My Jewish prisoner penpals send long hand written letters. One of the guys is weird and an operator and wants me to order books for him on Amazon. He is the deftest writer of the three and writes about his daily routine, folding sheets in the laundry, and watching his tiny t.v. with headphones while his cellie watches his own t.v. No visits. Letters which were frequent early on, have trickled down to birthday and Christmas cards. He has a life sentence.
The other two have more of a, “yeah, I fucked up.” attitude and instead of playing me, I think they are genuinely trying to plug into a “life in the mind” a prophylactic to the crushing loneliness and tedium. They ask me lots of questions about Judaism that I am unqualified to answer but that doesn’t stop me. I ask them lots of questions about their day-to-day lives and the politics of the correctional system. All three of the convicts feel that the corrections staff, with their good salaries and huge overtime, has an investment in encouraging recidivism. More prisoners. More overtime. I do not know if this cynicism springs from actual contact with the staff or is just a tenet of the prison survival rule of not getting too cozy with the guards. I am encouraging them to confide in me their perceptions of the prison personnel with a, “C’mon. Not every single one of them can be an asshole? Right?”
One of the guys sends me seven handwritten pages, copying “A letter from God” from the Human Kindness Foundation. This is a group that reaches out to prisoners with spiritual materials and tries to guide them toward building a mental ashram. The founder is Bo Lazoff, an acolyte of Ram Dass. Lazoff had some hanky panky with the clientele issues and resigned from the non-profit. The reading is sort of cutesy and simplistic but it is an earnest, accessible plea for religious tolerance and even if Lazoff apparently had some zipper problems, it’s a real good thing to send around and it’s a lovely thing to have written out by hand for you.
Visitors still want to see the office sometimes and marvel at the “suitcases” of film on “spools” and I show them the thousands of handwritten pages of my father’s meticulous notes on yellow legal paper. He hated computers and was stymied by anything more sophisticated than a manual typewriter. He still gets phone solicitation calls. Sometimes we send them to his voice mail which he couldn’t operate when he was alive so his deadness doesn’t really lower the chances of the messages being returned. Sometimes I say in a super sad voice, “he’s deceased,” and the caller awkwardly mutters some sort of condolence. Once I try, “he’s dead,” in the same gleeful voice I’d use to say “We’re going to Disneyland” which merits an immediate hang up.
We bring my mother ice cream and she wolfs it down greedily. She applies red lipstick to her eyelids. Ning, the owner of the house, reports to me that a medical exam reveals that, although she was flirtatious with the male physician, her dementia is severe but her physical health is quite good. Her mind is deteriorating at a much faster rate than her body. I cannot bear to imagine what will come. I hope my children never have to go through this. If she’d known that she’d be so diminished it would have broken her heart. She’ll never know. But I will. I stop by a few days later to drop by some medication and stand inches from where she sits at the kitchen table with all of her lipsticks lined up in a row. I hold a long conversation and she doesn’t realize that I am there.
I tutor three first graders. They are sweet. They are behind. After they finish their homework they are supposed to read for thirty minutes. I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, at their request and have to explain mistletoe, stockings and icebox. The kids are given a writing prompt to complete. It asks them to create a survivor’s guide to Echo Park, where to go and how to dress and behave and it seemed like a bleeding heart liberal out of touch stupid question and we ended up just writing about the park and things you can buy at the 99 Cents Store.
We watch an HBO documentary, The Recruiter, about a recruiting sergeant in a predominately white community in Louisiana, one of the most balanced documentaries I have ever seen. The recruiter, Sergeant Clay Usie is the best of the best, a patriot who demands and deserves to be taken seriously. He makes sure his recruits are ready for boot camp. “Exceed the standard” they chant as they perform calisthenics on a cold morning. He exercises with them and counsels them and basks with them in their accomplishments and burgeoning patriotism. He baffles them with anecdotes from Rocky and the Princess Bride. He wears his dead brother’s combat boots for each mission. He tells off one kid’s drunken stepfather. He is best man at another’s wedding.
A couple is interviewed about their son Bobby’s decision to enlist. The mother, a teacher, doesn’t say a word but she is channeling super powers not to cry. The father, an attorney, says his son, an honors student, could attend, without scholarship, any college in the country. He says that he was in the military himself, as was his own dad so he can’t say to his boy, as I would say to mine, “It’s just stupid. Let somebody else do it.” The father is petrified but sucks it up to respect his son’s sincere call to serve. Bobby is recognized for a leadership role early on at boot camp and expresses his satisfaction and confidence he’s made the right decision when interviewed. He becomes a Green Beret.
The female recruit, Lauren, lives on the streets for a time when neither parent wants her. She is not college material and maybe already too damaged to thrive anywhere. Her lesbianism creates distance with her parents. Boot camp is a nightmare from the beginning. We are shown the insensitive reaction to a recruit’s dramatic panic attack and forceful hand to hand combat exercises between female soldiers. Lauren bristles at the total loss of personal control. She is a talented artist and is disappointed that all bootcamp has to offer is infantry training and no history or art stuff like she’s interested in. She goes AWOL after graduation and is facing charges. She is working a fast food joint in her hometown.
It would be good if our military were composed of more folks like Sgt. Usie or Bobby who have an aptitude for it and fewer lost souls like Lauren who have no other option. Maybe Obama’s leadership will foster other options for building character and nurturing patriotism. Maybe too it will foster the need for fewer soldiers.
My sister-in-law calls to report Himself’s father, at age 92, has been found dead on the floor at the nursing home. Himself is in class and I have left him a message to call me on his office phone on the machine he may or may not check. Charles was plagued with physical problems and pain and discomfort for many years. He was deaf. We wrote him letters because he couldn’t talk on the phone. Sometimes we’d get a response, in that shaky old man trained at inkwell penmanship. Himself would often wait a day or two to open these letters because they tended to be cranky. His time at Leisure World was well spent. He enjoyed, indeed, the leisure, after working hard for a lifetime and shared a few happy years with his wife. After her death he had an active social life and good companionship. I presume there will be a wake and a visitation, and all manner of lengthy Catholic death rituals, per my sister-in-law. The kids have lost their second Grandpa and soon I will have to tell my beloved that he’s lost his dad.
Aliki calls, and the waterworks breaks loose and she is insane but she has some sort of second sense about when I need for her to call. She recites medical issues, her own and feline, which will prevent her from attending the funeral, and I assure her that this wouldn't be required even if it were being held downstairs in her condo rec room. Then she asks for the address to send flowers which I tell her are an unnecessary extravagance. She insists and then I tell her that I’m going to say exactly what my dad would say and say it just the way he’d say it so I growl, “Fergit about the fuckin’ flowers.” We both laugh.
I picked up a box of family photographs that is now meaningless to my mother and this weekend we’ll get another load of remnants from a life that is no more. Stuff is packed up and dispersed. Minds slip away and bodies die. I found a tiny notebook of my mother’s but it is in shorthand. Himself and his sister will go through the old man’s stuff and maybe learn something about him that they never knew before but there are so many questions that will now never be answered.
I copied all my blog entries into a chronological, earliest to most recent, Word document I named “Big Blog.” The first entry:
September 18 2006
Basking in the glory of starting a blog. Speculating on how this will pan out. Thinking of all the writing projects that didn’t come to fruition all the years. Maybe the puppy quality of this, “I’ll put it out and get your immediate response.” Hey, it’s the movie of my life.
I printed out the whole thing, 341 pages. No shorthand. I’m going to read it. I am sustained and blessed and comforted by those who already have.
It is bittersweet when someone who is very old and very infirm passes to the pain free place. Himself and myself have comforted each other through twenty years of loss and we are adept at this and we write each other words and we hold each other tight. I shed many tears in the arms of my beloved and his letters to me wash me with love and hope. I don’t feel guilty that the death and pain we share makes what we have so much more alive and sweet.
God bless you Charles Murphy and all the rest of us who struggle in cells and offices, with pen or keyboard or inchoate grunt to give and feel love.