Saturday, January 27, 2007

Memories Are Made Of This

Before entering law school I asked a seasoned lawyer who was a family friend for advice about how to succeed in law school. “Sharpen your memory,” he advised. “It’s all about memory.” True, that, and as far as I can remember, a few other things. That was forty-seven years ago. I thought that with over four decades of practice I would have the memory thing down. I'm not so sure. At a bar function a lawyer will come up and talk about a case he or she argued in front of me, God knows when. He or she will either apologize for a gaffe, or boast about a win, and I don’t have the foggiest recollection of the case or the lawyer. I can usually get by with a smile and a nod.
When caught in a memory lapse, I usually rely on a dictum of the late Judge Jerry Pacht. “For every case name or statute I remember, I forget a line of poetry.” That usually blunts criticism of my forgetfulness.
But however one’s memory may lapse or play tricks, there are certain events in one's past that are permanently etched in one's brain. I remember vividly Dean Prosser decapitating a student sitting next to me in my torts class. Prosser’s words encased in a trick question (they were all trick questions), flew threw the air like razor sharp blades, followed by others in succession that cleanly sliced through the student’s neck so that his head teetered, then dropped silently in his lap. At the end of the class I remember him carrying his head under his arm. I leaned down and asked him how it felt. “Don’t ask,” he said. By the end of the semester he had learned to answer Prosser's questions correctly and with alacrity. I recall the Dean commenting that the student had finally screwed his head back on.
And I have vivid memories of my jury duty stint some thirteen years ago which inspired my Daily Journal column entitled, "We Will Thank and Excuse Juror No. 4" (Daily Journal March 9, 1994). That was an experience hard to forget when you are Juror No. 4. An article in the Daily Journal October 23, 2006, about lawyer Tom Rubin, who also does stand-up comedy, reminded me that Tom and I met during that time when he was also on jury duty. Tom witnessed my down cast mien as I ignominiously shuffled out of the jury box. He cracked some jokes about it, which I bet he uses in his act. I think I can be excused for not remembering the punch lines.
The foregoing incidents I remember with crystal clarity, but lately my self-confidence is shaken. Because of two recent incidents I feel like the protagonist in the movie, Memento. This has caused me to question how reliable are witnesses' memories when relating past events.
About ten years ago our traveling judge educator and good will ambassador, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Judy Chirlin, and I taught a week-long course to Serbian Judges at a judicial institute in Prague. At a cocktail reception the Czech government gave in our honor, I met an elegant lady from one of the cultural ministries. We spent some time conversing about her work, her children and her husband also worked in government.
Several years later, I attended a concert featuring the Schulhoff String Quartet from Prague in which my close friend’s son in law, Jonas Krejci, played the cello. Who was sitting next to me?--the lady from the cultural ministry I met years earlier- - or so I thought. She was charming and elegant, just as she had been when we met in Prague. I recalled our meeting but she asserted with certainty, tempered by tact, that we had never met. She protested that she was not in Prague when I was there. "We couldn’t have met," she said, and gently squeezing my arm insisted that if we had met she would definitely have remembered me. That little white lie did nothing to ease my apprehension. Was I losing my mind? I remember her so distinctly and yet she insisted we never met. Our faces were locked in mutual smiles, only mine was through clenched teeth. My friends who witnessed the exchange were also smiling. How could I explain this was no smiling matter?
It was so frustrating. There we were, two people with different memories of something that did or did not happen, and there was no one to help resolve the issue. I suddenly knew how frustrating it must be to a witness facing a skeptical fact finder in a trial. Here I was, a witness with a story contradicted by another witness. Yet, I believe my friends who heard the exchange between us found me sincere, but not credible.
Another incident came up a few months ago which left me in a similar quandary. I write about it in the hope that some reader of this column may shed light on the facts which I now relate. Interestingly enough, the event like the preceding one, involves music.
Let’s go back to law school in Berkeley where I was honing my memory skills. The year was 1960, maybe 1961. Please dear reader, do not draw hasty inferences. The exact year is not necessary to the story. At various times during that period, one of three wonderful pianists of the 20th Century each gave concerts at the Harmon gym. The first was Rudolph Serkin. A friend of mine, Adrian Ruiz, had studied with him at the Curtis Institute. To impress my date, I had the temerity to take her back stage at intermission to meet Serkin. I gained entry by stating I had a message from Adrian Ruiz who in fact I had not seen for a few years. Serkin graciously ushered us into his makeshift dressing room and warmly shook my hand. I told him Adrian sends his regards and he thanked me for stopping by. I don’t remember my date’s name and Rudolph Serkin passed on years ago, passing the mantle to his immensely talented son Peter. I have no way of proving the back stage meeting occurred, but under most circumstances I would not have to. Most people would be inclined to accept the truth of this unremarkable story.
But the two other concerts left me wondering about a noteworthy incident that occurred at one of those concerts. The pianists were Sviatoslav Richter and Glenn Gould. I attended the two concerts with a dear friend, let's call her Dee. We have recently renewed our acquaintance and in reminiscing about the past, we have similar recollections about what happened at one of those concerts. We disagree, however, at which concert the incident occurred.
This is what happened. The pianist strode onto to the stage, held his tails behind him as he sat down at the piano bench. He contemplated the keys for a few seconds and then threw himself into a Haydn Piano Sonata. After about 10 seconds he abruptly stopped and began inspecting parts of the Steinway. The audience was silent. Not a sound could be heard other than the creak of the piano bench as the pianist shifted his weight and looked intently at the piano, for what? the source of a vibration? a squeak? Suddenly he tore from the piano a strip of wood just below the keyboard that ran the length of the keyboard. He dropped the board which hit the floor with a clatter. Not a peep from the audience. He began playing the Haydn piece again. After a few seconds he stopped and renewed his search. This time he stood up and peered into the area of the sounding board. His tails were draped over the piano bench, his tall frame bent at a 45 degree angle from his waist so that he looked like a praying mantis. He found something in the interior of the piano which he flung across the stage. A sound like an active beehive buzzed throughout the gym.
For the third time the pianist again began the Haydn piece. And again he stopped after 3 or 4 seconds. This time he slid the music stand off the top of the piano and threw the unwieldy thing which hit the floor with a jarring bang. I, along with the audience, broke into spontaneous applause. Some cheered. I was in whole hearted agreement with Dee who suggested that demolishing the piano could seriously hamper completion of the concert. But the remainder of the concert went on without incident and the pianist received a 10 minute standing ovation at the conclusion of his encore.
So which pianist tore the instrument apart? In my mind there is no question. It was Richter. Dee insists it was Gould. She appears to rely on logic to support her point. "You know how eccentric Gould is," she said with a tone of admonishment. She is right that Gould is eccentric. In fact during his concert, he sang loudly while playing and conducted himself whenever he had a free hand. But I clearly remember that, unlike Richter, he had the music in front of him. It was pasted on large pieces of cardboard stacked on the music stand. He dropped each piece of cardboard noiselessly on the floor as the concert progressed. I reminded Dee that it could not be Gould, because Richter had thrown the music stand on the floor. She found my point unconvincing.
I approach this dispute like I would a case. Of course I would like to be right, but I am more interested in getting the right answer. That is the responsibility of any good judge. Dee said I would be hard pressed to prove which one of us was right. I tried the internet and old newspaper reviews and had no success. But a few weeks ago I was relating the story to a friend, Joan Booke, and she reminded me that she had attended Berkeley in the 60's and was present at the concert where the piano was torn apart. She remembered exactly what happened, because as she pointed out, one does not forget such a unique experience. Could she be mistaken about which of the two pianists abused the Steinway? It is unlikely because she attended only one of the two concerts. I will tell you which concert Joan attended, but I must withhold that information for another column.
Although I take comfort in getting close to the truth, I yearn for something even closer than a near certainty. I would like some corroboration. If anyone reading this column has attended one of those concerts of which I speak, and can provide information leading to the identity of the irate pianist, please contact me at your earliest convenience. He or she will receive honorable mention in a future column, and I will make a contribution to legal aid.
There is comfort in getting close to the truth, what we strive for in our trials. In the meantime, I have been relaxing and listening to Dick Hyman's rendition of a wonderful song by the late Eubie Blake. It's called "Memories of You."