Wednesday, September 03, 2014

What We Can Learn Before Our Tenth Decade

     This turns out to be the second column in a two-part series on exceptional nonagenarians I am privileged to know. 
         Last month I wrote about premier jurist Judge Ruggero Aldisert, age 94.  The title of his recent novel, "Almost the Truth," expresses what savvy lawyers and judges know:  The closest we can come to reaching the truth is "almost."  And "almost," most times, is unattainable. 
         Despite the bravado and confidence that judges and lawyers on occasion display, those who are truly enlightened know that the law is enveloped in a vapor of uncertainty. They must live with the apprehension and dread concealed beneath the surface of self-assurance.
         Of course this phenomenon occurs in every profession and in our lives.  Innumerable possibilities confront us every day, altering our plans and perceptions in unexpected ways.  But when it comes to the law, the public expects a high degree of certainty.  A client pulls his hair out when his lawyer answers a question with the truthful, but equivocal, "On the one hand ...."
         To make matters worse, I read that our U.S. Supreme Court contributes to the problem.  In The New York Times on May 25, a front page story appeared about justices on the high court making changes in their opinions long after the opinion has been published in the official reports.  This may be a good way to correct a mistake, but can create a nightmare for lower courts and attorneys trying to interpret the law. 
         My concern about uncertainty takes me to another exceptional nonagenarian, an extraordinary artist and writer, Charles Embree, age 95.  His insights about the inscrutability of our world could provide a way to cope or at least accept and live in harmony with unpredictability. 
         I met Charles several years ago when my name appeared for the umpteenth time on the ballot for the retention election for Court of Appeal justices.  The ballot simply asked for a "yes" or "no" vote.  But to the uninformed voter (most of them) the choice, if made, was at best a coin flip.  I can assure you that a palpable sense of uncertainty haunts the justice whose name appears on the ballot.  That appellate justices are rarely, if ever, defeated in retention elections is no solace.  As my good friend, the late Justice William Masterson, said after winning an election with over 80 percent of the vote, "What do the 350,647 voters who voted no have against me?" 
         At the time of my election, I was playing the piano with a group of jazz musicians that got together weekly to "jam."  Charles showed up now and then and occasionally played trumpet.  We had exchanged only a few words.  But just before the election, he left a note on the piano for me.  It read:  "Not all judges are piano players, but certainly all piano players are judges.  They sit on a bench and hand down decisions to fingers directing them on which key to strike in what order and when.  The sound heard is the soundness of the judgment rendered.  If the music is select, you must elect!  Based on this argument you will be receiving my vote in the upcoming contest."
         This elegantly written argument was how Charles resolved uncertainty in a particular situation.  It should come as no surprise that Charles and I became instant and close friends.  His words appear in the opening pages of my book "Under Submission" (The Rutter Group, 2008).  The remarkable art work on the cover was done by his late wife, Barbara, who studied with the great French painter Fernand L├ęger.
         Charles' background and brilliant career no doubt heightened his awareness of our uncertain world.  He was a pupil of the American artist Thomas Hart Benton.  Charles' lithograph of a jam session in Harlem is a classic.  Charles was also a member of the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop and there struck up a close friendship with the master American short story writer, Flannery O'Connor.  For over a decade he wrote fiction for Esquire Magazine, a series of stories about jazz musicians in the 1950's.  He produced a jazz album featuring actor, singer, and musician Scatman Crothers, and the great trombonist Vic Dickenson for Capital Records.
         Charles and I often discuss the indeterminate nature of our world.  No wonder no one wants to join us.  With his signature wit and irony, including a veiled reference to an old jazz standard, Charles, in verse, points out that the sub-atomic world of which we are all a part necessarily makes our lives uncertain.  We must learn to live with paradox and doubt.  

Is there is or is there ain't a
From what I hear there's no more room
For doubt;
Uncertainty now is certain,
Maybe's time is time that's done run out.

"The unexamined life is not worth living,"
Once said by one of the wisest of men,
Was said when life could be examined,
But now is now, and then was then.

Today it is known
And can be shown,
The very act
Of observing a fact
Changes the fact

What have we learned from
What can't be known?
What have we seen from
What can't be shown?

When is a There
If a Now is one?
Yet how can a Now
Be before a Begun?

It's all like a joke
Without the fun.

I told Charles that for some people this insight is too much to bear.  And although religion can be a soothing palliative or a sound foundation for certainty, I asked if there was yet some other way for us to cope in an uncertain world.  Charles responded with this personal reflection.
Gazing at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, one sees a hand
reaching out to another hand, the fingers almost touching.  The
hand reaching out is God's, the other hand belongs to an
ancestor of mine.  That's the hand I inherited.
I learned of this when I was a baby, before I could talk and while I
was just beginning to walk.  It is said that long-term memory
improves with old age.  At 95, I submit the following picture as
My mother is sitting in a rocking chair, in the dining room of our
home.  Between the dining room and the living room is an area of
bare floor.  The baby described above has fallen and is lying on
his stomach, crying.  My older brother starts to go and help me
up.  My mother raises her hand, and says, "Let him do it for
himself."  Believe it, or not, I can see this picture, now, in detail.
It's a Norman Rockwell magazine cover.  All that's lacking is the
caption: "LOVE."  (Come to think of it, Mr. Rockwell's style did not
employ irony.)
Today I have a friend, associated with a large philanthropic
foundation, whose task it is to help create a social program for
providing help to the country's impoverished.  A baby has fallen
and is crying for help in getting up.
The question in my mind, put there by the memory recalled, is
which is the better way of helping someone in need; go to their
aid directly, as my brother instinctively started to do, or do
as my mother did, help by trying to help me help myself?  To be
frank, I don't know, after all these years, what my own experience
taught me. I am inclined to believe, however, that as well intentioned
as my mother was, I would have benefited more by
the direct out-reaching hand of my brother.  Love, unreasoned.
Nearing the end of a typically eventful life, if I were asked to name
the greatest thing a human being can experience, I would say it
is simply the touch of a loving hand.
Michelangelo knew what he was doing.  All the rest is what it is ....

          So the simple touch of a loving hand gives us the power and strength to live and endure in an uncertain world.  This is perfectly compatible, even necessary in the often contentious legal profession.  And Judge Learned Hand found a way for a good lawyer to approach certainty in the legal profession.  In speaking in memory of lawyer, Charles Neave, Hand said:  "With the courage which only comes of justified self-confidence, he dared to rest his case upon its strongest point, and so avoided that appearance of weakness and uncertainty which comes of a clutter of arguments.  Few lawyers are willing to do this; it is the mark of the most distinguished talent."