Saturday, September 9, 2017

Visiting Prison: Part Two

Until recently, I never dreamed that I would ever know anyone in prison, let alone make a regular habit out of visiting a prison. 

But in the past year, a lot has changed in my life. 

I now feel completely comfortable and quite at home during my time inside the walls, and in case you haven't had this experience for yourself, please let me share it with you.

Part One: From waking up to walking into the visiting room
Part Two: Happy times in the visiting room.

* * * * *

After five hours on a journey across the state, and a thorough going-over at the visitors' check-in, my fellow visitors and I have finally made it to the actual visiting room.

The room looks a bit like the lunch room in a small, low-budget elementary school. A row of windows run high along the walls, letting in brilliant natural light. The lower parts of the walls are decorated with painted murals of wild animals - bears, wolves, orcas. A children's play area - (2) on the map below - sports brightly colored play mats and a handful of toys. Some of the tables feature built-in checkerboards for playing checkers or chess. 

But we still have a few more hoops to go before our visits begin.

^ My handmade map of the West Complex visiting room.
See the key below, and please remember that this is a rough representation 
rather than a technically accurate schematic.

^ Channeling my inner cartographer. 

As we leave the tight quarters of the visitor's entry (10), we are instructed to walk single file along the walls of the visiting room, past the professional visit rooms (8) and around the corner by the office (5) and storeroom (4).

There we wait as the corrections officers sitting near the restrooms (3) assign us to our tables. One by one, they call out the last name of the man we are visiting; we then step forward, hand over our drivers' licenses to be filed away for the day, and listen for our table number. 

Each table sports a triangular wedge of wood with a number woodburned into both sides. These relics look like a middle school shop project from the 1950s and they make me smile every time I see them.

Now the hunting and gathering begins. While we wait the last few minutes for the men to join us, we crowd around the vending machines (1), pulling together meals of our guys' favorite treats:

Deli sandwiches, hot pockets, chicken wings, breakfast sandwiches
Cheetos, Sun Chips, Oven Baked Lays
Twizzlers, Kit Kats, Snickers
Dasani sparkling water, Cokes and Dr Pepper, coffee.

As our prison debit cards fly in and out of the machines' chip readers, and we follow the rules about removing all food wrappers and serving the food on paper plates, we keep our heads on a swivel toward the inmates' entry (9). 

They should be arriving any time, and the excitement is palpable. 

* * * * *

And then they come. Sometimes in a trickle, sometimes in a steady stream. We see our men through their entry window just before they join us, and electricity snaps through the room. As they walk in, I like to watch their eyes search among the tables to find their loved ones, and see how their faces soften and their shoulders relax once that connection is made. 

I watch for my friend and there he is, tall and lanky, tanned and strong. Our eyes meet across the room too, and we grin at each other. 

This is a profoundly beautiful moment. Whatever has gone wrong in the lives of these men, whatever toll that has taken on these relationships, in this minute, 

All is restored.
All is healed
All is love.

We all stand and hug our men. Lovers share modest kisses, babies are passed into their father's arms, toddlers shriek in happiness, grown men wordlessly pound each other on the back. Mothers hold their sons at arms's length and give them a good looking over, and then pull them back into a hug.

Tears are shed here and there around the room. But they are tears of happiness and joy and sweet, sweet relief. 

We are all so glad to be together. 

* * * * *

Before I visited prison, I thought I would feel scared to sit in a room full of convicted criminals.

I expected that they would put out a menacing vibe, a dark energy,

I was prepared to feel afraid.

But now I laugh at my preconceptions because they were so silly and so wrong.

The men, as a whole, are shy. For the most part, they keep their heads down, their attention focused on their own visitors. But from time to time, my friend will tell me a story about one of the other men in the room, and as we are looking at him, that other man may glance over and notice us staring. The guys will share a private smile, and often, the other man will offer me a small wave. I smile and wave back.

The men offer a certain reverence toward me, and seem very much in awe of my freedom and apparent success in navigating life in the outside world. 

Appearance wise, the men also defy stereotypes. Orange may be the new black on Netflix, but at Washington State Penitentiary, they wear white t-shirts tucked into khaki pants, accessorized with khaki military style web belts and white trainers.  In the winter, they add grey crew neck sweatshirts over the top. 

Though their clothes all match, the men express their individuality through hair and beard styling, and homemade tattoos. Some of the men earn reputations as skilled barbers and tattoo artists, and with basic tools, provide these services under the radar. The guys can also buy a range of styling products so there are plenty of sleek pony tails, neat man buns, and well-oiled Afros.

* * * * *

So finally, finally we all settle in to visit.

My friend and I eat together.

We talk about anything and everything. I listen to whatever is on his mind. We swap funny stories from our everyday lives. We discuss books, movies, TV shows, current events. We talk about fun things, happy things. And sometimes we talk about hard things. 

We laugh a lot.
Sometimes we cry.

And we pray together.

Six and a half hours fly by

When other people are visiting with us, we often play games or cards. My friend teaches us new games he's learned from other guys. 

Of course, there are plenty of rules to guide our behavior during the visits.

Hands above the table at all times
Touching is allowed but keep it clean.
Inmates are not allowed by the vending machines but they can get water.
Both feet must remain on the floor. 
Restrooms are available only at designated time windows throughout the visit.
After using the bathroom, you must be pat searched again. 
Inmates must sit in the green chairs placed at each table, so all are facing in the same direction.
The men may eat their regularly scheduled meals while visiting.

On and on the rules go. No one can ever remember them all, so the COs watch over us and correct us when we make mistakes. 

* * * * *

At 5:20 pm, the COs announce that the visit is almost over. We wrap up our conversations, clean up our tables, and steel ourselves for what's to come.

As my friend says, saying goodbye is so awkward. 

And I agree with him. There's just no way to make it not awful. So we do our best to power through those last minutes and the final hug as quickly and quietly as possible. 

All around us, I see other groups doing the same thing. No one cries or wails or breakdowns. Well, other than a few toddlers who feel free to express what we are all feeling.

We hate this.
We all hate this. 
We want the bad dream to be over and we want to take our loved ones home and have life just be normal and happy again. 

But that can't happen and we all know it. So as we visitors crowd toward our entry once again, we just search out our loved ones' eyes one more time. We wave and we smile and we say, "See you soon!"

And our men watch from the tables as the COs hand us back our licences and check our arm stamps with a little black light flashlight, and herd us back toward the visitors' entry where those five metal doors will open to let us out and then slam shut between us.

This is a hard part of the day. 

And you might think it is sad.

But it's not. We walk back to the visitors' check-in with smiles on our faces, with strength in our hearts, with the certain knowledge that, at least for right now, everything is okay.

And we know that soon enough, we will be back to visit again. 

Visiting Prison: Part One

Until recently, I never dreamed that I would ever know anyone in prison, let alone make a regular habit out of visiting a prison. 

But in the past year, a lot has changed in my life. 

I now feel completely comfortable and quite at home during my time inside the walls, and in case you haven't had this experience for yourself, please let me share it with you.

Part One: From waking up to walking into the visiting room
Part Two: Happy times in the visiting room.

* * * * *

My alarm blasts me out of bed around 3:30 or 4:00 am and that is unquestionably the worst part of the entire day. Once I'm up and moving, the adrenaline kicks in and I feel the holiday mood take over.

I'm going to visit prison today!

Sometimes we drive ourselves the 279 miles to Washington State Penitentiary; I also take advantage of a van service that provides free rides to people going to visit their loved ones in prison. Either way, I'm on the road before the crack of dawn, traveling over the mountain pass, down to the Columbia River, and across the farmlands full of wheat, hops and grapevines on a route that runs diagonally across most of the state.

The mood is typically festive. My friends and fellow travelers are usually just as happy and excited to be on their way to a visit as I am. But that is not always the case. Sometimes, there are people in the van who are quiet and withdrawn. I understand that they are likely dealing with the complex emotions and vulnerabilities that can come from seeing your son, your father, your husband in prison, and I feel very protective of them.

We doze along the way. We talk. We stop for coffee and food and restroom breaks. We stretch and groan and check our watches, anxious to arrive on time.

And around 10 am, we roll through the prison gates.

Along the entrance drive. The guard towers remind me of miniature lighthouses. 

The man I visit is assigned to a Close Custody housing unit, what used to be called Maximum Security. Those buildings are on the west side of the sprawling property: modern, clean, and surprisingly attractive. A guard house protects the entrance to this side of the prison but there's almost never anyone inside. We drive inside the prison grounds without stopping. Razor coils and guard towers top the fences to the left of the entrance drive; on the right runs the long, lean, low horizon of golden fields and bright blue sky.

Okay so this day it was definitely cloudy in Walla Walla. But I'm sure it was a rare exception. 

Seems like it's always sunny in Walla Walla.

We leave all our possessions in the car, bringing in only what we are allowed inside.

Driver's license
Prison debit card
Cash to put on the card

Car keys
And our phones.

We can't take our car keys or our phones to the visit, but we can leave them in small lockers inside the visitors' check-in center. Phones don't like to spend the day out in the 100+ degree heat.

Check in begins at 10:15 am. We line up at a counter and in turn, announce our loved one's prison ID number and present our own identification. The corrections officer checks to be sure we are registered visitors, with a photo and an authorization to be searched on file. And then the officer checks on the status of our loved one.

This is a critical moment. Inmates can be denied visits for any sort of infraction, and while the prison does its best to communicate with families and friends, they don't make any promises that our guys will always be available to visit when we show up. So we hold our breath until we are sure the visit is a go.

This is also the moment when the corrections officers inspect our outfits to ensure they meed the visitors' dress code. The list of violations is long and confusing:

No clothing that is orange or camo-colored; no grey sweatshirts.
No hoods, hats or scarves.
No cargo pants or extra zippers or pockets of any kind.
No sleeveless or low cut tops.
No leggings unless covered in front and back by a long top.
No ripped or torn jeans.
No more than one necklace, and three bracelets and rings, total.

And so on.

Sooner or later, we all run afoul of this large and mysterious body of rules and must either change into something from the prison loaner wardrobe or forfeit our right to visit. Experienced visitors often bring alternative outfits in their cars so they can run outside to change; I dodge the bullets by wearing the same outfit every time I visit.

Hey, the men we come to visit always wear the same thing so why shouldn't I?

Once, we are registered for the visit, there is time to load money on the prison debit card - up to $40 max - which we will use to buy food at the vending machines inside.

And then it's time for the security procedures.

First, we take off shoes, jewelry, belts, and anything else likely to trigger an alarm, and walk through the metal detector. Our bin of possessions goes through an x-ray device and sometimes passes under the nose of a drug-sniffing dog. We present the bottoms of our feet for inspection, and then get a black light ink stamp on our inner wrists.

We are then led one by one into a small room for a mouth inspection and a pat search, We stand with arms outstretched as a same-gendered corrections officer rubs her hands down our bodies, front and back. Once properly vetted, we are ushered to seats where we wait for everyone in our group to catch up.

Through this process, spirits are running high. Certainly the staff impresses upon us that this is serious business, and they maintain a professional authority over us. But we visitors are generally happy and chatty; over the months, the regulars get to know each other and we have our own reunions and conversations during this time of the day. Sometimes the corrections officers will chat with us too; the energy is surprisingly loose and relaxed and friendly.

The lay of the land.

Around 11 am, when all the visitors are processed and waiting, the corrections officers  join us in the waiting area. The metal door clanks shut behind us, separating us from the check-in area. Now we are officially inside the prison. Then another metal door slides open ahead of us, and we move forward down a hallway and then outdoors.

We step out onto a concrete courtyard. We are surrounded by tall fences topped with razor coils. They glisten in the sun and look beautiful to me, despite their fierceness. Above us, the sky blazes blue. In the winter, the cold wind whips past us; in the summer, heat pounds down. To our right, we see the housing units of the men we have come to visit; on the left, we see the round building that houses the Death Row inmates. We feel very thankful that our men are where they are.

We cross this outdoor space - about the size of a tennis court - as the third door closes behind us and a tall gate in the chain link fence opens in front of us. We pass through to a second fenced area - much smaller than the first - and through another metal door into the entry of a small building. Once again, the door behind us must close before the one ahead will open, and now, with five locked barriers behind us and the outside world, we finally step into the visiting room.

Friday, September 8, 2017

An Afternoon In Iowa In Three Stages

I grew up in Michigan, planted my young adult flag in Illinois, and adopted my husband's native state of Ohio. Accordingly, the Great Lakes states all feel like home to me. 

So when we left Cleveland yesterday morning to kick off the westbound leg of this road trip, it was not until we passed through the Great Eastern Hardwood Forest and sailed across the prairies of Illinois that our journey took on a true spirit of adventure.  

Oh, what's that you say? You've heard - or maybe convinced your own eyes to believe - that Iowa is boring? Well. If you think that endless rolling hills covered with green ribbons of corn under perfect puffy clouds through pale blue skies lack poetry, I can't help you. And if you find the endless waves of corn that will feed our nation's great livestock herds and bring steaks and bacon to our tables uninteresting, alas. 

But I love Iowa. And in one short afternoon, I was reminded why. 

^ Crossing the Mighty Mississipp is, in my opinion, the threshold to adventure in the American West. (Pretty sure my heroes Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark would agree.) We passed over this grand lady at the Quad Cities - Rock Island and Moline on the Illinois side; Davenport and Bettendorf in the Iowa bank. The deep, rolling waters reflected the grey skies and the whole effect looked shockingly Pacific Northwestian. But my heart raced with excitement all the same. 

For the last two years, I've been dreaming about Thunder Bay Grille. We stopped there serendipitously on our 2015 road trip , and while we all enjoyed the ambiance and good service - they invited Ranger to come join us as we ate on the porch - it was my husband's bison meatloaf and my fourth-born's drunken sirloin that drove the needle from good to great. So with much anticipation, we ordered two plates of the same and held our breath as they were finally delivered to our table. Yes. Definitely as good as we remembered. 

Sunset at our hotel in Newton. No words can describe the glory of glorious puff heartland  clouds alit with clear golden light from a fiery sun sinking behind the rolling hills. 

And really, no words can accurately capture the slowly mounting excitement that comes from passing through this sweet pastoral landscape on a journey toward the rugged West. There's nothing like an afternoon in Iowa.

* * * * *

A summer road trip across America - read more:

Off Again

The Sweet Little Bonito

The view from our patio at the Pueblo Bonito Blanco on the afternoon that we arrived. 
The sea lies just beyond the end of the building and yes, the flamingos are real. 

The architecture was a modern mash up of Spanish Colonial with overtones of Santori. The ornate doorways and heavy chandeliers were a bit much for my taste but I was crazy for those open circles at the top of the facade.

Much more to my taste were the clean white walls and sculpted greenery of this canyon that lay between my room and the pool

Round blue domes popped up here and there along the roof line.

Another view of my canyon, featuring the ever-glorious blue sky. 

Fierce morning sun blasted the facade with light. Now that's what I call Blanco. 

As the sun goes down on another day in paradise, the flamingos are still wading in their pool. 

* * * * *

When my two elder daughters and I decided to make a getaway weekend in Cabo last May, we'd never been there before and knew zero about the place. But after an hour or two of happy Googling, my eldest decided upon the Pueblo Bonito Blanco for our four-night stay. 

She chose well.

And after our visit, I was inspired to post a review on the hotel's TripAdvisor page

Every word is true:

There are three distinctly different Pueblo Bonito properties in Los Cabos: Sunset Beach sprawls with options, Rose is sexy and lush, but it's little Bonito, where I just spent five nights with my two adult daughters, that is most charming. 
More so than the other sites, Bonito is intimately oriented to the ocean; I could see the rock formations and hear the waves crashing from my poolside chair. The pool affords both privacy for families to create their own little niche, and a friendly community where we easily got acquainted with our fellow visitors and formed sweet friendships with the folks we saw day after day. While the waves are a bit much for young children, I felt like I was living in a dream as I swam in the gorgeous waters of Medano Beach. We loved the distinctive Mexican flair of the architecture and the somewhat dated but still darling room decor, the cacti gardens, and the more on-trend public spaces. Though I'm sure the other Los Cabos properties have their devotees, my daughters and i agree that the sweet Bonito has stolen our hearts forever.

Special shout out to Carlos H., who served us poolside on Sunday, May 28. He not only kept us well supplied in food and drinks, but continually topped off our ice bucket, cleaned our area, and anticipated our needs in a hundred little ways. Oh, and not only did he keep us smiling, but I noticed that he was just as attentive and thoughtful to the other people he served as well.
* * * * *
So if you and your loved ones are overcome with a sudden urge to go to Cabo, I encourage you to make it happen. 

And do yourself another favor: stay at the sweet little Bonito. 

* * * * *

Read more about my trip to Cabo

Missing Mexican Memories

I'm not a person who usually loses things. 
I'm more of a misplacer.

When something turns up missing in my life, I don't get too concerned. Retracing my steps usually solves the problem, and if I'm really desperate, I set my husband to task and he makes it his life's ambition to find whatever has been misplaced. 

So last June, when I first got back from Mexico and realized my stack of Instax photos had gone rogue, I wasn't worried. But as the days and then weeks passed by and I still couldn't lay a hand on my treasures, I began to sweat.

These babies were not turning up.

My daughters and I could recall the final  moments in our Cabo hotel room, when I had gathered up my collection and pondered aloud where I should stash them for the trip home. We easily remembered several different places - the camera bag, a zippered pocket inside my purse, my carry-on - that I had considered for duty. But that's as far as our memories went. No one could recall where I had finally decided to pack them, or could even say with certainty that I had brought them along. It was entirely possible that, in a last-minute rush, I'd accidentally walked off and left my creations for the housekeeping staff.

Which in some ways would be only fair, given all the towel-folding artistry they had given us. 

For weeks after returning home, I'd reassured myself that my photos were not lost, only misplaced, and they would sooner or later turn up. But as the weeks turned into months, my hope wore thin and I must admit, I began to question my relentless optimism.

That was just about the time that my first-born pulled out her suitcase and began to pack for her trip to New York.

I was in the kitchen when she came round the corner with her hands behind her back and a big smile on her face.

And now, with my missing Mexican memories returned to me, I can say with confidence that my reputation as a misplacer rather than a loser of things is secure.. And my relentless optimism has been fully restored.

* * * * *

Read more about my trip to Cabo

Thursday, September 7, 2017


No, but she really is. 

What I noticed first were the pop up headlights and faded red paint.  She rumbled throaty and low, rolling up to the stop sign. Though she must have been a glorious 80s muscle car in her day, the old girl was looking beat up and mean. 

I noticed the car as I was crossing the opposite side of the intersection. My dog, Gracie, sailed along at my side, alert and observant, far more interested in the people walking up ahead than the traffic. 

But my horrified attention was glued to the car. 

Dirty windows rolled down. 
Country tunes bumping. 
A hairy male forearm hanging out the passenger window and holding on to the roof, trucker style. 

The shabby old relic blew off the stop line and swerved across the cross walk that Gracie and I had just cleared. 

Despite my love of old cars and uexcessive acceleration, I cringed as the beast rolled by. I tried not to listen to the rough, swaggering voices I heard as the two twenty-something men inside shouted over their music. 

But suddenly I realized they were talking to me. 

Took my mind a moment to sort out their message, but after that split second, I turned to them, smiled, and waved to my newfound friends. 

"Your dog's adorable!" is what they had said. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

My New Dog's Name

As I've spent countless hours these past weeks considering a name for this new dog of mine, my mother, Grace, keeps coming to mind. 

My mom loved dogs. 

Adored them 
Doted on them
Fed them snacks
Took them for walks
And talked to them as most people only talk to their very best friends. 

But in her whole life, my mom owned just one dog. 

Granted, he was a champ. Hillpoint Shamrock Kelly, the hero of Ore Lake, was the Irish Setter of my childhood and my mother's beloved companion during a very difficult time in her life. He was, as she often said, the dog of dogs and after he died, she never wanted another. 

I understood that. Losing a dog you love is a heartbreak that only other dog lovers can understand. It's painful beyond words and we all have that moment of grief where we think, No. This is too much. I was a fool to fall in love with a creature who lives ten years if I'm lucky, And I will never put my heart in harm's way like this again. 

 But this desperation usually passes. 

And we remind ourselves that the joy of a dog's company is worth the pain, and the tears we cry are simply proof of our dog's unquestioning devotion and boundless love. 

So when the time is right, we open our hearts to a new dog and life goes happily on. 

But not for my mom. 

She loved her grand dogs, and often enthusiastically told me stories about good dogs she met here and there.  

 But she never, ever got another dog. 

And that always made me sad for her. 

* * * * *

I will be honest. When this new dog came into my life, I was not ready for her. Barely six months had passed since I lost my Ranger and my heart was still full of his memories. I figured I needed another year to made room for a new pup. 

But what could I do? Here was a dog - an Irish Setter, for crying out loud - who needed me.  I had no logical reason to turn her down. Still, a fearful voice inside me pleaded, No! This is crazy. I'm not ready for this yet. 

And that's when my mom came to my mind. What she reminded me, in a gift straight from heaven, is to not be afraid. 

She reminded me to trust. 
She reminded me that putting your heart on the line for a big red dog is always worth the risk. 
And she encouraged me to take the flying leap into this new dog's life. 

So I did. 

And now, to remind myself of my mom's gifts, I've given my new dog her name. 

Meet Gracie.