Thursday, July 9, 2015

13 Three-Paragraph Vignettes

By Jeff C.

ONE: Awe is impossible to describe. You just sound like a slack-jawed, foolish charlatan. You just sound like you’re unwise, unblasé, uncool. Yet despite that, if one has an open eye and an honest tongue, awe exists. Or at least it does for me. Here, now. The day that this collection of words is published it will have been one year to the day since I was behind bars. (The nearly six months at Work Release in Seattle ‘tweren’t prison as I knew it.] I woke up on July 9th, 2014, in my cell on a prison tier in Monroe which I’d lived on since January 2000. That, plus the three years plus prior at Walla Walla, and an open eye and unfurled tongue makes me say: I am in awe of freedom.

There will be those blurry, busy days when all those little things that pile upon each other in a cacophony of near control and in a rush of “shit, how am I gonna get all this done,” but then….

Then there are those ambered, flickering moments when one of the cacophony of things wrestles my attention and I imagine it’s akin to that epiphany described by the great authors of our time. But, you know, experienced by a slack-jawed foolatan.


42nd birthday picnic at Gasworks Park in Seattle

TWO: I surrender, at times, to tears. Unexplainable tears. Well, not totally unexplainable.
I don’t have children, but I imagine that a parent—in the sticky satiation of parenthood—has those moments when she can’t help but look back at what she was prior to creating and/or nurturing a small human and gets the wind knocked out of her routine from those unexplainable surrenders to overwhelming emotion.

I am not complaining. After 18.5 years of façading the emotional range of a robot for self-protection—since “kindness is weakness” and, ergo ipso unfacto, any weakness must be hidden so as to not being taken advantage of—I now smile through a bitten bottom lip when the emotion of some particular moment pressures out some happy tears through some otherwise modern mundane moment.


Riding shotgun with my Road Dog, Scooter

THREE: When I was riding the bus home from my second job and I was making my Instagram post in celebration of gay marriage being legal in America (#OneLove #LoveRules #MarriageForAll #ThanksSCOTUS) and I copied and pasted the first few paragraphs of the CNN news story about it, I leaked some tears at these words: “The language of Kennedy’s opinion spoke eloquently of the:  most fundamental values of family, love and liberty.”

I cried at the beauty of rightness. I cried at the wonder of our times. I cried at a love for love.

But this sort of reaction, while not hidden or played to the bleachers, was different than if I would have heard this news from inside prison. My immediate thought was: “I really want to get down to the Seattle Gay Pride Parade tomorrow.” I wanted to, and had the option to, celebrate from anywhere but afar.


Celebrating the SCOTUS ruling for gay marriage on Capitol Hill
FOUR: Smaller moments elicit a reaction. Or maybe more like they force me to pay attention. As I type this I am sitting outside my home, with the half-moon to my three o’clock making its presence known through the tree. I have a dog wandering around waiting for his chance to bark and not get grrrrr’d at. I have petunias to the left of me, dahlias to the right, and here I am, lucky in the middle with freedom.

Some nights ago I was riding my bike up the long-tail hill and the nature, the silence, the…everything coalesced into a blue star intensity of, well, let’s call it appreciation.

That is a good word. A powerful one. One that can impact like a gut punch to the head.


First time Bouncy House user

FIVE: The world out here isn’t all beauty and rainbows, though. I’ve come across pain and I’ve done that social dance around and away from uncomfortable situations. I’m no stranger-hugger. Yet.

It’s a different kind of head butt to the gut to talk to someone on the phone that you’re trying to shill a shiny Vegas vacation to and the word that gets walk-a-thons rears its malignant head.

It’s no picnic to ride the bus home from your second job through White Center, Seattle, and see what in prison are called “Ding Biscuits”—people that shuffle off to the Pill Line to get their next dose of whatever they can get to make the pain and hurt and heartache and daemons abate, if only for one day…or part of one day. The all-consuming addiction of numbing the pain of life.


Making new friends

SIX: On the way home from Bellevue tonight, via Seattle (thankfully that long route is only a Sunday night thing), I saw a woman arrested within five feet of me. Just like in prison, they yelled, “Get down on the ground!” repeatedly. Just like in prison, this person did not. I did my best impression of a wall and hoped that these Seattle police (who don’t exactly have a fantastic reputation for being uber-rational) didn’t pull out their guns. As soon as they handcuffed her I remembered that, unlike in prison, I had a camera and got some shots of them all while she repeatedly said, “What are you arresting me for? What I have done? Why are you detaining me?”

Selfishly, I must admit, that I could only think of myself at the time, “If I get questioned by the cops—especially for having my phone out and taking their pictures—will my CCO understand?” I run that Community Corrections Officer question through more than the most devout WWJDer.

I don’t want to go back to prison. I won’t go back to prison. That’s not some idiotic “Guns ‘a blazin’” mantra; it’s a statement of fact that I won’t go back to prison because I don’t want to go back to prison.” And that may well sound like an empty tautology; but, as they annoyingly say in prison: it is what it is.


Spectating only

SEVEN: I grew up in the suburbs. I lived in a decent-sized city in the Army in Germany. I lived in Seattle for six months on Work Release. Yet I spent summers on a two-cow farm in the dry, forgotten corner of Oregon. Before I was three I chased my older sister with a dead snake. Before I was in high school I kept ant farms. And while I was in Walla Walla I paid the fellas to smuggle live crickets back from the big yard in their chew cans to feed to my praying mantis (and yet the demand was bigger than my supply so, yes, there very well could be descendants of my pet of three weeks who have a developed a taste for human blood, drank from the empty end of a Bic pen, chugging it Greek Week style).

But I have never been in awe of nature until now.

Oh, sure, nature existed in prison (goodness, I took 5 years off my back by working 5 months weeding and sowing and weeding and tilling and weeding stuff I never got to reap), but not like this. Like how women exist in a men’s prison through the guards, counselors, volunteers, nurses, staff, and visitors, nature existed in there; but not like this. Nature that cannot be contained video or stills or panoramas or macro close-ups. Nature that will not be deterred. Nature that is a moon-lit ride that makes me cover up my bike’s headlight and dwell in the serene beauty. Nature that cobwebs my face, daily. Nature that is sticky, scratches, and bites. Nature that will not be suburbanized.


Patiently capturing nature (no bees, or me, was harmed during the shooting of this)

EIGHT: I am impressed by people. My job is, so they tell me, selling myself. Some of my co-workers sell the package and are in-and-off the phone, getting them to show up at their appointment to receive their guaranteed gifts. But mine’s different: I have to convince people 1.) that I’m with a legitimate company, 2.) that I’m an honest person telling them the truth, and, 3.) assure them that it’s okay to give me their credit card over the phone. And, while, yes, I meet a solid contingent of skeptical if not downright screaming whilst sprinting away covering their ears as if I am some sort of Franz Mesmer, going to spirit away their identity, most of the people I meet are willing to listen. And I’m willing to talk.

And so I sell myself. And what’s rather amazing is that if they let down their wall and let me show me and not just the script I have to read, I can, and do, connect with many people. I talked with one guy and told him about how “on the second vacation package you get to choose from”—but all he heard was San Diego and began to start talking about tall ships and how they had this Portuguese ship that had been replicated like it was 200 plus years ago and all I did was use the osmosis knowledge I’d accumulated from sailing I’d picked up from my Dad and suddenly we had talked for 30 minutes. Then the hardest part of my job came (no, not asking for the credit card; I often don’t ask and just let them offer): trying to get ahold of him again. I wasn’t able to and gave up after three voice mail messages. But he called back saying that they weren’t going to go to Vegas this year, but, if it was okay, could he send me a book on tall ships (I had to ask my boss and she said as long as it was sent to work) and he did it: he sent me a $30 brand new coffee table book with $10 shipping. (My boss’ boss, upon hearing this and having been in the business for 20 plus years, said, “No one has ever sent me a book.”)

But my point is that it’s astonishing to “meet” people over the phone or in person and realize 1.) that not everybody is cynicism calcified (not that everyone in prison is; they’re just a higher percentage),
2.) that people will, and do, open up if you genuinely do first (and it’s rather rewarding to do so; often more so than “making the sale”—it’s nice to leave work knowing that you’ve made someone’s day better by just listening), and, 3.) that it’s not all that difficult to be my honest, full self—with just some slightly-creative, um, ways of phrasing what I’ve been doing for the last 19 years; I’m honest because I don’t have the memory to be any other way, I just bend the light around that black hole I survived.


Not spectating

NINE: I decide that I want to go to Seattle. And it’s a three hour plus bike ride. And I do it. Mainly just to know that I can. Maybe because I can. The beautiful Burke-Gilman trail (that used to be a railroad and is now just a bike path along and around the northern hump of Lake Washington) as I stop to take pictures of graffiti and Mt. Rainier and whatever I fancy.

I am not going to meet a friend. I am not needed back home anytime soon. I am just going.

The day wasn’t all that eventful, and I wasn’t even hit on (in my most pastel-y outfit) on Capitol Hill during the ramp-up to Gay Pride, but it was a day out. For just that reason.


Selfie whilst biking naked with 1000 others through Fremont wearing only paint

TEN: It’s my birthday and I’ve been invited by my new friends for a picnic at Gasworks Park (strawberry birthday cake and candle included). Afterwards we bike to the University of Washington and rent a canoe and go swimming.

[Insert obligatory, slack-awed paragraph about how it’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve been underwater and haven’t even taken a bath and how I dove off into the water from an uncompleted highway over the lily pads and be sure to add some clever accounting of all those wasted, idle years by encapsulating them in some unfathomable numerical extrapolation of the total time elapsed.]

But there I am, floating in the water, my exhausted arms impersonating fins as I try to keep just my face (but not my ears) above the water. The distant traffic noise muffles. The conversation between my friends and some friendly strangers dissipates. The volume of my breathing intensifies. It’s not long enough or absent-in-consciousness enough to be meditation. It’s not intense enough to be one of those fabled epiphanies. It’s not unpleasant.


Swimming for the first time in 19 years

ELEVEN: I have plenty of examples in even my current life of what choices I’m presently, conscientiously avoiding.

It seems I was too generous with a new friend and he was not ready for a mature friendship where you are honest and conversate, if you’ll pardon the prison vernacular, with me about, most likely, his addiction level. Of course it cost me nearly a grand to lose that friendship, but after three months and nary an emoticon, and hearing that he is living in the same suburban town as moi, I feel that this friendship has run its course.

It seems that a new co-worker, the one all-too-liberally labeled “the felon” isn’t going to be with us much longer. True, he’s socially stagnated and sadly that likely means that corporate, cubicle life isn’t for him, but it’s been a constant underscore to my chosen sobriety to see him come in drunk and high and not cope unmoodily with being told to come in sober. And it’s a continual italicizing to see how flat his “prison stories” flop. And I’m boldly unimpressed with his institutionalitude towards authority (arguing to prove a stupid point when powerless against the powers that be) when given more chances than, personally (and I admit that this sounds harsh), I think he deserved. I feel like I’m next door to guilty for saying that because I want to be all raised-fist in solidarity for any of my fallen brothers, but his uncouthness bristles my homogenized career-path. I tensed up more than when a woman was arrested in front of me and the cops could have easily pulled their guns on her, with me directly in the line of fire, when he reacts in that all-too-recognizable knuckleheaded way.


Backyard inchworm

TWELVE: Stress is a motherfucker. Damn. I don’t always know how to say no. Which would be all right, I suppose, if I wasn’t trying to consume so much of this free world. All at once. Like there isn’t enough time.

There isn’t enough time.

I want to be the ideal boyfriend. I want to be the best brother/tenant possible. I want to be unselfishly friendly (“No more agendarosity, please”—so goes the Jeffism on my Instagram account). I want to mainline escapist entertainment. I want to ladder climb my way to a career. I want to succeed. At life. I don’t want to let people down. I don’t want to let myself down—or the myself of the last nearly 20 years—who swore like a motherfucker that he wouldn’t waste a second chance. I won’t let the me of this very moment, squeezing out tears as it’s past 2am on the day that this blog piece is due, on the day that he’s got a list of shit to do that, if all done, wouldn’t allow for sleep or escape or reality. So the delays pile up like the mess of my room (I used to be organized; I used to have time to tweak on OCD-colored filing systems; I used to function on 5 or 6 hours of sleep and now I need 8 and the floor is my filing cabinet and I only organize my outfits). And deadlines motivate. And only deadlines motivate. And I try. And I try. And I try. And I am, somehow, succeeding. In most of my life. For all but the people who I’ve let down.


Canoeing on my birthday with new friends

THIRTEEN: To borrow yet one more prisonism (since I don’t use them or anything I might even think sound like it came from the joint), “don’t get it twisted,” I’m not living as pensively as this has been written. But I simply don’t have time for my midnight musings anymore like I used to. I simply don’t sweep out a spot in my internal life for any sort of me-time that this (I apologize, dear reader) certainly is. And this, too, is a part of me—even if it’s not something that gets scheduled in.

I joyfully laugh, I startlingly snort-laugh, I wondrously chuckle, I gladly giggle, I proudly titter, I slyly smirk, I overwhelmingly smile, and I likely guffaw graciously through the still, small moments that I create and throughout the onslaught of everything that won’t destroy me (just look at the pictures above); I am a man of mirth because….

I am living life, freely, in awe.

—July 2015

Jeff C.


Sonn said...

What a beautiful, truly moving post.

I know nothing is certain in this world. But I can say with certitude: I am absolutely certain that you will never go back to prison.

Be happy, and enjoy it all!

urban ranger said...

Your words and the photos just bursting with enthusiasm. Great to see!
Thanks for the update, Jeff. Keep up the good work.