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.