Monday, May 28, 2007

The Last Shot

Yesterday I turned in my last ever law school assignment. Law school is finally over. There are more steps in the process, technically - I haven't received a grade yet (for any of my classes), my degree hasn't been conferred, I haven't received my diploma - but those are all out of my hands. The last shot has been fired; it just hasn't hit yet. I am now in the limbo at the end of the level, when at last you can lower the gun and wait for the scores to appear so you can check the one all-important measure of success.

That measure is, of course, accuracy. Never mind how many points you've garnered. Never mind how many times they hit you, how many quarters it took to get here. Did you make every shot count? That is the only true measure of success.

In life, of course, true measures of success are harder to come by. You can try to measure success procedurally; you can ask, "Did you do your best?" But the answer to that question is always no, and holding too tightly to it leaves one in a constant struggle to reframe the scope of the endeavor. Oh, there were those last glorious hours for this last assignment when I was up until 8:00 in the morning, writing calmly and steadily with [I hope] clarity and force for almost ten hours straight. But there were also the days before those hours, when I just didn't care, or it was all too much. And maybe it was too much; maybe it really was beyond my ability in those moments that stretched into hours. But at the very least, I could have tried harder.

And that's the thing - even when the task is impossible, even when you're going to get hit no matter how fast you are on the trigger, you can always try harder, think faster, plan farther ahead. And that makes "doing your best" a rather amorphous measure of success. So you can look at what you've done, what you've accomplished. But that seems rather hollow. For one thing, accomplishments come easier for some than for others - but there is value in effort; there has to be. You can't ignore the milestones, of course, and I don't. My "accomplishments" bring me pleasure and a deep rooted sense of satisfaction with the world. They bring me joy; I feel the joy of the Lord in this limbo at the end of the level. But the accomplishments aren't success. At the end of the day, whether the milestones come easily or hard, you do your thing and sometimes people throw awards at you.

There is one other measure of success I can think of. When the credits roll and you step out of the booth or put the gun back in the holster, nobody asks you what your accuracy rating was. They ask if you finished the game. In one sense accuracy is all that matters, and that is a true sense. But in another sense what matters is that you got from level to level, and that is perhaps the truer sense. In a game, of course, the levels are linear and there are no wrong choices; they all lead to the last climactic shootout. But life's levels are not linear, and there are wrong choices. I've made more than my fair share of them, as we all have. And those choices, the level choices, are perhaps what really matter. In life, I submit, perhaps the question is not how well you did but what game you were playing.

At the end of law school people seem fond of telling you that, for all the jokes people make about lawyers, you've made a good choice by choosing to be a lawyer. It's a good profession. An honorable profession. The profession to which America has always looked for its greatest leaders; a profession with its own unique niche in the world from which to make a difference, and all that is true, but it doesn't mean we've all made good choices by choosing to be lawyers. We've made good choices to be lawyers, if indeed they are good choices, because that's what God made us to do and we're doing it. The grades in the computers, the piece of paper on the wall, are not given significance by the effort that went into them (and I worked for this piece of paper, I really did). The effort itself is not given significance by the fact that it led to a good and honorable profession, or even simply by the fact that it was effort. The effort has significance, if it has significance at all, because the effort was to do what God made me to do, what he's told me to do, what I must do. The grades and the pieces of paper have significance, if they have significance at all, because they're milestones on the right road - not that it has to be a straight and narrow road (and mine isn't), but the right road. A road that I chose but didn't design.

I think it's the right road. It's not just joy I feel, alone in the dark at the kitchen table with the buzzing of the refridgerator and the remains of a home-cooked meal. It's peace. All is right with the world. I missed quite a few shots in the last level. More than ever before, I think. And it will only get harder from here. There is the bar to study for, and take, a wedding to plan, and after that the hurry-up-and-wait routine of a transactional lawyer. A house to keep. An engagement to live, and to grow in. Friendships to maintain, and in some cases reclaim. There will be dark times, when the nights are late and the games are few and snatching even a few hours with my beloved will take all the strength we have left, I am sure.

I can sit here alone in a darkened apartment and see all of that coming. But my heart is not troubled. It is a path I have chosen, but not designed. The last shot has been fired. For a few moments I can lower the gun and dwell on what is to come, and it makes my heart swell. Because the level may be harder than any that have come before. But it's the right one. I know it is.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Jorsoran Kando a Tome

Once upon a time, I read a lot of books. If you look through my storage boxes in the garage back home you'll find boxes stuffed full of mass market paperbacks - The Babysitters Club, BattleTech, and Star Wars novels mostly. These books live in the closet, because they helped to make me who I am. In my room at home is a precious smattering of books pulled from those collections - the Blood of Kerensky trilogy, the Heir to the Empire trilogy, Stackpole's X-Wing novels - and a few choice others: Gates of Fire, Starship Troopers, the Enchanted Forest chronicles, the Pit Dragon trilogy, the Tortall books, the Honor Harrington series. These books live in my room because they remind me of who I want to be. A few of the books from home made it here with me to Stanford - old friends that I want with me wherever I go, to remind me of who I am and connect me to those who have gone before. You could write a fair chronicle of my inner life by looking at where my books live. And now I have a new bookshelf, which has no books on it. Not yet.

I spent years at Stanford with blank walls, because Stanford was not home, and there was nothing to put on my walls. And slowly the shape of my wall decorations took place: plates of the Archimedes Palimpsest, prints of Honor Harrington, photos of the family in Hawaii, a precious poster of the Moulin Rouge, a Vettriano painting of a dance under the trees at night. The time has come to take these down. And now I have new walls, which have no pictures on them. Not yet.

When I was eleven, I played my first shooting game in the old Tilt arcade in the Fallbrook Mall with my dad: Lethal Enforcers. I suppose we played about a quarter's worth of the game, and I did all right, since I've always been fairly good at video games, but I didn't really have a clue as to what I was doing. And then Dad showed me how to grip the gun, how to line up the sight picture, and basically taught me how to win a gunfight (or at least how the Marine Corps says to win a gunfight; not like either he or I have ever tried): line up your shot, do it right, squeeze the trigger. Aim again - take your time, do it right - and squeeze the trigger. Accuracy, not speed, is the goal. Make every bullet count. In time, you'll learn to do it quickly.

I don't suppose Dad intended to be teaching a life lesson there in Tilt, but ever since then I've thought of life's challenges in shooting terms. One thing at a time, and don't mind the rest - know where they are, but don't let them get to you. Take your time, do it right, put the bullet in the air. Find the next target. Line up again, take your time, put the bullet in the air. Find the next target. Be calm. Concentrate on the process - on doing your best - and not on the outcome.

It might not be the best way to live but it's how I've lived so far, or at least how I've tried to. I don't know if it's a male thing or a Natalie thing, but I don't really multitask very well. I can sort of simulate multitasking by doing things quickly, or at least I used to be able to. One thing at a time, make every bullet count, and in time, you'll learn to do it quickly.

On April 26 I went to Dave and Buster's to visit some more old friends - Time Crisis 3, Ghost Squad, Mazan, and Jurassic Park II: The Lost World. I walked through the Million Dollar Midway with my power cards and a drink in my hand, shooting through games I know and love, challenging myself to make every bullet count, every parry and counter-slash. I had dinner in the same booth as the last time I had come there alone, to think and to pray, to lay an important decision at the throne of God. My thoughts were going at a million miles a minute, but deep inside, where I had retreated, there was only me, the gun, and the sight picture. And I enjoyed the quiet as I tried to line up each shot and make every bullet count. Praying. Praying that the next seven years are even better than these have been. Praying that I be taught what I need to know.

The Midway was full of noise but I didn't really hear it. Deep inside I enjoyed the stillness, the familiar burn of the lactic acid in my biceps. And the singing. Because for a few days I had been unable to listen to anything but a Mandalorian war chant, "Vode An," and as I moved between games I fumbled with the unfamiliar language over and over again. Somehow it was important that I get it right. Bal kote, darasuum kote / Jorsoran kando a tome. Jorsoran kando a tome. Jorsoran kando a tome. A tome. A tome.

And that was really the last chance I've had to reflect. The next day I proposed marriage to Thayet. And then it was off to finals, trying, trying to keep up my fire, and failing, and bitterly introspecting about it. It was like the last seven years were determined to play themselves out in the space of a few days, and then she was there, holding up my gun arm, because the time has come and God has decreed that mhi jorsoran kando a tome. And then the bullets were in the air, all but one, but people were congratulating me anyway for where they hadn't landed yet and it was time to celebrate myself before the level was even over because it was now or never. But school wasn't over, it isn't over, not yet - one last shot to take. And yet already it's time to clear the walls and the bookshelves because there's a deadline for moving and work to be done and a wedding to plan and somewhere in the midst of it all I turned twenty-six. I've had the biggest week of my life, I suppose, and no time to reflect on it until now. And even now there isn't enough time, not enough time to say good-bye to a campus that finally warranted wall decorations, to be thankful for what I've received and to mourn the shots I've missed, to pray over what is to come.

But in truth, I feel strangely calm about it. Life is busy but deep inside I am quiet because while I'm missing a lot of the scenery I know I am going where I am supposed to go. And we will line up the next shot, and the next shot, and the next, and do our best to make them all count. A tome.