Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saturday Musings, 19 June 2010

Good morning,

I am sitting in a house that is more clean than my house has been in many weeks. The lawn has been mowed, the hardwood floors subjected to vigorous Swiffer-ing, the bathroom fixtures scrubbed, and all of the clean dishes have been put away in a house whose occupants have long prided themselves on their stacking prowess. In fact, the only messy room in the house is my bedroom, which is usually the neatest cranny.

I owe this happy state to last night's late arrival of my son's girlfriend. I have not yet met her, as I had collapsed into a post-trial coma about an hour before Patrick's return from Walnut Grove where he had gone to fetch her. But he hollered up the stairwell to let me know of their presence, in tones more overtly filial than I might have anticipated he would use in front of a witness. Sorry for waking you, he said, with seeming sincerity. I thought you would want to know that I am home. You can meet Rachel in the morning. I drifted back to sleep surrounded by a ridiculously happy glow of maternal contentment.

I slept the dreamless slept of the exhausted. I had three trials set for this week; two commenced. Of those two, neither concluded; both will resume in several months' time. The third got continued with a temporary stipulation designed to help avoid a bloody contest. Each required full days of preparation; yesterday's session demanded intense concentration, the application of considerable courtroom skill, and unrelenting focus.

I consider myself only moderately successful as an attorney. I have skill -- I do not deny that I do. I have a good client base, and frequent referrals from satisfied customers. I get return business. Colleagues, including judges, send cases to me. Most months, I earn enough to pay my bills, both at the office and at home. I do not accumulate wealth, but neither do I hover on the doorstep of poverty. I dwell, contentedly, in the middle of the middle class.

Different choices might have dictated a different result. I could have taken that big-firm law clerk position in my second year. I could have completed the doctoral degree that I started after college. I could have stayed in Boston, pursuing graduate work at BC as I had intended. I could have stayed in Arkansas -- no, wait, I don't really think I could have -- scratch that. Arkansas gave me hives; too much fresh air.

But here I sit. I close my eyes, and picture a young woman admitting to poor choices from the confines of the witness box, in a quiet voice, with clear eyes, and a calm, resigned demeanor. Those choices cost her custody of her son, and now are being used as a purported justification for terminating her parental rights. I am striving to combat that effort. I am her appointed advocate, her assigned attorney.

Sitting in Panera's last week, alone, in a quiet moment with a John Sandford novel idle on the table next to my coffee cup, I glanced at the workers. I noted a grey head or two behind the counter; observed a woman who has worked at that particular location for at least seven years, since the year I had physical therapy each Thursday at 8:00 a.m. in a facility across the alley, and came there for breakfast afterwards before going to my office. I watch this woman bend to slide a pastry from its perch behind glass, pop the confection into a bag, and hand it to the waiting customer. She wears her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail secured at the nape of her neck. She is thin, spare, angular, and quiet. I asked myself, Did she make this choice? As a child, did she think, 'I'd like to sell bagels for a living'? Without answering the question, I took my book into my hand, slid from the booth, and returned to my office in the steamy heat of Westport, with its cracked narrow streets lined with sedans and SUVs driven by those lunching in the various restaurants up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Surrounded by the quiet of my new office, I sat, briefly, breathing the lingering, heavy stench of paint and sawdust. Files stacked to my left; new, impossibly complicated telephone to my right; I gave myself to a moment of quiet panic. I am too old for this, I told myself. I forced a laugh at the remembered joke of a colleague -- What do you call a retirement community for solo practitioners? -- The cemetery! I closed my eyes, and drew in a long, ragged breath.

At day's end, yesterday, after eighteen hours awake, of which a full nine were spent at the courthouse; after five days of rising long before the sun broke over the line of trees on Charlotte Street behind my house; after dancing the dance in three separate courtrooms, with three different judges, and three sets of lawyers; I could barely keep my eyelids from sinking forward. I automatically moved around the house in the habitual pattern of my evening's end. I dropped my medicine on the floor, and left it. The book I had been reading fell off the bed; I left that also. The cat insisted on choosing my right foot as her pillow; I did not protest.

In the final analysis, I have no genuine marketable skills. I can talk, think and write. I have not had a boss for seventeen years, and I have not applied for a job since 1988. From 1988 to 1992, I worked as a radical ag-lawyer and then managed a political campaign. Since then, I have been a solo, and for the last ten years, I have been a family law practitioner.

I don't know if I will save my client's relationship with her son; I hope so. Of the many appointed clients that I have had from Juvenile Court over the years, I find her one of the more deserving. Similarly, I struggle to devise a solution to the contempt proceeding that I navigated on Thursday in which my client sought to enforce a prior judgment; or the difficult custody case that had its first day of trial on Tuesday. As for yesterday's proceedings, I do not know if I will ever be paid, though I will submit my bill to the Court for its consideration. But for my own financial obligations, I would not care. This is what I do. I suppose if I did not do this, I could write; but I do not know if writing would afford the same sense of moral satisfaction.

The dog barks, and I should let her back into the house so the kids can sleep. My room needs cleaning; a tottering stack of finished books provides an excuse to go to my favorite bookstore, beside which is my favorite coffee shop. There are worries on my doorstep, but they are not scratching to be admitted; and I can ignore them, at least, until tomorrow.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.