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God's Gift

Lawyers, after getting what they want in a trial, often strut about as if the entire result was due entirely to their skill as advocates. I certainly know a number of lawyers who feel as if they are God’s gift to the court room due to their polished oratory.

To those people, I would direct their attention to juror #4.

I don’t know the gentleman’s name, and even if I did, I would not share it. I only remember him as juror #4. I was defending a client on trial for driving under the influence. Juror #4 was an older fellow. I can’t remember exactly what he grew, but I remember that he was a farmer. He had a threadbare, white cotton shirt and a bald head that shone in the fluorescent lights of the court room. His large jaw stuck out a bit, and seemed to constantly worry over dip that may or may not have been there during the trial.

In this particular case, I recall that the facts were not particularly good for my client. I did not have much good evidence to give to the jury.

What I did have was a speech. Before my practice of law, I had a lot of theater background. As a child and young man, I did everything from Shakespeare to contemporary plays and musicals. I am not an astute legal analyst, nor a particularly shrewd negotiator. I can’t sweep people off their feet with my charm, and I certainly can’t intimidate them with my money or my influence (I don’t have either). But I can give a speech.

I recall spending a lot of time preparing this speech and rehearsing it before the trial. My word choice was careful, and seemed poignant. I moved appropriately, but I did not pace. My theme touched on all the relevant evidence. My discussion invoked a lot of powerful concepts: justice, doubt, and humanity.

When the time came, I delivered it with all the verve and force I could muster. I recall the prosecutor’s own closing argument being fairly dry and to the point. I’m not sure it was an argument so much as a rather mundane discussion of the jury instructions. Examining the jurors, I certainly did not perceive them to be giving the prosecutor the same rapt attention that they gave me. (Please remember – this entire narrative is filtered through my own ego.)

The jury went out to deliberate. They were in the palm of my hand. I could feel it. They came back half an hour later.

Guilty as charged.

Once my guy got sentenced (and left the court room in the company of a few bailiffs), I had a discussion with the jurors. Some attorneys are not willing to do this, but I think it is really important. I’ll take feedback from anyone. And I am especially interested in the feedback from the people who have actually been subjected to my trialcraft.

At this point, when asked, juror #4 provided me with true illumination. I have to render this exactly as it was said to me, because he might has well have engraved these words into my mind.

“Son, you gave a real nice speech… but that sumbitch was guilty as hell.”

With that, he inclined his bald head, walked out of the courtroom, and into my memory. That experience illustrated something to me which has never left me, and which I try to transmit to other people. I try and phrase it a little differently than he did.

Evidence wins cases.

Plain and simple. Take the most polished, eloquent, evidence-savvy lawyer out there and pit him against a homely, witless attorney that has significantly better evidence supporting his position, and homely will win more times than not. Good theatrical skills might give you an advantage in the ones that are really close calls, but ultimately, no amount of polishing is going to turn a piece of dirt into a diamond.

Bearing that in mind, I don’t agree with acting like God’s gift to the courtroom because you won a case. It is more likely that the facts swayed the jury than it is any particularly well-shined piece of B.S. you marketed. (And I’m not saying don’t take pride in a good job – just appreciate exactly what your role was in the whole process.)

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. “Walk a single path, becoming neither cocky with victory nor broken with defeat.” I think this is particularly apropos to trial work, because you have very little control over what the facts are in any given case, and while they may be great for you on one occasion, you may find yourself trying to sail a burning, sinking ship the very next day.

Losing a dog of a case doesn’t make you a bad lawyer, and winning a no-brainer doesn’t make you a good one. I think the truth of any lawyer’s worth is found in the niceties of his practice. What is his mastery of the law, his rapport with his client, and his sense of appropriateness in resolutions?

Somehow, it is always the little things that tell you the truth.
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Diplomas, Ranks, and Certificates

For my entire professional life, I have adopted a habit from my martial arts teacher. He was a medic for twenty-five years, and he has been a martial artist for longer than that. You would think that he would have various ranks, certificates, and awards fit to plaster the walls of his home. And he does... except that they aren't plastering his walls. A quarter-century worth of hard work, accomplishment, and aid to others is unceremoniously stuffed in a small drawer in his guest bedroom.

When I first discovered this, I was more than a little amused, but as I thought about it, the idea started to grow on me. Like a difficult novel or a fine piece of art, I think humans are perhaps most interesting when all of their beauty isn't easily accessible on the surface. There is something profound in having to look deeper to really appreciate something. There is something humble and spiritual in putting aside the desire to show others how accomplished you are, and instead have your actions do all the talking.

For these reasons, I have established my own "rank drawer". It currently contains all of my college and law degrees, all my awards for trial advocacy, all my rank in martial art, and every thank-you letter and certificate of recognition I've gotten in the course of my career.

I recently decided to dispense with my rank drawer and break with my teacher's habit.

Don't get me wrong. I still agree with everything above. And if I were a paramedic and a martial arts teacher, I would keep to the rank drawer.

But my circumstances are different. I am a public defender. I have a large number of clients, and they are expected to walk into my office, meet me for the first time, and in some cases, trust me with the next twenty years of their future and their freedom. All after a twenty minute conversation.

If you think about that, it is more than a little unnatural.

How much time did you spend talking to someone before you bought your last computer? I bet it was more than twenty minutes. In my estimation, twenty years of someone's life is worth considerably more than a computer.

In a perfect world, I would spend enough time with my clients that I could keep all my diplomas, ranks, and certificates hidden, and they would come to appreciate me based on my actions.

Unfortunately, I don't live in a perfect world. I don't have that kind of time. With the size of our caseloads, triage is a way of life for public defenders. My contact with my clients has to be concise, effective, and productive. Before I have any productive discussion with my clients, I have to help them get a hold on their fear and anxiety. Visual symbols, like all those fancy diplomas, help do that. They provide a visual re-assurance that the person sitting behind the desk had to go through a lot in order to sit behind that desk. It helps to build the tenuous bond of trust enough that we can actually get down to the serious business of figuring out what the hell is going on with a particular case.

So, I am ok with putting all my rank on the walls now. I'm not doing it to toot my own horn. I'm doing it to help do my job. I don't think there is too much "ego pollution" in that rationale.

Interestingly enough, I discussed this whole issue with one of my friends after writing this. "Pat," he said, "Maybe there's another reason you've been reticent to put up all your diplomas and stuff."


"Did you ever think that maybe you don't want to be put on the spot? Think about it... when people see all that stuff on your wall, they will expect you to live up to ALL of it, each and every time. Maybe you were nervous about creating high expectations, because it puts pressure on YOU."

Did I mention that I hang out with some smart people? I think that my friend is right... but I also think that I'm ready to be accountable for everything I'm supposed to know.

So I'll be looking into frames this afternoon.
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Exciting Times!

So, we're in the hospital. They're inducing in the wee hours of the morning. Our son is going to be born on Halloween.

Can we say, "Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden" anyone?

Thank God my Batman shirt is clean. The first masculine things I want my boy to experience are ME and BATMAN.

- Ken
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It's done!

Well, after MONTHS of laboring and learning weaving techniques, here is the scale dice bag!

You want to know something really screwed up? I'm making another one because I can do it better and fix a few things I don't like about this one. Someone is getting a bizarre gift in the near future...

- Ken

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Wasted Thinking

It is perhaps ironic that I’m writing a post called “wasted thinking” on the eve of a departure to my alma mater town, Gainesville. I’m sure I’ll do a wealth of “wasted thinking” there, but I doubt it will have anything to do with what I’m about to write.



Not terribly long ago, my teacher in martial arts moved to North Carolina, leaving myself and the other senior student with the teaching responsibility. My teacher, wily bastard that he is, spent the year prior to his departure throwing the two of us into teaching roles time and time again. I can’t say that I’ve become a master teacher in that time, but I’ve done enough of it to draw one conclusion:


Teaching is educational as hell. I don’t think our students really appreciate that we’re learning more from them than they are from us.


Case on point: the wasted thinking principle.


It goes like this: I came to a realization this year that there is absolutely no movement or behavior in our entire martial arts curriculum that a normal, reasonably healthy person couldn’t perform. In fact, most of our movements are so ordinary that almost everyone has performed them at some time or another in their lives. Some martial arts, like Okinawan karate-do, involve specific body modification. Abdominal muscles are hardened into slabs to absorb blows. Scar tissue is built into knuckles to make them more effective bludgeoning instruments.


Aikibudo has none of that stuff. The founder of aikibudo famously said, “If you’re healthy enough to open a door and walk through it, you are well enough to do my aikido.” (Note: that’s an approximate translation. I’m not motivated enough at 8:00 a.m. on coffee #1 to actually look the damn thing up.)


I used to think this type of saying was, like some of the founder’s other gems, bullshit. The sort of thing you’d use to advance the purpose of an organization and get more bodies on the mat to generate more training fees. However, as I’ve come to understand the physical principles of the art better and better, I now believe that what he said about door opening is true. (This belief has been fostered by a number of experiences, too. The most exquisite one was getting totally beat by the founder of my system… who has bad eyesight, a blown hip, bad knees, and is overweight. He literally kicked my ass, one-handed, using a clipboard. If you’re wondering, the other hand was being used to totter around on his cane.)


Suffice to say, it’s true… there’s nothing in my system that your average person can’t already do. No flying crescent kicks, no punching through cinder blocks. Just normal, natural human movement in aiki.


Of course… there is a catch. Mastery still takes a life time. The reason is that, despite the normality of these movements, knowing exactly when to do which specific movement takes a life time. Look at it this way: any schmuck can cause an explosion. Only someone with a good engineering background can bring down a massive building with one.


That said, there gets to be this weird dichotomy: my students already know how to do virtually everything I teach!


And yet… they don’t. At least, they can’t do it whenever they want to.. The biggest stumbling block?


Our minds.


Case in point: Nelson. Nelson is a sixty year-old man from Venezuela. He is remarkably strong and remarkably stiff at times. This all becomes problematic in the context of aikibudo. It screws with the effectiveness of his techniques. All that upper body tension disconnects him from his hips, which are the real source of power.


When we would stand apart from each other at the usual kata distance, I could just see the gears in his brain working, and as a response, his body would start solidifying. (I could practically see him thinking, “I must do this right! I cannot fail! I will not fail! Aaaargh!”) Predictably, his stuff would be very rigid and not very effective.


We have coached him on relaxing again and again and again.


And again.


To no avail.


But one day, I had a flash of insight. I figured out how to use his body to “hack” his mind. We were in the middle of a particularly long, frustrating bout of working with his body tension. Finally, I stopped and jogged into the dressing room and got my ipod. I hooked it to the speaker system in the dojo. (At this point, everyone was looking at me like I had finally lost that last little scrap of sanity.)


I threw on James Brown’s classic, “I feel good”.


And promptly started dancing to it. Right there in the middle of the dojo, in front of the picture of the founder, while wearing black belt and hakama. Nelson seemed more than a little stunned… until I made him do it with me. Then he seemed really confused. To his credit, he went with it, though. (Admittedly, though, that was the first time I had seen someone salsa dance to the Godfather of Soul’s stylings.) Something about the dancing unlocked Nelson’s tension. I could literally see it release in the muscles of his back. You could tell that his mind was no longer fixated on absolute perfection and victory.


After a few minutes of getting down (as much as a white kid and an older Venezuelan man can), I put him back in place while the music was still playing. Instead of his usual approach, which is very rigid (he’s thinking “I must do this perfectly or the world will end!”), he kind of diddly-bopped over to me and nailed the technique. Brain-block was gone.


So gone that he did it eight or nine more times in a row.


And then we all started dancing in earnest, celebrating what Mr. Brown so sagely proclaimed all those years ago… because we did feel pretty good. I even started doing that ankle-wiggling thing. One of the students shouted, “Ken, do the split!”


To which I joyously responded, “Die in a fire!”


One of the most beautiful parts of dancing and music is that we don’t think so goddamn much, and I will tell you (not only in aiki, but in all endeavors) it is absolutely astonishing what you can accomplish when you stop letting your mind get in the way.


And that is the wasted thinking principle. Most of the time, we all think way too much. That onslaught of thought and self-fixation keeps us from using 100% of our minds and bodies to actually accomplish what we are trying to do. That is one of the real points of high art in what I do.


You spend the first part of your life learning how to think. And if you are really willing to put in the work, you can spend the second part of your life learning when not to.