Saturday, December 5, 2015

Christmas 2010 Interview with CRAIG EDWARD KELSO, former teacher

It's a strange thing to have your life, very intimate events and emotions, on public display. Before we parted ways, a former student ran a blog, documenting my time on parole. She interviewed me every year at least once. It was a lot of work. I wasn't online. She recorded our conversations, transcribing them faithfully down to the grunt. Here is a peek into my life as it was Christmas of 2010, a little over two months of being out of prison. Reading the interview five years later is beyond unnerving. But I needed to read it, I guess. In any event, here it is. And I mean it.  

Q: You wrote from prison about how hard your life would be once released.
A: Yeah.

Q: How has it been for the last few months?
A: What?

Q: Like what do you do all day?
A: Rebuild. Plan. Act.

Q: Is it as tough as you thought?
A: Tougher.

Q: Really! It doesn’t seem …
A: What do you mean?

Q: You appear content.
A: I am delightful, ecstatic!

Q: That doesn’t make sense.
A: Probably not.

Q: So?
A: Oh, well, yeah, uh, I am just happy to not be incarcerated.  I am now in what is known as constructive custody. I am still in prison, basically. I just have a lot more freedom.

Q: How …
A: How is it tougher?

Q: Yes.
A: The political climate is severe. The goal of my babysitters is to protect the public. I am, by definition, a danger to public safety. They’re looking for any reason to send me back.

Q: You sound paranoid.
A: Sure.

Q: Are you?
A: Probably a little. The truth is my situation, considering how bad it could be, and how bad it might get, is unbelievably great. Law enforcement has been exceedingly professional with me. I am fortunate.

Q: You think you will be sent back?
A: The actuarial tables are fairly clear, I am going back at least once, and for a ten to twelve month stretch. Chances are good I’ll be back a few times, actually.

Q: Why?
A:  Again, the state lumps all offenders in my class together. Publicly in the press they’re saying they will make an effort to differentiate between the crazies and less crazy, but in the practical day-to-day we’re all the same.

Q: Okay, so what does that mean?
A: It means I can be sent back for nearly any reason, no matter how small.

Q: For how long can they hold this over you?
A: Just during parole.

Q: Have you been threatened to be sent back?
A: No, but it’s early. The laws are tightening and becoming draconian in the absurd. But I’ve lost the moral high-ground …

Q: Yes, you have.
A: [laughter]

Q: You say law enforcement has been good?
A: Yes. It’s hard to admit …

Q: Because you hate police …
A: Hate is a strong word. [laughter]

Q: You do.
A: Regardless, they’ve been pretty okay, considering.

Q: That’s good. No problems?
A: None so far. But laws are changing for the worse, and cops have little choice but to enforce the hysteria-laden new measures. Some cops close their eyes and shake their heads at how they have to follow certain procedures when it comes to my situation. They know the letter and the spirit of the laws aren’t jiving, not doing what they’re intended to do. Those laws make the public less safe.

Q: How do more laws make things less safe?
A: Time is scarce. There’s only so much time. And if a cop evenly distributes her time between offenders, this means those offenders who’re much, much more dangerous are getting proportionally less attention than their risk level should dictate. By every measure, I am low risk. I see it all the time. Same thing with incarceration. The principle is being tested right now at the Supreme Court level. Systems get cogged up with paper-filing, stupid procedural obligations, and so on. I’ve always been sensitive to efficiency, and now I am in the belly of the beast. Efficiency in this context is a matter of life and death. I predict more, gruesome tragedies as a result of the recent wave of legislation in our state. The feds won’t be far behind. It’s a great campaign trick, and people love their politicians for some retarded reason. 

Q: Do you want to talk about prison life?
A: Little by little, I will. Not now.

Q: Someone wanted to know about your typical day.
A: I wake up early before sunrise. Exercise. Shower. Eat breakfast …

Q: Skip to the good parts …
A: [laughter] look for employment, take care of errands and whatever comes up …

Q: You’re boring.
A: Pretty much.  It’s very exciting to me. [laughter] I geek out on stuff all the time.

Q: Like what?
A: Fixing my car. Putting together ghetto furniture. Collecting used books. Ripping music CDs, audio books from the library. Finding old clothes. Bugging LPoS to get me mp3 downloads. Decorating my little studio. Looking for jobs. Handling pathetically small amounts of cash and coin. Hanging out with friends. Buying food.

Q: You’ve lost some weight.
A: I have a long way to go.

Q: How much did you lose?
A: About 200 pounds, give or take.

Q: Saved your life?
A: Yep. I have a lot more energy. I feel better. Look a little better. Can lose all the weight I’d like, but ugly stays. [laughter]

Q: Are you working?
A: No. That is the most difficult challenge, so far. Seems like it’s going to be a perennial problem for me.

Q: I know why, I guess, but why?
A: For the reasons everyone can imagine. I broke a public trust, and it’s going to be hard to regain any confidence from an employer. People are skeptical someone in my position can change, can recover from something like what I did. Moral turpitude and all that.

Q: Isn’t that unfair?
A: I don’t know, honestly. I understand the impulse. And I totally get the right to associate with whoever one wants. Employers have to be careful. They’re liable. I am a liability. That’s just a fact. I, of course, don’t think I am a danger, but my criminal record speaks otherwise. On the other hand, I did my time, and I really want to be useful, to be productive. But no one owes me a thing. I have to earn employment, earn the chance to make a living. I have to prove I am worth the risk.

Q: How will you do that?
A: I scour classifieds, have friends posting my resume, and I interview many times a week. I sell myself. I negotiate. I attempt to show a prospective employer how taking me on will ultimately save them money and improve their profits. It’s a hard sell if they’re sensitive to popular opinion. I continue to educate myself. I work to improve my skill-set in all areas. It’s a slow, methodical process, and I work at it every day, every chance I get.

Q: What do you mean about skills?
A: I was an educator, which is to say I didn’t know how to do anything. [laughter] I have degrees, but my practical knowledge is far from ideal. My mathematical reasoning skills, for example, have almost completely faded. A counselor warned I probably suffer from something like PTSD, and an obvious traumatic fallout from all I’ve experienced is temporary loss of this function. It’s surprising to me how bad I am at it. I am getting better, slowly. I study Spanish, which I’ve taken up off and on for years. I suck at it too. Suck at both. I am learning acoustic guitar, using the DVD tutorials accompanying Rodrigo y Gabriela discs. Gabriela is the greatest guitarist of her generation. She’s this slight Paisa from Mexico, and when she speaks English she does so with a Dubliner’s affect, an Irishman’s idioms, and she has the foulest mouth. But her ideas and passion come through, and she’s very inspiring. The chick gets down on the guitar! She has invented a new style. No one can touch her technical exactness, her improvisation and structural creativity. I try and try to keep up, but to no avail. I keep learning, growing. Do what I can when and where I can. It’s a daily fight all around. 

Q: You always carried a book with you before all this.
A: Still do. Constantly studying, reading.

Q: What are you reading?
A: Two books, one in the satchel, one on the night stand. In the satchel is a biography of Ayn Rand by Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, which is quite good though it covers a lot of well-tread ground, and on the nightstand is The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey, the story of some brilliant minds who challenge authoritarianism and sameness.  

Q: Do you miss your old life?
A: What a question! Of course I do in some respects. In other areas, life is better than it has been in years and years.

Q: Really?
A: Yeah. I was miserable before I was arrested. Nothing I was doing fulfilled me in any meaningful way. I was lost, and unfortunately I took a few people with me down that sorry road.

Q: You’re happier?
A: Much. I put in the emotional work needed during my incarceration, and I came through some difficult times, difficult scenarios. I am not entirely cured. I have a lot of work to do in this area too. Time is really the only way to know whether I am a better person than I’ve been. It took me a long time to get to where I was, so it’s only logical to assume it’ll take some time to recover. I try to confront myself often, working on improving in little ways. Small sands the mountain. I am giving a lot more attention to relationships, trying to better appreciate the people in my life, the people who never gave up on me. I owe them in ways difficult to explain.    

Q: Are you still married?
A: No. We divorced while I was inside. Really good thing, though it was effectuated by stupid circumstances, circumstances I created. But the civil chains are finally off me. A huge relief. On the religious front, I wrote the diocese while I was incarcerated, and I agitated for annulment through the tribunal and so forth. The diocesan court eventually granted the ecclesiastical dissolution of our marriage on the canonical grounds I suggested to them. I believe that to be a huge step in the right direction for her, my ex-wife. It’s important our doomed and ghastly relationship not become a permanent albatross around her, especially when it comes to spiritual matters which are the deepest part of a person no matter their creed. I tried to give her that gift, though that probably sounds more than a little arrogant to say. At least she has a chance at real happiness now, I hope.

Q: You wish her well.
A: I do. She has my heart, our daughter. Though I don’t necessarily care for my ex-wife in any significant way, I do respect her office as the mother of our child. I want the best for her and my daughter.

Q: Do you get to see your daughter?
A: No. I am working on that. It’s going to take a lot of legal maneuvering to make any headway there. Long, long road.

Q: Are you hopeful you’ll be able to see her some day?
A: Some day, yes. I’ll never give up. Never.

Q: You were very religious at some point, right?
A: Yes. No longer. Loved every second of it. It just wasn’t a good fit, however. Great people. The Church treated me with such affection. Took me in. Gave me a home. Encouraged me to grow. Allowed me to explore my faith to its logical conclusion. For a short time I even dabbled in apologetics. What it came down to for me was transcendence. I didn’t see it the way I knew others claimed they did. I didn’t feel it. For a while I pretended, and that made me feel worse. I felt like I was tricking honest people. I felt I was fooling myself. I love science. I love my life. I wasn’t sorry for being born. I didn’t want to grovel at the foot of some invisible sky god. I didn’t want to bend at the knee to ask for a forgiveness I didn’t think I needed. I read the Bible, many times, and I found the ancient library wanting, despicable, and the Christ character lacking in discernably admirable traits. The Jewish canon was awful. Nothing made sense to me the more I inquired. Quite apart from the fraternal feelings, which were very strong, I was empty inside. This is not the Church’s fault. I wasn’t honest with myself. Prison gave me the chance to become honest with me again.    

Q: Convicts usually become zealots.
A: I went in the complete opposite direction. I returned to my first love, the love of my life, reason. Friends on the outside asked I attend this or that religious service, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholic, to Buddhist. I went to each in order to make friends back home feel better, and I wrote them about my experiences. The Witnesses were so nice. An utterly confused group, completely orgasmic at the thought of impending doom and destruction, they seized on every news cycle’s horror story. When they’d go on and on about this or that pointing to End Times, I’d laugh out loud. I tried to be respectful, but they were so credulous it was difficult to contain my contempt. But I did manage to make a good friend out of that circle. The Catholics were lovely, but schizophrenic about which way to go, and Vatican II’s legacy and the on-going abuse scandals were not helping matters. The Buddhists were the class of the yard. They asked very little of the men. They stayed for hours. They were open to all levels of inquiry. They brought calm and civility. There, too, however were appeals to a kind of special knowledge, a mystical sort, and I am finished with such nonsense. The Buddhist group did contact me once I was out, asking how they could help. That’s solid folk.   

Q: You don’t believe in anything?
A: I am a positive atheist, meaning I have a strict code of ethics and strict moral philosophy I follow. I don’t mean positive in the happy American sense, which is a fraud. I am not a self-help boner. No pop psychology for me. Life is a net positive, even in times of grave suffering, and I ironically came to that view through the example of the reign of Karol Jozef Wojtyla. His example was rightly criticized by some people, but I thought it heroic in a perverse sense. That he fought and fought for life was consistent with the rest of his philosophy, I thought. I admire him greatly in that aspect. The deepest spiritual experiences of my life were in the darkest moments of my life, which were during my period of incarceration. I found satisfaction in the midst of great pain. I found meaning within myself while in low, small, cold dungeons. And those are not metaphors. Really happened. I use religious language, but at some point I strip it of its mystical or supernatural import. Mysticism and supernaturalism are petulant and childish, and I reject both in all their forms. I don’t need them. Life is mystical enough in the encountering of natural phenomena. I don’t on purpose construct goofy stories to explain the world. Okay, I am starting to lapse into negativism. [laughter]

Q: It is easy to be against something …
A: Right. It’s much, much more difficult to be for something. A lot of atheists never come off defining themselves as against religion. And in this way they themselves become hideous believers. To knock down is easy. A dozen Bedouins can slam into skyscrapers, but those same people won’t ever master the genius and engineering feats to build and give life to great ideas like high-rise buildings or complex modes of commerce. Atheists can be like those hypothetical Bedouins. Atheists concentrate way too much on countering religion. And while that has its place, I think the bulk of good work has already been done. The debate is over, as far as I am concerned. The defense rests. Now it’s time to build, to move forward with useable worldviews. Religious life, though I do not want to belittle it, is easy. There is a blueprint. Follow it. Atheism, the absence of a belief in a god or gods, is so exciting because it is pitiless and indifferent, like nature. The human is faced with gathering meaning, faced with doing the heavy mental lifting of interacting with the world on her own terms. I choose to treat people as ends in-and-of-themselves. I make a conscious choice to not lie. I work on sincerity and fidelity to my own version of antiauthoritarianism and the principle of non-aggression. It’s a satisfying way to live, to exist.

Q: You’re an atheist again?
A: I didn’t leave atheism in substance. I am just better informed than before. But I also don’t like the label atheist. It’s so limiting. And it doesn’t guarantee anything. A lot of people walk around spouting their atheism to get a rise out of others. They wish to shock and draw attention to themselves. They haven’t earned their atheism, the way a young beautiful woman hasn’t earned her beauty. The older woman, my age and older, who is still beautiful after a life of choices is the real deal, really beautiful. She’s had children. Been married. Kept in good shape. Ate well. Lived well. Maybe even recovered from mistakes she’s made. Been tested. The younger beautiful woman was born on third base and thought she hit a triple! [laughter] I’ve always loved the acrostic ballad by Villon, Fausse beauté, qui tant me couste chier. It seems to apply here in a strange way. Same with newly-minted atheists. Watch these so-called atheists. They’ll flip to be the most outrageous religionists very soon, weepily repenting for past mistakes. They’re in most cases using atheism as an excuse to behave abominably, to have all the consequence-free sex they want, to do drugs and alcohol in excess, to steal and so on, and to in general use people as a means to an end. I know the cycle all too well. But I’ve earned my atheism, my right to operate in that world. I struggled, failed miserably, and came out the other side of irrationality and religionism. I know both sides. I am a proud rationalist. I am a beautiful older woman. Wait! My god, what am I saying? [laughter]   

Q: What do you mean? Explain it more.
A: Atheism in its official form, in the hands of the state, has tens of millions of dead bodies stacked up in the 20th century alone. Atheism often created a moral vacuum, and humanity retreated to hopeless collectivism, tribalism, nationalism. People replaced the crucifix with a flag, the statue or tapestry with the great leader, the confraternity with idiotic racialism. A feverish return to religion recommends itself when one confronts the tragic reality of atheism’s sad recent history.

Q: Do you belong to a group or organization?
A: No. I am not a joiner in any sense. I value communities I travel in, and I value companionship and the relationships I have. I’ve always been very uncomfortable in groups, however. But I’ll truck on down to an Extraordinary Roman Rite on Sundays here and there. I’ll listen to Palestrina on occasion. I like to say I am not a barbarian, not an ungrateful animal. [laughter] I appreciate the beauty of Western culture. I am no bigot. The Latin Mass is still, in many ways, the most ideal form of worship to me. It’s muscular, exact, linear in its own way, and that Mass when performed well is a moving Caravaggio. The most beautiful thing this side of heaven, as von Hildebrand once wrote in his angry essay protesting the liturgical innovations of the 1960s. I take part in all the experiences I can, almost exclusively secular, so long as they conform with what I feel is good, right. I won’t limit myself with memberships.  

Q: It does sound like you’re still Catholic in some ways.
A: [laughter] No. Not at all. Not in the slightest. But it points out something important. We’re a psychological and philosophical mash up. We have these layers. They’re layers I acknowledge, and I use them for my purposes. I alone give them meaning. No one else. I am something new, yet I contain the mixtures of all that came before. I have a good friend who fancies himself a mystic of one kind or another, and he’d pounce on that last statement as evidence of my acknowledgement of reincarnation. [laughter]     

Q: Have friends contacted you since you’ve been out?
A: They have. The response has been overwhelming at times. I didn’t realize how many people were interested in my welfare. I am very lucky. Very fortunate.

Q: The blog we set up for you gets emails all the time, asking about how you’re doing.
A: That’s cool. I am kind of a freak show, like midgets getting out of a small car. People are curious about what happens next.

Q: What does happen next?
A: I live. I go on. I take the lessons of the past and apply them to the future. I adapt. I change. To the best of my ability, and to the extent possible, I attempt to clean up the mess I made. But I don’t wallow. I don’t sit and think about it all the time. I push and push and push to get to the next phase of life in a positive way. I don’t ignore the past, but I don’t live in it either.

Q: Do you think it’s possible to still have a good life?
A: Absolutely. Life will be whatever I make of it. Sure, there are restrictions and hurdles to navigate, but much of what I face now will wither away once parole ends. I already have an incredible life. Already. But I keep Rothbard’s dictum, Unrealistic short term expectations will only lead to long term failure, and I make sure to keep in the sane, reasonable space of reason, rationality, and logic. I know what I have to do. I know what I face. I don’t sugar coat. I don’t pretend. I don’t lie to myself. I have perspective. I know where I’ve been. I know how bad things can get. I’ve hit lows most humans, thankfully, will never experience. I work to never forget how great my life is at this moment, and so that fuels my present condition which fuels my life’s future.

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