One of the biggest stories of 2017 was the sweeping changes to United States federal tax laws. However, much of the mainstream coverage of the law was confusing and conceptual. So using my own tax return as an example, I will illustrate how the new rules may affect an average American family.
I have recalculated my family’s 2016 taxes under the new rules. We are a family of four and our income places us in the middle of the middle class, so while this may not be a perfect exercise, it may give you a sense of what to expect next year and also give you some ideas on what questions to ask your tax professional.
I should take this opportunity to mention that in a former life I was a tax accountant. I hold an inactive CPA license in the state of Colorado, and though I moonlight as a freelance writer, I keep busy during the day as the operations manager for a mid-market Denver CPA firm. With that said, keep in mind this article is not intended to be financial or legal advice, and I encourage you to talk to your own CPA—or find one if you don’t have one. Don’t assume your situation will be exactly like mine. And don’t sue me.
The three biggest changes most average families will notice is the elimination of the personal exemptions, the increase to the standard deduction, and the expansion of the child tax credit.
Let’s start with the child tax credit—the game changer in the new law for middle class families is the expansion of this credit. Under the old law, the credit was $1,000 per child under the age of 17. For a married couple filing joint, the credit was reduced (“phased out”) if their adjusted gross income (AGI) was over $110,000. Under the new law, the credit doubles to $2,000 per child under 17, and the new income limit for a married couple filing joint is $400,000. In 2016, we were able to take an $800 child tax credit for our two young children; in 2018, we will take a full $4,000.
A credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in tax, as opposed to a deduction that only reduces taxable income. For a family with an effective tax rate of 15%, a $1,000 credit is equivalent to a $6,600 deduction. The effect the new child tax credit will have on families cannot be easily understated. This is the only change to the tax law that will have a significant positive effect on my family’s total tax liability—reducing it by a whopping 24%. In fact, families with multiple children who qualify for the child tax credit may end up being the only ones benefiting from the new tax law’s provisions for individual taxpayers.
The two other changes are more subtle. The personal exemption was approximately $4,000 per family member in 2017; a family of four would have a $16,000 personal exemption. Though the personal exemption is being eliminated, the standard deduction is doubling—from $12,700 to $24,400 for a married couple filing jointly. The net effect of these two changes results in slightly higher taxable income—a family of four with AGI of $50,000 would have $21,300 of taxable income under the old tax law, and $25,600 under the new law. My family noticed a similar effect. In recalculating our 2016 tax return under the new rules, our total deductions decreased from $34,079 to $24,400, and our taxable income increased almost ten percent.
The obvious caveat here is families who have more than two children and who do not itemize their deductions will likely see their taxable income increase dramatically. A household with two parents and four dependents, for example, will lose $24,000 of personal exemptions while their standard deduction increases by only $12,700. In effect, their taxable income will increase by about $12,000. That’s not chump change for most families. And the larger the family, the greater the increase to taxable income.
Congress did adjust tax rates and tax brackets under the new law, lowering the effective tax rates for virtually all taxpayers. For my family, recalculating our 2016 taxes under the new law resulted in an almost $400 reduction in tax (before the child tax credit). However, families with more than two children may not see any reduction in tax—and may even see their tax increase before the child tax credit is applied.
Despite many Congressmen advertising this law as a “simplification” of the tax code, it creates quite a few complexities that didn’t already exist. Not to mention it’s 500 pages long. While many taxpayers will no longer need to itemize deductions and complete a form Schedule A, certain taxpayers (especially small business owners) will find their tax preparation bill will be larger because their accountant’s job just got much more difficult. If you receive a W-2 and have some mortgage interest, but don’t have much else on your tax return, you may find this new law makes your tax return easier to complete. You may find you can now prepare your own taxes instead of having them done by a CPA or a tax service like H&R Block. The new law is even more impactful for businesses and small business owners—and will likely make their tax returns more complex. It will have the most impact on large businesses, but small businesses may or may not notice any significant change to their tax expense.
Every taxpayer’s situation is different, and the law will affect us all in varying ways and degrees. This only serves as a brief overview of some of the more impactful changes for families, with my family as an anecdotal example. Additionally, I did not analyze how state taxes may be affected—many states base state AGI on the federal number, and since many of us will have a larger AGI, our state taxes will likely increase. Again, I encourage you to speak with a CPA about how the new laws will affect your tax return.
Months after the law’s passage, the accounting industry is still trying to understand some parts of the law and how to apply its provisions. Time will tell if the law helps our economy more than hurts our federal government’s deficit. It is expected to add about $1.5 trillion dollars to the deficit over the next ten years. Historically, the impacts of tax policy on the economy is mixed and complex—tax cuts don’t always spur economic growth, and tax increases don’t always curtail it. But the positive impact on middle class families with children under 17 years old (at least until the law expires in 2026) will be powerful.
There’s an old saying: “Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.” We are usually qualified to give advice on a particular matter only after we’ve screwed it up in spectacular fashion. With that in mind, here are eleven nuggets of wisdom that I can pass on from an expert perspective:
1. It’s just a job, not your life. – Various
Similar to the famous Dave Barry quote, “You should not confuse your career with your life,” I’ve been given this advice from several people over the years. However, I never truly listened until my wife said it to me in the depths of my public accounting-induced PTSD several years ago. Only then did it finally make sense. You are not your career, and you should never define yourself by it. I had inadvertently made my career my primary reason for existence, and I was miserable. Instead, define yourself by your passions and the things that bring you happiness and fulfillment.
2. A mule in a tuxedo is still a mule. – American proverb
Similar to the anecdote of putting lipstick on a pig, this adage reminds us that appearances can be deceiving. We live in an age and in a society where authenticity is a lost art. Nothing and no one seem to be what they truly are, and we have to exercise a great deal of caution and wisdom before we measure anything at face value. I always get burned when I don’t.
3. The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. – Henry David Thoreau
This is one of the greatest observations about the human condition, from one of the greatest books about life, written by one of the greatest philosophers in modern history. In our consumerist culture, we too often measure cost in dollars. But our most precious resource is time—we are given a limited amount and we can’t make more. Spend it wisely.
4. If you’re fitting in you’re doing something wrong. – My wife
My wife, in another instance of uncanny wisdom (she has quite a few of those), also provided this truth nugget while I was working at a company where I felt even more out of place than I did in public accounting. Virtually no one around me seemed to share my values, principles, or convictions. It was here I finally realized we are not meant to conform to others, but find a place where we can be true to ourselves. If you feel you have to change in order to fit in, then it’s not the right situation for you.
5. Never miss a good chance to shut up. – Will Rogers
There are talk shows, talk radio, talking heads, talking points, Ted Talks, and talk TV. We talk trash, talk back, talk dirty, and we talk down. But rarely do we listen these days, and when we do, we often listen with the intent to reply instead of to understand. Most of what I’ve learned in life was learned when I shut up and listened. We would all do well to shut up a little more often.
6. Don’t let the bastards get you down. – Gen. Joseph Stilwell kept this motto at his desk in its Latin form (“Get” may be better translated to “grind”, but I like “get”).
I have met a staggering number of assholes in my life. I endured more than 15 years in the cesspool of self-interest, irreverence, and greed that is corporate America. I have never experienced anything as depressing and exasperating. I escaped, and as I slowly recovered I rediscovered the joy and fulfillment in pursuing my own interests and passions. My takeaway: remove the assholes from your life as quickly as you can before they can affect your mental state.
7. Never let so much reality into your life that there’s no room left for dreaming. – Unknown
It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day routine of living. Too often, paying bills, rushing the kids to school, taking out the trash, and the grinding responsibilities of our job consume our lives. If that happens to you, break the habit and introduce a few minutes each day to examine your dreams. Then turn those dreams into goals by taking small steps toward reaching them. We are not meant to just pay bills and die.
8. The best things in life aren’t things. – Art Buchwald
We live in the most consumer-driven society the world has ever known. Advertising executives have done a fantastic job convincing us that we will be happier if we buy a new car, a new TV, a new smart phone to replace the other new one we bought last year, or an infinite amount of other “things.” But inevitably, once obtained those things only leave us empty and wanting more. Fill your life with intangibles—experiences that result in memories, knowledge that grants us wisdom, or generosity that fills your soul. Those are the best “things.”
9. Most of the things you worry about never happen. – American proverb
Try this experiment. Keep track of what you worry about every day. Each time something worries you, write it down on a list, and then if what worried you eventually does happen, cross it off. After some time, you’ll discover you won’t cross off many worries. Our minds are often our own worst enemies, generating multiple “what if” worst case scenarios that ultimately never happen.
10. Yes dear, I’m sorry. – Trevor Shurtleff
Shortly before my wife and I were married, my nephew-in-law delivered this advice—a simple phrase I should use every time my wife and I disagreed. He was 13 at the time. Smart kid.
11. If your life is free of failures, you’re probably not taking enough risks. – H. Jackson Brown, Jr
Our society often views failure as unacceptable—and it’s making us risk averse and afraid to be bold. We need to accept failure as not only possible, but as a positive outcome in many situations. Google, usually at the forefront of progressive thinking, is already doing this—read about it here. Life is not a spectator sport—you need to constantly push your boundaries and move outside your comfort zones. This involves risk and failure—embrace both.
Remember, though we may have to earn the right to give advice, we’re always qualified to receive it.
“People and things change with time, but memories remain the same.” – Unknown
At some point in our lives we have an epiphany: that the dreams and memories we held dear in our youth might just disappear. The things we assumed would last forever can easily become only a brief moment in history.
My brother delivered unexpected news to me this summer. “Have you tried taking Cottonwood Pass this year?” he asked.
“No. What’s up?” I asked.
“It’s closed for the next two years. They’re paving the west side.”
He could have been nicer to me by just punching me in the face.
I don’t normally get emotional over a road. There are exceptions of course: the Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Going to the Sun Road in Glacier, Black Bear Road near Telluride. And in my eyes, Cottonwood Pass ranks among those legends of vehicular travel—partly because it makes easily accessible some of Colorado’s most breathtaking scenery, but mostly due to a life’s worth of nostalgia.
My family spent two weeks nearly every summer, from when I was a baby until I graduated from high school, on our annual family vacation near Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colorado. We parked our trailer at a campground in Taylor Canyon, at the foot of Cottonwood Pass, and used it as a basecamp for day trips throughout southern and central Colorado. For a kid growing up on the Great Plains, these two weeks every year brought high adventure and a sense of kinship with the mountains that manifested in my move to Colorado as an adult. On each vacation, we wore out the dusty dirt road over Cottonwood Pass.
Though the east side was paved for most of my childhood, the wild, untamed, gravel west side was a driving adventure to which I always looked forward.
Stage stop meadows, near the bottom of the west side, is a serene mountain park full of wildflowers and silence. In the late 19th century, stagecoaches would change teams and travelers would get a break from the rough and dusty pioneer road. Over a hundred years later, one could still get a sense of what this place was like for our ancestors. That will be more difficult with a paved highway next to it.
My vivid childhood imagination found every passing car as a chance to visualize stagecoaches and their four horse teams sending plumes of dust behind them on their race to the gold rush towns of Aspen and Tincup. The dirt road allowed me to experience the romance of the Old West.
As a young kid, my dad would describe the road’s rugged washboard in language that would embarrass my mom and make me howl with laughter. He would assure you that somewhere along that road right now, slowly rusting in the chilly alpine air, are pieces of the family Jeep’s suspension. But along it also lay those fond childhood memories, and no longer will the road’s new smooth surface help me relive them.
In later years, especially after I moved to Colorado, that lack of concrete and asphalt was what still endeared Cottonwood to me. Dirt roads can provide us a sense of peace and calm, a sanctuary from the stressors of modern life. Dirt roads lead us to adventure, to lands untamed and unexplored. Pavement inevitably leads us back to the civilization that many of us are trying to escape.
I write this at this risk of sounding like a grumpy old gray hair lamenting 5-cent Cokes and an era when not virtually everything had a damn computer built into it. I haven’t yet reached the point of screaming at the neighbor kids to get off my lawn. I’m not grumpy, and I’m not against progress. But my values do straddle a fine line between preserving the past and ensuring a better future. I know a paved Cottonwood Pass will save nearly 30 minutes of travel time between the Gunnison Country and Denver. I’m also aware asphalt and guardrails and wider lanes will be safer. Still, it’s a shame a place that once seized so much character and charm is at risk of becoming just a streak of asphalt charged with transporting unsuspecting folks to that proverbial point B.
Much of what made Cottonwood special to me will soon be lost to the steady march of progress. It will never be the same place, the same experience as what exists now only in my memory.
It’s a reminder to cherish what we have now—while we can.
“Slow down. Calm down. Don’t worry. Don’t hurry. Trust the process.” – Alexandra Stoddard
While on a recent run in a crooked Colorado canyon near my home, the ridgeline which marked the end of the canyon—and my run—poked out in the distance around every twist in the canyon walls. It seemed so far away. I run this canyon frequently, so I knew every footstep in front of me. I’m often motivated by the challenge ahead. Yet the distance wasn’t motivating for me, not today.
I think life is sometimes like this. Our aspirations, goals, and dreams can seem far enough away that they appear unattainable. I think this is the reason so many of us abandon the pursuit of our goals or don’t even try to begin with. Henry Ford once said, “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” With all due respect to one of the greatest industrialists of the 20th century, I think that’s complete hogwash. It’s nearly a guarantee that obstacles will present themselves in almost any of life’s pursuits, and if you’re not present enough in the moment to notice them and navigate around them, you will fall short. Sometimes these obstacles need to be anticipated and ways to mitigate those obstacles need to be planned. Always keeping your eyes on the goal is too simplistic to describe an effective way to achieve it. So what should we do?
This fall, my wife and I spent a weekend climbing three of Colorado’s fourteeners—Missouri Mountain, Mount Oxford, and Mount Belford. Missouri is only visible for about half the hike, and Belford’s summit is out of sight until you’re practically standing on it. The standard route for climbing Oxford involves climbing Belford first, so it isn’t visible until you reach the top of Belford. What kept us trudging up a steep trail, gaining 4,500 feet in just four miles (despite the fact we couldn’t see our goal for much of the way), was striving to reach the next curve in the path or the next big boulder on the side of the trail. This is the process of climbing, and the process is what gets you to the top.
If our focus is only on the end result or the ultimate goal, we continually remind ourselves that it is far away and that the trail is steep. But if we remain present, learn to appreciate the journey, and break up our ultimate goal into smaller sets of goals, then the trail won’t seem so long and steep.
The more than mile long traverse from Mt. Belford to Mt. Oxford included a quarter mile of technically easy class 2 hiking but on a punishing 50 degree pitch. My lungs burned with each gasp of the thin air at 14,000 feet. Not once in this area did I think about the top of the mountain I had not yet reached. Instead, I reveled in my view of the Rockies, many of the peaks below me for miles to the horizon. And my thoughts were limited to the next step I was about to take. We made quick progress on the traverse by taking our eyes off the goal and focusing on the obstacle. I hope Henry Ford wasn’t offended.
On my next run in the canyon near my home, I may push through fatigue when I see that faraway ridgeline. But if I feel less than hopeful in my chances of getting there without stopping to catch my breath, I may just concentrate on getting to the next curve in the canyon. Part of success in life is knowing what works for you and what doesn’t, and knowing that can change from one circumstance to the next. There’s an old adage: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” We may become discouraged if we only focus on the giant elephant, or the approximately 378,957 bites we have to take. But if we focus on each bite and not get ahead of ourselves, then each bite can give us confidence.
“We do not remember days, we remember moments.” – Cesare Pavese
“Daddy, is Grammy goin’ to Goosa?” my three year old daughter McKinley asked me when I roused her from her bed early on a May morning.
“What?” I replied. I had no idea what she was talking about. She reiterated, but it was of little help. Besides, I was distracted by the fact she needed to get dressed and ready for our annual trip to Sonlight Christian Camp that morning. Over the course of the next hour or so, I think she asked the question another two or three times. Frustrated with me, she finally asked her grandmother, my wife Liza’s mother Barb.
“Grammy, are you going Goosa today?”
Barb looked as perplexed as I did. “No, we’re staying at your house to look after the doggies while you’re gone,” she explained. Somehow satisfied with the answer, she didn’t ask again that morning. Instead, she focused her attention on her Elsa doll while Liza and I hurriedly finished our last minute packing. We were on the road by 10am for what has become one of our most anticipated rituals.
My parents have been participating in their church’s yearly volunteer work trip to Sonlight Christian Camp in Pagosa Springs for close to twenty years now. I joined them for the first time in 2008, the summer after I moved to Colorado from our family’s hometown of Wichita. Liza joined us in 2011, and along the way we’ve only missed one year—2015 when my our son Denali blessed us 3 months early and spent 51 days in the NICU.
Sonlight’s location, hidden away in a corner of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado, is reason enough to visit each year. But it’s really the friendships, the fun, and the work of supporting an exceptionally good cause which keeps us coming back. And to be honest, the awesome drive to get there, through some of the most scenic landscapes in Colorado, doesn’t hurt either.
We planned to stop at the Coyote Cantina near Buena Vista, a favorite Mexican joint at the foot of the dramatic Sawatch Mountains. We were aghast to find it closed—repossessed by the county for failure to pay their taxes. Lesson for restaurant owners: Pay your taxes; don’t leave people hanging for good Mexican food. Plan B for lunch ended up being K’s Burgers in Buena Vista, which gives its customers an order pick up name of a famous person instead of just an ordinary pick up number. Ours was Antonio Banderas, and it was indeed a badass feeling to walk up to the counter after hearing over the loudspeaker “Antonio Banderas, your order is ready.” I was thankful for the good fortune that our pick up name wasn’t Richard Simmons, as that would ordinarily be my luck.
Over Poncha Pass to the San Luis Valley we drove, flanked by the rugged Sangre De Christos, then into the San Juans up Wolf Creek Pass, one of the great mountain drives in the United States. Atop the pass, a recent spring snowstorm laid a soft blanket of fresh snow, pristine and unusually void of ski tracks or footprints.
Miles later, as we slowly navigated through Pagosa Springs’ quaint downtown, McKinley asked, “Mommy, is this Goosa?” We finally realized what she had been asking that morning. Unable to pronounce Pagosa, she had shortened and slightly modified it to “Goosa.” In the days leading up to the trip, Liza and I had many conversations about Sonlight within earshot of McKinley, and the always observant munchkin soaked up every word.
This is anticipation. This is Sonlight.
Our one year old son Denali might have been the first one to make new friends at Sonlight. Not long after we arrived on Wednesday, shortly after the rest of the group from Wichita, one of the new staff members vowed that he and Denali were going to be best friends. Jake, in his early twenties, had a faith as deep as his desire to make Denali his best friend ever. They sat together for lunch and dinner every day in the camp’s lodge.
Like a good best friend should be, Jake was a positive influence on Denali. Denali had developed a habit of throwing food instead of eating it. He would grab a handful of whatever he was eating, slowly turn his head to look directly at me, give me a wry smile, and swiftly chuck his food into the air behind him. I would have to scold Denali and apologetically explain to whomever was sitting at the table behind us that, no, that was not manna from heaven. After which, of course, more of Denali’s dinner would come raining down on them. Despite the age and language barrier, Jake worked with his new best friend and, by the end of our stay at Sonlight, convinced him eating food was better than throwing it.
It was fascinating to watch McKinley bond with the other members of our group as well. “Would you like to dance?” she asked Virgil on Saturday after dinner in the lodge. Virgil is a sprightly and good-natured 80 year old with a full head of white hair and always—always—a joke to tell. McKinley’s random request seemed to surprise Virgil at first, but almost immediately his look transformed to pure delight.
“It’s been fifty years since a young lady asked me to dance,” he said, laughing. Two years ago, God called Virgil’s wife, Donna, home. She was one of the most gracious and joyful souls I’ve ever known. The main path linking Sonlight’s buildings is now called “Donna’s Path,” and a plaque next to the path near the parking lot commemorates her many contributions to the camp.
Decades faded from Virgil’s face as he and McKinley danced to a song only they could hear. I’m not sure who was leading whom, but I don’t think it mattered. McKinley had a new friend, and Virgil’s huge smile indicated he was lost sometime in the 1950s again.
This is friendship. This is Sonlight.
The lousy cell phone service at Sonlight is one of its greatest assets. It’s a place you can get away from the normal distractions of the world, where we are forced to break off the relationships with our devices and start forming bonds with other actual human beings. Liza and I spent all three days replacing the deck in front of the camp’s lounge and lodge, working closely with my dad and our friend Larry Newland, and getting to know new Sonlight staffer Jake Schroeder. Replacing decking and joists in the harsh high attitude sun can be exhausting work, so Liza and I retired to the camp’s hot tubs almost every night. There we sat in the rejuvenating warm water, under a blanket of a billion stars, and talked about things we almost never have the time or opportunity to discuss. We talked about our hopes and plans for the future, and for the first time I was able to ask questions about Liza’s then budding foray into Beach Body and life coaching. We talked about the challenges of parenthood and our strategies to overcome them. We talked about our philosophies on life, things that we believe in, dreams we share.
Nightly Mexican Train domino games are one of the hallmarks of our group’s time at Sonlight. While everyone is a good sport and the primary goal is to have fun, they are at times pretty competitive. In a way, they remind me of the joke, “How do you get a sweet little 80-year-old lady to say the F word? Get another sweet little 80-year-old lady to yell BINGO!” My own mother is either the most skilled or the most diabolical (maybe both?) domino player on this planet. Whoever sits to her left, thereby playing the turn after hers, is doomed to a night of satisfying doubles, drawing new tiles, ludicrously high points, and just generally losing.
Stories are a recurring and favorite activity at Sonlight. This year, Sonlight co-founder and Executive Director Winston Marugg shared one about a trip he and his wife, Sonlight’s Co-founder and Doer-of-all-Things Mary, took high in the Himalaya when they were young adventurers. Called the Annapurna Circuit, this 100-mile, 20-day hike sits just one notch below Kilimanjaro on my adventure to do list, so I hung on Winston’s every word. “We were hiking up a pass near 18,000 feet,” he recalled, “and we were really struggling. We were just huffing and puffing—exhausted. We would take one step and have to rest–we weren’t sure we were going to make it. Just then, we noticed coming down the pass was a guy with one leg and on crutches. And he was moving fast. He was probably about 75 years old, and he had a Sherpa carrying most of his stuff who was struggling to keep up with him. Well, we figured if this guy 50 years older than us could do it, so could we, so we kept going. We finally reached the top of the pass, and we stopped to do a selfie. This was in the days before cell phones or even digital cameras, so Mary set up our film camera on a rock a few feet away and set a 20 second timer. But because the air was so thin and we were moving like slow motion, Mary couldn’t make it back in time to pose with me. It wasn’t a digital camera so we couldn’t instantly check the picture, so when we had the film developed later we found out we got a great picture of Mary’s back side.”
This is unplugging and reconnecting. This is Sonlight.
We could see the glow of Denver’s lights on the horizon for almost an hour, speeding back towards the city on highway 285. We’ve seen it many times before. Tonight, however, it made both Liza and I feel a little different. As we crested a hill and saw the expanse of lights of the southern metro area before us, Liza broke the long silence.
“Isn’t this a little overwhelming compared to where we’ve been the last few days?” she asked. I had been thinking the exact same thoughts. “I’m not sure I appreciate the frantic, hectic pace of all the people around here anymore. Everyone is so worried and so caught up about where they’re trying to get to that they don’t give a damn whether the person next to them is having a good day,” she added.
It was an astute observation. For instance, riding the light rail into downtown during the morning commute is a case study of people building invisible barriers between themselves and others who are sitting or standing just inches away. In the eight years I have lived in Denver, the metro area has added more than a half million people, and in the past year or two the area has become the fastest growing city in the United States. Traffic has become noticeably worse since I moved here, and this is an observation from a relatively new resident. I can’t imagine the perspective of someone who has lived here for thirty years or more. It’s ironic to me that as our cities become more crowded, we become less connected to each other.
I was reminded of an experience that very morning at a gas station in Pagosa Springs. Three people wished me a good morning or asked me how I was doing—and only one of them was an employee of the station. Leaving the station, one guy held the door for me and talked to me like he had known me for years, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have a secret twin that lives in Pagosa. I thanked him for holding the door for me. “Yeah sure, no worries. Have a great day,” he said. In Denver, you may get a “sure”, or if you’re lucky, a “you’re welcome.”
I realized there’s a difference between politeness and friendliness. Modern 21st century life has its advantages, but one of them is not the connection between humankind. Despite globalization making the world seem smaller, and your friend posting hundreds of pictures of their kid on Facebook, we are somehow growing further apart. But then, there was the guy who held the door for me at the gas station in Pagosa, and the people inside who asked me how I was doing. I guess there are still places we can go where we don’t bury our faces in our phones, where we smile at each other and say hi, where the main concern for all of us at any moment is not where we need to be in ten minutes.
This is perspective. This is Sonlight.
* * * * * * * * *
It’s moments like these that will make us return to Sonlight year after year. There is more to our work trips than just supporting a worthy cause, which normally would be reason enough for us to go. But Sonlight is special; managed and staffed by extraordinary people. I’ve always thought it is a place that cannot be explained, it must be experienced. It also cannot be contained, as its spirit extends far beyond the camp—it can be found in the anticipation we feel every year, in our relationships with camp staff and our work group, in Pagosa Springs, and most importantly, in our hearts.
“I don’t like prison; they have the wrong kind of bars in there.” – Charles Bukowski
“If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.” – Dwight Eisenhower
I stood silent, my eyes shifting nervously as I scanned the featureless cinderblock wall in front of me. Finally, the blue heavy metal door to my left began to slowly slide closed. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrr…ka-thunk! The finality of the sound was unsettling. A guard seemed to stare at me blankly. I didn’t need his stare to feel any more uncomfortable; after all, I was now locked inside the Colorado State Penitentiary.
The day before, I was approached by a coworker at my day job, Adam, with a proposition. “Wanna go to prison?” Adam asked. Ya know, as inviting as prison usually sounds, thanks but no, I’ll pass this time. Well wait, what exactly would get me into prison? Are we talking just your mundane multi-state spree of bank robberies? Or will this be some kind of Dr. Evil plot to take over the world? You have my attention if it’s the latter. None of the above–it was a pre-bid meeting for a couple of construction projects at the Colorado State Penitentiary near Canon (pronounced Canyon) City. No Dr. Evil sharks with freakin’ laser beams, buuuut, it was a chance to get out from behind my desk and do something unique, so I told Adam I’d go. I’ve always said I’d do anything once, and though going to prison never really crossed my mind as an “anything,” I’d make an exception in this situation. I filled out a couple of background check forms for the State so I could be allowed on the prison grounds, then agreed with Adam that I should leave early in the morning to minimize morning rush hour traffic when I passed through Colorado Springs on my way to Canon City.
I left my company’s office in Castle Rock promptly at 6:45 am. When I passed through Colorado Springs I discovered no one actually drives to work in that city. Perhaps I’m used to rush hours in Denver, which start Monday morning at 6 am and continue non-stop until approximately 3am Saturday. My false assumption of Springs traffic meant I was the first person in recorded human history to actually show up early at a prison. And I wasn’t just early, I was over an hour early. The prison is located in a complex of several separate prison facilities (including the infamous SuperMax) a few miles east of Canon City on a windswept and featureless desert just beyond the foothills to the Rockies. It was August, so even at 8 am there was no escape from the sun, which was already beating down on me. Rather than just sit there and watch the thermometer quietly climb to 140 degrees, I decided to take a few minutes to sight see. The little town of Florence was a short ten minute drive away; I had never been there and I enjoy checking out quaint and charming small Colorado towns. However, I soon discovered the reason Florence is rather obscure and off the beaten path is that someone forgot to tell the town that it should be quaint and charming. Somewhat creepy is my best description for it, and after five minutes of checking out its dilapidated buildings and its suddenly-abandoned-during-the-zombie-apocalypse vibe, I was on my way back to the much more inviting and comforting Colorado State Penitentiary. I was still half an hour early.
My meeting was held in the visitor center to the prison, located just outside the prison grounds. The first 30 minutes was spent going over project details, then all twenty of us contractors were driven around the prison grounds in two large passenger vans. The project was to be the construction of new guard towers and recreation yards, so we were given the ability to visit the areas and conditions where our construction crews would be working. While we drove around the facility, we could see inmates—oops, we were instructed to call them by the politically correct term “offenders”—the prison was paying to dismantle the existing perimeter fence. Obviously on some sort of work-release arrangement, I bet these offenders were very popular with their buddies inside for helping to make the facility a little less secure.
The meeting lasted about an hour, but there was a second meeting immediately after. This meeting was for phase two of the project—the reconstruction of a double electrical fence around the facility, which explained why the existing fence was being taken down. This project also called for replacing the security camera system and some other electrical work, much of which would be done inside the prison. That meant all of us contractors would be going inside the prison to tour the areas where our crews would be working.
Prison employees are surprisingly friendly and upbeat. Maybe working in a place with the dreary mission of housing people who need to be separated from the rest of society forces one to see the silver lining of virtually any situation. Whatever the reason, I’ve stayed at hotels with less friendly staff than the Colorado State Penitentiary. They were even cheery when our group of twenty contractors clogged up the prison lobby, slowly emptied our pockets, and made our way through the metal detectors like clueless morons in a TSA line who forgot to remove their shoes, their belts, and every other slightly metal object on their person.
Once our herd had finally made its successful way through the metal detectors and security, we were led into a room with blue metal doors at each end. This was the room described at the beginning of this blog. Once one is through security and into this room, the surroundings gives one an uncomfortable feeling that is difficult to describe. It could be due to the constant observation and close scrutiny of the guards. Or perhaps it is being in the close physical presence of offenders with swastikas tattooed on their shaved heads. I’m not sure.
If you use your imagination, the prison is in the shape of a clover. Each leaf is a two-story pod of several hundred cells arranged in a somewhat circular pattern. Connecting each leaf to the stem (where the front entrance, lobby, and main control room are all located) are long hallways divided into numerous sections with more of those blue heavy metal doors. The doors operate like locks in a canal; one door opens once the door at the opposite end of the section closes. This increases security, but it also greatly increases the time it takes to navigate through the facility. I guess if you’re spending 40 years in prison for armed robbery, you’re in no great hurry to get anywhere anyway. The guards would only allow four or five contractors at a time to see various rooms, so the remaining 15 of us would congregate in the hallways—also under guard—while we waited. During one such wait, another set of guards led an inmate—ooops, offender—through our section of the hallway. We were instructed to stand against the wall as they led the offender past us. The experience prompted a conversation between myself and two fence contractors I was standing near. We speculated that this was a minimum security facility due to the offenders outside disassembling the perimeter fence and the fact the offender that was just escorted past us was not in handcuffs or ankle chains. The prison maintenance director was with our tour, so as he made his way over to our conversation, one of us asked him about the prison’s security. He told us that while offenders of any security level may be in the facility, this was Colorado’s maximum security facility and where the state will send its most hardened criminals. I could see the color and any expression leaving the faces of the fencing contractors, and I’m sure the same was happening to mine. The only thought going through my mind at that moment was the guy they escorted past our group just moments before probably killed thirty people.
The next stop in our tour of Colorado’s maximum security prison for mass murderers, serial rapists, and homicidal maniacs was an actual pod of cells—one of the “leaves” of the clover-shaped prison. Inmat—offenders—in this pod were free to leave their cells and congregate in the common areas, which included tables with chairs and futons and TVs. They played cards at the tables, watched CNN on TVs, or just sat in groups talking and laughing. As we toured the pod, we were walking amongst them, who surprisingly were not very interested in our presence. I was not watching where I was walking, instead my attention focused on an electrical conduit pointed out by another contractor, and I almost collided with an offender crossing my path. “Oh, pardon, excuse me,” he said in a warm voice as he passed. It was surreal. If that was any indication, these offenders have better manners than many American tourists.
The shock of my first interaction ever in my life with a prison inmate was interrupted by what had to be the most boneheaded moment of the day, compliments of a fellow contractor. In the center of each two story pod is a two story guard room. The guard room on the second floor is accessible by an enclosed catwalk extending out from a stairway within the exterior wall, and suspended above the floor of the pod. Two contractors were looking up at the catwalk and a grate in its floor above them, which was about 3 to 4 feet square. “Ya know, they could get some of their prison laundry, start a fire below this catwalk, and probably smoke the guards out of the guard room,” one contractor said to the other. I slowly face-palmed. Offenders were walking around us within earshot. In my mind flashed images of a prison riot starting any moment now, thanks to the brilliant observation of my tour-mate.
Luckily, we were spared a prison riot that afternoon, and the guards led us to the next stop on our tour, which was the maximum security portion of the prison. In this area the offenders spend the vast majority of their day inside their cells. There are no TVs, no furniture, and no activity in this wing. So we had no interaction with offenders other than walking by an indoor basketball court where an organized game was being played. I spotted an offender with what appeared to be a swastika tattooed on his shaved head. I was ready to leave. Compound that with the noise of the inmates banging on their doors—apparently something they do when they know there are visitors present—and this is the by far the most unsettling wing of the prison.
Our last stop was in the basement of the prison, where the guards and maintenance personnel let us look at some mechanical and electrical equipment. This is relatively common with meetings like these, and I have learned to do my best to pretend to know what I’m looking at. I have a repertoire of interesting facial expressions that I use, including squinty eyes with a series of slight head nods, lifting my bottom lip and chin, and my patented “I’ve seen that thing a thousand times, whatever it is” blank stare. And of course I pay attention to what other guys look at and do, and then I look at and do those things too. For good measure, I make sure to go back at least once and pretend to look at something again. I was looking at one electrical box when another contractor walked up, took a hard look, grunted, and looking at something in particular inside the box, said, “I haven’t seen one of those damn things in twenty years.” Oh no, no one has ever actually tried to have a conversation with me about…whatever that thing is he’s looking at. I was trying desperately to ward off the deer-in-the-headlights look. So I said something disparagingly about how it’s the government and they do everything on a shoestring budget. I learned quickly in the construction industry that it’s highly popular with contractors to complain about anything and everything government-related. Other popular topics for small talk include guns, pick up trucks, beer, and football (but no other sports—and soccer doesn’t even count as a sport). “Boy you’re right about that,” the contractor said with a chuckle. “Sons of bitches can’t do anything right,” he added as he slowly walked away. Bullet dodged.
We finally arrived back at the prison’s lobby and main desk to sign out right at 1:45 in the afternoon. We had left our cell phones with security, and there is not a single clock to be found anywhere inside the prison, so I had no idea it was that late. My stomach had been complaining for awhile and now I understood why. Canon City was just a few miles away, so I could satisfy my ravenous hunger in no time…or so I thought. Everyone in Canon City drives like they are 85 years old. Apparently, the unwritten rule in town is to subtract 20 from whatever number is on the speed limit sign and the result is how fast you’re supposed to drive. On top of that, the town has a stop light approximately every fifteen feet. Their traffic lights mimic the damn prison doors—the moment the stop light you’re at turns green, the one at the next intersection turns yellow. So I slowly made. My way. Through Canon City. Until I finally. Found a Sonic. After passing what. Seemed like a. Half dozen McDonalds. I can’t stand McDonalds, so Sonic was at least a decent substitute for real food.
After I scarfed down my Route 44 feast, I hit the road and had just as much fun getting out of Canon City as I had finding lunch. After the last stop light, I was stuck behind two jackasses cars driving side by side in the two east bound lanes, both of which drove the exact same speed and took four miles to get to 65 mph. I’m not exaggerating—I kept track of every excruciating mile on our protracted odyssey to normal highway speed, because by this time I knew I was going to blog about this memorable day.
If you ever have a chance to go to prison, whether by choice or not, I’d advise against it. It’s a dreary place. However, one of the reasons I appreciate new experiences is that they almost always change my perspective or at least challenge my beliefs. The one pris—err, offender—who politely apologized for almost running into me made quite an impression on me and challenged many of the assumptions I held. The prison staff was also not what I was expecting. Amazingly friendly, warm, and helpful, they maintain an attitude quite the opposite of the vibe of their workplace. As a person that loathes structure and detests restrictions, what struck me most about prison was the stark contrast in these two areas to everyday life. It prompted me to consider what life must be like for offenders as they transition away from prison when their sentences end. The United States has a higher percentage of its population in prison than any other industrialized nation in the world (almost 1%, source available here), and eventually when most of these offenders are released back into society it’s often done without much counseling. Not all prisoners are sent to halfway houses or work release programs, so like being thrown into freezing cold water, the offenders are released from a highly structured and protective environment to an outside world where suddenly they need to fend for themselves. Where once they couldn’t even shower without supervision and a schedule, when released they are devoid of virtually any oversight or accountability. And without a doubt, life inside that prison is easier, safer, and better than what some of those offenders experienced before they were locked up and what many will return to after. What I saw that time I went to prison wasn’t Club Med, and I’m not advocating changes to the environment of prison. I’m beginning to understand, though, that we are setting offenders up for failure if we can’t slowly reintroduce each and every one of them to society and teach them skills to be successful outside of prison. Expanded work release programs and counseling, adding more parole officers, and establishing support systems for former inmates seems to me to be a hell of a lot better use of our money than continuing to expand and build prisons so that the rest of us can just ignore the problem in hopes that it goes away. Prison may be punishment, and it should be, but we punish our society’s potential when two-thirds of released offenders end up back in prison within 3 years (source here). Our current system, obviously, isn’t working. As of 2008, the states alone (not counting the federal government), spent almost $50 billion dollars on their prison systems (source), and in every state more was spent on prisons than on education (source). Troubling statistics like that won’t change if we do not take a more progressive and strategic approach to the prison problem.
…Actually, quite a bit for our baby boy
Our daughter McKinley was named after what was then named Mt. McKinley in Alaska, North America’s tallest peak at over 20,000 feet. We wanted to attach a moniker to our daughter that reflected our lifestyle, our values, and what we hope will become her lifestyle and values as well. As the birth of our baby boy loomed in 2015, my wife Liza and I wanted to approach his name in a similar manner. Most importantly, like McKinley, we wanted a name we wouldn’t find on one of those souvenir store keychain displays—we wanted something unusual.
We had a middle name picked early, deciding on James to honor my father and Liza’s grandfather. During Liza’s pregnancy, we had some very preliminary discussions about first names, but not often and never extensively. So when our little guy was born 12 weeks early in March 2015, we were caught more than just a little off guard.
Our working list of names reflected our inclination for outdoorsy, nature themed monikers, such as Hunter and Rainier. Bryce was inspired by Bryce National Park, which we visited on our honeymoon. Everest has obvious origins. Taylor was a name that ended up on both Liza’s and my final favorite three list. Taylor is the name of a river, a lake, and a high mountain park in one of our favorite areas of Colorado—near Crested Butte. Also on both of our final favorite three lists was Logan. Located in the Canadian territory of Yukon, the 19,551-foot Mount Logan is the second tallest peak in North America. Logan had probably been my favorite name, as I figured that if our first born was named after our continent’s tallest mountain then our second born ought to be named Logan.
Liza’s main concern with Logan was that it has become exceedingly popular with parents lately. It ranked in the top twenty of all male baby names. The same could be said about Taylor, which was in the top 50 and rising fast thanks to the moron from the Twilight movies. Unfortunately, those two names will undoubtedly be on those souvenir store keychain racks soon, if they aren’t already.
I began to second guess what was probably my favorite name, Logan, the moment our boy was born. Arriving as early as he did, some twelve weeks, nothing is a given. His lungs weren’t developed enough for him to breath on his own, so a machine had to keep him alive initially. It was enough for even a positive person like me to have horrible “what if” scenarios racing through his mind as we prepared for Liza’s C-section. So when I watched our son delivered, being pulled from the womb literally kicking and screaming, I witnessed for the first time how tough he is. In the following days, he progressed faster than we could have hoped. He was removed from the ventilator and placed on a lessor breathing apparatus. Some of his vitals were more in line with preemies a couple of weeks or more along. I realized that as much as I liked the name Logan and the concept of our second born being named after North America’s second summit, our boy was one tough son of a gun and he did not deserve to take second to anything.
The third name on Liza’s and my favorite lists was Denali. Inspired by the national park, it is also the Native American name for Mt. McKinley. While researching the name Denali, we learned that it’s an Athabaskan word which translates (roughly) into “the great one.” It’s appropriateness struck Liza and I immediately. It also seemed to us quite a meaningful bond for McKinley and her brother. We gave ourselves a full day “trial period” of using the name just between the two of us before we decided officially.
Denali James Grimes is indeed a “great one,” a tough kid who at only a few days old was already impressively fighting a battle most of us luckily avoided. He was as determined to stay as an immovable mountain of rock.
Without a doubt, when the kids are old enough we will take a family trip to Denali National Park. When the early morning mist begins to clear and our kids see for the first time Denali towering before them, I will explain to them that their names are not just names. Their names are a shared symbol, an appeal from their parents to always explore, seek adventure, and to rise above all the challenges and obstacles in their lives. I have no doubts McKinley will do just that. Denali was already doing it the day he was born.