The Day After Tomorrow

The city of Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas have just endured the meteorologic equivalent of a zombie movie. The flood, it seemed, came from nowhere, in all directions, patiently overtaking everyone and everything. There was no hurricane, no Weather Channel Special Event. No “Megastorm Rudolph” or whatever. It was a rainy day, and then tens of thousands of people became homeless and lost everything they owned. The floods seemed to have no logic behind them—places flooded that haven’t flooded in centuries, if ever—places where it was not just improbable that flooding would occur, but laughable—impossible.

It was like The Day After Tomorrow, the awful movie in which one day there is sudden global freezing, or something, due to climate change. I don’t doubt climate change or its human accelerant, but when it does come, I doubt I’ll go to bed in a humid Louisiana summer and wake up to find Antarctica in the backyard. But the flood was exactly like that. People went to bed and woke up to a foot of water in their house, and they weren’t even the least fortunate of the victims.

But a zombie movie, that’s what I’ve thought about this week. Because the flooding just seemed to happen, and in places that, to a layman, seems to have been in random places with no concern for elevation or location—here, not there, here and here and here but not one road over. It’s like Poseidon was throwing darts. It didn’t seem even to be related to the intensity of rain. So there’s been a general feeling of: It’s coming. They’re coming to get you Barbara! This threat, inexplicable. You cannot outrun it. You can’t prepare for it. Stack all the sandbags you’d like—the water will not relent.

In most zombie movies you see How It All Started. Some scientist playing God, or whatever, and then doomsday. But for most characters in such a movie, that’s not how it happens. For them, they’re eating breakfast and down the road come the zombies, lumbering along, hungry for brains. What do you do? Where do you go? That’s the flood. And like any good thriller, the first thing you have to do is get rid of cell phones, because isolation is key to scaring someone. In Baton Rouge, AT&T was able to oblige, its wireless service collapsing immediately after the flood began. No calls in or out. You’re alone and whether or not your family is flooded or trapped or dead is a terrifying mystery.

My house was not flooded, though it was just dumb luck that it didn’t. Our number wasn’t called. But I keep thinking of the people who lost everything. Very, very few of these people had flood insurance because they didn’t live in flood areas. It would have been like having blizzard insurance, The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding. And so they’ve lost everything they own, have no house, still have mortgages, and will get little to none of their money back from insurance companies. How do you recover from that? It’s inconceivable. And yet for thousands of people, that’s their life now. But it’s so much worse than that, because businesses were flooded too, and aren’t likely to open tomorrow, if ever. Now you’re homeless, destitute, deeply in debt, and you don’t have a job or income.

In truth, I’ve not paid much attention to the national news because when actual news is happening the national media is at its worst, the industry having long pivoted to a tawdry form of entertainment. Had reporters parachuted in, they would have sewn only the seeds of chaos, like foreign spies inciting Third World riots. But I was mortified to find a day after the city was submerged—residents desperately working to rescue neighbors, friends, family—that no major paper condescended even to mention on its front page the tragedy, the catastrophe, the liquid apocalypse that had befallen Louisiana. It was a clarifying event. Here is how little you matter. In truth, Baton Rouge and surrounding communities—obliterated Denham Springs, 80% of its residents submerged!—probably don’t matter much to the rotation of the Earth. But simply as fellow countrymen, one would expect a tip of the hat. An empty gesture. No speech by the president. Nothing from the Dorito-hued con man running for president. A single tweet from Hillary Clinton, presumably the next president. Less than 140 characters of text. We didn’t even rate a Very Special Edition of her propaganda podcast. Thanks Hillary. Baton Rouge citizens who are #withher know now that it’s a one way #with.

But there again, it’s been amazing?—I hate to use that word, but here we are—how meaningless the national spotlight has been. It’s been a deliverance to avoid the stampede of politicians posing for photographs in shelters, their best Very Concerned faces plastered on. Will this look good on my website? This is the front of my reelection brochure. They’re not here, and nobody misses them, exactly. It’s just a principal thing. And to see the response of the community—you hear “everyone came together” and you roll your eyes, but here, that’s exactly what happened. The moment the flood started, the Celtic movie studio opened one of its massive sound stages and started a shelter. Local fishermen raced their boats into subdivisions and down highways, going house to house, rescuing strangers. The Cajun Navy. Not because they were somehow directed or coerced, but because it needed to be done, and who else was going to do it? People used Facebook to ask for help, or to ask for someone to check on a loved one (AT&T was down when it was needed most!) and strangers in their boats would see the request, and steer toward the houses in question. This improvised emergency response—a bunch of guys in fishing boats, a film studio with an empty building, shared status updates on Facebook—was exponentially better than any “managed” disaster response I’ve seen in my lifetime. Please don’t help us—we don’t want another Katrina! Donation centers have sprung up everywhere—donation centers alone could have pushed the flood water away. My daughter and I went to Walmart to buy items to donate, and it was like the whole store was doing the same. People just pushing shelves of toiletries and baby items and foodstuffs into grocery carts to give away. So many people have volunteered that volunteers have been turned back. Those same volunteers took to social media to learn where help was needed, and went there instead. Roving bands of mercy facing down the zombie menace, the overnight Antarctica.

I don’t know what happens next. Nobody does. School is back in session, which is good. But even in the letter from my daughter’s school announcing the reopening, a sad aside: school is reopening in part so that parents can begin recovery efforts without also having to attend to the kids. The community will survive this, but it will take so many years. At least there is some clarity as to where we rate on the national scene, and the knowledge that whatever comes next, we can handle it.

An Ode to the Livescribe Echo Smartpen

The Livescribe Echo Smartpen is a best friend to both journalists and students, and is one of the few devices in my arsenal that have made a measurable, positive impact on my career. I bought my pen in 2010, making it quite old in tech years, and while it is beginning to show its age (the digital screen no long lights sufficiently that I can read it), it has proven to be a workhorse and a staple of my satchel. When conducting an interview, I generally bring my pen, a spiral-bound Livescribe notebook, and also a small, Philips digital audio recorder, for redundancy. (I’ve yet to lose a single minute from either device due to technical problems, though we buy insurance not for what has happened, but for what might happen. And as an added benefit, on occasion one mic can clarify audio that is muddled on the other.)

The way the Echo pen works is this. I take notes by hand in my Livescribe notebook. The pen records both the audio being spoken, but also the pen strokes as I write them in the notebook. When I later download a note-taking session to my computer, I can see my notes being written in real time as the audio plays. (This is super useful when drawing diagrams of things being explained.) But a computer isn’t even necessary for the process, at any step, ever (save backups, which can go directly to Evernote, where handwritten notes are then made searchable—one of many Evernote miracles). Sans computer, you can also take only your little spiral-bound notebook and pen, go off somewhere, plug headphones into the pen (or just use the pen’s speaker) and open the notebook. Tap the pen on any word of any note you’ve taken, and the pen will almost as if by magic begin playing the audio recorded at the exact moment you wrote said note. This is a game changer, and adds a level of prevision to notes and direct quotes that must surely be unparalleled in the history of notetaking.

Here is an Amazon link to the Livescribe 2 Echo. N.b. that I make no money on this link, as Louisiana is ineligible for affiliate linking.

Note further that I’ve said nothing about the much newer Livescribe 3, which I own, and despise, for the following reasons:

1. It is not self contained. If I want to use a Livescribe 3 pen, I have to have my phone present (which is not always possible depending on the security policies of institutions at which I conduct interviews), and more unnerving, I have to trust that Livescribe’s general execrable software will not crash on my phone, midway through an interview, leaving me missing key parts of interviews. More importantly, such mission-critical failures force me to disrupt the flow of an interview in order to reload the app and fiddle with the pen to get things reconnected. This is simply a deal-breaker. Audio recorders can sometimes be ever-present warnings to interview subjects that You-Are-Being-Recorded-So-Hedge-Everything-You-Say-on-Penalty-of-Career-Suicide. (Not that I generally, if ever, ask such loaded questions, but when you’re being recorded, every question can feel that way.) This risks leading to stilted, toothless, mealy answers. But not generally. Once an interview begins, I start the recorder, aim it, and within 10 minutes or so, it is usually forgotten because we are used to being surrounded by technology. Moreover, people generally focus only on a single thing or thought. During an interview, that single thing is the question at hand. The recorder thus melts into the table and is soon forgotten. But start fiddling with your fat pen and iPhone, and suddenly the recorder returns to the forefront, this time glowing in phosphorescence.

2. I am left-handed. The designers of the Livescribe 3 (smartly) rejected the weird Livescribe 2 cap in favor of a twist-to-extend-pentip model. So far, so good. But they positioned the twist-to-extend band in the dead center of the pen. If you’re right handed, that’s no problem. As you write, the downward pressure of the pen against your hand acts as a kind of locking mechanism keeping the pen extended. (The pen extends by twisting the band counterclockwise.) But if you are left handed, the downward pressure of the pen against you hand constantly twists the band clockwise, thus unlocking the pen and retracting it. The upshot is that every few paragraphs during furious note taking, the pen suddenly retracts and thus powers down and generally loses connection to the app, disrupting everything. (See point 1.)

3. It is a missed opportunity. The downside of the Livescribe Echo is its bulk. It’s like writing with a fat Crayola marker. This is because it has to pack audio recording equipment within its shell. By outsourcing the audio stuff to the phone for the Livescribe 3, though, the new pen should have shrunken considerably, to something more in line with a Sharpie marker. Instead, and inexplicably, they went the opposite direction, making the Livescribe 3 more like a Magic Marker. Whether this was a design choice (though I cannot imagine how) or poor internal engineering, the result is all of the bad with none of the good. You lose the self-contained pen while gaining a fat pen relying on Livescribe’s notoriously unreliable software.

I’ve not yet given up on the company, though, and hope that the Livescribe 4 addresses these issues by: 1. Returning the recording component of the device to the pen’s internals, while 2. Taking advantage on 7+ years of technological advancement to shrink the internals to give us a pen closer in size to a traditional pen, and 3. Move the pen-tip-twist-extension to the top side of the pen, when one’s handgrip does not result in inadvertent twists.

I will report back when the next pen is released.

The Cost of Writing a Book

Writers don’t often discuss money, and that’s a problem. Perhaps as a result, there are a lot of misconceptions about publishing advances, and about the non-trivial expenses incurred by authors while writing books, from proposal through publication and promotion. This is without even getting into the cost on the publisher’s end—indispensable editors and copyeditors, typesetters, artists, jacket designers, lawyers, and so on.

How many times have we seen the vocal, if ignorant, minority of book buyers complain that “This book shouldn’t cost $25—it only cost them $1 to manufacture!” as though binding is the only expense that goes into the writing and publishing of a book. To its credit, the Authors Guild has done a fine job of explaining the surprising costs of publishing. I hope to add to that in some small way.

Because writing is a business like any other, I keep very thorough records of cost, revenue, and profit. As I write my latest book, I intend to share with you the expenses incurred directly as a result. I’ve stripped away a lot of detail—precise travel dates, for example, and the hotels at which I am staying—for basic safety reasons. Going forward, know that in every case, I tend to go with the cheapest possible options. (Two-star chain hotels, economy rental cars, etc.) Know also that because I’ve been doing this for a very long time, I start out with a lot of the things and necessary to do my job, from gear to professional memberships: digital audio recorders, a good laptop, necessary software, a good DSLR camera, etc. This might not be the case for writers just getting into the business.

If nothing else, I hope this little experiment gives aspiring writers some idea of what to expect when they set about writing books of their own. (Nonfiction, at least; fiction can be cheaper, but not always. Good research is expensive.) I will update this spreadsheet as I go.

Expenses as of July 2016:

DateLocationExpensePrice
8/1/2016MarylandRental Car$204.37
Airline$430.20
Hotel$271.36
Food$348.47
Misc$24.91
Auto-related$119.28
8/1/2016ColoradoRental Car$160.30
Hotel$308.95
Airline$291.20
Auto-related$43.00
Food$128.43
Misc$15.10
8/1/2016AlabamaAuto-related$554.04
Food$42.61
9/1/2016FloridaHotel$365.70
9/1/2016CaliforniaRental Car$152.63
Airline$339.20
Hotel$409.84
Total:$4,209.59

On Mass Shootings, Baton Rouge, and the Sorry State of the World

After the tragic slaying of three police officers in Baton Rouge (following the tragic slaying of a black man by police officers) I was asked by The Atlantic to offer a view from the ground, and I did. I’m happy with the way the piece turned out, though the 1,000 words lost in the edit made less clear the thesis of the piece, which is: The civil strife in the city, which made national news, was actually very localized in Baton Rouge, and easily avoided. The assassination of police officers has made it a city-wide tragedy—a fresh wound felt by all and impossible for anyone to ignore. I received some pushback on Twitter from people suggesting that I was somehow justifying cop-killing, which is the exact opposite of what I wrote in the essay. (Those people likely did not read the piece, but rather, the headline, which I did not write.) The city is reeling, and is unlikely to recover for a very long time. The piece can be found here.

Over at The Week, I wrote about firearms and the terrorist attack in Orlando, and suggested that Alexander Hamilton was pretty clear in the Federalist Papers about what a “well regulated militia” means. My suggestion: rather than wait for gun confiscation, which will never happen, or the next mass shooting, which definitely will happen, why not follow the Second Amendment to the letter? If the right to keep and bear arms is to maintain a well regulated militia, why not mandate militia membership in order to own a firearm, and let local militias police themselves? Small groups are very good at identifying problem individuals in their ranks, and militias would have a vested interest in doing so. Moreover, in keeping with the Framers’ intentions, militias would have to meet once or twice a year; it would keep gun ownership a state issue; and it would confer civil obligations on gun owners. You want a rifle? That’s fine. But you need to be proficient with it, understand firearm safety, and be ready to be called upon to use your weapon in defense of the United States. That piece can be found here.

ONE INCH FROM EARTH Announced

It has been very difficult keeping this news a secret. Thankfully, it has now been reported in Publisher’s Marketplace, so here is the announcement:

Brown Gets Close to “Earth” at Custom House

For HarperCollins’s Custom House imprint, Geoff Shandler preempted world rights to David W. Brown’s One Inch from Earth. Brown is a contributor to the Atlantic and the book, which Dunow, Carlson & Lerner’s Stacia Decker represented, is about NASA’s Europa mission (established to launch a spacecraft into the orbit of Jupiter). Custom House said the book features “persevering scientists as its heroes, the planet Mars as the villain, and an unlikely savior in the form of a Tea Party congressman on a mission to find a second Garden of Eden on Jupiter’s moon.”

A lot of hard work went into this. The proposal took a full year to write—longer, in fact, than my last book—and involved more research, interviews, travel, and luck than I ever could have imagined. (There are no shortcuts when doing good work.) Of course, the hard part is yet to come.

My agent, Stacia Decker of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, is one of the most competent, sharp, and fabulous human beings I’ve ever had the good fortune of knowing, and she parlayed the proposal into an tremendous book deal with the most exciting imprint in publishing today. (At lot of adjectives in that previous sentence, and every one is accurate.) I am over the moon at the idea of working with Geoff Shandler, who previously edited some of my favorite books ever, including Into the Beautiful North, a masterpiece by Luis Urrea.

Finally, I am honored to write this book and to tell the story of men and women whose work will transform science, philosophy, religion—you name it. One day we will all know their names, and it’s a privilege to do my part in making that happen.

(I know this reads like an Oscars speech, but it’s a pretty big moment for me, and I intend to live up to expectations.)

Worlds That Weren’t

Some mornings I drive around absently in search of a place to work. It is a passive act, and I find myself making turns the way I imagine flocks of birds decide to veer left or right. It is a blue feeling to the extent that there is feeling at all, something to do with, perhaps, some fear that the work is transitory? The rational part of my mind prevents any of this from becoming disquieting, though. My career is fine, my health is fine, my life is fine. But it all changes. We get older. I get older.

It is deeply unsettling to scroll through one’s Amazon order history. I did this recently. Things bought, clothes, books, shoes, trinkets. I scrolled back a full decade. For each item I could summon some very real hope or need or intention that I felt at the time. I will wear these shoes to do something important. I will buy this camera and learn photography. A nice belt for some party I might attend. Maybe I could start wearing suits every day. A microphone to start a podcast. The lives born in my mind—lives that never came to pass. Why didn’t they? Time. Practicality. Why did I buy that bandana? Did I think it would make me David Foster Wallace?

These are the tabs open in my web browser. A recipe for mini tiramisu; 5 vibrant takes on classic hummus; Operating System Development Series; The little book about OS development; Beyond Hubble: Meet the Telescopes of Tomorrow; How to Make Twitter Actually Useful; 23 Foods You Can Make in a Muffin Tin; Cake Batter Waffles; 7 Recipes You Can Make in a Coffee Mug. Why do I want to make so many foods using unorthodox cookware? And do I expect time to present itself during which I might develop a hobby operating system?

Such frivolous tabs, purchases, and coffee shop flocking do not carve much into my productivity, and they might even enhance it. A temporary workplace that sparks joy. Nice shoes that I have worn, and will wear again. The flash of whimsy that lights some tiny part of my brain when I think about making a chocolate chip cookie in a coffee mug. Perhaps the doomed little worlds we all spin into being make the one in which we actually live a little easier, a little better. We try them out, these tiny singularities, and live them out in the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee. And then they are gone, and we get back to the business of life, and trudge along on our distinct little paths.

Career Day

MFA graduates and self-publishing evangelists have really poisoned the well on writers talking about being writers—not that the water was ever really potable, exactly. It’s a strange job to discuss with non-writers because there are certain expectations there, both good and bad, that don’t apply to “IT specialist” or “salesperson.” I mention this at all because I recently participated in a career day at my daughter’s school and had to describe my job to middle and high school students. My talk was not particularly inspiring for a lot of reasons. It was too process-heavy: “Here’s how querying works,” and such, which nobody really wants to know how to do. Not even writers. People want “writer stories”—something to fit the mysterious mold shaped by the forgotten generation. In retrospect I’m not sure how I could have better organized the talk. How do you become a writer (as opposed to a typist)? You become a servant of the written word. You read all the time. You put a straw into the largest puddle of life and literature you can find, and drink until full, and then drink some more. You spend your life trying to apply to your pages what you’ve learned from the pages of others. That’s it, I suppose, though it feels a little grandiose to spell out.

“What do you write?” is a hard question for me to answer. I write as widely as are my interests, and deeply in select areas, but there is a lot of mercenary work in between that requires very little puddle drinking, and in my more sullen moments, I want to respond, “Of the stuff that I’m proud of, or including the shit that I also have to write to pay bills?” Still, I would never submit work to editors that I am not proud of in terms of the quality of prose. (What editors do to it is something else.) The very notion of slapdash writing is abhorrent to me, and I am perplexed by the endless army of writers who leap from bed every morning eager to grind out disposable “content”—there’s no greater profanity—or write 20-lists punctuated by animated cat GIFs. This massive Internet organism chasing down clicks. The reason the Buzzfeeds and Fusions of the world have pivoted so effortlessly to video is because they never gave a damn about prose in the first place. (Buzzfeed’s longform section excluded.)

I’ve never understood people content with just doing a job. There has to be some grand purpose and wild, far-off ambition, and when one looks back on his or her life, it has to have been about more than money. I’ve never not wanted to sink my hands into the planet’s soil and pull madly until it spins a little faster. That is a big part of the reason that I think I get the people who work in the space industry, from janitor to scientists. A couple of years ago, there was a piece in the Washington Post about the men and women who built the A-3 test stand for NASA’s Constellation rocket. (I’ve written about test stands here.) Welders and machinists and such—blue collar workers of the sort who built America and keep her going—and they were just in doleful disbelief that Constellation was canceled and their work discarded. They built the test stand that would take humanity to Mars! If you are a welder, is there a greater possible achievement? (Is there a greater achievement for any trade?) And they did it. And the White House shut it all down and built fences around the test stand and locked the whole thing up. The SLS, which replaced Constellation’s rocket system, is incompatible with it. My heart breaks for these people. When I toured NASA Stennis, the test stand’s only acknowledgement as we passed by, in fact, came from another passenger on the bus: “Poor A-3.” On we drove.

Surprisingly often, when I interview people in the space program, they apologize for sounding too lofty. There is no need for such apologies. If your job is the exploration of the Jupiter system, and your goal is to unlock the mystery of life itself, you are entitled to a little loftiness, because there is no loftier calling. My own far-off ambition is simply too great to put publicly in print, but my higher purpose is the American literary tradition. To write something worthy of being included, and maybe being remembered—something to justify the privilege of having written it in the first place. Most writers have some goal. The big scoop, the definitive take, the scandal revealed, the injustice righted. Those things matter to me, but nothing matters more to me than the words themselves, and their employment and poetry in telling the story. Batman can bring justice to the world, but can he do so in well-ordered paragraphs? I probably should have talked about all this during my presentation.


** The classroom scene in City Slickers is to me the definitive representation of career day, and though I didn’t collapse entirely into a midlife crisis during my talk, it did occur to me how close I now am in age to Billy Crystal in that film. He seemed impossibly old when I first saw it in grade school, and here I am. If I am totally honest, I could probably use a cattle drive to sort out things in my head.

Neal Gabler and the Hungry Writer

This month, Neal Gabler has a piece in The Atlantic wherein he discusses the perilous financial state of Americans and describes openly “his secret shame”—his personal financial woes. It’s one of the more unnerving things I’ve read this year, if only because Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney sits on my nightstand (it’s a masterpiece) and as a writer, I just assume that if you can produce something like that, you can do anything, and you do so from your other apartment—the one in Montparnasse that you bought because you liked the tree out front. Gabler is a consummate writer, skilled with the pen and willing to do the hard work of research to make his journalism sing.

When I think of the challenges that must come with researching Walt Disney’s life, I lapse into silent awe that it’s even possible. Such research involves more than the basics, or even the extraordinary. Rather, it involves a lone scribe doing battle with the most powerful media company in human history. Walt Disney isn’t just a man, but a brand and an American ideal akin to Washington or Lincoln. (Disney himself recognized this, and it could be a source of anxiety and exhaustion for him.) The Walt Disney Company, which I admire greatly, has a vested interest in keeping its namesake a secular saint. I imagine that the company did not exactly meet Gabler with open arms, and yet Gabler successfully unveils Disney the man, great and good in the best ways—Walt Disney was a truly good man—but also flawed, complex, moody and sometimes selfish, searing and tyrannical.

Maybe the aura of Disney extended, as I read the biography, around Gabler, just as we see the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty and cannot help but apply that same sense of intrinsic wonder to Gustave Eiffel. Of course Gabler is a colossus! Of course he’s flush, his only concern being the business end of a word processor. But we now know better. It’s not like this isn’t without precedent. Nobody thinks of Hemingway in Paris and recalls that he starved while there, pennies to his name, but that was the Paris he knew.

Gabler’s piece has been like a wrecking ball coursing across my brain for weeks now. While I will not reveal my personal finances (unlike Gabler, who puts it all out there in heroic detail), I will submit that I’m doing OK. I write a lot—approximately 1,000 publishable words a day for a half-dozen outlets, not counting my book work, commonplace writing, or correspondence—despite my living in the middle of nowhere (a place, it must be said, where the cost of living is low, taking my income even further). Still, I worry constantly about money because my daughter attends private school and I expect of myself to be able to provide her a first-rate education now through the end of her college career. (There is a 1% and concomitant “social network,” and my goal in life is to enable her to be a part of it.) Moreover, like many, I live with an acute, chronic case of imposter syndrome, ever in expectation that my house of cards will collapse and I’ll have to figure out how to begin again. I want to die in front of Microsoft Word (in 40 years or so); I never want to go back to the myriad jobs I held previously (however tempting it might be to don a Starbucks apron and tell some of my younger, inexperienced editors to fuck off).

Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield has spoken eloquently about such fears, using the example of being chased by a bear. When you are being chased by a bear, he says, you’re not worried about being chased; you’re worried about being caught. When the bear catches you, you’re not worried about being caught; you’re worried about being eaten. When the bear starts eating you, you’re not worried about being eaten; you’re worried about being killed.

And so when I read that Gabler would have trouble coming up with $400 in cash if asked, I wonder what my own future holds. I am not a financial wizard. I’m barely a financial street magician. Certainly, I am talented and have had extraordinarily good fortune, but what about next year? This is a high stakes business whose fortunes are ever in flux. Melville died penniless, and he’s the greatest author to ever live. How fast is the bear running? Will it catch me, and what happens then?

On Jury Duty

In terms of timing, this week was as good as any for jury duty. I’ve been attempting Will Bowen’s challenge detailed in A Complaint Free World (excellent book), and so I’ve tried not to complain about being called. I’ve largely failed in this task, though the actual experience of serving on a jury was interesting and awkward and something just shy of rewarding.

I was summoned to the 19th Judicial District Court in downtown Baton Rouge on Monday and did so. The initial “jury room” is more like a jury auditorium, and was filled with what seemed like hundreds of prospective jurors. That in itself amazed me, as there is no way for the court to track who did and did not receive a summons. You don’t have to sign for it; it just appears in the mail like a spider. I was momentarily tempted to just toss it and take my chances, but in the end, the fear of getting pulled over for speeding and then getting hauled away in cuffs for an outstanding bench warrant seemed too high a risk to take. If I’m going to get arrested in this town I want it to be for something interesting. (I kid! I want it to be for something boring that I’m immediately acquitted of.)

Nobody in the jury auditorium was in good spirits. It was like a giant waiting room at the DMV, and the whole process seems like punishment for being on the voter rolls. (That’s the list from which names are drawn, apparently.) It seemed to be a representative sample of the city with respect to race, gender, and age, which was encouraging. At the start of the day, one of the court’s judges entered the room and acted as a sort of master of ceremonies. He was quite skilled as an entertainer and he did liven spirits a bit. (I didn’t get his name—my spirits weren’t that livened.)

After his little opening standup act, the jury administrators got down to business, asking everyone with a legitimate excuse for missing jury duty to line up around the auditorium. It was a blockbuster crowd, each person in possession of reasons to be anywhere but there. I had no such excuse and did not line up. Also, even if I did have an excuse, I feared that I’d just be rescheduled for summer or some busy time of the year. Like I wrote above, this was as good a week as it was going to get.

The next five hours involved waiting. Projection screens were lowered and we were all treated to a movie starring Kevin Bacon, in which he plays a Marine Corps officer charged with bringing home the casket of a fallen fellow Marine for burial. I didn’t get the movie’s name. The 30 minutes or so that I saw were surprisingly moving and compelling. Actually, I think it was the best performance I’ve ever seen Kevin Bacon give. But there was an adjacent quiet room, so I absconded there in hopes of getting work done, which I couldn’t because there was no Internet access, and my cell phone couldn’t get a signal through the stealth bomber material from which they apparently built the courthouse. So I read a book I had brought. (Moby-Dick, for the nth time. If you haven’t read it, it is not the book you are expecting! Read it!)

At 1:30, if I recall correctly, my name was called and I reported to Judge William Morvant’s courtroom on the eighth floor of the building.

Some thoughts:

Judge Morvant and his bailiff are an enormously charismatic duo and have a lovely repartee. He strikes me as a judge from central casting. Aged but not old, balding with graying hair—a very distinguished look—and he spoke carefully but also thoughtfully. He has the soft hint of a “river” accent suggestive of the where my mother grew up.

Note to television producers: If you need a new courtroom celebrity, this is your guy.

Approximately 30 prospective jurors were seated, and 12 at a time were brought to the jury box and were interviewed by the judge and the two lawyers. Tell us about yourself kinds of questions: name, marital status, job, and whether we had served on a jury before. I had not. Then the lawyers interviewed the jurors to weed out the ones who might work against them. “How do you feel about personal injury lawyers?” was one question asked that tipped immediately the case to come. Later, “How do you feel about insurance companies?” by the defendant’s counsel, if I recall. They asked also whether any of us had pending litigation, and if we’d ever been in car accidents, and so on. Everyone eventually chosen agreed that we could be fair and impartial.

This questioning lasted a couple of hours, and I was chosen despite my questioning the concept of “sympathy,” which you’re not allowed to have but what I consider to be a challenging sort of rule because as human beings we make instant and enduring value decisions about everything and everyone. See this commercial:

So anyway I asked about this and the judge explained it quite well I think—something to the effect of not using a verdict as an opportunity for revenge—”We’ll send a message!” or “He seems like a nice guy. Forget the evidence; he’s OK to me.” I may have misunderstood all of this, but it’s what I took away from it. I remain convinced that lawyers are in the sympathy business and this is rule requires enormous hair-splitting when it applies to personal injury cases where there’s no visible injury (e.g., a severed leg).

This was a civil case. The plaintiff was suing for medical bills and emotional distress resulting from a car accident—you get the picture based on the “feelings about personal injury lawyers” questions above. I don’t want to go into much detail about the case, not because they aren’t intriguing, but because I’m not really interested in relitigating it here, and because the deed is done and there’s no reason for me to pile on.

I will say this, though: the defense lawyer was a genius. It’s been a really long day, I’m quite tired, and I can’t recall her name, but it will come to me in due course and I’ll update it in the morning. [UPDATE: Valerie Bargas. If she’s your opposing counsel, settle. Actually, run. Drop your case and just apologize for… everything.] She was a shark. She dismembered pretty much every witness called by the plaintiff, seemingly effortlessly, and then proceeded to remove the still-warm organs from the carcasses left behind. The plaintiff’s counsel seemed to have an aw-shucks, kind-eyed “I hate to even do this to the poor defendant” pose, and it was effective at times, but overall, when Bargas spoke, it was with surgical precision—surgery performed with a steak knife, mind you—and was so compelling that you couldn’t help but wonder what she’d do next.

“You’re claiming losing ‘joy of life.’ Interesting. So we looked at your Facebook profile and…”

Again, you get the idea.

So the proceedings more or less lasted for two days, and on the third day we deliberated.

Not long after entering the deliberation room, it became Thunderdome. The comity of the previous two days vanished almost immediately when the requisite number of nine jurors discussed their opinion of the evidence and agreed right away that the injury claimed by the plaintiff was pre-existing, and that he was not entitled to $875,000 he claimed necessary to make him whole again. He was basically asking us to hand him a winning lottery ticket by ruining another man’s life. That and the evidence of his previous injuries meant he didn’t meet the “preponderance of the evidence” standard we were ordered by the judge to weigh.

The vote was 9-3—repeatedly taken just to be sure that nobody wished to change his or her mind—and one of the three was then infuriated at our decision that the plaintiff’s injuries were preexisting, and thus the defendant was not at fault. (This was the plaintiff’s third lawsuit against someone with whom he had been in a car accident, and each time he sought medical treatment, he only did so on recommendation from his lawyer, and only with doctors the law-firm preferred. I mean come on.)

There was shouting in the jury room! “I HAVE INJURIES AND MAYBE HE DOES TOO!” Incoherent shouting and tears! “I’M IN PAIN RIGHT NOW BUT I JUST TRY TO BE NICE TO ALL OF YOU!” It was a bit childish, but more like a really bad attempt at manipulation. She wrote a note to the judge, though insisted that nobody read it, so I do not know its exact contents, and nothing really came of it. Another juror shouted back something, and there was a back and forth, and the matter was already settled anyway so we just pressed on with the paperwork and alerted the bailiff. Meanwhile she (i.e. the upset juror) demanded to see the medical records (her right), but the records then provided were literally thousands of pages long, and even if someone wanted to read them, we’re not doctors and no matter how hard we studied the MRIs somewhere in that paper mountain, nobody was going to point thoughtfully at it and say, “Hey guys I just noticed something. Check out the thickened ligamentium flavum here—I—I have a better diagnosis!” This isn’t House. With respect to medical details, we relied on the expert testimony of physicians for the plaintiff and the defense. That’s why they were there, after all. I’ll add also—maybe I will re-litigate this after all—if you have a problem about which your doctor says, “I can fix this, but it’ll take 10 years and half a million dollars,” find a better doctor.

Not on our jury.
Not on our jury.

But the shouting. So what made it so much worse was that after the jury room went weird with this hysterical clownish shouting at the injustice of it all (even though justice was being served per the law after honest discussion by all jurors), it was lunch time and we had to sit in the jury room for an hour in awkward silence (the angry dissenter mumbling endlessly about everyone else, as she perused the medical records, not really reading, but really wanting all of us to know that she was reading—she never did produce some new evidence or even then try to persuade anyone) and eat our little salads and burgers.

What did I take away from this. First, I hope I’m never again in a car accident, because I’m one litigious party and a one bad jury away from losing everything I own and then some. $875,000 is total financial ruin. After the woman lost her mind, a collective “southern mentality” kicked in, and everybody wanted her to know that, no, we really do think you’re a nice person (she said nobody liked her, which we did, an hour earlier) and that no please, tell us again everything you just shouted fifteen times. I began to worry that people would just start to agree with her simply to make her feel better, which really would have been a miscarriage of justice. (Again: let’s ruin this guy’s life because an unhinged person didn’t take her lithium this morning.) If we wrongly went down the injury road simply to console this person, I cannot imagine how many weeks we would have been in there debating over how much “Loss of Joy” money the guy was now entitled. (“FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS? I’M IN PAIN! YOU CANNOT PUT A PRICE ON MY PAIN! But it’s closer to three hundred thousand.”)

Second, the jury experience is not horrible, but not something I’d like to repeat. How I feel for the jurors on six-week murder trials! (To be clear: everyone on the jury had a chance to speak their feelings and thoughts without interruption. It was all carefully considered, but the defense just had a much stronger case.) Third, at least in the case of Judge Morvant, the courts really seem to be run by men and women who care about justice and who want the system to work, and want us to leave believing that. And I think we did. But I don’t think it always work, and I think that personal injury lawyers are very good at their jobs, which gives me pause when I consider how predatory some of them have reputations for being. The good news is that I can’t be called for jury duty for the next two years. And I have the name of a good lawyer if some guy tries to sue me over a minor accident.