn.

They took it down when I was at work the other day. I ran home from work. Thursday nights are my long run these days and so I get this in by changing clothes at work and running thirteen to fourteen miles back to our rural New York home. I knew it was coming down, but honestly had no idea how our yard would look without its wise old presence. I made it home, exhausted and hungry, and there it was, stretched out across the yard, defeated and sad. I actually didn’t expect my own reaction to it. I walked up to it and stretched my arms around his trunk, pressed the weight of my body against it. I wanted to hear whatever life happened to be left inside of it, the ants and roly-polies, centipedes, the microbes and wasps. I wanted to feel the years of cold winters and sweltering summers in my arms. This tired old man. And I wept for him. Kara came out of the house, across the yard, tears in her eyes too. We had done what had to be done; but what had we done?

And today, Sunday morning, I woke up early and went for a run with my dog and a friend. Trails. Out in the forests everything makes sense again. The trails were dry and a light breeze was blowing. It was perfect. My dog, Dela, had her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth happily. Jason and I fix the world’s problems, or we don’t when we run. Sometimes we talk about politics, or religion, or work. Sometimes we don’t talk much at all, but just work on getting up the next hill. Jason’s a good man. I mean, he’s one of those genuinely good people. He works hard at a job that he doesn’t love or hate, but it pays the bills, and he goes to father-daughter dances with his kid. He has no hate in him. He’s interested in the world around him. He has strong opinions, but he’s also willing to challenge himself and question whether or not his beliefs are correct at any given time. He’s a joy to run with. We’ve been running together for a couple of years now, and he’s still a pleasure to know. We had a great run this morning. I hug him, sweaty and thankful at the end, thankful of his friendship.

I told Kara I would do what I could to get the wood out of the yard in time for our daughter, Story’s, third birthday party. I told her that I would start when I got home from my run this morning.

I’ve been joking lately that toddler’s birthday parties are starting to feel like going on tour to follow the Grateful Dead. It’s the same ritual every time. We go to bounce houses, and we watch our frenzied children bounce until they are both maniacal and exhausted. Then we gather in a room for pizza, a vegetable tray, which is typically picked at, but mostly ignored, and then there is cake. We see the same faces, the parents of my daughter’s little friends, at almost every party. We hit three parties last weekend. Two the weekend before that. There was only one yesterday, Kara agreed to take the hit and go without me. I just didn’t have one more party in me. Not right now. We both agree, we are tired of pizza followed by birthday cake. We miss salad. Kara and I are rebelling together by breaking from the norm. No bounce houses for us. Story’s party will be outside in the yard. We hadn’t anticipated the death of our tree when this was being planned. We planned a field day, with races and, activities to whip the children into a frenzy before loading them up with sugar, but don’t worry, the sugar will almost certainly be organic.

But now there is a tree in the middle of our field day activities, and I have to move the wood, which has been cut up into logs and will be used this winter to warm our bodies. Some of the branches are too long and they will be tossed onto the bonfire pit in our yard.

I’ve enlisted Story’s help. Her mother is off buying more children’s shoes this morning, because Story burns through hers by either outgrowing them, or losing them, at about an equal pace.

So, out in the yard I have a wheelbarrow, and Story is proudly picking up logs that are too big for her and making me watch as she loads them into the wheelbarrow, which is just below eye level. She says that she wants her sweater because, “I’m a little chilly, daddy.” So, we walk back into the kitchen to put one on her. She asks for a cup of water, “without the lid, daddy.” She finishes this with, “I don’t really need the lid,” as much a statement made to herself as to me. And we stand in the kitchen together toasting our hard work and gulping down our drinks. It’s silent in the kitchen. I can hear the wind outside, and our breathing amplified through the cups as we greedily drink together standing next to each other in the kitchen. I pat her head and tell her that she is a really good worker. She agrees.

We head back outside, but I’m tired from the run I did this morning, and the wheelbarrows full of wood that I’ve already moved, so I’m taking a break, leaning against our picnic table, watching my beautiful daughter hunt for insects in the long trunk on the ground. She climbs it and yells, “Look, Daddy!” as she jumps proudly back to earth, and I applaud madly for her courage.

She’s so beautiful to me. I always wonder if she really is as stunning as I think she is. I remember an old psych class I took where I had to read research on parent’s attachments to their children; and recall that parents typically find their children attractive. Children look like their parents, so this helps.

The wind is whipping outside. A murder of crows swoops above our home chaotically. I can hear their voices cautioning each other loudly, as they dart across the farmland across the street from my house.

“Look, Story!” I yell and point excitedly.

She answers magically, “Crows, Daddy’s favorite bird,” with beautiful surprise, and we watch their mad sky-dance together.

It’s a quiet day, sitting out on top of the picnic table, watching my enchanting child touch the world around her, watching her weigh and discover; and I feel so in love with her.

And I feel like I’ve stepped into a poem that I never want to leave.

It surprises me how much I love being a father, a guide, “let me show you, Story, these are…[ snails, or roses, or drums, or this is how a ladder works]” She has given me a new world to see, or maybe the same world, but she gives me the ability to see it.

And I come inside my home.

Kara has returned from the store with new shoes.

And that’s when we learn.

Another mass shooting.

Another one.

Another goddamned mass shooting!

Someone else’s child.

Other people’s children.

Their roly-poly discoveries, their bounce-house birthday parties, and jumping off of logs, and swing sets, and, and, new shoes…

Another mass shooting.

While I was playing in the forest this morning, while I was quietly reflecting over the magic of this love.

While I was mourning the loss of my tree.

And I’m filled with hurt, and rage, and my god, so much sadness.

My child, my world.

Stop killing my world! I hate you.

Stop killing my world!

Please, I beg you, stop killing my world.

 

  1. Robert Veeder