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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Wash Teeth, if any, and Draw Milan

January, even a good January, can be merciless. January pokes at the sediment until it finds the motionless mass that is you, rousts you out off the ocean floor and drags you wincing back to the surface. January went and did it again, pulled me and my third-year colleagues back for the second half of what conventional law-school wisdom holds is the year that bores you to death.

I am less bored with law school than inured to its attention-seeking whine. A 3L has things to do.  Time is elusive and patience is thin. There are bar applications and job applications, forms and photographs and all manner of mysterious fee, and yet law school whimpers for its due. We are more done with law school than it is done with us, but the feeding tube is out and the morphine drip is in.

Whatever ground is left to cover, I am changed in fundamental ways. I catch an old Twilight Zone, the one set in a gentlemen’s club at a time when that meant cigar-chewing men in book-lined dens and overstuffed leather. An old colonel annoyed by a young man’s incessant chatter promises him a half-million dollars if he will refrain from speaking a word for a solid year. Time was, I would have marveled at the masterful storytelling both for its own sake and for what it said about human nature and desperation and the pull of the dark impulse. Today, I switch off the set thinking breach of unilateral contract and shake my head at the detrimental reliance at the heart of the whole affair. This is where law school bows out and the world takes over. We’re inexperienced as hell and equipped with just enough knowledge to be dangerous, but there are things we won’t know until our boots are on the ground. We know, for example, that the Uniform Commercial Code was authored by the devil himself, but the full depravity of it is a mystery until then.

Those of us who suffer from competing streaks of perfectionism and indecision know that when the twin traits intersect they can produce a deadly philosophy that says until it can be done perfectly, it cannot be done at all. I resolve to improve, and begin to experiment with lists. I turn to the Internet for inspiration, the way one does, and run across two lists of interest. One is a 1490 to-do list culled from a small leather notebook purportedly carried by Leonardo da Vinci: “[Discover] the measurement of the Castello,” “Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.” “Draw Milan.” The other is a 33-item list of New Year’s resolutions compiled by Woody Guthrie in 1942: “Wash teeth if any.” “Help win war – beat fascism.” “Love everybody.” “Dream good.”

My list reflects neither the erudite aspirations of Leonardo da Vinci nor the sweet humanity of Woody Guthrie. For 30 days or more, it was a series of tedious tasks capable of distillation into just one: gather up the shreds of paper that document your existence on earth, shove the whole of your life into a nine-by-twelve envelope and dispatch it to an omniscient force empowered to assess the suitability of, if not you, then at least the paper you, for the practice of law. Now that my bar application is submitted, however, I have renewed hope for this list thing. With the bitterness of January gone and the number of weeks in this final semester diminished by four, the list could channel chaos and uncertainty into something that resembles order. If nothing else, the list can be a way of re-centering oneself. The things we deem important say a lot about who we are. I will start the Great 3L List with borrowed ideas that constitute something of a Woody-Leonardo hybrid: Study hard. Be kind to people and animals. Live with integrity. Dream good.

If you’re seized by third-year apathy, remind yourself that it’s only law school talking. Should you reach the point where you no longer care, tell yourself it means you’re good and ready to move on. Make yourself a list. While you’re doing that, I’ll be washing my teeth and drawing Milan.