Friday, December 10, 2010

Lady Justice Smiles on Smart


What a beautiful word when it's referring to the Brian David Mitchell verdict.

Over the past month and a half I spent a total of two weeks in Utah, observing parts of this trial. I watched the jury selection and a week of testimony including Mitchell's mother, father, sisters, brother and his accomplice and wife (now estranged) Wanda Barzee. I sat in the courtroom with the Smart family, Ed, Lois and Elizabeth. I observed a brilliant, thoughtful prosecution team and a (in my opinion) bumbling, silly defense team. The ring leader, and my new hero, was the funny, confident judge Dale Kimball. In this same courtroom I met law students, guards, federal marshals, journalists, authors and sketch artists; bonds were made, friendships formed.

It feels weird to write that observing this case was riveting, but it was. The compelling kidnapping aspect was certainly one part of it, but there was so much more - the psychological component, the religious element, the judicial system in general, violence against women and children, both emotional and physical.

I remember sitting in court one day and looking around - Elizabeth, the victim, in the front row, Wanda, one of the perpetrators, on the stand, Wanda's daughters sitting a row behind Elizabeth, Wanda's mother on the other side, Brian David Mitchell's sister and brother a few rows behind. I remember thinking in terms of the bigger picture - the ripple effect of this strange yet severe crime on all those people, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, nephews, nieces even outsiders like me. And this was just one crime. At that moment I thought, this case is just a microcosm of what happens every single day in the world - bad people making bad decisions and hurting countless other people. All for what? One person's twisted need for power? A squirrley man needing to feel big?

I was thrilled when I heard GUILTY on Friday morning, but it wasn't until I came home and watched some video online that I was moved to tears. I watched some of the jury, the ones I'd seen interviewed from the start on November 1st, as they spoke to the media. They were intelligent and informed and felt very sure of their verdict. They were disgusted by what they heard and so impressed with Elizabeth Smart's testimony. One juror said it was an honor watching the prosecution at work - and that's exactly how I felt when I was there.

And tonight in an interview Ed Smart announced that Elizabeth wants to finish her mission work in France, finish her music degree at BYU and then start studying for the LSAT test. She wants to be a prosecuting attorney now, and it is my guess that she will be a damn good one. Power to her.

Sentencing will be on May 25th back in Salt Lake City. You can bet I'll be there.

Drawings were done by me in court one day when I sat behind the Smart family. From top to bottom: Lois Smart puts her arm around Elizabeth. Ed and Lois with Wanda Barzee on the stand in the middle of them. Ed, Lois and Elizabeth in the foreground with Judge Kimball and Wanda Barzee in the background.

Friday, November 26, 2010


Our Thanksgiving had:

Instrument playing...

Spoon hanging...

Wall climbing...

Kissing...And of course... delicious food.

I hope yours was just as fun, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The Brian David Mitchell case has been spectacular in so many ways - the good, the bad and certainly the ugly. I've been sending quick missives to a few friends and family outlining my experiences, but as I said before, I'm not going to write too much about it until the court has reached a verdict. Though this has bloomed into such a sensational media story, at the end of the day it is about a young woman trying to move forward in her life, and I don't want to contribute to clogging the blogosphere about it before this story has an ending.

That said, this experience has been very sobering. I can't stop trying to wrap my brain around all the components that lead to the kidnapping and everything that happened during and after. I awoke this morning and found that I chewed through my night guard last night - the one that's supposed to keep me from grinding my teeth in the first place. Normally I would go to the hotel gym and try to exercise the stress away, but I had a little something something removed from my leg last week (benign) and was told "No exercise for two weeks!" by the dermatologist. Boo.

This is where the library comes in.

I had seen it from the outside during my last trip here, but today after court I decided to walk over and do some grading for work.

The Salt Lake City Public Library puts all libraries to shame. Does your library have a double-decker fireplace on each floor?

Does your library have three glass elevators that swiftly glide up the 5 floors? (photo taken from inside the elevator)

Does your library have rooftop photo-ops?

Yeah, mine doesn't either.

As soon as I entered this architectural wonder I sighed a little sigh of relief. I found a great spot with a great view and caught up on some work. I browsed the shelves, people-watched, spoke to librarians.

I had a funny texting moment with my friend Liz where my phone made up words and sent a crazy text (that I didn't check before sending). Her response, "I'm confused, please call me," sent me into such fits of hysterical laughter that I'm sure I looked like THE crazy lady in the library. The laughter was certainly a release from the sobering days I've been experiencing.

I ended up staying for hours, and it felt restorative and right. It was free therapy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Utah, who knew?

A few pictures from my trip to Utah:

self-portrait about to board the light rail after court.

University of Utah campus.

Sunset outside my hotel window.

The temple.

Mormon Tabernacle building.

Hiking in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City.

Al arrives carrying the Olympic torch.

Park City, Utah.

Thursday night rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Federal courthouse.

Petting a horse at Heritage Park.

Al and the sisters at the Beehive House (Brigham Young's house).

Monday, November 1, 2010

Court: Theater of Life

How to describe the feeling when chamber doors opened and Brian David Mitchell walked in in handcuffs, singing religious hymns. First, just the sight of him made my skin crawl. He is little, squirrly,greasy, vacant. He's got the Manson vibe, with longer hair. I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest. The courtroom was silent except for his haunting tunes. I kept wondering how is he allowed to do this? But then again, this is the same person who allegedly broke into Elizabeth Smart's bedroom, stole her and then kept her for nine months, assaulting and abusing her. When the judge finally said that Mitchell needed to leave and watch proceedings on closed-circuit television from another room I was able to breathe easy. Or at least easier.

I just read in the local paper that the lead prosecutor spent time in Bosnia-Herzegovina assisting with criminal prosecutions, and also assisted in the prosecution of Saddam Hussein. His team of lawyers seems whip smart, eager and ready for the case. The defense team, in my humble opinion, seems flustered, bumbling, desperate. Much to my surprise, the two sides seem friendly and often talk with each other at the breaks. I guess I don't know enough about how these things work. I found the judge, who looks a bit like Alfred Hitchcock, to be personable, funny and very, very smart. There are a lot of personalities in that room, even more when you add the perspective jurors.

The court interviewed seventeen jurors today, retaining nine of them. Apparently they need thirty before they can choose the final twelve plus alternates. It might end up being jury selection all week, and if that's the case, I might need to come back at a later date to see some of the testimony. Who knows how it will all shake out. I suppose there's a chance that it could start Thursday or Friday.

I feel funny writing about this while it is just happening, so I think I might lay off the blogging until the end of the case. Also, it's a lot to digest, and I think I may need to take it all in first.

On an entirely different note, I am thoroughly enjoying my hotel's happy hour, replete with generous portions of wine, free massages and very interesting people.

Utah is beautiful and there is already snow on some of the mountains.

This is definitely a surreal trip, but I've already gained so much knowledge.

Tomorrow is election day. Good luck to us all!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fall into Esalen, October, 2010

How do I even begin to explain my most recent Californian adventure? It started in San Luis Obispo, a quintessential California town. I booked a hotel to break up the long trip to Big Sur, checked in at around 5pm and set out to find something to eat. And boy did I find good eats. I found a farmer's market that seemed to stretch the length of the town. I think I stopped counting after 10 blocks. The entire population of SLO came out for this market, including Cal Poly students, families, and even this furry guy.

I arrived at Esalen the next day and checked into the big house - not jail - the big house overlooking the ocean - and attended the teacher's reception, and that's where the fun began. While I noshed on cheese and crackers, the program director kept pouring me white wine. The other workshop leaders attended and were so interesting and charming that I wanted to cancel my class and go as a student to theirs. I was feeling good, feeling confident. It was hitting me hard that I was teaching at the esteemed Esalen Institute. Hey, pass the wine! Yeah, I'm on top of the world. Wait. Who's that who just walked in? I know that face. I know that hair. I was wondering earlier why they were selling Eat, Pray, Love in the bookstore. There she was - Elizabeth Gilbert - toast of the town - sitting at a nearby table. I always show her TED talk to my creative writing students. It is so thoughtful and engaging. I had planned on showing it to the Esalen group. I leaned over to the program director and whispered, "Is that Elizabeth Gilbert?" to which she nodded yes. I asked because I have a cute little habit of thinking I recognize people and being completely wrong. But this time I was right. I was working on glass #4 of the wine which is the only reason I stood up and approached her. Maybe I gushed, I don't remember. I stammered something about showing her TED talk to Otis students. She smiled, and repeated my name when thanking me for approaching her. Or maybe that didn't happen. I don't know. I was toasted.

The rest of the weekend revolved around lots of writing, food and old fashioned hot tub nakedness. Oh, and one night during dinner the Brazillian Dance and Drumming Workshop performed for us, lead by the pregnant leader.

Who is the inner critic? We spent hours trying to figure it out. Probably our parents, and their parents and so on and so on - just embedded throughout the centuries. We wrote to overcome it. We wrote and wrote and wrote. The workshop participants were incredibly talented and funny, all with such different voices and points of view.

It was drizzly and misty, perfect hot tub weather. I had a massage, too. At one point my right leg was over my left ear. Things like that happen at Esalen.

In the workshop we wrote down ideas and put them in a bowl. The participants picked blindly from the pile and had to write on a subject someone else had suggested. Later, I asked them to pick another subject and write it from the point-of-view of the inner critic. I joined in on this exercise. Someone suggested writing about the red sculpture of a woman in the gardens. Here is the sculpture:

And here is what my inner critic had to say about it:

The red sculpture? How am I supposed to distinguish that one from all the other red sculptures around this place? I don’t suppose you expect that sculpture to inspire anything. It’s just some piece of tin, carved out to look like a woman. It sits there in the garden as though it’s some sort of beacon of hope – yeah right! How’s it any different from the purple sculpture on top of this art barn? Or, say, an airplane? Or a soup can? Art is a waste of time. It’s making nothing out of nothing. There’s no something about it. Schools keep cutting their art programs but so what? Who cares about glue and pencils and glitter? When push comes to shove, it’s math and science that really matters. The facts. The numbers. Numbers make the world go round. The almighty dollar – now there’s a number I can sink my teeth into – and speaking of… excuse me, but why aren’t you making more of those dollars. Don’t you know anything about worth? Now there’s some art – a green and white bill with a President slapped down in the middle of it. And it’s perfect because it’s not big and clunky and sitting in a garden. It folds up neatly into your pocket.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Long Time No Blog

In preparation for my workshop at Esalen next weekend I have been reading up on the inner critic. One of my favorite bits of advice comes from this book, which suggests you treat your inner critic, that pesky hypercritical voice, like it's coming from a carney barker - y'know, the guy in the cheap suit at the carnival trying to convince you to enter the tent where the bearded woman resides. You'd probably find it easy to ignore this character and walk on by (perhaps in search of deep fried Twinkies). The author also suggests you visualize your critic as a telemarketer or clown. You get the point. Such a fun way of looking at it.

Two weeks after Esalen I am heading to Utah to attend the beginnings of the Elizabeth Smart trial. I will be sure to blog about it from there. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I'm actually going. It's all for research on my new book.

And finally, since I have nothing more to write about, here is a list of movies I've seen in the past few weeks:

Stone - Went to a screening with my friend Liz. It has all the ingredients of a great movie as it stars Robert DeNiro and Ed Norton, but the plot is contrived and the character that Ed Norton plays is so grating that, although it got high ratings on imdb, I think it's worth skipping.
The Social Network- It was great fun seeing this on opening weekend. Such a great story that had me thinking long after the movie ended.
Me Without You - Rented this from my school's video library. Is it me, or is Michelle Williams the most underrated actress of our time? I liked this movie, which was released in 2001. It's a character study of two friends through the ages.
Conviction - Thanks to Liz I attended this screening, too, and had the privilege of attending a Q and A with almost the entire cast afterwards. Hilary Swank does an excellent job of portraying a woman who sacrifices her life to prove her big brother's innocence. It is based on a true story and definitely worth seeing, in my humble opinion.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Fair to Remember

I hit the carni the other day - the L.A. County Fair. I really didn't expect to have as much fun as I did. From the second you enter the fairgrounds you are assaulted by color:

The booths, the prizes, the people...everything and everyone was awash in pinks and yellows and blues.

Jen posed as a pirate...
Dad popped balloons with darts...

P. rolled around in a hermetically sealed bubble over water...

I took pictures of creepy Hansel and Gretel life-sized cutouts.

But the real coup de grace came when I discovered these little colorful beads... which, when submerged in water for four hours, become...

...marble-sized gooey things which act as soil for plants and flowers.
Just one of the many wonders of the L.A. County Fair!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Out of My Head

Just back from a wonderful but brief trip to the Oaks Spa in Ojai. I've been coming here with my mom since I was around fifteen (at that age I couldn't stand the place - the early morning classes, the fat-free food. I once snuck out to buy myself a burrito across the street. My how times have changed!) It is a little over an hour outside of L.A. so it's an easy escape and twice a year they have a mother/daughter special, so it's affordable. If you can't bring your mother, you can bring a friend and still get the discount as I did a few years ago. They offer fabulous exercise classes from morning to night, wildly interesting seminars, a host of treatments and of course delicious, fat-free meals. But the best part of being at the Oaks, I think, is getting out of my head. Samba class, followed by water aerobics and Cardio Funk is such a nice break from long and sedentary days spent in front of the computer. Who has time to think about plot points and grammar issues when you're trying to keep your feet coordinated in step aerobics?

(blurry self-portrait after day of working out)

(Spanish architecture in town.)

(Adorable Ojai library across from the Oaks.)