“This ain’t funny, it’s SERIOUS!” New Reality Series

(In which the notions of men once again slam up against stark reality….)

“Skill-Building Techniques for Stress Reduction” is the name of the program we’ve just begun on Tuesday, May 26th.  Imagining this program to be a book & judging it by its title, you’d not think there was anything particularly funny about it.  But apparently the 12 prisoners who signed up for the course expected this presentation to teach them how to be funny.

That’s hilarious.  Comedians go to groucho disguiseschools for a year to learn improvisation, comedic acting, timing, joke creation, dealing with hecklers,  building a rapport with the audience, developing a point-of-view,  and constructing an act from start to finish.  What these prisoners expected to learn about comedy in 12 two-hour sessions is anyone’s guess.

About 10 minutes into the first PowerPoint presentation entitled “Program Overview,” one of the students yawns & says, “Y’know, I thought this was supposed to be funny.”

You can’t please everyone.  I take off my Groucho Marx glasses.  “We’re trying to show why you need a balanced sense of humor, and how you can use laughter to reduce the stress of incarceration.  Did you think you’d be in LA taking a workshop at the Comedy Store?”   Everyone laughs.

Mr. Bored says “See?  That’s more like it!  There should be more laughter!”

Says I:  “We’re barely 10 minutes into the three-month presentation!  Relax.  Take some deep breaths a then let out some big laughs.”

A half-minute later, our noggins awash in fresh oxygen, the glasses go back on.  “By the way,” I say, “What we just did was your introduction to the laughter therapy we’ll be doing later on down the road.”

“I am NOT looking forward to that!” says another.  “That seems silly.”

“OF COURSE it’s silly.  That’s kind of the point.”

“I don’t like making a fool of myself!”

Someone says: “Then why bother getting out of bed?” Everyone laughs.

“That’s destructive humor,” says someone.

“Yes, it is,” I say.  “That’s the kind of thing we want to point out.  Most of us–both Keepers and Kept–have an imbalance in our humor styles because we emphasize the destructive aspect of humor while ignoring the constructive element.”

“I’ve been imbalanced for YEARS!” says someone else.  Everyone laughs.

As I’m distributing a handout on Hans Selye’s Three Stages of Stress, I take off the paper clip holding the sheets together & toss it to a student who likes puns.  “Make a pun outta that before the night’s over.”

By way of illustration, the handout uses Photoshopped images of a mouse noticing a cat (STAGE ONE 1: “Alarm”), the cat chasing the mouse at 90 miles an hour (STAGE 2: “Resistance”), and then the mouse escaping and finding a safe place to recuperate from the ordeal (STAGE 3: “Exhaustion”).

Comments from the group:  “Ah, that big bully.  He should leave that poor mouse alone!”

“Well, EYE was hoping he was gonna EAT him!”

“You’re SICK, you know that?”

“Whaddaya MEAN?  The cat’s gotta eat SOMETHIN!”


More laughs.

I think to tell them not to get hung up in the example, and try to stay in the moment to deal with the stages, but I know that it’s futile.  Inmates ALWAYS get hung up in the example.  They need to comment on what they see.  It’s a part of prisoner psychology in the class room dynamic that you grow accustomed to.  The times when you need to reign it in is when someone wants to spend too much time pontificating on the example.  In this case, that does not happen, so we move on.

“When are you gonna take off the Groucho glasses?” someone asks.  Before I can answer, some one chimes in, “Leave’em alone, he never looked so good!”

Ha, ha, ha.  “Destructive or constructive?” I ask.  “Destructive!” they say in unison.

“My favorite!” smiles Mr.Bored.

“Yes, I know, because you & I go back a ways.  You may discover the joys of constructive humor, where the intent is not to harm the Other but to just share an innocent laugh with someone.”

“Well, I do that too!”

“OK.  Tell us a constructive joke, just off the top.”

Mr. Bored think for a few seconds, smiles sheepishly & says “I can’t think of one, but I know what they are, so that counts for somethin’!”

Across the room someone says “A pig fell in the mud! That’s constructive.”

“Yes, but why?”

“Because it’s just humor.  You’re not saying it to hurt somebody.”

“Correct.  Now, since destructive humor has as its target the feelings of someone else, should we NEVER use it?”

Mr. Pun says “Well, no, because it can be used within a group of friends who know not to feel threatened or hurt when its used.  Destructive humor among friends can be a measure of the intimacy within the group.  The better you know each other, the more intimate the humor dynamic of the group becomes.”

“Excellent.  Isn’t it odd, though, that the better we know people–and this is our FRIENDS we’re talking about!–the more insulting our humor becomes?”Men-VS-Women

Says Mr. Bored:  “that IS weird!  I’ve noticed that, but never really thought about it.”

Mr. Pun says: “I wouldn’t characterize it as ‘weird,’ because it’s a natural extension of the intimacy the friends share.  You wouldn’t go up to a stranger and use insulting humor, because that intimate bond’s not there, and you’re probably gonna get punched out.  But you will chance destructive humor with a friend, because you know each other and you know that the risk of the joke will be offset by the cords of your friendship.”

“It’s getting hard to breathe in these” I say, removing the Groucho glasses.

“Oh God!  Put them back on!”

Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

“See?”  says Mr. Bored.  “If we didn’t like you, we wouldn’t tease you about your looks!  That’s intimacy!”

“Well, at least you’re learning.  Unfortunately, it’s at my expense.”

“Well, that’s the price you pay,” says Mr. Pun.  Everyone groans.

“You can’t help it, can you?”

“Apparently not.”

“Where were we? Oh yeah, we were laughing at my expense.”  I turn to continue with the PowerPoint, but am interrupted by a man who up to now has been quietly taking it all in.

“You say ‘At my expense.’ But I remember when I first met you.  I came to your office just to get some typing paper, and you made about three destructive jokes toward me, and I didn’t even know you.”

“You know why I do that?  It’s to test your sense of humor.  Most guys smile and give it right back.  I want to see if you’re secure enough with yourself to take a little ribbing.”

“Mr. Bored says “I’ve seen you do that many times.  Is THAT the reason?  Here I thought you were just actin’ like an asshole!”

“Actin’ like one?  he IS one!”

Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

“Can I have my class back, please?  We gotta get through the rest of this PowerPoint.”

“Only if you promise to put those glasses back on!”

Ha.  Ha.  Ha.

“Listen to all the destructive humor.  The level of intimacy in this class room is intense.  We must really like each other.”

“PREA!”  someone shouts.

We never did get through the PowerPoint.  It’s now the end of the class and, as inmates paperclipare filing out of the room, Mr. Pun hands the paper clip to me and says:  “I was going to return this to you earlier, but you were going at quite a clip.”

“That took you the whole night?  That joke is just fasten-ating.  Get it?  Fasten?  Paper clip?”

Mr. Pun is nonplussed.  “Destructive humor is more your forte.  Stick with what you know.”

New program tonight: “You mean ‘excited, not ‘nervous.'”

(In which again we plunge Headlong into the Breach, all in the name of rehabilitation, socialization, and re-integration….)

Last night, I mentioned to She Who Must Be Obeyed that the humor-as-therapy course would begin Tuesday night, and that I was ‘nervous.’  Said She:  “You don’t mean ‘nervous.’  You’re ‘excited,’ not nervous.”

nervousOf course, She is right.  And that’s an important distinction.  You get nervous about the unknown.  The only thing unknown at this point is how my curriculum actually plays out in the class room.  Even THAT’S not an unknown, because modifications to lesson plans are always necessary.

I should relax.


HA! The Science of When We Laugh and Why is our text, and the priHAsoners were given two weeks before today to finish it.  I’ve been thinking about how best to incorporate the views in this book into the presentation, as currently I don’t refer to it in any of my PPT lectures.  I guess I can just tell them that the book gives them a good scientific foundation for what humor is, where it comes from, how our minds process it, and why we need to practice it in our everyday lives.  Yeah.  THAT sounds good.  Maybe they’ll fall for it!


ha-ha-ha-very-funnyIn an email, I told a friend about tonight, and he wished me well.  “Break a leg,” he said. “BEFORE the class.”

Everyone’s a comedian.

Re-integration and the Grammar Nazis

(In which we find a brief rant about a grammatical pet peeve that only seems to happen in Corrections-Land….)

Doesn’t it frost you when Correctional administrators spell ‘re-integration’ without the hyphen? Mind you, these are educated people.  But they spell the word ‘reintegration.’  What they’re spelling is


as in the word SKEIN .  Or, possibly:


as in the word REINDEER.  or, probably:


like the word STEIN.

The problem is, REEN*tegration, RAIN*tegration, and RINE*tegration are words which do not exist.

Hyphens are important. Add the hyphen, and you get:


Re-integration.  Only the hyphen makes that possible and correct.

reintegration What’s so hard about re-integration?

Actually, we might very well ask that question of the ex-offenders who keep coming back.

They’ll tell you.  Or perhaps they, too, don’t know.

“A thank-you never hurt!” “But your FACE does!”

(In which the Librarian calls together his Intrepid Crew for the annual post-Inventory appreciation ceremony [no coffee or Danish allowed….])

2014_Certificate_CarlosAt right is a sampling of the certificate of appreciation we created last year.  This year’s looks the same, the only thing that changes is the text.  I just don’t feel like the aggravation of scanning right now.  Sorry.

Inventory 2015 goes as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances.  No one quits, or gets canned, or earns a disciplinary report, or gets lugged to Segregation.  There is plenty of incompetence, but incompetence tends only to hinder, it doesn’t stop us.  And it gives us plenty to laugh at.

Inventory takes five full days to account for a little less than 17,000 items, and we use no automation, only manpower & drawers of shelf list cards.

Everyone gets mocked & made fun of in these presentations, not a surprise, since that’s what they do to each other every working day.  During these five days, I pay close attention to what is done and said, recording the flubs, mistakes, & funny things people say during the process.  These flubs/mistakes/bon mots get recorded on the certificates.  The certificates are then distributed to the clerks while the Lending Library is closed.

Since refreshments aren’t allowed, we must make do with our wit.  Most of this wit is not suitable for family viewing.  Suffice to say that it is decidedly un-politically correct, which is the way we like it.

A sampling of this ‘wit’ is tthank-youhe title of this post, which comes about when one clerk moans about having to be in the library when where he wants to be is in the Yard.  Another clerk chastises him with “Y’know, getting a thank-you like this never hurts!”  To which yet another clerk replies, “No, but your face DOES!”

We pass out 11 certificates.  A good time is had by all.  Only one guy fails to show, so we read his in absentia & make fun of him anyway.

Clerks enjoy getting these thank-you’s, as they’re not often the recipient of appreciation.  I try to say “Thank you” each time someone does something for me.  Which means I say ‘Thank you” many many times a day, because clerks are always working & making library services what they are.  They are sick and tired of hearing me say “You’re only as good as the people you have,” because I say this several times each week.  But they’re people, and people thrive on praise, and if there’s one thing a manager must refrain from is taking your people for granted.  Show them you admire, respect, and appreciate all that they do.

The ceremony itself takes only about 15 minutes.  We read the certificate, everyone laughs at the guys’ expense, he comes up, we shake hands, and everyone applauds for him.  The rest of the time is spent talking shop & making more fun of each other.

as the people

After all certificates are distributed, one clerk asks me, “Now where’s YOURS?”  I gesture toward the other clerks and say:  “THIS is my thanks.”  A clerk on the other side of the room hears me and says, “I like that!”

Thanks, guys.

John Lennon as a prison Librarian: Or, A LUCKY MAN WHO MADE THE GRADE

Yesterday (Thursday the 21st), the student from San Fran stopped by to visit. He was waiting for me in the Lobby.  I recognized him by his Lennonesque spectacles.


He stayed for 4.5 hours, and needed to leave as he was given strict instructions to return his girlfriend’s car before sundown.  She lives in a part of the Commonwealth that until now I’d not heard of. Way Out West. (We eastern seaboard Massachusettsians are snobbish: anything further west than route 495 we don’t wanna hear about). I think he drove about 100 miles one-way.  We spent the time:

  • Answering his questions
  • Dealing with law library patrons
  • Examining books received for the humor-as-therapy course
  • Watching PowerPoint presentations created for the course
  • Discussing the ABLE MINDS consequential thinking seminar
  • Talking with some of my clerks

We ended the day by making a phone video out in front of the MCI-Norfolk sign, (a video that he promised to email me).

mci - norfolk

At one point, we stopped to answer the call, which is located upstairs in the teacher’s lounge. From that room, there are two large windows that give you a beautiful wide-screen prospect of the Norfolk quadrangle. He was enjoying this view when I emerged from the restroom. So we stood there for nearly 10 minutes, watching inmates walk the Quad while discussing the physical layout of the place. Then he asked, “Where’s their cafeteria?” something I wouldn’t have thought to bring up. The answer is–There ain’t one. Each housing unit has their own kitchen area, and enough tables to sit everyone (Units hold about 90 people). They bring the food from the “Mainline Kitchen,” wheeled on carts through a series of tunnels. They bring these carts up into each Unit via a dumbwaiter. This way, you avoid a gigantic cafeteria where inmates can meet with inmates from other Units, and you avoid enormous demonstrations and brawls between rival gangs and small fights that morph into riots. A very clever and forward-thinking design for 1926.


Anyway, we had as much fun as you can have locked inside an adult male medium-security penitentiary. He spent his first half-day in prison and, despite my best efforts to destroy his enthusiasm and altruistic ideals, he STILL wants to be a correctional Librarian.

A funny side note about the phrase ‘correctional library management.’ The distance learning Dean announced my course by that name on her blog, but didn’t define what it meant. When he saw the course title, the student confessed that he thought it meant a library manager’s disciplinary style, like bringing in a subordinate to your office to discuss ways in which his behavior in the library might be ‘corrected.’ I laughed, but agreed that a post with more background information about the course would have helped to clarify and might have enticed more folks to enroll. Never occurred to me that the adjective ‘correctional’ could mean anything other than ‘having to do with the Department of Correction.’

Before we left the school building, he asked me about how I set limits or professional boundaries. I discovered that the question was asked because he met my book binder and “I would have liked to have spent a little more time with him, as I’m a bookbinder, too.” I said I wish I’d known that, but he only had four hours and anyway he was the one who wanted to leave early to get GF’s car returned to her. I mean, he flew 2,200 miles, the least he coulda done was spend the day with us. But nooooooooooo….


There are many correctional Librarian job openings, so if he stays in The Golden Land & really wants the job, they’ll hire him. I do believe he’ll do just fine.  He’s kinda low-key & cautious, but probably I was too when I started. He’s got an active mind, and is keen to do programming, a discovery over which I rejoiced exceedingly, so he will keep himself busy and be an asset to the inmate population.

That’s only the second time I’ve had a student in, and the first time that I had one in BEFORE the course ran, which is a weird-but-enjoyable dynamic.

‘The Terminator’ as a genesis of serendipity

Sometimes, life conspires to surprise & delight us. This is one of those times.

Preparing for the SJSU course, I planned to contact the Principal Librarian for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR). This person supervises approximately 135 senior librarians, librarians, and library technical assistants for the CDCR.

(Interesting side note: CDCR was referred to as the California Dept. of Corrections until Mr. Schwarzenegger’s election in 2003 as Governor. Shortly thereafter, ‘rehabilitation’ was tacked onto the end of the Department’s name).


For many years, the CA Principal Librarian was Jan Stuter, a nice helpful young lady who helped me coordinate many student tours of CA prisons. Jan has since retired, and in her place is the supremely-talented Brandy Buenafe, who has held the Principal Librarian position for about two years.

When I first discovered this a few months ago, Brandy’s name set off reverberations of recognition in the recesses of my increasingly-irrelevant medial temporal lobe. Since I recall a Brandy in one of my early distance-learning presentations, I suspected that she had been a former student of mine. A check of my previous rosters didn’t help, so I emailed her about it. Sure enough, she participated in the 2007 class.


In her iSchool ‘Community Profiles’ interview, Brandy notes that she had applied for a CDCR Librarian’s position while the course was still running, and disclosed this in her interview. When they decided to hire her, they told her they’d wait until she graduated, essentially holding the position for her until her degree was conferred.

Muy interesante.

It took her but a scant seven years to go from Librarian to Principal. That’s quick.

Congratulations, Brandy. We’ll do what we can to get you some intelligent, enthusiastic, and qualified candidates to fill your current vacancies.



And THANK YOU for posting CDCR openings on the Library Jobs in California blog:

CDCR Job Openings

“You’re cleared to land” Or, Into the Breach

The West Coast student has been cleared to visit, which is an unexpected and welcome surprise. Usually, the Dept. requires & appreciates more than a weeks’ heads-up to get the CJIS check completed. But everyone involved was accommodating, especially my supervisor who is all about transparency and community involvement.

Please understand, and make no mistake–When I started, “transparency” meant Scotch tape; “community involvement” meant attending Town Meeting. The times, they are a’changin’.

OZ  if I were you

I plan to tell his fellow “Correctional Library Management” students that, since he had the gumption to travel 2,200 miles to visit me, he gets an automatic “A.” We plan to make a cell phone video & post it, to prove he was actually here.

The young man will be here tomorrow. The past two weeks we’ve kept in touch via email & phone. He seems like a nice, intelligent sort. He professes and confesses a genuine interest in becoming a correctional Librarian.

I only hope I can talk him out of it.


Today I sat down with my classroom assistant to revise our course curriculum and match handouts, activities and PPT presentations to each Module.  The first thing we need to do is copy the two assessments for the first class.  One assessment, the COPE Inventory,  measures one’s stress-coping skills, the other defines one’s particular humor style.

teaching tattooWe’re also using a text book called HA! The Science of When We Laugh & Why by Scott Weems, a young man with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience.  The 12 participants have already picked up their program copies and (hopefully) will have them read by May 26.

Since the vast majority of course content (PPTs, handouts, etc.) has been created at home, the prison permits me to bring the program laptop with me so that I can load the files and return the computer to the library.  In the past, I’ve had to email files to work, and then figure out a way to get them from there to the program computer.  Or I’ve had to burn them to CD & then get permission to bring those in.  But then they started a policy of disabling ports and devices like CD drives, so that was not an option.  And–in the case of PPTs that are way too large to send as attachments–I’d have to get permission to bring files in on a thumb drive, a device that, until recently, they really didn’t want you bringing in.  The prison’s decided that it’s easier just to take out the machine, load your files, & return it.  Which makes sense..

We’re in pretty good shape now.  We’ve got the curriculum, the PPT lectures, handouts, assignments, program text, planned activities, assessments, equipment, and a roster of eager participants. Now, we wait for the 26th to roll around.

We teach two hours each Tuesday night (6:15PM-8:15PM) in the Lending Library.  The course is scheduled to go 10 weeks.  No earned good conduct credits will be awarded, so inmates attend because they actually want to.  Which is nice.

teacher7After organizing our papers and revising content, my assistant says to me with a smirk, “This is, like, WORK!”  He’s helped me prepare for course, so he knows what’s involved.  Every teacher knows the bulk of the work is preparation.  Yes, you need to have an engaging teaching style, or you lose them.  But you need to have something useful and intriguing to offer them, too, or all the engagement and charisma in the world will be for naught.

book_prisonSince this is the first time out, we have no idea if we’ll have enough time to administer both assessments (the COPE inventory has 60 questions; the Antioch Humor Inventory has 47).  If not, we’ll have to revise lesson plans for weeks 1 and 2 after First Night is over.

This is, like, work.

VIDEO:  My Experience Teaching in Prisons

Like Rain On Your Wedding Day

The San Jose class is a go, with 11 students.  It starts June 1st, ending August 7th.  Actually that statement is high-Larry-us.  The course officially begins months in advance, with all of your pre-course prep. 

San Jose State’s really got their ducks in a row with their distance learning program, they use the best communications technology available to optimize the student learning experience.  And the Learning Management Systems are not nearly as daunting as they used to be, for both student and instructor.

One student who lives on the West Coast emailed saying he’ll be in my neck of the woods in late May & could he come in to see the library?  I thought it would be too close notice, but Norfolk approved it.  I’m just waiting on the result of his background check.

An interesting side note:  If he has a criminal record, he can’t come in.  And isn’t that ironic?  Don’tcha think?  A little TOO ironic.

New Stuff: Or, “I haven’t seen ‘Wizard of Oz’ in 25 years!”

Amazing, the little things we free men take for granted that tend to grab the attention of the incarcerated.

Today, we receive 24 humor-as-therapy books, most of them purchased through Advanced Educational Products, an excellent source with a consistently high fill rate. Included in the shipment are books on stress management, and one on why it’s important as a parent to help nurture your child’s sense of humor. Good stuff.

We also received DVDs, Blu-Rays, & a comedy CD set. These will be for the ‘active listening’ and ‘active viewing’ part of the humor-as-therapy program. During active listening, we’ll listen to a comedian or a comedy bit, and stop it at certain points to analyze the type of humor used and its effects on the receiver (e.g., was anyone hurt by the joke). We’ll do the same thing with the DVDs.

Since most of my clerks are lifers, this is the 1st time they’re seeing Blu-Ray disks. One of them says to me: “Y’know how I knew which were Blu-Rays?” I figure he’s going to tell me some esoteric piece of information about something that he’s learned about the format, so I bite.


“Because their cases are blue!”

And EYE’m the idiot who hired him.

All of the films were chosen for their humor content. some titles include Fiddler on the Roof, Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Wizard of Oz.

When I remove Oz from the box, my inter library loan clerk smiles broadly & says “HEY!  You got the Wizard!  I haven’t seen that movie in 25 years!”  Here I must pause and apologize to the world-weary and cynical, because hearing this breaks my heart.  The Wizard of Oz will always be one of my guilty pleasures, and I manage to see it once a year.  One day, to my delight, I discovered that one of our now-retired Lieutenants could recite whole scenes from this film, such is his mania & affection for it.  His favorite is when the Wizard ‘gives’ the Tin Man his heart.


The inter library loan clerk has signed up for the first cycle of the program, which begins on May 26th.  He will definitely get to see his movie.

Or, at least see sections of it.  Remember, we’re running a stress-reduction program using humor as our therapeutic vehicle.  We’re not permitted to entertain in our libraries, only to instruct & educate.  But if any entertainment value is gleaned by the participants, well, it’s all in the name of rehabilitation and re-integration.

“And remember, my sentimental friend: a heart is not judged by how much YOU love, but by how much you are loved by others.”