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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Whiplash, Part I

WARNING: THIS IS A LONG BLOG POST.  If you get tired, please move to the rear of the blog, where cake will be served.

People have had occasion to ask me what the hell I’m doing, working at a law firm.  Why aren’t I a great fiction writer or something, swapping yachts with Stephen King for the weekend or partying all night with J.K. Rowling.  Well, firstly, I get seasick.  Secondly, you might not believe this, but it’s actually very hard to get a novel published, especially if you’re not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.  (Who owes me five bucks, now that I think about it.)  I’m speaking as one who has tried.  And one who currently isn’t trying.  I dunno if that means I’m done trying, exactly.  Come back in a year and ask me again.  And yes, I’m Working On Something right now, even if it’s spasmodic weekend work at the local Half Price Books while my idiot neighbor is throwing a birthday party for his twelve-year-old granddaughter and the dance tunes are making my house vibrate.  (My house vibrates all the time.  We have a trainyard nearby.  But still, kinda different when it’s vibrating to Can’t Stop Till You Get Enough.  Michael Jackson, unlike the Burlington Northern, is usually in tune.)

But here’s the thing.  I actually like working at a law firm.  I’m good at it, for one thing.  Litigation is a strange and hairy beast, but I’ve gotten to know it pretty well and at least when I’m around, it only bites occasionally.  There are certain things that need to happen in a certain order and certain problems that are bound to crop up needing to be solved.  I’m good at solving problems, and the larger and more complicated, the better.  I also know a lot of stuff about the law.  Not necessarily the theory of the law or why such and such judge did such and such thing (though I know a little bit about that, too), but other stuff.  Important stuff. Like, for example, if you’re electronically filing a document in the state courts of Texas, you have until midnight to do so, not just ‘til five o’clock.  Like if you need to file anything with the appeals court, you need to send paper copies to the court as well, one for each justice.  Yes, it may sound like useless trivia, but its important stuff, folks.  This is all about getting your case heard or not heard, and if you want your case heard, you need a good paralegal.  I am a good paralegal and I will get your case heard.  And these skills, nifty as they are, just really don’t have a place outside a law firm. 

But that’s not to say I have always worked at a law firm.  Au contraire, I actually worked in a law library for ten years first.  And before that I was in music school (!).  The plan at the time was to become one of the great bassoonists.  (Have you ever met a great bassoonist?  No?  How about you?  No?  You?)  So, okay, great bassoonists don’t exactly set the world on fire. They don’t do solo concertos in front of the orchestra very often and honestly, I don’t think many of them make like Kenny G and record New Age albums. I have never seen one win a Grammy or shake hands with Nelson Mandela or get invited to North Korea to play for the despot-in-charge-at-the-moment. But they do have nifty jobs playing with major orchestras.  Because who wouldn’t want a job playing music all day long?  That would be a great job.

Where you run into trouble here is that there are only about 17 major full-time orchestras in the United States, and each of those probably have three or four bassoonists apiece. There are something like 1,200 other orchestras, which makes up another 4800 jobs, but those jobs are part-time and usually don’t have any benefits. So maybe 4,868 jobs for professional bassoonists of any sort in the United States.  And when you figure that most of those jobs are already occupied to begin with, and there are probably at least another 1,000 brand-new bassoonists graduating from music schools every year, you can see how the math might maybe start to work against you there. In short, if you’re not one of the very, very best, you’re not going to be able to swing it professionally.  And I was not one of the very, very best.  I was good, though.  I won awards and stuff.  And a college scholarship.  Ask anybody.

The reason I bring all this up is that I just saw “Whiplash” with Joan and a couple of friends. As it turned out, three of the four of us had been to music school.  There are two kinds of music students: The very, very best and everybody else.  Everybody else are the ones that eventually get ground down by the machine and pitched out to find other careers as librarians or district managers or, I dunno, paralegals.  This could have led to a fascinating discussion, but all four of us were so stunned by the movie that nobody really talked about it afterward, except for saying how accurate they thought it was to his or her experience of music school. And for the record, I think it’s pretty fucking accurate.  I never had a teacher as bad as Fletcher—nobody ever hit anybody, or threw things at people, as far as I can recall--but I had plenty of instructors who did their share of yelling in people’s faces and hurling insults as fast as they could think them up. And, I mean, I could tell stories all night long.  Here’s two.  There was this one piano teacher that we called the Dragon Lady.  She had this thing about people with long nails—girls, mostly, but I knew my fair share of male guitar players with long nails on their right hands.  Anyway, if she thought your nails were too long to play the piano properly, she would chop them off.  With this pair of industrial-strength sewing scissors she kept in her purse.  I am cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die serious. And the scene where each kid got to play exactly one measure to prove they belonged in the ensemble?  That happened daily.  I saw people sent from first chair to the bottom of the section—or worse, out of the room for all time--because a reed squawked or a string broke or something, and I mean to tell you I saw it more than once. 

So why do it at all, you ask.  Why go to all the trouble and expense and take the abuse and spend four years cutting the throats of your fellow students in any way possible only to get out and start cutting throats all over again to find a job, any job, while trying to keep your own throat in one piece in the process?  I mean why does anyone do it?  Well, I’ll tell you why.  Ask a mountain climber why he climbs mountains.  Ask a paramedic what it’s like to save a life.  Ask a lawyer what it feels like to put the perfect argument to the perfect court on the perfect day and come away from it knowing not only that you won but that everything is going to change now, today and into the future, because of the words you just spoke.  The answer is that you can’t help it.  The answer is that it takes you over.  Because every now and then everything all comes together and everybody spectacularly plays the right note at the right time and the sound just detonates around you like a hydrogen bomb, and you and the group and the audience and the music all turn into one single organism, and people, if you’ve ever been there, you will know what I mean when I tell you that it’s better than drugs, it’s better than sex, it’s better than true love’s first kiss.  And once you’ve had that, all you want is more of it.  And so it’s worth all the abuse and the backstabbing and the constant sniping. 

I regret to inform you that, although I like being a paralegal and what I do is sometimes pretty cool, I have never had a moment like that at a law firm.  Nor do I ever expect to.  The best thing that ever happened to me as a paralegal is when a judge quoted one of my paragraphs from a motion in his ruling.  I had the ruling framed.  But was it the same as being at a Ground Zero detonation of sound and light and the entire meaning of the universe coalescing into one final E-major chord?  No.  It was not.  And while I personally never had a choice between staying in music school and finding something else to do with my life (they really, really don’t like it when you fail piano), I sometimes wonder if I sold out.  Gave up.  Took the easy way out, though it wasn’t easy then and it still isn’t now.  I have a steady job and a regular paycheck, which especially with my Delicate Medical Condition is probably the best possible outcome.

But still.  That whole detonation of sound thing. It’s pretty awesome.

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