Thursday, January 12, 2017

Time to Dance the Thirteenth Step

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By Jeff C.

1. Thirteenth Step: Call an Optimist, He’s Turning Blue
When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren't smart enough to get out of jury duty.—Norm Crosby
Being rejected is never pleasant, whether it’s for a duty few want anyway or something else entirely. Being rejected over something you did two decades ago -- and knowing that those rejections will keep coming -- isn’t hilarious either. 

My sister told me to not send in my jury summons paperwork because, allegedly, if you never respond to the first one then they soon give up and you’ll never have to do it. But I actually want to participate in jury duty. I want to serve, to be called to serve, and likely be immediately dismissed by the prosecution. (Though they might be stupid in doing that because if I were to serve on, say, the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board—think parole board with a softer name—I’d be harsher on those guys that continue to keep the recidivism rate above 66 percent. I might be the same way on a jury: harsh toward those who deserve it.)

Early in 2016 my CCO (Community Corrections Officer—think parole officer with a softer name) told me that due to a recalculation of my sentence I would no longer have to be “on paper” until March 2018, but instead would be done with the Department of Corrections exactly two years after I had left Work Release, over 400 days early. My immediate response when he told me that this would happen December 10th, 2016 was, “Damn, I’ll just miss the election.” 

I had tried to sign up to vote earlier in the year (at a My Morning Jacket concert at The Paramount in Seattle) and got a nicely worded letter from the Secretary of State of Washington telling me that due to my conviction 20 years ago I was not eligible to vote. I received the same response a few months ago when I did, indeed, send in that first jury summons paperwork. Due to my conviction 20 years ago I was not eligible to be on a jury of my peers. Or maybe I didn’t have any anymore.

But in four days from this writing, on December 10th, 2016, I will be “off paper.” I will be done with the Department of Corrections; able to leave the state without advanced permission, to vote, and to be denied in person the privilege to serve on jury duty. Also, I will be able to own a gun and travel to Canada. Oh, wait, scratch those last two, permanently.  

2. Thirteenth Step: Mistook the Nods for Your Approval
And I don't care much for wishful thinking
It's heavy as I breathe
Because I don't believe in second chances
It's heavy as I leave—“Heavy Is as Heavy Does” by Menomena
Being denied the chance to vote for Hillary Clinton due to a poor decision 20 years ago is one thing (thankfully Washington state managed that without my vote, sadly the rest of the country didn’t follow suit). But being denied the chance to meet someone in person who is otherwise interested in dating you because they Googled your past is another thing entirely. Both are disheartening…and yet at the same time galvanizing. At least I was eventually stirred to action, you know, after the sting of the first few rejections.

Though I’ll not go into the why of how and the how of why I became single again this year (and, regular readers, please do not offer condolences or ask), I will say that dating in the modern internet era, for a convicted felon, is fraught with atypical obstacles. A decade ago, when I thought about dating after I got out, I figured I’d wait for “the third date reveal” which I envisioned as somewhere between getting to know each other and the physical stage.  Just enough time to reveal who I am, without actually lying about my past (only skirting by it with some carefully placed omissions). 

Basically, reveal it when the time was right. That was the plan. Then came reality. 
The modern reality is that Herr Google is very good at sussing out your past if you’re not actively lying about your identity. And I didn’t. I gave my first name and actual, real, current pictures of me to the various dating websites I was using (by the end it was five, perhaps six). And when I offered to meet people (or they offered to meet me), I gave them my last name. With my picture and full name it’s not too hard to figure out, if you’re willing to put in a modicum of work, that I have a felony conviction. Well, a twofer, but still.

The problem is that I don’t get to “control the message.” And as I’ve figured out in my line of work: when I get interrupted in my pitch to give them a free vacation, if you’re not able to tell the story, to dole out how the information gets out, to reveal a carefully honed out good then bad then good pattern…you lose control of the situation and people hang up. Or, in the online dating world, they block you or tell you that they’re not going to meet you. Not because you lied to them but because they can’t handle the truth.

Some, of course, got to learn about my past from me in person. The most visceral response I got from this revelation was from someone that I will call T. She and I did meet in person and she asked me a question that there’s no way to answer untruthfully: “So how did you get into all this criminal justice reform advocacy volunteering?” I had honestly expected T. to have checked me out before we met. We’d bonded through our commonality of nonprofits. I’d mentioned that one of the three nonprofits that I was on the board of was hiring a new executive director and because she had experience (though I learned later not at that level), I’d sent her a link to the job offer.  The name of the organization clearly shows that it’s prison-related, and if she would have clicked onto the website she’d have seen a picture on the first page of me in prison. But she did not.  So while T. and I were at in a crowded restaurant sitting across from each other in a booth, I answered her question and told her the brief(er) version of my past.  She physically cringed in her seat. I’d never watched someone go from being attracted to me, literally leaning in, to being scared of me in a few minutes, pulling back (almost clutching her non-existent petticoat). It was rather horrifying to see. Yet I’m actually grateful for her lack of a visible social filter; I got to see what specific things made her face curdle. And found out how some people truly feel about convicts. 

There were others I met in person (I don’t know the actual count because for about nine weeks I was, as I affectionately called it, “non-violently ‘aggressively dating.’” When they would ask, “How’d you get into that [criminal justice reform volunteering]?” I’d tell them the truth.  I’d usually get, “But you don’t LOOK like you were in prison” or other unoriginal remarks (as if we all get spider web and teardrop tattoos on our necks and faces). Many didn’t exactly know what to say and I get that. I truly do. But a few questions about “what it’s like” is fine—a two-hour interrogation, less so. Ignoring it completely is also a bit off-putting. But that’s okay; it’s not exactly a dating situation one often comes across. 

I also had a few dates with one person who -- even after I’d read out loud a text about her to my badass chess playing friend in Australia, in which I’d said she was great but not very inquisitive -- never asked anything Which would have caused me to reveal my past.  It’s possible I could have gone on dating her and she never would have asked. But that showed a sense of aloofness, or possibly selfishness, to never really ask follow up questions about me. 

One totally went mad hatter on me when I’d requested that phone number before we met (because, as I told her, I’d been stood up by someone who maybe wasn’t even a woman because I thought I’d be the gentleman and not care that her profile picture was of a landscape). After she gave me her phone number and we were texting, she found out about my past, she asked how I didn’t know that she only gave up her phone number reluctantly so that I’d not cancel.  But because people can stalk you with just your phone number and since I’m a felon isn’t it obvious that she was right in doing that. She then added the obligatory, “oh, I’m sure you’re fine,” but still cancelled the date before we ever met in person. Friends who saw the screenshots of the texts said I’d dodged a bullet. 

But not everyone was thoughtlessly reactionary. Back when I was on just one dating app, another person, let’s call her S., and I hit it off quite well.  We exchanged long, letter-length correspondences within the dating app (a way to communicate without having to give up your phone number to a stranger). She was a musician and I liked that she could understand my creativity, such as it is, and after a few weeks she wrote: “Another thing I wanted to mention, as it’s been on my mind, has to do with this digital age and the visibility of individuals’ information. As I mentioned to you previously, I am not worried about you knowing who I am (as long as you’re not a psycho killer, ha!), because I have nothing to hide (I think I mentioned hidden husbands/kids, criminal records, and social media gaffes). It has become pretty common to research people online when considering whether or not to meet him/her in person. I do this mainly through Facebook, to see if a guy shares mutual friends with me, so I could potentially find a further connection or even a testimonial to a good guy. It’s also a very good way of finding out if the person behind the profile is simply promoting a prospect who doesn’t actually exist. But there are other things that can come up. One guy who approached me online recently, for instance, had many posts on his Facebook wall that directly conflicted with my fundamental views and even my rights. That was an easy e-mail to craft to him, letting him know that we would not get along very well, based on what I found. And then, there are other things we can find in our innocent little investigations. // You might know where this is leading. If so, I’ll allow you to explain. If not, then I guess I might have to be more direct. I’ll let you respond at this point.”
Then, of course, I confessed all. I genuinely liked her, and I genuinely liked her way of bringing this up. And then she responded with this: 

“Honesty is very important to me. And it’s very helpful for me to know how long you were incarcerated (whether the sentence was just or not), and especially how long you have been out. While I am no better than no one, I am also not able to truly empathize with everyone. I can try, and I wish I could. But I’m just being honest when I say that I have no idea if I can be in a relationship with someone who has been through what you have been through. I am very fortunate in that no one in my family or circle of friends has ever been even just arrested, that I know of. Yes, I know this makes me pretty naïve, but I’m not afraid to admit that it’s a comforting feeling. // As this dating site thing is designed to help narrow down choices and find the best fit, I’d have to say that there are a few ways I can see how this revelation would show that I’m not the right match for you. And vice versa. But I think you would do much better with someone who could at least conceive of the world you’ve endured. I just can’t. // While I’ve really enjoyed our correspondence, there are a couple of reason I don’t see things moving in a romantic direction. One is that I honestly can’t fathom what you’ve been through. Another is that I’ve been sharing a lot off-line with a particular guy I’ve met here. I mentioned to you before that we will be meeting soon. As I usually am when things start so well, I am cautiously optimistic. We’ll see. // I do think that you are doing wonderful things within the community and that you have much going for you. I hope nothing but good things for you.”

Because of this S. and I never met in person.  She never got the chance to see if she could, in fact, empathize with someone who had been through what I had been through. S. never got to see if I am more than what I went through. She never got to see what many who know me say: that I do not “seem like” I was in prison, let alone for 18.5 years. Though S. was by far the most reasoned, thoughtful of rejections I got before ever meeting them, she never got to know who she was truly rejecting. 

There’s one more to tell: the classy response. This woman, who I’ll call E., and I had a conventional first date. She, unlike many American women, doesn’t know how to take a selfie (which means that she looks like her profile picture). We had coffee which became brunch which became a walk around a park where she explained about her nonprofit water reclamation educational work. Of course, I had to “show off” and give her my nonprofit business card when we were done with the date. Our second date got postponed. I went to Nashville, Tennessee for a few days because 1.) our nonprofit had a grant to send our outgoing executive director to the national conference on higher education in prison, 2.) I asked to pay my own way (to a resounding “yes” from my board), and 3.) because I wanted to. And when I came back her mother was in the hospital for a few weeks and one night I ended up offering a drive-by hug to E. who was at a hospital which is between my work and my home. We talked for over two hours. By the time our third date happened we’d been texting and talking for a few weeks.  On that third date I kept throwing things out there that I’d expect someone to question. I was TRYING to do that third-date reveal naturally …but she wasn’t going for it. She’d ask all kinds of questions, but none that would lead to me being in prison. So I had to say, after the first (and possibly only) lull in our great conversation, “I’d hoped that this would come up naturally but there’s something about my past that you need to know if we’re going to continue,” and she said, “I know.” She had, of course, used that card to Google me after the first date and knew by our second date, but said nothing. 

A few dates later (one where I got to see her sing in a band) I asked to go “exclusive” a few days later she accepted my offer and I uninstalled all five dating apps from my phone and I happily haven’t looked back. E. and I are very happy and we’re meeting each other’s friends and families and even going on a vacation together after Christmas on a drive to the coast. 

3. Thirteenth Step: Clever Got Me This Far, Then Tricky Got Me In
Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore): What do you do for recreation?
The Dude (Jeff Bridges): Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.—“The Big Lebowski”
Speaking of driving, when I began dating I realized it would be a major turn-off to most women if I didn’t have a car. So, in a matter of a few weeks I took and passed my written and driving test and bought a car. When I was shopping for a car I asked people who knew me what kind of car they saw me in. Though coincidence I did end up getting the car that five out of seven people said that fit me: a Prius. But this is Seattle; so that’s not all that unusual. 

Nor is it all that unusual, I imagine, for someone with, um, as limited of a driving record as mine to embrace, uhhhh, driving in the specific way that I have. Well, actually, two ways: 

Ever since my first car ride in almost 16 years, which was about 29 months ago I would repeat when we’d come close to oncoming traffic: an involuntary shudder and/ looking away or closing my eyes entirely. I felt like we were going to crash, head-on, with the oncoming cars. Or I felt like we were going to hit an object on the driver’s side (guard rails, what have you). This was so apparent that whoever was driving would notice. Considering I used to drive HUMVEEs across narrow-road Germany for three point five years, I’ll admit that my fear was a post-incarceral occurrence. And I’ll admit that, in small part, it contributed to me staying with the bus and bicycle thing for what ended up being 21 months. 

But once I got my license -- and past my over-cautious ever-readiness -- and, really, when I went down to Nashville and rented a car that had a wee bit more punch to it than a hybrid Prius, I had a different car experience. One of the best parts of that trip to Nashville (my first vacation on my own), was driving on curvy backroads with great visibility on a clear fall day doing…um, exactly the speed limit. Promise.  

There is a beautiful freedom in having a car. It’s surprising how I never knew that. But that’s partially because of my driving history: I owned my first car in Germany for all of 90 days before I got rear-ended and it was my fault (trying to turn left basically across a highway entrance/exit).  My second car I had all of eight days before I creeped out into foggy traffic to clip the side of a car.  It was decommissioned for six months before I got the bumper put back on, only to have it working all of 27 days before I committed two concurrent felonies in it, and totaling it and getting a few bullet holes in it. So, driving is really rather new to me (not counting the whole Germanic HUMVEEing in a convoy). It’s no wonder that this week, the first week of snow on the roads since I’ve been out, my Mom has been texting me advice and concern about my driving in the snow and ice. It’s okay, Mom, when not on a curvy Southern road with no cops in sight, I’m a very good driver. Promise. 

4. Thirteenth Step: You Know it’s There so Don’t Neglect it
After all, even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled. He can be at peace. […] Personality is a very mysterious thing. A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. ― Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
So I went back to prison this year, albeit briefly. One of the nonprofits that I’m a board member for is the University Beyond Bars (which I wrote about in my very first MB6 piece entitled “Time to Learn”). They had their yearly graduation ceremony and I was allowed special permission by the Department of Corrections to go back in and attend. I, of course, dressed in my best outfit and got to see many of the guys that I’ hadn’t seen in over two years since I left for Work Release. It was more surreal hearing everyone ask if it was weird, than it was going inside again. But, certainly, there were a few moments when it hit me (leaving through the sally port, alone, to go use the bathroom was one of them as it was different than when I was with the crowd). It was also odd to hear so many people say that I seemed taller.

In a few days, on December 10th, 2016, the first thing that I’ll be doing when I’m officially “off paper” is applying to go back to prison on a regular basis. My two co-best-friends are getting married and I hope to be there for Loretta and Atif’s marriage. And then I will join them on a regular basis in the same visiting room where I used to get visits from my family in; but this time I’ll be the one leaving out the front door when the visit is over, not getting strip searched before going back to a concrete cell. I’ll get to experience some of what I put my own family through during the 18.5 years time that they had to do with me. And I’m looking forward to it. 

5. Thirteenth Step: With Your Halo Slipping Down
Hold my hands, feel them shake
I fear I'm showing my age
All my love is in one place
Now I, I'm not so brave
And I fear, oh I fear, I'm showing my age—“Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such A Big Boy Now” by Menomena
I’m heavily involved, with no slowing down or end in sight, in criminal justice reform issues. That’s not only because I genuinely care about these nonprofits, their causes, and the people effected by them, but also because I have found over the two years that I pretty much don’t care about most so-called entertainment. Most of it I find tasteless (as in bland) pablum for the masses which, considering how our electorate voted this election, seems to work on them to distract them from the real issues that we have: one of which is the mass incarceration of Americans. We have 4.4 percent of the world’s population and house around 22 percent of the world’s prison population. We incarcerate more people, for longer sentences, and have a higher recidivism rate (sadly, a word that all too many Americans don’t even know) than other countries but more importantly, than we should. We should do better. In the two years I’ve been out I’ve spoken at the state capital three times about various criminal justice issues and plan to do so again; some people complain about the problem: I, and the people that I proudly surround myself with, are tilting at windmills trying to elicit the change that we believe can and will come. Change that we know, through evidenced-based research, works: such as how the recidivism rate drops from 66 percent to 11 percent with an Associate of Arts degree; it drops to 4 percent with a Bachelor of Arts degree. This is the answer, people—do you get what the question is? “How to stop the prison-industrial complex from strangling America?”

Doing this is more than a hobby and it’s not simply just because in all this volunteerism I can’t say no (though that’s certainly a part of it); doing this is now a part of who I am. (Though I do have to learn how to say no sometimes since I’ve been known to not know how to strike a healthy balance.) But I don’t know or care enough about much of anything else to do that oft-talked about but seldom-done thing: change the system. I’ve begun; have you? What have you done in the last month that has helped make this imperfect world a better place? As they say to prisoners petitioning for clemency: “What have you done that is extraordinary?” Well, yeah, what have YOU done?

6. Thirteenth Step: Vanishing Like a Cyan Sunday

"Good morning, and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.”—last line of “The Truman Show”

Last words of a free man.

1. I’ve been writing for Minutes Before Six since April 28, 2012 when I first talked about the University Beyond Bars and how great of a program it is; one that I still believe in by being a board member for it. 
2. On June 11, 2012:  I wrote “Worse Than Senseless” about a Shakespeare play put on in the prison, my review of the crowd in attendance, and the near-violent reactions to my review. 
3. On December 12, 2012: I wrote “Beyond Hope” about Obama’s Re-election campaign returning my $20.12 donation and other ways in which the prisoner in America is treated as less than human.
4. On February 13, 2013: I wrote “The DOC Does Not Have a Sense of Humor” about just that and how I got the infractions that I can count on my thumbs from them. 
5. On April 26, 2013: I wrote “Cherchez la Femme” about a doctor who believed that prisoners shouldn’t breed or be in relationships outside of prison. 
6. On August 30, 2013: I wrote the third part of “Thoughts on Education Part 1” with other writers; my part was entitled “Forging a True Community” about why the University Beyond Bars is more than just a classroom in prison. 
7. On September 20, 2013: I wrote “The Right Way to Say Goodbye” about two separate men I knew in prison: one who committed suicide and one who was executed. This was part of a series with other writers called “Set Me Free” also writing about William Van Poyck, the MB6 writer who was executed by Florida. 
8. On March 27, 2014:  I wrote “10 Things I’m Going to Miss About Prison” about, well, that. 
9. On January 1, 2015: I wrote “Beginning Anew: Part 1 (of 2): ‘Quasi-Freedom’” about coming out of 18.5 years of prison and going to Work Release.
10. On April 16, 2015: I wrote the second half entitled “Prisoner No More: Beginning Anew: Part 2 (of 2…or maybe 3) ‘Freedom is…’” about the busyness of life on the outside and all the addictions that come with freedom. 
11. On July 9, 2015:  I wrote “13 Three Paragraph Vignettes” about living a free life in awe. 
12. And on December 17, 2015:  I wrote in “Impure No More” about, among other things, being denied the chance to donate blood because I was a felon.

All that recap (which was hopefully less painful than the one in the first 20 minutes of “The Godfather Part III”) was to both offer up a collection of my 12 previous pieces on Minutes Before Six in one easy place and to preface to what may well be my final confession: this may be my last written piece for MB6. Thirteen entries seems perfect (and not just because I turned 13 on Friday the 13th and that number has never scared me…even when 1313 North 13th Avenue was my address at the prison in Walla Walla, Washington). 

Certainly if anything ever comes up where I’ve got some righteous indigestion (sic) about the criminal injustice (sick) system that I feel shows the ways in which it continually berates those who are just trying to put their lives together I’ll ask to write an epilogue, as it were, to this. But I think that just as this week the DOC is done with me, I’m done with writing for MB6.

I want to thank everyone who has been such a major part of my MB6 writing career: Dina, my editor and friend. Thomas, my friend and the impetus of this amazing site. Maggie, still and always my friend. The writers who have inspired me: Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, Christi Buchanan, and William Van Poyck. And the writers who I invited to join MB6: my friends Jeremiah Bourgeois and Steve Bartholomew and also Tim Pauley and Art Longworth. And thank you to all the readers who have left both positive, and, um, other, comments. Thank you for reading and making Minutes Before Six something more than us just talking at a blank wall and thank you for making me feel like I was never being rejected.

Because I have always done my best thinking with a pen (and now on a laptop), I am a better man for having written for Minutes Before Six.

--December 2016

Jeff C.

1 comment:

urban ranger said...

Great to see you back at MB6, Jeff - if only for a last hurrah.
I have greatly enjoyed your contributions over the years.
All best wishes for success in your future endeavours.