Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Peanut Butter and Weddings

The first.  The first of anything seems bigger.  We tell ourselves that that there is significance in the firsts, something to be celebrated. First born, first place, first date, first kiss, first salute, first one to open a new jar of peanut butter.  Firsts are often powerful moments or experiences, some of which may change the trajectory of a family, future or fortune.    

Lately though, I find myself thinking more on the Lasts.  Not in a macabre sense, but rather in a competition of meaning.  Those Firsts are indeed amazing.  They are mountaintops.  Goals striven for, interests pursued, desires vindicated, dreams realized…they are delicious, satisfying and fulfilling.  Firsts feel like the progress that newness sometimes delivers.  Jon Acuff coined a phrase that resonates there: “When was the last time you were brave enough to be bad at something new?”  First is seen as brave, progressive, learning, growing…and maybe that’s the difference.  We see them.  We plan for those firsts.  We work for them.  In a time before internet directories, I once called every building at a University Hospital in order to find the proper unit to have flowers delivered to a pretty girl because she knew that the “S” in Harry S. Truman’s name didn’t stand for anything.  They might call that stalking now, I’m not sure.  It turned in to a first date, a first kiss, and if I don’t stop overeating, drinking too much Diet Coke and start working out, a first husband for her.

Big stuff Firsts.

I find myself in a season of Lasts.  I have heard the last words of my father.  I witnessed my father-in-law give a last look and smile to his daughter.  They too are powerful, those Lasts.  The difference is that we rarely see them coming.  We should, but we don’t look for them in the same way.  Somewhere along the way, I took off my uniform for the last time.  I stood in a final formation.  I exchanged a last salute, and neither I nor the Soldier I shared it with had any idea.  Lasts can be planned, but we celebrate fewer of them.  Last day of school.  Last day of work before retirement.  Lasts tend to be a bit sneaky.  They creep up and pass us quietly as if to spare us the emotional collision they would deliver if we recognized them.  In Isaiah, God says “I am the First and I am the Last.”  I’m not sure, even now, that I can fully grasp that, but I find comfort knowing that whether I’m in a First or Last, God is in them both.

I don’t remember the last time my now married son slept under my roof, though I do sort of remember when my car insurance premium dropped.  I now have a daughter getting married.  She is rightly focused on ALL the Firsts coming at her, but perhaps because of her brother, or because she is my first baby girl, I am more conscious of the Lasts.   Will I see them? The last late-night chat?  The last argument that never fully ends because she refuses to see that I’m right?  Hey…this is my post, not hers.  Another daughter now starts a last year of High School and another son ticks Lasts off the list monthly it seems.  My mother now bravely faces Lasts that I think she sees with greater clarity than I am willing to.

Perhaps it is only with the benefit of hindsight and some “mileage” that I come to see the Lasts as more meaningful.  They become the accumulation of all the wild anticipation of the First, the stalwart labor of the sustained, and the eventual realization of the final.  The hands held, tears shed, work done, lips kissed, the tight embraces held.  They are a culmination.  Firsts hold all our hopes, but it’s the Lasts that quietly hold our lives.  

Whatever may come, I am resolved to somehow love the lasts, and still look for firsts.  No matter what happens, there really is always the chance that I get to be the first to open that jar of peanut butter.  

Friday, March 4, 2016

A the Public Defender? 
“I only charge guilty people, Dave” I’d say, a little tongue in cheek.  While I simultaneously believe and strive for that statement to be true, I'd mostly say it to needle him.  “Exactly what I expect a soulless Persecutor to say!” went the snarky reply.  This exchange happened in just about every conversation I had with Dave.  We both knew the other sort of meant it, but we both said it in good humor as a sort of “tip of the hat” to our stereotypical roles and expected attitudes toward the criminal justice system we both served. 

Dave passed away on Monday.

I was a brand new assistant prosecutor when I met Dave.  We were covering the Misdemeanor docket together.  It was the best/worst mashup of reality TV you can imagine.  Jerry Springer meets Family Feud with a little bit of Judge Judy thrown in to remind us that we were, after all, in a courtroom.  Dave had a wild mane of hair, which he clearly hadn’t seen since morning, a beard that he beat in to submission at least twice per year, and carried a briefcase that looked like it had been in great distress since the Hoover administration.  He had a gravelly smoker’s voice that carried a wry, dry wit perfectly.  It often took me a minute to tell if he was giving me the usual ration of crap, or if he really was ticked about something.  Either way, we’d both be in our seats well before the docket.  He’d dutifully look for his clients, ask me for my offer in the case, tell me it was outrageous, talk to his client and move on to the next one.  Often he might swing back by and give me a tidbit of information to see if that might move the offer.  Sometimes it did.  The wheels of justice ground away.

Though I’d had a taste of being on that side of the “v.”, I learned a lot just by watching him work.  A satchel stuffed with files, jail visits, conversations with the defendants, conversations with the families…on and on it goes.  I also learned that I didn’t always have the whole story.  More than once we’d have a case set for trial, and he would reveal that he had some “secret strategy” that might just get his guy off.  Though I don’t think it really ever worked out that way (as I recall), he made me a better attorney as I turned my case file upside down trying to figure out how he was going to beat me.  I also learned that some complaints flowed from him as defense attorney mantras…”DISCOVERY!” was the battle cry.   I wondered sometimes if he thought saying it three times would make me dismiss the case.  Usually, I would just give him a snarky reply about the secret discovery we kept in a blast proof bunker under the courthouse for trial emergencies.  He knew I was kidding, but I suspect he wondered.  There isn’t one.  Really.

We didn’t hang out after work.  We didn’t win each other over in terms of politics, viewpoints, case results or haircuts.  He did his job, and I did mine.  That’s what made the system work.  It was Wile E. Coyote and the Sheepdog.  Clock in; beat on each other; clock out.  It wasn’t personal.  Usually. 

Though some may have had different experiences with Dave, these were mine.  He was a dedicated professional who truly believed in his role in the system.  If I was going to successfully put someone in jail, he was going to make sure, to the best of his ability, that the State had done everything right.  That is as it should be.  Criminal defendants in Kansas City lost a strong voice on Monday…

…but Dave, since I get the last word, don't worry.  I only charge guilty people.  Guilty, guilty, guilty.

My prayers are with his family and colleagues.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Calling Superman?  Just Do It.

One of the best things about being a prosecutor is you never know what may come on any given day.  No day is quite like the next even when you have regular "dockets" each week.  When the court runs its criminal docket, it is a parade of humanity in desperate circumstances and with varying degrees of contrition, hostility and/or mental health.  It can move from the tragic to the hilarious in seconds.
On one occasion, seeing no reason to embarrass a criminal defendant in front of a gallery of fellow inmates, I chose to abbreviate the facts presented in support of the charges as follows:
Me: ...and the defendant was found running around, flapping his arms, and upon being subdued, appeared sweaty and disoriented...that would be the State's evidence your Honor"
Judge: Sir, does that sound about right? 
Defendant: (still in open court) "Yeah, and thank you sir...Mr. Prosecutor, for leaving the part out about where I was buck naked and screaming that I was Superman and I could fly. That was very nice of you." 
Me: Sigh. "You're welcome."  So much for trying to “help”
New Jail shoes perhaps?

Another defendant facing his sentencing took the time to inform the court that he “had read a law book about this down in the jail and the charge is illegal”.  He went on to suggest that the Judge was illegal, the prosecutor was illegal, and that everyone in the courtroom was illegal.  I’m not even running for President and this guy apparently wants to see my birth certificate!  He is now serving time in a prison.  I’m sure that’s illegal too.

Just yesterday, a young man faced 7 years in prison for a litany of offenses.  Despite multiple chances, and the herculean efforts of his family, he was in court again.  As I looked down, I noticed his bright orange jail shoes.  On the sides, he had carefully drawn the Nike “Swoosh” and adorned the back of the shoes with “NIKE” in black marker.  “Just Do It” is NOT a good approach to crime.

Though always good for a humorous story or two, the criminal system often reflects the symptoms of what ails us as a society.  We deal with the results of problems more often than the source of them, and that is decidedly NOT funny.  Sometimes it’s obvious, such as with drugs.  Sometimes it’s more subtle, such as when a young man is more concerned with labels than the law. 

Drug problems are easier to address than values problems, but good prosecutors work with law enforcement and judges to remedy both with the tools the law provides. Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn't.  A thick skin and a good sense of humor help a lot, because none of us are Superman either.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Reasons, but no excuses

Time flies.  When you enjoy what you do, and enjoy writing, you start a blog.  Its okay that no one likely reads it, because writing is cathartic, and maybe someday, if blogs haven't fully gone the way of the 8-Track, my progeny may enjoy reading it.  It never occurs to you that there may come a time when you go all Frozen and "Let it go".  But I did.  I can offer you no excuses, but there are some reasons.

I made it back from Afghanistan just fine.  The homecoming was AWESOME.  There is no point in trying to use words to describe coming back to your family after a year of being gone.  As a Reservist, it is more than just returning to family, it is returning to your life.  A news crew came, as did friends, family, and coworkers all waiving flags and signs and applauding because I successfully walked off a plane.  Hugs and smiles abounded, but little did I know at that point that it would be one of the last times that my father and I would embrace one another.  If only I had known.  19 days later, my father passed away.  The plan for "reintegration" was gone.

The next 7 months were a blur.  Funeral, family, dinners, memorials, Christmas, New Year, school starting up again, figuring out insurance, and bills, Social Security, learning how to take care of mom, and trying to re-connect with my wife and kids in the process.  Oh yeah, I also went back to work as a prosecutor.  I barely manage silly Facebook posts, let alone a more substantial blog post.  Believe it or not, we're still not done with the fallout of deployment and Dad. God's grace and provision have abounded.

So, I'm back and hope to find a way forward.  It takes awhile to re-build a full caseload, but there have already been some highlights.  You really can't make this stuff up.  

Apologies for the non-post, but I wanted to get something up by way of explanation.  With dad's passing, I've likely lost 30% of my audience.  Its time to start again.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The End is Near!

I’ve started this post 56 times, maybe more.  Too glib.  Too serious.  Too something.

My tour in Afghanistan is over.   Well, almost.  As I write this, I’m not quite home.  As a Reservist, I have to go to a gulag known as North Fort Hood for demobilization.   This is the military process of turning you back in to a pumpkin…but the French toast in the Dining Facility is fantastic, so I’m okay.

I have a million thoughts and contradictory emotions going through my mind, each trying to occupy the same space    I am excited to be home.  I am terrified to be home.  I can’t wait for things to get back to what was normal.  I want things to be different.  I’m so glad to not see the exact same people when I go to the shower, breakfast, lunch, dinner, gym, office, church etc.  I already miss them.  Well, okay, not all of them, but just about.  I don’t want to think about Afghanistan.  I don’t ever want to forget it.  It was an amazing experience that few people have.  I don’t really want to do it again. 

I can’t wait to see my wife and children.  I’m looking forward to BBQ, Christmas with the family, a return to being an assistant prosecutor, and a bathroom in the same zipcode as my bed.  I’m also ready to live on the edge…you know…without the “Big Voice” telling me when lightning has been seen within 5 nautical miles of the base,  walking around in the evening without a reflective belt, and running while wearing earphones (oh, the humanity!). 
Just as I laugh at a memory, or think of another, “one time, at fat camp” story, I remember.  Twelve soldiers passed before my salute, covered by our Nation’s flag.  I didn’t know most of them.  I don’t recall names, but I remember sending them home.  I didn’t do anything noteworthy, as they did. I am not a hero, as they are.  Frankly, my wife and children made greater personal sacrifices than were asked of me in the combat zone.  That said, I don’t think anyone can be witness to war and not affected in some way.  I have been given a gift those men were denied.  I feel compelled to do something with it.  I don’t yet know what.

My thoughts then turn to the people I had the privilege of serving with.  They will forever be the people I served with in Afghanistan.  Accountants, cops, lawyers, students, teachers, and engineers coming together from Florida, Missouri, Texas, Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, Virginia and South Carolina to make a base in a combat zone run smoothly.  It was amazing to see.

What a ride!  I think it may just take a while to process things.  Maybe you just shove it all in a mental box and drive the kids to practice.  I don’t know.  

I think if I can just avoid being struck dead by a car I didn't hear because I’m wearing headphones while running in the dark without reflective gear, I’ll be moving in the right direction.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fearless and Afraid

Mail Collection Ending. That's the subject of an email I recently received.
My tour of duty in Afghanistan is coming to an end.  I have a bag laying on my bunk which I am pre-packing; not packing mind you...merely pre-packing. This is the ritual that allow a Soldier to place a year's worth of clothing into a gym bag. This same skill allows me accommodate my wife's habit of, say, packing a parka for a trip to Florida in July...just in case.

One might think that coming home is a joyful thought...and it certainly is, but I'm finding that it carries with it some apprehension. It's been a year. A year ago, no one was worried about Ebola, the Royals had been done playing for a month, ISIS didn't control anything and I had just received a phone call asking if I'd heard that I might be deploying. A lot has happened. I sold a house, I bought a house, I moved my parents in to part of the house and my family in to the rest. I left for Afghanistan. My favorite dog died. My washer died. The garbage disposal died. The furnace died. My car died. My wife's car died. My wife got a new (to her) car. My wife got another dog. She bought some new furniture. Some of my professional colleagues won awards, I have professional colleagues I haven't met. Someone else is in my office. My BBQ grill was destroyed in a storm. My sister had a baby. My son started running Cross Country (if you know me, any family member running on purpose is a life event). My lawnmower died. My teenagers started driving. The Walking Dead started a new season and the Royals were 90ft and a base hit from extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series. Nearly all of that happened in my absence.  My wife handled it all with grace, and likely a few choice words about my career choices.
I've changed a little too. I wasn't in a combat role here, so its not like I have the "1,000 yard stare" and nightmares...but I think being part of a "war" changes you regardless. I've been as near as I'd like to be to rocket impacts. I've stood at attention on the ramp of an aircraft 7 times, rendering honors to 12 fallen Soldiers. My entire existence has been confined to a half square mile for a year. I've lost 35lbs....I mean seriously....I've lost a kindergartner over here. I've celebrated with Australians, mourned with Romanians and joked with Bosnians. I've advised Generals and counseled Privates. I've discussed the legal issues and ethics of multi-million dollar contracts and $10 unit "coins". I've had someone else doing my laundry for a year and they haven't even lost a sock. That one may haunt me for awhile.

As I pack up, I have to wonder: What now? What next?

What does coming home look like? What am I going to eat first? When do I go back to work? How long before my wife and I find "normal" again? When are my taxes due again? What kinds of cases might I come back to? Am I going to remember everything? Am I going to gain all that weight back (Heaven forbid!)? Who is going to make me breakfast? Do I have to find a way to buy another car? How will I do that? What else is out there? Do I have any options? Do I want any? How soon before I yell at my kids? Will it feel like I was never gone? Am I going to remember those 12 guys who didn't come home? Is what I'm doing going to honor their sacrifice? Wait...I lost I going to have to spend money on clothes? Does it matter that I was gone, that I was here or that I'm back? How soon before I lose my own socks in the laundry?

I don't know.

Lots of folks have done this. I've done nothing as remarkable. Most of my military friends have done this more than once. I suspect that most, if not all of them, have had similar thoughts as they returned. I'm telling myself that it comes with the territory, and eventually, I'll look up and realize I've been home for longer than I was gone.
Perhaps the end of a deployment is much the same as the beginning, with every Soldier balancing being fearless and afraid.  I'm ready for home.  See you soon!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Harry S. Truman and Torque Converters. 

A Love Story.

I oppose sensitive, romantic, emotional posts via Social Media.  Primarily because I’m uncomfortable being sensitive, romantic or emotional.  I am, however, creating an exception for Anniversaries occurring while serving in Afghanistan.  Rather than you reading a note to her, I’ll have her read a note to you…and I’ll put it out here a couple days early so she knows I didn’t forget and do it quick.

20 years ago my roommate went out with a girl from church.  He’d mentioned her a few times.  I had no idea who he was talking about.  They had a “sports date”, i.e. running, tennis, volleyball etc.  Clearly NOT the girl for me.  He came home and reported that “We’re going to be great friends, but nothing really romantic.  I think YOU would like her though.”  Nope.  I’m headed for the Army, where, after being the first attorney to win the Medal of Honor, I will enter private practice, win millions in verdicts, attract the attention of Sandra Bullock and eventually run for the Presidency.  “Yeah, well, I think you’d like her” he said.  Pffft.

Summer came.  There was a canoe trip.  My roommate was adept at keeping our canoe near the pretty girls.  Don’t ask me how, but Harry S. Truman came up.  Probably because I am a total nerd.  I thought to stump everyone by asking “What does the S. in ‘Harry S. Truman’ stand for?”  “It doesn’t stand for anything” said this girl, “It’s just an initial.”  I was smitten.  What could a date or two hurt?  Knowing only that she worked at K.U. Medical center, I promptly spoke to 462 different operators, nurses, doctors, secretaries and administrators before I found her and asked her out.  We went to the Truman Library.  I know.  How could she NOT be locked in after that? 

She is now the woman I love; the summer romance that I forgot to break off.  I love that she will run screaming through a field while shadow fighting like Bruce Lee if a June bug touches her hair.  I love that the first sign of pregnancy was never a test, but rather her murdering clich├ęs:  “Whoa! That guy is taking his side out of the half of the road middle.”  I love that she speaks the English language faster than anyone I’ve ever met.  I love that the parents of her students love her so much they go out of their way to keep in touch with her.  I love that her students HAVE to run up and say hi and get a hug when they see her in a store.  I love that I can get a phone call and tell her that in two months we’re going to sell a house, move, build an apartment for my parents and then I’m going to leave her with 4 kids, 2 dogs, a lizard and her in-laws for a year while I go to war…and she says: “We’ll be good.”  Well, she also said: AREYOUFREAKINGKIDDINGMECAN’TYOURETIREANDGETAREALLAWJOBTHATPAYSMONEYSOYOUCAN NOTHAVETOLEAVEMEANDGODOTHIS (breath) THISSUCKSDON’TYOUDIEANDLEAVEMEWITHFOURKIDS!
She did eventually say, “we’ll be good”.  I love that she still looks good when cleaning up the mess du jour…whether kid barf, puppy pee, muddy footprints or just sniffing out the source of the boy-stink permeating the house. I love that she tolerates my ability to turn anything in to innuendo (oh yeah…I’ll replace the torque converter!).  I love that we can communicate entire paragraphs and a punch line with a look.  I love that I can amuse her.  I love that she knew the S in Truman’s name didn’t stand for anything.

Though she could have done far better,  I thank God daily for her poor judgment and 19 years of tolerance.  I’ll be home soon.  I’m gonna get after replacing that torque converter.

Happy Anniversary!