Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday Musings, 25 August 2012

Good morning,

My droid tablet rests on a wicker footstool. The high note of a sea bird reaches my old ears, penetrating the slight fog of a short night and the ever-present drone of tinnitus. Walls clad in the timelessness of pine surround me. I have arrived at the destination which drove me to work ten-hour days these last few months: Maryland Cottage, Epworth Heights, Ludington, Michigan.

I chose to travel by train. I settled into the wide, comfortable front row on the Chicago-bound train out of St. Louis after spending the night at the home of my brother- and sister-in law, my host and hostess in this land of sand and towering trees. Whit drove me to the station and had a quiet word with the counter-agent to insure my safe passage from the crowded terminal to my seat, a journey made in a narrow tram driven by a relentless woman whose gritted teeth warmed my heart. A sister leopard.

A compact woman dressed in stylish jeans with turned-back cuffs settled into the seat next to me, but after the first stop, she left to find a spot that didn't face the way we had come. She said it made her dizzy. I did not mind. The passing scenery looked the same whether I watched it arrive or watched it flit past. I settled back into the width of the two-passenger seat, alone, undisturbed, finding myself releasing each breath with increasing comfort.

North of St. Louis, industry gave way to small towns with dingy houses and dented cars. My book fell from my hand, landing on my small duffel, its pages briefly rippling before they softly closed. I leaned my head against the glass and watched Illinois slip south.

Towns gave way to farmland, field after field of burnt corn, between which lay long expanses of the green vegetation that could only be soy. The desolate fields of dead stalks brought home the brutal reality of the midwest summer. We stopped in a small station, maybe Granite City, maybe further away, and I raised my cell phone to take a shot of a railway yard filled with rusting cars labelled "Corn Products". They'd become a taggers' paradise, these useless vessels. On the flat surface of one labelled "Corn Starch only", an artist had carefully painted three-foot letters announcing JESUS SAVES.

The dry land gave way to untamed vegetation as we continued northward, flanking the tracks on either side. Through gaps in the woods, I saw neat backyards with above-ground pools, vibrant blue against the verdant green. Church spires rose above the rooftops. An occasional car waited at the crossings, the drivers evident only in the glint of sun on their glasses or an arm dangling from an open window. At one intersection, several people had turned off their engines, and stood between their vehicles, chatting. They watched my window as though waiting for me, and I could have sworn one of them nodded in my direction.

After Joliet, there could be no doubt that we neared Chicago. Trees yielded to the rangey clutches of weeds adorned with discarded rubbish. I saw a long trail of what I took for film stretched in the spindly branches of second-growth pin oak. A movie someone no longer wished to watch; a documentary that disappointed its director; porn filched from the seedy backroom of a video store, thrown over the side of the viaduct. Who could say?

We pulled into Chicago an hour late which I did not realize until I retrieved my suitcase from the rusty tram that toted the disabled from track to terminal. My connection to Michigan still had three hours til boarding, so I hauled my belongings through Union Station and found a sandwich shop in the Food Court. I blew several days' carb allotment on a chicken panini; I went hogwild and did not tell the smiling man behind the counter to hold the cheese. I'm on vacation, I reasoned; or perhaps that was rationalization. Either way, the melted swiss warmed my stomach and brought a smile to my face. Small indulgences.

I sat beside a woman briefing a young man on the niceties of employment at the Corner Bakery. I could not ignore the kind cadence in her voice, or the nervousness in his. She assured him that the many rules which she outlined would soon become second-nature to him; she gave him a little quiz and prodded him along on a few of the thornier questions -- such as, When is it okay to give your friends a discount (never) and what do I do if I am going to be late to my shift (call). I leaned across the six inches between our table, and told her that I had rarely heard someone speak with such gentleness. I gave her one of my law firm pens, and told her to call me if she ever needed a friend in Kansas City.

I watched wild pandemonium for the four o'clock northboard train, and realized that I would be trampled if a similar crowd gathered for the 5:20. I timidly approached the gate agent and identified myself as one of the less robust, and voiced trepidation at the thought of mustering myself to answer the pre-boarding call with a hundred Michiganders chaffing at the bit. She released the long expanse of canvas strapping that blocked entrance to the back waiting area, and helped me roll my suitcase through the opening. I sat where she told me to sit.

A lady resembling a gypsy staggered around the area. By shameless eavesdropping, I learned that she had been found wandering in the station. When approached, she tendered a legtimate ticket, for a 7:30 train. The TSA folks determined that she had some impairment -- possibly neurological, possibly alcohol-induced -- and fetched her along to the gate from which she would later, presumably, depart. As I had been, she had evidently been instructed where to sit, but periodically succumbed to panic and approached anyone who would talk to her, including me, for reassurance. They finally brought two female agents to sit with her. She huddled into her chair, with black hair falling over her lacy blouse, long skirt draping over her legs, a suitcase and a large pocketbook beside her on the floor. I averted my eyes. I have my own moments of folly; I recognized hers, and spared her the stare of a condemning stranger.

As we left the Chicago station, I plugged my phone charger into the outlet next to my seat and activated my wireless hotspot. I logged into my email, and learned that a client's child had been caught in a hotline of her mother relative to one of her half-siblings. I had just gotten temporary principal residence for this client, after his daughter's mother had taken her to California without leave or notice. Now, the Children's Division investigator had cautioned him not to let the child have the visitation outlined in our temporary order until the allegations of abuse of her half-siblings could be resolved. His short email asked what he should do. I phoned him; and followed with a call to the investigator. Then, convinced that I could do nothing more until Monday, I settled back into my seat and opened the Maigret trio that I had brought to read on the trrain.

My eyes drifted back to the window before too long. Now the pin oaks rose taller, and the narrow strip of parkway between the tracks and the frontage road had been tamed by county mowers. The churches seemed more plentiful, as did the above-ground pools. The fields held richer bounty.

My sister-in-law texted, Where are you? and after learning of my approximate destination, told me to watch for the Lake near the town of St. Joseph. I got my cell phone ready, one eye out the window, one on the pages of the Simenon novel. Soon, I let the book alone again, and gazed upon the roadways of the towns through which we traveled. The sun started its drift towards the horizon, bold bright light raising the sky. I shot a few frames of its brilliance, and posted them to Facebook.

The conductor heralded the approach of the St. Joseph station, and I got my camera ready. But still, I missed the best shot, mesmerized by the wide expanse of Lake Michigan and the unbridled kiss of the setting sun on its grey surface. We pulled to a smooth stop. In moments, we left the town of St. Joseph, headed north to Bangor.

A sturdy man in the seat behind me rose to flirt with the young girl across from me. The two decades between them meant nothing in the happy isolation of the train. His jokes did not threaten her; nor did his over-friendliness alarm. The confines of a train have given license to travelers since tracks first laid upon the earth, long before an even greater freedom with the invention of electronic mail. You can be who you like on a train, for hours at a time: shyness yields to daring, a chronic frown melts with the rays of the setting sun.

The man left the car in Bangor, waving, calling out that we ladies should have a wonderful weekend. And then another text, another query, and I said, We are almost there, can you hear the whistle? Not yet, came the answer. I leaned down to gather my belongings.

An attendant helped me down from the train and guided me to the sidewalk. She asked if I was being met in the tone that paralleled that used by the agents to the drunk gypsy. I forgave her; forgiveness comes easier in Michigan. I assured her that someone would come for me, and just then, I saw the broad sweep of Virginia's arm from the curb beyond the station fence.

And now, I am here. The Lake lies in all its splendid permanence a few hundred yards below the porch in which I sit and write. The sun unfolds its sweetness over Ludington. I wear the Vera Wang pajamas broght to ward off the chillness of northern August mornings. I am alone; Virginia stirs on the second floor but she and I are the only people here. Our husbands will arrive next week, shaking the grime of the city from their khakis and throwing on their shorts before striding down to the beach. But for the next few days, I will be accountable to no one.

We will take long walks in this beautiful place, and drive to the charming towns. I will send as few emails about work as I can. I know that some work must be done remotely; I am a bit concerned that I did not get August billing out before I left. But this is Maryland Cottage, the unexpected bonus that I got when I remarried -- the chance to spend a week each year lounging in wicker furniture, sleeping past six, and listening to the sounds of the Lake, which even from this distance fill the air.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday Musings, 18 August 2012

Good morning,

Something about the drone of the highway, the sterility of our homogeneous hotel room, and the sodium level of three days' of restaurant food numbed me to this moment -- my second awakening as an empty-nester. We have deposited my stepson in the halls of Rhodes College, after a last Target run for the few things that I forgot and the microwave he had declined but which it became apparent would be wanted.

I cannot overlook the irony of moving him to Memphis at the same time as hordes of Elvis-worshippers descended on Beale Street in fake sideburns, clutching PBandB sandwiches and wailing notes of the long-dead crooner. As we searched for Memphis barbecue on the night before the opening of the dormitories, we encountered detours and limousines, and ghostly manifestations: Elvis posing for pictures at the entry to Marlowe's Ribs, a silk rose left on our windshield. Thank you, thank you very much.

Only a few bumps rose in our the road, including misplaced car keys and an unpleasant, grease-filled breakfast at a place alleged by some website to be among the ten-best of morning joints in town. My stepson smiled throughout, patient, only a slight tinge of anxiousness apparent in the set of his jaw. I watched the two men -- the young one, an inch or two above six feet; his father, several inches shorter -- each trying to appear nonchalant. All the while, I fought my own ghosts, thinking of the son who had left for college with little fanfare the day before our southern voyage, bound for the start of his last year on the Indiana campus at which I hope he has found the first gold brick on his path to fulfillment. I've cried a thousand tears since Patrick's convocation, in August of 2009, and I daresay, I will cry a thousand more. Some of them fall from overwhelming joy, some from the burden of worry.

The dorm room in which we unpacked Mac's belongings -- Mac, who chose to revert to his birth name of Ansel for the start of college, but whom I met as Mac and grew to love as Mac -- had quite a few square feet on the one in which I ensconced Patrick three years ago. On one side, his new roommate had already staked a claim, with inspirational posters on the wall, and a bible on the bookshelf. The air held stifling silence, broken by the occasional enthusiastic proclamation from my husband or myself -- avowals of pleasure at the correctness of a choice in ordering, assurances that something which did not quite fit the need would nonetheless suffice, exuberant thanks to the roommate and his sister for lending a helping hand. Most of the time, our son worked without speaking, and the roommate sat in his chair, alert, smiling, awkward, while his sister swung her legs on her brother's lofted bed and chattered.

A helpful pair of green-shirted Peer Advisers directed us to Cafe Eclectic, where we ordered soups and salads, and pretended it was an ordinary day. We wandered the length of campus afterward, found the room where he had to take his laptop to get certified, and waited for an hour while he did so, making small talk about the difference between his college enrollment and my husband's experience in 1974. I answered some email and drafted an opposition to a motion for continuance, wishing for a real cup of coffee. An hour later, after eating a bad imitation of a Dream Cycle, we left our son. He had located the friend from Orientation Weekend whom he felt would give him a way of surviving the difficult first few days, and seemed to be letting down his guard. For the moment, he had no need of us.

We could not find a parking place on Beale Street, so we ate dinner at Huey's, grilled chicken with pineapple for me and Buffalo wings for my husband. The onslaught of emotion left us giddy and testy in turns, but we rode the waves and found our way back to the hotel, and, eventually, the sun rose on the morning of Convocation. I had my Kleenex ready. I've been there -- done that -- and I knew I could not navigate the experience with dry eyes.

And so we sat, shoulder to shoulder; and stood, the same. We watched the Rhodes College Class of 2016 process, and halfway through the group, spied our student, dark head rising above those around him. My heart clutched, as I saw that he had chosen to wear a blue Oxford shirt and khakis, while many around him donned only shorts and T-shirts. Thank you, thank you. He learned well.

The strains of music slowly receded, and the college president rose to welcome us. A faculty award or two was announced, and the keynote speaker introduced. A fiery, vibrant speaker, he told the entering freshmen to honor three pillars of success: Strive for excellence, be conscious of the community, and persevere. I could not do his fervor justice by description. His powerful voice and strong emotion filled the auditorium.

The college anthem was sung; a blessing spoken. And then the moment for departure arrived. Our son allowed one photograph, his practiced smile beaming, his father's less bright, as they stood in the aisle, other weeping parents filing past us. We made our way to the open air, and exchanged embraces. Within minutes, we had walked away, he in one direction, we in another, to our car, to the highway, to the rest of our lives as parents whose children have gone.

I felt the stab of the moment less keenly this time around. I have a companion now; the house does not sit in silence, free of the voice I had heard for eighteen years and the strumming of my son's guitar with nothing to replace them. While the door of Mac's bedroom will not slam and his bounce will not creak the floorboards, my husband's tread while fill the empty spaces each morning. And I only had a hand in raising Mac for eighteen months, since I married his father and he came to live with us full-time.

But my mother's genes tingle nonetheless. I spoiled a lace handkerchief and half a packet of Kleenex during Convocation, and allowed myself only that last small hug, not nearly enough, not nearly adequate to quell the motherly longing until Thanksgiving. I miss them both: Son by birth and son by marriage. I feel the stillness in their rooms, and see the empty places at the table, and I wonder, what will become of them?

The black cat has come home for breakfast and a cuddle, and slipped from the porch to wander in the coolness of the morning air. A magpie calls in the distance -- or a crow, perhaps; I am not even sure if magpies exist or live in Missouri. But the call of the bird to its mate sounds through the otherwise unbroken quiet. I raise my head and listen, waiting for the answering song.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Saturday Musings, 04 August 2012

Good morning,

I concede the battle to the sun. My struggling plants valiantly opposed the onslaught of fire but more have faded into crinkling strands of brown vegetation. Sweet, cool air soothes them in the earliest part of the day, but too quickly yields to fierce hot waves of radiance on the deck, and my watering can holds only so much solace. I sit amongst my wilted, former glories and wonder if this is global warming, or just a trick of Missouri summer.

It's been a lumpy week, another five-pack of ten-hour days, the brutality made more tolerable with the pleasant presence of my son's cheerful disposition. I face two trials next week, the second of which looms larger, like the flood of anger lurking in the tightened muscles of a lover's face. One of the parents of a twelve-year-old girl will leave the courtroom gripped in sorrow; and one will leave believing that they have bested the other. On polar ends of the parenting proposal, each demands to be residential placement, and as surely as the baking of the August sun, one will lose. I fervently hope that my client, whether triumphant or defeated, will be gracious.

This pending trial defines the fallacy of family law. Even the name mocks its purpose. Whether dueling over principal residential placement in a divorce or paternity action, or struggling to regain custody in the dingy courtrooms of the juvenile court, litigants in "family law cases" focus not on the family but on its disintegration. I derided the change of name when our Juvenile Detention Center became the Family Detention Center and our Juvenile Courts morphed into Family Court. I wish they would detain the family, but only the children find themselves sleeping on the narrow, thin mattresses in rooms smelling of disinfectant. And in the hallways of the "Family Court", the focus remains due diligence to the ostensible need for maintaining family integrity while concurrently planning for its funeral.

I recently found myself a bit player in a staging of the middle act of one such drama. My client beside me, slender, dim, pretty; her guardian ad litem on the other side of her narrow frame; I rose to cajole the commissioner into expanding the services for this young mother with her low IQ, her tendency to giggle, and her total unawareness of the headlights panned in her direction on the lonely road. I got what I wanted, but remain unconvinced that any services my client receives can compensate for what nature failed to give her.

Days before that hearing, I had sat in the same chair next to a father desperately trying to conform to the expectations of a system that took his children from their mother without his awareness of the filth in which she had been rearing them. Estranged from the three toddlers, bound to a new wife and their small family, this man had at first rejected the notion of allowing the Children's Division to stare into his living room and poke around his psyche under the feeble guise of readying him for placement. But his young wife fought for a foothold in the jungle of the system, and clung to the entangled forest, one hand around a vine and the other holding his. They slowly climbed from slippery rocks and the potential plunge into a raging ocean, and stand precariously in the treetops, looking for a strong branch on which to rest.

For her efforts, this valiant stepmother has been branded as "uncooperative" and "hostile", and ordered by the Children's Division to take anger management classes. They've decided she has an anger issue because she yelled at the members of the Family Support Team. I smiled when I heard about these events. Too well I understood what drove her to lash out at them, because I have seen the expressions on their faces. At times, I have wanted to do the same, not as the parent of a child in care but as the lawyer of such a parent.

Their expressions often seem to derive from a feeling of superiority -- the human tendency to think not "there, but for the grace of God, go I", but rather, "there, but for my vastly better understanding of the way of the world, go I". I watched the members of that Family Support Team talk to my client and his wife after the hearing, and saw what plays from the outside as the stamp of smugness. They praised her for maintaining her cool in the courtroom. Why shouldn't she? This time, for the first time, they had representation. Before that hearing, she and her husband sat on their own in the courtroom, with no one to advocate for their position but themselves. Of the two, she is the more articulate, but unschooled both in the law and in the delicacies of human interaction. Even after thirty years of practice and fifty-seven years of living, I make bonehead mistakes in dealing with people -- how can we expect her to navigate rocky waters from slightly more than two decades of experience, during the last three or four years of which she has been birthing and caring for babies?

I say, Well done, young lady. Her children have a roof over their heads, their father and mother lawfully wed, both employed, busily making room for three more children whom I have no idea how they will feed. But feed all five they will, and mostly because of her passion combined with his steadfast dedication to improving their lives. We might condemn him for not knowing that his first wife was not caring for the children of whom she had custody, but we cannot condemn him for the vigor with which he and his current wife now struggle to include those children in their world.

Such are the tales with which my workaday world has become crowded. Men and women battling over the structure of their children's lives, whether against each other or against a system that judges their deficiencies, with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy. It's a hell of a way to earn a living.

I entered the attorney lounge in the Clay County courthouse yesterday, an hour before I guided my client through a stipulated change of custody to make him principal residential custodian of children whose mother had chosen as her second husband a Nazi skinhead prison inmate. In the lull before this brief record would be made, I chanced upon a member of this wonderful list-serve, who introduced me to a law student working with him. He described me as someone who should have been a writer, and I protested that I am a writer. All right, he conceded, she's someone who should be a writer full-time. We laughed.

But in these quiet mornings, my feet resting on the smooth surface of our deck, my laptop propped on the metal table next to a struggling impatiens plant, I feel the truth of his words. I became an attorney only because I feared that writing would not pay enough, and thirty years later, the acid in my stomach reminds me of the flimsiness of my justification for choosing one pursuit over the other. If I had foreseen my path in September 1983, when I sat at a wooden high-top in a bar south of the Plaza, and raised my right hand to take the oath of my office, I might have deliberately spilled my single malt across the license that my then-boss would shortly sign, and loudly call for another round.

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.