Friday, October 21, 2011

First Snowfall

He walked with purpose, his eyes fixed on the sidewalk, counting each step as he neared the corner.  There were forty-seven paces from the bus stop to the landing of the apartment building.   Each evening he walked and counted, his eyes fastened on the pavement, moving neither too quickly nor too slowly.   A bitter wind cut through the threadbare wool of his jacket and he thought of the warm tea that he would share with Leila upon his arrival.  Thirty-six.  Thirty-seven.  Snowflakes drifted onto the sidewalk and he planted his feet more firmly with each step.  It would not do to slide on a patch of ice.  It would not do at all.  Forty-one.  Forty-two.  Honey.  He would sweeten their tea with honey this evening.  He and Leila would celebrate this first snow of the season with warm honeyed tea. 
Even with his head down he could see the red-gray brick of the building in his periphery but he already knew he was near the landing.  Forty-five. Forty-six.  Forty-seven.  Extending a plastic card that he had gripped firmly in his right hand since exiting the bus, he swiped it across the surface of a metal device attached to the doorframe of the apartment house.  An automated voice announced “Accepted”, releasing the locking mechanism and allowing him to enter. 
His rooms were on the fourth floor.   The elevator had long since succumbed to disrepair, so he made his way up the stairs, one flight after another.  There was no need to count these steps although he knew how many there were.  And no need as well to fix his eyes downward.  There was relative safety in the building; even more once he crossed the threshold to his flat.
The fourth landing approached and he imagined the fragrant, meaty scent of lamb roasting on a bed of potatoes and carrots emanating from the apartment.  He knew  there was no roast tonight but the thought brought a smile to his weathered face.  It was his habit to think of something especially nice as he neared the apartment door.   It was important that Leila see him smile.   She worried too much already and it would serve no good purpose to burden her with a frown.  The thought of roasted lamb always made him smile.
Stopping at the third door from the stairwell, he swiped the same plastic card across a locking device identical to the one at the front entrance.    A clicking sound signaled its release and he entered the apartment.
There was no coat closet, the entrance giving way immediately to a small common room that served as the living and kitchen space.  Instead he had fastened a nice wooden rack on the wall to the right of the door where hung an umbrella, a pair of knitted mittens and a polyester rain jacket.   Removing his winter coat, he collared it on one of the rack hooks and stood facing the wall.  For a moment he stood silently, listening.  Looking to his left, then his right, he faced the wall again and lifted his gaze above the coat rack.  He could almost see the crucifix hanging there.  Closing his eyes he made the sign of the cross, finishing by pressing his fingers to his lips.  He gazed upward again at the faint outline barely visible against the fading paint of the wall.  The crucifix had been removed long ago but that mattered little.  It would serve no good purpose to ruminate about the past.
A porcelain kettle rested on the kitchen hot plate and he was pleased to see whiffs of steam escaping from its spout.  He had rigged a timer to the electrical extension that  turned on the hot plate at precisely the time the bus dropped him at his stop.  The little analog device ticked away for twenty minutes before disconnecting the circuit.   Two cups resting on saucers were already placed on the table in the center of the room, each one holding a day-old teabag.  He lifted the kettle and poured boiling water into both cups.  Returning the kettle to the hot plate, he retrieved the small bottle of honey from the cabinet above the sink and deposited a small stream of golden sweetness into each of the teacups.  As he returned the honey to the cupboard, a shadow crossed his field of vision.
Leila appeared from the bedroom.
He smiled broadly as she entered the room and with exaggerated fanfare gestured her to the table.
“Your tea awaits, my lady.”  Bowing, he circled his arm in a broad arc and cocked his head to the side as if sharing a secret.  “A special treat.  We have honeyed tea today.  In honor of the season’s first snow.”
 He pulled the chair out for Leila and made his way round the other side of the table.  “I hope you like it,” he said, settling into his chair. “It’s Earl Grey.  Only the best, of course.”  He knew it was not Earl Grey but a generic and quite bland pekoe blend, the only tea available.   But lighthearted banter made the evenings so much more attractive.
Leila looked radiant, her skin the color of ripened peaches, with a glow about her as if she had spent the day  frolicking in a meadow kissed by the summer sun. Auburn  waves of hair framed her heart-shaped face and cascaded down her shoulders.  She was as beautiful as the day he had first met her sitting in the park, near the bank of the river. 
He sipped his tea as he admired her, thinking of their time together, of the moments they had laughed and loved and cried together.  “I love you, my darling,” he whispered. 
Leila smiled but it was her eyes that he saw and it saddened him.  She worries too much, he thought, but knew that there was reason for her anxiety.   He had told her that it would be okay, that everything would work out.  He disbelieved it, as did she.  But as time passed he became hopeful, then encouraged, and even, at moments, sanguine -  if such a disposition were possible.
Leila was more pragmatic.  Her eyes told him so.
Her tea was getting cold as was the room and he rose to light the space heater situated on the far wall. 
When he returned, Leila had retreated to the bedroom.
Sighing, he fetched the cups from the table and placed them in the sink.  He was hungry but the thought of food sounded foul.  He knew he should eat.  He had lost too much weight already.  Perhaps later. 
He dragged a chair to the single window and pulled back the drapes.  The snow was falling heavily now, billowing white sheets playing against the deep red of a dying sunset.  He sat quietly and watched the flakes as they mounded on the windowsill.  Tomorrow morning everything would be blanketed in thick, soft layers of white and for a few hours the world would be pure, unblemished, the sharp edges and tarnished surfaces transformed into a pristine beauty.
He whispered to himself a verse from the Bible, one that he remembered each year as the first snow descended.   He didn’t know its context and bibles had been removed long ago, but it offered him a sense of serenity as he sat at the window and watched everything slowly, silently become pure.  Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.  Though they are red as crimson, they shall be as wool.
For a time in the morning the snow will offer an illusion; the appearance of a sinless day.
After a long while, he rose from the chair and prepared the apartment for tomorrow.  Turning out the lights, he entered the bedroom and undressed in the dark.  Leila was already asleep as he slipped under the covers and tucked the blanket around him.   Turning to Leila’s side, he held her closely as sleep slowly overtook him.  He knew it was only her pillow that he embraced, Leila having been taken away many months ago.  He had no idea where she was or if she was still alive.  He didn’t have nearly enough money to ask. But the fabric retained her scent, a fragrant smell as of lilacs on a spring day.  It was almost as if she were still here. 
A single tear streamed down his cheek as he began to dream, drifting into a world covered with snow.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Running With Marie Claire

I’m a runner.  I’ve run for most of my adult life.  In parks, around the neighborhood and on countless  treadmills at home and the gym, I run.  At Luci’s suggestion, we began entering races awhile back and I discovered that I was actually good at running.  In our first 5000 meter race, I placed third in my age group.  That’s a nice motivator and now, many races later, my avocation has become one of my passions.  These days I run not only for health and fitness, but to achieve personal goals like improving my pace and participating in endurance runs.  And it just plain feels good when I win another plastic running man statue.
When something is important to you, there’s a tendency to assume that it’s important to other people, as well.  That might be the case.  But more often, probably not.  I discovered that little nugget of truth a few days ago.
Luci and I had finished our weekly shopping trip to H-E-B, which always ends in front of the free blood pressure check kiosk and the magazine racks.  So, while Luci was sitting in the chair taking her blood pressure, I scanned the shelves for this month’s edition of Runners World Magazine.
Runners World is the holy grail of information for amateur and competitive runners.  Each month it lists the major races across the country, offers reviews of running and training shoes, nutrition and training advice as well as some really good motivational articles from the running elite to keep us amateur runners focused and injury-free.  If you’re a runner, it’s one the best tools you can have.
I looked on the left section of the magazine racks, which contained the health and fitness titles.  A number of unnaturally buff guys graced the covers of Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Steroid Monthly, Exercises You’ll Never Do Quarterly and Workouts For Gay Guys Pretending To Be Straight.  Hmmm.  No Runners World.
That’s strange, since last month’s edition was right there on the top shelf where it should be.  Onto the next shelf which contained men’s lifestyle magazines.  Maxim,  Esquire, GQ, HQ, IQ, Yachting, Guns & Ammo, Field & Stream, Bow Hunters Bonanza, Fishing For Fun and Profit.  Still no Runners World.
I turned my attention to the last shelf of that section.  The bottom shelf contained magazines for men who only leave the sofa to retrieve a snack from the refrigerator.  I doubted that Runners World would be shelved there, but I scanned the titles anyway.  Monster Truck Mayhem, six different NASCAR editions, Sports Illustrated, Military History and a couple of survivalist titles (or one survivalist title and one Big Foot expose.  I couldn’t be sure).  Runners World?  Nope.
Moving onto the right section, I’m into the women’s health and fitness territory now.  It’s gotta be there.  A dozen women’s health and fitness magazines but no Runners World.  Now I’m starting to frown.
Onto the balance of the women’s interest magazines.  Bridal Monthly, Bridal Quarterly, Bridal Yearly, Wedding Monthly, Bridal’s Yoga Monthly, Better Homes & Gardens, Even Better Yet Homes & Gardens,  Woman’s World,  Martha Stewarts’ Living, Martha Stewarts’ Living In Jail, Oprah, Oprah 2.0, Dreaming You Are Oprah.   There were lots of women’s magazines but no Runners World.
Luci finished taking her blood pressure and walked up to the magazine rack.
“Oh, look, there’s the first edition of HGTV’s new magazine.”  She pulled it from the shelf, excited to show me an article about a home in The Heights neighborhood of Houston.  “It’s their first month and they’re highlighting The Heights.  Isn’t that cool?”  Luci’s grandparents had lived in The Heights and she carries fond memories of those days and the special relationship with that eclectic, north Houston neighborhood.
I mumbled something appropriate, irritated that H-E-B  wasn’t stocking Runners World this month and then my eye caught it. 
“What?” I reached for the magazine and held it against my chest like a holy text that had been desecrated. “Do you see that?  Do you see where they put my magazine?  Why is Runners World in the women’s beauty section? “  Luci was thumbing through the HGTV magazine looking for the article on The Heights.  Clearly she didn’t hear me or she would be as outraged as I was.  “Look.”  I pointed to the shelf.  “They stuffed Runners World between Glamour and Marie Claire.  Are they nuts?”
“Here it is,” Luci said.  “The article on The Heights.  Isn’t that amazing that The Heights is featured in their first month?”
“Sure,” I responded.  “Did you see where they placed Runners World?  It’s ridiculous.”
Luci glanced at the shelf of magazines but she didn’t seem to understand what had been done.
Showing me the picture of a nice, mid-century, Arts & Crafts home featured in the HGTV spread, she commented again how impressed she was that the Houston neighborhood was the focus of a new national monthly.
“That’s nice.  The Heights are nice,” I said, looking at the photo spread.  I turned my attention to the magazine rack once more and shook my head.  “Oh, I get it.  There’s a picture of a girl running on the cover of Runners World this month, so they think it’s just for women.  So why didn’t they place it with women’s fitness.  Shoving it between Glamour  and  Marie Clare?  Seriously?  What dopes,” I mumbled.
We headed for the checkout and I carefully placed Runners World gently and with dignity in the basket.  “Dopey stockers,” I said again for good measure.
As we finished our transaction and made our way to the exit, I saw what appeared to be the manager, speaking to a customer.  I thought of taking a moment to explain to him that running was a sport, not a beauty treatment, and just because this month’s cover showed a young lady running instead of a photo-shopped picture of some muscle-bound steroid-crazed model who’s probably never run a race in his life, it was still a sports and fitness magazine, not a guide to the debutante’s ball and he might want to explain that to the genius in charge of the magazine rack, but I figured that it wouldn’t do much good.  Walking across the parking lot, we reached the car and began loading the groceries in the cargo compartment.   “I’d like to see the moron that put my magazine in the beauty section run a half-marathon.”
Luci smiled at me as I closed the cargo door.  “Wouldn’t even last through a 5k, I’m guessing,”
 she said.
I nodded and smiled back.  “Darn right.”   
“By the way,” I asked as we left the parking lot, “who the heck is Marie Claire?”

Saturday, September 24, 2011

If It's On A Church Sign, It Must Be True

I passed a church today whose sign informed me that I’m going to hell.   The message wasn’t quite that direct, of course.  It was couched in the semi-sweet chocolate of religious metaphor mixed with a generous dose of homey satire but its underlying message was clear: I shouldn’t expect to be standing in the line that enters the pearly gates after my demise.  It’s not that I might make it to the line and get stuck there, like someone waiting outside the new, hip nightclub trying to persuade the doorman to let him across the rope.  Nope.  According to the sign, I’ll be at a different address, searching for some sunscreen with an SPF factor of a zillion.
To be fair, the church sign didn’t specifically mention my name in its message of condemnation.  It wasn’t directed at me personally.  It was for everyone that passed by – everyone that failed to do or act or think in the way that the church sign announced must be done to avoid a fiery future.  It isn’t just me that is going to hell.  Lots of us are.   
This isn’t the first church sign that I’ve read which announces death and destruction to those who read it.  They’re very common.   There’s one particular church in our community whose pronouncements are so boldly acidic that I can only imagine how miserable and depressing a community of believers must be that would post such bitter messages.
The thing that strikes me odd about these church signs is that everyone already knows they’re imperfect.  Everyone is fully aware of their faults, their shortcomings, their failures to do the right thing at the appropriate times, the struggle to have integrity and honor and commitment to a goal higher than oneself.   And for some people, their life situation is so difficult , they probably think they’re in hell right now.  None of us really needs a church sign to reinforce our insecurities, self-doubt and anxiety.   That’s what existentialist philosophers are for.
What many people could benefit from is a word of encouragement, an acknowledgement that their life has meaning and a hopeful optimism that values kindness above condemnation.   That, after all, is the message that Jesus told his followers to spread – the good news.  “I have not come to condemn the world,” Jesus is quoted as saying in John’s gospel.
Imagine that.  A church sign that says we are your neighbors not your judge.  If they could just get that part right, there is hope that they could act on another of Jesus’ sayings:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Less-Traveled Road

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Magic Carpet Rides

Abby sits in the middle of the wagon while I pull her around the yard, down the driveway, along the street in front of our house and back to where we started.   She occasionally points here or there with the confident authority of an eighteen-month-old and tells me something in gibberish.  We trace this path several times and I ask if she’s ready to do something else.  She wags her head “no”, which is her first answer to every question these days, so we continue.   A moment later she reconsiders her response and begins climbing over the side, unconcerned that I’m still pulling it.  I stop and help her from her little green coach and she holds my hand as we head to the garage to store the wagon in its place.   Another journey completed.
I haven’t kept count but this is probably the hundredth-something time that I’ve chauffeured one of my grandkids in this wagon.  And the hundredth-something time we’ve shared this experience together. 
Abby is the latest in a line of passengers that began fourteen years ago when Damian was a toddler.   Sitting in the well of a brand new Step 2 wagon, propped up with pillows and blankets, we embarked on our journeys.  When he was old enough not to wobble too much, we left the pillows behind but carried our sense of adventure with us.   Around the yard a half-dozen times just for fun.   Four blocks to the neighborhood park.  A little farther to the elementary school play yard.   An expedition to the distant convenience store to retrieve candy bars in winter and ice cream in summer.   Racing down the sidewalk for half a block, zig-zagging from side to side.  When the wagon came out of the garage, an adventure  of some sort  would likely follow. 
Along came Brianna and Evan and out came the pillows and blankets again until before long they were old enough to negotiate among themselves who would sit  in front and who would sit in back.  Early one  Saturday morning the three of us, Brianna, Evan and myself, set out on an odyssey to the faraway land of the donut shop.  Clad in pjs, wrapped in blankets, they huddled in the wagon, discussing the relative merits of sprinkles and chocolate as we coursed our way through the neighborhood and across the strip shopping center to the counter of breakfast delights. 
The sturdy green wagon has been absolutely great.  Solid and well-built, it’s practically indestructible.  Its life seems endless and it’s age is apparent only by its fading color and the scuff marks of time.   To paraphrase the chorus of a children’s song, the wheels on the bus have gone round and round for close to fifteen years and they show no sign of stopping.
Yes, it’s been and continues to be a great wagon.  And the truly wonderful thing is that the better part of its purpose is also as enduring, as timeless as its physical attributes.  It remains as constant today as the first time I pulled my oldest grandson down the driveway because the little green wagon is something beyond its sundry components.  It’s not just a toy that transports a child from one place to another.  It carries with it a kind of gestalt, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.   Just like a magic carpet or a pumpkin turned into a carriage or a winged unicorn, it’s a vehicle that can transform an ordinary ride into an adventure.   
They may not be conscious of the transformative nature of our little journeys, but each of my grandchildren will carry with them a fond memory of the days that we explored the world in a little green wagon.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Non-Bucket Lists and other thoughts

I like bucket lists. 
It’s the kind of list made famous by the movie of the same name with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.  Two men diagnosed with a terminal illness set off on a road trip with a “to-do” list before they die.

I’ve always had that same kind of “to-do” list, tucked neatly in the corner of my mind, of things I intend to do or learn or observe before my life has run its course.  I’ve surprised myself at one or two things that I’ve accomplished and I’m excited about the group of items that populate the current version of the list in my head.    

A bucket list should be fluid, evolving as one’s life progresses and changes.  Life isn’t a static enterprise; neither should one’s aspirations be.  Some items on my list have dropped off simply because they no longer have an appeal.  Others have been added as a personal challenge at particular stages of my life.  I’ve tried never to remove something because I’ve given up trying or decided I couldn’t do it.  Like most people, my ideals are sometimes grander than my actions.  That’s really what a bucket list represents. Coming as close to one’s personal ideals as often as one can. 

I was thinking about my bucket list recently and my thoughts took a different twist.  I thought about interesting things I’ve been able to do that weren’t on my “bucket” list, things that have happened in the course of my life that I never really planned to do, but got to do them anyway. 

Here are some of them:

-          I sang a solo at a public gathering. And no one threw tomatoes.
-          I preached a sermon in an African-American church on a Sunday morning. Got a lot of “amens” from the congregation.
-          I fed pigeons in Hyde Park in London, England on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.
-          I flew in a helicopter.  And didn’t throw up.
-          I occasionally played the bass guitar as part of a musical group.  Badly.
-          I learned to use chopsticks in a restaurant in Singapore.  And managed to get some food in my mouth.
-          I snorkeled in the Caribbean.  And swam with some beautiful fishes.
-          I spent a summer pitching hay bales into east Texas barns for a few cents each. The hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever done for the least money I’ve ever made.
-          I traveled on a private corporate jet from Texas to Iowa.  Sweet trip.
-          I listened to heart-wrenching stories at Boston’s Logan Airport and the adjoining hotel a couple of weeks after 9/11.  (The two airplanes that struck the World Trade Center Towers originated from Logan Airport).  And the eerie feeling when we boarded a flight from that airport the next day.
-          I was a dinner guest aboard an Iranian Naval training ship.  When they were still our friends.
-          I walked the grounds of the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza.  The iguanas regarded me suspiciously.
-          I took a train trip from Great Britain to France under the English Channel.  And didn’t even get wet.
-          I shared my two grandson’s first “rock” concert, the American progressive rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  My wife rocked the house, too.
-          I ate fried horse lung in Jakarta, Indonesia. Wouldn’t recommend it.
-          I attended Sunday church services at Westminster Abbey.  A holier place I’ve never been.
-          I danced on stage with my granddaughter in front of a thousand people.  I was nervous.  She was a pro.
-          I survived a taxi ride in Paris, France.
-          I played “Chinese Fire Drill” with my wife on the spur of the moment at a busy intersection.  I’m still not sure why, other than it seemed like a fun idea at the time.
-          I spent a late afternoon watching the sun set over Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Canal in Denmark.
-          I sailed the sea on a cruise ship with my wife, daughters and their families and learned from our steward how very fortunate we were.

All of us have had opportunities to experience some cool things in our lives; moments that take us from the ordinary to the extraordinary.  For me, it seems that I’ve been given much more than my fair share.  I don’t take it for granted.  I know how rare a thing I’ve been given.  I don’t know why.  I don’t deserve anything more than anyone else.  And maybe I really haven’t been given more than my fair share.  Maybe I just think my life has been blessed beyond measure.  If so, it’s working for me.  And that just might be the secret to contentment.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gifts From My Daughters

In the top middle drawer of my dresser bureau resides an assortment of cards and notes that were attached to gifts given to me by my daughters throughout the years.  The cards are a tangible reminder of the act of giving, each one the guardian of a lovely gesture from my girls.  The particular gifts have come and gone, some memorable, some more transient, but all share a common thread as tokens of love and affection.

Yet of all the presents that my daughters have given, there are four that stand alone and apart in a class by themselves.  These four are highly prized and cherished - my treasures.  These gifts are my grandchildren.

I recognize, of course, that my girls didn’t set out to have children for the express purpose of gifting my life with their progeny.  Despite appearances to the contrary, I know that I am not the center of all things. It just happens to be a very fortunate secondary effect that my children’s children, individually and collectively, hold the unique place in the pattern and flow of my life that I can think of them as nothing less than gifts of immeasurable value. 

My grandkids are a gift of delight.  Paradoxically, they offer the delight of parenting but unencumbered by the duties of parenthood.  The freedom to enjoy the better part of parenting without reserve is the great pleasure of being a grandparent.  A parent’s success is purchased in large part with the fruits of responsibility and obligation.  A successful grandparent is one who, on a moment’s notice, can journey back to childhood, temporarily disregarding the impediment of rules, yet careful to balance what is fun with what is right.  In many ways, a grandparent is the parent a child thinks they want but knows they shouldn’t have.  That contradiction itself expresses the joy, the freedom, the love between grandparent and grandchild.

My grandkids are a gift of reflection.  I see my daughters in each of them, in their habits, in their character, in their movements.  They are not copies, of course, not the stark facsimile one might see in a mirror but rather the muted image found by looking into a stream of water. There are just enough similarities for nostalgia and remembrance and the hopeful anticipation that they will become, in ways that matter most, like their mothers.

My grandkids are a gift of renewed purpose.  I’m the prehistoric playmate, both older and younger than others, at times a child that is somehow not a child. At other times I am a confidante of the silly and the serious.  They allow me the chance to offer a perspective that is tempered by time and experience, failures and achievements, losses and victories and to show in small but significant ways what only a life lived can understand:  that the journey is the reward.  

My grandkids are a gift of perpetuity.  The past recedes at an ever-increasing pace.  The future rushes toward us at just the time we wish for it to slow down, or better yet:  stop.  We wish to endure but edging ever closer to a future that doesn’t contain us, we long for our only option: not to be forgotten.  Grandkids extend the breadth and length of our place in the stream of human consciousness.   I will one day be gone, but for as long as they remember me, I will be here.

Damian.  Brianna.  Evan.  Abby.  Beautiful gifts from my daughters.   

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Citizen Bob

Last week I served as a juror on a civil trial in our community.  It was a fascinating experience which prompted me to ask myself this important civics question:

What the heck were our Founding Father’s thinking?

I’ve always admired the American system of justice, even though like everyone else in our great country,  I have no idea how it actually works.  I know that judges, for some strange reason, are required to wear  their school graduation robes to work, and I know that our nation’s most famous lawyer, Perry Mason, never lost a case, but otherwise the goings-on down at the courthouse seem mysterious and, quite frankly, boring.   I also know from watching TV that jurors are selected to listen silently to the evidence while crafty lawyers force witnesses to confess to murders they didn’t even commit.  I assumed that these jurors had to pass a hard test and prove to the court that they are qualified.   But guess what?  That’s not what happens at all.   To my amazement, I discovered that juries consist of  random individuals whose only qualification is that they managed to drive themselves to the courthouse.  They need know nothing about the law. Yes, that’s correct.  People like me, or worse yet, people like you, are given the power to decide verdicts, award money and assess punishments. 

As jaw-dropping as that sounds, I discovered something even more amazing.  Somehow, it all works.

At the beginning of the week, as the twelve of us settled into the jury box and began listening to the evidence presented by the litigant’s attorneys and their witnesses, I was convinced that a dozen indiscriminate strangers had as much chance of agreeing on an outcome as a kindergarten class agreeing on who gets the first scoop of ice cream.   And even if we did agree, how could our decision possibly be “right”?   We all seemed to have little in common except our status as jurors.  All ages, various races, levels of education and both sexes (as well as one who’s gender was ambiguously undefined) were represented.   I imagined that we would all agree on only one thing: this was a colossal mistake.

The trial proceeded and several days later there we were, twelve strangers, having listened to lawyers and witnesses for the better part of a week, being ushered into the jury deliberation room with a charge from the judge that we were to arrive at a unanimous decision on behalf of one side or the other in this judicial matter.   We were to review the evidence, discuss the merits, and at the end of these activities we were to reach a verdict that would alter the lives of the litigants waiting in the courtroom.  We were not to leave the room, except for the occasional potty break, until this task was completed.  To make matters worse, we must all agree on a monetary value as well, or none at all. 

The only way we’ll reach all of these decisions is if we use the “rock-paper-scissors” method, I told myself as we began our deliberations.

Then something interesting happened.  We began to recognize each other.  Not in the usual sense of “hey, didn’t we meet at our kid’s softball game last month” kind of recognition.  Differently, it was a recognition of our common values, the things we share as members of a mutual society.  Ages and races and genders began to dissolve into the background as we went over the mounds of documents and went round the table, one by one, offering our impressions and seeking validation of our conclusions.  As the day progressed, our disagreements became far less important than our common values of fairness, justice and a sense of right-and-wrong.  And more surprisingly, everyone listened, more or less, to everyone else. 

By the end of the morning we had reached a compromise that was agreeable to all and shortly thereafter, the hardest part – how much money was an appropriate settlement – seemed only like a task, not an impossibility.  In the end, it was unanimous – not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but unanimous nevertheless -  and we entered the courtroom to announce our verdict.  The judge thanked us for our service and we were dismissed. 

As we made our way  out of the courthouse, we weren’t quite friends, but we weren’t quite strangers.  We were….well… fellow citizens.  Walking together to the parking lot no one mentioned it outright, but we all knew in our own way that we had done something quite amazing.

“It was nice to meet you.”
“We did a good job.”
“See you ‘round.”
“Take care.”

One by one we exited the parking lot, disappearing into the greater society from where we were summoned. And the jury was no more. I guess those Founding Fathers knew what they were doing after all.