By Michal Lemberger
I tried to do my civic duty. Really, I did. I may be the only adult American to say this, but I actually wanted to do jury duty.
It's not that I'm more civic minded than most. I just want to get away from my kids.
I love my children. I consider myself lucky to have them in my life. At their best, they are funny and curious, loving and affectionate. All the cliches are true: they really do open my eyes to the world in new ways. Their innocence and enthusiasm are infectious. I have never loved anyone as fiercely.
But after five years of diapers, cyclone tantrums, Dora the Explorer, and unpredictable food preferences, I need a break. When my older daughter was still a baby, I read some advice in a parenting magazine. It suggested that I get a comfortable armchair and set it up facing a wall. Once a day, I was told, I should make myself a cup of tea -- herbal, of course -- and sit in my chair for 20 minutes, my back to the noise and chaos. This, I was advised, would be a way to find serenity, to claim some time for myself.
To which I thought, that's it? Make a quick trip to Pottery Barn and invest in a teapot, and I won't feel like I need to run away screaming every so often? I don't need tea. All those other sure-fire fixes that get thrown in parents' faces don't do much for me, either. I don't want a day at a spa. (Okay, I do want a day at a spa, but it's not going to cure what ails me.) A nightly glass of chardonnay can only get me so far.
What I want is to be surrounded by grown-ups. To stop adjudicating disputes over whose turn it is to get the Sleeping Beauty doll, at least for a little while. I want to deal with adult problems for a change.
Besides, courthouses and judicial districts are fascinating places to hang out. They are where cities come together. If you're as naturally curious (read: nosy) as I am, they can be goldmines of people-watching. People from every sector of society roam the halls and sidewalks, from the fancy lawyers in $3,000 suits, to the harassed-looking families waiting for their hour in front of a judge, to the guy riding the escalator who seemed to have blacked the large patches between what is left of his hair with shoe polish.
It wasn't long ago that I dreaded getting called for jury duty as much as everyone else. We hear others complain about how annoying the process is long before we're even eligible to serve. By the time that first summons arrives, we are primed to hate it. I first served years ago, when I still lived in New York. I spent a week in lower Manhattan. During lunch, I roamed the crowded streets, but for the other seven hours, I sat in just-bearable chairs and read. I was questioned for a few juries, but never picked. It all felt so pointless.
Now that I am at the beck-and-call of small, intemperate despots, I've had a change of heart. Getting a week to sit in a room and read sounds amazing. A week to try out a new restaurant for lunch every day -- where mac n' cheese isn't even on the menu -- sounds delightful. A full week to observe people outside my normal orbit of school-home office-Trader Joe's seems positively revelatory.
Jury duty, it turns out, is a way to take a guilt-free escape from my children. Unlike my daily life, courthouse existence is orderly. I don't have to repeat myself ten times to get anything done. My opinion actually counts for something. One word from me, and someone's fate gets decided.
I never did get to serve. And it's all my children's fault.
When my summons date arrived, I called in every night to find out if I had to report in the morning. Monday, no. Tuesday, no. Wednesday, no. Thursday... yes. I set my alarm for 5:45am and made my way to Downtown LA, only to realize that if I ended up serving all seven days, I would miss my daughter's preschool Mother's Day celebration. She had been talking about the party for weeks, her excitement growing as the day grew nearer.
Here I was, ready and willing to sit in judgment of my fellow Americans, and family responsibilities got in my way. In the end, my daughter's emotional wellbeing outweighed whether I heeded the call of my county on that particular day. I postponed.
It was only once I set the new date that I realized things wouldn't go so smoothly. There was still the small matter of picking my children up from school. I couldn't very well ask a three- and five-year-old to get themselves home at 3 pm because I was too tied up serving the cause of justice.
So, two months later, I set my alarm for 5:45 again and drove back downtown. With a sigh about what might have been, I gave up my dreams of jury service and took my place in line to be excused. After a blink-and-you-missed-it interview with a clerk, I was free to go, released from service, and any hope of behaving like a grown-up, for the next twelve months. I left the building, got in my car, and drove home to my real life.
When it comes down to it, I am always going to put my children first, no matter how much I crave intellectual stimulation, or even just some time off for good behavior. Preschool Mother's Day celebrations may not seem like earth-shaking events, but they are important to my daughter. On days like that, I will make sure that I am sitting in that scaled-down chair, listening to the songs she practiced so intently. I will let her teach me the mother-child dance she learned. I will show my appreciation for the breakfast she and her classmates prepared. Because she is my primary duty. Justice will have to wait.
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