Last week, I attended Continuing Legal Education (CLE) in Manhattan, Kansas. This is not to be confused with the Manhattan borough of New York City. They are quite different. For instance, we might consider how to find each. The old joke about Manhattan, KS is that you travel west out of Kansas City on I-70 until you smell it, then turn north and continue until you step in it. Manhattan, NYC, on the other hand, draws with its gravitational pull. You can control your descent into it, but only if your will allows.
For me, the difference is much simpler. Manhattan Island, unlike Manhattan, Kansas, has some redeeming qualities (with apologies to JMo, you know I love you, buddy).
I attended this particular CLE because I needed it, not because I necessarily wanted it. They offered, in one 2-day seminar, 12 total hours of credit (2 of which addressed Professional Responsibility). Wonderful. I can get the requirement for FY 2011 knocked-out in two days. I do so applaud efficiency.
I knew no one, nor did I expect to see any familiar faces. I wasn’t particularly social in law school, and I haven’t socialized in Kansas for more than 20 years. So, I saw no reason to encounter any semblance of familiarity. To pass the time, I eavesdropped and people-watched, all in blissful anonymity.
This was the first CLE seminar I’ve ever attended. Prior to this year, I was exempted from CLE requirements due to my military service, and the military classes/seminars I attended in years past consisted of a relatively homogenous group of lawyers.
What I heard and saw was interesting. The younger (pre-40) lawyers did little talking. Mostly, they consumed energy drinks and fiddled with electronics. The middle-aged crowd socialized in very niche groups. You had the cleancut-civil-law-types in one corner talking about the amusing (only to them) arguments in their latest pleading. The beatnik/burnout crowd all gathered in another corner and bitched about their income and the last time they got their ass handed to them by the pre-40 crowd. The personal injury folks pranced around each other dressed in their Bernie Madoff duds, and the CDLs all sulked at their seats looking like their breakfast consisted of rice crispies pissed-upon by a government official.
Then there were the old folks. This CLE had a large contingent of AARP brethren whose purpose in attending was to maintain their law license. Most didn’t practice, or practiced in a very limited fashion. They clung to their licenses for their own reasons. Most, I suspect, wanted to feel relevant. After all, each of us has a bit of Willy Loman hiding in the back of our soul.
They talked and talked. They arrived early and gathered in groups of 2-4, talking about what was on their minds. They talked about the same thing.
“Did you hear? Art Lantrip died,” one remarked.
“I remember Art. He had that office in Council Grove,” another remembered. “He had that secretary who limped.”
“Oh yeah, her name was Gertrude. Nice lady. She did limp,” the first recalled.
“I wonder if she was still working there? My first wife got her hair done at the same shop as her. I think the last time I saw her was ’86. I can’t get to Council Grove as much as I used to. I wonder if she’s still alive…”
The conversation continued from that point with little fluctuation, no punchlines, and no closure. It just went on. People came and went, but the story continued. They seemed sad about it but happy to have someone with whom to share it. I think they realize that those who no longer share stories are dead, and they are glad to not be elevated to that distinction, yet.
Each had a “first wife.” I never heard an actual name. Just “first wife.” The “first wife” was always dead, and occasionally the conversation shifted to generalities about her death. Again, no punchlines, just anecdotes arriving nowhere.
I did learn that being a first wife is a terribly inglorious post. Eventually, you lose your name, and the most popular reminiscences center around your death.
If you have a daughter, I think it wise to hope that she never becomes a first wife.
The conversation, like “Groundhog Day,” recurred at every break. Eventually, I heard them repeating the story about Art and Gertrude. They acted like it was the first time the subject was broached.
At the seminar’s close, most attendees rushed to file their CLE credit forms and leave. The under-40 crowd hesitated only to coil their power-cords and inventory various handheld gadgets. The middle crowd paused occasionally for a handshake and positive assurances that they’d meet again next year.
The older crowd behaved differently. They looked around, concerned. They didn’t rush. Most attempted to gather again in small clutches in order to share another story, or another story again. It was closing time, but none wanted to go home.
I suspect many eventually left for hollow dwellings. They knew their next meal would be alone, hunched over a bowl of oatmeal in the kitchen. The food would taste bland. They would hear every muffled sound made by their aging houses. They’d be alone. They’d be irrelevant.
Life really is a damn shame. We fight so hard in our youth to obtain something great, but, when we get it (if we get it), it’s slippery. We struggle to hold it. One day, we’ll lack the strength to keep it, and it will fall to the ground waiting for someone with a stronger grip to arrive.
Once it’s lost, it is rarely re-obtained. We search for it. We try to muster the strength to hold, if given the chance. The opportunity seldom comes, and even when it does, we rarely have the strength necessary. It passes.
And then, those who once possessed the strength to do something great find themselves thinking about bygones. They tell stories about those who were there, but in time, those stories become tales of death. Passing.
Now each sits alone, waiting for another year, wondering if they will again share stories of the past. Wondering who will be there to listen. They are scared. Fearing something that even those who obtained greatness must fear in time.
Fear that the stories, next year, will be of them, and their own limping secretary.