Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An Alternate Universe for the New Year

         Lawyers who yearn for a satisfying professional life are often chagrined to find that the practice of law is not as fulfilling as they expected or, to be more precise, not at all what they expected.  But after law school, what did they expect? 

         A few years ago, Vance Woodward, who had been a civil litigator for eight years, realized that "civil litigators are typically a far cry from trial lawyers."  He did not get to try cases.  Today, it is even less likely for civil litigators to be trial lawyers.  The odds would be greatly improved if there were courts in which to try cases.

         Woodward's answer to his frustrating dilemma was to take a two-year vacation.  He wrote about it in the Daily Journal, November 28, 2012, in an article entitled Realizing the 'Great Escape from Reality.'  Among other things, he climbed Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, "the highest peak in the world outside Asia"; he went kite and sand boarding, rock climbing and cliff jumping; he scuba dived, brawled with a green moray, and counted underwater fauna populations in Honduras; and he wrote three books.  Now he's back and looking for a job as a litigator.

         Years ago when I was a "litigator," I thought of making my own great escape, and in a way I did.  Only, unlike Woodward, I had my fingers crossed.  I was reminded of my pseudo escape that had occurred decades past when I read about the recent passing of the world's master Indian sitar player, Ravi Shankar.  The sitar is a long-stringed instrument that looks like a guitar with a medical condition.  If guitars were on a basketball team, they would want the sitar to be the center.  In the 60's (no one says 1960's, not even Republicans), I was a young lawyer. 

         After a day of mind-numbing depositions, I attended a concert at the Music Center, featuring Ravi Shankar and the great tabla drummer Alla Rakha.  I was knocked out by the complex rhythms Rakha's nimble fingers produced on the tabla drums, and the inventive, improvised lines Ravi Shankar could endlessly create.  The richness of Indian music's microtonalities, the "inflections" or tones that occur between individual notes of our Western twelve-tone chromatic scale, blew me away.

         Instead of walking out of the law practice and moving to India to study Indian music, I decided to learn to play the tabla drums at night at a conservatory of Indian music that Shankar created in Los Angeles.  This was to be my escape, my adventure.  I studied with the master player Alla Rakha and later with the master teacher Taranath Rao.  My study was intellectually and artistically challenging, but it had its physical demands as well.  I had to overcome seemingly insuperable barriers.  Let me explain by describing my instrument, the tabla drums.  They are two small drums that look somewhat like kettles.  A cow or goat skin is stretched over the top of each drum.  The player strikes the drums with his or her fingers and palm, creating a variety of sounds.  The left drum is shaped like a squat bowl and is the bass drum.  The right drum is narrower, has a smaller head and produces a higher tone.  The drums are placed on either side of the player who must sit cross-legged while playing. 

         Most of the "standards" and jazz tunes with which we are familiar are played in "4," four beats to a measure.  But I had to learn to play in "11" or "17," or any other number of beats.  That alone was hard enough to learn, but the position in which I had to sit, on the floor, my legs crossed in front of me, was a challenge I could not meet.  I am not flexible.  I am talking here about physical flexibility.  Still it does not sound good for a judge to be inflexible.  I attained a modicum of proficiency on the tabla drums, but neither yoga, nor intense stretching made me limber so that I could sit in one position cross-legged for more than a few minutes at a time.

         Nevertheless, I persevered in my determination to create a separate reality apart from "litigating," to also exist in a non-parallel universe.  In my day world, I was unflappable trial lawyer (a front:  in truth, I was intensely flappable), dressed in stylish Italian suit, monogrammed shirt and silk tie.  But in my night world, I was a player of Indian music, seated (although in agony) before my tabla drums, dressed in my Indian outfit.  I strived to produce rhythms that would create awe and wonder in an American audience.

         For a while I kept my musician identity secret.  No opposing counsel, no judge, not even my partners knew anything of my other universe.  But one evening Los Angeles Times columnist Art Seidenbaum, who also hosted a television show on the arts for public television, showed up at the school with a television crew.  He filmed us playing, and the camera caught me in my full Indian garb, sitting before my tabla drums like a misshaped pretzel about to break.  A week later I attended a local bar function attended by many lawyers and judges.  I was surprised to learn how many had seen the show.  My alternate universe had been discovered.  It was the big topic of the evening.  They remarked more about my apparel and awkward pose than my music. 

         The trial lawyer in me had to find a way out of this fix.  Let me first explain that nothing irritates me more than people who feel a sense of self-importance because of people they know.  Yes, I had met some famous people at the school.  The great violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin and I compared Western and Indian music.  And, yes, Beatle George Harrison and I chatted at length about Indian rhythmic patterns.  Ho hum.

         Can you imagine anyone more pathetic than a person who seeks recognition by whom that person knows rather than by whom that person is?  But when the bar attendees asked me if I knew any of the famous people who were buddies of Ravi Shankar, I did let it be known that I had met George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin.  Well, what would you have done?  I had to divert attention away from my white robe, beads and bare feet.  Through my fleeting association with "the great," I gained respect and a respite from ridicule.

         After a year or two, I took my leave of Indian music.  My body could not handle it.  And I vowed never again to capitalize on my brief association with the famous artists I had met.  And I kept that pledge, except when I taught a course on American jurisprudence in Moscow with retired Judge Judy Chirlin.  We traveled one evening to a small town outside the city to have dinner with her cousins who lived there.  They were gracious hosts and welcomed me as if I were one of the family.  On the mantelpiece of their home were two photos, one of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the other of Yehudi Menuhin.  How could I resist?  I told them of my meeting with the great master.  I believe my celebrity status earned me extra servings of borscht.
         I acknowledge that my adventure does not compare to Woodward's.  He battled a green moray.  The closest I came to a clash with a wild animal was in Kenya in 1977.  My party and I were in the wilds at a campground near a river.  I was sitting on the ground outside my tent going though my belongings.  A mongoose, reported to be a camp pet, approached me.  I offered a friendly greeting, but the mongoose went straight to my camera bag and proceeded to fling out of the bag, one by one, all of its contents.  I pushed him away, and he pushed right back with his little claw-like forepaws while emitting high pitched whistle sounds.  No sooner would I get something back in the bag, than he would throw it out again.  The pushing encounter ended with a ferocious battle over a lens and a roll of film.  The altercation came to a close with the mongoose keeping the film and me keeping the lens.  I won.  The film had been over-exposed.

         The legal profession can be one of the most demanding.  It requires constant attention to detail and at times can make the embattled lawyer feel like he or she is in a protracted match with morays, green or otherwise.  But for you lawyers who have not had the opportunity to take a break from the demands of your practice, I advise you to consult Tim Tosta's insightful columns in the Daily Journal on how to live a full and gratifying life as a lawyer.  He will take you on adventures that explore the wondrous terrain of the inner life.

         Woodard took a leave of absence and for two years lived a life most of us only dream about.  Like many in and out of the professions, he is looking for a job.  I am convinced he will find one that suits him, and he will be all that more accomplished in whatever he does because of those two years.  I am also convinced that the more lawyers explore their inner and outer worlds, the more wisdom and insight they gain into handling cases, clients, opposing counsel and judges.  And, yes, the adventures that enhance a lawyer's life and profession apply to judges too.  These explorations belong on a list for New Year's resolutions.  And in whatever universe you inhabit, may you enjoy a Happy New Year.

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