A Lawyer’s Tour of Poland

Conference at Hotel Polski in Old City Krakow

Conference at Hotel Polski in Old City Krakow

In October of 2010, a Polish company hired me for litigation arising from the erratic operation of a costly machine that it had purchased from a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer. I went to Poland the following summer, attending days of videotaped inspections in Czestochowa that showed the machine doing things that brought production to a halt, while defying the best efforts of company employees to find a solution.  Between morning meetings, unexpected issues and constant communication in English and broken German, I developed a good relationship with company management, and we stayed in touch after the case settled favorably in November 2011.  We had dinner in London while I visited with my family in July 2012, and exchanged occasional emails afterwards.  Early this year, I learned that the firm’s in-house counsel had started his own small firm, and by May 2013, Michal and I formed a plan to give two presentations on US litigation, in Katowice and Kraków, to illustrate that yes, a Polish company can successfully file suit in the United States.


My preparation had three main components.  First was to prepare a PowerPoint covering our main points in direct terms that could be readily understood by audience members who spoke English as a second language.  Second was to write a more detailed course outline for attendees who wanted to learn more about the details, such as federal diversity jurisdiction and emerging limitations on discovery.  Third was to gather examples from actual cases – of depositions, pleadings and motions –  to illustrate in concrete terms the concepts we would discuss.  When the first versions of materials were complete, Michal proposed new topics, and the reordering of others, to make the presentation more relevant for an audience of Polish lawyers.  It took about five weeks to prepare the course materials, and as my departure date came closer, I was glad to have started early.


I left Philadelphia after a Court case on June 24, taking AmTrak to Newark, where I caught a direct flight to Duesseldorf and an immediate connection to Kraków.  In transit, I was able to persuade the Lufthansa crew to allow my electric cello into the plane, and to have a good conversation with a representative of an HVAC company, each in passable German.  It was my plan, after the presentations were complete, to spend a few days practicing and then perform movements from several Bach suites in the Rynek, an expansive flagstone plaza in old city Kraków which is said to be the world’s largest.

Michael met me at Kraków airport and drove me to his home just outside of town, where after a traditional Polish breakfast, we continued to work on the presentation.  The apartment he shared with his fiancé was ultra modern, with stone surfaces everywhere and a green balcony garden.  Learning first-hand that jet lag is tougher in an easterly direction, I did not fall asleep until early the following morning, after staying awake for about 32 hours.  My room was in a beautifully restored building on ulica Biskupia (Bishop’s Street), and from the top floor window I could see an expanse of tile roofs, chimneys and steeple top crosses that looked unchanged from the 18th century.  The following morning, we had breakfast with a Polish lawyer who had taken the Widener University LLM course and passed the New York bar, and then hit the road for Katowice, to be preceded by a short visit to the city court of Bedzin.  The road was fast, with a new surface, no highway patrols and light traffic.  The contrast to covering the equivalent distance between Philadelphia and Reading on Route 422 was evident.


In a new country, everything can be a learning experience, and I probably tested Michal’s patience by asking about the pronunciation and meaning of many Polish words on passing trucks and highway signs as we drove northwest into Upper Silesia.  History is omnipresent in Poland, and I learned as we approached Bedzin that it was in the Russian-occupied portion of Poland during the 123 years (1795-1918) that the country vanished from the European map, while nearby Katowice was in the German part, and that Kraków was in the Austrian sector, its citizens largely content with that arrangement, and apparently devoted to the Austrian crown prince whose assassination sparked the First World War.  Most of Bedzin (like much of Poland) was under renovation, and the exterior of the courthouse had been recently restored.  Waiting for Michal to review a court file for clues to the ownership timeline of a nearby plot of land whose owners had long ago emigrated to Israel, I was struck by the basic similarities between this building and county courts throughout Pennsylvania: Court clerks emerged from offices with stacks of files on wheeled carts, schedules for the days’ proceedings in civil, criminal and family court cases were posted on each floor, parties to cases waited for their lawyers and asked for directions.  An appreciated difference was the lack of any metal detectors or noticeable security presence at the front entrance.

While waiting, I learned from Michal’s law partner that there is no public access to a Court file in Poland.  Instead, the client must provide counsel with a recent power of attorney each time the lawyer wants to review the file, and this PoA is closely reviewed by Court staff prior to releasing the file.  After obtaining the file and taking a few I-Phone photos of key documents, Michal concluded that the limitation period for ejectment had passed years ago, and that his client probably had no viable claim for return of the property from the present owner.  We walked back to Michal’s car (parked on the sidewalk, as usual in Poland) and pressed on to Katowice, center of the “conurbation” of Upper Silesia, a succession of industrial towns which over the years has blended together in a manner that reminded me of northern New Jersey.

A century ago, Katowice (then known in German as Kattowitz) was already a prosperous city, and clues to the source of that wealth can still be found on the city flag, which displays the profile of an industrial steam-powered hammer, of the sort used in a steel plant.  If Pittsburgh had adopted a trade-descriptive flag in the same era, it would have looked much the same.  That prosperity, combined with the scarcity of lawyers in Silesia, created circumstances that allowed the local Bar Association to purchase its own building, a spacious, five-story structure with an archway through the middle and a courtyard with parking in the back.  We were welcomed in, treated to coffee and cold drinks, and then visited by a succession of local lawyers, all of whom stayed for the presentation.  The letter of introduction provided by the Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association was much appreciated by Adwokat Roman Kusz, the Dean of the Katowice Bar Association.

Although the clear majority of the audience understood me in English, the Bar Association had arranged for simultaneous translation, a difficult task at which our translator excelled.  Our audience was particularly interested in the wide scope of discovery in the US (in Poland, discovery can only be obtained in Court, where the Judge often asks the questions), and they were evidently shocked by the news that Pennsylvania judges are elected officials, who are politicians before they become jurists.  The Bar Association provided cake and pastries during intermission (served on real China plates), and when it was over, I received a bouquet of roses, a framed panorama of the Katowice skyline done in pencil, and a set of cufflinks with centerpieces made of two Silesian coal chunks.  Michal pointed out that my cufflinks, of material at least 30 million years old, were destined to be collectables.  It was late in the evening when we returned to Krakow, where I did some online reading on the industrial revolution in Katowice before ending a long day.


Our presentation site in Kraków was a restored, historic hotel on the edge of the Old City.  The conference room we rented for the occasion was state of the art, with remote controlled shades over the skylights, a pair of high-resolution projectors, and two certified translators doing real-time translation (as done at the United Nations) from English into Polish.  As lawyers continued to arrive, we slightly delayed the start time, and ended up giving the presentation for nearly 100 attendees.  Earlier in the day, I had reworked the PowerPoint to emphasize topics that had gathered the most attention in Katowice, and these final adjustments helped keep the interest of our crowd.  We were grateful for the attendance of some of the leading lawyers in Kraków, including Wojciech Bergier, local counsel for Microsoft, and Ms. Kinga Konopka.

As in Katowice, the audience was interested in discovery, and closely followed our re-enactment of an American-style deposition.  We also took many questions on the respective roles of the judge and jury, the differences between the federal and state systems, and methods to execute on a final judgment.  On this last issue, the audience particularly enjoyed my explanation of the role of the Sheriff (the all-purpose law enforcement guy) in Pennsylvania judicial proceedings.  After the presentation ended, I was glad to spend another 45 minutes or so answering individual questions and getting contact information from many participants.  That evening, we had late dinner at a wine bar down the street from the Church where Pope John Paul II served as a parish priest early in his career.  Once again, history in Poland was waiting around every corner.


After a weekend roadtrip to Berlin, I spent my remaining four days in Poland attending a divorce proceeding, finding notable bargains on Polish-made gifts at the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in the center of Old Town, jogging past historical landmarks, and also spending a few hours playing cello on the Rynek Square.  The divorce case (the short bit I was allowed to see) was fascinating.  The presiding judge wore a flowing black robe, together with a chain necklace from which hung a silver Polish eagle.  The overall impression was similar to the famous painting of Chancellor Thomas More from the mid-1500s.  On either side of the judge, in slightly lower chairs but wearing similar dark robes, sat a juror drawn from the community who intently listened to the testimony, but unlike the judge, did not ask any questions.  Michal explained afterwards that Polish jurors are free to dissent from the judge’s ruling, and that if one dissents, the judge must write a written explanation of his or her decision, and that if both jurors dissent, their decision overrules that of the judge.  This bit of direct democratic action was quite different from what I learned about civil law systems at Georgetown, but Michal further advised that activist jurors are not very common.

As for my classical busking in the Rynek, many stopped to listen, contributions were appreciated, and I was able to buy my colleagues several rounds of good Polish beer with the proceeds.  Driving back to the airport the following day was a time of mixed feelings.  It would be good to return to Philadelphia and my family, but the ten days in Poland had been a truly productive adventure.  We are already making plans for more presentations.

Juries Play Fair (when the world doesn’t)

In business, politics and our daily commute, we see rampant power rewarded.  The business that destroys its competition is praised for being innovative and nimble, exemplifying the entrepreneurial spirit.  The politician who speaks the loudest and most blunt message, who interrupts and then drowns out his quieter debate opponent even though the rules say not to, is praised for single-minded focus.  The fastest driver of the biggest SUV forces his way through the traffic signal at Broad and Vine, while those of us lower to the ground get out of the way and wait our turn, anonymously.  I’m glad to say that juries don’t respond well to the rude behavior that so often carries the day in business, politics and driving.

I was fortunate to have obtained a defense verdict last month in a case where my client was charged with distribution of more than five lbs. of marijuana.  The weight-based sentence would have been substantial had defendant been found guilty, and our trial judge would have repaid my client’s insistence on a jury with an enhanced term of incarceration had we been required to proceed to sentencing.  My goal in this trial, as in all, was to be the honest guide, to explain to the jury what really happened by having my client testify, and to then call the passenger in his pickup truck to explain that neither of them had put the box of marijuana in the truck during a move-out that had been interrupted by a domestic dispute, that instead it was probably the action of the passenger’s jilted girlfriend, who had been given a large amount of marijuana by a friend to temporarily hide.  I didn’t presume to prove these facts with certainty, but merely to get enough supporting evidence into the record to argue that they were at least as plausible as the Commonwealth’s view of the world.

I conveyed my message through the Scylla of an overexcited and dismissive ADA, the Charybdis of an evidently prosecution-oriented judge, and a Commonwealth expert who, as he took the stand, eyed me as the Ogre from Grimm’s Tales, who was about to grind my bones to make his bread.  The expert had evidently won over juries hundreds of times.  The ADA needed to ask only the most basic questions on direct, and the expert took it from there, explaining how marijuana is packaged, how drug dealers industriously hide and guard it, and how this particularly large freezer bag filled with marijuana would have had a street value in excess of $6,000.  The questions I asked on cross were merely annoying, like mosquitoes on the porch in August.  The expert didn’t answer my questions, instead using them as jumping off points to further embellish what he had said on direct, a diving board from which to launch a cannonball jump into my pathetic case of excuses.  When I politely asked the expert to answer my question, the Judge reprimanded me in front of the jury for not listening to the answer, or for opening the door to testimony that had nothing to do with the question I had asked.  As my cross-examination progressed, his comfort on the stand increased, inversely to the discomfort I tried to mask by smiling a bit, and holding my hands quietly in front me as he droned on.  The only time this expert helped me was when he thought he was doing real damage – he agreed that drug dealers guard their stock in trade, hide it as well as possible, and don’t let anyone near it who might be a stranger.

It so happened that my would-be drug dealer did absolutely nothing to conceal or guard the diaper box filled with marijuana that ended up in the back of his pick up truck with the detritus of a North Philly cleanout, drove it through town in a vintage, backfiring borrowed truck with an expired registration sticker, and made no attempt to escape from police as they began following him down 55th Street towards Arch.  The jury was struck by this disconnect between my client’s behavior and what Mr. Big Expert had told them a drug dealer does, and they definitely were not impressed by the ADA who described the suggestion that the passenger’s girlfriend had secreted the marijuana in the truck bed as “crap” and “garbage.”

I learned several other valuable lessons by speaking with the jury after the verdict.  They did not appreciate the expert interrupting me, and as the Judge was reprimanding me for asking for an answer instead of a speech, the jury agreed that the expert answered almost none of my questions.  Far from impressed by the shock and awe tactics of this expert, the jury described them as disrespectful, arrogant, as not playing by the rules.  While the jury agreed (with reference to the adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned) that the passenger’s girlfriend could well have placed the box of marijuana in the pickup truck just before it drove off, they were concerned about what had happened to this woman – had she been the victim of retaliation by the drug dealer who had entrusted her with six lbs. of marijuana, only to have it vanish into police custody?  My answer was that as far as I knew from the witness, the woman was doing ok.  I also reassured them that my client had never been in trouble with the law before, and that he really was a registered nurse who did cleanouts and other odd jobs on weekends.

What the jury appreciated most was being provided with facts.  They watched intently as a police officer drew a diagram of where he had recovered the box of marijuana from the pickup truck loading bed, and agreed with the main point of my cross-examination: That his depiction had moved the box several feet closer to the passenger compartment, compared to the description he had given under oath a few minutes earlier.  I realized while talking with the jury, that if they if they had been guided by the rules of the Business Journal, of party politics, or of the road, me and my client would have been written off, and possibly laughed at in the process.  But the jury took seriously a duty they had sworn to uphold just before trial began – to do justice.  Thanks to their collective decision to honor the oath, this unlikely trial lawyer received another defense verdict.  I will remember them – the stern Vietnam vet, the student at Peirce College, the stay at home mom, the skeptical city worker, for a long time to come.

Life Sentence

With one hour left to Richmond, there are still no leaves on the trees but it’s looking more southern out the window of the cafe car. People come here to eat, not talk, which makes a better place to write than the seat I left two cars back. The train passed a farm with a couple of heavily rusted metal house trailers in the yard and an array of junk, mostly tires and other automotive debris, leaning against a barbwire fence which extended off from the train tracks into high dead grass. The thin asphalt roads stretching through passing shallow valleys have no sidewalks and are lined with sand. Glimpses of water occasionally show to the left of the train, although I don’t know if this is a wider part of the Potomac River, or part of Chesapeake Bay.
I assume trains ran on this track during the Civil War, since the description of Northeast Corridor renovations back at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia stated that most of the corridor track had been initially laid in the 1830s. If trains did run on this path, they must have carried a lot of dead and dying soldiers back to Washington, because the northern army body count for the Wilderness, Peninsular and other Virginia campaigns was appalling, even by tolerance levels shaped by 20th century warfare. My understanding is that none of the northern generals were very competent, but that Grant made the fewest mistakes. I wonder if they talked their way through each battle, far from danger in the rear, like incompetents charged with responsibilities beyond their capacity today.

I am southbound to participate in another federal action, a criminal case against one of my few friends from high school in New Jersey which is scheduled for sentencing tomorrow morning. The stakes are high — Rory’s lawyer advised me that the Judge shows every sign of imposing a life sentence for a plan by which Rory charged the government top dollar for a large quantity of items passed off as ultralight and superstrong fasteners for aerospace applications, but in reality, they were no different from the nuts and bolts available from a neighborhood TrueValue hardware store. I am told that the federal government cannot tie any equipment failures to Rory’s fasteners, which under different circumstances could be welcome publicity for America’s Favorite Hardware Store (“we keep ’em flying!”). It seems that any federal oversight involved in these purchases was either too well-entertained or inattentive to notice that the same fasteners could have been obtained over the counter for a few cents each, but I don’t expect to hear any of that perspective at sentencing.  The problem for Rory is that he implemented this plan twice, once in the mid-1990s after which he was convicted and received several years in federal custody, and again around 2004, after which he got even more creative. According the archives of “America’s Most Wanted,” Rory converted his Phase II proceeds into gold which he was able to get across the Mexican border through the services of unsuspecting drug mules, and then got himself across the border, after which he faked his own death in the breakers off Cancun, arranged heavy publicity for that event to lull the FBI into complacence, and then went into comfortable hiding for about four years until someone blew his cover. Based on my memory of Rory’s dark hair, rugged features and large blue eyes, his arrest may have resulted from a relationship gone vengefully wrong.

Rory called me unexpectedly in my office about three years ago, at which point he was in a Mexican jail awaiting extradition to the Eastern District of Virginia. Scared of a federally-recorded phone call and not wanting to skew my chances for partner in the upcoming firm election, I merely advised Rory that the federal government normally obtains extradition, particularly of a US Citizen held by Mexico, and that the best use of his money was to retain a highly competent, high stakes criminal defense lawyer after his return to the US. I could not be that person because I am not admitted to practice law in Virginia, but have regretted not giving more help to Rory when he needed it. Many years ago, from 1977-80, Rory had been a good friend, especially in high school when differences in class and affluence were becoming noticable. Unlike some, Rory never hesitated to include me at a lunch room table or invite me to a party because I did not live in Lake Mohawk or come from an affluent family. Rory was also guilty on both counts. He lived north of Sparta on a twisty rural road, and when asked what his Dad did for a living, he would answer “industrial fasteners,” a term which led a good number of students and not a few teachers to chuckle or request clarification. What Rory meant was “screws,” but that term would have resulted in even more laughter. Thirty years later, that’s what Rory is alleged to have done to the federal government.

It’s almost dark now and we have reached the outskirts of Richmond. The train passes groups of well-kept clapboard houses in colonial colors of blue and yellow, with lots of Christmas lights, separated by patches of forest. Then we pull into Staples Mill station, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. According to my Richmond mass transit schedule, the last bus to Center City left at 5 pm, and it is now ten after. The parking lot is empty in the growing darkness, the woman who sat next to me in the train pretends not to see me as she climbs into a waiting vehicle, but suddenly a cab pulls up. Not wanting to pay but realizing there are no other options, I hail the cab, which pops the trunk, closes the door, and then speeds off.
I note the lack of mass transit to City Center, and my driver agrees, “There ain’t none.” According to his card, my driver is Bubba, and within minutes we are engaged in a detailed discussion of Civil War history. I ask if Richmond burned to the ground like Atlanta while assuming it was, since this was the capital of the Confederacy. Bubba clears his throat and answers in a cigarette baritone that no, in fact a volunteer regiment of free blacks who served the Confederacy started a fire by setting off the remains of an ammunition dump, which led Sherman approaching from the west to believe that Grant had taken the city, and led Grant approaching from the south to believe that Sherman had taken the city, with the conclusion that each hostile force deferred to the other and advanced in a different direction. By the resulting miracle, Richmond was spared destruction, and the City is filled with antebellum red brick structures, many more than would have withstood a large hostile force. This summer I visited Czestochowa, home of the shrine of the Black Madonna who had repeatedly saved Poland from complete foreign devastation and was the only explanation for how a small Polish force was able to rout Stalin’s Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1920. She is a celebrity and I wonder if that status grew up around the Black Guard who apparently saved Richmond. I will look for a statue on the way to federal court.

Tarrant’s was recommended by the front desk for dinner. I walked a different route then the recommended path to get there, and on the way passed a small backalley establishment with a sign saying “Tarrant’s Take Out.” I went around the corner, to the entrance of the main restaurant, but the prices sent me back to Take Out, where on the table in front of me soon appeared an economical spread, with unlimited space to write in an empty large-sized booth, and no customers to turn on the TV. There’s no need for ceremony when eating alone, and the bright light by the takeout counter made it easier to type. The absence of company made dinner go fast and I was back at the hotel in less than one hour, talking with Rory’s counsel while pacing the hotel courtyard about what I planned to say. We agreed that recollections about school and Rory being a good friend would be helpful. A new point I formed in the train – that the emphasis in the time we entered the work force (late 80s/early 90s) – was money, and that Rory actually responded to these pressures effectively (his conduct briefly made him a millionnaire), is discarded as too nuanced for judicial consumption. After a third glass of Chardonnay I fall soundly asleep, and unusually for me, don’t wake until the alarm rings at 7.

Richmond again made a good impression as I walked to Court, along a shopping street going east-west like Chestnut in Philadelphia. The street was clean, sunlit, lined with historic redbrick buildings but unfortunately empty, and not just because it was 8:30 in the morning. The delicate storefronts seemed to date from the 1920s, with glassbox windows to display wares, decorative floor tiles at the entryways, imaginative floral details in the brick exterior walls. All still waiting for customers. Fashion clothing, art supplies, jewelry, toys, “Richmond’s Television Store,” each had a rent sign plastered where at this time of year, Christmas sale announcements should be. Most stores looked forlorn, as if they have not seen a customer for a very long time. Do they wait out the years conscious of time, or go to sleep until the people come back? The street was likely a victim of white flight to the suburbs followed by twenty years of big-box retail. Big box, which convinced a population that it should purchase large numbers of synthetic items from China and then put them in landfills when they broke, has not been brought to justice.

I got to Court early and was reviewing my notes when Rory suddenly emerged from a door in the wall and was brought to counsel table by two US Marshals. He was handcuffed and manacled in a blue prison suit, with pants leading down to a pair of shockingly red athletic shoes which I suppose he purchased in Mexico. I wave, he waves back and the Marshals allow me to shake his hand. A keen mind and prodigious memory is immediately apparent. Rory asks me about a girl I liked in 9th grade, who I have not thought of in years, then if I kept playing bass guitar. His questions are as if handed out of a time capsule. There was no serious thought of playing bass after I moved to Oklahoma, because cello made me well known, and the better I got the more popular I became. After a few minutes, Rory’s lawyer comes out the same door as Rory, and I turn over the conversation to him. Next to emerge is the Judge, and soon the proceedings are underway.

It becomes rapidly clear that the federal deck is towering over the defense side of this Courtroom, and that I am the only card Rory has. The Judge gives Rory one break, a two-point downward departure because his modus really did not expose anyone to death or serious bodily injury, but gives the government everything else it asks for, stacking up enhancements based on terms including “sophisticated operation” and “criminal mastermind” until the guideline sentence range, if the punishments are all made consecutive, is 105 years in federal prison, until the year 2116. Despite the overwhelming odds of obtaining a life sentence, the government presents the testimony of a sex offender awaiting conviction for failure to register, concerning comments which Rory supposedly made in jail about how to organize a breakout, including a hint that it would be helpful to blow up a police vehicle in the process. This talk between two bored inmates reminds me of two boys comparing notes on an issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine when they should be paying attention in Theology class, a discussion with Rory and I could have easily had in Tenth Grade without intending real consequences. Despite the unlikely scenario described by the witness (which involved him and Rory conversing freely through ventilation ducts under the watchful eye of corrections personnel), and his unsavory past (Roger’s lawyer does a good job getting admissions that the witness is a professional snitch), the Judge accepts that Rory actively planned an escape from federal custody, and adds a further two-point enhancement to the mix.

That left me as the second witness of the morning. After acknowledging that my last contact with Rory was in 1980, I added that in my opinion, the fundamentals of personality are formed by age 16, and that is how old Rory was when we last had contact, in correspondence exchanged shortly after I moved to Oklahoma in April of that year because my Dad found a job there. I remembered Rory for being inclusive, explaining that there was always a place at the lunch table or study hall when he was around. Bringing the testimony to the present, I mentioned how the few minutes of catching up that morning reminded me why Rory had been a friend to begin with — sharp intellect, optimism, and somehow still a sense of humor. To close, I invoked the Quaker teaching that every human being contains some of the light of God, and that while the wattage may vary, this is a difference of degree, not presence. I then asked the Judge to impose a sentence which would not extinguish that light for Rory, a sentence which would allow some hope of eventual release from incarceration. To my surprise, this introduced a theme to which the government and the Judge each responded. The government argued in rebuttal that the reason Rory’s accomplices got involved and were eventually convicted was the same inclusiveness I talked about. The Judge, while stating that he believed people did have an inviolable light of God and that Rory should use his abilities to help others in prison, followed the government’s argument and imposed a sentence of 105 years.

Because my train was scheduled to leave in 35 minutes and I had not yet checked out of the hotel, I was only able to meet Rory in cellblock for about 5 minutes. He said it was actually a relief to get sentencing over with, to now move on to the appeal. I expressed interest in getting involved, wished him well and then got out of the Courthouse as fast as possible. Stuck at a red light while running back to the hotel, I remembered that Bubba had given me his card, and he was at the hotel within ten minutes. The sky above Richmond was deep blue as my Taxi left the curb and I wondered if Rory could see it.

Postscript: The Petition for Certiorari that I filed for my friend in the US Supreme Court in March 2013 follows below.

Day v. United States cert petition final

Lawyer-Cellist Back on Stage

Standing on the platform waiting for the 1:05 to Trenton, I had with me two black containers.  One was a battered rolling briefcase, the bulging legal kind, which carried the tools of my trade – a motion to which I would be filing a response, caselaw to give my argument added traction, the netbook to write it down, a side-pocket assortment of highlighters, post-its and binder clips.  The other container was a cello case, and inside was an instrument I purchased in July of 1987, two months before I started a master’s degree at Juilliard, and two years before I improbably began studying for the LSAT to get into law school.

I needed a better instrument then, but my parents did not have $37,000 to purchase the outrageously fine Italian cello, a Rocca, on which I won the Aspen Cello Competition in 1986.  A teacher lent me the modern Italian instrument on which I played my Juilliard audition, but it was due back by the end of the school year.  I needed to find something quickly, before school started up in the fall, and on a small budget besides.

After playing a three week music festival in the Texas Hill Country that June (young musicians play “festivals” for a roof over their head and three hot meals per day in the summer), I got a ride to Los Angeles, which I heard had more reasonable prices than New York.  It was there, in Hollywood of all places, that I found the cello I still have.  It’s almost Italian – made in Rio de Janeiro by Vicente Lo Turco, who had emigrated there from Naples to make violins, cellos and inevitably, a lot of guitars.  My instrument has the red varnish and big singing sound of an Italian cello.  The art deco label which says “Rio – 1925” ensures that it will never have the trade-in value of a Cremonese cousin, but if this cello could talk, it would tell of green room jitters before going on stage, innumerable auditions, wedding gigs, church music, and the innumerable hours of practice which made it all happen.

Aside from the content, a good thing about a cello case is that you can lean on it.  The top of the case (underneath is the scroll and tuning pegs) fits perfectly under my right arm, and the support makes me bold and relaxed at the same time, an effect which I am told also comes with cigarettes.  Throughout my legal career, and particularly in the early days looking for a first job, I fought the impression that as a classical musician, I would be an undisciplined free spirit, a flower child with a folding music stand.  In reality, we are closer to Marines or gymnasts.  For the performance major, music school is endless training, much of it focused on strength, where striving for 115% ensures that even an off day meets standards.  This musical foundation supports a litigation practice which emphasizes proportionality, accountability, and tenacity rooted in the knowledge that “the show must go on.”

Throughout my big-firm years, I saw well-assembled and persuasive efforts, from briefs to oral argument, lose their spark when someone’s new issue needed to be prominently included, often at the last minute and regardless of the consequences to the whole.  From performance, I know that a simple piece well-played, even a three-minute Gavotte from one of the Bach solo cello suites, will outshine a hastily assembled symphony.  While proportionality in civil discovery is a relatively new addition to the Federal Rules, it has been a guiding principle of concert music for centuries.

To me, accountability means that nobody should be expected to attain an outcome which the boss himself is not ready to achieve.  This is a given on stage, where performance cannot be delegated.  In a law firm, sharing work by dividing responsibilities is essential, but that does not mean the associate becomes an excuse for the partner to lose focus.  Ideally, delegation should be like chamber music, where some parts are more complicated than others, but each is essential to the whole.  My goal is to strengthen the associate’s command over the part they will play, while never forgetting that mine likewise needs to be practiced and ready (without last minute, support staff “fire drills”) before argument.

Last, knowing that “the show must go on” equips me to deal with the unexpected, from the tripod refusing to unfold for the blow-ups I need to show the jury, to the boxes which are still on their way over to City Hall, to the jury pool for my very first trial, who all stood up when I asked them “does anyone think DUI is immoral?”  In Pablo Casals’ memoirs, he told of being so nervous for his first concert in London that his bow shot out of his hand, only to be quietly passed back towards the stage, from one audience member to the next, until the show could go on.  The tough, unexpected moments effectively reveal character and the extent of preparation.

Far from Royal Albert Hall, I waited at 30th Street Station for a train to Newark, for a rehearsal at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.  The occasion was a benefit performance of Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum, a 1963 Stephen Sondheim musical featuring togas and tunics, courtesans and eunuchs, multiple mistaken identities, and a challenging cello part which I was invited to play as largely as possible, since I was the only cellist in the ensemble.  The realized vision of New Jersey Law Journal publisher Robert Steinbaum, this “Celebration of Lawyers in the Arts V” was to benefit the NJ Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, through ticket sales and a gala reception before the show.

I was glad for the invitation to play.  After working up two movements from the Bach d minor cello suite for some church performances in June, I had hardly touched the instrument, the consequence of spending ten days in Poland on legal business, and then catching up with work and client invoices after returning in late July.  Fortunately, shows are ideal for recovering instrumental strength.  When played with alternative fingerings, a repetitive, “nothing” bass part becomes a useful intonation study.  After two, 3-hour rehearsals, I felt my strength returning, and thought of Théodin, King of Rohan, who wakes from an enchanted sleep to be urged by Aragorn that his fingers would remember their old strength better if they but held their sword.[1]  My fingers continued to remember their old places on the fingerboard, my bow pulled straighter, and after two roundtrips to Newark (typing briefs most of the way), the performance on September 14 went well.  It was good to be on stage again, where something always happens differently than planned.

The cast of singing actors, particularly Pseudolus (the slave who earns his freedom by uniting his bashful master with a courtesan pledged to a general) and Senex (the harried husband who briefly rivals his son for the courtesan’s attentions) far surpassed their efforts in rehearsal.  Backstage with the string players, plans were forming for a Metropolitan area lawyer’s orchestra.  A recurring theme in post-performance e-mails was how pleasant everyone was, how we worked for the most part seamlessly towards the common goal, how different this was from the ruder expectations of lawyer work.  In some of these messages I could hear a muted regret for the path not taken.  Yes, it was good to have a larger and more steady income as a lawyer, but high level performance made us younger, like Benjamin Button going backwards through time on a motorcycle.

I did not stay for the cast party, but it was still well past midnight when I returned to Philadelphia after “Forum” came to a successful close.  With a difficult client, answers to written discovery due, an emergency motion and then a motion response, ten days without practicing passed in a blur.  Inevitably, I started up again, this time working on the remaining movements of the Bach d minor suite, which I learned at age 17, and somehow remains intact in my memory.

My participation in “Forum” did not make economic sense, with train tickets and an endless drive to Upper Saddle River for the penultimate rehearsal.  It did not make time-management sense, shutting down my office computer at the last possible moment while conducting a mental inventory of what briefs needed to come with me but still forgetting my music stand.  But as a way to experience energy, purpose, and in the end accomplishment, my participation made all the sense it needed.

© 2011 Richard Hans Maurer

Richard Hans Maurer is a Philadelphia-based trial lawyer, with trial experience in a wide variety of cases, from products liability to 1st Amendment.  After three years as a Partner at White and Williams, Richard formed his own firm, Maurer/Song PC, in June 2011.  Richard can be reached at richardhansmaurer@gmail.com, or at 267-297-5470.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Twin Towers (Peter Jackson 2002).

Crossing into Germany

July 16, 2011

As the train moved west towards Berlin, the land became drier and more vast.  The bogs visible yesterday from the train between Czestochowa and Warsaw were replaced by open fields bordered by pines.  From this faster train, I saw less birch, more oaks and maples, surroundings familiar from central Pennsylvania.  The Oder River between Poland and Germany was no wider than the Schuylkill, and it was strange to think that this river served as a major boundary between two nations for such a long time.  Impossible to think of two mutually hostile peoples facing each other down across a distance no greater than the span of the Falls Bridge in East Falls.

But I think this is part of a misleading historical generalization, fine for propagating stereotypes or selling movies, but a poor substitute for reality.  Today, the maps of eastern Germany and western Poland give each town and city two names, one in each language.  There is Wroclaw/Breslau, Szczecin/Stettin, and more.  And this is how it was for centuries.  Nikolaus Kopernik (Copernicus) spoke German at home, but could get by in Polish, and accepted the local Polish ruler as the sovereign authority.  My grandmother, Margarete Stresemann, spoke German and identified with that culture, but a quick glance at any photo will confirm that she looked far more Polish, or Russian, or something other than what I associate with ethnic German.  My guess is that she understood more than a little Polish to get by in Stettin/Szczecin.  I am sure that a porous frontier is more fun, more vibrant and more filled with ideas than one which is closed off by a wall.  Between Poland and Germany, where citizens of each country do not need a passport or even photo id to cross, the present is returning to the past with excellent results.

Suddenly, a few minutes after the Oder crossing, the signs are in German and I can read them.  The train is now moving much faster, maybe the tracks are in better shape.  I see a highway overpass which looks like any at home, and a small German flag waving amid the cucumbers in a garden fast by the railroad tracks.  After passing a small town with more signs which make sense to me, I see a half-circle of more than a dozen huge power windmills, with massive fan blades turning in the breeze.  We don’t have these in Pennsylvania.

Sunday in Berlin

Sunday, July 17, 2011

(Some of this was written contemporaneously, other parts reconstructed from notes, which explains the changes in tense from present to past.)

Yesterday was good but today was better, although I left my brand new hat in a Lutheran church which I was visiting by chance (beim Zufall). Fortunately I took a weekly service guide on my way out, and plan to write them to mention that I left it. The church sanctuary was incredible.  I took some photos, but they do not begin to do the interior justice.  The conversation started with a woman wanting to know if I planned to post the photos on the Internet for any questionable purpose.  I understood in German, said no, and was then allowed to take as many as I wanted.  It was all very friendly after that, and a member of the congregation explained to me that their church organ was salvaged from a Lutheran church in Massachusetts which was shutting down, and then sent to Hamburg by boat and trucked to Berlin.

The people I spoke with told me the church was about 100 years old, newer than our church in Philadelphia. It is obvious that northern Germany was the center of Lutheran influence, because within one kilometer of this church is another, even larger church and the two come within the same leadership. I saw at least ten other red brick Lutheran churches while riding across the city, each so tall it could barely fit in my camera viewfinder. I had never read “A mighty fortress” in German, and in the original language carved over the church entrance it conveys a more pragmatic message, which goes like this: Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott, ein gute Wehr und Waffen. (in my translation – a tight/tough fortress is our God, a useful shield and weapon).  This is more along the lines of what I need when I get back to the US, better than a “stronghold sure.”

Thanks to my bicycle, I was able to explore the entire city, and the southern part of it, especially Bergmanstrasse, is what I was looking for yesterday.  Bergmanstr. is lined with practical shops – grocery, bicycle, bread, coffee, and of course bier.  The east end of the street goes by a nice park, clean, leafy and no homeless, which today is filled with a flea market selling things you might actually want to buy.  I saw several suits and shirts for very low prices which would be worth getting if I was not getting on a plane tomorrow.  At one end of the park is a combination hotel-restaurant-biergarten.  The location is Marheinecke am Bergmanstr und Friesenstr.  A good place to stay on the next visit.

I wrote most of this while having lunch outside the Biergarten, wondering if there was any chance that the women I spoke with in the Church might pass by so I could ask for my hat back.  Amazingly, they did, and explaining the quandary in German, to them and to my waitress, was a good test of my language abilities.  They knew after a few grammatical blunders (in, not im, etc.) that I was not a native speaker, but my abilities and probably evident determination kept the entire conversations in German.  I told the server that I needed to leave my table for a bit because I had left my hat in the church down the street (that must have sounded a bit off), followed one of the deacon(esses) back to the church, reclaimed my hat, and then had an interesting conversation about the role of women in the Evangelische Kirche.  When I asked if women were Pastors here, she answered emphatically yes, with an expression of mild but friendly insult.

It’s a residential area, far from the huge-scale government buildings and monuments which fill the north part of the City near the Hauptbahnhof.  Bergmanstr. runs east-west, and above the shops at ground level are what seem to be apartments or condos.  The buildings are big, about eight storeys tall, masonry, painted white or pale yellow, grey, or green and in very good condition.  No graffiti.  Several have exterior-facing niches occupied by sculptures of nude (except for their spear) Greek goddesses with German features, suggesting origin in the Wilhelmine era, so maybe these buildings escaped destruction in the war. To me, the sculptures reflect German pragmatism.  Yes, they are incredibly voluptuous and totally exposed, but they preside over a quiet street of people behaving and having an enjoyable day.  The omnipresent bier of Berlin also did not lead to any bad behavior that I saw in two days of almost constant walking and riding on the street.  It all makes me wonder if US puritanism, which would ban or frown on these things, has any efficacy whatsover given the prevailing behavior levels in Philadelphia.

A bicycle is essential to get around this city.  Berlin is huge and walking seems almost hopeless unless one is willing to walk very quickly and for a long time.  Characteristically, I walked a huge distance yesterday, including a jaunt through the entire Tiergarten, starting beyond Technisches Universitat to Winged Victory to the edge of the Reichstag, but I would not recommend this for most.  My hotel is near several Straende, which seem to be the fad of this summer.  Start with a normal outdoor biergarten, truck in several tons of sand, bring in Tiki-torches and umbrellas, and you have a ready made “beach” far from the ocean for beer enjoyment.  I described these to my German tutor, and she had never seen one despite living in Berlin for a few years.  Evidently, they are new.  I went to a Strand late Saturday night after my epic walk, and a half-liter of beer was 6 euros (about $7.50), which is certainly not guenstig.  On my way back to the hotel after one beer, I picked up two large bottles of Berliner Pils for 2 euros each, which was far more to my liking.

Upon returning to the hotel, I watched a fun family movie, a German version of National Treasure which told the story of an unlikely threesome searching for the spear which pierced Christ’s side through many famous destinations of the German-speaking world.  The villian who burns up at the end in an underground sanctuary of the Knights Templar was Juergen Prochnow, and he was an even better Boesemann in his native language.  The film was smarter, historically more challenging than NT, and quite a bit longer.  The subject matter reminded me that Germany was always a center of Christianity, and it remains a big influence on local culture.

I was not surprised, but still pleased to see that after two days in Berlin, my brain started adjusting to German.  I would look at billboards and suddenly understand words which I did not know before, from context and just being there.  I guess this comes from really liking the language and the place.  It was obvious to me that a wakeup call was a “weckruf,” which I asked for and received on my last morning in Berlin.  I would like to come back regularly, and I think my family will enjoy it also.

Warsaw and the Polish Train

I spent July 8-18 in Germany and Poland, on legal business for a client based in Czestochowa.  My notes from Warsaw and the train ride to Czestochowa follow.


I ventured out after checking in and taking a shower.  I had been awake for about 24 hours at that point, but had lots of energy, thrilled to be in Warsaw.  I took a bus from the airport, it was cheap, fast and clean, and I could see more of the city than from the back of a cab.  At about 6 pm, my room was filled with bright sun which looked like three hours earlier in Philadelphia.  My hotel room looked out over a small square with a statute of a statesman, looking over ten skateboarders who were using the stone benches to full advantage.  I did not have a map, and basically followed what looked interesting.  I crossed a park with a sign explaining that large rocks can be found in unexpected places throughout Warsaw.  The sign was in the middle of a rock formation, so I took a photo.

I kept going in a direction which based on the sun seemed east, which I thought would take me to the river Wisla, where I assumed the older part of town would be.  I forgot that in the middle of the summer this far north, the sun sets closer to the north than west.  But the directions did not matter in the end.  I walked through a part of town filled with big buildings, about 6 storeys tall, which had been converted into apartments, or maybe they had always been.  The area was quiet, no stores were open so I could not buy a map.  I passed Chopin Street and then reached a traffic circle where I took a photo of a beautiful Church which came out of nowhere.  I then headed back to the hotel, because I was clearly not going to find Old City without a map, and there were no stores open to buy one.

The hotel had plenty of maps, from which it was readily obvious that Old City was to the northeast, directly opposite from where I had just walked.  The way was simple — stay on one street, Nowy Swiat, until it ended in the circular streets of Old City.  The walk was the most amazing I have ever taken in any city.  There were times when I could do nothing but stop and openly gawk (from the German guck, to look at) what I was seeing.  Ancient buildings lining cobblestone streets, seemingly untouched for five centuries (I later learned that virtually everything had been rebuilt after 1945).  The sun was starting to go down, putting gold light on the old masonry buildings.

Many people were on the street, cheerful but orderly, quiet, and like so much else I saw in Warsaw and Czestochowa, confidently unassuming.  I never felt tense, confused or apologetic for not speaking Polish.  Not wanting to be a pushy American, I began each conversation in German, and if the person was more comfortable in English, then switched over.  I wished for a Polish phrase book, but the people I met were very patient.  I asked at least ten people in German for directions to the Sheraton when I first arrived in Warsaw, but nobody knew where it was.  It was good practice, finally putting German lessons to practical use.

Novy Swiat was lined with places to eat and drink.  At first glance it looked like some places did cakes and coffee, others sold pizza, and others beer, but looking at the glasses on the tables, it was clear that each and every place sold beer, even if sweets were in the window.  My first stop was Bierhalle, where guests on the sidewalk had before them enormous glass Bavarian beer steins, I forgot the German name (“Krug?”), but it was not necessary and I had no problem ordering my own full liter glass of Pils.  I drank while reviewing my map, and then watching the event which had most people’s attention in the well lit backroom, a men’s volleyball game between Poland and Russia.  It looked like the game was going on in a huge hall in Wroclaw, a large city to the southwest pronounced “vroslav,” which really is not far from the German name for the city, Breslau.  After repeating it a few times, it was easy to see how the name could easily go from one language to the next, especially if the speaker was working on a liter of Pils.  The game was broken up by advertisements for other events in the same stadium, including an upcoming freestyle motocross event which looked insanely dangerous.  I asked how Poland was doing, and the terse answer was not very well.

Returning my stein and paying 20 zlotys (a bargain), I resumed my walk up the gentle slope of Novy Swiat.  I still did not feel in the slightest bit tired, and in this the succession of incredible sights must have helped.  A cathedral built in the 1770s, with a sign confirming, with a painting of the same building, that Tintoretto or some other famous Italian had painted in 1778.  I remembered the names from Little Dorrit, proving the educational worth of BBC drama.  A little further up, across the street was a larger church, with a banner devoted to a huge photograph of a gently smiling John Pawel II dominating the middle of the facade.  During the walk, I noted the slight amount and generally poor quality of the street music.  An accordian playing the Four Seasons and Alla Turca, a miked classical guitar playing some new age arpeggios, and that was about it.  It was obvious that my daughters’ band could become huge in this City.  Maybe we should come over next July and stay in the Hotel Bristol, a huge hotel right in the middle of Old City which according to the date inscription had been built in 1899.

As I got further into old city, the streets narrowed and the buildings, still immaculately preserved, got smaller, although still very big by Philly standards.  I rounded a corner and a huge central square, a Piazza, opened up.  A band was setting up equipment on a low-slung stage, and by the banners, it looked like jazz concerts were held here regularly.  I held my camera up to photograph the throngs of people, and thought this was more of a rock crowd (more mental planning for how to bring guitars and amps over by plane).  I did a circuit of the square, and then worked my way back to Nowy Swiat through some back alleys which were not open to cars.  One of the alleys was crossed by an overheard arch with a center window.  I took a picture and then merged back into Nowy Swiat, just down the hill from the banner of Jan Pawel II.  I took the opposite side of the street, passing many more places to have another beer.  I wanted to stop, but really needed a bathroom, and I did not want to start a conversation with an emergency request to use the facilities.  So I headed back down to the hotel and then ventured out again.

A beer garden close to the hotel had caught my eye on my first walk, so I ventured over and ordered a Tyskie for only 5 zl.  I wondered if this means “German,” at least is sounds like Tyskland, the Norwegian word for Germany.  I ordered in German, which seemed to give the owner the impression that I was Russian.  He gave me a beer with a hearty “dos vedania,” which is what the Ukrainian captain says to Dr. Jones in the last installment of the Harrison Ford adventure series.  All eyes by the bar were on the volleyball game, still going on.  I asked in German how Poland was doing, and got back in English “the Russia is stronger.”  Concerned looks all around.

Since volleyball is not an interest, I went to the outdoor tables.  People were talking and laughing in low voices, drinking and smoking.  At my table, the smoke actually smelled good, and I could see a half-moon in the sky, which was still not (it was about 10 pm), completely dark.  After finishing the beer, I went back to the hotel and asked for a ten am wakeup call, thinking I would certainly be awake by then.  However, the next thing which happened was the 10 am wake up call.

I woke up feeling completely rested and went to the Club Room to get some coffee.  My train for Czestochowa left Warsaw Centralna at 12:15 pm.  I had two cups of espresso while checking gmail and there were no messages from home, but a few technical difficulties printing my ticket, which did not get figured out until 11:40.  Fortunately I knew my way back to Centralna, but still ended up running most of the way.  I had put my warmup jacket on, expecting a repeat of the cool temperatures on Saturday.  Instead it was gray and muggy, raining slightly.  Typically, I did not have time to remove the warmup as I ran through the streets, getting to Centralna at 11:55.  I could not find a 12:15 departure on the screens, and eventually asked a younger woman for help.  She spoke English better than German, and took me over to an information booth where she forcefully cut in the line and asked the person at the window what was going on, because her train to Munich was also not showing on the screen.  She got answers, telling me I needed to go to platform 3, and then running off to platform 1.  I thanked her and hurried over to my platform, at this point dripping sweat.

The layout of Centralna was geared for maximum exercise.  It was built in 1972, a time when I suppose the passengers did not have a lot of possessions to take with them on train rides.  After dealing with the main, open ticket floor, the passenger goes down three sets of stairs to a long perpendicular hallway, from which the passenger goes back up two flights of stairs to reach a train.  By the time I reached my platform, I was bathed in sweat.  A few minutes later, the opposite side of the platform lit up with information for my train.  My earlier confusion came from being too early.

How is Centralna different from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia?  Most obvious is the lack of law enforcement.  This is the biggest station in the capital, the equivalent of Union Station in Washington, DC, and I was glad to not see any police officers in the building or around it.  Second, there are none of the long lines of people waiting for a chance to go down (in Centralna it would be up) to the platform where they will wait again.  Instead, people go to the platform when they want to, and the waiting is done in the platform, with no need for someone in a uniform looking at your ticket and allowing you to go there.  Third, places to buy snacks for the trip are sensibly on the platform, and not on the main floor.  In my sweaty rush to the train, stopping for a bottle of water would have seemed risky, and it was perfect to be able to get a bottle of water after getting to the right platform and seeing the sign light up with departure information.


The train to Czestochowa had a Harry Potter set-up, with a narrow vestibule passing by the sides of glassed-in compartments with passengers facing each other from three chairs on each side.  As the train moved south, the city center quickly became suburbs, which in turn became flat green countryside, with orchards, sunflowers and small streams.  Small farms had ducks and huge geese watching the train go by.  Poland looked like Lancaster County with birch trees.

The conductor took tickets, but no food cart (that showed up later).  The other passengers in my compartment are slim and quiet.  Nobody talks, eats or drinks.  Warsaw, with its underground galleries of shops and fast food which pedestrians use to go under (and not through) major street intersections), reminded me of Seoul.  The silence of the train is evidently different.  I take a walk down the vestibule to find that most people in the train are sleeping.  When I went back to the hotel last night at around 10 pm, the generalized Warsaw party seemed to be in the early stages.  The Polish weekend, with most shops closed early on Saturday and Sunday work impossible, is worthy of the name.

There are is no air conditioning in the train, which in any event is not necessary.  Behind each seating place there is a small light, and above that two racks for luggage.  No instructions to emergency exits or evacuation rows.  Each passenger compartment has a functional (as in fully opening) window.  Above the window there is a single fine print warning, in Polish, Russian, French and German.  I focus on nicht hinauslehnen – “don’t lean out.”  It doesn’t say don’t lean out the window because it’s dangerous or have a stick figure drawing of the consequences, because they are obvious.  In the US, these windows would not open due to liability concerns, and on a sunny day like this one, we would be at the mercy of intermittent air conditioning.

We are running at high speed now, and will reach Czestochowa in about 45 minutes.  The ride has gone by very quickly.  The countryside is mainly rural, still looking a lot like Pennsylvania, but flatter and with a lot of birch trees.  Without them and the pines, and after turning up the temperature by about 30 degrees, we could be in Texas.  The three people in my compartment are now each reading.  They have working cell phones but aren’t using them.  They are not eating anything, not even something like the chocolate bar which I have with me.  There are no paper cups, fast food bags, or any sort of trash generated by any occupant of this compartment.  I have not seen anyone on this train but me pounding on a laptop, and I hope this is not annoying.  It is obvious that Poland has far less sources of trash than the US, and this must be one of the reasons why the streets are so clean, that plus the fact that people are better behaved here.

The train has stopped again.  Most buildings in this town are brick or masonry, with large windows and steep roofs as in Germany or Scandinavia.  I have not seen attached houses since Warsaw, and even those were far larger and more solid than Philadelphia rowhouses.  We get underway again and small housing developments can be seen from the train, most of them under construction.  The houses are compact, brick with red orange tile roofs, and arranged in something like circles.  No vinyl siding, no signs advertising the lowest available price, no resemblance to a development as we know it in Pennsylvania.  These houses look like they will be standing for a long time.

The train briefly stops at Radomsko, a small city probably the size of Norristown.  The stations are old, evidently build under communism and allowed to rust since then.  But there are hopeful signs of construction everywhere – an idle cement mixer, piles of block, another half-built house pass by the open train window, from which nobody is leaning out.  Shortly after clearing Radomsko we pass a stream where people are swimming from a small sandy clearing on the banks, their cars pulled off into the shadows of a nearby forest.  More pine trees now and the temperature remains cool.  There are about 15 minutes remaining in this train ride, but I would be fine staying for several more hours.  With a laptop to write with, water and chocolate, I would have no problem taking this train to wherever the journey ends.

Food Addiction

Each of my parents had a love affair with food.  This contributed to the heart surgery and related stroke which took my father, and has caused the diabetes and related foot problems which now threaten my mother with total lack of mobility.  For all of my childhood, “fat” was the defining word for my mother.  For the few years we lived in South Carolina, people were more polite, referring to her as “stout.”  But when we returned to New Jersey, it was back to “fat” again, and indeed, my mother grew stouter each year, drinking a lot of gin.  There were less fat people in the 1970s, and they commented seeing my mother wrest her considerable bulk out of the car at the grocery store.  I remember “how’s it going, slim,” and stares.

Fat was not fixable, because food had become a proxy, initially for my mom but eventually with dad also, for a normal relationship with their spouse.  I think both people craved torrid abandon romance, straight from the movies of their childhood, but there was no opposite in their marriage who could reciprocate.  My mother certainly was not attractive during the years which should have been closest for them, and even if my mother had looked better, my father didn’t form communicative relationships with people.  He enjoyed flirting with waitresses and “joking” (from what we heard of his work, it sounded like “joking” and then “roaring” were primary), but I can’t remember my parents having a serious discussion about anything, without it ending quickly in an argument and tears.

But they could agree on the benefits of a basket of fried clams, so the missing, missed and anticipated other became food, preferably fried, creamy or cheesy, and most enjoyed outside the home.  When they found a place with hot comfort food, they became regulars, going most weekends and paydays until the charm wore off.  The vaguely indecent oohs, ahs and smacking noises when the shrimp, pizza, smothered baked potato, tacos or other luscious stuff came out were gradually displaced by complaints, that the food was not hot (hot was always a priority with them), that the french onion soup was not crusty enough, that the service was not sufficiently attentive or deferential.  Eventually, my parents sought their satisfaction elsewhere.

I saw this sequence play out as a child at Cutters in Morristown, NJ, at a Mexican restaurant in Ponca City, OK where my father thought the owner’s wife enjoyed being called “my little enchi” (his take on enchilada) in front of her husband, and even in Norway, where they expected (but did not receive) the same deferential service as from enchi.  I don’t remember seeing any fat people except my mother in Norway when I visited during vacations in the mid-1980s.  If there were any commments, at least my parents could not understand them.

My mother had long been a diabetic by then, and my father received the same diagnosis as he ate, drank and gradually became as sedentary as my mother.  I took the summer of 1987 off from the Aspen Music Festival, in hopes that regular walks on the beach at Sola would moderate my mother’s drinking, weight gain and depression.  It worked while I was there, but stopped when I left.  Food and drink resumed their reign, and my parents were fine with it.  Given the choice between walks on the beach and dinner with drinks in town, there was never any question which choice would win.   

Now, 25 years later, my father is dead and my mother may be facing the amputation of a foot which seems to have lost sensation and is becoming infected.  During the five months we hosted my parents in Philadelphia, while my father was recovering from inadvisable kidney surgery which hastened his death, they formed a fast, intense relationship with a pizza place down the hill on Midvale.  They ordered several times a week from Halloween through Christmas, raving about the authentic east coast pizza they could not have gotten in Florida, as the greasy pizza boxes collected in the garage.  By winter, the charm began to wane.  We heard about cold pizza, a surly deliveryman, and finally some topping which made them sick.  With pizza as in marriage, they needed to find their delight elsewhere.

Foreign Policy

Three weeks after the Cairo uprising began, we learn that the US, through the conventional wisdom of Hillary Clinton and the administration, was wrong to initially support Hosni Mubarak.   What else is new?  The history of US foreign policy for the past century has been a series of dismal failures.  These could not be questioned while in progress, but afterwards it was ok to wonder how things went so badly wrong, without any seeming obligation to fix the problem.  In the interests of time, two things seem self-evident: (1) the outlook of our government is poorly suited to conducting a perceptive and productive dialogue with other nations; and (2) the US will back the current plantation owner, whoever it may be, everytime.

This may be due to US history.  The colonies were not founded to be the land of the free.  They were designed to be the place of bondage, first for generations of European indentured servants, and after they would not take it anymore, for generations of Africans who broken and far from home, could not effectively rise up.  This was done in the name of maximum profits, first for Virginia tobacco, and eventually for southern cotton.  300 years later, it is as though the US has a genetic memory, and continues to support the current plantation owner in foreign policy.  Character and good behavior don’t matter, as long as the farm is really big.  If the latest failure by so called smart people in office unmasks US policy for what it is, so much the better.  RM

Trinity Lutheran in Germantown

My family and I attend Christ Ascension Lutheran Church (“CA”) in Chestnut Hill.  CA is thriving as churches go – blessed with an exceptional pastor, a congregation which includes at least four other ministers (each with a deep understanding of religion and how Luther changed the church), and a sanctuary of ideal dimensions – unmistakably spiritual, yet small enough to maintain.  The congregation is prosperous, well educated, and sings in tune, plus our cantor and several congregation members are accomplished instrumental musicians.  In summary, CA is an enriching, excellent place to spend Sunday mornings learning about Christianity and faith.  If there is a “best” when talking about Churches, CA gets the prize in my experience.

Today, as part of an outreach program among the Lutheran churches of Germantown Avenue, my daughter and I attended Trinity Lutheran, at Germantown Avenue and Queen Lane.  The most obvious difference is the building.   Trinity is huge, surrounded by a cemetery filled with greening, leaning grave markers, and capped with a rusting, peeled steeple which is easily the tallest structure for many blocks around.  It obviously needed maintenance, a great deal of expensive maintenance, which nobody but the government (not now but in better times) would be able to provide.  I recently saw a picture of a Church in similar exterior condition, but it was located in a depopulated village in the Ukraine, and was vacant.

The next difference was the worship space – a basement area without an organ, with music predominantly supplied by CD.  The impossibility of give and take between the congregation and the digital accompaniment made singing with the small number of available voices more difficult.  At one point, the music for worship sounded like a Barney singalong for small children.  There was no communion, and the service ended in about 40 minutes.  After the service, I learned that Trinity does not have a full time Pastor, or a cantor.  All of this could be improved through greater attendance.

Based on the vast dimenstions of the Church exterior, I asked where the main sanctuary was located, and a friendly congregation member named Michael led Kate and me upstairs.  The main sanctuary was incredible.  At least a 45 foot ceiling, with numerous stained glass windows depicting the life of Jesus arrayed on the sides.   Confirming the German roots of the Lutheran Church, one of stained glass windows had been dedicated to the memory of Katherine Maurer, by her husband, William Maurer.  This was an interesting thing for my daughter, Kate Maurer, to see, whose great-grandfather was named William.

This space was evidently the work of a prosperous, settled congregation, built by local trades, paid by people who could afford the best when it came to religion.  Evidently, this congregation no longer exists, and I wondered, where did they go?  I suppose to the Main Line or a similar area where not so many buildings are empty, where there is not so much trash on the dirty snow, where one does not hear police sirens throughout the night.

It turns out that this main sanctuary has sat unused for the last two years, apparently based on concerns that the congregation is too small for it, and will be lost in the vastness of what looked like a 1/8 acre of wooden pews and the soaring ceiling.  Is restoring worship to this waiting space a mission which is more in line with what we are supposed to do as Christians?  Should we be grateful for CA, which shines in contrast to Trinity, or should we try to fix the latter?  We talk about missions to far off places, yet it turns out there is a mission waiting to happen not two miles from our home in East Falls.  I plan to learn more about Trinity’s situation later this month and will write more then.  RM