Monthly Archives: October 2013

My First (sorta) Book Review

happiness project

I am blessed to belong to an awesome book club that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It may well be the best club ever: not too big or small, not too casual or cerebral. Everything about it is just right. I often steal the line, “a wine club that likes to read”, because we enjoy our libations and fellowship as much or more than our book discussions. There is just one teensy problem with me and my club-I don’t like reading.

Don’t get me wrong; I used to love reading. But something oddly snapped off in the past couple of years. First it was fiction; I didn’t have any interest in novels. One of my club members Diane would say, “You know Angela, she only wants to read if she learns something,” which was true. But I also didn’t have the energy to follow a story. The difficulty came when I started losing interest in non-fiction. It may have been around the time of my Leadership Augusta Board Chair gig; perhaps I was too stressed or something. I could only muster enough attention for a blog or magazine article.

I might be back on track, however, thanks to one book: The Happiness Project. While I am still not entertaining any fiction titles, I did read this entire book-something I haven’t done in a long time. Sadly, I was unable to attend the book club meeting about it, so I decided to share my assessment via blog as a quasi-book review. It may be my first official book review, but with the disclaimer that since I talk so much about myself, it really doesn’t count.

The book is by Gretchen Rubin, who spends an entire year dedicated to the pursuit of her own happiness. The goal is as lofty and esoteric as it sounds. After much research, she tackles the project in a complicated way, which is probably why I can relate to the book. Like me, Ms. Rubin makes things way more difficult than they have to be, which might seem counter-productive to her purpose, but somehow she manages to pull it off.

A warning: if your brain operates like mine, you will not be able to read this book without taking notes. After the author started rattling off multiple lists, I knew I would have to do something to keep them straight: I counted 12 Commandments of Happiness, 12 Resolutions, and 22 Secrets of Adulthood.

So let’s tackle the first list: the commandments. The word itself seems a bit strict for a book on happiness, but that is easily overlooked. More difficult to forgive is the lack of editing, because there should have been seven instead of twelve commandments. “Lighten Up”, “No calculation”, “Enjoy the Process” and “Let it Go” are really all the same message. Likewise “Do it now”, “Do what ought to be done” and “Identify the Problem”.  Of her 12 commandments, the only ones that truly resonate with me include “Be Yourself”, “Enjoy the Process” and “Be Polite and Fair”.

The “Secrets of Adulthood” seemed random and mostly inconsequential, with such tips as “Bring a sweater” and “OTC meds are very effective”. The one I pulled away from this much-longer list: “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in awhile.” So true! It reminds me of another non-fiction book, The Power of Habit. The absolute best “Secret” was #17: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. I wish she would have written the entire book on that one secret. It evokes a Jane Fonda quote from an Oprah interview: “The quest for perfection is toxic.”  I am convinced Ms. Fonda and Ms. Rubin are onto something.

Finally, we have the 12 Resolutions, which are tackled one per month within the given year, in the same way that name-memory game works. The life-changes she makes in January, she has to continue to do when she adds February’s resolutions, both of which must be maintained when March’s objectives are added to the mix, and so on. It seems like a daunting expectation of oneself, and certainly not an easy path to happiness. At this point, I am thinking the book should have been called the “Success Project” or the “Overacheiver Project”. I begin to get tired just from reading about everything she is making herself do.

Somehow I hang in there with her, though, I think because the quest is something that has been on my own mind lately. I certainly would give it a different flavor, but wanting to take ownership of one’s life experience is laudable, no matter the strategy. The only time I find myself skimming the book is when she includes feedback from others who have commented on her blog. I found it difficult to read on my Kindle and determine where her voice stopped and a random blogger’s voice began. I read blogs all the time; I certainly don’t want them excerpted into my first real book in over a year.

I decide that I like the book at 71% (something we never used to say before Kindles). This is the point where Ms. Rubin talks about St. Therese of Lisieux, who wrote a book called “Story of a Soul”. It is an autobiographical work from a nun who died young. In it, she speaks of another nun in the convent who got on her nerves something fierce. Everything this nun did just grated her, and you can picture someone in your own life who bothers you more than you want to admit. St. Therese managed these vexations by “treating the nun as if I loved her best of all.” She showered her nemesis with so much affection, that when St. Therese died, that nun bragged about how much happiness she had brought to the young girl. She went on and on about how she was the favorite, until a priest finally got annoyed and told her the truth.

If there is any “secret to adulthood” or path to happiness, surely it is in the core of this story. Can we find those people and occasions in life that are the most exasperating, and learn to embrace them? Can we seek out the pure joy in everything, or at least take Ms. Rubin’s advice and pretend to? Commandment #3 is “Act the Way You Want to Feel”, because eventually your mind will fall into believing whatever you are telling it. It’s like faking confidence until you become sure of yourself. Ms. Rubin quotes Herman Hesse: “Happiness is a how, not a what”, and I couldn’t agree more.

I think Ms. Rubin was channeling St. Therese when she sends a note to one of her book critics, thanking him for his helpful comments. He replies, in turn, with an acknowledgement of how impressed he was to hear from her. Apparently not many people send positive letters to people who write negatively about their work, and he admired the sentiment behind her gesture. She tells us that her first reaction of his review was to be angry, but because she was at the apex of her happiness undertaking, she knew she had to approach it differently. In doing so, she converts a downer review into a respectful exchange among peers.

If I had been able to attend my book club meeting, I would have told them I liked the book. I would have said that despite some organizational issues and the inclusion of the blog comments, I walked away with nuggets I can use. That is all I ask of a book, anyway. Life is short and time is precious, so if I am going to read, I would like to be better for it. (Diane is right about me.) Beyond the useful nuggets, though, the best thing about the Happiness Project is personal- it got me reading again.  My book club will be pleased.

How to Be an Effective Trial Witness

I’ve decided that despite only serving as a juror for 7 days, I am sufficiently qualified to advise people on how to be a successful witness in a trial. My particular case was a local medical malpractice lawsuit with a combination of paid and unpaid witnesses, but I’m confident that my tips would translate to criminal cases, as well.

It turns out that the expression, “You get what you pay for,” even applies to experts who testify in a trial. There were three doctors hired to review our case: one for the defense, and two for the plaintiff. For some reason it was always the opposing attorney who would ask a question considered quite rude outside the courtroom, “So, how much did you get paid for this gig?”

Ok, well maybe they didn’t ask it quite like that, but the legal teams were indeed curious about compensation and time invested. I was shocked when I heard the first pay-inquiry, directed at a doctor in California who testified via video. He didn’t seem fazed by the question, and calmly announced his rate of $350 per hour. You could see the jury members doing math in their head when the next answer came out: he’d spent over 30 hours on the case. It was beginning to look like the expert witness deal was a profitable venture, if you don’t mind being harangued by lawyers.

In the case of this doctor- let’s call him “Dr. California”- was it worth the money? I would have to give him a grade of “C” on his performance: he gave a decent presentation for the plaintiff but did concede on the defense’s main argument during cross-examination. His presentation was flat, the video was long and tedious, and something didn’t quite translate in the same way it might have if he had made the trip to Augusta. The plaintiffs were spending the money anyway, why not sport out some cash for travel costs? In this particular instance, I’m not sure that the video testimony was a solid investment.

Our next medical expert, however, was worth every penny, despite the $500 per hour fee. This man was amazing. Even if you hadn’t peeked at his impressive CV, you immediately got a sense of his confident authority and intimidating intelligence. He knew the details of the case off the top of his head, and when the opposing attorney tried to shake his testimony, he chewed her up and spit out the scraps. He simply could not be overcome in his articulate assessment and Mensa-level replies. Despite his obvious intellect, he explained procedures such as “nasotracheal suction” to the jury in a way that made us nod our heads in comprehension. He had flown in from Pennsylvania in order to testify live, and the resulting presentation was one of the most memorable moments in the trial. I’ll call him “Dr. Mensa”.

Unfortunately the third paid witness was as underwhelming as Dr. Mensa was overwhelming. This last doctor was local but couldn’t come in to testify until the last day, forcing the judge to allow witnesses to testify out of order. A retired anesthesiologist, he had signed 4 different affidavits criticizing whichever party the plaintiff decided to sue that week. His testimony, at $100 an hour, lacked authority, veracity and vocal variety.  I hate to always drag out the automotive analogies, but I felt like I had moved from a test-drive of a Lexus LS460 to a pre-owned Ford Fiesta.  By the time “Dr. Fiesta” spoke to us on the last day, the jury was so well-versed in the details of the case that we audibly gasped when he answered a question incorrectly.

“How many times did the patient receive a mucomist treatment?” The defense  attorney quizzed him during cross-examination. The rest of us had all committed the charts to memory and knew that there had not been any mucomist given, despite doctor’s orders. Dr. Fiesta wasn’t as well-versed. “Once or twice,” he replied, at which point we knew the testimony was heading down the toilet. “Ok”, the attorney replied, “why don’t you find it for me in the MAR”, he suggested, referring to the medical document reflecting all meds given. “What’s an MAR?” Dr. Fiesta looked puzzled. The mortification continued for another 30 minutes, until the attorney decided that he had buried himself deep enough already.

What Dr. Mensa and Dr. Fiesta did have in common was an understanding of the importance of speaking directly to the jury. After several days of witnesses (nurse, family members) who only spoke to and looked at the lawyer, it was refreshing when the first witness (Dr. Mensa) positioned himself toward us, made eye contact, and spoke to us about the medical procedures as if we were his colleagues. It was respectful and engaging. I understand that the witness stand can be intimidating, but it makes such a difference to have someone look at you when they speak. The only non-paid witness to do so was the defendant himself, who pulled us in with his directness and self-assuredness.

After observing this wide range of witnesses, I have made myself a note of the top 5 things to remember when speaking from the stand: 1-Make eye contact with the lawyer AND the jury. 2-Be sincere and confident in your replies. 3-Answer only the question. Do not expound on the topic if not asked to do. 4. Good posture and open body language helps. 5. Above all, NEVER EVER guess if you are unsure of an answer. If you don’t know, admit it. If you don’t remember, say so. If you need to, qualify an answer with “as best as I can recall”. There is nothing more awkward than a witness being challenged on an answer that they clearly pulled out of their hat.

I cannot imagine that being a witness is a good experience. If you are in court, often something bad has happened to someone. The only way to survive the testimony process with grace is to stay true to yourself, look the jurors in the eye, and hold yourself with confidence. Oh, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you are worth.

Juror #12

I’m not sure why I was so worried that the other jurors would vote differently. I mean, the case was obvious, almost an atrocity of wasted time. If the two legal teams were in a political or sports race, it would be considered a landslide victory or a slam dunk. I knew by the end of the first day how I wanted the case to end, but my fellow jurors were hard to read. We weren’t supposed to discuss the case, and they seemed very cool throughout the whole process.

I, on the other hand, got a little too invested. I was taking copious notes, as if the trial were a crash course with a difficult final exam. By the last day, I had 3 notepads full, each with its own table of contents. For all I knew, I might later need to refer to what witness #4 said on day 3 about Jet Neb treatments. At one point, I shook my head “no” at a question posed to a witness, and the plaintiff’s lawyer glared at me. I feared I would be kicked off the case.

I clearly didn’t know how to maintain the staid poker face of my peers, and could often be seen with my mouth open at some unexpected revelation. For example, my eyes popped out and my lips made a big “O” when I learned that the initial defendant in the suit was actually the nursing staff and the hospital, and not the on-call critical care specialist in charge of the patient at 2 in the morning. Over the course of 12 years, the case had morphed many times: changes included who was being sued, as well as who was doing the suing. The original plaintiff lawyer when the case began was completely different than the lawyer who ultimately stood in front of us, another revelation that left me stunned.

It was difficult not to become riveted by the case. At one table was a wife and grown son who had lost Dad unexpectedly after elective surgery, and at the other was a doctor who didn’t even know this patient died until he was served legal papers as he pruned bushes in his front yard. Throughout the trial, I often furtively peeked at these individuals. The doctor always paid close attention to the proceedings, but with a heartbreakingly sad look on his face. His ruddy complexion exacerbated the appearance of his morose expression, and when I looked at him, the phrase “puppy dog eyes” often popped in my head.

At the plaintiff’s table, the spouse of the deceased held a perpetual sadness in her face, often erupting into tears at any mention of her 67-year old husband. When they married the first time, she was 18 and he was 36. They married and divorced often, and at his death, she was considered his spouse through common law conditions, a point discussed ad nauseum in the trial. With the exception of a tearful but ineffective time on the stand, the son spent the entire trial looking glumly at his hands.

Watching all of them became a source of utter fascination for me. What must it be like to have this type or ordeal spinning through your personal vortex for more than a decade? For the family of the deceased, it was clear that they had their personal issues in addition to the loss itself. They had both seen the patient after surgery, when he seemed to be doing fine. Neither stayed the night in room 510, the epicenter of all of our drama, because they were assured that they could visit again in the morning. By 9am, the patriarch of the family had “coded”, and by the time wife and son were contacted and returned to the hospital, expressions like “coma”, “brain-dead” and “pulling the plug” were being tossed around.

It is difficult to imagine a marraige frought with enough turbulence to cause the couple to re-marry so often, but the most telling revelation about the relationship was the last thing the patient said to his wife before she left room 510 that night: “Don’t worry about me, honey, I’ll be fine.” This statement struck a chord and choked up his wife when she relayed it to us, but not for the reason you think. It was because he used a term of endearment with her. Apparently our patient was not an affectionate or demonstrative type of guy, and in the 30 years they had known each other, he had NEVER called her anything like “honey”. The tragedy hits on more than one level.

Despite the poignant sadness of the family, there was equal distress at the other table. A well-respected medical professional was being accused of the worst thing possible: not caring. The crux of the plaintiff’s case rested on the charge that our doctor, on call during the early morning hours of the crisis, received a contact from the nurse and did absolutely nothing to respond. The implication was that he just blew off the call, didn’t fulfull his obligation to the accepted standard of care, and allowed the patient to deteriorate into a state of respiratory distress. Even after listening to details of the case for 7 days, I still cannot wrap my head around someone attacking the core of someone’s character like that. With each sloppy, inefficient attempt of the plaintiff’s lawyer, I became more and more passionate in my determination to make sure that the doctor was able to walk out of the court with his head held high.

Which brings me back to why I was worried about my fellow jurors. I had no idea how they were absorbing all of this information. Perhaps they weren’t as vexed as me that the careless plaintiff lawyer never made copies of her documents for the defense counsel. Perhaps they didn’t become annoyed at her illogical cross-examinations. She focused on trying to catch witnesses making comments in contrast to their depositions from 6 years ago; she failed to ask intelligent questions designed to speak to the core of her case. “The burden of proof is with the plaintiff”, we heard from day one. We knew she would have to prove that the doctor cared more about money than patients. She wasted hours on topics that failed to prove anything except for her lack of respect for everyone’s time. At one point I even had a flash fantasy of cross-examining her on the inability of her team to find needed documents. I might even challenge her regarding writing questions in advance to prevent repeating them multiple times. But was I alone in my fantasy? Were other jurors equally critical of her proclivity to “leading the witness” or flat-out interupting them? I simply had no way to know, and there was too much at stake.

By the time deliberation day arrived, I was a nervous wreck. I knew we had to make a unanimous decision, and I wasn’t sure if I could be persuasive enough if I were alone with my point of view.  I was fully prepared to cause a hung jury or whatever happens when jurors cannot agree. I knew there was no way in my heart I could offer any money to the plaintiff. I was determined to stand strong.

At first the deliberation discussion lacked focus. People were talking about witnesses and debating about common law. I interupted the debate to say “look, all of this is irrelevant if the doctor is not at fault.” I tapped my heart. “Does anyone not know with a sure heart how they want to vote in this case? Does everyone know with full conviction how you want this thing to play out?” The room was quiet- they looked at me- and I knew. This group is as sure as I am. Now I just need to find out which direction. So I stated that we needed to “go around the table and declare a side”. The foreman started, and quickly we went around the table. For the first time since the case began, I started to breathe easy. We had a chance of this working out ok. The tally was 10-1-1. With a little debate and encouragement, our one dissenter and one undecided swayed over to our side, and the foreman was able to sign the decision paperwork.

Back in court, there was little drama for the first time in 7 days. I’m sure I will share more details about what transpired in later blogs, including all that I learned about the legal and medical worlds. In the meantime, I can re-live the moment the Judge walked over to thank us, shook each of our hands, and released us from duty. Outside in the parking lot, we were able to speak for the first time with the defense legal team, who was clearly elated at the positive outcome. Business cards were passed, promises of calls and emails were made and we all got in our cars for the last time.

While the final result may be sad for the family, I hope they can comfort each other that at least it is over, this 12-year journey. My prayer for the widow is that she meets someone new, and that it is a person who will fully appreciate her, and call her “Honey” every single day. To me, that would be the best happy ending possible.

Wish List


The girl from the Rape Crisis Center called me back today. I had left a message that I was interested in hearing her “wish list”, supplies that her agency uses on a daily basis. As she read off her needs, I could picture each of the items not just being used, but being extremely significant in a moment of crisis.

“We need gallon ziplock bags to put together emergency care kits,” she explained. It is easy to imagine that soaps, shampoo and new socks would be appreciated, but as she spoke further, my mental image became more detailed. “We need Kleenex for our counseling offices. Also, it is getting colder now, so it would be really helpful to get hooded sweatjackets.” I envisioned a counselor or volunteer offering a tissue to someone in tears, or the hoodie to someone needing comfort. It made me want to corner the hoodie market, and buy all of Walmart’s Kleenex supply, so that every one of their clients would have these small gestures of support.

Buying items of necessity for non-profits does a couple of different things. Most obviously, it saves them money, because they don’t have to spend their dollars to get the needed supplies. Of course, it also saves them time going to the store, so that they can be more available for direct programs.

But the reason I most like getting a charity’s wish list is to help with awareness. The public sometimes doesn’t have a full grasp of what it takes to run a non-profit. I remember when I volunteered at the CSRA Humane Society, I was blown away at how much kitty litter it took to run that no-kill shelter! They would send a couple of strong volunteers to the store in a truck, and when they returned, it was all hands on deck to help unload and put up the supplies: gallons of bleach, huge containers of food, heavy slabs of bagged kitty litter and large boxes of laundry soap. Think of how much we all dread shopping for the two or three pets we have at home, and multiply it times 100! It’s quite an expensive ordeal.

Knowing this, many volunteers started getting in the habit of picking up extra pet supplies while at the store for themselves, and would bring some of these items with them when they came to work at the shelter. It was such a blessing! I thought, let’s get everyone in the habit of doing this for the causes that are important to them. We all go to the store several times a week (Target is my personal mother-ship), so with a little encouragement, perhaps we will think to toss a few extra essentials into the basket.

During the holidays, when non-profits feel the strain of helping families more than ever, it is an ideal time for volunteers like you and me to keep a few charity wish list items on our radar. That is why, for the past couple of years, I have coordinated a drive for my dealership called “15 Gifts of Christmas”, a chance to people to buy presents for the charities. We put a huge Santa sled in the showroom, and put out decorative bins for visitors to drop their donations. Here is a past blog about the project: .

We are finalizing the 15 items we will collect for agencies this year, but in the meantime, here are some thought-starters for your consideration. Some are holiday-based-any charity helping families needs toys- while others are year-round essentials. So the next time you pass by the aisle with kleenex, soaps, or hoodies, consider tossing a couple extra items in for donations. Or consider getting your church or civic club to do a group donation drive. No matter what time of year it is, you can bring the gifts to the dealership and we will make sure they go to a good home.

Ronald McDonald House always needs: paper towels, laundry detergent, 10 oz. insulated cups, twin/queen mattress covers(cloth, washable), laundry baskets, toilet paper, games. Salvation Army needs twin sheet sets, laundry soaps, small toiletry items. SafeHomes needs stuffed animals, diapers and baby care items. Heritage Academy needs hard-backed books, especially for grades 3-8. And finally, ALL non-profits need office supplies!

I look forward to hearing what you think about the non-profit wish list idea, and to seeing the Santa Sled fill to the brim!