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.