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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sounded Like a Train

Sirens were blowing, clouds spat rain.
And as the thing came through, I swear, it sounded like a train. -- Drive-By Truckers

I once toured what was left of a neighborhood in the aftermath of an F-5 tornado.

I mention it only because it’s not wholly unlike the brief respite that follows one’s first semester of law school. You swing open the cellar door and, yes, everything looks like hell, but the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and the shops are transacting business as always. You’re disoriented, but you think with a few adjustments, a little paint applied here, a little chainsaw there, you might restore your own version of order and resume your place for a time among those whose noses are not buried in weighty texts of 19th-century judicial opinions.

Still, you’re aware of a fundamental shift in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere.  

With the fall semester behind me, I can allow myself a guiltless stroll through the mall, but not without wondering whether the man selling homemade soap from a cart is there by virtue of license or lease and what recourse might be available were he forced to trade his spot outside the sporting-goods store for one in front of Bath & Body Works.

Back at home, I draw a two-month-old issue of Vanity Fair from its shrinkwrap and start to read an excerpt from a book about the NBC debacle involving Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and the showdown for dominion of late-night television. The whole hostile mess centered on shrewd contractual provisions and costly reliance on withdrawn promises. Hey, I think, newly energized, that’s a clear case of promissory estoppel if I ever saw one. I have four entire months of law school under my belt and, by golly, I think I could really do something with this.

All right, I’m kidding about that last part, although it wouldn’t have surprised me had that turned out to be one of the pitfalls of going to law school. Gain a hard-won shred of knowledge and suddenly think you’re Clarence Darrow. Mercifully, though, I’ve witnessed little, if any, of that. We are a fairly grounded lot on the whole, grounded enough to recognize that our ostensible grasp of the law at this point bears direct relation to the ease with which our friends and family are confounded. These are the people who are compelled by holiday spirit to take us in, remember, assuming we don’t bore them to death first.

Anyway, I have more stories, but I’m plagued by a vague sense that something is left undone, a gnawing perception of an undefined and yet unfulfilled commitment, a faucet left running or some burner left aflame.

“Oh, yeah,” chuckled a friend, reliving his own law-school experience. “They didn’t tell you about the postpartum depression? That’s next, all right. You won’t know what to do with yourself.”

 I wouldn’t call it depression, just an unshakeable sense for the past several days that wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, I should be somewhere that isn’t there, doing something that isn’t that. And then it occurs to me that perhaps the tornado has formed not outside the cellar but within. Old thought patterns are stripped from the hinges, ingrained approaches to analysis twisted out of the mud and exposed at the roots.

Before long, it will be time to shut the door again and resynchronize our internal timing mechanisms to operate on accelerated law-school time. For now, though, we are suspended in a halcyon moment of post-exam, pre-grade posting satisfaction at having cleared a significant hurdle. I’m thinking I might mark the occasion with another trip to the mall, where I will march past the man with the soap cart and shop for a pair of boots. That’s right, boots. A nice, sturdy pair, especially suited to weathering tornadoes.