The Rural Juror

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This week, I finally lost my jury duty virginity. It was just as magical as I had imagined it would be, and so much more because it was real.

Parts of the experience were disappointing; some of it was scary-exciting (armed guards!); none of it was as painful as I’d heard it would be, except for the beginning – getting up at 6:30am. Sure, it was all over way too fast (they released us for the day at lunch time), and ultimately the whole thing was a bit underwhelming, but what can you expect from your first time?

I definitely plan to do it again, and maybe next time I’ll even get to finish (a trial – what did you think I meant? Perv.)

All sexual innuendo aside for a moment (just a moment, I promise), I really was excited to get to experience jury duty after all this time. Nineteen-and-a-half years after becoming a registered voter, to be exact. (Which makes the whole thing extra special, since nineteen-and-a-half is also the number of years I was a human before losing my more literal virginity.)

New Hampshire never called me to serve (and as far as I can remember, never even called anyone I knew), nor did Connecticut, and I was starting to think California would snub me too. My heart went all aflutter when the summons finally appeared in my mailbox last month. I’m a real citizen now!

Yes, I realize this joy makes me weird. But you know what’s sad? That it makes me weird. The ladies who ran the jury room – bless them, they have to do that every day and they have it down to a finely-tuned vaudeville routine – had quite a few bits about how NOT to get out of jury duty:

Don’t claim your boss won’t pay you (that form you filled out already says he will); don’t say you can’t understand English (if you passed your citizenship test, you do); don’t report for duty and then hide in the bathroom…you get the idea. They have clearly seen every trick in the book – which means people regularly try to pull them.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a small town girl with a fondness for civic duty, but I simply do not understand wanting to get out of jury duty. (That last sentence is my attempt to justify the title of this piece, because I really wanted to make the 30 Rock tribute happen.)

Wouldn’t it be great if we actually thought about jury duty the way we think about sex?

Sure, it’s not something for every day, or we’d never get our work done, but when the time comes, it’s special. That summons appears in the mail – date night, baby! We get a little dressed up (no ironic “guilty” tees or costumes), show up on time, and prepare ourselves for anything (I could not believe how many people brought nothing to pass the hours of waiting).

Not every outing will end in a connection. Sometimes, we go home disappointed. Other times, we make a match (to a jury pool), but it isn’t a match made in heaven (dismissed). And every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we end up finding a long-term partner.

Maybe it’s a short trial; maybe a really long one. Some pairings will be awful, some fascinating but ultimately pointless, and sometimes – some very rare times – we will be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and it will be important.

The best part is, just like with love, we never know which one it’s going to be. Jury duty = sex? Motion sustained!

Over Easy

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“In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight-

“In spring, when woods are getting green, I’ll try and tell you what I mean:

“In summer, when the days are long, Perhaps you’ll understand the song;

“In autumn, when the leaves are brown, Take pen and ink, and write it down.”

-Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty

On the other side of the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is a hyper-literal prissy pants; having a conversation with him could justifiably be classified as torture, and if I were Alice I probably would have pushed him off that wall myself. Still, his understanding of linguistic nuance is admirable.

Different words have different definitions because they mean different things, and those differences matter. “When I use a word,” he tells Alice, “it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Dumpty may also be completely nuts and kind of a snot about it, but that doesn’t make him wrong.

“Nice is different than good.”

                                                                        -Stephen Sondheim’s Little Red Riding Hood

Also a pretty big brat, Red is the poster child for blissful ignorance before she heads Into the Woods and has wisdom (pelvic) thrust upon her. She starts out so inexperienced and self-absorbed that she can’t tell the difference between her granny and a wolf in a bonnet, survives a major trauma, then comes out the other side knowing things, many valuable things, that she hadn’t known before.

Her biggest lesson? Just because someone is friendly, cool, (super well endowed), and a source of exciting new adventures, he isn’t necessarily good for her. If a girl’s not careful, she can end up swallowed whole.

“You know me – I like things to be easy.”

                                                                        -My Ex-Boyfriend

I should know better than to open up old wounds, but Cancer 2 has always been impossible to resist. It would not surprise me at all to learn that my genetic code is programmed to bond with his chemical signature. And there he was: seven years older than when he broke my heart, not an inch less charming or attractive. The bastard.

Time does not heal all, but it soothes things enough to allow conversation. We joked like old times, discussed life choices – mine to keep after the improbable dream, his to return to science and help the world – and apologized for past behavior. Inevitably, we compared relationship statuses – mine a freshly broken heart, his a recent engagement. The frakking bastard.

It is no fun to learn that someone so great, who was simply too young when we met, is older and wiser and bestowing his gifts on someone else. I cursed fate, and circumstance, and myself, and of course him. Then I did something totally crazy – I actually listened.

There was a theme running through our conversation: a big easy.

We hadn’t spoken in seven years because he didn’t like to deal with having hurt me. He left the industry for science because he didn’t see himself pushing through the decade of humiliation and struggle it takes to break in. His current relationship was so good in part because it was so easy.

“As much as I liked you,” he said at one point,” I don’t think our relationship was right for me.” Finally, I understood the song. He prefers the path of least resistance; he likes pleasantville; he wants things to be easy.

I want things to be great.

Neither choice is better than the other, but they are definitely two different things. Greatness is rarely easy, and ease is rarely exceptional. No matter how awesome we consider each other, or how strong our chemical attraction may be, he has no need for ‘extraordinary’ in his life, and I have never been interested in ‘easy’.

No quantity of king’s horses or men could make us fit together, now or back then.

As Red would say, isn’t it nice to know a lot? (And a little bit not.)

Contra-Band (Once More Unto My Niche)

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As I lay hog-tied on the mystery-stained carpet of the Harvard University Band headquarters in the winter of my freshman year, suffering tickle torture at the hands of my too-good-to-be-true senior boyfriend (who, it would soon turn out, was also too-gay-to-be-true), one thought dominated the forefront of my mind: “I really hope I don’t pee my pants.” A close second, though, was the thought of how unexpectedly happy I was in that moment.

A few months earlier I had come to college specifically determined NOT to join the school band. I had been a band geek since the fifth grade, had held the rank of First Lieutenant in my high school marching band, and had no desire to carry the geek stigma into adulthood. I’d join the Wind Ensemble so I could keep playing my French horn, but college was my chance to become something more. College was my chance to be an alluring actress, or a badass jock, or a popular politico; college was my chance to be COOL; it was my chance to be anything but the person I actually was. My marching days were behind me.

Within a week I had joined the Harvard Band. As I went around those first few days, signing up for drama club and the crew team and Model Congress, the Band was everywhere. And they were not like any marching band I had ever seen. There were no Naugahyde hats or crazy chicken-feather plumes, just tasteful crimson blazers and ties. Sure, they marched, but in a style more akin to an amoeba than an army; their shape morphed and stretched and contracted freely, yet some invisible force bound them together as a single organism.

They were loud, boisterous, actually quite musical (!), and completely shameless. What I noticed most was that no matter anyone’s feelings about the relative corniness of bands, geeks, fight songs, or school spirit, when the band was around, people simply could not help but smile. I had to go to the Band Room to audition for the Wind Ensemble, and from the moment I set foot in that Wonka-style clubhouse, I was done. As with the Borg, my resistance was futile.

Yet while the Harvard Band does assimilate anyone who is lucky enough to wander into its orbit, unlike the Borg, it takes those people and makes them stronger. I learned so much in my four years sporting my Crimson blazer. For one, I learned what hog-tying really is, and several other things about bondage that my parents would probably rather not know about. I learned to chicken fight, to Time Warp, and to always “whisper” in a library.

I learned the joy of finding sexual innuendo in almost everything, and the confidence to resist sexual out-uendo until I was ready. I learned that shorter is funnier, that anything can (and should) become a drinking game, and that it really is all fun and games until someone loses an “I”.

I learned that tradition is important, both to make new members feel instantly welcome (that’s what she said!) and to give Crusties the joy of complaining when things inevitably evolve. I learned that fights don’t mean the end of friendships, and sometimes mean the beginning. I learned the joy of welcoming everyone to the party, no matter who they chose to be – gay, straight, man, woman, or even asshole.

Most importantly, my time with the Band taught me to accept and like myself for who I am. I still did Model Congress, and lots of theatre (crew went out the window with 5am practices), and many other things that conflicted with band activities. There was often friction, and some resentment from my peers that I wasn’t as dedicated a Bandie as they were, but the Band itself always made it work. No one ever asked me to deny my other interests the way I had tried to deny my own geekery at first. Instead, I was valued for what I could contribute, and encouraged to stay as involved as possible.

By the end of my four years, I was leading the band as Manager, another position I had openly resisted (wanting a flashier role where I could be funny and cool), but then turned out to be the exact right job for me. That was the last gift the Band gave me – the faith that I don’t have to get what I want to have everything work out for the best.

This weekend, the Harvard Band reunited one more time, as we do every five years. In my worn woolen blazer, marching through Harvard Square, surrounded by new and old faces (both old-familiar and old-decrepit), gazing into the iPhones of countless tourists, I played the notes I could remember and raised my voice to the skies. Once more, a single thought dominated my mind: “This is the way to live.”

Guide right, but walk in your own style. Play your part, but don’t worry about perfection. You may not always know where you are going, but trust those around you to get you where you need to be. And do good work, but never, ever miss an opportunity to have fun along the way. Oh yeah, and whatever you do, do NOT let the bastards grind you down.

Illegitimum non carborundum my few, my happy few, my band of “others”. Happy 95th Anniversary.

The Logarithm of Love (Ice Cream Headache)

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In 1960, Smokey Robinson’s mama dropped some serious truth when she insisted he better Shop Around. Given the decade, Smokey probably assumed her wisdom came from a woman’s deep understanding of bargain shopping, but I prefer to think she was simply keeping up with modern trends in mathematics.

Around that same time, numbers guys around the world were turning their attention to a decision-making dilemma they dubbed The Secretary Problem (also The Marriage Problem). Since the parameters of the problem are applicable to many real world situations, and since I choose not to indulge the sexist world of the Mad Men era, I call it the Ice Cream Headache.

Imagine yourself in an ice cream shop facing dozens of flavor options. You have to decide on just one, and ideally you want to choose the very best of all. The rules are simple: first, your choices are finite. (Even though Baskin Robbins lies and offers more than 31 flavors, they still don’t offer “infinity” flavors.) Second, you can sample flavors, but only one at a time, only once each, and you must make a decision immediately upon tasting – choose it, or pass. Finally, there are no ties. One is decidedly the best (for you).

To maximize your chances of walking away with The One, it turns out “shop around” really IS the best strategy – to a point. Mathematicians came to find that the optimal approach is to always reject the first 36.7% of flavors you try (that happens to be 1/e for all you natural logarithm fans out there), then choose the next flavor that tastes better than anything that has come before.

Say there are nine flavors total. This optimal method means we will taste the first randomly selected three and not choose them, no matter what. The odds of The One being in those first three (which means we will definitely NOT win the game) is 33%. The other 67% percent of the time, we still have a chance.

After rejecting the first three, we will choose the very first flavor that tastes better. If we happened to taste the second best flavor in the first three but not The One – the odds of which is 25% – we are guaranteed a win. Only The One will taste better, so only The One will be chosen, no matter how long it takes us to get to it. The remaining 42% of the time, victory depends on when in the subsequent tastings The One appears.

When the math is said and done, probability shows that employing this strategy to the Ice Cream Headache results in victory – choosing The One – at minimum 37% of the time, which is the best chance possible and far better than choosing at random.

Sure, in real life we are free to piss off the ice cream vendors as we test every single flavor over and over until we are either satisfied with our decision or just satisfied, but the parameters of the Ice Cream Headache are remarkably realistic when it comes to dating.

In love, we generally get one shot at evaluation – Burton and Taylor notwithstanding. Likewise, the choice is usually a now-or-never situation. (We may dream of “sampling” a person and then getting to try all the other people too before ultimately deciding, “You are the best,” but in reality that ends with a “Screw you, I’ve moved on” and a drink in the face.) Finally, even with today’s online resources, we still have a finite number of candidates.

Applying the lessons of the Ice Cream Headache to a partner search yields some interesting results.

For one, it helps redefine the idea of “success”. We usually view situations as win or lose, but mathematics has a third option: draw. Victory in the Ice Cream Headache is walking away with The One, but failure isn’t everything else; failure only happens if we walk away with a flavor that is NOT the best. Remember that 33% chance The One was in the automatically rejected first group? In that case, the player would never choose any flavor, because nothing would ever meet the requirement of outperforming everything prior. In life terms, the player stays single. I like the idea of a single life being a “draw” rather than a loss.

More significantly, the Ice Cream Headache validates the practice of living a little before settling down. The average life expectancy of an American woman is 82 years; 77 for American men. If we apply the “discard the first 36.7%” rule, no one should even consider choosing a life partner before age 30 or 28, respectively.

To apply the strategy more specifically to our dating years, let’s say no one dates seriously before 15, and we reserve the last 10 years for writing memoirs and bowling. That leaves 57 shopping years for women, and 52 for men. Again, if we automatically pass on the first 36.7% of candidates, that translates to 20 years of dating before possibly making a choice (19 for men). Starting at 15, that pushes the start of decision time to our mid-thirties.

Yes, this simplifies things with the premise that potential mates will appear at a steady rate across our dating years (now more likely with the internet), but the end result is still valid. Statistically, the optimal strategy over a lifetime for successfully ending up with your ideal flavor is to not get serious about choosing until sometime after 30. Mama was right: you better Shop Around.

Of course, this still doesn’t solve the problem of that awesome mocha chip gelato you finally go for deciding he doesn’t want you. But it helps.