Most people consider happiness to be a feeling, without weight or substance. I know different.

500 Pounds of Happiness: The family stories that bind us…

I witnessed the creation of 500 pounds of happiness before my very eyes at San Quentin State Prison in 2013.

Most people consider happiness to be a feeling, without weight or substance. I know different. I witnessed the creation of 500 pounds of happiness before my very eyes at San Quentin State Prison in 2013.

It’s not easy to make happiness; nor can you buy it. In fact, it is so rare that a slight dusting of it engenders a wondrous sense of well-being. That’s why it is usually perceived as only a feeling, not something tangible.

I know the truth. Happiness is real. It has substance and weight.

The happiness I’m talking about did not materialize by waving a magic wand, however, magic was used. Like with most true magic, it began as an idea converted into a wish wrapped in words and planted in the heart of another. There, if all goes well, it grows over time and bursts forth into action — a magical alchemy that transforms base matter into something precious. In this case, a daughter made happiness as a gift to her father.

How does that happen, you wonder?

Magic requires courage, imagination, and perfect timing. My daughter has all three. She knew my birthday was approaching and because I am incarcerated — I had told her I was serving a sentence, like a time out that would last longer than she had been alive — she made a card to mail to me. But she wanted me to feel her love in more ways than a card can provide. At seven years of age, she knew that cards are good love-delivery vehicles, but they can hold only a small amount. She knew there must be a better way to send her love to her daddy in prison.

Magic was the only option. Her chances to visit daddy are few and when she does, she has to share daddy with her brother and mother.

Fortunately, she knows she has a natural talent for magic. After all, she had won three first-place trophies in the NORCAL karate tournament. She knew that her daily rituals help her daddy learn to walk again after his accident and her mommy recover from cancer too.

The best way to send daddy love was with magic. As everyone knows, you just need to take the magic, cover it with bits and scraps of facts, water it with wishes and let the warm sunny rays of hope cause it to take root and grow. All she had to do was find a way to plant a magic seed in the fertile soil of another person’s heart and use her sunny smile to speed the process along.

She waited patiently for the opportunity during her last visit with daddy. She always knows when it comes, just like she knows when to hammer-blow an opponent in karate or steal a smile from grandma.

It was while standing in front of a vending machine in San Quentin’s visiting room that she found the host for her magic. A man daddy knew and called a friend. She conjured up her own powers, opened her eyes wide and said, “Excuse me, sir….” She asked the man to say “happy birthday” to daddy. Little could she guess how her magic seed would burst forth into 500 pounds of happiness a few days later.

Now, that man, Aly, had experienced such power before. He had two adult daughters of his own and the little imp’s spell had transported him back in time to a pair of smiles meant only for him. In the glow of those memories, the magic seed grew in his heart. In exchange for the wondrous gift of time being (as in being back in another time)l, he wanted to do more than merely pass along a birthday greeting. Like all of the family we call humans, Aly had his own magic, and he would put it to use.

He went to his treasure trove hidden in his small prison locker and gathered ten bite-sized chocolates — a rare treat. After the morning call of “Wake up, wash up. Don’t forget to brush up,” he came to my cell and with a beaming smile shouted “Happy birthday!” Then he handed over the bounty of chocolates.

In shock, I looked at the bounty in my hands. How could such a thing be possible — a birthday known and gifts given?

Aly divulged the source of his secret knowledge and we shared the magic glow of a daughter’s love. I was so filled with it; I turned to my cellie and gave him half of the sweet treasures. After all, my cellie had been in prison for twelve long years without a single visit from his family — thus no access to such magic himself.

We unwrapped the chocolates and ate them.

That is when it happened, the rare magical power of alchemy that alters base matter into something precious. This magic dwells in the human soul subordinates time and matter to its will; especially when swept into action by love. The chocolate covered in smiles entered us, it was the catalyst. This syntheses of magic and matter transformed into a new substance: 500 pounds of happiness. (I claim only 225 of them.)

This happiness was used to send Aly back in time to relive the glow of his daughters’ love; it helped my cellie to start his climb out of a deep pit of loneliness. And it gave me the strength to face the challenges of serving sentence with a warm smile.

This small girl’s magic gift would help all of us speed our time along.

If you are curious about prison life and the real work that goes on there, read The San Quentin News or listen to Ear Hustle.

I was able to develop my writing and learned to express myself in the narrative form under the tutelage of Zoe Mallory along with the creative writing students in Zoe Mullery’s class. This group has been meeting for three hours every Wednesday evening at San Quentin State Prison since 1999. If you want to know more, go to

A version of this story was published in

Read more about how family stories are essential for a resilient family here.

Father, attorney, essayist, thinker, and active manager who found the courage to create through the chrysalis of San Quentin prison.

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