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First Place

Wanna hear something cool? This is my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, written longhand on my bunk over the course of two years. When I finished it in 2016, I knew it was special. I couldn’t wait to enter it in the annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards competition. With Arms Unbound had come close in 2015, winning an Honorable Mention that year. This one was going to win! I could feel it.

So you can imagine my bitter disappointment when it lost to a cookbook. I wasn’t just disappointed… I was defiant. A cookbook? The following year I entered Sticks & Stones, but I no longer harbored any delusions of winning. Those literary snobs wouldn’t know good writing if it yanked them by their turtleneck sweaters. The people Giants was written for — the forgotten, the lost, the state-raised — they recognized its beauty. That’s all that mattered.

But in April of this year, a friend talked me into reentering. Giants was still within the five-year window of eligibility and I was months away from finishing my latest novel, Year of the Firefly, so I had nothing new to submit. Why not, right?

Good thing I listen to my friends. Giants won! First Place out of nearly 2,000 entries! Finally, a little critical acclaim and some much-needed cash. Life is good. And, according to the gold standard magazine on the craft of writing, On the Shoulders of Giants is good, too. (I recant my previous turtleneck accusation, WD staff.)

If you haven’t read it, you can download it for free on Amazon over the next five days (through Saturday, Nov. 21), or access it through your Kindle Unlimited membership. Just hook me up with a review. I’m excited to hear your thoughts. If it’s on your bookshelf right now, then you already know what’s up. Dum Spiro Spero.

A final appeal

President Trump was in my hometown the other day. Right in my neighborhood, actually. Close enough that Mom could hear “Proud to be an American” blaring from the sound system all afternoon. I caught some of the coverage on the local news. It was interesting to see the supporters as they walked past the TV cameras to the rally. They didn’t look particularly racist. No one was rocking a white hood or marching in neo-lockstep while flashing the Heil Hitler salute. The people I saw looked normal. Most were middle-aged white Pensacolians. Just like me.

But there was polite defiance in their demeanor. And swagger. The overall vibe was: “This is what I believe. And I refuse to be bullied or shamed into silence.” I respect that. There’s honor in it.

Give the conservative movement credit — they have cornered the market on American badassery. At least that’s the perception. Military men vote republican. So do bikers, cops, construction workers, and every red-blooded roughneck in the deep south. The GOP has become the party of the Marlboro men.

I’ll be honest. There have been times over this past year when I’ve wondered if I was wearing the wrong jersey. Times when I’ve asked myself what I’m doing on this side of the street. What do I have in common with these hypersensitive snowflakes and their cancel culture and their woke movement and their safe spaces? What do I have in common with big government and liberal elitists and Ivy league academia?

Not much. But I have even less in common with Donald Trump.

Thin skinned, divisive, reactionary, vain, visionless, petty, devoid of empathy… the exhausting list goes on. There is nothing manly about this guy. He checks off all the boxes for how you raise your son never to be. And he’s a veritable PowerPoint presentation on what you don’t want in a leader.

Can you imagine Tom Brady trumpeting his own greatness after a win? Or blaming his teammates after a loss? Can you imagine Drew Brees constantly whining that the refs are against him? Can you see Patrick Mahomes denying the reality of an ugly interception even as the replay clearly shows otherwise on the stadium jumbotron? Can you hear him claiming “alternative facts”? For four years Trump has been the QB for Team America and for four years he’s been nothing but a locker room distraction and an embarrassment for a once proud franchise.

They say that in the end, life isn’t always about what you did, but what you were willing to tolerate. I’m hoping that on November 3rd, strong and honorable men of every faith, race, and political stripe will step up and reject the sniveling divisiveness of Donald J. Trump.
The soul of our nation is on the line.

Pickatree

This time last year a little old man moved into the bunk at the end of my row. Amphetamine thin with no teeth and two faded teardrops tatted under his right eye, barely visible in the wrinkled roadmap of his face. It was obvious from day one that he was a character.

“Where you from, pops?”
“Pasco.”
“Oh yeah, I know a few people from down there. Where at in Pasco County?”
“Pickatree Lane … I just pick me a tree and go to sleep under it.”

Donny has been homeless for most of his adult life. This is his seventh time in prison. He’s been in and out for the last fifty years, doing life on the installment plan. Because he fits the profile, many of my fellow inmates assume he’s a pedophile. He’s not. He’s one of us. He just got old.
Although he’s not really all that old. Seventy. There are men his age doing pull ups on the yard. But Donny’s seventy is a hard seventy. His pull-up days are long gone. He can barely get off his bunk without help, he pees on himself in his sleep, his hands shake, he’s damn near blind, and his brain is clouded with dementia. But you wouldn’t know that from all the smack he talks.

“Hey George. Does your mother know you’re a damned queer?”
“My mother died last year.”
“Yeah, mine too. Get over it.”
There is not a politically correct bone in the old man’s body. He drops n-bombs without a second thought, mocks my Latino friends by talking gibberish, and openly ogles every female guard on the compound. Some would say Donny’s filter is broken, but I’m not convinced he ever had one. He’s just a relic from the rural south who’s spent most of his life in a cage. Or sleeping on sidewalks.

I had just received a job change from impaired assistant to administrative clerk when he moved into my dorm. I was writing a novel, the first in a series, about a young woman who takes the fall for her dope dealer boyfriend, finds herself in prison, learns her way around the law library, and discovers that she’s a natural in the process. But I knew I couldn’t write convincingly about something as complex as the law without learning it myself. So I got a job in the prison library for research purposes.

I kept seeing Donny shuffle by the window every morning for legal mail. He wasn’t difficult to spot. He’s got one of those Rollator things; sorta like a walker with wheels. One day he banged on the library door demanding assistance. I explained to my free-world boss that he lived in my dorm, had a touch of dementia and was in really poor health.

He entered the library shivering. “Damn it’s cold out there!” (It was maybe 75 degrees. Early October Florida Panhandle weather.) He looked at me. “I need your help, young feller.” He pronounced help like “hep.” When I asked what I could do for him, he slapped a letter on the counter. It was from an attorney representing GEICO.

Between the letter and a maddening hour of circular and sometimes nonsensical discussion with him, the details emerged. He was hit and dragged by a car before he came to prison and the insurance company was offering $50,000 dollars. Problem was, the hospital had placed a lien on him for the weeks he spent recovering. After checking with a couple of the inmate law clerks, it became clear that his chances of ever seeing the money were slim. Even if the hospital mercifully forgave the lien, the Florida Department of Corrections would come after him for all the free room and board. Either way, the consensus was that he would never get a dime. An exclamation point to a lifetime of bad luck.

I wrote the hospital for him anyway. Just to do something. They never responded. I’m not even sure if the letter reached its destination. I’m not even sure I wrote the right hospital. But just after Christmas, fifty grand was deposited into his inmate account. And my status was sealed in his eyes.

Months passed. I was caught up in the world of my characters. He was caught up in his new-found wealth. Occasionally I would look up and see him smashing a honeybun or a nutty bar. Once in a while I would walk into the bathroom and be confronted by a horrific scene involving him, feces, and bad aim. I knew that the guy caring for him was more interested in enjoying Donny’s canteen food than making sure he was okay. But at least he changed his sheets, cleaned up his messes, and walked him to chow. I rationalized what I saw by telling myself that it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Dude was doing something that nobody else wanted to do.

Because Donny saw me as advocate and ally, he would sometimes hobble over to my bunk and say things like “I want to go to the infirmary.” Why man? What’s up? Are you sick? “Naw. I just don’t like it in here…” Well hang in there. You’ve only got 18 months left. “Damn, that’s a long time!” He was always surprised when I told him his release date. He could never remember. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He had no idea what year it was. I pacified him by telling him I’d write the warden requesting a transfer to his hometown of Zephyr Hills. But I never got around to it.

Then Covid hit and the library closed. I was in the dorm for six extra hours a day. Suddenly all the things I conveniently ignored were constantly in my face. Donny weighed less than 150 when he got off the bus. Skin and bones. Now he was easily 250 from pounding sweets all day. Itchy red sores littered the landscape of his body. His feet were swollen and purple. His area reeked of urine. His pendulum swung from listless mumbling to angry ranting with fewer moments of clarity in between. The medical department was indifferent. The guards saw but didn’t see. And all his caretaker seemed to care about was eating his canteen food. My conscience grew louder. He needed me. But how could I let the other guy know that his services were no longer required? Especially since relieving him of his duties meant taking food out of his mouth.

In the end, the Universe intervened. A corona outbreak in the kitchen dorm prompted the need for 100 new food service employees. Shady caretaker guy was one of the lucky lottery picks. So he packed his shit (and probably half of Donny’s) and moved to another building. A few days later, someone in my dorm tested positive and we were placed on quarantine. During those 14 days, the old man must’ve peed in his bed 21 times. I’ll spare you the details of some of our other adventures but believe me when I say it was not your typical male bonding experience.

That was three months ago. Today, I’m proud to report that my good friend Pickatree is back to his old gruff, womanizing, politically incorrect self. A steady diet of oatmeal, tuna, eggs, peanut butter, trips to the rec yard, regularly scheduled bathroom visits, and basic human kindness have made all the difference. Sometimes I worry about what’ll become of him when he gets out, but I try to stay focused on the things I can control. My mission is to get him to the door. The rest is in God’s hands.

“Donny. You’re worth 50 grand! What’s the first thing you’re gonna buy when you get out?”
“Ice cold Busch beer. When do I get out again?”
“Right around fifteen months.”
“Damn.” He shakes his head. “That’s a long time.”

Balls and strikes

Most of my family and friends are into Making America Great Again… again. They are not racists. They are good people, religious people, Catholics and Evangelicals who believe that abortion is the most important item on the docket when electing a president. So four years ago, many of them held their noses and voted for a philanderer and a bully and a race baiter because there was a Supreme Court seat open and the big prize of Roe v. Wade was dangling over the plate like a 35 mph fastball.

By the looks of it, they hit a towering home run. In fact the ball is still blasting through the stratosphere.

When Justice Scalia died in early 2016 and the Senate refused to even have a hearing on Obama’s nominee to replace him until after the election, they effectively put a Supreme Court seat on the ballot. A stroke of brilliance, really. But never in conservatives’ wettest dreams did they imagine that two more seats would come open in the ensuing 48 months. A 6-3 conservative majority on the highest court in the land would almost certainly be enough to overturn the landmark abortion case. At least that’s the hope. Or the fear, depending which side you’re on.

I’m not sure where I stand on abortion. Is that all right? To be undecided? To be conflicted about such a polarizing issue? If we’re committed to putting science first on the crucial issues of Covid and the environment, why not listen to what scientists have to say about abortion? Especially late-term abortions. I’m guessing we know a lot more about the human embryo in 2020 than we did 50 years ago, just as we know a lot more about melting ice caps, carbon emissions, and the ozone layer. But I have the luxury of being an armchair quarterback on this issue since I am a man and will never have to make that difficult choice.

Abortion is not my main focus during election season anyway. Neither is the environment nor the Second Amendment nor the economy nor health care. When I’m gauging a candidate, it’s all about prisoners and the families of prisoners. And since presidents appoint not only Supreme Court Justices but lower appeals court judges, these elections have a direct impact and far reaching consequences for my little demographic. (And by little I mean the 25% of the world’s incarcerated who reside right here in the U.S.)

Contrary to popular belief, and despite what they may say in confirmation hearings, these judges are not fair and impartial callers of balls and strikes. That era is long gone. In the 70s, under liberal justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, the Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional, supported Roe v. Wade, and upheld affirmative action. But under Nixon appointee William Rehnquist, whom Reagan made Chief Justice in the 80s, the death penalty was brought back, prisoners’ rights were reduced, and the court ruled that education was not a fundamental right in America. Occasionally some Justice will drift to the center in his or her old age but that’s happening less and less these days. Most judges are now groomed from high school for these lifetime positions and thoroughly vetted before they make the short list. Too much is at stake.

That’s why the idea of a devout conservative like Amy Coney Barrett supplanting a liberal paragon like Justice Ginsburg is so painful. She will be on the court for possibly the next 40 years. This feels like Clarence Thomas being tapped to replace Thurgood Marshall all over again. That was 30 years ago and he’s still the most conservative Justice on the bench.

But the irony in all of this isn’t that Republicans are rushing to ram through Justice Ginsburg’s replacement 30 days before the election, even though they refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s appointee with eight months left. Or that all this is going on despite RBG’s dying wish that they wait until America goes to the polls. Or that the court is moving back into the 1950s while the rest of the nation is moving in an entirely different direction… The irony is that the least intelligent and most polarizing president in the history of the Oval Office, number 45 out of 45, will have replaced a third of the Supreme Court during his rocky four-year tenure. And if he declares this election rigged, refuses to accept the results, and there turns out to be a court battle, guess who will be casting the deciding vote.

One more shot

February 2007. In a cramped courtroom in Milton, Florida, a small town just east of Pensacola, I sat handcuffed and shackled in a jury box, shoulder to shoulder with twenty other crackheads, meth cooks, and burglars. Like most of them, I was awaiting my fate. Unlike most of them, I wasn’t sweating it. My fate had already been sealed. Or so I thought…

One year earlier, a federal judge had sentenced me to 379 months in prison under something called The Hobbs Act. Right around the same time I signed a plea agreement for a concurrent state sentence that amounted to twenty years for armed robbery. Once the dust settled, my release date was close to three decades away.

And I was overjoyed.

Okay, maybe not overjoyed, but definitely grateful. With my record they could’ve buried me. But they left me a sliver of daylight. That’s all I needed. One more shot.

Yet here I was back in court. Considering the lengthy sentence I was already serving, it seemed odd that they would waste money and manpower transporting me back from prison on a violation of probation. Especially since the charges were from 1991, when I was 17 years old. In my mind, the worst was over. A concurrent sentence felt like a foregone conclusion. So inconsequential that the public defender who was assigned to represent me never even bothered to visit the county jail to discuss legal strategy. Since the gain time laws from the early 90s would apply to whatever sentence the judge imposed, even a fifty-year term would not change my release date. I was pretty much locked in for 2035.

So you can imagine my reaction when the clerk called my name and I hobbled over to the lectern where the prosecutor announced that the state was seeking a life sentence. (Excuse me? Did he just say life?)

“Does the defendant wish to speak?” asked the judge.

I scanned the audience for Mom and located her sweet bifocaled face on the second row. The same face that had been attending my court appearances since I was 13 years old. She stood. I turned back to the judge. “Yes sir.”

Different families have different skill sets. The Trumps are proficient at real estate, the Mannings excel at throwing footballs, the Partridges played musical instruments. If there’s one area where me and Mom kick ass, it’s begging judges for mercy. We’ve had a lot of practice.

I told his honor that I was already serving concurrent sentences of 31 and 20 years. Told him that I had pleaded with both the federal magistrate and the toughest circuit court judge in Escambia County for these sentences. That as things stood, I would be in my early 60s when I got out. Mom would be in her mid-80s. I had this one last chance to be a good son, to be there when she got older and needed me, to repay her for believing in me. And even this was a long shot. Lots of things had to fall our way. But a life sentence would extinguish even that hope.

Then Mom spoke. She told him she was a widow, that I was her only child, that we moved to Miami when I was ten where she had to work 14-hour days to support the family and that’s when things started to unravel in my life. She told him that despite my lengthy record, I was a good boy (I was 33 at the time). That whenever I did return home, I would be returning to a strong support system. She told him that she still believed in me. Then she tearfully begged him to have mercy on our family.

By the time she returned to her seat, even the prosecutor was misty-eyed. The judge not only sentenced me to a minimal concurrent sentence, but expressed regret over not being able to legally reduce the sentences that the other judges had imposed.

A lot of miracles have happened since then: the books, new people in my life, new nieces and nephews, soul-stretching experiences, a Supreme Court ruling that resulted in years being slashed from my sentence. I’ll be coming home sooner than expected and, God willing, I’ll have the opportunity to be a better son, better man, better human being…

But I think about that day in court often. More so lately as the national conversation seems to be gravitating toward criminal justice reform. What if my mom was not so meek and soft spoken? What if life made her bombastic? What if my words came stammering from a meth-ravaged mouth? What if we were less articulate, less fluent, less groomed?

What if we were black?

I’m not a fan of the term “white privilege.” It’s thrown around as if it’s some Universal truth that can be applied across the board. There are poor people of Scots-Irish descent scattered from the Bible Belt to the Rust Belt and all throughout rural America who have been scraping out a living for generations. People who have never experienced any privileges, white or otherwise, since their ancestors came west. To lump them in with the wealthy or even the lower-middle class in this country, to call them privileged, is as erroneous and out of touch as declaring racism dead.

But there are also people of color within a five-bunk radius of where I live who share my exact charges, have fewer priors, and are serving life in prison. Were they slammed because of their race? Or did it have more to do with their socioeconomic class? Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe they just had the wrong judge. Or the right judge on the wrong day. Maybe their mothers couldn’t show up to court because they were working, or deceased, or enslaved by addiction, or in prison themselves. Or maybe it’s all of the above — some intricate algorithm in the judge’s mind that distills all of these variables into a term of years.

Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to live in this body, at this time, with this release date, and Ms Doris as my mom. I’m grateful to have another shot… And when I reach the other side, I’m going to fight like hell for the humanity and hope of those I leave behind. This is my mission.

Talk about a privilege.

ATL

Am I reading Atlanta wrong? You resist arrest. Violently. You disarm a cop in the struggle. Yeah, it’s just a taser but you’re firing it over your shoulder as you flee. What if you hit and incapacitate the cop you’re aiming at? Then you can take his pistol and shoot him or the other cop or civilians…

Dangerous, highly volatile situation. Especially considering the alcohol/drugs in your system, substances that are obviously impairing your judgment. Not to mention the insane amount of adrenaline that is flooding the bloodstream of the officer having to make this snap decision. If it’s a decision at all. It could just be reflexive. Academy training taking over.

Do I need to adjust my liberal lens here? Maybe I’ve got some weird strand of Stockholm syndrome that is clouding my view and causing me to rationalize the brutal actions of the police. The same police that have kicked my ass and charged me with assault, sold me drugs and arrested me for buying them, allowed their dogs to chew on my flesh after I was handcuffed… Maybe this is the residual effect of spending all these years in a cage. Maybe, but I doubt it. It just seems like the overwhelming majority of rational people of every race, age, and political stripe would agree that fighting and disarming the police ends disastrously. 100% of the time.

George Floyd was murdered by a bad cop. The facts support this. All you need is eyes to see. There are others. Eric Garner, horrible. Breonna Taylor, tragic and inexcusable. Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown… All killed by the people sworn to serve and protect them. Their deaths reveal a deeply flawed and fractured system. A system that has failed the very taxpayers who fund it. But what happened to Rayshard Brooks was more of an unfortunate tragedy than a murder committed by a salivating racist cop.

As someone who has grown up in the criminal justice system, someone who has been accused and found guilty of numerous crimes, I do not believe a jury will convict the officer of murder. And it shouldn’t. Not if justice is the aim. But how much do we really care about justice? We are living in a time when every constitutional amendment is under attack. Especially the right to due process. Maybe there was never any justice in the first place. At least not for the marginalized fifth of the country that has been watching the local police force-kick their doors down and drag their sons and daughters off to jail for far too long.

Maybe that’s the point.

The secret of the middle way

The options are pretty clear cut: either support defunding the police or support the murder of unarmed black men by law enforcement. Vote for Donald Trump or hate America. Throw Molotovs with antifa or march in lockstep with white nationalists. Kneel during the anthem or high-five George Zimmerman.

With all the publicity that the extremes have been getting, you would think that the radical left and xenophobic right are the only two paths available. Yet everyone I know — black and white, free and imprisoned, Republican and Democrat — falls somewhere in the middle. You may have an uncle who attended a Trump rally, but do you honestly know anyone who is hellbent on initiating a race war? There may be some peaceful protesters in your orbit, but how many people do you know that are talking about blowing up police stations? (WTF)

I’ve always considered the extremes to be polar opposites. Distant outposts on a straight line. At the far left would be communism, take a step toward the center and there’s socialism, another step and there’s liberalism, another step and we’re squarely in the middle. Keep moving right and there’s conservatism, another step and there’s nationalism, one more step and we arrive at fascism. Of course there are gradations and degrees of each ideology but I figured that, at least on a rudimentary level, the line was an accurate model.

I was wrong.

It’s not a straight line at all. It’s curved like a horseshoe. With each extreme on either end, far closer to its ideological opposite across the way than the middle which resides top center. The extremes have much more in common with one another than they share with those in the middle. This is true in every movement. Racial, political, even religious. Radical Islam and hardcore Christian fundamentalism share the similar concept of a harsh, unforgiving God, the same disdain for progress and science, the same subhuman treatment of women. Even though they are sworn enemies. The leftist idea of defunding the police could just as easily be pushed by the paranoid right, suspicious of government overreach and martial law.

Rabid fervor and intolerance are identical out on the fringes. Just check out those wreaking havoc at the protests. Can you differentiate one side from the other? Bloodlust cancels out any motive or cause and the violence hums on a frequency all its own. From the firebomb hurling neo-right to the cop car flipping far left to the police cracking skulls with batons. Extremes.

My own life is a study in extremes, although not in any of the aforementioned ways. But on a personal level. Drug abuse, risk taking, crime… The middle was straight-laced and boring. People were partying on the edges. Vibrant life was pulsing out there. I kept getting sucked in. But life on the extremes is unsustainable. I’m lucky to still be alive.

I was a decade into this prison sentence when I stumbled upon the secret of the middle way. I found it in Michael A. Singer’s brilliant book The Untethered Soul, a book that changed my life. In his explanation of the Tao, the invisible thread that passes through everything, he uses the following analogy:

“A blind person walks down a city street with the use of a cane. Let’s give that cane a name — it’s the seeker of extremes, it’s the feeler of edges, it’s the toucher of yin and yang. People who walk with the use of that cane often tap from side to side. They’re not trying to find where they should walk, they’re trying to find where they shouldn’t walk. They’re finding the extremes… The extremes create their opposites, the wise avoid them. Find the balance in the center and you will live in harmony.”
Hard to argue with that.

Jason Isbell

“I hope you find something to love, something to do when you feel like giving up. A song to sing or a tale to tell. Something to love. It’ll serve you well…”

I think Jason Isbell had his baby daughter in mind when he penned these lyrics, but they feel like they were written specifically for me. All of his songs do.

I discovered him a decade ago on NPR’s World Cafe right around the time I was working on my first novel. The homogenized rap and metal on corporate radio felt soulless and prepackaged and did nothing to inspire me. The Indie artists on World Cafe seemed more honest, more creative. Tuning in became part of my writing ritual. A ritual that has evolved over the years. Mainly because tablets were introduced to the prison system in 2018, I barely listen to my radio anymore. But I own every album by Jason Isbell. From the obscure side projects with Elizabeth Cook to his “Sea Songs” with wife and fiddle player, Amanda Shires, to all of his releases with his band, The 400 Unit. When I finally get my hands on a guitar again, his music will be the first I learn. I envision a free me on Mom’s back porch with an acoustic, finger-picking St. Peter’s Autograph. It’s coming…

A friend of mine told me Mr. Isbell is one credit short of a master’s degree in storytelling. I can hear that in his music, in the details he presents in his lyrics. “Sharecropper eyes” and “burning Ferris wheels” and “old women harmonizing with the wind…” Dude is the most gifted songwriter this side of Dylan.

But it’s not just that. In an era where southern men are increasingly judged by the size of their MAGA hats, his songs are a rallying cry for kindness and courage and humanity. Don’t believe me? Check out these ten Isbell standards:

1) Traveling Alone — “Damn near strangled by my appetite. Ybor City on a Friday night. Couldn’t even stand up right…”
2) Cover Me Up — A story about finding your soulmate.
3) Last of My Kind — A country boy attempts to make sense of neon lights, dirty sidewalks, polluted rivers and the invisible homeless.
4) If We Were Vampires — His wife shadows his vocals in this haunting song about love and time.
5) Overseas — Blistering guitar riff. “This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts died out…”
6) 24 Frames — You thought God was an architect? Now you know. It’s almost like he told his bass player “you can hang out on this one.”
7) Live Oak — Classic Isbell storytelling
8) Elephant — A song about watching a friend die from cancer.
9) Only Children — “Remember when we used to meet, at the bottom of Mobile Street, to do what the broken people do?”
10) Flagship, Chaos and Clothes, Alabama Pines, However Long, Something More than Free, Dreamsicle (I added a few bonuses just in case anyone shares my enthusiasm.)

The highest compliment my fellow prisoners pay me when they read my books is that they recognize themselves in the stories, that I’m writing their lives. Jason Isbell has a similar effect on me. I can hear my reflection in his songs.

Since his new album Reunions dropped a couple of weeks ago, and his music is such a big influence on my life, I figured this was overdue.

A shining example

A month ago I had a little rift with someone I love very much over Trump. (Who else, right?) This was my first real taste of a phenomenon that free people have been experiencing with friends and neighbors and coworkers since 2016. I have always assumed that anyone intelligent and empathetic and kind would reflexively reject Trump’s lack of humanity.

If only things were that simple.

I’ve known this girl since she was a baby and there is nothing dark about her heart. She is the embodiment of innocence and light. She just has different views. But what was really troubling for me in this confrontation was my own response. The way my blood pressure skyrocketed, the way I stammered, how empty I felt when we hung up. I was so rattled that I began questioning my own beliefs. Maybe I had a blind spot. Maybe I was drinking the “liberal media” kool-aid. Was I biased against Trump from the outset? I thought I had written something around his inauguration saying that he deserved the benefit of the doubt, that America’s success was tied to his success as president. I went back through my essays, searching for evidence of my own open-mindedness and instead found this from 2017.

If you’re reading this, and I know you are, below is some of the back story that informs my opinions. This is what I couldn’t shoehorn into an emotional 15-minute collect phone call. I love you.

A shining example

Blame it on George Orwell. He once said that it’s impossible to enjoy the writings of someone with whom you take political issue. For this and other reasons, I decided to steer clear of politics in 2017. I even made it a New Year’s resolution. I consider my novels to be letters to the world and want these posts to read the same way. I thought this year I would include more humor, more story, more music. But like many Americans, I’m already backsliding on my resolutions, three weeks in.

For this I blame another George: Stephanopoulos. Last weekend I watched him stroll around the White House with President Obama for a final interview and as the outgoing Commander-in-Chief answered each question with the same poise and equanimity that have been the hallmarks of his tenure in the Oval Office, I knew I had one more political post to write.

I campaigned for President Obama in prison visitation parks in the Deep South. I spent much of 2008 convincing mothers and fathers of lifers that the Supreme Court justices and lower appellate court judges that he would potentially appoint could one day mean freedom for their sons. Or at least provide hope. He did not disappoint. Eight years later he leaves the job as the biggest criminal justice reformer in the history of the White House.

He was also the most gifted orator, certainly of my generation. Over and over I watched him run circles around his opponents in presidential debates (horses and bayonets, anyone?). He did it with humor, too. Remember the press dinner in the lingering aftermath of the birther allegations? He had the band strike up “Born in the USA” and came out pumping his fist like Springsteen. His State of the Union speeches were honest and engaging. His presidential addresses, especially after tragedies such as Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the Dallas police murders conveyed hope and healing to a heartbroken nation.

But it wasn’t just words. It was action, too. Despite being hamstrung for three-quarters of his time in office by a partisan Congress that needed him to fail, he still managed to tame a gluttonous Wall Street, rescue American icons Ford and Chevy from the brink of extinction, steer us out of an economic crisis that cost the world 40 percent of its wealth, and commute the disparitive sentences of hundreds of war-on-drugs prisoners.

Oh yeah, he also got Osama Bin Laden.

However, his legacy will not and should not be tied solely to this historic hit on America’s most notorious enemy. But rather to the kindness, tolerance, and humanity he displayed over the last eight years. Just how kind was he? Well, I wrote him a letter and he wrote me back. Think about that. Amid all the global tension, intelligence briefings, and thousands of voices clamoring to be heard, the leader of the free world took the time to respond to a prisoner.

Critics will point to the ACA as a failure. Maybe. Millions of Americans who are now insured would probably disagree. I have no voice in this debate. As a prisoner, my health care expenses are limited to the five-dollar copay I’m charged each time I visit the clinic. I do believe that no idea is born fully formed and eventually, some future administration, possibly the new one, will iron out the kinks in Obamacare, repackage it, and present it to the American people as a glowing success.

Critics will also point to race relations as a failure. On this I vehemently disagree. Because of President Obama, the issue of race is no longer the elephant in the room. It’s a hot button issue. A water cooler issue. And people from all walks of life are expressing their opinions. If there is ever to be a united America, it has to start with an open line of dialogue. His polarizing presence in the White House alone has nudged us into having these uncomfortable conversations.

But the main reason I admire our 44th president has nothing to do with diplomacy or policy or statecraft. During one of the darkest periods of my life, as I tried to claw my way out of the immense hole I had dug for myself, President Obama was a shining example of what leadership looks like, what self-mastery looks like, what manhood looks like.

I found this quote from Michelle Obama scrawled in the journal I used while writing my second novel, With Arms Unbound. It’s from the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “Even in the toughest moments, when we’re all sweating it, when all hope seems lost, Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise. He just keeps getting up and moving forward … with patience and wisdom and courage and grace.”

I hope that one day, when I leave the world of prison behind, my future wife will hold me in similar regard.

I know this election season has been vitriolic and divisive. Despite our new president’s numerous faux pas, head-scratcher cabinet appointments, and thin-skinned cringe-worthy tweets, I do not wish him failure. To wish him failure is to wish America failure. At minimum, I’m hoping jobs continue to grow under his stewardship. His entrepreneurial chops could well prove to be a huge asset for the country. But no matter how prolific Donald Trump’s triumphs, Barack Obama will be a hard act to follow.

Since this has to end somewhere, I’m thinking a good place would be where the journey began: on a Tuesday night in November 2008, Grant Park, Chicago. After an historic landslide victory over John McCain, a younger, less gray president-elect put the following question regarding change to the spirited crowd of thousands: “When are we going to realize that WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for?”

Eight years, three novels, and a couple of miracles later, I can point to that speech as a major turning point in my own journey. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr. President. I can’t speak for the rest of the nation, but in my little corner of captivity, you will be missed.

 

Reconciling Minnesota

In the late eighties, somewhere between Iran-contra, Exxon Valdez, and a World Series earthquake, I was handcuffed and driven from the Dade juvenile detention center to Miami International Airport. I had the dubious honor of being the first Florida juvenile delinquent to be sent to an out-of-state program. A place called Sherbourne House in frigid Saint Paul, Minnesota.

I remember the double takes and raised eyebrows when I stepped off the plane in shorts, a t-shirt, and a mullet, with only a rumpled brown lunch bag as my luggage. It was December in the Twin Cities. Everyone else was dressed for the occasion. The van driver had no problem picking me out of the crowd.

As we drove down the snowy streets to the former rectory that would be my residence for the foreseeable future, I had no idea I was heading into some of the best days of my troubled youth. Ice fishing, Twins games, sledding, skiing, snowball fights… Definitely a different experience for a Florida kid.

But the memory that stands out the most about Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the same takeaway most visitors to the area have: The people are so nice.

In Miami it was nothing to see grown men come to blows in a traffic jam on the Palmetto. Or cars speeding by a stranded, broken down family in the hazard lane. That would never happen in Minnesota. The low income neighborhood where Sherbourne House was located was home to people of Nordic descent, plus Vietnamese, Somalians, and every gradation of black and white on the color spectrum. They all waved and smiled when the van drove by. Every time. But they wave and smile in the south, too. It’s not just that. Minnesotans cared for each other. Like “cared” as an active verb… Checked on each other during brutal winters, shoveled snow from neighbors’ driveways, looked out for the elderly among them. In short, they were a community.

I think this is why it’s so difficult reconciling the Minnesota in my head with the one I’ve been seeing on TV. Where police kneel on the necks of unarmed citizens while the life drains out of them, like big game hunters posing over a trophy kill. Where molotovs fly and struggling small business owners weep and precincts burn.

This is not the Minnesota I remember. But then America as a whole is pretty unrecognizable right now.

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