Monday, December 23, 2013

The Things They Tell Me...

I. Snake (6)

We were driving in the car when she said out of nowhere, "How many people do you think are on the earth?"

"I don't really know," I replied, with some curiosity.

"I think it's infinity," she said with finality, having clearly established the answer in her mind before ever asking me.

"It can't be infinity," I  said, "because there's always an exact number."

"But does anyone know the number?"

"Well, not really, because at any given moment, there are always people being born and dying. No one could possibly keep count."

"Is that infinity?"

"If it's not, it's something a lot like it."

II. Natalie (3)

She was brushing her teeth when I chided her, "Don't stick your toothbrush down those little holes! There's dirt in there!"

"But Mother," she laughed, "there's an animal that's stuck in there and he's talking to me."

As I washed her brush out, I told her, "You know, when I was a little girl I used to believe there was a tiny family living down the drain of my bathroom sink, and I used to feed them water."

"I think at that point," she mused thoughtfully, "I was an old lady."

This was not the first time she had referred to her idea that our ages will always exist in some transverse relationship. Every time I mention that she'll be a lady some day, she tells me, "That's when you'll be a little girl!" I've never corrected her; I just keep waiting to hear the idea fleshed out more as her imagination grows.

"You think so?" I asked her.

"Yeah, I do," she said seriously.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Our imaginations walk before us.

Our imaginations walk before us. We cannot engage in even the simplest act without having first imagined ourselves doing it. If I so much as turn on a light at dusk as I sit reading, my mind has already imagined the feeling of putting my bare, tucked in feet back into my slippers and walking the few steps to the light switch. This forethought unfolds so automatically, weighing the consequences of potential behaviors, that I barely realize that the decision as to when to perform this simple act entails weighing a sense of when would be the best stopping point; a complex calculus of how quickly the light is fading and how wrapped up I am in the flow of the book is unraveled with the seeming ease of Bobby Fisher making a move at chess. And suddenly I act, and the tiny denoument of an executed decision becomes a forgotten texture of my emotional make-up for the day. So much of our lives, however exciting or mundane on the surface, plays out in the silent music of our minds humming away, unnoticed. The only way I feel fully alive is to notice. And we can.

And this is the smallest of scales. We are always in the process of making layers and layers of decisions, from the small things like turning a light on or off, to strategies for handling the difficult people who populate our lives and how better to consider them, to what habits we should strengthen and which we should weaken, to whom we want to become and how others see us. Our minds are constantly working away at these things. One rises to the surface and another recedes; we prioritize them, order our intentions. We meta-decide how to decide what we will do, and this is how we become. We are the pattern of our choices.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Anti-Bullying Campaigns

On a recent car ride with my 6-year-old, we heard an anti-bullying commercial on the radio that began with a man verbally berating someone else before switching gears to ask, "What if someone talked to you like that?" My 6-year-old fell dead silent during the opening tirade and remarked afterwards, "That was really bad to say." I had to explain the purpose of the commercial. When I used the word "bullying," her ears lit up. "Bullying is bad." I asked her what bullying is, and she said, "It's when someone feels bad about themselves and so they say really bad things to other people to make them feel bad too." I cringed.

On the one hand, I am happy that schools are addressing the bullying issue early on, and trying to get kids to be nice to each other. I am all for playing nice. But on the other hand, I find the turning of the tables to question the psychological soundness of the bully to be distasteful and unnecessary. It got me thinking about how there is a cultural shift taking place, driven by public schools' reaction against what appears to be a serious and growing problem with bullying in schools. It is a shift toward handling everyone with kid gloves.

I remember learning the concept of the eggshell plaintiff in Torts class in law school. The basic idea is that once a person acts with bad intent (be it negligence, recklessness, or purposeful behavior), he is liable for any harm that flows to another person from his behavior, even if the harm exceeds what could normally be expected. For example, if I were to purposely drive someone off the road, and it just so happened that my victim had a bad heart, suffered a heart attack and died as a result of my aggression, I would be liable for the death even though one would not normally expect a death to result from this type of bad behavior.

I meditated on that concept for a long time, and it seems deeply fair to me. It has changed the way that I view people and has made me more careful, more prone to assume that people have weaknesses that I will never see and which should cause me to approach them with a deeper humility. I think this is the basic concept behind changing the cultural rules as to what is an acceptable way to treat other people, and it is good, at bottom.

But I also remember with amusement and some fondness a game that I used to play in one of my childhood neighbor's basements with a bunch of other kids. They had a wood burning stove down there with a small hearth. Each child in his turn would stand alone on the hearth for a couple of minutes and the rest of us would pepper him with whatever insults came to mind. The person on the hearth was not allowed to respond. We were each the aggressor and the aggressee, and then we went off and played other games together, games where we cooperated with each other, and games where we pitted ourselves in teams against each other.

I also remember being made fun of on a regular basis at school, and doing it to other kids too. There was some maliciousness involved, but not a lot- it was how in-groups and out-groups were formed. It was a normal process.

There seems to be a more sinister edge, however, to the bullying taking place in schools now. There was a recent story in the Buffalo News about an 18 year old girl who ran down her classmate with her car because they had been having a fight over text messaging. Perhaps the removal of the face to face insults, and the migration of bullying to the digital environment has blown what has always been a normal, if somewhat discouraging, part of childhood into a huge social problem.

I don't feel entirely uncomfortable with trying to wipe out this process. I think it has to happen (and probably will anyway, despite our best efforts). I think it teaches something that adults need; it is part of our social skill set. I do draw the line at violence against each other, but I think we have to be very nuanced and careful in our attempts at educating children against bullying, that we don't create a world in which we take the eggshell plaintiff rule too far. We should assume responsibility for the fragility of people whom we have wronged. But we shouldn't over-extend the boundaries of what is considered a "wrong."

Friday, November 8, 2013


Two conversations overheard today while I was waiting:

(1) Two men in business suits, moving with gestures reminiscent of two buddies at a ball game, sit across from one another sipping coffee and remarking on how they haven't seen each other since high school, when they played hockey together and would gather in someone's big kitchen. They compare notes on how it felt to clear out their parents' belongings from their houses after they passed away, working with their siblings on the final act of childhood. Then one's cell phone rings and he talks about a property down in Ellicottville- it becomes clear he is a lawyer for the property owner, and he's advising his client to better cover up an open foundation for the winter so that a child does not fall in. He apologizes to his childhood friend, explaining that he can never get this client on the phone and that he needed to seize the opportunity. His friend responds with genuine sympathy. They sip. They are both lawyers.

(2) A man with shoulder length white hair and foam letters adorning the back of his tan corduroy blazer reading, "Jesus saves" walks up to two similarly aged women who are nibbling at eggy breakfast sandwiches as seagulls swarm outside the window in a grey sky. "Mind if I sit here?" They say yes politely, one through fuchsia and one through rouge lipstick. He tells them of a woman he talked to. He asked her, "Do you need to be saved?" and she said no-- can you believe it? All three shake their heads, sip their coffee.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How Lawyers Handle the Truth

After I graduated from college with an English degree and no real career plans, I ended up working as a paralegal at an immigration law firm, based on an ad that sought out individuals with creative writing skills. I admit to being skeptical at first as to why creativity would be required to do legal writing; I assumed at first that the lawyer wanted someone willing to bend the truth. So I asked about this in my interview, and the lawyer (now my boss of 12 years) explained to me, with some bemusement, that creativity in legal writing means something different than what might normally be considered "creative writing."

It was only after working as a paralegal for a couple of years that I understood more fully what the lawyer's role is, and why creative thinking (more than creative writing) is required for the job. Around that same time, I decided to go to law school.

Since then, I've become more sensitive to the way the legal profession is portrayed by the media, fostering the popular (and perhaps somewhat deserved) conception of lawyers as being concerned more at getting a lot of money for their clients and/or themselves than for getting at the truth or ensuring a fair outcome. But from my day to day work in the field, I have seen another side to the story that often goes overlooked.

I recently served as a guest lecturer at a local college. The class is a survey of Professional Writing, and features guest lecturers of various professions, all of whom give the students a writing assignment typical for their field. I asked the students to draft a legal brief, and explained how it is done. I reviewed the papers when they were done, and was pleased that most of the students had properly constructed the legal argument, explaining why a fictional client, despite having been charged for theft, remained admissible to the United States. However, I later learned from the professor that the students were troubled by the assignment because they felt that the person really should not be admitted to the country, but were forced to argue otherwise.

This type of thinking, the belief that one's personal moral intuition should be trusted as a more reliable guide for the administration of justice than a formal legal system, lies at the heart of people's mistrust of lawyers.  If these same people thought about it more deeply, they would distrust the entire notion of having a legal system based on the concept of impartiality at all.

The reason the fictional client in our hypothetical case remained admissible to the U.S. is because the formal charges against her were dropped and she never was convicted of the crime. The law only makes people inadmissible to the U.S. based on crimes of which they actually were convicted or of which they admit to having committed. And for those who are convicted of crimes, only certain crimes make them inadmissible. The law provides for many exceptions. The purpose of this labyrinth of rules is to ensure that truly dangerous individuals are not allowed into the country, but to allow most otherwise-qualified people to enter the country.

A fundamental concept in determining admissibility for those with criminal convictions is that the adjudicator cannot look behind the record of conviction. In most cases, the government officer determining admissibility is only permitted to review the statute under which the alien was convicted to determine whether the crime, as defined by the statute, is one that prevents an alien from entering the country. This is an important safeguard as it ensures that rules will be applied mechanically. It also shields the adjudicator from hearing the narrative surrounding the course of events that led to the arrest and conviction; narratives can powerfully affect one's opinion of how "bad" a crime is. But allowing the officer to look at the narrative would subject the alien to a second determination on culpability for the offense, a process that should occur only once, and in the context of the criminal proceeding. The determination of admissibility to the U.S. is not a redetermination of moral culpability for a crime; it is simply a determination as to whether someone so convicted ought to be permitted to enter the U.S.

One of the foundational principles of our legal system is impartiality in the administration of justice, and this is often achieved through the control of information that is given to decision-makers. We artificially strip narratives down to relevant facts so that legal principles can be appropriately applied. While additional facts may yield a different outcome, that is often because it is based on emotions aroused by the narrative rather than by carefully considered and balanced interests.

Because lawyers' job is to package information in this calculatedly artificial manner for judges, juries, adjudicators, and the like, we are often viewed as manufacturing a false version of reality. While it is true that the version of the facts that we create is artificially stripped down, this is done for a very important reason. We shear away the facts that are not relevant to the legal issue at hand. We mine the dense narratives presented by our clients for the legal issue. Once the issue is clear, there is a very limited set of relevant facts to be presented. This may be artificial, but the alternative is to determine guilt and innocence by mob rule or by the feelings of a single or a small group of individuals bent on protecting their own interest.

The administration of justice, the finding of culpability for crimes, is never a pretty business. There are very few ways of doing it, and modern society's system, based on impartiality, may not be perfect but it safeguards individuals' liberty, ensures fairness and equality before the law, and prevents decisions based purely on emotion. It could be a lot worse.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Remembering Self

In Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he discusses two selves that we all carry around with us: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The two selves have different perceptions of their own happiness. Kahneman even goes so far as to claim, “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” 

The first thing that comes to mind when I consider this internal division is the self that reflects on personal experience after a substantial passage of time, or that has learned something new between the formation of the initial memory and reflection upon it. We can all see that our 30 year old selves view our teenage years quite differently than we did when we were living them. But what surprises me is the weight that my remembering self attaches to moments that escaped deliberation in the very distant past.

Just this morning while I was getting ready for work, I remembered with such poignancy how my three year old followed me out to the garden on Saturday morning to see what was growing. We were delighted to find the kale plants exploding and she asked excitedly if she could pick some. I said yes, and explained that you have to peel the bottom leaves away from the stalk. She understood but wasn't quite strong enough to do it herself. So as she tried, I helped each leaf along until it fell in her palm and she felt accomplished. She insisted on carrying a big armload of leaves into the house herself for washing.

It hadn't even occurred to me until this morning that that was a bonding experience; I felt so connected to her as we worked together. Her simple joy in the task was infectious. How is it that I failed to note the depth of the experience as it was happening? 

Sometimes I think my experiencing self is unbearably stupid and that that is why I need to spend so much time writing and reflecting on the small moments in my life. I never grasp their importance until later on.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Time & Meaning

I recently heard an interview on NPR of a brain surgeon who treats young children who have brain cancer. He is frequently in the position of having to inform parents that their children are going to die. He described the most touching parenting scene he has ever seen. One day, after telling a mother and father that their child was about to die, he went up to the child's hospital room to see how the parents were coping. What he saw was a child in bed waiting expectantly for her parents to draw back the curtain to reveal their faces and exclaim, "See! This is what it will be like when you die. You will be on the other side of the curtain but we'll still be here! Just like this!"

And the point of the story was that a life, no matter how long or how short, is still a complete life. The point at which it ends doesn't determine its fullness. It is still something beautiful.

I think we become confused when we value things in relationship to time. I work in a profession where we charge by the hour, and I will tell you that my fleeting moments of insight into the cases I'm constructing are very short-lived and yet they make the case. They are like a spark thrown from the flint of my efforts that set the whole thing ablaze. To charge hourly for my labors ignores the only piece that matters- the piece that exists apart from time.

We are forever trying to harness the value of human experience to time, and we are forever failing. Whatever time is, it bears no direct relationship to meaning. Things that are meaningful exist outside of time, make time irrelevant.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Light Inescapable

Light, inescapable, bathes the tall faces
Of buildings whose ground floors still mingle
With shadows and footfalls and breaths
That have just become visible this time of day.

This may be the one morning all year
That we feel the earth tilt on its axis
And see- perhaps down an alleyway
Drowned in the shadows-

The tunnel of years we collapse
In our memories down to their bones,
To the way the light fell
In its journey of angles to darkness.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A New Ending

I remember seeing the two of them walking down Elmwood Ave. toward me, hand in hand, and the way the smiles grew on their faces as they approached. I was working as a paralegal at an immigration law firm at the time and was working on his application for permanent residency as the spouse of a US citizen. They asked me to come to their house, down the street, to watch a movie with them. They gave me a tour and he showed me the new kitchen floor they had just put down. We ate popcorn and watched Waking Life and chatted through the whole movie about the philosophical concepts it raised. I barely knew them but they brought me in; it was as if their love grew to encompass me for an evening and I felt a sense of belonging.

I held on to that sense in the coming months as I worked on his case. His ex-wife, also a US citizen, had accused him of immigration marriage fraud, and he was barred from ever becoming a permanent resident until we proved otherwise. I worked closely with the attorney on the case to discover everything I could about his history, and ultimately was responsible to write his story. It was a labor of love. There was a way of viewing the facts that was unfavorable to him, but I had felt the genuineness of his present marriage and didn't believe him capable of committing fraud. And so it became easy for me to see his version of events and how they were believable. Ultimately, he became a permanent resident.

Only this past summer did I find out that he was charged in another state with a pretty heinous crime. From the facts available in the news, it seems pretty obvious that he's guilty. I don't know that there is any other way of looking at these allegations. He is in jail awaiting trial and probably will not be free for decades.

I have long since moved out of the city and into the suburbs, but I was in the Elmwood village recently, walking alone down the street as I had so many years ago when I met them. I could see their ghosts mingled in the crowd with their simple joy. I felt the weight of what could have been his life. I wish I could write a new ending.

Friday, August 30, 2013

What does it mean to forgive?

This post is a question to the handful of people who bother to read my blog. I am genuinely puzzled about what it means to forgive someone and I thought maybe some of you would have some insight.

I understand forgiving a discrete transgression or even a pattern of harmful behavior that is not deeply damaging. I can understand letting go of these things and giving a person a fresh start. But there are situations, such as when someone is abused, where it is unhealthy for the victim to wipe clean the slate and start afresh with the abuser. Often, for these victims, cutting off all contact with the abuser or figuring out a way to keep them in a place where the abuse cannot continue are incredibly healthy moves. Yet I often hear these victims being counseled to forgive their abuser.

It's all well and good to relinquish a sense of vengeance. But I have to assume that forgiveness means something different in this context than it does normally. Because normally, I think that forgiveness should be an utterly complete act, an act in which I dismantle all of the internal barriers I've constructed against someone else's poor behavior-- to truly begin the relationship anew. I think that when victims of abuse are counseled to forgive their abusers, their counselors either don't understand the true nature of forgiveness, mean to convey something different, or are stupid. Am I missing something here?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Human Face

When I was pregnant with my first baby (who's now 6), I spent a lot of time doing yoga and relaxation exercises. I developed the idea through things I read that the process of giving birth was an ancient ritual to which I should trust myself, and that my role in the process was as little more than a vessel. More than actively doing anything, I needed to not do-- not clench muscles, not collect the physical stressors in my body-- I needed to step out of the way and let everything flow through me. (I could wax ecstatic elsewhere about the joy of natural childbirth but I will spare you of it here).

I didn't plan to continue using those exercises but they came back to me as I nursed my babies. I was surprised, when they were new, at how much time I was required to spend passively providing their nourishment. I was a busy career woman and not accustomed to spending large swaths of time doing, ostensibly, nothing. I learned not to watch the clock. I watched their faces. I felt their warmth. I did not think about what came next. I practiced relaxation techniques. I centered myself in those moments.

Shortly after my oldest was born, I started taking clients to the border to present applications for admission to the U.S. I was still establishing myself as a credible attorney and I would spend a lot of time in waiting rooms with clients where I could feel tension begin to collect in my body. And I found those same relaxation techniques coming back to mind as a necessity. I began to stay inside of those moments of seeming nothingness and to focus on what was right in front of me: my client-- a person just as stressed out (if not more so) than I was, someone who had placed an enormous amount of trust in me, whose livelihood was on the line. And I began to talk to my clients with the kind of focus I used in bonding with my babies, as if there was nothing outside of that moment with them. I learned later that that kind of attention to people was part of what made me good at lawyering, but at the time it was nothing more than a coping mechanism transferred from that humbling patience of motherhood which shows us we are always only vessels through which something larger than ourselves is always trying to emerge. We resist this process with our very bodies as something uncomfortable. We tense up. We exert our strength in the way that is natural to us, by doing something active, when what is required is to open ourselves through relaxation to what is happening around us, to participate in the seemingly inconsequential moments between the things that we deem important. So often this means looking into a human face. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

How To Sleep At Night if You're an Attorney

I've been an attorney now for 6 years. The first couple of years were pretty rough, and I gather that's par for the course. But I have gradually learned that the key to minimizing the stress of my job lies in recognizing and operating within the parameters of my role. I imagine this is true for many professionals, but I can speak only from my own experiences. My role, as I view it, is twofold: I am a counselor and an advocate.

As a counselor, my only job is to advise my clients. Advising clients is nothing more than researching all of the possible options available to the client and telling him what consequences could flow from following each course of action. Sometimes there are only a couple of options and the results are pretty straightforward, but other times the possibilities branch out in all directions. The most important thing to keep in mind in advising clients is that the decision as to which course of action to follow always belongs to the client. It is never my choice. I provide information and convey the level of risk involved. That is all. Some clients ask me what I would do if I were in their shoes, and with some disclaimer as to the fact that I am not, in fact, able to stand entirely in their shoes, I have no problem stating what I would do and explaining why I would do it. This is sometimes helpful to the client. But unlike George Bush, I am not the Decider. Recognizing that fact takes an enormous burden off of my shoulders. As long as I have provided the client with accurate information, I have done my job. Whatever consequences flow from the client's choices are the client's to bear.

I should note that the only course of action I will not follow on behalf of a client is anything that is illegal. I will advise those clients who propose such courses of action as to all of the penalties that can flow from that action, but if, after hearing those penalties, they still wish to engage in illegal behavior, I tell them that I cannot represent them. Engaging in illegal behavior, like making decisions for the client, is something outside the scope of my role and I just won't do it.

As an advocate, I represent my client in whatever course of action he or she has chosen, before the government. In my practice, I do not do so in a court of law, but to administrative agencies within the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security. For the most part, my cases are presented in writing with no in-person appearance. However, I do represent people in person before Customs at the border. I credit that representation with my ability to understand how adjudicators think, and it has deeply informed the way that I prepare cases that I mail in as well. Not only will I not submit a case that offends logic, I also won't present anything that won't pass the sniff test of a seasoned government official.

Often the cases I present are so clearly approvable that there is virtually no chance of denial. Other times, there is a great deal of discretion involved on the part of the adjudicating officer. And I do have clients who choose to present cases that I have advised them may be approved but are unlikely to be approved. Those cases are actually a little bit stressful for me, and that is because it is a judgment call on my part as to whether I want to take a case like that. If there is a very low chance of approval, I often just turn the case down because it's not worth having to deal with the client, who will be very high maintenance and won't want to pay his bill. But sometimes there are cases which I believe really should be approved under the law and yet probably won't be because of current government attitudes or adjudication trends. I think those cases are worth fighting for, if the client is aware of the risk involved and chooses to pursue the case anyway. I like to push the boundaries of current government opinion when it is wrong.

My role as an advocate, then, is somewhat less clearly defined, and situational, than my role as an advisor. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that once I have chosen to represent a client and the client has chosen a course of action, my job is to advocate zealously for that course of action. I push to the side all of the what-ifs and possible pitfalls associated with the strategy and put together a solid case. I try to present each one as if it is unimpeachably logical. But once I present it, I have done everything I can and the final decision rests with the government. If a case is denied, I can choose to appeal it. But once I hand that case over, it is again out of my hands and I really don't think about it until I get a decision.

There are limits to what any of us can do. It is sometimes tempting to over-estimate the power that you have over others, but it is an illusion to think that we truly have control over what anyone else chooses. And ultimately, if someone gives you that kind of control, it's a mistake on their part that will harm you both. Everyone makes their own choices. The best we can do is to inform people's decision making process. Recognizing the limitations of our roles is a way of letting go of things that were never in our control to begin with. I love my clients but I don't carry their problems home with me at the end of the day, and I don't pin my happiness to things I can't control. I am happy when I have advised and advocated well.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Visions of Motherhood

One night this week I struggled to consciousness from the depths of an awful dream in which I allowed my 2-year-old to climb into the back of a stranger's SUV. She innocently scaled her way up into the waiting car seat by herself and buckled her belt as the car peeled away from the curb where I stood frozen in fear. It was a ritual unknown to me and I fought through fog to focus on the vehicle's license plate before it fled from view. My 6-year-old chattered happily next to me, smiling up at me and holding my hand while explaining that her sister would be fine because the male driver of the car was "hers." I was utterly helpless, somehow complicit in endangering my child in a way I found confusing.

In the morning as I hung laundry on the clothesline to dry-- a ritual that connects me to a long line of women gone before-- I watched the dawn slowly lighting up a thick fog that hung low to the ground. I had strung bright swaths of colors on the breeze and felt surrounded by a spectacle. But I must have been very quiet, because I heard the sound of deer snorting somewhere close by. I struggled to see them at first in the fog, but then a tiny fawn the size and shape of a child's half collapsed lawn chair skittered into view, running in circles. Her mother followed close behind her. The two came in and out of view in the mist. They were playing.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Slender Stalk

The roads that take me home barely exist--
Well-worn paths of some practical imagination
Linking this and that quiet clearing
To the general stream of commerce
That we are always waking to from our dreams
Of a quiet life in the country,
Which also barely exists.

Alone on a slender stalk one afternoon
A heavy head of red petals drooped
In one of these lonely living rooms
Which existed solely to showcase this flower
Caught in the glare of the late burning sun
Where it caught my eye as I was almost done
Driving home alone.

Monday, July 15, 2013


I have so many occasions to think back on the random little bits of information that I learned from teachers over the years. I never had a grandiose plan for how to use the information they gave to me, but I loved the way they made me feel like a half-filled piggy bank who was constantly receiving the golden coins of ingenious minds against a future investment.

Teachers are really terrible investors. They give away valuable information and insight daily and indiscriminately, never knowing whether their rich deposits will pay off. At least, that's the way the good ones are.

But I'd like to throw out a random little list of wonderful ideas that teachers have imparted to me and that I just held onto because they were beautiful:

1. I had a 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Ferrari, who had a "Ferrari parking only" sign on the side of her filing cabinet. She introduced me, magically, to the concept that Greeks truly believed their mythology. I know that is so stupidly obvious that I should have realized it on my own but at the time, I had only ever heard the myths as a curiosity. Once I was able to hear the stories again AS a believer, they meant so much more. I especially loved the idea of Athena springing fully formed from Zeus's head; the idea of a person being created in whole out of the stuff of imagination. That is such a fundamental part of the folklore of humanity. It is a timeless belief. I never would have *felt* that story without her introduction to the material.

2. I had an 11th grade Physics teacher, Mr. Delorme, whose grandfather had been my mother's first pastor in the little town where I grew up. He was a physicist before he was a teacher and he thought more like a true scientist than a teacher, which made him a great teacher. One day he explained that two events which appear to be correlated could be caused by a third factor rather than one event causing the other. For example, if you notice that people who like tent camping also like granola, it may not necessarily be that love of tent camping causes love of granola or vice versa; it may be that both tent camping and granola loving are caused by being a douche bag. (I just made up that example right now. Pshaw. I love both. And I own a Subaru). This notion dispels so much idiocy.

3. I had a 9th grade Biology teacher, Mr. Browning, who described the process of centrifugation as a process of spinning of cellular parts at high speeds until they separated by density. I remember thinking of that concept figuratively and applying it to life experiences: understanding that there were certain life experiences that, if your life were centrifuged, would sink to the bottom for their sheer density. And those are the ones you need to spend a lot of time analyzing.

There are dozens of more examples; these are the things that, 10 or 15 years later, resurface time and again. They are the bits and pieces that left an impression. The pieces that touched my soul. It would be nice if I were miraculously capable of recognizing the import of events as they occur. But I'm not that bright so it takes a great deal of time.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Conducting Thoughts

My border practice is probably the weirdest version of practicing law that exists. I practice all kinds of employment-based immigration, but none is quite as unusual and satisfying as accompanying my Canadian clients to the border to apply for admission to the U.S. to work temporarily. Some cases are straightforward, but many, if not most, of the cases I take to the border are for people who have previously been refused entry at other border crossings.These cases are time-intensive. When a call comes in for me to take one of them, I feel like a dancer starting her number. The whole process, from the first phone call to the sound of the CBP officer's stamp clicking its approval into my client's passport, is a series of occasions during which the spoken word becomes a thick mental medium in which decisions are made.

I make the first decision: the decision of whether to take the case. That choice is pivotal. Once I say yes, I have already seen the strategy, the path through the thicket, seen myself explaining it to an officer, hearing that approval stamp click in my brain. Once I commit to a case, there are no more choices I have to make.

Getting to that point takes time, lots of time. My clients who have been refused admission have endured a very emotionally traumatic experience. They had pinned their expectations on a US job and thought they were coming in to start work, only to be refused. Their entire livelihoods have been threatened. I start by reviewing the paperwork they submitted, and then I go straight to asking the client to recount to me, blow by blow, what happened when they walked into the CBP office, what the officer said, what they responded, etc. I lead them through an exercise of visualizing the scene and telling it like a novelist, word for word. I do this both because I can glean information about what the officer's problem was with the case, even if the client conveying it to me did not understand it, and because I think it's therapeutic for the client to recount the experience with the aim of strategically reshaping it-- of correcting something in the course of their lives that should have gone another way. It's like backing up time so that we can reverse an event that should not have occurred. But I have to be really convinced that it should not have occurred. If I am not convinced, I can't untie the knots of time properly to correct them.

The next decision is made by the officer: whether to approve or deny the case. Between my decision to take the case and the officer's decision on whether to approve the case, a couple of things happen. First, I write a new support letter for the employer to sign based on the conversations we have had. I work closely with the employer and the foreign national to make sure that everything said factually is accurate and consistent with what was said in previous letters, yet advances the theory of the case more effectively. Usually these letters go through numerous drafts by my suddenly very detail-oriented clients. I understand this response to a prior refusal and suffer it silently. EVERY previously refused client nitpicks obsessively at details. Second, I go over the finalized package of documents with the client in great detail. Third, I meet the client at the Duty Free Store on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge to sit down and discuss the case again. I show them the application we're submitting and then I do a mock interview where I pretend to be a CBP officer and give them a hard time questioning them about their case. I make sure they make sense and that they don't talk about the facts of their case in a manner that will be confusing. I teach them how to answer questions directly (think: the opposite of the way politicians answer questions). I have used this advice so many times that I say it in the exact same words every time: "Answer any questions the officer asks you as briefly, honestly and accurately as possible. Do not guess what the officer is trying to ask you but answer the exact question. Let the officer lead the interview. He will have a line of questioning he wants to pursue and your job is to answer the questions only." It's amazing how many highly educated people are incapable of doing this. Some get it though -- usually the ones who are not overly impressed with themselves-- and I love them.

(The worst clients are the ones whose idealized version of themselves is so important to them that they cannot deviate from their own egotistical narrative about their abilities in order to realize what the officer's actual concerns are and how to address them. Their argument seems to be, "I'm so wonderful; how can you deny me?" I have to break these people down. It is painful.) 

When we finally get to the CBP office, the officer, of course, makes the decision. I am pretty familiar with the officers that typically handle these cases in Buffalo, and I know their style. First of all, some will allow me to stand there for the entire adjudication while others will promptly ask me to sit down. Some officers blow hot and cold on this point. There is no right to attorney representation at the port of entry, so they do not have to allow me to stand there. But inevitably, if the officer is having a hard time making a decision (as is often the case with prior refusals), he or she will call me up to discuss the case. Then there are some officers who ask what the person is applying for and then ask you to sit down while they review the paperwork. Some of this group do so quickly while others labor over it. Some even approve cases without asking any further questions; this is weird. Then there is the very small group of very seasoned officers who start out by sizing up the situation through a few pointed questions. From this little cluster of questions I see that the officer has already honed in instinctively on the weak points in the case and is prodding it like a surgeon prods a tumor with his scalpel. These are the coolest officers; they smell a case like a dog.

I often feel like a stand-by interpreter for someone who speaks passable English. The officers speak in the language of the law and of their particular set of concerns and the client speaks in the language of his profession. They use two different sets of jargon. I try to teach the client immigration jargon well in advance of the interview with CBP so that they can speak the officer's language; this seems to work the best. I keep my mouth shut for the most part, until I see that there is a breakdown in language; that the officer and the client are speaking past each other and not catching the other's meaning. Then I jump in. But as I explain to the client beforehand, I don't explain things to the officer directly unless he asks me to do so. I just facilitate conversation, prompt the client to give the information that the officer is trying to elicit.

All in all, I only take a case with a prior refusal when I believe that the reason for denial was a communication failure. In order to get a better decision on the second (or third or fourth) try, I have to dissolve myself into a non-presence that silently facilitates a conversation. I try to be a medium to help conduct the flow of thoughts. I try to be perfectly ignored even as I'm shaping the event. It's a fun role to play.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Talismans of Memory

On a recent cross-county flight, a member of the flight crew walked the aisles, handing out blue plastic "wings" pins to all the kids. I was happy to see that airlines still do that kind of thing in the post-9/11 world at all. But it was still a far cry from the way I was introduced to the airline industry as a kid. I remember going into the cockpit with all the other kids on the flight when I was eight years old, and having the pilot explain what his controls do, in a manner that commanded respect. (Don't they know that an object holds only the power of the experience that surrounds it in the memory? Surely advertisers know this.) And they gave us metal wings pins, not plastic. I loved those wings and what they recalled to me of the experience. But I have long since lost them. I don't recall where or when-- whether I misplaced them or threw them out on some grey morning when I was in the mood to move on, growing, as we do, past the stream of objects we once depended on to form our identity.

There is always something new within our grasp. Whatever we choose to hold onto is always a primordial tool with which to fashion our experience of the universe.

Onto the same flight, I carried with me a bright yellow package of Juicy Fruit gum, with 17 soft, fresh sticks of silvery, foil-wrapped gum. I chewed precisely one of those sticks before depositing it into the pocket of the seat in front of me for safe-keeping. I promptly forgot the gum, though, and made my way through Disney World and a dozen family members I would never meet again. And I forgot that gum, that wonderful pack of sugary goodness that I was told would keep my ears from clogging from the altitude.

Of all the things I encountered on that trip, that lost pack of gum is the thing I recall the most. Unlike the wings pin, which I kept for some time, and parted with when it was no longer precious to me, I lost my pack of gum while it was still a valued possession. I still think of it flying the friendly skies without me, forever fresh and containing 16 unopened slices in the seat pocket of a Boeing 747. (I still remember the pilot mentioning that).

There is something powerful about the things that we lose while still value them. They become the talismans of our memories, symbols imbued with power, representing and meaning far more than all of the other things that have passed through our hands, which are many.

Monday, June 24, 2013

On Overeating

The American Medical Association recently classified Obesity as a disease rather than a condition. I am reluctant to even opine on whether this is correct or not, because the problem is very deep and complex in our culture, and I am no medical expert. However, I will share a story.

When I was in college, I spent a semester abroad eating candy bars. I might have squeezed in some other activities-- some museums and things-- but primarily, my job was eating candy bars. Or so it seems to my recollection some 15 years later. I had never been a compulsive eater before that, but something about the lack of parental or institutional oversight coupled with the stress of culture shock and intense academic expectations led me to ... you got it... candy bars.

It was a habit that started off innocently enough- sampling exotic foreign flavors of goo piled with other different kinds of goo and coated in chocolate. Who wouldn't be seduced? But it developed into quite a regular habit, to the point where I found myself nightly consuming one or more candy bars alone in my room, secretively and guiltily. The net result of my efforts was 10 or 15 pounds gained in the space of 4 months-- a shocking achievement.

Luckily, my indulgences were tied to triggers that I left behind in a foreign land. I returned to a normal diet and exercise habits when I came home, and eventually I also returned to a normal weight. It didn't take me long to figure out that my problem was with regulating my own emotions, learning how to put them into perspective- when to turn a blind eye toward them, when to extinguish them. I didn't know who I wanted to be, and so I had nothing to shape myself into. I figured it out and I stopped the problem.

I am not saying that everyone who develops an eating problem develops it for the same reason. I am genetically predisposed toward thinness and this was an aberration for me. Some people are genetically predisposed to be heavy-set, ad that is just the way they are made. For them, a healthy weight is somewhere far above what our culture says is "perfect"-- and I'm not even talking about those people... although I think it has to be harder for them to know when they have crossed over into dangerous territory. Others are biologically set up for obesity by the way their mothers ate when they were in the womb. Others are taught horrible eating habits when they are growing up. There are all sorts of causes of the problem. But it is a problem, and it's an emotional problem.

By designating obesity as a disease, there may be some real benefits to people who are over-weight. They may get much-needed insurance coverage for life-enhancing treatments. I can't argue with that. But I worry about the cultural concept that is created when we begin to think of obesity as a disease. It is something that a large swath of our population (more than half) struggles with, for various reasons. But it's not good. It's not something hideous; it is not a reason to condemn people; it is not a reason to discriminate. But it is still very, very unhealthy and it's something we should discuss and try to figure out. I think the answer to the problem is very personal and individual and emotionally-based. But I do think that common, every-day wisdom can be a huge antidote to the problem if we don't shy away from it as such a taboo topic. I think that classifying it as a disease keeps it in the realm of sealed lips, as something we can't talk about directly. That only worsens the problem.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Birthday Reflections

I'm 34 years old now. At once I feel incredibly powerful and incredibly weak. I feel powerful in that my lifetime persona, the odd combination of flaws and virtues that animate me, is fully formed. I know my role and it has depth. I am deeply enmeshed in fascinating casts of characters in my career, in the running world and in my family. I am treated as a valuable player in all of those realms, an equal among peers, a person with something definite to contribute.

But at the same time I feel the loss underneath it all that is constantly occurring- I see my oldest graduating from Kindergarten, I see the generation that taught me everything I know growing thinner and wrinklier even as I see the youth that will forever run through them flowing just as it always has, and I try to bury its beauty inside of me.

Everything that I have always striven for and at some level now attained is painfully obviously fleeting. This must be the feeling of mid-life-- a time when you are at the top of the bell curve, full of precisely the same amount of potential and kinetic energy, feeling collapsed into the same moment all of the past and future- like you are the Little Prince treading constantly against the spin of a tiny globe- forever keeping pace only to the precise moment in which you are, every moment, present.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Stop & Frisk

The NYPD's Stop & Frisk policy is currently the subject of a federal court case and of many news reports. The policy allows police officers who have a reasonable suspicion that someone has committed or is about to commit a crime to stop and question them. If the officer then has reasonable suspicion that he is in danger of physical injury, he can frisk the suspect for weapons. During such frisks, suspects are asked to empty their pockets, which has in many instances led to convictions for drug possession. Four men who claim that they were stopped by the police solely due to racial profiling are challenging the policy in federal court, and there is some pretty good data to back up their claim. According to the ACLU, "innocent New Yorkers have been subjected to police stops and street interrogations more than 4 million times since 2002, and ... black and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics. Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports." ( 

I seriously doubt that the police officers who are using Stop & Frisk in an apparently discriminatory manner are doing so intentionally. They are probably exhibiting the covert racism that runs through the fabric of American society and that haunts the subconscious thoughts, bleeding over into the subtle behaviors of-- dare I say-- all of us. 

I am a typical middle class white American. I grew up in a small town where, in my graduating class of over 400 students, we had fewer than 10 African Americans. I heard racial slurs and jokes on an inconsistent but regular basis. Despite formulating a generalized underlying negativity toward black people through indirect means, I also had black friends and I have some family members who are black and who I love dearly. I don't think I'm atypical in having, somewhere deeply embedded in my subconscious, a negative generalization about black people that persists despite probing myself very deeply in attempts to remove these ideas. They operate at an automatic level that I constantly, consciously fight. And at the same time, those generalizations and automatic assumptions never, ever apply to the black people who I actually know and interact with. It is strange and unsettling to me that my mind operates in this way, and that I don't have complete control over it. 

But this is a cultural problem that we all have to confront. The question is how to do that, exactly. Knowing that this bias exists in our culture, that it operates in the back room of everybody's minds as we go about our daily affairs, how can we trust people who make decisions affecting the life and liberty of black people to treat them fairly? We cannot trust our own minds not to deceive us in this regard. Even when we try, we are not fair. Because of this, the idea of colleges using admissions quotas to help ensure that a proportionate number of minorities end up being accepted into incoming freshman classes makes good sense to me, as does making sure that if a policy like Stop & Frisk continues, some attention is paid to the number of white people vs. minorities who are stopped. Using a numbers system is not perfect. It's artificial. It's a way of double checking our behavior to eliminate bias. 

Using statistics and quotas to eliminate racism reminds me of what I do when I'm trying to nail a running pace. The ideal is to have the proper pace internalized so that you can simply tell by feel whether you're running at the desired speed. But learning a pace is not intuitive. You need practice and lots of experience, and outside help. I use a GPS watch to tell me my pace when I'm first learning it, and I repeat it over and over again until I know what it feels like to do it properly. Once I have internalized the feel, I check back in with the GPS occasionally to make sure I'm still on target, because it's easy, even after you think you've learned a pace, to go off the rails. This particularly happens when external conditions change, such as when you are running a race as opposed to just doing a training run.

Just as with learning a running pace, I think learning to extricate the traces of covert racism requires some sort of external reference point, some check on behavior to make sure you're really changing. The ideal, of course, is to internalize a new underlying attitude, to make a real internal change so that you just really ARE NOT racist, at all, anywhere, even deep down inside under a rock you forgot to turn over. That's where the statistics come in. We need to make sure we are not behaving in a racist manner and attributing it to something else. We can't trust ourselves because we suck. Deep, deep down inside. We really suck. We need help.

Racism is a spiritual disease that blights us all.  I hate it in myself and am just as much a victim of it as the people who it oppresses. But my suffering is nothing compared to the people who actually are oppressed by my and every other white person's unintentional behavior. I don't think we have even begun to understand the reach of racism's effects, the way the daily slights that black people receive from white people who-- whether they are trying or not to rid themselves of prejudice-- continue to inflict little wounds with their subconscious attitudes. Several studies have been conducted which point to a correlation between people's perception of being discriminated against on the basis of race and the rate of cancer (e.g., It's wild to think that the tiny behaviors that slip out from some dirty part of millions of subconscious minds are slowly wearing away at the well-being of an entire group of our society. 

My greatest hope is in my children, and in their children, in generation after generation of new people who are hopefully all less and less affected by the mental blight that resides in me and mine.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Thinking Obliquely

I have been fortunate to have some formative professional experiences with creative thinkers who understand how to work with their subconscious minds in order to solve complex problems. I think it's possible to ape their behavior in order to achieve similar results, and so I think their stories are worth sharing. I refer to their analytical style as "thinking obliquely," for lack of a better term. 

My first encounter with this style of thinking was in the person of Jim Eiss, my boss of the last (gulp) 12 years. I've never met anyone who mulls things over more than he does, and it's the thing I love about him. It's why he is one of the most brilliant immigration attorneys. He is well aware of the fact that his subconscious brain contains a spark of genius and he knows how to work WITH it, even though he doesn't know how exactly it works. It's like a mysterious machine that he knows how to operate. So Jim gets a call from a client with a difficult case and he has the vague shape of a solution in his brain. He has a way of satisfying the client that he will figure out their case even though he hasn't nailed down the solution yet (another art form that will no doubt result in a future blog entry). Then his next step is to read absolutely everything he can find about the subject. Often he then comes to me to discuss it. We bounce the idea back and forth and flesh it out a little more. Then he sleeps on it. It's like he's sowed a seed and just has to wait for it to sprout. And then he doesn't talk about it until he's ready. He's like a grandma with something in the oven who magically knows when it's ready to come out. And then a day later, maybe 3 days later, maybe a week, he will just pop out some ingenious solution to the complex problem. 

My second encounter with the notion of oblique thinking was with this writing professor in law school, Janet Lindgren. She accepted me for an independent research project for a semester. I had decided to write proposed regulations on AC21 (an immigration law from 2001 that still hasn't been regulated to this day), and I was slogging my way through it for several weeks. About halfway through the semester she told me she thought that she was getting to the bottom of what my writing problem was and that she needed to approach it in another way, so she had me quit working on the regulations and asked me to bring in a brief I was working on at work. So I did. She helped me to rewrite that brief for a very difficult permanent resident application into one of the best things I'd ever written, and I think it was because of that that the client became a permanent resident. 

I thought that switching tracks at that point was rather odd, but she seemed to have a plan so I didn't question her methods. I intrigued by them, though, and after the fact tried to get her to explain why she'd diverted me into another project. (We did eventually get back to hammering out the regulations). Her only explanation was something about it being like needing to use her peripheral vision to hone in on what was right in front of her. She needed to see a completely different writing sample from me- something that would point in a different way at what was the flaw in my approach. In the end, she nailed it perfectly: she said I needed to take my hands off the reader's neck. It sounds so obvious and simple but it's revolutionized the way that I think and write. I never trusted the reader before that to understand the point I was making and so I would over-explain it to the point of insulting the reader.

Both Jim and Professor Lindgren have a similar approach to solving complex problems. They study the problem in depth, until they understand it inside and out, and then they back away from it and allow their subconscious minds to process it. They trust some part of themselves to work out the problem away from their conscious gaze. It's something I try to emulate. I think that just being aware that the brain is capable of functioning in this way can revolutionize one's approach to problem solving. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Pythagorean Aesthetics

Your body is the shape of your habits
Like the shape in the sand
Is the picture of an ideal
In the mind of a man
Who believes in a universal order
That we shadow with our efforts
When we strive toward a perfection in form.

What this points toward
Is that beauty is what isn't--
It's the flower in the sidewalk,
It's the joy that's born of sorrow--
It's the soul's resolution
That fills up every space in our thoughts.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Glass House

The woman in the glass knows
She can never cast a stone
Because the one who holds her captive
Knows the name that breaks her bones.

The mirror brings together
The accuser and accused-
It is the prison glass that shields us
When we come to break the news.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Knowledge We're Born With

You know you really love someone when you start to worry about their death, when you've imagined the death bed scene so many times that if it ever actually unfolds that way, it will almost be a comfort. I think we imagine these things because in a strange way, if we bring their death into the fabric of our lives, we think we'll be able to have something of their lives woven into the fabric of our lives after their death-- a trade of sorts, a way of saving a bit of today for a hopefully distant tomorrow. How strange it will be if I am the one in the death bed with those I love so well gathered around me. I hope that-- as backwards a desire as this sounds-- I get to outlive them all.

There was an old Irish lady named Eileen Hull, who lived down the street from me on Tindle Ave. She was in her 90s and she only had one close friend her age who hadn't died yet-- Betty, who lived a few doors down. They had both lived there since the 1950s. Eileen told me things about the history of the neighborhood- what it had been like before they built the entry ramp to the 400. She told me-- a few times, actually, because she repeated stories-- about how one of the houses on the street had to be moved on a truck bed down the street, and how they had hoisted the thing onto the truck with everything still inside of it and moved it to a brand new lot at the tail end of the street. She remembers sitting on her front porch and seeing the lampshade in the living room window moving back and forth as it trundled slowly along.

Eileen held so much history inside of her. When she told a story, it was always a *good* one- something vivid, and painted with the perfect details to set your imagination alight. She was life personified- so beautiful. I never even said goodbye to her when we moved. I still feel guilty about that.

I was the one who had to tell Eileen the horrible news that her old neighbor's daughter, Patsy, had passed away in her 50s of Lupus. Eileen had watched her grow up and they still wrote letters back and forth.

Eileen has lost more people in her old age than I've had the good fortune of ever knowing. And when she found out that Patsy had died, she doubled over in pain at the news. I'll never forget it. We were standing on the sidewalk in front of her house and she had her Scottish Terrier on a short leash. She was wearing a thin  house coat and slippers. Her leg skin was exposed and her leg skin looked like melted candle wax because of her Diabetes. Her hair was always freshly dyed some technicolor shade of orange. And the pain of the news bent her double. Eileen.

It only took her a minute to recover, and when she did, she told me that Patsy had sent her a packet of Forget-Me-Not seeds with her last letter, just before her death. Eileen remembered this because she always remembered the powerful details. I think that's why she lived so long, so that she could be the one left to tell all of the stories.


The stars that we promised to gaze on
Burned out long ago. The comets that plummet
Like childhood visions extinguish
The knowledge we're born with
That all we perceive is already gone.

Not even stars, we imagine the arc
Of the comet as part of the present,
Yet the phantoms of stars that seem fixed
In the heavens are older and further
And fade much more slowly, so slowly

That we and and our children shall pass
Long before we perceive their absence.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Just as every story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending, so does every love. But love has a way of collapsing time so that you experience all of these pieces in every moment. This is how love becomes full; when we feel its ending and its beginning in those seemingly infinite moments through the middle. Sometimes I think the Christian story of death and resurrection points toward this-- that we have to suffer the loss of what we love in order to see it-- that we can trade moments with the future, seeding the inevitability of love's ending through the fertile moments of the present against some future flowering. Or so I hope.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Emotional Focus

Pop psychology has given us all the awareness that we store memories with strong emotional content in a different and more powerful way than most memories. Our brains seem to shine a spotlight on moments that are packed with emotional content. By doing so, however, other portions of our experience are necessarily left in the dark.

A couple of winters ago, I was driving home from work on a busy country highway when a deer ran into my car. It was a buck. I remember seeing its antlers first as it came out of the brush. It cleared the lane of oncoming traffic to my left before attempting to leap over my car as it traveled at 45 miles per hour (ok, 50). I barely had time to step on the brakes, but it wasn't enough. I can still see with perfect clarity the image of his huge white belly with my headlights reflecting off of it. It was so bright and white. He crashed down onto the hood of my car and then ran away. I can also recall pulling over to the shoulder and watching the face of the driver behind me as he slowly drove by, with a look of shock on his face.

After I pulled over, I called the police to write up an accident report. When the cop showed up, he asked me which way the deer went, and I confidently responded that he had continued in his course, off to my right. Together, the cop and I searched under the pine trees in the yard with our flash lights. (There was actually a dead doe tied up under one of them, which was surprising, but she had been shot recently). As I tramped through the yard, looking for the deer so he could be put down, I went through the scene in my mind. I realized as I reviewed my memory that I had been so intently focused on my moment of impact with the deer, and the brief shuddering horror of colliding with it, that I did not actually have ANY memory of which way it ran. It was a huge blank in my memory. I just assumed that it continued in its course after I hit it. But for all I could remember, it was possible that it could have turned around and gone back across the street. I went and searched over there too, without explaining why to the cop. We never did find it.

I wonder how many important details we miss when we are focused on the events that are emotionally arousing; whether there are methods to mitigate this effect; and whether it would be healthy and/or helpful to use them. I also wonder where I can get a flashlight that works as well as the one that cop had.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Bible Stories From a Non-Believer

Two of the Bible stories that haunt my memory years after having last read the Bible in its entirety or gone to church regularly-- and I don't even know if I remember them correctly or if my mind has modified them into some more poetic version in the years that they've been stored away-- are the stories of Doubting Thomas's reaction to Christ's resurrection from the dead, and of Saul of Tarsus's conversion to Christianity. The Doubting Thomas story is at John 20:24-29. Saul's conversion story is at Acts 9 if you want to check. I am not going to bother for the moment.

Both stories-- at least as I understand them all these years later-- depict God/Christ presenting himself to human criteria for belief. I always felt sympathy for Thomas and the horrible moniker hung on him by believers; his doubt that a man he had seen crucified would rise from the dead three days later seems reasonable to me. But what is touching to me is that Jesus appealed both to his belief and his unbelief. He appealed to his belief by appearing to him as Jesus the Nazarene, whom Thomas well knew; and he appealed to his unbelief by presenting his wounded palms to Thomas for examination. By doing so, Christ expanded Thomas's vision of him to include "Lord" and "God," which Thomas called him  after he saw the holes in his hands. Christ gave him proof. That strikes me as sympathetic, coming as it did from the same Jesus who had often refused to perform miracles on demand. Once Thomas saw the wounds, his doubt gave way to a faith that transcended the evidence.

In the story of Saul's conversion, too, Yahweh revealed himself to the man in a way that fitted with his conception of who God was, at once fulfilling and transcending it, if only so that Saul would recognize him. Like Thomas, Saul's understanding of God was not so much incorrect as it was incomplete. He saw Yahweh as a God of vengeance and of judgment, and therefore saw it fit to mete out that judgment on Christians. This was, after all, the same Yahweh that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, flooded the earth, and sent plagues on Egypt. Yet it was also Yahweh who spared Lot and his sons from Sodom, who rescued Noah's family and all of the animals of the earth from the flood, and who led the Israelites to the Promised Land.

God did not condemn Saul for his lack of understanding. Instead, when he met Saul on the road to Damascus with a blinding light from heaven, he appeared within Saul's understanding of his character, as a God of vengeance. God inserted himself into Saul's framework of understanding and then enlarged Saul's concept of who he was; he expanded Saul's vision of God to include the Christ whose followers Saul had been persecuting. When a voice called out to Saul and said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?," Saul perceived that it was God who was addressing him and that he was unacquainted with his full character.

Both Thomas and Saul encountered a God who matched their limited understanding of his character and who subsequently transformed their understanding, broadening it to encompass a more complete view of his nature.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Anatomy of a Confession

Most of the time, my clients are honest with me. Occasionally, however, I get the client who thinks of his attorney as a testing ground for whether he can fleece government officers. Or maybe the person has been concealing a fact for so long that he simply hasn't told it to anyone and thinks it is buried deeply enough that it never will be uncovered. Either way, there is a certain set of facts that I need to know in order to prepare a case properly, and one of them is whether my client has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. This is where I see people concealing information on an infrequent but consistent basis.

Because people often initially lie (or "forget," as they tell me) about this question, I have learned to ask it multiple times and in different ways. I ask it initially on a questionnaire, again in an email directly to the client and then, if I'm meeting them in person to present their case at the border to apply for admission, I ask them one last time before we cross the border, and I try to pierce them with my laser eyes when I ask. More often than not, people who initially lie about this bit of information will tell me when I ask them the second time. They may wait a day or two to respond, and then they come out with it. They often call me to tell me rather than respond to the email, and their confession is couched in all kinds of explanations-- "I was young," or "It was so long ago," or "I'm not sure if I was even convicted..."

I've noticed a pattern to all of this. When people are ashamed of a fact, or think that others will judge them harshly for it or that it will negatively affect their future, they bring the truth out slowly. They admit to part of the truth initially and then bring out the rest later. Once you've got someone admitting to a corner of the truth, though, it's easy to grab onto it and drag the whole thing out. They just need a little help, a few questions. I don't particularly enjoy this process but the pattern has become so easy to spot-- it's so universal from one culture, gender, and background to the next-- that I realize the game we're playing almost immediately and jump into my role. It's better that I be the one to drag it out than a government officer. That way, we have time to prepare a legal argument, if there is one to be made.

I had one client, however, who was so recalcitrant about this process that it passed my notice and I ended up watching an officer drag the truth out of him over the course of a very long morning. I could not believe how long it took but I could see the path we were headed down. This guy was in his 70s, and was applying at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo to enter the U.S. to work for the U.S. branch of his Canadian employer. He lived in a border town and had crossed into the U.S. numerous times as a visitor over the years. He had never been stopped and questioned about his history and therefore thought that the U.S. government had no idea about his convictions. After all, they had happened when he was in his 20s. What he did not know was that the officers at primary inspection at the little booths outside do not run the full criminal background check, whereas the officers inside at secondary inspection, where we needed to present his case, do.  In fact, it's the first thing they do, before they even start to look at the person's eligibility for the employment-authorized status they seek.

When the officer called my client up, he started asking him to verify his name, which happened to be a very unusual name, and then launched into questions about the convictions he saw in the system. My client first tried to convince the officer it was another person with the same name (very unlikely). Then he stated he had never even been to the Canadian province where the conviction occurred, but later recalled having taken a road trip there with his friend, who he then started to claim must have been arrested and gave the officers his name. This went on and on, for 2 or 3 hours, until my client finally admitted that he had been convicted of Breaking & Entering because he had siphoned gas out of a police car.

All throughout the process, I continued to counsel him to tell the truth if he remembered anything- fortunately my client was not charged with fraud for misrepresenting a material fact. He could have been. What's worse, the conviction likely would not have been an issue if he had told me about it up front and we had gone through the process of collecting and analyzing the records. But I couldn't do anything about it at that point.

I think that the way that people confess to their lies in stages tells us something about the way that people start to embed lies in their brains in the first place; the confession is a reversal of that process. Belief in one's own lies is a slow process of integrating a falsified piece of information into the fabric of the truth. I think my client who took a particularly long time to confess did so because he had held onto the lie for a particularly long period of time, had come to believe it himself.  It was only when forced to confront the record that he began to extricate the falsified information from the place in his memory where it had come to rest.

[Confession: I am not really capable of making laser eyes.]

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Through the Dog Pen

Sometimes when I'm hovering over my children, bent on protecting them from the obvious dangers that might befall them, I recall the dirt pile I used to play in for hours as a five year old, the long sojourns through our woods around the same age with nary a companion or caregiver, and most of all I remember the gauntlet of dogs through which I was forced to leave my crazy next door neighbor's house.

The Rikers lived next door to us until I was about seven. Their Mom was certifiably crazy. I can remember her inviting my mom and me in for a cup of tea and at some point the adult conversation which I was ignoring must have wended down some errant path that led her to stand in the middle of a summer afternoon and sing an a capella rendition of Silent Night. She had a lovely voice. Really.

The Rikers also had the filthiest house I have ever seen, and their three girls whose ages were surrounding mine shared a bedroom in the basement which had two beds and some number of cats roaming around which I could never get an accurate count on. They also had two completely untrained dogs that used to take Mrs. Riker for walks down the street on the rare occasions that she freed them from their little pen in the back yard. They were wild and threatening.

The dog pen was fenced in and comprised about a third of their back yard. Inside it the grass was completely gone and there were numerous holes dug in the earth. The dogs were the only thing in the pen apart from their perpetually empty food and water dishes. A set of stairs constructed of 2 x 4"s and stained red led up from the dog pen to a tiny landing outside the sliding glass door in the kitchen. They had a front door, mind you, but after I came over to play with the girls (where they would often be given snacks or pieces of gum by their mother, who would make a show of not offering me any), I was forced to exit through the back door, where I would have to walk 15 feet through the snarling dogs to exit their pen.

For some reason, my instinct in these situations was to make my face a stone wall, march slowly down the stairs with utter confidence, not look at the dogs, and simply walk. I did it a number of times before those nutters moved, and I never thought too much of it. But I can't tell you how many times in subsequent years those moments have fluttered back to my mind as I realize I formed an important skill for bravely facing what seem at first to be terrifying circumstances. I've walked through many proverbial dog pens.

I hope I don't deprive my children of the ability to develop bravery, toughness, and real problem solving skills by keeping them out of harm's way.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Faith That Moves Mountains

After reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, I toyed with the idea of calling myself an atheist, because atheists, he explains, are not people who firmly believe there is no God. Rather, they simply live is if there isn't one. That could describe me. But so could a lot of watered down definitions of "Christian."

I was once a teenager and a young adult who was prematurely permitted to insert my hand into every aspect of the church's functioning. I taught children and teenagers, I ran programs, attended some sort of church function most days of the week. I was frequently called upon to give expression to my faith and I frequently complied.

At some point in my slow evolution into a functioning member of society, many of my own words came back to haunt me. The hollowness of my platitudes plagued me. Each phrase had been handed down to me and while I internalized them, believed them and tried to act upon them, I had not gained a single insight through experience, struggle or grief. My expressions of faith were no more real than a child playing dress-up, modeling the behavior of those around me.

I have slowly shed all of the aspects of faith that seem unreal to me.  I know the Bible. Its verses still sing away in me and there are some that are very insightful. But I don't miss the charade of churchgoing one bit. I don't miss my awkward attempts at making mine a story that I don't fully believe, the pat responses, the myopia. I don't trust myself to approach Christian teachings honestly when they are so deeply embedded in a culture that strikes me as wrong and subversively demanding on my internal resources, that quietly prods me toward spiritual falsity. Perhaps it does not have this effect on everyone, but that is how it affects me. It silences the part of me that is capable of insight, the part of me that that is serene in the face of death, the part that understands and accepts my nothingness in the flux of time, the part capable of spontaneous joy.

But here is what I have left. Sometimes when I finish a grueling run and everything in me is spent and I am full of joy, I whisper a silent, "Thank you." And I mean it. I mean it from the bottom of my heart and I am thanking the Creator of all things that in that moment, I truly believe in. It is for no one but Him and it is rich and full and real. I know that this is very poor. But my spirit is poor and this is all it has. I may be weak, I may be poor and I may be misguided. But I am not false.

This is the point where my Christian teenage self would have said, "That's great that you've recognized your spiritual poverty, but now..." And the church urges us to recognize our poverty and then go fill ourselves with spiritual riches and sing God's praises. But I will always be poor. The widow who gave her last mite did not go home rich. She went home as poor as she always was. We are broken and it's ok to live that way. It's only in my poverty that I can see the true value of what little I do possess. I will take a thousand runs to feel that tiny moment of true gratitude. Because that is all I am capable of.

One of those Bible verses that still courses through me is the promise that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit. I don't really even know what that means. But it sounds pretty good, and I know I am poor and I don't hope to be fixed. I feel grateful.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Memories are a hiding place.

Memories are a hiding place. All kinds of information is packed away in them that the brain that stored them was not yet equipped to understand. Fortunately life sometimes gives us enough distance from some of them that we can begin to understand their many layers.

My family lived in an apartment building until I was four years old. Sometime before that, and after I learned to walk, my father and I were walking hand-in-hand along the network of sidewalks that wound around the buildings in that complex. One and only one of them featured an elaborate balcony hanging off the back: Florence's apartment. My dad and I would walk there once a month to pay the rent in person, in cash. This day was not rent day; we just happened to pass by there. Little did we expect to see Florence gracing her balcony, or the invitation that would follow.

Florence was the landlady that some writer would invent for a sitcom. She had what must have been translucent white hair, dyed into a poof of orange that she would wear piled on her head in some bewitching manner that was capable of acting like a light catcher on sunny afternoons. And so it was-- sunny, mid-day, perhaps spring. Perhaps a day like today.

I don't remember any of the words she and my father exchanged. But I do remember the textures, the emotions. Florence stood on the balcony engaging my father in a conversation he would rather not be having, but which he felt obliged to carry on. I remember feeling like we were fish and she was up in her big boat casting her line, willing to reel in anything that would bite. She invited us inside and we went. It was the only time I remember being inside her living room and not just the rent office. She had an ornate golden couch, on either side of which stood two stone lions. She smoked a cigarette out of a holder until it became hard to breathe. Everything intimidated. Eventually we left, apparently, because I am not still there.

My mind has traveled back to that memory numerous times over the years, and I think the reason that it stuck was because I knew there was more to it than what I could understand at the time- the feeling of being on the underside of a class difference, the person above us barely at the top of our own class but striving to feel higher, and needing us in order to do so; the feeling of my father's reluctance to engage in the charade, perhaps not perceiving all of its elements himself, but feeling inexplicably shier than usual. My 3 or 4 year old self could not possibly have comprehended those aspects of the scene, yet there they are in my memory-- my early observations seared into my brain as images and textures of emotion, without words, and dubbed over by my more mature mind. It's hard to tell whether I perceived what was going on at the time without having the words to convey it, or whether I perceived those things only later, like someone watching a silent movie. Either way, the memory is laid over by a part of my mind and spirit that developed much, much later.

I observed a similar phenomenon with my oldest daughter, whose every development I had the pleasure of observing without distraction. The most mystifying part of her growth, to me, was that brief period where she was just on the cusp of language. There were a few occasions where she would talk about something that I realized had happened before she could talk. I found it hard to wrap my mind around the idea of describing a pre-lingual experience.

But we do this all the time. And as we age, we do it even more. We can even force it sometimes. Once you realize that your brain is storing things you can't yet decode, you can try to focus on experiences that your brain hooks on, that you know hold more than you can yet comprehend- a look on someone's face, the way someone reacts to information, a dream that seems to hold meaning. Your soul can learn to act as a scale for the weight of moments. It can alert you when there's something worth paying attention to.

But largely, this process is passive. Our minds bring us back memories when we are ready for them, when we are capable of understanding everything that they hold. Time does bear some wonderful gifts.

Monday, April 15, 2013

To See

The first things I always notice when I meet a person are the factors that might shape their worldview- their socio-economic position, place of upbringing, parental status- there are a million other possibilities, but you can't just ask about these things outright.  At best, I function like a metal detector, honing in on the important bits just enough to send off a little alarm in my brain to let me know when I'm close. But those are always the pieces I look for first- sort of like how when I do a puzzle, I look for all the edge pieces first. Sometimes I map out the perimeter and get bored with it and walk away. Other times I see unfathomable mysteries, I become intrigued, I slave over all the bits I can find, shaping them into a proper picture in my heart and in my mind- right down to that last piece that magically completes the puzzle. It may take months or years, but some pictures just demand to be seen, and those of us who are able, should.

Three Minutes

After finishing a long run over the sun-soaked, shadow-torn rolling hills south of Buffalo, NY yesterday, I walked a quarter mile to my car. It took only about three minutes to walk the last length of the dead end road where my car was waiting for me in the late afternoon sun, which was just beginning to wane at around 5 p.m. I recall the light being about the same when I ran a similar course last fall, probably October, a parallel place in the earth's ellipsis around the sun. And the day had other parallels as well.

On that day the fall had just begun to creep into my bones and I walked this same stretch of road feeling the fullness of its presence. Three minutes gave me leaves falling across my path, a three legged black dog doing its strange gallop beside me-- black dogs always the harbinger of death. Geese honked their departure overhead. A sad new grayness settled into the sky, the sunlight losing its luster. I could feel the slow ebb of all the small things that make smiling inevitable, leaving me alone with my thoughts in what would soon be a much quieter landscape, to test my body and my mind against harsher elements.

And yesterday, in the same three minute walk, spring was making its presence known. In that tiny sliver of time, the fullness of the season worked its way into me. The black dog was lazing in the sunshine on its porch and in the front corner of the yard, in a closet of leafless vines, a brother and sister were playing in what is really no more than a puddle. But it was large enough for the girl to paddle around it in her inner tube, which is what she was doing while her brother, a few years older at most, stood atop the upturned roots of a fallen tree-- likely soaked through by the collected water-- engaged in a make-believe drama that prompted him to shout, "I'm going to be doomed!" as he teetered on the edge of falling. He did not see me but his sister did, and she smiled quietly at me, seeming to share for a second my outsider's perspective on her brother. She said nothing to him or to me, but paddled on in small circles.

I carried on and saw three roosters pecking away under the giant pine tree in front of their house, watched geese gliding to a landing in the pond across the street. And much to my surprise, I could hear in the thicket what I can only imagine was the sound of geese mating. What a brutal and sensuous racket!

Two three-minute walks form my deepest impressions of fall and spring. Time slices the tiniest slivers of its passage into our souls, marking the seasons on our bones like a prisoner passing the days by carving a tally mark for each one into his wall. These are the loveliest scars to bear.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Ache

Not even fools deny the ache
That rends us all, but only they
Claim to assuage it.

The rest of us just sing to it
And force our hearts to bring to it
The sadness of our aging.

Time is a stream that swells in spring,
Gathering speed with the sort of change
That puts us off remembering.