Monday, August 31, 2009

Urban Jungle

This is what my next-door neighbor's yard looks like.

This is the view from my deck. It's an urban jungle. The weeds covering the backyard are literally six feet tall. See the grape vines that seem to be covering a building? They are. They completely blanket the coach house and have crept over the fence and started making themselves at home on my garage. They are tightwalking across the phone wires from the coach house to the main house.

God only knows what animals are moving into his yard and building condos and having babies. Raccoons, possums, rats, squirrels, bears, lemurs, meerkats?

The owner used to live in the coach house and rent out the house that's attached to the deck on the right side of the photo; but both have been vacant for about two months. He made it impossible for the tenants to continue to live there. I heard both sides of the story, as well as the prior tenants' similar story; and I'm inclined to believe the tenants.

Their side: he didn't pay the water bill, and their water got shut off. Twice. (I know this is true because they asked to use my shower. It also happened to the prior tenants.) They paid his past-due water bills in order to get the water turned back on.

His side: He always told me what terrible tenants they were, but never gave me specifics. After they moved out, he told me he had to spend $3,000 to repair walls and doors and other things. They "trashed the place," he said. (I was in the home many times while they lived there, and every time the home was spotlessly clean and neat, with no visible damage anywhere.)

Anyway, back to the back yard. So I saw him--or rather, I heard him moving around behind the wall of grape leaves on his tiny coach house deck.

"Hey, JungleDude," I called through the vines. "Is that you?"

He popped his head through the labyrinth. "Hey, E. Peevie!" he said cheerfully. "Long time no see!"

"Yeah, Dude," I said. "What are you going to do about that jungle?" He assured me that he had a guy coming in at any moment to give him a quote on hacking down the nature preserve and doing regular maintenance. And, he said, he had a prospective renter coming by to look at the house.

"She's a teacher at the high school," he said. "And she's Caucasian!" he added happily.

I looked at him. I blinked.

"Whut?" he said defensively, "I'm allowed to like my own kind!" Then he non sequitured, "I like myself! I'm allowed to like myself."

I looked at him. I blinked.

"Hey, my best friend is Mexican!" he said. "But I'm also allowed to be happy to get a white renter."

"Well," I said, irritated. "It doesn't matter to me whether your renter is white or not."

"It's starting to matter to me," he said, officially breaking the law. "I'm just sayin'."

"Look," I should have said, but in the interests of keeping things neighborly, I didn't, "shut your racist trap about your Caucasian renter, and just get somebody out here to get this jungle under control!"

I find it ironic that he has no qualms about putting his offensive opinions about racial preferences and prejudices out there, and neither does he make any apologies for keeping his property in a nasty, unrentable condition. Like, he's so much better than those non-white people--but meanwhile, I'm living next door to an abandoned property.

If he's going to discriminate, shouldn't he at least make an attempt, at least superficially, to appear to be a better neighbor than the people that he's trying to keep out? I suppose perhaps his brain is so clogged up with rationalizing and other-bashing that he doesn't have the mental energy to appreciate the irony.

But I do. I appreciate irony. And for that, JungleDude, I thank you.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Did He Really Say That? Um, Not Exactly.

Speaking about health care reform, did Mike Huckabee really say that under proposed health care legislation, Senator Kennedy would have been told to "go home to take pain pills and die" as blogger after blogger after blogger and even Salon reported? Seriously?

Actually, that's not what he said. You can listen to his commentary here (click on the Thursday, August 27, morning commentary link). What he said was this:

[I]t was President Obama himself who suggested that seniors who don't have as long to live might want to consider just taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation to cure them," said Huckabee. "Yet when Sen. Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at 77, did he give up on life and go home to take pain pills and die? Of course not. He freely did what most of us would do. He chose an expensive operation and painful follow-up treatments. He saw his work as vitally important and so he fought for every minute he could stay on this earth doing it. He would be a very fortunate man if his heroic last few months were what future generations remember him most for."

For liberals to take the words "go home to take pain pills and die" out of context and mis-characterize them is just as bad as what Huckabee did in that clip, which is to take President Obama's words, distort them a little, and mis-characterize them as quasi-euthanasia. In both cases, what's missing is integrity.

The President did not suggest that seniors "might want to just consider taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation to cure them," as Huckabee said. What he did say was this:

I don’t want bureaucracies making those decisions. But understand that those decisions are already being made in one way or another. If they’re not being made under Medicare and Medicaid, they’re being made by private insurers. …

[W]hat we can do is make sure that at least some of the waste that exists in the system that’s not making anybody’s mom better, that is loading up on additional tests or additional drugs that the evidence shows is not necessarily going to improve care, that at least we can let doctors know, and your mom know, that you know what, maybe this isn’t going to help, maybe you’re better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller. …

The point is we want to use science, we want doctors and medical experts to be making decisions that all too often right now are driven by skewed policies, by outdated means of reimbursement, or by insurance companies.

Is it ironic, or merely hypocritical, that in the same radio segment Mr. Huckabee criticized Dems for using Kennedy's death as a springboard for promoting health care legislation, saying, "Senator Ted Kennedy's death had barely hit the news before we started hearing calls that Congress must hurry and pass the health care reform bill and do it in his memory"? This kind of talk "defies good taste," he said, but then he went on to use Kennedy as an object lesson in support of his own health care arguments.

Now that's talking out of both sides of his mouth.

It really doesn't help in the long run if Dems trash Republicans and Republicans trash Dems and everyone proves that they are not really listening to and understanding the other side.

Don't you think we'd do a better job solving the healthcare problems if we actually spoke to one another with respect, and demonstrated a teeny bit of willingness to compromise?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Health Care Reform and You

Let's have a conversation about health care, specifically, about the health care system in the U.S.

This article in the Washington Post debunks five myths about health care in other countries:

1. "It's all socialized medicine out there." It's not. "Many wealthy countries," said T.R. Reid, "provide universal coverage using private doctors, private hospitals, and private insurance plans."

2. "Care is rationed through limited choices or long lines." Some countries are plagued by long waits for non-emergency care, but "many nations outperform the United States" in terms of wait times.

3. "Foreign health-care systems are inefficient, bloated bureaucracies." In fact, T.R. pointed out, "U.S. health insurance companies have the highest administrative costs in the world."

4. "Cost controls stifle innovation." Many drugs and procedures originated in countries with strict health care cost controls.

5. "Health insurance has to be cruel." That might be true in this country, where health insurance companies exist to make a profit; but foreign companies must accept all applicants, and can't cancel anyone who pays his premiums.

On the other hand, this article from describes five freedoms you'd lose under Obamacare.

1. Freedom to choose what's in your plan.
2. Freedom to be rewarded for healthy living, or pay your real costs.
3. Freedom to choose high-deductible coverage.
4. Freedom to keep your existing plan.
5. Freedom to choose your doctors.

Really, CNNMoney? Don't these "freedoms" only apply to a tiny group of people? I don't know anyone who has a health care plan that allows them to choose what it covers. People who have insurance through their employer (59% of workers in 2007) don't get to choose what's in their plan; their employer does.

High-deductible coverage is only valuable to the very healthy and the moderately wealthy. Some of us have children or spouses with special health needs, and many of us cannot afford to pay a large deductible when something goes wrong. It would wipe us out in a month.

Freedom to keep your existing plan is not a freedom to the 46 MILLION Americans who don't have any health care coverage at all. Plus, as CBS News reported, "the bill does not force private insurance out of business or force people onto the public plan."

This article reports that "family premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance increased 119 percent between 1999 and 2008." I don't know about you, but the Peevie family income did not increase by 119 percent in that time-frame. The cost increases are unsustainable, and that's one of the problems that needs to be addressed.

There is a lot of fear-mongering going on about health care reform. This article highlights a pensioner who is very happy with his own health care, and wants to hang on to it despite the dire warnings about unsustainable cost increases and the millions without health care coverage. "We have the best health care in the world," he said, "If there is anything I need, I get it."

My family has great health care coverage, too, but that doesn't mean I can't see that our health care system is in trouble, and needs reform. "Health care is not a right," my brother told me once; and that's obviously true in this country. But that doesn't mean that it's not the right thing to do, to provide health care and health care coverage for everyone.

Is it right that 62 percent of people who filed bankruptcy in 2007 did so because of medical bills? Article after article tell stories of middle-class, insured people being driven into bankruptcy because of exorbitant medical costs and coverage gaps.

I'm no expert on health care, and I haven't read the 1,018-page health care bill yet, but I plan to read it and to read commentary from all sides. In the meantime, I'm not buying into the myths about euthanasia and draconian health care rationing. I don't know if I'm totally on board with the proposed bill; but I know I'm on board with reform.

If you have insight or links to share, post a comment. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

City Girls Make Nice-Nice with Nature

Not only did M. Peevie and I survive in the woods, with the ticks and poison ivy and bears, we thrived. We dipped deep into our personal wells of fortitude and pulled out full buckets of Hey! This Nature Thing Isn't So Bad After All!

Except for sleeping on a plastic mattress supported by (and I use that term "supported" so lightly that it is practically floating off the page like a magician's assistant in a levitation act) an ancient metal cot with tired springs that hammocked to the wooden floor when I laid my substantial rear end down.

And except for the bathroom being 50 yards away, up a steep, be-rooted path, in a wooden structure that housed four sinks (three in working order, one encrusted with bits of nature), four toilets in plywood stalls with no doors, some outhouse-esque odors, and a variety of peeping tom insects that clung to the wall directly in front of my face as I sat on the pot.

I felt like a regular outdoorswoman as I crawled, shivering, into my rated-for-20-degrees-Fahrenheit sleeping bag and waited for sleep to take me to a warmer climate. The mercury dipped to 48, and I wore long pants and several layers of shirts, plus a polartec vest--but still I shivered. Not enough body fat, probably.

My little city girl did way better than I did. She felt no cold as she slumbered in a pair of thin PJs in the platform tent, and she even swam in the lake, not seeming to feel the icyness of the water. I think maybe 8-year-olds don't have nerve endings.

The first night I stayed up until almost 4 a.m. talking to one of our camp husbands. The girls had gone to bed hours earlier, and one by one the moms gave up and went to bed also. But NatureDad had some interesting stories to tell, so he poked the fire and talked while I asked questions and listened.

I was almost ready to call it a night when NatureDad asked me where I grew up. "Northeast of Philadelphia," I told him.

"Really? Where?" he asked. "Where were you born?"

I was born in a hospital in Abington, I told him, but my family lived in another suburb.

"Abington Memorial Hospital?!" NatureDad asked, amazed. "You're kidding me! I was born in that hospital, too! My mom worked there for years!" All of his stories had been about growing up in Florida, so I was not expecting this small town connection. (As of the 2000 Census, our little suburb had a population of just over 31,000.)

Then he asked me what town I lived in, and when I told him Warminster, he almost fell right into the fire. "Shut UP!" K-Daddy said. "That's where I lived until I was nine!" I am about ten years older than my camp husband, but we had similar memories of running wild in the woods, catching crawfish in the creek, and going to the same Dairy Queen for Buster Bars.

"I have never met anyone from Warminster before," he said; and neither had I in the 32 years since I moved away. I finally crawled into bed at around 4 a.m.--and then my tentmate woke up and talked for another half an hour.

When reveille sounded less than three hours later, I thought I might actually die. And yes, they really did have a VERY LOUD recording of reveille that sounded like the bugler was standing right next to my pillow. I almost said a bad word.

But being the good Girl Scout mom that I am, I hoisted my tired self up out of the Cot of No Support, got dressed, grabbed a cold Diet Coke, and went to breakfast. After French toast and sausage, M. Peevie and I went boating on the lake. She chose a rowboat, and we zigged and zagged our way across the tiny lake to a small island, where we explored, peed in a crouching position, and discovered dozens of snail shells, some empty, some occupied, on the beach.

I opted out of the free-time hike in the woods, and instead took a free-time nap. I slept right through lunch, but got up in plenty of time to watch M. Peevie enjoy archery, horseback riding, and tie-dying. Later, the girls gathered at the lodge for dancing, games, and make-your-own-sundaes, while the moms and dads wall-flowered and sipped adult juice boxes.

Again with the late night fireside chats on Saturday, this time until 2 a.m. with another mom from our troop. Most of the moms are way younger than I am, but I can put the youngsters to shame when it comes to burning the midnight oil. Just don't ask me to look like a supermodel the next morning. I look more like Maxine.

I was having a conversation with Nature Dad, who built and tended our campfire that first night. He loves everything nature-y, and hopes to escape the city and return to the mountains where he can get Colorado Rocky Mountain High. "Don't you hate the city," he asked me, "Don't you get tired of all the concrete, pollution, noise, and everybody being so close together?"

"No," I told him. "I love concrete."

He thought I was kidding, but I was glad to get home to my neighborhood, my sidewalks, my city, and especially my own bed. It builds character to make nice-nice with nature now and then; but I'm a city girl in my heart of hearts.

How about you?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chicago High School Woes

The process for getting into one of Chicago's top high schools continues to attract investigation and criticism. Mr. Peevie, my VP of Information Management, sent me this article from the Chicago Tribune about the "complicated and secretive" selective enrollment process.

If you click on the link on the left you'll get to this graphic which charts the admission stats for each of the nine selective high schools. It indicated that anywhere from 3 percent to 9.9 percent of applicants earned one of the approximately 3,000 coveted slots. Jones College Prep, where C. Peevie will be attending in the fall, enrolled 3.1 percent of its applicants, the second lowest percentage of all the selectives.

Some complain that the federal desegregation guidelines essentially punish high-performing white students who lose out to minority students with lower scores. The guidelines stipulate that 15 to 35 percent of a selective enrollment school's students can be white, and the rest must be minority. The 2000 Census indicates that nearly 42 percent of Chicago's population is white (I wonder if that percentage has declined in nine years?), which might indicate an unfair distribution of scarce educational resources. But the mandated ratio is based on the fact that less than nine percent of Chicago Public School students are white.

The girl in the story scored in the 90th percentile "on her middle school tests," which I assume means her standardized tests. That could be one of the factors that kept her out of Payton. Most of the kids I know who are going to the top four schools (North Side, Payton, Jones and Whitney Young) scored in the 98th or 99th percentile in both math and reading.

Also, it's not clear what the Trib reporter meant by "aced the selective enrollment high school entrance exam." Does it mean she did really well? Or does it specifically mean she received all possible 300 points for her test performance? This is a critical distinction when thousands of students are competing for a couple hundred slots.

All this is not to say that things are hunky dory in the Land of Selective Enrollment. It's not right that thousands of Chicago high school students and their families have to settle for fewer educational opportunities because many, if not most, CPS high schools can't offer the kind of focus, community, and academic challenge that the selectives (and the IB programs, as well) offer.

I'm grateful that C. Peevie has essentially saved Mr. Peevie and me about $40,000 in private high school tuition by working hard enough to get into Jones. I don't really have a point in this post, except to acknowledge that many, many other kids also worked hard, and didn't get in. They'll end up at schools like Amundsen, where only 24% of students meet state minimum standards and where students average 43 absences per year; or Clemente, with a 13% dropout rate and an average ACT score of 15.5; or Marshall, where 4% of students meet state minimum standards, only 40% of freshmen graduate in five--yes, five--years, and students average 95 absences per year.

It's a sad situation, and I don't know what the solution is. Do you?

Friday, August 21, 2009

I Will Survive

Pray for me.

I'm going camping with the Girl Scouts in a couple of hours. I hear they do unfortunate things like trying to cook bacon on a stick over a campfire; and there are crafts involving pine cones and pipe cleaners.

I like the theoretical idea of camping. I like nature just fine. But I also like my creature comforts, like Angel DVDs, wine, air conditioning, and Hungarian paprika.

I'm sure it will be fine. M. Peevie will have fun, she'll carry memories of her first camping trip with her forever, and I will survive two days without television and Mr. Peevie. But for sure I am bringing a full flask of When Mommy's Happy. Shhh--don't tell. It's against the rules.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jury Duty Fallout

What does it mean that someone from Burlington Northern and Sante Fe Railroad's offices in Texas visited The Green Room like ten times yesterday?

Do you think they like my post?

Do you think they want to hire me? I'm always looking for new clients, y'all. I'd totally work for them, even if I did just vote to sock them with a $5M judgment. Well, technically, the BNSF share was only $4.25M. But still.

It's more likely that they hate my post. I'm guessing that they're trying to find a way to protect their bottom line.

But in a perfect world, losing that case would cause them to really look closely at what went wrong on the day that Scott Eskew was killed by a BNSF train, and figure out what they could do to try to make sure it doesn't happen again. Even if they feel that they do not own 100 of the liability for negligence--and even the jury didn't assign them 100 percent--if they are honest with themselves, they will at least own some of it. And the portion of responsibility that they own should translate into changes.

I have an idea: they could hire one of Deratany's experts to consult with them on how to make changes at the Berwyn station that would reduce the likelihood of another tragedy. Or they can take a hard look at their Train Bible and decide if there's room for one more section that deals with communication about track switching.

Something. Anything. So that another Heidi does not lose another Scott.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How It All Went Down

Well, the Best Jury Ever picked a foreman, and it wasn't me. Wah.

I'll get over it. I just wish it had been a little less predictable than the only young white male in the room. (
This paper refers to studies indicating that forepersons are more likely to be male, white, of higher socio-economic status, and better educated than others in the jury room. Even in 2007, at least one study found that 71 percent of forepersons were male.) So out of eight women and four men, we picked a man.

Just for the record, I voted for a white woman. I thought about voting for my buddy, Juror F, a young black man, who was also on the ballot for foreman, but I didn't think he had a chance; so I voted for me. The vote was six for Juror T, four for me, and two for JF.

Today we deliberated, and reached a verdict, which I will dish about. But first, I'm going to tell you all about the trial.

The case was the estate of Scott Eskew and his widow Heidi Eskew vs. Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad and Metra. Scott, age 34, was killed when he stepped in front of a BNSF train on January 22, 2004, and the trial centered around the question of whose negligence caused the accident--Scott's, or the railroad's, or a combination thereof.

It sounds simple, doesn't it? A guy isn't paying attention to the lights, bells, and whistles, and accidentally steps in front of a train. How can you fault the railroad company? Don't they take every possible precaution to prevent this type of thing, and aren't people who get hit by trains just taking unnecessary risks? It's just typical of our litigious society that the railroad gets blamed.

Or is it?

The mitigating circumstance--ONE of the mitigating circumstances--in this case is the fact that Scott Eskew was legally blind. On the day he died, he was heading downtown to his job as a security guard at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he checked the locks on doors and walked a slow, methodical route through the museum to make sure no one had stuffed a Monet under his sweatshirt.

He took the 1:14 train from Berwyn every day in order to punch in at the Art Institute by 3 p.m. Every day he left his home at the same time, walked the same route, stood on the same side of the platform, boarded the same train. He walked slowly and carefully, without a cane, looking down through thick glasses at the sidewalk to avoid bumps and cracks. Everyone--the ticket agent, the conductor, the engineer--testified they knew that a blind or nearly-blind guy regularly boarded the 1:14 at the Berwyn station.

On January 22, 2004, however, the 1:14 train switched from the south track, where it collected passengers 90 percent of the time, to the north track. The mercury dipped below zero, and it was what Winnie-the-Pooh would call a Blustery Day. A freight train approached the station just prior to the commuter train's arrival.

The station ticket agent called the commuter train conductor when she was belatedly notified about the track switch. "I've got passengers on the wrong side," she told the conductor.

"That's OK," the conductor said, "I'll wait." She did not indicate where she would wait, but she then told the engineer, "We've got passengers that need to cross to the north side. Stop short of Oak Park Avenue." The problem was, the station encompasses four crossings: two at Grove Avenue, and two at Oak Park Avenue. Passengers board and disembark the train along the entire platform, from west of Grove to east of Oak Park.

The ticket agent made two announcements instructing passengers to cross to the north platform to catch the east-bound train. She also told two late-arriving passengers to cross the tracks at the Oak Park crossing in order to catch the train--but she did not mention Oak Park Avenue when she made the announcement over the PA.

It is not clear whether Scott Eskew, who was already standing on the north platform, heard the announcements and was confused; heard bits and pieces of the announcements; or heard nothing at all and was crossing to the south platform as he always did.

It is very clear that the PA system at the Berwyn station could use some improvements. Plaintiff's counsel played a tape of an announcement being made from those south side speakers as it would be heard from the north platform. It was difficult to hear, and almost impossible to understand. Then they overlaid the sound of a passing freight train on top of the announcement, to more closely approximate the conditions of at least one of the announcements. It was completely unintelligible.

I still don't know why the conductor would assume that stopping the train at Oak Park would be sufficient. One point that the attorney for the plaintiff,
Jay Paul Deratany, effectively hammered home was that in all of its instruction manuals and rule books, BNSF Railroad does not have any rules to guide conductors on what to do if two trains are going through the station at the same time, or if a train is switching from its usual track, or if they are aware that passengers need to cross the tracks.

The conductor and the engineer both saw Scott standing on the platform as the train approached the station. There was some debate about whether or not he was in a place of safety--the conductor contradicted her own deposition testimony and insisted at trial that he was not in a place of safety, but she also admits that she did not instruct the engineer to blow the horn--but everyone agrees that if he had not moved, the train would not have hit him.

Many factors contributed to the death of Scott Eskew, including, perhaps, his own negligence. He was not completely blind; did he look both ways before he stepped out in front of the train? If he did, would he even have seen the train? Did he ignore the bells and flashing lights because he believed he would have enough time to cross?

Many on the jury believed Scott's contributory negligence to be zero, or minimal at most. In the end, after fierce debate, we agreed to assess five percent of the negligence contributing to the accident to him. We allotted ten percent of the negligence to Metra, who employs the train dispatcher who did not communicate the change in schedules and tracks adequately; and we assigned the bulk of blame to BNSF.

We fiercely debated the amount of the award as well. We started with a range of $800,000 at the low end to $18 million at the high end. In the end we agreed upon $5 million as the total pecuniary loss, which includes Heidi's loss of Scott's "society"--an unquantifiable loss. Subtract five percent for Scott's estimated liability, and the widow takes home $4.75 million, minus her attorney's fees.

Heidi has both physical and mental disabilities. (In opening statements, Deratany said of Scott and Heidi, "She was his eyes, and he was her reason.") She met Scott through an expensive dating service. They became best friends, attended the same church, fell in love, and got married. She had found love, companionship, security, help and support. They were married for less than two years when Scott died.

Was the award too high? How do you calculate the value of "society"? I think the Best Jury Ever came up with the best possible verdict.

The BNSF attorneys disagree, and will be appealing. Short of producing a suicide note, I think they're doomed.

NOTE: I should have added this: Even though I was peeved by the tiredness of our foreman selection, our foreman, Juror MDaddy (formerly known as Juror T) did an excellent job. He was thorough in presenting us with all the instructions and procedures; he facilitated without dominating the process; and he kept us on point.

I told him later that he did a great job as foreman, and he gave a humble reply: "Everyone in this room did a great job."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jury Tales

We could be done on Monday, the judge said on Friday. We could be deliberating by Tuesday. Maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to tell you the whole story on Wednesday. If I live that long. The secrecy is killing me, as I have mentioned before.

But I can tell you some stuff. At one point on Friday, in the privacy of the jury room, one of the jurors said, "Well, all that's left now is deciding how much."

I looked at her in disbelief. "Lalalalalalala!" I singsonged, holding my fingers in my ears. "You cannot talk that way, Juror L," I said, "You have to wait until ALL the evidence is in and we've heard from ALL the witnesses."

"How come?" she said, crunching down on a malted milk ball. "It's clear to me who's at fault."

"You don't know that," chimed in my buddy, Juror F. "What if they show us a suicide letter?"

"There's a suicide letter?!" she screamed.

"No, no, no!" we said in unison, and then JF continued, "but you don't know what else they might tell us or show us. You have to wait to make up your mind!"

JF and I both want to be the jury foreman, and he is positioning himself quite well for the job. He is young, smart, and determined, but also sweet, funny and friendly. He's had a tough life, and yet somehow, he has envisioned a future for himself that is quite different from the one his circumstances might have predicted. I have no doubt that he will get there; and along the way he might write a best-selling memoir that I will buy and ask him to autograph.

"'Jury Foreman' would look good on my resume," said JF optimistically.

"Sweetie, a hiring manager would not care," I refrained from saying.

"You'll get my vote," said Juror L.

"What?!" I objected. "What about me? Why won't I get your vote!"

"You'll get my vote, too!" she said, proving herself to be a true Chicagoan.

The rest of the jury has not indicated any interest in being foreman. They might be too polite, or maybe they really don't care for the job. Or maybe they are biding their time, waiting for the right moment to present their credentials.

We spend our time in the jury room trying--but not succeeding--to NOT talk about the case. When Deputy D. pokes her head in, she looks around suspiciously. "You're not talking about the case, are you?" she says.

"Oh, no," we all say, "We're just talking about the lawyers." We have fond names for them. The lead counsel for the defense has a very pink face and pure white hair. Juror B nicknamed him "Oompah-Loompah," although I don't think the colors are exactly right, and he's not short.

Juror J., or possibly Juror K., suggested, extremely charitably, that the lead counsel for the plaintiff looked a bit like George Clooney, so that's what we call him. He would be very flattered, I'm sure. He's good looking, but not THAT good looking. I could see him being played by Greg Kinnear or Craig Bierko, except Bierko is too tall.

He's fierce in the courtroom, for sure; and I would certainly put him on my short list if I needed a personal injury attorney. I think the plaintiff, the widow, has a little crush on him.

One more thing: I tell Mr. Peevie things about the case, but I'm very careful not to give away any details that might let him know what case it is. (Even if I did, he wouldn't pursue it. He has too much integrity and character to do so. He is packed with all sorts of annoying ethics.) But the other night, as we were talking, I almost--ALMOST--let the name of [large company] slip out. In fact, I did let the first syllable slip out. Twice. Oops.

But here's what I think: a likely scenario is that the defendant originally tried to settle the case with the plaintiff, but the plaintiff (and/or her lawyers) were not willing to settle for the amount the defendant offered. Perhaps the defendants knew they did not have a strong enough case to actually WIN the lawsuit, but they are taking a chance that the jury will award less money than what the plaintiff's lawyers are holding out for.

Hmmm. We shall see. Maybe Monday's testimony will turn things on its head, and render these speculations sheer idiocy.

I can't wait to find out.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jury Duty Drama

Jury duty has been filled with drama--just like on Law and Order!

Every day there is crying, yelling, confronting, accusing, and lots of objecting, sustaining and over-ruling. I can't wait to give you all the specific details--in fact, it's killing me to be discreet.

But I can tell you this much: It's a wrongful death civil lawsuit. When the MIL of the deceased looked at a photo of her daughter and her dead SIL, she wept. She wept again when she told how she heard about the accident.

The lawyers object all over each other. "Will you let me finish my question?!" the attorney for the plaintiff hollered recently, when opposing counsel objected prematurely. They are constantly objecting, and I am learning all the acceptable reasons for objections: lack of foundation, asked and answered, argumentative, no basis for impeachment, beyond the scope, calls for speculation, hearsay, form the question, and leading. I think we've heard them all.

"Let him finish his question," the judge said mildly. He finished the question; opposing counsel reiterated his objection, and the judge immediately and hilariously sustained.

"Your honor, can you instruct the jury to disregard the highly inflammatory line of questioning from the plaintiff's counsel?" said defense.

"Disregard the last sentence," instructed the judge. "I'm not saying it's inflammatory; just disregard it."

The attorneys demanded sidebar after sidebar, to shut down a particular line of questioning; to decide whether a witness is being fairly represented; to debate a point of evidence. Sometimes we can hear them yelling in the judge's chambers while we sit in awkward silence in the jury box, with the witness still on the stand and the plaintiff listening from his side of the courtroom.

We have even heard testimony from beyond the grave. A man who had been directly involved in the accidental death had given a sworn deposition a few months before his own death. The plaintiff's attorney had hired an actor to read the witness' answers from his deposition, while the attorneys read their own questions. It was a little strange and creepy.

The last witness for the plaintiff was the plaintiff herself, the widow of the allegedly wrongfully dead guy. At times during her testimony, there were tears rolling down the face of the juror sitting in front of me, and I don't think she was alone. Sympathy won't win their case--but it sure doesn't hurt.

When the widow was asked to read from page 86 of deposition testimony, we waited and waited while she looked for the page in question. Finally, confused, she handed the document to the judge. "It's not there," she told him.

The judge took the document and paged through to the end, and held the document up in the air toward the attorney. "This document ends at page 63!" he said. There were audible snorts from the jurors--who are theoretically supposed to suppress their emotions and reactions.

The first witness for the defense was an expert who essentially testified that [large company] could not have done anything different in order to prevent the accident. The plaintiff's attorney, IMHO, ripped his testimony apart. If the guy had a tail, it would have been between his legs as he stepped down from the stand.

Of course, it ain't over 'til it's over. After four full days of plaintiff-side witnesses, we've only heard one witness for the defense. The other jurors and I are guarding our objectivity fiercely until the last syllable of testimony has been uttered and the last molecule of evidence has been presented.

Because we are the Best. Jury. Ever.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Voir Dire

You know the expression--I think perhaps Dave Barry coined it--"too stupid to get out of jury duty"? Well, I think a more accurate description is "too honest to get out of jury duty."

As you know, I have the honor of serving on a jury for a Very Big Trial for the next two or three weeks. I'm totally going to lobby to be the jury foreman, because I love 12 Angry Men (both versions, although the original is the best) and my middle name is Process--and of course, process is what reaching a verdict is all about.

During voir dire, it was very clear to me when someone was lying or scamming to get out of service.

One guy was rambling and not answering direct questions about whether or not he could award the plaintiff a reasonable amount of money if the evidence showed that the plaintiff, a large company, was at fault. He was blathering about the scales of justice and how the whole thing is a crapshoot, and how people sue big companies to make easy money, and I thought to myself, "Scales of justice, my ass. More like scales of bullshit." He knew if he seemed biased against large monetary awards, he'd be excused; and he was.

Another woman, a suburban grandmother, was telling the judge that she cares for her granddaughter while her daughter works, so she really can't be available for jury duty. "Your daughter will have to make other arrangements, ma'am," the judge told her.

"Well, your honor," she tried again, "I'm just really uncomfortable taking the train downtown and getting around in the city. I live in the suburbs, and I never travel to the city, and I'm just really uncomfortable with it." Aww, poor thing.

"Ma'am," the judge said patiently, "I'm guessing many people in the jury pool feel the same way. I understand that it's uncomfortable for you, and inconvenient, but everyone has to do it."

Then they asked her questions about her ability to find in favor of the large corporation, sending the widow home with nothing. She saw her opening, and she took it. "I just don't think I could send a widow home with nothing," she said.

"Even if the evidence shows that [big corporation] had no fault?" the judge pursued.

"No, your honor," she said, shaking her head. "It's hard not to feel sympathy for the widow." The judge rolled his eyes.

"Your honor!" the plaintiff's attorney squawked.

"Dismissed," said the judge, and the bailiff walked Lying Grandma Liar out of the courtroom.

Why is it so easy for some people to lie? How do they justify lying to get out of doing something that they don't want to do? This really, really bugs me.

In the jury room we were talking about the voir dire process, and how we could tell when folks were lying, and one woman said, "I thought I could lie to get out of it, but when it was my turn, I just couldn't do it."

So our jury consists of a fireman, a dressmaker, a bar manager, a guy who just finished college, two office managers, a special education teacher, a trader, a freelance writer (me!), and five others, including two alternates. We have ten women and four men; ten white and four black.

We are going to be very tight by the time this is over. I can see a reunion in our future.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sleeping With the Enemy and Other Fun Vacation Tales

Dateline: South Haven. I went to sleep on my side, with my arm lying near the edge of the bed. About a half-hour after I dozed off, I felt a tiny but definitely discernible pinch on the inside of my arm, just above my wrist. I brushed my arm off and turned on the light.

There was a PINCHBUG, otherwise known as an EARWIG, strolling across the hardwood floor where I had flicked it after it BIT ME while I was SLEEPING in my BED! I am not even kidding. I am still so grossed out and horrified that I must go and pour myself a glass of wine right this minute.


OK, I'm back. When I spotted that bugger, I flung the covers off and leaped out of bed, straight toward the ceiling.

"THAT IS NOT RIGHT!" I almost hollered, waking up poor Mr. Peevie who groggily said, "Whu-wha?"

I grabbed Mr. Peevie's sandal and started whacking at the earwig, who was scuttling, earwig-like, across the floor. It took me three or four whaps before I was confident that he was not going to be creating any additional post-midnight insect drama.

This unsettling event was the low-light of my week-long beach-and-pool slice of vacation heaven last month.

Remember last year, when I wrote a poem called 80 Steps, about the long, arduous climb that faced us every time we left the beach?

Well, this year the steps were just as arduous. Maybe more arduous.

But it's totally worth it. One morning my SIL and I stood at the top of the steps, looking out over the lake. It was like glass: smooth, waveless, twinkling in the sun. It took my breath away.

The kids were already down on the beach, starting to build sand castles and chasing minnows in the shallow water. When we joined them, we relaxed on beach chairs, sipped beverages, and I started on one of the four books I tackled during my vacation reading frenzy.

"Mom!" our little cousin hollered, "When are the really big waves coming?!" He was ready for some wild wave action. As the day went on, the breeze started to pick up, and the lake started producing waves, which made R-Cuz and the rest of the kids happy.

Jump to the last day of vacation. We were back at the beach, and the lake waves were like Jersey-Shore-wannabe-waves, too rough to let the smaller kids go out too far by themselves. So we went out there with them, with the kids hanging on to inner tubes, letting the waves carry us effortlessly up and drop us down again. We laughed, we floated, we splashed, we bobbed. Life was perfect.

"Mommy," M. Peevie said, "This is the best last day in the history of last days."

Jury Duty and Homeless People

Today I got selected to serve on a jury, and the judge said the case could last two to three weeks. I am in heaven.

I tried to get out of it, as everyone does, for the sake of my family and Mr. Peevie’s sanity—even though I LOVE jury duty.
I’m probably the only person in North America that actually enjoys serving on a jury. If anyone else is out there, please let me know. We can form a support group.

I told the judge that I have three kids at home, and who was going to take care of them if I have to be gone every day for two or three weeks? He said, "I’m sorry, ma’am, but probably half the people in the jury pool today have the same situation.
Who is taking care of them now?"

"I recruited friends to take them," I said; "and the 14-year-old is home alone."

"Well," he said, not unkindly, "I understand it’s difficult and inconvenient, but you’ll have to figure out some combination of those arrangements for the duration of the trial. I’ll try to keep it as short as possible."

He excused us for lunch and I called Mr. Peevie, who freaked out.

“WHAT?!” he screamed. “Three weeks?! That’s insane! You HAVE to get out of it.” Like if I just said hey, judge, my freaked-out husband can’t handle this, so can you please excuse me from jury duty, he’d roll over and say, why of course, ma’am, God knows we don’t want any more freaked out husbands than society is already dealing with.

“Honey,” I said, “I tried. I asked the judge who was going to watch my kids, and he said I’d have to figure something out.”

“Well,” continued Captain Overreaction, “I cannot take the next three weeks off of work. I just can’t. I’m buried.”

“Hey,” I said, with a bit of an edge, “No one is asking you to take time off of work. This is actually not about you. I’ll figure it out.”

He brought his affect down a couple of notches on the Panic Meter. “Well, I suppose we can talk about it,” he said. “I did a case that was three days long, but three weeks?! That’s just crazy.”

As I walked to lunch, I passed a homeless lady with no legs, sitting in a wheelchair. "Do you want a sandwich?" I asked her. "Sure," she said. So I brought her a roast beef sandwich. Her name was Hope.

I went back to the restaurant to eat my own lunch. I opened up the laptop and started writing about jury duty, and a minute later a homeless guy sat down at my table and introduced himself. His name was Roland. He asked me to buy him a sandwich.

"I can’t," I said, "I just bought a sandwich for the lady outside in the wheelchair. But I’ll give you a couple of bucks," I said, relenting a bit. I’m not sure why. Maybe because he was sitting at my table looking me in the eye.

"Thank you," he said. "A sandwich costs $4.50. Can you spare any more?"

"No," I said. “Go somewhere cheaper,” I didn’t say.

"Have you tried a soup kitchen or a shelter or agency?" I asked.

"I got raped in a shelter," he said. TMI, Roland. "I can’t go back there. I been sleeping on the street. Got six hours of sleep in the last four days ‘cause I can’t sleep outside. I have colon cancer and stomach cancer and my mom just died."

An employee of the restaurant came over and stood next to my table and looked pointedly at Roland. “We’re just talkin',” he said. The guy looked at me. “It’s OK,” I said. “He’s not bothering me.” Yet, I didn’t say.

“The cops will put me in jail for talking to you,” Roland said. “Just for sitting here having a conversation!”

“No, Roland,” I said, “They’ll put you in jail for panhandling. There are laws against panhandling, not against sitting and having conversations.” He looked at me for a moment, and started talking again, repeating his pitch and adding in new requests to keep it fresh.

“I got six hours of sleep in the last four days. Trying to sleep outside—I can’t do it. Can you give me $14 for a hotel room?”

“No, Roland, I can’t,” I said. "Have you tried some of the social service agencies?"

"They won’t give me money for a hotel room," he said. "No, probably not," I said, "but they can help you find a job, help you find a place to stay, help you find meals."

"I was just there at Christian Industrial League," he said. "They can’t help me."

“Honestly, Roland,” I said, “If Christian Industrial League can’t help you, then I can’t really help you much more than I have.”

“ Can you give me $7.50 for the train to Waukegan?” he pursued. “There’s a shelter there that’s safe.”

"No, I can’t, Roland."

“Will you pray with me? Do you believe in the ocean of forgiveness? I did some bad things when I was younger, went to prison…God forgives me, but society doesn’t,” he said. He held his hand out across the table for me to hold it. I took it, feeling a bit foolish, a bit embarrassed, a bit trapped. But also? I believe in prayer, and if you can’t pray with homeless guy, then what good does believing in prayer do?

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘ocean of forgiveness,’” I said, “But I do believe in prayer. Do you want me to pray for you?”

“You pray, then I’ll pray,” he said. So I prayed a short prayer, asking God’s blessing on Roland, asking God to help him find shelter, find work, and stay safe. Then Roland prayed a long prayer filled with fragments of Bible verses and pleas to the Almighty to put his hand on us and bless us. I think Jesus might understand my feeling of relief when the prayer meeting was finally over.

I turned back to my laptop, but Roland wasn’t done. “Are you sure you can’t help me out with $14 for a hotel room? he said. “I’ve only slept six hours…”

“No, Roland,” I said, “I really can’t help you any more. I’m sorry, but I can’t.” He looked me in the eyes, and I looked back. Finally, he turned away. He sat at my table for another couple of minutes, while I started to write this story; and then he walked over to another table and asked a guy for money. The guy brushed him off, as I’m sure 99 percent of people do.

And that’s just Day One!