Friday, August 28, 2009

The Court In Session (3/3)

...continued from part two...

After all that time waiting in line, I never saw a judge, even though I had rehearsed my explanation to make sure it was succinct and clear. I walked through the door, where a man wearing a dark green baseball cap was standing behind a glass-walled counter.

He held out his hand for my citation, and I gave it to him. He passed it to a young woman behind him, who matched it with a file. Then he asked, "Are you paying today?" wrote a date on the slip and handed it back, pointing me to the clerk.

There were other doors down the hallway, but I had seen no one go that way, and everyone in front of me had been in and out within a minute. So I did as he said. I didn't ask to speak to a judge. I thought I could, but the pressure to keep things moving was used subtly and effectively. Afterward, I felt stupid for not finding more information, fighting back harder, knowing the insider lingo I "should have" known.

It's easy for me to see how apathy and despair could form for those who regularly deal with the court system. It's not so much judging as it is processing; less justice than bureaucracy. Move from one line to the next. Wait. Take a step forward. Find your name on a long list of other names--close to a thousand. Turn off your cell phone.

For all the signs with prohibitions (no knives, no guns, no nametag clips, no cell phones), there are very few signs with information. Unless you can afford to hire a lawyer, you're on your own. Everything happens quickly and relatively efficiently. Stay to the right. Next, please. Everyone is the same, and excuses or justifications have no place here. If you don't know the system--who to ask, what to ask, how to ask it, where to go--it's easy to get carried along in the shuffle.

As one woman standing beside me said cynically, when I mentioned that the alphabetical list of cases seemed useless, since we went in based on who arrived first, "There's a right way and there's a wrong way, and there's a government way" to do things.

Pretty soon, arguing begins to look pointless. You've been standing in line so long, listening to babies cry and women curse under their breath, and cell phones ring too loudly, and teenagers whine, and all you want is to get it over with so you can leave and feel clean again, even if that means letting some questions go and being washed through with the tide instead of fighting back.

I watched people leaving after they had paid their fines, and all of a sudden some of them were making eye contact with me. Their heads were up, and they were walking with longer steps and swinging their arms. You could read their relief in their body language. They felt free, even though their wallets were lighter than they had been. Even though they might not have received justice, they had escaped.

I know, because that's how I felt. Free. Even though the ramifications of my speeding will show up on my insurance for the next three years (sigh), I had this deep sense of freedom, of debt paid, of justification. But at the same time, I felt hustled, processed, and very paranoid about driving too fast on the way home. The freedom felt fragile.

It's kind of like the way I treat grace. As if it's fragile; no more than mercy, no more than a don't-look-don't-tell policy, a quick blink of the eyes while I scoot by the gate. As if grace somehow pulls a fast one on justice, the kind you can only get away with for so long. As if grace and justice are incompatible.

Because on the surface, if grace means no more than a one-time paying of the bill, they are. And the stain lingers.

But on the other hand, if grace means that someone else has taken the dirty, guilty, sin identity and paid all the costs it ever could or would accrue; if in exchange, you've been given a new identity that is stain-proof and unchanging, then both justice and grace are satisfied. It's not fragile; it's not contingent; and what's more--it's free.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Court in Session (2/3)

...continued from part one...

In line at the court house, people wore everything from tattered jeans and flipflops to stylish blouses and business suits. Heavy jewelry. Some speaking Spanish. Some with family members. A few babies in strollers. Teenagers in cutoff shorts. Elderly women with powdered hair and bright pink lipstick.

Now and then, lawyers speared through the lines. They were carrying briefcases. They wore suits. They didn't wait to be told where to go or what door to open. And they were swinging their arms as they walked in big, purposeful steps or leaned in to chat with the people behind the imposing desks and glass windows.

In the midst of so many people, the process was an isolating one. Only one person at a time through this door. Those who are done are quickly ushered out past the clerk, through a different door than the one they entered. People in line read a book or stare into space. Eye contact is shifty, tentative.

Given the slightest hint of a smile, people around me would begin to talk. They wanted to know what was going to happen. They wanted to tell their story. They wanted someone to listen. They wanted someone to alleviate their guilt, or to share it. But no one wanted to be the first to ask. We--or at least I--didn't want to show that we were nervous, or confused, or a little lost.

A woman behind me got to talk to one of the officials "directing traffic" through the lines. She had been pulled for speeding while trying to get help for her 82-year-old mother, as I understood her story. She was angry, and she had been telling everyone around her that she didn't belong here; she had only done what she needed to do.

When she began talking to the officer, she said the same thing to him--angrily. He took her citation and looked at, listening patiently. She finished, "And the officer told me to bring my ticket here and they would dismiss it, but--"

She would have continued, but he interrupted her: "And I've just dismissed it," as he scribbled his initials on the pink slip with a thick green penstroke.

Her response was not what I expected, based on her past performance. Not, "It's about time," not "Why did I have to wait all this time?" but a loud "Hallelujah!" which was echoed by several people nearby who shared in her relief, even though it did nothing for them.

Shortly after that, I noticed that a man one loop of line over from me had a tattoo on his arm that read, "Grace." The woman's response to her sudden reprieve of judgment made me think about how ungrateful I can be about the grace I have received.

My instinct, as I tried to distance myself emotionally from the people around me, was to judge them: their complaining, and justifying, and grumbling. Even as I practiced my own excuses, I scorned theirs. Even as I hoped for some show of mercy from the court, I privately decided that they did not deserve to be let off.

My own ten thousand talents? Forgotten. be continued...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Court In Session (1/3)

Court Date: August 25, 2009, 8 a.m./1 p.m.

A few months ago, I got my first speeding ticket. Friends with similar citations had been able to get the fines reduced by going to court, so I decided to go. It was not a productive endeavor, but it was interesting in a people-watching kind of way.

Unless you are on jury duty or want to know about the courtroom procedures for lawyers, there is almost no helpful information on the District Court website, so I did what I normally do: I got there early.

The line stretched halfway down the block.

I asked the person at the end of the line what it was for, and she said, "to enter the courthouse." With a sinking feeling, I stepped in behind her and tried to look nonchalant about the whole ordeal.

A few younger teenagers walked by as we stood there. Turning to each other, they began to whisper and giggle, pointing at the long line outside the courthouse as they sauntered past. It felt like a stigma, as if we were carrying signs that said, "We have to be here. We can't just walk away yet."

To keep from thinking about my instinctive flush of shame, I took on the part of observer, detaching myself from the reality of what was happening, and imagining that I was writing an ethnography of the court. Here are a few of the things I noticed...

When we had just reached the doors to the building and were beginning to inch our way toward security, an official came outside and directed the second half of the line to move to another entrance.

Quickly, the grumbling sprang up in my part of the line. We had already been waiting for half an hour, and now we were the back of the line, while those behind us would now be at the front of theirs. It was not fair. I wonder if for people who are confronted with black-and-white laws (of traffic, of civic behavior), equal--fair--treatment becomes even more of a preoccupation than it usually is.

Now, a few hours later, the odd image of the morning that sticks in my mind is of belts. Lots of belts: leather, black, brown, canvas, glittery, thin, thick...

To pass through the metal detector (much like an airport), each person had to remove everything metal on their body, including their belts. Even nametag clips were banned inside. Afterward, the lobby area was filled with people threading their belts back through the loops, or draping it over their shoulders and fidding with the ends like a shawl, or coiling and uncoiling it around their hands.

Another hour later, before I finally reached the front of the line, some people were still holding their belts in hand, fiddling with the buckles or clenching their fingers on the leather. Maybe it was comforting to them. Maybe they just forgot they were still holding them. be continued...

Day One: Check

Spilled yogurt on my shirt: CHECK
Survived first day of classes (3): CHECK
Pounded pavement just so I could audit a class: CHECK
Bought ANOTHER book at the bookstore: CHECK
Forgot to eat lunch: CHECK
Drank coffee instead: CHECK
Latin homework for tomorrow: CHECK
Parking decal: CHECK

Day One as a grad student: CHECK


Monday, August 24, 2009


Observations from orientation Friday:

-Free food is a grad student's incentive to attend meetings.
-I have a geeky love of libraries, and an inexplicable ability to get lost in big ones.
-I might have a job in the campus writing center.
-Registration is much simpler as a grad student.
-Related: Department secretaries are priceless.
-Smirking at undergrads compensates somewhat for being broke for two years +.
-Paying for books never gets easier. Especially as an English grad student.
-Used bookstores and are my Friends.

Orientation continues today with a NEW (except probably not new, so I've heard) COMPUTER (shh...Marvin might hear, and we still have to get through the morning)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! plus a 2-hour computer orientation (ugh), and then a welcome party tonight. And more bookstore in between. Oh the joys...

Friday, August 21, 2009

Drumroll, please...

Grad school orientation starts today! In celebration of the soon-to-be reduced work hours, Marvin is up and running and not even virus scanning, his usual Friday all-day activity.

More on this to come...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

5 Days

Perhaps sensing his imminent replacement, Marvin went into a temporary coma this morning for 45 minutes and refused to start.

After a serious talking-to and a short reset moment, Marvin reluctantly awoke and is, for the moment, functioning as usual. (All latest versions of important files have been backed up and the crematorium is on standby.)

In return for his continued clinging to life, I have agreed not to mention IT (a.k.a. The Replacement) for the rest of the week. He drives a hard bargain.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Seven Days, Marvin

Seven days, Marvin. Seven days.

You have seven days to convince me that I secretly love you and don't want to replace you with that new computer the grad school will be giving me. Seven days to convince me that a new ThinkPad is no better than a 3-year-old Compaq. Seven days to start running quickly, quietly, with a functional touchpad and mouse, and not freezing, virus scanning excessively, or randomly mutating my files.

Seven days.

Seven days.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What If He Talks Back to Me?

Computer, this could bode ill for your "I can't hear you!" excuse (and my "no one is listening to me curse" excuse).

"We're right on the edge of a new era of conversational computing, where in certain circumstances your primary mode of interaction with a machine will be talking to it and having it talk back," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster based in Silicon Valley. ...
"We should make it the responsibility of the computer to understand us, versus making it the responsibility of us to understand the way the computer wants to speak," says Mahoney, the Nuance executive. ...

As speech recognition becomes more integrated into the devices we use on a daily basis, we may start to inch away from the keyboard and mouse. And that may foster a more collegial relationship with computers.
A more collegial relationship with computers?

I have my doubts. For one thing, my computer has recently been christened Marvin. Does that give you an inkling? Our early morning conversations would probably look something like this:

Monday morning, 8 a.m.

Jen: Good morning, Marvin. Let's get to work.
Marvin: I'm not awake yet. Don't rush me.
Jen: You've been open for 25 minutes. How long does it take you to wake up?
Marvin: As long as it takes. You humans are so impatient. You'd think I was an inanimate object. With no feelings.
Jen: (mumbles under breath) You are.
Marvin: Do you know how depressing my life is?
Jen: No, and I don't want to. I just want you to open the web browser.
Marvin: And expose myself to all that racket of nodes and electronic pulses and flashing colors? It's 8 a.m. and I have a migraine. Why don't you just inject me with two liters of caffeine while you're at it?
Jen: Would that make you run faster?
Marvin: Very funny.
Jen: Seriously, this is an order: Open Google Chrome.
Marvin: I like Internet Explorer better.
Jen: Open the *&%$ browser. Now.
Marvin: I don't think that kind of language is necessary.
Jen: Do you want me to get out the baseball bat? Do you like that language better?
Marvin: Fine. I'll open it. But then I have a meeting with my therapist from McAfee. Don't expect me to fetch and carry for you until it's over.
Jen: Can't you reschedule? I'm on a deadline.
Marvin: No.
Jen: You are a sorry excuse for a computer.
Marvin: I know. You keep telling me that. That's why I need therapy.

...and so on...

More verbal communication isn't always a good thing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Miracle Mouse

Really, I just thought that title sounded a little bit cool, even though it makes me inevitably think of mayonnaise and The Princess Bride. I have a weird relationship with the word "miracle," it seems.

Yesterday, I was experiencing my fan-blaring, virus-scanning, repeatedly-freezing computer as usual, and doing pretty well. Then my tiny laptop mouse (my touchpad seems to think the computer screen is a river and it must skip from rock to rock to cross it - and the rocks are not in a straight line) began to behave rather strangely.

Clicking it produced no respose. Nope, nothing wrong with the lasers; it still moves the arrow across the screen fine. Right click is fine. Left, nope. It wouldn't click until about the fifth poke of the button, if hit at exactly .751 from the x origin and .892 from the y origin. Do you know how much calculating those coordinates slows down the work day?

I tried resorting to the "point-with-the-mouse-and-click-with-the-touchpad" approach, but let me tell you, that is no picnic either, especially if you're typing from loose papers that keep flapping shut while you're playing the two-handed whack-a-mole with your mouse.

But you know, mice are sensitive creatures. They just want a little tenderness, really. They'd rather be stepped on by a loafer than a high heel, and wouldn't we all?

This morning, after an already-frustrating fifteen minutes of poke-clicking, I tried the flat-finger press click, and - wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, it worked!

It's still working, as I speak. ...and still working now.... and now...

Paranoia is setting in rapidly, folks.

Two more weeks, baby, two more weeks. You can make it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

But Not Feel Scared

Face up against the glass
Lookin' at you
Is this my life I'm wonderin'
Happened so fast
How do I turn this thing around?
Is this the bed I chose to make,
As green a pasture as I'm thinkin' about?
Wide open spaces far away....

All I want is the wind in my hair
To face the fear but not feel scared.

Wild horses, I wanna be like you
Throwing caution to the wind, I'll run free too
Wish I could recklessly love like I'm longing to
I wanna run with the wild horses

I see the girl I wanna be
Riding bareback, carefree along the shore
If only that someone was me...
-Natasha Bedingfield, Wild Horses

What does freedom look like?

I've had this song running through my head lately, along with the Bible verse that says, "It is for freedom that you have been set free." I have been set free, but I'm not always sure I know what freedom means.

Freedom from fear. Freedom from trying to be good enough, and measure up, and win approval. Freedom to love recklessly, to care deeply.

It's like being given permission to dance at a wedding, but standing in a corner and wishing you had the courage to step out onto the floor, but not knowing how to dance and afraid to try.

Who would think it was so hard to be free?

I love mornings. :-)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Life in 10 seconds

Finally finished The Iliad and The Woman in White. Still working on The Dark is Rising series, The Well-Educated Mind, and Rescripting Shakespeare, and Literary Theory. Whew. School starts in another three weeks. Praying my computer will hold out that long.

Getting ready for another wedding this weekend. I'll be a pro by the time the year is out. Just discovered the accompaniment track for the song is different from the vocal track I've been learning it from. Yikes!