Friday, December 19, 2008

The Aggressive Ministerial Practices of One Parson Brown

People frequently misunderstand song lyrics, often with comedic results. I never misunderstood the lyrics to Winter Wonderland. I just misunderstood what they meant. Not knowing what a parson was, in my youth I believed "parson brown" meant a particular shade of brown, as with royal blue or hunter green.

What shade of brown might "parson" be? To my young ears, it sounded as if it were derived from the same root as the word "parched." Something parched, as you probably know, is dried out. So if you image a solid brown color, and then imagine what it would look like dried out and drained of its color, you'd have a pale, light brown. A pale, light brown that might describe the skin color of your average caucasian. Makes sense, doesn't it? Build a snowman in the meadow and pretend he's the color of a real dude!

When I was a kid, I took a lot of flack for that interpretation of the lyrics. I now believe I actually deserve a little credit for it. That's an intelligent, well-reasoned interpretation of what otherwise sounded like nonsense.

Yes, nonsense! When you're eight years old and you don't know what a parson is, that entire run of the song makes no sense at all. I now know a parson is a Protestant minister. With that knowledge, let's take a look at what's going on in this song...
"In the meadow we can build a snowman..."
Okay, so we're going to head on over to the meadow and build a snowman. I'm with you so far.
"Then pretend that he is Parson Brown..."
Stop! Right there, we're not making sense anymore. That is way too specific.

When you're a kid the whole point of building a snowman is to pretend it's a human. But unless you've got mad snow sculpting skills, you're never going to pretend it's someone you know. That's why you name him something stupid, like Frosty or Senor Gringoface. You may want to pretend that he can laugh and play just the same as you or myself, but you don't pretend he's a traveling minister.
"He'll say, 'Are you married?' We'll say, 'No, man.'
'But you can do the job when you're in town.'"
So Artificial Parson Brown proceeds to ask if you're married. That's a problem. Are these playful children who have built this snowman, or is it an infatuated young couple? Because if it's children, then things just got really lame, and this is why boys don't let girls play with them.

If it's the young couple, then things just got really awkward. They're flirting, giggling, playfully lobbing snowballs at each other. Then they build a snowman.

WOMAN
Let's pretend that this is Parson Brown.

MAN
Uhh... yeah, okay. That's a little strange, but sure.

Woman gets into character as the snowman.

WOMAN
(affected male voice)
Hey, you two. Are you married?

MAN
Oh, Jesus.

As herself...

WOMAN
(exaggerated gasp)
Why no, man, we're not.

MAN
Don't... don't do this.

WOMAN
(still exaggerated)
But if you wanted to perform a marriage
ceremony for us right now, I'm sure my
loving, adoring, committed boyfriend would
love to make me the happiest woman
on Earth right now. Wouldn't you, honey?

MAN
Why are you doing this? We were
having a good time.

... A fight ensues, and Christmas is ruined for everyone.

So, was there a real Parson Brown? If so, am I supposed to know who this guy was? If not, why is the song so specific about naming this character?


There was, in fact, a Parson Brown who lived in Florida in the 19th century. And as all people who live in Florida are required to do, he developed his own breed of orange. The Parson Brown orange has little fruit and a lot of seed, making it a less popular variety.

Was this the same Parson Brown who saw fit to accost and coerce into marriage random strangers in fields? It's unlikely. Winter Wonderland was written in 1934. Parson Brown was middle-aged and growing oranges in 1856, and was unlikely to be on the radar of song composers Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith.

If this was a fictional character invented for the sake of the song, why is he given such a specific name? He's the only character in the entire song with a name, which makes him more prominent than even the song's narrator.

As Occam would have us believe, the simplest solution is probably the best. And also the most boring. The reason is...

Because it rhymes.

Well, that's a really unsatisfying explanation for something so perplexing to eight-year-olds. This holiday season, when singing Winter Wonderland in the presence of children, I recommend skipping the part about our dear friend Parson Brown and replacing it with the part about the circus clown.

...Notice that no one felt the need to name the clown?
"In the meadow we can build a snowman
"And pretend that he is George the Clown..."
"Who the hell is George?!"

Happy holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jury Duty II: The Secret of the Ooze

For the second time in my life, I received a jury summons by mail. And for the second time, they sent it to the wrong address. If Big Brother is watching, he's easily confused and distracted. Fortunately for him, I've instructed the post office where to forward my mislabeled mail. Unfortunately for me, that's one less excuse for trying to get out of service.

It had been precisely three and a half years since I was last called for jury duty. One might suppose that means it takes three and a half years to cycle through every able citizen in Los Angeles County. One would suppose wrong, since roughly zero of my friends have ever had to serve. Thanks to my prior service, I'm on the radar and no doubt doomed to be called back with some regularity. One of these days, I'm going to move to a new address and "forget" to set mail forwarding at the post office.

Three and a half years ago, my jury summons told me to show up on X day, at Y time. This time around, I was told that I was "on call" for a week. For a one week period, they would decide on a day-to-day basis if they needed me to come in, and would give me a call if I were selected. In a brilliant stroke of luck, my service period was the week of Thanksgiving. That would mean on one of the days, maybe two, court would not be in session. Everything was coming up Milhouse.

Or so I thought. As it turns out, I can't read jury summons forms. This actually makes a lot of sense, as I've always found it difficult to read the dry, deliberately wordy and coded language of legal forms. The form mentioned something about calling to register, and also said I should call the weekend before my service period was set to begin. I did as I thought I was instructed, and called to register the Sunday before my week. What I got was a pre-recorded message from a lady with a soothing voice who told me, essentially, I done screwed up. I was supposed to register the moment I received the form -- six weeks prior -- and then call again to find out if they needed me on Monday. So I was forced to reschedule.

Eager to serve my time and be done with it, I rescheduled for the very next week. I quadruple checked to make sure I was officially registered. Done deal. As my work week began, I kept my cell phone on me at all times in case they called me in. Monday passed; I was safe. Tuesday passed; I was safe. On Wednesday, a coworker saw my jury summons sitting on my desk and told me he had recently been on call as well. I told him how relieved I was that they hadn't called me yet. He looked puzzled.

"Have you been calling in every night?" he asked. Gulp!

Apparently, when you're "on call," the court does not call you; you call the court. It's your responsibility to call in every night after 5pm and find out if they want you to come in the next morning.

Okay, that is NOT what "on call" means. When a medical doctor is on call, he doesn't ring up the hospital every hour to see if they want him to come in. The hospital calls him as his services are required.

So I called up, talked to an operator and found out, sure enough, I was supposed to have shown up right on Monday. So I rescheduled again for the next week. This time, the operator told me specifically what number to call, what time to call it, and what I should expect to hear. Finally, I was going to do things right.

I called Sunday night, and learned I did not have to show up on Monday. Called Monday; got a no for Tuesday. At this point, I was pretty well convinced that the court system had deemed me unreliable and unfit for service. Awesome! Wednesday - no! Thursday - no! If I could survive one more day, my service will have been fulfilled for at least a year.

But what kind of story would this be if I didn't get called in on Friday?
I was instructed to be at the court house at 7:45am. It's a 45 minute drive. I left my apartment at around 7:35. Oh yeah, I'm a total rebel.

No, I'm not a total rebel. Previous experience had confirmed that the show gets started pretty late. You can either show up promptly and wait for the late people, or you can be a late person and not waste so much of your precious time.

I'd printed up directions from Google Maps. It's a similar course as my route to work; just a different exit. The 10 East, to the 110 North. Take the exit for San Bernardino/Santa Ana. As I approached the exit, things got slow. Real slow. Frustrating slow. Heartbreakingly slow. But finally, I arrived at the exit. It was coned off! Completely closed!

What you need to understand is, when it comes to driving to a new place, I need EXACT directions, and I cannot deviate from them. I get lost easily. I have a good general sense of placement -- "west is that way; Hollywood is over there; San Francisco is way up there" -- but that doesn't help you at the street level. I was not only being forced away from my exit, I was being ushered onto a whole different freeway -- the 101 -- and being aimed exactly away from the direction I needed to go ("downtown is back there").

I would later find out that my exit was closed down because a guy was randomly shot there the previous night. Back in the '80s, freeway shootings used to be a favorite sport in L.A. (This is why we need a football team.)

The long line of people spurned by the closed exit all seemed to be taking the first exit on the 101. I followed suit. Now on a surface street, traffic became even more painfully slow. We inched along, then stopped. Inched, then stopped. Soon, I realized that traffic wasn't going slow simply because of all the freeway spill-off. It turned out, we were in the middle of another crime scene. What are the odds?! I know people think L.A. is a crime ridden cesspool, but we usually don't have one crime scene detouring you into another crime scene. I swear.

Remarkably, I was able to navigate this detour easily and found my way right back to Temple Street. That is, after 45 additional minutes of traffic. Around 9:30, I pulled into juror parking at the Disney Concert Hall.


(no roof parking)

Close to two hours late, I was expecting this day to be a total loss. They would tell me I had to reschedule and make this journey again. But I continued on.

According to my paperwork, I had to go to room 302. So I went through security, got to the elevators, and hurried to the third floor. Jurors and police officers lined the hallways, waiting for various court sessions to begin. This was all very familiar to me from my previous jury experience... until I got to room 302. The door looked different than I remembered. And it was closed; no welcome mat for prospective jurors. And it had a judge's name plate on the door. I grabbed the attention of a nearby policeman.

"Is court in session in this room?" I asked.

He fiddled with the doorknob. It was locked. "Not yet," he goofed, then walked off.

Now rejected by the system, I figured I had time to take a long overdue bathroom break. (Did I mention I'd been drinking coffee on that two hour commute to the courthouse?) Then I went back down to the entrance. I approached a guy behind a desk who was either police or building security. He looked at my summons form.

"Okay," he said. "You need to go to the 11th floor and find room 302."

Let me run that by you again: I needed to go NOT to the third floor to find room 302. I had to go to the 11th floor, and find a room marked 302 there.

I tend to think of myself as not particularly stupid, but maybe I am. When told to report to room 302, doesn't one usually presume this will be on the third floor? Apparently every floor in this building has a 302. This implies that the building is so large that there are over 300 rooms on every floor. The building didn't appear that large to me. But again, maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am.

I finally arrived at the appropriate room. It was after 10 o'clock. I prepared myself for a stern look and a "we'll see you again soon" at the check-in. To my surprise, the lady at the desk said they were desperate for jurors and that I could still earn my service credit that day. She scanned me in and handed me some paperwork. I read the paperwork 20 times because, at that point, I didn't trust my comprehension of the things the court system writes on paper.
If you are in the jury assembly room at the conclusion of the first day and not assigned to a jury selection of trial, staff will complete your service and provide you with a jury verification form for your employer.
I read this line 40 times. It sounded like if I didn't get selected for a trial, then I'd still officially fulfilled my obligation and did not have to drag this process out any further. I turned to the guy a couple seats away from me.

"Excuse me. Are we in the jury assembly room right now?"

"Yeah, we are," he said. Three minutes later, he got up and found a seat on the other side of the room from me. Because smart people don't like sitting next to stupid people. Who cares? Only one thing mattered to me at that point: if I managed to stay in this room until the end of the day, then my service would be fulfilled.

And to my surprise, that's exactly what happened. Despite the fact that they were "desperate for jurors," I was never called in for selection. I was able to serve my community by sitting in a room reading magazines and listening to podcasts for six hours.

You're welcome, Los Angeles. Now let's not go through this again, huh?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Thirteen Annoyed Persons

[This is a repost of a story I originally posted on May 19, 2005, about the first time I served jury duty. Tomorrow, a new post about my second time around with jury duty. Enjoy - ]

Thirteen Annoyed Persons

The vacation I had been anticipating had to be postponed when Rob, my former co-apartment-renting-guy, brought me some misdirected mail back in April. Included was a jury summons. For the first time in my life, I had been called to jury duty.

This is what I get for voting. My candidates never win, and I have to take an hour and a half commute to the downtown courthouse.

It could have been worse. My first stroke of luck was that, with "The Amazing Race" on hiatus, I didn't have to take any time off from work... work was already taking time off from me. And not a moment too soon; I was to report to the courthouse the very first Monday after my last Friday of work. So, no chance of lost wages. Still... I had been looking forward to this vacation time. Oh well. Duty calls.

So I plugged the address, 210 Temple Street, into Mapquest for directions. They estimated it would take me a half hour to get to the courthouse. Mapquest does not know how to figure L.A. traffic into the equation.

I was instructed to be at the courthouse at 8am. Figuring in the morning traffic jam, I would have to be on the road by around 6:30. But then, it occured to me. I didn't WANT to be on time. How many times had I been called to any sort of gathering of people, only to find that the REAL start time would be 15 minutes to an hour after the requested time? I've played the fool too many times in situations like that. This time, I would be one of the late people whom the on-timers would have to sit around and wait for.

And what if I were wrong? What if they started right at 8 o'clock? What then? The worst they could do was fine me. But I was taking the gamble that they probably wouldn't do that. On the contrary, this could work to my advantage. "Your honor, I would request that the court dismiss the late, unreliable gentleman whose tardiness renders him unfit for duty." Motion granted. I go home.

To increase my odds of being quickly dismissed, I premeditated a few other ideas to make myself undesirable to a judge or lawyer. I would stop trimming my beard for four days in advance. I would shower that morning, but I would not use any deorderant or cologne, and I would leave my hair to fall as it may. I would wear a t-shirt and jeans. And I would be openly hostile with everyone I encountered. Indeed, I would be so passive-aggressive, they'd never know how passive-aggressive I was.

I've only ventured into downtown L.A. on two previous occassions. One of those times, I wasn't driving. The other time, I got lost. And so it was that this time as well, I got lost. Well, not "lost" so much. I knew I had made it to the right area, and I knew which direction would get me home; so I wouldn't say I was lost. But it was impossible to find the jurors-free parking lot. Downtown L.A. is nothing BUT parking lots. I turned into several, only to be told I was in the wrong place. I drove around in circles (well, rectangles) trying to find the proper lot. At one point, I glanced a sign that said "Police and Juror." I turned into that lot only to discover, on closer look, that the sign said "No Police and Juror Parking."

I finally parked, and immediately began walking in the wrong direction, toward a building that looked like a courthouse. In fact, it WAS a courthouse. It just wasn't the correct courthouse.

See, here I was thinking that I had to go to "THE" courthouse. Apparently, there are numerous courthouses in downtown L.A. I found at least five. And they're all right next to each other. I knew that L.A. had a Fashion District and Jewelry District (not as pretty as they sound), but not a Courthouse District. This begs the question: why not just make one big courthouse building?

I eventually asked someone to point me to Temple Street, which he did. Once on Temple, I proceeded to walk in the wrong direction. Again. The 300 block gave way to the 400 block, and I needed to be at 210.



By the time I got to the right building, and the right floor, and the right room, it was close to 9 o'clock. And I was right on time. Moments after I showed up, a woman appeared on a closed-circuit television to give instructions to jurors throughout the building. If I had been there on time, I would have spent an extra hour waiting. And believe me... there was already plenty of waiting to look forward to that day.



If you were ever wondering why there is no such TV show as "Law & Order: Jury Selection" (or "J.S." as it would eventually come to be known), I am going to tell you. Jury selection is a boring process. By 9:30, the woman with the gentle voice on the TV had finished explaining the way things would work. All day, they would call out about 30 names at a time, as needed, for each jury panel. Since there were three or four floors full of aspiring jurors, with each floor holding what I estimate to be 150 civilians, there would be long periods of waiting between panels. And so, our floor waited.

10 o'clock. 11 o'clock.

11:30, a panel was called. Only 20 people. I was not one of them. It was announced that these people were in contention for a trial that was projected to last 14 days. 14 days! Things were looking grim.

In the matter of money, the pay for jury duty is as shitty as rumored. The woman on the TV had informed us that the first day of service is complimentary on our behalf. That is to say, we get nothing. If we are called back for any additional days, we will be paid $15 a day. In addition to the 15, they will pay you $.34 per mile driven... but they only pay the mileage one way. In other words, they only care that you arrive. Whether or not you get home is of no concern.

More waiting. And then lunch. Lunch lasted an hour and a half. It can be said that the judicial system, at least in L.A., is very liberal with time. They started the day an hour late, they had us waiting around for 2 1/2 hours, they gave us 1 1/2 for lunch, and they call it quits at 4:30.

About an hour after we returned from lunch, another panel was called. This time, they called about 35 people. And I was one of them.

If I were to be excused from this panel, I would not be dismissed from service. I would have to return to the room on the fifth floor and await the possibility of being selected for another panel. If I were not selected for another panel that day, I would be required to return to the courthouse the next day, at no pay, and make myself available for panel selection until noon. At noon, they would declare that I had put in 24 hours worth of service, and I would be excused.

No matter what, I would be required to return to the courthouse the next day. That's why I consider it my second stroke of luck that I landed on this particular panel. We were informed that this trial was estimated to last until Wednesday. Great! Perfect! I'll take it! With this, I could avoid possible 14-day trials, and I would receive at least SOME compensation to make up for the cost of driving downtown and buying my own lunches. What did I do to deserve such a blessing?

***

The courtroom bugged my eyes. The ceiling was about 20 feet up. The four walls were all wood paneled -- a really deep-brown color of wood that refused to cooperate with the fluorescent lighting. Halfway between the floor and the ceiling, the walls ceased to be simple wood panels and turned into a picket-fence pattern -- wood, black, wood, black -- which could easily suggest prison bars to a conscience-stricken defendent. The carpet was tan, worn down everywhere except directly in front of the judge's bench, which I gather is some sort of sacred ground. All of the court officials made special efforts to avoid walking there.

The lawyers stood and faced the panel every time we entered or exited the room. I was very put off by this. I understand that it's meant to be some sort of sign of respect, but was it really necessary? The courtroom was small, so there was not much room to walk. No matter how close I tried to hug the wall, it felt like the lawyers were right on top of me. They were staring me down, defying me not to rule in their favor.

The judge was rather long-winded. (Not to say this is the shortest thing I've ever written.) It wasn't enough for him to tell us what to expect or what was expected of us. He was giving us an entire remedial history of the judicial system, and he described every step of the process in thorough detail before that process would begin. Honestly, law school cannot be more comprehensive than this guy was.

We began the process of describing ourselves to the court. There were four basic questions to answer. Which section of L.A. were we from? What is our occupation? What is the occupation of anyone we live with over the age of 18? Have we ever served on a jury before? Based on our answers, the judge would ask some follow-up questions. I was asked no additional questions, but was ridiculed for working on "reality TV", which the judge said was an oxymoron of a term. He later apologized.

By the time each of us went through our questions, it was past 4:30. We were to come back tomorrow. This meant I wouldn't have to worry about being on any other panel. I would either be on the jury for this trial, or I would be excused. Either way, I was done by Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the questioning continued. Their were yes-or-no questions asked to the entire group. Anyone whose answer conflicted with the rest of the group's would be asked some follow-up questions.

At this point, I felt like I was on "Jury Idol." I had to perform the right way, or be sent home. But I knew I wasn't going anywhere. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be on this jury. And why is that? Because, ladies and gentlemen... I. Am. Perfect.

I'm sorry, but it's true. I am the ideal American citizen. I do my work, I pay my taxes, and I spend my disposable income on entertainment. I'm college-educated. I complain about the government neither too much nor too little. I have a pleasant disposition. I am neither too attractive nor too repulsive. I am open-minded, objective and fair. I am young.

But, above everything else, I am a sucker. I didn't try to pull any stunts to get myself excused. I didn't lie in any way to try to make myself unappealing to the lawyers. And one of the other guys beat me to the "I'm angry at the world, and therefore too biased to serve as a juror" card. You can't have two people trying to do that on the same panel. It won't work. So that guy was excused, and I was left in.

When it got to the point where the lawyers were allowed to ask any questions they wanted of the panel, no one had any questions for me. Why would they? I'm perfect. If it were at all possible, every lawyer in the country would want twelve of me on every single trial. I'm not saying this to boast or brag. Not at all. I hate the fact that I'm the perfect juror. But, so be it. At least I was on the fast trial. I imagine I would have fought harder to be excused if I had been on that 14-day trial. For this trial, I had given up all hope of being excused, accepted my fate, and started looking toward getting this thing finished as quickly as possible.

By noon, they had found their twelve, plus one alternate. I was juror number eight. After lunch, the trial began.

***

So... selecting the jury is the long part. The trial breezed by in half an afternoon. The prosecution had four witnesses. There was no physical evidence, just testimony. The defense had nothing except the cross-examinations.

What was the trial about? Ha! I can't believe you actually think you would care. The charges were tresspassing and loitering. Seems a young man had had some run-ins with campus security at USC. USC is, apparently, a private college. Who knew? So the campus is private property. The young man had been told to keep off the property before. So, one night, when he was discovered lingering around a bike rack, security believed he was looking to steal, and used his previous warnings as a way to bring him up on charges.

If I missed any testimony, it was for two reasons: 1) I am easily bored when people start talking about uninteresting things, which leaves my mind wandering off in any number of other directions. And 2) the court stenographer was much more compelling than anything else happening in that room. I could barely stop myself from staring at her efforts the whole time.

The court stenographer was a busy, focused woman who looked not unlike Judith Light. She had this specialty keyboard hooked up to a laptop. This keyboard made not the slightest sound. That fact was all the more incredible because of her methods. She was pounding the keys harder than a jackhammer hitting cement. And it looked so sloppy that I couldn't believe she was creating actual words. Her hands flapped carelessly up and down, like a dog struggling to propel itself through the water. And yet, from my vantage point, I could see complete sentences appearing on her monitor, while fold after fold of narrow paper would glide through the equally silent printer and rest gently in a perfectly sized box. Watching this woman work was amazing. I'm sure the specialty keyboard has some sort of trick buttons that stand for entire words, like "the" and "testimony", or something like that. Still... that's some hardcore typing.

Before the day was up, we were able to begin deliberating. I felt bad for the defendent. He had no case at all. His story was that he had a friend that lived near the USC campus, and he would cut through as a shortcut. So, why didn't the friend testify that this was true? Why didn't the friend talk about what they were doing that night? Why didn't the friend just show up in the courtroom for support? Why wasn't there any family there for support? The poor guy had nothing. He was all alone in that courtroom. He is probably all alone, always.

As 4:30 rolled around, we knew we had to wrap things up. God forbid we keep court in session past the witching hour of 4:30pm.

So we were back the next morning at 9am. And let me just say... ker-ching ker-ching! My earnings were now up to $30, plus 30 paid miles! I was raking it in with this trial!

Anyway, deliberations were a lot of laughs. I'm not being sarcastic. This was a funny group of people, and we were getting our zingers in at every opportunity. Which makes me hate myself. That poor guy is sitting out there, waiting for us to determine his fate. This wasn't a life-or-death trial by any stretch of the imagination, but still. Guilty or not guilty will make a significant difference in his life. And here we are, laughing it up. I also enjoy laughing at the disabled and the infirmed, thank you.

For a while, it seemed like we were going to pronounce him guilty on one charge and not guilty on the other. In order to be guilty of loitering, you have to linger in an area and presume to commit a crime if the opportunity presents itself. In other words, he didn't steal a bike, but he probably would have if he'd had the chance. True. As for trespassing, you can only be pronounced guilty of that if the prosecution has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was your INTENTION to commit a crime. To me, it didn't seem like he went to USC with the specific purpose of stealing a bike.

But here's the thing... the way the law is written, trespassing is the intent to harm or damage property or property RIGHTS. And since USC is private property, and this guy was told not to set foot on campus again, we had to find him guilty of intentionally violating those rights. So, after a couple hours of deliberating, we found him guilty on both charges.

And that was it. We were done. They sent us home. Who knows what the punishment was? The thing is, we think this guy is on parole from a previous crime. So, he'll probably get more than just a slap on the wrist for this. But the judge reminded us -- multiple times and in lengthy detail -- that it's not our job to worry about that. We have to ignore the consequences and objectively determine guilt.

As promised, the trial was over on Wednesday. I was home by noon, and my vacation was officially allowed to begin. First order of business for my vacation: a midnight screening of the new "Star Wars."

And now, all I have to do is kick back and wait for my $30 check to roll in. How much do you want to bet it's taxed?