Monday, March 23, 2009

The Comfort of the Written Word

I just finished reading a delightful book call The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It's a series of fictional letters written in Post-WWII Britain between a writer, her friends and the potential subjects of her work. She discovers a literary society that came into being mostly by accident on the island of Guernsey during its occupation by the Germans. The following passage, I thought, perfectly captures one of the many values of the written word. So, of course, I had to share.

Best to say we weren't a true literary society at first. Aside from Elizabeth, Mrs. Maugery, and perhaps Booker, most of us hadn't had much to do with books since our school years. We took them from Mrs. Maugery's shelves fearful we'd spoil the fine papers. I had no zest for such matters in those days. It was only by fixing my mind on the Commandant and jail that I could make myself to lift up the cover of the book and begin.

It was called
Selections from Shakespeare. Later, I came to see that Mr. Dickens and Mr. Wordsworth were thinking of men like me when they wrote their words. But most of all, I believe, that William Shakespeare was. Mind you, I cannot always make sense of waht he says, but it will come.

It seems to me the less he said, the more beauty he made. Do you know what sentence of his I admire the most? It is "The bright day is done, and we are for the dark."

I wish I'd known those words on the day I watched those German troops land, plane-load after plane-load of them--and come off ships down in the harbor! All I could think of was
damn them, damn them, over and over. If I could have thought the words "the bright day is done and we are for the dark," I'd have been consoled somehow and ready to go out and contend with circumstance--instead of my heart sinking to my shoes.

Isn't it amazing how a few words or a few lines can mean so much and make such a difference? I suppose the value is really in what they express or what they represent for us. For my part, and it's completely unrelated, my favorite Shakespeare line comes from Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But I'll have to expound on that one another day....

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pre-Spring Madison

I thought you might like to see what life looks like in our corner of the world. Above are a few pictures I've taken around town over the past few days. I'm definitely beginning to enjoy this business of having a digital camera and having it with me all the time so I can whip it out and shoot photos whenever I feel so inclined. These were all taken while I was just out running errands and noticed something I liked. If you're wondering, yes, the lake is still frozen (James and I went and walked on it the other day and people are still ice fishing). It reminds me of the marshes in Lord of the Rings in its current, puddly state. But, I haven't needed a coat, hat, scarf AND gloves every time I go outside this week. We may thaw out yet.

The disadvantage of what I'm calling the pre-spring season (because winter was VERY different, a lot colder and a lot more snow) is that all parking lots and most streets have these rather unattractive piles of blackish snow. It will be a while before those go away...
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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why do people...

...use other people's Facebook pages for their own political rantings and ravings? I mean really. If you have really strong opinions about a particular candidate or issue and would like to engage in some sort of propaganda-filled hyperbolic diatribe, why do it in someone else's space? This is particularly grating when it's done in response to someone's simple assertion of their position or a benign mention when they're really talking about something else entirely. I don't mind an equally simple and brief expression of an alternate opinion, but I do mind a lengthy, extreme discorse. Live and let live people. We don't all agree; it's okay. And if we want to know what you think or why you think it, we'll come look at your page.

...think that if they're willing to parent their children and provide them with time and attention, there's no need to provide for them financially? Yes, you gave them life; now give them food.

...assume that because certain people share their religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or career, they will also share their political or world views? Different people interpret things different ways. It's okay. Not everyone who disagrees with you is stupid, or even apostate. Really.

...have sensitive telephone conversations on their cell phones in public places? Like the lady behind me on the last flight I took. Long past when all electronic devices were supposed to be off, she's talking to her mom about how much something or other really hurt her feelings (and in tears) and then about whether or not her sister's husband is ever going to go to church again. We all don't want to know. We don't. Just because your phone will let you have this conversation anywhere doesn't mean that you should. Have your private conversations in PRIVATE!

...ask other people to edit papers that haven't been proofread? Okay, mostly my husband does this. Editing and proofreading are not the same thing. Just be sure all the sentences have subjects and predicates before you give it to me please.

...refuse to merge when the signs tell you to? Do you have to drive past everyone else and then try to cut in at the last second? We'd all like to be out of this line just as much as you, but you're not more special or more important just because you're more willing to be a jerk. Wait your turn! thousands of dollars to take classes, and then get annoyed when the class doesn't end early or get canceled around the holidays? Well, you paid a lot of money for a certain number of hours of instruction. Is it so obtuse to assume that you'd like to be instructed for all of those hours?

...move my laundry out of the washer two seconds after the cycle is complete, before I've had a chance to walk back downstairs and change it to the dryer (even though I was faithfully watching the clock) and then say "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to touch your stuff"? Well, whose stuff did you mean to touch?

...use their blogs to complain about their pet peeves? Well, actually, I can answer this one. That's why I have a blog.

::Melanie steps down off her soapbox and peacefully resumes normal life::

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Since before we moved to Madison, I have been seeking employment with the Public Defender's Office. You can read more about my career choice here. In my most recent interview, they asked me to prepare a five minute story to tell (trial lawyers must, above all else, be good story tellers). This is the story I shared....

I first saw Tobias Carrington when he limped into the courtroom. He was the defendant in the murder trial I had been assigned to attend as part of my summer internship. Tobias looked young, barely a man, and was easily recognizable because one side of his body had limited mobility, almost as if he'd suffered a stroke. Then there was the huge dent in the side of his shaved head, accompanied by a large scar.

According to the prosecution, Tobias was at his grandfather's apartment one afternoon when he went on a shooting spree. He shot his grandfather's friend, shot his grandfather, then turned the gun on himself. Only the first of the three victims' wounds was fatal. The grandfather wasn't much of a witness, however, since he had been drinking wine, doing crack and smoking marijuana all day and was more than a little inebriated at the time of the shooting.

The trial took four days, the jury deliberated for less than two hours, and Tobias went to prison for over twenty years, more time than he had yet been alive.

I had heard around the office that Tobias had a court-appointed lawyer. It wasn't a Public Defender, but a private lawyer paid by the state because the defendant could not afford to hire an attorney. Upon first glimpse, the lawyer reminded me a little of an older version of Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch. The resemblance ended there. He wandered aimlessly through a disorganized opening statement, based principally on the idea that Tobias had been shot in the top of the head, not your typical mode of suicide. It wasn't a bad argument, just based more on conventional wisdom than actual evidence in the case. I became increasingly uncomfortable as the attorney stumbled through cross-examination and fumbled with the introduction of evidence. As he ignored dozens of potential objections, I began to wonder whether this lawyer was even familiar with the word "hearsay." Though I only had two years of law school experience, I knew enough to be fully aware that the prosecutor was getting away with a lot. Even when the defense attorney did recognize that something was amiss, he lacked the ability to keep the evidence out of court.

While the prosecutor had a raft of circumstantial evidence, there were several loose ends that he never tied up. There was evidence that another person came into the apartment, shot all three of the men there, and left before the police arrived. But, the defense attorney was unable to highlight this evidence sufficiently. In fact, he struggled with almost all of the evidence to which the prosecutor decided to object. The most important moment of the trial, for me, happened toward its close. A forensic pathologist (the sort of crime scene expert you might see on CSI) testified about his inspection of Tobias's "self-inflicted" wound. Through inspection of the wound and various tests, he had determined that the wound could not have been sustained from a gun held any less than three feet from the defendant's head. In other words, when the gun that shot Tobias went off, it was at least three feet away from his head. So, unless he had extraordinarily long arms for someone so short, Tobias could not have shot himself.

The problem, of course, is that this testimony was given late in the hot afternoon on the third day of trial. The expert testimony was somewhat complex and dry, everyone was tired, and I'm not sure anyone but me was even paying attention. The defense attorney did not ask his witness to explain the significance of this evidence, nor did he do so himself in closing arguments. In fact, he never mentioned it again. He did not even have the witness repeat the information for emphasis. It dropped off the radar entirely, and probably did not come up during the less than two hours the jury spent deciding that Tobias was guilty. Two hours to erase two decades of a man's life.

I wanted so much, in all my inexperience, to stand up and give the closing argument, connecting for the jury all of the pieces that created reasonable doubt as to who exactly pulled the trigger that day. But it was left to a stumbling, wandering rehashing of the same ineffective arguments from the defense attorney, who didn't seem to have planned what evidence he was going to introduce, let alone how he would summarize it at the close of trial. Was I convinced that Tobias didn't do it? Not completely. But I was also not convinced that he did, at all.

As the trial was nearing its end, I got in an elevator with two women I had seen in the courtroom all week. Recognizing how much I had been there as well, one of them asked who I was, what was my connection to the trial, and was I a reporter? I explained that I was an intern with the Public Defender's Office and that my supervisor had asked me to attend the trial because we were preparing for a trial with a few of the same expert witnesses and some similar evidence. I then asked what her connection was with the trial. "That's my son," she told me. "I'm Tobias's mother." My heart ached for her, and I didn't know what to say. But, I'll never forget what she told me next. She looked me in the eye and said, "When you're a lawyer someday, you be a good one. We depend on you. You're all we have."

While I had been thinking about it for months, that conversation tipped the scale toward me seeking work as a Public Defender. I want to do it, not because everyone is innocent and not even for the Tobias Carringtons of the world. I will do it for those who, like Tobias' mother, love the defendant, guilty or not, and need to know that, guilty or not, they have had the best defense available.

For the visual learner in everyone

Well, not because I like them AT ALL, here are some pregnant pics of me. The four on the left were all taken yesterday in our mirror (yes, it is clean, it's just an old mirror). You even get a front view. The two full pics on the right are actually a couple of weeks old. I had James take them, then promptly told him he's not allowed to take any more pictures of me pregnant (I think the angle makes them look worse and, obviously, I was having one of those not-so-attractive pregnancy days). The middle right picture is just me being abstract and creative, though I don't care for the strange bumps created by the lines from the blinds and the fireplace. appease my faithful readers, and for I am at 25 and 28 weeks. Enjoy!
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