November 11, 2020 § 7 Comments

A friend sent me this amazing aphorism after I told him that my life plan was, over the next five years, to exit the practice of law and become an itinerant bicycle minstrel of medieval Chaucerian poetry who supports himself through blogging.

I don’t think that would make it as a corporate mission statement.

If you think it sounds ridiculous to read, imagine how ridiculous it feels to be the one saying it. And then imagine the chills you get when someone shoots you a quick aphorism from a giant like Bukowski to remind you that the magic is in the crazy, or, put better, in the fear.

The desperation.

I’ve written it elsewhere, but the great criminal defense lawyer Michael TIgar used to say this to his 1L students: “A trial lawyer is a giant mountain of ego teetering, terrified, at the edge of the bottomless chasm of failure.”

I had occasion to talk about this today with Tahverlee Anglen, who does a monthly podcast called “Bike Talk” for The idea of a practicing LA lawyer pulling up stakes to live life on his bike was one that she wanted to find out more about, so I obliged.

In short, a lot of what we do in life is driven by axes of fear. In my own case, one axis was rooted in childhood, another axis was rooted in family problems, and a third was the axis of making it, of being successful, of fitting into the mold of a winner. With some hard reflection it appeared that each axis had led to trouble and hardship, for me and for those around me. Whether it was too much alcohol, a propensity for conflict and dispute, or plain old irascibility, my conclusion was that those fears were the source of my troubles and that they needed to be eliminated.

What I found when I started living life on my bike was something very different from what I had imagined. Instead of being free of fear, I had instead replaced one set of fears for the daily desperations of “Where will I stay? What will I eat? How will I endure the day’s hardship?”

Unlike the socially constructed fears of “Am I making enough money? Am I acceptable to those around me? Is my life a success?”, the daily desperations of food, shelter, and endurance were easy to understand and tackle. And even though each day the same desperations cropped up, I found that I, like all humans, was perfectly evolved to handle those three stresses, so different from the psychosocial pressures of status, job, social media, news media, and of course the car stresses of commuting from place to place in a vast metroplex like Los Angeles.

I also found this: Desperation works.

It makes you think and act in ways you never, ever could from the comfort of your home, your couch, your SUV, your bed. When your back is a few steps from the chasm, you push harder, you struggle more violently, you call on deeper resources than you ever can when the street you live on is named Easy. And for me, having to declare something as absurdist as “Watch me bike and blog and recite poetry all the way to my grave” is about as desperate as it gets.

This is a contrast to a guy I know who is an extraordinary artist. He has all of the magic in his elixir except the desperation. He lives on his parents’ estate overlooking the ocean, he doesn’t have any pressure to do anything at all, let alone paint, and the sum total of his artistic life at age sixty-something is a smattering of mediocrities–this from a person who could by now have created a towering, endlessly erupting volcano of life-and-mind altering art.

The things he could have done if only he’d had to do them.

My hero is Geoffrey Chaucer. In middle age, in the Middle Ages, he woke up with nothing. No job, no home, no family to speak of, and no security. He didn’t even have the possibility of a literary career, because those hadn’t been invented yet, not to mention the little things like literary agents, publishing houses and, oh yeah, the printing press.

From that rubble he wrote something that was known only to a few in his lifetime, but that, within a century or two, earned him the sobriquet “Founder of English Letters.”

My goal is hardly that grandiose. The English Letters have been found. The Great American Novel has been written–everything since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a postscript. But even with goals as modest of mine, there’s solace and inspiration in looking at other people who faced desperation and used it to create things that gave meaning and pleasure to others.

The moral? Don’t think the magic will strike you on the couch.

In a few days I’m undocking and heading east. It’s 2,000 miles to Houston and more of the same back to LA. I got ready to plan out my trip yesterday but after half an hour looking at maps and reading on the Internet I gave up. Who the fuck knows where I’ll be at the end of any given day? Who wants to chart a course with timelines, deadlines, safe houses, refuge, hotel reservations, and the security of THE PLAN?

Not me.

I’m too desperate for that.


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February 11, 2020 § 8 Comments

My phone blew up last week, which is to say I got three text messages over a period of four days. And! They were all about the same thing!

The “thing” was the release of the new Chaucer app, a little program that recites the General Prologue in Middle English, and provides extensive notes about the vocabulary and about the historical background of various characters. Somehow, people knew I was interested in Chaucer. Weird.

My first reaction to the app was that it doesn’t work. There is no way for me to actually hear the recitation, no matter how I fiddle with the volume or slam the device onto the edge of the desk, hard. “It’s like it was designed by a 10-year-old,” I fumed, before realizing that if it had been designed by a 10-year-old it would have worked flawlessly.

Instead it was designed by medievalists. I’m not sure that coding was in the curriculum back in those days, wedged in between Latin and Greek. In any event, the app’s most important feature doesn’t work, at least on my phone, which is the only one I care about. Your results may hopefully vary.

But broken app? So what?

The pointe is this, to speken shorte and pleyne, that someone has tried to take Chaucer and yank him out of the ivory tower and put him in the hands of the average swenker. Is that a good thing? Yes, a thousand times, yes!

If the app had worked properly, it would have followed along in the text of the general prologue with the recitation, so you could hear how the text was supposed to be pronounced in Middle English. Of course I say “supposed to be” because, as with virtually all dead languages, there is only a rough approximation of how Middle English really sounded.

Maybe you can download it and it will work for you. The notes are chock-full of interesting tidbits, and give you a sense of how dense Chaucer’s writing was. Most of all, hopefully it will make you want to read more.


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