Let the Games Begin

January 4th, 2020

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
― Helen Keller,  from “The Open Door”

“There is a point where courage becomes a symptom of mental illness.”
― Wayne Gerard Trotman

“And when your fears subside
And shadows still remain, oh yeah
I know that you can love me
When there’s no one left to blame
So never mind the darkness
We still can find a way
‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever
Even cold November rain”

–  from “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses

She called me.

It was on Thursday afternoon. She called me from Ellsworth. I am her lifeline to the world outside of the prison, so I was expecting her to call.

The girl said to me sadly, “Well, I haven’t heard anything yet about my release…”

I cut her off, “I have.”

She replied, “What?!”

“Yeah, Butch (her PO) called me. He’s signing off on the paperwork. I will pick you up at 7:00 AM on Monday.”

“What?! Seriously?! I have to tell people.”

She hung up.

Five minutes later she called back.

“I had to tell my roommate. So what did Mr. Butcher say?”

I told her, “He just asked me if I was going to pick you up. I told him that I would. He wants to see you at his office at 1:00 PM on Monday.”

She asked me, “Where is his office?”

“It’s on the corner of Oklahoma and Chase, on the south side.”

She replied, “We can go out for Mexican food after that. We will be in the right neighborhood.”

“True.”

“I am going to bring your winter coat, your phone, and Shocky when I come to get you.”

The girl asked me, “How is Shocky?”

“She’s okay. She’s shedding hair like crazy.”

The young woman thought for a second and said, “You would think that she wouldn’t be losing hair now that it is getting colder.”

“Well, she is.”

The girl asked again, “But is she okay?”

I replied, “Yes, your dog is fine.”

The girl told me. “You need to charge up my phone.”

“That’s already done.”

“Are you sure?”

Heavy sigh on my part. “Yes.”

She answered, “Okay.”

I told her, “I bought some of the stuff you wanted. I got you sour gummi worms, Dove bars, and fresh pineapple.”

“Cool”.

Then she asked, “Are you bringing me a Red Bull?’

“Yes.”

“Is it chilled? I like it cold.”

“Yes, it’s cold.”

There was a pause.

She said, “Okay, well, then I will see you on Monday. Thanks for everything.”

“It’s okay. I want to do this.”

She hung up again.

I wonder if either of us really understand what is going to happen on Monday.

It will be beautiful and exciting and scary as hell.

We are both leaping into the unknown. We both have baggage from our years together. We are trying to start anew, and that is going to be a bitch.

I love her so much. Maybe she loves me.

I need to take a deep breath and just dive into the pool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babbling

January 1st, 2020

“To set up what you like against what you dislike, this is the disease of the mind.”
― Seng-t’san

Happy New Year.

I went to the Zen Center this morning. Our sangha hosted the annual Buddhist Peace Fellowship celebration. I brought some food for the potluck. I made two vegetarian quiches. If you are going to feed Buddhists, it is necessary to bring vegetarian (or better yet, vegan) dishes. That’s just how it works. It’s kind of like providing food to people who need it to be kosher or halal. Personally, I don’t understand it. I’m omnivorous.

The Zen Center is a small space that usually only accommodates a small population. We are not used to having many guests. Today we did. People from a variety of local Buddhist groups showed up for the New Year’s celebration, and that filled us to capacity. Prior to the arrival of the others, there was a constant rearranging of chairs and cushions in order to seat everyone. Preparation for the event seemed to involve a lot of random motion. Maybe it’s like that everywhere. People need to busy doing something, anything. I eventually chose to get out of the way.

There were six chairs set up at one end of the room for a panel of representatives of the  various Buddhist organizations. Each person was to give a short message to the assembled congregants. I have seen and heard most of these people before. In this sort of event, we always manage to “round up the usual suspects” (Claude Rains, from the movie Casablanca).

Each person gave a little speech. The first person in the queue quoted a few paragraphs from a book that she found to be appropriate. She spoke in a breathless sort of way. She chose to repeat certain phrases, just in case we had not fully understood the meaning of them. She spoke to us in that slow, rhythmic way that an adult would speak to a bunch of five-year-olds. I remember absolutely nothing of what she said.

The next guy spoke clearly and succinctly. He had that aging hippie look. Actually, a lot of people at the gathering had that look, including myself. He made his point, and then life moved on.

The priest from the Milwaukee Zen Center talked. She was good. She had that sort of self-confidence that is not self-conscious. She was relaxed and real and concise in her words.

The next guy insisted on singing a song and playing his guitar. I generally have no issues with songs or guitars. In the past I have played bass, and I have written lyrics for songs. This guy, a Thich Nhat Hanh devotee, chose to take a good Dylan song (“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) and bastardize it with Buddhist lyrics. Of course, everybody on the group knew the song (because we’re old), and we sang along with him. It seemed sad in a way. Nobody under fifty years of age would have understood, much less appreciated, his work on the song. Overall, he did a nice job.

Pete, our abbot, spoke next. He did well, because that’s what he always does. He wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter. The beauty of Zen is that it is short and to the point. Pete said this: “If our practice is not about compassion, it doesn’t mean shit.”

Indeed.

I don’t remember the name of the next speaker, nor do I remember which community he represented. It is probably better so. I have heard this man speak in the past, and his delivery has not changed at all.

The man first made mention that he appreciated being the last to talk, because then he could incorporate all the wisdom of the previous speakers into his monologue.

Uh oh.

The guy rambled. I guess that his speech was about peace and suffering, but it was hard for me to follow. He basically told us his life story (or at least part of it), and then tried, and failed, to incorporate that information into a coherent whole. At one point, he said, “Let me digress for a moment.”

Digress from what? His whole flow-of-consciousness talk was nothing but a digression. At times he liked to add in a few Buddhist buzz words: “dukkha” and “shanti”. I guess those terms provided some needed credibility. The fact is that he was mostly just talking shit, and getting away with it. He had a captive audience.

I found this to be almost physically painful. This guy just babbled endlessly.

Then he stopped. It was all of a sudden. I thought it odd that he would end his discourse so abruptly, but he did. There was blessed silence.

Then he started again. That was like getting a knife in the ear. He had some other truly profound truth to relate to us, and he was going to explain it in depth.

I had to go. Like immediately. I knew that if I stayed, I would have stood up and shouted,

“Just shut the fuck up!”

That would have been inappropriate, although, in a away, it would have been satisfying.

I walked out of the assembly. I sliced up my quiches. I threw on my coat. I fled.

Attachment and aversion. Those are two sides of the same coin. Both of them are problems for Buddhists, and for everyone else. A person can’t find freedom as long as they are hooked on attachments and aversions. I’m still hooked. Big time.

Why did the babbler freak me out? I really don’t know. He did not say anything that was offensive. Perhaps, he said something of value. I don’t know. I find it difficult to remember all that he said, because of the way he said it. I think that he was right about a lot of things. I think he was trying to do the right thing. He just couldn’t stop when he was ahead of the game.

I am still trying to understand my strong aversion to his speech. It’s not his problem. It’s mine.

The New Year’s event was worthwhile. I have learned more about myself than I learned about anyone else. My attachments flared up for me to see.

That’s a good thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bed Half Empty

December 31st, 2019

I woke up at 2:00 AM. The bedroom was preternaturally bright. That meant that there was something outside that was reflecting all the available light. That something was snow. The wind was howling outside the window. I could faintly hear the wind chimes in the backyard, making a wild, chaotic sound. It had a effect that was oddly pleasant.

I keep waking up in the middle of the night. Part of that I blame on working third shift for twenty years. Some things change a person permanently, and being on the graveyard shift definitely changed me. I think that my insomnia is exacerbated from sleeping alone. Since Karin has gone to Texas, I have had our queen size bed to myself, and I am not liking that.

I go to bed quite early (another effect of my time on third shift). Karin is a night owl. We do not necessarily spend many hours in bed together. However, I miss the few hours that we are lying side by side. It’s weird, but I don’t venture on to her side of the bed, even while she is away. I sleep on the left side, near the pile of books that clutter my nightstand. Perhaps it sheer force of habit, but I stay in my lane.

I miss listening to her breathe. When Karin is at home and asleep in bed, I can hear her gentle, rhythmic breathing. In the darkness I know that she is there, and at peace. During the last six weeks, whenever I woke up in the night, I heard nothing. Just an empty silence.

Karin probably doesn’t miss sleeping with me so much. I am plagued with night terrors, and those aren’t fun for anybody. At unexpected times I will scream and thrash in my sleep. Early on in our marriage, that would upset Karin, especially if I physically lashed out at her. Now, she knows to give me a not-so-gentle nudge in the ribs, and say, “Frank, you’re dreaming! Wake up!” I almost never remember the dreams. All I know is that, after I wake up, my heart is pounding and I am drenched in sweat.

I think I will go back to bed. I am still tired. At some point this morning, I will need to grab a shovel.

 

 

 

Waiting

December 28th, 2019

“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part”

Tom Petty – from “The Waiting”

She called me three times yesterday.

It doesn’t bother me that she called so often. It bothers me that I couldn’t do much to help her.

Every call she makes starts with a recording from a prison phone service:

“You have a call, at no expense to you, from (enter name), an inmate at the Ellsworth Correctional Center. To accept this call, press or say ‘five’.”

I always press “five”. The call isn’t really “at no expense” because I set up and paid for the prepaid phone service with the vendor. Well, whatever…she needs to call sometimes.

After I hit the number five on the phone, the recording said, “All calls not properly placed by an attorney may be monitored or recorded. You may begin speaking now.”

There was a momentary pause, and then I heard her voice say, “Hello?”

I answered, “Yeah, what’s up?”

She replied slowly, “I’m feeling really stressed. Some of the other girls here already know when they are going to be released, but I haven’t heard anything.”

“Do these women have cases in Kenosha County?’

The girl replied, “No. I am the only one from Kenosha county. They are from all different counties.”

I told the girl, “Well, every county in the state is like a separate kingdom. Each one has its own rules. Kenosha may be doing things differently than all the rest.”

She said, “It’s been a week since I graduated from the program. The people here should have sent my paperwork to the judge in Kenosha.”

“They probably did.”

She asked me, “Can you check on CCAP to see if there is anything new showing on my court case?”

“Yeah, give me a second.”

I went to CCAP site and checked on the young woman’s most recent court case.

I told her, “There is nothing new.”

“Nothing since September of this year?”

“No, nothing.”

“Well, okay.”

Then she said, “I hope the judge gets the paperwork and signs it, otherwise I will be here until June.”

“Yeah, that would suck.”

She sighed and said anxiously, “What if I don’t get out?”

I replied, “Your facilitator and your probation officer both seem to think that you are getting out soon. They already set you up with Medicaid/Badgercare. If they thought you would be staying in there until June, they wouldn’t have done all this.”

She thought for a moment and said, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

Then the  young woman asked me, “If I am stuck here until June, can I have a TV?”

I thought for moment, and said, “Sure.”

Note: TV’s for prison inmates have to come from a certified vendor. The outsides of these televisions are made of clear plastic, to prevent somebody from smuggling something into the prison. The televisions are of inferior quality and absolutely worthless in the outside world. They are also quite expensive.

She asked me, “Can you check with Kenosha County to see if they got my paperwork?”

“Sure. What exactly do I ask for?”

The young woman told me,”It’s called the ‘earned release program completion form’, and they should be able to find it.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, and ask them if the judge has seen it yet.”

“Okay.”

I told her, “I can’t do that now, but I can call the courthouse on Monday. I will visit you on Monday night.

She said, “That will be good. If I know that they at least have the paperwork, I won’t feel so worried.”

“Then that’s what I will do.”

“Okay, thanks. See you on Monday.”

She won’t stop worrying. I know that. I won’t stop worrying either. She knows that too. This will fester until we know for certain that she getting released.

I won’t know when she is getting released from prison until the night before. People have asked me why the folks running the prison system operate like that.

The answer is: “Because they can.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isolation

December 26th, 2019

“People say we’ve got it made
Don’t they know we’re so afraid?
Isolation

We’re afraid to be alone
Everybody got to have a home
Isolation”

John Lennon – from the song “Isolation”

I attended Mass on Christmas Eve. It was late in the afternoon. The church was crowded, much more so than at a Sunday service. Everything was decorated for Christmas, to enhance the festive mood. I went there by myself. It looked to me like all the other people had arrived in groups, most likely as families. There were many faces that I didn’t recognize, and those faces didn’t recognize me either.

Before the liturgy started, Father Michael asked everyone to turn to the people standing around them and greet them. That’s what we did. The folks on every side of me shook my hand, and smiling, said, “Merry Christmas!”

For some reason, I replied to all of them in German. I said, “Frohe Weihnachten!” I guess I did that because that is what I would say to my wife, Karin. I also did that to see if anybody would even notice.

No one did.

That set the tone for the rest of the Mass. I was alone in a crowd. I suppose I could have asked Stefan to come with me, but he was busy with his new girlfriend. I didn’t want him to come to church with me out of some sense of filial duty. I didn’t want him to spend time with me reluctantly.

I could have gone to party after Mass. Freya, a woman I know from Voces de la Frontera, had invited me to come to her house for a get together. Freya is really nice. She lives across town from me, at least a half hour drive. I know her, but I wouldn’t really know anybody else at that party. Once again, I would be alone in a crowd. I considered how many drinks I would require to become even remotely sociable, and then I compared that number with how drinks it would take to get me busted for drunk driving on the way home. The number was nearly the same. It was best for me just to stay home.

When I was working as a supervisor at a trucking company, we always had a holiday party. For members of management the gathering was mandatory. Forced festivity is repugnant to me. I can’t deal with fake joy. I experienced the same sort of thing when I was an Army officer. Formal military affairs were never optional. The results in both the corporate and military environments were usually the same: massive drinking and mindless conversation. I learned to hate Christmas parties.

I have nothing against celebrating Christmas. I would just like to be able to do so in a spontaneous way. Christmas parties, even among friends, tend to follow certain scripts that don’t change from year to year. That can be comforting. It can also be boring.

I am glad that Christmas is over.

 

Apologetics

December 23rd, 2019

I was talking with a friend of mine who has recently retired. He was an civil engineer early in his life, and then he became a physician. Now he is trying to find a new path and purpose.

I asked him what he wanted to do. My friend said,

“I think I want to write Christian apologetics. I want to prove that Christianity is better than, say, Judaism or Islam.”

That put me into the devil’s advocate mode.

“So, how exactly are you going to do that? Based on my experience, Christians are not more ethical than anybody else.”

He replied, “That doesn’t matter. The truth is the truth. It’s like with a motor. Just because some of the motors don’t run well doesn’t mean that the design is wrong.”

I hate this kind of conversation.

I probably should have asked my friend who his target audience would be. Was he hoping to sway people who are not part of the Church? Most works of Christian apologetics are read solely by Christians. I told my friend that it sounded like he was trying to convince people who are already convinced. I could be wrong, but clever religious arguments don’t convert anybody. Actions do.

There is a quote from Tertullian, an early Christian apologist. He said,

“See how these Christians love one another.”

That’s the key. An outsider is not likely to read about Christianity on a whim. However, a non-believer may show some curiosity about the faith if he or she comes into contact with Christians who actually live the Gospel message. Such people do exist, and their lives speak more loudly than intellectual arguments. Think of Francis of Assisi.

I have read religious books by Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I read their books because I am impressed by their lives. Their words and actions totally matched. I would much rather read something from a person like that than I would read something from, say, Joel Osteen.

Faith is a gift, It is fundamentally intuitive. “Proofs” about Christianity are only effective if a person has already accepted a few key assumptions. A person needs to believe that there is a God, and that this deity is good, loving, and accessible. The physical evidence for all of that is ambiguous. We all live on the same planet, and yet we have billions of different ideas about God. We can all agree that gravity exists, but we differ concerning the reality of God.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. I will go to Mass in the evening, and profess my belief that God came to earth in the form of a baby two thousand years ago. Does that make any rational sense? Probably not. However, it feels right. It feels very right. I’ll go with my gut.

There is a quote from Stuart Chase:

“For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”

I wish my friend good luck with his writing.

 

 

 

Ignoring the Elephant

December 21st, 2019

“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
Somehow
Somehow…”

 

Jason Isbell – from the song “Elephant”

 

Some of us gathered at her apartment yesterday afternoon. We met there to cheer her up. She’s been through a lot. She is still going through a lot.

All of us know each other from a German Bible study group. Our meetings were both religious and cultural. We discussed theology in German and English. Most of us have been friends for at least fifteen or twenty years, probably longer. I don’t go to the Bible study anymore. However, I keep in touch with the other participants.

Liz orchestrated the Christmas party. She is good at that sort of thing. She has a knack for getting people together, at least for a little while. We visited with a woman who is somewhat isolated at this point. It is hard for this lady to go out, so we brought the party to her.

We did German things. That seems to be the strongest connection for us at this time. We made a heroic effort to sing some German Christmas carols: “Kling, Gloeckchen”, “Leise rieselt der Schnee”, and “Stille Nacht”. We snacked, and we discussed different aspects of our lives. We are mostly all retired now. We can all see the goalposts. Mortality looms large. Everybody talked, except for the woman we were there to see. She stayed in the kitchen. She was there, but not quite.

Eventually, I got up and walked into the kitchen. The woman was busy being busy. She was preparing food, and generally keeping a safe distance from the noise and the laughter in the living room. I think that she was glad that we were with her, but it was still difficult for her.

I looked at her. She’s a petit woman, thin as a wraith. She has always been thin, but not like this. I remember when Karin and I first met her, many years ago. It was at a religious service during Germanfest at the lakefront. The service was a Protestant sort of thing (the Catholics and and the Protestants trade off each year at the festival). Somehow we connected with this woman and her little girl. It was karma. We were supposed to meet her.

I looked at her yesterday, and I saw that the years had not been kind. She has struggled mightily, and it shows. Her little girl is now grown up, and this daughter is hooked on smack. The woman I know is caring for her daughter’s son, because her daughter cannot or will not be a mother. The woman is tired and hurt beyond anything that mortals should endure.

I understand this.

We talked.

I asked about her cancer.

She told me, in her thick German accent, “I have the cancer in my neck. The doctors want me to do all sorts of stuff. If I do what they say, then I will probably lose my voice. My saliva glands will be destroyed. I may need a feeding tube. No, I’m not doing that. They tell me, ‘You are going to die’, and I don’t care. I will deal with it in other ways.”

Then she said, “I just want to care for the little boy.”

For how long?

Damn, I admire this woman. She is strong in ways that I can never be. She is staring at death, and death is blinking back at her.

While we talked, she started to cry.

It was hard for me to see, because I was blinded by the tears in my eyes.