If your own foibles strike you with bemused embarrassment, then the instant you realize that the current one you’ve been nurturing is particularly asinine, you face two rather similar choices:
1 Take your own life; or
2 Batter your bespattered self-esteem further by posting it on your blog
F’rinstance: The first time I walked inside the courtyard of the California Institute for Men, I saw something I couldn’t believe–palm trees. They had palm trees in the prison. Everywhere you looked, there was another one. I thought (& nearly said out loud, thank God for small favors): “Palm trees? In a prison? I know California’s a permissive, libertarian land, but this is absurd! They really do mollycoddle criminals out here!”
In my cryptic defense, this was 2001, and it was my first time in CA. I’d only been there a week when these thoughts occurred to me. In that week leading up to that moment, I’d spent all my time in a Cal State-Fullerton computer lab learning PowerPoint and constructing a 63-slide presentation that I intended to use in my first-ever correctional library management course. Except for the morning walk to the school, I never saw the light of day–only the inside of that lab. Yes, of a morning I walked from the hotel & across the beautifully-landscaped eastern side of the campus. Yes, there were palm trees there! But these were the grounds of a major California university, and you’d expect to see palm trees in a place like that.
After the 6-day course was over, I had three days to myself before my return flight home. So I drove places. I walked places. And I saw my first palm trees outside of a prison. I began to see them in people’s yards, which I considered a tad extravagant. Until I realized what everyone else with commonsense already knew — they were in everyone’s yard. They were on the grounds of the In-N-Out burger chain. In the parking lots of used bookstores. Framing the front entrances of churches. They were so commonplace it became an odd site not to see them as part of the landscape. Finally, the light went on.
I’d realized that all my life I’d equated palm trees with luxury and leisure. It never occurred to me that palm trees were as ubiquitous here as evergreens & pines were back home. I thought you had to be stinking rich to own a palm tree. Myself, I blame Robin Leach.
That same day, we spent the afternoon at the CA Institute for Women. They had palm trees in their courtyard, too. The Lieutenant giving the tour told us of the time an inmate hid in one of these trees for nearly three full days, and no one but the inmates periodically sneaking food out to her knew where she was. I very much wanted to ask the good Lieutenant why for pity’s sake didn’t they cut the tree down, but dare not embarrass a fellow corrections employee who also happened to outrank me. But soon after the story I saw something that compelled comment — a palm tree right next to their outer-perimeter cyclone fence, a tree which had grown tall enough potentially to tempt some enterprising lady to shimmy up & leap over the razor wire and into freedom. When I took the Lieutenant aside & mentioned this, he sighed. “We’ve all told them again and again about that, but nothing gets done.” He then looked at me and repeated the same observation I’ve heard offered too many times in my career to count: “It’s corrections.’
Understood. “Palm trees in a prison! The very idea!”