The Verdict on Jury Duty

More than six weeks later, I am finally done with jury duty! The attorneys made their closing arguments yesterday morning, and the jury reached a verdict in the late afternoon after about 45 minutes of instructions from the judge and two hours of deliberations. At the end of the trial, the judge told us that this was the longest jury trial he has ever presided over, and he’s been doing this since 1995.

Having been immersed in this case for the past month and a half, it’s hard not to dive into an extraordinarily detailed account of the claims and arguments involved, but in the most general terms, the plaintiff claimed that an MTA bus had mounted a sidewalk and run over his foot, resulting in permanent pain and disability. The defense argued that it was physically impossible for the injury to have occurred as the plaintiff described, due to the mechanics of the bus. Complicating factors included the lack of any eyewitnesses apart from the plaintiff, the fact that the plaintiff had suffered a stroke in the time since the accident, and the fact that there had been a previous trial about the same case.

Over the course of the trial, we heard from a plethora of witnesses: the plaintiff, close friends, neighbors, a casual acquaintance, a friend’s widow, an attorney, a urologist, a biomechanical engineer, an orthopedic surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a neurologist, an EMT, a police officer, a mechanic, an accident reconstructionist, and a graphic artist. The attorneys read us transcripts of testimony from the 50-h hearing, the examination before trial, the previous trial, and even earlier in our own trial. We examined exhibits ranging from graphic photographs of surgery to complicated mechanical diagrams from a bus service manual, from medical records to police reports to Google Street View images to an example of a shoe. We learned in detail about the bones and arteries of the foot, about the tracking of the wheels of articulated buses, about intimate parts of the plaintiff’s medical history, about crush injuries and pain medication and rearview mirrors and street paving patterns and precisely how far each sign and tree in a certain block in Manhattan is from the curb.

Ultimately, we were asked to decide on two main questions (although they were broken down into five, officially): whether we believe that the MTA bus had negligently run over the plaintiff’s foot, causing his injuries; and how much we wanted to award in damages, should we decide that they were warranted. The burden of proof was on the plaintiff, who had to demonstrate that a preponderance of credible evidence supported his claim, and five of the six of us had to agree to any verdict we rendered.

We began our deliberations by giving each person a turn, in order of juror number, to share in detail their position on whether the MTA bus had run over the plaintiff’s foot and the reasons behind that position. No one, not even the defense, contested that the plaintiff has suffered a serious crush injury to his foot, and all the jurors agreed that the evidence supported the idea that this injury had most likely been caused by a heavy vehicle rolling over his foot. However, when we first took stock, we had two jurors who firmly believed that that heavy vehicle had been the MTA bus, one who was wavering but leaning toward yes, one who was uncertain, and two who were doubtful. As the discussion continued, we brought up counterpoints to each other’s concerns and even staged a couple of dramatic re-enactments of potential scenarios for how the events could have unfolded. Gradually, people began to reconsider their positions, and ultimately the other five jurors agreed to rule in favor of the plaintiff.

I was the lone dissenter. There was a hole in the timeline that had bothered me from the first day of the trial that had never been filled. There were inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s testimony, and certainly the accident couldn’t have unfolded exactly as he sometimes described without the bus or the trees or signs on the sidewalk (“street furniture” in courtroom parlance) sustaining damage, although most of the jury forgave him those details due to the way trauma impacts memory. There were certain witnesses who I found difficult to trust, more so than the other members of the jury, and I found myself silently wondering if I was unnaturally skeptical, if my willingness to trust was somehow damaged, if something in my history had caused me to armor myself in a way that made it more difficult to form connections.

On the other hand, from the little I saw of him, the plaintiff did seem to me like he was probably an honest man. I know that some members of the jury were swayed by the consistency of his story that the bus had run over his foot, even if the particulars of where and with which wheel were foggy. Others pointed out that he had enjoyed a stellar reputation among his friends, neighbors, business partners, and clients. The plaintiff’s attorney had mentioned in his closing statement that this was a “man of significance,” a remark and an idea that I had found off-putting, but which probably still held some resonance in a city like New York.

In the end, although I couldn’t say that the MTA bus hadn’t run over the plaintiff’s foot, there wasn’t enough evidence to convince me that it had. There was enough for the other jurors. We had spent six weeks building a strong rapport together, so there was no acrimony in this. I told the others that I wouldn’t hold up the deliberations, and they all assured me that it was absolutely fine for me to dissent. It was probably as positive as the experience of being the only person in a room to disagree with everyone else there about the very thing for which you have all assembled could be.

From there, we moved on to the question of damages, which were split into two categories. We were asked to decide on an amount of damages for the time between the date of the accident and the date of our verdict, an interval of about nine and a half years. We were then asked to decide on a separate amount of damages for the time between the date of the verdict and the end of the plaintiff’s life, a duration we were asked to estimate in years. The plaintiff’s attorney asked us for $3-5 million in each of these categories and suggested estimating a life expectancy of 10 years; the judge told us that a man of the plaintiff’s age had a statistical life expectancy of 12.1 years, but that we could take his health into account and adjust our estimate as we saw fit. Aside from this, however, we were given no other numerical guidelines for the damages portion of our verdict.

To be honest, this was the part of the deliberations that made me the most uncomfortable. That we, a jury of laypeople, were asked to come up with a number for damages at all struck me as deeply problematic — what if we had awarded $100 billion and bankrupted the City of New York? — and this was compounded for me by the way the jury conducted the discussion. We started with $5 million, the high end of the range requested by the plaintiff’s attorney, and went around the room, asking each person whether they believed we should award more or less than that amount for the first category. I said less; everyone else said more. The foreperson then asked the same question about $7 million. Everyone except me said they felt comfortable with that figure. We repeated a similar process for the second category, landing on $7 million for that part of the damages as well, and thus, within a matter of minutes, the verdict was decided.

More than at any other time over the past six weeks, I felt my youth and my lack of means keenly. Nothing in my life has ever prepared me for the task of quantifying pain and suffering, of measuring the value of the quality of someone’s life in dollars, but the numbers thrown around the jury room felt arbitrary and extravagant and unimaginable to me. I couldn’t comprehend how $7 million would feel right and $5 million would feel wrong and how everyone else in the room felt comfortable deciding on differences of millions of dollars in the span of seconds, like play money or a whim. I suppose I wanted to approach the question with a facsimile of rigor, breaking it down in some systematic way into lost income, cost of medical care, compensation per year for lost enjoyment of life, who knows what else. The others, I can only guess, felt that no system could ever suffice for such an impossible task and preferred to trust their intuitive ballpark figures. I only know that I left feeling like a pauper in New Yorkers’ clothing, out of place in this city that was clearly too rich for me.

After we returned to the courtroom and the foreperson read out the verdict, the judge went down the line of jurors and asked each of us if this was our verdict.

“Juror #1, is this your verdict?” the judge asked.

“Yes, it is,” Juror #1 responded.

“Juror #2, is this your verdict?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Juror #3, is this your verdict?” he asked me.

“Yes, it is,” I answered, willing my voice not to waver. It wasn’t my verdict. But it was our verdict.

I know that the other members of the jury left satisfied, happy to see justice served and proud to have played a part in the serving of it. Last night, trying to make my peace with it all, I thought to myself, at the very worst, if we were wrong, we’ve taken money away from the city and made a disabled old man very happy. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, there are worse mistakes to make.


A Day Summiting Mount Emei

The morning after we saw the buddhas of Leshan, we checked out of our hotel after breakfast and drove the short distance to Mount Emei, one of the sacred mountains of Buddhism and home to some of the first Buddhist temples in China. I had been there once before, in 2003, as part of a tour group. My memories of that earlier visit are foggy (no pun or foreshadowing intended!), but I know that we stayed in the lower regions of the mountain. I remember hiking down stairs in the shade of a forest and pressing through crowds to pose with Mount Emei’s famous monkeys.

This time, I wanted to see the Golden Summit. With only one day to spare, we didn’t have time to hike up ourselves; the distance is upwards of 30 kilometers, and most visitors allocate at least two days for the climb. Still sore from hiking Mount Qingcheng three days prior and exhausted by long days of touristing since then, we decided to take the fastest and least-strenuous path to the peak of Mount Emei.

Even this was a multi-step journey, however. From the entrance near Baoguo Temple, we drove the narrow, twisty roads that wind up Mount Emei for about an hour, as far as we were allowed. Then we parked the car and squeezed onto a shuttle bus that took us up even narrower and tighter switchbacks for another hour. At some point, the rhythmic curves of the road lulled me to sleep. When I opened my eyes again, we were about to disembark at Leidongping, the highest point on Mount Emei accessible by bus.

We stepped off the bus into dense fog. The air was thin and wet; the landscape, painted with an impenetrable, otherworldly mist. Without being able to see more than a few steps in front of us, we hiked up a path of stairs for about a mile, to Jieyindian.

There, we crowded onto a tightly-packed cable car and clutched the handholds as it lifted us through the fog, past snowy hillsides, and above the cloud line. The dozens of passengers on board let out a collective gasp as we emerged, suddenly and startlingly, into the clear light of day.

Bright sun and cloudless blue skies greeted us as we stepped outside the cable car station. We were only a short walk from our destination now.

Soon, we were treated to this view of Mount Gongga. Gongga, also known as Minya Konka, has an elevation of 7556 meters (24790 feet) and is the tallest mountain in Sichuan, the 41st tallest mountain in the world, the easternmost 7000-meter peak in the world, and the third tallest mountain outside the Himalaya/Karakoram range.

We turned and, still adjusting to the elevation, slowly ascended a set of stairs lined by sculptures of elephants. At the top, this 48 meter (157 feet) tall statue of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, greeted us at the Golden Summit of Mount Emei.

Smaller stone elephants surrounded its base. I thought they were adorable and snapped this photo of Lawrence leading the elephant parade.

We spent a while wandering around the summit, marveling at the breathtaking views. At an elevation of 3099 meters (10167 feet), this was the highest place we visited in China. The mountainside plunged into an ocean of clouds and the fathomless depths beneath. Below us were patches of snow, fog as dense as curtains, monkeys eager for food, cable cars, stone steps, twisting mountain roads, shuttle buses and cars and hotels. Overhead, the sun shone fiercely enough to burn our skin.

Once we had enjoyed our fill, we retraced our path back down the mountain: walking back to the cable car; descending back down into the blinding fog, which felt twice as surreal in contrast. Hiking down the mile of stairs to the shuttle bus at Leidongping, we even glimpsed some monkeys, looking cinematic in the mist.

We made a wrong turn after climbing off the shuttle bus and back into my uncle’s car; instead of heading directly for the highway, we spent an hour or more following narrow, winding roads past rice paddies and ramshackle buildings, giving us this trip’s nearest glimpse of rural China. We shared the lane with children and cyclists and dogs, and though the air was humid enough to be wet, window after window held clothes hung out to dry. Soon, though, we left all of that behind, and a few hours later, we were back at my uncle’s home in Chengdu, where my aunt had dinner waiting for us on the table.





How To Fasten Your Own Bracelet

As I mentioned in my latest update on jury duty, between the interminable court sessions and the frozen clock on the courtroom wall, I’ve started wearing a wristwatch again for the first time in over a decade.

Since I’ve also been thinking lately about curating my wardrobe, I knew that I wanted a wristwatch that could double as a bracelet, something decorative and not merely functional. I found a design I liked on Etsy and ordered my new watch from a maker in Toronto, Canada.

When it arrived, I realized that I had made a grave mistake. The watch was beautiful, but I had neglected to consider its clasp: because it was in the style of a bracelet, I was unable to fasten the watch onto my own wrist. On the day it arrived, I sat on my couch and contorted myself and the watch into various, increasingly-desperate attempts to fasten it. I even tried holding the watch in place with my toes, which, as you might have expected, didn’t work. After about half an hour of trying, by sheer accident, I managed to get the watch onto my wrist.

The next morning, by an even more unlikely accident, I managed to fasten it with only my right hand in under a minute. Maybe I’ve mastered this now, I thought wishfully to myself.

Hah. The next morning, after ten minutes of fruitless struggle, I dashed out the door with my watch in my purse to catch the subway to the courthouse. When I arrived, I took my seat in the jury room and bashfully asked the woman next to me if she would help me fasten my watch. After that, I got into the habit of making sure that Lawrence had secured my watch around my wrist each morning before he left our apartment.

I laughingly recounted this saga to some friends this weekend. To my amazement, one of them told me that I could actually buy a device that was designed to solve exactly this problem. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me so much — after all, someone could live alone and still wish to fasten a bracelet — but it had simply never occurred to me that a tool might exist for this.

This morning, I finally took a few minutes to research what such a tool might look like and where I could get one. It turns out that there are a number of devices available in an assortment of sizes and shapes, but they all center around the same idea: you want something that you can hold in your hand that will grip your bracelet and hold it in place on your wrist. The best idea I found, though, was the simplest one, requiring only a single large paperclip, unbent once:

To think that it could have been this easy all along! Thanks, friends and internet, for this new level of self-reliance.



Jury Duty, Five Weeks In

My time in jury duty has passed the five-week mark, and yes, it’s still ongoing. We are down to two alternates, having started with four, but the remaining jurors — having already cancelled business trips, personal vacations, and potential clients — seem committed to seeing the case through to its bitter end. The transcripts for the trial number over two thousand pages, a fact I learned today when one of the attorneys read a passage from yesterday’s testimony to a witness. The judge tries to give us the occasional pep talk and has told us twice that we deserve to wear robes too, but it’s pretty clear that the jury’s morale and patience are wearing thin.

In these five weeks, I’ve finished reading five books and made a dent in my Instapaper backlog for the first time in years. I’ve eaten at my favorite Chinatown restaurant three times and have tried seven new restaurants, all within a third of a mile from the courthouse. I have spent $99 on subway fares to and from the courthouse and learned that the northeast exit of Chambers Street station has eight steps in the first part of the staircase and eighteen steps in the second part of the staircase. The temperatures have fluctuated from the 50s to the 90s, but the jury room is always stuffy, and the courtroom is perpetually cold.

I’ve started wearing a wristwatch. I’ve started using an umbrella. I’ve established a ten-minute morning makeup routine. I’ve developed both a renewed love for stroopwafels and a strong enough reputation for loving stroopwafels that one of the other jurors, who works for one of the foreign missions to the UN, gifted me an entire tin of them from her counterparts in the Dutch mission. In the jury room, we’ve posed for photographs and shared many desserts and watched Comey’s Senate testimony streamed live on someone’s iPad.

We’ve seen one of jurors develop a bad cold and then recover from it. We’ve witnessed one of the attorneys seemingly on the verge of physical collapse. We’ve watched a witness appear to have a panic attack. We’ve sat with our mouths hanging at certain arguments between witness and attorney or attorney and judge. One of the court reporters indulged our curiosity and explained to us how a stenotype works. From the court officer, who we call by his first name and with whom we share our snacks, I learned that tourists sometimes wander into the courthouse and sit in on trials, which, despite the jury not being able to talk about them, are open to the public.

I’ve heard testimony from more witnesses than I ever expected, and I’ve watched the attorneys inquire in turn: direct examination, cross examination, re-direct, re-cross, re-re-direct, re-re-cross. It took me embarrassingly long to figure out that “re-direct” meant not some kind of redirection but, rather, direct examination again. I’ve learned the many different types of objections and memorized each attorney’s catchphrases and decided which of the expert witnesses I would hire — and which I wouldn’t — if I were ever looking for professional services in their respective fields.

I’ve learned that certain expert witnesses earn two hundred times the amount of my daily juror stipend for a day of testimony. That translates into more for three days of testimony than the annual income for a family of four at the current federal poverty level. Yet, at times, I’ve listened to these witnesses, at the direction of the questioning attorney, read aloud line-by-line from posters I can clearly see or perform arithmetic calculations so rudimentary and numerous that I find myself feeling insulted. I’ve watched the minutes tick by as the jury and the witness sit in silence, and the attorneys huddle at the judge’s bench, arguing their furious, whispered disputes.

Among the many things that have happened, here is something that hasn’t happened: we haven’t finished hearing from the plaintiff’s witnesses. We haven’t started the defense. Astonishingly, despite this, the judge tells us that he expects the trial, including our deliberations, to conclude by the end of next week. I haven’t allowed myself to believe him yet. Because there’s something else I’ve learned these past five weeks: the wheels of justice move at the pace of molasses.


Spring 2017 Clothing Declutter

A year or two ago, very early on in our interest in more minimalist living, Lawrence and I did a major, systematic declutter of our wardrobes, sorting through over a decade’s worth of accumulated clothing. It was the brand of tidying up that Marie Kondo sells as a one-time, life-changing event. In practice, though, even though our mindset toward our possessions may have permanently changed, the need to periodically clean out our closet didn’t. We’ve found that something as fluid as a wardrobe needs the occasional upkeep, and it was time for ours.

Here’s what we did in our Spring 2017 clothing update:

Routine Decluttering

We went through our dresser and closet, taking stock of our clothing and letting go of those pieces that didn’t fit anymore, were worn out, or we simply never wanted to wear. Even though we started from fairly pared down wardrobes, by the end, we had filled three paper grocery bags with clothing we no longer wanted or needed.

Revisiting Sentimental Boxes

The last time we decluttered our clothing, we came across a number of items that we didn’t wear but wanted to keep for sentimental reasons. We boxed those pieces up and set them aside. This time, when we re-opened those boxes, we realized that we were no longer as attached to some of the contents. We were able to get rid of quite a few things that we hadn’t been ready to part with previously.

Textile Recycling

We took our three paper bags of clothing we no longer wanted to our local Saturday greenmarket for textile recycling. The organization that collects textiles in New York City’s greenmarkets sorts through the collected items, sends those in good condition to secondhand markets for resale, and recycles the rest into lower-grade fiber materials such as insulation. Pretty cool!

New Hangers

In the afterglow of our initial Kondo-inspired decluttering success, I adopted some of her clothing storage suggestions as well: I folded my shirts and pants into neat rectangles and, for the first time in my life, refrained from rolling my socks into balls. However, I’ve been missing my lifelong practice of hanging most of my shirts and pants rather than storing them in drawers. Hanging makes it easier to see when we’re running low on clean clothes and faster to put away the laundry. Plus, I like having the big-picture view of my wardrobe at a glance. We sprung for some of those slim hangers — plastic, not velvet — which look great and markedly increased the hanging capacity of our closet.

Consolidating Drawers

Since we hung up some of the clothing we had previously stored in our shared dresser, we were able to consolidate what was previously seven stuffed dresser drawers into six loosely-packed ones. It feels weirdly luxurious to have unused storage space!

Filling Gaps

While we were taking stock of our clothing, we also used the opportunity to take note of any obvious gaps in our wardrobes and fill the holes we found. For example, we replenished Lawrence’s supply of undershirts, and I got a couple of cardigans that have added layering options to my wardrobe.


On Children, Climate, and the Future

When I was growing up, I made a lot of assumptions about my future.

I assumed that, sooner or later, I would attain a degree of clarity about what I wanted for my life’s work.

I assumed that I would always have a basic level of security that didn’t involve entering adulthood in the age of mass shootings, graduating college during the worst economic downturn in almost a century, and having the great unknown of my generation be whether, over the course of my lifetime, human beings would irrevocably damage our planet’s ability to sustain us.

I assumed that I would get married, own a house, and have children.

Not yet, of course. There were so many things I wanted to do first, before having children. But someday.

As time ticked on, I started to notice that my feelings about having children never seemed to change. I always wanted children abstractly, in the distant future. But as I got older, there never came a time when I felt like I wanted children soon. Never now.

The entire question became further complicated when I cast my lot with a man who has never wanted children, not even in the foggy future where mine always dwelled. I suppose, if I were committed enough to my hypothetical children, this is the sort of difference that might split apart a marriage. But as I make my way through my thirties, it seems that rather than knowing better what I want, I’ve only made better peace with not knowing.

We do talk about it now and then: not just whether we should have children, but why people in general have children, what reasons make people want to have children. I know, for some people, it’s an unquenchable yearn, a question that has never needed asking; for others, it’s something that simply happened, without plan or design.

For me, I think a lot about duty. Do I owe it to my ancestors, who necessarily date back to the origin of human beings, to take my place in that ancient and unbroken chain so that some small part of whoever they were can exist into the future, so that whatever happens to humanity from here, a human to whom I contributed might be a part of it? Do I owe it to the future to make use of what might be my most direct tool for influence, to contribute to society humans who I would raise according to my values, to be kind and accepting and imaginative and brave?

I told Lawrence this week that maybe having children would be a way to have a stake in the future. But, you know, maybe I don’t need to birth my own child to feel like I have something at stake in how the future unfolds.

Today, our Republican President pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, an accord signed by every nation on Earth except Syria (in the midst of civil war) and Nicaragua (in protest that the agreement was not strong enough). It was our collective commitment to the proposition that we must act together to preserve the only habitable planet we have. It was all of us, saying together as members of the human species, we will invest in a future we may not live to see. We will do what it takes to make sure that our civilization survives on this Earth.

Now all of that is at stake. I find myself fumbling with the order of my concerns. What does it mean to think about what I want to do with my life, whether I want to have children? Shouldn’t I first be asking other questions, such as, will we have a planet?

Like the President, I make my home in midtown Manhattan. We live on an island that sits at sea level in New York Harbor. The President is old enough that he may not live to experience firsthand the devastation he is wreaking; he will reap his gains in the here and now and leave it to the rest of us — including his children and grandchildren, who evidently are not enough to make him care about the world he leaves them — to pay the price. But, in my lifetime or the lifetime after mine, rising sea levels caused by climate change caused by human activity may submerge entire neighborhoods in New York City.

I don’t need to have children for that to matter to me. It’s enough that I love this city and this country and this earth. It’s enough that I love human beings enough to want us to go on.