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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Call Me Columbia

I’ve been on vacation this week. In addition to catching up on recorded TV (Hey, there was a big wedding in England, and Osama bin Laden was killed! Who knew?) and attacking a garden that’s been overgrown for so long that new plant species appear to have evolved there, I’ve had some time to reflect.
The subject of this week’s navel-gazing was my career. I’ve always admired individuals who had a goal from early childhood and set out to achieve it. I am not one of those people.
So, with profound apolgies to Herman Melville, I bring you the story of my professional life:
Call me Columbia. Some years ago, never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse and nothing in particular to interest me in terms of a career, I thought I would sail about a little and see the legal part of the world.
In the Northwest, most months of the year are in fact a damp drizzly November of the soul, but this one was particularly dreary. I had just been informed that my entire organization was about to be laid off from a large local aerospace company that shall remain nameless. My immediate response was to take to my bed with the covers pulled up over my head and read for sixteen hours at a stretch. However I eventually realized that this type of work was not highly compensated. If I wanted to keep up with the payments on my battered ten-year old Honda roadster (I take a back seat to no one), and prevent my cat from staring at me reproachfully over a bowl of the lower-priced food, I had better find myself another job.
In between “Typee, a Peep at Polynesian Life,” and “Dave Barry Goes to Japan” I made a searching inventory of my marketable job skills:
 Cooking: I showed considerable promise in the professions of dishwasher and short-order cook in my younger years. I excelled at running blocks of government-surplus processed cheese through an enormous shredder in the kitchen of a Girl Scout camp outside of Bremerton. I could make lasagna for 150 screaming girls ranging in age from bedwetting to boy-gossiping. However I was fifteen at the time, and that line of work is a young person’s game. I knew I’d never be competitive in that market in today’s teenager-eat-teenager world.
 Writing: The job of which I was about to be relieved had ostensibly involved technical writing. To this day I maintain that my opus on hinge installation for overhead storage compartments remains one of the most tragically neglected works of recent American nonfiction. There’s also my unproduced screenplay for the instructional video, “Lathe Settings,” and my crisp, incisive and thought-provoking essay on proper disposal of foam beverage containers, posted in every company cafeteria. In reality, we spent most of our time complaining about management (posting sentries so we could quickly spring back to “work” if the boss was coming) and sending out scouts to search the office complex for birthday parties from which leftover cake could be filched. Although I enjoyed these activities immensely, especially the cake, I struggled to convey the value of these experiences to potential future employers.
 Law: I had voyaged around the coastline of this profession a few years previously, but finding no appealing anchorage I had moved on to aviation. My academic career had coincided with a trough in the local economy, effectively thwarting my dream of setting up a small corner Political Science shop when I graduated from college. I decided to wait out the downturn in law school. It was cheap, requiring no expensive cadavers or supercolliders, and was regarded in my small liberal-arts college as a sort of yuppie home-economics or auto shop. I had no trouble getting in thanks to a thin pool of competition and a recently revised entrance exam devoid of anything resembling mathematics. Once there, however, I encountered an academic Bataan Death March for which I was ill-prepared. Day by day I struggled to comprehend just exactly what Justice Learned Hand meant in his third rebuttal to the dissent, or the Rule Against Perpetuities, or cy pres, or why trees had standing. I was harangued by professors in class, ignored by other students, and exhausted by endless hours of grueling study. The situation was not enhanced by my dismal basement apartment, which was so cold and damp that condensation dribbled down the walls day and night. I often sat wrapped in a blanket with my feet on a heating pad turned up full blast. All I needed was to catch tuberculosis and my Romantic cycle of self-pity would be complete.
Eventually I got in touch with my inner Scarlett O’Hara. I swore I would not quit, and I learned how to survive. I dressed in colors matching the classroom furniture and carpeting. To further avoid being called on, I cultivated an expression of such helpless ignorance (admittedly not difficult) that even the most sadistic professor would pass his Sauron-like gaze over me in order to avoid wasting precious classroom time.
I did manage to graduate and pass the bar, and even scored clerkships with the Alaska Supreme Court in Anchorage and the Oregon Court of Appeals in Salem.
So I returned to the legal profession, where I have remained ever since. But I still get nostalgic looking at airline overhead storage bins. And cheese.

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