Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What Would You Do If You Had No Fear?

I have turned a corner and I'm never going back. I am now fully "in" my 50's. What does that look like? Pretty goddamn terrific, if you ask me.

At my birthday last year, I had started working out and lost some weight. I was feeling good. I was excited about life and where it might take me in the next year. I was feeling bold and brassy and ready to try all kinds of stuff. I put away once and for all my worries about what other people thought.

My motto for the year was, "What would you do if you had no fear?"

Here's what happened.

I put my writing out there and for the first time, submitted an essay to another site and it was published!

I got another piercing. Yup, I'm bad-ass.

I bought a bikini. For the first time since 1987. I wore it, in public, jiggly middle and all, and you know what? No one laughed. In fact, I don't think anyone really cared.

I took off said bikini on a nude beach. It was awesome. I went back the next day and did it again. I felt breezes in places I have never felt breezes and I guarantee I'll do it again.

When our house caught fire, I held it together and kept the family on track and myself moving forward. In the worst winter of recent record.

I attended my first pagan, witchy fire circle. It was inspiring and heart-opening.

I created my first ever vision board. It was fun and thought provoking and I think I'll do it every year.

I rode the wave-rider at Kalahari. I made a spectacle of myself and laughed and laughed and laughed.

I sent my baby girl to her first winter formal, shaking my head that this could be happening.

I had a poem and photo published.

I entered a poetry contest. I did not win. Not even honorable mention. I lived.

I watched with pride and tears as my eldest child soared to new heights in Science Olympiad, earning medals at both the regional and state levels.

I became a Master Gardener after attending 72 hours of classes, performing 50 hours of volunteer work and taking a gazillion question test. I remembered a bit of high school Latin in the process.

I was diagnosed with skin cancer and had a chunk of my back removed.

I gave myself a black eye trying to launch into crow in yoga class. More importantly, I went back after that and tried again.

I quit coloring my hair. I discovered just how much silver was lurking in there. (A LOT.)

I had lunch in Quebec, visited three new states and the Almanzo Wilder homestead with my wonderful family.

I enjoyed the hell out of my girlfriends.

I paddle-boarded for the first time.

I did a high ropes course that scared the bejesus out of me and cheered for my daughters who went higher than I did and my Hombre who did the Black Diamond course.

I started running again for the first time since 1998 and completed a 5k with my daughter and good friends.

I went rock climbing for the first time.

I wrote a novel.

I got my first free-lance writing gig.

And then there was all the normal stuff, the bits of everyday life that glued these highlights together. The mortar between the big bricks I laid down this year.

As I stand back and look at my 50th year, a couple of things stand out.

First, we really are the architects of our own lives. We make choices every day about not just what we do but how we do it: with enthusiasm and verve or with obligation and dread. Laundry is never fun, but with loud music to sing to, it becomes infinitely more tolerable. Life is a lot more fun when you just put yourself out there. I had forgotten that.

Second, our lives impact others in ways we can't even imagine. I thought I was just trucking along, doing the best I could, until my daughters expressed their admiration for me. Sure, I wanted to set a good example, but that wasn't my main intent this past year. The surprise result was that they became emboldened, too, and sought out new challenges for themselves: Power of the Pen and the high school bowling team. The high ropes course and the paddle board. The 5k. They are cooking meals for the family and learned how to do the laundry to support my writing schedule.

The support and positive comments I received from friends and family regarding my adventures all year long were so humbling. I use Facebook as sort of journal of what I'm up to. I try to be a little witty and entertaining, but I'm not fishing for anything when I post. Nothing surprised me as much as the enthusiastic support I received as I posted my daily word counts during NaNoWriMo. I was doing it to hold myself accountable. I learned that my friends were paying attention and they cared.

I'm digging this mid-century modern thing. I think 51 will be just as awesome as 50 was. I'm never looking back to those days when I listened to the shoulds and the ought-tos ever again.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


I really enjoy writing.
I do.

But I have been struggling with it. Struggling with what to do with my writing. I'm goal-ish that way.

I like to play with words and ideas. I want to make people laugh and make them pause for a second and think about life from a different perspective. Writing just for the pleasure of playing with words or exploring my own philosophies seems rather self-indulgent.

I feel like I should be working on something BIG; bigger than this blog and my hen-scratched journals and haikus. Something published on real paper. Something that might be read by people other than those who see my FaceBook links or "follow" me.

Why is that?

Is it a holdover from my Type-A past? Do I need to legitimize my existence? Do I feel guilty about not earning my keep at the moment? All of the above?

Do artists feel this way? Like they need to sell a painting in order to be "real" artists?

Do other writers feel this way? Like they have to prove something that can only be proven by being published?

I see so much published writing that is dreck. And yet. It was published. Some editor, somewhere, saw value in it.

I've been stuck. I want to write a novel, but I can't seem to get the plot worked out. I didn't see a way to start until I knew where it was going, so I was thinking but not writing. And notwriting was making me a wee bit crazy.

Finally, I just started. I started with a main character. I'm making her someone I'd want to be friends with. I'm trusting the process: that as I get to know her, interesting things will happen. It will unfold.

But I'm worried. What if it's shitty? What if I write and write and end up with a novel that sucks? What if nobody wants to read it? What if my friends and family read it and they are embarrassed to tell me how bad it is?

Will they love me anyway?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Law School: Humiliation, Redemption and Something More

I arrived at law school just as I had left Oklahoma City 72 hours earlier: exhausted, exhilarated and eager.

I had no idea what I was in for.

 As I walked into the school on the first day, a man in a none-too-fresh, white three-piece suit, who looked like a mash-up of Boss Hogg and Benjamin Franklin, came barreling down the stairs, arms outstretched, hair flying, yelling, "Good! Evil! Good! Evil!"

WTF have I gotten myself into?

I learned some weeks later that Professor X had been calling to his aptly-named cats, one black, the other white, who had escaped his office. (1) 

I digress.

Law school classes are mostly taught via the Socratic method. The professor does not lecture, but draws out the content by questioning the students who have, presumably, read the textbook. In law school, the textbooks contain primarily decisions of courts interpreting either law enacted by a legislative body or common law set forth by other court decisions, sometimes both. Some textbooks contain other sorts of material such as the Constitution, codified rules of civil or criminal procedure or uniform codes. What they do not contain is explanatory material.

The first thing you learn as a first year law student is how to "brief a case," that is, how to glean the pertinent points from a court's decision so that, if called upon in class, you can accurately recite the information. Oh, and also so you can learn the law. Usually this includes summarizing the facts, identifying the question before the court, describing the court's analysis and stating the precise holding or ruling of the court. Often, the cases excerpted in the textbooks are filled with irrelevant information and the precise "holding" is buried. No spoon-feeding here; you have to work for it.  There are study guides and "canned briefs" available for purchase. We were sternly cautioned against them because the drudges employed to create them may not have even passed the bar! They might not even be lawyers! Trust them at your peril!

The second thing you learn as a first year law student is not to come to class unprepared. Law professors are often quite cruel and some seem to delight in humiliating students who are unprepared or simply don't grasp the key points of the cases. (2) These professors are generally known to the students - unless they are new to the school. Previously benign professors might turn vicious if, for example, they are quitting smoking or going through a divorce. (3)  In addition, law students are a hyper-competitive, brutal crowd, particularly in the first first year. Being exposed as unprepared or simply clueless before 100 or so of your classmates, even by a gentle professor, is a humbling experience. Best to be prepared.

But being prepared takes time. A lot of time. Time spent in quiet study. An average caseload in law school might be 15 credit hours per semester: 5 3-credit-hour classes. Each class could have more than 30 pages of reading per night. Except it's not only reading, it's reading plus briefing.

And some of us had social lives.

By about 2/3 of the way through my first semester, I was getting a little sloppy. I had an 8 a.m. contracts class that was killing me. I am not a morning person and the aged, misogynistic professor was a rabid basketball fan. So much so that class discussions often veered far afield and having no idea who the players, coaches and teams were, I grew deeply resentful. I really needed more discussion and explanation than I was getting, so I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the cases trying to make sense of it.

My afternoon criminal law class was challenging enough without my professor bleeding me dry, bumming cigarettes from me every day. I was reduced to scrounging beneath the floor mats in my car for change to buy smokes and Professor "I wrote the Ohio Criminal Code and live in a mansion" was trying to quit. Rather than just buy a pack and admit that he was failing, he mooched from me.  I was in no position to say "no."  It also made me an easy target in class because in the sea of faces, he readily recognized mine. And so with a smile, called upon me. Almost daily.

I  had a year-long legal writing course and another mumbo-jumbo legal-ese class I never did get the point of. The professor was rumored to be brilliant, but I was not convinced. Most of our term was spent discussing the Judgment of Solomon. An actual exchange:

(Looks down at his seating chart.)

"Mr. Danish?"

"Mr. Danish?"

"No Mr. Danish?"

(Looks down at his seating chart.)

"Mr. Cook?"


"Well, if we haven't got a Danish, at least we have a Cook."

Nearly laughed himself silly at that one, he did.

The other class I took my first semester was torts. I actually enjoyed it. It was in the late morning, so I was awake and fully caffeinated. The professor was a young woman. I think this was her first teaching assignment. She was very formal and organized. We had had several good exchanges up to that point in the term.

On this particular Wednesday, I was exhausted. Up late the night before, overloaded with a paper due in legal writing and copious contracts reading, I didn't finish my torts. I figured I was safe from being called on since I raised my hand regularly, so she had no reason to think I wouldn't be prepared. I could, of course, approach her before class and tell her I wasn't prepared, but she only allowed one pass per semester and I might need it later. I'd gamble.

Damn if she didn't fly through the material I had already covered and into the unread. Damn if she didn't look down at that seating chart and then look directly at me.

"Ms. Pauken, Mr. Jones just told us the court's ruling in X vs. Y; did they get it right?"

Crap, crap, crappity crap.

Her rule was that if you were unprepared, you were to let her know before class.

50-50 shot. Yes or no question.

I come from a poker-playing family. I know how to bluff.  What the hell?

Firmly and with conviction, I said,

"No. They did not."

I hadn't even exhaled when 47 eager gunner-hands shot into the air.

Aw, shit.

She looked at me, eyebrows raised in disbelief, then down at the seating chart.

"Mr. Collins, why don't you explain to Ms. Pauken why she is wrong?"

 I glanced at Matt, who sat next to me. He was grinning and shaking his head.

"You are so fucked," he whispered.

I spent most of the next day preparing for Friday's torts class. It would be a doozy. Among the cases was a legendary lawsuit arising out of freighters that collided with a drawbridge in a canal; the St. Lawrence Seaway, as I recall. There were a series of mistakes: delayed signaling by the captain, a drawbridge watchman asleep at his post, maybe a mechanical failure of some sort.  I diagrammed the sequence of events because it was so complicated.

On Friday at 11:00, slightly queasy, I took my seat and prepared to perform.

The professor walked in at the last minute and took her time opening her binder and setting out her seating chart as the anticipation grew. Everyone knew what was coming.

She looked up at me.

"Ms. Pauken, are you prepared today?"

An expectant hum filled the room as my classmates craned around to see the look on my face.

I grinned and nodded.

"I sure am, Professor M."

"Proceed with the first case."

It was the Meg Pauken Show.

Fifty minutes worth.

She asked; I answered. And answered and answered and answered.

When the bell finally rang, I was completely drained. I let out my breath in a big sigh.

Matt gave me a nod and a smile.


I turned to him.

"Is it too early to drink? Do you think the Barking Spider is open?"

"What the hell? It's Friday. Let's go."

(1) Later, I also discovered that he was a regular renter of pornographic movies from the local video store, Vid-Star. I'd see him on many a Friday night emerging from the curtained back room with a stack of tapes and a big bag of popcorn.

(2) See The Paper Chase, a 1970's era series on PBS or One L, Scott Turow.

(3) Personal experience.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ask. Listen. Call it out.

I've shed a lot of tears lately.

Mostly for the moms.

For the moms of beautiful black boys who have been lost; killed for reasons that can never be fully explained or understood.

For other moms; moms who are my friends, who worry about their own children, but especially their sons, in ways that are quite different than the ways I worry about my children. I worry about my girls' happiness, their friendships, the influence of drugs and alcohol. So do my friends, but they have other worries. They know that their babies will be subjected to scrutiny and judgments that they have not brought upon themselves by any action of their own, but simply because of who they are. Because of how they look. Because of the assumptions and fears of other people. People who don't even know them.

It has never occurred to me to teach my daughters how to act if they are accused of shoplifting or what to do if they are stopped by the police. Other moms do teach their children these things and it leaves me with a sick feeling in my stomach and an ache in my heart. I know their children: smart, funny, kind and sometimes a little sassy, just like my own children. But not blonde-haired and blue-eyed. So, in addition to teaching their children the things all parents must: rules and values, games and academics, they have to teach them how to defend against the indefensible.  While I can safely assume that if my children are accused of a crime, they will be treated fairly, my friends cannot. In the United States of America in 2014, they cannot assume that their children will be treated fairly by law enforcement if they are suspected of a crime, because they are black.  And that is what I must teach my children.

I've cried in frustration and horror because I can't imagine why men who swear oaths to serve and protect reach for their guns first, instead of their tasers or batons; why men who are heavily armed are so afraid and so filled with fury that one shot won't do - it must be six. How are police officer applicants screened? How were they trained? How are they held accountable? How did it come to this - that shooting an unarmed kid was the best choice among the range of possible actions? What is being done to ensure that this does not happen again?

I know that the officer from Ferguson who shot Michael Brown has his own story and a right to due process. I just can't get past the idea that there must have been another choice available to him besides executing a kid who had no weapon.

I have struggled with how to articulate my anger and sadness about the shooting of Michael Brown and the continuing turmoil in Ferguson. I know my feelings pale in comparison to the thoughts and feelings of people who are more directly affected in their daily lives by racism. And then I realized that I am directly affected by racism because its poison corrodes us all.  It tears apart our whole community. It makes us suspicious and distrustful of each other and of law enforcement. It undermines the entire premise of our country: that we are all equal and have equal voices and opportunities. Without that, what are we as a nation and a people?

It's very tempting to remain silent for fear of offending someone or of starting an argument. It is, after all, an unpleasant topic, injustice. We'd like to think we are past all that; we'd like to think that if it exists, it's only in isolated little pockets. It is only by talking about it that we can learn what is really happening on a daily basis to the people around us. And it is happening, make no mistake.

So what can we do?

Ask. Listen. Call it out when you see it.

Don't wait until another mom's child is lying dead in the street.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Improbable Intersections in Life

I stopped using birth control in 1994, I think. Maybe it was 1995. It's hard to remember. We decided to let nature take its course. Except it didn't. Not in the usual way, anyway. After a year  or so of excruciatingly regular periods, I went to my family practitioner and asked her where we should go from here. She suggested an obstetrician she was familiar with, a woman who had done fertility work at Kaiser but was now at the Cleveland Clinic. Great; nothing better than the Cleveland Clinic, right? I made an appointment to see her.

About this time, in late 1996, I was still doing asbestos litigation, but much less of it. I had graduated to other toxic tort, drug and medical device litigation as well as some complex commercial and family law litigation. My firm had been retained to represent three pharmaceutical companies in local DES (diethylstilbestrol) litigation. There were over 100 plaintiffs in this litigation and close to as many defendants. These were the daughters of women who had taken DES during pregnancy. The men in my office were squeamish about the feminine nature of the claims and had a grudging respect for my ability to organize large projects like this one. So it was mine. I had dug into the science and medicine with enthusiasm.

I went to see my new doctor on a sunny fall afternoon. She was bubbly, friendly and full of encouragement. She was not actually in the infertility department at the Clinic, she was in the regular OB-Gyn department, but she had experience in that area, which was good enough for me. She seemed to know what she was doing. I just wanted a baby.  As the 5th of 6 children, I never anticipated that I would have a problem conceiving. I have always been healthy and had never missed a period since I started having them. Mother Nature, it seems, has a cruel sense of humor.

The first thing on Doctor Bailey's agenda was a procedure called an endometrial biopsy. This would determine if the developmental phase of my uterine lining matched the calendar phase of my cycle per my ovulation and menstrual cycle. No woman enjoys a gynecological exam, even with a good doctor or nurse at the helm. It's hard to describe the feeling of a PAP test as it removes cells for examination, but it is kind of like something has crawled way up inside of you and is brushing against a part of your anatomy that does not normally experience contact with such things. It is not painful, but startling. At least it's quick. The endometrial biopsy, on the other hand, requires a tube to go through the cervix, into the uterus and then a small instrument is slid through the tube to pinch off a section or two of the uterine lining which is, at that point, firmly attached. Things are not supposed to go into the cervix, other than microscopic sperm, of course. Things come out of the cervix. Trust me when I say the cervix does not enjoy being invaded in this way. The pinch of the tissue-taking is uncomfortable, but the whole procedure, maybe two minutes in duration, takes your breath away and leaves you feeling a little faint. The sensations are so foreign and unexpected. And then the cervix and uterus cramp afterward to express their feelings about the invasion. I went back to the office afterward, Advil on board. I just wanted a baby.

In my research, I had learned that DES was a synthetic estrogen that was developed in the 1930's. It was prescribed for women with a history of miscarriage and was thought to prevent loss of pregnancy. In one of the great pharmaceutical travesties of history, certain companies began aggressively marketing it as a prophylactic treatment to prevent miscarriage, even in women with no such history. Not surprisingly for the time, it had not been adequately tested. It was was routinely prescribed to pregnant women from approximately 1947 until 1971, when its use for that purpose was banned. It is still used to treat some cancers and possibly other things, but not in women of childbearing age. Since the formula was never patented, scores of pharmaceutical companies manufactured and sold it over varying periods of time and in different geographies.

DES caused signature injuries in the fetuses exposed to it. Females may have abnormally formed genitalia, either or both internal and external, or they may develop a very specific form of cancer. Infertility per se was not generally attributed to DES exposure, except as the malformed anatomy may contribute to it. There were some studies indicating a link to increased incidence of breast cancer. The plaintiffs in our litigation mostly claimed infertility, as they were past the age where the cancer, clear cell adenocarcinoma, would typically manifest. Our job as defense attorneys was to gather facts sufficient to determine first, if exposure to DES could be established and then, if each exposed plaintiff had "signature injuries" and infertility and finally, if so, whether the infertility could be attributed to other causes.

Soon I had a call from Dr. Bailey. She said I had a "luteal phase defect." I understood this to mean that I was not ovulating at the right time in my cycle. The remedy was to try Clomid for six months days or six cycles and then if we weren't successful, we'd try something else. She prescribed 150 milligrams, which I later learned is a pretty hefty dose to start with. I had to calendar my cycle and take the medication at a certain time for a specific number of days: 14, I think.  We also had the fun of charting our sex life. I followed doctors' orders pretty readily at that point, and without a thought, did as she said. Clomid works by stimulating the ovaries to release multiple eggs and the timing of the dosing determines when the eggs will be released - ideally at the time the uterus is ready to welcome them. The side effects are not pleasant: hot flashes, mood swings and the sensation of pulsating orbs the size of grapefruits in the abdomen. Ironically, these symptoms did not serve to increase my libido. Nonetheless we soldiered on because we both wanted a baby.

In the meantime, depositions of the DES plaintiffs had begun. The primary defendants in this litigation were Eli Lilly and Squibb. They hired high profile firms and "hosted" the depositions. They generally had their lawyers lead the questioning of the plaintiffs, with the other lawyers chiming in as needed. We filled the largest boardroom on the 49th floor of Key Tower with suits. There were nearly as many female attorneys in this crowd as there were male.

Preparation for these depositions was time-consuming. Unlike in asbestos litigation, where we usually had only a few pages of records, we often had 6 or 8 inches of medical records related to each plaintiff. Unless you read (and understood!) the contents, you would not know what questions to ask.  It was fascinating reading and I am an over-preparer by nature, so I was very familiar with the medical history of each woman as we proceeded. But these weren't just general medical histories: these were gynecological and obstetric medical histories. The most personal of personal information. At their depositions, each woman faced twenty or more suited lawyers who already knew all about her: her weight, how often she and her husband had sex, which sexually transmitted diseases she may have had. If she had had an abortion. The things you would tell your doctor if you wanted to have a baby.

180 days and six cycles later, I was not pregnant. Not even a little. I had started the habit of peeing on a stick at day 28 if I hadn't started bleeding yet, "just to make sure." Nope; never a second line; not even a hazy "maybe." Dr. Bailey informed me that it was Cleveland Clinic policy that only the doctors in the infertility department could do the more extensive testing and treatment that I would require. She referred me to  another physician whose name escapes me. She was young,  Indian and very pretty. And very, very cold. When I met with her, she was furious that Dr. Bailey had done as much as she had without referring me to the infertility group. She seemed to think that I was complicit in this breach of professional etiquette. I don't recall much of our first meeting, other than her insistence that Hombre appear for purposes of producing a "sample" and that I undergo another procedure called a hysterosalpingogram (HSG for short). I knew what this was, thanks to my recent research, and made the appointment without hesitation. After all, we just wanted a baby.

Hombre went down to the Clinic to do his duty one afternoon. He reported that he was handed a dog-eared copy of an old Hustler magazine and a cup and shown to a tiny room with a questionable lock on the door. He did his duty admirably, if the lab results are any indicator. Hardly the stuff of erotic fantasy, but then again, neither was the HSG.

An HSG is essentially an x-ray of the pelvis, with a dye shot up through the cervix, the uterus and through the fallopian tubes so that any obstructions or abnormalities could be detected. Dr. Chilly said it would be "mildly uncomfortable." Having survived the first endometrial biopsy, I was sure it couldn't be that bad. I was blissfully unaware of what lay in store.

After donning a hospital gown I was led to the radiology suite, which was the temperature of a walk-in meat locker. I was told to lie on the stainless steel table while the dye was injected. Then I was treated to several cushions under my tush (welcome warmth, indeed) while we waited for the dye to spread into my anatomy. Remember how the cervix wasn't so fond of intrusions? Well, six months later, it still wasn't. Neither were the other pieces and parts that came into contact with the dye. Nobody liked it. And I had to lie perfectly still. After what seemed like hours, the imaging was performed, but I still had to stay put until Dr. Chilly reviewed the pictures, just in case more were needed.

She came into the room for the first time that day, as I lay shivering on the table.

"Everything looks normal. I'll set you up for a series of three intra-uterine inseminations and 75 milligrams of Clomid for the next three months. See my scheduler before you leave."

She turned to leave.

Because of my research, I knew that what she planned to do was have Hombre "produce", inject the washed and condensed sperm into my uterus herself, while I took still more Clomid to time my ovulation to her schedule. If I weren't in the line of work I was currently in, I'd likely have had no idea what she was talking about.

"Wait. Dr. Chilly. I have a question. If everything looks normal, why do I have to have inseminations?"

She looked over her shoulder, not even turning fully around.

"Because that is our protocol. That is how we proceed here. If you want to be treated here. Our success rate is very high."

What a fucking bitch.

Intense cramps gripped me as the dye began to leak out, improbably cold.

A single tear ran down each side of my face, into my ears. A nurse appeared with a towel and helped me sit up.

"Are you okay? This test hurts like hell, doesn't it?"

And that's not all that hurts like hell.

I nodded, unable to speak.

"Here is a pad if you don't have one. You should take it easy the rest of the day and take some Advil or ibuprofen for the cramping. If you have any bleeding or a reaction to the dye, call right away, okay?"

She patted my shoulder.

I got up, shaking from the cold, and went to dress. Hombre was waiting for me.

"How'd it go?"

"It sucked. My tubes are fine, but she wants to put me back on Clomid and do IUI."

"I'll do what ever you want."

"Let's think it over. I really don't like that doctor. But the Clinic is supposed to be the best. I don't know what I want."

I had read some recent research linking Clomid to ovarian cancer. I didn't really want to take it unless it was absolutely necessary. I couldn't understand why, if my anatomy was normal, there was a need for IUI unless they just wanted the fees. None of it made any sense. And that doctor.

I'd read enough medical records and done enough research to know what lay ahead. If IUI with "own sperm" did not work, and I couldn't really understand why it would, when there were no physical issues preventing the magic from happening, then we were likely looking at in vitro: with its associated costs, pain, inconvenience and low overall success rate.

I was a pro at distracting myself with work when personal issues were just too heavy. We were well into spring and with it, two-a-day depositions. One of the lead firms had hired a young (supposed) hot-shot who was now leading many of the depositions. He was Malibu Ken-looking and about as bright. How this guy ended up where he landed, I have no idea. His skills were so poor, his questioning so random and ineffective, I had taken to sitting next to him and taking over immediately as soon as he finished (unless one of my equally over-prepared compadres did so), before the plaintiff was subjected to a roomful of lawyers asking onesie-twosie questions. I could cover everything pretty succinctly and often there were no other questions from the cabal. It seemed to work pretty well until one particular day.

Malibu Ken: "So, after your last appointment with Dr. _____, you were supposed to see him again in six weeks, isn't that right?"

Plaintiff: "Yes."

"It says right here in the records, 'Appointment cancelled.' Do you see that?"


"Now, if you were trying to get pregnant, why would you cancel the appointment?"

"Because I got my period."

"I don't understand."

"I was supposed to go back for a special pregnancy test, but I got my period."

"So you weren't pregnant?"


"So it was kind of like when you take your car to the mechanic and then the noise it was making totally disappears when you get there, huh?"

Her face melted. She looked down.

"Yeah. I guess," she mumbled.

"You'll have to speak up so the court reporter can get what you are saying."

Her attorney appeared to be napping.

I exchanged glances with several of the other defense attorneys.

I stood and put my hand on Malibu Ken's notes.

"We need to take a break, Mike," I spoke directly to the plaintiffs' attorney, "is that okay with you?"

"Sure. Whatever."

Malibu Ken looked confused.

"What are you doing?"

"Get out here."

I went into a nearby, small conference room, followed by a squadron of defense attorneys and Malibu Ken.

"What? What's wrong?"

I was on fire.

"I will explain this only once, you idiot. At no time is a woman's body like a car. Do you understand?  You will not talk to her like that. That was totally inappropriate."

His face reddened beneath the tan.

"I was just trying to add some humor to the situation."

"There is no humor in this situation. Someone else needs to finish the deposition after you apologize to that woman."

He stood up a little straighter. Technically, I suppose he "outranked" me. He was a more senior attorney at a prestigious firm, by whatever means he got there.

We glared at each other.

Another attorney spoke.

"I agree with Meg."

"So do I.

"So do I.'

And so on.

I exhaled.

Malibu Ken didn't attend any more depositions after that.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Some Clients

Some clients you never forget.

As a family law attorney, I was party to some of the most painful times in the lives of my clients. Times that brought out sides of themselves I'm sure they were not proud of. Some were remarkably centered and classy through it all, most others: not so much. There was an expected range of behavior from unreasonableness to psychosis and all manner of fluctuations in between.

And then there was Mrs. A.

I think she was in her late 40's when she first came to see me. She was petite and pretty and the mother of 9. Conservative and a bit prim. Sincerely, genuinely Christian in the best possible way. She had married her high school sweetheart soon after graduation and worked while having babies, in order to put him through undergraduate and masters degree programs. She hadn't worked outside the home since then.

Her husband had recently abandoned the family for another woman. He was also Christian, ostentatiously so. So much so, that he refused to file for divorce. Instead he tried to manipulate her into filing first by refusing to provide any financial support whatsoever to the family until she did. He told her he had already seen a lawyer and that was the way it had to be.

"He is very smart. He always gets his way," she said. "Always."

She was shaking when she told me about the situation and nauseated by the certainty that she would have to violate her religious convictions and her marriage vows in order to take care of her children. Groceries were low and there were cut-off notices from the utility companies.

During that first meeting, I got all the details about the marriage, their assets, debts, income and  children. All of the data I needed to get started, along with the backstory of their lives. She went through a box and a half of tissues during that hour.

When all of my questions had been answered, I asked her,

"How would it feel to give him a little kick in the nuts?"

She looked startled and then laughed. "Pretty good, I think."

"You don't have to file for divorce to get support from him."

"I don't?"

"Nope. We can file for a legal separation, which does not violate your vows. We can restrain all of his bank accounts and put the squeeze on him for change, which should get his attention. If you can stay here for about an hour so we can get the papers prepared and signed,  we can walk it through to the judge for signature today. How does that sound to you?"

She beamed.

"Really? We can do that?"

"We can."

She swallowed. "Let's do it, then."

While my secretary completed the various pleadings to be filed, Mrs. A and I talked. She loved that I was working while visibly pregnant. I reassured her that while I knew she did not want this divorce, I had a gut feeling that by the time it was all over, she would discover that she was stronger and smarter than she ever thought. I don't think she really believed me, but she nodded.

We walked the four blocks to the clerk of courts, filed our paperwork and then walked to the domestic relations court to get a judge's signature on the temporary restraining orders. I had them served the same day by a private process server.

The very next day, I had an irate phone call from his lawyer, sputtering that Mr. A "could not function." We had tied up all of his accounts.

My heart bled for him.

I explained that we would be happy to release the restraining orders once we had an agreed support order in place along with a lump-sum payment to take care of current outstanding bills. In fact, I had an agreed judgment entry already drafted that I could fax right over.

After much back and forth, the attorneys worked it out.

When I called Mrs. A to let her know I had a check for her she was silent. Then, after a long pause she said,

"You did it. You outfoxed him. I never thought it could be done."

The remainder of the case dragged out over many months, but as clients go, Mrs. A was very low maintenance. She was not one of the "Monday Morning Tattlers," who called with a full report of each weekend's goings-on. She never quibbled about his time with the children or complained that he picked them up or returned them late. I learned more about his bad behavior from his own attorney than from her.

Instead, I'd get voicemails, left after hours so she wouldn't incur the cost of a conversation with me:

"I got a job!"

"I found a house we can rent!"

"My boss is giving me a promotion, can you believe it?"

When her case was finally over, the divorce granted upon his request and all of the final orders in place, she hugged me.

"You know what you told me at that first meeting? About how I would be glad this happened when it was all said and done? You were right. I didn't want this. I still don't, but I know I am strong enough to handle anything now. I am doing things I never, ever thought I could. Thank you."

Thoroughly humbled, I just nodded.

Some clients make you a better lawyer and others make you a better person.

It goes without saying that I have altered facts and the details of conversations to protect my client's confidences. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


One of the first cases I handled on my own as a new lawyer was a lawsuit between adjacent property owners. The word "neighbor" could not be used to describe their situation.

My clients lived out in the country on about 25 acres. They leased 20 acres of their land to a farmer, who accessed the portion he leased and farmed via a dirt road. The access road ran along, but very near, the outside edge of my clients' land. The owner of the adjacent property sued to prevent my clients and their lessee (the farmer) from using the road, such as it was, because it would interfere with their septic system which ran under the tract and on my clients' property. They claimed ownership of that portion of the property in which their septic system was located by a legal concept known as adverse possession.

I was nearly a year out of law school. Adverse possession is covered in depth in first year Real Property Law and is a popular topic for essay questions on the bar exam.  Since the majority of the cases referenced in the textbooks largely dated from previous centuries, I never dreamed I'd actually have to litigate one. Nonetheless, when I met with my new clients for the first time and reviewed the complaint with which they had been served, I was able to recite the requirements from memory: "open, obvious and exclusive possession of the property, adverse to the owners' interests, for a period of at least 21 years."

They were impressed with my knowledge. I was flabbergasted that I actually had a live adverse possession case.  I crafted a counterclaim for trespass and we were off to an auspicious beginning. I visited their farm and took pictures. I researched the law. I reviewed the allegations with my clients at length. I even interviewed someone at the health department to learn about septic systems.

It was quite clear to me, based upon the facts, that adverse possession simply couldn't be proven in this instance. Unfortunately, the plaintiffs and their lawyer had obtained a temporary restraining order, preventing my clients from clearing and using the roadway and it was spring planting season. Their farmer tenant was getting anxious. I'd need to get that set aside as soon as possible or my clients would lose their lease income.

The day for the first appearance arrived, warm and sunny. My clients met me at my office and we walked the two blocks to the courthouse for a hearing on the temporary restraining order. I was, shall we say, over-prepared. I had a binder tabbed with sections for each witness, copies of exhibits, outlines of questions and copies of all of the relevant case law. It might have been a capital murder case as far as I was concerned. Not yet a year beyond the bar exam, I knew the rules of evidence and civil procedure backwards and forwards, inside and out.

Once we arrived at the courthouse, a crumbling 1880's Gothic Victorian on the town square, I checked in with the judge's bailiff to let him know we were ready. My clients pointed out our adversaries, sitting on a nearby bench in the hallway. I had tried to contact the opposing attorney to discuss resolving the case, but he never returned my calls, so I had yet to meet him.  I approached him now, easily identifiable as the only other person in a suit, and extended my hand in greeting.

"Hi. I'm Meg Pauken. I represent Mr. and Mrs. X."

He looked me up and down with raised eyebrows and exaggerated movements as if I were a sideshow freak. This took effort on his part since I was easily 6 inches taller than he was, without my 3 inch heels.

"I'll see you inside, counselor," he oozed, not even looking me in the eye.

With that, he turned back toward his clients as if I were not there.

Someone had made a very grave error in judgement that day.

The bailiff invited the attorneys to come into the judge's chambers prior to the hearing. The judge, a well-respected and fair-minded man, turned to us and asked if we had discussed settlement.

"No, Your Honor, we have received no offers of settlement," I replied.

He turned to the plaintiffs' attorney, "Why not? Is there any possibility this can be resolved by agreement?"

"Certainly. I have a deed drafted and if her clients will just sign over the property my clients have already acquired by adverse possession, we can be done and we won't need to waste your time with a hearing."

"Your honor, this is the first I have heard his offer, but I can't recommend it to my clients given the facts and the law. If he has any other ideas, I'd be happy to listen."

"No. That is all we are prepared to discuss," he said smugly.

"Can we at least resolve the temporary restraining order?" the judge asked.

"I don't see how," my opponent barked, "since she is so unreasonable. I am sorry we have to take up the court's time, Your Honor."

"Well, then, let's get on with it, counselors," he said as he rose.

The case was called and we entered the courtroom. I unpacked my binders and rule book onto the counsel table reserved for the defense and seated my clients alongside me. I had not done this on my own before and I was a bit nervous, but more than that I was just pissed. I had experienced condescending behavior from older attorneys before and I was determined that this time it would not continue.

Little Napoleon put the Mister of his clients on the stand and went through questions designed to show that they would be "irreparably damaged" if my folks used the dirt road and that they had established the elements of adverse possession of the property.

I objected to leading questions, irrelevant questions and questions that elicited hearsay.



"Sustained, again. Counselor, you might want to rephrase your questions."

Someone was getting rattled.

It was harder to tell whose face was redder, Little Napoleon's or his client's. Until I started my cross-examination. At that point Little Napoleon's face turned purple.

It seems his clients had failed to tell him a few things, things backed up by photographs and letters, things that completely undermined his entire case. Whoopsie.

When I was finished with the Mister, the judge asked Little Napoleon if he had any other witnesses.

"Not at this time, but I'd like a recess to call a couple of others, Your Honor," he asked, in a nonchalant voice that suggested he expected this request to go unchallenged.

"Your Honor, I have to ask you to deny that request. My clients are being greatly harmed by the temporary restraining order currently in place. Time is of the essence since it is spring planting season and the plaintiff should have been prepared to prove his case today. Additionally, Your Honor, I would like to make a motion to dismiss his entire case since, based upon his own client's testimony, there is no way he can prove the elements of adverse possession no matter who else he calls as a witness."

Someone was now apoplectic.

"She has a point, you know. I don't think you can make your case based on what I have heard. Are you prepared to argue the legal elements?" The judge looked us both over.

Little Napoleon swallowed hard, his Adam's apple barely visible in what must have once been a wrestler's neck.

"Your Honor, I have a brief already prepared that I can submit, but I would be happy to summarize the state of the law in Ohio right now, if that would be helpful," I said.

Little Napoleon rolled his eyes.

The judge looked at him pointedly.

"I am going to deny Plaintiffs' request for a recess. Proceed."

"Well, I guess we are being forced to rest, your Honor."

"Miss Pauken? Are you ready to proceed?"

"Your Honor, I would like to renew my motion to dismiss."

I made a brief argument to the court describing the law of adverse possession and pointing out the lack of facts to support the claims made by the Plaintiffs. At the end of my argument, the Plaintiffs' attorney argued something, but I am not sure what, exactly, because the adrenaline in my system was causing a roar in my ears that made actually listening to him nearly impossible.

"Motion granted. Case dismissed."

Holy shit. I just won.

"Excuse me, Your Honor, you do realize we have a counter-claim for trespass that remains?" I asked.

"You do?" He shuffled through his file. "Of course. Bailiff, set the remaining claim for a pretrial in two weeks."

The judge stood and then exited the courtroom.

I was shaking. What had just happened? I returned to the counsel table and packed up my things. I very quietly told my clients we would discuss our next steps back at the office.

Bulging briefcase at my side, I approached my opponent and once again extended my hand with a smile.

"Mr. _____, I guess I'll be seeing you again in a couple of weeks."

Once again, he refused to return the courtesy.

"You know what you are? You are nothing but a barracuda," he hissed at me before spinning around to follow his clients out of the courtroom.

And now I had my personal theme song.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Old Men Talking

Early on in my legal career, I did time, significant time, in the trenches known as "Asbestos Litigation". This litigation was HUGE. Thousands upon thousands of cases occurred simultaneously all over the country.

Back then, I worked for a defense firm that represented a couple of manufacturers of asbestos products.  My job (among many others) was to attend the depositions of workers making claims against the companies we represented.  I asked them questions and tried to get them to commit under oath that their exposure was limited to certain places and times and to specific types of asbestos products, with the goal of excluding our clients from liability. I was good at it; good at establishing rapport and getting them to open up and give descriptive answers to my questions.

As a tiny cog in the machinery of this industry-spawned industry, I sat, day after day, in conference rooms with ten or fifteen other lawyers, a court reporter and the plaintiff in exotic locations like Parkersburg, West Virginia and Canton, Ohio.

The plaintiff was usually a man in his 70's or 80's, most often in a flannel shirt neatly tucked into jeans or khaki pants; sometimes in a suit; nearly always visibly nervous. Many were attached to oxygen tanks. They universally removed their caps upon entering the room, with hands that were callused from years of real work.

During his deposition, each man answered questions under oath about his work history, health history and social habits. Generally one lawyer took the lead and then each lawyer would be given an opportunity to ask questions pertinent to his or her client. The plaintiff's own lawyer was present and would occasionally interject with an objection to a question or request for a break. Each deposition lasted nearly a full day.

The rules of this game were well-known to the regular players, but not to the plaintiffs. They all seemed surprised by the collegiality amongst the lawyers and the ease with which we rattled off our questions. They may not have realized we did this every day, for months on end.

The majority of these men had worked out of union halls and were sent to jobs all over the region. Two weeks here, two months there. Many of them had small, battered notebooks in which they had kept track of their jobs over a lifetime of work. Lines of old-fashioned script in different inks covered the pages, along with various smudges, smears and blotches of coffee.

They were pipe fitters, bricklayers, carpenters and laborers. There was a definite hierarchy among them in the real world, but within the confines of a usually windowless conference room, each man was, for perhaps the first time ever, the most important person in the room. Highly educated and well-paid lawyers by the score listened, raptly, as they told their stories. Heroic stories about industrial accidents that nearly killed them, about handling toxic materials with no protection whatsoever, about strikes and labor disputes, about reporting to the union hall each morning hoping for an assignment.

They described their work, adding excruciating levels of detail when asked, baffled that with all of our education, we didn't understand the process of mixing mortar or fitting steam pipes. They would shake their heads in pity at our incomprehensible ignorance, not realizing that our questions were traps we might catch them in later.

I was often the only female in the room other than the court reporter. Most of the lawyers were young men who felt the need to preen before the crowd and were (in my opinion) unnecessarily harsh in their questioning. I usually waited to be the last one to ask my questions rather than join in their jockeying for position.

I know I wasn't supposed to, but I really liked the majority of these gentlemen. Because that's what they were. Not all, but most. I looked them in the eye when they answered, scribbling my notes between questions. I tried hard to keep it friendly and conversational.

They tried hard to maintain their dignity.

"Sexual relations with my wife? That's none of your goddamn business!"

And they were honest.

"Yes, ma'am, I did smoke cigarettes. I was about 12 when I started and I never should have. We didn't know any better back then."

"I smoked Lucky Strikes. No filter."

"No, ma'am, I never did ask for a dust mask to wear. There wasn't none around and we had a job to do. You didn't cause problems if you wanted regular work and I had a family and all."

They built power plants along the Ohio River; factories in Cleveland, Parkersburg and Charleston; hospitals, schools and bridges. Structures we rely upon to this day. They got sick doing it and now were forced to sue for compensation for their injuries. Injuries that were indisputably caused by asbestos, asbestos they couldn't have encountered in their personal lives. Injuries that took away the retirement that they most definitely earned.

These men had lived hard lives and it showed in their red-rimmed eyes, their lined faces and their shaking hands. Yet they didn't complain; not really. They let the medical records speak for themselves. What they did was tell their stories; stories about life as they knew it and lived it. And as far as they were concerned, it had been a good life. They made good money on those union jobs; supported families and proudly spoke of sending kids to college.

When it was all done, all the questions asked and answered, I thanked them. I thanked them for telling us their stories and giving us an opportunity to hear from them directly. I extended my hand to shake theirs. Most often, I received a handshake and a nod in return.

The other lawyers ribbed me about that after the plaintiff and his lawyer left the room.

"Why are you thanking them? They are the ones suing us!"

"Because they are human beings, that's why, you ass."

And then I would escape to my car, feeling sick to my stomach, tears escaping down my cheeks, before collecting myself and driving off to prepare for the next day's stories.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Pressing the Reset Button

I hate New Year's resolutions. I quit making them a number of years ago. It seemed so contrived to accept an arbitrary date as the reason to make changes in my life, today.

New Year's is to exercise equipment, gym memberships and weight-loss shakes as Valentine's Day is to chocolate, flowers and lingerie. Is their proximity in time coincidental? I think not. By mid-February all those who were shamed into starvation diets and self-flagellation-by-treadmill are ready for some comfort, and for good reason.

I understand the need to review and to plan; to set goals and deadlines. I have attended Franklin Covey workshops and I enjoyed them. Nothing makes my heart sing like fresh office supplies and filling in a blank calendar. However, I bristle at anyone suggesting that a particular date is better than any other on which to launch oneself into a new habit. The Muse strikes when she will, calendar be damned!

I am usually struck by the Personal Annual Review Muse near my birthday. I think about my favorite moments from the previous year; what I'd like to do more of; what is no longer serving me. The Goal Setting Muse tends to inspire me as the seasons change.

Last winter, I started practicing yoga again after a lengthy hiatus. I was thinking a lot about my upcoming milestone birthday and reflecting about the kind of life I wanted to be living. I was able to shift my internal dialogue a bit, away from shaming towards loving.

Despite my good intentions, I was sidetracked by knee pain, general busyness and oh, buying, selling and renovating a house or two. Little things. Nothing very time consuming.

Instead of berating myself for "failing" once again to stick with fitness, I did a very yogi-like thing: I let those thoughts pass by with the certainty that delay was, in this instance, not equivalent to failure. I knew my mind had shifted and that I'd pick it back up once things settled down a bit.

It took until mid-September, but once the girls headed back to school and the kitchen renovation noise became intolerable, I started going to the YMCA. I had investigated some fancier gyms, but they were just too much: overwhelming in every possible way.

My weight had climbed to my highest ever non-pregnant level, but it wasn't about the number on the scale. When we moved last summer, I realized how weak I had become - I couldn't lift and move boxes like I used to do. That bothered me much more than my weight. There were things I wanted to do - canoeing, gardening, cycling - and my out-of-shape-ness was holding me back.

The first time I went, it was with both girls.They were required to have an "orientation", so I went off in another direction while they worked with a member of the staff. I was ready to get started. Surprisingly, it felt good. It felt good to push myself and sweat and see what I was capable of.

The very next day, I went back, this time with Hombre. Again, it felt good. I went back the next day, and the next and the next and the next.

I did my own thing. I found a machine that I really liked - sort of an elliptical, but more like running in its movement. (I think it's called an AMT?) I started tracking my distance and calories burned. I added weight training; one day upper body, the next day, lower body; every day abs and back. Then I tried the rowing machine and I liked it, too. I listened to Pandora on my iPod, bouncing along to Katy Perry, P!nk and Alanis Morrisette. Sometimes I ran on the treadmill. I started to see familiar faces who smiled and nodded as they, too, went about their own routines.

As I gained momentum, something flipped inside my psyche. I stopped looking at exercise as my punishment for being fat and I started seeing it as something I was doing FOR myself, not TO myself.  I loved seeing my muscles develop. I noticed changes in the way my clothes fit. I ran farther and farther (without going anywhere) and lifted more and more weight. I started to think about signing up for a 5k, when Hombre pointed out to me that I was already running farther than that every day. 

Suddenly, I had all kinds of energy. I was bouncing off the walls, singing, dancing and I was so very full of joy. I felt like the me I used to be. I talked to my doctor and put in place a plan to taper off of the antidepressant I had started taking way back in 2002 for postpartum depression. (I had tried to stop a couple of times before, unsuccessfully.)

Along the way, something else happened: I brought sexy back.
(Apologies to Justin Timberlake.)

That was probably the most surprising part of my transformation: I started feeling sexy again. I bought a few new pieces of clothing with a bit of va-va-va-voom. I liked what I saw in the mirror. I was no longer embarrassed about the view afforded to the men on stationary bikes behind me as I ran.   I began to actually believe the compliments Hombre (has always) heaped upon me. I was not thin, but I felt sexy.

By my 50th birthday in late November, I had lost a little more than twenty pounds, but more than that, I lost the self-consciousness and self-hatred I have carried around, well-hidden, since before I was even a teenager. Somehow I was able to press the reset button and reboot my self-esteem.

When our house caught fire in early January, my routine was thrown off. We have been relying on prepared foods and restaurants meals too much. I haven't been to the YMCA since January 10th because our hotel is about 45 minutes away from it. There has been "stress snacking."

What I have not done is succumb to the "all or nothing" thinking in which I used to engage. Before, I was either on plan or off plan; 100% successful or a rank failure. Now I am more patient. I have squeezed in workouts in the hotel fitness room whenever I have been able. I have been going to yoga classes regularly, since the studio is more convenient than the YMCA. I'm trying to make the best choices I can from the options before me, knowing that my health is a long-term, big-picture process and our current situation is just a curve in the road. (Mix metaphors much?)

I'm not worried about backsliding, because I am different now: reset, rebooted and delightfully mid-century modern.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

No Reason

It has become ritual among many to state with certainty every time a curve ball is thrown or a stick is thrust into the spokes of one's wheel,

"Everything happens for a reason."

I don't. I don't say it and I don't believe it. If I believed it, I would have to believe that someone or something was pulling the strings of my life. Someone other than me. And I don't believe that. I don't believe that life is like The Hunger Games, with a games master planting obstacles for me to surmount. I see life as a melange of (primarily) the results of our own choices and intentions, seasoned with a sprinkle of other folks' actions and swirled with a healthy dollop of randomness.

I understand the desire to seek meaning out of tragedy and I am not offended when my wonderful and caring friends and family tell me, "Everything happens for a reason." I recognize their love and concern and gratefully accept it, even if I don't share their philosophy. I don't think I am superior in my approach, it's just that the notion of a life manipulated by some "other" has little meaning for me. It brings me no peace to believe that there is a god somewhere who throws hurricanes and blizzards around so that we can all learn a lesson. I take no comfort in searching for the greater good behind a friend's death from cancer.

For me, the meaning that comes from these events is in how we react and what we learn from them. And that can't be determined before the event takes place, only after, sometimes long after. Accepting that life has a randomness and refusing to allow that randomness to embitter oneself, THAT is the reason for those tragic things that happen.

So here I sit, at Panera, typing away on my laptop after the house fire. We had smoke detectors with working batteries that awoke us in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We had the furnace inspected, filters changed, duct work cleaned. We left no candles burning nor unattended pots on the stove top. We used only licensed electricians for work on the house since we bought it. We had a home inspection before we purchased it last May. There was no reason that this fire happened. None. It was random. Of course, there was a cause, but nothing we did that could have prevented it.

Which is not to say that we cannot learn from this. We will learn humility, by accepting offers of help. We will learn gratitude, by remembering that what is truly important was not destroyed. We will learn resilience, by hanging on tightly to each other as we navigate the next few uncertain weeks. We will practice compassion and humor and love.

We will accept that there are things outside our control and we will live fearlessly in spite of that.