Monday, March 31, 2014

Road Trip Redux

As promised, I return in this post one last time to my recent road trip, which is already taking on a fuzzy, nostalgic hue in my mind. But it's not lost on me that this little trip, though it may still be of interest to yours truly, is probably not of quite so much interest to others. There's nothing more tedious, after all, than listening to a friend or neighbor recount their recent vacation in nauseating detail.  By its very definition, a road trip, once completed, loses a great deal of its frisson and verisimilitude. 

So rather than recounting the final leg of my trip - from the great salt beds of Utah to the downtown slums of San Francisco and then on to the city of Angels - I decided to take a no frills approach, highlighting a few lessons learned along the way and posting a few remaining pictures. Where possible, I will connect these lessons to the underlying themes of this blog.

Nebraska road sign

The first lesson is monetary. I justified the road trip in my mind as a money-saving endeavor, cheaper than the luxury of coach-class airline travel. I must have been living in the distant past of my boyhood - when gas cost 30 cents a gallon - or else my math skills are even worse than I already suspected. The fact is, a road trip is not for the poor or indigent, a group in which I now include myself. I was still somewhere in the corn fields of Nebraska when I came to the depressing conclusion that I'd already spent more on gas than the cost of a round-trip airplane ticket. And I was just traveling one way. I suppose that if you packed a family of 6 into the good-old family cruiser the equation could change, but for the single traveler counting his pennies, the plane is the way to go.

Wyoming road sign

On the topic of modes of transportation, this was actually the second trip in the past 9 months that I crossed this big country of ours in a vessel other than an airplane. Last summer, my kids and I took the storied Southwest Chief from Chicago to LA. While my kids had very little say in this decision, it turned out to be a wonderful experience for all concerned. Trains are truly a melting pot for our country's races and ethnicities and classes and my kids made fast friends with children they would never have met in their daily lives. And there's nothing like watching the miles roll by from the upper deck of the parlor car's panoramic windows, although for most of the trip my kids' heads hovered over iPads. If you're determined to avoid a plane, than the train is really the way to go.

Kids, friends and iPads on the train last summer

Another lesson learned is that our country is filled with an awful lot of prisons. Driving cross-country on I-80, I passed countless roadsigns - typically in the middle of nowhere - informing passersby of nearby prisons and jails. The deserts of Nevada seemed particularly chock-full of them - that and nuclear test facilities - so much so that they even have special road signs when entering and leaving the vicinity of a 'correctional facility' warning drivers not to pick up hitchhikers.  In my opinion, any escapee stupid enough to stick out his thumb on the road that runs past his prison's front gate deserves to be caught. 

Nevada road sign

While on the road in one of the few areas with NPR coverage, I happened upon an interesting Tom Ashbrook segment devoted to this very interrelationship between prisons and rural areas. It turns out that the prison industry - and it really is an industry, with hordes of lobbyists, vast resources and sway on capitol hill - has swooped in as one of the last remaining pillars of support for the ailing economies of our small towns. It is such an essential component of economic survival in many rural regions that industry lobbyists and many ordinary citizens promote our high rates of incarceration as necessary to the survival of our small towns. Where else in our 3rd world economy can poor, barely literate high school dropouts find a living wage other than as prison guards? This argument - to my mind - suffers from a lack of morality. If those making the argument feel so strongly about it, maybe they can volunteer themselves for prisoner duty to help their neighbors keep their jobs. But it does underline the economic impact of incarceration and some of the underlying forces that result in the U.S. having the highest rate of incarceration in the world. 

My final lesson learned is that if you really want to get to know our country - its size, its people, its history - than a road trip is the way to go. So too if you want to put your life into perspective: faced with the vastness around you, the eternal vistas, the empty plains, your own problems can come to seem small and unimportant in comparison. But that comes with one caveat: to do it properly, you have to get off the interstate. As most of you undoubtedly know, interstate travel is a monotonous tedium in which one exit - filled with McDonald's and KFC's and Taco Bells - looks pretty much like any other, whether you happen to be in Maine or Idaho. The only interstate-specific feature I found at all interesting were the truckers and their truck stops - vast, sprawling places more like little towns than stores, with a culture and atmosphere all their own.  Down the street from a truck stop in Winnemucca, Nevada I even happened upon a legal brothel called the PussyCat Saloon, though I gave it a wide berth on my way to buy some gas. By that point in my travels I was not in the mood for love.

Snow melting in the Sierras

It was only when I finally, finally, got off the interstate once and for all - after crossing the California border and passing through an inspection point that looked suspiciously like an international border crossing - did I finally relax and begin to enjoy myself. This is in part due to the fact that Lake Tahoe, where I finally hit the backroads, is truly beautiful. There's something magical about the abrupt transition from the barren deserts of Nevada to the lush highlands of the Sierras. And no prisons to be seen. Although I happen to be afraid of heights and don't like to hike, I'll take mountains over beaches any day. Something about the fresh mountain air, the clear streams and the smell of pine sets my mind at ease and puts my heart to rest.

Of course, traveling up a mountain in my rental truck on a narrow, switchback road that crested with a drop-off on either side got my heart to beating once again, as did the smoke coming from the brakes.  But it was worth it. I inhaled deeply of that beautiful scent of pine and steeled myself for my court date the next day. And the surprising thing was, standing there along a clear mountain stream, seemingly alone in the world but for the 500-year-old pines, I gained some perspective, perspective that convinced me that my problems were actually quite inconsequential in the big picture of things.

Maybe, come to think of it, that's the real lesson learned.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

My Judge: The Luck of the Draw

Despite yesterday's long missive on sentencing, I lay in bed last night thinking that one aspect of the whole experience deserved more attention: my judge. Or, to be more precise, I decided I needed to write more both about the man himself and the disorienting experience of being judged.

First of all, it feels very strange to be in the position of writing about a judge in the possessive - i.e., my judge - as if he were my valentine (won't you be mine). That is, of course, ridiculous: he is no more mine than yours or anybody else's. But the fact is, he was assigned to me, presided over my case, read about me and my misdeeds in excruciating detail, and pronounced judgment on me. In the course of human interactions, it doesn't get much more intimate than that. As a result, I can't help but feel that he is mine at least in some sense of the word.

My judge

My confusion in regard to my relationship with this man evinces the fact that it is a strange interaction when one human being is put into the position of judging another. This man, whom I'd never met, and who I imagine is subject to some of the same weaknesses and failings as all human beings, held my fate in his hands. I found the experience scary. On the one hand, I wanted to ascribe all the highest human faculties of reason and judiciousness and understanding to this person - hoping for the best is the best way I can describe it.  On the other hand, I understood that my hope could very well be misplaced. What if he'd cut himself shaving that morning or was just plain old having a bad day? Would he add a year or two on in spite? When he pronounced my sentence, I wondered to myself how he'd come up with that seemingly random number. Was it something more than a whim, a capricious stab in the dark?  "Hmmm, 50 sounds good, let's go with that."

Not my judge (thank God)

We have all had, of course, at least superficial experiences with judging or being judged: at work in an employment review, at school by the teachers. But these types of judging are vastly different, much less consequential, than the decisions taken each day by judges - decisions over freedom and incarceration, life and death - as a matter of course. As I stood before my judge, I tried to put myself in his shoes, wondering what it must be like to pronounce judgment on another. I tried to imagine him up late reading all the letters and briefs about me, trying to get an understanding of this man that stood before him.  I couldn't quite picture it. And I most definitely would not want to do it. 

What first came to mind was that, in some sense, it must be a heady experience: the power of the position could worm its way into the ego of a weak man, playing havoc on his sense of self and power, over-inflating his sense of worth. The fact that my judge was self-effacing, modest and thoughtful - in other words, that he approached his task with the gravity and seriousness that it deserved and had not let his position go to his head - made me respect him all the more.

We Americans like to think that we have elevated justice to some higher plane, a plane above the caprice and randomness of daily life. We like to think that through proper organization we can bring order and fairness to the judicial process - the act of judging others - to raise it above the inherent failings of the human condition. Just look at our sentencing guidelines, designed in a highly technical manner, much like a computer program, to spit out fair and just sentences through the input of the proper data. 

This dispassionate, apolitical approach to sentencing is a particularly American belief and, as sorry as I am to say it, is nothing more than a chimera. We have clearly failed in our elevated pursuit of perfect justice. In reality, our sentencing is haphazard and disjointed, unfair, unjust and even - more often than any of us would like to admit - racist. 

Our sentencing is politically motivated and, far from being administered in an upstanding judicial vacuum, is often influenced by outside events that should have no bearing on the case at hand. Many judges at local, regional and state levels, must in fact run for reelection and tailor their rulings to the whims of the public. As I listened to my sentence, I wondered to myself what influence Russia's recent actions in Ukraine may have had on my sentencing. I'm certain that my judge did not let these events change his decision, but it's certainly conceivable that another judge could have been swayed by recent anti-Russian fervor. 

As I already wrote, I feel blessed to have received, through the luck of the draw, a considerate, thoughtful judge. I truly appreciate the fact that with him I received a fair, considered hearing. He clearly took the time to study the materials and consider the options. He didn't rush to judgment or impose a cookie-cutter sentence.  These are the qualities I would expect in any successful judge, as a matter of fact. I am satisfied with my sentence. But I understand from my lawyer and others who know the system well, that my judge is the exception to the rule rather than the norm. Many judges, I have been told, are pressed for time, incurious, prone to aping the prosecutor's line, politically motivated, burned out, biased. 

But my aim is not to criticize judges themselves but the system within which they work. The very fact that the judge you receive can make such a humongous difference in the outcome of your case demonstrates the very failing in our system: its capriciousness. It is a system not so far removed from the good old English court where your fate depended on the caprice of the king, with the difference that if you don't like his ruling, you may be able to appeal to another group of higher-up kings.  At base, it is a system ruled by individuals, some good, some bad, some indifferent. 

The judge your receive is an entirely random event but it is nonetheless an event, like being struck by lightning, that can have a profound impact on your life.  But where the English readily admit to the fallibility of their model, we bury our head in the sand with prophylactic 'scientific' cures designed to ensure a fair, just system, but which in reality result in the exact opposite. It's time we just admit the fact that our judicial system is a system run by human beings for other human beings, subject to all the infallibilities and failings of any other human system. Only through admitting this most basic fact will we be able to recognize our system for what it is and begin to address its failings.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Sentencing: The End of the Line

My sincere apologies for the delay in relaying the big news and also for the road trip accounts which ended somewhat mysteriously at an Ikea store in Utah. No, I didn't drown myself in the Great Salt Lake, get lost in the ball pit at Ikea or just keep on driving until I reached the Amazon (though I was tempted - by the latter, not the former). But sometimes life just happens to overtake social media. 

My short excuse is that somewhere in the Nevada desert I became too preoccupied with what awaited me down the road in San Francisco to continue to air my anxieties for all to see.  The long excuse has something to do with a self-imposed media blackout after the prosecutor got wind of this little blog and twisted my words in a filing to the judge until it sounded as if I were an unrepentant scumbag.  

More on that later.

Before I get to the big news I would like to thank everyone who supported me along the way with calls, messages and e-mails. You really helped to keep my spirits up, so much so that I now look back on my little road trip with warm, fuzzy nostalgia - I almost want to do it again! Although it is a bit anticlimactic, this weekend I will post the account of the final leg of my trip - from Utah through Nevada and on into California. 

My apologies to those who called - including Walt Pavlo, whom I've mentioned before - for the spotty mobile services out there in the wilds of Wyoming. It wasn't that I didn't want to talk with you but that I couldn't hear you. It turns out that that big red coverage map they tout on the Verizon ads may be a bit overstated. 

For those new to this blog a brief recap: I stole money back in 2010 from a Russian oligarch, was caught and reached an agreement last Fall with the U.S. prosecutor handling my case, an honorable gentleman with the same last name as mine: Sprague (different first name though - Doug). I pled guilty in December to one charge - transportation of stolen money - which carried a maximum sentence of 10 years and a big fine. 

Doug Sprague, the prosecutor in charge of my case.  

Because Mr. Sprague and I could not agree on all the facts, we did not reach a formal plea agreement. Nor did we - as is typically the case - hammer out a sentence to be presented to the judge for approval. The federal sentencing guidelines, which are no longer mandatory but are often still followed, recommended a sentence of between 7 and 10 years.  The government was asking for a sentence at the lower end of these guidelines, or approximately 7 years. 

It actually gets a little complicated here, both because sentencing and the guidelines are very complex and because different governmental representatives were requesting different amounts. For the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that I walked into U.S. District Court on Monday facing the possibility, maybe even probability, of a long, involuntary vacation.  Because we had not reached a plea, my fate rested in the hands of the judge to a greater degree than is typically the case.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson

My sentencing was scheduled for 2:30 p.m. before the Honorable Judge Thelton Henderson. I'm happy to report that I made it washed, shaved and on time, though in case anyone is considering following in my footsteps, I wouldn't recommend driving a rental truck with a car trailer in downtown San Francisco. I wasn't in the best of form, however. I was very nervous and struggling with my fight or flight instinct; a little voice in my head kept telling me to run off down the street. Though she had much less riding on the outcome, my lawyer was nervous too. 

One cause of our nervousness was the use by the prosecutor, Mr. Sprague, of several misleading sentences from this blog in his rebuttal of our sentencing memorandum. You could also say that I put my foot in my mouth - or my thumb on the keyboard - with a sentence he cited that sounded, in isolation, like a putdown of my probation officer. My lawyer told me that she wouldn't be at all surprised if that one ill-considered sentence got me an extra year or two.

KC Maxwell, my court-appointed lawyer

The assigned courtroom was grand and imposing, with high ceilings and wood panelling, the type of stereotypical courtroom you often see in movies. I sat with my lawyer nervously watching the clock and taking surreptitious glances at Mr. Sprague across the room, appearing so deceptively benign in his blue suit. Finally, about 2:50 p.m. the judge rolled in in his wheelchair and court was in session.  I was last on the docket, though the two cases before mine were mercifully quick - the poor man just before me was facing up to 5 years in prison for smoking pot while on parole, which helped me put my plight into perspective and provided me with a lesson to remember for the future.

Finally, I heard my name, stood and walked like a zombie to the podium; I actually do not remember the walk - it was as if I teleported from the back of the courtroom to the podium at the front. The judge turned first to me and I read my prepared statement into the microphone. My lawyer jabbed me several times with her elbow, shook her head and waved her hand, which leads me to think that my presentation was less than perfect. But at that point I couldn't make the words come out fast enough - I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible. I will post my speech later but it's easy enough to guess what I said: I expressed my heartfelt remorse in at least one hundred different ways. 

My lawyer spoke next, listing all the reasons why I deserved a light sentence (we were requesting a year and a day). Then the prosecutor spoke, telling the judge why I am the worst human being to walk the face of the earth since Job. It got very confusing with all the "Mr. Sprague's" being thrown about - I couldn't at times tell whether the speaker was referring to me or the prosecutor.

Finally, the big moment: everyone had said their piece and it was now the judge's turn. He read from some prepared remarks and quickly came to the magic words: "downward departure". To my ears, these were the most welcome words in the English language, better at that moment than "I love you" or "You're the sexiest man alive." Although I am decidedly heterosexual, in that instant I fell in love with the man. What the words meant was that the judge had determined, based on the arguments, that I deserved less time than called for by the guidelines and requested by the government. 

He went on for a few more minutes about his views of me and the case. I hung on every word, waiting for the number I knew must surely follow. He was clearly convinced by some of our arguments explaining my contrition and how I tried to make amends, but expressed his doubt that my addiction was fully to blame. It was apparent that he had spent a lot of time with the materials and had clearly carefully considered his position. I will not be one of those prisoners - and I've heard there are many - who complains incessantly about their judge and how they didn't get a fair hearing (though you may find me complaining, every once in a while, about the prosecutor).

As the judge spoke, I realized from the way he read from his prepared remarks that he had determined the sentence beforehand based upon the filings and that nothing we said in court that day had any bearing. It also became clear that he hadn't taken offense at my blog postings. More good news.

Finally, when I was about ready to shout out "How much, your honor," he said it, those words that would determine my fate: 4 years and two months. 

And that was it. There was a bit more talk about restitution, how much time they would give me before prison, stuff like that. The judge also wished me best of luck and the prosecutor shook my hand, as if I had just won an award. But I was no longer listening; I had my number and that's all that mattered.

Now, 4 years is not a trifle, it's a long enough chunk of time. And of course I wish that the judge had pulled another number out of his hat - two years sounds awfully nice to me. My lawyer told me she thought I deserved less. But I walked into that courtroom having decided long ago what sentence I could "live with". That's not to say I would  have killed myself if I got 7 or 8 years, but I would have been awfully depressed. It just so happens that 4 years was the number I'd had in mind all along. 

In part, that's because the the actual number is not as bad as it sounds. The judge recommended me for an addiction treatment program, which will take one year off my sentence. With time off for good behavior (assuming, of course, that I don't misbehave) we're talking about 2 years and a couple months. It also happens to be the number that the original prosecutor on the case - who was unfortunately transferred to another office - proposed way back when this all started. I held that number in my head as a sign of fairness: Mr. Sprague backed out of his predecessor's offer and that rankled me more than anything. 

In short, I can live with my number. I deserve 'it', or if not 'it', than at least something. I did wrong and I long ago prepared myself to suffer the consequences. More than anything, I was tired of waiting, tired of feeling as if my life was out of my hands. This is the bookend on a long painful process, that moment of finality I've been waiting for. I heard my number and now I face my sentence with relief. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Road Trip Factoids: Random observations from along the way

To pass the time as I drove, I jotted down random interesting factoids in my notebook. 

  • Most popular name: Casey. I passed Casey stores, Casey restaurants and several Casey towns. 
  • Favorite town names: Friend, Nebraska, Strawberry Wyoming, Ogallala (can't remember the state)
  • Favorite Billboard: "Bulls and Bull Semen for Sale. Turn right at next exit and follow signs." 
  • Most honest road sign, placed at the entrance of a tiny, one-horse town: "Welcome to Klysburn, Now Leaving Klysburn." 
  • Best NPR station: Wyoming (although it's strange to listen to Robert Siegel talking about world events while driving through the middle of nowhere, surprisingly enough Wyoming has a good, strong chain of NPR stations)
  • Speed limits: 65 (Wisconsin), 70 (Iowa) 75 (Nebraska) 80 (Wyoming). It didn't make any difference to me though: the top speed of my truck is 55 mph.
  • Number of McDonalds: +50 (I stopped counting after Kearny, Nebraska)
  • Cheapest gas: Wyoming. $3.39/gallon
  • McDonald's food consumed on trip to date: one milkshake, one McChicken, small fries
  • Cost: I took this trip, in part, to save money over flying but didn't properly calculate how much I'd spend on gas. After two days on the road, I'd already spent more on gas than the cost of a plane ticket.
  • Budget rental van vital statistics: 
    • Gas mileage: 10 mpg with the wind at my back.
    • Top speed: 55 mph
    • Top speed going up the Rockies: 10 mph
  • Truck drivers: the myths and stereotypes are not all true, but most of them are very large around the middle
  • Truck driver pay: very little. If they're lucky, truck drivers earn about $0.35-0.45 a mile. This means that for a 2,000 mile trip like the one I'm taking, they'd take home about $700 before taxes and other expenses. Such a trip takes four or five days and they're limited in how many hours in a day they can put in behind the wheel. You can do the math: it doesn't add up to very much.
  • Semi-truck cabs: very nice and high tech. A driver gave me a tour of his rig: computers, wifi, a fancy sleeping compartment that was like a small bedroom
  • Weigh stations: rental vans have to stop at these too. I found this out  the hard way when a trooper in Wyoming chased me down and made me turn around and drive back.
  • When a truck driver flashes his lights it has different meanings, depending on the context and number of flashes. One flash: switch lanes; two flashes: speed trap up ahead
  • Favorite truck stops: tie between Flying J in Wyoming (great bathrooms, good food, friendly people) and Little America near the Wyoming - Utah border (marble bathrooms, nice gas pumps, good cookies)
  • Least favorite state: Nebraska
  • Favorite state: Utah. Salt Lake city is beautiful, located in a valley with soaring mountains all around
  • Herbert Hoover's house looks like a miniature version of the White House
  • John Wayne's house does not look like the house of a cowboy but that of a farmer
  • Cutest truck drivers: in Nebraska, three incredibly beautiful women passed me driving pickup trucks, forcing me to rethink my stereotype of who drives those things
  • Moving van: when you are driving a Budget rental truck, you essentially become invisible to car drivers. They don't look when they pass, cut you off as if you don't exist and generally act as if you are not there. Truck drivers, on the other hand, adopt you into their fraternity: they wave when they pass and flash their lights to warn you of speed traps.
  • Car drivers are much worse than truck drivers
  • Favorite car: in Utah, I met someone driving a 1960-something MG across the country from CA to NY. The car had only broken down three times by that point.

Road Trip Continued: Four States in One Day

After several hours of sleep in the backseat of my car in Fort Kearny, Nebraska, I awoke shivering and with a terrible crick in my rear where the seatbelt buckle had made a permanent indentation. I opened my bleary eyes and tried to focus, confused by a vivid dream of 4th of July fireworks. The car was so cold I could see my breath underneath the sleeping bag. After the night on the road I had hoped to sleep beyond 8 a.m. Was it the cold that woke me? I glanced about in a daze and the noise - that sound of exploding fireworks from my dream - sounded again. I peeked out from underneath the sleeping bag and, to my dismay, found myself staring up at a uniformed officer with his nose to the glass. I clambered up as quickly as I could - at least I had slept with my clothes on - and exited the car. I brushed feebly with my hand at my hair and tried to straighten my shirt, which had twisted in the night.

A truck stop in the middle of the night. Contrary to myth, truckers actually stop to sleep.

"Yes, officer?" I asked. Panicked thoughts that I had unwittingly broken some terribly important local law tumbled through my mind. I had already prepared myself to become an inmate in federal prison but not the local jail in Fort Kearny, Nebraska.

"You're blocking the trucks," he said in a clipped Midwest twang. 

"What?" I looked over his shoulder and saw three semis lined up on the small road on which I had parked. I suddenly realized that what to me had appeared at 4 a.m. to be an empty field was actually a dirt lot that led to some sort of factory about half a mile away. Thinking it was a turnout, I had parked my car directly in their path. 

"I'm so sorry," I stuttered. "I didn't realize."

The officer frowned but I thought I could detect a faint smile threatening to emerge. "Next time you're in town," he said, "I would appreciate it if you would just park in a parking lot. Or get a hotel room."

Any idea what "kobasa" is? It wasn't Monday so I couldn't find out.

After that little adventure I set off down the road. I groaned to myself as I thought about another entire day behind the wheel. But before long I was once again in the zone.  The day passed surprisingly quickly, with stops for gas every 200 miles the exciting highlight. Without this road trip I would be sitting at home, upset, nervous and stressed. At least driving gives me something to do to keep my mind off of what awaits. I also feel as if I'm doing some good: I am giving my household goods to family members that will really be able to use them.

Embarrassingly enough, I almost ran out of gas two times that day in those flat, empty spaces. The thought terrified me. In my defense, the gauge in my truck moved slowly down to 1/2 a tank and then shot with increasing velocity from there toward empty. I was also not used to these vast spaces, where 100 miles between towns is considered a hop, skip and jump. Out on the plains you have to plan far ahead for the next pit stop.

Tired of driving.

Those who have only flown over the Midwest between California and New York tend to assume that all the states in the middle are pretty much the same. I can tell you with certainty that they are not. For example, in Wisconsin as you drive you will see field after field filled with black and white cows. In Nebraska, all the cows are solid black. Do you know why? I do. Don't ask me their proper name - Guernsey? - but in Wisconsin the cows have udders and produce milk. In Nebraska, the cows are not cows at all, but bulls. They're raised for meat.

The spaces are also different out there on the plains. Where Wisconsin is hilly, Nebraska is flat, so flat that the wind gusts in frightening bursts and you can see for miles and miles in all directions. It makes me feel lonely, as if it's just the truckers and me in an otherwise empty world. At one point the only radio reception was for a country station and a religious talk show.  Later that day, as I approached the border with Wyoming, I happened upon a local program called the "Grocery Hour" in which an old woman read on air what sounded like her grocery list. "Peas, 99 cents, ham, $3.45 a pound, Crisco, $4.00."  At first I thought it was a joke, but her voice sounded serious and she continued on and on. She was still talking about groceries when the reception faded twenty minutes later.  Don't ask my why.

1000 miles! Halfway there!

After a while, the towns and fields and states began to blur together. I just kept going and going and going, amazed that our ancestors could have traversed these forbidding spaces in their covered wagons. It's not that I was enjoying myself, exactly, but it was better than the alternative of sitting at home and waiting. I fell into the mindset of running a race. This wasn't a vacation and I knew where I had to be by Monday come hell or high water.  I just wanted to get to the finish line. In that one day, I traversed over 800 miles through Nebraska, the edge of Colorado, Wyoming and on into Utah. No more pictures, no more stopping to see the sights, which is a pity in a way because the wilds of Wyoming are beautiful in an austere sort of way. I crossed the continental divide, time zones changed, I inched through the Rocky mountains, my truck's motor screaming: my only stops were for gas. I just wanted to get past those vast empty spaces that lay between me and my sentencing hearing. Late Thursday night I pulled into an Ikea store in Salt Lake City, Utah, and slept, for a change, in the cab of my truck.

Asleep in bed.

On that long, empty day alone in my truck, without even my radio to keep me company, I began to get lonely. I enjoy solitude but this was a little much, even for me. I was missing the daily Skype sessions with my children that anchor my day.  Thankfully, Walt Pavlo, who I've mentioned before, called to cheer me up in advance of the hearing (until the telephone reception went out once and for all). And I talked with truck drivers - for whom I have a new appreciation - at the various truck stops where I stopped to fill up. They make surprisingly little money doing a job that's actually hard- I'm pooped after 3 days on the road but they do it all the time. They have a vibrant subculture and wouldn't trade their jobs for anything. I even showered together with some hulking specimens of humanity at a stop that had advertised its "real marble showers" on billboard after billboard for at least 100 miles.  They didn't live up to the hype.

Despite these distractions, I began to think obsessively about what awaits in San Francisco. As the miles ticked by, I crafted endless paragraphs in my head about what I could say to the judge when it's my chance to speak to properly express my feelings about what I've done. By the end of the day, I had probably an hour's worth of heartfelt remorse and contrition worked up - I've hurt a lot of people - which was a problem because I should only speak for several minutes, if that. 

That's more than enough for now. Tomorrow I will recount the last leg of my journey around the Great Salt Lake, across Nevada and on into California.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the Hunt for Sandhill Cranes

Time: 3:23 a.m.
Place: Fort Kearny, Nebraska, the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Twelve hours on the road and here I am at a 24-hour McDonald's drinking a vanilla shake. I now know the answer to something I've always wondered: in the middle of the night you can order both a Big Mac and an Egg McMuffin. 

For the past several hours I've been ready to pull over but was lured on by signs along the road touting the allure of Grand Island Nebraska. There were more signs for this place than for the big cities I've passed through - Omaha, Dubuque - so I had high hopes of finding an oasis in the plains, or at least something other than a fast-food restaurant and a place to lay my head. When I finally reached this oasis in the plains what I saw was a swamp and a gas station. That's it. So I decided to carry on to Fort Kearny, the next point on the map. And so here I am - not a crane in sight.

The trip started well. As I left Oconomowoc I was excited to hit the road. Strong gusts of wind that pushed my truck wildly across the lanes kept me focused. The border crossing - the first of the trip - into Ohio was the overwhelming highlight. But then things began to drag. I focused obsessively on the odometer as the miles slowly clicked past. I'd been driving for what seemed like hours but had only moved 1/2 inch on my map.

Crossing the first border

As a good Wisconsinite, I know next to nothing about our neighboring states. I assumed they were all piddly, inconsequential places compared to our great state. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Iowa is incredibly long. Hours and hours and fields and fields and there I was, still tooling through the corn. That's not to say the state is boring. Oh no. It's a barrel of excitement, especially compared to the next state along the road: Nebraska.

The first attraction I came across was the homestead and library of my very favorite president - Herbert Hoover. I had always assumed that this president who so bravely led us into the Depression was a blue blood from out East. Not so. But major bummer: I arrived too late and the library was closed.

Library and house of our best president - closed for the season

Down the road a ways from H. Hoover's former digs I came across attraction number two: John Wayne's birthplace. Who would have ever guessed that our most famous celluloid cowboy harks from the corn fields of Iowa? And almost a neighbor of Herbert Hoover, to boot. But - double bummer - this too was closed.

First of many, many fill-ups.

Finally, at some indeterminate point following the excitement engendered by these discoveries, I settled into the ZONE. This was a semi-meditative state in which the miles flew past. I couldn't tell you what I thought about or what I did during this time. All I know is that I managed to stay on the road and avoid pissing off any semi drivers. One thing that I definitely DID NOT think about was what awaits me at the end of this adventure. I did think about what to write in this blog and crafted in my head the world's best, most interesting post. But now that I am sitting here at my computer I cannot remember one single idea.

My friend Dave seen from behind watching Fox News.

My big plan to meet people along the way and tell them of my sordid past has not yet come to much. The only person I've talked with - not counting cashiers - was a morbidly obese man named Dave, who I met in a truck stop/diner/gas station somewhere in Ohio. Dave was friendly enough but - how to put this politely - extremely forward with his political views. Within five minutes I'd basically got the gist of his sophisticated worldview, which can be summed up by the old adage: going to hell in a handbasket. The only thing saving us from Armageddon, according to Dave, is the right to bear arms, and even that is under serious threat. In the end, I decided that it was not in my best interests to tell Dave he was sitting across from a convicted felon.  

One way that I've passed the time is to count the McDonald's that I've passed. This stop here in Fort Kearny is particularly fortuitous, as it also happens to be McDonald's restaurant No. 50 per my counting (though I may have missed a few while in the ZONE). I had planned to avoid all fast food for at least another day but this was too historic an occasion to pass up. 

4 a.m. at McDonald's No. 50 in Fort Kearny Nebraska

A few hundred miles back I also stopped at the world's largest truck stop (at least according to the sign). I was understandably impressed by the vast rows of fuel pumps but was left wondering how they determined this fact. Is the determining factor the number of urinals? Or maybe the size of the cowboy hat section of the convenience store? Or possibly the average girth of their customers? Are they in the Guinness Book of World Records?  As you can see, I'm a stickler for truth in advertising.

Cowboy hat section at world's largest truck stop

So now its time for a little R&R. I haven't decided yet whether to lay down in the back seat of my freezing car or in the bed of the the truck amidst my worldly possession. Maybe I'll try both and see which is the least uncomfortable.

Until tomorrow.

Or maybe that's today.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On The Move

You may recall that in my top ten list of things to do before prison, I recommended that felons, if they have the opportunity, take a road trip.  There's something appealing (at least to me) about that most vivid symbol of freedom - hitting the open road - before losing that very freedom. 

Lest you think I don't practice what I preach, I am leaving today to do just that. I'm packing my things and saying goodbye to my friends and my apartment. (For those of you who may be wondering, I found a wonderful home for my dog, Sorbet). In an hour or two I'll hit the open road.

I can imagine the pictures dancing through your head of me tooling across the country on a motorcycle or classic car, the wind in my hair and a smile on my face. 

I wish. 

In this instance, fantasy definitely surpasses reality.

My dream ride.

My ride of choice is not an old Mustang or rumbling Harley, but a white Budget rental truck from that vintage year of 2011. But despite some peeling paint and scratches along its sides, the heater works and the motor manages to lug my car along behind it at 70 mph, at least on the straightaways. That's faster than my car manages to go, by the way. We'll see if it makes it over the Rockies.

My real ride.

I picture a road trip as a jaunt across the country, unconstrained by time or destination as you amble the byways far from the interstates and cities.  Here again my road trip doesn't live up to the myth.  My destination is very hard and very fast: my sentencing hearing scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on March 24 in San Francisco Circuit Court. That is one appointment I better not miss. I pray for good tires and a reliable motor. 

Can't leave the stuffed animals behind.

Although it may sound like it, I'm really not complaining. Not at all. Of course I am scared of what awaits me at the other end of I-80 and sad to leave my life behind in this involuntary fashion. Saying goodbye to Sorbet yesterday was one of the hardest things I've done in recent memory although of course it was easier than leaving my children when I was forced to depart Moscow. But I'm excited about this little trip despite what awaits - it represents something deeper, a bridge between old and new, a point when I finally come to terms with my wrongdoing and receive the punishment I know I deserve. And I'm thankful that I have the opportunity to take it. Many felons by this point have been languishing in jail for months.

All packed up.

I also hope to gain some perspective on my drive, perspective on my plight, perspective on this great, vast country we live in. The reality is that for most of the trip I will be sitting bored behind the wheel, but I look forward to meeting people at rest stops and diners and maybe even seeing a few sites. For whatever reason, I have always wanted to see the Hoover Dam, so I hope that I have time to stop.

If I am able, I plan to post along the way so that you can track my progress. I apologize in advance - it will most likely be interminable recounts of eating McChickens at waysides - but I'll try to make it as interesting as possible.

So goodbye Wisconsin, hello California.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Do Criminals Deserve a Second Chance?

On this blog I tend to focus on white collar crimes because I am a white collar criminal and that is what I understand.  However, I'm occasionally moved to look beyond the confines of my new little world to the broader world of criminals and criminal justice. 

One deeply-held belief, a belief shown in polls to be shared by most Americans, is that people, even criminals, deserve a second chance. In other words, do a crime and serve your time, with the ultimate hope - maybe next month, maybe ten years from now - of rehabilitating yourself and reentering society as a productive individual. It is this hope, except for those with a life sentence, that motivates all convicted criminals. Assuming that the punishment fits the crime, many criminals should ultimately be given a second chance.  If not, than we might as well lock up every criminal, whatever the crime, for life.

The sad fact is though that in many respects this deeply held belief - the belief that even criminals deserve a second chance - is in actuality little more than a myth.  Of course, all but the very worst criminals will eventually be released and will - technically at least - be given a second chance. But that second chance, for many if not most, is so skewed, so limited, that it doesn't even deserve the title. Recidivism has skyrocketed over the last two decades as a result and the root causes are easy enough to root out.

Ask any American to name one of their most basic rights and many will answer: the right to vote. But did you know that many states deny this right to convicted felons? There are as many variations on this practice as there are states - some states deny this right for all eternity, others until the end of parole (which can last for many years beyond the actual prison sentence). But a majority of states deny felons of the right to vote, at least for a while, sometimes a very long while, sometimes forever.  As a result, depending on where you live, you can commit a non-violent crime - say you sell a small amount of marijuana to an undercover cop - serve a month in jail, and be denied the right to vote for the rest of your life. In effect this person, this small-time marijuana dealer, has just been served with a life sentence for a fundamental right. 

Where's the justice in that?

The sad truth is that there is no justice in that. It's all politics. Minorities make up the majority of our prison populations, both at the state and federal levels. Minorities also tend to vote Democratic. Republicans don't like that. What better way to deny your opponent a major block of votes than to get rid of their constituency's votes for life? In Alabama, for example, 34% of black men have lost this most basic right for all eternity. In other states the numbers are similar. Even Jim Crow laws were rarely so successful.  Check out this wonderful TED talk in which a leading advocate for reform discussed these injustices. 

Another area where a second chance is little more than a myth is employment. Back in the not-so-distant past, when mom and pop stores and family-run manufacturers predominated, it was easy enough for a reformed felon to find the sympathetic ear of an employer who practiced what he preached in regard to his belief in a second chance. A remorseful, reformed ex-convict could at the least get his foot in the door where he could then demonstrate, through hard work and diligent effort, that he was truly worthy of a second chance. 

But in this age of the behemoth corporation and the Wal-Martization of America, the vast majority of available jobs, even, if not especially, those on the lowest rungs, are controlled by faceless, nameless individuals and algorithms. And each and every one of the submitted applications contain that key question: have you ever been convicted of a felony? Check yes - and you must check yes if it's true, because the background check will catch you in your lie - and it doesn't take a genius to guess what happens next. 

The sad fact is that I - as well as all other convicted felons - are virtually unemployable. With my college degree and years of experience I could not even find work at McDonald's. Or Target. Or Wal-Mart. Where does that leave me and the millions out there like me? The short, depressing, answer: unemployed, back in prison or reliant on welfare. A few lucky ones - and the numbers are very small - succeed in starting their own businesses. In our day, the only sure way for a convicted felon to find work is to hire himself.

The ability to find work - any work, even low paid or physically demanding - is the key determinant in recidivism rates. Most criminals don't go back to prison (as the myths perpetuate) because they just plain old like jail, or because they're bad, incorrigible people. They go back because they get out and find themselves not only broke but completely unemployable. In order to survive they turn to those who don't run an automatic background check - their fellow criminals. 

A few states have begun, in a minor way, to address this injustice by passing "ban the box" laws that prohibit employers from requesting felony information up front. The hope is that by doing this some felons may be able to get their foot in the door. While better than nothing, these laws are too limited, too late. Call me a cynic, but in most cases all these laws will do is extend the unsuccessful job hunt until the first interview. Employers may still reject applications based upon criminal record - only maybe now, in those few states that have passed ban-the-box laws, they'll do it a little further into the process.  

Success? Hardly. Unless we want to carry on for all eternity with a sizable, permanent, unemployable, recidivist underclass - of the type our society has in fact created over the last 30 years - than it's time to act now. I believe it's possible to do something about the problem, for the very existence of this underclass contradicts the most basic values upon which our great country was founded.

Monday, March 17, 2014

I Like Comments

You will note that my old smiley face is gone, replaced by a more serious expression. As my sister said, you're going to prison, you shouldn't look so happy on your blog.

Ugh, a picture taken way back when when all was well with the world. And note my boy's ear just behind mine.

You may also note that I no longer describe myself as a modern-day Robin Hood, which was taken from a comment someone sent to me. I freely admit that that was truly awful and does not reflect in any way how I really feel about my misdeeds. In any event, thank you to my ex wife for pointing that out. Her comment was that "Robin Hood gave to the rich. You kept it for yourself." My response was that I gave it to my poor wife. But in any event, point taken.

I really appreciate your comments, criticism, whatever. Don't be shy about writing on the blog. Thank you to all those who have written to me privately to express support. I will devote a separate blog to you.

Coming Out Is Hard to Do

As they say, coming out is hard to do. 

I don't really regret going public with my problems - it's an important part of my effort to do good where before I did bad - but it takes some getting used to. For example, today at the bank a woman came up to me who had read my blog. Given my small town, it's not as unlikely as it sounds - probably half the town knows by now. And she offered nothing but support. But it was still, how can I say it - embarrassing? Surprising? 

For people who have not done wrong it can be hard to understand the feeling. To put yourselves in my shoes, imagine telling the world your most embarrassing secret. Imagine telling the world that you have herpes; or that you cheated on your spouse. Ok, so maybe those are inexact comparisons, but I hope you get the picture. 

As my friend Justin Paperny says, you have to own it and not let it own you.  If you try to hide it all away like a desperate, awful secret you will not only drive yourself crazy but prevent others from learning and benefiting from your mistakes. I'm a living, breathing symbol that crime does not pay. With that in mind, I decided to design a couple of t-shirts. I'm not sure yet whether I will actually order them, much less wear them. I'd love to hear from you about whether you think I should, or any other ideas that may come to mind. But this is about the most public way of coming out that I can think of.  My point in this post is not to make light of what I've done or crime in general, but to demonstrate the stigma attached to crime and my struggle in opening up.

So without further ado:

T-shirt #1:

T-shirt #2:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Strength Through Adversity

After focusing yesterday on the nitty gritty of the criminal process - we managed to finish our report late last night, in case anyone is wondering - I decided to step back and write about a more universal experience: the transformative power of traumatic events. Sorry for using such big words. If I'm not careful I'll start sounding like a psychiatrist, which I most decidedly am not. In any event, that's really just a fancy way of expressing what this old adage says much better: strength through adversity. Or a more colloquial way to put it: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

This topic came to mind as a result of a heartfelt response from a stranger to a post I made on Quora yesterday on white collar crime. I won't go into details about the personal things this man, who I'll call Martin, wrote to me, but suffice it to say that he has had a difficult and terrible year filled with family-related problems. If what happened to Martin happened to me, I would undoubtedly complain, maybe blame the person causing the problems, maybe feel sorry for myself. But Martin did not. Instead of complaining or bemoaning his fate, he views the experience in a positive light. Here is one excerpt from what he wrote: 

"This past year has been the hardest of my life.... But, believe it or not, i'm grateful for all of this suffering. It really sucked most of the time, but now that I've excepted these radical changes to my life, I'm a stronger person than ever before."

I guess you could say that I can relate to what Martin wrote.

Before my downfall, I'd had an easy life that had progressed as if on rails from success to success. I didn't really appreciate these successes: it's almost as if I expected them as my due, as if I were somehow entitled to make $1 million a year or have a big house or a healthy, happy family.  As a result of the ease in which all these good things came to me, deep down, so deep that it was subconscious, I felt undeserving, as if my success were, in fact, a fraud. These buried feelings made me strike out in an attempt to destroy all the good things I had, because deep down I was convinced that I didn't deserve any of it. Instead of focusing on the good I fixated on the bad.

No longer.

It was only through hardship and failure that I realized how good I'd had it, what I had lost. What I had earlier taken for granted - my children, my career, my profession - I now value more than anything else. Of course, I wish that I had not had to lose everything to become a stronger, better person. And I hope that my readers are able to appreciate their blessings without committing a crime or falling into depression or losing everything they have. But I'm thankful that there's at least a silver lining in all this suffering. It brings some meaning to some very bad events.

I've come to believe that it's not the tragedy that's the issue, it's how we respond to it. Some people devolve into self pity as a result of hardship. Others transcend the experience and become better, stronger people. Embarrassingly enough, I fit into both categories. When I was first caught I fell into depression and blamed others for my problems. I felt sorry for myself and overcome with remorse. I even tried (halfheartedly) to kill myself. 

But over time I came to see the value in my suffering. It has made me a better person. While I still wish I could take back what I did and avoid all the consequences, in particular the suffering I caused to innocent victims such as my kids and wife, the fact that these things happened is not all bad. At one point I never, ever thought I would be in a position to say that. What happened seemed all bad, only bad and forever bad. But, as the title of this post states, I've become stronger through adversity. Forgive me if it's cliched, hackneyed, but in my case it's true. And if I can do it, so can anyone. It's just there's a little secret no one tells you because it makes for a boring adage: you don't necessarily need adversity to become a stronger, better person. I did, because I'm weak. But I firmly believe that, in that, I'm the exception, that most people out there can better themselves, better their lives, appreciate their blessings without suffering tremendous loss. 

It just takes some effort.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

AND Magazine Article: Is Putin Crazy?

From time to time I need a break from writing about criminal justice and prison. Here's an article just published in AND Magazine on a nice light topic: Putin and Crimea.  In it I ask the question, Is Putin Crazy? Read the article to learn my answer.

Pulling Back the Curtain

Part of my goal in keeping this blog is to pull back the curtain on the criminal justice process in order to reveal what it's like to be a defendant in order to deter others from following my path. Despite the fact that I was a lawyer, corporate law was my thing. I knew no more about criminal justice than what I learned reading Presumed Innocent and watching L.A. Law. So I am looking in at this system with open eyes and abstract fascination and then writing about the experience here. If it weren't my life on the line it might actually be quite interesting.

Yesterday, I received from my lawyer the first draft of the sentencing memo, a bible of my life going back to my premature birth in 1970. Of course, we propose a nice short prison term that, we say, will ensure that justice is served while not overdoing it.

For the uninitiated, the sentencing memo is one of a triumvirate of extremely important legal document submitted to the judge ahead of sentencing on March 24, that day of doom when I learn my fate. The second document is a similar memo prepared by the prosecutor that paints a simple, albeit skewed, story: good lawyer, gets greedy, steals a bunch of money, buys a bunch of cars, gets caught. Not exactly an uplifting portrait, is it? If you wish, you can read about all those stupid cars here.  

The secret of making factual arguments is all in the presentation: by picking and choosing which facts to present you can create a wildly distorted account. We received the prosecutor's document yesterday afternoon and ever since I've been in a fog of depression over the sentencing request submitted by the prosecutor to the judge. In this post I'm not going to get into how long I could actually go away for - I'll save a discussion of that for after my sentencing next week - but let's just say it's pretty long.

The third document is called the Pre-Sentence Probation Report, and it is prepared by an obscure federal employee called a probation officer who takes on an outsized importance in federal criminal cases. The title is a misnomer because the employee and the report she prepares have, in fact, very little to do with probation at all. In a process akin to having your doctor's receptionist treat you for cancer, this federal employee without a degree in law makes sweeping conclusions, based on an independent investigation, about the defendant's offense, his punishment, his imprisonment and the legal interpretation of the law. 

I have been told by many people that this report serves as a bible for the judge and for prison officials later on.  It is purportedly independent but appears, at least to my jaded eyes, to reflect the prosecutor's positions in almost all respects. We received the final version of that report last week. Ever since, I've been trying to put it out of my mind. Embarrassingly enough, I've even dreamed about it.

As you can see, it's been a busy week filled with reliving my sordid past through dry legal documents. In my case, the stress was compounded because my lawyer told me that we had until next Monday to submit our report. I don't like to procrastinate, and the report is too long and important to throw together overnight, so last week I urged her to get me a draft early, knowing that otherwise it would be put off until the last minute. This I received with pleasure yesterday morning, pleased that a draft was ready, and began a leisurely review. 

About an hour later, my lawyer called to say that the deadline was not next week at all but that we had actually already missed it. I'm not here to lay blame. Nor do I know exactly what happened. Whatever the cause, the result is that now there's a mad scramble to get this thing - this document that determines my fate and which is already late - in presentable form. I'm not at all confident that the final result will be as good as it should be. To say that I am apprehensive would be an understatement. 

So that's it. My fate is almost out of my hands. Now all there's left for me to do is await the day of sentencing, when I will learn if the judge found any of our profound arguments persuasive. The waiting game again, that damned waiting game. 

If you read this to the end you will now be an expert on everything you ever needed to know about white collar criminal law.  Except, of course, for the sentencing guidelines, the judge's role, the grand jury, the vast power of the prosecutor, the broken system of court-appointed attorneys and the role of the Bureau of Prisons.  But enough for one day; too much could bore you silly. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Thank You For Visiting

I'm happy to report that today was the busiest day to date on my modest little blog. I'm too modest (or embarrassed) to disclose actual numbers. Let's just say it was more than 1,000 but less than 1 million. And for all of your visits I earned a whopping $0.04 on Google adsense. I plan to use my new-found riches to buy a pack of gum in the prison commissary. 

So thank you all for visiting. The fact is, I write this blog for myself. It's therapeutic and helps me deal with what awaits. That focus also helps keep me honest. I'm a private person and when I let myself think that others' are reading my innermost thoughts, I get the urge to clam up. 

That's not to say that I'm not grateful for your visits. I am. It's nice to know that I'm reaching an audience. It gives me hope that my experiences may help others or provide a new perspective. My true hope is that my experiences and honest writings will act as a deterrent to others who may be contemplating a crime. Take it from me: you don't want to follow in my footsteps. But please forgive me if, for my own honesty, I continue to bury my head in the sand and pretend that I'm writing entries in my diary and not blog posts for all to see.

I have a new substantive post ready to go but instead of posting edifying content I decided to pat you on the back. So until tomorrow....

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Top Ten Things to do Before Prison

One courtesy afforded many white-collar felons, including me, is that they are allowed to remain free while they await sentencing. The determination is made by the courts based on such factors as flight risk and danger to society. While it's tempting to postpone prison for as long as possible this courtesy is also a double-edged sword. 

Speaking from experience, the time is a terrible limbo, a no-man's land between your past normal life filled with work and family and friends and your new, and terrifying, life in prison.  Also, unlike jailed defendants, many of whom can credit this time toward their ultimate sentence, a white-collar felon's final days of freedom do nothing to reduce his sentence.  Most felons with whom I spoke have called this the worst period of the whole ordeal. Prison, I've been told, is almost a relief in comparison. 

Sitting at home brooding all day about what awaits you down the road is a recipe for disaster.  I know. I've done it. I'm embarrassed to admit that I've spent entire days staring at the clock, thinking about my misdeeds, waiting for bed. Do that and time, to put it mildly, tends to drag. And anxiety tends to mount. With nothing to do but worry, the waiting turns into obsession which turns into agitation. In the end you feel almost as if you were already in prison. 

I recently watched the second season of Iditiot Abroad on Netflix, where the protagonist, a stupid English homebody named Karl, embarks on various reluctant adventures under the rubric of places to visit before you die. I consider myself to be just as much an idiot as Karl to have, through my actions, found myself in my current situation. As a result, I decided to write this post, based on my own experiences, my own trial and error, on things to do before going to prison. 

The moral of this post, if there is one, is that it's much better to keep busy as you await your judgment day than to mope around the house wallowing in self pity.

Top Ten Things to Do Before Prison

1. Write, Write, Write. Whether you decide to go public in a blog like me, send e-mails or keep a private journal, writing can be surprisingly therapeutic. An added bonus is that it makes time pass much more quickly. It also helps to sort through feelings.  

2. Be There for Loved Ones. Life as we know it is about to change. Drastically. There are enough stresses with adjusting to prison without the added burden of leaving without a proper goodbye. Remember those around you and do your best to be there for them while you still can.

3. Get Your Affairs in Order. Errands that seem so simple as a free man - paying bills, writing checks, sending money, buying books - suddenly become complicated. So before prison you should settle debts, find people to manage your affairs. The goal is to leave as small of a mess behind us as possible. We've messed up enough already.

4. Take a Trip. Road trips are our ultimate symbol of freedom: the open road, the vast expanses. They can also be much less expensive than a regular vacation: gas, food, cheap motels.  The thought of taking a road trip has preoccupied me lately: to me it symbolizes a bridge between my past and my future. Before I go away to prison, I've decided, I want to traverse the open roads out West and see some of the sites of this huge country. Lucky for me, I'm in the Midwest but my sentencing is in California. Thus, the perfect excuse to hit the open road.

5. Plan Ahead for Prison. Once we are imprisoned we become helpless in certain ways, newly dependent, like an infant, on friends or family. I don't like to impose on people so the whole thought of relying on others for my basic needs is repugnant. In order to minimize the imposition, I put a lot of thought into what exactly I did need and narrowed it down to a three-point list. I then asked several lucky family members to help.  

  • Money: the sad fact is that we need some money to survive in prison. To receive it, someone from the outside will have to send.
  • Books: reading helps pass the time. We won't have access to Amazon, so develop a book list and make arrangements for someone to send a book or two a month
  • Blog posts: I'm committed to spreading the word about my experience.  Without the internet, I needed someone to post for me.

6. Plan for Life After Prison.  Many white collar criminals - stockbrokers, traders, doctors, lawyers like me - lose their profession along with their freedom. Unless you are sentenced to life or intend never to work again, you will need to think of what to do next. This can be scary. It can be intimidating. It can seem impossible. In all honesty, it scares me shitless. But our most successful predecessors managed to once again become productive citizens. So can we.  It's never too early to start.

7. Make Amends/Admit your Mistakes. My first impulse was to deny what I did and shy away from the harm that I caused. It was tempting at first to blame others and to live in denial.  But only by admitting our mistakes to ourselves will we be able to transcend the bitterness and make amends. Many of us have hurt people as a result of our actions; we have left innocent victims and family members in our wake. One of the tenets of alcoholics in recovery is to make amends to those they have hurt. Us white collar criminals should use this time to do the same. 

8. Keep Visible. My first reaction, when all this started, was to hide under a rock and withdrawal from friends and family. I know I'm not alone. But though it may be tempting, this reaction is unproductive and harmful. By holding our heads high and carrying on with life we can transcend our circumstances. By tucking our tails between our legs and hiding away behind closed blinds, we will perpetuate the pain.

9. Keep a Sense of Humor. Studies show that through the act of smiling we can cheer ourselves up and cheer up others. Falling into depression doesn't help anybody. Make these last days of freedom as meaningful and as cheerful as possible. This will help both you and your family get through these difficult times.  

10. Persevere. Every life is filled at times with adversity. We survive by carrying on, soldiering forward. Our troubles may seem insurmountable, but in the fullness of time we will move beyond them. 

And, as usual, here's one more for good measure: 

Keep Perspective.  We are not being burned at the stake or locked away for life. Whatever our troubles, sickness and death is infinitely worse. The moral: it could always be worse.