Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Un-Crying Wolf

August 20, 2008

I'm not really sure how to start this. Today has been an extremely trying day. I have not felt like this since my trial. I feel totally defeated, like everything and good that I have endeavored to accomplish has no meaning. I have slowly been rebuilding my life these past four years, one piece of driftwood at a time. All of that was wiped away by a single question:

Why should we believe you when you say that you have changed?

This was asked by Miss Lisa Ling, late of ABC's "The View", acting as special interviewer for the Oprah Winfrey Show. My father has been invited to Chicago to be a guest on Ms. Winfrey's show, which will air sometime in October. I was asked for an interview, something which I have consistently rejected from the local media. For some strange reason, I thought maybe I could help my dad in this, and get a chance to show that God really does still change people. I am such a fool. Cameras scare the crap out of me. I should have known better.

Let me set the stage for you a little. On Wednesdays, normal visiting hours stop at noon, so that there can be an opportunity for media interviews. I have never done one of these, but I knew that I would not be called down there until around noon, so I should have had plenty of rest, right? Wrong. It was the trial all over. I got maybe four hours, all in depressingly crumb-like fifteen minute chunks. I am sure that you can understand how being on national television might cause an individual some degree of stress. I don't know how the politicians can do this every day. I guess you get acclimated to it. God, I prayed, just give me the words to do you service. That was all that I wanted. I don't know how he intends to use my clumsy babbling for some purpose, but that is His business, I guess.

I've never been comfortable in crowds. In High School, I was on an Odyssey of the Mind team that won Regional's and went to State. The contest consisted of two parts: the first required us to build a functioning robot; the second, to use said robot in a play. It is a contest designed to expand all the facets of a person's intellect. The crowd was huge. I broke out into cold sweats, and to this day I do not know how I managed to get through the thing. When you believe, for whatever reason, that you need to work really hard to be accepted, the stress of accomplishing this multiplies when the crowd does. More people = more expectations = more eyes judging you...and a camera is the biggest crowd there is. It never blinks. It misses nothing.

The crew was professional. Miss Ling was equally so. I have often wondered who the talking heads are, when the cameras are turned off. During the interview, I kept wondering...Am I talking to the real Lisa Ling? Is this simply the role she has to put on to do her job? Does she hate me, want me dead? I kept thinking her eyes looked wounded, and I wondered if this was my fault. I guess my initial impression was that it didn't appear that she believed anything I said. That's sort of my dilemma, isn't it? How do you un-cry wolf?

Is it even possible? I have done all I can think of to express my sorrow about what happened on December 10th. I have admitted my wrong, both in open court, and here in the largest forum in world history, the internet. It was pointed out to me, during the interview, that I could write personal letters to some people...and this is correct. I've thought about it of course; discussed it with my dad, about the timing. I guess I figured that these people didn't want to hear from me. I mean, my name is cancer...I thought they would feel...I don't know, angry (?) about me writing them. I'm going to do this, though. Please tell me, what more can I do? I am serious here. I don't explain myself very well. Sometimes people ask me questions...and I just don't know the answers. I'm doing my best with this mess, but obviously it's not nearly enough. I don't know how to put into words how sorry I am. Do you think I can escape, even for a few minutes a day, the past? Do you know what it is like to get your lunch tray, and when you lean over and smell it, all that you get is the overpowering stench of blood and cordite? Do you know what burning pennies smell like? Have you ever gone to pour ketchup on a hot-dog, only to freak out and lose your appetite because it looked too much like blood? When I was in Mexico, I had one of those composition notebooks. I tried to put on paper what I was feeling, but I couldn't, so I just ended up writing "I'm so sorry" over and over again, until all of the margins and pages were covered. If all those pages couldn't explain how I feel, how could a few minutes of tape?

Do you honestly believe that a day goes by where I don't think about appeasing all of the people who call for my blood? It would be so easy to oblige you all. Some of you have even given me suggestions. I recently went back to the hospital, to speak to the surgeons about correcting their train-wreck of an operation. I was left in a room on the seventh floor, with a full window. Have you ever felt undertow? Every time I go near a window, I feel that gentle tugging, only it pulls at my heart. Can you understand how maybe someone who has caused so much pain would not want to cause anymore, ever, ever, ever, ever again? I know the day is coming when my Dad will be told that I am dead. As much as I would love to be rid of this pathetic little circus we have here, I have no intention of causing him that pain yet. You vultures will have to wait for your meal a little while longer.

Maybe there is nothing that I can do. We are a nation of people living in fear. We weren't always like this. My grandparents' generation believed in the inherent goodness of man. That someone could start over, renew themselves, and become great. Now, we believe only that someone is out to get us. Iran. Russia. That weird guy down the street who wears odd clothes and listens to The Mars Volta. Why is this concept of change so hard to accept?

For those of you in your 30's, your 40's, your 50's, think back for me. Are you anything like your 23-year old self? Even a little bit? Then why is it so impossibly difficult for you to believe someone (not necessarily me, the question is really more rhetorical) can change? If it could correct the course of their life? What does it really cost you to believe in me? Whether you do or not Texas is going to kill me in a few years. The Appellate Process is a farce in Texas. Your beliefs will not change that. If you choose to think only the worst of people all of the time, you are doing SO MUCH DAMAGE to the potential good of the world. How many of our greatest triumphs came at the hands of men who made terrible mistakes, only to make a conscious effort to better themselves? And for some reason which is completely inexplicable to me, it seems like the worst of this lot all go by the name of a man whose whole point of existence was to give us all a second chance. Have you not read, Oh ye "Christians", of Paul, who was Saul? Hunter and MURDERER of Christians...who would have believed him that God had spoken to him on the road to Damascus? Many did not, and those people surely missed out on the brilliance of the one person most responsible ensuring that today you know a man named Jesus of Nazareth. A few, though, they took him at his word. What a reward for believing in a man! I am not Paul by any means. I do have a testimony, though God called me in Mexico, not Damascus. He didn't say my name out of a cloud. He said it when a gun I had held to my head didn't go off. I may talk about that another time. I simply do not have the heart for it right now. But I KNOW I have changed, and so do the people that know me.

Change. It's like a currency we only accept from the people we care about. When our young sons or daughters dabble in drugs parents quickly decry they can quit the habit. When a female friend at work shows up with yet another black eye, she is quick to point out that her boyfriend is "working on it". But when it is some punk convict trying to show the world that he is not the sum of his worst moments alive, we run in terror, lamenting his ability to overcome himself, all the while secretly reveling in the drama. Monster! Cold-blooded villain! How satisfying it must be to have that righteous indignation. When they put me in the ground, I hope that you are able to recognize the fact that your world didn't get any safer. Your bills are still there. Your problems will persist. I hope you are able to identify the thought that someone just died for...what? I hope you don't simply move on to the next target, whatever that may be.

So tired. I want to help someone so badly. I have run my life the last few years in a way I believe to be moral. I tithe 10% of all of my donations (Actually it's a whole lot more, but I have never been one to toot my own horn, so I don't really talk about that kind of stuff here). I have tried to reach out to people who felt like I did growing up. If you believe nothing else that I ever write, believe this: there are so many of me out there. People eroded down to the breaking point by the sandstorms of loneliness, emptiness, purposelessness, and all the vagaries of this brave new modern world. I am no prophet. I have no fancy degrees. I have never made a pilgrimage to a holy place to obtain wisdom. I'm probably not qualified to help anyone, but I am trying nonetheless. And people are responding. Though, for the most part, I keep such information out of the public eye. The point I'm trying to make is this: I do have a testimony. Maybe it is not one for everyone...but whose is?

I don't believe in myself. I never have. So it is very hard for me to trust myself to always do the right thing. I DO however, trust God to handle my fumblings and use them in a constructive way. I have to believe that He is up to something. And that whatever it is, it won't get done unless I open my mouth. I am sorry I am not eloquent. Putting me in front of a camera is like watching Chernobyl. When that little red light goes on, my heart drops into my shoes and my tongue hails a cab for the airport. I feel like Moses must have felt standing in front of the burning bush, looking over his shoulder going, "Who, me? Uh, you must be kidding, right?" I will never be good at this. My hope is that some people will look beyond my stutterings to what I meant. And also realize that 15 second sound bite answers are not even 1% of the true answer, when it comes to human beings. We all know this, don't we? Bleh, what a mess.

After the interview, I dragged myself back to my cell, totally drained. I hadn't realized just how much my social skills had atrophied. What a curious thing to lose-the art of conversation. Another victim of the isolation conditions, I guess. It can join its compadres human contact, pride, and understanding of personal space in the hereafter.

I understand that Fred Felcman, the ADA who prosecuted me, is going to be on the show. I hope Mr. Felcman really listens to my Dad, for a change. Before I die I wish could talk to him for just a few moments. I want to tell him so much. That I don't hate him. That I pray for him. That his ways just lead to more pain and more death...I don't know all of what I would say. I just get the impression that he is a man badly in need of a friend. I hope my Dad can reach him. I really do. I hope he can reach you.

I really, really do.

"I was just a boy only twenty-two,
neither good or bad,
just a kid like you-
and now I'm lost, too late to pray
I've paid the cost
on the Lost Highway."

-Leon Payne "Lost Highway," 1949

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

At The Water's Edge

August 9, 2008 - 8:45 PM

I am sure you have noticed lately that I have been talking a lot about God. Several reasons for this behavior come to mind. First off, it is probably not surprising that someone facing death at the hands of the State would want to get his spiritual passport in order. If you were to be diagnosed with an inoperable tumor tomorrow, I am sure you would engage in similar actions. People always mock prisoners for "getting religion," relegating such conduct to the sorry realms of the cliche. Turning to a higher power in times of trouble is pretty much standard operating procedure for us humans, though. So, I am not sure why there is the double standard there. Secondly, I am extremely unsatisfied with a lot of the "answers" I get from people regarding my chosen faith. I seem to be living in my own perpetual Garden of Gethsemane. (My name is Thomas, after all, and it would seem I was aptly named. Thomas "the Doubter" was the disciple of Christ who wouldn't believe in the resurrection until he had "seen the nail holes in his hands, and put his finger in the nail holes, and stuck his hand in his side." Ah, my ancient empiricist brother! How lucky you were to have the proof so available!) Lastly, and this may be the major reason, what else do I have to think about all day? It is not like I have access to a lot of materials here. No idiot-boxes to keep my mind suitably numbed and distracted. I devour my books with such rapidity that I barely taste them. When the few bits of external-world bread crumbs I am tossed are gone, what do I have left? Trust me, I've analyzed every square nanometer of my cage. There is not one single detail that has escaped my notice. Byron once said, "Even my chains and I grew friends," and I think I finally get what he meant. Three years it has taken me, but I finally understand.

What you are left with, unsurprisingly, is yourself. I don't know if it is typical or not, but I have spent hours, days, weeks, months, and yes, years combing through the wreckage of my life, tossing the detritus aside for the little pieces of golden wisdom. This is a punishment they never mention when they talk about prisoners and Death Row. But I tell you, for some of us, there is no punishment more difficult to bear, nor more decaying to the soul. Soul attrition is an art, and I am now a master of the discipline. Physical pain is one thing. This is something else. Something which defies words, because words are just watered down clusters of letters and phonemes that have taken the place of something more elemental. They just skim across the surface of a sea of something with far more meaning. Hell, to most people, is a vaguely sinister concept, something to be thought about later, maybe. For me, it is something else entirely. It is life.

Thoughts about God may be the only approach in such circumstances. I have mentioned before how few opportunities we have to speak with anyone learned in the ways of religion. Sometimes I think this is a good thing, when I am wearing my cynical jacket. There are, however, a few volunteers who TDC allows to come back on the pods. One of them comes from a local Church of Christ. His name is Ray Harrison. I don't always see eye to eye with him on matters of theology, but I never call him on this, because he is doing something really great, and why would I want to taint that? About a year ago, he asked if I had been baptized. "Oh, boy, here we go," I thought, knowing the doctrinal position the Church of Christ takes on the issue. He didn't grill me on my infant Methodist sprinkling, though. He simply asked if I would like to be baptized again. I thought about it for a moment and decided that, yes, I would like to do this. It took a while to set up, obviously, but a few weeks ago I was able to be re-baptized.

It came about as a surprise - I didn't know the date or anything. I was very surprised when an escort team, consisting of one male and one female officer, showed up at my door at around 8:00 PM. The unit is pretty much shut down at this hour, so my initial impression was, "Oh, this can't be good."

"You wanna get dunked?" the female officer asked. (Please insert a really strong Texan accent to get the full effect.) I just sort of stared at her, trying to figure out what the devil she meant by this rather singular statement. I ran her comments through the filter of what I knew about her, which basically amounted to the knowledge that she was the sort who was completely incapable of working her way through an extended metaphor, so it had to be something simple. Eventually, I got there.

"Sure, give me a second."

"Just strip down to yer skivvies and let us go on and cuff you." (Again, with the accent. If you can't seem to get into the proper character for this, imagine yourself chewing on a piece of straw, watching the sun go down over a prairie uninterrupted by any structures save for the slow motion of an oil derrick. Yee-haw!)

Modesty dies a quick and violent death in prison. There is not a single second of an inmates life where he cannot be ordered to strip down to his birthday suit to be searched. It happens all of the time, for a variety of reasons. Maybe a male guard got reamed by the missus and is feeling a tad emasculated. How better to reassert your alpha-male status than by demanding some other guy to drop trou? Maybe a female guard simply wants to see you naked. Whatever the reason, you can choose to comply, or not. If you decide you would rather not put on a penal striptease act, cue the goon-squad with large sticks and shields. All in all, I rather prefer to be naked and unconcussed. Go figure. By now, I am used to it. I took off my shirt and socks and stepped into my sandals. I slowly backed up to the door, so they could handcuff me through the bean-chute. I'm not really sure what I expected. Would we use a sink? A garden hose? I certainly didn't expect to walk into the central hallway and see a massive, blue plastic pool set up. First impressions are sometimes hard to remember. Knowing me, my first thought probably was in the realm of the pragmatic: how in the world did they get that thing in here? I mused that it was going to be a royal pain in the derrier to siphon all of that water out, too. Three trustees sat off to the side, looking bored. I flashed them a look of commiseration, unable to really tell them I was sorry that they had to do all of that work. The look one gave me said, "Hey, what are you going to do?"

Already, there were a series of puddles on the floor, which led me to believe that I was not the only inmate to get "dunked" that evening. Mr. Harrison greeted me with a smile, and led me to the edge of the tub. I looked around once before stepping over the lip. A far cry from the Jordan, certainly. I didn't think God would begrudge me the distinction, or the intrusion of the handcuffs into the ritual. Life...what a strange journey. I normally think/say such things with a touch of bitter sarcasm, but I didn't feel any of that right then. As I sat down in the water, with my hands still cuffed behind me, all I really felt was...contentment? I have been really wrestling with God lately. So much of the Bible doesn't make sense. It is contradictory and sometimes devoid of anything resembling reason. And that is the impression I make even from the view that the Bible is meant to be read as an allegory. (God save me from fundamentalists and literalists of all religions!) In that moment, though, my confusion melted away into the certainty that God is still present in the world, and that I am not insignificant. I may not see him very well yet, just a figure through the fog, but it didn't seem so massively important at the time. I was, in fact, dunked, so I guess the female guard had chosen the correct verb, after all. I arose, sputtering and dripping, and feeling pretty good about things. Best of all - the male guard escorting me, who had previously been a real git to me for the last 18 months, patted me on the back. He has arms like hams, so it felt more like a seismic event. "It only gets harder from here on out." He said, smiling. I didn't think his facial muscles were even capable of such a thing, and it made me smile. I just nodded at him, which seems to be my response to a lot of things, these days.

I entered the pod, and got the appropriate good-natured ribbing for being soaking wet. My neighbor a few cells down thought it was particularly humorous, and quipped something along the lines of: "Hey, white boy must have tried to escape in the lake! What happened, you got tired or something?" The gentleman in question is like a huge teddy bear, a teddy bear that has to turn sideways to fit out his door. He is so fat that he could be walked down 5th Avenue on Thanksgiving Day.

I told him that I had made it to the lake, but then I had seen his mother sun-bathing, and thought a whale had beached itself, and got caught trying to carry buckets of water to her to keep her skin saturated. He howled laughing, and I think I heard him say, "Well, she is a large woman." The guard smacked me on the back of the head lightly. All I can say is: if God doesn't have a sense of humor, I will eat my hat.

Usually when I write these entries, I get a mixed response. The negative stuff is rarely memorable, and always lacking in anything resembling constructive criticism. So while I may not really be terribly open to advice on some matters, I am most certainly open to hearing counsel on matters of God. I do not, however, need simple rehashings of things I can read by simply picking up my Bible. Modesty aside, I am beyond that phase. An example of the types of conundrums I am dealing with: Let's say I was born in India. I grew up in the Hindu religion. My parents took me on a samskara when I was young, and I loved the sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow tumeric nuggets, the clanging bells, the murti. I feel the presence of the Brahman nirguna and the saguna; the stories of Shakti, Ganesha, Shiva and Krishna enthrall me. In other words, like 700 million other human beings, I get it. I grow older, and my religion teaches me to be a moral man. I do not hate or steal; I seek to help the people in my life. I raise my children to do the same. I may do some things which you consider a tad strange, like refuse to eat meat, but all in all, I follow a moral code that is nearly identical to what Jesus taught. Sure, I know about Jesus, as India was ruled by the British, and the French in some areas. But Christianity is a foreign religion, and one known to me to be confusing and somewhat warlike. I grow old, and die. I am satisfied, though, because I have lived my life well, and the world is better off for my presence. I know what the Bible says in John 14:6 - "No one comes to the Father except through me." So, are you telling me that when I show up to the Pearly Gates, St. Peter (or whoever) is going to say: "Hey, sorry Mr. Patel. Members only, and all that. You know, you really should have considered being born in the American suburbs. Then you could have listened to Dr. Dobson all day long. Mr. Pat Robertson, come, come, we've been expecting you!"

Should a true relationship with God be based on a chance factor such as geographical location of birth? To put it in perspective, lets say I came to you and said, "Hey, your religion is wrong. Jesus is bunk. Let me teach you about Shiva." First off, you are going to be offended. You will probably conjure up images of red dots on foreheads and curry. Maybe you will think of that dude ripping peoples hearts out whilst screaming "Kalima!" in the second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. Your reaction is no doubt going to be something along the lines of: "What business does this foreigner have to talk to me like this?" Now ask yourself, why is this any different for them when people try to proselytize about Christianity? My question, in a nutshell, I guess, is this: What happens to the billions of people not blessed to be born in Christian nations if John 14:6 is to be taken literally? And does this jive with the idea that "God is love?" Is this just another mystery, like the rich man entering heaven/camel through the eye of a needle, where Christ's response was, "With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Or am I missing something? Because this is important. It speaks to the very nature and purpose of existence, because the answer points to the why behind creation.

The casual reader has no doubt noticed that I have an affinity for quotations. I sometimes get the wording of these wrong, and I hope you will forgive me in my errors. In most cases, I am having to dredge these pearls up from memory pools that are about ten years deep. My brain - ah, who can explain it? Why I can forget so many simple things and yet remember some obscure quote from High School is beyond me. The quote that came to my mind as I write this comes from T. S. Eliot, and went something along the lines of: There are no truly won causes because there are no truly lost causes. There seems to be a large contingent of people who see me as such, and have lately been very unsatisfied with my faith. I guess they thought this site was going to become some form of evangelical camp fire, where we could all sing Kum-bah-yah and feel very pleased with ourselves. I am sorry that I have not progressed as you hoped I would. I said from the beginning that I was not going to sugar-coat anything on this site. I reiterate my promise now. Rather than shutting me out, maybe you could try to meet me halfway? I'm pretty sure Christ wouldn't have grown perturbed with my "spiritual sluggishness" and have moved on to the next house. My favorite analyses about the meaning of life wasn't said by a Christian. It was said by the late, Great, Kurt Vonnegut, a humanist. When asked what he thought life was all about, he said, "To help each other through this thing, whatever it is." I cried the day he died. He was my best friend in middle school. I live by his words though, now. Maybe you should try to do the same.

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.