Daddy holds both of their hands walking home from school.
D: And, what’s the girl’s name? The girl who comes on the train to talk to Harry and Ron?
F: I don’t know.
D: That’s close. Something Granger…?
F: Hermine Granger!
D (swinging their arms): That’s right, Fisher Bug! Hermione Granger. Nice teamwork. That’s a fun name, isn’t it? Hermione Granger?
C: I don’t like it.
D: You don’t!? I thought maybe we’d name our next dog Hermione. Do you want to?
F/C (laughing): No!
D: Well, what about Granger? “Here, Granger! Come here, Granger!”
D: And, what are the twins names? The redheaded boy twins, Ron’s older brothers?
F (deploying his usual filler): Um…what did you say, Daddy?
D: The funny redheaded twins, Fred and…oh! Shoot, I just…
C (laughing): Fred!
D (laughing with her): What’s the other one’s name?
C: Um…give us a hint.
D: Okay. What’s Leila’s daddy’s name?
F/C: Mister George!
D: That’s right. Good job, guys!
F: Daddy, what color hair does eh, er, uh Ron have?
D: He has red hair. Like his older brothers.
C: And like me!
D: That’s right, Cory. And, like me.
F: Daddy, what did you say?
D: Ron has red hair like Cory and like me.
F (confused): Daddy, you don’t have red hair!
C: Yah, Daddy, you don’t have red hair!
D: What?! I do, too.
F (laughing and using vocabulary from Jake and the Neverland Pirates): No, you don’t! Daddy, you are a scalawag!
D (letting his hand go to tickle him): I do too have red hair. Been a redhead my whole life, you silly goose!
C: Daddy, you don’t have red hair like mine, right?
D: I had redder hair than you do, Cory, when I was your age!
F/C: You did?!
C: Nuh uh.
F: You are just being silly, Daddy.
Back at home, Daddy produces photographic evidence, to big, surprised smiles. As a lifelong redhead, often unhappy about that fact when younger, it feels so odd to have to burnish one’s ginger credentials. Pigs must be flying’…
When you start by admitting, from cradle to grave, it isn’t that long a stay, there’s a pretty good chance that your job search will end outside a big law firm.
Many interesting conversations throughout this past spring and summer have confirmed the wisdom of moving in that direction. Well, for me to move int hat direction. Actually, some of those conversations have questioned the wisdom of having waited so long. (You know who you are.) I particularly like the idea, expressed over one (delicious) lunch, that current law students should understand better that when they go work for a big law firm, they are not selling crack legal services to anyone. The firm that employs them might bill itself out as providing legal services, but what the associates are selling is their time, just like almost everyone else. They are selling the time that they have on this planet, and they are selling a great deal of their time on this planet, to the partners, for a high price, to be sure, who will then turn around and sell that time to clients for an even higher price. (Billing rates these days are beyond ridiculous, but the market is the market.) Voilla, profit! Simple. Indeed, it would seem the system, with all its perverse incentives, communicates this basic premise pretty loudly and clearly, since it makes people enter their time in six-minute increments for billing to a client, but, so my lunch mate lamented, too few law students and young lawyers actually “get” it. A lot of people in the world sell their time by the hour and get paid a lot less.
So, as the summer of 2014 ends, I say, hopefully with finality, “goodbye” to the billable hour. I understand why you exist, but I won’t miss you one bit. Even less will I miss the automatically-generated messages from the firm notifying me that I failed to enter a day or two (or ten) of time, messages like little electronic shocks, just large enough to wake you up and reaffirm for you your FBU (fungible billing unit) status. Firms try, to various degrees, to downplay time billed, and I’m not sure why they bother. Maybe there’s something satisfying about clinging to the apprenticeship model, where a budding young lawyer would learn the profession from an experienced old guy (it would have been a guy back then) who “cared” about the apprentice in some personal way and then passed the practice on to him (even the apprentice would have been a guy). They do try to trumpet quality over quantity, etc. But it’s a bit of a lie.
On one business trip, I sat next to a woman from another large Silicon Valley law firm. She managed their litigation group. Her laptop open right next to me, it was impossible not to notice (to be honest, I didn’t try not to notice) that she was calculating suggested annual bonuses from a list of associates sorted by the number of billable hours, from most billed to least. The process was entirely mathematical. Great. Those who logged the most hours should be paid the most, although anyone who’s worked in a law firm for a few years understands the problems with adhering too closely to that principle. Similar rankings existed at one of the firms that I worked for. I saw lists (that weren’t meant for my eyes either) ranking partners and associates by their rolling 12-month billable totals with highlighting, comments, and questions that rarely touched on anything but quantity: “why so low?”, “unacceptable”, and “????”. And, it was absolutely clear, when you saw these numbers and knew the ins and outs of the practice group, that a large number of billers weren’t being, could not possibly have been, truthful in recording their time. I am not sure what better way to gauge the activity of a group of lawyers billing in a large firm would be or whether there is a way to keep people from the perverse incentives that lead them toward inflation. You have to balance the load somehow. You have to be able to “run the numbers” and make the business work. It is what it is: selling time. A lot of people do it. Some people just don’t realize that they are doing it, thinking that they are doing something else, as they sit there late into the night and well into the weekend. The pay, at big law firms, is good.
Were the years in Big Law worth it? That’s a complicated question, the answer to which really just turns on how one chooses to view things. First, I gained a ton of material for an update of Joseph Heller’s classic, set in a big firm in the modern legal world, working title being “Catch 22 U.S.C. 333.” But, more seriously, the high price that a law firm was willing to pay associates, was forced by the market to pay associates, during my time as a big firm lawyer helped Darin and me to become parents. Surrogacy costs a lot of money. Sure, we might have had the money from some other source, if not from my law firm salary. Maybe. Probably? Who knows. But, the fact is, we had it, in part because I worked (hard, back in those days) at a big law firm, and we used it to pave a road for ourselves that led to Fisher Bug and Cory Bee. How could that not be worth it? Thank you very much, Vielen Dank, and merci beaucoup! There are very few things that it makes sense to regret anyway.
And as for me? And as for me. I made my mind up back at Heller/Covy/Wilmer, when I go, I’m going like…Elsie? Hell no, I’m not going like Elsie. She may have been the happiest corpse ever seen, laid out there like a queen, but that’s what came from too much pills and liquor, and, as a matter of fact, from renting by the hour. And, I’m no longer renting by the hour.
Okay, all right, maybe that’s just what I’m telling myself now. But, so, yah, I’m no longer renting by the six-minute increment…
F: Daddy, why did Papa paint that girl on the side of the car?
D (turning the other car off): What did you say, Fisher?
F (pointing): Why did Papa put that girl on the side of the BMW?
D (turning to look): You think that looks like a girl?
F: Uh huh. What do you think it looks like?
D: Um, racing stripes maybe?
F: Oh. I don’t think so. I think it looks like a girl.
F: Actually, Daddy, you are right. I think it’s just uh, er, eh racing stripes. But, why did Papa paint those racing stripes on the BMW?
D: He didn’t. He ran into a pole and scraped along it. The paint from the pole came off on the BMW. It only looks like racing stripes.
F: Oh. You are right, Daddy. It does look like racing stripes, but I don’t know why Papa did that.
D: He didn’t mean to.
F: Oh. (Pause.) Daddy, what are racing stripes?
D: Fisher, you are sure that I am right, but you don’t know what racing stripes are?
F (smiling): Uh huh.
D: Well, what if I said that now I think it looks like a girl?
F (taking Daddy’s hand): Um, I don’t know.
D (squeezing his hand before turning back to Cory): Racing stripes are stripes that people put on the cars that they race to make them look fast, to make them look cool.
F: Oh. Well, I don’t think those stripes make the er, eh, uh BMW look faster. No, I don’t think so. (After a long pause, to himself, as Daddy helps Cory down from the suburban…) Actually, I think those colors look more like a girl.
Daddy studies the scrapes a little more and just doesn’t see it.
D (catching up to Fisher and ruffling his hair): Interesting. Where I see racing stripes, you see a girl. Cory, what do you see?
D: On the side of the BMW?
C: Scrapes. Papa said that he just hit something and he, like, ran the car along it, so the color from the…(gesturing)…thing-y came off on the car.
D: I know, but Fisher thinks it looks like a girl. I say, racing stripes. What do you say?
C (shrugging as she pushes the door open): I say, I’m hungry.
Sometimes a reindeer doesn’t even want to play in any of the games.
Cory yells “Stranger Danger!” on a bike ride home from their grade school. They had asked about a time when they might be able to ride to or from school without Daddy by their side.
C: When we’re older, we can ride our bikes to school, right, Daddy?
D: Oh, yah, of course.
F: But, not now, right, Daddy?
C: Because kindergarten is too young to ride alone all the way to school.
F: Yah, there could be a er, eh, uh Robert around, right, Daddy?
D: Well, sure, there are a few bad people in the world, and we don’t want any of those bad people to do anything bad to either of you. You can ride your bikes to school maybe, but not without an adult with you.
F: I don’t like those Roberts.
D: Neither do I. Do you ever talk to a stranger if your Daddy or your Papa isn’t around?
D: If you are ever without your Daddy or your Papa or your teachers or your aunties or uncles, and a stranger tries to talk to you or asks you to go somewhere, what do you say?
D: And if that stranger keeps talking to you or comes closer to you, what do you do?
F: Run away.
C: And yell…(yelling)…“Stranger Danger!” Like that.
D: Do you ever get in a car with a stranger?
F: Are all strangers Roberts?
D: No, Fisher not all strangers are robbers. Not all strangers are bad people. But, because they are strangers, we don’t know them. So, we don’t know whether they are good or bad. Most people are good. But, we just don’t know. So…
C: Safety first!
D: That’s right.
C: Daddy, if the stranger is a police, can we talk to them?
F: Yah, we can talk to a police, right, Daddy?
Daddy pauses for a second.
D: Yes, police are there to stop bad things from happening. They don’t want strangers to talk to you or to do bad things to you. If you see a policeman or -woman when a stranger tries to talk to you, you can call to the police to help you. But, guys, you are never away from your parents or your teachers or your leaders, right?
C: Uh huh.
D: So, hopefully, you won’t have to worry about this, but we can add police to the list of safe people. Police are not, um, Roberts.
Daddy’s little white kids reach the corner of their home street. No cars are coming. They start pedaling away from Daddy toward home. Watching them, Daddy reflects on the fact that not everyone can afford to teach their children, in a simple, unqualified fashion, that the police are there to protect them, and that the caution taught by those other parents is justified. It’s a sad fact of any little kid’s life that not all strangers have good intentions, but it’s also a sad reality in too many kids’ lives that some policemen out there don’t operate from the best intentions either.
Growing up in Fenton, a suburb in southwest St. Louis County, I always thought of the police as there to protect and serve. Police were good. Well, at least until we all reached the age when kids unwisely consider trying to buy alcohol as an underaged teenager. Then, police became a little scary. But, even then, I never once in my life imagined an interaction with police as something potentially life-threatening either for me, if I did the wrong thing or weren’t super careful, or for anyone that I knew. The situation in Ferguson highlights how people, growing up not all that far away from where I did, don’t have such an uncomplicated view of law enforcement. Even though I was born in St. Louis, I don’t think I ever visited, or even drove through, Ferguson until 2006, when I flew back from California to Missouri to stump for Claire McCaskill in her first Senate campaign.
I checked in at the headquarters. A very nice campaign volunteer handed me a folder, explaining that the residents of the neighborhoods where I would be walking door to door were predominantly black, that we were trying to identify reliable presidential year voters who rarely voted in off-year elections in order to get them to change their pattern, that these
neighborhoods used to be white but were now largely black, that the voters whose doors I’d be knocking on and persuading to vote would likely lean Democratic, that the people on my list would likely be black, and that, after these multiple notifications that the neighborhoods I’d be walking would be predominantly black, I would nevertheless “be safe.”
I said “thanks” and went off to canvas. Having lived away from St. Louis for almost ten years, it was easy to forget how palpable racial awareness and tensions back “home” could be. Of course, I was completely safe canvassing those neighborhoods in Ferguson. It was fun and interesting. Most people who answered the door just wanted to get rid of me, assuring me that they were “for Claire” and, when pressed a little bit, that they would definitely vote. Their reassurances were mostly unconvincing, but all you can do is press a little bit, be positive, be grateful for the assurances, and move along.
Two women stuck out for me. An elderly white woman told me that after voting reliably for decades that she just couldn’t bring herself to vote. If she voted, she told me, she’d definitely vote for Claire because “that Talent was just crazy,” but the constant stream of political commercials had just turned her off to the whole thing. I tried various tactics, including that if she didn’t vote, she would be doing exactly what “that crazy Talent” wanted by blanketing the airwaves with commercials. But, she closed the door shaking her head, promising only that she’d think about it. The second woman was black, an enthusiastic Claire supporter, and very eager for me to stick around for a few minutes to convince her husband to vote. She was just home, with grocery bags in her arms, and we had a hilarious “yah” fest, during which we agreed about everything political. She asked me where I was from. “California” “Hon, you have got to stick here ’til my husband comes. He says he’s not gonna vote, and I’m like, what the hell is wrong with you? You gotta help me convince him.” I asked whether he was a McCaskill supporter. She gave me an “Are you shitting me?” face. “Hell, yes, he would vote for Claire. He ain’t stupid. He’d have me to deal with if he didn’t. Between you and me, he’s just a little lazy. You gotta help me convince that guy to get off the couch and vote. Can you please stay?” I hung for a bit, while she stalled with questions about where I grew up, elated that my answer was in the St. Louis area, even though I had moved out of state. She was a hoot. She even called her husband from her cell phone and tried to get him to hurry so that he could talk to me, as if what I had to say might be just the motivation he needed, but he never showed. At least not in time for me to help her out. I had to move on. She actually hugged me before I left. Everyone, even if they didn’t want to talk much to yet another McCaskill campaign worker, was about as polite as I’d expected them to be.
Years laster, I’m keenly aware both that I could very well have knocked on the doors of many of the folks recently or currently protesting the Brown shooting and that my entire awareness of Ferguson, before today, as a white person growing up not all that far away, amounted to a trip during which I sought their votes on behalf of a white candidate for the U.S. Senate. I’m not sure that my entire awareness of Ferguson should have been greater, but it’s worth noting that my awareness of Chesterfield, Ballwin, Webster Groves, Oakville, Eureka, Lemay, Creve Couer, Clayton, etc. amounted to, amounts to, much more than a quest for votes in areas where a campaign worker felt compelled to warn me, based on the race of the voters, that I would still “be safe.” It would be nice, but naive, to think only of my election-year experiences when hearing mention of Ferguson.
Upon reaching home, where Cory waits in her bike helmet with something in her hand, Fisher saying hello to the dogs inside, thinking about all of this, Daddy is mindful of the luxury, the relative simplicity and safety, of their current circumstances, even if they are not.
C (holding up the something): Daddy, can I have a go-gurt?
D: Sure, Cory.
She makes a happy, goofy face and hands over the go-gurt to be opened for her. Daddy takes it, and the two head inside.
C: Daddy, I’m glad that I’m a person.
D: Oh, yah? So am I, Cory. (Pause.) Why?
C: Because if I am not a person, then I can’t have a brain or a body or my arms.
D: That’s right. Well, kind of right. I mean, you could be something else that has a brain and a body and some arms.
C (not having thought of that): Oh.
D: Why else do you like being a person?
C (thinking): Because if I am not a person, I can’t play with my friends or run around the playground or…
D: Well, what if you were a dog? You would have a brain and a body and some “arms,” well, you’d have four legs, and you could run around the playground AND play with your friends.
C: But, I could eat chocolate if I were a person. Dogs can’t eat chocolate.
D: Cats can. So…
C (thinking): But, if I am a dog or a cat, I can’t eat ice cream…
D: Oh, yes, you could…
C (smiling): …with a spoon.
D (laughing and leaving aside trained apes): Well, you got me there. Dogs and cats can’t eat ice cream with a spoon. Cory, I’m glad that you are a person because I can talk with you and make you laugh and teach you things that only people can learn.
C: Me, too. (Pause.) Daddy, can I have some ice cream for dessert?
She’d been angling all afternoon, cheeky little monkey, and she got some a couple hours later: a kid-sized scoop with three chocolate chips, all on a spoon.