Five Things I Learned Serving Jury Duty

I’ve just finished serving jury duty, and I learned a few things from the experience.

First of all, it is stressful holding another person’s fate in your hands.  I know this a little bit from being a teacher, but it’s one thing to be the gatekeeper stopping a kid from passing on to the next grade and another thing entirely to be a juror sending a grown man to jail.

Second, it is humbling and empowering, fascinating and exhausting to become a cog in the justice system.  You see it on TV and you know in an abstract way that it’s been embellished, but to actually dip your toes in the water and see it all spinning up close… well, it’s something.  Yes, it’s a huge drain on your time, yes, it’s horribly inconvenient, but the judges and the lawyers really let rip with a bunch of speechifying about the system and how it breaks down without the service of “people like you” and it’s enough to make you feel almost important for a few days.

Third, don’t be a stalker.

Fourth, don’t encourage a stalker.

So the case I was on was a stalking case.  And they encourage you, when you first sit down and hear opening arguments, to keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions.  But you hear “stalker” and you think, okay, that’s a bad guy that needs to be stopped.  And I’m sure in many cases that turns out to be exactly the situation.  However, in this case — which sounded a lot more like real life — there was nothing so simple.  To simplify things to a point of ridiculousness, this couple dated for nine months, then broke up.  To be specific, she broke up with him, and he was still, to unironically use an over-cliched phrase, madly in love with her.

Now, breakups happen.  And one-sided breakups happen.  The problem here arose because she wanted to be cordial and nice.  So she sent him e-mails and text messages to the effect of: “I don’t want anything more to do with you, please don’t contact me again, I’ll talk to you later.”  Or, “Your last message was inappropriate, I don’t want you in my life, but I may speak to you if I see you around, and I may dial your number if I need to.”  I’m not one to victim-blame, but if you want a person to leave you alone, and you know that person is still determined to feel a certain way about you, you can’t leave the door open for contact.

Now, this guy stepped over the line.  He drove by her house unannounced, he sent some fairly ugly text messages her way when she started dating another guy, but he was not hiding in the bushes outside the house or parking across the street for hours on end or following her around in public.  It was an ugly, ugly situation.  No doubt about that.  But he wasn’t a stalker, so we acquitted him.

I’m not sure how much more detail would be useful and I’m not sure how much is really ethical to share, so I’m going to cut that portion of the program short.  However, there are some lessons to be learned from all this.

The first is this, and it goes for everybody: If you’re going to press charges against somebody, and the situation involves the dealings and behavior of both individuals in some way, you’d better be sure that your house is in order, because the lawyers and the investigators and everybody and their mother are going to go through your metaphorical house, drag all your metaphorical dirty laundry onto the lawn, smash it to pieces, burn the pieces, sort through the ashes, and then arrange the ashes into lovely grey mosaics for a jury of your peers to peruse ad nauseam. In other words, if you’re going to press charges, make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

The second bit of advice is for the ladies.  If you want a man out of your life, and you feel it may eventually come to legal measures, slam the fargoing door.  None of this nicey-nicey, cordial-kitty crap.  I’m reminded of that moment in Dumb and Dumber where the girl tells one of the Dumbs that the odds of her getting together with him are a million-to-one, and he responds with vigor, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”  Leave no chances.  Make yourself abundantly clear.

The third bit of advice is for the guys.  NO MEANS NO.  When she tells you she wants to be left alone, do yourself a favor and assume she’s serious.  The case I sat on was flimsy as hell and we still almost found him guilty.  And even though we acquitted him, he still had to give up tons of his time to stand trial, to have his personal business laid open for the world to see, to stand in humiliation at being accused of, let’s be honest, a crime that’s not going to win you the respect of your comrades.

The fourth bit of advice is for anybody hoping to avoid jury duty.  Wear pajamas to court.  Nothing shows the lawyers you’re an idiot incapable of using your critical brain to ponder the minutiae of a case which may send a person to jail for a long time like a refusal to put on proper pants.  Stupid me, I wore slacks and a collared shirt every day, and look where I ended up.

The fifth bit of advice is: Pajamas won’t save you.  In the jury pool room, waiting to be called to a courtroom, I was sitting next to a woman in hot pink pajamas and a hoodie, who did not look up from her cell phone the entire two hours we were waiting to be called to court.  Next day, I saw her again, standing in the waiting area outside another courtroom.  Still, of course, glued to her cell phone, and damned if she wasn’t still wearing pajamas.

Seriously.  Do your civic duty and put on some pants.


Time Out for Reading!

Weird circumstances the past couple days have seriously disrupted the routine, and as a result I’m getting virtually no work done on the novel, nor am I having any particularly useful things to post about here on the blarg.

That’s partly due to the honest-to-goodness fact that my daily schedule is all screwed up and partly due to the fact that there is some heavy sharknado weighing on my mind that I am literally not allowed to discuss.  More updates in a few days when the dust settles.

However, my activities the past few days have left me with some rather large gaps during the day which I’ve had to fill using no electronic devices at all, and since I plan ahead for these eventualities, I’ve gotten to do something I haven’t enjoyed in quite some time: sit down and read.  You know, from a book.  Like in the olden times.  Pages and all.  Bookmarks.  Dog-eared pages and jotting little notes in a notebook.  (Yeah, that’s how I read, I can’t help it.)

In particular, I’m sinking myself into the second in a series by Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book.  The series in question is the Thursday Next series, which follows the titular heroine (a literary detective) as she gallivants in and out of various works of fiction, some renowned, others reviled, in pursuit of her duties tracking unauthorized changes to priceless manuscripts and verifying the authenticity of lost works of Shakespeare.

Now, “literary detective” is a job title which immediately makes me want to fall asleep, but these books are just flat out fun.  They detail a fantastically well-imagined alternate reality in which, to name just a few key differences, ownership of the Crimean peninsula is still in dispute, long-extinct animals have been genetically resequenced as household pets (Thursday keeps an adorable and rare second-sequence dodo bird, Pickwick, in her home), and Gravity Tubes allow anybody to travel to anywhere in the world in the space of just over forty minutes.  If that sounds whimsical, rest assured that I’ve only just slipped you the tip of the taco.  Fforde weaves the details of this fantastical world so thoroughly into his narrative that I never find myself questioning how things work; rather, I bounce happily along for the ride.  In fact, the alacrity and gusto and sometimes the offhanded way in which he creates the tiniest of details in this world is so charming and effective that it makes me feel woefully inadequate as a writer.

To wit, this passage from page 112 of Lost in a Good Book:

“Looping” was a slang term for Closed Loop Temporal Field Containment.  They popped the criminal in an eight-minute repetitive time loop for five, ten, twenty years.  Usually it was a Laundromat, doctor’s waiting room or bus stop, and your presence often caused time to slow down for others near the loop.  Your body aged but never needed sustenance.  It was cruel and unnatural — yet cheap and required no bars, guards, or food.

He tosses off this explanation like sluicing water off the hood of a freshly waxed car, deftly weaving the callous cruelty of the monstrous corporation together with the unfathomable scientific capabilities of the universe and, oh, just for fun, offers a clever explanation for why we always sit around checking our watches (sharknado, I just dated myself) or rather our cell phones in waiting rooms.  And he does this every three or four pages.

I’m not here today to offer a review of the entire book, let alone the series.  I haven’t yet reached the point in the book where somebody does get Looped, though it’s not necessarily an eventuality I expect.  It’s simply one example out of hundreds that detail the possibilities of an alternate universe that plays fast and loose with the laws of physics.  Fforde is also unrelentingly British and has that delightfully dry wit, so the books scratch that Douglas Adams itch that seems so untameable.  (Untameable?  Untamable?  Spellcheck doesn’t like either option.)

In short, if you’re a bookish sort, you should be reading Thursday Next.  Possibly you could read Thursday Next on Thursday next.  (I think the man must have been chuckling sideways at himself with just about every character name in the thing.)  And no, it’s not a particularly new series — Good Book came out in 2002 — but who cares?  It’s brilliant and clever and whimsical and ridiculous all at once.

The last several books I’ve read have been so heavy and dark and drear that these books have felt like a much-needed B12 shot.  Anybody else out there reading books that make you laugh?


Self-Inflicted

Chuck’s challenge for the week: Diseased Horror.

I loved the idea at first but struggled to find a direction to take it in.  Then it struck me that while bugs that travel through the air or the water or various bodily fluids are horrible enough in their own right, what about one that could travel even more insidiously — through the mind itself, or even just through eye contact?

The only thing I’m not really sure about is the ending.  I’d love to hear some alternate thoughts, but I definitely wanted to convey that the disease doesn’t stop with the hero.

This initially came in way over the limit at about 1400 words, and I managed to trim the fat down to a very terse 999.  I hope you enjoy it.

 

Self-Inflicted

The bus is running late, and my coffee is too hot.  Ellen’s sent me a text message reminding me that she loves me — she knows this time of year can run me a little ragged.

I feel a prickle on my neck.  I look up and lock eyes with this guy across the aisle.  He’s staring at me, the top of his newspaper folded down covering his face below the nose, his eyebrows pulled together in an expression of cold fury.  I look back at my phone.

He’s still staring at me.

I meet his eyes again and then there’s this pressure in my head, like I’m in an airplane that’s just climbed thirty thousand feet in thirty seconds, like I might get squeezed out through my own ears.  There’s something strange about him.  He’s got a horrible scar from his hairline to his cheek, but that’s not it.  Then it strikes.  He looks like me.

Not quite like me — the eyes are a little bit smaller, the chin stronger, the cheekbones sharper — but it’s too much like looking in a mirror.  With a crack like a starter pistol, he snaps his newspaper back in front of his face.

I feel dizzy.  My ears are ringing and there’s a cloudiness in my head that wasn’t there a minute ago.  My phone buzzes.  It’s Ellen, asking if I got her text.  The bus driver is announcing my stop, fifteen minutes early. My coffee is barely lukewarm.

*****

By the end of the shift, my head is pounding.  The bus home is standing room only, and it feels as if everybody on the bus is staring at me.  Every time I try to catch one of them at it, though, their eyes dart away like startled goldfish.  When the driver lets me off at my stop, he tells me to have a good night, and I swear it sounds like me talking.

*****

When I wake up, the pain in my head is unbearable.  It feels like there’s some thing in my skull, skittering along on tiny insect legs, tearing at the grey matter with its rending beak.  I can’t call in sick, though — it’s tax time and the firm is understaffed — so I lurch into the bathroom and pop a handful of Tylenol.  I brace myself against the sink, taking deep, unhelpful breaths, then slam the cabinet shut.  The mirror cracks from the impact, and I see it — a bright red weal, the skin puckered and angry — running from my hairline to my jaw, just around the outside of my eye.

It’s hideous.  I’m hideous.  I go into Ellen’s makeup drawer, rummage through piles of mascara and foundation, and find the concealer.  In great gobs I smear it on the scar, smoothing it out like plaster.  The skin underneath feels hot to the touch, like a pan left on the cooktop.  I go to ask Ellen how it looks.  Her body rises and falls beneath the sheet, and I decide not to disturb her.  No sense in making this her problem.

*****

The boss calls me into his office and slaps down a pile of returns on the desk.  Yesterday’s.  I’ve screwed them up, apparently.  My head starts throbbing and I can’t make out a word. All of a sudden he’s looking at me funny, and then his face changes.  His sallow, pale skin tightens up and tones, his receding hairline creeps forward.  The angry red scar I saw in my mirror this morning blooms on the side of his face.  The eyes scowling at me are my eyes.  Rage overtakes me.  I leap from my chair, my fist finds his face — my face — and for a split second, the thunderstorm in my head goes quiet.  The relief is so overwhelming that I grab the phone off his desk — one of those old-school jobs, stamped metal on the bottom — and smash it into his head, opening up a wicked gash to mirror the one that’s already there.  He ragdolls to the floor.  I straighten my suit and leave the office early.

My head feels better.

*****

I walk instead of waiting for the bus.  Every face is a shadow of mine: my jaw here, my nose there.  Every eye follows me as I hurry past.  I’m bumped, then shoved, then I break into a run, throwing the false mes aside, ignoring their protests as they topple from my path.  My headache creeps back in, threatening to sunder my skull.  My own voice shouts at me from a hundred mouths.

*****

I hear Ellen moving around in the bedroom, just waking up.  I sit down and turn on the television, and my fingers leave vivid bloodstains on the remote.  I turn and see her in the doorway, but she’s not Ellen.  She’s me.  My face, imploring me in confusion and mounting panic.  My voice, asking me if I’m all right.  The only thing missing is the scar, so I grab a kitchen knife.

*****

The headache is better now that I’ve dispatched that pretender.  My own distorted face leers at me from every person I pass.  It’s too ludicrous not to laugh.  I sit down for lunch and a cup of coffee, watching all the pale imitations of myself, and there — there – is somebody who looks different.  She’s normal.  I can’t take my eyes away.  She sees me, and looks uncomfortably away, but I am spellbound.

A lightness builds in my head and then a stretching, like some invisible tail reaching up out of my head and spanning the distance between us.  Then I have her eyes again and there’s a feeling of sweet release, like taking off tight shoes at the end of the day.  The scar opens up on her cheek, invisible, beneath her skin, but glowing, white-hot.

A passing me asks if I’d like a refill.  I scowl and tell me to get lost.

When I look up, the girl across the aisle looks just like me.


Parental Exhaustion

When you’re a parent, the exhaustion creeps in by degrees.  You don’t even notice it.

I’m not talking about when the sprout is first born and you go from sleeping 8, 9, 10 hours a night to catching three hours at a stretch and being supremely thankful for it.  No, everybody knows parents of newborns don’t get any sleep.  I’m talking about a few months, if not years, later.  The tantrums, the waking up in the middle of the night, the stampeding around the house for hours on end, it’s just a part of life.  You don’t notice it.

Somehow, you find yourself subsisting on less and less sleep.  You get by on five or six hours and you think you’ve won the lottery.  The raccoon rings under your eyes look less like black circles and more like stylish pirate eyeliner (to your mind at least).  On the weekend, you sleep until six AM and it feels like the angels have delivered you to a downy bed of heaven feathers.  You’re still shambling through the day like a hamstrung zombie, but you feel almost normal.  This is your life, and it isn’t so bad.

What you don’t realize (because you’re too tired to realize anything that isn’t whacking you over the head with a pool noodle, despite the fact that you don’t own a pool to necessitate a noodle) is that that exhaustion is piling up like collectible whatzits in the closet, and there comes a point at which the exhaustion you’re sweeping under the rug is now seeping out through the edges like so much asbestos particulate.  And as much as you develop an ability to power through and function on minimal amounts of sleep, the time comes when the exhaustion can no longer be denied.  You find yourself resting your eyes at traffic lights, resting your entire body on the couch during the third episode in a row of Power Rangers, and dashing to bed at the hallowed hour of eight o’clock because you just can’t take it anymore.

The sprout’s bedtime routine has become a little bit more manageable in the past few months.  He’s gone from demanding three or four stories and two songs to just two bedtime stories and a bit of a cuddle, followed by five or ten minutes of me lying in his floor so that he doesn’t have to fall asleep by himself.  This is not a bad arrangement.  He gets the comfort of his big bad daddy being there in the room with him as he drifts off to sleep, and I get a few blessed minutes of quiet to recharge for the sprint to bedtime.

But tonight the exhaustion crept in by another degree.

I read a Dr. Seuss double-header, tucked him in, turned the lights off, and stretched out on the floor, and the next thing I knew my wife was poking me in the back in the dark.  In the space of about thirty seconds, I’d fallen into a deathlike, dreamless sleep and logged nearly a full hour of blissful naptime right there on the carpet.

I used to wonder how my dad could sleep anywhere in the house, at any time of the day, for any amount of time.  I think the picture is becoming a little bit clearer.

This post is part of SoCS.


Things Writers Need — The Hemingwrite

I’ve just seen a thing.

I don’t know what to make of it.  I’m very much of two minds.

I’ve had my say about typewriters before.  I think they’re cute and quaint and entirely impractical for any writer to be using to do any real writing in the — and I say this with no irony whatsoever, except for the implicit  — modern era.  I stand by that wholeheartedly.  When you consider the gamut of writing devices, a machine that uses paper, has no means to erase or edit on the fly, and that cannot multitask in any way, shape, or form, is simply an inferior alternative to any device which can, you know, backspace, or fit in your pocket, or at least your carry-on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a certain romantic nostalgia about typewriters.  The sounds they make as you click away at their keys are soothing and hypnotic — much more so than the impersonal muffled thumps that issue from the plastic construction of a laptop or a multi-function bluetooth keyboard.  And, you know, the greats wrote on typewriters, or something like that.  So there’s hero emulation thrown in there to boot.  I see the draw, even if it doesn’t measure up to even the flimsiest of word processors.

But then tonight, I see this.  The Hemingwrite.

render_low

It’s a word processor stuffed into the body of a typewriter analog.  It syncs wirelessly and automatically with backup services like google docs and Evernote (which I love).  It has weeks and weeks of battery life.  It’s about the size of a very large book, or a very small chessboard.  It’s adorable.  And all it lets you do is write.

It looks like much of what I love about WriteMonkey (my drafting software of choice) literally crammed into a box that lets you write without the distractions of the wily internet and whatever apps you have chiming and sucking your life away.  And my Id-Writer stops slavering, looks out through the bars of his cage toward this unassuming little box, and ponders.

I can’t decide if I love or hate this idea.

The pendulum swings in favor of this thing initially.  It’s undoubtedly brilliant.  There are, I have no doubt, scads of writers and would-be writers, their heads clouded with that romantic image of Hemingway bent over a buzzing machine, the keys clattering into the night, who will happily throw money at the manufacturers of this thing just for the chance to ape the greats while still maintaining the creature comforts of cloud backups and wireless syncing.  The Hemingwrite website, which has only been up for a few months, overtly states that the creators are overwhelmed by the response already, and they’re not even past the prototyping phases yet.  This thing is going to sell like crazy to people wanting one for themselves, let alone as gifts for the writerly types out there.

But is it necessary?  I mean, my laptop automatically backs up my work as I write and is just as portable as this little gadget.  It also allows me to browse the web, watch movies, play games, and you know, anything else you can do with a fully-powered computer.  For that matter, it allows me — with the use of the proper programs — to have the same uninterrupted, distraction-free writing experience that the Hemingwrite seeks to provide, minus of course the vaguely romantic notion of typing on a typewriter that’s not really a typewriter.

But there’s something to that, isn’t there?  The feel of creating on something that’s not a do-it-all magic box.  They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have (though that’s perhaps a bad idea if you’re a businessman who wants to be an ice fisher), and doesn’t this gizmo allow you to advertise to the world that “I AM A WRITER” in a way that no simple laptop can?  And isn’t writing all about being in the proper mindset to create?  By extension, then, if this tool helps you, in any small way, to get a little bit closer to the zone, isn’t it worth the trouble?

And then my pendulum swings the other way again, because don’t I — don’t we, as Americans (make no mistake, this is for Americans, much as I hate the “we as fill-in-the-blank” construction) — have enough stuff already?  Part of the romance of writing (and I’m overusing the word “romance” in this little entry, I now realize, but fargo it, it cuts both ways) is the simplicity of it.  From the blank screen, the blank page, the flashing cursor on the screen, I craft worlds and people and plots and MacGuffins and really wild things.  If I’m a writer, I already have a computer or laptop to help me do those things.  Do I need another thing on my desk to help me do the same things?  I’m not sure I do.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.  I have enough of a headache working on two different computers in two different settings; I can only imagine the frustration of getting all keyed-in and in love with this little machine and then having to haul it back and forth from home to work.  And then forgetting it and having to work on my laptop anyway.  Or finding room for it on my already cluttered desks.  And justifying to myself and my wife the existence of this thing which doesn’t really do anything for me that the stuff I already had isn’t capable of doing.

Then again, it looks like they’ll offer it in Georgia Bulldog Red.

red_render

I think it’s a fascinating little thing.  I’m sure it will help writers if only in a Placebo Effect, I’m-becoming-a-better-writer-because-I-feel-like-a-writer kind of way.  But the more I think about it, the more it feels like too much novelty, not enough practicality.  I think I’d love to test-drive one, but I definitely can’t see buying one for myself, unless, when they finally get around to selling these things, the price tag ends up in the realm of the ridiculously low.  Based on the hype around this thing, though, I’d be shocked if it goes for less than $80, and I even think that might be optimistic on my part.

What do you think?  Am I being too harsh on the little Hemingwrite, which for all intents and purposes hasn’t even been born yet?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 212 other followers

%d bloggers like this: