Friday, August 14, 2009

Fool's Golden State




Fool’s Golden State

I see a dead cat while walking Rover. A live black one dashes in front of my car. I cut my hand practicing connecting a trailer hitch to my car. Portents of doom. The Murphys are going camping. I am inches away from buying a pack of cigarettes. Two years ago I camped, as a guest, at Big Sur for two nights at the annual Silverlake and adjacent extravaganza. I brought several very good pies from Cambria as leverage and took shameless advantage of my fellow campers. I did very little but eat their food. Plus, one of my sprats relieved himself indiscriminately close to the campsite and ruffled our hostess’s feathers. I took no interest in fire starting, tent erecting or campground dish washing routine and by making myself scarce in the face of these chores, I find myself now in a dilemma. I have run a business for so long that it is hard for me surrender control and faced with camping, I feel completely helpless. I hate to ask for assistance, particularly in this situation where it impinges on someone else’s vacation. Himself has had even less camping experience than I have and is not a man given to using tools or assembling things or backing up trailers or starting campfires and I worry about what efforts to survive in such a foreign environment will do to our marriage. I am afraid we will get so uptight that we will have a big fight in front of people. It concerns me that the “in front of people” aspect is more upsetting to me than the “big fight” part.

My previous Big Sur trip was the best of times (the beauty, the yoga, the good food) and the worst of times (the dirt, the three a.m. grope to the bathroom, the struggle to put on pants from inside a tent). I am in a state of great agitation at the planning of this adventure and wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with visions of our friends’ pop up tent plummeting off a cliff. Himself makes references to Lucille Ball in the Long Long Trailer. I watch videos on You Tube: attaching a tent trailer to a hitch, backing up a tent trailer, setting up a tent trailer, until I am frenzied. I pour through camping books. All of the information I suck up just makes it seem more complicated and labor intensive. There is no cell phone service. I will have to traipse to the camp store and sit on a concrete bench several times a day to stay in touch with the office via Internet. Plus fires, meals, clean up and inevitably laundry.

I have three camping books from the library as well as Excel spreadsheets with my girlfriend’s list and also some camping lists I printed from the Internet. I go through all the lists item by item to compile my own, which when completed is very long. I want to be a good camper. I want to be self sufficient and not have to borrow or pester anyone. I feel enormous pressure to have everything perfect, and it feels like the relaxation I am desperate for seems contingent on that. I want to back the tent trailer easily into the campsite and assemble it as seamlessly as the lady in the sped up You.Tube video. I am vain and soft and daffy but I would love to wear a lumberjack shirt and wield an axe and assemble one of those campfires where a single match struck results in a perfect, ready for marshmallows blaze. I have expressed sorrow at my parents’ Jewish self hatred but I find myself lately coveting attributes I tend to associate with WASPS.

I am plotting the theft from a burger joint of little packets of ketchup to take camping while the Reception Center at the California Institution for men in Chino erupts into a riot and 250 inmates are injured. Experts warned in 2007 that the Chino conditions made for a “serious disturbance waiting to happen.” The facility is designed to house 3000 men but prior to the riot, housed 5900.

A panel of judges ruled that California must reduce our 150,000 inmate population by 42,000 over the next two years. This doesn’t sit well in a state that fought in the Supreme Court for the constitutional right to condemn a shoplifter to a 25 years to life sentence. Articles about the riot on the internet have comments from posters like, “These people are animals and should be treated as such,” and “Just pump in Sarin.” CCPOA, the California Correctional Peace Officer Association, one of the most powerful lobbying unions in the state, suggests that California limit medical services to inmates to the MediCal level. It also, recommends quite inexplicably, as a cost saver, the filling of 500 to 1000 vacancies for corrections officers. While purely self interested, the United Teacher’s of Los Angeles website at least gives lip service to quality education. The CCPOA site however makes no concessions at all and fails to address anything pertinent to rehabilitation or California’s shameful rate of recidivism, which is the worst in the country.

California Corrections faces a 1.2 billion dollar cutback and CCPOA is in a froth about this “slash and burn.” The Organization of California Police Chiefs however approves a plan to address the cutbacks that would ultimately lead to a more humane and less overcrowded corrections system. One cost saver would be the allocation of parole supervision. Currently parole officers are spread thin and there is a “one size fits all” protocol. A more sensible approach would be to customize the level of supervision based on an individual parolee’s likelihood of recidivism.

Also in the interest of not squandering corrections resources on convicts who pose no risk to society, the plan suggests the release of the sick, aged and terminally ill prisoners to house detention or care facilities. Likewise, non-violent mentally ill and drug addicted convicts would be placed in appropriate treatment. Since the enactment of Three Strikes, inmates have lost most of the incentive for sentence reduction and have little motivation to participate in rehabilitation programs. It is recommended that an independent sentencing commission be established to address issues like these and report to the legislature. I hope that this commission is indeed established and that its members are not swayed by self interested lobbying. I hope that this committee has the courage to really face how broken and cruel the current system is and to pose some humane and practical solutions


Bruce Lisker is released from Mule Creek State Prison, where one of my penpals is incarcerated. Lisker, like me, came from Sherman Oaks and at age seventeen, like me, took drugs and argued with his mom. When she was murdered he was accused and found guilty of the crime and has served 26 years, since he was 17 years old, in prison. I read a long piece about the Lisker case in the LA Times in 2005. Presuming it was well fact checked, it made a more than compelling case for Bruce’s innocence. It would seem logical that based on this evidence, which was withheld at his trial, his case would be reviewed and he would be released from prison immediately, but it dragged on through the courts for what must have been four more excruciating years for Lisker.

Himself has written about Jarvis Jay Masters who has been on Death Row at San Quentin since 1990 for the 1985 murder of guard. Masters has studied Buddhism in prison and is the author of several books. The evidence of his involvement in the murder is extremely specious. But, as in the Lisker case, the wheels grind slowly and Jarvis will have served twenty years on Death Row before his evidentiary hearing which, even though it seems clear that he most likely had little or nothing to do with the murder, isn’t scheduled until September of 2010.

I have mixed feelings about my children’s letter writing workshop. There are too few sessions and the literacy center dropped the ball on publicizing it and enrollment is disappointing. The workshop pairs kids with adult writers and they exchange letters as penpals for four weeks. The final session is a party where the kids get to meet the writers in person. Writing is hard for these kids but it seems they’re inspired by the letters that come just for them in the mail. The writers all note how wonderful it is to receive painstakingly written letters in a child’s hand. I am sad when the workshop ends because these kids have such a long way to go with written English that I don’t seem to have accomplished much. I tell them that they can continue writing their adult penpals but I doubt they will. I receive a note from one of the writers and she reports, that her penpal, Oscar, one of the kids who had the most difficulty imagining the most simple of sentences, has mailed her a letter. Oscar, without me standing over him, prodding and begging and wheedling, wrote a letter. Suddenly it is worth all of the energy and imagination I put into designing the class.

Our criminal justice system, like our corrections, is in a deplorable state and like corrections, not high on the priority list for an overhaul because, despite egregious examples, like Bruce Lisker, most people think that these systems exist only to punish bad guys. California has eliminated much of the health coverage we provided for poor children. Obama’s health plan may be doomed to fail because when it comes down to it, most citizens are already insured or eligible for Medicare and apparently really don’t give a shit about people who are not. People without school age children generally don’t care much about education.


The hitch is on the car. I’ve done the Costco run. I am tying up odds and ends at the office. I receive a letter from Alan, my penpal in Tehachapi. Since the Chino riots, all three of my inmate penpals report days of lockdown. Alan wishes me a good trip and says, “Just for me, the thought of the sight and smell of a campfire brings a tear to my eye because I love the outdoors so much.” I am still terrified about this camping thing but I love the thought of my kids running like filthy savages through the forest for a week without computers and cellphones and television. I am manacled to the office via Internet but lack of business forced a friend and main competitor to close suddenly this week, so I am thankful to have an office to be manacled to. As much as I fret now about being thrust into such a different milieu and the possibility of domestic distress, while my penpals endure stultifying lockdowns, there will be sunsets and waterfalls and, yes, campfires.

California is in shambles. I am the world’s biggest control freak but I cannot fix the educational system so that it turns out literate, better educated, self disciplined kids who stay out of jail. I cannot bust up the unions, which at one time protected workers from exploitation but now seem to have the state in a stranglehold. I cannot instill compassion in the smugly insured for those unable to afford medical treatment. I cannot make our justice system more just or our corrections system more corrective. And I probably will be unable to back up a trailer. But, powerless against the forces of nature and a trailer full of camping implements, I can take my little family out of the city for a few days and savor the time with them. We may have left important items off the camping list. We may squabble but in Big Sur, we can’t avoid the beauty that’s California and the reminder that it’s worth fixing.

2 comments:

Fionnchú said...

Yes, we live in the best of states and the worst of the 50. I read as of 2004 that California has a prison system 40% as large as the entire Federal "gulag archipelago." We boast Big Sur's splendor and Chino's human kennel. Was the riot over catsup in the mess hall? I told you about Waffle Day wreaking havoc at Sing Sing.

We pay for both our open spaces and their solitary confinement; the only hesitation I have with agreement in your eloquent essay today is that some of us taxpayers do harbor mistrust of what Uncle Sam will do better than Evil Insurance to steer us towards a healthier dawn. Hopefully not tipping into the sunset via a tippy tent-trailer. Venceremos! xxx me

Chris Berry said...

We have faith that you will successfully camp. Just remember that to successfully camp mostly means that you a) slept outside and b) enjoyed yourselves. Everything else is negotiable...though staying warm/cool (as appropriate), well fed, hydrated, rested and bug/poison oak free are important factors also. Creature comforts help, but simplifying the accessories and traveling light also has it's own beauty. Good luck and happy trails...we're sure you'll be pros by the time you get to HarperBerry Hollow.