Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Man With No Number

Yesterday I was summonsed for jury duty. I’ve been waiting for this day for 17 years.

Call me crazy, but I don’t understand why people try so hard to get out of jury duty. Yesterday, when the clerk asked for anyone who thought they should be excused to form an orderly line, 50 people stood and queued to the left of the bench. None of them were dressed as if they would rush back to the office as soon as they were dismissed and put the final touches on their groundbreaking cure for cancer, finish drafting a pre-approved mid-east peace treaty, or tighten the last bolts on one of those anti-gravity hover cars I’ve been expecting since I was 7-years-old.

On the contrary, if they were excused, each of these men and women were planning to go home, turn off their cell phones, and waste the afternoon by watching television. Like me, they’ve all spent a significant portion of their lives sitting on a couch in front of the square-headed time eater. And what have they been watching?

2000’s: American Idol, a show where we watch young “singers” perform so we can responsibly cast our vote as to whether they’ve presented a strong enough case to stay and compete on the next week's show. Paula, Simon, and Randy are the judges. America is the jury.

1990’s: Law & Order, a show where the legal process in action – from arrest to prosecution – holds the attention of millions of people for 60 minutes (or up to 5 hours if you get drawn into a vortex of re-runs on TNT) every week… or, if you get caught in the previously mentioned syndication vortex, every day.

1980’s: The People’s Court. One of the earliest examples of reality TV, The People’s Court gave daytime television watchers a voyeur's seat at the legal system’s bedroom window. While we folded laundry and waited for Al Gore to develop the internet, didn’t we all try to guess how Judge Wapner would settle “The Case of the Overdone Underthings”?

Honestly, who hasn’t succumbed to the guilty pleasure of Divorce Court? Who wouldn’t recognize Judge Judy if they passed her on the street? What child of the 80’s can claim that he/she didn’t ask to stay up after The Cosby Show and Cheers to watch as Judge Harry T. Stone presided over his zany Night Court? What baby boomer doesn’t know how Perry Mason ended every week?

I’m sure Oliver North, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and OJ Simpson each wish America wasn’t addicted to the drama of our legal system at work.

I’m also sure John Grisham is thankful we are. His book-to-movie fortune has been funded by courtroom junkies who love reading/watching stories with titles like The Firm, The Client, and Runaway Jury.

And yet, when given the opportunity to watch legal drama in real-life, 50 people lined up yesterday in a Brooklyn courthouse to say “No thank you. I’d rather not see the live show. I’ll wait for it to come out on DVD or maybe buy the paperback.

Fortunately, as these men and women gave their carefully rehearsed excuses to the court clerk, I was sitting close enough to the bench to overhear many of their reasons for “why I can’t help protect the innocent (or punish the guilty, depending on whether your glass is more full or more empty) today.”

My favorite excuse? A middle-aged man handed his summons to the court clerk and asked (in a heavy Brooklyn accent) to be dismissed. The clerk, confirming that the man wasn’t an immigrant (despite his Brooklyn Forever! accent), politely asked “sir, where were you born?”

“I’m from Brooklyn,” the man said, barely hiding his pride that he’s never been above 23rd street.

“Then why didn’t you fill in your Social Security Number?”

“I was born here in Brooklyn,” the man confirmed, “but they never gave me one of those Social Security Numbers. They must’a forgot. Can I go?”

Bank accounts. Insurance forms. Tax returns. W4’s. 1099’s. Credit card applications. Marriage licenses. Certificates of divorce. All of these documents require a Social Security Number. Is it possible for a 40-year-old man to live in Brooklyn, USA his whole life without having a "Social"?

Did the man really expect the court to believe that the US Government, who uses this number to make sure every citizen pays every penny of tax they owe, simply forgot to issue him one? It would have made more sense for the man to tell the clerk he was waiting for Uncle Sam to issue him a new Social Security Number ‘cause his old one was broken.

The clerk rolled his eyes and told Citizen X to sit down and finish his paperwork. I laughed aloud, wondering again why people gripe and groan when given free tickets to this marvelous show.

Tomorrow, the man with no number will sit on a jury. Together with 11 other fair and impartial strangers, he will be forced to do in public what many of us voluntarily do in private – pass judgment.

I hope he’s more fair than he is clever.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

There Should Always Be Dancing

A man danced during an earthquake and believed his steps shook the world. When his dancing stopped, the man saw what he assumed his joy had done, and swore to never dance again.

Foolish man. There should always be dancing.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What I Did During My Summer Vacation

Protected by the long shadows of tall buildings, my virgin city skin hadn’t seen the sun in many months. Imagine its surprise when I arrived in Florida, stripped my shirt, and asked it to gradually toast from flour white to a light, golden brown. I know I should have given it more warning. If I had, maybe it wouldn’t have skipped brown, paused only briefly at pink, and committed itself to a stunning shade of red in less than two hours.

At the time, exposing my skin to the roasting sun didn’t seem like an unreasonable thing to do. After all, even at its hottest, a summer day in Florida is seldom hotter than 100°. Although 100° is undeniably hot, it’s not technically “scorching hot.” An average oven in an average kitchen doesn’t even offer 100° as an option. The dials on most ovens start at a “warm” (and basically useless) 250°. Chocolate chip cookies refuse to bake if offered anything less than 350°. The bread in your toaster expects at least 400° before it will properly toast.

Why, then, was a relatively cool 95° day able to thoroughly burn my skin in less than two hours?

The answer, of course, is concealed by my clever cooking metaphor. Everyone knows that playing in the Florida sun has become less like playing in a conventional oven and more like playing in a microwave oven. Thanks to teenagers spraying Aqua-Net in the 1980’s, soccer moms driving SUVs in the 1990’s, and armies burning oil wells in the 2000’s, Florida’s summer sun can now scorch your skin quicker than ever before.

You may ask, “Why did you let yourself get burned, Bryan? Haven’t you been listening to Al Gore? Haven’t you been paying attention to global warming, the greenhouse effect, the hole in the ozone layer, and the dangers of UV radiation? Don’t you know that an afternoon at the beach is practically as dangerous as smoking a cigarette or eating out of old Tupperware? Why didn’t you wear sun-screen?”

Well… I did.

Before my first day on the beach, I carefully applied suntan lotion to every inch of my exposed skin. I even lotioned a few places that weren’t currently exposed, but threatened to be. Because I knew each body part would receive a different amount of sun, I covered each with a different strength of lotion.

Ears/nose/shoulders: 70. Face/neck: 50. Chest/back/arms: 40. Legs: 35.

When I finally walked onto the beach, my collective SPF (sun protective factor) sounded like a Master Lock combination.

And yet, despite my diligence, by lunch-time my shoulders and arms were already the color of a perfectly cooked filet mignon. (For vegetarian readers who might not understand this reference, I basically just said that “my shoulders and arms were hot pink and warm to the touch.”)

I spent the rest of my vacation swimming in a t-shirt, hoping that wet cotton has an SPF of “impenetrable.”


Like the best vacation, the good parts of most days pass too quickly. And like the bright summer sun, even nice things sometimes cause unexpected pain. The worst of these hurts are the ones that surprise us – the ones that come without warning – the ones we didn’t know we needed to protect ourselves against.

Friends too quickly become former friends. Lovers too quickly become former lovers. Jobs too quickly become former jobs. It’s so easy to get burned. Nobody is impenetrable.

I recently got burned, and it hurt. But after the hurt healed – after the damaged layers peeled away and the red faded into tan – I realized that my new, deeper color makes me more interesting.

Of course, getting burned also contributes to wrinkles, leathery skin, weird moles, and premature aging – but that’s not the point.

The point is – I got burned, but it got better.