Three weeks into my law school career, I was sitting on the hood of my car in the large parking lot behind my new home, a high-rise apartment building in Arlington, Virginia. It was a hot afternoon, the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Heat eddied off the asphalt; the humid cacophony of insect sounds was in full effect across suburbia. Every so often, a commercial jet would lumber past overhead, so low it seemed you could almost reach out and touch it… or shoot it down with a rifle. I had unknowingly rented along a major approach to National Airport, which is now called Ronald Reagan National Airport, a fact that continues to leave me aghast. I was 21 years old; somehow I’d been accepted into one of the top law schools in the country. Three more years of hitting the books and my future as a hotshot legal eagle seemed pretty much assured.
There was only one problem: I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a writer.
Only I had no idea how I was supposed to make that happen. All I had to show for myself was a major in history, a column in the student newspaper and one semester working as an intern for an alt-weekly called Creative Loafing.
Having a profession to fall back on seemed like a logical plan. The play: go to law school; get an important high-paying job; branch out into writing. Surely it would be one way to distinguish myself from the hordes of other people who wanted to be writers.
Of course, this entailed actually having to show up at law school for three straight years. Early on, it became clear it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. My classmates were serious. Some of them even wore ties. The first social event we attended was dedicated to the purpose of forming study groups, which turned out to be a good thing, because every time I cracked the books at home alone I’d become extremely drowsy and want to take a nap. I still remember our first lesson in contracts. “The Case of the Hairy Hand” (a.k.a. Hawkins v. McGee) was adjudicated in 1929 but was still being trotted out to create the impression that contract law could be interesting. If a monstrous hairy hand couldn’t keep me awake, I didn’t know what could. Three more years of this?
I’ve never been good at doing things I don’t love, but I didn’t know this yet. I’d chosen law school not because I liked it or wanted to do it—I’d clerked as an intern for a lawyer my junior year of college and loathed almost every minute—but because it seemed the mature course of action. I was now an adult, and that’s what adults did, right? Make a plan and stick with it no matter what. Who was I to argue with the wisdom of the generations that came before me? Or with the wisdom of my parents, who were footing the bills. It’s not like my graduating class had reinvented the wheel. I was smart enough to know I was still a little pisher.
So there I was, sitting on the hood of my car in the parking lot, a young man with a bright future as a high-powered lawyer, facing a Labor Day weekend full of study.
I began to sob.
I looked up to find my girlfriend’s twin sister, a hot little blonde in a halter top.
I don’t think either of them would mind if I said here that their last name was Ries, and they’d been known in high school as the Ries Pieces, after the candy. Twin sis had driven to town to stay with us for the weekend. (You can see why I might have thought I had things figured out, right?)
We’d known each other for six or seven years at this point. I explained my crisis of conscience, that what I really wanted to do was write. I told her about the day the light had gone on. I’d been leaving my frat house on the way to take the law boards for the first time when the phrase spoke itself to me: “I just want to see how far I can go.”
Twin sis looked at me as if I were nuts.
“If you don’t like law school, why don’t you just quit?”
Until that moment, I’d never even considered the option.
Thirty-some years later, I am sitting at a beautifully handcrafted wooden bar listening to a serious young woman wearing a Mohawk, a men’s white dress shirt and a complex multifaceted nose adornment spew adjectives relating to a long list of small-batch rye whiskeys offered by the establishment. We are on the pier near San Francisco’s Embarcadero. As her mouth forms the words, I become convinced that someone, somewhere, is staying up late at night assigning endless lists of wonderful-seeming adjectives to every food and taste in the known universe and disseminating them to the masses of waitstaff who service the world’s overstuffed foodies.
On the stool to my left sits a younger friend. It’s been some time since I’ve seen him in person. He’s put on a few years and grown himself one of those mountain-man beards; his jeans are cuffed, exposing lace-up boots. Although he looks as if he’s just lumbered down from a survivalist encampment in the hills of Marin County, he’s a supertalented digital type. His company is onto something. He’s a vital part. The money’s not there yet and he’s packing in the hours and it will be another year or two before anything gets launched—but if you’re looking into a certain kind of rose-colored crystal ball, there’s a real chance their baby has a bright future.
Or it could die.
Or someone else could do it sooner and better. (Whatever the hell it is. It’s top secret.)
Or… a zillion other scenarios could go down.
“The thing is,” he’s saying, “there’s this headhunter from New York. He says he can get me a ton of money. And he says I’m a wuss if I don’t take it.”
“Did you punch him out?”
My friend laughs. “He didn’t exactly use that wording.”
“But you did eat ramen noodles for dinner more than once last month, did you not?”
He raises his hands in surrender. He looks thin. This fancy place is his choice, but I’m buying. Since college, he’s been living in a group house in a marginal neighborhood. He’s got outstanding student loans. He’s got older, working-class parents. Dreams and responsibilities—it’s a tough tag team to face. If one of them doesn’t kick his ass, the other is fully capable.
We talk a little about making life’s choices, and how some courses of action are, like driving directions, easily Google-mapped: you feed the coordinates, you follow the well-marked path, you take the well-marked exits and you pretty much know what to expect. A profession to fall back on. It’s the mature and logical choice.
In other cases, the choices are more uncertain. It’s a bitch, but that’s just how it is. And chances are you have only yourself to blame, because you, too, are only good at doing what you love. It’s like one minute you’re driving along the highway, and the next you’re yanking the wheel hard right and plowing through the guardrail, destination unknown. Because you want to be the best you can be, and this is what feels most right, and anything is worth that feeling—or at least nothing is worth not being able to feel it.
I tell him about that day so many years ago in the parking lot in Arlington.
I just want to see how far I can go.
I’m still going.