Friday, June 16, 2017

Love & Fear & Trial

I'm so high right now. I'm high on a wave of confidence, relief, and exhaustion.

I'm shaken up from an odd mix of complete and utter fear and the immense thrill of giving my first ever closing argument in a trial.

I just finished a four day trial. It was my first entirely solo trial. I've co-chaired trials before. In fact earlier this year, I was third chair in a six week trial where I was  primarily the motion bitch.

This time was entirely different. Not only was this my first solo trial, it was my first criminal trial. I am a civil litigator. I don't know the slightest thing about prosecuting a criminal case. In fact, one of my struggles during the trial was to remember to refer to myself as the "State" or the "prosecution" rather than the defense. At the end of the case, I nearly declared "defense rests!" Oops. Funny story....on the first day of trial, I referred to myself as a "prostitutor" instead of "prosecutor." It was not my most shining-star moment.

Let's go back to Monday. In advance of this trial, I was given a trial binder and told, "here you go, trial's next week." As I said, I'm a civil litigator. The world of criminal law is a dark and scary place for me. In criminal law, trials are "speedy" rather than 5 years in the making. You have no clue what the other side's argument will be until they start their case. You don't get 5 days notice to respond to motions. And, witnesses are rarely deposed in advance.

Nonetheless, I agreed to do a criminal trial to get more trial experience under my belt. I immediately regretted it. The day before trial, my stomach was in knots, I had serious questions about the adequacy of my opening argument, and the thought of talking and interacting with a room full of strange people made me want to vomit.

As I walked into Court Room 271 on Monday, I played Eminem in my head on repeat and tried not to cry:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin'
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out

Those lyrics were me.

When it was my time to start voir dire, I stood up, looked into a room of 40 blank stranger faces, took a deep breath, and forged onward, despite the stomach knots, the shaking hands, and the violent wave of adrenaline coursing through my body. After the jury was impaneled, it was time for opening statements. I simply repeated the process: stand up, look forward, deep breath, go.

It was the same thing witness after witness. Deep breaths became my center of gravity. If you're taking a deep breath, you can't fumble over your words. My most challenging witnesses took nearly 2 hours to examine on the stand. But it felt like 15 minutes. Time flies when the pressure's on, when everyone's looking at you, watching you walk, watching you glance at your notes, watching you pause to think about your next question, watching you handle exhibits, watching you expectantly after every loud "objection!." They're watching the witness too, of course. But I felt like I constantly had the spot light.

Talking all day and interacting with people for hours at a time in a high-pressure setting is pretty much a nightmare for an introvert like me. I came home every night exhausted. Almost physically unable to string together coherent words. My brain was operating on fumes. But there was no rest during trial. Each night I was up late preparing witness outlines and my closing argument.

All the stress, all the anxiety, all the exhaustion, and all the emotions grew and grew as everything culminated into the final magic trick, the closing argument. I nearly had a panic attack at the thought of giving a closing argument. I just wanted the stress and the exhaustion to end as soon as possible. But there would be no rest until this one final terrifying act was behind me. When it came time for closing, I stood up, took my deep breath, and forged onward, trying desperately to ignore the desire to combust into thin air.

I can't even describe how terrified I was. I don't remember ever being that terrified in my life. I arrived at the court room 30 minutes before the proceedings were to start that final day. All the staff and counsel were chatting away in light conversation. I didn't hear a single word. I was zoned. I could hear my heart beat pounding in my ears. I made three nervous but completely unnecessary runs to the ladies room. How the hell had I gotten to this scary precipice. All I could imagine was me standing in front of an expectant jury, fumbling over my words until utter nonsense spilled out of my mouth. Why had I said yes to this again?

The jury was called in. The judge turned the floor over to me. I stood up, looked directly into the eyes of 13 complete strangers and forged onward. I was totally faking it. I know I spoke calmly and carefully. I know I sounded loud and sure. But it was 100% an act. At least at first. Then somehow, ten minutes in, I found my groove. This wasn't so bad. The things coming out of my mouth were pretty darn convincing, in fact. I sat down while the defense gave its closing statement. And as I listened to the defense's argument, I began to furiously plot my rebuttal.

By the time it was my turn again I was rearing to go, like a race dog waiting for the gate to drop. I started my rebuttal with a reference to 50 Shades of Gray (how many lawyer points do I get for that?!). I even got a chuckle from the ladies in the front of the jury box. And then I was completely unleashed. I tackled topic after topic, rebutting each of defense counsel's arguments. It felt good. It felt SO GOOD. And, to top it all off, in a room full of jurors and court staff, and judge, I confidently uttered the words "blowjob" and "handjob" without EVEN blushing. (I swear it was relevant to the non-sex crime case).

When I was done and had nothing more to say, I walked back to my table. As I exhaled I released all the stress and the tension from my body. Let it all drip down to my toes and onto the floor. I hadn't slept well in days. I was starving. I was exhausted. My brain was temporarily broken. But I had never felt so good. (which is a good thing because then I had to jump straight into a 4 hour deposition). And I didn't even know the verdict yet.

You know what I love about being a lawyer, and particularly, being a litigator? Being a lawyer presents endless opportunities to grow. At least for a shy introvert like me. Being a lawyer requires me to confront my weaknesses, face my fears, and to embrace new challenges on a nearly daily basis. I'm constantly placed in positions that fall far beyond my comfort zone. I don't always rise to the challenge, but most of the time I do. And succeed or fail, I always grow. Each new scary experience brings me that much closer to being a stronger, smarter, and more experienced me. It's absolutely terrifying. It's terrifying beyond measure. But I love it.

This trial is going to be a thing that defines who I am for a while. You know how after you become a mom for the first time, you want to run around and tell everyone you meet that you're a mom? I remember thinking that I needed to wear a badge that said "mom" on it. When it's your first kid, going from not-a-mom to being a mom is kind of a big deal. You completely change the way you see and define yourself. That is exactly how I feel right now having completed my first solo trial. It's going to be a little while before I stop thinking of myself in terms of "attorney who has done a trial solo." And I'm totally ok with that! :)

Friday, June 9, 2017

Second Class Mom

Physically, I'm standing in a tiny hallway plastered in primary colors and two dozen construction paper flowers. A sea of little heads bob up and down, excitedly greeting each other. Parents chat leisurely, yoga pants on and coffee in hand. We crowd around a heavy wooden door, waiting for it to open signaling the beginning of preschool. My two year old hugs my leg while my five year old chatters away with his friend.

I'm physically there, but just barely. My dark grey pencil skirt, smart patent leather heels, and blue blouse paint the illusion of someone who is put together. My outfit and carefully straightened dirty blonde hair are unintentionally deceiving. They hide the frustrations of trying to get three children out of bed, fed, dressed, and packed for school within a whirlwind of arguments, whining, crying, and back talking while also trying to pull together my own outfit, breakfast, lunch, and laptop. You wouldn't know that, earlier, I locked myself in the bathroom for two minutes to avoid punching a wall, or that I had to physically drag my two year old to the car, or that I had to run back into the house three times to grab forgotten items. (Side note: I simply don't understand how the urgency of mornings can be lost on people who believe that ranch Corn Nuts and marshmallows constitute an acceptable breakfast choice.)

While I'm there in the hallway in body, my mind is in an entirely different location. I'm miles away. Twenty miles. At my desk. Drafting emails and organizing my thoughts on the pressing litigation fires that sprung up over night. I check my phone and see five unread "urgent" messages. My head spins with all the deadlines I need to meet for the day. A notice pops up onto my screen to remind me that I have a meeting in 30 minutes. And here I am, still 20 miles away, waiting for that dang preschool door to open.

When the door finally creaks open, my attention jolts away from my mental to-do list. I hand a $60 bag of carefully selected "healthy" snacks to the teacher. I had painstakingly selected a snack for each day of the week, as required when it is your designated snack week. Paying $60 for preschool snacks nearly killed me. But I would have paid twice that to avoid the disapproving gaze I received last time. Last time I had snack duty, the teacher held up my large container of air-puffed cheese balls in front of all the other parents and loudly declared them "unhealthy." My explanation that the offending snack only contained 1 gram of sugar compared to the 25 grams of sugar in the raisins on the "approved" list was largely ignored in favor of the ambiguous and unilaterally set "school standards."

The teacher reviewed my snacks carefully. I anxiously looked down at my feet. "Is this all??" She finally asked. "This is for the entire week? We have 17 kids in our class. One bag of Veggie Straws is not going to be enough for all the kids." My blood boiled with both anger and embarrassment. "I can bring another bag in tomorrow," I assured. Sure, I thought. I'll just run into a store tonight after work...hmmm, right after I pick my kids up from the nanny's house. I think I can squeeze that in around 6:00 before I have to rush home and make dinner and meet my oldest son and my husband at a little league ball game. Yeah, no sweat.

The teacher smiled, apparently satisfied. "Don't forget that tomorrow is Disney dress-up day. And next week is the end-of the year party. And I need all parents to bring in a picture of their kid for a special project," she shouted to the rest of the parents in the hall.

And in that seven second announcement, my to-do list grew by four tasks. Buy another bag of Veggie Straws, find a quick Disney outfit for tomorrow, figure out who will be able to attend the end of year party (because I have a pre-arranged deposition that same time), and find time to stop by the print shop to print out a photo (we still don't own a printer). My heart fell. I already knew I could not manage to do all of this. There was going to be disappointment somewhere. And, as most often is the case, it was likely going to be on the faces of my children. Just like last week when I had to pass up my oldest son's school assembly. And when I forgot to order year books. And when I had to leave early for Mother's Day preschool tea.

After my preschooler took his place in class, I ran out to the parking lot to drop my two year old off with the nanny. On the way out the door I heard a group of moms planning a park play date after class. I smiled and walked passed them.

I then walked past two other moms talking about they never let their elementary school children order school lunch because it's so horrible. I raised my eyebrow and realized that I had never even batted an eye at the fact that my elementary school child ordered school lunch every day for the past two years. With school lunch costing a mere $2.50 and requiring zero prep time for me, there was never even a question.

I'm an outsider. The mom who always sends a nanny to pick up her son. The mom who doesn't show up for school events. The mom that despises school dress-up days and special school events because it means squeezing more tasks and obligations into an already overflowing schedule. I'm the mom who doesn't get to go to afternoon play dates or spontaneous trips to the zoo. I'm the mom who doesn't volunteer in the classroom. I'm the mom who doesn't take her toddler to mommy and me classes. And while I'm sure the other moms barely notice and actually care even less, I notice it. I'm always a step behind. A minute too late. A second-class mom.

I walk to my van, check the clock, and debate whether I have time to stop for a much-coveted cup of coffee. I decide that I don't and end up speeding ten miles over the limit to get to work in time for my meeting. Someone carelessly parked in my designated spot so I have to circle the block to find an alternate. I finally find one far away, grab my laptop bag, purse, lunch, and case binder and struggle to make it to my office building by 10:00am.

I arrive. I sigh and suddenly realize that I hadn't taken a full deep breath in hours. My work day has just begun and I already feel haggard. I've already lived an entire full day. I walk past several coworkers who have already put in two hours of work. I switch on my office light and hope that no one is judging the time of my arrival.

I arrive at 10am almost every single morning. And every single morning I replay the events of my last work evaluation in which I was chided for not spending more time physically in the office (although I do work at least 40 hours each week). I'm pretty sure my name is synonymous with "late" and "frenzied" and "disconnected." I don't chat with coworkers in the kitchen. Or join them on their lunch time walks. Or attend networking bar events. Because I'm always playing catch up.

I cringe as I check my inbox. The number of unread emails has grown exponentially since I last checked them in the hallway of preschool. But I can't address any of them at that moment because I have to duck into a meeting that I am barely prepared for. I reluctantly accept the fact that next time I return to my office, the unopened email list will surely have doubled... or tripled.

And that is what it is like. Day in. Day out.

The most frequent comment/question that I get from my friends and new acquaintances is "wow, how do you do it all?" To that comment, I always respond with, "I don't. I don't do it all." I usually stop there. But on a particularly mouthy day, I might be a little more elaborate. I might say instead:

I don't do it all. I simply do all things part way. I kill myself to barely fulfil the minimum requirements of being a mom. I kill myself to barely accomplish the basic tasks required of an employee. And at each step, I feel criticized and judged. People only see how far my actions fall from their expectations. They do not see what I have given up and how I struggle to accomplish what I do. It is very hard to be a full time mom and a full time employee. And I have accepted the fact that I will never be fantastic at both.

When I express my struggles as a mom, people are always quick to reassure me that I am so great. I appreciate it. I truly do. But it's not the truth and I feel like I need people to know that I'm NOT perfect. I'm NOT great. Because it's ok to not be the gold standard. The bubble needs to be popped. People need to know that I yell at my kids. A lot. That instead of standing my ground in the face of a tantrum like the pediatrician told me to do, I sometimes give in. My kids DO eat school lunches every day. Often (like right now), my clean laundry sits in the laundry basket for two weeks before it gets folded. I'm impatient with my kids and do things for them when they are taking too long doing it themselves. Instead of teaching my son to tie his shoes, I bought him tie-less shoe laces. And after dinner every night, I rush to get my kids to bed because I'm dying for down time. This is what it looks like people. THIS.

And if a kind soul smiles at me and tells me that I'm doing amazingly, I will 100% appreciate their kindness. Because, whether they go to work or work at home, all moms need other moms for support. But we also need the freedom to express our shortcoming and be in solidarity with each other on our imperfections. We need the freedom to not be perfect. We need to set a new standard- that being imperfect is totally acceptable.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Grandma

We waited so long for her to take her last breath. A full day of uncomfortable hospital chairs and awkward silences. Each time her chest fell we wondered, "was that her last?" before another wave of respiration would take her and we would all resume our own breathing.

Her breaths were mechanical, not intended. Her lungs refused to give up their muscle memory even after her mind and heart had long resigned their watchful posts. I wondered what it was like, to wait for the end. To say a final farewell to your own body. The body that you healed and fed and dressed and cleaned with great care for 90 years. The body that grew your children. That loved your husband. The body that slowly began to fail beyond control in your later years.

The body in the bed was Grandma, but not really. As I held her hands and lingered over the same long fingers (with knobby knuckles that resembled my own) that had taught me how to roll out fruit square dough to a precise and perfect thickness, I felt like I was holding a relic of a person long gone. They felt cold. And when I squeezed them, they did not squeeze back. Not like they did the night before, when I spooned red jello between her chapped lips as she delighted at the taste. She had only accepted two small bites, which stained her lips a healthy and vibrant red. The color looked odd and out of place on her pale and colorless body. It was, perhaps, the last thing she ever ate.

She still occupied her body, but only in the way a ghost occupies a haunted house. Her body seemed hollow. A presence would occasionally pass across her otherwise glassy eyes, like a ghost flitting past a dark, empty window.

Where was she at that moment? What did she see and feel? All the unanswered questions of the afterlife where there with me, with Grandma, in that hospital room. But I had no means to unlock them.

When her chest descended for the last time, the finality was both a relief and a stab in the gut. We went home with puffy faces and red eyes. It was then that it hit me how little time I had spent with her. For years she had been just a phone call or a 45 minute drive away. I rarely took the time for either. Now we were separated by worlds, the physical and the spiritual, the transient and the eternal. Only now that it was impossible, I'd have dropped everything to enjoy one last chat over grapefruit tea and gingersnaps.

In the weeks that followed, we were left to sort through the sea of her possessions. Everything she had acquired and owned. Every earthly object that she treasured or put up with was left in our care. From the mugs in which she drank her coffee, the pressed edelweiss that hung on her wall, the goofy string of moose lights she left up in her kitchen year round, books, VHS tapes, spoons, refrigerator magnets, photo albums.

Us grandchildren were invited to sort through her things and select memorable tokens of Grandmas to take home with us. I scoured the cardboard boxes of her things, desperate to find something of meaning to me. One special object, that's all I wanted. Anything to unlock a memory or shine some light into the void left by Grandma. But, sitting in a room strewn with boxes destined for the local thrift shop, I could find nothing of any meaning.

So, I grasped helplessly to everything. I clasped dessert cups to my heart, dessert cups I had never even seen her use. I wrapped my arms around a pastel colored strainer, a flour sifter, a necklace that I knew nothing about. Did Grandma even wear it? It didn't matter. I was determined to fill my house with Grandma. To acquire possession after possession. As if I could summon her back to earth by merely filling my space with her things. The less meaning each object possessed, the less satisfied I became, the more new stuff I needed to collect from the thrift store boxes.

At long last, I saw the cold, dusty bottom of the very last box. The tempest of old tea cups and fishing hats and religious paraphernalia had subsided. My collection had grown to a ridiculous height of assorted odds and ends. Ordinary objects that I would have passed up in any one of thousands of garage sales. Disappointed, I got up and walked outside for some air, leaving my new treasures behind on Grandma's pergo wood floors.

My thoughts took over and I suddenly found myself strolling through Grandma's garden. She loved her garden. She toiled for many hours in it. A little bit like Grandma herself, the garden was eclectic. I passed a planter box, currently empty, with an odd porcelain rabbit perched on the edge. That led me to a three foot by three foot square area with soft, mossy ground cover. I recalled two decades ago when she had just planted the moss. She described to me, expectation in her voice, how the moss would soon grow to fill the entire ground and create a mossy floor. Her vision had certainly been fulfilled. The moss crept everywhere.

I nearly bypassed her giant bamboo plants without notice when a worm of a memory suddenly crept into my thoughts. I was about eight. Grandma was tending to her bamboo, just small little shoots back then, talking about panda bears as I watered her purple and pink petunias. I didn't know the names of many flowers. But I knew petunias. Grandma had just picked some up at the hardware store that day. She taught me how to gently pull the flowers from their flimsy plastic carriers, to pull and massage the roots, and to plant them in flower boxes so that the soil would hit them at just the right spot. That's the day that I learned to love the smell of topsoil. And to wear the lingering earth-stained creases of my hands like a badge. And to love the rain as water for thirsty plants.

When the spell broke, I finished my stroll around Grandma's garden. Said goodbye to her St. Francis of Assisi statute- she loved him. I took one last look at the swing set which hosted hundreds of hours of play time and walked back into Grandma's house, my steps a little bit lighter. I reassessed my pile of treasures and, one by one, began to put objects back into the boxes.

I didn't need a flour sifter or a porcelain plate to remember Grandma. Her memories were not tied to any objects. They were sewn within me. They could be conjured on command or, even better, could sprout without warning, like surprise buds popping from the ground after a rainfall.

After everything was tucked back into the thrift store-bound boxes, I pulled out the pastel colored strainer. "Perhaps," I thought, "this just might make a nice petunia planter."

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

HI!

I'm baaaaack! Yikes, I've been gone from the blogging world for almost a year. It was an unintended but nice little break. At one point I wasn't sure if the time spent writing posts was worth the payout (and the judgy internet trolls). But, hey, I have things to say! Posts coming soon. For now, I just wanted to peek my head out of my cave and say, "hi!"

Oh and I'm 33 today. At the age of 33, Jesus saved the world. Well, I've amassed an impressive collection of infinity scarves and learned how to make pasta from scratch. Hey, now.....who's comparing anyway?