Sunday, December 28, 2008

Inside the Package

One of my favorite songs that I used to sing when I led Worship while in prison is called "In the Secret". We sang it in church this morning and the power of the words once again struck me.

I want to know You
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You, more!
(From "In the Secret")
I spent the Christmas holiday with my sister, Debbie. As has become our practice whenever we seem to get together in the past year, we talked. That may seem like an unusual statement to make, but if you knew me (and the dynamics of our family), you would understand what a miracle that a genuine conversation in our family is. My history is that I would engage in conversation, but I would never "talk". There was just too great a possibility that by really talking, I might reveal part of who I really was and not just the mask that I had become.

All the changed when I went to prison. As anyone can imagine, prison changes a person...sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In my case, I believe it was for the better. It's not that I would say my life today is's far from it. Instead of living in a quarter of a million dollar condo on the golf course, I live in a fifth-wheel trailer that is worth less than 10% of my last home. My salary is half what it was when I was arrested and the family I had married is no longer mine. No more wife. No more kids. No more mom and dad. No more grandkids. All gone.

But there is something else that is gone today as well...all my secrets. When your life is splashed across the front pages of the newspaper and makes the lead story on the five o'clock news, it doesn't make much sense to try to conceal your life any more. And there has been such a blessing in that. I can openly "talk" about who I am and what I'm feeling and what my fears are without worrying about whether it may tarnish my reputation or not. And since I've been out of prison these past 16 months, that has been my everyday practice.

While my sister and I were talking this week, I realized how little I knew my sister until this past year...and how little she really knew me. Through her blogging and the book she is writing and our "real" conversations, she has been willing to reveal her deepest wounds and dreams...not only with me, but with any who are willing to read her words. It struck me that there are people out there who know my sister better than our brothers do...and it broke my heart. Like the song I sang in the prison worship service speaks so eloquently about how we establish our relationship with God by getting to know Him, we can't have true relationship with anyone unless we get to know the person. I am thankful that I have been willing to enter into that conversation with Debbie, and the gift that getting to know her has been.

As the Christmas holiday comes to an end, I think of the gift that can be found in each one of us. Our story. But like the gifts we find under the tree, we can only appreciate what's inside when we open it. Opening the gift leads us into relationship...a genuine relationship that allows us to see each other's hearts and souls. It allows us to trust and love unconditionally. I've discovered that not only has my relationship with God become genuine in the last 16 months, but so has my relationship with my family. Everyone needs to be willing to open the gift that sits across the table from us in the morning or who holds the phone at the other end of a long distance connection. Only then can we truly know one another and hear the story that resides within.

I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


It was actually a really good conversation. I was at my brother, Frank's, boat for dinner and the exchange of early Christmas presents. Baby-back ribs, fresh salad, oven-fried potatoes with onions still populated my plate. A half-empty glass of wine rested nearby. Clare and I were in a pretty serious conversation about how people can REALLY be helped out of a life of sin.
Without going into great detail here, I shared some of my "hitting bottom" experience of being in prison and how that has changed my perspective on life in a lot of ways...including being willing to be unashamedly honest about things I never would have even considered talking about five years ago.

The conversation moved toward what people (men mostly) are supposed to do after they go through a workshop like "Every Man's Battle" and coming out like they can beat their addiction to pornography. They feel better because they realize they are not alone. But what happens after the "weekend retreat" is over and the real world hits them again and they are being bombarded by the same temptations they had before the retreat.

It was then that Clare asked a question that caught me off guard.

"You know, Mark, if you were to write a book about your experiences...your battles and what it all cost you...and men read your book. What would tell them they needed to do after they had the information...after they had read your story...after you had given them hope that they could win this battle?"

It was a really great question that I'm not sure I have the answer for yet! And that really disturbed me. I've really believed since I was first arrested that God has placed a calling in my life to use my story and my experiences to help other men who deal with the same issues of sexual sin. I have absolutely NO doubt that I have to write a book that might give men (and their wives) hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. But Clare's question really brought something into a more clear focus for me.

A book that simply tells my story...even though it is an interesting one, is not going to be a great help for most men. As I think back to where I was five years ago, I'm not sure I would have even picked it up off of a book shelf, let alone read it. Why? Pride and shame! Most men struggle with those two issues. I can remember my own shame and embarrassment when I bought a book called "At the Alter of Sexual Idolatry" a week after I was arrested. It was almost as bad a taking a pornography magazine to the counter in an adult book store. In my mind, the question, "what if someone sees me with this book" keeps rolling around and I feel embarrassed and ashamed.

Most men are NOT going to spend a lot of time in the "self help" section of the local Border's books store and even fewer will spend time browsing the "sexuality" aisle, unless it's to take a peek at some erotica or maybe hope for some skin someplace. Even with as much "sex" as we see prominently displayed in our culture, we men still struggle with who might see us taking a peek.

So what is the story I, need to share that men will actually want to read? What is it that I really want men to know after they have read my story? What do I need to leave them with so that they can be confident that they can win more battles than they lose with pornography?

When Clare asked me the question, sadly, I didn't really have a good answer. I know what has made the difference in my life. My relationship with Christ! But I know that there are a lot of men (and women) out there who have been so beaten up with the whole "church" and "Christianity" thing that the mere mention of Jesus for some will result in an instantaneous blockage of the auditory nerves, leaving them temporarily deaf! They won't hear a message that can change their lives.

So how do I share my message in a way that men can hear it and receive it? I told Clare that there are two passages from my intense reading over the past five years that have really stuck with me. One is found in the Bible and one is found in "Wild at Heart", by John Eldredge. In his book, Eldredge says, " I never trust a man who hasn't suffered; I don't let a man get close to me who hasn't faced his wound. Think of the posers you know...are they the kind of man you would call at 2:00 A.M., when life is collapsing around you?...I don't want cliches; I want deep soulful truth and that only comes when a man has walked the road I've been talking about."

That passage struck me so strongly because I was that "poser" for so many years of my life. I had a ready batch of cliches that I could share with others to "help them feel better when they were struggling." But I was never telling them the truth! I had never been where they were, or if I had been, I would never admit it...that would be revealing a weakness! I believe Eldredge really hits the issue at its core. Men (people) will trust someone if they have been there and are willing to admit that they are/were broken and that they finally came to a realization that they couldn't solve the problem all by themselves.
And that leads me to the second passage, found in the Book of Acts. "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me...the task of testifying to the gospel of God's Grace" (Acts 20:24, emphasis added). God has called me to tell my story, but the emphasis is on how God has changed me...not how I've changed myself!

It has not just been a "parting of the Red Sea" miracle. God didn't just "heal" me and now I don't have any problems. I don't just count on God to miraculously save me every time I feel tempted. Instead, I've come to realize that he helps me through the people He has sent into my life, the songs I hear on the radio, or a comment someone will make without even knowing that I'm listening. God shows up in many different shapes and colors...but He does show up!

So, now I look forward to having someone ask me that question. When I do finally sit down to write my book, I have confidence that the Holy Spirit will direct my words and my fingers across the keyboard...that He will give me the words that will leave the reader with hope, with the desire to ask the next question...and the next question after that. Only through the questions do we find the answers.
Photos by Flickr

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pieces of the Puzzle

It has only been four days since my last group session, but a lot of our discussion that night continues to roll around in my head. It ended up being a night that mostly focused on me. Because of the "storm of the century" (as the TV news will soon be calling it, I'm sure), most of the group didn't show up...there were only four of us plus the therapist. I had been dragging my autobiography with me to group for the past month, but the time never seemed quite right. With the small group we had lots of time so I offered to share it.

In my mind, I had figured that I would pretty much simply read it. I had spent considerable time writing it up...over eight pages typed. But as I started to read the first sentence, I soon found myself ad-libbing and going into considerable more detail than my written version. It didn't really seem to matter though, because the therapist soon had me jumping from moving to Sandpoint when I was two years old to wanting to know about when my dad beat me with the willow switch until it cut my legs open. I had shared the story with the group several months ago on a night when we were talking about trust...or lack of it, and apparently the doctor remembered.

As we talked, he wanted to know how I felt about my dad after that, and how old I was...and how close in time proximity it was to when I was molested by the neighbor boy.

As I sat there and thought about his questions, there were a lot of things going through my mind. I wasn't sure initially how old I was...I've tried to forget. But after thinking and relating it to other events, I remembered that I was in the sixth grade, so I would have been about 11 or 12 when dad beat me. I searched for the right words to describe how I felt about my dad after that event and the only word that seemed to fit was "indifferent". I didn't hate him...I still don't. But I know as I look back through the years at that moment under the willow trees that I never looked at dad the same way again after that. He wasn't really my "father" any longer. He still provided for roof over my head, but he wasn't who I trusted or respected in the way that a boy should love and respect his dad.

The discussion moved to the molestation. As is the habit with the doc, he asked me to describe what happened again for the group.

"When I was ten, the neighbor boy gave me some candy if I would perform oral sex on him," I managed to tell the group. Though I've shared the experience with the group before, it is never easy to say.

"How did it make you feel?"

That's one of the questions that I hate the most! He asks it every time I have to share this story.

"Hmmm...I guess it wasn't unpleasant", I say. "I got candy for it and we didn't get a whole lot of candy growing up."

One of the members of our group is a young gay man in his early thirties and he only joined the group about a month ago.

"As the only openly gay guy in the group", he starts, "I find it interesting that you describe it as 'not unpleasant'. It's kind of like how you described your feelings toward your dad as 'indifferent'. Why do you think that is"?

I'm not used to having people ask me questions when I share my story. Usually all I get is the nodding of the head and a few sympathetic looks. That's not the case with these guys. Five years ago, I would have hated the questions. Now I've learned to appreciate them.

I sat there thinking and trying to fit the pieces together.

"I guess it wasn't a painful experience or anything. I didn't really think of it as sex...I guess maybe I was too young. All I knew was that I got candy out of it. But when I look back at it now, I realize that what I was really doing was prostituting for candy. I get angry when I think about it."

The young gay guy jumped on that. "You were only ten...why do you think you should have been angry? Do you really think that as a ten year old you should be beating yourself up for giving a guy a blowjob for candy, when you didn't get candy very often?"

I sat there for a moment, searching for the right words. "I wasn't angry then", I said, "but as I look back at that event, I get angry. I'm coming to realize that what happened to me when I was ten years old changed me and I have tried to deny it and bury it for the past forty years. What I'm angry about isn't what I did when I was a little kid. I'm angry that it may have ruined my life."

"How do you feel now when you see teenage boys?" he asked. He has shared that he still struggles with having sexual feelings when he sees young teens. A part of me wanted to lie and say that they had no impact on me at all, but I've learned that when I'm lying to others, I'm really just lying to myself first and I've learned the hard way how costly lies can be.

"I do have feelings when I see teen boys", I share. "The feelings aren't sexual though...they're emotional. When I see young boys, it seems like I end up seeing myself a lot of times and it is really painful." I shared the story of the young boy I see walking to school each morning...alone and seemingly unhappy and how my heart aches for him.

"When you were in chat rooms with guys, did you try to save them?"

"Yea, a lot of times I did. Whenever one of the guys would talk about planning to meet some guy that he'd met online, I'd tell him she shouldn't go...or that at least he should take someone with them", I said. "And there were a couple of guys who shared that they had attempted suicide in the past and sometimes thought about it still, and I'd try to find to help them through it."

We all sat there quietly for a moment and then the questions continued...mostly from the young gay guy, but also from the doctor. As I would answer the questions and share more of my story, things began to become more clear in my own mind. The doctor helped me realize that part of the loss in my life in my relationship with my dad had really been significant and that he could see that I would be looking for a way to fill that void. I had never really considered that.

We meet again in two days. I don't know if the discussion will continue to center on my story, or if someone else will be the focus. But for now, I'm glad that I'm discovering more of the pieces...and that I'm finding that some of them do actually fit together....that they are not from two different puzzles. One day, I'm praying that the picture of my life story will become clear to me and that I will be able to find the healing my heart so dearly needs.

Photos by Flickr

Sunday, December 14, 2008


The deep richness of the blue eyes immediately catches my attention. Her thick, blond curls drape softly around her cheeks, framing her beautiful smile. She stands there, with a shy hesitation as Jim introduces me.

"Sammie, this is Mark. He's one of the guys I told you about that I go to breakfast with. Can you say hi?"

Slowly, a small hand reaches out to take mine and we gently pump our hands in greeting.

"Hi", she says, barely above a whisper. I tell her "hi" back and she moves back toward Jim, still smiling as she clutches his leg.

The smile on Jim's face is broad and deep as he moves around the church sanctuary, introducing this little girl to other choir members and friends. You can tell without asking that there is a bond of trust between this little girl and the man that became her foster "dad" only days ago. She continues to smile and shake hands and say pleasant "hellos" as she moves from group to group on this first day that she has ever gone to church.

As I watched Jim and Sammie, I felt a tug in my heart and an all too frequent question emerge from my subconscious..."how could a beautiful little five year old like end up in the foster system?" "How could God's greatest gift to us besides salvation go unclaimed and unloved by the ones who created her?"

I don't know all of Sammie's story, just that she is one of four children of meth addicts. When the courts determined that her parents could no longer care for her or her three older siblings, her aunt and uncle took them in. But that only lasted for a year, and ten days ago, they chose to give them up and place them in foster care.

I remember as a younger man, in my early twenties visiting my sister and her husband at the time. They had opened their home to foster children, and I remember one child in particular. I was lucky enough to visit their home shortly after the little boys was placed with my sister. He was a beautiful boy...not unlike Sammie. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Even with his placement in the foster system, he was still a "lover". I can still remember the hugs I received from him that weekend and the times I was just able to hold him in my arms. I don't know his story and don't know what happened to him. He was eventually moved from my sister's home to another placement.

But seeing Sammie this morning and remembering the different foster kids that my sister took care of strains my heart. I think of the miracle of God's creation and how careless we as humans can be in caring for that precious gift. Sometimes, for unknown reasons, parents (if we can call them that) simply don't love their child and want to get rid of them. Other times, tragic circumstances result in children becoming "parentless" and the foster system or adoption is their only option. Still other children become wards of the state because of the power of addiction in their parents' lives. And my heart breaks.

Fortunately, there are people like Jim and Peggy...and my sister...who are willing to take these children in and love them as their own. I wish I could say that I would be able to do that, but I fear I am too selfish for that. I love kids too much and I don't know if my heart could handle being able to love them and care for them, only to have them taken away. Perhaps back into an abusive situation. Perhaps into another stranger's home. Nevertheless, it would be away from me.

I don't know if the pain I'm afraid I would feel comes from my own childhood pain and fear and loneliness, or if it comes from seeing the long term impact of those who bounce from foster home to foster home. The once loving child who becomes callous and hard, not understanding why no one loved them enough to want them forever. The child who seeks love in inappropriate, dangerous ways because they can't seem to find it from a stable home. The youngster who turns to the gangs for acceptance and love, only to have their lives cut short due to the violent lifestyle membership brings. Sadly, I've seen it all...young lives destroyed because a child lost the stability of a safe home and loving parents.

So today, I salute the Jim and Peggy's of the world! The unselfish, unconditional love they show for children not their own. The home's they open at a moment's notice so that a child will have a roof over their head and a warm bed to sleep in...and a hot meal to nourish the ache in their tummy. Thank you for your love.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


It was mid-November when the phone rang. It was "the" phone call every parent is afraid they might one day receive. Paula and I were asleep and were pulled out of the foggy state by the ringing of the phone. It was her mom on the other end.

"They've been in an accident and the doctors aren't sure Doug is going to make it", she whispered with a voice that was barely audible through her stress-strained voice.

I tried to console mom and then handed the phone to Paula. They spoke for a few moments and as Paula hung up the phone and handed it back to me, the tears began to flow from her beautiful, blue eyes.

"What happened?", I asked. She shared that the Northwest College basketball team that her brother Doug coached had been in a serious accident driving from Spokane to Walla Walla. The van he was driving his a patch of black ice as it went in a corner and Doug lost control. The van left the road way, rolled four times and skidded nearly 900 feet before it came to rest.

I almost couldn't get the words out of my throat. "What about Jason?"

Jason is Paula's oldest son. I consider him my oldest son as, even though none of my blood flow through his veins.

"Mom said he was taken to the other hospital. She isn't sure, but she said he's not as bad as Doug is." Paula lay there in bed next to me, her body trembling. I pulled her close and simply held her. It was all I could offer her. After a while had passed, I told her that I would call the principal of the school where I taught and tell him that I would need a substitute and we would leave to go see them as soon as she was ready.

Her brother did nearly die. He didn't breathe on his own for the first several day and spent the next month in the hospital. In describing his injuries, the Seattle Times said that they would "take up several chapters of Grey's Anatomy." But he finally came home before Christmas and spent the next several months slowly recuperating. Our son Jason suffered a broken collar bone and a fractured vertebrae in his back and spent three days in the hospital before coming home.

It's been over 15 years since the accident, and from the outside, both Jason and Doug look healthy. Their bodies appear unblemished. But that's not what they look like on the inside, especially Doug.

Doug is one of those people who now have one of those hangers on their rear view mirror that have an image of a wheelchair. He's legally physically disabled. His doctors have described him as a man in his 50's with the body of a 90 year old. Five of his ribs were crushed in the accident and it's pretty difficult for the body to stored bones that looked like mush back into strong, solid rib bones. His knee joint is bone rubbing on bone...all of the protective cartilage gone. His shoulder shares the same fate.

But looking at Doug, you would never know. In fact, it's not uncommon for him to have people make rude comments about him being "one of those" who somehow got one of "those" decals for his car so he could park close to the front door. He's been called "lazy" and "selfish", simply because people see his unblemished body, and not the damage that has been done to him on the inside.

I spent this past weekend with my older sister. She came to up visit and watch me perform with our church choir as we presented our Christmas concert. Her visit was a beautiful gift to me. As has become our custom when we are together over the past year, we talked and shared. And revealed more of ourselves to each other.

My sister is five years older than I am, and I have discovered that I really didn't know very much about her. Through her gift of writing, she is revealing the painful past that is her life that I never knew....that I never saw. My sister is a beautiful woman...professional and distinguished looking. You would notice her in a crowd because she has the aura of someone who is someone. From the outside, she looks "unblemished".

But like Doug, that's not the case. Her injuries inside are not the physical kind, they are the kind that are much more difficult to heal. Sadly, I never saw them...I didn't realize they were there. Maybe she didn't know they were there either. Through God's grace and love, she is healing...slowly, but still healing.

I realized as I sat and visited with Debbie this weekend that my own wounds are much deeper than I realized. I feel such pain deep in my heart when I encounter certain situations and see a particular group of people that it is almost unbearable and inevitably leads to the tears flowing from my eyes. I'm slowly discovering that the pain comes because I see myself in those people and circumstances. I see a boy who was hurt in ways no one else saw because the wounds were of the heart and soul, and not of the skin and bones.

I thought I had come further in my healing process than I have, but I still have so far to go. There are still traps for heart that have been laid out there like the black ice hidden in the darkness of a curve up ahead on a cold, wintry night. I don't have a "damaged inside" hanger to place on my rear view mirror. Like my sister, when people see me, they see this person who looks like the have it all together. I guess that's probably what I want them to see. Not the man who feels so broken at times. Not the man who seeks understanding for the confusion that he feels at times over his own identity. Not the man who finds himself with hot burning tears streaking his cheeks whenever he see a teenager alone...or bullied...or unloved.

Unblemished? Only on the outside!

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Tree

It has been five years...five very long years since I've done this. I thought it would be a lot easier. I should have known better! As I sit here now, I'm glad that I did it, but there is a small ache in my heart that I wish would go away. I know it won't...actually, I don't think that it can. I know it won't go away if I try to push. Well, maybe it would, but the truth is, I'm not sure that I want it too. Because with the ache come memories, and those memories are good. The best of my life.

Yesterday, I drug all of the Christmas decorations that I've been buying since all of the "after Christmas" sales last year out of my closet and out from the storage under my little home on wheels. I had purchased a nice tree last January that I have in storage up at my little brother Geoff's place, but it is much too big for this place. So, I went out and bought a small four foot tree. I had bought some beautiful ribbon for the big tree that I bought, and guess what? It was much too big for my little tree. Sooooooo, I had to go buy some new ribbon! And the ribbon that I bought was a different color than the beautiful ribbon that I bought last summer, so I had to buy some different colored ornaments as well. The box of Christmas "stuff" that I had pulled out of my closet is still about half full...the wrong color. Aaahhhhhhh!

But still, it is so worth it! I have always loved Christmas and my memories of the holiday season when I was married to Paula were always so wonderful. She loved to decorate, and I would usually start to pull the boxes (and boxes...and boxes...and boxes) and the trees (yes, I said trees. We usually had about 12-15 decorated trees of various sizes in the house) out of the closets and storage spaces in our home on Veteran's day. That's when the decorating would begin. The goal was to be done by Thanksgiving so that when we got home from Paula's folks house after Turkey Day, we would always come home to a beautifully decorated home. And we did!

As I thought about decorating my first tree alone, I wanted it to be different from what we had shared for the years of our marriage. The ribbon I had purchased was black and rich looking. The ornaments were silver and crystal and black. I had gold and crystal beaded garland to string through the tree. It was going to be beautiful! But fate has a strange way of providing the things that we need when we really don't fully comprehend. My looks like it should (and could) be sitting in Paula's condo. The rich Burgundy's and gold. The jewel tones sparkle in the hundreds of miniature lights strung throughout the tree. The ribbon and bows could have been hers. The small heart pillow with the gold ribbon caught my eye as I walked through Freddie's...and I knew I had to have it for my tree. Or is it "our" tree? It could be. It should be!!

I talked to her on the phone tonight. Another good conversation, it seems most of them are these days. She wanted to know all about my tree when I told her I had decorated yesterday. (She had spent the past five days decorating her condo). She laughed as I told her this it looked as beautiful as she did and I told her the colors. She asked for a picture, so I'll E-mail her one tomorrow. And...she couldn't believe that I had that black and gold ribbon. It was on her list to try to buy the next time she went to Costco. She had bought one roll and it wasn't enough. She'll get two rolls in the mail sometime soon. Fate? I don't think so. I just think two people who are "soul mates" and always will be, whether together or apart.

I think good memories will always be bittersweet. But I'm glad I have them! And even though my life will continue to place situations before that will bring those memories...and losses...back front and center, I pray that I will continue to embrace them and be willing to endure the heartache as I remember the beauty and goodness that was my marriage.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A "Titanic" Misunderstanding

The room was empty except for the five of us. The chairs were spread out and all of us had our shoes off and a couple of us had our feet resting up on a chair in front of us. The floor was strewn with empty soda cans and a half empty package of cookies from the commissary. A bag of red vines was getting passed around the group as we sat and watched the 36" screen in front of us. The music on the TV began to swell as the young man in the film sharpened his sketching pencils and the young actress let the blouse she was wearing fall to the floor.

All of a sudden the doors to the small Chapel room we were in swung open and two women came strolling in carrying clipboards. I recognized them as staff, but I didn't know either of their names. Bill jumped from his chair and quickly turned the VCR and TV off and ran over to the woman who was obviously in charge.

"Good afternoon, Warden", he said. "Is there anything I can help you with today?'

Bill was the head clerk in the Chapel at the time and recognized both of these women. He was obviously as surprised as the rest of us that they had walked in during our study, but he was recovering very quickly.

"Hello, Mr. Oxford", the assistant warden replied. "What are you guys doing in here today...and what movie are you watching?"

Zack quickly got up and grabbed the sleeve for the movie and took it over to her.

"We're doing a facilitator's study on the book "Wild at Heart" and they recommend that you watch several movies that are referenced in the book", he said. "This is one of them."

"Where did you get this movie? Do you have permission to have it?"

It got quiet for a moment and then John stood up and answered her question for her.

"I checked it out through the college. I work as a tutor over there and it's checked out through me."

She stood there, quietly for a moment looking from one man to the next.

"Do you have a curriculum guide for this course?", she asked.

I knew that I had remembered reading in the facilitator's guide the recommendation of the movies that we should watch as a part of the training. I told her that I would get it for her and quickly left the room. I rummaged through the file cabinet in the office until I found it and took it back into the room. As I entered, the assistant warden had Bill off to the side and I could tell by her body language that she was dressing him down a little bit. After she was done with her conversation with Bill, I started to show her the curriculum guide and she simply told me to make a copy and send it to her in the prison mail as she and her assistant turned and left the room.

For a moment after they left, the room was eerily quiet. We all seemed to melt into our seats in a mild state of shock and disbelief. Of all the times for the Assistant Warden of Programs to walk into the room, Leonardo DiCaprio had to be sketching a nude portrait of Kate Winslet in the salon of a giant ship that was about to sink. To make matters worse, three of us in the room were in prison for a sex crime and to top it all off, the Chaplain wasn't in the office that day.

We slowly looked at each other and suddenly started to laugh. It seemed we couldn't stop! It was a laughter bred of fear and anxiety...and ultimately relief. As it started to quiet down, I turned to Bill and asked him what the assistant warden was talking to him about off to the side.

"She was disappointed about the soda cans and the cookie wrappers and candy", he said. "She didn't think that it looked much like a study when she walked in and it looked pretty suspicious that we would quickly turn the TV off when we saw her." She had added that she would be following up with the Chaplain to be certain that we actually had permission to be watching the film as a part of the study. Fortunately for us, we did.

That event actually served to bind the five of us closer together as we continued with the study over the next several months. It helped to mold us into a "Band of Brothers".

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Magician

It was almost time for our unit to be released to go to dinner, so I walked up toward the foyer and the doors. As I got closer to the front of the unit, I noticed that a crowd had gathered and that most of the men were all looking in the same place. It was too quiet for it to be a fight and as I got closer, I quickly realized why the crowd had gathered...Kevin was there!

I moved closer and stood toward the back of the group. Even though I'd seen this many times before, I was always amazed at the skills that Kevin had. To look at him, your first impression was that he was just a big, soft nerd. He wore nondescript glasses that often slid down on his nose. Whenever you would walk by his cube, he would be buried in a book...a REAL book. Not the best seller novels that circulated the unit, but books that you would expect to read in a college literature class. But inside this anomaly of a man was a genuine talent.

Tonight, he was causing a card to disappear and then reappear inside of his mouth. He wasn't so good that I didn't notice that when he coughed during the "show" and put his hand over his mouth that he may have also deposited the disappearing card there. But he was good enough that very few had seen it. He went through his act, asking one of the men if his card was in the deck. One by one, the cards were turned over and the card was no where to be found. Then, with amazement, he slowly pulled folded card from inside of his mouth to the delight of the inmates and guards alike that had gathered around.

"Just one more!", one of the inmates called out.

"How did he do that?", another one asked. "Can you show us?"

Kevin smiled his big, shy smile and said he'd do one more. He picked a man out of the crowd and started to go through another of his tricks as the men laughed and "wowwed" through the show.

I got along well with Kevin. When he first moved into the unit, he was placed in my cube and we were "cellies" for about a month. His mom was a writer who lived near Los Angeles and I don't know anything about his dad...he never mentioned him. He was a high school drop-out with an IQ of about 140. While he was in prison, they forced him to take the GED (so the prison could get money) and he passed both sections of the test without missing a single question. He'd dropped out of school because he had seen no value in what it offered him and he was bored.

He was a gifted musician and singer, a great joke teller and a good chess player. (I did manage to beat him a couple of times, but I just figure he must have been distracted during those games.) He picked up tennis while he was there so he could shed some of the "baby" fat that he still carried when he entered the place. When I looked at Kevin, I didn't see a felon. But, like all of us, he was.

Kevin apparently liked boys and he had communicated with a teenage boy and arranged to meet him in a bowling alley in Las Vegas. He drove to Vegas and went into the bowling alley and immediately felt uncomfortable. Something wasn't right. He walked past the tables a couple of times and noticed a teenage boy sitting there and kept walking. He left and went to his car where he found FBI agents waiting for him. The rest, as they say, is history.

This talented young man was arrested for conspiracy to communicate across state lines for immoral purposes. I don't know how long he will be in prison...he was still there when I left. He had filed several appeals, but they were still in the system...and Kevin was still behind bars.

When I hear story's like Kevin's, I get a little bit frustrated. And, it's important to know that Kevin didn't tell me his story himself...I looked it up when I got out of prison. It had been rumored that he was in prison for a sex crime with a boy, but it wasn't something that he ever admitted and I doubt if too many people asked him. I was able to find a copy of his appeal and court record on-line and as I read it, I was amazed that our system can put people in prison for simply thinking about doing something wrong.

It is probably true that he communicated with someone pretending to be a minor on the computer and made arrangements to meet them. And it is true that he walked into the bowling alley where he had planned to meet the boy. But the truth after that is just as important. He never met with the boy or had any kind of sexual contact. The "boy" was actually an adult pretending to be a "boy" to entrap men like Kevin. But Kevin is now a convicted sex offender who will carry that moniker (just as I will) for the rest of his life.

As a victim of sexual abuse myself, I understand the need to protect our children from those who would prey on them for sexual gratification. I know the pain and damage that is inflicted through inappropriate sexual activity. But I struggle with the concept of the "conspiracy" conviction when no crime is committed in the first place on the one hand and the protection of the innocents on the other. Is it right to essentially criminalize our thoughts?

Spending three years in prison has opened my eyes to aspects of our justice system that I had never considered from the outside. My thoughts used to be that if a man was in prison, he probably deserved it (and many do...I did). But there days, I think the line has more grey in it than simply black and white. There is too much "injustice" in our justice system and there are too many individuals who get caught in the system because they thought about committing a crime, but ultimately thought better and tried to walk away. But it was too late.

As for Kevin, I believe that he will make it when he is finally released. He's gifted...he's intelligent...and he has skills that make people like him. And perhaps if he's faced with a similar situation in the future that placed him behind bars the first time, he'll draw on his skills and simply vanish like a card from his deck.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Little Italian

What would prison be with out the classic Mafia "goombah"? His name was Tony (classic, don't you think?) and he was from New Jersey (could it get any better?) If Hollywood were making a movie of my prison experience, Tony would be played by Danny DeVito. He was short...and round...and obnoxious. And he was everything that you would expect him to be.

There's really no way to know what Tony was in for. He said it was for dealing drugs but he was another of your classic con's. He wouldn't know truth if it bit him. The rumors were that he was here in California because he had made enemies in the other institutions that had housed him because he had a major problem with gambling. Actually, the problem wasn't so much gambling...he did that quite well. His problem was paying his gambling debts...something seemed to have quite a difficult time accomplishing. So it seemed that he would stay in one place for a year or so until his debts became so great they could no longer be forgiven. Then he would find himself threatened with bodily harm and PC (protective custody) himself up and off he would go to the next "Club Fed."

For all of Tony's faults, he was good to me from the beginning. I really don't understand why. It wasn't like I befriended him in any way. For the first four months I was in prison, I didn't have my own radio and the only way you could watch TV in the day room was through the FM signal on the radio. On more than one occasion, Tony offered me the use of one of his radios so I could watch the weekend movie or a football game. He never asked for anything in return and never sent the message that I "owed" him anything. In fact, because he realized I didn't have much, he would also offer me cookies or chips on occasion.

Tony also had a difficult time accepting several of the other men who were in our unit. One of them was Chris, a young man who was in prison for a similar charge as mine...illegal pornography. Unfortunately for Chris, he hadn't heeded the advise of the counselors when he entered and he had told people why he was in prison...only he had changed it a little bit. Instead of saying he was in for child pornography, he was it was for "bestiality". Apparently, he thought that might be more readily accepted. He couldn't have been more wrong. His bed was burned on several occasions and it wasn't uncommon for other inmates to dump water on his mattress. When we had mail call, if Chris got any mail, the other inmates would immediately begin to make animal sounds. Even the guards would laugh about it.

One night, Chris tried to go into the "white" TV room to watch a movie. Tony was there and immediately got into Chris's face and in no uncertain terms, told Chris that he wasn't welcome in the TV room. Wisely, Chris turned and left the room. A little while later, I happened to be walking past the TV room and Tony called me in. He was still fuming...angry that Chris had even considered trying to watch TV in the "white" TV room, as if he was worthy enough.

Tony told me what had happened earlier and how angry he got at Chris and the reason that he was in prison. He went on to tell me how despicable 'sex offenders' were and that he noticed that I was able to be nice to just about everyone...even Chris.

For a brief second, I was afraid that Tony was going to accuse me of being a sex offender and wondered how I might respond. But that's not what Tony wanted...he wanted to know how I could treat people that way. It gave me an opportunity to share Christ's love.

Men are in prison for a lot of different reasons. Drug dealing. Robbery. Extortion. Kidnapping. Murder. Even pornography. I was able to share with Tony that all of us, even him, had done something so despicable that there were people in our society that hated us with a venomous hatred. Parents who had lost children to drug overdose wanted nothing more that all drug dealers to rot in prison...or even better, to rot in hell. Senior citizens who were scammed by 'cons' couldn't be happier if every one spent the rest of their life behind bars.

I told Tony that in God's eyes, we are all the same...we are sinners. But God gives each of us, regardless of what we have done, the opportunity for a new start...a clean start, because of the sacrifice of His Son at Calvary. And I told him that because I am a Christian, God wants me to treat others the same way the God treats me...with unconditional love.

Tony told me that he didn't know if he could do that (maybe the only words of truth I ever heard him speak) and was amazed that I could. I turned and left the room, with Tony quietly looking after me. Before closing the door, I told Tony I would be more than happy to talk to him any time if he wanted to.

I don't know if Tony every pursued a relationship with Christ or not. A short time after our conversation, he was thrown in the SHU for being wasted on pruno. He spent about three months in the hole and every day, we prayed for him. After he got out, it was only a few months later that he disappeared, apparently as a result of his gambling debts.

Like many men in prison, Tony wasn't someone that I would have wanted as a friend. He's not someone that I could honestly say that I liked for the first several months at TCI. But during those 36 months that I spent behind the razor wire, God opened my eyes and my heart to my callousness and prejudice. He helped me see that I was no different than the Tony's of the world...that is until I turned to Him. He used that time to strip me of my pride and arrogance that I had used to shelter myself my entire life.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Reflections on A Gift!

It's been over 30 years, but I still remember. And for some reason, I've been remembering it more lately. It was Christmas time, and it was a really tough financial time for my parents...actually, for all of us. My folks had lost their business to a financial failure and were slowly trying to find their way back to a solid financial footing. My mom had never been very responsible with money and had managed to acquire a lot of debt. In the past several years, I suppose in her attempt to try to make Christmas "special", she had spent money that she didn't have on gifts that really didn't have a whole lot of special meaning to anyone. Not that it wasn't just wasn't special.

I've always loved Christmas, and I have to admit that while I like to receive presents, I get much greater pleasure out of giving. As a young teenager working in my folks hardware store during the Christmas season, I loved to take the family out to dinner on Christmas Eve to one of the nicer restaurants in town located down by the beach. It felt good to pull the money out of my own wallet and pay the ticket and give something special to my family that was there.

But the Christmas 30+ years ago was different. It seemed that I didn't have anything to give. I was in college and no job so I didn't have any cash. My parents were struggling so they didn't have much to give. As I remember, as a family, we decided that we weren't really going to buy gifts for Christmas that year. We would make them instead.

I don't know how it came about, but I have to believe that it was my sister Debbie's idea that she and I do something together. There are some things that you need to know about Debbie. First, she is an extremely gifted person with a lot of "right" brain talents. She is extremely creative and has an eye for things beautiful. And...she is very bright. I remember as a child growing up having teachers ask if I was "Debbie's brother" because she was such a good student.

Her idea was to create a photo album using pictures I had taken over the past several years. That seemed easy enough. If I had been doing it on my own, the photo album would have turned out very symmetrical with four pictures evenly distributed on each page, most likely without any apparent organization. But that wasn't Debbie's vision.

She had found a poetry book that I had gotten while I was still in elementary school called "Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle". I'm not sure how she got it from me, but she did. She loves reading as much or more than I do, and probably loves poetry "more" than I do. So she takes my pictures and spreads them through a photo album, organized by themes and places beautiful poetry in amongst the pictures. To go through the album is not a 5 second per page process. Her magic transformed some 3x5 photos of our family into a true gift!

The present was addressed to Mom and Dad, but it was for all of us. And all of us have spent countless hours at different times looking at those pictures and reading those words. Before mom got sick, she made copies of all of the pictures for each of us kids, but she missed the best part. We got the pictures, but we didn't get the magic.

So, today as I reflect on that gift...a gift from my sister and me to our family, it causes my entire body to smile. It allows me to remember one of the few happy times with my family. It focuses my memory on some good times. And it leads me to reflect on a gift...a wonderful gift from God who is my sister.

And on this day, I want her to know how much I love her and wish her a Happy Birthday!

I love you.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Fruit of the...Garbage Bag?

It was a Friday evening after dinner was over and I walked into the laundry room to see if a washing machine was open. As I turned the corner, one of the other inmates was standing on the top of the washing, closing a "supposed" locked ceiling door. He looked at me with suspicion as I turned and left the laundry. As I walked back to my cube, a couple of questions crossed my mind.

"How did he get into that locked trapdoor in the ceiling?"

"What was the garbage bag doing up in the ceiling?"

A few weeks later as we were waiting after the 10:30 standing count to go to lunch, I was intrigued as I watched one of the men climb up onto the six foot high walls that surround our cubes and look up on top of the heating ducts that crisscrossed the ceiling of the unit. The CO's had gone to the unit on the other side to count so we were unsupervised for a few moments. I watched as the inmate popped open a vent on one of the heating ducts and pull out the end of a garbage bag, look at it for a moment, and then push it back in and set the duct cover back in place. He had soon let himself back down so that when the CO came back, every thing in the unit was perfectly normal.

I have to admit, sometimes I'm a bit naive. I didn't have a clue about what was going on as these different inmates checked on their contraband in these hiding places. But I had the wisdom not to ask any questions, either to the inmates or to any of the staff. The truth was, these were the local "moonshiners"...the makers of "pruno."

Until entering prison, I'd never heard of pruno. With my past, that's really kind of surprising. I was a very heavy drinker in my youth and I thought that I had heard of just about everything there was to drink...but I was definitely wrong. Pruno is prison "hootch"...prison wine, and it can be made out of just about anything that can ferment.

I found this description of pruno from, and it pretty much describes pruno to a T:

"By most accounts, pruno isn't something a normal human would want to drink, so potent that two gallons is said to be "a virtual liquor store," enough to get a dozen people mindblowingly wasted. And while it tastes so putrid that even hardened prisoners gulp it down while holding their noses, they'll go to incredible lengths to make it, whipping up batches from frosting, yams, raisins and damn near everything."

I heard a lot of horror stories about this prison creation, but the scariest was one that I actually saw first had. The CO's occasionally make their sweep through the unit looking for any kind of contraband, including pruno and one evening, they find a batch that was hidden in the ceiling of the showers. Now, if you know anything at all about prison, you know that they don't allow the inmates items that are made of glass or metal, so pruno was commonly fermented in large garbage bags. And the batches were not small and in fact it wasn't uncommon for an inmate to have to use a wheeled mop pail to move his stash around from place to place.

On this occasion, the CO's found the pruno and they were taking it back to the bathrooms to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the garbage back holding this liquid nectar had a hole in it and started to drip on the floor. One of the CO's called for an orderly to grab a mop and clean the mess up, but before the inmate could get back with the mop, the pruno was already lifting the wax off of the concrete floor. This is nasty stuff!

The fact that there was so much pruno production taking place on the compound impacted all of us...even those of us with enough brain cells not to even smell the stuff. Because inmates would use any kind of fruit or vegetable to make the stuff, we soon found that our access to fresh fruits and vegetables from the commissary was restricted. At first, the number of items we could purchase was limited, but didn't seem to slow the production down. Then, most of the fresh fruit was eliminated completely and only a few vegetables were sold.

This doesn't stop the creative pruno maker, however. He would just mix up a batch of "green pepper" pruno or perhaps "ketchup" pruno. Add a few slices of bread and some packets of sugar, and soon a new batch of wax stripper would be fermenting.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Autobiography

I can think of a lot things I would rather be doing.

  • getting my wisdom teeth pulled...without a pain killer!
  • walking over a bed of hot, burning embers
  • having my fingernails pulled out, one by one and dipping my fingers in vinegar
  • listening to a U.S. History lecture in eleventh grade

Get the picture? What is that I'm doing that is so painful?

I'm completing my "Autobiographical Outline" as part of my treatment program! I'm not sure anything can be more painful right now...and I'm only to age 6!!!

It's interesting to me how life seems to work. My life seems to be full of opportunities to reflect and look to past recently, when that is the last place I want to be looking right now. There is so little about my history that I want to remember, and those few memories that are good seem to slip further and further out of reach each day.

One of the questions that I was asked to answer went like this:

How did your family show feelings toward each other? a. Anger? b. Love? c. Closeness? d. Fear?

I was hoping it was actually a multiple choice question, but I don't think my therapist would see the humor in that perspective. Even as a multiple choice question, it would have been hard to choose any one of those feelings!

Part of my problem is that I remember so very little of my childhood. Sadly, I'm afraid there is a lot that I should remember and my mind continues to protect itself, so I stay in a perpetual state of fogginess. So how do I answer a question like this?

First, I think my family were experts at NOT showing their least not their true feelings! I don't even know if my parents could honestly say that they loved each other, even though they lived together as man and wife for over 40 years. Even though they kissed (usually three quick pecks) and said "I love you", it was very seldom visibly displayed in any meaningful way. I learned that you didn't share your feelings because they weren't honored, and it usually resulted in pain or humiliation.

As I look back and try to picture that little boy growing up, I see an image of a child that was lost, or trying to get lost. I just wanted to be a in a cocoon where it might feel safe, but that place didn't exist. I learned to bury myself in my books and in my fantasies, but there was always a last page of the story or reality calling me back. These days, as I live a life that I would call "lonely" at best, I recall that I've felt this way before and it isn't a good feeling...and it scares me sometimes. Not in the sense that "I'm so lonely, I should just disappear!" It's more of a fear that in the past, I found relationship in chat rooms that filled a void left from childhood and that practice cost me everything. My wife. My family. My job. My career. My future. I never want to find myself in that place again.

My childhood was filled with loneliness. I never learned to be feel close to anyone. Even though I think I had a decent relationship with my sister and brothers, I can't define them as close. And there was never a true sense of trust there. I remember being upset about something when I was about 9 or 10 years old and I had planned to run away from home. I had written my note and stuck it in my clothes drawer in the dresser that I shared with my two brothers. One of them found it and shared it with the others. In a Disney movie, they would have tried to talk me out leaving but that didn't happen. Instead, it was an invitation to help me pack. I don't really remember what happened after that...I just know that I didn't leave. More than likely, I simply built up another layer of hardness around my heart and receded a little deeper into my own own escape.

Remembering is hard...and it's painful. And it's not something that I really want to do or that I'm very good at. But on the other hand, I also realize that it is essential to my healing. In order to move forward, I need to understand those things in my life that formed and molded me. Not to point fingers or accuse. I know that my family loves me...and that even when we were growing up, they loved the best that the knew how. We just didn't know how very well.

But there is always least I believe there is. I believe in the greatest Transformer that ever lived, and I know that He will continue to bring healing and love to my life. He'll be there to help fill the void of loneliness that has plagued me for as long as I can remember. And He will continue to help peel back the layers of my memory and reveal my life's story to me.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Every morning I see him. I'm usually only about three blocks from work, but there he is. I would guess he is probably in the sixth grade because he is walking toward the local middle school. He could be in seventh, but if he is he is small for his age. Lately, his face is barely visible with his hooded jacket pulled up over his head....the draw string pulled tightly so that a circle of cloth covers most of his face. His too long jacket sleeves hang down over his hands, probably a blessing on the cold mornings as he walks to school. I've observed him now for nearly a year. As I look upon this young man...still only a boy, I see glimpses of myself.

He appears to be lonely. Just the other day, my heart ached for him as I watched him run up the street to catch up with another boy walking to school. The other boy appeared older, at least six inches taller. It was like the young boy wanted to be belong to a group, even if it was only a group of two. In my heart, I was hoping that I would see the two of them walking down the street in the morning...talking...laughing...doing the things young boys should be doing at that age. But the next day, and every day since, the young boys walks alone.

On those morning when I take the short cut and drive up his street, I can see him walking toward me instead of only away from me...going in the same direction as I drive. I look into his face and I rarely see a smile. He has never waved, which seems strange to me. I would think if you saw the same car every day as you walked to school, there would come a day when you would wave, if only to see if the driver would wave back. It makes me wonder what his young mind is thinking. Is he afraid? Has our culture and society become so dark and evil that a young boy wouldn't even wave at a familiar car? Would that be me?

That young boy isn't the only one that I've noticed in the past few weeks. As I stand on the stage at church each Sunday in the choir, I have a chance to look out over the congregation. I can see the faces of each person as they worship...or don't. There's a young man, probably twelve or thirteen who sits next to his adopted family. I know his story. His father murdered his mom a year ago and he and his brothers and sisters moved here to live with his aunt and uncle. He has since been legally adopted by them. A few months ago he gave his testimony during a Sunday night service...about how angry he was with God when his mom was killed. He told how the sheriff came to school to pick up him and his brothers and sisters to tell him what had happened.

I watch him during worship as he struggles to try to praise a God who loves him and to enter a place of peace and worship. He rarely smiles...but I can understand that. I can see his lips move as he sings the songs and I smile inside that he is able to do that. Yesterday, his hands tapped a drum beat on the chair in front of him as he joined in the worship chorus.

Yet as I watch him there with his adoptive family, I see a lonely boy who should be with the other kids from the youth group. Most of them are over in the other venue with the guitar driven worship designed for a younger audience. It makes me wonder why he is this service, where he is the youngest in the room. Does he need the presence of his new family? Is there a fear of abandonment in his soul that if he doesn't stay with his new family, they may be taken from him too? I long to see joy in his face, but it doesn't appear.

There is one more boy who has drawn my attention this week. I would guess him to be about five or six. He was singing...or more accurately, a participant, in the children's choir at church last night. I'm not sure what attracted me to him. It may have been his wild, black hair that reminded me of my hair in my senior portrait when I graduated from high school. He has a beautiful smile, but he rarely revealed it last night. He was concentrating too hard on the choir director and the sign language he was supposed to perform along with the song he was supposed to be singing. His dark eyes matched his olive complexion. I don't know his nationality, but he appeared to be Mediterranean.

It was apparent from watching him that he had probably missed most, if not all, of the rehearsals for the performance last night. His mouth barely moved, not knowing the words to the songs. And his sign language gestures were usually at least a full sentence behind, his head on a swivel looking to the right and left to see what the other kids were doing and trying to follow. There were a few moments when a smile would brighten his face as he moved in unison with the other kids.

As I stood in the audience watching the kids in the children's choir sing and perform, I felt an ache in my heart. That question that occasionally comes to mind, did.

"Why couldn't I have been a part of something like this when I was growing up?" I don't know if it would have changed my life, but I believe that it might have. It might have given me a sense of belonging...a sense of purpose in my young life. It might have given me the courage and boldness to stand up for things that I knew were right when I became a teenage instead of becoming a part of the "group", just so I could feel a sense of belonging.

When I look in the mirror of my life, I too often see the lonely boy walking to school alone...awkward and different. I see the boy who stays with his family instead of finding friends his own age...afraid of being alone, of being abandoned. I see the boy who is intent on being a part of a group...any group, even if he doesn't really belong in it. I see a boy who seeks to please others....even at the expense of himself.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Blue Fly"

I have to admit that there was a part of me that was still filled with fear as I walked through the steel doors and onto the main yard that very first time. Even though I knew that God had made promises to me to keep me safe, and to deliver me at the end of my sentence, my flesh was uncertain. I'd never been in trouble before, and I'd certainly never spent time around "felons". My vision of the men I was about to meet had come from the media only...and we all know how accurate it is. But I have to admit in this case, they weren't all wrong.

His name was "Blue Fly". I didn't know the origin of his name, but I'm sure there was a story behind it. If the casting director for "Law and Order" or some other mindless TV cop show was looking for a criminal to cast in one of their episodes, this man was it. He had "banger" written all over him. An African-American, his dark skin couldn't cover there abundance of tattoos that seemed to cover nearly every inch of his exposed skin. When he smiled (which never seemed to have the warmth that I looked for in smiles), the diamonds embedded in his gold teeth shimmered in the desert sunshine. There was a pretty large African-American population in the prison, and Blue Fly was one of the loudest, most foul-mouthed among the group. Even those men in his own gambling group got tired of his outbursts.

Like many of the men who lived beside me, Blue Fly was not a man that you would want to trust with anything that you might need the next day. He was a thief and a liar...and the rumors were, a snitch. Whenever he was busted for a violation and sent to the SHU...the "special housing unit", or as I like to call it, the "hole", he would soon be released back into the general population. And it seemed others would take his place in those solitary cells, compliments of Blue Fly's tongue.

I didn't have much contact with Blue Fly even though he lived in the same unit that I did. I intentionally stayed out of his way, as well as the paths of many other men like him. But a funny thing happened...he noticed me anyway and I didn't even realize it at the time. The truth is, I tried to stay invisible to most men in that dark place. If they couldn't see me, they wouldn't be able to ask me any questions. And if they didn't ask me any questions, I would be safer because there would be less chance that they would learn of my crime and why I had been sent here. But while I was trying to stay hidden and quiet, spending most of my time in my cube reading my Bible or in the Chapel at work, I was making myself stand out because I was different than most of the other men here. And in the end, it changed a life.

No one was probably more shocked than I was the day Blue Fly walked into the Chapel office.

"I hear you guys got free Bibles", he said. He stood there, not able to keep his eyes on me, glancing to the right and the left as if to see if there might be anyone who saw him in the Chapel.

I looked up from my work and took a moment to try to be sure I understood him correctly.

"Yes, we have Bibles for the men", I answered. "Would you like one?"

He said yes and I went to the shelf behind my desk and pulled out a brand new Nelson Study Bible that had been donated to the Chapel.

"I never read any of this before. Where's a good place to start?" he asked.

As I sat there, I was struck by a change in this man that I had been so uncomfortable with before. He didn't look nearly as scary or "hard" to me today. In fact, he looked somewhat vulnerable.

"A lot of people say to start with the Book of John", I respond "but I would start with the Book of Mathew and read all four of the Gospels. That way you can get a broader picture of who Jesus is."

He thanked me as he turned and walked out of the office. I am a little ashamed to say that I didn't expect Blue Fly to read more than two pages in his new book. I didn't know what had motivated him to come to the Chapel and ask for a Bible, but I was sure it wasn't because he was looking for Christ. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The next day, he was in the Chapel again.

"You got anything to help me understand all this stuff I'm reading?" he asked. He wasn't looking around sheepishly today. Something was different about him. He looked even less "hard" today and there was a determination in his voice and in his eyes that told me he was serious...even if only for a day. I told him about our library and some books that he might want to use as references. He would spend hours in the Chapel library each day pouring over his Bible and the resources that might make it make sense to him.

"Can I take any of these back to the unit?" he asked one day. "There isn't enough time here to be able to read all this stuff."

I told him which books he was welcome to take with him and which had to stay in the library and he was soon packing an arm full of books back to the unit like a college kid on any campus across the country. Each day as I left the unit to head to the Chapel to work, I would see Blue Fly at one of the tables in the day room with all of his books spread out...reading and studying. He was soon getting harassed by some of the other inmates for taking up an entire table for all of his stuff, but no one pushed him out.

About a month after Blue Fly first came into the Chapel for his first Bible, he came into the office again. He pulled up a chair and sat down across from me.

"How are you doing today, Fly?", I asked him.

"I'm not Blue Fly anymore", he said. "My real name is James and that's what I want to be called now."

It struck me what a change had taken place in this man in the past thirty days. I had seen a miracle of God performed in a federal prison in the middle of the California desert that I hadn't believed would occur. And I was to soon learn that God had used me to make it happen.

A few days later, "James" was back at the Chapel.

"I wanted to thank you", he said. "It's because of you that I started to read the Bible and learn about Jesus."

I sat there speechless. I quietly racked my brains trying to remember when I had ever talked to this man about Christ. And the truth is, I hadn't. I'd never invited him to church. I'd never told him he needed Jesus. I'd never told him he was a sinner destined to spend eternity in Hell. I'd made it a practice to not talk to him at all. As it turned out, it was my life and the way I was living in this little corner of Hell that drew his attention to me. The peace that I lived in. The calmness of my demeanor. My ability to smile when there was nothing to smile about and my unwillingness to fall prey to the lack of hope and futility that is bred in prison. I had simply done my best to "walk my (silent) talk" and live as a Godly man.

I'm not sure what happened to James. He continued to roll in and out of the SHU. He found himself more and more frequently persecuted by his "old friends" for seeking a way out of his old life. One day, he went into the SHU and he never came back out. The rumor mill said that he had been transferred to another institution. I pray that's what happened...that God in His mercy and sent James to a new mission field where he could start his life there as a Christian man who had been in bondage and had found freedom in a carpenter from Galilee.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Christmas "De"

Christmas season...2004! My first Christmas in prison and I had no idea what to expect. Some of the other inmates had told me about the Christmas "bag" that we would receive on Christmas eve, but for some reason, the idea of a bag of candy and cookies...and jalapeno flavor ramen didn't get me too excited. I knew that my contact with any family from the outside would be limited. Paula and I had agreed to cease any communication for about three months over the winter of that first year in prison. The months of December through February held too many memories...some of the happiest days of our lives...and some of the most painful. I honestly didn't know how I would survive! But God is a God of miracles...and God of great love. He always knows our deepest needs.

I had been singing in the church choir at church for about three months by now and each year the chapel put on a Christmas program for the entire compound. All of the different Christian
"churches" that were at prison were invited to attend and participate. As a part of the program, a combined choir was formed to sing a couple of songs together. And that's when God sent me a gift...a gift I will remember forever and who I occasionally think and wonder about. His name is De.

I had seen this young Vietnamese often in the chapel. He was a leader in the Catholic group and would often come into the chapel office to pick up their box for a Bible study or to get ready for their Wednesday afternoon mass. We had never really visited...just a shy smile on his part and a "howdy" on mine. I had never even bothered to ask him his name...he was just another face. But he is one of those people who have something about them that is attractive to me. It is probably the twinkle of his eyes...or the gentleness of his smile. Whatever it was, it had remained hidden from me until that first Christmas.

One of the songs that we did as a combined choir was "The 12 Days of Christmas" and the choir director assigned a part of twelve of us to sing the short verse about "our" day of Christmas. As it turned out, I had day eight, and De had day seven. As a result, I had to learn who it was I followed as I sang my little chorus over and over as we worked our way through the song. At first, when the director said that I followed "De", I didn't understand what he meant. I thought maybe I misunderstood what he said.

"Day?", wondered to myself. Does that make me "night"? But after a while, I figured out that De was the young man's name and we would often sit or stand next to one another during the practices. And it started to become apparent to me that this was a special young man. In my eyes, his smile began to blossom and his eyes shone like diamonds in the sunshine. I didn't know yet what a blessing this man was to be to me. I just knew that he was a nice guy and I felt good when I would see him or he would stop and say hello in the chapel office.

Prison is a very lonely place to be...and sometimes I think maybe it was lonelier for me than it might have been for some others. Because of my crime, I could never (and did never) share why I was there. What made it worse for me sometimes was the guilt that I felt because of the deeper nature of my crime...that the pornography that I had viewed was of gay teenage sex. My entire life, I've struggled with having any kind of feelings for another male...and those feelings virtually always resulted in feelings of guilt. I'm sure that's part of the reason that I had never been able to have kind of a healthy relationship with other men. My boundaries had been destroyed as a child and I never discovered where they were supposed to be. And I was to afraid..or ask anyone to help me find them.

But De helped to change that for me. De was a toucher...and my love language is touch. Deep within my being, my heart longs to be be be acknowledged! I would find myself working at the desk in the chapel office when all of a sudden, I would feel firm, yet gentle hands, rubbing my shoulders as I sat at the typewriters. I would begin to melt under the touch of someones hands on me who was rubbing my shoulders simply because he believed it would feel good. No ulterior motive! No expectation of anything in return. Just a simple act of love that he will never know he demonstrated toward me.

Through his occasional shoulder rubs and his smiles....the gift of a hot cup of coffee on a cold January day...the package of cookies just because he appreciated all I did for all of the religious groups that used the chapel, he helped to define boundaries in my life when it comes to men. I would enjoy his touch without feeling guilt. I could accept his smile without wondering if something might be expected. I could return his shoulder rubs and relish in the knowledge that the closed eyes and the smile on his face were a genuine appreciation of the gift I was returning to him. A way of loving another man in a healthy way. Something I had never been able to do.

Christmas 2006 was the hardest Christmas I have ever experienced. I walked the track that evening with tears rolling down my cheeks, praying to God for Paula and the family that was having Christmas without me...praying that they might find some joy in this sacred day. And thanking God that He had not forgotten me in this unforgettable place. That He knew what it was that I know that I was loved, and how I needed to be loved. And He sent me a gift...a friend and new understandings.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


As a 52 year old man, my body has had it share of hurts and pains. My hands are a constant visual reminder of careless times with objects with very sharp edges. My thighs a constant reminder of offending my dad...and of the price felt at the end of a willow switch. There are times when it is a struggle to get up from my chair at work after sitting in front of my computer for hours and I remember days when the pain in my shoulders was so great I couldn't write on the chalkboard of my classroom. The four inch thick mattress on a sheet of steel that I slept on for three years while in prison will probably always leave a toll on my back and my feet. But there is an interesting thing about all of those pains. No matter how hard I try to remember what that pain actually felt like, I can't. I only know that it hurt at the time. I am sure that is God's blessing because we all fall down at times and we all experience physical pain...some of us more than others.

But there is another kind of pain that I am feeling today...and have been for the past several weeks. I compare it to the "phantom pain" that people who have had amputations feel. It is the pain that comes from looking at back at the memories from my past and knowing that they are gone forever. Like the leg lost in battle in Iraq, the "phantom pain" the soldier experiences is akin to the pain I feel at the loss of a wife, a family, a at times, my own self respect.

Last weekend I travelled to my sister's to spend the weekend and pick of the remainder of my possessions that have been in storage with friends since I was sent to prison. On the one hand, it was a wonderful weekend spent with my sister. Her love and support for me have been beyond expectation! Driving down to her home on Friday night, I had no concept of the emotional roller coaster that was facing me. I wasn't prepared for the memory flood that I was going to experience in the next 48 hours, and I still haven't recovered from.

As we descended into the dank, musty basement when my "stuff" was stored and rounded the corner where the boxes were stacked, I was immediately overwhelmed. I just didn't remember that I had left so many boxes here. I thought I would find two or three boxes that we would quickly put in the trunk of my car, go have lunch with my friends Gloria and Alger and be on our way to a day of antique shopping that we had planned. Instead, it was a process of going through every box to sort and repack so I could get it home.

My sister described to some degree the process of sorting through the items in a recent blog she titled "Courage". A strange title as I think about it. I didn't feel courageous...only empty. My tears were constantly right at the brim of overflowing, but it seemed that I had mourned all of this before. Why was I feeling it all over again? Why did I feel like a shell...all of my vitality somehow drained away? Why was the pain coming back like torrents in the midst of a hurricane?

I can only describe it as "phantom pain". The pictures of the most beautiful women I have ever met and a woman that loved me beyond only a memory. Pictures of my kids that are no longer a part of my only an image on paper. The memory of holding each of my grand kids in my arms within minutes of their birth...fading with each passing day with the knowledge that I may never, ever see them again, let alone hold them. Pain in my heart so overwhelming that I can't describe it...except to say that I can still feel it long after it should be gone! Memories amputated by poor choices on my part, no matter how long ago. A part of my life, but no longer a part of me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On MY Road to Damascus

I don't remember exactly when I started down this road. It may have been when I was molested for the first time. Or it may have been when I viewed my first pornography...or the second...or the thousandth. I may have taken the first stem on that spring day when I first discovered the pleasures of masturbation. Or was on my first sexual encounter with another boy near my own age. I'm not sure I will ever know. But, sadly, I've discovered that this road leads away from life...and toward a lonely, painful death.

I recently read the story of Paul in the Book of Acts again when he had his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He went by the name of Saul at this point in his life. He was a strict Pharisee, as religious as they came. And he hated anyone who believed that Jesus was who He claimed to be...the Son of God. So he started down a path...a try to rid the earth of as many Christians as he could. It appears that he was doing such a good job that he wanted to go after those who had moved out of his "hunting" range. Paul got permission from the big mucky-mucks in the church and went out of country to arrest Christ's followers.

But a funny...or not so funny, depending on your perspective...thing happened to Paul as he and some of his fellow travelers where walking down a dusty road leading to Damascus. God didn't seem to like what Paul was up to so He paid him a little visit. Appearing as a bright, blinding light, Jesus touched Paul and he fell to his knees in awe and fear. And in blindness. After a few words with the Master, Paul picks himself up off the ground to find that he can't see and his travelling companions guide him into town where he decides to fast for three days.

It's the next part of this story that has had the greatest impact on me. God tells a Christian living in Damascus to go to Paul and pray for him so he can receive his sight back. And when this man, Ananias, prays for Paul, the Bible says that "scales" fell from Paul's eyes and he was able to see again. I know what that must have felt like because I had been living with scales on my eyes for years...probably decades.

As I look back on the season of my life when I was more or less addicted to pornography and chat on the Internet, it is still difficult for me to comprehend how I could put so much at risk to look at some pictures or read the words that someone I didn't know and would never meet had written for me. How could I prefer to spend hours and hours in chat rooms with "fantasies" when the real world that surrounded me contained all that I loved and cherished. Many people have asked me that question and I never have a good answer. "I don't really know or understand" sounds pretty lame even to me.

More than one person has told me that I couldn't see it, even if I had been looking for it, because I was completely and totally blinded by the sin that I had allowed to creep into my life and establish a stronghold. Even though my wife Paula had told me in no uncertain terms that if I ever went back on-line to chat with boys again, our marriage would be over and I would lose my kids and grandkids, it didn't sink in. Even though I had sat in meetings where we were warned against the problems of pornography in the schools and among professional educators and the consequences if they got caught, I never saw it. And even when a teacher in one of the schools in the district where I was working as an administrator was suspended for having pornography on his school computer, it never occurred to me that anything like that could happen to me. I just couldn't see it!

In the Book of Acts, Paul thought that he had it made as he started out on his little trip to Damascus. He couldn't see the truth of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures that he most likely had memorized. All around him, prophesy was being fulfilled, but he didn't see it. It took an interruption into his life by Christ before he was able to actually see the truth that he had been seeking his entire life. As we read through the remainder of the Book of Acts, we see that the truth for Paul would bring him pain and suffering, and ultimately death. But at least he died seeing the truth.

Like Paul, God interrupted my life as well (not that I can compare myself to Paul). I was living in a life filled with sin that had blinded me from the beauty of the life that God had given me. So He showed up in a big way. I never saw the possibility of the FBI showing up in my office as I would sit at my computer for hours on end. The thought of having to face my board of directors and submit my resignation for being in possession of child pornography had been as likely in my mind as being elected president of the United States. The image of me curled on the floor of my condo, cold and alone, with tears spilling out and staining the carpet as my wife drove away had never entered my mind. But all of it happened.

I can look back now...from a distance of nearly five years...and most of the pain is gone. The loss is still there. My wife and family are still gone. My career is history and can never be an option for the future. The reputation and respect that I had enjoyed for years is still tarnished, though there are a few spots that still have a little sparkle to them. But something else is gone as well. The blindness to the sin that had bound me for so many years is no longer there. Like Paul, the "scales" that were on my eyes fell off...or more likely, were washed away by gallons of tears. I celebrate the day on the road to MY Damascus when I encountered the reality and relationship of God for perhaps the very first time. The day He took away my blindness. The day He turned me around and started me down a road that is leading to life...a new life...and not the death and Hell that I was living in.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Out of the Cave

As a young boy, I loved the mountain that rose up behind our farm. I can't count the number of warm summer days that my brothers, and sometimes my sister, would climb and play on that mountain. As we would look up at it from our dairy farm in the valley below, there were three "cliffs" that stair stepped their way up the side of the mountain. The highest one was made up of a giant rock that jutted out from the side of the hill, most likely left behind by a slow moving glacier many millenia ago. Lying at the base of the "third cliff" was a field of rocks and boulders that lay scattered randomly until they eventually disappeared into the forest below. The cliff and the rocks below provided the backdrop for countless adventures of cowboys and Indians, playing "Army" and hunts for hidden, buried treasure.

I can remember one summer day when my brothers and I decided to explore the rocks at the base of the cliff. We had climbed over the rocks numerous times, often times stopping at the "big cave". It wasn't a cave in the classical sense, it was actually a hollow created by the arrangement of the way the large rocks lay on top of each other. We would sometimes find bones laying on the floor of the cave, igniting the imagination...and perhaps a little the mind of this young adventure seeker.

What kind of bones could they be? Maybe the remains of some unlucky hiker ravaged by a hungry bear. Or perhaps the bones of a deer or some other wild animal that had spent their last moments under the protection of the large flat stone that served as the roof of the cave. The fact that most of the bones we found in the dirt floor of the cave had neatly sawed edges didn't occur to the active minds of those young boys. We were exploring and reality rarely invades the minds of an adventurous spirit.

As we worked our way along the rocks in the heat of that summer day, my little brother Geoff yelled over to us.

"I think I found a real cave", he hollered. "The opening isn't very big, but it looks like it goes back a long way."

My older brother Frank and I climbed up and over the rocks to where Geoff was on his hands and knees, his body neck deep into a small opening in the huge stack of rocks and boulders.

"How far can you see?", Frank asked. As the oldest, he immediately took charge, encouraging Geoff with a pull of his shirt tail to back out of the "cave" so he could get a better look.

Soon, Frank was working his way into the opening between the rocks. At first, his head and shoulders moved through the crack. His hips and finally his legs and feet soon followed. Geoff and I knelt on the hard rocks outside this newly unearthed cave, waiting and wondering what kind of treasure Frank was going to get to discover while we waited outside.

"Wow!", we soon heard coming out of the opening. "It was kind of tight getting in here, but it opens up into a big room. You guys should come in here."

It didn't take another invitation for Geoff and he was quickly slipping in through the hole, his body wiggling and sliding inside. I moved closer to the opening, slowly peering inside. It was a lot darker than I thought it would be. The "big cave" was never this dark. Of course the fact that it was only about eight feet deep with a six foot opening would explain that, but I wasn't thinking about that right at that moment. Instead, a feeling of fear and dread slowly crept around my chest, squeezing my heart and lungs until I could barely breathe.

"Come on, Mark", I heard from inside. I couldn't tell whose voice it was...Geoff's or Frank's. "Could they be that far in there?", I wondered?

I leaned closer to the opening. "It's probably getting pretty full in there with both of you now", I yelled in. "If I come in, we probably won't be able to move around or explore." I figured that my words and my "selflessness" would be warmly received and my brothers would simply start exploring this new discovery on their own.

"Come on, you chicken!" I didn't have to try to figure out whose words those were. My little brother was calling is as he saw it. I was standing outside and he was inside and he knew I didn't really want to crawl in that hole

"I'm not a chicken!", my voice weakly replied. "If we don't have room to move around, it won't be my fault", I bravely yelled in. I lowered myself to my belly and started to work my way inside this narrow cave. The air was cool and smelled of fresh dirt and an odor you can only discover by being underground. I soon found my entire body underneath the rock at the base of that third cliff, moving slowly deeper into the core of the mountain.

"How much further?", I called out.

"You're almost here", Frank replied. "Pretty soon, you're going to feel the edge of the tunnel fall away. There's about a two foot drop and then a big room." Sure enough, in a couple more wiggles of my body, I could feel with my hands that the floor of the tunnel was gone. I pushed myself a little deeper and as I bend over the edge of the end of the tunnel, I could feel the floor of the cave with my scraped hands. I soon found myself inside a room that was blacker than anyplace I could have ever imagined. No matter which way you turned, you couldn't see anything.

Suddenly, I was nearly blinded as the explosion of a match lit up the room. As the match settled into a small flame, I could see Frank and Geoff in the middle of a room created by the position of numerous rocks laying against each other. As the match slowly burned down, we looked around the room. Hoping that we might find treasure or maybe even Indian paintings on the walls, we were disappointed to simply see grey rock all around us. Geoff moved around the room, looking in the corners. Soon we were in pitch blackness once again and I could feel that tightness around my chest returning.

"Hey, light another match", Geoff called out. "I think I found another opening over here." The room was soon bathed in the warm, yellow light of another match as we looked around, once again seeing Geoff's legs and butt poking out of a hole in a far corner of the room.

"Can you see anything?" Frank asked. "No. It's really dark down there. Give me a match and let me see if I can see where it goes", Geoff called back. Frank handed him the book of matches as Geoff retreated from the opening. Grasping one of the match in one hand and the book in the other, he crawled back into hole. We could see the faint glare of light as it leaked around his body, poking out from the hole in the corner of this dark room.

"It looks like a tunnel that goes down for a while", Geoff said as he slid out of the opening and back into the room. "I think if I go in feet first, I can slide over the edge to maybe another room deeper in", he continued. That constriction grabbed my chest again.

"I...I dunno", I said, with probably a little stammer in my voice. "It's getting kind of late. We should probably head back don't you think?" The room was pitch dark, hiding the fear that would be so visible on my face and on my body that was visibly shaking by now. "Come on", Geoff pleaded. "Let me see if I can reach the bottom."

Outvoted, I stood back as Frank lit another match and Geoff moved into position at the opening to the hole, his feet wiggling into the dark opening. He continued to push himself back until only his face was visible. "I'm at the edge", he said. As the match faded, Geoff disappeared from our view as the cave was once again veiled in the darkest blackness.

Frank was just striking the match when we heard it. "Help!" We peered into the corner where the opening was and Geoff was no longer visible. "Heeeellllpp! I can't reach the bottom", he cried out. As Frank bent down, he could see Geoff's fingers on the edge of the tunnel ledge, his body completely out of view. "Hold on", he yelled. Dropping the matches, he slid into the tunnel after my little brother. I fell to my hands and knees, scrambling to try to find the matchbook as I heard Frank continue to tell Geoff to hold on...that he was coming. My hands worked back in forth in front of me, trying to find the place where the matchbook fell. Soon, I could feel the paper of the book cover and as I pushed back on to my knees, I grabbed a match and struck it with my trembling fingers on the rough strip on the back of the matchbook.

"Shit", I cried as I felt the match disintegrate without lighting. I opened the book and grabbed another match. I could tell without seeing that the book was almost empty. I tried to slow down my breathing as it felt like my heart was going to explode. I could still hear Geoff in the mountain, calling out...fear in his voice. Something you didn't often hear coming from my daredevil little brother. I could hear Frank's voice but couldn't distinguish what he was saying. I slowly struck the match and suddenly, the room was filled with light again.

"Hold on to my hands", Frank was saying. As I looked over, I could see his body slowly coming back into the room. At the end of his arms, my little brother's hands were clasping his. His face and hair speckled with dirt, my brother looked like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen as he finally emerged completely from the tunnel.

"Wow! That was sooo cool!" I shouldn't have been surprised to hear those words as they erupted from Geoff's mouth. I wanted to run over and hug him, but I think I wanted to hit him even more. Fortunately, the room was still bathed in darkness and the tears on my cheeks were invisible to both Frank and Geoff. We decided that it was time for this adventure to be over and Frank lit another match and pointed to the opening that would lead us back out into the bright, warm sunshine.

I was the first to volunteer to go out. It didn't seem to be nearly as long of a crawl going out as it did going in. We soon found ourselves back out on the sea of rocks and boulders, looking up at the big cliff above us.

"I'll bet that went down at least a hundred yards", he said. "When a couple of rocks fell away as I was hanging there, I couldn't even hear them hit the bottom of the pit. I never would have gotten out if you wouldn't have grabbed me."

I think of the darkness of that cave on that warm summer afternoon every so often. I can still remember the fear and weight of the darkness that was so complete and overwhelming. I've never liked the darkness...I don't know if it's because of that adventure or if it's just an innate fear that I think God put into all of us to a certain degree. I've felt that weight at other times during my life, even when the lights were on around me. The weight was the result of choices that I was making and the fear of being found out.

Of course, like that day in the middle of the summer during my childhood, I couldn't stay in that darkness for ever. It was a bottomless pit, and like Geoff, I never would have found my way out unless a hand would have been extended to me. For me, that hand was extended on a cold, February day in 2004 as my life crumbled around me. In His mercy, God extended his love and grace to me, shining His light into my life so that I could see the sin that I had immersed myself in. I had been in the darkness for so long that I had become blind to the choices that I was making and had no idea how to get out of the "cave" that I had crawled into. Fortunately, I accepted that hand that was extended.

There is a Christian song that's on the charts right now that remind me of the darkness that I was in and a reminder that I was never alone in that cave. It's a song by Meredith Andrews called "You're Not Alone". The song ends with the following verse:

"You're not alone
for I... I am here
let me wipe away every fear...
Oh yeah My love I've never left your side
I have seen you through your darkest night...Your darkest night
And I'm the one who's loved you all your life
All of your life"

I've come to believe the truth of the words to that beautiful song. Like most people, I've been in some of the darkest places imaginable. And even when I felt so afraid...I know now that I was never alone. He was there with me...waiting to lead me out of the cave.