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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.]

Make a real difference

There is something unsustainable going on in this country. It’s happening in every project building and trailer park across the nation. Babies are being born into poverty, if they are lucky enough to make it that far, as many are discarded with the trash.

These kids grow up like weeds, forgotten by incarcerated or addicted parents — many of whom are still kids themselves — ignored by society, bouncing around state foster care systems and juvenile detention centers, raised by the streets.

When I was smoking crack, I remember driving to my local ghetto to score some dope one morning. I was amazed by how many kids mobbed my car. Eleven and twelve-year-olds, pushing and shoving each other outside my window, holding out baggies of the rock cocaine I sought, vying to make the coveted sell. Even in my drug-addled mind, I remember wondering why these kids weren’t in school.

Now, ten years into a 30-year prison sentence, I see those same kids moving into the neighboring bunks in my dorm; 18-year-old boys with 50- and 60-year sentences, their lives already over. I know people will say they made their own choices, but when a child grows up unraised and unloved, when he has to hustle and scrap for everything he gets, when the only environment he knows is one of crime and violence, when the heroes of his community are gangsters and criminals, when the music he’s been listening to his entire life trumpets murder, robbery, and dope-dealing as a realistic, viable life path … it’s difficult to wake up one day and decide to get a GED. Maybe in Hollywood, rarely in real life.

The newspapers say crime is down 4 percent in this country. Somebody is skewing those numbers. With the rise of physically addictive prescription drugs, and heroin rearing its ugly head, there is no way the crime rate is dropping. The problem is not going to go away. It is a festering sore on the face of society that is expanding exponentially. And there’s only one way to stop it: Love.

Naïve as it may sound, if every child in this country were loved and nurtured, there would be a lot less violent crime in America 15 years from now. So let’s set aside the whales and the trees and the ozone for a minute. If we really want to make a difference, we need to save the kids.

Because there is no them; only us.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com in September 2014.]

 

E = mc2

My father’s father was a writer and the son of a philanthropist. His name was E. Malcolm Collins, II. I never met him but his novel, Angel Blood, was a permanent fixture on the bookshelf in our apartment when I was growing up.

The story passed down through the family was that he was an alcoholic and drug abuser, and in December 1971, he ran a bath of scalding hot water, stepped in, slipped and banged his head. He died in the tub. He left behind one daughter, my Aunt Carole, who also struggled with alcoholism and depression, and one son, my father “Mac,” E. M. Collins, III, who had his own issues with drug abuse and compulsive behavior.

In 1990, Aunt Carole checked into a hotel room and shot herself in the heart. Three and a half years later, my father died of congestive heart failure, a lifetime of Camel non-filters and horrible eating habits finally caught up with him. Aunt Carole had two daughters: Kelly and Ginger. Mac had four sons: Scott, Keith, Jeff, and me.

Not to air any dirty family laundry, but I think deep down my brothers and cousins would agree that there’s a little crazy swimming in our DNA; a compulsive gene, a predisposition to addiction, maybe even a touch of psychosis. But there’s also an overwhelming amount of love and music and laughter.

September 5th is the 21st anniversary of my father’s death. It’s hard to believe that over two decades have passed since the prison chaplain gave me the news. At age 40, I can see the evidence of his genetic fingerprints all over my life, and not just in my evaporating hairline or the blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror. I recognize him in my passion for sports, my own struggles with drug abuse, my love for the Blackjack tables in Biloxi, my affinity for cheesecake. There are signs of E. M. Collins II, in me too, and his father, and the echoes of countless generations before them.

When I began writing novels, I took on the pseudonym Malcolm Ivey as a nod to those men: Malcolm I, II, and III, the philanthropist, the writer and the banker. The “Ivey” represents the Roman numeral IV, Malcolm the fourth, my father’s son to the bone and the youngest of four brothers. Ivey.

On September 5th, I will raise a bottle of water to my reflection and salute the Malcolms in me, blemishes and all. As the brilliant Albert Einstein put it, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” I drink to that.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com in September 2014.]

Dum spiro spero

dandelion-windIn my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, one of the protagonists, Ezra James, often references the universe when it comes to inspiration. Even the title of the book, which Ezra lifts from a President Obama speech, is more the result of serendipitous coincidence than meticulous plotting.

Like the story’s protagonist, I too am a big believer in the universe. This is the source from which creative magic flows. There’s a reason why so many artists shrug off compliments regarding their work: It feels like a scam to accept credit for something that is clearly ether-born. Sure, the writer provides the discipline by sitting in front of a computer for hours, as does the painter at the easel and the musician strumming the guitar. Sentence by brush stroke by chord, we plod along. Progress is minimal. But if we sit there long enough, lightning cracks, the sky opens, our eyes glaze over and the Bradburian effect kicks in. “…and when their souls grew warm, they were poets.” We can take credit if we want, but the truth is, in that moment, we are plugged into something greater. Something mystical. We are conduits. The universe is moving through us.

I came across the Latin phrase dum spiro spero in a Merriam-Webster dictionary a few years ago while searching for a cool tattoo. The meaning, while I breathe I hope, resonated with me. So much so that I wove it into the novel as a plot point regarding lost love. At least I thought that was the purpose.

Here’s where the universe comes in. It wasn’t until the book was finished and on the shelf that I learned that dum spiro spero is also the state motto of South Carolina. Blew me away.

I’ve never been to South Carolina, don’t know anyone in South Carolina, but like most Americans, I was heartbroken and outraged when Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and murdered those nine black parishioners. Pure evil. But what was also shocking was the reaction of the people of Charleston. There were no race riots, no rumors of retaliation, no violence. Just a candlelight vigil for the victims where people of all races mourned the loss of their neighbors. Even the survivors of this heartless, senseless, spineless execution said they were praying for the killer.

I’m honored that On the Shoulders of Giants, a novel that deals largely with the topic of race, contains the state motto of such beautiful people. Although it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t coincidence either. As Ezra would say, it was pure universe.

Dum spiro spero.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com earlier this year.]

 

Blunt force trauma

Doggy doorI got punched in the face the other night. Long story. It didn’t knock me down, but I was out on my feet. Hurt my pride more than anything. Thankfully, in the parallel universe of prison, standing up for oneself supersedes wins and losses and after spending so many years in a cage, I’ve at least got the standing up part down pat.

But in the groggy aftermath of the fight, as I lay in my bunk with a vicious headache and a wet rag attempting to staunch the blood flow, it occurred to me that I had probably just suffered yet another concussion.

I’m paranoid about my brain. I’ve been that way since I started writing books. Any minor lapse of memory is immediately suspected as a precursor for dementia. I mourn the loss of brain cells I once squandered sucking on crack pipes and water bongs and I even meditate in the neuroplastical hope of rejuvenating gray matter. I’d take three broken legs over another concussion at this stage.

Head-shots, like felony arrests, have been a recurring theme over the first couple semesters of my life. When I was five years old, I had to be stitched up after running full speed into a wall in our apartment. Then there were seven years of head-on collisions in Pop Warner football, then juvenile hall lumps, prison yard lumps, a metal bar stool across the head in my mid-30s… But the most memorable concussion of my crash test dummy life was the car wreck that preceded the above photo. That’s not Frankenstein up there, that’s me. And those are 70 staples in my head.

Luckily there were no other cars involved. The roads were slick, my tires were bald, and my Pathfinder hydroplaned, flipped, and crashed through a fence, smacking an oak tree. The metal roof collapsed on my head.

I awoke two days later in the ICU of Sacred Heart Hospital. The neurosurgeon told my mom that I could be deaf, blind, slow, or paralyzed post-surgery, but that my brain was swelling and if he didn’t operate immediately, I would die.

That was 14 years ago and much has happened since: heartbreaks, hair loss, addiction, a lengthy prison sentence, and yes, more concussions. But in the midst of all this dreariness, something transformative has also occurred… books! And with these books, discipline, honor, maturity. I think even the most skeptical reader would concede that a brain-damaged, crackhead, ADHD high school dropout summoning the concentration to write full-length novels longhand is pretty unusual, if not miraculous. Sometimes I wonder if that near-fatal head injury back in 2002 caused some undeveloped part of my brain to light up and assist me in becoming a normal, fully functioning human being.

My third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, is now available on Amazon. If you read it, you’ll find a character with a scar very similar to my own. This was done not only in adherence to the author’s axiom write what you know, but also as a tribute to my lifelong, toxic love affair with blunt force trauma and banging my head against things.

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