Thursday, September 12, 2019

Story Time

This week, I participated in a story-telling event at USD. The theme was "Bang," but that was to be interpreted however one wanted in the context of some personal story. Here is the prepared text—I diverged and embellished and cried—of that story:

When Professor Bowman asked if I’d be willing to tell a story, I said, “yes,” because that’s what I tend to do. I agreed to do Mortar Board’s Last Lecture one year without knowing what it was and went to the end of the year celebration for Beta without realizing that I was being honored. But, I didn’t know what story to tell. I have a lot of stories that I tell students in class, but those tend to be very short and everyone has heard them multiple times.
I finally figured out what to tell you today when I was reading The Shining at the end of the summer. I’m not going to tell you a horror story, but my story will be about a little boy and family and it partly takes place in Colorado.
And, I’m not sure the story is going to have the kind of bang the theme calls for,  but it does deal with something that has hit me with a bang several times throughout my life.
When I was a very small boy, my parents broke up. They never really should have married each other and everyone around them knew that before they got married. But they did and if they hadn’t, there’d be no me. So it’s a good thing, I suppose, that they did. They were separated when I was still a baby and divorced when I was two. Not long after they divorced, my dad moved out of our small hometown to the “big city” of Fort Wayne, Indiana, about a half hour away. I would visit him every other weekend and sometimes he would be in town seeing his family. But, already there was a good deal of distance between us.
After a few years, he remarried and he and his new wife moved to Denver. The emotional distance was enhanced with physical distance.
The summer after kindergarten, he arranged for me to come and visit for two weeks. I should say that I have never liked being away from home. I still find even the best vacations difficult because I’m not in my own bed around my own things following my routine. Still, this was a big adventure for a little kid.
So, my mom and grandparents drove me to the airport in Fort Wayne. I flew for the first time. This was when flying was a lot more pleasant than it is now: big seats, full meals with real plates and flatware, the whole deal. And, if you were a kid flying alone, you got wings and to visit the cockpit and the cabin crew checked up on you all of the time, like a VIP, all of it very exciting for six-year-old towheaded me. I remember being excited and I remember the man who sat next to me. He talked to me through the whole flight and entertained me. I remember him teaching me how to write my name in Korean, even though it must have been exasperating being seated next to a little kid.
Anyway, I got to Denver and my dad picked me up at the old Stapleton airport. I don’t remember much about the time I was there on that visit. I remember more about later trips, including one where the trip out was by Greyhound, but I do remember going to work with him a few times on that first trip. He was a schoolteacher, but he hadn’t found a teaching job yet, so, at the time, he was driving a bookmobile. I can still picture the old school bus that had been painted sky blue with a scene of clouds and balloons and filled with shelves of children’s books.
What I can remember vividly is how miserable I was. I didn’t like what I was fed; they made me eat breakfast and it always involved both eggs and syrup either on pancakes or waffles or French toast, none of which I was used to eating. I’m still not much for a daily breakfast. And, my dad’s wife really like to attempt Chinese food. Nothing was like I was used to and I wasn’t at home.
I cried. A lot. I cried when I was trying to fall asleep at night, but I also cried a lot during the day. I was homesick and there was nothing my dad could do about it. We aren’t a particularly demonstrative or talkative people; I don’t think he knew what to do or what to say. And, though we’re obviously related, we just weren’t family to each other.
He had tried as well as he could, but it didn’t work. And, he was mad.
We’ve gone through long periods, once almost two decades, where we haven’t talked to each other at all. But now we’re perfectly happy to be in the same room almost talking.
So, he called my mom. That wasn’t easy. She had gone to the lake cabin of a coworker, a pretty big vacation for her. In the era before cellphones or even answering machines, it took some effort to get ahold of her and to arrange my early return. Instead of a two-week stay, I was on my way back home after just a week.
I remember getting home, after the flight and the drive from the airport, and getting back to my neighborhood. I grew up on a street that only ran two blocks between the two main streets in my small hometown. It was a quiet street and I was an only child of a single mother when that was still an uncommon thing, so I spent most of my free time going from house to house and hanging out with adults. Next door to us lived the Tacketts, Uncle Ben and Aunt Ginger, and their two daughters who used to watch me when mom was at work. Next to them were the Dolbys, who I called the Doblys. She taught me to read when I was three. There were other Dolbys across the street, his brother. Mrs. Johnson whose husband had gone to prison forty years before—a thing no one forgets in a small town—was directly across the street.  She used to give me the toys out of cereal she bought for her visiting grandchildren. Then there was the house on the corner with old Mr Ray. He had had a stroke and I would walk over on summer nights and sit with him on their front porch and talk to him. He never talked back, but he’d smile at me with his eyes. And, I haven’t thought about him in four decades.
Anyway, the first thing I asked for when I got back home was to see Uncle Ben. I had gotten a new bicycle earlier in the year, for my birthday I think. It was a sweet red Schwinn, with a sparkled paint job. We’d gotten it for free because the owner of the bike shop had a habit of not cashing checks. But, the bike still had its training wheels. 
I wanted Uncle Ben because I wanted him to take them off. I wanted to really ride my bike. And, he did. And, I did. I don’t know whether I wanted to show that I was growing up even though I hadn’t been grown up enough to go away for two weeks, but it was super important to me to show that I could ride that bike.
It wasn’t just my mom that I had missed, though I’m sure my dad thought I was a mama’s boy. She lives in San Diego now, so maybe. It wasn’t just my house or my things or my routine. It was my family that was missing. And, that family wasn’t just people I was related to. It was the people around me who mattered and to whom I mattered. They were the people I belonged to. They were home.
Through most of my life, I’ve felt like I didn’t quite belong in the way I was supposed to, but there’ve always been people around who felt like, and were, family. At least sometimes, to bastardize Madonna, family’s where you find it. 

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Thoughts on jury duty

This last week I went to jury duty. I think I’ve been called four times now. Only once was I selected for a (civil) jury, a two-week experience that was a waste of the time of everyone involved. This time I was called to a courtroom together with seventy-two other people, but I was dismissed in a peremptory challenge on the second day. This last experience got me thinking about a number of things, some having to do with local circumstances, others with the way we think about the law more generally.
In San Diego, you can be called every year, though you get a three-year break if you are selected for a jury. When you get your summons, assuming you don’t ask for a delay or have an excuse, you have to show up at 7:45 AM at the courthouse downtown. You sit around for two hours, during which you watch a movie about the jury system bordering on fantasy and hear a short presentation by one of the judges and fill out a very short form. The actual randomized selection of people for jury selection doesn’t begin until almost 10:00 AM. Two hours are spent doing what could easily be done in twenty minutes on a computer at home or in a public library. Of course, this makes jury duty a burden, one that people with children or other responsibilities are likely to be unable to undertake, whatever claims we might want to make about civic duty.
If someone is selected for a jury, they are reimbursed for their time, at a rate of $15 per day, starting on the second day. That is about enough to buy lunch in the vicinity of the court house.  The first day you get nothing; likely this is because they make many more people show up than they could possibly need, because it all must be done in person, rather than online or on-call. There is no law in California that an employer must pay an employee for time they are on juries, so that means again that many, many people are simply unable to sit on juries. In San Diego, you also get reimbursement for travel, at a rate of $0.34 a mile, again starting on the second day.  The first day, you’re on your own. There is also no free parking. Alternatively, you can get a transit pass for each day that you serve, again starting on the second day.
What effect does this have on the court system? It is obvious when you look around a court room after prospective jurors have been seated. In my courtroom the majority of prospective jurors fell into one of the three groups: college students, retirees, or middle-aged professionals. Almost all appeared to be upper-middle-class and the group skewed heavily white. San Diego is, however, a very diverse city and county. It was a room of lawyers, doctors, nurses, a few academics, executives, a whole bunch of engineers, and the retirees and students. Many others had been excused from service because of economic hardship. Those who remained are those who could afford to be there.
The defendant in the case for which I was in the selection pool was a young, heavily tattooed Latino man who appeared to be working class. He didn’t look like much of anybody in the jury pool. Once anyone who had ever had a negative experience with police officers was removed for cause, the pool looked even less like the defendant.
This all connects to the other thing I was thinking about during selection and after. Prospective jurors are asked again and again whether they can be objective and impartial. The answer that is expected is a resounding, “Yes.” A response of even, “I can try to be,” results in an admonishment from the judge. The pool is further instructed that they cannot feel or be guided by sympathy or feeling either for the defendant or his victims. Nothing about the appearances or backgrounds or anything else about any participants can have any bearing. They must be guided only by evidence. And, importantly, they cannot let any thought of possible punishments effect their judgments. Nor, of course, can they think about the law, only the facts. This was perhaps most striking when several prospective jurors who were lawyers, including one who was an Assistant Attorney General, were asked whether they would be able to look at the evidence as laypersons.
It seems to me that this is very high-minded bullshit, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. It is asking us to go behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance to make our judgments. How precisely will the lawyer cordon off her legal knowledge when hearing the case? How will the juror for whom tattoos are a sign of gang affiliation forget that? How will I make sure that my sympathies, identity, concerns about the justice of prisons, etc., do not touch on my judging the evidence? I don’t mean to say that I can’t work to minimize those effects, but I can’t do that by pretending that I am capable of absolute objectivity and impartiality, as if I were retreating to my heated room to consider the Evil Demon. Rather, I’ll have to be aware of my subjectivity to fight it. Pretending that I am capable of absolute objectivity and impartiality will only make me more likely to act on my unexamined prejudices. And, if we were capable of objectivity and impartiality, we wouldn’t need a jury of twelve. One would suffice or maybe three to be on the safe side. Nor would we be concerned that the jury be a jury of one’s peers. Any old people would do. This is absolutely essential, I think: if we are going to treat defendants as innocent until proven otherwise, they need to be judged by their peers. 
It’s not a jury of his peers that this case’s defendant ended up with. The economic incentives guarantee that it can’t be. In a system where the resources of the “people” are much greater than those of the public defender system that matters. He was at numerous disadvantages.
In the end, I was dismissed. I had been Juror 36 and then I was briefly Juror 8 before the defense thanked me for my service and dismissed me. I don’t know whether it was because I had shared that family members of mine had been victims of crimes similar in some respects to those he was accused of or because a middle-aged, white, gay man who generally looks angry, in spite of his actual emotions, didn’t seem like a sympathetic juror. 
I don’t know what they outcome will be and he may very well be guilty, but I’m not more trusting in the fairness of our system—the orientation film explaining the benefits of our unique(!) system just wasn’t enough—especially towards those without power, wealth, and influence.

Some other time I’ll worry about what a reasonable doubt is. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Thinking about absurdity and individualism

I was thinking this morning about the role of the absurdity of human life in the existentialism of Sartre and the absurdism of Camus and those around and influenced by and influencing them. At least for Sartre and Camus, the non-existence of God plays a large part in the account of absurdity. Because there is no God, there can be no objective meaning to our lives. Because there is no objective purpose—and because all our plans and accomplishments come to an end with our deaths and disappearance into nothingness—our lives are absurd. They serve no purpose. And, we are, at best, like dear old Sisyphus.

But, can we hold onto this kind of absurdity for more than a moment, if we avoid the modern trap of seeing ourselves as atomistic individuals? (I’ll merely mention here that there’s also something precious and luxurious in this flavor of concern with absurdity.) What I mean is just this: My life undoubtedly appears or is absurd if it begins ex nihilo—in effect, though not in fact—with my conception or birth or first choice and ends wholly and finally at my death. Leaving aside questions of religion and survival, this is an extremely impoverished idea of a human being or life. Regardless of whether there is a God or whether I go on in some personal way after death, I am part of something larger than myself. I come from a family and a community and I contribute to at least one of those in ways that will continue after I am dead and long-forgotten. I’m unlikely to be remembered for long, but even if that’s correct, some almost-almost-indiscernible effect of my having been here with remain in what does remain. If that’s right, the idea that my life is absurd or a cosmic joke is harder to maintain.