Friday, September 21, 2007

jury duty

How many of life’s adventures start with a letter anymore?

By a letter, I mean an honest-to-god letter in an envelope sent via US Mail, legitimized with a postage stamp. And by life’s adventures, I mean anything that doesn’t involve me sitting in front of a computer.

Before I raise your expectations too high, I’ll tell you what happened: I got a jury summons. Another jury summons.

When I tell most people about the summons, they’re full of advice on how to get out of jury service or they’re quick to tell me how they themselves would never be selected to serve on a jury.

“All I’ve gotta do is tell them what I do,” they tell me. “They let me off right away.”

They might even elaborate: “Oh, I mean, they don’t pick anyone smart, anyone with an education.” And a smug expression crosses their face. “They always excuse me. I’ve never served on a jury. Usually I just have to call in.”

I instantly feel like a loser. I’ve gone down to the courthouse. I’ve served on a jury. I’ve been someone’s peer.

In fact, I’ve been picked for a jury even after filling out a long form that leaves little of my background to the imagination. I didn’t have to misrepresent myself, perjure myself, or conceal anything important. The picky lawyers for both sides thought I’d be just fine.

It was an asbestos case, one of the kind that you read about in The Wall Street Journal. One that wastes huge amounts of time and public money. A civil suit where the jury is sent into a room to deliberate about the applicability of legal concepts like negligence, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.

Here’s the story from my last jury service. The fellow who brought the suit in this asbestos case was 92 years old. At 90, after a lifetime of exposure to asbestos and asbestos-containing products, he contracted lung disease. Asbestosis. Not mesothelioma, the instant-death lung disease, but another kind of lung cancer that you can only get from contact with asbestos.

There was no doubt that the ambulance chasing law firm that’d latched on to this guy had found a real one. No doubt. They had chased the right ambulance.

It was just a matter of narrowing down who to blame and how much it’d cost.

By the time the case had gotten to court, the civil suit had been winnowed down to just four defendants. I’m guessing the other 6 or so had already settled.

I mean, over a lifetime this guy had done everything you practically can with asbestos. He’d worked in an asbestos mine in the 1930s; in a Navy shipyard (hotbeds of asbestos) during WWII; as a welder (covering himself with asbestos blankets) for 30 years after that.

For godssake: he’d even built his own backyard pit barbeque out of cement and raw asbestos, following a recipe he’d found in the April 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics. The wind, you see, had stirred up a lot of asbestos dust while he’d been putting the cement/asbestos mixture into the wooden forms in his backyard and that dust had dived straight into his lungs. Ten years later, in the 1970s, after he’d retired from his day job as a welder, he repaired the sheetrock in his home with asbestos-containing joint compound.

In the first 90 years of his life, this nice man had done everything short of wearing asbestos pajamas, brushing his teeth with asbestos toothpaste, and giving his kids stuffed animals woven out of asbestos to play with. I don’t know—maybe he did those things too. I tried to pay close attention, but almost a century’s worth of asbestos exposure is a lot to track.

After his lengthy fireproof biography had drawn to a close, and the attorneys for the plaintiff wanted to illustrate what their client had lost, his legal team requested that the old man take the stand and pull out his harmonica.

No—really. They did this. And he complied. The fellow pulled out a harmonica, a real blues harp.

And began to play.

Was that Sweet Georgia Brown?

I don’t remember exactly. But it was a recognizable tune and he could hold it pretty well. I began to wonder: Was his playing supposed to sound anemic? Wheezy? Was it supposed to bring tears to the jurors’ eyes?

It was competent harmonica playing by my amateur assessment. Maybe not as loud as it might be, but who plays a harmonica really loud in a courtroom? A courtroom is a dignified place, not a place where you bring that blues harp to your mouth and WAIL, COOL DADDY, WAIL. BLOW THAT HOHNER.

No. The California Superior Court is not a nightclub.

But even Tangled Up in Blue wouldn’t have gotten the point across.

The harmonica might’ve been a mistake on his lead attorney’s part, a young associate from a big Marin law firm, a tall, confident, blond woman in Ann Taylor lawyer-wear.

Her law firm specialized in the chasing of slow-moving ambulances—the kind of firm that goes looking for victims of mesothelioma, silicosis, Agent Orange, toxic mold, and oxycontin—litigating the sad cause of the day with gusto. With a human touch, of course.

I liked the blond associate. She was trying hard for her client. She had charts and photos to teach us about the perils of asbestos. Expert witnesses were called, examined, and counter-examined. Local standards of industrial hygiene over the last seventy years were explained and analyzed. Back issues of Chest, the Journal of the American College of Chest Physicians were cited. The jury was thoroughly instructed in the facts of the case.

Nothing was left to chance.

Each morning of the month long trial, the attorneys for both sides chipped in and brought the jurors fresh fruit and warm bagels with cream cheese. Coffee and orange juice were served then and at the breaks too. It was very close to pleasant. I’d walk to the Muni early in the morning, the San Francisco streets fresh and scrubbed clean. The homeless folks who sat in doorways were still sober at that time of day and never spit epithets (or anything else) at you. Other people on the street were purposeful; the tourists were still snug abed. When I'd arrive at the courthouse, the jury waiting room would be set up for breakfast. And my fellow jurors were an interesting crew from all over the city—nothing wrong with chatting with them over our tasty breakfast.

I’m embarrassed to admit: I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed jury duty. I enjoyed the thing you’re supposed to do everything in your power to avoid.

I even learned something about asbestos and lung disease.

During the jury selection process, one prospective juror, a South Sea Islander by birth, told the lawyer questioning him, “In my country, if someone has an accident and hurts his countryman, he says ‘I’m sorry’ and everyone moves on.” I think he was telling the truth: he seemed genuinely mystified by what was going on in the courtroom.

Of course he was excused with no further questions.

The rest of us must’ve seemed like the type who could be readily moved by an old guy’s strained harmonica playing. We understood the virtues of litigation and social responsibility.

The funny thing was that 25 days or so into the trial, one of the attorneys for the fourth and final defendant revealed that his client, a hardware store in the East Bay, wasn’t even in business at the time the plaintiff claimed to be repairing his walls and using the asbestos-rich joint compound from the defendant’s store.

We’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop and there it was. That was the last remaining defendant and there was no way he was responsible. Two other defendants had settled and we’d heard all there was to tell about the third.

It was like that moment in Columbo before the final commercial break where everything falls into place. Peter Falk turns and walks away with his raincoat flapping. Done and done.

The jury’s deliberations were not hasty. We turned over every last piece of evidence and every judicial instruction and reached a consensus: the remaining defendant was not guilty. There was no reasonable way in 1960 for the Mom and Pop lumberyard that sold the plaintiff the raw asbestos for his backyard BBQ project to be aware of recent developments in industrial hygiene. They were not negligent.

Heck, they’d been out of business for the last 25 years or so.

It’s a little anticlimactic when a month-long trial peters out like that. But it was also satisfying, like a good paperback detective novel. The jury was in unanimous agreement. We felt sorry for the old guy and his diminished harmonica-playing capacity, but the defendants weren’t guilty and the old guy’s adorable ten-year-old granddaughter (who had been shuttled into the courtroom a previous day for our surreptitious inspection) wasn’t going to get an amazing windfall.

The only other time I’d almost served on a jury, I confess that I was disappointed not to have been selected.

It was a criminal trial. The young woman, a Stanford freshman, had been charged with shoplifting at a department store in the big snooty Stanford Shopping Center. Her lawyer, who coincidentally was also her father, was prepared to mount an eating disorder defense on her behalf. His daughter, his client, was bulimic and this somehow caused her to compulsively stuff cosmetics from Bloomingdale’s into her purse.

Perhaps it was analogous to binge-eating.

Her psychiatrist was at the ready; he would offer supporting testimony.

I could hardly wait.

For one thing, the young woman entered the courtroom carrying the biggest, most capacious handbag you’ve ever seen. It was ENORMOUS. Winona Ryder herself could’ve fit in the handbag, in fact. Or at least Nicole Richie would’ve fit. It was the biggest handbag I’ve ever seen. Nice too: faux alligator, I think.

“Pick me! Pick me!” I wanted to raise my hand and volunteer, the over-eager third grader with the right answer to the math problem. “Pick me! Me! Me!”

They didn’t pick me.

I prepared myself to stick around and watch the trial anyway. As it turned out as, they settled. The bulimic girl copped a plea. I don’t remember the details of the outcome, but I’ll venture to say that the entire jury was disappointed.

So now I have a jury summons and a juror badge number and I’m hot to trot.

I’m excited. I hope I get to serve on a jury involving fast food, Tony the Tiger, Michael Jackson, or Phil Spector this time.

Dominick Dunne, eat your heart out!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

new resistant strain of insomnia

“I’m depressed,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m angry,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m bored,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m nauseous,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I drank too much coffee,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

“I’m not tired,” Mark says, and then he drops off to sleep.

Soon he is snoring, blissful. It doesn’t matter what unpleasant place he starts from: in the end, he’s fast asleep.

I’m an insomniac. I always have been. I’ve hardly ever experienced this casual dropping off to sleep that others report, that Mark demonstrates every night. I am jealous of people who drift off to sleep in an instant, who don’t even bother reading a book in bed because they’d just fall asleep and drool on the open pages.

The only time I readily drop off to sleep is when I’m sitting at my desk at work, in full view of my co-workers, willing myself with all my might to stay awake and focus. I slump forward in my chair, my eyes roll back in my head, and I’m unconscious, my mouth hanging just a little bit open, my forehead conveniently replying to some spam that’s sitting in my Inbox. Even when I’m asleep at my desk, I don’t stay asleep. No, I’m just asleep long enough to be observed by passersby. I awaken when I accidentally control-A, select everything, and forehead-type over the last two hours’ worth of work.

^Z^Z. It’s no good; that text is gone and it’s never coming back. Even 5 minutes of crummy, poor-quality sleep has dire consequences.

The only time I stay asleep—really asleep—is when I have something to do in early in the morning. If I need to be awake at 6:30, it’s as if I took a powerful soporific at 6; I invariably sleep ‘til 10 and wake up groggy and disoriented.

If you confess all this to someone who’s not an insomniac, they will tell you solemnly, “Oh, you shouldn’t drink anything with caffeine in it after lunch. You should always go to sleep at the same time.” And then they ask, “Have you ever tried melatonin?”

Melatonin? No caffeine after lunch? Give me a break!

Fellow insomniacs would never say anything like that. They know that even Ambien doesn’t always work—that half the time, you won’t even fall asleep, let alone do any of that famous sleep-eating or sleep-driving that so scandalized non-insomniacs.

Most real insomniacs have special double-secret one-two punch formulas and sacred rituals for inducing sleep. Pills and potions and herbal teas and fitted earplugs and special egg-crate foam mattress pads. But, they warn you, don’t take those pills and potions for more than two days in a row—the whole intricately constructed nostrum will stop working.

In fact, it won’t just stop working for you: it’ll stop working for EVERYONE. It’s like antibiotics—a benzo-resistant strain of insomnia will develop. So don’t tempt fate. Don’t screw it up for the rest of us. We’ll all never get back to sleep.

My own theory is that when all else fails, small, immediate changes will help. So I’m migratory at night. I’ll move from one horizontal surface to another. From the bed to the couch. From the couch to the guest room futon. From the guest room futon to the kitchen floor. I’ll swap pillows. I’ll switch blankets.

It’s like going on a camping trip in your own house: you’ve bushwhacked from the living room to the back bedroom. You set up camp. You find level terrain. You clear off small obstructions: pebbles, toasters, cats, government cheese. It’s very important that the ground is perfectly smooth where you put down your Therm-a-Rest pad and sleeping bag.

Then you gather twigs and small branches and build a signal fire.

Wait. No. You may as well stop short of building a fire. You do not want to build a signal fire in the back bedroom. That’s the kind of bad judgment a lack of sleep will foster.

Instead of building a fire, you should turn on the bedside light (that ugly reminder of sleeplessness) and pull out something to read. A book. A monograph. A magazine. A journal article. It’s best not to torture yourself with something dull under the misapprehension that if you’re reading something dull, you’ll just go to sleep.

Because you’d be wrong! So wrong!

You’ll be bored, and instead of reading, you’ll start worrying about something stupid.

Worry can actually be constructive, but the worry that comes with insomnia is not the kind of worry that MacArthur genius grant winners indulge in.

Here are five things that I don’t worry about while I’m lying awake at 3 am:

1. The US-led invasion of Iraq
2. What my carbon footprint looks like
3. The three degree cosmic background radiation
4. The existence of God
5. The plot for a best-selling novel

If you work out how many hours you could apply to this stuff, you can see that you might get somewhere. Let’s say you’re like me and you lie awake with your eyes pinned wide open like Malcolm MacDowell’s character in A Clockwork Orange. And you do that for about 2 hours most nights. That’s 730 hours per year. 18 and a quarter really diligent work-weeks. About 4 months.

You can do a lot in 4 months.

But I’m not laying awake thinking about my carbon footprint and how to reduce it. No. I’m more apt to light on one of these topics:

1. Whether I should force myself to look at the ugly vertical gash down my midsection
2. Whether the 80-foot tall redwood tree planted in a precarious place in back of our house is going to topple in the wind and squash my bed with me in it. Or worse yet, squash Evert who will sue us.
3. Whether it’d be totally uncool to tell Evert’s friends that they’re disturbing me when they work on noisy projects and come and go at 3AM.
4. Suspicious moles, scaly patches, and other frightening skin anomalies
5. Why I don’t just stash my money under the mattress instead of losing it on bad investments.

Notice that I can’t really do anything about any of these things at 3AM. I can speculate about the nature of Evert’s friends’ projects, which involve whirring, grinding, pounding, coughing, and driving the jeep in and out of the driveway repeatedly. These are not the noises of kinky sex, hard partying, or fellow insomniacs; these are sounds I associate with miniature construction projects: building a teeny tiny replica of the Sears Tower out of authentic materials or assembling a warehouse-worth of IKEA furniture.

But notice: I’m not actually worrying about what they’re building next door. Instead, I’m worrying about whether it’d be way too uncool to get dressed and knock on the door and say, “Hey, could you guys keep it down some? The sawdust and metal filings are clogging my lungs and the noise is making it hard for me to get to sleep.” That would label me as some kind of hopeless square. Someone who doesn’t understand the nature of inspiration and the artistic temperament.

The thing is, I can picture what they’d say about me as I turned to go back into to my own house to get back to what is now noise-free tossing and turning. I can picture it all too clearly. There’d be some reference made to where I work and to the way I dress. And maybe to my age and gender. Aw. It wouldn’t be nice. This makes me worry even more.

And so I merely fret about how hypothetically uncool it would be to go over there. What I actually do is this: I smoosh the pillow over my ears to block out the noise.

It’s things like suspicious moles and nocturnal construction projects that make unsupervised 3AM thought ill-advised. So at 3AM I never read anything remotely oriented toward self-improvement, my research, or the life of the mind. I read strictly to be entertained, to have my thoughts steered toward the placid waters of popular culture and mid-list fiction.

By last night I’d already used up this week’s New Yorker (one of those accursed double issues that don’t really contain twice as much to read), so I started in on my copy of Details. Details is an odd magazine. It’s like a certain genre of gay porn, except that the young men are wearing clothes. The poses, the sullen expressions, the beautiful androgynous faces, the adolescent thinness—it’s gay porn with clothes on. The articles are too short, but Augusten Burroughs and George Saunders and other well-known writers put in a story now and then. It’s glossy and it smells good. I find it very comforting. And—best of all—it never talks about women’s diseases. Nothing in these pages to worry about.

This month’s Details is disappointing though. Augusten Burroughs is talking about—of all things—testosterone. There are the usual pieces about skin care, avoiding unflattering jeans, and growing into Fatherhood. It’s as if the writers are all on vacation and are phoning it in. Maybe these stories are computer generated. Certainly the computer could’ve acted more enthusiastic. I flip through 350 pages of Dolce and Gabbana ads, introductions of this year’s hot starlet and macho man-hero, and slick fashion photography in no time and, taking one last whiff of its scented pages, give up and chuck it on the nightstand. This rag isn’t going to lull me to sleep.


I reach for 153 hardcopy pages of Volume 1 of a JD Salinger collection I printed out at work, 21 stories that JD Salinger apparently didn’t want anthologized and pulled from bookstore shelves after a short underground print run. These stories had been published before in places like Collier’s, Esquire, and the Saturday Evening Post. Perfectly respectable venues for an emerging writer.

Jaina had turned up a bound copy—that’s how I knew this thing existed. I was able to find it on a server in an Eastern bloc country. I’d been looking forward to reading this illicit printing. I’d even planned to read it through my insomniac haze; I planted the manuscript beside step three of my nightly migration (the guest futon in the back bedroom).

Phonys. Manhattan apartments with doormen. The Lunts. Prep schools and reversibles.

This is gonna be good. Since so little Salinger remains in print, the last time I’d read any Salinger I hadn’t read before is when I was in high school.

I’ll cut to the chase: I was disappointed. So disappointed. I even found a short story called “I’m Crazy” that was the basis for the first couple of chapters of Catcher in the Rye. Whatever had happened between 1945, when this thing was published in Collier’s, and 1951, when Catcher in the Rye hit the stands, was important. It’s funny how just a few words and a few stray plot elements can make such a huge deal.


Okay. Here’s what Salinger wrote in 1945, the first two sentences of his short story:

It was about eight o’clock at night, and dark, and raining, and freezing, and the wind was noisy the way it is in spooky movies on the night the old slob with the will gets murdered. I stood by the cannon on the top of Thomsen Hill, freezing to death, watching the big south windows of the gym—shining big and bright and dumb, like the window of a gymnasium and nothing else (but maybe you never went to a boarding school).

By 1951, he wrote, “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch’s teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.

See what I mean? Something happened in those six years. Something good and necessary.

In the original, the 1945 version, Holden’s sister Phoebe is as precocious as ever, but she calls him “Holdie.” Holdie. It makes a difference. And there’s a little sister Viola too who’s still in a crib and who likes olives (“ovvels”), the kind with pimentos. It’s just as well that he pulled the older versions of the story from circulation.

Even Holden’s failing essay, the one he’s handed in to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, has been rewritten by 1951 and is bad in a much better way.

In the later version of the story, the one that’s in Catcher in the Rye, Holden still wonders what happens to the ducks in the pond in Central Park when it freezes, but there was absolutely no reason to change that detail. It was swell, grand even. Nothing phony about those ducks or about Central Park.

You can picture Holden, in those few seconds before he falls into the deep dreamless sleep of adolescence, thinking about the ducks and where they go when the pond freezes.

I think about Holden, the ducks, and the weird scaly patch of skin on my cheek as I drift into a fragile unconsciousness at the verge of dawn, the bedside light still on. Evert’s friends pound, buzz, and grind on next door, oblivious, engaged in a struggle of their own.