Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Hooked on Language

On commercial television, you cannot use “foul” language in dialog or in the title of a show. I suppose that is why the new comedy series on CBS is entitled "$#*! My Dad Says." The symbols "symbolize" "forbidden" or "offensive" language. If we peel back the symbols, what word or words do you think will be revealed? Will we be repelled by some horrifically repugnant language, or undisturbed by an innocuous phrase like “horseshit,” or the more popular “bullshit”? But it could be something a little more risqué. I read in the New York Times last week that the geniuses at CBS had not taken into account that scads of viewers with DVR’s could not prerecord the series because many DVR’s do not recognize symbols. This oversight skewed their ratings. Apprehension over language can lose or make money.

Maybe that is what drives the effort in some quarters to mask language. Everyone, well at least most everyone I know, uses a racy word now and then, a word that could offend someone’s sensibilities. Perhaps rules that censor language on television and radio are helpful to sponsors who do not want to offend the viewers they coax to buy their products. Shows on noncommercial television, like HBO, for example, have dialog and scenes that would make Howard Stern blush.

But judges can write opinions filled with vile epithets and boorish obscenities, uttered, indeed screamed, without the slightest attention to grammar or syntax. They simply quote from trial transcripts. That is the real world.

A strong expletive can be salutary. About 32 years ago, I was presiding over a criminal trial in Los Angeles Municipal Court. Who remembers what the case was about. The courtroom was packed with witnesses and court watchers. And who remembers why I was in such a bad mood. My mood must have been terrible, because the tension was so palpable, so high pitched, that stray dogs within a mile of the courthouse were barking their heads off. I snapped at the lawyers. “Sustained,” voiced almost simultaneously with the objection. My tone was sharp, clipped, reflecting annoyance and impatience.

The back door opened and Linda Schwartz, a public defender who was a good friend, walked into the courtroom to calendar a matter with the clerk. Apparently she could not help but sense the tension. At the conclusion of a witness's testimony, she said, “May I approach the bench, Your Honor?”

“Yes, you may,” I said, as puzzled as were the attorneys. She opened the small swinging gates, passed by the clerk, and approached the bench from the side. I leaned over and she rested one foot on the first of the three steps that led up to the bench. “You are acting like a real …." I hesitate to use the word, not because I am squeamish, but because she was right. You probably can guess what she said. Rather not? It was the same expression used by George Bush to describe a New York Times reporter he disliked. He voiced his opinion to Dick Cheney when he thought the microphone was off during a Labor Day campaign rally. Only Bush emphasized the derisive phrase describing the reporter with the adjectives, "major league." Some people were overwrought by the expression. I said, “Big #*@^ing deal.”

It took a moment for Linda's assessment to sink in. I called a brief recess and snuck into my chambers. I laughed to hide my embarrassment. Linda walked in and I asked her how she was going to spend her next five days in jail. But I could not hold her in contempt when I was the one acting contemptuously. After thanking her for the rude awakening, I let her off with a warning to myself not to do it again. I took the bench and resumed the trial. My demeanor must have said it all, because I could feel the atmosphere cool down.

It just proves that judges, like everyone else, can be angry, depressed, frustrated and act like major-league… jerks (a euphemism). Sometimes, a swiftly delivered expletive (term make popular by another President) is a good way to snap out of it.

I know a judge who is so well balanced, so insightful, so attuned to people that she never needs to be on the receiving end of an expletive. Marin County Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee is well known and admired throughout the state. She has written columns for the Daily Journal and writes a regular column for The Bench, the official newsletter of the California Judges Association. She was past Dean of California’s prestigious Judges College. Judge Duryee has directed her talents to writing a novel, recently published, “Hooked on Drug Court.”

This engrossing book is about a case in drug court. The characters are the people involved in the case the juvenile, her parents, the probation officer, and the judge. In the hilarious comedy "Noises Off," playwright Michael Frayn takes us behind the scenes to see the actors' lives off stage. But a court proceeding, while superficially sharing some aspects of theater, takes place on a stage where litigants and witnesses would rather not be. Judge Duryee takes us behind the scenes of the formal court proceedings and reveals the poignant drama occurring when court is not in session. She probes deeply into the characters' lives and psyches to reveal the chain of events that brought them to court. They become caught up in the court system in large part because they are caught up in their fears, misapprehensions, angers, and destructive patterns of behavior.

A fifteen-year-old girl, Andy, winds up in Juvenile Court after she is busted for being under the influence during a weekend visitation with her divorced father who is engaged in World War III with Andy's mother, his ex-wife. Thrown into the maelstrom are a seemingly sclerotic judge with a complicated love life, the probation officer, and other players who bring mystery and additional conflict to the drama. They inhabit the pages of a book you don't want to stop reading. All are involved in a journey of self-discovery, and the road has its potholes, detours, and chasms. Nothing is watered down. It's the real thing. It's authentic. Duryee's unerring ear captures the speech patterns of real people, not an expletive deleted. The title of each chapter is a character's name. We know them intimately through their interior monologs and through their interaction with other characters. We are drawn into their world and we care about them.

The main character Andy is a modern-day Holden Caufield. Only her angst comes not from her sensitivity to the phonies in the world, but from the pain engendered by her parents' conflicts, which in turn lead to her debilitating drug use. Andy is exasperating, funny, likeable, loveable, and Duryee deftly tells her story so that we root for her, but at times want to scold and shake her too. We feel even more exasperation with her parents and, yes, also the judge. But they are full dimensional, and we cannot help but care about them.

Judge Lynn Duryee gives us a three-dimensional view of a case and the people it touches. Their journey toward understanding is hard, painful, joyful, frustrating, and fulfilling. It's one we all take no matter who we are or what is our position in life. It is the journey Socrates tells us is the only journey worth our while, the journey of self-knowledge. The invaluable insights Duryee provides along the way should help us on our own journey. "Hooked On Drug Court" is available on

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