Thursday, February 26, 2009

Summoning Fire Gods for Fun and Sexy Time

Have you heard of a book called The Necronomicon? It was a fictional book referred to in H.P. Lovecraft's stories, but it eventually turned into a real book with it's own bogus history. In either case, it's filled with dark magic spells written by someone called "the Mad Arab."

It is (or was, I haven't kept up) a huge deal among the Satanic community, if that adds any legitimacy for you. It's got a companion book called The Satanic Bible, which I bet is a rollicking read. In the heyday of the Satanic scare of the early 80s, it was books like this that frightened the extremely religious. They figured it was written in blood on human skin (although today it's available on the Amazon Kindle), and it was so awful that it must have something to do with Dungeons & Dragons.

I had to see this book.

I was a junior in high school, and just getting to the point in both my rebellious youth and incipient atheism to get a kick out of idle blasphemy and consorting with anything and anyone that did not have a Southern Baptist church's stamp of approval on it. I had a lot of options.

My group of layabout friends and I were loafing in the band room -- which is what the exceptionally cool did back then -- one January day when my friend Robert Watkins wandered up with a brown paper bag. Robert was the first guy I knew who cut class one day to have sex, which hadn't been that long before, so when he appeared with some sort of secret, we paid attention.

"Guys," he said. "Do you want to cast some spells?" So, no sex talk, unless the sex thing was a lot more complex than we thought.

Out of the bag came a worn black paperback with the same pentagram that Rush used, and the word NECRONOMICON written in 24-point Blooddrip Sans Serif Bold. Has anyone ever said "no, we would not like to cast spells, for we are 17 years old and too mature for such unwholesome behavior"? Maybe Sarah Palin did.

Anyway, we're flipping through this book come across a spell called The Conjuration of the Fire God. Dude. Like I said, it was January, and north Alabama can get a little nippy. (Shush, it can too.) We grabbed our jackets and went outside, wondering why people as awesome as us didn't have girlfriends.

No, I'm kidding about that last one. Robert was a known sex machine, although we never got independent verification of that from the girl in question. I was dating "Debbie," who tended to go to class instead of lay around in the band room. I think one of the other guys was dating an amazing-sounding girl who lived in British Columbia and didn't get to visit much.

So we're in the parking lot, clutching the power to summon a fire god. We have one Big Bullet, and we need something to aim at. The we saw Jonathan's van...

Jonathan was a year older than me. Nice enough guy, but tended to throw punches at people smaller than him for no reason. I was at least 4 inches taller than him, so we got along fine. He's probably a judge now. But at the time, he drove one of these:

The perfect target! Easy to spot for a fire god, we figured, and far enough away from any of our cars. There were four or five of us, counting Robert and me, arrayed in front of the van. Robert and I both held the book while the other guys pointed at the ground and looked at the sky. (Why they thought something summoned out of a Satanic spellbook would come from the sky is anyone's guess.) We prepared to read...

...and saw it was all written in Arabic. Damn it. But the facing page had the Arabic written out phonetically in English. Whew!

Robert and I struggled through trying to read that stuff simultaneously, figuring that would help. One of the other guys got bored halfway through and wandered back inside. We finally got to the end, looked around, and saw nothing. No angry face in the sky, no curling smoke. We were frozen solid, so Robert took his book back and we went inside.

Two hours later, school had ended. Robert and I were back in the band room with the fire god long forgotten. I was probably waiting for Debbie. Then someone came in from the parking lot, and we could see a bunch of people just outside the door all looking in the same direction.

"There's a van on fire in the parking lot!"


"Is it Jonathan's?" I asked, not realizing he was standing a few feet away.

"Why would it be mine?"

We squeezed past everyone and went outside.

It wasn't Jonathan's, but it was another VW bus no more than 100 feet away. (Remember, this was in the mid-80s. It would seem odd today to have even one of those in a parking lot, much less two, but they weren't uncommon back then.)

Robert had turned white. I said "that stupid book needs instructions on how to aim." He just walked back inside. He told me later he destroyed the book and started back to church, although that didn't last more than a month. He must have had another booty call.

So, there it is. My closest brush with the spirit world. I need to get another copy of the book and practice on other cars. People who mount those triple-decker spoilers on Honda Civics, your days are numbered.

I talked to Jonathan a few days later, asking him if he was worried about driving a model that had been shown to burst into flame. His theory was that since they had closed the smoking patio a few months earlier, people had been smoking in their cars, and a VW bus was good for that. Seemed reasonable, uncommonly so for him. He had just punched a freshman, so his head was clear. Those things were like espresso shots for him.

I haven't used my powers since, despite many temptations. The time is coming, though, especially now that I remembered this story. I'm totally getting a Kindle, 666th Edition, and lay waste to those who have wronged me. In fact, I can get a microphone and have the most awesome voicemail message ever.

I will let you know how it goes...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Follow-up Jury Duty Questions

(This one is super-long. But I promise I am done with jury duty posts. I'll happily continue in the comments if anyone wants, or feel free to email me.)

Okay, I don't want to subject everyone to endless chatter about my jury duty experience, but I did want to respond to the questions that came my way when I posted about it last week. I have a couple of other things in the works that should be more entertaining to non-legal people, which I will get up as soon as I can -- definitely before my vacation at the end of next week.

First up:

"I would really like to know how you felt during the jury selection: did you feel that the lawyer was playing a game, trying to plead his case, or really trying to learn something about you?"

I didn't think of it as a game (although since you mentioned it, I can see an analogy to two lawyers playing chess). But the questions were sort of... I don't know... formulaic? I think both lawyers decided beforehand what sort of common experiences or outlooks would sway a potential juror, and tried to get to that information as best they could without giving away too much about their case. So it wasn't so much that they were trying to learn much about
me, but more that they were checking for obvious warning signs in my past or at the top levels of my psyche.

I guess the defense did a better job at the jury game, although I don't remember his questions being any more insightful than the plaintiff's lawyer. But for whatever reason, he got a jury full of people who can recognize emotional appeals and reason around them.

Did you think their questions were stupid, obtrusive, sneaky? Jury selection is the toughest for me. I am trying to de-select - get rid of the folks who are biased against trying to repair harms with money. At the same time, no one likes to be de-selected. I am trying not to bore them. I am trying to listen to their answers. I am trying not to judge them or cross-examine them into my way of thinking. I am really just trying to do my job for my client the best way I know how. What can you tell me about a juror's thoughts while this is going on?

I think we understand. At least, I did. In Gwinnett County (I don't know about anywhere else), you are pretty much on the hook for jury duty whether you get picked or not, I think it doesn't matter as much as you think if we don't make the cut. Being picked means we sit in a jury box listening, not being picked means we sit in the assembly room with our books and cell phones and iPods and bathoom freedom. The hassle comes from being selected to come in, not from being picked.

As for the questions, I thought they were a little shallow, but I don't know how to improve them. Also, I'm looking back at them after knowing all the details of the case, which probably changes my view from what it was at the time.

Anyway, my advice is to not worry about offending a juror by cutting them, because they are not yet emotionally involved in the case. As long as everyone understands that people have pet peeves or uncommon views or something that doesn't make them bad people, but can color their opinions in certain situations, there is no problem. (For example, if I was on a case involving someone who was being tried for torturing and killing dogs, I would have a hard time with it, because I have a bit of a hangup about the puppies.)

Next up,
Cheryl Carpenter

Did you feel manipulated? How do you feel like the attorneys were using emotion and why didn't you like it?

Again, this might just be me, but I lean more towards a "just the facts" approach. But we were charged with deciding who was negligent leaning up to the accident. That negligence is not going to be affected because the plaintiff loved her little boy or the defendant got straight As in college.

And the pictures of the dead boy in the gutter did nothing to advance the case. I can't think of anything we needed to see in those pictures. Maybe I'm a little cynical, but I think the plaintiff's lawyer was hoping we would feel so awful for her loss that we would be inclined to give her a little something. And maybe that works sometimes, but in our case, all twelve of us expressed some level of distaste for it.

I don't think it was a shady move, really. It's his job to do whatever he can for his client, and perhaps it works sometimes, or there are cases where emotional appeals are more valid. It just felt like we were wasting time and putting everyone through a roller coaster.

Also, you mentioned that the attorneys were just trying to cut the opposing witnesses during cross exam. Did you like this type of questioning? How did you feel about the attorneys when they were harsh with the witness?

I don't have a problem with any of that. Part of the job, it seems to me, is to discredit your opponent's case or to highlight the biases in the witnesses. If your testimony can't hold its own against direct questioning, it probably deserves to be ripped up.

Similarly, some witnesses just need to be shouted down if they are being obstructionist or evasive. We didn't get too much of that here, but the defense lawyer did get a little huffy with the accident reconstruction guy (and I don't blame him - I was ready to beat him with a physics book myself), but they tended to appeal to the judge instead of getting in shouting matches.

Neither lawyer came of like a butthole. My impression is that the real butthole lawyers exist mainly on TV :)
My complaint about the Plaintiff's Accident Reconstruction Expert

I alluded a couple of times to my negative opinion of this guy. I was asked offline to elaborate, and I thought I would do so here.

My main problem with the ARE was his lack of understanding of very basic physics. Either he is too ignorant of physics to have that job, or he started with the conclusion the plaintiff wanted and worked backwards.

There were some relevant facts about this case:
  • We did not know the exact impact point, but we do know where the bodies fell
  • The defendant claimed to be moving at 40mph, which is 5mph below the speed limit
  • The plaintiff and the older boy both ended up behind the car
  • The windshield was broken on the passenger side
This is the scenario he presented:

He ultimately concluded the defendant was moving at around 25mph, not 40, because tossing the victims 100 feet through the air would likely have killed all three. Conveniently, moving at 25 also gave the defendant more time to see and react, and since she did not, there's a much better chance she was distracted by something else.

The problem is that there is no way to hit something from a horizontal direction and have them arc up and ahead of the impacting object. Try rolling a pool ball into another pool ball, and see if the second one flies off the table and onto the floor.

It's a little more complicated, but basically a human being hit by a car will do one of two things:
  • she will fall flat to the ground and be run over
  • she will fall onto the hood and be carried along until the car either stops or she rolls off the side
Since the first impact would have been the car's bumper at about knee height, far below her center of mass, she would fall on the hood. Since the windshield was cracked, we know she hit the windshield with her head or shoulder. Since she and her son were lying behind the car when it stopped and showed no signs of actually being run over, they clearly rolled or slid off before the defendant stopped.

She did not go leaping through the air ahead of the car. To suggest it tells me that the ARE is either ignorant of physics, or trusts that we are. Best evidence suggests it went like this:
  1. The defendant hit the the plaintiff and the older boy, and all three fell across the hood.
  2. The one-year-old got slung or thrown into the grass
  3. The plaintiff hit the windshield and rolled off
  4. A few feet further, the three-year-old slid into the gutter
WHEW! That was long-winded. Sorry!

So I hope you can get a sense of my frustration with this guy. It might seem like a small thing, but as any lawyer can tell you, if you can cast doubt on one part of someone's testimony, you are obliged to doubt all of it. (That said -- if any real physicists are reading this, please tell me if I made a mistake. I'm pretty sure I have the basics right, but I don't want to libel this ARE. That's partly why I didn't mention his name :) )

Okay, no more jury duty postings. For the next post, I'm trying to decide between telling you about the time I summoned a fire god or the time a computer nerd started lusting after my sister in front of me.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Review: Death from the Skies!

Death from the Skies! by Dr. Philip Plait is a wholly unusual book. It's a book of hard science about the vast multitude of ways that the universe is trying to kill us all, and how it will eventually succeed, one way or another. But it's also a humorous book, written in a warm, approachable style that, quite frankly, we need more of from the scientific community.

Despite the subject matter, I found it to be uplifting. Sure, there's not much we can do to affect the Big Picture, but when you get a look at the grandeur and power of that picture, it's a heady feeling to be part of it. At least for me; your spirituality may vary.

The We're Doomed Connection
(sorry Kermit!)

Why do astronomers
Care about black holes
And Texas-sized pieces of rock?
Extinctions are common (in fact, ours is coming)
I doubt this will come as a shock.
Whether it's gamma-ray bursts or a nova
Some day our species will die.
How will it happen?
How can we avoid it?
You'll find out in "Death from the Skies!"

It's hard to think about
But someone must do it
We don't want to end like T. Rex.
Should we build laser guns, or nuclear missles,
Or something else much more complex?
Big rocks are looming but we're not assuming
That we'll be wiped out in their fire.
Phil Plait has told us how we can deflect them,
'Til we're killed by something more dire.

Read the book and laugh along,
There's still a few billion years left...

Done in by gamma waves,
Or hostile creatures from "out there"?
The chances are tiny, although not quite zero
But no need to try to prepare.
Universe heat death is still surely coming
In uncounted zillions of years.
Things that we do here one day will not matter,
Read Phil's book, laugh away the tears.

La, la la,
La, la la la
La Laa, la la
La Buy This Boooooooooooook

Read more by Phil Plait on the Bad Astronomy blog or by following him on Twitter. Tell him I sent you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Upon further review...

...I still think we gave the right verdict.

On my way home last night, I drove by the crash site. It was dark and had been raining off and on, so I figured the conditions would be similar.

  • The curve before the convenience store absolutely played a role. The collision happened on a straightaway, but at 40mph she would have only been on that straight part for a fraction of a second.
  • The store is a lot closer to the intersection than I thought.
  • There are lights all around, but they are not powerful enough to illuminate the area.
What sealed it for me is that right between the store and the intersection, probably right on top of the collision, there was a guy standing on the curb, and I did not see him until he was about 10 feet from me. He was wearing a light-colored sweatshirt or long-sleeve shirt, too. Since I was actively looking to gauge how well I would have seen someone in front of me and still didn't see him until 1/4th of a second before I passed him, I can totally believe the defendant never saw a thing.

No wonder the judge tells us not to go to the site while the trial is underway.

Okay, I'll lighten up on the jury duty posts :) I have a lot of comments to respond to anyway...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Media Coverage of the Trial...

...starring me as Anonymous Juror #6 squirming in the back row and twitching for his iPhone.

For those of you not following me on Twitter, the local news paper, the Gwinnett Daily Post, had a brief write-up in the Feb 17 issue.

I'm not referred to directly, but I think it's obvious that the reporter is impressed by my steely gaze and furrowed brow and determined doodling during the slow parts.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

All Your Case Are Belong To Us (Jury Duty, Part III)

(Note: This was long enough to break into two, but I wanted to finish. Please pick a comfy seat...)

After 2.5 days of Constitutional voyeurism, it was finally time to make them sit around while we do mysterious crap for awhile. Finally, we're important!

In fact, during the closing arguments, the plaintiff''s attorney let us know how important. He was hoping for at least $2 million. Until that moment, I didn't realize that we not only had to pick who was at fault, but if we sided with the plaintiff, we had to pick how much money it was fair for her to get. How do you put a price on that kind of thing? They gave us a chart from 1949 that gave us average life spans for someone of a given age, but that's hardly enough information.

Our primary responsibility is to determine who was most responsible for the accident. Since she brought the suit, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant has at least 51% of the blame. In the case of a tie, the defendant wins. Pretty heavy.

Before we go deliberate, the judge reads us a lot of pieces of law that pertain to the case. These laws include:
  • the responsibilities of a pedestrian when crossing away from an intersection (as it turns out, the plaintiff did not cross at an intersection -- she actually walked away from an intersection to the place where she crossed)
  • the responsibilities of a driver (just because you have right of way does not mean you can mow down jaywalkers -- you are still expected to do everything possible to avoid an accident)
Essentially, from our point of view, the question was whether or not the defendant had enough time to see the plaintiff and make a reasonable attempt to stop or swerve. Seems straightforward enough, but there were several things about the plaintiff's actions we had to consider:
  • She chose an extremely dark patch to cross -- there is no street light in the ~200 yards between the intersection and the convenience store, and it was overcast, so there was no moonlight
  • This was the first night she'd ever made this crossing after dark (although this was her third crossing of the night -- she had been to the store once but had forgotten the phone number and had to go back for it)
  • She was carrying one child and had another in tow, so she wasn't moving fast. She's not a large person anyway.
  • When she stepped off the median to cross the last lanes, she never checked the traffic again. This is important, because she was holding a baby against her right shoulder, so her peripheral vision was blocked in the direction of oncoming traffic.
And one thing we were never told: what color were her clothes? If she was dressed in dark clothes, she would have been invisible under those conditions. We knew what the 3-year-old was wearing, thanks to those damn pictures, but he was on hidden on the other side of his mother. Frustrating to not know that, and inconceivable that a policeman didn't think to note it at the time.

Once we picked a foreperson, we went around the table expressing our views. First guy up said the entire case was bullshit, and it was clear to him that they made it all the way across, then the three-year-old broke free and ran back into the road, and the mom chased after him instinctively, then made up the story so she could have a better chance in a lawsuit. Possible, I guess, but we can't really start assuming new scenarios. ("I think they got to the far sidewalk and Bigfoot kicked them back into traffic!")

It looks like sentiment is leaning in one direction, so we take a vote: 11-1 for the defendant. This is a classic moment of what lawyers call Es vos defecio mihi (or "are you shitting me?"). The dissenter responds with a classic Ego defece vos non ("I shit you not") and that's where we break for the evening.

This gives me time to think things through without distraction. The plaintiff is maintaining that the defendant was driving negligently, and should have seen her and the kids in plenty of time to stop, even after dark. Since she didn't stop, it is logical that she wasn't paying attention to the road.

This is when all the math and physics and all the emotional appeals and the debate about whether it was rainy or drizzly or misty or foggy and 75% of the rest of the points they made all week drop out of the picture for me. Yes, it's possible that the defendant was digging through her glove compartment or turned and talking to her sister or something.

But there are lots of places a driver can be looking without being negligent, like glancing at the speedometer or clock, or looking in a rearview mirror. Or a sneeze, or a cough. Just about anything at the wrong second would be enough.

The main thing is: I can't think of a reason other than neligence to step in front of a moving car. If she had turned to look before she walked into that last lane, she could have stopped, the defendant would have sped on by, and that kid might be a healthy six-year-old right now.

By the next morning, the holdout had come to a similar conclusion. 12-0 for the defendant.


While you're in the rarefied air of a jury box, you get used to not being allowed contact with anyone involved with the case. You don't think about what can happen the minute your verdict is delivered: you are normal citizens again and can be harassed by anyone. Sure enough, as soon as we leave the jury assembly room, the entire defense team, the defendant, and her parents are waiting for us. They are all smiles, and want to hear whatever we feel like telling them. This is what I tried to convey:
  • The emotional appeals can backfire. We felt terrible for both parties, and didn't need help to get emotionally involved in the outcome. The only way we can resolve it is to look at the law and the evidence dispassionately.
  • Questioning the plaintiff's motives in bringing the suit is unnecessary. She has the right, which is enough. Plus, in her shoes, I would do anything to convince myself that it's not my fault my kid is dead. When my dog died, we didn't do a necropsy, partly because I didn't want to know if I could have done something for him but didn't.
  • In this case -- and I would bet most cases -- the parties involved are not trained observers. Quizzing them about mundane details (like distance from a curb) or obscure measurements (like feet per second) in the dark at the instance of a life-changing event three years ago is nitpicky at best, but when they don't know or give an answer that doesn't fit the evidence, it doesn't automatically weaken their case. ("My boy got hit! He was only three! Plus he was 5 feet 8 inches from the curb and moving at 3.2 feet per second!")
Despite that, I don't have a serious problem with how either lawyer conducted themselves. They were professional and courteous and laid out their cases clearly. I really just think they spent a lot of time trying to obfuscate the other guy, and I can even understand why they would intentionally do that. Our jury seemed able to cut to the heart of the matter, but maybe we were atypical.

What sunk the plaintiff's case was that it was too steep an uphill climb to offload a majority of the blame to the defendant. Maybe for the next one they can use my Bigfoot theory.

Speaking of whom, when I turned away from the lawyer, she and her parents were standing there. Her parents were all smiles and bowing, but she just looked exhausted. She thanked me, I told her I was sorry for all she'd gone through and wished her luck, and they left. I imagine she is glad to not have to come up with a giant pile of money, but I also bet that thump she heard still echoes in her head.

Overall, I'm glad I had the experience. I understand more clearly how important having a jury is, and I'm glad I was involved with an interesting case, even if it was a horrible story. Beats listening to a tenant sue his landlord because of water damage from a faulty dishwasher.

As I left, I heard that same juror tell the defense lawyer that he knows the kid turned and ran back into the road. One of the other people sitting at the defense table turned and said "Remember when I asked you that two months ago?"

Jerk probably caused a mistrial. Anyone out there know a sure-fire way to get out of jury duty? Just in case...

That's not a knife

Before I drag you back into more glum medical crap, here's a picture of a Siberian Husky puppy coughing up another Siberian Husky puppy.

I know from long experience that if the worst thing that comes from your Husky's mouth is another Husky, you're living the good life. But look how cuuuuuuuuute!

In other news, I got scheduled for surgery today.

I don't mean I'm having surgery TODAY. I mean on this date, I got put on the surgeon's schedule. I am going under the knife on 3/19, about four days after I return from The Amazing Adventure. We could have done it before the trip, but I would still be recovering during the cruise. And I'm already signed up to drive an all-terrain vehicle around Mazatlan.

Anyway, the day after I get back (3/16) I go in to get some bloodwork done, meet the anesthesiologist, slip him or her a stack of Benjamins to not kill me, and start fretting. Then on 3/19, I go under the gas/knife. Three hours later, I'll be in recovery as a newly minted athyroidist.

I think the surgeon knows his stuff, although he is foolishly unafraid of the Law of Dramatic Tragedies:

The chances of the worst possible outcome, no matter how remote, increase proportionally with the smugness of the assurance that it will not happen. SEE ALSO: The "I'll Sign The Insurance Forms When I Get Back" Law.

So this is what will happen to me, because they never happen to anyone else:

  • My parathyroid glands will be damaged, meaning I will have to take calcium supplements along with my synthetic thyrid hormone forever
  • My voice box will be damaged, turning me into a Gilbert Godfried impersonator until the End Times
  • The surgeon will underestimate the sharpness of his scalpel and cut my head off
The last one may seem a little over-the-top. But when the surgeon was telling me about the incision, he did that little "cut" move with his fingers across the neck, which can either mean "turn it off" or "you are so dead."

Assuming he doesn't cut my head off, I'll stay there overnight and come home first thing the next morning, then get pampered for a few days.

Not much else to tell you. It's still a month out as I write this, but there are few enough steps that I can see the end.

Stay tuned!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Of Course We Want To Hear Your Witness (Jury Duty, part II)

If you've never sat in a jury box, you've never lived. Sneak in sometime and try one out. To get a chair that comfortable, you normally need to take extreme measures, such as a haircut. It was a three-day reenactment of Twelve Squirmy Men. One of the chairs was squeaky, and none of us knew which one.

We still don't.

Did you know that all courtrooms in America have the same basic layout? The idea is that the judge can look across at the witness and see the jury at the same time. Why he wanted to look at us is unclear, unless he was trying to figure out where that squeaking came from, or to see if the giant Ten Commandment tablets topple over onto whichever one of us was most unjust. (Not that he was watching any of us -- the judge told us early on that he liked jury trials because he could get other work done and only had to pay attention when someone made noise. He had a big computer monitor on his desk.)

The Lawyers Make Their Cases

At this point, both lawyers are prepping a long cavalcade of math and physics and accident reconstruction and extremely depressing photos. But first, we're going to put the defendant through the ringer!

Honestly, I didn't know the plaintiff's lawyer could do that. I figured the Fifth Amendment protected them against this kinda thing. But I'm not a lawyer, and none of the real lawyers objected.

Prosecutor: How fast were you going?
Defendant: About 40.
Prosecutor: Were you tired?
Defendant: It was a long day.
Prosecutor: Why did you hit them with your car?
Defendant: I was having an affair with her husband and needed her out of the way because she knew I was laundering money through an IHOP syrup cartel to pay off my debt at the dog track and the baby she's carrying is mine.
Prosecutor: The prosecution rests.
Defense Attorney: Ummmm... objection.
Mystery Juror: *squeak squeak squeak*

Okay, no, some of that was made up. She really got off light: doing 40, exhausted but not sleepy, dark and rainy, never saw her, don't know why, not boinking the boyfriend. Not really sure why they bothered.

Then comes the plaintiff's accident reconstruction expert. The defense have one of their own, so we get settled in for some high-speed math.

His contention: The defendant was not moving at 40, but more like 25. She had plenty of time to stop. There is evidence she was turned backwards driving with her butt cheeks. The blue sweater she is wearing now is unflattering.

His problem: There is no obvious point of impact, just the positions of the victims after the accident, so he is free to pick any speed he wants and plot backwards.

His handicap: He sucks at applied physics. I can see that, and I'm a liberal arts major. If anyone wants to know the details why he's full of crap, let me know.

In any case, the lawyer is trying to show that there would have been plenty of time between when the plaintiff entered the range of the headlights and the time of impact for the defendant to swerve or stop.

One thing about this witness is that we saw a lot of photos of the accident site, including shots of the dead boy. Why are we seeing pictures of the dead boy? We all believe he's dead. Nothing about the way he's lying there tell us much about who was at fault. This reeks of the incessant appeals to emotion that permeate both cases. I'm more than a little disgusted by it.

When he first appears on screen, his mother breaks down, and that's the first time she's had a reaction to anything. I realize she doesn't speak English -- she's been sitting in this courtroom all these hours without a clue what's being said, and without warning a picture of her son lying dead in the gutter appears on the screen in front of her. It's extremely sad, and I start paying more attention to the two women at the center of this.

I'm not the most empathic person ever, but by the end of all this, I feel awful for both of them. The plaintiff doesn't know what's happening, but knows this all has to do with her son -- she must have been sitting there in a daze, reliving the whole thing in the midst of white noise with the occasional name she knows.

However, the defendant does understand every word, and she sits behind her desk, quiet and haunted. She is not only reliving it, she is listening to it described in mind-pounding detail, again and again. Whether we ultimately decide the accident was her fault or not, she did kill a boy with her car.

No wonder neither of them laughed at my joke about executives.

The defense makes basically the same argument, although with a slightly different conclusion: the defendant was driving properly and the plaintiff dragged her children into the street directly into the path of a moving car, and there was no time for a driver's reaction that would have saved anything. Stepping in front of a car is both negligent and a failure to yield the right of way. And there is no dependable evidence that suggests the defendant was driving with her butt.

With that, they turn it over to the jury. Showtime!

(to be concluded)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Jury Duty! For Justice! (Part 1)

It's a simple formula:

(Scheduled medical procedure) + (Getting paid by the hour) + (Upcoming vacation time) = A jury duty summons

No one looks forward to jury duty. I had a pile of work waiting for me, plus my neck ultrasound. I heard dozens of anecdotes about how people walk in and mostly waste a day sitting around, and that's it. Judging by how my luck had been running lately, I knew that's exactly what would happen.

No, that was sarcasm. I was doomed. And to make sure I was doomed...

I made them laugh during jury selection.

Brilliant move on my part. I'll say something that will make me memorable, but not in a negative way, and have them forget anything else about me that might make me not the best choice. I might as well have gotten in the box and started taking notes.

Lawyer: Mr. Walters, in your time as a writer, do you have any experience working in any aspect of traffic safety?
Me: Not personally, but my father used to work for a company that made traffic signals.
Lawyer: Was he in planning or manufacturing? Or did he do something else?
Me: He was an executive, so I don't think he really did anything.
Everyone in the courtroom, including the judge and court reporter: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Lawyer: Thank you, Mr. Walters. (Translation: now we just need 11 more)
Lady next to me: (whispering) They'll remember you for a long time.

Sure enough, I got a seat in the box. During our first break, one of the other jurors said "you know, I'm an executive." Of course. The judge's wife is probably a V.P. for QuikTrip or something. I did notice that neither the plaintiff nor defendant even smiled, for reasons that became starkly obvious later.

Others tried different techniques with more success. These people did not get on the jury:
  • I have a blood pressure issue, and forgot my meds. In fact, I'm feeling dizzy. Can I go outside for a minute?
  • Will we get out by 2:30? I have to pick my son up from school, and my husband is out of town.
  • My first impression is for the plaintiff.
No one laughed at any of those people, so I have that going for me.

Swearing In

I was curious about this part. Would I have to either swear to God, or make a stink to simply affirm that I'll do my juror thing as best I can. But the " help me God" part is apparently reserved for witnesses. And there's not even a Bible.

Don't Talk About Jury Club

Before the Opening Arguments, we have to hear instructions from the judge. We are not allowed to:
  • Talk about the trial to anyone, even each other, until after we render a verdict
  • Allow our cell phones to ring
  • Consort with anyone from either the defense or plaintiff's team
  • Accept bribes
  • Fail to alternate our merges
  • Fart, then giggle
  • Have sex with either legal team without signing a waiver
An outrage. Someone farts in court and you can't react? But it makes sense -- the last thing we need is to give anyone reason for a mis-trial. So we sigh, turn off our phones, and pass the envelopes full of money back to the lawyers.

The Trial Begins: Opening Arguments

These are intriguing. You hear two people telling the same story from different perspectives, and you feel that both stories are close to the truth. Our job is to figure out who was the screwup, not who is the liar. Also, at this point, we are just hearing the first details about the case, so the lawyers have this chance to sort of lube us up to swallow the steady diet of minutiae we'll be fed for the next few days.

The Incident: On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 2005, at about 9pm, the plaintiff was crossing a road in Norcross (an Atlanta suburb) called Beaver Ruin Road. (No, I don't know why it's named that. I should look it up, because all my theories end up either gory or perverted.) Beaver Ruin is a major road -- five lanes and a concrete median. It was also damp, overcast, and off-and-on drizzle.

The plaintiff was walking with her two sons, aged one and three. She was carrying the younger one against her right shoulder, and holding hands with the older one with her left hand. She was about 2 feet from reaching the far curb when the three of them were hit by the car driven by the defendant at an estimated 40mph.

All three of them were knocked clear. The plantiff broke some bones, the one-year-old fractured his skull and sat in the hospital for a few weeks. And the three-year-old was killed instantly.

A very sad case, of course. This is really the first of the three lawsuits filed, one per victim. This one was on behalf of the dead boy.

Once all that came to light, the ressponsibility side of all this kicked in for me. Two lives completely overturned because a child was killed, and we had to pick whose fault it was.

(to be continued)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Ultrasound and the Fury

Sorry for the title. Couldn't think of anything.

I picked up my ultrasound report! I don't mind admitting that I was a little nervous about it. I knew it was going to say something like "it is unclear how the thyroid mass was spotted amidst the twisted striations of late-term throat cancer being held in check by a radiation-proof strain of lymphoma." But this is what it actually said:

(I'm going to skip the upper 3/4ths, which is mostly what's known as "doctor crap." I'll jump to the bottom where someone has put things into something similar to English.)

1. Abnormal 3.7 cm node in the left upper/mid cervical region. Node demonstrates abnormal abnormal inferior appearance with eccentric thickening of the Inferior cortex. This may just be a reactive lymph node but suggest cytologic evaluation of the node.
2. No other adenopathy in the neck demonstrated.
3. Mass in the left lobe of the thyroid gland.

I wonder if I'm voiding my rights under the Privacy Act by telling you guys this?

Anyhow, I know what you're thinking: "Cervical region? *Snort*" I thought the same thing. But I looked it up, and the cervical region is the neck, not the cervix. If that's the most confusing thing you encounter about medicine, you are fortunate.

But don't you wonder how many women have had some major surgeries in very private areas when they really just needed a thyroidectomy? I suggest following the
Scrubs example and rechristening the entire region covered by bikini bottoms as either the "bajingo" or "hoo haa." As in "I can't ride my bike for the next couple of weeks because I just had surgery in the lower bajingal area."

Back to the ultrasound report.

Basically, they found one funky lymph node and
D'oh! can't even say for sure that it's a problem. Still no Smoking Cancer Gun.

While driving back, Dr. Beasley (the kindly, helpful Doctor #3 from my original post) called me since he'd been looking at a copy of the report. He basically said for me to continue on with the surgical consult on Tuesday, and then call him back to let him know if/when surgery is scheduled, and he'll take over after that.

So. All things considered, this is probably the best I could hope for out of an ultrasound. Things still positive, and still managing to keep the
OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT IT'S CANCER side of my brain under control.

More on this after Tuesday. If I get the time, I'll write up my jury duty experience to kill time until then.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ultrasound screenshot

It looks like I'm going to give birth to a piglet in a space helmet.
I'll call him Link Heartthrob.

They Slimed Me

I had my ultrasound!

It was disgusting. It's basically a Wii controller covered with a sex-aid lubricant, and smeared all over whatever you're having scanned. In my case, it was my neck, which is harmless enough. But I kept thinking "if I had testicular or prostate cancer, would I have the same attractive lab tech?" I hope I never find out. But if I do, stay tuned to this blog!

Nothing really to report. I saw my ultrasounds and they look the same as every other ultrasound I've ever seen, like someone vomited a bunch of Rorschach tests. The doctor (Doctor Doh -- and I am not making that up) couldn't tell me much on just a cursory glance, but he's allegedly writing up a report right now. He said there were a couple of suspicious places, and I am going to write to President Obama to see if he can strike the word "suspicious" from the medical vocabulary.

I hope to pick up a copy of the D'oh! report this afternoon. I'll post a summary tonight or tomorrow.

But I have scheduled my appointment with the surgeon. I am meeting him the afternoon of 2/17, and if all goes well (i.e., we feel that he's not a jerk or an idiot) we will schedule the surgery itself then as well. They tell me he can normally work in surgery like this within a few days, so by the end of next week we might be in business.

Also: I have been in jury duty all this week. Justice was served on the case this morning, and I can finally talk about it. Stay tuned for that too.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Brief History of Cancer

This is an attempt to make the longest blog post ever. But also, so many people from so many directions have asked for background and updates. This is an attempt to get the full story out. Good luck :)

It all started with an infected abscess on my shoulder blade.

I won't go into that, because it's a little disgusting. I'll just say it ended with a trip to the emergency room and surgery so minor it was barely more intense than a haircut. That set off a reminder that I hadn't had a physical in just over a year and a half, and Maria was going to hound me about it until I did.

Doctor #1 - Early December 2008

The first doctor involved is Susan Boyle, my primary physician. I love this woman. She is friendly and funny and thorough. (ETA: When I wrote this, it was long before the Other Susan Boyle had made her appearance. I haven't seen my doctor since then, but I bet she feels like Michael Bolton from Office Space. -4/20/09)

She said "do you drink, smoke cigarettes, smoke marijuana, or buy your crystal meth out of the back of an El Camino from a smelly man in a hoodie known only as 'Doug'? Sorry, I'm required to ask." She also calls me personally at home, after hours, with my results from the bloodwork -- everything is fine, but she is there to answer questions for about 15 minutes. Hard to think of good questions when my results are all normal, so it was things like "using the blood you took from my arm, are you going to be growing an army of cloned Super Soldiers that look like me? When will they be ready, and can I have one to walk my dogs?"

But during the exam, she finds a lump just under my throat. She says she could take a look at it, but it is too close to my thyroid gland for comfort, so she refers me to North Atlanta Endocrinology and Diabetes (or "NAED," which is the sound made when a Southerner calls to someone named Ned).

Doctor #2 - Just before Christmas, 2008

So I get an appointment with the first NAED doctor who could see me, a man named David Shore. A friendly, plain-spoken man with a hint of a New Jersey/New York accent. Hey, I grew up in Alabama -- like I can tell a friggin' difference between the two. The conversation went like this:

Dr Shore: "So your PCP found a lump on your thyroid."

Me: "Yup."

Dr Shore: [Feeling my neck] "Yeah, that's a lump! Come back next month and we'll stick a needle in it."

At no point in all this am I particularly stressed. You hear "lump" and you think "cancer," but it could be a host of other things. My dogs even get them, and they always turn out to be little fat deposits. And remember: this all started because of an abscess on my back, so I know from lumps.

January 15, 2009

Biopsy Day!

I'm back at Dr. Shore's office, lying on an inclined table with my feet about two feet higher than my head. The nurses are passing needles and swabs and bandages back and forth across my field of vision, and I keep having to sit up because the blood rushes to my head. Finally, Dr. Shore comes in, and they spray what they claim is topical anesthesia, but which might be cooking spray for all the numbing properties it had. Needles go in six or seven times, hurting way more than giving blood at the Red Cross.

They tell me I'll get the results back in a week to 10 days, although it turns out to be both. I'm sent on my way.

January 23, 2009

At about 3:00pm on Friday the 23rd, I get a call from Judy, Dr. Shore's medical assistant. She says Dr. Shore wants me to come in next week to talk about my results.

Me: "Okay, I can come in any time. Can you tell me what my results are?"

Judy: "Your biopsy came back abnormal."

Me: "What does that mean? They just got weird results, or are we talking cancer?"

Judy: "Dr. Shore will have to give you the details next week. I'll have the appointment desk call you before the end of the day to make an appointment as soon as we can next week."

Me: "Can I talk to Dr. Shore now?"

Judy: "I'm afraid he's not available the rest of the day. Someone will call you soon. Have a nice day!"

Have a nice day. Hilarious.

By 4:45 I still haven't heard from the appointment desk, so I call them and get the "gone home" message. I leave a mildly snarky voicemail and call Judy back. She's gone too, and my voicemail this time is more of an emotional plea for mercy, in case she checks her voicemail over the weekend. She doesn't.

The Dark Weekend of the Soul

Maria flies out Saturday morning to New York. She was in Boston when I got my abcess removed, too. Next time she flies to New England, I better come along.

I keep myself entertained as best I can over the weekend, but I'm basically stewing about Judy and getting nervous about my biopsy report.

January 26, 2009

I get into my office at about 8, and immediately I call Judy (voicemail) and the appointment desk (voicemail). I don't know why people feel that medical treatment in America has become so cold and impersonal -- the answering machines I spoke with struck me as very tender and caring.

A little after 9, the appointment desk calls. Whomever is on the other end has a perky, upbeat voice that seems more appropriate for telling me about a new offer from my cable company. She chirps that Dr. Shore wants to see me at 3pm.

Of course I'm there early. At about 3:45, someone comes to the waiting room and shouts that Dr. Shore got held up by a medical emergency, and if we wanted to reschedule, go to the desk. The only way I'm leaving there without talking to Dr. Shore is in handcuffs while being read my rights. But you have to wonder: a medical emergency? He's an ENDOCRINOLOGIST. What sort of medical emergency are we talking about? Did someone's pancreas become explosive? This will be a mystery as long as I live...

I finally get back there about 20 minutes later, and he comes in. I think he could sense that I was a little on edge.

Dr. Shore: "I'm surprised your wife didn't come with you."

Me: "She's out of town on a business trip."

Dr. Shore: "Oh, that's too bad. I know she'd want to hear this immediately."

Me: "She was still in town on Friday."

Dr. Shore: "... so about your biopsy..."

That's when he tells me I have thyroid cancer. Or, more specifically, he says the results came back as "suspicious," but we need to proceed as if it is cancer, and from that point on, he talks as thought it's definitely cancer.

He is the first to hit me with two cliches that I have since grown impatient with:

  1. "This is the best type of cancer to get." (A brazen lie. The best type of cancer to get is one located in someone else's body. Preferably someone you don't like. Schadenfreude Carcinoma.)

  2. "A year from now, we'll be laughing about this." (I don't think so. Even if I set a new record for recovery speed, I'm not seeing a Gigglepalooza at the end of the road. A huge sigh of relief and a fanatical devotion to regular exams, sure. But I'll miss out on the Chucklefest.)

His prescription:

  • An ultrasound to see if it's spread to the surrounding lymph nodes or anything
  • More cowbell
  • Surgery to remove the whole thyroid gland
  • Radiation treatment
  • Synthroid pills every day forever and ever
  • Regular scans to see if the cancer comes back

He gives me a copy of my biopsy report, some additional reading material, and the business card of a surgeon he recommends. Funny thing about that biopsy report - it's fairly detailed, including a document history. The pathologist who did it sent it back to them on Monday the 19th, four days after I got the biopsy, and four days before the late Friday call that ruined my weekend. I am not happy.


It is at this point where I start telling friends and family what's going on. To this point it had only been Maria. This is about when most of you reading this probably heard about it first. I am flooded and overwhelmed with supportive notes and emails and phone calls and tweets and Facebook postings, and I am quite moved by all of it. And sorry if I didn't get back to you in a very timely manner -- my head hasn't been where it should be.

My friend Stephen had gone through thyroid cancer a few years ago, and he gives me a lot of helpful information, including the name of his endocrinologist, with whom he has been pleased. I call Dr. Beasley's office, and they can't see me until Feb 3, which is about a week away. I also call to make an appointment for the ultrasound, which they can't schedule until Feb 12. So I spend the next week alternating between feeling sorry for myself and feeling stupid when I hear from old friends fighting with much more impressive and scary types of cancer.

Doctor #3

They always call you into the back rooms right as you're at the Moment of Truth while playing Risk on the iPhone.

The first thing that strikes me about Dr. Beasley's setup is the form they give me, asking how I prefer to be contacted, and can they leave detailed information on voicemail? I tell them they can leave information in as many places as they possibly can -- I don't care who else knows what's going on with my thyroid, as long as I know as soon as possible.

Dr. Beasley comes in. He's an older, very friendly man who laughs a lot. He reminds me a little of my late grandfather, except Dr. Beasley doesn't appear to be drunk. He asks a lot of standard questions about my history and habits ("You know Crystal Meth Doug? How's he doing? I bought moonshine and illicit powdered tiger penis from his grandfather when I was in med school.")

Then he says something interesting: "It might not be cancer." And he draws a little diagram like this:

See, the thing about a needle biopsy is that it gets very little material. My results were "suspicious," which means they spotted some cells that are commonly associated with a type of thyroid cancer. This is only a little more certain than the "indeterminable" result, which is when the pathologist looks through a microscope and goes "WTF?" and starts dreaming about naming rights for a new neck disease.

Dr. Beasley said we could do another needle biopsy, but what would be the point? The only way to be sure is with an open surgery biopsy. Dr. Beasley said that's likely what Dr. Shore was suggesting, but didn't give all the background information. I'm not so sure, but I'll get a proper vent about that experience up later.

From my perspective, not much would change. It would go like this:

  1. I go under the knife.
  2. The surgeon removes the affected half of the thyroid. (The thyroid is sort of butterfly-shaped, and has two distinct lobes. My little growth is on the left lobe.)
  3. The diseased lobe goes off to a pathologist on site to do whatever they do to test for cancer. This takes 20-30 minutes.
  4. While this is going on, the surgeon pokes around the area to see if anything looks odd. Enlarged lymph nodes, funny colors, whatever. If anything looks wrong, the surgeon will remove it.
  5. The pathologist comes back with either a "yes, cancer" or "no, not cancer" verdict.
  6. If it's cancer, the other half of the thyroid comes out, I get sown back up, get the radiation treatment and Synthroid pills, and come back every few months for a scan.
  7. If it's not cancer, I get sown back up, skip the radiation, and probably still need the Synthroid but at a much lower dose.
  8. I wake up and learn the verdict.

I understand everything a lot better now. Dr. Beasley spends more than 30 minutes with me, giving me a full neck physical (feeling my throat when I swallow, things like that), swapping jokes, and anticipating and answering questions. Then he has to go, and a nurse comes in and sits with me for another 10 minutes and she tells me what the radiation treatment is like, if it comes to that. (I have to board my dogs while I'm doing it and Maria and I have to sleep in separate rooms, since I'll be "hot." No point in giving them radiation sickness.)

So we decide:

  • I'll meet with the surgeon, Dr. Schmitt. I'll let him talk through the procedure, and if I'm comfortable with him, I'll move forward with scheduling the surgery.
  • If I'm not comfortable -- if he seems hell bent on cutting out my entire thyroid based on the needle biopsy results alone, for example -- I'll get a recommendation from Dr. Beasley.

That's where we stand now. If you have made it this far, you know everything about what's going on with me that I know. I'm much calmer now after talking to Dr. Beasley. After all this, I might not have cancer at all. (Still -- assume I do. Prep for the worst and all.)

Thanks again to all of you for your concern and support. I'm told that a positive attitude is important, and I don't think I could have one without you guys.