Friday, July 17, 2009

The Best Things I Used To Do In College, And Don't Do Anymore, But Should

It's a SemiDaily List!

I'm back from my week of trying a case -- we didn't do as well as we liked (that's lawyer-speak for "we lost but I hope I still get paid") -- but I had a lot of time to think this week, driving almost three hours round trip each day for four days, sitting and thinking while the jury was out, and at odd hours when I wasn't grilling witnesses.

One of the things I thought about was, as you've gathered from the headline, things that I don't do anymore even though I did them in college. I was thinking about those things first because, like I said, a lot of time to think while driving, and I can only listen to talk radio for so long. And, second, because being in trial 9 hours a day for four straight days, while not being "work" in the sense that any real working person would mean it, is a strange and intense experience -- either everything is totally focused, or there's nothing at all to do. When court is in, when there are witnesses and exhibits and judges, and arguments, my mind is focused on everything that's going on and trying to keep track of questions and answers and listening to my client and reviewing my notes and having to on the spot react to dozens of things.

And then, when court is out, like during the 10 minute breaks, there's just... nothing. I mean, sure, if I don't have to prepare for the next part, I chat with the bailiffs or the reporter or my client, but there's no break. No surfing the internet or listening to the radio or making a personal phone call or reading the paper or breaking out a book. Just down time.

And that comparison, between how I was spending my life this week, as opposed to how I spend my life most weeks, got me to thinking about how my lifew most weeks compared to my life in college, when I (as the title to this post suggested, way back when) used to do things that I no longer do.

College for me, mind you, was not a Van Wilder-esque experience. I worked my way through college -- although, as always, with my life, "work" should be in quotes because I didn't "work" so much as "do things, or pretend to do things, and get paid for them." My point is, this is not some Animal House-nostalgia reverie about parties and Jell-o shots and streaking and things.

As an aside: Animal House sucked. I brought it up only because when people think college, for some reason, they think Animal House, but Animal House was a terrible, awful, boring, unfunny movie. So was Old School, which wasn't so much a college movie as a pasted-together series of scenes from other college movies. I had to say this so that you didn't think I liked Animal House, because I didn't, and nobody should. It's an awful awful movie that, like so much else, is only remembered fondly because Baby Boomers made it, and Baby Boomers cannot see that most of what they've created actually is terrible. Or they refuse to see that -- they just band together, with their slightly-wavy, vaguely-toupee looking haircuts, and their polo shirts tucked into their khaki shorts with knit belts, and talk about how great the stuff they created is, and write Newsweek articles about how great the stuff they've created is, and ignore the fact that the stuff they've created, like Animal House and like 98% of the Rolling Stones' music, is just god-awful.

Anyway, with that off my chest, I was, as I said, thinking, on the way home the other day, Boy, life now sure is different than life in college. Not bad-different, entirely, but not good-different, entirely, either. Because while I've replaced some of the bad stuff from my college life (for example, I replaced being poor with being well-off but having phenomenally high mortgage and student loan payments, which means I'm really in the same boat, and I replaced eating Ramen noodles a lot because they're all I could afford with eating Ramen noodles a lot because I've grown to really like them)...

... maybe things aren't so different.

But, no, yes, they are. Things are different, now. And things are better -- my life today is tons better than when I was in college, not just because I make more money and have a better job and have a great wife and great kids and living quarters that don't smell like moldy feet, but because I'm wiser and more well-rounded.

But with all that, things could be a little better-er -- they could be Best, as I like to say, because I realized that (again, the title clued you into this) that there were things I did in college that were fun that I no longer do anymore, and I should. We as a people should do those things, some of those things, that we did in college, at least the ones that weren't terminally stupid/illegal/requiring an excessive amount of nudity, and I in particular can think of some things that I did in college that I no longer do, but should, and, at last, I am to the part where I'm going to tell you what those things are. So without further ado, here are:

The Best Things I Used To Do In College, And Don't Do Anymore, But Should

1. Use a backpack. Why can't "grown-ups" use backpacks for stuff? Who decided that a backpack isn't a suitable grown-up accessory? The last time I was allowed to use a backpack was when I was in college. Each day, I'd take my backpack and put the books I needed in it, put a couple of extra cassette tapes for my Walkman in a small pouch on it, put my lunch in the side pack, put a couple of sodas in a different pack, and then slip it on and carry everything I needed for the day, hands-free, in comfort. If I wanted to be cool, I'd do that thing where I had it on with only one strap, but mostly I two-strapped it and I was fine with that. (A guy listening to Paul McCar tney's Liverpool Oratorio on his Walkman, carrying Blue Devil comic books, is not going to be too cool no matter how he wears his backpack.)

The backpack worked great -- it kept my lunch away from my books, had small pouches so that I could get a tape out without opening the whole stupid thing, and even sat nicely on a base it created through the stuff inside it. And the straps were padded.

Now, as a grown-up, I don't get a backpack. I get briefcases-- stiff-sided, non-expandable, unicompartmented, small-handled cases. The first briefcase I owned, given to me on graduation from law school, broke because I stuffed it too full (with, in case you're wondering, ramen noodles for lunch, not files.) So I switched to a soft-sided briefcase made of leather with one small outside pouch for pens. That one stopped being useful when my lunch (leftover Hamburger Helper) spilled in it, wrecking most of a file and also leaving noodle residue that even a dry cleaner couldn't get out.

The problem with both of those, aside from being incredibly small, was that I had to hold them in my hand, leaving me with only one free hand. If that free hand w as holding my coffee, or a soda, or a sandwich, or anything, I couldn't open doors or shake hands or pick up something else I wanted to carry -- making it difficult to, say, walk to court while eating a corn dog and drinking my Red Pop. Unacceptable.

Now, I've got something kind of like a bike messenger bag with one pouch and a couple of small segregated sections, and it's got a shoulder strap, but the strap isn't padded and it's prone to slipping down off my shoulder, and I have to put my lunch next to anything else I'm carrying (usually a copy of Entertainment Weekly).

So I want a backpack. But I can't have one, because society decrees, apparently, that adults should be uncomfortable and if I were to show up for a jury trial and begin unloading my file from a backpack I'd be fired by my clients faster than you could say malpractice. (And my clients, for some reason, can say that word pretty quickly.)

2. Do Crossword Puzzles When You're Supposed To Be Paying Attention But Don't Really Need To Be: I'm lucky. We don't have many meetings in my office -- in fact, the only regular meeting is one that I started, and I'm the only one who usually talks at that meeting, and it's short. But we do have some meetings, and those meetings are usually not something that I really need to be paying attention at -- either because nothing ever gets decided, or because I already know what the meeting is about and therefore don't need to pay attention, but I do need to be there.

There was a word for things like that in college, a word for things that we had to attend but didn't need to pay attention to, and that word was "classes." I had to attend classes, not because I cared about ethics or Political Uprisings of the 20th century, or Anthropology 101, whatever that was (we looked at skulls a lot and the professor pronounced "Neanderthals" as neander-tall, not thall, which bugged me). I didn't care about those things; I cared about making sure I didn't miss a quiz or exam or term paper assignment, so I went to class and sat in back, mostly, and tried to ignore the professor constantly saying neander-tall by doing crossword puzzles, which back then were the only form of entertainment students had. There was no Internet for most of my time in college, and certainly no wireless internet for laptops; if I'd been able to surf the Internet while in class, I might still be in college.

Then again, maybe I wouldn't have surfed the Internet, because I really enjoyed doing crossword puzzles, and the only time I ever did them was doing them in the newspaper while I was sitting in the back row of class. Doing a crossword puzzle was perfect -- it looked like you were paying attention, because while you thought of a word you could stare at the professor thoughtfully, and then lean down to write something, making it look like you were taking notes. And it had the added benefit of being "kind of smart," so it wasn't really a waste of time -- I might not have known exactly why we kept looking at skulls in anthropology (or what anthropology meant), but at least I was doing a crossword puzzle, so I was, you know, learning and using my mind and stuff.

I don't do crossword puzzles anymore. I did one on a plane, once, when I got really bored with the book I was reading, and it was okay, but it wasn't the same because I wasn't dodging anything. And now, when I'm in meetings or sitting at seminars or being brought up on ethics charges yet again, and I'm sitting there in the conference room or at the State Bar Center or in the holding cell, and I'm supposed to be paying attention but I'm not, I've got... nothing. I can, I suppose, doodle on my legal pad, or do what I sometimes do and circle all of one certain letter on a page, then put a box around another, then a triangle around a third letter, but that's not intellectually challenging.

What the world needs, I think, is this: legal pads with crossword puzzles on each page. They could put them down into the corner, just small ones, maybe, but they'd be there. Or put them on everything that we use in the office. Why not have crossword puzzles on the back of Post-Its, on boxes for the doughnuts, on desk calendars? I mean, sure, there's always a chance I'll get a little distraced when I should actually be paying attention, but I can wing it in that kind of situation:

Judge: Mr. Pagel, it's your time to argue this case to the jury and try to avoid the death sentence for your client.

Me: (Folding up crossword I've been working on for most of the trial): Oh, uh, certainly, Your Honor. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client, whatever his or her name is, may be a lot of things, but I'll tell you what he's not: he's not a six-letter word meaning the opposite of innocent. He's also not an island in the Caribbean Sea, popularized in short stories, with 8 letters in it, and the middle letter is an "l." If, though, anyone knows what that is, I'd appreciate you just blurting it out.

3. Like Local Bands: I used to love local bands. Not "local bands that happen to be from my state and made it big," but actual local bands, bands made up of guys I might see on campus, guys who worked at the copy shop or movie theater or sandwich shop, guys who you found out one day were in an industrial punk rock band with a focus on songs aimed at ending vivisection. (I honestly knew a guy who did just that, and his band really was just that.) Bands that would have a little cassette tape of their stuff on sale for $5, with a handwritten label on it, and a poorly-reproduced cover. Bands who played in venues so small that the lead singer was actually right next to you. Those bands were incredible. I'd go every now and then to see one of them at some small bar, maybe with a friend or two. I'd bike over to the really-artsy-record store to browse the local-bands rack, buying cassettes from bands like Alligator Gun. I'd listen to songs like Don't Call Him Digger, Call Him Dan and think "Man, these guys shouldn't go on to be doctors, they should just keep on rockin'."

There was something really fun and real and exciting about those bands. There was something alive about them, something neat about listening to their tapes on my Walkman and thinking Yeah, I remember standing right next to that guy when he sang that.

I don't listen to local bands anymore. Part of that is because I don't go to bars anymore -- they frown on taking toddlers into a bar -- and part of that is because, I don't know, I grew up. I see fliers for local bands and find websites for them and I think, yeah, that's all right, but then I go and buy the latest Coldplay album, instead. Which is all right, I guess, but it's not unique. It's not as much fun, not having any connection to the music, and it's not as much fun knowing that everyone around me is listening to the same thing I am, and it's not as much fun knowing that if I ever am standing next to Chris Martin, I will have somehow switched bodies with Gwyneth Paltrow.

4. Play sports. When I was in college, we played football and softball and racquetball, and I mean we played them. We played tackle football, and some of the people playing football were guys that played on a local semi-pro team... and we played without pads. The softball wasn't this "let's get together and drink" softball -- maybe people had a beer here or there, but we were competitive. I pitched for our law school team once, and had a no-hitter going into the 8th inning, when I gave up a double. They pulled me out. There was no screwing around in those sports -- mess up and you're off the team, or maybe have broken leg because you didn't block Ernest. He was huge.

Even racquetball was serious, and possibly dangerous. I once -- totally accidentally, I swear-- gave my friend a black eye playing against him, on a hard serve. (His fiancee then forbid him from playing with me until after the wedding so I didn't wreck the photos.) We'd play for hours and nearly die of exhaustion, hitting walls and contesting every point.

I don't know why that had to end, but apparently it did. My second year of law school, I clerked at a firm and one of the lawyers said to me "So, what do you do for recreation?" I told him, and he said "You'll have to change that if you want to mingle as a lawyer. Better take up golf or tennis."

So I did -- on his advice, I took up golf -- and even then, I found it's not anything like a real sport. Part of that is because I'm terrible at golf, so bad that I wouldn't dream of actually using it as a professional contact of any sort, and part of that is because when "adults" play sports, they're not serious about it at all. We had golf outings at our firm, for a while, and these golf outings devolved from, on the first hole, a light-hearted, joking good time to, by about the fifth hole, a drinking contest and people simply not golfing at all anymore. I don't mind if people want to simply walk around with a beer, but I'd rather they didn't call it a sport.

Softball changed, too -- almost the moment I graduated from law school. Suddenly, our pitcher had a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his glove while he pitched. Nobody practiced. People showed up for games, or not.

I heard, on the radio, an ad for a new softball league. Here were the selling points: 1. It's played indoors, so there's never a rain out and it's not too hot. 2. There is a full barrel of beer for each game, and 3. No strikeouts.

That is a sport? I get it: Adults aren't supposed to want to play sports. I'm not saying we all have to be Tiger Woods crossed with Lance Armstrong at all times -- training and never smiling and nearly killing photographers and dumping our girlfriends -- but if you're going to say you're playing a sport, could we at least actually play it?

There should be some kind of division -- people who want to sit and drink beer are free to do that. They could say something like "Hey, let's all go sit and drink beer." And people who want to play a game of racquetball could then get someone who wants to do that.

It got so bad that I began teaching the kids to play my sports simply to have someone to play a decent game with, and that never works, because not only do they come up with crazy plays (one on play in a football game, Middle called for five fake handoffs and then a fake pass) but you have to let them win, for most of their lives, until suddenly one day you no longer have to let them win and they beat you by 30 in basketball and don't even sweat.

5. Sit crosswise in chairs. Working at three jobs while going to school, combined with the fact that I am only just a little more social than the Unabomber, meant that I mostly didn't hang around in the student lounges with other students. Either I had to get into class (where I'd do crosswords) or I had to get to one of my jobs (where I'd do my homework.)

But from time to time, I did sit and talk with the other students, at the Union or the Terrace or in the Lounge or at one of the many little spots where colleges put chairs and wide tables and the student newspapers to encourage kids to hang out and create what administrators call a "community" and students call "a chance to slack off and maybe ask out that cute girl from Anthropology, the one who smiled as she handed you the skull."

And when I sat in one of those areas, I, and the other students, would invariably sit in almost any manner in the chair other than the accepted, conventional manner of butt-on-the-base, feet on the floor. We'd sit on the arm and lean over, or sit on the chair and swivel sideways so our legs were over one arm and our head rested against the other, or sit on the back with our feet on the seat -- anything but sit in the chair the way God and Thomas Edison intended.

(I put Thomas Edison in there because I'm pretty sure that my Anthropology professor said he invented the chair, the time she passed around his skull.)

Now, I sit in chairs the way they're supposed to be sat in, like a decent human being. I don't even take a chair and spin it around so that I'm leaning against the back of it, arms atop the backrest, legs akimbo. No, I just pull out a chair and sit in it, all boring and stodgy and grown up. I don't even really sit off-center on chairs anymore, and here's why: I can't. Society won't let me.

Try it yourself. Go to the Mall, say. Malls have chairs and benches in them. Go to the Mall, and be a grown-up person, and when you get to a chair, sit on the arm of the chair, legs off to the side, using only 10% of the chair. Watch the looks you get. I bet you'll last one minute before you give up and leave or sit in the chair the right way. And you'll last less than that if you try, say, sitting on the back of the chair, or crosswise.

As a college student, I challenged society and stood up to The Man (Thomas Edison?) and sat on chairs however I darn well pleased. As an adult, I sit in them in a way that would make my grandma proud of me.

6. Sometimes just blow off things you know you should be doing and hang out for a day doing nothing much at all. Actually, I just today began doing this one. You didn't think I was in my office doing this, did you? I wouldn't even have been doing this today -- if it hadn't started raining, I'd still be outside. The office, the papers, the emails, the phone calls, the motions and complaints and answers and judges and lawyers... they'll all be there tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

But today? Today is only here for a short time.

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