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Scotty’s story

I just assumed Scotty was a diaper sniper when he moved into my dorm. He fit the mold; 5 foot 5, big bifocals, quiet and never far from his bunk. Operating under this assumption, I dealt with him accordingly. Which is to say I didn’t deal with him at all. Different prisoners have different approaches to child predators. Abuse, extortion, exploitation… Karmic law can sometimes be a violent force. My approach is to let it do its thing. So I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that Scotty was, in fact, not a cho-mo. He was doing life for murder.

Back in 1985, when Reagan was just beginning his second term, when breakdancing was still in style and artificial intelligence was only a plot point in a sci-fi novel, Scotty found out his old lady was cheating. The arrest report says he shot her lover six times after leaving a Lakeland bar. He doesn’t remember any of it, but he was pretty drunk. While he was telling me his story, I kept doing the math in my head. Thirty-three years. I’ve been gone for 14 and it already feels like an eternity. When Scotty fell, I was only 11 years old. My life was really just beginning as his was coming to an end. (Although I’m sure the victim’s family would argue that the only life that actually came to an end that day was their loved one’s.) Sad situation, all the way around. If life is really just this flow of atoms through time and space, this endless waterfall of moments, each fading into the next, it’s amazing to fathom how a single drop — a solitary frame in an infinite sea of pixels — could have such far-reaching effects.

At age 20, Scotty was found guilty and sentenced to life with a mandatory quarter. Back in those days, Florida still had a parole system and this sentence ensured that he would serve at least 25 years, day for day, before being considered for release. This is what both the legislature and the court intended. Then came the 90s when the measure of politicians on both sides of the aisle came down to how tough they were on crime. Humane ideas such as empathy, forgiveness and second chances were viewed as weaknesses and quickly pounced on by political opponents. The parole system was abolished, the prison-building craze began, and life sentences suddenly meant exactly that… life.

But there was one problem: people like Scotty who were sentenced according to a different set of laws. This is why there is still a parole commission in the Sunshine State despite the fact that it’s been almost three decades since the parole system was axed. But to many of these dinosaurs, the system is a cruel joke.

Scotty limped to the finish line of his mandatory 25 years in 2010, legally blind from retinopathy (hence the enormous bifocals) along with a host of other medical complications that come with being a type 1 diabetic at the mercy of a starch-laden prison diet. When he met with the parole examiner that year, he presented a stack of certificates; everything from vocational classes like cabinet making to small appliance repair to residential wiring (which he took and taught), to the Christian program “Kairos,” to various anger and stress management programs, to the state-mandated Compass reentry course, along with both parenting pilot programs, from which he was the first in the state to graduate.

In addition to all these accomplishments, he also arrived at the quarter-century mark without a single disciplinary report. Just to add some perspective here, I’ve been incarcerated since March of 2005 and I’ve had eight DRs. Eight. And I consider myself a model inmate. Florida prisons are rife with drugs and gangs and undiagnosed mental illness. Even when one is committed to living righteously in these places, shit happens. Your bunkie hides something in the cell that you’re not aware of, you’re attacked and forced to defend yourself, you talk during count, you miss a call-out… Or you somehow manage to sidestep all of the above, but you have the misfortune of crossing paths with the wrong guard on the wrong day. Bogus DRs are almost a cliché in here. This was especially true during the last two decades when institutional abuse was at its height. The fact that Scotty was able to avoid every pitfall and keep his nose pristine is a minor miracle. Even now, on the doorstep of his 34th year in the joint, he still has a clean disciplinary record.

And yet…

The parole commission set his presumptive release date for 2030. And every few years when some formality of a rubber-stamped kangaroo-court hearing pops up, they pretend to consider all the facts before banging the gavel and denying his release. Again. This despite overwhelming evidence of his rehabilitation, exemplary conduct and deteriorating health. The parole examiner who conducted that initial 2010 interview even recommended to the board that he be released. Didn’t matter. Denied.

This begs the question: Why? Scotty is not the first person I’ve met in this situation. There are a handful at every institution (though I’ve never known anyone with 33 years DR-free). It almost seems that the state is bitter that there was once a time when sentencing laws were fair and provided a mechanism where men and women could earn their way out of prison with good behavior. So even though the parole commission is required by law to have these hearings, for the most part, people like Scotty are just set off until they die. The few that do make it out are those who are lucky enough to have friends and family to make phone calls and show support. This is more an exception than a rule. The reality is that people serving long prison sentences usually serve them alone.

Like I said, sad situation all the way around.

Manhood

When did the GOP become the party of the alpha male? Somewhere over the last few years the Right found its rugged “God, guns and country” swagger while the Left was reduced to a bunch of snowflake socialists more concerned with transgender bathroom preferences than the issues facing the average American. Fair or not, this is the perception. And in this era of fake news and alternative facts, perception trumps reality. Especially in this era.

But I refuse to be sucked in. I’ve done enough herd-following for one lifetime. Wasted too many years ignoring that small voice inside telling me what’s right (or muffling it with chemicals). These last 14 years in the joint have been a massive rebuilding project for me. Lots of soul-searching. My father did the best he could for a man who struggled with multiple demons but he died relatively young. The absence of a strong male figure in my life left me wondering what manhood actually looked like. The gang-banger? The knockout artist? The bodybuilder? The lifer playing with his kids in visitation? The Christian on his knees? The Muslim making his salat? The quiet guard pulling shift work? The abusive one going above and beyond? The warden? The governor? President Obama? President Trump?

This is what I have come to believe: A man treats others with the exact amount of respect he demands for himself. He is confident but not arrogant, strong but not oppressive, kind but not soft. His will is iron, just like his word, and he finishes whatever he starts. He doesn’t take things personally… unless they are. He’s not thin-skinned or combative. He knows what he’s capable of and lets his actions speak. He believes in second chances. He understands how dangerous the extremes are and makes his home in the realm of moderation. He stands up for women and sees his own children in all children. He knows how fortunate he is to have been born on American soil, in American skin, and realizes that he could have just as easily been born in a Guatemalan body. He appreciates the risks that fathers and mothers from impoverished nations face in order to give their families the opportunity of a better life… because he knows he would do the same thing if it came down to it.

Again, this is just my version. You probably have your own. One thing is for sure: neither party has a monopoly on manhood. I have brothers, cousins and friends on both sides of the aisle who embody much of the above. But I don’t see a lot of it in D.C. these days.

It becomes who they are

When gangster rappers put out music pumping murder, gang-banging, and dope life, their message is received by legions of adoring fans. The labels claim it’s just entertainment. But many of these people are so easily influenced and have so little going on in their lives that their identity, reality, and worldview get swallowed up in a rap lyric. It becomes who they are. So they carjack and kidnap and murder… And they end up in the bunk next to me with a life sentence.

When Donald Trump hops on stage at campaign rallies spewing divisiveness, preaching fear, and demonizing his political opponents, his message is received by legions of adoring fans. The Republican establishment and FOX News claim it’s just political rhetoric. But many of these people are so easily influenced and have so little going on in their lives that their identity, reality, and worldview get swallowed up in the hate-speak. It becomes who they are. So they troll people on Twitter and drive cars into crowds of protesters and mail pipe bombs to former presidents… And they end up in the bunk next to me with a life sentence.

A matter of character

I hope people come out in force next month to stand up against this embarrassment of an administration. It’s difficult to pick just a few of the problems, but I’ll try…

The President of the United States of America has long been recognized as “The Leader of the Free World.” A justified and worthy title. But if “leaders lead by example” as the maxim says, then it’s important to examine the direction in which we’re being led, especially here at the halfway point.

Under this administration our long-standing allies are being humiliated and disrespected while dictators and oppressors are being patted on the back. Families seeking refuge from violent and impoverished conditions on our southern border are being labeled as murderers and rapists, third world nations are referred to as “shithole countries,” nonviolent social justice activists exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest are called “sons of bitches,” decent and professional news correspondents like Cecilia Vega are bullied on national television, porn stars are paid hush money, cabinet members are indicted, political opponents are mocked and insulted: “Barack Obama is not an American citizen… John McCain was not a war hero… Ted Cruz’s father was the zodiac killer…” The refusal to condemn the Saudis after a Washington Post journalist was hacked to pieces inside their embassy, the constant media demonizing and delegitimizing, the Twitter wars, the Charlottesville response, the fear-mongering, the coded racism, the outright misogyny, the thin-skinnedness, the hard-heartedness, the overall lack of decorum… All this and more has become the norm over the last two years.

This has nothing to do with policy. This is a matter of character. And the only members of the Republican establishment with the balls to speak out against this assault on diplomacy and civility are the ones who are not seeking another term in congress. I know the economy is roaring. But turning a blind eye to the bossman’s rude and disrespectful behavior for a few extra dollars is not just spineless, it’s un-American.

Kathleen Parker once wrote that “the question of character isn’t always what did you do, but rather what were you willing to tolerate?” If you’re sick of the intolerance and you’ve had enough of the schoolyard bullying and you reject the pettiness that has been the hallmark of the Trump administration from Day 1, then I invite you to the rebellion…Vote Democrat this November.

Remembering Amber

When I heard that 18-year-old Amber Robinson was beaten to death by a dude she met at a Rainbow Gathering, the story felt surreal. Oxymoronic. How does one reconcile the savage beating of a teenage girl with an event largely associated with peace and love? I would call it shocking but there is no such thing anymore. Not in this era of school shootings, church shootings, terrorist attacks, celebrity suicides, human trafficking, genital mutilation, and bath salts cannibalism. Each new atrocity is quickly drowned out by the next in the exhaustive 24-hour news cycle. The result is a sort of world-weary numbness.

Crushing? Absolutely. Shocking? Not at all.

I spoke with Amber a while back. My friend Amy was working on adopting her at the time and told me that she was an amazing artist. I offered to pay her to do the revised cover art for my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants. While I thought the current cover was well drawn, I regretted showing the faces of Izzy and Pharaoh, the story’s two protagonists. I wanted the reader to have the freedom to see the characters according to his or her own imagination.

I really liked the idea of Amber doing the cover because she was a foster kid, just like Izzy. I envisioned a simple image: a syringe and a pen crossed like the letter X.

She read the novel and sketched a concept. But it wasn’t what I asked for … it was a million times better. This highly creative kid saw straight through to the soul of the story and drew an angel impaled on a syringe.

When I heard she was murdered, I dug through my old photographs and found her sketch. Amy had written this on the back:

“I really hope they let you keep this. She’s sketching it on canvas. I snuck in and took a picture of it for you. I think she started to do the needle/pen image as requested but she got lost in this metaphor of her family. I know it will mean something to you.”

Hell yeah it meant something. She nailed it. The perfect cover. Then I lost touch with Amy, a new book came out, a few great-nieces and great-nephews were born and like most foster kids, Amber was forgotten.

Until Amy informed me that she was murdered.

So now I’m back to wanting that cover changed. And it will happen. Another artist will take her sketch and fashion it into the cover I’ve always wanted. Amber will be given credit for her idea on the copyright page, I’ll revise the acknowledgements to mention her name, and maybe add her to the dedication. “For the forgotten, the lost, the state raised and Amber Robinson.”

But she’ll never know how brilliant I thought she was because I didn’t tell her when I had the chance.

Say it loud.

 

 

‘Decide what to be and go be it’

I recently read that the hands of a human embryo begin as webbed, spade-like flippers until cell death sculpts individual little fingers.

Nature is a master sculptor.

Another master sculptor, Michelangelo, was once asked how he had created his masterpiece, David. His answer: “I looked at the stone and removed all that was not David.”

Writers do this, too. We pull details from the infinite and organize them in linear form to tell a story. Even the world’s oldest bestseller gives a nod to the creative process when, in chapter one, the Divine Architect fashions earth from the “formless and void.”

There is a powerful lyric from the Avett Brothers “Head full of doubt/Road full of promise,” a song introduced to me by my friend Sheena when I was still struggling to transcend the straitjacket of my criminal past and evolve into something more. It’s this: “Decide what to be and go be it.”

Simple yet powerful. That’s what’s up. As much as we try to convince ourselves that we are fixed and stagnant, that this is just the way we are, the way we’re wired; the truth is we are really the waveform in particle physics existing in a state of pure potential, primordial sludge, unwritten music, blank sheets of paper, unchiseled stone, works-in-progress tricked into believing we are finished products. It is our mission — and our inheritance as offspring of the Original Creator — to go forward and create our best selves.

In the timeless words of James Allen, “The oak sleeps in the acorn.”

A spectacular life

I have never watched Parts Unknown, never eaten at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, never read Kitchen Confidential, yet I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. I first heard of him on NPR’s Fresh Air. When Terry Gross introduced him as a chef, I reached for my radio to change the station.

“Anthony Bourdain, welcome to Fresh Air…”

I know the foodie movement is a thing out there in the real world, but here in the land of starch-grenades and watered-down pudding, the culinary craze never caught fire. I had better things to do than waste Duracell juice on some Yankee pontificating on the subtle art of five-star cuisine.

Then he began to speak … and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

Dude was a natural-born storyteller. For the length of the interview, I was transported from my tiny prison cell in the Florida Panhandle to a bustling New York City kitchen, to a raft in the Mekong Delta, through jungles, across deserts, over mountains and beyond. To some of the most remote locations on the globe. To parts unknown.

Despite the diametrically polar trajectories of our lives, it became clear as I listened that Mr. Bourdain was a kindred spirit. This seems strange to say about a guy who’s eaten lamb nuts, wart hog rectum, and raw seal eyeball (especially considering that my soft ass won’t even eat an onion). Maybe it was his early struggles with hard drugs. Or the fact that he made more than his share of horrible choices as a younger man. If nothing else, we most definitely shared in the transformative power of the written word. For him, it meant a springboard to fortune and fame; for me, an identity other than career criminal. By the end of the interview, I was a fan.

When I saw his picture for the first time earlier this year in a Men’s Health magazine, he looked exactly as I’d imagined — tall (six-foot-four), tattoos, head full of gray hair, and a craggy, lined, lived-in face. The article was about him taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Check out this quote: “Look, I’m 61 years old. I have limited expectations of how I’ll do, but every once in a while, I get to feel the will to live drain out of a 22-year-old wrestler.”

Hell yeah.

Back to Fresh Air. I’ve listened to well over a thousand Terry Gross interviews during this prison bid. Musicians, rappers, actors, writers, athletes, activists, comedians, politicians, news correspondents, and other interesting people from all walks of life. Strange that my all-time favorite would be a celebrity chef. But it is. So I was pumped when NPR rebroadcast it a few weeks ago. I settled back on my bunk with a cup of coffee, ready to spend an hour with old friends… until they cut to break and Dave Davies explained that they were re-airing the interview because Anthony Bourdain had been found unresponsive in a Paris hotel room that morning, his death ruled a suicide. Just as I had been introduced to his life via Fresh Air, I was now being informed of his departure through the same program. Talk about full circle.

Mr. Bourdain was obviously a seeker, same as all of us. He overturned stones through art, food, travel, chemicals, relationships, and even jiu-jitsu along the journey. But what exactly was he seeking? What are any of us seeking? Meaning. Gratification. Connectivity. Belonging. That unnamed and ever-beckoning “it.”

I know many will judge him strictly on the nature of his passing. But the span of a human life is much too complex to be defined by a single instance. Though his suicide was heartbreaking, it was still a single instance, the final instance of a pretty spectacular life.

I continue to be inspired by him.

‘An international embarrassment’

In 2012, after serving over 15 years in the dilapidated and thoroughly inhumane state-run institutions of the Florida Department of Corrections, I found myself staring through the mesh-plated windows of a transport bus at the gleaming razor wire that surrounded my next home: Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a private prison in the Panhandle owned by the GEO Group… and I was thrilled.

No more un-air-conditioned, hot-box dormitories, no more meager servings of disgusting food, no more mentally ill cell mates, abusive staff, shabby laundry, inadequate supplies. No more misery. I had arrived in the land of milk and honey. Sweetwater. Arctic-level AC, hot edible food, ESPN, movies on the weekends, rec every day, a roll of soft toilet paper once a week. This was more like it. This was living!

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Four short years later, I was back on the bus. Tears in my eyes, utopia in the rearview, headed back to that from whence I came. Another filthy, sweltering, state-run facility. Word was they were turning the privatized paradise into a psych camp and apparently I wasn’t crazy enough to stay.

Upon my return to the prison system I grew up in, it was evident that much had changed while I was away. New secretary Julie Jones had curtailed most of the staff abuse by installing cameras and audio in confinement units. The food was better, supplies were given out more frequently, motivational slogans were painted on the walls, and the department had changed its name from the Department of Corrections to the Florida Department of Corrections in an effort to distance itself from its own bloody, 150-year history. But even with all these upgrades, the state-run facilities were still ramshackle hovels compared to their outsourced, for-profit counterparts.

So I was blown away when I read a USAToday article in August of 2016, detailing how then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates planned to phase out all private prisons in the Federal system once their contracts expired. She said that companies like GEO “don’t provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources as the Federal Bureau of Prisons…”

Come again?

Was she really saying that my beloved Blackwater, with its edible food and air conditioning and ESPN was not up to Federal standards? And if so, how cushy was Federal prison? But as I read on, I began to understand. The Obama administration, along with the Loretta Lynch DOJ and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle didn’t want to be tethered to those who would seek to profit from the exploitation of human captivity. These are people who lobby to keep archaic mandatory minimums in place, donate millions to candidates who will keep the “war on drugs” going, who need fathers removed from homes so their at-risk sons and daughters will one day fill empty prison bunks, who have a vested interest in high recidivism and overcrowded jails… it’s their bread and butter.

It was no surprise to see GEO Group stock plummet 38 percent when Ms. Yates made this announcement. Nor was it much of a shocker when, six months later, the Trump administration immediately rescinded the order upon moving into the White House, causing the stock to soar again. After all, these same prison profiteers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Make America Great Again war chest, plus a million the same year lobbying Congress, targeting appropriations bills. And it looks like their palm-greasing is already paying huge dividends with this immigration crisis. Nothing spells profit like selling poor refugee detainees international phone cards at gouge-level prices.

Bernie Sanders nailed it: “It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. We have got to end the private prison racket in America.”

Today, I’m grateful for the gnats dive-bombing my food in the chow hall, for my lumpy, plastic-covered mat, for the lukewarm water fountain, even for the triple-digit July sweat rolling down my back as I pen this essay. I’d rather write about the struggle from here in the trenches than from some plush, privatized luxury box. Especially one that is owned by the very people who are betting that the land of the free will remain the world’s leading incarcerator.

 

Number 5

Working on my fifth book. No title yet, but it’s the story of a hit woman, a musician recently released from prison, and a drug trafficker’s wife.

Prologue
Barefoot, with chubby scraped knees pumping away, Dixie barreled through the tall grass. A monarch butterfly flitted just beyond her reach. Musical laughter unspooled in her wake as thick mud squished between her toes.

Though barely a quarter-acre, the backyard was a sprawling wonderland to her three-year-old eyes; a dense and endless jungle of overgrown weeds, home to grasshoppers, ladybugs, and magic rocks that sparkled when she held them to the sun.

She paused to yank a dandelion from the ground. Without a wish, she blew it bald then continued after the butterfly, chasing it along the fence, little fingers jangling the chain-links as she ran. She followed it round the old yellow truck with its missing hood and corroded engine block that was adorned with beer cans and empty cigarette packs. Majestic wings hovered and flapped against the flattened tires that appeared to be melting into the mud. Then it went up through the windshield, skimming the greenish cubes of shattered glass that spilled across the sun-cracked dash like a cascade of diamonds.

Her outstretched hands opened and closed as she pursued it beneath the rusty chains of the broken swing set, beyond the slumping tin-roofed shed where the black racer snakes lived, and back toward the clapboard house where it fluttered upward on a breeze and disappeared over the roof.

She stood there waiting, hoping it would return but she was soon distracted by the familiar sound of her momma and Chuck wrastling on the couch. They were always wrastling, especially when they gave themselves shots like at the doctor’s office. Once she ran up and tried to push Chuck off, but her momma screamed at her to get the fuck out! That was the last time she tried to help. Maybe her momma liked Chuck but Dixie hated him. He smelled like ashes and socks and he tickled her until she couldn’t breathe.

A paint bucket lay discarded in the weeds. She dragged it over to the house, set it upside down, and climbed atop. Her wobbly legs trembled as she stood on mud-caked tip toes to peek through the open window.

Chuck sniffed the air. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Her momma’s voice drifted toward her, hoarse from a lingering cold.

“Someone’s on the front porch.”

“It’s probably just Dixie,” said her momma. “We’ve been up since Sunday, baby. You know how you get.”

He rose naked from the couch and crept to the front of the house. Scary tattoos of skulls and demons and snarling wolves ripped across his back.

“Here we go again,” her momma mumbled as she sat up and reached for the needle.

A small pile of medicine lay next to a spoon on Dixie’s favorite book, The Little Engine That Could. She hoped her momma wasn’t going to give herself another shot. All medicine made her want to do was wrastle or vacuum or pick at her face until the scabs bled.

Chuck came flying back down the hall. “It’s a raid,” he hissed.

Dixie ducked beneath the ledge, lost her balance, and fell in the grass. The water spigot dripped inches from her face. Popcorn-shaped clouds drifted across the summer sky.

“Chuck,” her momma pleaded, “don’t do this.”

The needle shot from the window over her head like an orange dart, followed by scattershot baggies of medicine and charred glass pipes.

“Get your ass up woman! Move! The front yard is crawling with Feds!”

Airborne paraphernalia continued to fly from the window as Dixie sat up and leaned against the house. She had no idea what a Fed was but she knew that if it scared Chuck, as tall and mean as he was, it had to be pretty scary. He wasn’t even afraid of the monsters that lived under her bed.

“Shit! Is that the muriatic acid from the last batch?”

“Where?”

“On the counter, you stupid bitch! I told you to get rid…” His frantic footsteps faded into the kitchen as a neighbor’s lawnmower sputtered and roared to life.

She strained to hear more but her attention was hooked by the return of the butterfly, hovering near the dripping faucet. Slowly she extended her finger. It seemed to sniff at it for a moment before fluttering off, skirting along the side of the house, brushing the peeling green paint with its wing.

She watched it vanish around the corner and was on the verge of renewing the chase when the men appeared. Three of them. Muscles and veins bulged from tight black shirts. Black boots flattened the grass. Black gloves aimed black guns as they silently approached, their faces grim and terrible.

She scrambled to her feet, burst through the weeds, and darted for the safety of the house.

“Hold your fire!” a voice commanded. “It’s just a kid.”

She was halfway up the steps when the door flew open and Chuck, naked, wild-eyed, pouring sweat, heaved a bucket of chemicals in her face.

It was as if she’d run head first into a swarm of hornets that were then shrink-wrapped to her skin and set on fire, melting it to the bone. She gulped for air and breathed hot nails instead. Her arms flailed as she stumbled backward. A cannonade of shouting voices volleyed over her head but the words didn’t register through the deafening crackle in her ears.

She tried to scream. Only gagged. Then the TV screen of her consciousness dimmed at the corners, rapidly diminishing from a shrinking circle to a single pixel which flickered, glowed, then mercifully zapped off.

 

For Mom

I electrocuted myself when I was a second-grader in Catholic school. I was in the principal’s office for fighting Ryan Balthrop and thought it would be cool to jam a paper clip in an electrical socket while I waited. Something to pass the time. I vaguely remember convulsing against the wall, then being spat across the room, crashing into a nun’s desk like a meteor with my hair standing straight up and every line and seam on my palm burnt to a crisp. When my mom skidded into the Saint Pius parking lot, she was crying harder than I was.

This would become a recurring theme in our lives: me self-destructing and Mom suffering. When I hit 13 and went to juvie for the first time, Momma cried. When I was sentenced to prison at age 18, Momma cried. When I showed up at visitation with black eyes from fighting, or dilated eyes from dope, or sunken eyes from months in solitary confinement, Momma cried. And when I finally came home after ten years, Momma cried.

But just because she cried doesn’t mean she’s weak. My mom is a soldier. The strongest lady I know. Imagine witnessing your only son waste away on crack cocaine, finding him on your porch at 3 a.m. emaciated, dirty, begging for money. Only you don’t see the zombie that the world sees. You see the little boy that you rocked and read bedtime stories to and drove to football practice. Imagine arriving at Sacred Heart Hospital after learning he totaled his car and having the ER surgeon explain that if he performs brain surgery now, your child could be deaf or blind or slow, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be dead within hours. Imagine sitting by his bed in ICU, stroking his stapled head. The face you had so much hope for now vacant. Defeated. Swollen and bruised from police flashlights and boots. The same flesh you once bathed and diapered and swaddled in blankets now ripped to ribbons by police dogs. Imagine sitting in the courtroom, helpless, as a federal judge sentences him to 31 years in prison.

This story could have easily ended right there. But Mom wouldn’t let it go. She forced the issue. She continued believing in me, despite my track record of personal failure. She kept willing me forward when I thought the fight was long over, kept driving to every prison in the state to visit me, kept seeing the best in me, kept calling me on my shit when I was slipping, kept loving me for some cosmic maternal spiritual reason that only mothers and God understand.

Then one day in 2010, I asked her if she would type something for me… This became what is now the first chapter of Consider the Dragonfly. Eight years and four novels later, we’re still going strong and my old life seems like someone else’s nightmare.

I believe the stories I tell are relevant. And obviously, I hope they are entertaining. I do my best to illustrate the human condition with heart, humor, and unobtrusive prose. But the real story may be the process. I write the scenes and chapters longhand from my bunk, then six pages at a time I mail them home to Mom who lovingly types every F-bomb, every fight sequence, every overdose, then sends them back to me for revisions, which are made during 15-minute collect calls, all under the jaundiced eye of one of the nation’s more abusive and intolerant prison systems. This is the story behind the stories, the journey of a crash-dummy son and the mother who refused to give up on him.

Poor Momma. As hard as it’s been on her in real life, it’s been even worse on the page. After Consider the Dragonfly, people wondered if she killed herself. Then after On the Shoulders of Giants, many assumed she was a junkie. Now that Sticks & Stones has been out for a few months, people have been discreetly inquiring about her late-stage Alzheimer’s. She’s likely Kenny from South Park — next book she’ll probably get hit by a truck. There’s a reason for this: memorable fiction is not about what goes right, but what goes wrong. And the most catastrophic thing that could happen in my world is something happening to Mom.

People also confuse me with my characters. I guess this is fair since they’re all convicted felons. If I had to select one that I relate to the most, it would be Izzy from On the Shoulders of Giants. Like him, I feel like writing gives me an identity other than failure, loser, career-criminal. But unlike Izzy, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some positive return on energy. My novels have been mentioned in Writers Digest magazine, my hometown paper ran an article about me, I even received a personal letter from President Obama… but the crowning achievement of my writing life is that the lady I once habitually let down, humiliated, and made cry is now able to slide these books to other county retirees and fellow master gardeners and say with pride, “My son is a writer. This is his latest novel.”

Happy Mother’s Day.

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