Just Another Normal Christmas Tradition

The Christmas Noosky in 2020. I found it when we were cleaning my parents’ house before it was sold earlier this year.

“You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I were normal.” Those were my mother’s words whenever I would get frustrated with her behavior.

“Normal is boring,” is another one. Like most things in life, in hindsight, I have to admit she was right.

This time of year, the world is in a state of chaos making holiday plans. Christmas decorations have been meticulously hung around our houses, and families come together to spend a couple days together in celebration. Every family has their own holiday stories, and a lot of those stories involve loved ones who are sadly no longer around to celebrate. Some families probably tell about the time their kooky uncle, filled with too much Christmas cheer, told inappropriate tales about their aunt. There’s always that one relative who can’t help but give the absolute worst gifts. Me? I have a bittersweet relationship with Christmas. We’ve had some wonderful times in our family, to be sure, but not without some bumps along the way.

My Christmas memories start like most who came of age in the mid Seventies. It wasn’t Christmas until I dog-eared pages and pages of toys from that most hallowed of holiday publications– the Sears Roebuck Wishbook. Thanks to the Wishbook, I would rise at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day with the hope Santa had left a ton of Minnesota Vikings gear in my living room. As you might imagine, all of the Vikings swag made me the envy of every elementary school kid in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Or not.) My parents would wipe sleep from their eyes, and slowly trudge to the den where we would open presents just like every other family. My dad would always get cookbooks and shirts, and my mom would almost always get a new bottle of her favorite perfume. Besides my Vikings gear, I remember my older brother giving me his collection of Hardy Boys books one Christmas, but not before leading me all over the house on a scavenger hunt. I never knew my mother’s father but I know he used to give Mom $100 every year on a whiskey bottle. How do do I know? Because Dad used to put a $100 bill on the same bottle of V.O. every year and wrap it under the tree for Mom to keep alive her father’s traditional gift. Our Christmas traditions were our Christmas traditions until they weren’t. (For many years, we visited relatives and clients all over the county on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for various holiday gatherings. I remember one year Dad brought me downtown to Rubenstein’s Department Store on Christmas Eve around 4 p.m. to “shop,” but I don’t recall him buying anything. I do recall him having a couple drinks with his friend Irving, and I had around 10 cookies waiting for them to stop talking. That same Christmas Eve, we then made a trip 25 minutes west to Rosedale to my dad’s aunt’s house for her family’s Christmas party, and Dad and I were able to get a little more bourbon and cookies, respectively. We ended the evening enjoying the Aguzzi family’s annual Christmas party, and I don’t recall anything eventful happening there. Well, other than I am fairly certain that last stop also involved more bourbon and cookies. As I recap that night now, I finally know why Dad never wanted to rise at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning.) At some point, Mom decided Christmas brought forth too many painful memories from her past, so we had to abbreviate the holiday festivities.

[Before going any further in this little story, I should first probably make everyone aware that my parents were extreme “cat” people. Growing up, we always had two or three cats around the house and my mother was known for feeding stray cats downtown by my father’s law office. Mom even had the local newspaper write a long article about her feeding the downtown cats- the pinnacle of small town fame. When I was about 15 years old, one of our cats had a litter of six kittens. Usually, despite his love of cats, Dad made sure we had homes for those kittens almost simultaneous with their birth. But this time, one of the kittens, a grey striped tabby tomcat with a pink nose, took a liking to me. From the moment the little cat opened his eyes, he gravitated to me. Every night, I would take my usual television viewing spot on the floor in our den and this little grey ball of fur would lay on my chest and purr loudly while I rubbed his back. After a couple weeks of this exercise, Dad told Mom we were keeping this new little cat because “that kitten should be able to stay with the boy he loves.” (Notice Dad framed it in favor of the cat, and not his son.) We named the tabby “Nagin Avalonni” after an Italian pen pal of Mom’s, and the cat quickly took over our home as if he were in charge. (The foreign pen pals are another story.). Nagin strutted around our house and ate pretty much anything and everything. He grew to be quite obese, mainly due to his aversion to outdoor exercise. As his waistline grew, so did his demands. He would jump up in my lap, and immediately start pawing at my hand to rub his belly while he purred and passed noxious gas that would almost make you choke if you were in the general vicinity. At some point, Dad coined him “King Noosky,” and explained to Mom and me the Nooskies were a special breed of striped fat cats throughout the world and Nagin was their King. As I look back, Dad’s creation of the Noosky legend is probably solid proof of the old adage “if you can’t beat them, then join them.” Rather than fighting, Dad just joined in the craziness that was our house.

What does all this cat stuff have to do with holidays, you might ask. Be patient. You will find out very soon.]

After Mom had what I would term a nervous breakdown during my late teens, she decided we would no longer have a Christmas tree at our house. Her reasons were long and many, and I won’t delve into her reasoning in this story. I was at an age by then that I wasn’t wishing from the Sears Wishbook anymore, but I still wanted a Christmas tree. Everyone else had a tree, but I also knew that not everyone had my Mom as their mother. Dad resigned himself to no Christmas tree, and it was what it was. Like I said earlier, Christmas brought back bad memories for Mom, and we were all trying to do what we could to just get through the holidays without a disturbance. (As an aside, mental illness is real. Don’t forget that.)

After a couple years of our treeless Christmas tradition, Mom found a grey and white striped stuffed plush cat sitting on its hind legs one afternoon while she was shopping one afternoon on QVC. The cat’s stomach lit up in the middle like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial while its little paws flew up and down like a stuffed Chris Farley. Unbeknownst to any of us, Mom pulled this little creature out of a box as soon as it arrived at the house, put a little red bow around its neck and placed it on the couch in the den. We later found out she named it the “Christmas Noosky,” in honor of our cat Nagin who was still ruling the roost.

Dad and I were both unaware of the Christmas Noosky’s existence until a couple days before Christmas when Dad and I both came in the back door at the same time late one afternoon. He had a couple wrapped presents under his arm, so I held the door open for him. As was Dad’s custom after a long day at the office, he poured himself a tall drink in the kitchen, and then walked into our living room to unwind. I walked in the den shortly after he did.

Both of our eyes immediately went to the warm yellow glow emanating from the top of the couch. In the darkness of the den, we clearly saw the vision of a glowing, stuffed grey and white feline. At its paws, Mom had placed wrapped Christmas gifts.

Dad took a long pull from his scotch, and looked over at me.

“Son, your mother has put a stuffed animal on our couch.”

I nodded in return.

“And we are now putting presents under it instead of using a Christmas tree,” Dad finished.

“I noticed.”

Dad shook his head slowly, as if he had lost another one. He lifted his cup for another drink while he stared at the glowing tabby pumping his arms like a stuffed track star. Finally, Dad let out a sigh, shrugged and placed both of the presents in his hand at the toy’s paws.

“Well as long as you know what we are doing. It makes sense to me.”

Dad then sat down in his chair and began reading the evening paper with a bemused look on his face. Every now and then, he would peer over at the Christmas Noosky and chuckle. Mom came down the hall from her room shortly afterwards for dinner, and life was normal.

Or as normal as it could be around there.

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Championship to Cure A Hangover

Delta State University- 2000 National Champions

One day and twenty years ago, Andy Mundy and I loaded up a car about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and headed towards Florence, Alabama. The Division 2 National Championship was the next day and our alma mater was, against all odds, playing for the big trophy against Bloomsburg University. Conventional wisdom tells you Florence is only about 4 hours east of Cleveland, Mississippi but Mundy and I have never been much on conventional wisdom. So, after somehow going through Jackson, we rode the Natchez Trace up to Florence and arrived at the hotel around 10 that night where we found a newly married George Bassi and his wife waiting in the lobby with a cold drink and the desire to go find something to do in the Shoals.

We discussed our entertainment options with the hotel concierge. (Ok, who am I kidding? We asked the woman at the front desk of our Holiday Inn where we should go for fun.)

“Well, do you want to go dancing?” the lady asked. She was on the telephone and talking to me in between smacks of gum and spitting quick words into a phone receiver. “I’m on hold,” she assured me.

Do Andy and I look like we want to go dancing, I thought.

“No ma’am. We want to go somewhere and have a few drinks before we go in,” I explained. “We have a late morning kickoff tomorrow.” I was kinda proud of my mature response. After all, I had been a lawyer for over a year.

She nodded at me, wrote the name of a place and an address on a sheet of paper and pushed the paper across to me.

“Just down the road.” The desk clerk/concierge motioned her hand towards the front door. “Perfect for y’all.” Considering she had never laid eyes on any of us before 30 minutes earlier, I had a little doubt she knew what would be “perfect” for us. As we walked to the car, I have never felt more like the dudes on Police Academy being sent to the Blue Oyster than I did at that very moment. But we were thirsty after a 4 hour car ride that took 7 hours, and we probably would have gone to Lucifer’s Lounge if it served cold beer.

Three blocks down from the hotel was a strip mall with a parking lot filled with cars. There, we saw a neon sign proclaiming the name of our chosen destination, or rather, the night’s destination chosen for us by the lady at the Holiday Inn. Like I said, there were lots of cars outside so we weren’t the only people with the urge to grab a beer or three on a Friday night in Florence.

Once inside, we found an old fashioned country and western honkytonk with Hank, Jr. and Merle providing the club soundtrack via a DJ booth. Through a smoky haze (yep, you could still smoke in public back then), we could barely make out a checkered dance floor filled with couples twirling their cares away. We moved to an empty booth in the corner of the place and immediately started drinking beer. Lots of it. We caught up on each other’s lives in the way old friends who haven’t seen each other lately do, and we reminisced about some of our favorite football stories— most illustrated how bad Delta State had always been at football. More than once that night, we expressed our disbelief that Delta State University, perennial doormat and the team no one cared about, was now one game away from a national championship. I would say the more we drank, the worse we became at football back in our day, but we were pretty damn bad without the help of alcohol as a memory aid and story embellisher. It was a great time toasting our football success and of course, George’s newlywed status.

About 45 minutes into our merriment, George got up and excused himself to go to the restroom. When he asked our waitress for the whereabouts of the bathroom, she pointed, “Go around the bar and through that closed door. Be careful.” Careful? Did she say careful?

George disappeared around the bar and then reappeared barely two minutes later wearing a broad grin like he had a secret.

“John, come with me.” George jerked his head towards the bar.

Don’t only women go to the bar in packs?

“You need me to come with you?” I asked. “Are you scared to go over there?”

“Oh no. But you have to see this to believe it,” George assured me. “Just come on.” He walked around the bar.

I guess I was curious so I followed George. I rounded the bar and shuffled toward the closed door.

George waited for me at the door and then opened it with a grand flourish. I walked past George into this other room only to be greeted by the sound of loud techno dance music. Loud. And techno. The room was lit with a black light, and sweaty people in leather were dancing, or actually grinding, with even more sweaty people in leather inside of large cages. The only comparison I can make is it reminded me of the old 616 club in Memphis in its vibe and urgency. Goth-looking people with chains and tattoos were standing around the bar, and in my blue Oxford button down shirt and pressed khakis, I have never looked more like a new lawyer in my life. I practically screamed, “I’m from the Grove! Have you seen Muffy and Alistair?” to every techno rave kid that passed me staring at me like I was the odd one.

George and I soaked in the techno a little bit longer before we decided to move back over to the other side. We were just sitting back down with Andy when we noticed our fellow DSU alum Ken Causey walking by our booth with an uncharacteristic spring in his step. Ken is one of the funniest men alive on a sober day, but add up our long car ride, the 4 beers we drank, and the fact there was a goth techno bar in a side room of a country and western bar in Florence, Alabama, and Ken is a fucking hilarious entertainment option. We yelled at Ken over the George Jones blasting through the soundsystem and waved him over to our booth.

Ken sat the end of the booth and eerily eyed us very similarly to the way Jack Nicholson leers at his family in The Shining. He stopped our waitress as she was walking by the booth.

“We need four shots of Jager. Now.” Ken demanded. No smile. All business. The night just turned weirder.

The shots arrived shortly and the smell of Jagermeister rose through my nostrils on a rapid elevator ride to my brain. Aren’t we too old for this? Can we just have a fruitier shot instead? Do people use this stuff for cough syrup?

“Drink,” Causey instructed. So we drank and I tried not to gag on that nasty shit. Ken finally broke the silence of three young men trying not to puke with a knuckle rap on the table. Ken looked at us as if he were about to unfurl the nuclear codes.

“The first time we score tomorrow, we are going to kick an onside kick,” Ken predicted. “We are going to get that kick. Then we are going to score again. At that point, those fuckers from Bloomsburg are playing catch-up the rest of the day.”

We all laughed at Ken’s prediction but he didn’t laugh. He just stared at each of us. So we quickly went back to telling old stories about football to change the subject. We drank until the bar closed and somehow found our way back to the hotel in the middle of the night.

Fast forward approximately 9 hours later to the championship game.

On a gorgeous day for football in Alabama, Bloomsburg scored first. We scored next. Then damned if we didn’t kick an onside kick and recover just like Causey said we would. We scored again just as Ken predicted. “Those fuckers from Bloomsburg played catch-up the rest of the day” until there was no time left to catch up. (We discovered later the truth that Ken had sat in a coaches’ meeting earlier that Friday evening and was tipped off to our strategy.) Josh Bright ran the midline option to perfection, and we shattered the championship game records for offense en route to our first football national title. Thanks to our Friday night, I had one helluva headache most of the day but the experience was worth the splitting pain I felt every time our band played the fight song (loudly) in the section beside me that afternoon.

We may never win another national championship in football but I will never remember that weekend, that drive, that bar, that prediction, that team, or that feeling when the clock struck zero.

We were champs. Forever and always. Those fuckers will play catch-up until the end of time.

Robert’s Brief Brief

“Trying a case is like boxing. If you lead with your chin, then you had better be prepared to have it knocked off.”— Capt. Robert G. Johnston

Some lawyers never darken the door of a courtroom other than their bar admission ceremony. These lawyers flourish in the paper version of the law, and their legal battles are fought by pecking away at a keyboard in a dimly lit law library. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s your speed. But there are also lawyers who love the thrill of the trial, the rush that comes with matching wits with another attorney, a judge and hostile witnesses. Sadly, thanks to rule changes over the years, most courtroom exchanges are somewhat anticlimactic due mainly to our pretrial discovery rules which have eliminated the old days of “trial by ambush.” One of the few exceptions to this rule is our misdemeanor criminal trial court, such as Justice Court or Municipal Court. Here, cases are still tried mostly on the fly and there has not been a thorough pre-trial discovery process. In these courts, lawyers still think on their feet and prepare legal arguments almost simultaneous to hearing the evidence and testimony for the first time. Many attorneys, even very good ones, aren’t cut out for this type of combat. Lawyers are a careful, conservative breed by nature so most of them avoid the uncertainty of unknown witnesses in a court of no record. It is in this arena, however, that my friend Robert Johnston was at his best.

Robert was our Municipal Court Prosecutor for more years than can be counted. He was infamous in defense attorney circles as an infuriating and maddening opponent, due largely to his refusal to concede any point, no matter how minute. Before trial, Robert offered very favorable plea bargain deals to the defense but if a case had to be tried, then all bets were off. Robert attacked witnesses like a rabid German Shepherd and used his knowledge of the rules of evidence and trial tactics to bludgeon many a defense attorney into a well-dressed mass of confusion. I was appointed to the City bench in 2003, and I heard Robert’s arguments so many times through the years I can recite them in my sleep. I even caught myself quoting Robert (by name) in another civil case of my own earlier this year. When I later told Robert of my quoting him to another court, you could tell he was proud. Ask anyone who ever dealt with him in city court— Robert had a well-deserved reputation for his dogged determination and courtroom antics. He would say almost anything to a witness, and was fearless in his arguments to the Court. Not all of his arguments were always on target, and I spent many afternoons shaking my head at some outlandish analogy Robert used to try to secure a conviction. One particular story came to my mind the other night as I remembered all of our days in city court together.

Several years ago, Robert and another lawyer tried a second offense DUI for the better part of four hours one afternoon. The case involved many close legal calls on my end as judge, and the two of them fought and argued (loudly) over what seemed like every single point in the case. They clashed over everything from the authority of the policeman to be a policeman to the traffic stop itself. If I recall correctly, we spent 30 minutes that day discussing whether the breathalyzer was working properly or not. Ultimately, however, I found Robert had proven his case, and the defendant was guilty as charged.

As I was moved into the sentencing phase of the trial, the defense attorney asked whether he could make a short closing argument before I sentenced his client. I have certainly always wanted to err on the side of caution, so I tried to make sure every defendant felt as if his rights were protected during his “day in court.” Per the rules, I allowed Robert to speak on behalf of the city first. Robert merely stated the law as we all knew it with regard to the penalties for a second offense DUI conviction, including the Court’s duty to sentence the now-convicted defendant to a minimum of five days in the county jail. Robert, for once in his career, was very short with his argument. We were all familiar with the law. Or so we thought.

When I turned to the Defendant, his attorney confidently stood up and admitted the statute said what it said. But, he said, the Mississippi Court of Appeals had recently come down with an important ruling that would impact our case. According to the defense attorney, the Court of Appeals had ruled within the last month or so before our trial that a defendant in the same shoes as his client, a man convicted of a second offense DUI, would be eligible to have his charge non-adjudicated, or basically passed to the file with certain conditions before it is ultimately dismissed by the Judge if those conditions were met. Ordinarily, only a first offense DUI was eligible for this type of leniency from a trial court.

Robert, who prided himself on “reading the advance sheets of the Southern Reporter as soon they are released,” was stunned by this assertion. I looked over at his desk when I heard his gasp, and in hindsight, his head was almost spinning around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. He shot out of his chair. There’s absolutely no way, Robert yelled.

“Nothing, and I mean nothing, Your Honor, makes me angrier than when a young lawyer is not truthful and honest to the Court. A second conviction for DUI means jail, not non-adjudication!” Robert boomed.

I had already flipped my copy of the Mississippi Code over to the section covering DUI charges and penalities. Under the then-Mississippi law, a second offense DUI required the defendant to be sentenced to a minimum of five days imprisonment, if convicted. The statute was very clear in that area. The section of the statute about non-adjudication was listed under the penalties for a first offense, not a second offense.

Without blinking, the opposing lawyer reached into his file and came out with two small stacks of paper held together by a paperclip. Robert was still yelling something when the attorney interrupted him as he walked toward my bench.

“Here’s the case,” the attorney said while handing me a copy and his other copy to Robert. Robert and I were both skimming this new case furiously when the defense attorney resumed his argument.

“I understand what Mr. Johnston is arguing, and it might be what Your Honor has done in the past, but this Court says a second offense DUI is eligible for non-adjudication,” the defense attorney explained while waving his copy of the case in the air.

I read the case as quickly as I could. This particular case did involve a second offense DUI charge, but rather, the issue on appeal was the actual traffic stop, or the reason why the police department had detained that defendant. However, in the very last paragraph of the opinion, the Court stated something to the effect of the second offense conviction “wouldn’t matter because the defendant appears to be eligible for a nonadjudication.” I’ll be damned. Here’s the real kicker- the attorney who brought this case on appeal before the Court of Appeals was the same attorney who was now waving this reported case in my face. Of course, he knew about this case— it was his case.

Robert found the pertinent paragraph in the new case about the same time as I did. Being the ever-alert prosecutor, Robert also quickly realized the crux of the case on appeal was not centered around the penalty to be imposed by the Court.

“Your Honor, it’s just dicta. The Court is just talking here. With all due respect to the Court of Appeals, no reasonable person can read our statute and come to this conclusion,” Robert yelled. “This case,” Robert said as he waved his copy in the air, “is not even about non-adjudication. Whatever the Court says about is dicta. Pure and Simple. Surely Your Honor can see that,” Robert pleaded. But you could hear the uncertainty in Robert’s voice when he spoke.

For the uninitiated to obscure legal jargon, “obiter dictum” is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as a “judicial comment made during the course of delivering a judicial decision, but one that is unnecessary to the decision in the case and therefore not precedential.” Precedent is very important in the legal field because of the doctrine of “stare decisis,” or a court’s duty to follow earlier case law when deciding a case with similar facts. Courts follow the decisions of earlier courts in order to bring consistency to the rule of law. However, not everything in a court’s opinion must be followed. Sometimes judges just opine to opine and their words have nothing do with the question presented. Hence dictum, or its plural, dicta. Dicta might be interesting, but subsequent courts aren’t required to follow their lead. Simply put, unless the Court’s opinion is related to the merits of the question presented, its comments are not binding on future courts- it’s just dicta.

The defense attorney knew he had stumbled upon the Great White Whale of Cleveland Municipal Court– a moment when he had caught Robert Johnston off-guard and unprepared. Naturally, he moved in for the kill.

“Mr. Johnston just doesn’t like what the Court says about this issue, Your Honor. But the Court clearly states that this defendant, a man charged with a second offense DUI just like my client is charged, would be eligible for a non-adjudication. Logically speaking then, my client is eligible. It says what it says, Your Honor.”

I was a bit out of sorts myself. If this case said what I’m being told it says, then everything we have been doing in our court has been wrong, I thought. I asked both attorneys to give me a moment to read the case in a little greater detail, and once I finished reading, then I would allow them each a quick final word.

Realizing he would need more time than the two minutes I was about to grant him, and not about to go down easily, Robert quickly asked for a couple days to submit a brief on this new wrinkle. I knew from experience that if I gave Robert too much time, then he would send me a brief that would make War and Peace look like a travel brochure. I did not particularly want anything more to read, but I was a bit curious myself. This issue appeared very clear when I read the statute, and I could not believe the higher court had misstated such an easy point of law. Our court meets on Monday afternoons, so I decided to give them a little time.

Both of you have until Friday at noon, I said. But please try to be concise, I reiterated. I looked directly at Robert when I said the word “concise,” and I asked him specifically if he understood.

“Yes, Your Honor. Concise. Absolutely,” Robert said while nodding his head quickly. “I understand.” With that final thought, I adjourned court for the afternoon.

Thursday morning, I received a small package in the mail containing the Defendant’s brief. Just as I figured, the attorney just took his earlier brief to the Court of Appeals and changed the names of the parties and the facts to fit our current case. He only had to add the citation of the new Court of Appeals case and highlight the section of its opinion that favored his argument.

The following day, I was reading the Defendant’s brief shortly before lunch when Robert walked through my office door holding a massive stack of paper at least 4 inches thick and held together by a thick rubber band. I took one look at the missive in his right hand, and started shaking my head.

“Robert, your brief doesn’t look so brief. Remember concise?”

A wry smile spread across Robert’s face.

“I apologize, Your Honor, but I hope you will indulge me. I think once you get in my brief, you will see that I was very concise.”

“We shall see,” I said as I took the tome from his hand and put it on the corner of my desk. Robert disappeared with his usual dramatic flourish and left me alone with our legal issue.

Figuring I would need some energy, I grabbed a bottled water from my office refrigerator, loosened my tie and then reached over and grabbed Robert’s brief. Fearing what lay ahead of me, I took a deep breath and removed the rubber band. Ok, Robert— What do we have?

As expected, the first page of Robert’s brief contained the name of the case and a short recitation of our facts through the prosecutor’s lens. Towards the end of the first page, Robert stated the issue before the Court-. whether aa person charged with a second offense DUI was eligible for a non-adjudication. He cited the case cited by the Defendant, and quoted its language. I flipped the page expecting to see a long legal argument, but instead, I only saw one word. For his argument, Robert centered a single word, in 55 point bold type, on the page.


Then the next page.


And then the next.


So it went for over one hundred pages. Page after page contained this one single word perfectly centered in 55 point bold print– “Dicta!!” Robert used the very last page of the brief to summarize the existing statute, and to explain his position that the new case produced by the defense contained no binding authority on our issue but that Court’s discussion of the statute was merely a non-binding aside. (As if I had not noticed the other one hundred pages?) Just read the statute and use common sense was Robert’s final plea.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Only Robert would even think of sending in a brief like he did. I opened the brief two or three more times that afternoon just to laugh again. After a little bit of my own research including a call to the Assistant Attorney General who argued the new case, I finally decided the Court of Appeals was wrong in its interpretation of the statute. I wrote a short letter to Robert and the defense attorney stating my opinion that the defendant was not eligible for a non-adjudication and I would sentence him under my reading of the statute. I invited the appeal as I was hoping it would go all the way up to the Court of Appeals again. Instead, the defendant took his five day prison sentence and was never heard from again. Ironically, that defense attorney subsequently appeared in our court probably twenty times after my ruling and never argued that case again. The Mississippi Legislature amended the DUI statute a couple years ago and changed a great deal of the language about non-adjudications. Some would say it became clearer; some would say it did not.

Every so often, I would remind Robert of his “dicta brief” whenever he would ask if he could write a brief on a new point of law in our court. He would snicker and nod his head.

“Well, it was dicta, Your Honor!” was his standard response. “I’m just glad I was able to show it to you.”

Yes it was. And yes you did.

For my friend “Roberto”

Capt. Robert G. Johnston

I will try to keep this post short but it might be hard. When I first started practicing law, I represented a woman who had been served with a complaint the size of the New Testament containing more Latin phrases than I knew existed. The attorney on the other side battered me both inside and outside the courtroom to the point I could barely see straight. My father laughed at my plight and said, “That’s Robert.”

To know Robert Johnston was to love him. His stories were legendary and it was almost a rite of passage for young lawyers in Cleveland to spend a Friday afternoon in his office letting him tell legal war stories while trying to pour whiskey down your throat. (Nasty whiskey, I might add. He stopped drinking himself a long time ago.) He had nicknames for everyone, and I was “John Pops” because I would walk around the corner to his office and grab a soft drink from his office refrigerator whenever I was thirsty. That nickname stuck even after I put my own fridge in our office over ten years ago. Robert enjoyed people coming to him for help, advice, or a drink. I called him “Roberto” and I think he loved me giving him a nickname of his own more than anything.

For time eternal, Robert has been our Municipal Court Prosecutor. When I was first appointed to the bench 17 years ago, I was a bit nervous. To my relief, Robert was always prepared and did not hesitate to lend his opinion to the situation at hand, albeit with his requisite deference to the Court’s authority. He prosecuted every person the same, and I often kidded him outside of court that he pursued people with traffic tickets as if Charles Manson had been caught speeding in our fair city. He didn’t know any other way, and we were better because of his work. I am sure I infuriated him over the years with my rulings, but he very rarely ever spoke about the cases once they were complete. I have enough stories about City Court to fill two volumes, and you better believe Robert would be the main character. He and I would often speak of the cast of characters in City Court as if they were our family. It was a dysfunctional family, I would remind him, but they were our family. He would greet me with “And a good afternoon to Your Honor” at the beginning of court every week and wouldn’t leave without asking whether “he could be excused.” (I told him “No” one time and he looked at me a bit dumbfounded.) That small courtroom won’t be the same without him.

It’s the little things you really remember about someone when they’re gone. I will miss passing Robert on his way to work every morning during my early morning walk, and I will miss him throwing his hand up as he sped past me. I will miss that conspiratorial smirk when he was talking about someone, and the way he would mutter out of the side of his mouth, “Well, the Lord loves him.” I will miss his endless stories, most of them having little to do with anything relevant, but stories he delighted in telling me anyway. “John, sit and hear an old lawyer talk” is how those stories would always begin. I will miss Robert asking whether I had talked to his “poor, pitiful son Arthur” lately, and I will miss Robert asking whether I’m “getting enough to eat and drink these days.” I will miss Robert’s combative style in the courtroom, and how red his face would get when he would try a case. The last case we ever tried opposite each other was originally Ashley’s case, and Robert ran her through the ringer just as he did me in my first case with him. When I entered the case due to Ashley being out on maternity leave, Robert asked if I wanted to continue the trial date “so Mrs. Cox could return.” I laughed, told him I would be ready for trial, and it was time “he came to eat at the big kids’ table” on this one. He smirked that familiar Robert smirk that always came out when someone challenged him. I will miss Robert’s inimitable ability to say 10,000 words when 10 would do, and his genuine love of the practice of law. He worked like no other, always wearing a suit and tie to labor in his office 11 hours a day every day of the year except Christmas and Memorial Day. Robert was the only one of us who actually wanted to be a lawyer when he got to heaven. I will miss Robert telling me Navy stories or stories about Vanderbilt Law School. (“MO-Head, it ain’t,” he would always say.) I will miss Robert asking me what’s on my mind but _____. (If you knew Robert, then you know how to fill in the blank at the end of that last sentence.) I will miss Robert describing someone as “high type,” or a “fine young lawyer.” I will miss the inane arguments even Robert knew were bullshit but he knew his job required him to argue something. I will just miss Robert.

Years ago, Robert rounded the corner toward my office with a noticeable bulk in his overcoat. I was walking in myself, so I saw him coming in my direction so quickly it was as if he had just robbed a bank. Robert waved me toward the office and opened his coat once we were both safely inside. He had brought me a bottle of Scotch from the Army/Navy store in Memphis, and although we were eightysomething years past Prohibition, Robert enjoyed feeling like he was sneaking something down the street. Only Robert.

When my father died a couple years ago, Robert was his usual formal self and expressed the appropriate sympathy at both the visitation and funeral mass. Then, a day or so after we buried Dad, Robert called late in the afternoon to ask if he could come around “to my cubby.” He sat across from me for about 15 minutes, and told me a story or two about my dad over the years. Of course, he told the stories in his own self-deprecating way. Robert didn’t really need anything, but you could tell he wanted to share those stories with me simply to make me smile. As he was leaving, he stopped. “John, Ancil was a fine, fine man, and a credit to our bar association. He was really high type. He was always damn proud of you. And he should be. Now let me go.” Just like that- Robert was gone. I will never forget that moment.

Godspeed, Roberto. In a profession that can breed dullness, you were anything but. For all of our sanity’s sake, there will never be another like you. Lord knows I will miss you, and our good natured give and take with each other. You taught me more than I ever told you, and you did it with a style than could never be replicated. I have absolutely no doubt you greeted St. Peter at Heaven’s door two days ago with one question– “Peter, what’s on your mind but ____?”



Earlier this week, I caught myself glancing over at a small, nondescript house with a big front porch when I drove down Fourth Avenue here in Cleveland. No telling how many people pass this house any given year, and quite honestly, it’s easily passed if you’re not looking for it. The roof needs work, and the outside probably hasn’t felt a fresh coat of paint since the last of the Reagan administration. But I still look for it every time I pass down this small street. To me, that house will always mean only one thing– “George’s.”

You see, a long time ago, that house was the home of some very good friends in college (including George). I can’t tell you what I wore to work on Monday this week, but I can tell you the exact layout of that house. I can describe the back deck, the small kitchen, and of course, the spacious living room where it seemed like 200 DSU students would gather to enjoy college and all that it brings. It was a simpler day and time, for sure, but it seemed as if all of life’s troubles disappeared the moment you opened the porch door and made your way inside the house. It all sounds so stupid when I say at 46 years old, but that old house, and houses like it, were the best parts of college life. It wasn’t the professors, no matter how good they were. It wasn’t the buildings or the sporting events. Nope. Not in the least. It was the people who became your family.

I can remember the first time I ever walked in George’s. I was 18 years old and scared to death. A couple of my older friends had invited me to go this house with them, and it was my first “college party.” When we opened the door to the porch, a tall guy ambled over to us with a goofy grin, stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Chase. Shortly after that introduction, we walked inside, and judging by a quick look at my current text messages and social media, I have never left. The friends I made in college have stuck by me through some very hard times in my life, and I am a better person because of their friendship. It’s been some tough love, no doubt, but I always felt their support. Many of these friends have college kids of their own now, but in many ways, we are all still just as connected as we were when we were 20 years old.

What does all of this have to do with anything? Am I just having some bizarre trip down memory lane because I don’t want to grow up? Nah. These thoughts come forward because I am worried about this current crop of college students. We have all seen the current numbers. Enrollment is down at many places, including Delta State. The pandemic has created a culture where education is rapidly becoming an almost entirely virtual exercise, and social gatherings are discouraged if not forbidden. What will bring future students to a university? More importantly, what will keep those students at a university– will they choose the one with the best Zoom background?? Before the pandemic, our society was already becoming one nation under social media app. Now? This generation will not have any of the fond memories of friends and neighbors. They won’t tell stories about the time four guys sat in a house eating chips and salsa discussing the latest soap opera. (Yes, frat boys watch soaps!) Instead, 2020 students will remember Zoom and Canvas. They have Insta posts and Snaps that disappear as quickly as they appear. They won’t be able to dive back in time by simply looking over at a run-down rental house in a college town. They won’t be able to close their eyes and still see George holding court in his living room with everyone laughing together. There’s just no chance at our present rate. Unless something changes, today’s college student will have no loyalty and affinity to anything other than a laptop and a smartphone.

Is that really progress? Can we go back?

We Can’t Thank Them Enough

While I understand the abstract subject of military action, my mind does not really comprehend the realities of actually serving in combat.

Throughout my life, I have spoken to so many veterans who have described the realities of war as much as their mind’s eye would allow them to describe it to me. Very rarely do I see a smile come across the veteran’s face when telling me war stories. Some appear to be physically weakened by just opening their personal memory bank. In every one of these conversations, I detect a small sense of hesitancy…like they don’t want to open that door because of what might be waiting behind it. I shudder thinking of the things that go through their minds— the sights and sounds of their friends and brothers meeting their demise in a sudden, violent burst. Veterans speak in generalities about their service. I get it. I will never know it because I will never experience it. Lord God willing, I will never have that experience. I hope and pray that my children will never have to experience it.

Today, I say thank you to all of our veterans. I feel like my gratitude is nowhere close to being adequate, but I almost offer it to these men and women. I live and love in a world where my definition of sacrifice is cutting extra carbs at dinner or coming home a day or two early from a vacation to save money. I live in a world where I get up early for quiet time to read and write, and I am confident I will come back home at night after my day’s work is done. I live in my little privileged world because our nation’s veterans were willing to give of themselves completely to ensure that we can all live in our spoiled little worlds.

Thank you again. And God bless each and every one of you.

The Music Is Out To Get Me

Yesterday, our new receptionist stuck her head in my office and asked whether we “take plaintiff’s cases.” Like any self-respecting attorney, I quickly told her it depended on the case. She explained there was a woman waiting on the phone to talk to someone about her case. I picked up the phone.

“This is John,” I said.

“Yessir, do you take plaintiff’s cases?” a female voice I would guesstimate to be in her early 50’s asked.

“Yes ma’am. Why don’t you tell me about the situation?”

“Well, it’s a defamation case,” the woman said with authority.

Visions of my Constitutional Law class 23 years ago danced through my head.

“This woman. She’s talking about me on the radio. I’m in a nursing home and I keep hearing her talking bad about me.”

I was a bit unclear at this point.

“Ma’am? Someone is talking about you on the radio? What is she saying?”

“She’s using my nickname and saying all sorts of stuff about me. I hear her and I know she is. And everyone is hearing it,” the caller explained.

“Yes ma’am. What’s she saying?”

There was a sigh.

“She’s saying I’m sassy, moody, nasty. ‘Moody’ is my nickname. She’s saying all sorts of other things like she’s still that bitch.”

I remained confused.

“Who is this person on the radio, and does she know you?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear this answer.

“She’s a woman named Meghan Thee Stallion and I don’t know how she got on the radio and she knows this much about me.”

I can honestly say this 46 year old Mississippi white boy lawyer barely knows the difference between Meghan Thee Stallion and Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion, but I did realize perhaps my caller was not operating with all of her faculties.

“Yes ma’am. I understand. So you think the rapper is talking about you in this song? Do you have any proof?”

“No sir. But I’m tired of it.”

We discussed a couple other things about her being targeted by this song before I told her I just wasn’t sure I had time this week to take on an international rap star, especially one who was “still that bitch.”

I referred her down the road.

A Pretty Typical Week

Let’s see. It’s Friday, October 2nd. Let me recap the last 7 days.

Ole Miss can’t tailgate or play defense.

MS State is throwing the football all over God’s green earth but particularly Tiger Stadium.

The French Open is being played in the fall.

The Celtics lose a playoff series to a team that ran the exact same play every time down the floor for 6 games without being stopped.

We had a Presidential debate that should have been moderated by Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart and Mean Gene Okerlund.

Helen Reddy died.

Mississippi’s governor eases the statewide mask restrictions.

The President and First Lady have now been diagnosed with COVID and the presumed quarantine period will probably be the longest stretch of time they’ve been spent together since the inception of their marriage.

On the plus side, my oldest boy continued his onslaught on the ACT test with another good score.

In hindsight, Michael Stipe could’ve saved words and just named his song “2020.”

Crowds and live music- Please Come Back!

I need crowds. We all do.


One of the byproducts of this damn pandemic is the loss of crowds. We count capacity for the purposes of subtraction rather than addition. We are now swimming in a pool where the size of the gathering matters, and social distancing is more important than socializing. Isolation and quarantine are the safe plays, and division is prized more than multiplication.

One of my good friends lamented a couple weeks ago— “I miss live music.” Truer words have never been spoken. Earlier this year, before the world hid under the covers, I had convinced Ashley to fly to Red Rocks in August on a Saturday, catch Jason Isbell’s show the next day, and fly back to reality on Monday morning. (Lucinda Williams was scheduled to open the night so it would have been a double treat.) But all live music has been silenced this year, and that trip is a no-go. (Aside- Jason, see you next August on the Rocks!)

The beauty of a crowd at a live music show is its unity and singularity of purpose. Good God, do we need that shit more than every now. Social media is like the world’s biggest sandbox, with everyone fighting for the one plastic shovel. You can’t watch the news without seeing the conflict and now people disagree on which news you should be watching. The political discourse is anything but discourse, and our leaders are better off emulating Vince McMahon (or even Jim McMahon) than James Madison or Thomas Jefferson. To be fair, a reading of our history does show we have always had our share of high-pitched squabbles in our country (Aaron Burr did shoot Alexander Hamilton in a fucking duel. And oh yeah, we did have this little disagreement amongst each other called the Civil War.). But damn, it’s pretty loud right now. We need the feeling that comes from a crowd more than ever.

I have always been in awe of musicians and loved the rush of the crowd. Go to a rock show, and strangers are bound together by one love and one vision. Life is put on pause in favor of the experience. In the mix might be a Southern Baptist conservative Republican sitting beside a liberal gay rights activist. In a show crowd, however, a single body gathers and forms for one united purpose–a shared love of the music.

I’m linking a video of Pearl Jam in Madison Square Garden with this post– watch Eddie Vedder’s face while the Garden sings “Better Man” back to him. The words he wrote come back loud and clear, and his face is pure joy. At this single moment, the crowd is not clouded by politics or arguments, It’s the music, and it’s about sharing a common love with someone else. Even a stranger. I can’t think of anything our country needs more right now.

My Favorite Match Ever

My new doubles partner and me. We like green.

It was the doubles match I had waited for my entire life even if I never knew it.

It wasn’t because of our opponents. I had played countless sets of doubles with and against each of them. They were regulars around the courts.

It wasn’t because of how well I played. I’ve played better tennis. Honestly, my bad knee was killing me most of the match and I felt like I heard the Sanford and Son theme song in my head every time I skipped toward the ball. The sharp pain in my right arm is constant with every serve. Old age is having its way with this 46 year old body.

This match was special to me because of my partner. He was not just any partner, not just some random dude in the ad court. Nope. Not at all. For the first time, my partner and I shared a name. Today, my partner was my 15 year old son, and it  was my favorite match ever. Continue reading “My Favorite Match Ever”