Category Archives: prison

Summer Summary

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  It’s as good a time as any to re-start writing.  I’ll join some friends at synagogue this morning, then have a free day.  The weather is always beautiful on Rosh Hashanah, so I’ll spend as much time outside as possible, doing as little as possible, which is really hard for me.

It’s been three years since my son was released from prison.  I saw him yesterday and reminded him, “When I called you the day before I picked you up, I asked if there was some food you’d like me to bring along for you.  And without hesitation you said, ‘an avocado…or any fresh fruit or vegetable, really.’”

He laughed, remembering this. I had brought an avocado, and some oranges, and he wolfed them down.  Then he had asked to stop at a MacDonald’s, and to buy a lottery ticket. I wasn’t happy about either of those but I bit my tongue. I did a lot of that in the months that followed, as we lived together in my tiny, dark flat over the winter. A couple times I lost my temper and screamed at some inanimate object.  Vince would draw himself up to his full height, look at the floor, walk to his bedroom that doubled as a laundry room, and shut the door.  It was a very long winter.

Vince now has four years of sobriety.  He’s got a job at a country club with good pay and benefits like health insurance—for the first time in 20 years.  He bought a house this spring.  He has a girlfriend with two young children, and he is thriving at playing a father role.

It’s complicated.  I love kids and I am cautiously forming attachments to these two cuties.

It’s been a great summer. As I’ve written over and over, I’m a big advocate of seeking adventure at home. Sure, I would love to travel nonstop, but that’s not in the budget.

This was Pola-Czesky Days, the annual festival in the tiny town where Vince lives. Small town parades consist of marching bands and floats featuring veterans, civic groups, politicians, and other towns’ princesses.

There was also a tractor pull, which I didn’t understand.  It was basically just tractors roaring down the street over and over, making a lot of noise and belching out fumes.

As a life-long city person, this type of thing is more exotic to me than London or New York.  I loved the classic cars.

Other summer doings: I won tickets to a St. Paul Saints minor league baseball game. They were playing Winnipeg.  I don’t know why the Saints mascot is a pig, but hey, never pass up a photo opp with a mascot.

I went to Irish Festival, which always has great music and strange performances involving little girls wearing curly wigs, Irish dogs, and men in kilts hurling things and playing bagpipes.  Then were the Christians at the gate.  I already knew I was in trouble so their Good News wasn’t news to me.

I went to Wannigan Days in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, the highlight of which was human foosball. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo so you will just have to use your imagination.

There was a memorable happy hour at Lake Monster Brewery sponsored by Jewish Community Action, with which I am still doing my very small part on their campaigns to reduce mass incarceration and injustice against immigrants.

Inspired by the Great British Baking Show, for my nephew’s birthday I made a cake with layers of sponge and crème patisserie covered with whipped cream and fruit.  It slid sideways in the car on the way to the party but it still tasted good.

I hung out in the backyard of my apartment, which is wild and secluded.  I have come to love where I live, but then I love anywhere in summer.

My summer summary will have to be continued, as will an update on my Australia trip, which starts in two weeks.

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

Work Life Sameness

I wrote a post with this same title three years ago, when I went to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories for work.  My Palestinian colleague and I met with dozens of activists who told us about the terrible prison conditions, torture taking place therein, and the oppressive regimes (both Israeli and Palestinian) under which they live.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, my son was in Moose Lake Prison, from which I had just been ejected because I was wearing a “low-cut blouse.”  This was the worst day of my life in the last three years.

All Omar knew about me was that I was a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman from Minnesota.

“My son is in prison,” I informed him at what seemed like an appropriate time.  I told him about being thrown out.  “I don’t think they know who they’re up against,” I said. “They’re not gonna know what hit them once I get back.”

It turned out to be the other way around. A letter from the Department of Corrections—basically a six-month restraining order—was waiting for me when I returned.  I tried to fight it but the DOC has complete discretion and hides behind the term “Security Issue.”

Yep, I was a big threat.

I think Omar realized I wasn’t some dilettante coming to “save” the Palestinians—what we refer to in the NGO world as just White Women With Scarves.

Part of touring Colombia with a company called Responsible Travel is that you get guides with deep knowledge of socioeconomic and political issues.

So on our first day, in Bogota, Lynn and I got an earful from our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas.  Often I will use pseudonyms for people to protect their privacy, but in Michael’s case I am intentionally using his real name in hopes that transparency with protect him.  Lynn and I have both friended him on Facebook, and it appears he does the same with every tourist he encounters.  Maybe many global sets of eyes on him will put a check on anyone who doesn’t like what he has to say.

More about this later, but for now I’ll just say that this vacation seems like it happened a year ago because I came back to work to find we’ve got three proposals for Iraq due within a month.  Another organization is the lead on all of them, which is great, but it’ll still be a ton of work.  It’s good thing.  But it’s all Iraq, all the time, and all I read and hear about is prisons, torture, rape, and war.

But first, let me back up to something less depressing, the Casa Deco hotel.  As the name implies, it’s a deco-era hotel located in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota.  It’s got a lovely lobby with no elevator, but a helpful employee hiked our cases up to the second floor.  It was Lynn’s turn to do a small double take—since in her hemisphere the second floor is the first floor.

I have most of these plants at home, but they are at most 12 inches, not 12 feet, tall.

“The owner is Italian,” said the guy lugging our luggage.  This was by way of explaining why the hotel was full of reproductions of work by Gustav Klimt.  Klimt was Austrian, so this wasn’t really an explanation, but we were tired so we didn’t press.

There was one bed.  The hotel guy quickly folded down and made up the couch, which turned out to be a hide-a-“bed.”  I claimed it, seizing my chance to make up for the times Lynn has sacrificed by taking the bad bed.

I had double checked with our tour agent that there would be two beds.

“Lynn and I are good friends,” I had written, “but not that good.”

Besides, the thrashing around I do to relieve my restless legs would drive Lynn (or anyone) crazy.

And it was bad.  Hard as concrete on one side, lumpy with a big dip on the other.

But so what?  You can get by with little sleep for a couple nights.

The art above the bed was more likely to give me nightmares, if I looked too closely.

Cock o’ the North

Huntly Castle is just a few blocks from the town square. I got some more cash out of the ATM just in case there was a gift shop.  The fivver was a new one to me, and the woman turned out to be Nan Shepherd, a “Scottish Modernist writer and poet.”  Don’t ask me what a Scottish Modernist is.  Or any kind of modernist, for that matter.

I walked down the appropriately-named Castle Street and through Gordon’s School, which is the local private (meaning public) high school.  Got that?

This is the lane leading to the castle, which is picturesque enough in its own right to warrant a wander.

The castle was built near the confluence of the rivers Deveron and Bogie, and there’s a lovely bridge before you turn toward the castle.

There was a small trailer at the entrance staffed by a young ranger or whatever they are called in Scotland.  It felt sort of like a state park in Minnesota, only with a 900-year-old castle.  The trailer included a wee gift shop.  While I checked out the tartan coin purses, Highland Cattle-themed wall calendars, and bagpipe CDs, the ranger chattered away with me.  Or at me.  It was a slow day and she was lonely, like park rangers everywhere.

I handed over a Nan Shepherd for the entrance fee and was on my way.  I recalled looking at the ouside of the castle with Lynn and Richard but why had I never gone inside?  The following week, Lynn and I took a long drive to an event, and we passed half a dozen castles and other mammoth buildings.  “There’s a manor over there,” Lynn waved nonchalantly.

“Wow!” I exclaimed, impressed by the house near the road that was a little smaller than Dunrovin.

“No … that’s the gatehouse,” Lynn corrected me.  “The manor is through the trees there.”

It was the height of summer so it was hard to see but I got the impression it was a Downton Abbey-sized house. “Wow,” I said again, humbled.  “Someone lives there?”

“Yes, some lord or other.”

To a native, thousand-year-old castles and manors and lords are a dime a dozen.  But for me, being from the land of shopping malls and Kim Kardashian, they still impress.

Back at Huntly Castle, I made sure to watch my step.

And then I was standing at the entrance, entranced.  There has been a castle here since the 12th Century. The original builder was Duncan, Earl of Fife.  The front section, which is the most intact, is French-inspired.  Did I mention it is a ruin?

The most famous occupant was George, Duke of Gordon, a well-known show off referred to as “The Cock o’ the North.”  To ensure you saw his name across the top of the castle, he added a pointing hand (to the left of the “G.”)

It was a beautiful day and the rose and ochre-colored stone was set off by the blue sky and emerald grass to marvelous effect.

The Gordons were Catholics in a Protestant country. During the English civil war the “popish” symbols were chiseled off the castle by Protestants.

Inside, this fireplace had whatever was Catholic removed from the top.

There were more fireplaces that appeared suspended in air because the wood floors were gone.

This was once a cozy sitting room at the top of a turret.

Mary queen of scots ate here, and when the Earl pulled out all the stops to impress her, she turned around and imposed higher taxes on him.  This described an early version of the crock pot.

The 5th Earl of Huntly collapsed and died while playing football.  Probably had coronary heart disease from all the rich food.

My flash wouldn’t work, or you would be gazing upon “the oldest wooden toilet seat in Scotland.”  Quite a claim to fame.

There was this old section of—it was claimed—an original door.  Fabulous.

I climbed to the top then to the bottom, where my heart was chilled by this sight.

My son’s prison experience was bad enough; I can’t imagine being shut up in a mud floored, windowless dungeon with no heat.  (And no, those aren’t real prisoners; they’re dummies.)

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.

Taking Care

I missed a writing day because I invited a dozen friends over for a “Caring for the Caregivers” brunch. It’s not like I don’t have enough to do, what with work and blogging and care giving for my mother.  But for the past couple of years I’ve heard story after story from friends, relatives, and coworkers of how they are caring for their parents, partners, kids, or siblings.  Or all of those.

There’s the friend whose in-laws have been dying, in India, where if you don’t have someone at the patient’s bedside 24/7 to feed and bath and otherwise tend to them, they will be discharged.  So my friend and her husband and his sister and her husband are taking turns flying to India—to a city that is not easy to get to—and sitting vigil by the bedside as the father died, and now as the mother dies.  This is not cheap or easy.

There is the friend whose mother took her life savings—literally bags of cash—to a car dealership. Reports of an 80-year-old woman weaving down the street in a shiny new $90,000 Acura to the food shelf to get her commodities got back to my friend.  Her mother was diagnosed with dementia.  The car went back to the dealership and the mother entered a memory care unit, where she is happily making new friends.  But none of that happened easily, or overnight.

There was the friend whose mother collected things.  Anything.  Everything.  Beanie babies, empty coffee cans, popsicle sticks, travel sized toiletries, balls of yarn, cans of tuna, artificial Christmas trees, washcloths.  Her mother died, and I went with her out to the tiny farm town to clean out the house.  Actually, a dumpster had to be filled before any cleaning could take place.  When I took down the lace curtains in the bedroom, clouds of dust enveloped my head and the curtains practically disintegrated.  The most interesting thing we found was an old Playboy magazine under the shelf paper in her mother’s dresser drawer.

Please, don’t collect things.

Then there is my friend who had to cancel her trip to England.  She wound up having a 12-hour surgery to fuse her spine.  Her partner cared for her, and then she cared for him when he donated a kidney to save her cousin’s life. A kidney!  He and the cousin are both doing well.

It’s not that people are constantly complaining.  But the strain is evident in the stories, even when they’re told dispassionately.  So I felt a desire to gather people to share some stories and maybe some laughs.

It’s not exclusively women who are caregivers.  I am proud that my son has stepped up to care for his grandparents in a big way.  If I had included care giving men in my invitation, I would have had to rent a room in a restaurant to fit everyone.

I keep thinking back to a day, three years ago.  I took a day off of work and left the house at 8am.  I drove to a far southern suburb to a medical supply store and picked up a walker (Zimmer Frame) for my mother.  She had been in two car accidents which caused hairline fractures in her spine and hips.  I drove to her house, in a northern suburb, where I adjusted the walker for her, then did a few loads of wash. I then drove to St. Cloud, a city two hours away, and visited my son in prison.  After my one-hour visit, I drove back to an eastern suburb to my sister’s house.  She was on chemo and I think I folded kids’ socks for an hour and did some other chores.  Then I drove to my brother’s house in another suburb and watched his kids for a few hours.

I got home around 8pm. I was exhausted but the day had also made me realize what I was really made of.

Then I did some variation of this every week for the next two years.  Now everyone is doing well, and I just want to feed people who are in the same boat.

I’m also beginning to plan my next escape ….

Erratic Posts, Jurassic Coast

I used to take pride in writing enough every weekend to load up the blog for an every-other-day, always-the-same-time post.  With traveling, vertigo, moving, and sleepless nights due to restless legs, I’ve become untethered from that discipline.

I don’t know that it’s a bad thing; I stopped reading articles like, “Top 10 Tips to Promote Your Blog,” long ago.  No tip I ever tried made the blog stats Boom.  The stats did boom here and there, but I couldn’t tell why.  I pay $99 a year for the WordPress platform and haven’t been curious enough to pay more to maybe find out why someone in Russia or the UK is reading the entire blog—475 posts as of this one.

I never expected to be able to monetize the blog.  What company wants to advertise on a blog about prison, which is how it all started?  I usually only mention specific hotels or airlines when I’m ripping on them, so I don’t see corporate sponsorships in my future.

I pitched the blog to some publishing agents as a book idea and never even received a form reject email in response.  I pitched some of the story lines to local and national publications—most notably Vince’s observations about My Pillow production inside prison (“Made in the USA!”  Yeah, behind the closed doors of prisons, by people who net about 25 cents an hour.  That’s what Makes America Great, right?  We still have slave labor.)  Anyway, there would be initial excitement, then no follow through.  To be fair, there are lots of stories about corporate and political corruption to choose from.

So I just keep writing because I enjoy it.  If a couple hundred of you follow along, that’s great.  Thanks for reading, even if my posting has been patchy lately.

I came across this flyer in one of the many piles of stuff I am packing.

These stats were on a gigantic sign at the entrance to the Eden Project.  Lynn and I stood there for a long time contemplating it.  I can’t remember if the hand edit was there when I picked it up, or if I did it.  Apparently, the number of rich people who own almost everything in the world has shrunk from 20 to two since 2009.  The Great Recession was great—for those two people.

At work yesterday, a coworker and I were lamenting about our ailments.  She tore her meniscus ligament and had to have a transplant from a cadaver.  Yeesh.  I’m glad my ailments only involve no sleep and feeling like I’m on a rocking boat all the time.

“But at least we’re not in a refugee camp,” I said.

“No. No—we get to have problems.  A torn knee and surgery and a year of PT are not ‘first-world problems,’” she replied.

Our first full day in Lyme Regis.  Lynn and I walked into town and had a beach day.

Now, when I say “beach day,” don’t imagine sun and beach umbrellas and people in bikinis and speedos.  Here is a photo of Lynn attempting to use the combo washer/dryer in the public toilet. Note she is wearing polar fleece.

I was tempted to call the toll free number on the machine and ask for help.

This is the town of Lyme Regis.  The sign on the white building notes that Catherine of Aragon slept here in 1501, followed by King Charles II in 1651.  Just imagine.

Yes, it was grey skies in one direction and white puffy clouds with blue peeking through in another.  And they both changed every 10 minutes.

The area is called the Jurassic Coast because you can find 170-million-year-old fossils there.

There was a small, well-done museum and a café serving fresh crab salad sandwiches and tea.  A woman my age had brought her elderly mother for a day out and was yelling over and over, “Ja wanna saaannie ‘n’ a noice hot cuppa, mum?!”   (Would you like a sandwich and a nice cup of hot tea, mother?)

This plaque described, euphemistically, how the locals were “exceedingly hospitable and generous” to US troops, resulting in many trans-Atlantic marriages.

The scenery was stunning.