The Flying Carpet

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mountain Hamlet Life

I have lived for 12 years in my little mountain hamlet city, population 40,000. A large state university brings the town to life with talented people exuberant about various causes, tapas restaurants, and hiking clubs. Over the past five months I've worked hard to build a life here on top of the lives I've already lived here. The town exposes the layers of my life like a creek cutting away at a tiers of college, marriage, nursing school, divorce, drunk corrections officers, falling in love with Dan, returning from Sri Lanka, and now, still composting, still raw and decomposing, my current life alone. I've been waiting to gain solid footing, throwing things into the muck like joining the local social club, people who get together for dinners, hikes, indoor rock climbing, watching polo. I joined two separate hiking and camping groups. I joined the local gun club. I could wake up every day to a world rich with activities and new people. I could "get out and meet people." And I have. I went through a phase where I was meeting new people seemingly every day starting my new job at the jail, going out with different groups, and looking for a roommate.

Rather than invigorate me, constantly redefining myself and engaging in superficial get-to-know you interactions began to diminish me in a way. I dreaded people asking me what I did for a living. People would often stop and look at me when I told them I worked in a jail, as if seeing me for the first time. None of these getting-out-and-meeting-people interactions ever extended beyond carpooling to the trail head, the walking tour of downtown, or explaining to potential roommates that I keep guns in the house. I met people, and then they faded away. Nobody went out for dinner, coffee, or drinks afterwards. No numbers were exchanged. Perhaps I needed to give it more time. Every hike, kayaking lesson, and shotgun clinic brought new people. I never saw the same people twice, never attained any degree of familiarity. I never felt myself "click" with anyone like girlfriends from college or nursing school.

And then it occurred to me, what am I holding on to here? Life in my little mountain hamlet started to make less and less sense. I have my close friend and colleague nurse who has been an amazing friend to me over the years. I have learned so much from her professionally and personally. She does what she can for me, but with a husband and two kids, a teenager and a toddler, her time is limited. So I have decided to move the Houston, near my mom and stepdad. I am going West, becoming Texan. I already have the cowboy boots, two pairs in fact. I can do this because my new apartment was sold. The new owners want to occupy it and I have to be out by May. I called my new landlords and told them I would be out by November 15th and arranged to only pay half month's rent for November. I've got two moving companies coming to give me offers and moving my meager belongings. I've given my notice at work. I am starting to drive on November 5th.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the details, but things are falling into place. It's amazing the think that in one month's time I will be there, Texas, away from here. When I'm having trouble sleeping, when I wake up and can't quite face the day, I know this whole paradigm is going to shift. I will still be myself. I will still feel sad sometimes, but I will be on my way to a new job with benefits, vacation, and sick time. If I have a bad date I can go over to my mom and stepdads to commiserate. After relationship problems I won't have to read my issues away alone all the time. My mom has already found an amateur full orchestra of medical center employees for me to join, a storage unit for my stuff till I find a place, and is looking into an apartment complex with month-to-month leases in her neighborhood.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


The jail maintains two systems for tracking inmate housing assignments within the facility. The first is a high tech computer program allowing the user to access the location, legal status, and past criminal history of the inmate almost in real time. The other is a white magnetic board with a decision tree schematic of the jail and each inmate's mug shot and name printed on a tiny slip of paper the size of a fortune slip from a fortune cookie, slid into a small magnet, and arranged on the board the size of an indy theater projector screen. The intake PPD list is maintained visually on this board. On my way through intake to pick up booking sheets I went over the board to get a feel for how many PPD's I would be placing later in the evening when I saw a familiar face in the "Intake" Column. One of my most beloved college professors, a man who attended my wedding with his wife, was booked into cell 10. "Is he here?" I asked the Sergeant, "Is he really here?" I asked again in the asinine way one blurts things out in shock, putting my finger on his tiny mug shot face. "No, we just put that up for fun," the Sergeant replied. I glared at him and walked out of Intake, leaving six booking sheets at the officer's station.

Before I started working at the jail I thought about everyone I might run into there and thought carefully about how I would deal with seeing them on the other side of the bars. I thought about the drunk corrections officer ex-boyfriend from a few years back, maybe his mom, a few other people from the prison staff. I never really thought about seeing respected role models. I was pretty sure he hadn't seen me, but now I had to choose. Should I go over to his cell, just to day "hi?" Perhaps he would like to see a friendly face when he was in a tough spot. If his blanket smelled or something I could fetch another one. Or would he be embarrassed? Would he be embarrassed every time he saw me again around town? I decided to respect his privacy. Seeing your former students when you are in the black-and-white jumpsuit probably isn't what any professor wants. Besides, he was my music teacher and he'd probably ask if I'd been practicing and I'd have to say "no," andhe'd tell me that was a shame.

When I got back up to medical I told the other nurse. "Let's look him up!" she said, pulling up the computer program. I didn't really want to know why he was there, but I did need to know how long he would be there. She told me it was minor and he'd leave the next day. Then she started to go into his whole former rap sheet. "Stop, seriously, stop," I said, walking into the pharmacy. But like a jury who has heard testimony and judge sustains the objection from the defense attorney, I could not unhear what the other nurse had told me. I sat down in the secluded pharmacy, as far away from my professor as I could possibly get without going home. Classical music training is usually includes a hefty dose of trial-by-fire and public humiliation at an early age. I've never been impressed with the show American Idol because I'd endured much worse in my career as a violinist by the age of 12. I thought about the man down in Intake who I had often described as a bodhisattva in his kindness, patience, and and ability to help his students accomplish new things musically. He had the almost unique ability to suck all of the fear and judgement out of music, for him you could just get up and try something new and feel safe. I knew I never wanted to see him in the jumpsuit, behind the steel and plexiglass of the cell. Seeing the mini mug shot was bad enough. I thought about class with him and decided to play a little Bach when I got home.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


"They've got someone for you out here," the officer at the desk in medical rang into the pharmacy to tell me. When the other nurse and I came out onto the floor I thought perhaps a chest pain, maybe an asthma attack, but he young black man sitting in the brown molded plastic chair at the nurse's station had just gotten the shit beat out of him. His right eye was swollen shut and a laceration in the swollen pocket underneath the eye oozed blood. The other nurse began cleaning and steri-stripping the wound while I got scissors and an eye pad to secure the eye shut till the nurse practitioner could look at it in the morning. we documented his other wounds, welts on his arms and legs.

"How long will it take you to do six guys?" the Sergeant asked us after we were finished. We looked at each other and laughed. "Get your filthy minds out of the gutter," he said, blushing up to his baseball cap with the embroidered badge. "Not too long," I replied, raising my left eyebrow. I wished I could wink. Six other inmates were involved in the incident, making it officially a disturbance in my book. Nobody in corrections really wants to say the word "riot." A riot must involve some sort of destruction to the physical structure of the jail.

One by one they brought the inmates up the medical, the Sergeants interviewed them in one of the empty cells and while we got them to strip down to their underwear one by one and documented any injuries on a body sheet, two outlines of a man's body printed on a sheet of paper, one dorsal and one ventral. We marked any injuries on the printed drawing. "Pay special attention to the hands," the other nurse coached me. Most of the other six had few injuries. I wondered what the first guy did to get everyone so pissed off. Meanwhile officers came from all over the jail to shake down the block on the west side of the old jail. When I finally went down at eleven PM to do some meds on the west side the block was still rocking.

The physical violence of corrections is real, not just something you see on Lockup Raw. Something will happen requiring a body sheet about every third time I work at the jail. Maybe the officers had to put their hands on an inmate, maybe there was a fight. Any time the officers put their hands on an inmate medical assess the inmate and fills out a body sheet. At the women's prison where I worked physical violence was less frequent, but extremely brutal when it did occur, one inmate beat the hell out of another inmate with the padlock from her footlocker. Another inmate pressed the blades of a fan into another's face while she was sleeping. Girlfriend and roommate stuff.

Despite the atmosphere of violence, I rarely feel threatened. Most inmates only want to hurt each other for a love-triangle, to settle a debt, or assert authority on the block. Attacking staff is a waste of time because all it gets in time in the hole. The inmates will often complain to us, but they know they need us. If you are pulled over for a speeding ticket you might be annoyed, but you know that you need to police to keep you safe. A seasoned training Lieutenant once told me that every institution runs with the consent of the inmates for this reason, they know we are there to keep them safe from each other. At a the women's prison out of a population of 1,200 we only had 2 or 3 at a time who really liked to attack staff and only one in the ten-year history of institution who had done any serious harm to an officer. At my jail there is only really one who comes in from time to time with a significant history of staff violence. At any institutions these inmates are well-known and precautions are taken.

Nice Moss

Nice groundcover from a recent local hike with my hiking club. This is the stuff you aren't supposed to walk on.

Mr. Skinhead Sociopath Packs His Property

I have come to enjoy doing meds in the pods. Most nurses prefer the other side of the jail because there are fewer inmates and they don't have to deal with the women in the bottom pod, but I like the pods. I was getting to know my inmates in the pods and taking care of their extra needs like topical cream refills, band-aids, antibiotic ointment, and inhaler refills. Mr. J was back from the geriatric state mental hospital and happily playing cards in one pod and Haldol boy was flourishing as a floor worker in another. When I came on the pod Haldol boy was usually mopping the floor or wiping down a windowsill. Filling the role of floor worker probably afforded him some extra protection from the officers and the opportunity to run some contraband which would help him maintain on the pod without the need for other favors. The only thorn in my side was Mr. Skinhead Sociopath in my very favorite pod with a bunch of very polite diabetics I knew well from diabetic stickline. A few of these diabetics were the first inmates I got to know and helped me feel comfortable in the environment early on so I looked forward to seeing them.

Every med pass Mr. Skinhead Sociopath was at my throat about something like a Jack Russell Terrier trying to corner a rat. But I was a big, nasty rat. One night he took his meds and quickly turned around. "Call him back," the officer told me. "Mr. _____, come back here and show me your mouth," I commanded, sticking my own tongue out as a demonstration. he turned around quickly and stuck out his tongue. "No, lift it up," the officer commanded. He quickly lifted his tongue and I could see the white of two large tabs of the pain medication Neurontin pocketed one on each side. "Open your mouth again," I said, and he refused, working his jaw. "You all are singling me out!" he shouted, stepping toward the med cart. The other inmates backed away out of the pill line. "Get in your cell," the officer told him quietly. Mr. Skinhead Sociopath backed into his cell shouting about how he wasn't cheeking his meds. I knew my moment had come to get him out of my pod.

I wrote an incident report for him cheeking his meds and took the chart to the nurse practitioner the next day to get an order to crush the meds. "Why don't we just D/C them then?" she suggested. "He obviously doesn't need them."
"Excellent," I replied. The officer on the floor wrote a charge for disobeying a direct order. Mr. Skinhead Sociopath got pulled out of the nice clean pod with a polished linoleum floor maintained by Haldol Boy and put into the east side of the old jail in a dormitory style block.

The next time I worked I had to pass meds on the east side and didn't get to go back to the pods. When I arrived at Mr. Skinhead Sociopath's block I put the little medicine cups of water on the crossbeam of the worn old bars and took a deep breath in through my nose. The stink of human funk on the block brought a smile to my face. The block was so loud and smelled so vile you could pass gas without anyone noticing. Five inmates on the block got meds and he approached me last. "Was it you or the officer who got my meds D/C'd and got me moved over here?" he asked. "Sir, I think we both know that I am just a nurse here, I don't have the power to start or stop a med, nor do I have the power to change your housing assigment," I replied with a smile. I thought hatred would gleam in his eyes, but instead I saw a sort of amused affection. "OK, but I'll be calling my lawyer," he returned my smile and backed into the block. I had met his lawyer one evening in the pod. The poor public defender had been left in a room alone with Mr. Skinhead Sociopath without a panic button. When I came by on med pass the poor man had been forgotten in the little legal consultation room next to the pod. I got the officer to let him out, pale with fear and helped him get back to front entry.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Human Need

In order to warehouse people the details of daily life must be taken away, processed, and returned in systematized form: laundry day, lunch trays, med lines and sick call forms. Correctional employees are keepers of the sacred machinery of commissary, property boxes, and over the counter medications. Human need often overflows the walls of the system, someone has an oozing boil and needs her clothes washed but laundry day is next week, someone has a stomach ache that can't wait till the clinic opens in the morning, someone else can't possibly get up on the top bunk. We all pray for a smooth tour of duty where we can lower our shoulders into the giant wheel of the shift and inch it along for our twelve hours without the grit and reality of an inmate who needs something extra, something different, a toothache that can't wait till the dentist comes in two weeks. When an inmate approaches me I can tell by the look in his or her eyes "I need," it will be an extra washcloth for a hot compress, a medication adjustment, the asthma inhaler ran out too soon this month. "But this med pass was going great," I used to think to myself as she began to explain why the system wasn't working for her, she was allergic to the blankets, the soap, or the shampoo. She was out to court when we did self meds, Her roomate was incontinent, the motrin just wasn't taking care of the pain in her tooth.

One of my Sergeants at the prison was never annoyed when the inmates came to him about a sock getting lost in the wash, gaining weight and needing to go to property to get a new shirt, or a missing walkman. I watched them complain to him about the rotation of movie night, receiving dirty sheets in linen exchange, and commissary snafus. He never looked at them as though they had thrown a wrench in the machinery of his perfect day by making him think. A lost sock could involve paperwork, a trip to property, and hopefully the inmate would not "lose" another sock any time too soon. He never begrudged them for having human needs extending beyond the boundaries of the system.

I decided to become less obsessed with executing the perfect shift like a gymnastics routine geared towards sticking the landing and walking out the door on time. When inmates come to me with broken glasses, long fingernails from missing clipper day, or menstrual cramps I endeavor to creatively address with situation as part of the job, not an impediment a to the job. When new intakes come to me claiming pre-existing issues and explaining why they should not have to pay for inhalers or pain medicine because they were chronic care at their Department of Corrections facility and it should all be in their file I take a deep breath and explain that they are in another world now and we need documentation, either our own evaluation or records from the facility. And I still walk out the door on time

Monday, October 06, 2008

White Mountains Hike

My dad and I went back to the Whites, in the fall this time. On our drive up to Mnt Washtington we got a little suprise, snow at the summit:

My dad making good time at the base of Mnt Washington on the day of the big hike

The trail is mostly rock, as we go up and up the cold weather gear comes on

My dad and I rest and enjoy a fogged in overlook

Entering Tuckerman's Ravine:

The headwall where I turned around. I knew I could make it up, but down would be another issue altogether:

Tuckerman's Ravine as seen from a neighboring peak the next day:

I was disappointed that we couldn't summit, but since I didn't get hypothermia this year or destroy my ankle I would say the hike was a success.