Momma babysits inmates at Arizona State Prison. Dad served as a Marine in the 90s. My little brother drives a 23%-interest, blacked-out Dodge Charger, which means — you guessed it — he is also a Marine. I, on the other hand, chose to study theatre and English.
My brother and I were raised (like nearly all children of military/law enforcement parents) on a diet of heavy structure, logic, toughness, discipline, preparedness, and accountability. He ordered seconds; I drew a pretty picture on the menu with a crayon.
From one generation to the next — see the resemblance?
The closest I ever came to military service was yelling, “1, 2” as a toddler in the bath when my dad would call out “sound off” from his living room recliner.
The closest I ever came to being a corrections officer was babysitting an 8-year-old kid obsessed with cramming Cheerios up his nose. He claims his record was 12, but when I told him to prove it, he could only fit, like, 6 or 7. Liar.
I say “corrections officer” because my momma prefers the term “corrections officer.” She thinks the term “prison guard” describes a knuckle-dragging extra in an action movie — who, by the way, always seem to get killed in movies. Like dozens of them just get absolutely mowed down, usually by the GOOD guys, and nobody cares. Nobody! Do you know what it feels like to be in a large room full of people who cheer and clap every time Jason Statham snaps the neck of your could-be mother on-screen? Not super great.
It always occurred to me as odd that I noticed that in movies and my momma never did. But it highlights an important aspect of growing up in that atmosphere — you don’t really talk about how or why you feel a certain way. Which, if you’re coming from a prison system or a military system, is completely understandable. In those worlds it’s all about short, useful information: yes sir, copy, etc.
I think that rigid structure ironically led me to be drawn to things I found subjective and expressive — sort of like Malia Obama smokin’ weed, or Jaden Smith doing, uhhh, whatever it is that he’s doing. However, that made me a sort of black sheep — not really feeling like I belonged on either side of the fence.
Here’s what I mean: I can go out and absolutely slam some brews with my little brother and his military brothers. We can talk about why we think the Raiders can’t seem to win a damn game, we slug each other in the arm, and tell each other truly depraved jokes.
But, I’m still gonna end up hanging on his shoulder, telling him how much I love him, and I’ll inevitably tear up while telling him I cried reading a Wilfred Owen poem that reminded me of him while he was deployed. That’s just who I am. They never really quite feel comfortable in emotional moments. And that’s okay — it’s just a difference — like how my brother looks like a Jason Statham character (it’s a love/hate thing with that guy) when he’s shooting a gun, but I look kinda like Bambi trying to learn how to walk.
Conversely, if I’m out with some of my theatre or comedy buddies, the military/prison differences are highlighted. They are, for instance, fifteen minutes late to everything. I, personally, would rather take a shot of bleach than be late. Sure, they can be comfortable discussing how they feel (maybe even too much) — but they are terrified of any confrontation. I once had an actor sit me down and ask me what being in a fight felt like. Me, the guy who cries at Silver Linings Playbook, was seen as traditionally masculine.
Plus, they’re always excited to hear me suggest a “blanket party” until they find out what it is. Bummer.
So either way, my folks shaped who I am. The military and the prison — they shaped my folks. Those systems; the words, the discipline, the people — it’s impossible to separate them.
Even though I’ve never fastened a utility belt at 5 a.m. and willingly locked myself in a prison with violent offenders, even though I could never imagine what it feels like to tie up your boots and go to war for your family — the lessons they learned while they did those things for me, even if indirectly, shaped who I am.
It is only because my folks got their hands dirty, raised me to embrace who I am — to follow what I believe in — that I have the dear privilege to sit here, criss-cross-applesauce, and type this up while I blow gingerly at a decaf coffee that’s a little too hot for my lips.