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Duty Calls

Jeffrey K. Actor

SOME THINGS YOU HAVE to do yourself.

A 2017 study concluded that spending money on time-saving services is correlated with greater life satisfaction. A subsequent article confirmed the finding. Rich or poor, we can boost our happiness by having others do undesirable tasks.

These studies confirm what HumbleDollar readers already know: Wealth is a tool that, if used wisely, can increase our life’s satisfaction. Pay a yard service to mow the lawn. Spend money on housekeeping services. Hire someone to do the shopping, cooking or laundry.

Now that I’m retired, I have plenty of time for activities I loathed to do while working. But thanks to a modicum of wealth, I have the choice to complete these tasks myself or pay others to do them.

Sometimes, however, there are time-consuming obligations that can’t be delegated. Last month, I received that dreaded letter. No, not an IRS audit notice. Rather, a summons for jury duty.

I contemplated if there was a way to escape this obligation. Unlikely. I have no prior criminal record and I’m not a student. I’m not yet 75 years old, nor do I take care of small children or elderly relatives. While I could possibly claim the immoral character exemption, it would be tough to provide proof.

My assigned session was scheduled for 8 a.m. midweek in the heart of downtown. I’ve been retired for a year, and forgot how much construction workers enjoy slowing rush-hour traffic. Nevertheless, I managed to arrive a few minutes early.

I entered the recommended city-owned garage. I’m partially colorblind, so all seven levels look identical to me. I took a picture to remember where my car was parked. There are a dozen similar photos on my phone, constantly resurfacing on my device as curated parking memories.

Security procedures entering a Texas court house are more draconian than those adopted by airport Transportation Security Administration workers. Shoes and jacket must be removed, pockets emptied, suspenders dropped. This is followed by a walk through a metal detector, the hand-wand check and a thorough pat down. Good thing I wore thick argyle socks, as the floor was unexpectedly sticky.

First order of business was to check in at one of the kiosks. Good news awaited. All potential jurors were given a debit card and told we’d receive a guaranteed $30 for the day. That amount rose to $58 if chosen to sit for a case.

My frugal side screamed, “Pick me, pick me.” Wait a minute, no. The cost-to-benefit ratio of losing my retirement’s free time was certainly not worth the gained dollars. Earning money by combining stress with lost time certainly wouldn’t increase my happiness quotient.

I entered the assigned jury room, noticing that the majority of early arrivals were retired, easily identified by the way they carried hard copies of well-worn library books showing Dewey decimal codes. The room steadily filled with harried workers, disheveled homemakers and annoyed professionals rushing to arrive before the clerk closed the main doors. The group was from all walks of life.

I understood my civic responsibility to serve as a juror, but what if I were actually picked? What if I were chosen as foreman? Would I make a fair decision? My anxiety rose as the minutes ticked by, with thoughts of being sequestered in small claims court arguing over the validity of suing the local TV station weatherman for wrongly predicted thunderstorms.

I immediately calmed when a clerk mentioned there was free coffee available. The word “free” put my mind at ease, even though I’m well aware my taxes fund the county court system and its free coffee.

The jury pool waited for what seemed like an eternity. The entire room felt edgy. A faint tinge of perspiration wafted through the room. Good thing I wore a COVID mask.

Over time, I noticed the group transformed from complete strangers to one that was bonded by common experience. We all held the same trepidation, uncomfortable with a common unknown. Our fates were linked in a manner regardless of social status, wealth or occupation.

My number wasn’t called in the first group, nor the second, nor the third. Each set of numbers was accompanied by an adrenaline rush, which I can only describe as akin to hearing ping-pong balls announced in a bingo hall.

My heart raced each time the clerk returned to the podium. Maybe I should have conferred with my cardiologist prior to committing to this obligation. The free coffee was no longer having its anti-anxiety effect.

The clerk returned a final time to thank the remaining potential jurors for our service. The “poolers” let out an audible sigh of relief. A bald man in front of me gave a whoop, and I swear the woman in the charcoal grey sweater seated in front evoked the Lord’s name.

I felt proud to have completed my civic duty, and carried that feeling with me through the rest of the day. Nevertheless, I secretly wished I could have paid someone to complete my obligation. It would have boosted my life satisfaction.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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