Saturday, November 30, 2013

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree, the most treasured of family memories during the holiday season, has a checkered history at our home.

When we first got married, I can remember going with my DH to pick out our first Christmas Tree. How I can wax nostalgic about that afternoon. Coming back to decorate our first tree, enjoying adult beverages and holiday music as we strung the lights.  That was the year I learned how damn expensive it was to decorate a tree. They looked so elegant in Southern Accents. Thank God for the Family Dollar store. But, I digress.

Then there were those years when the girls were young, the magical years of Santa Claus. Every year, it was a family trip to the Christmas Tree farm to select and cut down the perfect tree. Of course these were also the years, when us women went against the man of the house in the war of the lights. My DH insisted on colored lights and we wanted white ones. We came to a truce. We would alternate - white one year, colored lights the next. That first year we used white lights. He never had a choice after that, they have been white ever since.

After the girls went to college, my DH and I would go get the tree in anticipation of them being home for the holidays. Sometimes, one would be home in time to help decorate. Now, they are out of the house and it is just us - true empty nesters. This year, instead of making the trek to the Christmas Tree Farm, I suggested we just pick up one up from the Piggly Wiggly. My DH looked at me like I had walked out of Zombie movie. Guess not, I thought.

Now another issue we have is my DH's lack of spacial consciousness. Years ago, we lived in this wonderful old house that had ten foot ceilings. It was a dream house for Christmas trees. Ever since then, when we go to buy a tree, he still looks at the nine foot trees. I remind him we have eight foot ceilings. So he will then "consider" an eight foot tree. 

It gets ugly when I remind him that an eight foot tree doesn't really fit in a room with eight foot ceilings, once you get the tree in a stand, especially if you want to put anything on the top. (Say that large angel he insists we place atop the tree each year.) His response is that a seven foot tree will look short in our den. And, he thinks I have denial issues about living in a brick ranch house?

But, who am I to understand that the eight foot measure they use for the trees is the same eight foot measure they used for our ceilings? Every year, we come home with an eight foot tree, that has to have a good ten or eleven inches taken off the top, before it can stand up in the room. Then we have a beautiful tree with a flat top. Of course the angel will not sit on a flat top, so we end up spending an inordinate amount of time "shaping" the top of the tree. When it is all said and done, we have a seven foot tall tree, a mess on the floor, and an angel whose halo almost touches the ceiling. Stepping back, my DH always comments, "See I told you, an eight foot tree does well in our house."

One year he saw the Christmas Tree farm had a special order of "Noble Firs" from out west. They were the "Cat's Pajama's" as my dear Aunt Kat would say. He just had to have one. When we first saw it, he was thrilled. Personally, I just thought it looked like a very nice Christmas tree. It certainly didn't merit the price which was double anything we had paid in the past, as far as I was concerned. But, a Noble Fir was the choice for that year.

That same year our daughter called from Texas. She was excited telling her father all about the tree she and her beau had purchased and what a deal they had gotten. "We got this beautiful tree from Lowes. And, we only paid $15," she said. My DH then went on about his prized Noble Fir. "Oh, Daddy," she said,"that's just what we bought, a Noble Fir. Aren't they gorgeous. How much did you pay? My DH just said,"A little more than that," and quickly changed the subject to their travel plans for the holiday.

When he got off the phone, I looked at my DH, "No, it was a Hell of a lot more." That was our last Noble Fir. This year, we ventured from our 30 year run of Leland Cypresses (less the one year with grand Noble Fir) and have a Blue Sapphire (tree). And, yes, it is a shade of blueish green and quite lovely. The jury is still out though, it hasn't yet been brought in and retrofitted for our den. 

Photography - Festive Decorations

Christmas decorations in Bryant Park in New York City (one of my 2013 Christmas Cards)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Philomena a Movie Review

If you ever questioned the Catholic Church this brings up a blot on their past, not widespread, but as ugly as the child sex scandal. Philomena is the true story of a Irish Catholic woman searching for her son whom she was forced to give up 47 years prior. It is a story of true faith. Nuns took her in as an unwed pregnant teen and preached that giving her son up was the punishment for her carnal sins. And, for several years she was forced to work in the convent in horrid conditions as payment for being taken in and atonement for her sins. She harbored the secret of her son into her 60's.

But that is but part of the story, the part one sees on the trailers. After her son's fiftieth birthday, she finds help to aid her in her search for her long lost son. A sacked journalist needs a story, and takes her quest on as his project. And, together they search for her son. Anything further will spoil the story.

Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena as only Dench can, incredibly well as a woman torn between the weight of the daily guilt of living a lie about her lost son and her steadfast faith in her church that took that son from her. Steve Coogan (who also wrote the screenplay) plays Martin Sixsmith, the burnt out political journalist. Coogan does a splendid job playing a cynical hard core journalist out of his element in the world of a human interest story. He needs his story for his career as much as Philomena needs to find her son. Together they make the quintessential odd couple. 

There is not a wasted scene in the 94 minute film. The story is tight, the dialogue is tidy, and the storyline keeps you guessing.  The lines on Dench's wrinkled face, as Philomena, show the pain and anguish this woman endured for years wondering where her son was and would he ever forgive her if she could find him. But, there is that twinkle in her eye when she talks of happier times gone by. 

This is oscar material. Take the time to see this film. It is not a tear jerker, a light hearted tale, nor a deep sad depressing story of woe. This is an engaging tale that needed to be told. It is the story of the end of a journey one woman started as a young teenage girl and lived every day of the rest of her life searching for what she lost, knowing she would never find peace until she found him. It is the story of her faith that so cruelly took him away and that same faith that sustained her all those years.

Follow the Recipe or Not

I got through the night without visions of mutilated snowmen and gingerbreadmen dancing in my head. I had made the Parkerhouse roll dough with the first rising and the sweet potato - parsnip puree the night before, so I could cook them first thing in the morning and have them warm for lunch. I had prepared the smokey hot flavored liquor for the collards the night before also, so the pot was ready for the greens. Before I went to bed I had chopped the cranberry and orange relish and put it in the 'fridge. 

When I awoke Thanksgiving morning, I was checking my list - twice. Rolls - check, casserole - check, collards-check, cranberries - check, wine - one, two, three, four . . . Wait there is an extra bottle here, a bottle of white table wine. The it dawned on me, that was the wine that should have gone into the brine for the turkey - but didn't. I totally forgot it. OK, certainly the salt, herbs, and spices would sufficiently "brine" the turkey. 

What happens when a turkey is just put in flavored water overnight? Do turkeys swim? Just as I was about to go into full panic mode, I remembered - surely some Baptists brine their turkeys. And, any, God fearing, choir singing, Heaven going Baptist would never put wine in their brine. (That would be worse that my dear Aunt Kat's friend Mary McCorkle, bless her heart, putting dark meat in her chicken salad.) Life would just have to continue since the turkey had been on the spit for a good two hours before I got up.

When the turkey was sliced everyone raved about the taste. The meat was so moist. Even the white meat wasn't dry like it often was. Brining was definitely the way to go. And, if anyone asks, according to the recipe one mixes all the ingredients with the water except the wine, puts the turkey in a bag, adds the solution, then seals bag. Next step - sit back drink the bottle of wine. Sounds good to me.  

Photography Post - Radio City Music Hall

The famed Radio City Music Hall decked out for the holidays. This was last year during their 85th anniversary. (One of my 2013 Christmas Cards)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Summer Break and Child Labor Laws

Perhaps we should notify the Department of Education. In case, the Secretary doesn't communicate with the Department of Labor, several years ago, OK, many years ago, the country enacted these things called "Child Labor Laws." These particular laws prevent the abuse of young children by restricting them from be able to work until an older age. These laws alone brought some civilization to parts of industry during the industrial age that kept us from becoming a nation resembling characters from a Dickens novel, well without the snow. Now, down here, we didn't have that much industry, we were still agrarian.

That brings me to my point, if you were wondering where I was going with this. Traditionally, children worked hard on family farms. No, contrary to popular belief, we all did not live on Tara. The use of slaves was limited to the large plantations and only the few wealthy land owners who could afford them. And, everyone in the antebellum South was not well off. Most farms were mainly family farms, with the entire family, young children included, pulling their weight. Farms in the mid and upper west were the same.

My issue is summer vacation. Traditionally, the school year was set around the farming schedule, so farming children would be home to help with the crops during the summer. When Mr. Deere and Mr. McCormick came along and revolutionized the farming industry and mule drawn plows and hand harvesting went by the way side, few able bodies were needed in the fields to harvest the crops. This coupled with the Child Labor Laws, that were enacted for our children's safety, pretty much legally keep young children out of harm's way and out of the fields. In the northeast, the children could no longer be exploited as cheap labor in the mills and factories. So why are we still on a nine month school schedule?

Oh, sure it is nice for the kids to have a break. And, the teachers will cry fowl by this missive of mine. However, after the three months of fun and frolic, the teachers spend weeks getting the students back up to speed, since the weeks of summer have cleared their minds of the lessons learned in the spring. Year round schooling seems to be the obvious choice here. With breaks of two or weeks between sessions, teacher and students will have mini-vacations. Both will be spared the tedium of remedial lessons. The vacation industry will have business all year round, not just three months in the summer.

Note to DC. The war is over - you won, but, contrary to popular belief, we are doing as well (are as poorly) as the rest of the country, so the boys (and girls) are no longer on the farm. If you're trying to improve education, the summer break can cease.

My niece and nephew were in a year round program and really liked it. The world did not end, the sky did not fall, and the crops were harvested. Just a thought.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Great Cover Up

While the Judge was in DC on her mission, I was back in Chambers trying to keep the cover story going. As always, she wanted her work Fed Exed to her. I had the address of the hotel where she was staying. Of course, the clerks had to think I was addressing the package to her daughter's home, not somewhere in Pentagon City. To cover this I did not put the shipping label on the package until the last minute and delivered it to the Fed Ex drop off myself, every afternoon. Her husband called a time or too, saying he could not get her to answer her cell phone. I told him I had not spoken with her either.

The national press was working with a long list of possible candidates for the open position on the Supreme Court. I was really hoping her name would not be on it this time. However, no such luck. It was listed there, albeit at the bottom - thank God for small favors. The clerks continued to banter among themselves about her chances. I reminded them that her elevation would most likely mean the end of our positions immediately. Of course, they hoped they could go with her and become Supreme Court Law Clerks. (This was the uber position sought by all bright law students and only achieved by a very few. Most Supreme Court clerks had been Appellate Law clerks first.)

The next morning her husband called, "I have a legal document she has to sign today. I spoke with her last night but cannot get again today." Once again, I assured him I would tell her when I spoke with her. That night the Judge called me at home. "Well, I had to tell him [her husband], I had no choice. He called tonight me about that deed I need to sign. I tried to stall him but he figured it out. He's none too happy, but I don't think he'll tell anyone." She shared a few details of her day and then we went over some work issues and she told me she would be up there another day.

The idea of dealing with the charade one more day was exhausting just to think about. Suddenly the idea of taking a "mental health" day and playing hooky from work sounded terribly appealing. However, the next morning I found myself back at my desk. The clerks were circling. Our chambers was such a close bunch, the idea of trying to pull something like this off was first, not a simple task and secondly, almost disingenuous. However, I knew this was how the game was played and the Judge would deal with it after she returned. Knowing her, she would tell the clerks. After all, she needed all the help she could get now. 

The first phone call I got that morning was from the AP. Supposedly, someone had seen the Judge at a restaurant in DC the prior evening. Could I confirm she was in DC? I quickly told them, that I doubted anyone saw her there, since she was taking care of her grandchildren. Then they asked if I knew if anyone had contacted her about the Supreme Court. I laughed and said, "Only the press." And, so the morning went. Garth Brooks' song, I Thank God for Unanswered Prayers, kept running through my mind. As a little girl, I used to pray at night I would grow up to be a secret agent. After the past few days - not so much.

Monday, November 18, 2013

You Did Not Receive This Call

When the law clerks finished their clerkships with the Judge, it was like watching the chicks leave the nest. And, she always was proud to see where they landed. Most left her chambers to take jobs at private law firms, many in major cities across the country; from New York City to Chicago to Dallas to Washington DC.   And, many of them took positions with the government in agencies like the DOJ (Department of Justice), SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), and FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Others became AUSA's (Assistant US Attorneys) in various states. We even had a few at the White House in different legal positions.

We kept in touch with most of them. Many would call just to check in. If anything of interest happened (she was involved in a high profile case, for example) they would call. Often if one was getting married, I would get a call, "Do you think she would perform our ceremony?". (The answer there was always, you know she would be thrilled to.)

One morning I answered the phone and one our clerks, working at the White House at that time, was on the line. After exchanging pleasantries, he said, "Listen, you are on to get a phone call from someone in the West Wing this morning. Just do what he says. And, do not under any circumstances, let any know you received this call." "You mean the Judge will get the call." (Often the Judge and I was were referred to as "you".) "No, this call is coming to you."

After I hung up the phone, it dawned on me, dear Jesus, she was being considered for the Supreme Court. Her name was always thrown around as a possible candidate, but the White House threw out all sorts of names just to keep the press interested and at bay. We just laughed about it. In her humble way, she was always flattered to be named, but could not imagine any serious consideration.

Sure enough, less than five minutes later the phone rang. When I answered it, this polite but business like voice introduced himself and said, "Judge Williams needs to be in Washington at 10:00 am tomorrow morning. We already have her cell phone number. Tell her to expect a phone call at that time for directions of how we will handle it from there. No one is to know she is in Washington, no one in her chambers, no one in her family, not even her husband, and, no one is to know you received this phone call. Do you understand?" All I could get out was, "Yes Sir." After I hung up, I looked at my phone as if it were going to self destruct like a Mission Impossible tape.

When the Judge walked in from her Rotary Meeting, she just looked at me and I could tell from her look that she knew. I just said, "Yes, someone called me." "Just get me there." "I will," I assured her. She walked back to her office. Then it dawned on me, I would get her there, but I was not sure how in the Hell I was going to be able to. I got online and looked for a suitable airline ticket to DC that afternoon.

About that time, one of the law clerks sauntered up to my desk and asked what I was doing. This was a normal question, that would usually evoke a smart ass response on my part, like, "Making a reservation for the Judge to go to DC to interview for the Supreme Court." I wasn't willing to that chance, so I weakly said, "Checking the weather," and I quickly closed the airline screen. After he left my desk, I realized this clandestine job was going to take more scheming than I thought.

Ten minutes later, I yelled down the hall, that I needed to run an errand and asked them to cover the phones. I got in my car, drove around the corner, and found a parking space. From there, on my cell phone, I made the Judge's travel reservation, had them send me an electronic confirmation to my personal email, and went back to my desk. Knowing she was probably wondering what was taking me so long, I went down the hall to talk with her. When I walked in her office, I saw a look of total confusion on her face. "I am so nervous, I cannot even log into my computer, please tell me how I can make it through the most important interview of my life?" I assured her that she could and would come through in flying colors, otherwise they would not being calling her.

As I started telling her about her travel plans, a law clerk came to the door. She always had an open door policy - something I'm sure she questioned the wisdom of that afternoon. "Judge," the law clerk asked, "you wanted to discuss this case for court week?" She gave me a look that said, 'I'll get with you later' and very calmly, in her normal cheery voice she told him to come in. As I walked out, they started an in-depth discussion of the a very iffy legal question.

She made it safely to DC the next morning. Before her flight, she called me from the airport, "I know I forgot to pack some vital piece of my wardrobe or my shoes won't match. It was all I could do to get my things together in my bag." "Bag," I asked, "One bag?" "Well, I told my husband I was going to stay with the grandchildren, so I couldn't justify any more luggage." The fact that she only had one piece of luggage was scary in itself. We spoke several times that afternoon and evening. Afterall, the law clerk at the White House and I were the only ones who knew where she was and the only ones she could discuss it with.

The next morning when I got to chambers, I stuck with the cover story that she was keeping the grandkids. I followed up with some bit about her daughter having to leave at the last minute on a business trip. One law clerk looked at me and quipped, "Well, if she's not there, the only other place she could be is in DC interviewing for the Supreme Court." I swallowed hard and laughed, "Yeah, right. What did you have in your orange juice this morning?" Everyone had a good laugh and we all went to our desks to start another "regular" day, whatever that meant.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Blessed are Those Who are Loving and Giving

The one thing I hope no one says about me, is that I take advantage of people. Maybe someone, at least one person, will say I helped them. Remember that little ol' lady in the Walmart parking lot who needed help getting her shopping cart to her car? I was more than happy to help her and even unload her groceries. That other woman was just rude, trying to wrestle that cart from me. It wasn't my problem that there were no more carts left on the morning of the big sale. She could find her own little lady. But I digress.

Judge Williams, on the other hand, was naturally generous and giving. The "judge" part of her life made no difference. If anything, it prevented her from helping and assisting more. At lunch on Thursday, she could usually be found at the soup kitchen feeding those who needed a meal. I could go on with examples, but anyone who knew her knew this was just part of her being.

New law clerks were usually taken aback by her thoughtful deeds. In their minds she went beyond the bounds of what federal judges did, in other words she never suffered from the holier than thou "Black Robe Syndrome". She was known to bring peach pies, she made the night before, to chambers for us to enjoy. It was not unusual for sick friends and law clerks to find her at their door with a full meal she prepared for them.

But, one example took the cake (as my Mama would say). One of our law clerks was married and had two young children, ages 18 months and 3 years old. Like most of our clerks, they were far from home. He was from Utah and she was from Kansas. Early in the clerkship, he announced they were expecting their third child. Well, there was nothing the Judge loved more than small children, especially newborns. The Judge followed the pregnancy, making sure the wife was seeing the best obstetrician  in town. 

As his wife's due date neared, the Judge kept asking the clerk each morning if they were ready. He assured her they were, this being their third child. One morning around 1 am, my phone rang and it was the clerk. There was some emergency issue with his wife and he needed someone to take care of the children so he could rush her to the hospital. I told him I was on my way, just to stay calm, leave the door unlocked, and get to the hospital. Since the children were sound asleep, and I lived less than five minutes away, I felt certain I could get there before they awoke.

They came back to the apartment around 5 am, saying it was just a matter of dehydration. The doctors said both the wife and the baby were fine. The good news was that she could deliver any day. I went home to dress and go to work. When the Judge learned that the baby's birth was eminent, she was excited. She asked the clerk, after the excitement of the night before, what plans they had for the children when the baby came. He quickly said they had that covered, his wife's parents were coming to take care of them.

That Friday afternoon, I asked the other clerks what their plans were for the weekend, everyone was going to be out of town. We had a trip to the mountains planned. I stuck my head in the fourth clerk's office and asked, "Have your in-laws arrived?" He laughed, "No. We thought we would call them when she goes into labor." "I thought they lived in Kansas?" "They do." "Well, you better hope it is not this weekend, because we are all going to be out of town." By this time I was beginning to question the maturity or common sense of this law clerk.

Monday morning, when the Judge walked into chambers, she was smiling. "The baby came." "Is everything OK?" "Everyone is doing well." "How do you know this anyway? Did he call you?" "He did, at 2 am Saturday morning." "He must have been very excited to call you when the baby was born. We know you love babies. But, I think he could have waited until daybreak to tell you." "I don't think so. He was calling me to come take care of the children." "You're kidding?" 

She just smiled and shook her head. She wasn't surprised he called her, she was thrilled to take care of the children. However, she was amazed that someone who was so smart was so unprepared. And, it wasn't his first child.

But, the story got better. When the Judge got to the clerk's apartment apparently it was mess. Her OCD kicked in. (She just could not contain herself.) While she was watching the children, she cleaned the apartment, washed the dishes, and did the laundry - including washing, drying, folding, and putting away several loads of clothes. I do not think the law clerk ever understood what happened, although his wife did and was most appreciative.

This was just one more thing that made her a legend in her own time. The clerks enjoyed telling this story when other folks commented on how nice she was. However, more often than that, it fell into law clerk legend lore as the law clerk who had the gumption to have the Judge do his laundry.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'll Tell Them I Have Other Plans

And, there are those stories some folks don't believe when I tell them. But, one should ask: why would she make that up and better yet, could she make that up? The following is but one example.

The Judge's husband had many well known friends.  Most were hunters who coveted invitations to his world class hunting lands. Once they came, they found southern hospitality at its best and genuinely nice people. Then the guests introduced the Judge and her husband to their friends. And, it went on from there. This group  included pro baseball players, politicians, ect. 

Also among the group was Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks (as in the country duo Brooks and Dunn). Anytime they were touring nearby, they would invite the Judge and her husband to visit and see the performance. Needless to say, they has fabulous seats, and were with Ronnie and Kix before and after the performance.

One of the years they were nominated for the CMA"Duo of the Year", they invited the Judge and her husband to come to the award ceremony in Nashville and sit with them. The Judge's husband really wanted to go. The Judge had one issue, the award ceremony was during one of our court weeks. She also wanted to attend, but she knew she could not miss court.

When we got to Richmond, she walked in my office,"See if you can get me a round trip ticket to Nashville on Wednesday. I"ll need to leave after I get off the bench, say around 2:30 or so." "What time for a return flight?" "Oh, sometime after midnight." "You're serious about this?" "This sounds like a lot of fun, I don't know want to miss it."

After much searching, I found I could get her to Nashville that afternoon, but the last flight out was at 10 o'clock and I had a feeling that wouldn't do. When I told her what was available, all she said was, "Let me see what I can do." I knew from experience she was a lot better than I was at many things, but making airline reservations was something I prided myself at being able to do. And, I was usually able to find a way to get most places at the right time for a decent price - it there was a flight.

The next morning she came in and smiled. "Make me a one way flight Wednesday afternoon to Nashville leaving around 2:30." "No return flight?" "No." "OK, I'll bite, how are you going to get back for court at 9:00 Thursday morning?" "Bill Elliot's jet." (as in NASCAR driver Bill Elliot) The expression on my face asked for more.

"When I told my husband there was no way I could make it up there and back from Richmond, he made some calls. Bill was happy to send his jet to Nashville that evening. His pilot will just wait at the airport. When I'm ready to come back to Richmond, he'll be ready to bring me back." Talk about pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Then she added, "And, I do not want anyone to know I am going. I'm just going to tell them I have an appointment so I'll not be able to go to lunch or dinner with the other judges. They won't think another thing of it."

So, Wednesday afternoon, as soon as she got off the bench, she went to the hotel, got her bags (with her formal attire and God knows what else!)  and took a taxi to the airport. If anyone asked, we all stuck to the story,  And, the next morning she was in Chambers, on time ready for court, looking as lovely as always.

My first question was (of course), "How was it?" "Oh it was so much fun. You know they won "Duo of the Year" so the party Arista had was over the top. I met so many fun people. I can't remember the last time I had that much fun." "What time did you get back?"

"Oh, that's the best part. I got back around 5 this morning. You know that is about the same time I am usually leaving the hotel to go work out. When the night security man opened the door to let me in, he was quite puzzled.All he could say was 'Judge, did you have a good time? You look wonderful.' As I walked to the elevator, I know he was trying to figure out what was going on - here I am coming in at that time of the morning dressed in a formal gown. Then when I got to my room and looked in the mirror, it was even funnier. I was covered from head to toe with glitter from the Arista party."

"I was just wondering what happens if someone saw you on television last night? I didn't see it, but when they won, I know the cameras panned to them and if you were sitting right there." "Oh, that's the beauty of it. If they saw me, they would never believe it was me. After all, how could I have gotten to Nashville and back in time for court?" She had a point.

Photography Post - Junior Cowboys

As they seriously watch the competition, these little guys were waiting their turn to enter the ring to rope a calf. All these contestants were competing in championship rounds, so this was not little league.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Security and a Mystery Box

One would think security for federal judges would be tight. But before 911, it was lax. In fact when I first came to work for the Judge, I was shocked at the lack of security, especially since she was not in a court house. When 911 occurred, it was Friday morning before we got a call at chambers from the US Marshals asking if we were OK. My answer was - and what if we were not?

This was the time that court and chambers staff went through security training learning how to deal with the phone, access, and the mail. As her assistant, I was on the front line. I considered appling for hardship pay, but thought better of it. We had cameras that surveyed the outside of the building. And, cards beside every phone that gave us special "safety" answers to give to certain questions from unknown persons that sounded suspect.

As for the mail, obviously if a package was delivered that had wires hanging out of it or the address was done with cut-out letters from a magazine, there was an issue. But there were other signs: no return address, too much postage, a postal mark from an unfamiliar place, sloppy wrapping, and a list of smells.  

One morning in the US mail, a small square package arrived. The box was wrapped in brown paper and addressed to the Judge, however it did not have a return address. The postal stamp was from a town in Switzerland. Since the Judge was out of town,  I called her to inquire as to whether or not she was expecting such a package. She was as puzzled as we were.

Next call was to the US Marshals. After giving them a detailed description and answering several questions, they told me to place the package in the workroom and make sure no one messed with it. It was late in the afternoon, and since there were no ticking noises coming from the box or smells, the Marshals said they would be down first thing the next morning to take care of it. I called the Judge and told her what the Marshals had said, to make sure she knew not to open the package.

The next morning I came in and found the box had been opened. On the table in the work room was the open box and the remnants of, what looked like, the brown paper that had once wrapped the box. I went into the Judge's office and asked her if I missed the Marshals' visit. She gave me a puzzled look, "No, why?" "Well, I see that the mystery box was opened." "Oh, I opened that. It was some face cream I ordered."

"So you recognized it after all?" "No. But I wanted to see what was in the box." "So you opened it?" I didn't know if I was shocked or furious. "Did you realize it could have been a bomb and possibly could have killed you?" "Oh, I was very careful. I took the box to the back corner of the parking lot, so if it did explode there would not be a mess.

When the Marshals came I just showed them the open box. When they asked if I had opened it, I told them I had not. I added neither had a law clerk. Then one looked at me, "Please don't tell me the Judge opened it?" "Oh, but she was careful. She went to the back corner of the parking lot, so if it did explode there would not be a mess." Both just looked at me and shook their heads.

"Unbelievable," said one the them. "Oh, it's believable. Do you want to speak with her?" They both walked down the hall to her office. The Judge was as sweet and friendly as always. Neither one of them had it in them to say anything to her about the box. After they left, the Judge walked up to my desk. "They are just the nicest young men. I feel secure knowing they are looking after our safety," she said. All I could think was, "despite what you do."

Photography Post - Junior Cowgirls and Cowboys

I was at a Junior Rodeo this past weekend and was amazed at how serious these youngsters are. These little guys (and girl) were waiting their turn.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Photography Post - Blue House

A blue house, almost lost in the brush in Fort Motte, South Carolina, a ghost town now, having two claims to fame: one being briefly considered for the capitol of the state of South Carolina and the other where Julia Peterkin, the 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning author of Scarlet Sister Mary, taught in the local school. She was married to William Peterkin and lived with him on his cotton plantaton, Lang Syne, near Fort Motte.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fashion Takes Baggage

The Judge was this elegant, five foot, ten, thin, lady who looked like a runway model. And, she was always dressed impeccably. When I said I would go months without seeing the same outfit twice, I was not exaggerating. But, unlike many females in the legal  profession, she did not wear stuffy navy and black suits. The Judge was known for her colorful (yet very tasteful) knit suits. I only saw her in navy or black on somber occasions. Of course, she had lovely shoes to go with each outfit. And, don't think being tall, stopped her from wearing, heels - it didn't.

Now, traveling with all those clothes required some coordination. They didn't quite fit in one small roll aboard and a hang bag. Perhaps, that was another reason she insisted on driving to Richmond each month. The airlines' fifty pound restriction on each bag was very inconvenient. As the Judge used to say, "A lady needs to be prepared. You never know if the weather is going to change or what random occasion may arise." Winter was particularly burdensome given she would add extra coats. 

There was the large suitcase, the bag for shoes, the hang bag, the bag for the necessary toiletries, and the hair dryer (one of those full size over-the-head styles). The first time I questioned the large toiletry bag, she insisted that any lady would need everything in that bag. I was embarrassed to think of the few things I carried as "toiletries" - no wonder I was not in her league.  

The bellmen at the hotel in Richmond, where we always stayed, knew when she drove up to make sure they had a large empty cart to carry to her car. And, the hotel always assigned her the same room that had a bathroom with a larger than normal counter to accommodate her toiletries. 

The few times she did fly to Richmond, she would rely on one of the law clerks, who planned to drive, to carry any excess luggage she "happened" to need in their car. The Judge never tried to hide the amount of luggage she travelled with, in fact she would laugh about it with everyone else. She saw it as necessary. 

The most rattled I think I ever saw her was preparing to go to Egypt when she was told that she could only carry one bag of certain given dimensions, no exceptions. And, that the one bag had to be light enough for her to manage because there would be no porters or anyone available to assist the travelers. The sight of her sorting and choosing what she could take was something akin to watching a mother choose among her favorite children. She finally managed to get the bag packed, but it wasn't pretty. The rest of the afternoon, I think she spent questioning the "what ifs?" she would not be prepared for. 

Thinking back on it, she would have done well in the early 1900's when ladies were expected to travel with steamer trunks. Thankfully, that thought never came to her. No doubt, she would have loaded one in her car when she headed to court, just to be prepared. 

Photography Post - Red Barn

An old red barn still serving its purpose well on the farm.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Bringing a Few Things from Home

The first time I went to Richmond with the Judge for court, she was moving into her newly assigned chambers. As we walked in the door, I could tell she was none too happy. The chambers were large. Actually, the chambers were cavernous with huge dimly lit rooms and twenty foot ceilings. The dark aqua carpet was stained and wrinkled. The faded white paint on the walls had the ghostly silhouettes of the former judges art collection that had been removed.

To make the situation worse, the Judge learned later that week that it would be months before any refurbishing or redecoration would be done to the chambers due to the general red tape it took to get anything accomplished with the federal government. The court decorator was happy to show her what extra furniture was available for her to use. And, the Judge went through and picked out the few pieces she thought would suit.

One thing the Judge did want was a large conference table. The decorator commented, in jest, that the only ones available were these two huge incredibly heavy oak tables currently located in the front lobby of the courthouse. Given that the lobby was on the first floor, our chambers were on the second, the tables weighed a ton (well were heavy as lead), and were large enough to seat at least twelve people, those conference tables were out of the question.

Well, the decorator thought they were out of the question, until she came in the next morning and saw there was only one table in the lobby. Sure enough the missing table was nicely situated in the Judge's office in our chambers. Only then did the decorator realize one didn't tell the Judge something couldn't be done. Not that moving the table was an easy feat, let's just say the project was a bonding exercise for our law clerks.

The following month, the Judge drove her Suburban up to Richmond. She had a few things she wanted to bring to the chambers. Unloading her car was something akin to clowns getting out of their little car at the circus. Granted a Suburban is a large vehicle, but the Judge had managed to pack, in addition to her vast amount of luggage (a whole 'nuther story), an 8 foot tall three panel silk Chinese screen, a 9 foot tall full size silk tree in its pot, several boxes of curios,  coffee table books, 4 lamps with their shades, an area rug, and a clock for her desk. 

When one of the Court Security Officers saw all of us struggling to to get her furnishings up to her chambers, he took pity on us and held the doors and the elevator. Soon, the US Marshal on duty came out and grabbed the silk tree and took it up the stairs (it would not fit into the elevator). Since she was the only judge in the courthouse at the time, he needed to be with her any way, however, he was going above beyond his duty to assist in that project. 

When we got everything in the chambers, the Judge was chatting with the Marshal. It was evident she knew him. I was glad to know that, given we had just used him as a sherpa to move a tree. She introduced him to me, "This is Marshal Marshall." I thought for a moment she was stuttering. Then the Judge laughed, "You realize who this is?", she asked me. She continued,"This Justice Thurgood Marshall's son." Great, not only did we enslave a US Marshal, we chose the son of a former Supreme Court Justice.   

Photography Post - Flower Cart

Old flower cart at a nursery with the last flowers of fall. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Yes, That's Really Her

The Judge always had four law clerks working for her. Many people did not understand the term "law clerk". These were not your everyday folks running around doing busy work at the beck and call of the Judge. These were the best and the brightest, the top graduates of the top tier law schools in the country. These students all competed for Appellate Judge Clerkships. Not only did their tenure with the Judge train them for a career in the law, law firms paid top dollar for young attorneys with a clerkship on their resume.

Of course, having a clerkship was one thing. Having a clerkship in a small southern town was another. We had several clerks who thought they had come to a third world country when they arrived. While their friends were working in chambers located in courthouses in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas, they found themselves in a small town, population 15,000, in the low country of South Carolina. It did not take them long to learn that life was not as bad as it may have first seemed.

When the law students came to interview, usually a year or two before the clerkship would begin, the Judge wanted to make sure they understood what they were in for. A full day was dedicated for each interview. Besides talking about the duties of the job and the court, she would personally show them the town, pointing out all the features she thought were redeeming qualities. These included the shoe repair shop that could repair anything in a day or two and never cost more than 5 or 6 bucks, making sure they saw the collection of comical faces made from old shoes that were displayed on the walls of the shop. There was the dry cleaners where their shirts could be pressed for much less than the big bucks their colleagues would be paying in the big cities and of course there was the world class BBQ.

One would have thought she was head of the chamber of commerce. She went as far as showing them the city gardens and explaining in detail the annual holiday light display that city put up each year and then the fair grounds where the county fair is held each October. But, winner was always when they realized they were going to get an apartment with 1100 square feet, hardwood floors, and a fireplace for around $650 a month. 

The Judge insisted that all the current law clerks spend time with the potential clerk being interviewed. Then she would talk with them for a good hour, taking time to answer any questions they may have. I was always the last one they spoke with before they left Inevitably, I always got one question, "OK, what's she really like?" And, I would always answer truthfully, "That's her. What you saw is how she always is."  I realized their previous experiences with federal judges had most likely been a standard 45 minute interview. If they were lucky, they were taken to lunch.

What these bright law students did not realize was that she only interviewed 6 each year at most. And, each of those were incredibly qualified and equally capable. We had all spent weeks culling through the 100's of resumes she received each year to narrow the list down to the 5 or 6 she wanted to talk to. Then it all came down to personality - who would get along best with everyone in chambers. It was like I told one young man after he was offered the position, who had been so nervous about the interview - by the time anyone was offered an interview, unless they had some unreasonable body piercing or an inappropriate tattoo the Judge could see, the job was theirs as long as they were friendly and the Judge thought they would be a team player.

Photography Post - Old Store

Old Store in Society Hill, SC

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Staying in the Fast Lane

The Judge had many wonderful characteristics, among those were compassion, warmth, and a caring soul. And there were those other traits some would have never associated with her. One was her propensity to drive an automobile at a high rate of speed. 

All the federal judges were issued state tags for a car that read: "Federal Judge _" (and whatever number they were in order of seniority.) When she stepped down, her number was "1". She would never put that tag on her personal car. Her reason being, she never wanted to go flying by someone on the interstate, have them see that tag and comment about Federal Judges being above the law. For that reason, her Federal Judge tag was always assigned to her husband's hunting vehicle.

She had a succession of nice cars. One, I remember particularly, was a 700 series BMW. It was a smooth riding vehicle and its performance and potential were not lost on her. One day someone asked her how she liked it. In her slow southern drawl, she answered, "Oh, it's wonderful. Why I can go from zero to sixty just from my drive way to the gas company." I shuddered to think of this, considering the gas company she was speaking of was less than a quarter mile down the road from her house. Often I would remind her that her life was my job and if she lost her life, I lost my job and that I cared very much about keeping both (her life and my job) alive and doing well.

For her fiftieth birthday, the Judge bought herself a Porsche. This purchase was almost her undoing. Because the judges on the court came from South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, the court sat in Richmond. And, one week a month, we moved chambers to the courthouse in Richmond for court. While the rest of us preferred to fly to avoid the six hour (at best) slog up I-95. She thrived on the drive. Neither the weather, the traffic delays, nor the constant construction seemed to deter her from wanting to drive back and forth to Richmond. 

And drive she did. However, just over the North Carolina line in Virginia is this little hamlet known as Emporia. And, most folks know that they are quite serious in Emporia about their speed limit. Over the course of three months, the Judge got stopped for speeding there five or six times. (And two or three of those times were by the same officer.) This became as issue when she realized she had accumulated enough points to compromise her driver's license. Soon she found herself in drivers school. 

When she finished her course and was supposedly reformed, I thought for sure, things would slow down. One day, I had her on the mobile phone with some questions as she was driving to an appointment on the interstate. She kept saying, "They're passing me." Finally I asked her if something was wrong. "No," she said. "Other drivers just keep passing me." "And?" I asked. "I'm driving the speed limit, but they are driving faster than I am. This is just killing me that I have to stay behind."

But, she never wanted anyone to know of her position. When someone stopped her, she never told them who she was, or showed them any ID that would give them any hint they had stopped a Federal Judge. One day she was on her way to court for a sitting in Charleston, As usual, she was running late (and driving fast). She was stopped for speeding just as she got into the city limits.

As she walked into the courthouse with the other judges, she was telling them about the nice young man who stopped her and how polite he was. One of the judges asked if she got a ticket. She laughed, "Of course I got a ticket. You know I was speeding." Overhearing the conversation, one of the security officers asked her if it was a motorcycle patrolman who had stopped her. She said yes and went on about what nice manners he had.

When the judges broke for lunch and got to the entrance of the court house, standing there, red faced, was the young patrolman who had stopped the Judge that morning. The security officer looked at the young man and said, "Now apologize to the Judge."  Before the Judge could say anything, the young man bashfully said "Judge I am sorry I stopped you this morning. Honestly, I did not know you were a Federal Judge."  The Judge was mortified at the situation. "Officer, you were doing your job and  you did it well. I was speeding and I deserved to be stopped and ticketed." The security officer continued, "Mam, this is my nephew and he should not have stopped you. You are a federal judge." "He had no way of knowing that. And, even if he did, that should not have made any difference.

And, then in her typical style, not seeing a wedding ring, she asked the officer if he was married. When he said no, she said she had a young lady in town whom she thought he should call for a date. The patrolman was a little taken back, The other judges just chuckled. They expected no less from her.

Photography Post - Clothesline

Colorful towels out to dry.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Lovely Life Well Lived

The very smart Judge I worked for for 14 years was buried yesterday. She passed away at the premature age of 62 due to the scourge of Alzheimer's.  Not only was she smart, she was a beautiful woman, inside and out, and fashionable. Every morning she would come to chambers in some beautiful outfit. I would go for months and never see the same ensemble twice.

At a good 5 foot 10, her regal carriage made me feel like the Pillsbury Dough Boy as I scuttled behind, trying to keep up with her insane schedule. She did not let the riggers of her responsibilities as a federal appellate judge keep her from being an active mother of four, grandmother, and friend. Rarely did she miss a ballgame, parent teacher conference, or a chance to babysit her adorable grandchildren, albeit with a bag of briefs with her at all times. 

Most of the folks in our town were clueless as to what she did or the position she held. All they knew was that she was some kind of judge, did not have a courtroom, travelled to Richmond a lot, but still could not fix a parking ticket. It was not until the State Paper in Columbia ran the story that she was being considered for a seat on the Supreme Court, that they pulled out their Civics books, looked at the federal judiciary, and saw that, "Oh, my goodness, she is on the court just below the Supreme Court. That's pretty important."

She always laughed that one of her high school teachers told her, even after she was on the court, that if she really tried she would have made a very good stenographer. One of the attorneys who worked for us was speechless when he ran into a townsperson who, upon learning he worked for the Judge, commented, "Oh, she has such good skin."

One morning I can remember answering the phone and having one her friends ask to speak to her. Knowing that since she was waiting for an important call from another judge and had two of her law clerks (attorneys) in her office reviewing cases, she could not politely handle a call from the lady, who I knew would go on for a while. When I told her the Judge was unavailable, she quickly explained, "You do not understand, this is about the Deb Ball this year. She is the Hospitality Chairperson and we need to discuss the seating arrangements. This is very important. Just tell her who is calling, I'm sure she'll take the call.

I put her on hold, walked into the Judge's office, explained to her the situation and asked her if she was "on the phone with another judge". She just smiled. I went back to my desk, apologized to the lady, and promised to make sure the Judge got her message as soon as she got off the phone.

But, what was lost on that lady was - I did understand. Part of my job was keeping the great balancing act going. She never held her calls. Children, grandchildren, and her husband trumped any other phone calls. It did not matter who she was on the phone with, when any of them called, we put a written note in front of her, while she was on the other call to let her know who was holding. We would then wait for her hand motions to be able to tell the family member whether to hold on or she would call them right back. Usually, she would politely end her phone, and take the one on hold.

I always knew where she was 24/7 because I had her calendar. Mind you I just "had it", I didn't "keep it", she personally did. And, her calendar was exhausting. Keeping up with her was exhausting but it was never dull. She lived her life to the fullest. She loved life, her friends, her family, and most everyone she met. She touched so many people. Her death is loss to us all. I am so grateful to have been a small part of that wonderful life of hers.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Fifth Estate, a movie review

If you were nonplussed about Wikileaks and Julian Assange, you will not be after seeing The Fifth Estate. Unless you have been off the grid for the past several years or hiding in your bunker, you are familiar with Julian Assange (who is currently holding up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for fear of extradition) and his web site WikiLeaks, whose goal was to expose the deceptions and corruptions of power, no matter what collateral damage he brought with it. 

The story is old news, so this is not a spoiler. However, the details are frightening. I found this a tale of self absorbed evil, taking no prisoners - literally.

At first blush, this sounds like a David versus Goliath story. However, the tale takes an evil turn the more you get to know Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). As a computer wiz at coding he develops a system that allows whistle blowers to expose what they feel are abuses of power and government corruption without fear of being traced. He bursts on the scene as the leader of this large organization of coders who operate this website out to change the world.

He takes Daniel Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl), another brilliant coder, into his organization. Soon the wizard (of Oz) is revealed and Daniel finds there is no organization - Assange is a loner. And, his life is as eerie and blank as his white hair, white skin, and translucent blue eyes. Flash backs to his childhood in a cult hint of emotional issues. He has no apparent home or ties, he simply criss-crosses the globe, usually dressed in wrinkled clothes holding onto a backpack, the only possession we see. 

As the "leaks" get more dangerous, and Daniel and major news organizations, now working with him, try to get him to redact information to save lives, he persists. At this point you see (if you haven't already) that Julian Assange is an egotistical diabolical maniac with a mission that no one can stop. Suddenly, it is apparent, this is not about revealing corruption, this is personal, this is a power trip. And, it is all about him. He is in-sensed when anyone else is given credit for the website, the organization, or the leaks. 

The irony is that he is finally brought down, not by his web site, and the world wide destruction he brought to governments. For someone who has no personal relationships, it is sexual exploits with 14 year old Swiss girls that he initially denied knowing, that caught up with him. Yes, there were some things exposed that probably were for the best, but when lives of innocent people are put on the line, simply because one man thinks they expendable for his cause, I have issues. 

Men, like Assange, are what keep me up at night. They lurk in the digital darkness and are revealed only after their irrevocable damage is done. This is a true story of power gone mad.

Cumberbatch plays the role of Assange very well as an aloof anti-social misfit. Daniel Bruhl (also seen in Rush) is excellent as Daniel Berg, who at first is in awe of the master but his good conscience soon makes him realize the damage that is being done. Alicia Vikander plays Berg's girlfriend, the person in his life not taken in by Assange.

The 128 minutes is long, and drags a times. You know the beginning and the end when you enter the theater. The main characters are well played, but this is not Academy Award worthy. I'm glad I saw it, but given a choice of several films, this would not be top of my list.