When I started out (which to my mind is always associated with college) I knew that I would be an academic, a journalist, or a thespian. An academic because, well, that’s what both of my parents were. A journalist? Well, it sounded cool–going around and reporting the news. A thespian? Well, I have always loved the theater, and high school theater had been my secular salvation. So I was going to be one of those things.
I quickly discovered that I wasn’t much of a journalist (though I would have some photos printed later–I’ll see if I can find them). I never really had a chance as a thespian…five years ago, I appeared in a small role in a radio play. Other than that, meh. Besides, my musical aspirations (which never went anywhere, though I still play) took over that place in my life.
I did successfully pretend to be an academic for a while. I graduate with a BA in sociology, top of my class,summa, free ride to graduate school at the University of Chicago. I was a golden boy. But I really wasn’t, and I ultimately never finished my dissertation (I did get to meet my spouse in grad school, and she’s a true academic [hi, Tess!] as well as an all-around wonderful person).
So I became a software engineer, and I was reasonably good at that, but it lacked something. When you’re part of a small company, everything you do makes a difference. As the company gets larger, you (personally) make less and less of a difference, and I went from working with 50 people to working with 200, then 5,000, then 50,000. The last two were European-based companies that acquired us, and the last had more employees than my town had citizens.
So I went to law school. My LSAT score and my old college and grad-school transcripts got me a free ride for the first year, before I discovered how hard law school was, how ossified my brain was, and lost the scholarship. Ugh.
But law school revived two things in me that I had forgotten. First, the joy of argument. This was perhaps less the school itself (though it was good) than the students, who tended to be young and smart–and what you often get with that–opinionated. One of my best friends from that period is considerably more conservative than I am (he has a Reagan sticker on his car) and that friendship arose through argument.
The other thing that law school revived was an interest that I had through high school and college and sort of lost in grad school. That was the idea of peace. When I was in high school, I happened to appear in a play (I told you about theater, right?) called Feiffer’s People. It was a series of sketches based on the cartoons of Jules Feiffer. In one scene, I played one of two men lying on the stage discussing the world situation. I think I was the one who said “I hope they don’t blow up the Seagram’s building,” to which my companion replied with details of the neutron bomb, which only killed people and left buildings and machines intact. (This, by the way, is a lie. The Pentagon chose to refer to the neutron bomb as a “reduced blast weapon” rather than as an “enhanced radiation weapon.” In fact, it was developed to be detonated over a battlefield and so wash it with levels of radiation that would penetrate hardened tanks as to wipe out an enemy force. But when you crank up the rads, you trade off in destructive force. It makes a nice big boom anyway). “Doesn’t harm machines, eh?” I replied “that’s good.” “How so?” “Well, then most of us will be safe.”
The reference in Feiffer’s materials to The Bomb made a lasting impression on my, but I had already spent much of my life reading post-nuclear dystopian literature (the first one I really remember is Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, but it wasn’t the last: there were so many visions of the end of the world, ranging from The Time Machine to the White Mountains trilogy to The Andromeda Strain and Davy that I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t expect the end would come from invading aliens or Morlocks, though. I knew it was going to be us.) that by the time I was in Feiffer’s People I already felt doomed.
Consequently, during a religious conversion I welcomed the Christian notion of an imminent apocalypse, even if the literature was incredibly cheesy (e.g., 666, The Late Great Planet Earth). (I sometimes wonder if an elective affinity for apocalypses helped fuel that conversion.) The end of the world was a matter of course, and when, visiting a new place, I heard something like curfew siren, my heart beat fast for a few moments, until the missiles didn’t come.
So when I arrived at college, I gravitated toward others who felt the same way, and fell in with a group of pacifists who would form the basis for my strongest friendships over the next four or five years. I became a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, though I had less idea of what that was than that it provided a reasonable alternative to war. But I was not hopeful; I remember having an odd conversation with my parents about how I should maybe have myself sterilized, since I didn’t think the world would last until I was thirty, and no children should have to face that kind of situation. If you weren’t alive at the time, or if you weren’t paying attention, you can have no idea what it felt like. Terrorist attack? Pshaw. We expected to see every city vanishing below an angry mushroom.
By the time I reached graduate school Ronald Reagan was in power and nuclear was seemed all the more likely–and then, suddenly, things changed. The world took a deep breath and seemed to relax. Ironically, perhaps, Reagan’s biographers point to The Day After as a turning point for that previously bellicose President. Those of us in the peace movement of the time knew that TDA had sugarcoated nuclear war. If that sweetened version really was what stopped the slide toward global war, I am forever grateful to whatever gods and men decided to make that film. And but so, save for having a deep conviction that killing was wrong, my pacifism was free to go largely underground. It broke out again during the first and second gulf wars, but I never really did anything with it.
But law school, a decade after 9/11, changed that. When I went to visit the school I eventually would attend, one of the faculty looked at my resume, notice FOR, and asked if that was some kind of dispute resolution organization. It had been so long since I’d even thought about it that I could only sort of stammer. But I discovered that I had been fortunate enough to attend one of the law schools that placed a heavy emphasis on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). And I dived into that program.
Now, age 53.95, I am trying to turn that education into something useful. Most people go to law school intending to become lawyers–so did I. But I think my calling lies elsewhere. I want to be a mediator. I want to heal relationships, not simply bring the law to bear on them to decide who is right and who is wrong. I still want to make a difference–and I may now have the opportunity to become a professional peacemaker.
Let me tell you, it’s scary as hell. As an academic, I always thought that my life would be tied to a huge institution of higher learning. As an engineer, I was one smallish cog in a company. But going out on your own, even for a good cause, is scary. There’s no one there to catch you if you fall–except, in my case, I have a wonderful spouse with a wonderful job, so I’m not totally going to cash it in if I can’t make it. And I know that lots of my peers are busy setting up their own practices. Doesn’t make it any less scary.
So I sit in Bruegger’s most mornings before my “legal assistant” work, munching a bagel and working on my business plan or my web site, thinking out loud and trying to get things straight in my head. I no longer dream of peace on a global scale–now I think about smaller peaces, and plan for how to bring them about.
I’m nearly 54 years old, and I’m starting all over from scratch. It’s scary. But it also feels great.