171004, Wednesday

I must speak of the federal wheel.

The “wheel” is a roster of local attorneys who have agreed to take criminal cases in federal court that for some reason (usually because they’re already representing a co-defendant), the local federal defender’s office can’t take.

The wheel is a nightmare. Or at least it used to be. These days, as Murakami said, I’m trying to be positive about things.

I’ve decided to get back on the wheel because I’ve come to see it as a way to finally be free of it, and indeed to be free of the entire practice of law forever.

You see, I’m in private practice now, which is to say that I’m not just in the practice of law, I’m also in the business of law and the business side of things, the schmoozing, the drumming up of clients, the “networking” is something that I hate.

And that’s one of the benefits of the wheel; the cases just come to me. A person gets arrested and the court appoints me and there are no prior dinners or cocktail parties involved. Which means that, if I can overlook the injustice of it all, the wheel works for me because I can financially survive and be an introvert at the same time.

And it does involve a lot of driving and out here in Far West Texas, which is beautiful, zenful place to move through. It’s a kind of meditation. I’d rather be driving to campsites than courthouses and jails of course, but at least I’m driving “through good country,” as my friend Kirk once put it, which matters. Certainly it’s easier than it was when I was in Northern Illinois when I had to drive by David’s Bridal and the Kohler store (“All I want for Christmas is a toylet.”) every day.

But why is the federal court system unjust, you ask?

Well, it’s because the American justice system is an environment in which police lie, prosecutors abuse their discretion, and judges sanction it all.

I’ll give you a brief example.

In the federal system, the punishment in a drug case is determined by the weight of the drugs. The more drugs, the worse the punishment. Also, deliverers are punished more harshly than mere possessors.

Although I think that all drugs should be legal, I can see the arguments against that. And, if we are going to criminalize drugs, the scheme outlined above seems reasonable.

But, a typical case out here in Far West Texas is this: six guys walking through the desert together with bundles of marijuana strapped to their backs.

If you were to ask me, I would say that the only fair thing to do in these cases would be to charge each of these guys with possession of whatever was strapped to their backs.

That’s not how they do it.

Instead, they apply the law of “accountability,” which says that you’re responsible for whatever you helped someone else do. If you walked in a group, that means you lent at least moral support to the group, so you’re responsible for the drugs on your back and the drugs on everyone else’s back. Oh, and you’re a deliverer too, since yours is a critical role in the delivery chain.

So, instead of possession of, say, 20 kilos of marijuana, each member of the six gets charged with delivery of 120 kilos, carrying a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.

Now, there are a couple of ways around that and those ways are snitching (if you’re the defendant), and begging (if you’re the defendant’s lawyer). In other words, the road to justice, which never actually seems to be reached in federal court, is paved with peril and indignity. But that’s how it is.

And that’s why I say injustice.

But I’m trying to move past it.


171003, Tuesday

Back again with my notebook.

I don’t know if these technically count as “morning pages” since I secretly plan to publish them somewhere, but I’m going to say yes they do, since I’m hand writing them, and thus feel free to speak freely. If in the transcription to digital there’s something that I want to leave out, I will.

I’m enjoying Rusbridger’s book. There is that old saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but he’s doing about as good a job of it as anyone could, I’d say. It helps, I suppose, that I can read music and therefore am able to follow along in the core as he describes certain difficulties.

Since this is a similar journal about me taking some time in my life to learn the piano, I’ve wondered if I should do something similar by putting excerpts from the score of Book of Leaves in my text? In the end, I think not.

First, I don’t think that an exegesis of Rachel Grimes’ score will have the same effect as the ballade. What Grimes is doing is both more obvious than what Chopin does, and more subtle. More obvious in the sense that there’s not much more going on than what you’re hearing. There’s no political context. There are no canons or numerological puzzles, like you might find in Berg or Bach. In other words, you don’t need to see the music to fully appreciate its genius, as you do, say, with the music of Webern.

But it’s also more subtle in that, what are you hearing, exactly?

Simple things, but they stir deep emotions. Like the chords at the end of The Side View, for example. What’s going on? Who knows? And I bet that Dr. Carl Schachter wouldn’t care to know. But it’s moving, just the same. The point being this: that what’s happening visually in Grimes’ score is not as interesting as what’s happening sonically.

Also, Chopin has a universal aspect to him. When you play or listen to his music, it feels like a communal thing. All the world loves him.

Grimes is, of course, different. I myself had never heard of her until I happened upon a lucky google search. But that is part of her allure. She is of my time. And somehow that makes the learning of this music more personal. This music is very rooted in Kentucky, which is to say America, which is to say home. Also, it’s music that speaks a lot about nature, and that has two effects on me.

First, there is water and lushness in this music, which is a welcome teleportation device for me, since I now live in the desert.

And it’s important in another way. It’s nice to play music that celebrates nature in a time when it really feels as though the natural world is dwindling. Sitting at the piano, a thing of metal and wood and air, and playing music that is inspired by birds and leaves and moss and memory is rejuvenating. I like Rachel’s score very much, actually. It’s not the Goldberg Variations, but I can’t play the Goldberg Variations. But, with a loft of work, I just might be able to play this and god bless her for writing something so good that is also so easy.

Let’s talk a bit about silence. We’re losing it.

One of the things that has kept me attached to the guitar for so long, and that will likely keep me going back to it forever, is how much I enjoy playing Takemitsu’s music on it. His music is rich with silences. (Takemitsu himself described listening to his music as strolling through a Japanese garden, which is in fact one of the most wonderful things that a person can do.)

Rachel’s music hardly resembles Takemitsu’s, but it does share a similar appreciation for silence and space and that’s something that I’m drawn to.

(I find that I’m having difficulty putting my pen down today. This really is some form of therapy for me.)

You know, I really did try to follow Thoreau’s advice and build my castle in the air. I tried to have a career I would love. To monetize my passion, so to speak.

But something went wrong because, in fact, I don’t like it and I think it’s that I let fear derail me somewhere and it was a small nudge, but over time, as the traveling continued, the train of my life wound up somewhere quite different from where I was aiming. I’m trying to fix that now, and I’m afraid. Afraid of failing. Of sounding the fool. Of not being able to support my family. I think I’m afraid, even, of happiness. It’s like Slo-Mo says in his video. He started wondering if the happiness he felt when he left his life as a doctor indicated that he was in fact mentally ill.

For example, I don’t really have to go to work today. I could skip it. I could spend the day playing the piano, or strolling, or writing. These things make me happy, but when I do them I start to panic. As though I ought to be doing something else, simply because I am enjoying these other activities too much.

But it’s my life. Why shouldn’t I decide what to do with it? Why do I feel that I can’t do certain things because someone else might not approve? But who  is this someone else and why have I given them the power of judgment over my own life?

About a year ago, I bought Denise Duffield’s Lucky Bitch and read this sentence, which changed my life: It’s totally okay for life to be easy.

I want to place all the guilt that I feel at the ease with which I live these days in a beautiful box and then burn it in a beautiful fire. After all, I have many difficult days behind me. Perhaps I’ve earned this easy one.

171001, Sunday

Ninety days. If I commit to practicing at least twenty minutes a day, as Alan did, I bet I could learn Book of Leaves in ninety days. Or so. Ish.

Ninety is a good number. It’s a season. You can change your life in a season.

And even if I can’t do it in ninety days, so what?

Here’s a poem by Nayyirah Waheed that Christina Tran shared with me today:

be easy
take your time.
you are coming
to yourself.


This all began because of Alan. That and because of a need to save myself by changing my life.

But first, Alan.

Alan Rusbridger used to be the editor of the Guardian, which is a newspaper that I like.

I like it because it’s professional and sensible. I like it because it has a certain British sophistication to it, and I like British sophistication. Alan edited it. He was editing it when Wikileaks happened. And, during that time, he decided to get serious about playing the piano and learn Chopin’s G Minor ballade. And he decided to keep a journal documenting all of that. And then he turned it into a book called Play It Again, which I am currently reading and which has inspired me to get serious about the piano in my own way (unlike Alan, I’m not already even an amateur pianist as I begin my project), and also to document it and possibly turn it into a book.

I think this just might be possible because, though not a pianist, I am a classically trained musician. I have a degree in classical guitar performance which is of no real moment to piano playing other than in this way: I can read music. And that’s possibly enough because, though fiendishly difficult to master, the piano is quite intuitive to play. If you can read music, you can do it; simply press the key indicated in the score. If you were to hand me an oboe or a French horn, I wouldn’t have the first idea how to make it produce sound, let alone how to make it sound an intended sound. But the piano has no mystery to it. It’s just a matter of pushing the right buttons at the right time.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification. There is a best way to push the buttons, and the coordination required to push multitudes of buttons in a precise order at certain times is extraordinary. But I have no delusions of ever becoming Simone Dinnerstein. Nor, in fact, do I have any delusions of ever becoming Alan Rusbridger. I’m just a guy who’s recently come into possession of an adequate upright piano and I want to take on something new because I’m feeling a bit staid. I want to explore something new. Have a kind of adventure, and playing the piano is like learning Spanish for me: something I’ve always wanted to do.

But, I’m not a pianist, and so the challenge is to find a piece of music that is on this side of easy, but that is also intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Such music is rare, Paul Hindemith’s advocacy for Gebrauchsmusik notwithstanding.  But I believe I may have found just what I’m looking for in a suite of solo piano pieces by Kentuckian Rachel Grimes called Book of Leaves. I rather like these pieces. Many of them have quite a bit of space inside them. Like my favorite guitar music, the solo guitar works of Toru Takemitsu, they are rich with silences. In fact, Grimes offers the following advice with regard to learning these pieces: “Take your time, allow plenty of space for resonance, and enjoy the piano.”

That’s just the advice that I need right now. It sounds like what she’s really saying is come to the piano when you need a relaxing break from reality which, these days, is often because I am, in fact, stretched a little bit thin. And maybe even a little stressed. And maybe even a little bit depressed.

Which brings me to changing my life.

There was a time in my life (about thirteen years ago), when all I wanted to do was try cases. I wanted to defend poor people against the government and win. I did that for a while—well, not always the winning part, although sometimes. And then I began to hate it. If I’m honest, I fear that I’ve hated it for quite a long time.

This is no doubt due to the type of law that I choose to practice, which is indigent criminal defense, but I can’t be too hard on myself about that because it’s also the only type of law that I can bring myself to care about. It because it touches upon the grand themes of human fulfillment. At stake in my cases are the metaphysical concepts of justice, freedom, and equal treatment under the law. I like fighting for these things. I like the struggle.

But in practice, it’s been a disappointment because the American justice system cares so little about these things. Justice is rare as a unicorn. Why I was expecting differently from the most punitive nation on earth, I don’t know, but I did. I was naive, which is what a young person is supposed to be. But I’m not young anymore. Now, I just want out.

And I’m working toward that. I have plans to launch a podcast soon that, I hope, will be a stepping stone to my freedom. For now, though, I still make my way in the world and provide for my family by going to court and saying “Jaime Escuder on behalf of [pathetic person who is trapped and will soon be going to prison for far too long].”

But, my favorite mythical creature is the phoenix, because it regenerates itself. It begins itself anew.

At the birth of this country, Thomas Paine said that we have it in our power to begin the world over again. As with my country, so too with myself. I have it in my power to start again.

As I do so, I will have to find a way to cope with what awaits me, especially with what awaits me in federal court, where the quality of justice is particularly low.

And so, this is my tripartite project: learn Book of Leaves while transitioning away from the law by means of a podcast, and write about it. And do it all in the hope that it will result in something like healing.