TALES OF A NOT SO BRAVE ULYSSES
Ulysses ended his odyssey in ancient Ithaca. This odyssey began in Ithaca New York, and has never ended. At twenty-two, I was a senior in college at Cornell, returning from Spring break from the mythical land of Myrtle Beach. Hell had frozen over and then thawed into a sulfur and brimstone slush as I approached our mailbox in the aptly named Collegetown student ghetto. A chill ran through my gut, this would be the last time I would be returning to Ithaca. In two months, I would be on my way out like a bat out of Hades.
Unfortunately, the only way back out of Ithaca was through the mailbox.
I had applied to several law schools and the replies were waiting for me. One single acceptance letter would change my life—a golden ticket or a holy grail. I had a vague idea of what I wanted out of life, only that I wanted my life to matter. I expected that the answer to the ultimate questions would be found inside the envelope along with the acceptance letter.
My girlfriend, the Penelope to my Ulysses, decided to go back to her place and asked me to call her with the good news. “Surprise me,” she said.
My two roommates had already heard their fates from the admission gods. One had been accepted at Harvard, Yale and Columbia. He was also thinking of applying to Hawaii as an out of state applicant, just to make sure that he would be accepted into every law school in the nation.
My other roommate was accepted into Michigan. He didn’t hesitate to tell me, “I got into Michigan, what the hell do you know?” in his thick Long Island accent.
I didn’t know how to respond, what the hell did I know?
I stayed outside in the cold and opened the first letter, from Stanford. Three years in sunny Palo Alto sounded perfect right now. At first I thought I had been accepted, the first sentence of the letter congratulated me on my outstanding achievement. It took me two more sentences before I realized that I had been rejected and I wasn’t going to be a high tech patent lawyer in the Bay area. I threw the letter in the slush. I had a few more to go, so I didn’t worry.
The second letter came from the University of Michigan. Go Blue! Corporate law in the Midwest perhaps?
Michigan didn’t bother to be nice in their terse letter. I felt like my heart had been clawed by a wolverine.
The sun was setting and it was growing colder by the minute. I went into the cramped living room of my apartment, glad that my roommates weren’t there. I didn’t find the answers I was looking for in the next four envelopes. I was waitlisted at Northwestern, Georgetown, Duke and North Carolina. How the hell did I make it onto four waitlists? I feared that I would be on a waitlist for the rest of my life and unlike Ulysses I would never find my home.
In many ways I was right.
Where was my home anyway? I had spent my high school years in Albuquerque, but when I was accepted into the University of New Mexico Law School, Albuquerque wasn’t even an option. I had ended up in upstate New York for a reason, to escape New Mexico like Bruce Springsteen sang about getting out of his home town in every song of his early career. It would be like Bruce playing the Stone Pony in Asbury Park for the rest of his life—Born to Return.
Maybe Albany or Buffalo wasn’t so bad after all. I was already thinking about beginning the application process anew.
There was one final envelope that had fallen to the floor next to a pile of dirty underwear. I didn’t know whether the pile belonged to myself or one of my roommates. I tore open the envelope-- “Tuition and fees are due at this date,” said the University of Colorado Law School.
Colorado? The one in Boulder? Didn’t I bounce check to them? Of all the schools in the entire world, why did it have to be in Boulder?
Freud had said that there are no accidents, and I think that the bounced check was done on purpose. I had told my mom and apparently she had secretly sent another check into the registrar.
Sisyphus had been cursed to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity for his hubris, and now Boulder was literally rolling down on me. I had spent part of my undergrad at the University of Colorado as the token nerd in the coolest frat—I would be Pinto in Animal House without the losing his virginity to the Mayor’s daughter on the fifty yard line scene in the film. When I had transferred out of CU to Cornell, it was one of the happiest days of my life.
I was hoping to avoid my fate about returning to Boulder, besides I still had a few months to go. Boulder couldn’t be all bad, I had this vision of ending up as an attorney in Aspen, closing billion dollar real estate deals in the morning and skiing under the Little Nell lift in the afternoon.
Life on the wait list continued over the next two months. I hadn’t heard anything from the other law schools when graduation came in June. As commencement chairman, I carried the senior class flag along with my Penelope. I had the absolutely perfect moment of my young life as we entered a stadium filled with thirty thousand cheering parents.
It would have to work out, right? As I received my diploma from Cornell’s president, I stared out at those thirty thousand faces. I would get off the wait list and be able to start my life.
I returned home to Albuquerque for the summer, just for the summer I said to myself. I had a good gig working at the Attorney General’s office. People would ask me where I was going to law school and I didn’t reply. Ulysses and his crew had been tempted by the Sirens, but one by one my sirens stopped singing for me. North Carolina rejected me first, then Georgetown, then Northwestern and finally days before school was supposed to start, Duke declined.
My beautiful girlfriend from Cornell wrote me a Dear Jon letter when I didn’t get into Duke that last week of August. Penelope had turned into the Circe the witch. Ulysses won his Penelope back with his archery skills of course, but I was all out of arrows.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in,” Al Pacino had said in the final Godfather film. Boulder might as well be an asteroid with its own gravity that was pulling me back. Pinto would have to be a pledge all over again.
The end of summer, I drove up I-25 north with a great deal of sadness, like driving deeper and deeper into the heart of an impenetrable darkness with every mile of interstate, except this darkness was trimmed with gold, CU’s colors. When I made it to the ten thousand foot top of Raton Pass between two mountains I felt like I was crossing between Scylla and Charybdis, there was not turning back as I descended into Colorado. After 444 miles, I hit downtown Denver and saw those gleaming sixty story buildings. At least I’d end up on one of the high floors right?
Just north of Denver, as I made the turn off onto US 36 and headed northeast to Boulder with a tear in my eye. I didn’t feel like my odyssey was ending the way I wanted.
Once past Broomfield, when I saw the Flatirons once again, my sadness went away instantly. They don’t have flatirons in Michigan that was for sure. Perhaps Boulder wasn’t the worst place in the world, after all. Ulysses had spent time on an island or two along the way and this was just another island.
We started classes and I was impressed by my classmates. They were as smart as my friends at Cornell without seeming to be as competitive. The key word was “seem” of course. In New Mexico, people aren’t always competitive. In Ithaca they I enjoyed classes first semester and somehow managed to do pretty well. I remember thinking, if only I hadn’t blown Criminal Law I would have made Dean’s List. I figured I would have plenty of chances.
I had been in school my entire life so I began to burn out, even in Boulder. If I had Ivy league edge, it was quickly blown away by the Chinook winds that Spring. Civil Procedure stopped being civil. It soon became a Daliesque nightmare of pleadings and responses connected by colored chalk lines. Criminals running from the law soon became covenants running with the land as the first semester Criminal Law case became Second semester Property class and my lowest grade got even lower. Contracts class put out a contract on me.
My grades were all over the place, but I ended up in the bottom half of the class. I wasn’t like Cyclops with my single eye focused on schoolwork. Second year, I did mock trial and was on the school’s team as one of the witnesses. We lost to South Dakota. North Dakota I could understand, but South?
I started writing for the school newspaper my second year. I would end up as editor in chief in my third year. Not to toot my own horn, but I was Editor in Chief of the third best law school newspaper in the nation by the way.
I wrote an editorial called “A Third Year Looks Back,” in the law school newspaper. In some ways that article was the first real Jonathan Miller story. When the issue came out, I stood in front of the entrance to the law school and handed out copies to all who entered. I didn’t know it at the time, but my literary career began at the moment the first student took one of the papers and smiled at me.
(I found “A Third Year Back” buried in a trunk all those years later. It sucked. I had my paralegal type it and then I started to edit it to turn it into this story you are reading now. All that remains of the original are the words “sulfur and brimstone slush.”)
My legal career search never quite got on track. The quest for careers also began in quixotic earnest in the second year. Interviews were a lot of fun until they got to the “g” word. I flirted with the big time and flew out to Hollywood for one interview at an entertainment firm. The interviewer looked like something out of central casting. Get us a good looking fatherly type to play the lawyer whose daughter runs off with the skinhead drummer. I think the interviewer did ask me if I played any musical instruments. In any event I was not optimistic when a three hundred attorney firm wouldn’t validate my twenty dollar parking tab.
So many years later, I can now reveal that I interviewed with the CIA when they came to campus. I didn’t want to be James Bond, I wanted to be James Bond’s barrister. I made it pretty far along in the process, but I failed the lie detector test when they asked me who I was. I still didn’t know.
I swallowed some pride when the big firms and Federal agencies fell through. I actually did get a call from an Aspen law firm, but they couldn’t make me a firm offer in time, so I took a summer job with the largest firm in Las Cruces, New Mexico (southern New Mexico?!), and was embarrassed to say that I actually enjoyed it. Perhaps New Mexico might not be so bad after all.
The Spring semester of my final year, I was able to ski until May. I remember reading Rules of Evidence flash cards as I went up the chairlift at Arapahoe Basin, and I felt glad that I had gone to school in Boulder.
Unlike Ithaca, there were no envelopes waiting for me my final days in Boulder. I was going to be one of the fifty percent of the students graduating without a job, and I didn’t have any immediate prospects.
When I graduated that June, I knew that like Ulysses that my odyssey had only just begun.