TSA, the Kubotan, and Me

by Taffy Cannon

“It will be a miracle if they don’t want to take a look at something,” I told my adult daughter as we slipped into our shoes after passing personal TSA screening at the St. Louis Airport.

It was high noon on Sunday and we were headed home after ninety-six jam-packed hours in the small Southern Illinois town where my brother had just passed away after a lengthy and complicated illness. Somehow we had managed to complete everything that needed to be done—including eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day at the improbably-named Covered in Chocolate restaurant and riding out a thunderstorm the previous night that cut power to half the county, including our hotel.

After a skycap checked four large suitcases full of memorabilia and the final gleanings of a life finished too soon, we’d proceeded toward our gate with a motley collection of mismatched carryons that represented my fifth and final downsizing of my brother’s possessions in four years.

Bin by bin we now watched our stuff come through the X-Ray machine and down the TSA conveyor belt:  jackets, shoes, laptops, cosmetics baggies, cell phones and the first three carryons.

Carryon Number Four stayed inside the black X-Ray tent for a long, long time.  When it came out, The Agent held up the green canvas gym bag and looked in our direction.  I offered a little wave acknowledging that it was indeed my bag and nodded cheerfully when he said he wanted to run it through the scanner a second time.  He peered closely at the contents with another agent for quite a while, with a lot of pointing and shaking of heads.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d packed in that bag, actually, in the blur of the past couple days.  I had absolutely no idea what might be causing the trouble, either.  I was pretty sure  that we were clean. We weren’t carrying any weapons, even though Bill had once been a cop and an enthusiastic student of war. The swords had gone to his stepson, the guns to his stepdaughter, and I’d shipped home the eleven-inch Sabatier chef’s knife.  We were carrying no explosives, bottles of liquid, or full tubes of toothpaste.

Now we hauled the rest of our stuff to a table where The Agent deposited the gym bag, gloved up and began to explore.  He was a tallish, stooped fellow, with thinning sandy hair, not interested in personal chit chat even though I had decided it couldn’t hurt to explain just how we happened to be making this trip.

I could see now that the gym bag held a large photo album with my brother’s police department insignia patches on its cover, our Dopp kits and makeup bags, and a plastic shoe box into which I had dumped the contents of a drawer labeled Memorabilia. I kept my mouth shut as The Agent announced that he’d run the various sub-containers through individually.  My money was on the Memorabilia bin, and sure enough he returned to the table fully focused on it. He’d already poked around in its contents once, but this time he moved with renewed purpose and specificity. Moments later he came up triumphantly waving my brother’s keychain.

It felt a little anticlimactic.

“That’s my brother’s keychain,” I told him, mistress of the obvious.  “He carried it as far back as I can remember.”

It still held, in fact, the keys to the truck and house that we had been forced to sell when his doctors refused to let him live alone or drive any more.  But the object in question was the keychain doodad, a five-inch slim metal cylinder that had lost most of its black paint over the decades and was now mainly pewter-colored.

Also, as I thought about it, kind of heavy, not the sort of keychain you could slip in your pocket and forget about.

“It’s a kubotan,” The Agent announced.

“A what?” The word was totally unfamiliar.

“A kubotan.”

“It’s just his keychain. He was a cop.”  By now I had mentioned this fact as often as I could reasonably drag it in, that my younger brother, the former cop, had just passed, on the other side of the river.

“It’s a martial arts weapon.”

Writer nerd that I am, I next made him spell the name, making mental notes.  The way he was handling the newly identified object made it pretty clear that I was in Very Hot Water. The Agent took it to a different table and spent quite a lot of time photographing it.  I was pretty sure by now that he wasn’t planning to give it back, a fact confirmed when he readily agreed to let me have the keys themselves.

At the same time he collected my driver’s license and boarding pass, announcing that he would need to bring the LEO in on this.  The who?

“L. E. O.  The law enforcement officer.”

It took quite a while to round up the LEO, but finally a smaller, less colorful version of The Agent showed up, a retired cop who’d landed a nice gig out at the airport.

By now I was resigned to losing the keychain/kubotan and more concerned about making our plane, the one that had all the rest of our luggage checked onto it.  But the LEO took his sweet time calling my information in, running my record, making statements into the phone like “The incident occurred at 12:46 PM” after describing me as a white female of specific years.

I also began to wonder if this stupid business was going to put me on some special scary flyer list, so that every time a TSA agent flashed the WonderLight on my driver’s license and boarding pass, I’d be asked to step off to the side for special attention.

And then at last it was over.

I was given back my license and boarding pass, assured I’d have no permanent record, and allowed to take my own picture of the kubotan in custody. They even offered to check it for me as luggage, but we’d filled our two- free-bags-per-person quota, so #3 would cost fifty bucks.  Which frankly didn’t seem worth it for something whose value was entirely sentimental at this point.

I sometimes wonder what became of the the kubotan. Was it melted down, tossed into the trash, or perhaps slipped out of the collection bin into some employee’s  pocket? It was, after all, a perfectly useful close-range martial arts weapon.  Which turned out, when I got home and looked it up, to be legal pretty much everywhere in the United States.

Except for air travelers.


Getting on the Bus One More Time

by Taffy Cannon

I’m going back to prison for the fifth time next Friday, and I can’t wait.

This trip to the Central California Women’s Facility has very little to do with me and everything to do with a lot of children who miss their mothers desperately. I’m a volunteer with Get on the Bus (GOTB), and we take kids to visit their incarcerated moms for Mother’s Day, a program that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

What happens to children when their mothers go to prison?

I’d been writing crime fiction for some fifteen years and reading it for most of my life when I first heard this disarming question, stunning in its simplicity.  I was shocked to realize that it had never once crossed my mind.

In 2000, Sister Suzanne Jabro and the Sisters of St. Joseph were listening to the women they served in their prison ministry, women who thought of little else.  These mothers desperately missed their children, mostly being raised by aging or disabled grandmothers, and they knew firsthand what kind of trouble their kids could get into.  Often it had been years since they had seen their children, sometimes since the moment of arrest.

But taking children on prison visits is complicated, and in California can involve hundreds of miles of expensive travel, motel and food expenses, as well as complex paperwork that must be completed properly in advance Or Else.

Sister Suzanne started small. That first year, Get on the Bus sent seventeen kids to see their moms for Mother’s Day.  A decade later in May and June of 2011, 1357 children rode 56 buses to visit both mothers and fathers in nine prisons across the state.  The GOTB program is free to children and their caregivers and the nonprofit organization relies primarily on volunteer organization and fundraising.  A recent expansion into visiting men’s prisons for Father’s Day offers plenty more room for growth, since women represent only about five percent of the state’s prisoners and an estimated 200,000 California children have a parent in state prison.

Our buses travel farther than any of the others, nearly 400 miles from San Diego to the dusty town of Chowchilla in the central San Joaquin Valley, home of California’s two largest correctional facilities for women.  This requires a predawn departure in order to reach the prison by late morning, in time for a three-hour visit including lunch in the Visitor’s Center, followed by another eight hours southbound.  It makes for a very long day.

The entire operation is a bureaucratic nightmare, with endless hurry-up-and-wait over months and months.  All of the power lies with the prison system, of course. An inmate may be transferred right before Mother’s Day, or gets into trouble and have her privileges revoked right before the visit.  Paperwork sometimes gets lost or improperly recorded, and there are always various last-minute crises.  Last year the customary special Friday GOTB visiting privilege was denied and we were crammed in with the regular Saturday visitors.  And back in 2009, the entire prison system went into lockdown when an inmate in a facility down by the border contracted swine flu.

But what’s the point?  We all know the adage about being willing to do the time if you do the crime.  These women got caught.  They were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced, often to mandatory terms for drug-related crimes.

A compelling case can be made for many that their primary offense was poor choices in men, but once their own bus—the one with the grilled windows and D-rings—pulls behind the razor wire, it’s too late to do anything about that.

Meanwhile, their children are sentenced, too.

It’s lonely being a kid with a parent in prison, not something you can talk about or somebody you can bring to Back-to-School night.  All of the thousands of tiny elements that comprise the mother-child relationship are compromised by incarceration, and many are totally obliterated.  Time passes, memories fade, and release dates somewhere in the dim future seem impossibly far away.  Ties that may have already been fragile when a woman broke the law can fray beyond repair under the pressures of time and distance.

And that, I think, is why I do it. Why I volunteer year after year, for families I don’t know and may never see again. Why I ride 800 miles on a bus distributing breakfasts and snacks and backpacks filled with activities on the way up and passing out teddy bears to clutch on the long ride back home, as the mothers who brought us all together recede into the night behind us, in many cases for another full year.

I want these kids to catch a break.  I want these often-dysfunctional families to make it through this particular nightmare period and bring Mom back home to some semblance of normalcy.

The first year I rode the bus, I watched a young woman run to greet her three children in a tableau lifted from a greeting card commercial.  The older boy looked about eleven and a younger girl and boy were maybe five and four.  She scooped the girl into her arms, waist length hair flying, and swung her daughter in giddy circles.

As I observed them through the afternoon, I was struck by what a typical family unit they appeared to be.  They might be on the school playground, or picnicking in a hometown park, or getting into an SUV for soccer practice.  When the little boy slipped away into the crowd, his mom was there a moment later, retrieving him.  When she darted out of the playroom and found him trying to put a Monopoly twenty into a vending machine, I told her how much I’d enjoyed watching her with her kids.

She thanked me and said, “I’ve never been away from them before.  I was always with them, everywhere.  You can’t imagine how much I miss them.”

As the visit drew to a close, I saw her inside the children’s play room on her hands and knees, picking up a hundred small pieces from a spilled game, and suddenly she wasn’t an inmate and this wasn’t a prison.  She was a mother with her children, and she looked like a mighty good one.

I wanted to send her home with them, right that very minute.

The next year, I wasn’t able to get on the bus, and when I returned the year after that, I looked for her and her family.  They weren’t there, and I never saw them again.  I like to picture them in a park somewhere in California, laughing.

For more information about Get on the Bus, please visit http://www.getonthebus.us

[Photographs courtesy of Get on the Bus.]

Well, You Can Parking Lot THAT Pre-Plan!

by Taffy Cannon

            Perhaps the only thing dedicated grammarians agree on is that the English language is under continuous assault by linguistic barbarians and probably will not survive the attack.  This position was first articulated in a compelling series of grunts by a cave librarian who overhead some surly cave teens using slang, known in that culture as “dung,” and has been regularly updated ever since.


            Popular culture takes a lot of heat for perpetrating atrocities on language, and in my lifetime alone the named culprits have included beatniks, hippies, greasers, gangstas, hipsters, and folks in all manner of music fields: R&R, RNB, C&W, disco, bubble gum, hip-hop and rap.  Was ever thus.  Who can forget the Music Man warning the parents of River City to watch out for such nasty words as “swell” and “so’s your old man”?

            I believe, however, that the single most dastardly attack on language today comes from a source that might be considered laughable if it didn’t have so much money.  Yep, I’m talking Corporate America.

            A young grammarian of my acquaintance  we’ll call Deep Briefcase has become  immersed in a major national corporation, and has found the language challenging since orientation, when new employees were warned to avoid email jail, proactively touch base with others on the team, and keep everybody in the loop about the timing of bio breaks.  Bio breaks, it turns out, are a TMI way of letting others know your excretory habits, as opposed to the more discreet “breaks” that we used to take a few decades back when I was wandering around the business world as a perennial temp.

            Deep Briefcase was happy to provide the following sample of current corporate lingo, which no longer pushes the outside of the envelope or thinks outside the box.  Instead, it seeks sufficient bandwidth to take a 30,000 foot view of reallocation of resources, thus assuring a win-win.

I’ll ping Rick and communicate to him that moving forward, we need to circle back with the team to parking lot that idea.  My understanding is that he wanted to spike out some of those concepts and leverage them into a more brand-centric approach to client communication and get this project off the ground in the 3rd quarter.  We are using a much more robust piece of software, and should be able to solution for this issue I referenced earlier and drill down to deliver the final product by EOD Monday.

             There is much to find annoying here, of course, but I think that the single most irritating feature of current Bizspeak is its reassignment of words to different parts of speech.  For the most part, this involves turning perfectly good nouns into highly questionable verbs, and of the current crop, I have to say “parking lot” is my favorite.  Sure, it has lots of competition: repurpose, ball park, transition, prioritize, incentivize.  But “to parking lot” actually carries a pretty good visual.  Your idea, that brilliant concept those morons couldn’t understand – it’s sitting out there under an eerie orange-brown light in row 5-H, surrounded by other junker notions.

            Certain outright corporate doublespeak has blossomed in recent years as a sign of unfortunate economic times.  Take termination, which now has as many synonyms as “snow” in cultures located above the Arctic Circle.  Few, of course, come even close to addressing the central issue, being fired, or the end result, being unemployed.

            There’s downsizing. Rightsizing. Outsourcing. Reduction in Force, also known as RIF, which doesn’t feel like a Keith Richards move when it happens to you.  Some companies will even say with a straight face that you are being de-hired, as if the whole thing were simply Pam’s bad dream on Dallas.

            And if Bizspeak has gotten cagier about ending things, it is falling all over itself with beginnings, which now have their own beginnings.  You don’t plan until you have pre-planned.  Prepare at your own peril if you haven’t pre-prepared.  All of which will get you ready for the pre-meeting to set up the meeting on Best Practices, which is usually another way of saying outsourcing.

            But I’ll have to get back to you on that.  I’ll be out of pocket the rest of the day, drilling down on some low hanging fruit.

Chilling Crime for Winter

The theme is winter, and the Thalia Press Authors Co-op rises to the occasion, digging deep into their devious imaginations with short stories of cold, ice, mystery, and of course unexplained homicide.

Eight established crime authors and eight chilling stories to send shivers down your spine: The anthology, Dead of Winter, edited by Katy Munger and Lise McClendon, will release next week as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Enjoy this collection of intriguing, surprise-filled stories full of buried secrets, back-stabbing and revenge —  all set against the wintry backdrop of the cruelest season. Continue reading “Chilling Crime for Winter”

A Trunk in the Attic

by Taffy Cannon

I wasn’t looking for a coonskin cap when I walked into the gift shop in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon last summer. But straight ahead stood a furry six-foot tree of them in various sizes and I knew immediately there was no way I’d leave that shop without one.

Why? I can’t exactly tell you, though I’ve always loved playing dressup. I never had a coonskin cap as a kid, though my husband did, back when they were all the rage and everybody was singing about Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. I dressed in Annie Oakley buckskins back then, with fringed vest and skirt, a spiffy cowgirl hat, and shiny six-shooters on each hip.

by Taffy Cannon

I wasn’t looking for a coonskin cap when I walked into the gift shop in the Cascade Mountains of  Oregon last summer.  But strai

ght ahead stood a furry six-foot tree of them in various sizes and I knew immediately there was no way I’d leave that shop without one.

Why?  I can’t exactly tell you, though I’ve always loved playing dressup.  I never had a coonskin cap as a kid, though my husband did, back when they were all the rage and everybody was singing about Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.  I dressed in Annie Oakley buckskins back then, with fringed vest and skirt, a spiffy cowgirl hat, and shiny six-shooters on each hip. Continue reading “A Trunk in the Attic”