Alistair Newbern

Alistair Newbern

Linus and the Five String
Alistair Newbern

A family friend gave my parents a Peanuts cartoon on the day I was born. It goes something like this: Linus and Charlie Brown are walking along and Linus is waxing existential, as he often does. He says, “I feel sorry for little babies. When a little baby is born into this cold world, he’s confused! He’s frightened! He needs something to cheer him up. The way I see it, as soon as a baby is born, he should be issued a banjo!”

Forty-some-odd years after that comic was hung above my crib, I finally took Linus’s advice.

It turns out that a global pandemic is the perfect time to take up the banjo. The old-time clawhammer banjo style is defined by an awkward repetitive motion of hitting all the strings with a fingernail, then popping one string with the thumb. Newbies are often told that the best way to master this is to do it for hours on end while planted in front of the television. Pandemic heaven! Episodes of The Crown, Mad Men, and Normal People flew by, accompanied by my metallic plunks and occasional cursing. The banjo is both extremely loud and nearly impossible to tune. An instrument made for social distancing! And, when the student has progressed to the level of no longer causing migraines or tears, a banjo is the perfect front-porch companion.

Times at our court have been just as strange as everywhere else. There are no lawyers and clients clustered in the halls. Cases are managed over the telephone. Holding a criminal hearing means sitting in front of a laptop in an empty courtroom, trying to make eye contact with a defendant over a spotty internet line. The past two months have been a strong reminder to me that the law is very much a human enterprise. It is not well-suited to isolation.

And so the front porch is where you can find me most any pandemic evening, talking over the fence with neighbors, chasing after my dogs when they chase after other dogs, and, once night has firmly fallen and my face mask is in place, maybe picking out a song or two. Just as Linus predicted, it will cheer you right up.

I hope you and all your loved ones are safe, healthy, and smiling.

Posted in Coronavirus Annual.