A Pivot

Notes From the Porch is evolving. I’m evolving, too. It’s been a very long time since I sent any missives to the group, and there is but one underlying reason for the absence: last year was a fucking doozy.

I won’t get into the particulars, but we endured a sustained period of loss and grief that stunted my outward expression, whether conversational or electronic. Those of you with whom I maintain a periodic phone date know that those rituals also faltered through the latter half of 2015.

I could drill into psycho-self-analysis about my proclivity for isolation, but that’s a different note altogether. Maybe another time.

Here is Today’s News and a Fresh Idea. Today's News first:

I’m going into semi-retirement with documentary production. I say semi-retirement because I’m still rocking Kings of The Yukon, and am deeply committed to telling that story in whatever form it takes. But Kings of The Yukon will be the last documentary project I undertake as the lead creative, at least for the next fifteen or twenty years. Never say never.

In lieu of continuing my pursuits as a filmmaker, I’m bringing my deepest passion to the fore and beginning the arduous task of making a career of it. I’m finally going to buy a Subway franchise.

ust kidding, I’m stepping out as a professional writer (to be).

I’ll get into the how and why and what’s-that-like in a new format for Notes From The Porch. That’s the aforementioned Fresh Idea, by the way.

It’s not a matter of proclamation: I’m not a mountain climber just because I say I’m going to summit Everest.  No, it’s a journey, an exploration, and it’s an adventure.  My adventure might have begun in 1997 when I wrote my first (awful) screenplay, “Last Call at Quixote’s Den,” and if I had known that it would take another 19 years for that aspect of my creativity to manifest as a career, I might have stopped then and there. But I didn’t. Why? (More on that as we go).

The Making of Black Stump Hollow. Yes, that's a nonalcoholic beer and a scented candle.  What?   Go ahead, say it.   Say it to my face, why don't you?  You see, this new direction is 100% warts-and-all fearless self exposure.

The Making of Black Stump Hollow.

Yes, that's a nonalcoholic beer and a scented candle.  What?   Go ahead, say it.   Say it to my face, why don't you?  You see, this new direction is 100% warts-and-all fearless self exposure.

o instead of being That Guy at the cocktail party who tells everyone a little too loudly that he's a writer, I'm going to let you watch.  How many times have you had a window into the week-to-week world of someone trying to go from being a complete unknown, to having an established and successful new venture, especially one as whack-a-doodle as being a paid Hollywood screenwriter and novelist?

If odds mean anything, you could have a front row seat at a spectacular failure (and who doesn't love that?) but I’m inviting you on the journey, nonetheless.

I hope there’s more than train-wreck fascination to coax you along. This transition is a tough one, but it’s also exhilarating. It takes discipline, the sort of discipline that you rarely muster in other parts of your life. Quieting those voices of doubt and pragmatism is no small task, and I’ll share my strategies for doing that, too (as soon as I develop them).

So I’m not going to make the public proclamation any more distinctly than this, I’m just going to say, come walk with me. Let’s see what we find.

It all starts with Seven Stories… Next time on Notes from the Porch.

Rubbernecking As Much As Humanly Possible

I never wanted to admit my desire to stare at the accident as I passed it on the highway. Indulging some sort of morbid fascination seemed like the basest of human tendencies. Now I rubberneck like crazy, and I encourage you to, as well.

There's a Stoic ideal that mandates you visualize the absence of a something you value––a car, a job, a spouse––as a means of cultivating desire for the things you have, rather than for things you do not.  The practice seems to contradict that of visualizing the things you want or want to happen, i.e. if you meditate on losing your sunglasses you might somehow effect that outcome.  I don't believe it works that way, but again, that’s something you may learn with practice, more than through this rambling entry.

So what's that have to do with rubbernecking?  I live just off a beautiful and deadly stretch of Pacific Coast Highway.  There was a fatality yesterday at the foot of my road, a severe head-on collision two nights before that, a pedestrian fatality, a cycling fatality, and four or five other serious accidents since the beginning of the month.  Yes, all that in the last two weeks.

Nowadays, when I have the opportunity, I look at wreckage as a reminder of what's possible with every lapse of attention, the type of which we're all guilty, whether from adjusting the radio, dealing with a backseat conflict, daydreaming or texting.   Being hyper-attentive could mean the difference when that aimless motorist drifts into your lane from the eastbound side of the road.

It's not a bad thing to be viscerally reminded of what it looks like when the force of destruction in which you are barreling down the highway becomes just that.  Sure, my rational mind knows it’s true, but looking empathically at what horror someone’s ordinary morning has become, really taking it in, nurtures a greater sense of vigilance.

Reading List

Here's my simple, digestible reading list. These are from disparate traditions and modes of thought, but if you read them and get really honest about the counterproductive ways that you might sometimes navigate this life, you'll find all sorts of awesome little tidbits.  You don't need a whole library, just these four books:

The Four Agreements [Amazon Link] (Toltec)
The Stoic Art of Joy [Amazon Link] (Stoicism)
Turning The Mind Into An Ally [Amazin Lonk*] (Buddhism)
The Tools [Amazon Link] (A Twist on Western Psychology)

*I left the typo because I like it

Edit The Sad Parts

We’re on our way through June and the mornings have been misty and damp.
Birdsongs cut through the shroud of fog like arrows.
An oriole atop the live oak is the only one I see.
— Me

s with rubbernecking, nurturing an emotional connection to what can happen when we’re inattentive to ourselves and others is not a bad thing.  You can rationalize that accidents happen, or that unhappy people leave unhappy lives, but we are feeling creatures, and for me confronting the feelings that come with the negative outcomes is an important discipline.  Just like the Stoic discipline of Negative Visualization.

This morning I came across a video that's been adapted from a documentary called "The Bridge" that highlights how the Golden Gate Bridge is a monument that attracts not just photo-snapping tourists, but people in the ultimate moments of their personal suffering.  I don't recommend you watch it, now or ever; I leave the decision to you.  It's a very sad and unflinching look at the human condition, but the way that this short music video adaptation is put together, a creative mash-up with a like-themed song and other footage, is evocative. 

If you do watch it, do it somewhere you can quietly sit with your feelings afterward. Are you doing everything you can do to take care of yourself?

(Hint: hopefully, the answer to that question is always: "maybe not".)

Jesters of Perception

Today began as all others do of late, on the porch, cup of coffee, sitting as the sun breached the ridge to the East, obscured by pockets of mist. And I, in my aged wicker chair, felt heavy and dense and threatened by the obligations of the day.

So I wondered away into love and fascination, a blind path, a way darkened by unknowing where whatever words I could find became the torchlight, a walking meditation of sorts, guided not by silence and an absence of thought, but by language and the notion of truth;

And the sun does breach the ridge and disappears into the mist, and I wonder how could it be that any truth whatsoever could be found in the borderlands of my subconscious, yet somehow knowing that only there can the truth be found, for truth is just a communion with something universal, something godly;

We mistake it for truth when we grab something from that place and bring it into this one where our perceptions are so fantastic, like the drawings of a toddler. And it occurs to me that truth should not be surprising or precious, any more surprising or precious than sand;

So much truth is obscured by doctrine and dogma, like a tremendous wall constructed of continental upthrust; and in the other direction, truth is veiled by ignorance, and the veil is no more substantial than air, though just as steadfast as doctrine;

And so much truth is mistaken as proof, as evidence, as a weapon or threat; but those are shapes we render when it suits our needs, and once the truth has been used as such, impostors are bred who draw this form, this facsimile, this sword of conjecture and false correlation that forges its edge with each blow and hones it on the fear of the next.

Such is the way of man, the hubris of believing that the truth can be wielded as weaponry, as defense, as righteousness; when in fact it can be none of these things; truth has no form or foundation and cannot be used or shaped or reflected in any way.

On the misty plains of truth that perpetually resemble a breaking dawn, this idea that truth can be coupled with industry carries the same delight as the spectacle of a kitten playing with a scrap of cloth as perfectly as if it were pray,

as the notion that god exists in the form of man;

as the idea that we gangly humans, creatures of reason, have a higher purpose than mites living in the feathers of a raven’s crown;

that perception and truth are conjoined twins, inseparable, but by death;

This folly is regarded from afar like a clown show of body builders and politicians; despots and generals; missionaries and capitalists…all jesters of perception dancing, flexing, contorting, to the delight of that gentle breeze that swirls the mist in that place just beyond our knowing.

Muller Villa, Prague

Good Morning, Good Afternoon,

I'm working on a manuscript (among other things) and I thought I'd share a passage.  The final piece will be a work in two parts called Budapastiche and Dead Prague, a true and imagined reflection of my time in those cities, and of both the people and isolation that I came to know.

I'm currently navigating an occupational transition from stories told with pictures to stories told with words, and here in the midst of this transition I often feel disoriented, afraid, and vulnerable.  The thing that brings me the greatest comfort (aside from external things like dear friends and my blessed home life) is coming back to the words, and so I know that coming back to the words is exactly what I should be doing. The thing that brings me the next most comfort is sharing whatever I have to share, so now you have this.

I'm fortunate to be collaborating with some folks on a couple of other projects, written for screens both flat and silver, so there may be more to report in those areas in due time.  I've also been consorting with some folks who's domain is the part of the business where writers represent an essential place, and the feedback and encouragement has been strong.

So don't lament my time on the broad and lonely flats of this literary journey.  As you'll calculate after reading the passage below, it didn't kill me twelve years ago, and it certainly won't kill me now.

With love and gratitude,

Chip

Sunday Morning Near the Muller Villa

Spring 2003, Prague

Remember this:

I climbed the remainder of the hill from our neighborhood to the castle and continued to the east where I found a neglected concrete staircase that disappeared downward through a lush canopy.  I descended into a strange park, no wider than a football pitch and set into what looks like a glacial canal, sided by two high banks, braced by ancient brick retaining walls. An architectural ambuscade that whispered, “never has there been a massacre here. You are safe, continue”.

Around an angular bend and down a slope through towering black walnut and locust, a single ancient pear, and at the fringe of their shadowy blanket, beneath the canopy I’d viewed earlier from above, I came upon a communal garden. 

A man hunched over and tending a tiny plot of flowers was the first person I’d encountered since crossing the railway tracks, back near the castle. Along the back wall of the garden, a row of stone fruit trees stand between dainty gardening shacks, each scarcely larger than a phone booth, but with their own unique construction and adornments.  I could see their full-scale counterparts in a misty village set deep in an alpine valley.  A car door slams and a woman and her son lumber toward their plot with a bag of mulch and palettes of young plants and they know what magic is here.  I cannot stop and take part.  This place is not for me.

But I sit nearby, and I watch them puttering about, dirtying their hands, feeling holes into the soil, moving rocks and removing weeds, and I’m invisible to these lovely people. I appear merely as a patch of darkness on the edge of locust shadow, and this is the perfect time to write an invocation:

I do not want much, only the simple recognition that on the tip of this tiny pillar burns a flame.  I care not to raze forests or monuments, I just want a place of shelter, rich with oxygen where I can burn and flicker.  I sent my spirit into the universe, searching, availing, and I want it with me again.  This journey is long and lonely and even more so when you are missing your soul.  The distillation is almost complete.  Drip, drip, drip, and soon will come the last. 

Ah, to hear the trickling sound of falling dominoes, temporary joy that it is.  I will gladly set them afoot again.  This column of black and white slabs reaches back further than I can see, farther than I could ever reach at my greatest sprint, with every last erg of vital energy. Too far to find its source, so I can only wait for the flicking finger of good fortune now. 

For love and accumulation and refinement, I live for nothing else.  Not the prideful exploits of tower builders or warriors, but the simple feats of these gardeners.  The seeds have been sown and my pockets are still bursting, so I will wait and continue, stepping piously across freshly turned soil, step, by step, by measured step.  The universe sees me here, it must.

God, if I were to be forgotten now, the sand-strewn castaway listening to the fading engine of a careless search plane shrinking into the horizon as it heads home to call off the search, its music lost on me forever.  I am not near my end, but I am so far from home.  God, whatever you are, show me a glimmer of something.  A reflection of me.  Something small and simple, but something for me.  You know I will share it.

On Brain Crash and Heartache

It's more prevalent than the fortunately healthy ones among us are inclined to believe. And for those among us suffering, it's everywhere. The roadways are clogged with people lost in their discontent and despair. Hollow-eyed crazies shoot up whatever public gathering garners their attention — schools, theaters, or chocolate shops — and today you have news from France where a pilot calmly steered 150 people into a mountainside. All of this madness on account of some dysfunction in that warm mass of electrified scrambled eggs that we all carry around in the middle of our heads, on account of the fissures and cracks that cleave our hearts.

Acts of brash and violent insanity are a feature of our landscape. However dreadful and easily amplified by digital media, such events have become a normal part of living in the modern world. Human brutality is nothing new, but I'm troubled by this unique brand of it that we seem to be cultivating.  It's difficult to ponder this and not wonder about the direction and end point of our current pendulum swing. And to not acknowledge how inept we are at dealing with individuals whose brains don't work correctly. If fixing them was no more arcane than 1970s-era auto mechanics, what a different world we would share.

What other ailment do we encounter so frequently, but that we also respond to so ineptly? Cancer? No, because at least on human and personal and community levels we deal with that conundrum rather well. I really can't think of one that compares. There’s nothing easy about it. My own detached pragmatism is clumsy, and yet perhaps marginally more fair and direct than the reticence practiced by millions, and the utter blindness practiced by countless more. 

I don’t think we’re to be blamed for these shortcomings. You wouldn’t admonish a toddler for being terrible at math. We need only to recognize it and decide that we, as a collective — be that family, community, or society as a whole — will benefit if we become more skilled.

The big picture is so utterly confounding that the only solution I can muster this morning is to take good care of the half dozen or so people in your immediate midst. If we all did that, or continue to do that, we might create a more sane web of modern mankind. I don't imagine a perfect place if all this was improved––somewhere may be the next whale to perish and elsewhere the last whisper of the next forgotten language may soon be uttered––but I do see a place I’d sure like to be.

The Ballad of The Trickster Witch (Part 3)

 

The wind is gone and the air is hardly noticeable. The best light is the early light, when the mountains are still black silhouettes. An owl calls out, one final effort. The dawn is still more night than day, but there is a sense of acceleration. 

The deepest blue retreats and is gone, and quickly. Each time I look up from the page, sentence by sentence, the band of light at the ridge top has advanced. More sky, less void. To the south where yesterday the sky was aflame, the hour is announced by pale, pale yellow. Almost eggshell, the exact shade that dilutes the midnight blue to create the colors of daytime. The great above is utterly absent of clouds, the heavy winds having stolen them away to Mexico.

The Ballad of The Trickster Witch
Part 3 (and in no particular order)

 

Carry me, she said, 
just a little bit further.
And so we did. Well, the men did.
They were good men, good soldiers.

Besides, what else could we do,
when that distance, 
the final turn through the alders
would determine the place of her passing?

If we could all be so lucky, to choose
where we fade away.

And so we carried her on
switchback and stream crossing
past the grove of alders and birch
into a high clearing
and the last wash of golden sun.

Even as she tired, 
her humor was ready and quick.
She touched me as she spoke. That is,
when she spoke and wanted me to listen,
a frail and gentle touch
skin like stained rice paper.
I never asked her about the fingers.

We drank tea as the night fell. 
Well, I drank tea
while she lay still and hers cooled.
She told me a story
her first persimmon,
her lips were dry but
if I closed my eyes, I could imagine
a younger woman by her downy voice.

 

And her fingers were laced around the teacup,
well, when the one wasn’t reaching
towards me
like punctuation.

Notes from Pelican Bay

I guess the first thing that comes to mind after yesterday is: The thirstier a fella is, the more he appreciates the glass of water.

Up at 5:30am, a cool and heavy breeze pushes in from the ocean, heavy with fog and the digital foghorn calls it's report in D-flat every 15 seconds. Occasionally, the distant bark of a seal punctuates the dirge. 

We arrived at the prison just before dawn, and the heavy fog hung low over the facility, the deathly yellow light of the always-on sodium lights created a halo visible for the last couple miles on approach.  One might say that the only true darkness was inside the prison walls. And yet,

We first met the warden and his staff and they were polite, gracious, white. They spoke with the slight drawl you come to expect from law enforcement and they seemed genuinely appreciative that we were there. They spoke of change. After about 15 minutes of pleasantries and procedure we got back into our cars and drove around to the backside of the prison where the first day's workshop would be held.

We went through security, swiftly, and were then inside the double layered fence, each layer topped with concertina wire, and sandwiched between them a 12-foot electric fence, the likes of which I have never seen and the likes of which have never allowed a human being to cross and escape.

Our locale for the first day was the visitation rooms of the A Yard and B Yard, the general population facilities of Pelican Bay.

We set up easels, and projectors, and screens. We distributed information packets in manila files, one on each of the 70 chairs that filled the room. 70 men in one room, and across the hall another 70 men in the other. The prison staff were admittedly nervous having this many inmates in the room at once. It never happens. Anything could happen, they say. Probably won't. 

As we were setting up, I noticed next to one of the three visitation windows in the corner of the room, the sort where an inmate would visit with a loved one by telephone and through a thick pane of glass, an unopened cellophane wrapped cheesesteak sitting at the window next to a napkin. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it leaves you to wonder what precipitated it's abandonment.

When the inmates filed into the visiting rooms they looked like the other inmates I've seen in California prisons: tan and brown. They were polite, and most greeted us with a handshake. There were fewer tattoos among the inmates here, something one person conjectured was due to the difficulty the inmates have acquiring the materials needed to build a tattoo gun. Maybe so.

After filling it with their bodies, the men filled the room with the murmur of hushed conversation until the Captain called things to order and the day began. As with any assembly there were attentive folks, and listless folks, can't-be-bothered folks, eye-contact folks, no-eye-contact folks, and most interestingly, eye-contact-for-three-seconds-and-only-ever-three-seconds folks. They were the ones who reminded me that this was a culture, a society, where eye contact was a much different transaction than what we're used to, you and I. This was one of the telltales of institutionalization and the psychological hurdles that one day these men will face when they go home, if.

I took the floor midway through the day and talked about the ways that I thought writing and storytelling could help these men reliving the events of their crime, explore the impact their actions have had on their victims and their families, and expand their emotional capacity so that remorse isn't such a foreign and unfathomable concept. My first run-through was pretty iffy. I tried to stick to my plan, my notecards, and I accidentally covered all of them in about 4 minutes and realized I had another 41 minutes to talk. Holy Jesus. I've never spent 45 minutes talking to anyone, much less a group of inmates in California's toughest prison. Things got blurry and ambled my way through and at the end people clapped. Gracious folks. They filled out evaluation forms later and a few of those generous men cited my contribution as their favorite part, so maybe my rambling wasn't so incoherent as it was off the cuff.

Then I crossed the entry vestibule to the other visitation room where the other half of our team was engaged in small group discussions. I found an empty chair. I'm usually socially shy in these situations, but somehow I've come to know that these group discussions can be pretty remarkable. I dropped in on a conversation that a very tall gentleman with a goatee was having about the reason for his crime: a three on eight fight, wherein he was one of the three and felt he had to fight to defend his own life (and he may have been right) and yet by the end of the fight he hand one of the guys on the ground and was kicking his head like a soccer ball (his words). It took some time for the psychologist who was leading the group to make him see how his motivation ceased to be self-defense after the man was on the ground and on his way to dying. The tall man's brow nodded and his brow furrowed with thought. He was willing to give it some thought. He was discovering something.

He talked about how he really has no idea how to think about remorse, how to feel it. And another guy chimed in and talked about how they don't feel many emotions in prison. That emotional numbness is a real thing, and emotions associated with vulnerability are the first ones to go.

--- BREAK ---

It's now the day after I got back and the narrative above was written at various points along the way. In the motel parking lot, in the coffee shop where we stopped on the way to the prison, on the private plane that shuttled us up and down the length of the state.  Now I'm sitting on the couch, immobilized by exhaustion, and sadness, and a burning need to make sure whatever little lights of hope we lit don't go out, and having no real means of doing that.

Yesterday we spent the day in the SHU. The Security House Unit I mentioned before. It's an ungodly place, an unhuman place; part science fiction, part military, part nightmare. There are shades of light you will only ever see in the Pelican Bay SHU. There are optical illusions that pierce you way down deep, in a place people call "your soul". One optical illusion in particular haunts me now, so it's the one I will try to explain.

The cell doors of the SHU are slabs of steel perforated with holes the size of your fingertip, as many holes as you can drill in such a slab without compromising its structural integrity. A lot of holes. The result is a total lack of privacy, sound and sight. In the SHU pod we visited (a pod is a cluster of six of those 77 square foot cells I described earlier) one of the inmates had fashioned his own privacy screen out of some kind of paper he was able to stick to that perforated steel.

So yesterday we interacted with men who were put into that tight corridor of visitation cells, a photo of which I sent in my previous email. They were about 3' by 3' and very close together. The only way we could address all of the men we intended to address, 141 of them in all, was to split up and each take 4 cells at once. So I would stand at the union of four cells –– imagine the corridor of a hotel, now shrink the rooms, and then position yourself where you could address the men in two rooms on one side of the hall, and two rooms on the other –– and there I would stand and talk to these four men for 15 minutes, and then we would rotate and I would move to the next quadrant of cells and have another conversation for a quarter of an hour.

One of the most difficult parts of these conversations was the optical illusion. The men were attentive, most of them, two-thirds of them, and they stood close to the perforated slab, some leaned against it, and they looked at me while I spoke. Those holes in the steel slabs were of a perfect diameter to encircle these men's pupils and block out the whites of their eyes, and their eyes became great, dark, hollows, the kind you might associate with madness, and they held these eyes on me while I spoke, and now I wonder if this optical illusion was by design.

I have much more to say, but this missive is rambling on, so I will let you toy with those ideas for a while, and will send more when the next ones have been properly articulated.

North To Pelican Bay

It's been some time since the weather permitted a morning ritual here at my porch desk. Although our weather is mild, to say the least, through the winter months the mornings can be chilly and when they aren't chilly a dry wind is ripping across the mountains from the north. And so, no Notes From The Porch. Certainly, I can write my notes elsewhere, but writing with pen and paper at my porch desk evokes a certain experience for me and, I imagine, to my manner of expression, as well. Besides, how disingenuous would it be to send out Notes From The Porch all winter that were actually composed at the kitchen table or in the living room, nestled under my wool blanket waiting for the wood stove to come to life? I did most of my morning work that way over the last couple months.

Here's a peculiar turn of events:

A wee bit over a year ago, I was invited to consult on a script project for a film about the hunger strikes that took place throughout the California prison system in 2012 and 2013. Long story short, I wound up taking over the writing of the screenplay because the young writer who penned the first draft was, well, a young writer. I spent a good bit of last year working on the story, developing characters both real and imagined, crafting dramatic arcs that capture the essence of the strikes, all of that jazz, as you do. 

The strikes were organized by inmates as a protest of long-term segregation. The epicenter of the strikes and the setting for my story was/is a prison in the far northern reaches of the state, called Pelican Bay. Pelican Bay is notorious for being the California’s harshest prison, the last stop for the worst of the worst. Last I calculated, over half of the 2400 inmates at Pelican Bay live in solitary confinement, in a facility they call “The SHU”. That stands for Security Housing Unit. Among we laypeople and in popular prison lore, it’s known as “The Hole”. In any case, that's a lot of people to be living in “The Hole”.

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To put a finer point on that situation: these men live every day of their lives in a concrete room that measure 7' x 11'. This room has no windows and receives no direct sunlight and they are allowed only 90 minutes each day outside of their cell, during which time they’re in a “rec” cage (recreation … ha, never considered that irony before just now) roughly twice the size of their cell. They never have direct contact with other human beings except with the guards who escort them from their cells to the rec cages. They're never allowed to touch organic material other than their food. No one expects cushy accommodations for these men, but the extended exposure to such conditions is considered torture by many reasonable people, due to the long-term psychological trauma induced by isolation in a very short amount of time. Oh, it's worth pointing out that some of the men in the Pelican Bay SHU have been living in 77-square foot cells for over 20 years. 

I will pause here while you go to the hall bathroom (or a walk-in closet) for a moment, close the blinds and imagine living in that room until 2035. Imagine never touching grass, soil, wood, water but what comes from a faucet, or another human being until 2035. Imagine not feeling sunshine splash your face until 2035. And then remember that 2035 is an arbitrary date and that it just might be forever. If you really do that exercise, a sense of desperation floods in pretty quickly. Drag, huh? Again, these are bad dudes, but you can see why people have described this practice as nothing short of torture. 

So back to the peculiar turn of events:

It so happens that this afternoon I'm boarding a private plane at the same airport where Harrison Ford had his little mishap, and flying up to Crescent City, the hometown of Pelican Bay State Prison. This, for reasons totally unrelated to my participation on the writing project. It so happens that I'm part of a small team of advocates that will be conducting a two-day workshop for inmates who were given life sentences for crimes they committed when they were juveniles.

A quick aside about that. 

There are two kinds of life sentences: Life Without Parole, which means you'll die in prison; and things like 20-to-Life which means you might die in prison if you don't get your act together and convince the parole board that after two decades of incarceration you've changed for the better. We're concerned with that latter category. And we're concerned with that latter category because a law was passed last year that creates a special parole process for people who were given life sentences as juveniles, wherein the parole board has to take into account––and in fact give great weight to––a person's adolescent knuckleheadness at time their crime was committed. Whereas youthfulness used to be an excuse when speaking of one's crime, it has now legally become a contributing factor. This law is not a free ticket to walk free, though. You still must get past the parole board and if you were convicted of murder, the governor has to sign off on your release.

So we're conducting a workshop for this unique class of inmate, to educate them about the new law, their rights, and how they can prepare for these special parole board hearings in a meaningful way. Just last week I finished editing a 70-minute film that California's Department of Correction (CDCR) will be looping on their close circuit television channel at the prison, as a supplemental education about the law and the parole process. 

So long-story-not-so-short-after-all, on Tuesday I'll be spending a long day inside the Pelican Bay SHU. Turns out there are a lot of juvenile lifers in solitary confinement.

I've been briefed, forewarned, cautioned about what to expect presenting from our interaction with these men. The simple interaction with our team could induce a panic attack for many of the men. Some might display anger or hostility. Some may be incapable of expressing simple thoughts, some will be completely withdrawn and many will be able to masterfully hide whatever adverse reactions they are experiencing. Don’t worry, Mom, we’ll be safe. Here’s the corridor where we’ll conduct the workshop:

The men will be safely locked in those cells, and we’ll interact with them from the corridor.

It will be a very sobering experience, I'm sure, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to help out. 

Anyway, how crazy that I'll get to walk into the most highly secure unit in California's entire prison system after writing about it for a year.

Weird right?

Some further reading for those of you interested:

My thoughts on interacting with the sort of people some people refer to as murderers: http://bit.ly/1xSfFPf

A piece from Wired Magazine about the psychological effects of solitary confinement: http://wrd.cm/1BldLvF

Great but lengthy read from New York Magazine about the Hunger Strikes: http://nym.ag/1Ble2OX

An article about one of my partners in not-crime, including information about the passing of SB260: http://bit.ly/1zvuJ6c

Casual Spartans

Speaking of visitations and strange ideas, there's an idea that came to me years ago and that has surfaced in different pieces of writing, although I’ve never really known what it means. Until a couple weeks ago. I’ll ruminate on what it––The Caryatid Nightmare––means in a future dispatch.

The last time it showed up, was in this piece I wrote in Glasgow this past May:

 

This morning, I came into the new.
Far from the smallness,
from the basements and the Brahman night soil.

Long away from the caryatid nightmare,
still, only half awake.

Far from the paper men, myopic and monocled,
standing beneath the lintel stone with wind-fluttered women, folded and blank.

Far, far from the firebrand of early afternoon fear.

Here, on the top deck with my casual Spartan, who points to the growing shore and says, "You see, friend, what you thought was a foot race is really just a field of dancing wood nymphs, here, as the morning mist dissolves, and my narrow eyes pull the shore closer, I realize I know this place. I left here years ago; I spirited away at a time when I resembled a nymph far more than a woodsman.

The Ballad of The Trickster Witch (Part 1)

There’s a dark energy there
we held her close, kept her warm
night after night, while the terror
spread like pigment on wet glass
her eyes, her breath,
the rhythm of her teeth.
She ran as soon as she could stand
was last spotted near the border
the dried skin of a chameleon in one hand
a hard boiled egg in the other
whispering rhymes about the alchemist of Terra Rosa.

They say there was never one so beautiful
so lost, so terrifying,
with a soul like tight, dry powder
resting quietly in the path
of a creeping lava flow only she can see
she knows it’s coming
she prayed for it.

Weeks went by.

She and her companion were waylaid
in the highlands near Juan Aldama
made to roll bones for her freedom
but just hers
she moved on alone
less two fingers on her left hand
only thumb, middle, and one frail pinkie
she admires the grotesque beauty of the claw
remembers fondly the medicine man of Juan Aldama
who wears a skullcap that glimmers
with the shifting hues of dawn.

Vacationeering

Somewhere right now they’re living right, like they have it all figured out, and we buy plane tickets for vacationeering and we pretend to live among them and we admire them. We glow with admiration for them…we literally glow… We sit in cafés and we watch them and we tell ourselves, “this is what it’s all about, this is what we need, and it all starts with a state of mind, we can take this home with us this time, we just have to make the effort.”

And we say, “I’m never going to settle for a shitty cup of coffee again and if I feel like napping in the afternoon, by god, I’m going to take that nap. And all of that nonsense that keeps us so busy, fine, I can play that game, but never again will I treat those pursuits as if they have substance. I’m going to read more and paint and make love on Tuesdays,” and then we have a glass of wine with lunch.

And we pause come sunset and gaze at the hues of the diminishing day crawling away from the darkness as we declare, “this trip came just at the right time. Things are going to be different from now on. You’ll see.”

And the day of departure comes. We pack up and we’re sad. Already the conviction is starting to wane. Then comes airport security and weather delays. Baggage claim and the familiar smell of the SUV. Finally the headlights sweep into the driveway and we try to convince ourselves that it’s good to be home. We carry the luggage inside, do the math and realize the sun is just now rising over there, and boy, do they have it all figured out.

Shopping Mall

Wonder if these days are end days.  A sleepless night.  A flat tire and now I'm at the mall, waiting for the tire man to finish up.  Two stabs at coffee and the first coffee was shit.  Full cup falls heavily into garbage can. 

Now: coffee, better.  Having no effect on the afternoon drag, the dregs of insomnia come to pay due.  

Mall noises: 

kids and terrible music
things frying
conversation. nothing.
blindness, blender
food court chairs scraping the uneven tile
quiet cacophony, whispering madness

Walking by, awkward men who feel more comfortable in their basements, in one room apartments with tin-foiled windows, perps and teenies, all walking by through this carnival of adolescent desire.

amygdala experiences flux
gratification flux

I need a map to find my way out.  The horror of the American public restroom.  Airport architecture filled with aimlessness. String handled shopping bags chockfull of lust. 

empty flux empty

Creatures of distraction:
anywhere but here, 
soon, never now,
everyone else
anyone but you

Somewhere nearby, a better version of me.

Farmer's Market

 Japanese fast food and she had pretty legs once.  Middle-aged women decipher text messages and the intonation swings by a smiley face.  The beauty of youth fades so quickly when you try to get in its way.

Her turuoise ring is the size of a human eye halved and O the poison it could hold in its hollow chamber.  That eccentric dude with a stringy gray pony tail and a camouflage T walks by still clutching that wrinkled paper bag, smiling and stumbling like the dose is still kicking.

And the one walks up to the food cart with more questions than answers: wild or farm-raised? Is there dairy in that? I can't eat wheat.  I gotta be smart.  That's not too spicy is it?  And the tassels on her boots sashay against the rhythm of her wide hips.   

Nearby, New York accents talk about their rackets.  Everything's a racket when you talk like that. The church picnic is a racket and we're all holy racketeers.   

Biracial, multiracial, antiracial, blanched.  The muscular guy walks by with his shoulders cocked back such that his arms hang like a couple of wings in mid-beat.  The über rich saunter through, dressed down in their bottom-drawer slacks and uncollared shirts, but just look at their feet.  They give it all away with their shoes.  Always the shoes. 

Just as much catwalk as market, and that's my cue to fetch my shallots and chard. 

Yucaipa, CA

On the fringe of the San Bernadino forest, a stunning view of the duodenum of the LA basin. 120 miles from the end of a three-month, 6600 mile jaunt. I feel like a seamen coming into port, so many long missed comforts await, but they come with the toll of saying goodbye to the sea and of the end of a chapter. I had the same feeling chugging into the Nak Nek river after three dreadful weeks fishing for herring on Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea. Three weeks without a shower and I was so eager to shave that I spent 45 minutes that night with a safety razor—just the razor, I'd lost the handle—regaining my jawline. Somehow the struggle of that shave in the bathroom of a deserted cannery, the interplay of eagerness and melancholy, yielded the same imprint that I'm trying now to record. But to what end? So these experiences become postcards left to fade in the scrapbook of a feeble mind? Yes, I think that may be the source of this feeling: given the fragility of our recollection, it takes a monumental effort to not let all that we experience just diminish like an expanding ripple on a pond that one day we won't even remember visiting. The plague of routine life is that extraordinary moments seem so rare and fleeting—What! Must I travel to the edge of a continent and throw myself at the mercy of a maniacal boat captain, or circle the country chasing a cure, just to feel that life is extraordinary?—Certainly not. I'm blessed with a life of extraordinary moments and my routines are defined by interactions with amazing, beautiful people. But the fringe experiences do help hone the perspective that these moments, defined as much by joy as they are by sadness, are for taking stock... they are the milestones, the roadside monuments, that remind us we're on our way, ever moving, from here to somewhere…

Canutillo, TX

Everything is better once the expanse of Texas is behind you. It's not a bad expanse, but 800 miles of mile markers kills the pace of progress, no matter your rate of travel.

Six miles from New Mexico, and I feel carefree, momentarily aimless and that's only possible when you feel that doom and grief are neither close behind nor near ahead. In that fleeting state my mind is displaceable. I become an existential chameleon and I slip into the lives of others.

As I walked to the dumpster in the RV park I wondered how many people call these parks home, casualties of the real estate fiasco and ensuing depression.  I watched a man leave the park in a large pick up truck, I imagined to work. I imagined that truck and his gooseneck trailer were all that remained of his attempt at an American dream. I imagined the relative freedom of having so little, of being rootless... I've been there and it can be wonderful… Literally, full of wonder... I imagined the limited space and limited capacity to carry meaningless things, purposeless things and I recall the freedom downsizing.

The last time I traveled this stretch of highway all of my belongings fit into a 1973 VW Thing. And I imagined the man's expression, veiled behind the windshield glare, and the thoughts that informed it, and there the hue of my scales became his. How must he feel with only a failed attempt at an American dream behind him and an ever narrowing field of choices ahead. Nothing could more strongly underscore the smallness of everything: his trailer, the RV park, and the chances that these next few years would be the best ever.

We shared a wave and he drove away and I ambled off into the rest of my day.

Progress

the voice began at dawn
like the first breeze
rustling the cat tails, and
in a wispy lilt, she said

"the austerity of your spirit
is so easily dissolved by
the piercing distractions
of your modernity," then

a still silence fell
and the bullrush bobbed
as her echo faded
and the warm tones of daybreak
gave way to slate blue
and the rushing engines
of a distant interstate rose,
calling from an inevitable horizon.