It was the summer of 1990, and I was reclining comfortably in the senior partner’s desk chair. In front of me was a very attractive woman in her mid 30’s, spilling her guts out about lost love and disappointment. It was my first divorce case, and although I was not yet a lawyer, I was in charge of pacifying the client and sorting out the often sordid facts. This case was about lots of money, decadence, scandal and revenge. Suddenly law school was beginning to seem worth it. The woman was saying something about a hot tub. I was picturing the scene. With her in it. I felt like Arnold Becker. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
It was a great job for a second year summer intern. I had wanted to get the hell out of Boulder and be near the water. I chose Traverse City, Michigan because I had spent summer vacations there when I was younger. I remembered that it had always seemed windy back then. Unfortunately, since I learned to windsurf my definition of “windy” had changed (as it has for most of us) quite a bit. It was now July and I had sailed once. But it was a great firm, and life, overall, was good. I was, as you recall, exactly where I wanted to be.
The woman was now launching into her Kentucky horse-farm upbringing. I was beginning to fade. I glanced out the window of the third story office. The building was right on the water, facing majestic Grand Traverse Bay. Something caught my eye. I looked again. I knew I had seen it. I turned toward the window, straining my eyes searching the bay. There was another one! “It could be just sea gulls,” I told myself. Then there was a third and a fourth…whitecaps! I was standing at the window now. The woman had stopped talking and was staring at me.
“Is there something wrong?” she asked, now looking at the water herself, seeing, but not comprehending.
“Sorry, I thought I saw something. Please go on.” I sat down. I tried not to look. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. I started to sweat. My mind was racing…how much would it build? What direction? If it really comes up, what do I do? She droned on. I tried to take notes, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was looking out the window every thirty seconds or so. It was a southwester, building to about twenty knots. The bay was starting to look like a cotton field…little white balls everywhere. Now more white than blue. Half an hour later the windows started to whistle. I was a caged animal. I had to escape…but how? The once desirable client now appeared to me as an ogre, barring my exit to freedom. “When is this hag gonna’ shut up?” I wondered. Even if she did, how would I get past the gauntlet of secretaries waiting below? One didn’t just walk out of Robb, Messing & Palmer to go windsurfing in the middle of the day. Then, reprieve: she had a two-thirty tennis lesson. She had to go. Could we finish tomorrow? I was past the first hurdle. That left just the secretaries. And the receptionist. The receptionist who was engaged to a partner in the firm. Walking out past her would be the same as walking out past him. I might as well not come back. I looked out the window. I looked at my watch. I headed for the stairs.
Every attorney faces an ethical hurdle at some point in his or her career. I came to mine at the first floor landing. This firm had been very good to me. There was even a chance that they would even ask me back as an associate next year. My choice, as I saw it, was to be straightforward and try to explain my “windsurfer’s addiction” right then and there, or lie like hell and run for the door. I could be honest. I should be honest. They will understand.
“I have to go to the courthouse library.” I announced. Silence. Suspiciously inquisitive expressions. I felt weak. They knew. I looked over a paralegal’s head at the leaves swirling madly outside. It gave me strength. I continued, “I think there might be…ummm…some kind of wills and trusts issue on this, and…you know, we really don’t have the books here for that…” It started to flow. Right now the most important thing in my life was to get the hell out of there, and I put all that emotion into my pitch. I made them feel that urgency-they began to nod, yes…you should go. Had there been a jury, they would have acquitted Manson had that been the issue. Outside at last, I jogged to my car, the wind whipping my necktie in my face in celebration. I was free. Free as the (now even stronger) wind.
Once inside the sealed confines of the automobile, however, the moment faded. Reality struck home as I started the engine. What was I doing? Waves of guilt pounded me like the water swell at Wadell. It had been too easy. I had lied. I was a schmuck. I could get fired. Retreat: I could still bail. I could go to the courthouse and do some bogus research until five. There might still be some wind. Might. I pulled up to the intersection at the alley of behind the firm. Left to the courthouse, or right, up M-22, 26 miles or so along the bay to my house, my board, my freedom. Three o’clock. I sat there, idling, unable to decide. I was staring at the stop sign. Then I noticed it was moving. The wind was causing it to vibrate, wagging back and forth, taunting me. It was too much. Right turn, full throttle.
There isn’t much north of Traverse City except cherry orchards, water and a winding two lane road that leads to land’s end: the tip of Leelanau peninsula. I chose to live at the tip because you can sail from any direction. It’s a bit of a commute to Traverse, but I often found the drive along the bay relaxing after work. Except, of course, when it is windy. Now every time the bay came into view my heart would back-loop. I gripped the wheel, white-knuckled as the speedometer pegged itself at 100. I passed a Winnebago on the right and caught a glimpse of an elderly woman’s panic-stricken face as I flew past, churning gravel and dust from the shoulder. “To hell with speeding tickets! To hell with my job! To hell with anything in my way! I gotta’ sail, goddamnit!” Urgency led to panic…What sail size!!!? Where did I leave my harness? I think maybe in the downstairs tractor…O God, TRACTOR!!” As I rounded the curve, a farmer was using his tractor to haul his entire tree-shaking rig out onto the road. There is no way to describe the following near-death experience except to say that I left the road (airborne), regained the road (amazing luck), and did not slow down (much). I realized at this point that I was a raving lunatic who posed an acute danger to the public. I had been transformed from a bright young upstanding member of society to a depraved maniac from hell unable to tell right from wrong. I should be locked up. I should seek psychiatric help. I should at least slow down. More importantly, something was forming in the back of my mind. A small voice was telling me that I could not go on like this. There was a distinct conflict between where I wanted to be three hours ago, and where I wanted to be now. But before any major realizations took place, I arrived home and began to rig.
Every midwestern windsurfer knows the feeling: you are bending over your rig, fine tuning, tightening battens or whatever, and you suddenly notice the back of your neck is warm. Warm because the breeze that has been cooling it is suddenly absent. It comes back in a few seconds, but there was a hole. Then it happens again. It’s a silence like when the numbers at the stock exchange stop for a few seconds. And then you feel a puff and are relieved. The numbers are moving again- it could have been your imagination. But you know it wasn’t. Then it really stops- someone hit the big switch. It’s over. No more happy whitecaps. No more ramps building the long fetch of the bay. And then the dread. The sinking feeling. Like when it’s three in the morning and you’re out of cocaine. You’d pay anything, give anything, for another hour, half-hour, ten minutes… anything . But there is no justice. No higher court that you can appeal to. No motion to file to stay this execution. Case dismissed, go home.
I sat on the dock watching the chop turn to ripples and finally to glass. I had almost strangled myself rigging when my tie got caught in the downhaul. I hoped it wouldn’t leave a mark. Work would be hard tomorrow. In the meantime, I did some heavy thinking. Most big law firms want 60+ billable hours a week from junior associates, and last I heard Brooks Brothers still wasn’t offering anything in neoprene. Also the thought of this scene repeating itself over and over again as the years went on was too much to bear. As the sun went down, I decided that I would finish law school (I’m not a quitter), but my life after school would be cast into the wind. I was no longer exactly where I wanted to be.