Recently, one thoughtful reader left a comment at this site that truly stumped me. After a brief inventory of the hurdles life has piled up in front of him, the fellow summarized his meditation with an appeal for me to stop making prison seem so charming. Evidently, my tales of wha? have him considering a career in three-hots-and-a-cot. According to calculations which seem a little suspect, he believes that even if his first attempt at “non-violent” crime is a compete belly-flop, the booby prize would be infinitely better than what he awakens to every morning. Now, I’m no stranger to desperate thinking. Sometimes I think I invented it. Nor am I well equipped to judge the moral compass of another. But the man’s musings do beg a question or two. And maybe the first one should concern exactly what the heck you guys are up to out there.
Though few readers have – or ever will – see my face, I trust that the writing speaks for me. I’m a pretty happy guy most of the time. I’ve also been blessed with relatively good health – though I claim at least partial responsibility for that. I haven‘t smoked as much as a joint in over 18 years. I never grease my palate with Big Macs, and I’m pretty judicious with the white sugar too. I exercise daily, enjoy a rich spiritual life, aim for at least seven hours in the sack each night, and try not to isolate myself. The latter keeps stress levels manageable, and gives me plenty to share with readers. None of these choices are cost-prohibitive – which, for a guy making .75¢ an hour, is saying something. Fellow convicts once voted me, “Most likely to be eaten in a Himalayan plane crash.” I was flattered.
Of course, serving a life sentence in the penitentiary also has its darker moments. For almost two decades, I’ve been living in my bathroom. Most of the guys I came in with are either dead, doped up, or disappeared. My neighbourhood has a suicide rate four times greater than even the most poverty-laden Canadian communities. And on a personal level, my captors assure me that they have no plans to open the front gate as long as I’m still breathing. So much for my Dancing with the Stars debut.
But as I often tell the big bottom lips dredging the cell block floor around me, the hippies did get a couple of things right. One of them was their legacy new-age mantra, “It’s not where you are, it’s where you’re at.” James Q. Wilson, the famous American social scientist who died this spring at 80 years of age, also knew this. And it brought him no end of amusement. As a thoughtful observer of the animate world, the swarming mass of humanity topped Wilson’s list of favourite subjects. What made them tick – scared them – pleased them – made them violent? Wilson was a watcher, and no detail of human response was too insignificant for his curious eye.
For the majority of us, a broken window in a passing building doesn’t even register. But in 1982, Wilson co-wrote an article in the Atlantic noting that when one vandalized window in a building wasn’t repaired quickly, the other windows around it soon followed suit. This discovery laid the groundwork for the many “broken window” policies now employed in major US cities.
He also observed that in a neighbourhood where the cop walks a regular beat, crime rates didn’t drop as much as a percentage point. But the elderly person sitting at the bus stop felt safer and swore that crime was reduced by a police presence. How do you quantify that? For Wilson, most of the people problems he pondered always came back to culture, and ways of thinking. He once famously said that the most important things about human beings aren’t measurable. But, if you lift your eyes up beyond the end of your nose, they definitely are observable.
A reader of my weekly column at the Province.com, and Canada.com, once wrote a comment questioning my agenda. That’s fair enough. Even in a world that has swapped out Catholicism for capitalism, everybody still wants to know who (and how big) is your God. But in my case, somewhere along the path between self-absorbed deviant and selfless parent, life handed me a flittering nugget of truth. The most valuable – most fascinating – resource on this planet is its people. Throwing a double razor-wire fence around them doesn’t change that in the least. Nor does homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, chronic illness, or any of the other prisons that humans might find themselves in. Hard times have never been fun. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be funny. And where there is humour, there is joy. I just hope that readers won’t need a lifetime stint in the clink to figure that out.