Jury Duty Fake-Out

About a month ago, when we drove down to the main drag to pick up our mail, I plucked a surprise out of our post office box.  In large red letters, the envelope announced JURY SUMMONS.

My first thought was “oh, what a pain.”  I am so busy at work and this will interfere with my travels to southern California to conduct the training classes that I’ve been planning for months.  My second though was “it will be fun and interesting to serve on a jury again.”

What did not go through my mind was the thought that everyone else seems to have in such situations:  “How can I get out of it?”  My wife tells stories of how her late father wouldn’t vote for fear of being added to county lists of potential jurors.  Apparently, he was not alone.  These days, I hear they use DMV lists for this purpose.  Lots of people don’t vote but, at least in California, almost everyone drives.

I believe there is a reason it’s called “jury duty.”  Serving when called is a civic duty, not unlike the obligation to pay taxes.  In both cases, failure to fulfill one’s obligation to society can land you behind bars.

I remember the first time I was called for jury duty.  This was back in New York.  I was in my twenties and hadn’t much of a clue about the process.  Then, as now, summoned jurors were expected to call the day before and listen to a recording to hear whether the group number on the summons was called to report.  Sure enough, my number was up right away.  I reported to the courthouse, sat in the jury assembly room for a couple of hours and was eventually called to voir dire in a civil case.  The twelve jurors were selected, and I was up for one of the two alternate spots.  Now, I had no intention of sitting through a trial just to be sent home without the opportunity to sit in deliberation with the other jurors.  Being young and foolish, I viewed this as a waste of time instead of the integral part of the process that it is.  Fortunately for me, I knew one of the people on the witness list and hoped that mentioning this fact would get me excused.  When one of the attorneys asked if there was any reason I would be unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror, I got out exactly one word of my answer.  “Well,” I began, and was immediately cut off by the judge who asked me not to say anything further.  Excused!  I suppose they were concerned that I would say something that would prejudice the other jurors.

Years later, I finally did serve when I lived down in the Central Valley.  It was a criminal trial involving lots of drug charges and a group of people who had a nice little business running a meth lab out in the sticks.  I was so glad when we were able to convict those miscreants.

Last weekend, I dialed the number on the jury summons to see if my group had been called.  The message said to call back after five on Monday.  When I did so, my group number was up for Tuesday.  I texted my boss to let her know that duty called.

My wife dropped me off at the courthouse downtown, an impressive six-story edifice reached from the street by means of two flights of stairs and walking across a plaza.  For those of us who have mobility issues but are not in wheelchairs, this can be daunting.  As it is, the traffic was bad downtown and we had a heck of a time navigating the maze of one-way streets leading to the courthouse.  I was already late and we were not about to drive around some more looking for the correct one-way street that might lead to a side of the courthouse that would have a handicapped ramp.  Gripping the railings,  I slowly pulled myself up all those steps, carrying my little Whole Foods bag packed with enough food and water for the duration.

After being scanned through the metal detector, I headed for the elevator up to the jury assembly room.  Riding up with several others, one of my fellow occupants of the lift remarked that she smelled popcorn.  Another said that all we needed now was a movie.  A third assured us that we would indeed see a movie shortly.  I rolled my eyes.  Probably a little five-minute flag-waving video about the important part that jurors play in the judicial system and the democratic process generally.  I had no idea of what was to come.

Exiting the elevator, I was confronted with a mass of humanity.  A large open mezzanine with what seemed like hundreds of seats was completely full.  I learned where the start of the line was and was shocked.  The line snaked around and around the mezzanine, eventually turning into a hallway and then into the jury assembly room, where it again snaked around several corners.  I could not begin to estimate how many people were present.

Fortunately, the courthouse was a cool respite from the 100 degree plus heat outside.  However, I questioned whether I would be able to stand on my feet long enough to reach the end of the line.  I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the line moved along.  In less than 15 minutes, I was able to collect my badge holder and show my summons to the clerk behind the window.  I was told to take a seat.

Um, where?  I did not see a single seat that was vacant.  I peeked into an adjoining room.  Also full.  I walked up and down the aisles until I found a seat that was occupied not by a person but by a cell phone and a bag.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked.  I figured that the owner of those belongings had probably run to the rest room and would be right back.  Luckily, I was wrong.  The occupant of the adjacent seat picked up the items and I was able to sit down.  Whew!

By then, I was the one who needed to use the rest room.  I was reluctant to abandon my seat, however, for fear that I would not find another.  I noticed that several people were standing, leaning against the walls.

The jury clerk welcomed us over a microphone that could be heard both in the jury assembly room and out in the mezzanine, where the snaking line continued to deliver more potential jurors to the window.  “We’re going to have a party!” the cheerful clerk announced.  Oh, brother.

The assistant presiding judge came in, took the mike and thanked us for participating in the judicial process.  There were 580 of us today, he announced.  He could just as well have said 5,080 and I would have believed.  Men, women, young ones, old ones, guys in T-shirts, guys in suits, women in jeans, women dressed to the nines.  People working on the jigsaw puzzles set out at four stations.  People talking on cell phones, reading the newspaper, texting, playing games on iPads, doing homework while balancing laptops and textbooks.  People staring off into space.  People chatting with each other.  People ignoring their neighbors.  People with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep.

I texted work, checked email and then put my phone away for fear that I’d run out of charge.  No outlets in which to plug a charging cord were in evidence.  The clerk announced that the courthouse plaza was being used in the evenings as a homeless encampment and that the court could not vouch for the cleanliness of the picnic tables and benches outside.  Then she told us she’d put on some movies, but that they were all rated PG.  Sounds about right for a courthouse.

There were two flat screen TVs in the jury assembly room, on which a steady stream of Blu-Ray movies were shown all day.  I wondered whether they showed the same movies over and over, day in and day out, and whether the clerks ever got bored with them.

The first movie was a kids’ flick with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, Parental Guidance.  The premise involved a washed-up baseball announcer and his wife taking care of their spoiled rotten grandkids for a week.  I actually watched most of this unfunny comedy, at least until it became to stupid to bear.  Then came Zookeeper, which I think was supposed to be a romantic comedy, featuring a talking lion, giraffe, gorilla, monkey and other assorted members of a loquacious menagerie.  Appropriately, I suppose, Adam Sandler was the voice of the monkey.  I guess I made it through about half the film before I couldn’t take the stupidity.  That was followed by You Again and several others, by which time I had totally zoned out and stopped paying attention.

Every so often, the clerk would pause the movie to read off a list of names of those who were to report to a particular courtroom for jury selection.  She urged us to say “Here!” nice and loudly when our names were called so that she, or her counterpart with the hundreds out in the mezzanine, could be checked off the list.  She began to read the list.  With each name, I heard the cry of “Here!” either close by or faintly off in the distance.  As to the unseen masses sitting out in the mezzanine, we’d here a loud “Chirp!” to announce that the person called had acknowledged his or her presence out in the other room.  I assume that the chirp was issued by a handheld device used by the clerk working the mezzanine.

Three panels were called, but my name was not.  Then an hour and a half break for lunch.  Most of the crowd left, but I stayed tight and pulled out my sandwich, carrots, grapes and bottles of water.

Thanks to the lovely medications I take, I had to use the rest room several times throughout the day.  The first time, I waited as long as I possibly could until finally making a mad dash for the men’s room before my bladder burst.  Upon my return, to my surprise, my seat was still vacant.  Well, what do you know!  And I didn’t even have to yell “spot back!”

The second time I wasn’t so lucky, but managed to find a seat closer to the door and farther away from the squawking Blu-Ray movies.

After lunch, two more panels were called, but still my name was not heard.  Finally, about 3 pm, the clerk announced that the courtrooms had confirmed that no more jurors would be needed that day.  Those of us remaining would be excused in groups.  When our group number was called, we were to report to the window, turn in our badge holders and receive a slip acknowledging our service.  Under California’s “one day/one trial” rule, we were reassured that we would not be called again for at least 18 months.

I texted my wife to come retrieve me and went out to sit just inside the front door of the courthouse.  It was 105 degrees outside and I did not relish the thought of sitting on a step in the broiling sun while my wife navigated the downtown traffic.

I was a bit disappointed that I was not called to sit on a trial, but also a little relieved.  Now I could return to work to prepare for my upcoming trip down south.

But if summoned again in 2019 to do my civic duty, I plan to answer the call and once again show up at the courthouse to sit all day with masses of my fellow Sacramentans.  After all, I do appreciate the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, including the guarantee of a trial by a jury of our peers.  So, as I see it, it’s the least I can do.

 

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Back in the Old Days

TURLOCK

Sunday afternoon.  Sitting in our car in front of a Wal-Mart on the drive back from my parents’ house down south.  My wife ran in for a minute to get a couple of things, so I get to people watch in my air conditioned cocoon, buffered from the 104°F heat just outside my door.

I feel sorry for the cart guy as he leans into his conga line of shopping trolleys in the searing sun.  Here comes a young woman in an orange T-shirt (logo illegible from this distance) and bright purple hair.  We once had a Chevy that color, but I never associated it with a part of the human body.  Out comes a middle aged woman pushing an empty cart.  You have to wonder what’s up with that.  Wouldn’t you leave the cart in the store if you couldn’t find what you’re looking for?  Maybe she needed the cart to lean on.  The woman’s deeply wrinkled face makes her look old, perhaps a legacy of years of nicotine.  Indeed, she has a cigarette hanging from her lips; the second she crosses the store’s threshold into the dreadful heat, she lights it.

My thoughts drift away to our Fathers’ Day visit to my dad.  We went out to dinner to a local Italian place on Friday night (I need the gluten-free pizza crust, please, and here’s a little Baggie of vegan cheese to use in place of the mozzarella, okay?) and to a steak house on Saturday (an order of broccoli, please, steamed with no butter, and a baked potato with just chives; also a salad with no cheese, croutons or dressing).  Family occasions can be a challenge for gluten-free vegans.

It seems that I seldom come away from a visit to my parents without at least a few stories that I hadn’t heard before.  I need to hear these while I still can.

This time, I learned that my uncle, age 90, is one of the youngest veterans of World War II.  He was sent overseas with the Army Air Corps at the very end of the war; when the war ended, he was still eighteen years old.

Then there’s my dad’s take on history.  During the Great Depression, he tells me, the life expectancy of an American male was 62 years.  A guy who had a job would remain employed until he was too old and sick to work.  Then he’d spend a year sitting on a park bench.  Then he died.  There was no Social Security.  No one took care of you, my father went on; people took care of themselves.  Before FDR’s New Deal, he told me, our guarantees extended to life, liberty and property.  How you ate and paid your rent was up to you.

My father seems to long for those days.  His ideas put me in mind of Archie and Edith Bunker, opening each episode of  “All in the Family” by singing “didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight.”

I have some questions.  Was it really like that?  Or is it more like wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the Good Old Days?  How did the old, sick guy on the park bench support himself for that year?  And what about his wife?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in extended families supporting each other.  I’ve been rereading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath lately, and it is not lost on me that the Joads dragged the elders of the clan along with them as they headed west, even though Grandpa had to be drugged to prevent him from stubbornly remaining behind.

Just as my octogenarian father waxes wistful over a time long gone, I wish we still lived in an age when people stuck together.  The breakdown of the American family over many decades results in people in need having no support (of either the financial or the emotional kind).  We have elderly folks living by themselves in little apartments, spouses dead or divorced, children moved to distant cities and states to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Perhaps striking out on their own and leaving family behind is reflective of the pursuit of happiness.  After all, family members often don’t get along.  And yet, in the days before public assistance, it seems that families had to get along just to survive.

It makes me sad that we seem to cherish the freedom to worship the self and ignore others and, ultimately, the freedom to end up old and alone.

 

Triple Jeopardy

There are times when your dream doesn’t seem to be coming true no matter how much you work toward it and how hard you wish for it.  You can pray about it, and sometimes the answer is not a resounding rejection, but simply a “not now.”  It may not be the right time yet.  And everyone knows that good things are worth waiting for.

However, I find it much harder to deal with an answer to prayer that appears to be “too late.”  It’s  one thing to have to wait for years to achieve your goal, but it’s quite another to realize that your time has passed.  “Could have beens” are rather sad, which likely accounts for the popularity of YOLO and “no regrets.”  Indeed, it can be difficult to watch someone slogging away at something that might have been achieved years ago but no longer has any reasonable chance of coming to fruition.  Most painful of all is when the person whom you’re watching struggle in vain is none other than yourself.

Then there are those of us whose motto seems to be “never say die.”  Fool that I am, I count myself among them.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago I went merrily off to register to take a test to become a contestant on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!  Um, for the third time.  I told you, some people just don’t know when to quit.

A famous saying posits that taking the same unsuccessful action time and again and expecting a different result is indicative of insanity.  So call me crazy.  I am one of those suckers who appears undeterred by the statistical unlikelihood of winning the Power Ball, video poker in Reno and a place as a contestant on a well-known quiz show.

The first time that I took the Jeopardy! test was years ago, in person, at a road show event held at a giant car dealership in Placer County (coincidentally, the same place I recently went to deal with a recall on my car).  This was back when we lived in California’s Central Valley, involving a fairly lengthy drive on freeways with which I was then quite unfamiliar.  For my trouble, I had the privilege of standing on a long, snaking line in the hot sun until I reached a tent where I could sit at a picnic table and complete the test.  Fifty questions on an orange sheet of legal-sized paper, both sides.  I turned it in to one of the judges, whom I could tell had graded these papers a few thousand times.  The smirk on his face showed me that he knew perfectly well that I hadn’t a chance.  He went down the page with a pencil, making marks at each of my errors.  He shook his head as he handed me back the page.  Dejected, I began the long drive home.  I didn’t even come close.

I didn’t bother trying again for another decade or so.  By then, personal computers had become ubiquitous and I learned that the Jeopardy! test was given online each January.  I knew a few of the answers, but I remember calling out a number of the questions to my wife for assistance.  Between the two of us, we got nowhere.

At least when I took the test in person, I learned that I had failed immediately.  When one takes the test online, it’s a case of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  Of course, they don’t call you (because you did so poorly).  Months go by and you forget about it.  Until, after a few more years go by, you hear that it’s time for the online test again.  Except now it’s being offered at the end of May instead of in January.

What makes me think that I will do any better this time than I did last time?  I have no idea, other than to say that hope springs eternal and that there will always be fools like me.  Just call us “live bait,” as Frank Gilbreth did a century ago.  Or, in the immortal words of P.T. Barnum (even longer ago), “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

I actually think I improved a bit this time.  Not by much, and certainly not enough to make a difference, but a little.  So is it “third time’s a charm” or “three strikes, you’re out?”

Decidedly, the latter.  The problem, I soon realized, is that I am not as quick on the trigger as I once was (not that I ever was).  As much as I admire octogenarian and nonagenarian marathoners and ironmen, the fact remains that most of us eligible for the senior discount are a bit slower now than we were in days of yore.  Then there are some like myself who have always lagged a step or two behind.  Although I have amassed a great deal of knowledge in the course of my lifetime, I have never been accused of being the sharpest tool in the shed.  And now that I’ve strayed into AARP territory, I find myself playing the part a little too well by forgetting words at inconvenient times and wracking my brain to recall a name or fact that I know I know.  Dictionaries, both the online variety and the thick bound ones on my shelf, are my best friend.  Take it from me, the “senior moment” is a real thing.  So I suppose it’s kind of crazy for me to think that I’d have any chance at all in such a fast-paced competitive environment as Jeopardy!  Never mind trying to come with the questions to their answers, but how would I even press the signaling device fast enough?

Taking a trip down memory lane brings me back to my days as a senior in high school, when I competed against other schools as a member of our quiz bowl team.  Even at the tender age of 16, I was more of a liability than an asset.  As much as I was into trivia, I rarely knew the answer to the question asked.  And if I did, someone else would beat me to the buzzer almost every time.

You’d think I’d give it up by now, wouldn’t you?  Oh, no.  Knowledge of my limitations in no way dissuaded me from taking the test a third time.  I should probably pay attention to Alex Trebek himself, who (when not hawking life insurance) admits that, even after years of working with endless streams of facts, he’d have no chance against a sharp, young competitor.  I believe his words were “he would clean my clock.”

So as I log into the Jeopardy! test website after work on a Thursday evening, I remain hopeful even as I know quite well that I am on a fool’s errand.  I would estimate that I knew about half the answers, more or less guessed at another quarter, and came up entirely emptyhanded on the final quarter.  Inevitably, there were questions that I was sure I knew the answer to, but couldn’t come up with on short notice.  The senior moment again.

For example, the northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania.  Ah, geography, my strongest area!  A map of the Keystone State pops into my head.  Pittsburgh?  Altoona?  Uh, the Monongahela? Bloop!  The question disappears from the screen.  Time’s up!  Oh, well.

That night, I woke up suddenly from a dead sleep.  The Alleghenies!  Of course!  Duhhhh . . .

And then it happened again.  The next morning, in the shower.  I simply could not come up with the name of the director known for his work on Titanic.  But, sure enough, while shampooing my hair, it struck me like a lightning bolt.  “James Cameron!” I yelled.

The next day, of course, I again was unable to remember his name.  I had to Google it.  (Uncle Guacamole takes the walk of shame.)

Let’s put it this way:  I am not expecting a call from Sony any time soon.  Uh, or ever.

Clearly, I don’t know when to give up the things of younger people.  If I were truly committed to competing on Jeopardy!, shouldn’t I have done it years ago?  So why can’t I say “too late,” admit that my time has passed, and move on?

I guess I just can’t take no for an answer.

So what do you say, shall we go for number four?

 

Boston on My Mind

Massachusetts sign

My sister moved from Dallas to Boston today.

She’s a teacher, so she waited until the end of the school year to resign.  Then she got on a plane and went, leaving her husband behind to rattle around in their big, empty house with their two cats.

Not that her husband is home all that much, anyway.  He’s an executive who half the time lives on planes and in hotel rooms.  He spends one week out of each month in Germany, and has for years.  My brother-in-law will fly up to Boston on the weekends and stop there on his way back from his trips to Europe.

It’s not like my sister went to Boston for a job, although she does intend to look for one there.  Right now, she’s staying at the home of friends who have decamped to Cape Cod for the summer.  With her extensive experience in education, I have no doubt she’ll be employed again when the new school year begins in the fall.

The reason my sister abruptly moved 2,000 miles away is her daughter, my niece.  She is struggling with anorexia in Beantown and is not doing well.  We all fear she will starve herself to death.  I have no idea what words to use to describe my feelings on the matter.  It’s like a big blank space.  What can one possibly say that would be even approach being meaningful?

My niece has now been through two programs, expensive residential programs that are designed to teach her proper eating habits, how to prepare balanced meals and how to keep her inner demons at bay.  As if such a thing were possible.

I don’t have much contact with my sister (it’s a long story), but I did call her while she was visiting in Boston recently.  She reported that at least my niece eats some ice cream in the evenings.  Did I mention that my niece now weighs about 70 pounds?

I wrote two letters to my niece earlier this year, addressed to the residential treatment center where she was then staying.  I was nothing but cheerful, omitting mention of my wife’s surgery and my problems at work.  I regaled her with tales of my adventures in Scrabbleland.  I sent her cute cat pictures.  I discussed birthdays and vacations.

No response.

Not that I really expected to hear from her.  I mean, what is she going to say to an uncle whom she barely knows?  I’m locked up for my own good, I hate it here, and your pathetic efforts are not helping?  I know you hated that place, Rebecca, and I’m glad you’re back home now.  Yeah, I heard about the thing with the bacon.  Um, we’re Jewish and, well, it’s not like they never heard of Jews in Boston, so I don’t get it.

The doctors and therapists advised my sister not to move in with her daughter.  So she’s giving my niece her space, hoping to make Shabbat dinner for her on Friday nights and to be nearby if needed.

I always thought that anorexia was a problem faced by middle school aged girls who think they’re fat.  Just call me stupid.  Not that you can entirely blame me.  The first time I ever heard of anorexia was back in my college days when, home for the summer, I would sneak peeks at my sisters’ teen mags.

These days, I’m told that anorexia is a form of mental illness that is often a lifelong affliction.  I don’t know that it can be “cured,” at least not in the sense “make it go away forever.”  I haven’t read up on it because, quite frankly, I’m afraid of what I’d learn.  Meanwhile, it’s hard to wrap my mind around a brilliant young woman, valedictorian of her college class, who appears to be hellbent on a long, slow suicide.  Whose fondest hope seems to be dissolution into the ether, to make herself disappear piece by piece until, like the Cheshire cat, there is nothing left but the smile.

Should I write my niece another letter?  Should I just forget about the whole thing, chalk it up to an old fart’s lack of understanding of twentysomething problems, remember her as the cheerful, vivacious 12 year old that she was when I traveled to Texas to attend her bat mitzvah more than a decade ago?  Should I heed the serenity prayer and learn to accept the things I cannot change?

At the end of next month, I will be in Massachusetts for a week to compete in a national Scrabble tournament.  I will be about a 90-minute drive from my niece and my sister.  Should I go visit them?  Will I just make matters worse?  Should I conveniently omit to mention that I’ll be in the area?  Will I feel even worse if I see my niece?  I already feel like crud in making it all about me when it should be about her.

My elderly mother is sad that it has come to this, but blames the whole thing on my sister’s and brother-in-law’s unhealthy attitude toward food.  Ultimately, I think this may hark back to my niece’s paternal grandmother, who is thin as a stick and despised her husband’s obesity until the day he died.  When my niece was growing up, her mother and grandmother made sure she was aware of the dangers of becoming fat, with the apparent implication that food is the enemy.  My sister and her husband were pescaterian for a time, then began eschewing “fish meat” and went vegan.  Today, I hear, they eat fish again.  On top of that, my sister and her mother-in-law are both gluten sensitive, so there are a lot of things that they won’t eat.  I get it; I’m vegan and gluten sensitive, too.  Not that it’s done anything to change my lifelong obesity.

My niece has two brothers, neither of whom exhibits anorexic tendencies.  For reasons that I do not understand, apparently anorexia is disproportionately suffered by women.  Could this have something to do with body shaming, with women aiming to succeed by living up to some warped body image concept dreamed up by men, involving waiflike girl-women hopped up on pills so they can strut their stuff on the runway and appear on the covers of magazines to the approval of leering male gazes?

Surely it’s more complicated than such a simplistic explanation would suggest.  Not to brag, but my niece is not some airhead; she’s a talented biochemist with a bright future ahead of her.  At least she could have a bright future ahead of her if she weren’t so intent on turning herself into a puff of smoke that is here one moment, then suddenly carried away on the breeze, up into the clouds to disappear from view forever.