Skip to content

In the tradition of Fyodor

Naked, shoulder-to-shoulder, and five at a time we stood in the bathroom, awaiting orders.

“Lift your top lip, bottom lip, tongue up, bend forward at the waist, run your fingers through your hair, stand up, lift your penis and penis only, penis and nutsack, turn around, bend over and spread ’em, cough twice, right foot, left foot, next five!”

We were then herded into the dayroom like cattle, 75 of us in all. I found a spot on the floor to wait out the storm. As soon as I sat down, the old man to my immediate left removed his dentures and began to blow the trapped food from between his false teeth.

“Honey, you is disgusting,” said the sissy to my right, while covering his “breasts.”

I had to smile. In spite of the nauseating heat, the persistent flies, the cacophony of smells and my aforementioned neighbors, a sort of calm gratitude washed over me. But the soothing voice in my head was more Dostoyevsky than Gandhi, more David Mitchell than Lao Tsu, more Donna Tartt than Siddhartha. The voice said, “Dude, this is definitely going in the next book.”

Prison is my internet. Here there are carnies, junkies, boosters, charlatans, doctors, athletes, psychics, preachers, bullies, dope cooks, gigolos, sociopaths, card sharps, gangsters, killers, coyotes, refugees… Any lifestyle I want to research is somewhere on the yard. Guaranteed. The same goes for experience: strip searches, beatings, gassings, riots, solitary confinement, naked fear, transcendent love, seething racism, unexpected kindness, stabbings, overdoses, undiagnosed mental illness, it’s all here. Every day. These are the stories I tell.

As the shakedown commenced in the living area, as bunks were tossed and lockers dumped, the momentary gratitude was swallowed by a familiar paranoia. I know that most of the men crammed in the dayroom with me were worried about their knives, naked flicks, dope, buck (homemade wine), altered radios, contraband bowls and gambling paraphernalia. My mind was somewhere else. I was sweating my manuscript.

Like Ezra James, the protagonist in my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, I’ve lost my share of pages in shakedowns. Precious sentences and paragraphs gone forever, drenched in tobacco spit, ripped to pieces, swept from the dorm in a pile of soiled linen and rotten fruit. Crushing.

I wonder if other incarcerated writers went through this. Did Cervantes have to stash his draft of Don Quixote when the guards made their rounds? Surely Dostoyevsky had some close calls during his years in Siberia. Oscar Wilde, Henry David Thoreau, E. E. Cummings. Not to throw my hat in the ring with these masters of the craft, but I can at least say I write in their tradition. If confinement can be considered a tradition. (Condition?)

As for the manuscript, when I returned to my bunk, post-shakedown, I was relieved to find it under my mat. A little bent up and crumpled but still in tact. It’s called Sticks and Stones, available this fall on Amazon.

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Same as it never was

A couple of months ago, shackled and numb from a three-hour ride in a mobile sardine can, I watched through the steel mesh window as the first gun tower of my new prison appeared above the treeline.

And by “new” I mean “next,” my seventh institution in the last 12 years. There’s nothing new about this place. It’s at least 40 years old, maybe older. It’s not even new to me. Two decades ago, a skinny, gullible, wide-eyed 21-year-old version of myself arrived at this same prison.

Memories came flooding back as I hefted my property and shuffled off the bus into the light of day. Aside from a few fresh rolls of razor wire and different guards with the same scowls, everything was just as I left it, frozen in a perpetual state of 1994.

I looked toward the visitation park where Mom used to visit each weekend, ever faithful, ever believing, ever seeing the best in her son. She was in her 40s back then. She’s 70 now. Still faithful, still believing, still seeing the best in me. I have a lot to be grateful for.

Over the gray-wash shingles of the chapel that I helped to build, I could see the confinement unit looming. Somewhere in time, my younger self was still pacing those cells, nursing swollen black eyes and busted lips from fighting off wolves. Prison has extra challenges for young, skinny, blue-eyed white boys.

Beyond the confinement unit sprawled the rec yard where, once upon a nightmare, I sat cross-legged in the softball outfield, acoustic guitar in my lap, shielding my arm from the gun tower while an older convict shot me up with cocaine. Before my arrival in prison, I had only smoked pot and tripped acid.

The chow hall where I saw my first rat, the dormitory where I witnessed my first stabbing, the bunk where I got my first tattoo… These landmarks spread across the panorama like monuments to a darker, more confusing time. Though smaller and shabbier than the imposing dungeon of my memory, the prison is relatively unchanged. The only thing that’s changed is me.

I’m almost a quarter-century removed from the naive and inexperienced kid who once roamed this compound seeking himself in the opinions and acceptance of others. That dark-haired, fresh-faced, 125-pound boy is now a bald, bearded, 200-pound man. I no longer confuse manhood with brutality and judge myself to be lacking. I treasure my loved ones instead of taking them for granted. I understand that fear is just a voice in my head. Discipline and a hunger for self-mastery have taken the place of addiction and impulsiveness. Then there’s the books…

T.S. Eliot once famously observed that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I’m not sure if I know the place any better, but I know myself and, in the words of another famous poet, “that has made all the difference.”

Finding peace without hope

A few years ago, I used to walk the track while pondering the cosmos with my homeboy JG at a private prison in the Florida Panhandle by the shady name of Blackwater (no relation to the infamous private-sector security firm that dominated the headlines in Green Zone Baghdad during the second Iraq war).

Although he was 15 years younger than I was, JG and I had a lot in common — same hometown, same circle of friends, both audiophiles, both sports fans, both committed to self-mastery and a life free from the enslavement of addiction. We were also both doing a substantial amount of time: him, 10 years; me, 30. But for all the things we had in common, there was a fundamental rift in our philosophies regarding the prison sentences we were serving and how we approached them.

JG is a Christian who is also well versed in The Secret, The Prosperity Bible and other new-thought, mind-over-matter, mustard-seed doctrine. His guiding principle is Biblical, Matthew 21:21-22 which, to paraphrase, says “Prayer and faith without doubt can wither fig trees and move mountains.”

While I don’t subscribe to any religion, I lean Eastern, spiritually, and call myself Buddhish. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha has had a profound impact on my life. I’ve read Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul three times and We’re All Doing Time by Bo Lozoff has been a constant companion and manual to me for over a quarter-century in the chain gang. My guiding principle is straight out of The Four Noble Truths: Desire is the root of suffering and contentment is the way out.

Day after day, lap after lap, we debated our philosophies and invariably arrived at the same dead end. In a nutshell, JG believed that through prayer, visualization, and faith he could will his way out of prison long before his distant release date. I believed that through meditation, gratitude, and acceptance, freedom could be attained right here, right now, regardless of my release date.

We hit a stalemate. He thought it was cowardly of me to accept my conditions without a fight. I thought he was naive to believe in the impossible. In the end we had to agree to disagree. I was in my tenth year of incarceration at the time and he was on only his second. Sooner or later he would come to the realization that hope hurts and learn to find peace in the present moment without clinging or resisting.

Fast forward two and a half years. We had both been transferred to different prisons and I was so immersed in writing the final scenes of On the Shoulders of Giants that the only time I departed the story world of Izzy and Pharaoh was to eat, sleep, and shower. So I was shocked when I called home one day and my mom told me that JG had won his appeal. It was all over Facebook.

That night as I lay in my bunk, I thought about JG and Blackwater and all those afternoons spent walking the track and debating the power of faith vs. the freedom in acceptance. Guess he won that argument.

But since then I’ve been wondering, have I robbed myself of miracles by failing to expect them? Would I be home right now if I hadn’t tapped out and surrendered to my circumstances? Are desire and contentment really mutually exclusive? Maybe there is a Tao between these two polarities, a middle road that allows for both ambition and inner peace.

I won’t say that JG’s release caused a radical shift in my belief system, but it did inspire me to open my mind, adjust my philosophy, and leave a little room for hope… at least a mustard seed’s worth.

A voice in the gun debate

First posted on in August 2016.
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.

Divine intervention

I think I had been up for four days when I robbed the second gas station. But it could have been five days or even six. I don’t know. Days run together when they’re not separated by sleep. Armed robbery was a new low, even for me, but then so was crack cocaine. In the six months following my first hit from a crack pipe, I’d lost everything — my car, my job, my girl, my family. I couldn’t stand the weak thing I had become and by then, I was ready to die. My plan was simple: rob and get high until the police got behind me, then blow my brains out.

Although cocaine is not classified as a hallucinogenic, sleep deprivation most definitely is. And as I was exiting that gas station, I was seeing and hearing all sorts of things – police search lights, sirens, footsteps, voices… I hopped into a stolen car and sped away, zigzagging my way through neighborhood streets and charting a course for the nearest dope hole.

As I pulled out onto the main thoroughfare, two things happened that would change my life forever: 1) My headlights stopped working, and 2) a cop was driving by. I checked the rearview to see if he was going to turn around. Of course he was. It was 3 a.m. and I was driving with no headlights in an area where a robbery had just occurred. When he turned on his siren, I stomped on the gas and yanked hard on the steering wheel…

…and drove straight into a brick mailbox. I bailed out of the car and ran through someone’s yard, tires screeching behind me. Desperate to escape, I sprinted toward the field abutting the backyard but never saw the fence. It was one of those waist-high, rusty barbed wire things and it flipped me upside down. I felt the gun fall from the pocket of my hoodie into the tall grass below. I quickly freed myself, then frantically groped for it in the dark. I couldn’t lose the gun. I needed it to off myself when there was nowhere left to run. But I heard squawking radios and jingling keys approaching. I had to go.

Branches and thorns slapped my face as I tore through the field. I tripped, lost a shoe, tripped again, and finally rolled into a gully and pulled the brush over myself to hide. An hour passed. Helicopters flew overhead, far off voices shouted, car engines roared. Then the low growl and panting breath of a dog drew close. I could hear it a few feet away, tracking me. Suddenly, the massive head of a German Shepherd poked through the brush. I threw my arms up to keep him from biting my face. He seized my wrist and began ripping flesh from bone. I was quickly surrounded by police and pummeled with flashlights and boots.

But something strange happened in that field. Maybe it was just the dope or the sleep deprivation. Maybe I was in shock, but for a moment, I was hovering over my body, looking down at the scene below. This pitiful crackhead that was me — emaciated, dirty, bloody — being mauled and stomped and finally handcuffed.

If I’d had that gun while I lay there in the bushes with the police closing in, I would have killed myself. There would be no Consider the Dragonfly, no With Arms Unbound, no On the Shoulders of Giants, and you definitely wouldn’t be reading this post right now. I’d be just a forgotten news story from the last decade, a dead crackhead in a field. Forgotten, except to my mom and she would have found a way to blame herself. Instead, it is my belief that something bigger intervened and that has made all the difference. If Malcolm Ivey has a birthday, it’s March 22, 2005, the night I dropped the gun.

The truth about spice

I awoke to a shrill and piercing wail, half panicked, half orgasmic. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

I sat up in my bunk and glanced at my watch. It was 5 a.m. The commotion was in the back corner of the dorm. A crowd of inmates was gathered around a young black man whose body was locked in a half-crouch, knees slightly bent, fists clenched, as if he were about to ski the K-12. “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

One of the bystanders urged him to snap out of it. Someone forced their way through the crowd and dashed him in the face with a cup of water. When that didn’t work, he was slapped. His distress only increased. The guard frowned through the Plexiglas window of the booth.

Sleep faded and recognition dawned as I watched it all unfold. He wasn’t being attacked or having a meltdown. He was only gooking. No, gooking is not the gerund form of a dated slur, it’s the umbrella term that covers a myriad of strange behavior that goes hand in hand with the drug spice.

If someone is crawling around on the floor, flopping like a fish, mumbling incoherently, seizing, vomiting, or locked up screaming “Oh my God!” over and over, chances are they’re gooking out on spice.

I consider myself a chemical connoisseur. I’ve never met a drug I didn’t like. I started out pinching weed from my dad’s stash, then moved on to blotter acid by the eighth grade. Crack, ecstasy, pills… I doted on each with unconditional love. And whether on this or that side of the razor wire made no difference. I shot cocaine for the first time at age 21 on a prison rec yard with an acoustic guitar in my lap to shield both needle and arm from the gun tower. The first time I snorted heroin was in a prison bathroom. My love affair with dope is well documented. I love it so much that I’m doing 30 years in prison for it.

That being said, spice scares the hell out of me. Ever since it burst on the scene, I’ve watched my fellow inmates have their nervous system attacked, their kidneys fail, their brain function diminish. I’ve watched them hyperventilate and drool and faceplant into the concrete. A potent batch of that shit will have the ambulance in and out of here all day.

But that’s not even the scariest part. The most concerning consequence of the spice epidemic from where I sit is the deadening of hearts. I’m no neuroscientist but I’d be willing to bet that spice suffocates whatever chemical in the brain is responsible for empathy. In a place where kindness and humanity are already scarce to begin with, the last thing we need is a substance to snuff out what little light remains. But spice isn’t just a prison problem, its popularity is exploding everywhere because it doesn’t show up on standard track urinalyses. I’ve just been able to study its disastrous effects day after day in the condensed ecosystem of my prison dorm.

Take it from a dope aficionado: This is no drug. This is a lethal, man-made, brain-eating chemical masquerading as a drug. Big difference.

You know those movies like I Am Legend and World War Z where a contagion creates a sub-human, zombified race that multiplies exponentially? They had it half right. Only the viral spore isn’t from some toxic waste spill or globetrotting bacteria. It’s Yellow Jacket, it’s Red Dragon, it’s the millennial chemical called spice. Smoke up.

Dum Spiro Spero

In my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, one of the protagonists, Ezra James, oftendandelion-wind 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.

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.