Thursday, April 16, 2015

PRISONER NO MORE: Beginning Anew Part 2 (of 2…or maybe 3) “Freedom is…”

by Jeff C.

How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won't take my eyes off the ball again
You reel me out then you cut the string
—“15 Step” by Radiohead

1.) Freedom is…busy.

Damn, I’m busy. All the time—with all sorts of things. Things that I never had to worry about before. Busy as…well, too damn busy to come up with some witty simile or metaphor, that’s for sure. 

What is funny is that, years ago—in the midst of my 18.5 years of prison time that I just finished about 100 days ago—the subject of how busy people would “claim” to be, how busy life in general is, would come up periodically and I was among the crowd going all, “Yeah, right. It’s not as busy as you claim it is.” And while, yes, this is true to some extent, in that if you’re going a few years without having the time to let me know that you’re alive, or that you got my letters, or that you even give a goddamn shit about my existence that’s one thing; but it’s (hopefully) a different thing entirely when you can’t seem to find time to write the guys that you used to live with and almost shared a life (sentence) with in the first 100 days or so out of prison. Yeah, I’m so far behind in my paper correspondence that it’s not even funny. But, hey, I do have a file folder labeled “Letters to respond to” so that ought to count for something, right? (I remember Linus telling Charlie Brown that he put his books under his pillow instead of studying because he was learning by osmosis; I’m afraid that friendships don’t work quite in that same way, though.)

Going hiking at Wallace Falls
But being busy is kind of a joke, too. Sure, I’m working full time at one job, I’ve got a great girlfriend, I’m mesmerized by this shiny piece of technology suddenly welded to my left palm, I’m volunteering for two non-profits, I’m trying to be a good little brother / rentee, I am working (somewhat) at a second job, I’m trying to hang out with friends, and, somewhere in there between walking the dogs, texting like a spazmatic tween that’s crazy/super popular, and feigning hints towards that once-well-known friend of mine called sleep, I have managed to watch all of four movies in 100 days, I have managed to gain weight (oh, how I don’t miss those hours of burpees and various other body torture sessions in the Big Yard with a guy I do miss: my friend, art-sensei, and drill sergeant PJ), and I have managed in 100 days to become one of the pod people: caught in the spell of my own little orb of cell-phone light, protecting me from eye-contact, small talk, and thoughtful silences.

I used to watch at least three or four movies, if not more, a week when I was at the prison in Monroe. And I was a news junkie on par with the most paralytic in a nursing home; now my sister gets on my case for not knowing what the hell is going on in the world. “Oh, there was a [insert horrible tragedy]? I didn’t know.” “Of course you didn’t,” she’s said (more or less) more than four times in 100 days. And don’t even get me started on the sitcoms and dramas. My sister tried to get me to watch “Game of Thrones” and I made it through, at best, two episodes—not because it wasn’t good, but because the stuff sputtering from the TV just isn’t as exciting to me as it once was. I fared a bit better with “Californication”—but maybe because that’s about a writer (David Duchovny)…oh, and there’s nudity. (More on that subject later.)

I used to nap at least three or four times a week, if not more, (practically the whole open-barred unit, during the afternoon and often lunchtime “count,” would go all quiet and get in those power naps). I’ve said hello to my old friend, the nap, maybe three times in 100 days. 

I used to get shit DONE. Like you wouldn’t believe. Like I didn’t believe. So get this, this person (via a to-be-discussed-shortly medium) finds out that I’m a writer, an artist, (now) a photographer, humorist (just go with me on that one), and a graffiti lover and is all, “How do you find the time to do all that and still work?” I had some sort of answer, but, really, the real answer is that you make it a priority. 

And that makes me feel like shit for allowing that piece of plastic, glass, and flecks of gold and other precious metals in my left palm to come between me and my actual, real, in-person relationships. Yes, playing Word Feud (like a version of Scrabble™ but with a randomizer button that can align the Triple and Double Word tiles in such a way that you can get hundreds of points) against my friends and family is important—in that it keeps us connected (and you can message/talk shit to each other in each game)—but so, too, are the guys I left behind. The guys that I don’t write.

The relationship I have with my phone (art by top.comedy from Instagram)
It’s weird, there were a few guys that said, directly, emphatically, that they didn’t want me to write them. And others who I didn’t expect to write did. And now, instead of being the one on the inside dutifully shooting off some massive missive about everything I can spew forth and only about 10 to 20 typed pages long, I’m all guilt-edged for being what I said once I’d never be: lazy in communication. 

New Things That Keep Me Busy:

1.) Making my own meals. 

2.) Planning my own meals.

3.) Deciding what to eat when going out.

4.) Deciding what to buy at the grocery store (aside from the new staples of: yogurt by the half gallon; cheese by the brick; lunchmeat by the pound; actual, real, non-dyed brown, but actually brown from the goodness that is in it, 78 grain sourdough bread; and fresh vegetables, fresh vegetables, fresh vegetables—for horrendously huge kick-ass salads that “have too much going on in them,” my sister wrongly says).

5.) Doing my own laundry. 

6.) Yard work. (These things, thus far—if you’ll notice—were all things that were, when I was living in that Big House on The Hill with that Big Yard in it and lots and lots of low-paid “help” were things that I didn’t have to do at all. A menu was planned out for moi, et al., and we merely had to shuffle down there and gripe about it. “Doing my laundry” then meant putting it in a laundry bag and going to the entire effort of walking it down the entire length of the tier and putting it in a laundry cart to then have it tied on my bars when I got home the next day. And yard work was done by the grounds crew, not by me, the little brother who, um, has already managed to not only mangle a lawnmower blade—there’s a reason I’m an office worker—but, surprise, surprise, research, purchase, and replace it all by my lonesome.) Though, I am quite proud to say that I’ve got my very first window box planted with some greenery and soon-to-be flowery stuff that my awesome sister helped me with when we went to a place called, no joke, Flower World—and it’s certainly not Flower Village. They have actual maps for when you go there—needed ones, I’d say.

7.) Keeping up with email (at least I learned, unlike others who have never figured it out yet, that it’s best to have a “throw away” email account since, everybody wants your email address and while, yes, I do, in fact, want to save 10 percent off at The Container Store—as awesome of a store as a pack rat could ever happen upon—I’m not really interested in having them tempt me with emails fanatically).

8.) Keeping up with texts. Oy vei. That one was hard. Mostly because when I first started out at work I was all super-serious, and “I keep my phone off when I’m at work so that I can focus on the task at hand.” Then, well, I got to realizing that a huge chunk of my day is all about waiting for someone to pick up the phone (it’s as if people know that unknown numbers are tele-marketers or something), so I relented and now, well, I can pretty much keep up (or far exceed) anyone’s ability to text me. Partly I get to thank JPay for that. (JPay is the quasi-emailing company they have in some states that, through kiosks in the units we could plug in our little JP4 handheld devices—about the size of a 1990s cellular telephone, i.e., a small brick—and send off messages to the outside world; but no need to panic, each and every one of our incoming and outgoing messages were scanned by the always there for us DOC to make sure that we weren’t corrupting the pristine outside world with our thoughts and such). Because the JP4 devices have, essentially, the same keyboard layout as any sort of texting device—so I was able to let my fingers fly (though I’m awaiting the moment when auto correct gets me into my first fight). 

9.) Keeping up with my bills. Oy vei, indeed. For me it’s not an issue of having the money—I’m lucky enough to have a great situation where I’ve got a great home here with my sister and I had a bit of savings built up—no, for me it was an issue of figuring out that I couldn’t procrastinate on opening up all the massive amount of just crap that I get from the bank and Visa and everybody else; some are bills that I have the money to pay but when you postpone them, you pay more—odd how that works. Yeah, I kept thinking that I had some sort of auto-pay for my Visa—and I do, I just never set it up online. So, well, from zero credit to a bad mark on my credit; which, from what I hear, is actually an improvement—odd how that works.

10.) Keeping up with friendships, relationships, family and not letting all of the above…well, not overwhelm me because that’s not it, but not let all of the above (and more)…just become time sucks that make it difficult to have (because you’ve got to make time to have) meaningful time with people. Scheduling out, three weeks in advance, a brunch or needing to cancel and “check my schedule” to see if the proposed second chance can happen. It’s not something that I can’t handle; it’s just something that is new—I don’t have the kind of time that I used to have to plop down and write a three hour letter and be all, “Nice. That ought to do just nicely” and think, as I mailed off that intimidating letter, whether I should write on the envelope: “I’ve decided your life isn’t busy enough” (yet again). Ah, yes, how busy and hectic and FULL life out here is; even if it’s full with things that I’d rather (as the mad genius that I am who now, at times, forgets to eat and am reminded by that completely foreign feeling of actual, real, cramp and near-faint inducing light-headedness) have some paid help do for me. (Which, ahem, I’ve actually done; I am helping out the massively awesome University Beyond Bars with their Facebook page—I’ve not succumbed to THAT particular time suck, though—and I’m supposed to find and post prison/prison-education related articles every day and, well, until I got the hang of it I was vacillating between not doing it and, once, going to an online services-for-hire place called to have some people research, for five dollars—get it?—things that I was looking for; I did two people and one was good, the other one was okay—but they were both good enough to help me realize that I, myself, could do what I was paying them for…if I was just willing to pay not the money, but pay the time.)

But I’m a bit wary of being busy, too. It only took a year after I got out of the Army before I ended up in prison. Before I chose actions that directly led me to prison. 

I’m not at all making the mistakes I made back then: I’m living sober. By choice (a constant choice as mother-loving everybody, it seems, wants to offer me alcohol), not because I think I need to stay sober; mostly I am sober because I don’t need to be not-sober. I’m living and loving life far too much to sleep, let alone dull my senses or feel a need to accentuate the vividness of life as it is. And that’s not even counting the various other reasons why I’m not at all interested in choosing that path of muddled thinking, of chemical happiness, of easing up the stranglehold I’ve got on control of my life.

Sipping a virgin drink in the spring
I’m (hopefully) not making the same mistake of living beyond my means like I did back in 1995-1996. Sure, I do need to get a budget going (reading the first few pages of and then never finishing or signing up probably doesn’t count; neither does having a full drawer of receipts—as if that’s some sort of “system”). And, sure, I need to be careful with my free giving (it’s hard not to give cash to polite homeless people; all I see in them is my former neighbors). And I need to be careful of my freely loaning out money (it’s hard not to give money to a friend who got out the exact same day as me and is, sadly, struggling financially to make ends meet and is now getting kicked out of his family’s place for having some joints—it matters not that it’s legal in this state and he, unlike me, is “off paper,” meaning he’s free and clear from the DOC). But, even granting all that, and the fact that I’m doing (if I may say so) quite amazing at work (who would have guessed that the boy once called “motormouth” could use his quick(ish) wit and quasi-humor and (prison-)people skills to get people to give up their credit cards over the phone—regardless that it’s all legitimate), I am ever-wary of succumbing to anything that seems like it’s a bit of history repeating.

I won’t take my eyes off the ball again. 

If something in the deli aisle makes you cry
Of course I'll put my arm around you
And I'll walk you outside
Through the sliding doors
Why would I mind?
—“Parentheses” by The Blow

2.) Freedom is…amazing. 

Majestically, fantastically amazing. Shit, there aren’t enough positive adjectives to describe it. 
I’ve had my moments where I’ve gotten all teary-eyed in happiness from the sheer volume of choices before me. (I’d heard about the whole “the grocery store aisle is too intimidating and I had to leave the store”—and wrote about it in a previous post, “Cherchez la Femme”—but that’s never been my reason for my tears.) No, my tears come from a forgotten, long-since capped over well of happiness. Oh, sure, I’d been happy in prison. I’d laughed until the commercials came on. I oozed happiness when my tier was called first for a holiday meal. I practically lost it when I’d go out for a 48 hour trailer visit behind the walls at the prison. 

But this is different.

It’s all so very different.

Wonderistic. Beautious. Magrendous. There aren’t enough made-up positive adjectives to describe it.

So let’s start with some scenes:

Scene #1: Getting OUT out. That day, even though I’d been in Work Release for five months and had many social visits out (I wrote all about this in my previous post, “Beginning Anew: Quasi-Freedom,” that first day, was pretty damn awesome. I’d already sent home everything but what I was lugging around in my backpack (and because it was a beautiful day, I had stripped off most of my clothes and had them tied around the backpack looking very much like, I felt, a homeless person). I had planned on going to work and working but found out I had 24 hours to report to my CCO (Community Corrections Officer; newspeak for Parole Officer—but accurate since we don’t have parole in this state). So needing to do that changed my plans. But I made it from Seattle to Burien to pick up my check and then to Lynnwood to check in and then back to Seattle all in time for my sister to drive me to her home on the Eastside. 

To my new home. 

To home. 

A home without bars. 

She had me walk in first and I was thoroughly surprised when my Mom—who I thought was 1421 miles away in Cottonwood, Arizona—took my picture. She’d flown up just to be there for me and was kind enough to chauffer me around for four days getting all the things I needed to get done. It saved me gallons of stress; my Mom’s super awesome (and I still feel bad for being on the phone and texting so much while she was there).

Being Surprised by Mom
Scene #2: First day of work. I’d managed, through sheer luck, to get approached by a great company and, because of the timing of it all (merely, ahem, “needing the full two weeks’ notice”—not for the unscrupulous telemarketing company I was with for about a month—but to be OUT of Work Release and have them not have to contact this new company and let them know that I’m, indeed, a felon), I was able to start a few days after I was out. And, through sheer stacked luck, my past wasn’t known about (for all I can tell, even still), so I get a fresh start.

I get to go to work and be me. 

Not some me with a label. But just me. It’s…surreal.

At work making calls
Almost more than anything else, it’s completely foreign. But I’ve taken to it. I mean, really, I’ve watched every episode of the sitcom “The Office” so I know which characters not to be. After 100 days I’ve realized that it’s really a great company to work for—not just because the abundant benefits. I get to laugh at work—true, it is work, but no one has yet offered to pay me to just be me. Yet. But I think I might make that be my five-year plan as opposed to my previous one: “In five years I plan to have a plan about the next five years of my life.”

Done spinning the spiff wheel at work
Scene #3 (not in order of importance, obviously): I’ll not go into all the prurient details, no matter how much you may (or emphatically may not) want to voyeur into my boudoir, but, um, love struck moi. And, well, it’s been consummated. More than once. (There’s almost 19 years to make up for, after all.) We only had a week before she had to get back on her plane to fly across the ocean, but we made good use of the time.

Quite good use.

Me and my girl in Seattle
And, thankfully, she’s coming back in July (so I guess that means that I hadn’t forgotten how to ride a bicycle, or—new to me—be ridden like one). The great thing, of course, though is that it was way more than just sex—it was a coming together of love that grew from having known each other via a friendship that endured despite that place (and all its communication restrictions) that I went through. 

I don't like staying up, 
Staying up past the sunlight. 
It's meant to be fun, 
And this just doesn't feel right. 
Why can't we all, 
All just be honest, 
Admit to ourselves, 
That everyone's on it.
—“Everyone’s On It” by Lily Allen

3.) Freedom is…addictive.

I’m addicted to texting. Oh, I’m not good at it. I practically use smiley faces for periods so that I can’t ever be misconstrued as rude. And I can, I admit, go a bit overkill (like drown people in texts so much that they beg me to stop)—it is a new toy to me, after all. But I’m certainly making up for lost time. And doing the fair share for the fellas in the joint, too—as if each superfluous text thread is me pouring out the proverbial 40 ouncer for the lost homies.

I’m addicted to streaming music. My sister has warned me that one’s only supposed to use earbuds an hour a day; I’m on my 6th set of headphones—they get quite beat up when you’re always plugged in. I only have 52 “stations” on my Pandora music station. At least I’ve got that and I’m not buying songs—I’m doing good at work, but not that good. Whether I’m planting my first window box flowers, doing the dishes, shaving (really), riding my bike (not too smart, that), riding the bus, or writing this—I have music in my ears. I don’t think I can accurately describe how deprived I was of music in there—good, quality music and just plain DIFFERENT music. It was okay with the Seattle music station The End 107.7 until about four years ago when they changed the ballasts in the fluorescent lights and, as a result, that radio station didn’t come in good enough to record the Locals Only radio program or the New End Music program that used to be my Sunday nights: a flashback to me in middle school, fingers fluttering above the record and play buttons, just hoping that the next song will be worthy of recording. But now, it’s weird, if I like a song or a band (or some stand-up comedy), I’ll just start a new station based on that song or band and voilà—I’ll be shunting that shit straight past my blood-brain barrier.

Hiking at Wallace Falls
[Skip this paragraph if you’re not an audiophile. The Pandora radio stations that I have are—based off of artists/albums/song—in order of adding them: What Made Milwaukee Famous, Phantogram, Techno, CocoRosie, Tool, Radiohead, Chill Out, Local Music You’ve Not Heard Of (I poured in like 50 local bands into this one and labeled it myself), Bright Eyes, Electronica, Four Tet, Todays’ Comedy, At The Drive-In, Ratatat, Today’s Indie, Blur, Oasis, Whitney Cummings, Evanescence, Menomena, Broadripple Is Burning, Kurt Vile, Laura Marling, Nadine Shah, Rattlesnake, Catfish & the Bottlemen, Django Django, The Flaming Lips, Mogwai, First Aid Kit, Little Dragon, Iron & Wine, Stuck in My Teeth, Highway 61 Revisted, Bjork, Father John Misty, Lana Del Rey, Phutureprimitive, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Magnetic Fields, The White Stripes, Beauty Beats, High Roller, Ambient Galaxy (Disco Valley Mix), Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire, Bluetech, Wax Tailor, The Avalanches, Josie Long, and, added yesterday, Adele.]

But those addictions are ridiculous and hardly interfere with my life, my relationships, and my need to sleep (well, except for the texting—my sister gets quite peeved when I text others while in front of her). No, they all are nothing compared to my new, potent, and life-rearranging addiction. It’s funny/ironic/fitting (take your pick) that I, once, from the judgmentally safe distance of not having the choice of participating, said grandpaesque things like: “Those darn kids ought to look up and have an actual conversation with someone instead of looking at their phones” and “I’ll never be on them thare social media sites” and “Nobody cares about purty pictures youse took of your meals.” (Thankfully the last one is still true.) 

But I have succumbed. 

I have, sadly, given in to the chant of “one of us, one of us” and I’m now, truly, undeniably, on social media. Oh, not through a necessity like I am via Facebook, as I mentioned, so that I can post on the Facebook page for the University Beyond Bars as a way to help out a great organization (who could always use new support either on their Facebook page or, better yet, on the newly redesigned website at if you care to be awesome). 

No, I’ve succumbed to a selfish addiction.

I’m completely addicted to posting my original Jeffism quotes, my paintings, and now (new to me) my photography on an incredibly easy and easy-to-get-hooked-on site called Instagram. They start you with a gram, free—like all good pushers do—then, suddenly you’re freebasing pounds and strung up until Ungodly Hour and Stupid O’Clock (as my sweetheart from Scotland calls it) comes all too early and you’re paying for it the rest of the day.

Me and my girl
Perhaps my editor is right: maybe I deserve to have this time to see all this amazing art, paintings, graffiti, and positive quotes. Maybe I’m allowed a bit of me-time. Perhaps I’m allowed to sacrifice sleep to play with such things. Hey, at least it replaced my initial if not addiction then at least my dalliance with gobs of pornography that I’d been denied for the last nearly 20 years (I was actually worried about that; thinking that I’d become one of those people who just applied that to myself like SPF 50 on the beach—thankfully, though, it was just an initial giddiness of freedom that has since self-corrected to a normal, non-intrusive amount). 

I remember the day I stepped,
Into the water
My daddy held me in his hands
And pushed my head under,
And said
Son I am,
So proud,
Just one word,
—“Backslider” by The Toadies

4.) Freedom is…under construction.

I had originally intended this post to be a complete, full, and all-encompassing final posting for Minutes Before Six, some bit of summarizing be-all end-all post that answered every question you might ever have about how it’s like to adjust to life after being unalive. But, really, I’m not capable of that because this just over 100 days isn’t enough.

Hanging Christmas ornaments
It’s not enough freedom. Not enough to make such sweeping, wise, wry observations about what it’s like to be free from the perspective of a stranger in a strange land. Clearly 100 days isn’t enough freedom. Which is why I’m becoming more and more like every other time-clocking Schmo. In my overly cautious need to be a law-abiding citizen (hell, last night I was riding my bike home at 10pm in the dark and felt all crazy-weird for stopping to pee in a bush away from the road, worried about whether it was trespassing and what would happen) I’m perhaps becoming more and more like you, dear reader, in my square life that is distancing itself, each day, from the exotic locked-away world I used to dwell in; I might not be as interesting (at least to the ones who read this site with a rubberneck whether they realize it or not, enjoying a bit of rubbernecking at the men the cages), but this square life (and I’m not just talking about the size of Instagram pictures) is the life for me. 

I’ll not be another Stupid Statistic. I’ll not go back. I’ll not backslide. 

I’m out. I’m proud. I’m staying out.

I’m building a life out here. 

And, like the people at my work, my Instagram peeps don’t know about my past and, well, I like the idea that I just get to be the labels I choose for myself—not the ones forced upon me with a DOC number stamped on them.

Artist. Writer. Humorist. Photographer. Prisoner no more.

—April, 2015 


urban ranger said...

Jeff - thanks for this. It is good to hear that you are doing well in the busy, busy real world.
May you continue to thrive and enjoy life as a free man. Never look back!

Jeff C. said...

Thank you, urban ranger, for wishing me well in the busy, busy real world. I'm glad that you want me to "continue to thrive and enjoy life as a free man," but I'm not sure I agree about the "Never look back!" part. I remember reading once about how gorillas who can use sign language, when they talk about the future, they their heads around to look at what's behind them because they've not been there/seen the future yet, but look ahead at the past of what they've seen before; I refuse to look back in longing at/for the un-busy-ness of prison (or anything else), but I do think it's important to not pretend like my past isn't my past. (I know that you didn't say that.) But it's because I want to make not only the (busy) world I'm in better, but because I don't want to forget the less busy world I left better, too, that I'm volunteering for both Minutes Before Six and the University Beyond Bars--both of which helped me make it through my prison term productive and sane.

Anonymous said...

I am so pleased that freedom is so many things to you and that you are thriving. May you continue to do so! Your friend, Lucy :D

Jeff C. said...

As always, Lucy, thank you. It's been a pleasure knowing you these many years and letters and postcards. And I promise that we'll do more than just play Word Feud for our regular contact. :) Best, Jeff