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The opinionated voice in my head

I don’t know about you, but my brain came equipped with a paranoid, self-conscious backseat driver who is constantly bumping his gums about every catastrophic and humiliating potentiality that is mathematically possible in a given situation.

This is probably part of the reason why I continued getting high long after the party was over — silencing the inner noise, separating self from brain chatter. Although sometimes this backfired and the dope was like giving the voice in my head a bullhorn.

But this isn’t another of my anti-drug rants. I don’t even consider myself anti-drug. I just can’t use them. For me, drugs come with the curious side effect of landing in the back of police cars. In fact, I’m currently 11 years into a 30-year sentence for actions resulting from my voracious, insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances. But again, this is not about the drugs. This is about the voice.

If you’re thinking “Malcolm is a psycho, he’s got a voice in his head,” that would be the same voice I’m referring to. We’ve all got it. This highly opinionated, ultra-sensitive, threat-assessing, judgment-casting inner narrator who edits the inflow of the world through the senses with various degrees of inflection. Mine happened to be squawking this morning. I’ll explain…

I’ve been wanting to try yoga for a while, ever since I read Bo Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time. I’ve been incarcerated for most of my life and I grew up hanging from the pull-up and dip bars on rec yards across the state of Florida. These sorts of exercises are a given, as routine as chow and count. There’s a reason why your crackhead nephew gets arrested skinny enough to hide behind a pine tree, and gets out with pecs like Lou Ferrigno. We get buff in here. It’s part of the prison experience.

Yoga has a different draw: flexibility, supple internal organs, reduced stress, increased energy, focus, concentration, peace of mind. At 42 years old, these things seem more important to me now than having massive biceps. So this morning I woke up, brushed my teeth, slammed a bottle of water, and settled into the Corpse pose in the space beside my bunk.

Almost immediately, the voice piped up: “You look weird, man.” I ignored it and climbed to my feet to attempt the sun salutation. The voice was silent for a moment, but by the time I reached downward dog, it was back with a nervous vengeance: “Dude, what the hell? People are staring. They’re gonna think you’re soft or gay or crazy.” The voice was right. Yoga postures aren’t exactly the most prison-friendly exercises. The last thing I wanted was some rapist checking me out while I attempted the plow.

I couldn’t help it. I opened an eye and surveyed the dorm. The guy across the aisle was zoned out on psych meds, another had toothpaste slathered over his face, the old man behind me was in a heated debate with an invisible opponent. No one was paying any attention to what I was doing.

I had to laugh at myself. Why was I sweating appearances when I live in a crazy house? Probably because my paranoid backseat driver convinced me yet again that my reputation, manhood, and very existence depended on it. Here’s hoping your voice is more laid-back than mine.

[This post originally appeared on http://www.malcolmivey.com in June 2016.]

The Behemoth and the Snowflake

They say that upon finishing a manuscript, writers should do something outside their comfort zone. Learn a foreign language, pick up a musical instrument, take a cooking class. Something that causes a different part of the brain to light up. I chose to learn Silat, an Indonesian fighting style that focuses on blocks, strikes and grappling.

The dude who’s teaching me is my polar opposite. A 330-pound, former powerlifter, military historian, ex-bouncer, Limbaugh-loving, NRA conservative who is always talking about the liberal media, fake news, and politically correct safe-space snowflakes.

Full disclosure: I think I’m a snowflake. Especially if that means I’m into human rights, civil rights, common sense gun legislation, clean water, clean air, and kindness. I even have a letter from President Obama in my photo album. Doesn’t matter. Through Silat, this neo-con behemoth and I seem to have found common ground, and after a little over a month of drilling, training, and sparring, I am excelling at the art.

It feels good to be excelling at something because lately I’ve been questioning my ability as a writer. My Amazon author ranking is hovering around two million (are there even two million authors in the world?). Literati industry snobs ignore my existence and, worst of all, my magnum opus, my Pillars of the Earth, my life’s work and beautiful child, On the Shoulders of Giants, has failed to place in a single contest this year. Crushing. I know… I sound like a whiny snowflake. Whatever.

So it was with a fair amount of hesitance that I passed my novel to this gruff, Fox News defensive tackle. I would have never considered doing so had he not already proven to be extremely intelligent and well read… almost to the point of arrogance. I wanted to earn his respect.

He smirked when he accepted it. “You wrote this?” I knew I was setting myself up for failure. On the Shoulders of Giants is a novel about race, addiction, lost love, gun violence, foster care and the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Even the title is a nod to a famous President Obama speech. Not exactly required reading for Republicans. To further lengthen the long odds of his acceptance, dude is a sci-fi fan. I had already spotted Frank Herbert’s Dune series stacked on his bunk. Our literary tastes are as diametrically opposed as our politics. The question was not so much would he like the book? as it was would he finish it? Apparently my sadomasochistic snowflakery knows no bounds.

In the ensuing days, I watched him from across the dorm. He’s about as rough on a novel as you would expect from a sausage-fingered, powerlifting grizzly bear; dog-earing pages, folding the book back on its spine, setting his morning coffee on the cover. About midway through, we were sparring one day when I asked him how he liked it so far. He rolled his eyes. “Laden with white guilt.” But he read on.

It took less than a week for him to knock it out. One night he came and sat on my bunk, coffee-stained, dog-eared novel in hand. “You know,” he said, “what happened to Scarlett was…” He couldn’t finish his sentence. “Did you like it?” I asked. Tears streamed down his face. All the answer I needed. I placed a hand on his massive back. Humbled. Honored. Screw the contest snubs and academic cold shoulders. This guy’s emotional response was all the accolade I needed. A supreme compliment from the unlikeliest of readers.

And, by the way, it’s Mister Snowflake to you. Don’t forget, I know Silat.

Paradox and reluctant compassion

Every writer loves a good paradox. Our brains are trained to sniff out life’s Catch 22s and spin them into plot points:

A doctor must decide between saving a pregnant  mother or her unborn child. A cop with a drug dealer son must choose between loyalty to the job and loyalty to his family. A general has to decide between bombing a village or letting an international terrorist slip away…

These agonizing decisions are the beating heart of good fiction. They keep the pages turning and the reader engaged. But in real life, such dilemmas are a lot less fun. Consider the most recent in my world…

You’ve probably heard me talk about the blind man. He’s been in prison since 1986. I met him a couple of months ago when I moved into my current dormitory. He challenged me to a game of knock gin with his Braille playing cards and we’ve been cool ever since. I walk with him to the chow hall for meals, and most evenings we listen to Braves games together.

For the record, I am not friendly and I don’t require camaraderie. I think of myself as fully self-contained. I could do years on this bunk without speaking to a soul and be perfectly fine. I really prefer the conversation in my head to the conversations around me, and get cranky whenever someone interrupts. But I was intrigued by the blind man. Although my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, touches on a form of blindness called retinopathy, I’ve never actually hung out with a blind person and I was curious to learn how accurate my assumptions were. Plus, this dude has a sunny disposition in spite of his handicap and I admired his self-sufficiency.

The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He told me stories about riding bicycles while flanked tightly by his two brothers who kept his course true, about the one time he drove a car (!), about his proficiency at the sport of wrestling as a kid in the 50s. When I asked him about the school for the blind where he lived from ages 5 to 18, his usual smile faded. “There were some nice people there, but some were just plain evil.”

I shouldn’t have looked him up. I usually don’t. Nobody is in prison for going to church, and I’d rather not know the sordid details of people’s criminal histories. But there are a couple of exceptions: 1) if we’re cellmates; and 2) if we’re friends. Then I need to know.

In hindsight, it was pretty obvious. What else could he be in prison for? Racketeering? Arson? A blind armed robber? I think I just assumed it was murder. I mean, he does have a life sentence. Turns out, it was something much uglier. Sexual battery. The worst kind. On a child younger than 12. Enter the paradox.

I know what you’re thinking: What paradox? He’s a diaper sniper. Case closed. I feel you. In the hierarchy of prison, child molesters are at the very bottom of the food chain, just below punks and snitches. During my quarter-century in the joint, I’ve witnessed them get turned out, pimped out, and traded like baseball cards until they eventually either commit suicide or check into protective custody. Those who manage to escape that fate are still robbed, extorted, or at the very least, slapped around and relentlessly ridiculed. Although I don’t participate in the abuse, I don’t have any sympathy either. I see it as karmic law in action.

I’m sure there are parents out there who take small solace in the fact that these men are being tormented in here. I know if one of my nieces or nephews were victimized, I would transfer to every prison in the state until I found the predator and punished him for his actions.

But this blind man… I can’t make myself hate him, or even be cold to him, in spite of whatever he did thirty years ago. This is a big-time conflict of interest. No self-respecting convict would ever treat a cho-mo like a human being. I keep rationalizing, maybe he’s innocent. It seems like the only thing worse than being a child molester is being an innocent man wrongly convicted of those charges.

And then there’s the evil he alluded to at the school for the blind. They say most predators were once victims. The idea of a little blind kid, hundreds of miles from home, being abused by some twisted staff member is as sickening as it is heartbreaking. I couldn’t hate that kid, even though he is now pushing 70. The best that I can do is this reluctant compassion. But see what I mean? Paradox.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in July 2016.]
 

A transformative craft

“If your life were a book, would you like your character?”

These words have been nibbling at my conscience for years, surfacing at the most inopportune times – while cheating on a girlfriend, stealing from a family member, cooking cocaine in a spoon… The answer was always the same: “No, I would not like my character. I would HATE my character.”

There are few things in this world as unsustainable and soul-sucking as drug abuse. This is far from breaking news. The hard math states that someone in your orbit is suffering right now, be it your child, sibling, significant other, friend, neighbor, co-worker or yourself. For most, the needle and the crack pipe are a life sentence of enslavement. However, there are exceptions. Some find Jesus, others escape through a 12-step program, and I would never underestimate the healing properties in the love of a woman. But for me, the way out was through the written word.

When I first began Consider the Dragonfly I did so in desperation. It was a Hail Mary, a half-court buzzer beater, my last shot to escape the quicksand of my old patterns and do something honorable. The universe gave me the bonus plan. Barely a few pages into the first chapter, the characters shimmered to life. Protagonists and antagonists whispered backstory into my heart, explaining why they were the way they were, confiding secrets and fears and dreams, drawing me deeper into the world of story. And while I was busy being a conduit, head down, scribbling furiously, a sort of alchemy was taking place in my own world. Impulsivity was converted to discipline. Recklessness was exchanged for structure. I was suddenly protective of my remaining brain cells and mournful of those I had squandered. The craft was changing me.

There is something empowering about writing a novel, something spiritual about plugging into the collective consciousness and transcribing the flow of words from the ether, something transformative. I’ve been clean for a few years now. My second book, With Arms Unbound, will be out this summer and I’m presently knee-deep in a new project. Some will say that I’ve merely swapped addictions. Maybe so. I’m cool with that. Because today when that old question pops into my head – “If your life were a book, would you like your character?” – the answer is a resounding “HELL YEAH!”

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in June 2014.]

 

 

Think of yourself as a nation

There is a villain in my second novel, With Arms Unbound, with the unfortunate name of Festus Mulgrew. He’s a meth cook from central Florida with a pet spider named Junior and a problem making eye contact. Like any decent villain on the page or the screen, Festus wasn’t born bad. There are reasons why he is the way he is. But that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. If anything, his humanity makes him even scarier, or at least more believable.

I can’t do the mustache-twirling bad guy any more than I can do the square-jawed, puppy-saving hero. I’ve never met anyone like that. My heroes are flawed and my villains have at least a couple of redeeming qualities. Just like in real life.

When sketching the character of Festus “Methlab” Mulgrew, in addition to giving him a backstory rife with abuse and abandonment, I gave him a personal philosophy for survival under harsh conditions. That philosophy is also my own. The difference is that while Festus used it in a negative way, it has helped me to quit drugs, adhere to a strict workout regimen, manage money, develop discipline, be assertive, and focus long enough to write a few books.

If anyone within the sound of this pen is struggling with self-mastery, this may help: Think of yourself as a nation. I am the United Federation of Malcolm Ivey and like any other sovereign country, I am composed of the following:

~ Borders: These are my boundaries. Thou shalt not cross.
~ Allies: My homeboys. Every nation has alliances.
~ Enemies: Other hostile nations. In my world there are many.
~ Military: My defense system. Keep strong and confident through regular exercise and stand ready to protect my borders and allies against any threat.
~ National Debt: The money I owe.
~ GDP: The money I earn.

You can even give yourself a national bird and your own anthem if you want. The point is to take a hard look at all the various agencies that make up your nation and ask yourself if they’re being run efficiently. We ultimately have the power to mold ourselves into nations with robust economies, plentiful natural resources, and solid foreign relations. We can eliminate our deficits, strengthen our alliances and win our wars. Whether we choose to be a super power or a third world country is entirely up to us.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in July 2014.]

Botox for the soul

We’ve all known loudmouths. There’s one in every hood, every club, every schoolyard, every basketball court, every prison dorm. They’re everywhere, beating on their chests, threatening, bullying, shadowboxing, trumpeting their own toughness. And most of the time, we believe them. So it’s always surprising when someone comes along and knocks them on their ass. They were all form and no substance.

How about that dude who’s constantly spouting off about politics? He’s brilliant and he wants to make certain that you know he’s brilliant. What’s this guy even doing working a 9 to 5 job? He should be hosting Face the Nation. Yet when engaged in conversation with him, it becomes clear that he’s merely repeating the opinions of others, that he’s woven a mask from the words of Fox News analysts and talk-radio blowhards. And underneath there is no substance.

Have you ever met a beautiful person whose good looks were nullified by a selfish, shallow personality? An intellectual with no common sense? A loyal church-goer with no compassion? Form is vinyl siding; substance is a house’s foundation. Form is candy paint and chrome rims; substance is a V8 engine. Rippling muscle, hairpieces, tats, piercings, boob jobs: form. Courage, honor, faithfulness, 16-hour workdays during Christmas: substance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing form. There’s something to be said for a nice body, a sparkling white smile, a sick tattoo. But if there’s no substance, then all the shiny outside stuff is basically expensive wrapping paper over a pair of tube socks.

How would I know? What qualifies me to speak on this subject? The short answer is: I’m a master of form. I am all of the above (minus the hairpiece and boob job) and after spending the better part of 40 years creating “the illusion of” instead of being, my chameleonic ways have left me feeling empty, phony, insubstantial. That’s what has led me on this fantastic journey of self-exploration, of spinal fortification, of reconciling inner with outer.

Form never lasts. Pretty words evaporate. Skin sags, teeth rot, hair eventually falls out. It’s inevitable. When I’m 90, do I want to be a miserable clot of fears and complaints and regret? Or a beacon of light? The relentless pursuit of character is Botox for the soul. Choose substance.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in November 2014.]

 

A voice in the gun debate

I’m not positive when it happened, somewhere between Virginia Tech and Fort Hood. But by the time the little 9-year-old girl in Chicago was murdered in a drive-by while waiting on her school bus, the feeling was unavoidable. Irrepressible. Then came Gabby Giffords, then Sandy Hook Elementary, then Aurora, Colorado. I cringed with every tragic breaking news story, right along with the rest of America. But unlike the rest of America, my disgust was not reserved strictly for the shooters. Some of it I saved for myself.

Full disclosure: I’m a gun criminal. There’s no explaining this away with a bunch of pretty words. NFL Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells once said: “You are what your record says you are” and my record says I am an armed career criminal. That’s how the Federal government classified me over 11 years ago when I began this 30-year sentence. And these men, these murderers, these ruthless takers of innocent life are gun criminals, just like me. For the rest of my years on this planet, at least in the eyes of the system, I will be lumped into this category of cowards.

Now my mom will argue this to her grave, and I have nieces and nephews who have no idea about my armed career criminal title. The only title they know me by is Uncle Chris. Maybe at some point in the future, I’ll write an in-depth character defense for the unconscious, addicted young man who racked up all these ugly charges and explain in detail how I’ve never physically hurt anyone, never even fired a gun. But in the opinion of the U.S. government and for the purposes of this post, I am an armed career criminal. Considering this label, coupled with the fact that I have no problem sounding off about every other issue known to man, my silence in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre and the murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge feels craven. So for whatever it’s worth, here’s how one gun criminal feels about guns and gun crime.

We are living in an era of first-person-shooter video games and a rap culture whose biggest stars glorify murder and gun violence. America’s children are being brainwashed. Their senses are under siege, many of them without the benefit of vigilant and engaged parents to at least offset this deluge of violent information. The result is usually a footnote on the evening news: carjackings, home invasions, drug deals gone bad. For every Newtown, Charleston, and Dallas, there are thousands of less publicized shootings every day.

These are troubled times. People should be able to protect their home and family. That being said, a street sweeper is a little excessive. A handgun seems like ample protection until the police arrive. Automatic rifles — or “choppers” as they are lovingly referred to by rappers like Rick Ross — are nothing less than weapons of urban warfare. Have you ever heard of any hunter mowing down deer with an AK-47?

I don’t think this is what the Founding Fathers intended. The Second Amendment was written as a protection against tyranny. This is pretty clear. But when Jefferson wrote “The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government,” I doubt he envisioned that government having fighter jets, tomahawk missiles, and nuclear warheads. A well-regulated militia? Please. Not in 2016. You’ll be the new occupant of the empty bunk across the aisle from me, on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

I know there are certain voices clamoring for all firearms to be banned and others who think the status quo is just fine. The logical course of action is probably the middle road, somewhere between these two extremes. It’s interesting that human evolution is being outpaced by technology, even lapped by it. For all our stem cell research, Mars probes, and advancements in artificial intelligence, we are still a small, covetous race that wars over religion, murders over tennis shoes, and uses skin color as a basis for hate.

Maybe the answer lies not so much in banning firearms, but in molding future generations too humane to use them.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com in August 2016, then again in April, 2017.]

Simplicity of kindness

I’ve been in a slump lately. I think it’s some kind of writer’s postpartum. Now that On the Shoulders of Giants is complete and in the editing phase, I don’t know what to do with myself. Without a working project, I feel adrift. Anchorless. And my old diversions only leave me hollow and unfulfilled.

So I was already grumpy when I sat down with the blind man this morning, but the USA Today Sports Weekly doesn’t come in Braille and I gave him my word. (Dude is a die-hard Braves fan. He listens to their games every night on AM radio. He’s also a baseball historian. Pretty amazing, really. Born blind and can still see the game in vivid detail. I never knew the difference between a sinker and a slider until he broke it down for me.)

I’m usually in awe of the blind man. Just the sound of his stick tapping the concrete will make me smile. He’s a good guy with good energy. Both are rarities in here. But today I wasn’t feeling it. I was wrapped up in my own problems. No book to consume me, no woman to love me, no rec yard, no mail, and a release date that is still thousands of days away. Me and my problems. Me me me.

But something happened as I began rattling off batting averages, OBPs, and ERAs to this guy who’s been in prison since 1986 and blind since birth. When I glanced up from the magazine and saw his unseeing eyes darting right and left, processing the information I was relaying, relishing it, I realized I was no longer annoyed. My heart was suddenly wide open, my troubles were forgotten, and in that moment, I was happy.

Why do I always forget this simple truth until it sneaks up on me? Nothing feels better than kindness. I need to practice it more often.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in June 2016.]

10% happier

I just finished reading an amazing book, 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Mr. Harris is the ABC news correspondent who had a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America in 2004.  10% Happier is the hilarious account of his journey as both skeptic and seeker. It centers largely on the benefits of meditation. (I can almost see the five people reading this page rolling their eyes simultaneously.) While there is a definite unearned stigma attached to meditation, I’ll leave that for the holy men and gurus to sort out. No sermon here. Promise. I just want to touch on the parallel between meditation and writing.

If there’s such a thing as A.D.D., I’ve got it. I have the attention span of a butterfly which makes the discipline of writing a daily battle. I’ll be one or two sentences into a scene when something hooks my attention – a bird on a window, a voice in the hall, the smell of food – and I’m off “chasing the wishes from dandelions” as my friend Sheena says.

As one distraction leads to the next, it’s sometimes hours before I remember the project, only to find it right where I left it, suspended in mid-sentence – sometimes mid-word – so I grab my pen, search for the mental thread of the story and begin again. It’s the coming back that’s the thing.

Meditation is similar in that you focus on the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils, the expansion and contraction of your lungs. When thoughts arise and you notice yourself being swept away on that tidal wave of mental chatter, you return to your breath. Every time. Notice and return, over and over.

I’ve mentioned before that the discipline of writing saved me. Up until the year I began writing Consider the Dragonfly, life was all about drugs, gambling and adrenaline. The tendency to drift toward the extremes is scribbled in the helix of my DNA. But the written word is my anchor. It’s what centers me. The words on the page are the meditative breath that I keep returning to. My om.

I’m not claiming enlightenment or even rehabilitation. The distractions still come like Craig Kimbrel fastballs. All it takes is a Sophia Vergara commercial, a Black Crowes song or Miami Dolphins breaking news and I hit the ground running. But once I regain awareness and realize that yet again, I’ve been lured down the hallways of always, I shake my head and return to my work, to the open notebook that awaits me.

It’s the coming back that’s the thing.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in June 2014.]

Magical No. 9

I’ve always had a thing for the number 9. When I was a kid, there was a local graffiti artist who used to tag it all over South Miami. I remember riding in the back of our family car and seeing it spray-painted on bus stops and the sides of businesses. Once I was conditioned to look for it, the number began popping up everywhere. Highlighted on taxicabs, gas station price signs, and math homework assignments.

When I was 18 (1+8=9), I came to prison and discovered Coast to Coast with Art Bell on AM radio. One of his guests was a numerologist who spent an entire segment on the number 9, pointing out its unique properties, relating it to the Mayans and ancient mathematicians. It was like he was talking about my childhood friend.

My life is full of 9s. My mom had me when she was 27 (2+7=9). Her mom had her when she was 18 (1+8=9). When the universe blesses me with a love interest and I find out her birthday, my mind instantly begins its calculations (“7/5/1984: 7+5+1+9+8+4=34 and 3+4=7. Damn. Almost. If only she’d been born in September.”). When my nieces and nephews turn 9, they get a long, rambling card from me pointing out the magic of the age and encouraging them to make the most of it. Many of the cell numbers and dates that appear in Consider the Dragonfly and With Arms Unbound are nods to 9. There’s a full-blown tribute to the number via the character Scarlett McGhee in On the Shoulders of Giants.

So of course, 2016 was destined to be a gigantic year (2+0+1+6=9) and after a sluggish start, it is now surpassing expectations. My third novel is in the pipeline, the Miami Dolphins drafted Laremy Tunsil, With Arms Unbound received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest magazine novel competition, and a recent Supreme Court ruling may reduce my release date from 2032 (don’t bother, it’s 7) to 2025 (2+0+2+5=9) and it’s only May! Good ‘ol 9. What’s your favorite number?

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in May 2016.]

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