Prison: The New “Me” Time

I have to admit, I am a sucker for magazines containing the latest celebrity gossip. My favorite one is People, because it features “regular” folk articles too, and usually a suspenseful true crime story. I also subscribe to Us Weekly and feel joy when these gossip rags show up in my mailbox.

My latest Us Weekly issue recently arrived, and I noticed a photo of Real Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Guidice on the cover, teasing her exclusive photos and prison diary. Now, I don’t watch this particular Housewives franchise, but I am familiar with the show and featured ladies. I will admit to watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for several seasons – I love watching the impeccably dressed and sharp-tounged Lisa Vanderpump.

Nevertheless, I was interested to see what life was really like inside the prison walls of the Federal Correction Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. As a fellow mother, I do feel for Teresa Guidice and her forced separation from her four daughters. I cannot imagine the pain involved in not seeing your children on a regular basis. But then I read Teresa’s prison diary excerpts, and I realized that she is basically on an extended vacation from the responsibilities of everyday life.

Case in point: Us Weekly reports that Teresa works out three times a day. What mom of four children has time to work out three times a day? Her workouts include yoga, Pilates, step class and various workout DVDs. Teresa’s going to leave prison looking like Linda Hamilton from Terminator. This ain’t prison, folks – this is a stripped down fitness retreat.

Teresa details one evening where she attended Pilates and then retired to her room to “relax with a cold cloth on [her] head.” After resting, she planned on watching Empire. After I exercise, I quickly return to reality and face “hangry” children who demand to know why I showered post-workout and want to eat, right now! There is no calm transition to post-workout bliss with a cold compress on my head or tired muscles.

In addition to Empire, Teresa also watches Atlanta and Beverly Hills Housewives, The Voice and movies. I would love to watch Empire (and Girls, Downton Abbey, HGTV and the hundreds of shows I don’t get to enjoy), but I barely have time for the evening news. Can I have her life, please? This incarceration is beginning to sound more like a staycation.

On one pleasant day in February, our New Jersey housewife dined on French toast for breakfast and oatmeal, followed by checking email, drinking coffee and watching the news. When was the last time you got to watch the news in the morning over a leisurely cup of joe? And can someone please make me some French toast?

Following this idyllic morning, Teresa and her fellow inmates watched a Black History special on TV, with the opportunity to win a Hershey candy bar for answering trivia questions correctly. You had me at coffee and chocolate.

Teresa and her roomies also have their own on-call nurse practitioner. In one instance, the New Jerseyan got a dry patch on her chin, and the private nurse treated her promptly with some ointment. Talk about the red carpet treatment! I remember the time I sliced my finger with an onion peeler and applied pressure with the injured hand while continuing to bake with the other. As parents, we’re too busy kissing imaginary boo boos to tend to our own medical needs most of the time.

In her journal, Teresa doesn’t seem to care much for the cafeteria food, but wow, she has her own personal chefs in the big house. She also complains about the abundance of potato products at meals, but let me tell you, a lot of women would kill to eat that many carbs (okay, so some did).

One undated February entry is my favorite: “There is a lady in here, she hit her roommate. The officers are up here now to evaluate the situation. She is a crazy lady who fights with everyone.” Teresa, you just described all three of my children. These so-called fights break out several times a day in my crib. We threaten boarding school on occasion, but I don’t have the luxury of in-house security to contain these mini-threats. I am the security detail, and I am outmanned.

I’m also jealous because Teresa has time each night to write her thoughts down in a journal, something both cathartic and lucrative, as a book deal for her memoir presumably awaits her release from prison. Her time in the poky is really just great raw material for a bestseller that will be purchased on Amazon by bored housewives everywhere. As a writer who struggles to find the time to write or outlets for publication, I am envious of your opportunity, Teresa. Good for you for turning a negative time in your life into a chance to tell your story and make a little cash, too.

And the best part of this prison gig…? Teresa’s husband is at home with all four kids, cooking, cleaning and driving them to all of their activities. What mom wouldn’t want a break from the madness of raising children in our demanding and overscheduled times? Some may call prison hard time, but I call it “me time.”

Teresa, my advice to you is to enjoy the cooked-by-someone else food, load up on potatoes (you are working out three times per day, after all), and binge watch as much TV as you can. Because after prison, it’s back to the harsh reality of real life.

How the Newtown Tragedy Affected a Random Person

Author’s Note:

I wrote this article one year ago when I was feeling emotional toward what transpired at Sandy Hook in December of 2012. I submitted the essay to a random website, and when I didn’t hear anything back, I decided to file it away to the dark recesses of my computer.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine in Connecticut, who has many Facebook friends and fans due to her profession, posted a newsworthy story about Newtown and its victims. Everyone expressed sadness and sympathy for the families, except for one commenter who callously wrote something to the effect that it had been over a year since Newtown, and shouldn’t we “be over it by now?” I was appalled by her insensitive response but didn’t want to hijack my friend’s News Feed, so I kept my mouth shut.

I wouldn’t want to be a part of a society that can “get over” a senseless tragedy of this proportion, involving 26 innocent lives lost. The families of the victims of Sandy Hook will never “get over” this tragedy, as they will likely think of it daily for the rest of their lives.

This event wasn’t my tragedy – I didn’t suffer any losses – and I’m not trying to imagine what the victims’ families are experiencing in its aftermath. The original point of this essay was to deal with the emotions I was feeling to try to grasp what had transpired that day.

(Written in December 2013)

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I still feel raw emotion when reading or thinking about that day. I did not personally know anyone directly affected by the tragedy, nor am I a resident of Newtown. Despite my lack of connection to the shooting, I will never forget the events of Sandy Hook or its innocent victims. And I will never forget that Sandy Hook seized my notions of where we are safe from harm and ripped that security blanket to shreds.

I vividly remember the day of December 14, 2012. My parents and sister were driving in from Austin to visit us at our home in Houston to celebrate my Dad’s birthday and an early Christmas. I dropped two of my children off at preschool at 8:30 a.m. CST, which I later thought about when I read that the gunman entered Sandy Hook around the same time. I remember seeing the breaking news scroll across my computer screen and feeling immense shock as the details unfolded. I recall picking my children up from preschool at 2:00 p.m. as the director cheerily greeted me, and I wondered if she knew any of the details of the shooting, and if so, how could she smile?

As I got dressed for dinner that night, CNN streamed in the background, and I couldn’t look away. To celebrate my father’s December 14th birthday, we headed out to a fancy restaurant and enjoyed ourselves, while parents in Newtown screamed and cursed and wailed and tried to fathom what had happened and where their children were and why. It felt unfair to enjoy ourselves at dinner while others were facing the ultimate horror of losing a child under the worst imaginable circumstances.

As the days moved forward, I continued to watch and read the news coverage of the events and learn what I could about the victims. As a mother of three young children, you hear about the personality traits of other children and naturally extrapolate those features to your child. She loved to draw and make pictures for her friends. He was a huge fan of this sports team. She had beautiful reddish hair. I was drawn to these families and their stories and thought of them often.

I wondered how the parents got out of bed every morning, and I knew that if they had other children, they tried to stay strong for them and keep a routine. I thought about their Christmas Day and what they would do with the presents intended for their absent children. I thought about how it would take every ounce of strength to make the holidays bear some semblance of past ones for the benefit of their surviving children.

About two weeks after the shooting, we began our drive from Texas to Connecticut, where we would live about an hour away from Newtown for my husband’s job training. I remember driving on the interstate and seeing an exit sign for Sandy Hook/Newtown and snapping a picture on my phone to somehow document its realness. As we drove through the interstate portion of Newtown, I caught a glimpse of stark white crosses, presumably symbolizing each life lost. The most touching element was the sky. After driving through days of mist and grayness, the sky suddenly gave way to the most glorious spectrum of colors and beaming sun. I am not a very religious person, but I needed to believe that this display was the children’s way of saying, “Don’t worry; we are in Heaven, and we are at peace.” After Newtown, the sky retreated to ash.

The days passed, and the brutal winter finally thawed into a late spring, which reluctantly warmed into summer. When Connecticut was at its most habitable with cerulean skies and balmy weather, we made the drive south for my husband’s next assignment. My daughter was preparing to start kindergarten, and I couldn’t help but think about Newton and how that day changed my perception of things.

I never take it for granted that my daughter will make it home at the end of the school day. I give her a big hug and kiss at the bus stop and tell her I love her. I want her to know my heart is with hers if something happens. At the school, I assess the placement of her classroom and wonder if someone could sneak through a gate to access the back portion of the school. While waiting in the front office with my daughter in the morning, I notice all the late students lined up to get a tardy slip before heading to class. I see how we are all sitting ducks if someone were to walk into the office around that time of day. I mentally assess where we will run and how I will shield my daughter if he storms into the office.

I see the off-duty policeman at school pick-up and wonder if a car without a student hangtag would trigger some kind of an alert. I see the principal outside everyday directing parents at pick-up, and I have already determined that she would take a bullet in order to save a student, based simply on my analysis of her school-wide voicemails. I noticed that my daughter’s after school art teacher keeps her portable building locked, which appeases me.

Newtown has also changed the way some of us have to talk to our children. I wonder when I will need to have “the talk” with my daughter, that is, what to do if suddenly threatened by an enraged gunman. I plan to tell her to lie still and play dead, as the sole survivor of a classroom allegedly did at Sandy Hook. I have held off on telling her about gunmen because I want her to hold onto her innocence a little bit longer. She does not yet know what a gun is or does, and I suspect some of the youngest victims at Sandy Hook did not know either.

The school shooting has also made me question our country and how divided we are on the gun control issue. I cannot understand what is so controversial about universal background checks. Never mind that nobody really needs an assault rifle – Americans are not willing to give up their assault rifles, so that proposal was a nonstarter. Why are we protecting felons and the mentally ill – those who would be precluded from obtaining firearms – and not insisting upon stricter background checks? Why do we place gun rights above the rights of children to attend school peaceably and free from gun violence? Sadly, if 20 slain first graders cannot prompt the passage of universal background checks or a change in the gun laws, nothing will.

The biggest shock about Newtown was the location of the shooting. A gunman in an elementary school was never on my radar of “horrible things that could happen.” I always felt nervous in movie theaters in this era of random violence, which proved a legitimate concern as the Aurora, Colorado shooting demonstrated. One year after 9/11, I experienced anxiety on the London tube when I studied abroad there; a few years later the London bombings occurred on trains originating from the two tube stations near my old flat. Never in my wildest moments of paranoia did I think to worry about a mass shooting at an elementary school.

Many Americans seem resigned to accepting our gun culture and random acts of gun violence every few months. One response to the recent shooting of a TSA agent at LAX was to arm all of the TSA agents. Upon hearing this idea, I had a flashback to seeing police officers in Mexico carrying around semi-automatic rifles at the airport and how dystopian I found that image. Sadly we seem to be heading in the direction of more weapons and not less.

As time passes forward, I hope that we as a society do not forget the victims of Sandy Hook. Their deaths cannot be in vain. I admire their loved ones’ efforts to lobby for more stringent gun control and mental health reform, and I hope one day our federal government decides that human lives are worth more than nearly absolute freedom to purchase any and all firearms. I hope one day it is more difficult to obtain an assault rifle than a driver’s license. I will never forget the faces of Sandy Hook, and for that, I am grateful.