Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday Musings, 27 August 2011

Good morning,

Last evening, I stood in my driveway chatting with neighbors from across the way, the husband of the two being a man whose mother still occupies his boyhood home five doors north of me. They live in a house across the street that once belonged to his uncle. We traded pleasantries, and discussed the departure to an assisted living facility of another long-time block resident, who had been born and raised here, and on this very block. Johanna never married, never had children, and never left. She grew to old age seeing the world through the eyes of her nieces and nephews, and the children and grandchildren of her friends. Her family possessions were auctioned off while I vacationed in Michigan this past week.

My vacation lulled me into a hazy sense of well-being. I undertook no task more vigorous than washing dishes. I read four books by European crime fiction writers and one by an American. I walked on trails, both high and low, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the resort where my sister-in-law has a cottage that's been handed down through my husband's family for several generations. My son launched his new college year from Michigan, in a Blazer less loaded than in the previous two years, his dwindling requirements matching the predictions of his college's president at the convocation for Patrick's freshman class. I stood in the roadway as he left, and barely shed a tear. Life continues.

With the warm Michigan sun casting delicate rays on my face, I drowsed on the bench that faces the Lake on the beach near the cottage. I drifted in time, in place, with thoughts of my childhood swimming to the near-conscious portions of my mind.

When I was four, my parents loaded us into whatever station wagon my father had at the time for a trip to my mother's parents' house. I can't name the make or model of the car. I remember its color, sort of a muddy grey-green, and the rope attached to the back of the front seat which we gripped when my father accelerated. He never went very fast. The inter-state highways had not yet been completed, and the state roadways that we took to Gillespie did not require much in the way of speed. With Mom holding the baby, my brother Frank, and the other six kids in the bench seats behind my parents, we made our way over the Chain of Rocks Bridge into Illinois and eventually, to Nana and Grandpa's home.

We arrived late in the evening. No one stirred in the house. Groggy, grumpy and grubby, we filed out of the car and up the wooden stairs of their front porch. The door was not locked -- in those days, the soft, casual days of the late 1950's, no one feared intruders; we did not even have a key to our house until well into the 1970's.

My mother scattered us with various tasks. The older siblings helped the little kids into pajamas, guided our hands on toothbrushes, and herded us down into the living room for night prayers. We knelt for the closing of the day in a darkened living room. At home, we would have faced the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her alcove on the living room wall; at my grandparents' house, I think we faced a crucifix. We began the rosary. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. . .

Suddenly, a tall figure loomed in the doorway, and I felt a surge of panic in my chest. My father rose and moved with a rapidity of which I had not known him capable. I heard the harsh growling of male humanity, braced for catastrophe -- and then the room flooded with light.

My mother stood at the light switch, facing the front doorway. My grandfather, tall, broad and clothed in a green serge suit, holding a leather satchel, towered in the space near her, my father's hands clenched on Grandpa's wrist. Beyond this tableau, my small, blond grandmother hovered, confused, uncertain.

Relief coursed through my body and must have done its work in every one else, for my father stepped back and the set of my grandfather's shoulders eased. We didn't expect you until tomorrow, he said, with a mixture of reproach and relief. He shook my father's hand, and my mother stepped forward to embrace each of her parents in turn. We children rose from our knees and rushed forward, our nightly obligation abandoned. When each of us had received a kiss and a hair-tousle, and felt the warm caress of our Nana's hand on our newly-washed cheeks, we climbed the stairs to bed, while my mother settled onto the couch with my baby brother in her arms.

I don't remember if it was that trip or a later one in which my brother Mark and I got to stay longer than the rest of our family. We flanked our grandfather as the car pulled out of the driveway, early, on a Sunday morning, and then Grandpa handed a bucket to my brother and a basket of sandwiches to me. We followed his long, tireless stride down to the creek, and snuggled beside him as he fished, casting time and again over his head with a practiced ease more beautiful than a ballerina's twirl.

We ate the sandwiches that Nana had made as a late breakfast, under the shade of a tree, as the sun climbed towards the mid-day sky. We only caught one fish, with each of us wrapping our little mitts around the rod beside my grandfather's large, gentle brown hands so we could say we helped. Mark carried the bucket back to the house and hung it on the outside spigot, the fish swimming in creek water, my grandfather promising to clean it so we could cook it for dinner.

When we came outside later in the day, the fish was gone. The bucket swung a bit, as though it had just been moved. Must have wanted to go back to the river, my grandfather told us. He probably jumped out and wiggled his way down the yard, to the creek. Mighty strong fish you kids caught! We had chicken for dinner instead.

My sister-in-law and I drove home from Michigan last weekend, stopping in St. Louis to see my sister. As we drove west on 270, we passed the site where my father worked at a public pool, long ago, during the summer that I was nine. My brothers and I went to the pool on the weekends, and swam with many other kids in the crowded water while our parents sat on towels or webbed lounge chairs. Most of the other kids came from the city. Nobody I knew went to that pool. I can't remember what my father did there. But I vividly recall running on the wet, slick concrete on a hot Saturday in August, and slipping, tumbling into the deep end. A life guard pulled me out, and I lay, panting, spitting water, with the heavy smell of chlorine all around me.

The dust gathers under the dining room table, drifting in a haze of pet hair that I must eradicate. My husband and stepson have gone to play tennis in a charity tournament. I have a couple of weeks of laundry to do, and a whole slew of e-mail to read. Vacation is over. Fall approaches. The world keeps turning.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Midweek Musings: Mourning

Good afternoon,

Before I take my tired body from Suite 100 to the Holmes house, I must briefly return from my Mugwumpish moratorium to share my thoughts about funerals.

I spent an hour and a half at the Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church today, slipping away after the first choir number and before the eulogies. Although I only knew the deceased young man by sight, what I saw and experienced at his funeral moved me with such force, that I found myself unable to remain in the church.

A thousand or more, maybe two thousand, mourners filed into the church beginning shortly before the scheduled hour for the visitation. The young man whose life reached a tragic and heroic end had died as he had lived: protecting others. He had given shelter to children whose mother turned to Samir Clark for help, and as he sheltered them, their pursuer fired into the apartment where Samir had been visiting family, on whose door the children's mother had knocked. A bullet struck Samir, and he fell, dying within an hour or so thereafter.

Samir attended my son's high school. His brother Akeem was in Patrick's class, and Samir was in the class behind Patrick. Patrick and Samir had a close mutual friend, by virtue of whom they had contact. Patrick shared with me that Samir always showed the greatest of courtesy and respect for him; Samir treated him with kindness on occasions when others did not.

I learned, in the week since Samir's murder, that he attained Eagle Scout last year; that he participated in a mentoring program, that he helped out in the same food drives in which my son and I had been volunteers for Patrick's four years at University Academy of Learning Charter School, and also that he gave his time and energy to four separate churches as a volunteer, crossing into two different faiths to do community service. After a year of college in Iowa, he had been recruited by, and was transferring to, a university in Tennessee where he intended to continue his studies in biology and play football.

In short -- this life cut short so soon, had been a life well spent.

As I sat on the aisle of the church, watching his friends, teachers, Scout leaders and others collect, listening to the music, I tried to imagine how I would feel if Patrick had been killed in this manner -- or, indeed, in any manner. I cannot begin to reach those feelings, so deep would they run, so anguished would I be. I felt myself overcome with empathy for those who were closest to this boy, this young man. And as I sat, reflecting, I heard the soft voice of the pastor asking us to stand to receive the family.

I rose, with a thousand or more others.

Through the back door, near me, came a beautiful woman, held up on either side by young persons who looked so much like Samir that I knew they must be his siblings. The woman raised her eyes toward the front of the church, and stepped slowly. Her white suit, with its full-length skirt, fell in soft shimmers as she slowly traversed the aisle, and tears steadily streamed down her cheeks. Her boy, her beautiful boy, lay under a spray of blue and white flowers at the end of that long, terrible walk.

Violence cannot be justified. While this violence seems to have been personal -- directed at the woman who sought refuge in the apartment where Samir's killing took place -- nonetheless, violence rampages through our society. I am sickened by its brutal aftermath.

I could not stay for the entire ceremony, not because I had other commitments, but because I am weak: An abundance of sadness cripples me, and I retreat from it. Though I am reverent, and I do believe in the existence of a divine entity, nonetheless, I do not take the message of joy and salvation as one which affords us sufficient comfort to prevent our tears of sorrow at a life cut short too soon.

After I left the funeral, after lunch with my husband, after I returned to Suite 100, I chanced to exchange emails with a court clerk whom I know to be a woman of gentleness. I shared my experience with her in a brief summary of the events that I had witnessed, and she indicated that she had read about Samir's death. It makes you re-think your job as a parent, to want to cherish your children more, she wrote. And I agreed.

But it also makes me re-think my job as a love's after-math attorney. It reminds me of the difference between things of true importance, and things over which my clients should not bicker.

The lives we are privileged to bring into this world demand and deserve our strictest attention. I realize that we, as lawyers, are not responsible for our clients' decisions as to priorities during a custody fight. But we can draw a line, and we can ask our clients to consider if the points over which they instruct us to argue are really important, or if, instead, we could work with our opposing counsel and parties to structure a truly better future for our children.

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- we can whittle away at the malaise in society that spawns the fury which results in the loss of lives, such as that of Samir Clark. And until such time as the sickness of society abates, we should cherish the children of this world, and hold them close -- lest they be torn from us, as this precious child was torn from his mother's loving arms.

RIP Samir Ali Clark.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mugwump Meandering to Michigan: Moratorium on Musings

Good morning,

For the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of being invited to Ludington, Michigan in late summer, to spend a week at the "cottage" -- a word which here means "a 3500 square foot house" -- of my now sister-in-law. This home has been in the MacLaughlin family for several generations. It is a lovely, inviting placed filled with comfortable chairs and smiling people, perched above Lake Michigan.

Last year we combined this visit with the return-to-college trip of my son. This year, Patrick is driving his vehicle to Michigan, and then taking his twenty-year-old self off to DePauw. Mom will try desperately not to cry as he pulls away from the cottage, five days hence.

For these reasons, I annually take a small break from musing -- or from Musing, since I never cease my internal conversations. I bid you good days, in these late days of summer. Prepare your children well for the start of school; visit your aging parents on your vacation days, lest you miss the last opportunity to sit in their gracious company. Rest on your porch, in a rocker, with a good book and a tall glass of something refreshing.

I will return, by and by.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Saturday Musings, 06 August 2011

Good morning,

My neighbor has just tooled down our shared driveway, with a jaunty wave and a few minutes' conversation about a possible joint trip to the Planning Committee meeting in September. A stack of boards straddles her yard, delivered by Home Depot for her contractor husband to build a small deck on the side of our house, similar to one he built for them. Two boys stroll south on my street, their high voices drifting over to me, with the hint of daring of children every where, on the last true weekend of summer before area schools drop like dominoes into autumn.

Patches of brown span our front yard. Behind the house, what I had thought was grass dies under the onslaught of chemicals scattered by my husband. Apparently, the lawn that I enjoyed contained more undesirable vegetation than otherwise, and with September approaching, he plans to sow seeds for a lush spring crop of verdant growth. I look upon it all with a mixture of consternation and wonder. I have never minded what grew there of its own accord, and I shall probably not mind what grows there of his. It's all green.

The weekend hangs between a quiet week of intense work and a search for the perfect receptionist for my suite, and a scheduled trial in which two reasonably good parents will fight for principal residential custody of their thirteen-year-old triplet sons. Having raised one boy to age twenty, I think it likely that they each need some help from the other and I have put out overtures for some type of settlement, but I prepare for the worst while hoping that my feelers will take root in the remaining soil of the wasteland that their marriage has become.

In weeks like these, I wonder, time and time again, why I did not take the easy route. I could have, I suppose, married a neuro-surgeon, had 2.75 children, and lived in a swank suburban sprawling compound. I could have gone to lunch while my toddlers dabbled under the eyes of their nanny. Or I could have exited college into the waiting arms of the Peace Corps, and journeyed to points south, distant undeveloped lands where whatever skills I had as an unenlightened twenty-something might have been exploitable.

I have been asked, often, why I went to law school. I give various answers. My favorite quip involves having chosen law as a potential vocation in which I could write for a living. The truth is somewhat shabbier. I had been in graduate school, and my program lost its funding. The nine enrollees in the non-Masters-track Ph.D. program had received an invitation to finish our dissertations at another university, but at considerably higher and, for me, prohibitive cost. With student loans waiting to be paid if I halted my education, I did what I could do to delay repaying them: I applied to law school.

The state of Missouri, Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, kindly footed the bill. A friend from Kansas City, a Legal Aid Lawyer in the 70's who now graces the bench in Jackson County, encouraged me to investigate that potential. To do so, I made an appointment in the St. Louis City Voc Rehab office, which, if memory serves, occupied grungy space in an otherwise empty office building on Grand.

A receptionist showed me to the counselor's room. He sat behind a government issue putty-colored desk. He did not rise to greet me, which I found odd until he turned to take a binder from a shelf behind him, and I saw that he was sitting in a wheelchair.

I'm Dick Goodwin, he told me. And I'm feeling kind of embarrassed, I replied. He turned his head to one side, studying me quizzically. Why is that? he finally asked.

I gestured. Neither of us misunderstood my point. He drew a breath and nodded. Oh, the chair, he said, in a voice that meant, you idiot woman, Don't you think I know I'm in a wheelchair. He pulled my application towards him, adjusted his glasses, and read in silence for a few minutes. This says you have hereditary spastic paraplegia, he noted, naming the now-debunked diagnosis under which I suffered for half of my life. It was my turn to dip my head, in my own acknowledgement of a statement of obvious fact.

We sat for a few minutes without speaking, Dick Goodwin and I. He scrawled a few lines on the bottom of the pages that I had completed, and made a stray mark on my doctor's report. He grabbed another binder, and pulled a few more forms over to the pile assembled before him, and noted a couple of things on one or two pages, before looking back at me. The state of Missouri considers you moderately to severely disabled, he told me then. We'll pay your tuition at any state university that you care to attend to get a terminal degree that could lead to meaningful professional employment, and we'll give you a monthly stipend towards your living expenses.

It came to nothing more or less than the approval of this man, whose life clearly held more profound challenges than mine. I took his approval form, and exited the office, following his directions to the next phase, which consisted of a series of tests intended to identify fields in which I might be expected to attain some measure of success despite my moderate to severe disability.

Six months later, I started law school in Kansas City. I never saw Dick Goodwin again, but I had contact with him on a regular basis, and in the fall of 1982, when I got a ticket for parking in the handicapped space in front of the law school, despite my state-issued placard, despite my moderate to severe disability, I called upon him for back-up.

He wrote a letter to the Major in the University Police who had backed his ticket-issuing officer. Mr. Goodwin informed Major Garrett that the State of Missouri, Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, would be most happy to ask their attorneys to file a lawsuit against him, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and anyone else who wrongfully interfered with my lawful right and obvious need to utilize the designated handicapped space. He vaguely hinted at the existence of ample indicia that professors had been allowed to usurp the space without benefit of either hang-tag or disability, which he mildly suggested tinged the incident of issuing me a ticket with a degree of irony that he presumed a jury would not find amusing. He ended his letter by stating that the campus construction worker who had reported me as "not looking disabled enough" to use the space, might consider whether he needed new glasses, or merely suffered from a lack of enlightenment about the law governing provision of accommodations to persons, such as myself, entitled to receive them.

I am not certain if Mr. Goodwin's letter turned the tide, or if the article on the front page of the University News did the trick, or both. One way or the other, the ticket found itself dismissed, and I resumed use of the space, in which I parked, daily, until I graduated in May of the following year.

Yesterday, as I entered the building where my office is located, a client of mine exited. Hello Ms. Corley! he sang, always a cheerful way to be greeted. I smiled, and nodded my head towards a sleek black car parked in one of two designated curb side handicapped spaces without benefit of proper plates or placard. Not yours, I hope? I asked him, and he shook his head. I'm worried about the driver, I remarked. He raised his eyebrows. Driving around blind, he must be, I concluded, and my client laughed. We talked about his case for a few minutes, and parted. I went into the building, and greeted our long-time receptionist, with my daily request that she reconsider going back to school and stay with us instead. She declined, as usual, and my day rolled into its beginning.

Now the morning surrounds me, with its buzzing lawnmowers, the slight drone of a small plane, and the flutter of our American flag in the gentle breeze. This is the last weekend of my son's summer occupancy of our home. I half-suspect that it is also his last summer in Kansas City, for I know he longs to find something exciting to do, in exotic ports, between junior and senior year. In a little while, I will take him to buy shoes, and try to impart a pearl or two of wisdom over a mocha latte. But for now, I will take my moderately to severely disabled body back inside, and make another pot of coffee.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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.