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August 2011
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October 2011

The Internet Follows You Around

I want to preserve the privacy of the judge, the lawyers and my fellow members of the jury pool, so I won't mention the county I was in or the case I was up for. But I have a few thoughts about the civil justice system (as opposed to the criminal justice system). They were in my column in the old format, which means they might have run as long as 14 years ago, but the Internet never forgets. That is one of the problems with the Internet. Say something once, and, even if  it is "gone" (as are most of pre-October 2005 columns), some work with the Wayback Machine can turn it up. Jurors aren't supposed to Google, but judges and lawyers can. So when they asked what we thought of the civil court system, I answered honestly. "Can you be fair," the judge asked. "No," I answered, and I was dismissed.

I teach 8th grade US history, as regular readers know. That includes a month on the U.S. Constitution and a fair dose of civics thrown in as appropriate. Every year, I tell the students that the two tests of citizenship are: 1) Do you vote and 2) do you accept a call to jury duty? Well, my principals ran into my reality this week. I was called on Thursday, became part of a 60-member juror pool for a civil case, and was dismissed near the end of the process... for telling the truth.

I didn't even consider perjury, because another thing I tell my students is that the justice system doesn't work if people lie. We all owe our society our best testimony, in a civil case or a criminal case. Since I have already expressed my opinion of the system, in writing, I'd be ill-advised to sit on a jury in the age of  Google. I was asked if I could be fair and impartial. I said I could not. I would have felt like I was a Trojan Horse, one who wished a pox on both their houses. I didn't like being sued. I don't like people who sue without a good reason. I'm not saying all civil suits are bunk--just most of them.

With apologies to my lawyer relative and my lawyer friends, I think the U.S. is over-lawyered and overly litigious. The number bandied about (281 lawyers for each 100,000 Americans, 11 for each Japanese) are stupid because they compare apples and oranges. But people can and do sue at the drop of a hat in this country. Without going into details, my family has been sued several times. It is scary, expensive, time-consuming, and in both cases we settled rather than go to trial on a stupid, pointless case. Both were real-estate cases.

If I had been in a criminal jury pool, short of the death penalty, no problem. But there's a reason for contracts with mandatory arbitration clauses--because most commercial disagreements don't belong in court. In a better society, they wouldn't end up there.

This is my 6th time in a jury pool. Maybe next time I'll get lucky and get a non-capital criminal case, and then serve at last.

Meaning of Life and Questions of Faith

I went to a seminar once where the leader said, "Your actual age is the amount of time you have spent in the moment." She was 40. She figured she might be 10. I'm 59 (as of the 17th), and I think I might be 10 now, if I'm lucky.

I realize I am supposed to be looking for enlightenment, but if I make it to the end and can honestly say, "I did more good than harm, I helped a lot of people and I never deliberately hurt anyone," I will consider this incarnation a success. Whether the big karma scoreboard in the sky agrees is a question that is above my pay grade.

A recommendation: Anne Lamott's Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. She is an amazing writer, with an amazing story that she tells amazingly well. I enjoyed reading it.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

3 stars out of 5
Most of the books that make it into the Paul's Reading section on the right hand side of my blog make it because I rate them 5 stars--because usually a novel has to be particularly good to get me to finish it (same goes, actually, for non-fiction). This book is an exception.

I heard Tom Perrotta on NPR's Fresh Air and on the New York Times Book Review podcast. He was great, and the book sounded fascinating. I love comic authors (although I was not familiar with his previous work), and the concept: the after effects of a "sort of" rapture, sounded captivating. I bought the e-book the first day it was available. I read through high spots (many) and low spots (few), only to find out that, in the end, the book didn't finish, it just ended. Now I know art doesn't wrap an ending in a bow for you, with a neon sign flashing "author's message," but I just didn't find this novel satisfying.


3 stars out of 5
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writing credits: Hossein Amini (screenplay), James Sallis (book).
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston
Refn has made one of those achingly self-conscious "directerly" films, where certain shots he has fallen in love with recur. How many times do we need to see Gosling in the glow of a red traffic light? How many overhead night shots of LA freeways? Still, everyone acquits themselves well, especially Gosling, getting to play Gary Cooper laconic, and Albert Brooks, cast way against type as a sweet, smooth, utterly sociopathic Jewish gangester (OK, the only part that is against type is the sociopathic part). Ron Perlman, cast as one of his two types, is also a superb villain. The plot, about a Hollywood Stunt Driver who is a getaway driver in his spare time, is way beside the point. Like an opera in Italian; we are meant not to listen to the lyrics, but to enjoy the sound and spectacle. It gets three stars because the film's half-dozen scenes of filmic ultra violence are stomach churning. Don't say you weren't warned. Finally, Cranston, once known mainly as the dad in Malcom in the Middle is really coming into his own as a character actor.

Letters: Dan Grobstein File

Happy Birthday to Me

I turned 59 on Saturday, and it was a lively event. Following a family tradition, the nature of the celebration was kept secret from me; all I knew was that I was to come straight home from school on Friday and pack an overnight bag. This I did. Dinner was at Oliveto Restaurant. They were serving their special tomato menu, in celebration of their fresh availability. They even had tomato desserts, but my younger daughter know how much I like soft-serve frozen yogurt, so she brought some in which they served us for the perfect end to a perfect meal. With my family, it is always as much, or more, about the company as it is the food. The gifts were books, which are always the perfect gift for me.

Hence to my favorite nearby getaway, the Claremont Hotel, in the hills at the Berkeley/Oakland border. A lovely quiet room, a gym for exercise on the morning of my birthday, and a gift of an herbal wrap followed by a deep tissue massage. About as lovely as it gets. Happy Birthday to me!

How Things Work Out

I was sitting down to write the observation to someone that I followed two women to San Francisco, and that it didn't work out once, but worked out the second time. Then I paused. The first woman I followed to SF broke up with me 34 years ago. But life is, after all, just a giant chain of cause and effect, leading back to our birth--or, depending on your spiritual belief, back much farther than that, to the big bang. For, after all, if I hadn't followed her to SF,  I wouldn't have met my wife and enjoyed the last 34 years with her, and our daughters... well, you get the idea. So, maybe I followed two women to SF and it worked out both times, just in different ways. This is suspiciously close, as it happens, to that idea that "everything happens for a reason," and I'm not sure I buy that. But maybe I should.