Thursday, July 28, 2005

Order in the court

Yesterday I weaseled my way out of jury duty. About twenty other jurors and I had to return for an unprecedented third day of potential jury selection, much to my chagrin, and at the moment when I realized I had to go back to possibly become part of a jury on a five- or six-day trial, this little immersion into civics and participatory government stopped being fun. "Ok," I thought. "That will be enough."

I thought long and hard about how to make myself unattractive to the lawyers. I decided to nourish some of my own attitudes and plump them up, teasing them out like the hair on a midwestern person: well, I do sort of think police officers are more reliable than other people.... and if someone was innocent, why wouldn't they testify on their own behalf? Sure enough, after five jurors had been selected, I was called to a jury panel. There were nineteen of us, and I presumed they were looking for nine others. I made my first volley with the prosecutor, discussing my cousin who's a cop and my trust in the profession. I didn't want to toe the line into blind faith, but I came sort of close. Another attorney asked the group if we thought the indictment was proof of any wrongdoing, and I said, "well, where there's smoke, there's fire." He didn't like this, and started talking about how we could endlessly battle in cliches...

At lunch I started to get nervous. I knew the odds weren't good, and how could I compete with the jurors who had been crime victims themselves? I briefly considered buying a laxative at the drugstore and consuming it right when I went back in, but this would have been a little rash. I think I sealed the deal, though, when the prosecutor was (in a certain interminable prosecutorial fashion) reminding us that this wasn't "Law & Order" or "CSI" - there were no scripts, no neat resolutions, just real people. Could we all agree to that? I was nodding and smiling as she droned on. "Yes, Mr. ----, I see you nodding?"

I opened my hands. "I think we can all agree that this isn't a movie," I said. One other juror laughed. I don't think the prosecutor appreciated it.

But you know what? They excused me from the jury. I was kind of a jerk, but I didn't lie or lose my integrity. (I see that now I sound like a booted reality show contestant, but whatever.) I served my duty for three days and I've fulfilled my jury requirements for the next six years. It was an interesting lesson for law school, that's for sure.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Do you solemnly swear

Jury duty! Taking civics to a whole new level - Extreme Citizenship! I got there bright and early, althought the whole day consisted of moving around different rooms and waiting in them. I didn't get picked for a jury, but I must return tomorrow. I almost got picked for a case today (well, not really - I wasn't called after three rounds of jury selection, although I was in the broader pool) but no dice. It would have been interesting, too - a seemingly straight-forward criminal case with just a slight amount of tabloid potential.

I am afraid to say too much about today, because I learned all about juries and the history of Western-style justice and the dangers I risk in sharing too much information thanks to a twenty-minute video the clerk made us all watch. It had surprisingly high production values for government work and began with a dramatic reenactment of the trial systems of yore. At first I thought they were kicking things off with a MOnty Python clip, but I was mistaken. I did laugh, though, when the narrators turned out to be Diane Sawyer and Ed Bradley (others did too). For some reason it was funny to hear things like this:

"In medieval England, suspected criminals were bound at the hands and feet and thrown into the river. If the suspect floated, it meant he was guilty. If he sunk, he was considered innocent... Hi there - I'm Ed Bradley of Sixty Minutes."

I didn't make any jury friends but it was an interesting cross-section of Manhattan: doctors, artists, TV people, journalists, lawyers, teachers. MD, JD, PhD, GED. When 18 potential jurors were seated in the jury box, they had to give a narrative statement explaining where they lived, their occupation, education, experience with the criminal justice system, etc. It was interesting to hear people summarize their lives so succinctly. I tried to practice my piece from my seat in the gallery. Don't try to be funny, just be direct. Mention the fiancee, but the not the cousin who's a police chief. Should you say you're going to law school? Questionable. Anyways, after a fairly monotonous day today (reading Morningside Heights, the Virginia Quarterly Review and stray sections of the day's Times) hopefully tomorrow will run smoothly or excitingly. I've reached the point where I'd almost rather not be selected for a trial than serve on one. We shall see. I'm still waiting for some Grishamesque excitement.

Over the weekend, my parents came into town, following an unprecedented two-hour blaze of cleaning, powered by pure Lysol, sweat, and gristle. I hung out with Russell. I briefly saw part of the improv marathon at UCB. And I ended my job in a haze of Persecco and sentimentality. Thankfully I was too tipsy to really consider what was going on.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Love, affection, and a touch of sadness

Today was my departure party at work. Before it began my colleagues were working furtively around the office, slamming doors when I came around and letting me know that my presence wasn't welcome. I was told to stay in my office so that they could organize things. It felt a bit like house arrest, with a dash of Christmas morning. I didn't have much work to do - everything is over - so I read the New Yorker and played some solitaire.

Finally the appointed hour arrived and we went over to the West End. I was nervous as hell. They had printed up Lavinia's notes from my initial interview, back in the summer of 2002, and rereading my own words was a humbling experience. I was proud of some of my language and a touch embarassed by my naivete. People began trickling in and I developed a stock set of small-talk retorts and anecdotes. Yesterday I went to the movies again at midday - and Lavinia told her colleagues and boss about it, so I took a fair amount of crap for it, but it was very funny. L came, too, so she was very impressive and I was glad people could meet her. The conversation was smooth and it felt genuinely fun, which you can't always say about an office party.

For the main event Tara and Lavinia clinked on some glasses and got everyone's attention (maybe 30 people there in all at that point). Tara read a brief thing about me and it was heartfelt and touching. I shifted where I stood and put my hands in my pockets, then crossed my arms, then tapped my foot. I wasn't sure where to look. Lavinia read a longer piece recounting our august history together, and it was funny and embarassing. Afterwards they presented me with a big scrapbook - chock full of emails and flyers and programs, the result of two years' work, as well as their speeches and my own words from the infamous 'Scholar Weekly' emails. The book is really spectacular. And they gave me an orchid, too, our signature gift to our speakers. I said a few words of praise about my two lady colleagues and talked a bit about the office and what I was taking from it - I feel like I was incoherent - I was definitely tipsy at the time, but I covered these bases: "Lavinia was a great friend, and occasionally, a great supervisor;" "I couldn't leave the office unless I knew it would be take care of, and Tara is going to do an amazing job of it;" "I believe in our work here in S&F and I am so honored to be a part of it;" "I hope I can learn half as much in law school as I did here;" and, "there just aren't enough words..." and I thanked them for coming. This is what I remember. Winston Churchill I was not.

The party was supposed to end at six but we didn't leave until 7:30, and L and I returned to my house with the book and the plant in tow. I drunkenly fell asleep and woke again a little while ago. After L left I started reading through the book they gave me and found a surprisingly large section of testimonials from my students and my colleagues. I was listening to Eric Benet's song "India" at the time and lost it a bit. It was really touching to read what people had taken the time to say about me - things I did that I didn't think anyone noticed, things that made a difference for people that I didn't even know. I was so grateful to work in the kind of position and in the kind of community where you can make an impact like this. Receiving a book-ful of people's good will and encouragement for this next chapter of my life -- like when Tara was talking about me, and she mentioned my engagement to L, and this murmur of approval went through the room -- it breaks your heart in a way to realize that people care and that you haven't just been a shadow on the wall.

I'm so thankful for this chapter in my life, and to even have a tangible reminder of it. I'm not the same person I was when I waltzed into this world as a 22 year-old, and I miss that guy, but I'm thankful for the lessons I've learned. But still, it is heart-breaking to me, now.

On the card of the orchid Tara and Lavinia wrote, "With love, affection, and a touch of sadness." As excited as I am for everything ahead, it is so hard to walk away from the people who love you and make you feel like you matter.

On your mark

Tonight I ran in Nike's "Run Hit Wonder" five-mile race in Central Park. My primary goal was to make it the whole way without stopping at all, and the secondary was to maintain eight-minute miles. These are modest goals, admittedly, but running has not been going well lately - there is an intense and persistent soreness buried deep within my right calf, and the mugginess of the air and shitty conditions of some of my usual routes (construction on one side, highway on the other) has made running less than pleasurable lately.

But the race was different. I was one of ten thousand people decked out in the same red shirt and following the same instructions issued by the same chipper British man. (Being herded around, though, reminded me that I would much rather be alone than one of a crowd - it is easier to follow your own instructions.) Along the five miles they had different musical acts set up to goad your progress: Fountains of Wayne (what?), Chingy (who?), Nina Sky (who's she?), DJ Z-Trip (Is that like EZ Pass?), and, finally, Joan Jett (she's not dead?). Running sans iPod was nice, and Nina Sky's "Move Your Body" was surprisingly rousing. I attempted a thunder clap but started cramping up, so it was abortive, tragic as that may be.

The actual run, the progress of my feet across the pavement and my body's willingness to supply energy and adapt to this endeavor, was awesome. The entire time I told myself to take it slow. When I would see myself becoming ambitious - passing other people, charging up or breezing down a hill - I would force myself to slow down to a stately pace. This was hard to maintain, but I never felt any severe pain or stiffness. Once I reached the fourth mile marker I opened up a bit, and I sprinted through the last half mile, making up for lost time and passing many people on the far right edge of the path, weaving around metal fences and up onto curbs. At the line I had energy to spare and I felt fantastic. I didn't stop, and I think I came damn close to my 40 minute goal.

But the actual speed is not what matters - what matters is the discovery of a new way to run, to move. Usually I am hurtling forth at the brink of mayhem, pushing my body to move as fast as possible and demanding the rest of me to keep up with a stubborn will. Today, though, every step was under my control. I felt in control of myself through the entire race, and saying no to my desire to speed up somehow took more than the eager abandon that usually drives me to sprint and compete.

I am still knee-deep in Potterania, and I felt like Harry himself being able to accomplish a great deal but meting out his efforts calmly and assuredly. I think exercising this control and being pleased with the result (respectable time, no major injuries) was a great antidote to some of the fears and insecurities that have been whispering to me in the quiet moments. In this time of transition, I do maintain control over some elements of my life - and today I was deeply grateful for this physical manifestation of my own agency, an ability to know when to let others pass and when to run without feet even touching the ground. It feels so good.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


This is my death week at work, the week where I stagger around like a zombie, neither living nor dead, here but not relevant, employed yet obsolete. This is the grim way of looking at things. On the positive side, I am on the second of a five-day victory lap through my professional life, cleaning things out, reading old emails with fondness and wistfulness (wist?). We are having good lunches every day this week for old times' sake. On thursday we are having a departure party for me over at the West End, in the backroom. Cold beer and inexpensive foods will flow, people will be there. My colleagues are secretive now, preparing things that I can't know about. It's weird to be the center of attention this way. It's nice to be appreciated but this is something different.

Last night I was beginning to realize how profoundly things are changing at the moment. My entire life in New York has been defined by my involvement with my office and the people therein. By leaving this position I lose daily contact with them, I give up my affiliation with this awesome institution, and the northern boundary of my Manhattan life goes thudding south about fifty blocks. Yet this is a good change - it's time for me to go, and I'm leaving on my own terms. Going back to school was my choice, as was the school I'm attending. I engineered all of this to happen this way over a year ago, and yet I can't believe it's all happening. This is another graduation of sorts, I guess. I was trying to recount the chapters of my postgraduate life the other day - I think this is number three, maybe four - but I'm on the brink of a new one, a more different one.

Tomorrow I'm running a five mile race in the park. I've been trying to prepare for it, but muggy weather and a stiff knee have complicated things. Thursday is the big party. Friday is my last day of work (I need to get some cards or something for my colleagues, crap) and then my parents are in town for the weekend. Russell will be here too. Then on Monday I have jury duty, and assuming I'm not sequestered away for some mafioso/New York rapper celebrity trial, I'll be back in Ol' Virginny in early August. Home to Charlottesville for a food tour and a wedding, a reunion with many friends, and then a trip to Mississippi with James to pay our respects to William Faulkner's house. If I could I would fast-forward through these next few days to bring me back home. I know I should savor these last moments at work with my people, but I am not one for goodbyes and I feel like a relic already.

Ever since I heard that song 'Landslide' when I was sixteen or so, the line about handling the seasons of one's life has always gotten to me. Especially now in the midst of all of this change. There are a few constants in my life, which I am thankful for, and of course everything going on is within my control and was the result of my choices, but somehow all of this is greater than the sum of its parts. I didn't realize it would be quite like this, sailing through the changing ocean tides...

Friday, July 15, 2005

Harry Potter and the Unprecedented Marketing Phenomenon

I have been binging on Harry Potter lately. I bought the fourth and fifth books ("and the Goblet of Fire," "and the Order of the Phoenix," respectively) in anticipation of the arrival tonight at midnight of the sixth ("and the Half-Blood Prince"). I hadn't planned on buying the new book in hardback and being sucked into the frenzy, but I have decided to succumb to it.

I do enjoy these books. Rowling is so thorough when it comes to creating and populating her world, with generations of characters, histories, products, traditions. In all of the books you have children grappling with the legacies and losses of their parents. Rowling understands that simultaneous devotion to and revolt from one's parents is the basic tension of childhood, and I think you see it a lot in these books. (Like Roald Dahl, too, celebrating the joy of overthrowing one's nasty and vile elders.) I love the fourth book because it turns dark and lays out a basic sketch of how things will be. I just finished it here at work, after reading it at home and carting it on the train. I feel that clutching a Harry Potter book is somewhat emasculating - the cartoonish cover fonts, the forcefully whimsical checkered pattern on the spine, the red letters announcing "SCHOLASTIC," the comically shitty binding and paper quality that screams "This is only children's literature!" - but I carry it around anyway.

I do wonder, though, how Rowling will wrap this up. She can't just let the kiddies graduate from Hogwarts and fade off into a sunset of "Harry Potter: The College Years." In a grim way I would like to see it end in an apocalyptic battle of good vs. evil. The author spent the first four books creating a world, and now she changes it, or destroys it. In Newsweek they were speculating that perhaps Dumbledore is really Potter himself, travelling back in time as an old man. What an idea! Maybe there will be some kind of violent synthesis of the Muggle and magic worlds, maybe Harry Potter will Apparate into a Toys 'R' Us featuring an in-store promotional event with the precocious moppet who plays him in the movies. I don't know. All I do know is that these days every time I pass by a mirror I get a weird scowl on my face and try saying "'Arry Pottah" in every kind of British accent I can muster. It's a magical time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Tonight I wanted to be good - I cooked chicken by myself, alone, for the first time. It went ok - the poor bird was sliced to bits in the pan by the time I was satisfied that all possible salmonella had been eradicated. The meal was followed of course by an intense spray-down of all kitchen surfaces using a powerful industrial-grade pesticide, but whatever. It's the way of the gourmand. And it smells great.

But you know what the utterly shitty part was? I really wanted to have green beans, and I had the can and everything, but I couldn't work the can opener. It's one of those weird ones that look like it fell from the innards of a helicopter, one of the cheap ones made of three long pieces and then a slightly sharpened wheel. I played with it and scraped the hell out of the top of the can, but to no avail. I could open a can with it about as well as I could use it to pierce my own ear. By the time it was over I was ready to throw it through the window. I felt idiotic, like a golden retriever trying to work an abacus. Sometimes I feel smart and sometimes I feel like a stupid little prat. But overall I guess the meal was a success. Nothing like four pieces of chicken, eaten directly out of the pan. Bachelorhood rawks!


Things that are changing: I went to Connecticut on Sunday for brunch with L's family, and I realized that I am learning more and more what it means to be a son-in-law. It's a role I'm happy about - I like her family, I'm looking forward to having a brother-in-law. I look at the way my dad is with my mom's family, and I hope I can do the same. At work, I set my last day as July 22, only 8 full days away, since vacation days (and jury duty) (!) will slice the edge right off the end of the month. We sent invitations for my departure party today, which will take place next thursday.

One chapter is ending
A new one begun
Come celebrate the fact
that Michael
is done.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

How to succeed in business, part 2

I have established an unsettling rhythm to my worklife. I stay awake until very late at night - unnecessarily, needlessly - awake until 2:30 or 3 am. Finally my body just kind of gives up and sleeps. Then I ignore the alarm that goes off at 8 and I sleep through it for at least another hour, lurching across my bed every ten minutes to slam down the snooze bar the way you would forcefully dunk under the water the head of someone you were trying to drown. As I shower I consider the many permutations of business casual ensembles I could create - khakis, polos, button downs - and then I put on shorts and sneakers anyway. At this point, approximately 10;15, seventy-five minutes after the start of the workday, I may eat some breakfast in my kitchen, if I am feeling especially virtuous.

Not many people are on the subway between 10 and 11 in the morning. Indigents. People casually dressed, wayward tourists. I can always find a seat, although it can be a long wait for a train. I stride into work breezily, considering whether or not to feign illness or a hangover, wondering if The Powers That Be can log my swipe card's history of arrivals, and then seeing that a good third of my office is not in anyway. Summer is a fairly quiet season for my office, at least compared to the madness of September and October, and a certain dip in intensity is acceptable, even, to a degree, encouraged. Recently I've developed a sick addiction to Spider Solitaire - I was even dreaming of playing the game in my half-asleep state the other night, picturing the board and making moves. I realized that I can play the game with impunity if I just close my office door and pretend I am making a wrenching and profound cell-phone call. At the end of the work day I return home and collapse onto the unmade bed for a nap.

I hate this way of life. I feel lazy, slothlike and stagnant. Fortunately I only have three weeks left in my current position, one of which will be occupied by jury duty (!), so there is both a reason and a terminus for this malaise. I have been trying to make changes, though. I did some good work yesterday, and today I wrangled my loan application to pay for law school. This afternoon I went for a run and ran into an old friend (not literally), and I saw a tv news guy taping a piece and some models being photographed, as well as an outdoor concert about to begin. The glories of New York in three miles. I went to B&N and the Strand and then ate some Chipotle, feeling the uncomfortable neurotic alchemy of great wealth and great poverty that comes from a loan of several tens of thousands of bucks. So I covered that unease with a layer of rice and beans and sour cream. And when I came home I organized my bills from the last three years as well as my personal correspondence.

I am trying to be better, I am trying not to not end work on a negative and lazy note, but it's hard to ignore a gnawing sense of apathy and exhaustion. I am ready for a new challenge, I know what it is and I want to start doing it now. But I need to leave work with my head held high, too. Tomorrow I will go in and cross things of my list of tasks for the day, and then I will leave for a guilt-free weekend of moderate indulgence and sloth. The only saving grace of living this way - this lazy, intemperate, embarassing way - is knowing when and how and that I can redeem myself.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A future committed to the freedom

This weekend L and I went home for a "Meet the Fockers" style summit between our two families. It went well, everyone was pleased and friendly, yet I was reminded once again that our families are just different. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

After taking an inordinate amount of shit all weekend for taking the train home while L rode the cheap Orthodox Jewish bus, I caved in to the pressure and bought a bus ticket for the return to New York. I thought this could be a time of prenuptial reverie and bliss, a chance to enjoy the wilds of I-95 and maybe indulge in a Cinnabon or two, but, sadly, the video bus sucked. The air conditioner was broken, so we were baking in a plexiglass oven for four and a half hours. On my shorts you could see the sweat where my arm had lain over my leg. The driver, a friendly Morgan Freeman kind of guy, offered as the first movie "The Battle of the Bulge," in honor of the July 4th holiday. Then we endured the actual "Meet the Fockers" in patent-pending skull-wrenching IntensaSound, thanks to the idiot deaf person who asked to raise the volume. That's a real red-state/blue-state kind of movie, once you start looking for the political subtext.

Also on this bus ride the clasp connecting the cap of my water bottle (the one I got for free imprinted with my law school's name on it) broke off, which was another disappointment, and which I can't help but hold L personally responsible for. The ride was horrible, but I can see how it would be pleasant in mild weather, if you had no concern for time, and if for some reason the entire railroad infrastructure of the east coast was utterly destroyed.

Best part of the ride, though: I'm reading Hendrik Hertzberg's "Politics: Observations & Arguments," and I was laughing out loud at his articles about Dan Quayle. On page 229, discussing the 1988 vice presidential debate, he refers to "[Quayle's] demagogic promise never to have another grain embargo - or, as he jumpily called it, 'another Jimmy Carter grain embargo, Jimmy, Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter grain embargo, Jimmy Carter grain embargo." I'm actually laughing out loud as I type this. As part of the closing statement in the debate, Hendrik writes that Quayle "ended by saying, in a flourish that sounded like a literal translation from some language other than English, 'George Bush has the experience, and with me the future - a future committed to our family, a future committed to the freedom.' What?" (231).

I love it. The day ended well, with a nice run through battery park as people gathered to watch the fireworks, and then drinks and tapas with Ashesh and L. A good declaration.

"Jimmy Carter grain embargo" is now, like, the phrase of the month.