Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Traveling Back in time on a Treadmill

Sometimes while working through a set at the gym, part of my mind goes on autopilot counting and another part of my mind drifts back to some moment in time and dwells there until I’m done counting. If I am running on a treadmill, my mind wonders back until my timer goes off.

I remember instances over the years when I would be somewhere doing something and would ponder what I would be doing in the near or distant future.  Often, when my mind travels backwards it goes to those moments--a moment like the time when I was walking in a line behind the teacher in third grade and would see the fifth graders marching along.  I would think, “Life will be so much different and better as a fifth grader.”  Then I would imagine what it would be like and would think to myself that it would be mere moments when imagination would be reality. I would then imagine myself as a fifth grader looking back on the time I wondered what it would be like as a third grader. To this day, every so often, I think back on the third grade version of myself thinking those thoughts.

Today, as I was jogging along on the treadmill, I reflected, for some reason, on a time when I was 14 or 15 and my family was hired to summarize the swamp coolers on a commercial building.  Instead of hiring my father before summer started, they had to hire us in June when they realized, “Hey, air conditioning needs to be maintained or our employees will leave.”

So, my father, my tiny mother, my two younger brothers, and I would climb the forty-foot extension ladder numerous times throughout the day to the roof and remove dozens of swamp cooler pads, take chisels and wire brushes to the built up minerals, oil the pumps and squirrel cages, put new pads in, snake out the spiders, and close them up again.  In the 110-degree heat, we would repeatedly douse ourselves in water, making our clothes into evaporative coolers themselves.  The job would take all weekend to complete, over twenty hours.

As I worked on one of the coolers, I thought to myself, “This work will be done in a day or two.”  I closed my eyes and lay on the roof for a few seconds and thought that, with my eyes closed, I could just as well be laying on a beach somewhere in that moment.  Then I thought about my life in 10, 15, and 20 years and how I would probably never be on a commercial building with my entire family again.  I was right.  My entire family would not be in tact after a few more years with the passing of my brother (he fell off a canyon wall at 16) and my father then stopped accepting these jobs on roofs of commercial buildings.

As I let the sun swelter down on my closed eyes, I never imagined myself being an attorney nor that I would be jogging on a treadmill over 20 years later thinking about it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Leaving Las Vegas – How Friends Disappear

Las Vegas is a transient town. People come to boom, and leave when they bust. Many live in the valley for a few years and then move on. For Tommy, this meant that he would make friends at school or in the neighborhood only to lose them. In the 1980s and 1990s, before the availability of cheap communication (i.e. Internet and cell phones), moving meant losing all contact with most of the “friends.” A few friends actually wrote letters and Tommy was able to maintain a connection with them until the advent of MySpace and Face book allowed more and easier access. Virtually everyone else who moved on was lost.

Thomas may occasionally look online for names from his distant memory, but some names are very common and he has no idea where in the world the former friends now reside. Apparently, Thomas is more sentimental than his former friends are. He wants to be reacquainted. However, none of the former friends have attempted to contact Thomas, even though he is easily findable as a Las Vegas attorney, who never moved away.

Thomas wonders if some may have looked him up but are too timid to contact him. If so, that is a shame. Life is too short to live in fear. More likely, however, they just never considered friendship that important and are apathetic. Thomas realizes that it serves no purpose to waste time on people with this attitude.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Killer Bums will Eat You, You’ll be Buried Alive, and the Mountain will Crumble

Thomas remembers things parents say out of unfounded fears to discourage their kids from wholesome behavior.

When Tommy was ten, he, his brothers, and a couple of neighborhood brats thought that it would be an adventure to explore the tunnels that emptied water from gutters into washes. They gathered flashlights and were going to set out on their expedition, but one of the kids could not go. His parent learned about what they were intending to do and made up a story about how homeless people live in the tunnels, along with bats, and other animals and it would be too dangerous. Of course, this was a huge lie. Tommy and his group spent several hours in the five foot tall tunnels and never came across a single one of those things, instead they found discarded items that had washed down from the side of roads. That kid missed out that day, but later was talked into going another day without telling his parents first. Incidentally, that kid became very troubled in middle school and ended up in juvenile hall for setting his home on fire.

When Tommy was twelve, he and his friend Willy designed a hideout which consisted of digging a hole in Tommy’s yard, covering it with strong planks of wood, and hiding the planks under soil. A trap door would allow them entry. They figured that the hideout would be approximately the size of a room. Tommy had been intrigued by the idea from reading The Three Investigators, a mystery series about three teenage boys who solve crimes and have a crime lab hidden under piles of junk in a junkyard. Anyway, Tommy and Willy began to dig.

Over the course of several days, they dug a sizable hole but had never anticipated what to do with all of the removed dirt. Tommy’s dad started to get annoyed about their tearing up the yard. For some reason, Tommy didn’t mind doing all that work but did not want to clean the chicken coop or pick up cigarette butts—a mystery to Tommy’s father Nolan. But, it was not Tommy’s dad that put an end to the dirty fun.

Every evening Willy would return home by bicycle and he would be covered in soil or dust. When Willy’s father learned about the hole, he became concerned and started telling Willy about how the ground would cave in on the boys and Willy would be buried alive. Total nonsense, but it was enough to cause Willy to stop assisting. Tommy continued digging by himself for several days but finally had to concede that he did not know what to do with the removed dirt and finally was ordered to fill in the hole by Nolan. It was no longer any fun without his friend. Bitterly, Tommy buried a time capsule in the hole as he filled it in.

A few years later, when Tom was 15, he and a friend from around the corner wanted to climb Frenchman Mountain (often wrongly referred to as “Sunrise Mountain”). Tom was a veteran climber by this time, having climbed to the top many times, but his friend Teve had not climbed it and Teve’s father was adamant against the idea. “That mountain is full of faults. It will crumble on you. Too dangerous.” Teve eventually ignored his ignorant father and climbed the mountain, and had a blast without a single injury.

In a city where children have very little to do, parental denial of wholesome fun (using silly safety arguments) stifles and forces children to have to disobey and lie. Thomas is glad that he was denied very little of the adventure of being a kid.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tom’s School Reading and Reading for Enjoyment

Throughout high school, Tom was assigned books to read. Often he would have preferred to read an assigned book within a few days; however the teachers parceled out pages and then quizzed on those pages. Completing the book ahead of schedule would have meant poor performance on the frequent quizzes, which often asked questions like what was a character wearing or eating (as if that had much relevance to the overall story).

Most of the assigned reading was melancholy. The themes usually centered on death and misery instead of life and joy. Tom recalls reading the following books in high school:

  • Ethan Frome (about attempted collaborative suicide);
  • A Separate Peace (about high school friends and one becoming jealous to the point of trying to kill his friend);
  • The Great Gatsby (about a rich man who pines for a shallow woman which ends up causing him to be murdered);
  • Jane Eyre (about an unattractive British woman who is to marry her older boss until she learns he is already married to a nut);
  • The Wide Sargasso Sea (about the life of the nut in Jane Eyre before she marries the rich British dude);
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (about racism which kills an innocent black man);
  • The Red Badge of Courage (about death and dying during the Civil War)
  • The Good Earth (about a newer Chinese generation taking over and placing the preceding generation in a corner with opium).

Tom needed other books to read in order to keep him reading. The school books alone would have destroyed all desire to read in the teenager. So, Tom sought out adventure stories including books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, et al), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World, Sherlock Holmes), Jack London (White Fang, Call of the Wild, Sea Wolf), and other early Twentieth Century novelists. These books also dealt with themes like death, but in a way that was positive, life reaffirming, and adventurous. Like many other teenagers, he also enjoyed comic books. These books gave Tom a desire to discover, learn, travel, and be something, whereas the assigned school books caused him to wonder what the purpose of life was and whether life is worth living when there can be so much tragedy and horror.

As an adult, Thomas still does not know why the school district assigned the reading it did when thousands of other books with more engaging themes could have been on the reading list. He figures that the books would not survive as literature if not foisted upon young minds whose world views would thereafter be affected. He wonders if the reason so few adults read books after graduation has anything to do with the reading that had been required.

Teen-aged years were traumatic enough. After all, teenagers deal with wanting to be free while restricted by parents, school, and other authority. Teenagers deal with new emotions that are stronger than at any other time in life. Why then should the school force such sad literature upon teenagers already dealing with turbulent, troubling times?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tom and the African-American Mistake

Thomas had just reconnected on MySpace with a black student he knew from high school, Jason. Jason and Tom were never friends, but they knew each other and had mutual friends for awhile. Tom never understood why they had not become pals in school. After all, they shared many of the same classes together and had known each other since Mrs. Blower’s fifth grade class. Throughout high school, Tom regarded Jason as an athlete and a scholar.

Jason was just finishing his PhD in Chemistry, and Tom was a new attorney in Las Vegas, when Tom found Jason online and instant-messaged him. Tom occasionally met students from high school, which often presented profound revelations. Tom would soon have another huge revelation with Jason.

The two chatted over a few months, talking about other students they knew. Tom was impressed that Jason had gone so far in school, and Jason was likewise impressed that Tom had finished law school and passed the Nevada bar exam.

All of a sudden, Jason stated, “You know, I was very mad at you all through high school.”

“What? Why?” Tom’s mouth fell agape as he read the words on his computer monitor.

“Something you said in fifth grade.”

“Something I said in fifth grade? What are you talking about?”

Jason hesitated, and then typed, “We were walking home from school with some friends and you said you did not like black people and that they should have separate places to live.”

Tom, usually quick to respond in contentious situations, was shocked at this declaration, and froze. He reread it a few times. Tom never walked home from school with Jason or anyone else. He rode bicycles home with his brothers and he lived in the opposite direction from school from Jason.

“I never said anything like that. I know I made ridiculous comments on occasion in school, but I could not have said something that outrageous. Even if I did harbor such beliefs, which I never have, I certainly would not have spoken them in front of someone that would have been offended by them. Could you be thinking of someone else?”

Jason did not reply for a moment. He was remembering. “Yes, it was someone else—I guess it was someone who looked like you.”

Tom then thought. After fifth grade, he and Jason had gone to two different schools before going to high school together. It was possible that Jason thought the Tom he saw in high school was the same kid that had made such a despicable remark three to four years before. They both grew up a bit between fifth grade and high school, and perhaps there were a few kids that resembled Tom.

“You mean that, for all of these years, since ninth grade, you have disliked me based on mistaken identity?” Thomas wrote.

“I think so. Come to think of it, I think I know who I mistook you for.”

“My gosh, I’m glad this got straightened out now. Better late than never. It is too bad I never approached you in high school and got to know you better. We could have cleared the air of this mistake long ago.”

Jason then said, “Yes, maybe I should have talked to you about it sooner too, but I thought you were the same guy and didn’t want to start anything.”

Thomas later thought about this revelation. Sometimes it is not wise to let something fester. Certainly, mistakes can be made and horrible judgments can result that could prevent two people from being fast friends. Thomas made the mistake of not being more sociable in high school and engaging students that seemed aloof around him. Jason made the mistake of not confronting someone that he believed insulted him to his face.

Since that conversation, Thomas and Jason have maintained sporadic but friendly contact. They live in separate States, but Thomas is very happy that yet another student from his high school days is doing well in life. This story confirmed one of the main ideas attorneys must bear in mind when examining eyewitnesses, “Eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Memory is fallible.”

However, too many innocent people were, and are, convicted on little more than such testimony. This story from Thomas’s childhood will someday work its way into a closing argument to help save someone from wrongful conviction.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Tommy Learns to Read

In 1986, Tommy's third grade teacher believed that Tommy might have an eye problem and told his parents to have his vision checked. Tommy was not doing well in the reading portion of the class. He knew the alphabet, but did not sound out words on the page. He seemed to not even notice the words. However, they soon learned that Tommy had perfect vision.

Tommy was in a cloud of confusion at school. He was distracted by the other students in class and their strange behaviors. Other kids talked about He-man cartoons, The Transformers, and brought lunch boxes depicting video game figures and containing candy, cookies, and coke products. He remembers girls were into Cabbage Patch Dolls and boys liked the Garbage Pail Kid cards. Tommy’s parents did not have a television or video game system, and did not let him eat candy or drink soda. They also thought the Garbage Pail Kid cards were too grotesque. So, Tommy sat through the day observing all the odd behavior, not realizing that a kind and patient teacher was trying to impart knowledge that would serve him well.

It was decided that Tommy would have to spend part of the day in a Reading Improvement Program (RIP), where he would be placed in a special classroom, a portable, and sit alone with a book and a tape-recorder which would read the book to him. And so, he spent his days at a carrel desk designed to keep him focused. He still remembers the first book he read with the program. It was John Henry the Steel Driving Man. It was far more entertaining than his regular classroom activities. He had heard the Johnny Cash version that his father sometimes played, but reading it, it made a lot more sense than the song to his young mind.

The book had a great impact on Tommy in several ways. He realized that he could read and what reading would mean to him from then on. The story was about a man who would not quit, despite great odds against him and despite many distractions—even if it killed him. After third-grade and his new found skill, Tommy became a voracious reader. In fourth grade he vastly out-read all the other students in the class combined, and won a top reader award. He remembers that, in fourth, fifth and sixth grades he was especially fond of mystery stories, including The Three Investigators, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown. In fifth grade Tommy started writing his own mystery stories and the teacher often had him read the stories in front of the class.

Reading that first book may well have laid the ground work for who Thomas would later become. Although he suffered a slight stigma in third grade for being in a RIP class (for dumb kids) and was teased for it, the lesson of John Henry the Steel Driving Man helped him overcome this and many more obstacles in life. When the kids made fun of him in third grade, he inwardly smiled because he was having a much more fun time in RIP than they were having in class.

Thomas and William, How Friends Help Each Other

Thomas asked his friend Nasrani what he thought about the stories of Thomas’ childhood.

“Well, I’d prefer to see more positive, optimistic, uplifting stories,” Nasrani said, “After all, I am an optimist.”

“I think there are a few of those stories, even though most of the experiences in public school were emotionally trying. Still, some of the readers have told me they thought the stories were uplifting because they show that a kid can become someone despite all the setbacks. They can become successful even though they frequently got into fights with other kids and the school bureaucracy. For instance, I became a lawyer even though a teacher wanted to hold me back in school. I assist people accused of horrible crimes even though I was often bullied by the criminally minded,” Thomas replied. Thomas then thought, perhaps his friend Nasrani and he often did not see eye to eye because Thomas was more pragmatic than optimistic.

After the conversation, Thomas sat and thought. This will be a challenge. Perhaps some readers would enjoy lighter stories. If Nasrani wanted lighter reading, maybe he represented many others who would also appreciate such stories. The problem, he thought, was whether he could present a conflict that the reader would find engaging. Conflict, after all, presents the adventure in life and the advancement towards wisdom. Most people would throw down a novel if the characters did not have to face hardship of some stripe. Who wants to read a story with no plot? Thomas turned to his childhood diaries for such rare experiences.

As he read, he realized that he had gained much of his knowledge and ultimate wisdom from deep and serious study in school and reading, and not always from conflicts with others. He spent hours after school learning the lessons that were superficially expressed by the teacher in the classroom. The study after school was tedious and sometimes frustrating, but Thomas wanted to be at the top of his class because it would increase his options upon graduation. He did not know what he wanted to do after high school; he just knew he wanted to become successful.

The conflict Tom faced with his studies, of course, was that he battled with the concept of opportunity cost. “If I spend three hours studying math tonight, that is three hours I do not get to spend making friends and having fun running around. But, if I do the studying, someday I may have a successful career, make decent money, and then have time to really enjoy life.” Tom decided he would spend the time to invest in his future and not enjoy the moment.

His few friends would often chide Tom for being stingy with his money too. Tom did not go to see movies. He did not buy video game consoles and play hours of expensive video games. He did not eat out at fast food much. He did not date.

One of his friends, William, often told him he had to “Live in the moment more. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow and not have really lived.”

“If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I’ll be gone, so what does it matter whether I spend my money on ‘fun’ today or sit back and read boring books instead and invest that money in something that will make me money for the future? If I don’t have a future because of the bus accident, someone else can enjoy my savings—maybe you.”

After high school, Will and Tom had a very different outlook on spending. Will loved to drive a new car every few years, purchase new furniture and clothes, and spend his money at expensive restaurants or on the latest in computer technology. He had several girlfriends, some just for fun, some more serious.

Tom, on the other hand, lived with his parents and saved his money. With his savings, he purchased fixer-upper properties in a low-income neighborhood and rented them out to poor people. He did not have girlfriends because he did not want the drama and he had high standards which few in Las Vegas could meet. He wanted someone that took life goals seriously.

He also did not like the one-night stands that some of his buddies bragged about. He knew that those one-night stands came at a cost, such as fear of disease or pregnancy. “Who has time to worry about that?” Thomas asked. His friends would look at him askance when he said things like, “A couple of minutes of pleasure can bring a lifetime of pain.” They thought that Thomas was far too ascetic to be happy. After all, Thomas wore second-hand clothes, did not eat meat, did not drink alcohol or do drugs, and did not date. Tom thought his friends were far too materialistic and hedonistic to find ultimate happiness.

In college, as a Real Estate Finance/Business major, Thomas was in the very top of his class. Las Vegas, in the late 1990s was booming. Real estate professionals were making fistfuls of money and donated heavily to the real estate program at UNLV in the form of grade-based scholarships. Instead of working and spending his money as William was doing, Thomas went to college and spent his time studying to achieve perfect grades. As a result, Thomas won numerous academic based scholarships.

Because he lived with his parents and did not have to pay rent, Thomas had so much money from the scholarships left over after paying tuition, that he could use it for down payments on “FSBO” properties in a low-income neighborhood. Many others in college borrowed money from the government and spent it on drinking and gambling in Las Vegas casinos. It was not hard for Thomas to compete for grades in school when many of his fellow students studied so little and would take tests with hangovers.

Thomas graduated from UNLV and had savings from his rental income sufficient to finally have real fun. He felt that he could take a vacation and spend some money before figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. With the thousands of dollars he had in his bank account, Thomas planned trips across the United States and Europe and then spent a year traveling. In that time he lived for five months in Switzerland, which was his home base from which he traveled to other parts of Europe, including Austria, Italy, and France. He learned German and explored cultures and history. To Thomas, this educational pursuit was fun. All the while he was in Europe, his real estate in Vegas was still making him money (his parents managed while he was away), and he was learning German. He met many people that would help him socialize with diverse personalities in later life.

During his stay in Switzerland, Thomas also considered law school. He had been presented with the opportunity to go to the new and only law school in Nevada because of his high academic grades in college, and so he thought long and hard about whether he actually wanted to become a lawyer. One day he went to Rome and stood in the Roman Forum when a tour guide started talking about the God of Chaos and Order (Saturn). The message was compelling.

According to the story, a statue of Saturn stood in the square, blindfolded and with bound arms, for most of the year. During that time, law and order was enforced throughout the empire. In December, however, the blindfold and shackles were removed from the arms and law and order would be ignored for two weeks. Roles would be reversed. During this chaotic time, crimes went unpunished and people could do what they wanted. It was a period of drunkenness, debauchery, gambling (even among the slaves), and idleness. Then, ceremoniously, the statue was blindfolded and shackled to symbolically restore law and order.

Thomas thought that overhearing this story from a tour guide was a sign suggesting that perhaps law school would be interesting. If law and order could build an empire, perhaps law would be good to know about. He made his decision, on the spot, that he would accept the invitation to William S. Boyd Law School in Las Vegas. Shortly after returning to Las Vegas from his world tours, Thomas started on his legal studies.

During the four years that Thomas went to college and the one year that he traveled, William, on the other hand, spent his time excelling at work, but living a somewhat wild and reckless life. He was promoted multiple times and made pretty good money in the resorts in Las Vegas. However, he spent his money and had some bad relationships with girls. One girl became pregnant and he thought he was the father, but he was not sure because she had cheated on him with a stranger she had met online. For nine months, he treated her as if she might be the mother of his child, supporting her financially, and preparing to marry her if she was. Thomas was present in the hospital just after the birth and saw William beaming with pride, comparing his features to the child’s. It turned out not to be William’s child.

During law school, Thomas knew he could no longer live with his parents. It was too noisy and distracting. So, Thomas moved into one of his tiny rental units that became vacant. It was a traveler trailer of about 320 square feet. One day William called. “I have some real financial problems. I’m in enormous debt and was wondering if I could stay with you for awhile and pay you a little rent.”

Thomas agreed to help his best friend. William slept on the couch in the tiny living room for the next several months while he figured out his financial situation. William joined the military part-time while working full time for a casino, which helped. William still liked to live high, but staying with his stingy friend in a tiny traveler trailer was an experience. Thomas would insist on quiet so that he could study law, but then would occasionally turn on German music, which was not pleasant to others’ ears.

William was beginning to see the wisdom in saving and living a little more for the future and not constantly for the moment. At the same time, Thomas began to recognize that, if you do not have fun in the moment with what you are doing, then what is the purpose of living? Life should be enjoyed, moment to moment, but not at the sacrifice of the future. Between the two friends, they came to a middle ground of understanding on what it meant to live a fulfilling life. Life is a balance of sacrifice for the future and fun for the moment.

Thomas enjoyed hiking and outdoors activities that did not cost a lot of money, and showed William how he could save money and still have fun. At the same time, William showed Thomas how he could occasionally splurge so that he could identify more with mainstream America. The two would go on road trips, which, to Thomas, did not seem cheap, but were well worth the trouble. He had enjoyed traveling alone before, but found a companion made the journeys interesting in their own right. Thomas became a little less thrifty and William became a little more.

In law school, Thomas no longer spent endless hours studying. Instead, he socialized for the first time in his life. His grades were still good, but he did not worry about being at the top of his class. He was now going to a school comprised of over-achievers and did not feel the need to compete with them. He took to heart the law school maxim of, “Those who get As in law school become professors, those who get Bs in law school become judges, and those who get Cs in law school become rich.” The more social law students were destined to become rainmakers, he believed, because they were less boring and bookish and more outgoing and engaging. Not only would the sociable attract more clients, but they would understand the behavior that would impress juries more too.

William went on to complete college himself and pursue his interests. He had always loved technology and went into the computer industry. He ended up having a very important job. William knew he could not work for a casino forever. Thomas, on the other hand, used the social skills he finally developed in law school and the business skills he learned from his Real Estate/Business major in college, to open his own Las Vegas law firm.

In part, because of their friendship, William and Thomas have both reached a level of success in their lives and are content, but still ambitious. “If you get too comfortable where you are,” Thomas says, “you stop growing as a person and life can become meaningless and depressing.”

Thomas sat back and reread his latest composition about growing up. "Well, this story has the conflict of personality types, the conflict of chaos and order, and the conflict between thrift and spending, but it is upbeat and delves into spiritual growth. Will anyone read it, though?"