No Longer In Contempt

I was cleaning up my office today, riffling through a stack of papers, as yet unsorted, perhaps to be filed, perhaps to be tossed. This, like re-arranging the spice rack, is a favorite mode of procrastination, near and dear to the hearts of every writer. Sometimes, however, it also serves as a means of inspiration, especially if you serendipitously come across some scrap or memento about which you can then write. Such was my luck today. With dinnertime fast approaching, and not yet a written a word for today’s posting (not even an inkling of a topic), I came across a half-sheet of green paper with printing that slanted downward toward the right

For some reason (probably the instincts of a pack-rat journalist), I had saved my Certification of Jury Service, along with two tri-panel brochures – “Trial Juror’s Handbook” and the “Where-to guide for Jurors on their lunch hour in Downtown L.A.” – a page titled Juror Orientation and a Notice to Jurors Regarding Postponement, Financial Hardship and Possible Service at Other Courts. Now I remember. I was going to write about this. Why? Because when the day was over I was surprised to find myself actually looking forward to being called again, and slightly disappointed that it would be at least a year before that summons would come. You’re surprised? So was I.

In Los Angeles, you are notified of the week that you must be available, but you get to phone in each evening to see if you are needed the next day. If you are not needed, you do not go in, and if you do have to go in but are not appointed to a jury that day, you are excused from service until your next summons a year or more later. In short, unless you begin a trial, you never have to spend more than one day in the court house.

The first night I had called in to find that I need not report the next day. I congratulated myself on my decision to not try and extricate myself from serving – a decision based not on any desire to serve, but on my own conviction that nothing would be happening in the court house during the week between Christmas and New Year. I was wrong. The next evening a recorded voice informed me of my 7:45 AM call time. The weather was predicting major storms and, given the fact that rain was already coming down in sheets, there was no room for doubt or hope.

The drive into downtown on the oldest freeway in Los Angeles, a narrow curvaceous ribbon with lots of flood-prone dips, was truly terrifying, even at fifteen miles per hour. After puddle-jumping through the three blocks from parking lot to court house, placing my soaking wet belongings on the security scanner conveyor belt, and following the crowd down long hallways to and from the elevators, I took a seat in the Jury Assembly Room. No one wanted to be there and everyone knew it.

The orientation spiel was well-scripted. By now they know exactly what to tell you, and they answer all the questions one might have before anyone needs to ask. Then, one of the judges came in to address the prospective jury pool. He was extremely dapper, wearing a three-piece suit that looked more like a frock coat than a banker’s suit. He asked how many of us were happy to be there, and two people raised their hands. (At least we were an honest bunch.) Then he asked how many of us believed in the right to a trial by a jury of ones peers; of course everyone raised their hands and his point was made. He then spent a few minutes actually thanking us for being there. That’s when my attitude, and the attitude of many others, began to change. Judge Frockcoat has made a very positive impression.

Around 10 AM, a disembodied voice called thirty-five names, including mine, and sent us up to Department 126. The bailiff came out to give us juror numbers and ask us to wait in the hall. We had been told that the case was expected to last two days (not counting jury selection or deliberations), and by this time I was psyched – properly prepped and primed to do my civic duty. I had already figured out how to postpone whatever other obligations I had for the rest of the week and next. And I was not the only one who was now eager to be impaneled. But after about fifteen minutes, the judge himself, still robed, came into the hallway to tell us the lawyers had just settled, and then he thanked us for being there ready to serve.

I spent the next hour and a half listening to a disgruntled retired schoolteacher, chatting with a building contractor, and solving puzzles. No, this is not some writerly metaphoria; the Assembly Room was well-stocked with 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles that not only helped to pass the time, but also rekindled my love for a childhood pastime. Mercifully, the rain abated and, we were granted a ninety-minute lunch break. Having been provided with schedules for the twenty-five cent Dash buses and maps to shops, restaurants and sites that would do a visitor’s bureau proud, we dispersed to eat in China Town, shop in the jewelry district, and visit the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles.

Two more juries were selected after lunch, but my name was not called. Shortly after 4 PM the voice let us know that we could go home. I traded in my badge for the green certificate, and headed for home. I was disappointed that we were not needed, and pleasantly surprised by both of the judges I had encountered.

So what I wanted to know was, are all judges like that? I have a friend from college who is now a
criminal court judge, so I inquired by email:

Do they teach you to be so nice and polite to jurors in judge-training? I ask mostly tongue-in-cheek, but there is a part of me that really thought judges were to be feared (yourself not included, of course), much in the same way as we fear the police. I even noticed a good feeling among the courthouse staff, a camaraderie that I thought was a figment of TV’s imagination a la Judging Amy. So what do you think, is this the norm?

My judge wrote back at great length, ending with:

To sum it up, I would say what you experienced is becoming the norm. We are told at the judicial college that wearing the robe and just dictating won’t work today, you have to have a viable means of interacting with the public, which I’m glad about. With that said, however, we still have to maintain judiciousness and judicial authority, except that now, hopefully, the public will have enough information to respect, understand and accept the system…. One of the things I enjoy most about the position is the juror participation and my opportunity to interact with them. It’s the system at work.

Enough said. Court is adjourned.

Casual Fridays, Bah Humbug

In today’s New York Times I read that the Mostly Mozart Festival “plans to reconfigure the stage at Avery Fisher Hall to create what it calls a greater sense of intimacy and a closer connection between musicians and audience.” The physical environment isn’t all that has changed or is changing in the orchestral world. How about casual Fridays? This may be old news, but I haven’t been to an orchestral concert in quite awhile, so it was new to me.

A few weeks back I was gifted with a ticket to hear a Friday night Dvorak program played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall. This was my first visit to the new, more intimate concert hall and, according to my notepad, my first impression was “casual elegance.” Little did I know how prophetic the word ‘casual’ would be for me. I was so busy admiring the pale honey-colored wood, the sleek design lines that swoop and curve around the hall, the pipe organ that looks like an abstract sculpture, and my fabulous center seat with beaucoup leg room, that I had yet to read the program before the musicians came on stage.

The program book made note of Casual Fridays, but without explanation. I find it disappointing enough that the audiences no longer “dress” to go to the theater or concerts, and I am sadly used to seeing patrons’ seats filled with worn and torn jeans, or even shorts and tank tops, but I was truly dismayed when this motley crew took their chairs, dressed to run weekend errands at best.

The program opened with Legend in B-flat minor (Op 59, No 10), orchestrated for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, harp and strings. I tried to focus on the music, but the hairy arms protruding from a truly ugly short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt were too distracting and the 4-minute piece was over before I knew it. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. “Am I an elitist snob?” Clearly, what someone looks like has no bearing on the music. “Get a grip. Focus.” I listened to the Violin Concerto in A minor (Op. 53) with my eyes closed, and within a dozen measures of the opening Allegro I was happily lost in the sound of the solo violinist supported by a unified orchestra. Unity of sound was what I wanted to hear, but my eyes had been identifying individual musicians and my ears followed suit, zeroing in on this oboist or that cellist. I don’t want to see or hear the individual players; I want to feel the orchestra as a whole. I am not a classical critic, not even a connoisseur, but I would like to cast my vote for the abolition of casual Fridays.

Devra and Dudley

To blog, or not to blog? That was the first question, and the answer was yes. The second question was what to call my blog. After a 2-day brain dump of every play on words I could think of – write turn, write now, write or wrong…ad nausea, my publicist jokingly said “DevraDoWrite.” We laughed it off, but it began to grow on me. I find the imperative tone appealing – DevraDoWrite! – a daily reminder to commit thoughts to prose. But the real appeal for me may have been the nostalgia factor, hearkening back to a cartoon from my childhood. My peers all remember Dudley Do-Right by name, but while the light bulb goes on immediately, it illuminates little in terms of detail. Collective recall includes “yeah, he had a prominent chin, rather pointy,” “he was the dork who saved people,” and “didn’t he sound the bugle?” Dudley Do-Right, the feckless Canadian Mountie, his unattainable love interest Nell, and his nemesis Snidely Whiplash, were all the brainchildren of Jay Ward, along with Bullwinkle and Rocky, Boris and Natasha, George of the Jungle, and others. My activities and musings are not likely to provide the melodrama of a bumbling hero untying distressed damsels from railroad tracks in the nick of time, but hopefully you’ll find something of interest and come back for more.

As a Woman of a Certain Age

One old adage told to every writer early on is “write what you know.” There are some pros and cons to such advice, but to me, “write what you care about” is a more important message. It is certainly not the most lucrative approach, but it is the most rewarding. I keep reminding myself of this as I send out book proposals about people and subjects that matter to me. When the rejection letters come in, I follow a three-step ritual. First I file the letter (more often a postcard or preprinted form) for future use – perhaps I will use them to wallpaper my bathroom much the way jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond used Christmas cards from the White House. Then I mail out a fresh copy of the proposal to another publisher. And finally, I remind myself that most authors’ proposals get rejected many times before they find a home; after all, that’s what happened with my last book.

It was early 1997 when my mentor asked yet again, “As a woman of a certain age, are you sure that’s what you want to do?” Still fresh from the cancer wars, my future far from certain, a well-intentioned mentor thought that perhaps I should focus on something more lucrative, more commercial. A dozen years earlier, I began writing a biography of John Levy, the bassist with Billie Holiday and George Shearing way back when, who in the early 1950s became a trailblazing personal manager with a list of clients who were the cream de la crème of the jazz world. He was also a man for whom I worked and with whom I fell in love. I worked on this project, on and off, for many years. Research turned up recordings and lots of events that John did not even remember. I interviewed George Shearing, Dakota Staton, Billy Taylor and others to piece together John’s early years. Now I wanted to finish it. My proposal made the rounds, but because John himself was not “famous” and because it did not include “dirt” on all his clients, no one was interested…until, one night at a patron’s dinner, a San Francisco Jazz board member referred me to a friend of his, a publisher of a small press in Maryland. “Men, Women, and Girl Singers” was finally published in 2001.

Hopefully it will not take fifteen years to find a publisher for my current proposals. Being a woman of a certain age, I am unlikely to change my ways, or my mind, but sometimes I wonder if my writing life would have been any different had the first message been “write what sells.”

ps. If you’re not hip to Paul Desmond, check out Doug Ramsey’s new coffee table biography
Take Five and listen to some great music, perhaps Bossa Antigua

raison d’etre

Dotard viewer and dotard review are just two of the many anagrams I found when plugging DevraDoWrite in at the Internet Anagram Server. Six months shy of my fiftieth birthday, I hardly qualify as a golden-ager or oldster, but I promise you that should my postings ever show signs of a “decline in mental poise” (Britannica’s definition of dotage), I will pull the plug. Still, I do find that this coming birthday occupies my thoughts more than any previous ones. It feels like a deadline or sorts – a time by which I should be able to mark some major accomplishment or achieve success, whatever that is.

Perhaps a more apt anagram for me at this time of self-reinvention is vita reworded. While my life as an author began with computer books published in the mid-to-late 1990s, it is only in the last few years that I have found my raison d’etre as a writer: to tell the stories of people who make a positive difference in the lives of others. The people I find of interest are not A-list names and their stories may lack broad commercial appeal, but their contributions merit recognition. Some of them, such as Johnny Pate and Luther Henderson, worked with well-known musical artists, but others are just average folks like the parents and teachers involved in the birth of the middle- and high-school students marching band in Pasadena, California.

I’ll be blogging about these and other people in future posts. Meanwhile, if I heed Arthur Schopenhauer’s words – “The first forty years of life give us the text; the next thirty supply the commentary on it” – then I have twenty more years to make good, and that should relieve this admittedly self-imposed birthday pressure.

May Day or mayday?

I always thought May Day was all about dancing around the maypole, fun and frolic in celebration of spring – a tradition that dated way back to when the Druids of the British Isles celebrated Beltaine and the arrival of summer. Then, availing myself of the power of the internet to check my facts before posting, I discovered that May Day is not just about the arrival of spring. In the 1880s, May Day became synonymous with demands for more humane treatment. It was May 1, 1886 when American workers clamored for a more reasonable eight-hour workday. So I guess it is ironic that I chose to launch my blog on May Day, as the very act of blogging is going to increase my workload exponentially. Perhaps “mayday, mayday” will be more like it. The international distress signal, derived from the French “venez m’aider” (come help me), may turn out to be my refrain. Of course, if I am to share in the rarified ether of some super-literary friends and colleagues, I may do better to associate “May Day” with F Scott Fitzgerald. Within the pages of “The Skeptic,” a biography of H. L. Mencken by Terry Teachout, there are several references to pieces by Fitzgerald that Mencken published in “Smart Set, and while “May Day” was not mentioned in specific, I think that is where it first appeared.

Hello world!

Music, books, good works, and other reasons for living – that’s what this blog is about. In other words, whatever is on my mind – snapshots of my life as a writer and a reader, a listener and a watcher, a wife and a daughter. Categories under which these musings, opinions, and commentary are likely to be filed include Rants & Raves, People, Hmmm…, Quotations, Word Play, Writing Life, Reading Life, Discerning Ears, and Timely Thoughts. My goal is to make daily postings (at least on weekdays), and while I do not plan to allow readers to post comments directly, I will welcome your emails. Please stop by often, and let me hear from you.

If you are a creative nonfiction colleague from Goucher College’s MFA program, a jazz cohort from the Jazz Journalists Assn (jazzhouse.org), a friend from the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, a compatriot from PEN, a fellow member of The Authors Guild, or a fellow FLXer, please accept my special thanks for your virtual attendance at my blog launching.