Monday, July 4, 2011

Lawyers, Soccer Moms and Rock Stars: Thoughts from the Road

Recently my oldest daughter had a weekend soccer tournament in Rochester, Minnesota, a pleasant city with a population just over 100,000 located about an hour and a half south of the Twin Cities by car.  It is the lesser known of the Rochesters, known by name only to Minnesotans and nearby Midwesterners, but known indirectly the world over as the home of  Mayo Clinic.

Years ago, before I took my law practice in-house, I used to do legal work for Mayo Clinic.  The law firm I worked for represented Mayo in the occasional medical malpractice lawsuit brought by an unhappy or unlucky patient.  Although I never thought medical malpractice defense was an area I would practice in, the cases were interesting and even better, the client insisted that we take the strong cases (which was most of them) all the way through trial.  For a budding litigator, this meant I had several opportunities early in my career to participate in real, live trials before real, live judges and juries.  We worked long days, up early, full-day in the courtroom and then back to the hotel for a long night of reviewing that day's events and preparing for the next.  (I would later understand that the sleeplessness that accompanies trials is rivaled only by the early days of motherhood.)

The doctors we worked with and represented were some of the best in the world.  Spending time with them so that we could learn their field of medicine and understand the methodology of diagnosis and treatment was challenging and stimulating.  Imagine finding some of the best tutors in the country on a subject, but instead of you paying them, they pay you and are even more motivated than you are to get you ready for the test.  It was a heady time full of excitement but also the pain and fatigue that come with rapid growth.  One of the things I remember most from that time is not a particular doctor or specific piece of acquired medical knowledge, but rather the physical and geographic journey that bracketed and facilitated everything else:  the numerous road trips down to Rochester to develop and prepare each case well before any trial date was even dimly rising on the horizon.

Being a world-class medical facility (or collection of medical facilities, really) there are no slacker night-owls at Mayo (or, if there are, they have absolutely no ability to influence the schedule of operations whatsoever).  Business opens, surgeons start scalpeling and doctors start doctoring at 7 a.m. sharp.  While meetings with lawyers are never preferred, if they must occur the preferred time to schedule them is also 7 a.m.  Says the obliging law firm, "sure, no problem.  We can meet you at 7.  It's no trouble at all."  But to drive 81 miles, park, navigate the Mayo tunnel system and find your seat in the inevitably obscurely located conference room by 7 a.m. translates into a Twin City departure time of 4:45 or 5:00 a.m.  In my lexicon this is also known as "the middle of the night."  It is not morning or even early morning.  It is not time for exercising or reading the paper or really any activity whatsoever that requires vertical movement and consciousness.  It is nighttime.  It is a sacred time meant only for sleeping and to be left alone, quiet and undisturbed.  This truth is further corroborated by the fact that in Minnesota for a good chunk of the year it is pitch black at 5:00 a.m. and visibly indistinguishable from its predecessors, 2, 3 and 4 a.m.   (Indeed, for part of the year it is nearly pitch-black at 8:00 a.m. in Minnesota, but the sadness of that Northern story is to be deferred for now.) 

Despite the realities of divergent biological hard wiring, the time for meeting with clients is whenever the clients say it is.  Furthermore, associate attorneys' concerns in these matters aren't even accidentally considered by the senior partners.  In sum, not even a humanitarian mission designed to better the lives of abused, neglected and malnourished infant lawyers would take on the cause of accommodating the circadian rhythms of oppressed associate populations over the declared meeting-time preferences of a paying client.

And so, I found myself impossibly setting my alarm for a time not very much in front of 4:45 or 5:00 a.m. and struggling to remember what I was sure I knew only hours before about the properties of gravity and caffeine and getting dressed, then standing just inside my front door listening for a honking sound from the street.  Upon hearing this unnatural interruption of the stillness, I would open the door, move through the darkness, exchange brief greetings with a shadowy figure and take my place behind the wheel of the car, which was, to be very clear on this point, not my car.  For, you see, the only way that getting-up in the middle of the night could be made to be any worse (aside from having to immediately exercise, which I tried once but then stopped when I found myself at risk of vomiting) would be to add driving a senior partner's car while trying to stay awake to the mix.  So, of course, that is exactly what I got.  In retrospect, I can now appreciate that the nerve-wracking anxiety associated with driving your boss's car through the early black hours that were sometimes salted with blinding snow had the positive benefit of minimizing the likelihood that I would dose-off and veer into the ditch.  No matter what Starbuck's has told you, adrenaline beats caffeine every time.

The reason that I would drive the senior partner's car while the senior partner relinquished control and enjoyed the calmer, more serene "ease your way into the day" perspective of the passenger seat was so said partner could review documents during the drive in preparation for the meeting.  And, if you must know, I never crashed the car or got fired, though for several years I was convinced that I was just one head-bob away from both.

What I remember from those drives, aside from the repeated torture described above, was that once we cleared the Twin Cities and passed the ominous and alien looking Koch Refinery on Highway 52,
The internet tells me this is now called the Pine Bend Refinery, though we always called it the Koch refinery.   It is owned by Koch Industries and the same Koch brothers whose influence with the governor of Wisconsin was recently in the news.

the landscape opened up and the rolling farmland that lured adventurous Scandinavian settlers all those years ago laid itself out before you:

I thought about all of this recently as I passed the Koch Refinery once again, though thankfully at the much more reasonable and amply-illuminated hour of 9 a.m.  I was relieved to find that the farmland persists and still enchants with its pastoral simplicity and incredible greenness.

Because my daughter was watching a movie in the back seat, I couldn't listen to or sing-along with my playlist as I usually do in the car.  This unexpectedly forced me out of my routine.  I found myself alone with my own thoughts in the mostly silent car except for the muffled action of Toy Story that occasionally spilled out of the headphones behind me.  I was immediately aware of the strangeness of having a long stretch of time in front of me with nothing to do but think. 

The first thing I thought about was how many ruts we let ourselves get into without realizing it.  We all have certain habits and routines that we are fully conscious of; everything from eating Wheaties for breakfast, to driving the same roads to and from work, to work itself.  Many of these habits are inescapable or maybe even comforting.  I came to realize that because my commute is short, because I nearly always use the time for singing, I had developed and fallen into the rut of "what I do in my car" without even knowing it.   But now here I was, quite unexpectedly, in a little mobile thinking pod that looked just like the car in which I often engage in musical practice, but this time without any ability to leverage the radio or my iPod and with no one to talk to.  Without the distractions and soothing comforts of routine my internal restlessness loomed and gathered.  But, since no one was looking, I resolved to let my brain go streaking for a bit across the countryside just to experience the exhilaration of feeling the wind on usually cooped-up, wind-free parts.

Band Names

So, maybe this is just me, but my newly loosed brain did not immediately leap at the chance to recite memorized poetry or attempt to develop a unifying economic policy that would solve the budget crisis while also extending health care to all Americans and ending world hunger.   Instead, it started with what it already knew and liked.   As a result, thanks to the mileage between Minneapolis and Rochester, I'm now working on a theory that driving around on roads you're unfamiliar with is a good way to generate possible band names.  This activity is akin to travel bingo or tracking what states' license plates you've seen: it's not important whether you have a band or that it needs a name, it's just a form of entertainment.  When you're driving a road that you don't know well, you pay much more attention to the signs and roadside attractions.  You notice the names of towns, like Zumbrota, and rivers, like Vermillion.  You notice the "House of Coates" establishment in Coates, Minnesota and think, "House of Coates -- that could be a band name."  And then you think about how many bands have already used this formula.  Of course, there are the likes of Boston, Chicago, Kansas, America, Asia, Europe, Alabama, The Bay City Rollers, The Oak Ridge Boys and Berlin, to name just a few, but some of my favorites are the more creative applications like The Rural Alberta Advantage, Pert Near Sandstone and Fountains of WayneYou can play this game for quite a while, actually, trying out each new location or roadside attraction and imagining it as announced by your favorite DJ: "And now, the new single from Pine Island."

Life on the Road

From band names your mind may eventually wander and consider what life would be like if it were in this situation all the time; that is, if you spent most of your time covering miles and miles of American pavement.  Of course, many people have already mapped-out this subject in great detail and to much acclaim.  One thinks of Kerouac and other explorers like Hunter S. Thompson, Ian Frazier and Anderson Cooper.  But my brain being what it is, it took the topic on a more mundane and literal level and wondered what it would be like to earn a paycheck driving for a living.  Not out of choice or some grandiose notion of manly "because it is there" adventure, but because that's the job you could get.  So you drive a big-rig or a UPS truck or do whatever it is that has to be done to be a cab driver (despite personal experience to the contrary, I'm led to believe that there is some sort of qualifying requirement before one can become a cab driver, yes?) and then you spend the majority of your time thereafter enjoying all 10 cubic feet of your work space.  Every morning, (and most likely during the "middle of the night" part of the morning) you rise, swill some sort of caffeinated beverage or ingest a bennie or two and take your seat -- for the next 8 to 12 hours, or more.  Ugh.  My unexpected hour of rut-awareness-via-forced-solitude suddenly seemed practically playful.

But there are other kinds of life on the road.  It's not just literary types, 60's radicals and blue-collar workers out there.  There's also a good chunk of the "Who's Who of Rock 'n' Roll" logging miles over the endless ribbons of highway.

I happen to be reading Bob Mould's newly published autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody.  I'm not finished yet, but I'm more than half-way through and well past the early Husker Du years with staggering stories of life on the road as part of the exploding punk rock scene in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  Sleeping in vans, electrocution by improperly wired microphones and a lack of sufficient funds to afford anything we would recognize as food and lodging.   The apprentice years of rock, it seems, are far from the make-believe world of an MTV video.   Even today the one and only Henry Rollins recently wrote a column for L.A. Weekly about the grind and odd social dynamics of an artistic life lived in transit.

I don't know how many burgeoning rock stars I passed or trailed on Highway 52 that day, but odds are that some band or another was making its way to Rochester for a gig that Saturday night.  Then I wondered if the rockers ever thought about who else was on the road; if they ever realized that probably a startling majority of the vehicles heading south that weekend were under the steady hands of soccer moms and dads, logging miles so that their progeny could extend their season, test and sharpen their skills and experience the anxiety and thrill of deliberately expanded boundaries.

The Bucket List

Thinking about who else is on the road and what their personal stories and situations are might lead one in a myriad of directions.  My thoughts flitted briefly from wondering how many rockers were behind the wheel to wondering how many different social, political and religious perspectives I was sharing the road with to then wondering when my next chance would be to travel a new route with unhindered contemplation as my companion.  Maybe the next soccer tournament, except that no more were on the calendar.  

This led me to one of the forbidden fantasies I harbor: the solo road trip.  This fantasy is forbidden not because of any intended lewd or illegal conduct that is implied by the mythology and Hollywood portrayal of such things, but because of my current station and responsibilities in life.  I am a wife and mother.  I have a healthy career.  I am not supposed to want to take-off and let whim and some good tips from the American Automobile Association be my guides.  I am not to supposed to imagine and wonder what it would be like to take a few months and just wander around, by myself, across the lesser-known parts of America, finding all of the rock venues and baseball stadiums and national parks I've always wanted to see along with whatever else is in between.  

In my fantasy, the car is not important, though it is not a van or large, cumbersome vehicle.  It's just a nondescript, regular car or sometimes, if the whether is hot and sunny in my imagination, a vintage convertible.  I invariably imagine more southern and western climates and Photo-shopped landscapes rolling by.   (No Koch refineries, thank you very much.)  It's not that I want to get away from anything, but rather that I want the chance to really see facets of life in the modern world that I wouldn't otherwise be likely to encounter and at a pace that certainly only comes without an itinerary.  To go to the next place that seems interesting and spend the amount of time there that my interest dictates.   Perhaps its just my mental antidote to a harried world that seems busy, but not often engaged.

This always leads me to the Bucket List: the list of things I'd like to do in my life that aren't likely to happen unless I point myself at them and apply focused effort.  I have an actual list in written form on my computer, but I mostly did that just for the discipline of the exercise.   To see what I would really write down.  I hardly ever look at the list and can't recall for certain everything on it, but I like knowing that it is there for me to find in the future if I should otherwise forget about it.  The key items are in my head.  And while it's easy to come-up with a long list of things that seem like they would be fun or interesting to do if time, money and physical dexterity were no obstacle, I think the best approach is to limit the list to just a few items at a time and to items that you actually intend to make an effort to address.  If the list is really meant to embody aspirational yet achievable objectives, then the weight of too many lessens the likelihood that you will knock-off even one.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of mine was to "sing with a band."  Now, depending on how you judge such things, I either have or have not accomplished that one.  But I maintain that the details and outcome are far less important than the process.  I will never be a rock star, but I don't see why that means I shouldn't dabble in music if I want to.

I watched the road and the now increasing suburbanization of the landscape out my window and thought of some of the other items on the list and how they might be accomplished.  The paths to some are clear and to others much less so.  

And then, just like that, the real world caught me by the tail and stuffed me back into its bag.  Rochester was before me and the time to review the directions regarding which exit to take was now.  Master-control brain once again took over and the pondering mists receded again to wherever they came from.  

Hmmm.  "And now, here's the new single from Pondering Mists."  Nah.  No good.  Guess I'll just have to keep looking.