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.