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The honeymoon is over

SONY DSCWas I an idiot for giving Trump the benefit of the doubt? This is a guy who with a straight face alleged that Ted Cruz was the Zodiac killer, alleged that Cruz’s father was behind the Kennedy assassination. Despite all reason he maintains that he would’ve won the popular vote were it not for the votes of three million illegals. He still refuses to release his tax returns – something for which former candidates like Romney and Clinton suffered political consequences but still did out of respect for tradition and the process. Why should any presidential candidate from this point on release their financial information? Trump is setting a dangerous precedent.

His pick to head the EPA has sued the EPA fourteen times. His pick to head the Department of Energy is on record saying he wants to eliminate the Department of Energy. His Labor pick is a fast food exec. He has openly disrespected women, the disabled, war heroes, civil rights icons, hard-working immigrants and peaceful people of faith everywhere. And then there’s the embarrassing bromance with puppet master Putin and the Russian hacking scandal which he cheerleaded in the run-up to the election. His coziness with the alt-right, his affinity for and reliance on fake news, his refusal to put his businesses in a blind trust, his unknown debt to foreign banks, his disrespect to our allies and friends that form NATO, his disrespect to his predecessor, his disrespect to the intelligence community, his disrespect to the media, his disrespect to the Constitution of the United States of America.

Look, I’m a prisoner, a convicted felon. I’m a big fan of the second chance and I’m conditioned to look on the bright side (without optimism and hope, I’d be suicidal). So I’ve tried to focus on the silver linings in the Trump Presidency – his commitment to bringing back jobs, his stated goal of “binding the wounds of division.” I’ve tried. But the honeymoon is over. Just too many warts and red flags to overlook.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that when he became president, Mr. Trump went from employer to employee. He now works for the American people. And the time may come when men and women of all parties, races, and religions must stand up and give his own famous words right back to him: “You’re fired!”

A shining example

white-house-paintingBlame 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.

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 one’s self 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 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 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.

Headshots, like felony arrests, have been a recurring theme over the first couple of 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 photograph. 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.

 

The solution

Given what happened in Chicago over the weekend, a continuation of rampant violence that barely makes the news anymore, I wanted to repost this piece I wrote a few months ago. Unfortunately, it’s still relevant. 

The Middle East – Sunnis and Shiites murdering each other. For territory, for power, over ideology. Death tolls rise along with the level of hopelessness. Every day, violence is a fact of life to which the citizens of places like Baghdad and Aleppo have become desensitized. There is no place too sacred for bloodshed. No mosque, no school, no hospital. In addition to sectarian violence, children have grown up watching their cities and villages bombed by foreign drones, their families and neighbors killed or taken away by foreign soldiers. Flames of hate are fanned by radical clerics. An insidious “us vs. them” mentality seeps into the soul of the people.

The fear and distrust flow both ways, feeding off each other. Too many soldiers have watched their comrades fall to IEDs and sniper fire. Too many service members have witnessed the carnage of suicide bombings.

America – Drug pushers and gang members murdering each other. For territory, for power, for street cred. Death tolls rise along with the level of hopelessness. Every day, violence is a fact of life to which the citizens of places like Chicago and Oakland have become desensitized. There is no place too sacred for drive-by shootings. No church, no park, no school bus stop. In addition to gang violence and inner city drug wars, children have grown up having their doors kicked in by narcotics officers, seeing their neighbors slammed on car hoods, electrocuted by tasers, sometimes murdered by police, their fathers and brothers taken away in cop cars, often never to return. Flames of hate are fanned by ratings-driven news channels, through bullhorns of activists, and the microphones of rap stars.

The fear and distrust flow both ways, feeding off each other. Too many cops have seen their comrades murdered in the line of duty, in shootouts and chases, and more recently in cold blood, executed over their uniforms.

There is no simple fix to this complex and generational problem. A congressional hearing won’t solve it. Nor will any new law. The American way of throwing truckloads of tax dollars at the situation won’t make it go away either. But there is a solution: Love.

Don’t roll your eyes. Naïve and idyllic as it sounds, if every pastor, teacher, mentor, and concerned citizen formed a government-backed coalition, a movement to ensure that every inner city kid in America is loved, nurtured, and taught respect for human life, 20 years from now, we would see a major downscale in violence, hate, and intolerance.

This is no hippy-liberal, peace-and-love idea. It takes balls to go into high-crime areas and mentor children. Volunteers could be robbed, shot, raped, murdered. But we have missionaries and aid workers traveling to the Middle East every day. Kayla Mueller, a young American Doctors Without Borders worker in Syria who was kidnapped and eventually killed by ISIS, said: “For as long as I live, I will not allow this suffering to be normal…” Her same heroic philosophy needs to be aimed at America’s inner cities.

“Great idea, Malcolm. So why don’t you do it?”

Because I’m in prison. But from this side of the razor wire, things are crystal clear. My dormitory is full of 19-year-old kids with life sentences. Unraised, uneducated, unloved. Many of them left children behind who will grow up the same way. These are young men who laugh at domestic terror attacks and applaud when police are gunned down. As cold-blooded and evil as this sounds, it’s a problem that will continue to grow exponentially if not confronted at its roots. Not with force and intolerance, but with love and compassion.

In my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, a story that deals largely with race, there are three sections titled “The Other America.” But the truth is, there is no “other America.” There’s only one America. No them, only us. It’s time to start investing in ALL of our children.
 

How to 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 and 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, eleven 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.

Naive 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.

On the Shoulders of Giants

Here’s the back cover copy from my new novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, currently in production and due out this fall…

The last time Izzy James saw his mother’s trailer was through the rear window of a Dodge Aires driven by a social worker with the Florida Division of Children and Families. He was four years old. He spent the remainder of his childhood bouncing around the state foster care system. Always the outsider, introverted and awkward, he assumed he was exempt from things like friendship and love … until he met Scarlett McGhee.

Pharaoh Sinclair was born on a prison van. The illegitimate child of an unknown father and a crackhead mother. He grew up on the sidewalks of the Azalea Arms housing project, where gunshots and police sirens were as commonplace as the stench of the neighboring landfill. Molded by hustlers and pushers, with the dope game in his DNA, the lone soft spot in his concrete heart was reserved for his baby sister, Symphony. But could he protect her from the same streets that raised them?

From the sugar-white sand dunes of Pensacola Beach to the murderous Arthur G. Dozier reform school, from strip clubs to emergency rooms, from traphouses to courthouses to prison cells, On the Shoulders of Giants chronicles the intersecting journeys of a foster kid and a projects kid as they battle and stumble their way through adolescence into adulthood.

An exploration of race, part memoir, part coming-of-age, part thriller, part love story. This transcendent novel defies genre. A book within a book. More than a story, a living organism. A legacy. The only child of Ezra “Izzy” James.

Tapestry

My camp is 60 percent mentally ill. The spectrum ranges from violent psychopaths (dudes who rape and stab and make me grateful there’s such a thing as maximum security) to zoned-out convalescents whose lives consist of drooling and taking thorazine.

The kid in the next bunk is neither. His name is Jimmy and he’s from the north side of Jacksonville. He spends his days autographing the faces of celebrities in OK magazines and babbling these outlandish stories to himself. “This is my Uncle Leroy from the Bahamas” (George Clooney). “This is the detective that busted me with 40 bricks” (Donald Trump).

It used to drive me crazy. The mental immersion required to write a book demands silence and space to think, not a running sink of psycho-dribble 24/7. But lately I’ve been embracing it as a kind of right-brain exercise to get the creative juices flowing. When I get stuck, I’ll drop my pen, look at him and say, “My father was a swordfighter in Lebanon.”

Jimmy: “Mine too. They fought naked aliens together in the war.”
Me: “Those must be the same aliens that kidnapped me and trained me in martial arts.”
Jimmy: “How do you think you got that scar on your head?”
And around and around we’ll go until I fall back into my novel-in-progress and he to his celebrity gossip rag. “This is my ex-wife” (Caitlyn Jenner).

But today, something different happened. When I asked him if his mom was a Russian bullfighter on ice, he shook his head and looked at me with clear eyes. “My momma killed herself when I was little. I saw her do it.”

Then he turned the page and resumed his elaborate babble. It could have just been more BS but it sure didn’t feel like it. If it is true, it’s unfathomable that any kid should go through that. There’s a reason why people withdraw inward and batten down the hatches. Nobody is born bad. We are each of us a tapestry of our life experiences, influences, and impressions. We are all grown children, some of us with heartbreaking backstories.

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