The Wall

by Flynn Washburne, February 8, 2017

The CDCR — that's the $12 billion per annum state human warehousing agency that is, was, and will be gobbling up the General Fund every year like a ravening were-beast — is trying to rehabilitate me. That's the 'R' recently re-appended to the title by Governor Brown in his laughably quixotic efforts to address a bottom-up problem from the top down. The current pointless attempt to stem the inexorable tide of deterministic inevitability involves inmates attending classes like Anger-Management, Family Relations, Criminal Thinking (avoiding it, one hopes), and Substance Abuse Treatment, where, boiled down to its essence, inmates are informed that the keys to success in society are as follows: 1. Don't do drugs. 2. Don't steal. 3. Don't hit/shoot/stab/incinerate others. 4. Put your money in the bank. 5. Get a job. 6. Be nice to your kids/wife.

There is a well-worn word in my linguistic quiver that I notch and fire regularly, a word whose small size, disreputable origin, and taint of immaturity belie its power and utility: Duh. I mean, c'mon.

There are a lot of monkeyshines, background chatter, static, and general foolishness in the program surrounding and preceding the revelation of the above axiomatic truths to justify the salaries of the online-university educated counselors and fill up six months, questions posed to the group like: What inspires you? Asked this, I thought: literally anything can inspire me. A word, a thought, a blank wall, a sound, a pain, a feeling, a motion. A person, an animal, a place, a direction. A joke, a book, a movie, a story, a picture, art, science, technology, history, life. That's what I thought. What I said was, "I don't know, whatever," because I'm not about to share my innermost motivations with someone who purchased a degree from the University of Pell Grants and doesn't know what behaviorism is, and that's a specific example.

It's true, though. Inspiration comes whenever my mind and whatever stimuli tickles its fancy link hands and do the cha-cha. Really, the only thing I can categorically state never inspires me, never will inspire me, and in fact has the opposite effect of de-inspiring me, is the inspirational quote. You know what I'm talking about. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Really? I thought it required a back handspring and a round of golf. Oh, you mean that in order to accomplish a thing, you have to begin it first? I'm glad you cleared that up, because I was going to leap forward in time, finish, and then work backwards to the beginning. How embarrassing that would've been for me. Or, more succinctly, Nil.

Many examples not duh-worthy are blatantly and absurdly specious, my favorite being the one asking me to "consider the bumble bee. According to the laws of physics and aerodynamics, he cannot fly, and yet…" This little gem is meant to illustrate two distinct notions: one, the ability of God to befuddle man and confute his paltry notions — a refutation of science in general — and two, that one can accomplish anything, even the allegedly "impossible." As if every one of the zillions of bees ever born took a few exploratory steps, said, "Fuck this shit, walking's for suckers," and, through sheer force of will, propelled himself through the air in direct violation of both Newtonian and Bernoullian principles. This is demonstrably untrue, demonstrated by observing a bee. If he is not in flight, he is either dead or about to take flight, and if he does fly, then, ipso facto, he can fly, and is doing so in strict accordance with existing physical laws, which are in fact immutable and not subject to whimsical disruption by mischievous deities. He may not fly like a Piper Cub or a barn owl, but he has, through aeons of adaptive evolutionary steps, arrived at his current configuration and means of locomotion in the usual Darwinian fashion. It is only even unlikely that a bee fly if you compare him to a hawk or a swallow. You may as well say it's impossible for a frog to swim because he doesn't look like a trout.

Attempting to inspire someone by citing adages whose patent absurdity is revealed by the most cursory application of critical thinking is counterproductive, condescending, and intellectually lazy. In fact, attempting to solve any problem or address any issue through the application of bromides, platitudes, clichés, or proverbs should be punishable by severe flogging. In the transcendental words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "I hate quotation. Tell me what you know."

When I was under the questionable stewardship of the Ford Street Project, an agency which, in the time-honored and battle tested manner of addiction-interdiction organizations everywhere, relies almost exclusively on slogans and platitudes to convey its message, I had a morning ritual designed to calm and prepare me for the daily onslaught of bromides and clumsy attempts to inspire me. I would arise before the rest of the group, make myself a jug of strong coffee, and go out walking the deserted Ukiah streets as the sun rose. The near-solitude, interrupted only by cats trotting home after a night's marauding and the occasional tweaker skulking by, gave me the strength I needed to face the always trying days. I would conclude my walks by sitting somewhere with open Wifi, downloading songs and checking email on my (contraband) phone, usually the tavern or library or the Christian coffeeshop on Perkins.

One morning I was headed west, just shy of Main St. and a little north of the library. Across Main there is the back of a State Street-fronted building which bears (bore?) the painted remnants of an old advertising sign, for tobacco or silver polish or whiskey or something. I actually don't remember at all, but the arriving sun had made its way about three-quarters of the way up the wall, whose color and position made an extremely dramatic and stirring canvas for the approaching light. If you're familiar at all with the paintings if Edward Hopper, you know that he has a way of depicting sunlight that somehow manages to improve on it. It sounds unlikely, I know, but he has a way of distilling its essence and conveying its truth that old Sol is incapable of. Mostly. The sun bathing that wall looked exactly like a Hopper painting, only better, infinitely better, it being gloriously, glowingly live and unfolding before me like the birth of light itself. I stood transfixed in the street as the light inched its way up the wall, and when it breached the top I slow-clapped the performance. "Bravo," I whispered. "Bra-freakin’-vissimo."

That wall, which had been constructed, like others of its ilk, to join its three brethren in defining space and holding up a roof, fulfilled a higher purpose that morning, bathed in radiant golden splendor as if dipped in a reduction of honey and buttercups. Now that's inspiration, I thought. I wanted to sing that wall, to paint it, to write it, to be it, to translate it into something that might do it justice and express the awe and appreciation I felt. I wondered how many times I'd walked by there, spun out of my gourd and in thrall to The Mission, as the wall shone, unappreciated, majestic and marvelous every morning (weather permitting). I went and stood with my back against the wall for a few minutes, closed my eyes, absorbing the glow and imagining what a fitting tableau I'd created.

When I returned to my original vantage point the tone and complexion had changed and it was now just daylight, nominal, workaday, quotidian sunshine lighting up the street in a nondramatic and unflopperish way. That must've been the Golden Moment I hear so much about, I thought. Aptly, if a little insufficiently named. I might name it the Spectacular Superluminary Heliographic Phenomenon. Or, maybe just Golden Moment, yeah.

No time for the Internet! I had to hustle back to the FSP before my absence was noted and I was accused of being up to something more nefarious than my innocent wanderings. AWOLs were generally assumed, usually rightly, to be a precursor to relapse. I couldn't see an honest explanation of where I'd been going over too swimmingly with the staff, and I wouldn't blame them. Becoming captivated and enthralled by a sunbeam on a wall sounds just like something a dope fiend might cook up to cover his usual shady shenanigans.

On the way back I happened upon an old acquaintance.

"Hey, buddy! Still in the program?" he asked as I rushed by.

"Yup, no time to chat, gotta get back there right now!"

"Stay the course! One day at a time!" he yelled at my retreating form.

"Right back atcha!" I hollered over my shoulder.

Breakfast was in full swing when I walked back in the building. "There he is," said counselor Bryce. "Where have you been?"

"Sorry, overslept a little," I said.

"You know, the way you start your day determines how the rest of it will go," Bryce said. 

"That is so right, and thank you for that little bit of wisdom, Bryce," I said.

"No problem," he said, a little suspiciously. "What's got into you?"

"Just glad to be alive and sober," I said. "That okay?"

"Sure, it's just that you're usually a lot more, uh, less cheerful in the mornings." "Well, B, like the Good Book says, the joyfulness of a man prolongeth his days."

"Right. Quoting the Bible? Do I need to U.A. you?"

"Nah, not less'n you want to. I'll happily pee anywhere you like."

"In the toilet, as needed. Eat your breakfast."

That ol’ sun, up there just a' boilin’ away, smushing hydrogen atoms into helium, radiating earthward to warm and nourish the planet and lighten the load of irascible curmudgeons everywhere. Hail to thee, Old Sol!

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