Why So Serious?

I’m a lawyer. I recently tried a case in which my relationship with the judge was, to put it mildly, contentious. During a break in the proceedings, the judge told me not to be “so grim,” because what we were doing was not “that serious.”  Of course, that was wrong. It was certainly serious for my client who was paying me. In the words of attorney Brendan Sullivan during the Iran-Contra hearings, I am not paid to be a “potted plant.”

Why so serious? It’s a serious world, my friends.

I suppose there are degrees of seriousness. If I lost that case, which I did, my family would still love me, the sun would shine and all God’s children would still be happy. Those things–true as they may be–don’t mean that other things mean nothing. When the judge ruled against me, I shook everyone’s hand, thanked the judge and then retired to the stairwell with my client. We both then spewed a long string of unprintable obscenities.

Was it a serious situation?  Yes.  Was it the end of the world?  Of course not.  Seriousness isn’t an all or nothing proposition.  Things can be serious with being dire.  For example, one can be seriously ill without being terminal.  Likewise, if one is rarely ill, any illness may seem serious at the time.  It’s all matter of perspective.

As I get older, my peers have become more serious.  They huff and puff and pontificate about the state of the world.  They criticize young people.  They criticize old people,  They bemoan the decay of society.  In other words, they are adults, and they act like adults.  That’s what adults do, you know.  They peer over their reading glasses with brows knitted and offer their take on everything.  And all it’s all serious.  Make no mistake; there are serious things afoot in this world.

“Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business.” Winston Churchill

These being the High Holy Days of politics with the Presidential election looming, we spew forth about politics like Mount Vesuvius.  On social media, in particular, the opinions are many and varied, but fall into five broad groups:

  • Those on the left who despise everything and everyone on the right.
  • Those on the right who despise everything and everyone on the left.
  • Those who despise everyone. Period.
  • Those who despise all those who post about politics.
  • Those who despise all those who don’t post anything about politics.

Politics is all serious all the time, of course.  I have been told numerous times that this is the most important presidential election in history.  An astute friend of mine suggested that just maybe the 1860 election was more important, given that we actually owned other human beings at the time.  To most of my peers, that minor historical event pales in comparison to whatever is chapping their rumps right now.

The reason for this, of course, is that we’re all alive now and weren’t around in 1860.  Surely, slavery wasn’t as bad as Barack Obama being a Muslim or Mitt Romney a tax cheat or whatever ever other bizarre theory one might embrace.  Even more rational concerns like the economy, national and endless wars have to be worse than anything any other generation has faced.

It’s not all that grim, of course.  I support Mitt Romney, but I’ve heard a lot of funny jokes about him.  It’s okay to laugh.  If he loses, the republic will survive.  It will.  It also won’t mean that I’m a lesser person.  Plus, I live in a state that has almost no influence on the outcome of the election.  Lighten up.  Life remains good.

“That which doesn’t kill you usually succeeds on the second attempt.”  Mr. Crabs, SpongeBob Squarepants

Want to know about a serious time?  World War I.  It wasn’t a popular war.  You could be arrested for publicly criticizing the war effort.  It was The Great War.  The war to end all wars. Right.

It was also during the time of the Spanish Flu Epidemic.  So many people died of the flu that mass graves were dug in some cities to handle the dead–in the United States.  Stories were told of people starting to cough on trolley cars and bleeding out before they got across town.  Read the excellent book The Great Influenza by John Barry.  Serious stuff. They even had a catchy little poem for the Great Flu: There  was a little bug; It’s name was Enza; I opened the window; And influenza. I’m sure that it would be treated seriously if happened today, except we would waste out time trying to figure out which political party was to blame.  Be glad we don’t to deal with that stuff.

6,000,000 dead in 12 weeks. How would you like to wake up to this headline?

While it may be true that the great issues of the day must be sternly addressed, these aren’t the worst of times. Not by a long shot.  Read a history book.  There were a lot of times that really sucked.

“Old men declare war, but it is the youth who must fight and die.”  Herbert Hoover

Our country has been at war for 11 years now.  That’s some serious stuff, for sure.  It’s funny (not ha-ha funny) how people don’t talk much about that, except when someone wants to take credit for something good (which, by the way, rarely happens).  The United States entered World War II in December of 1941 and was done by August of 1945.  Even the Vietnam War didn’t last this long.

I suspect folks my age (50) don’t talk much about it because we don’t have much to say.  We are the No War Generation.  The draft ended before I turned 18.  Even if there were a draft, you could have avoided it if you were clever enough.  Even I had joined the military, the 1980’s was a decade of saber-rattling, not saber-drawing.

As a result, we don’t have a moral high ground from which to demand that young people go die for us.  We didn’t do it, why should they?  Of course, that ground isn’t so “high” for anyone, is it?  Have you ever noticed that folks who suggest that people go get killed rarely are at the same risk?  There’s also the sticky problem that we want them to die for Afghans or Iraqis.  It’s a messy, sad business.  We’d rather not talk about it.  The best can muster is “Support Our Troops” or “Pray for the Military” or other slogans that makes us feel better.

We take our wars seriously.

It’s good that we take great pains not to criticize our soldiers, even if we criticize our politicians. People dying is serious stuff, no matter the reason.  I suppose that some day we won’t kill each other over real estate, but that time isn’t upon us, yet.

“The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.”  Earl Warren

Our sports are serious business, too.  When our teams win, we crow as though we actually played in the game. We are just slightly superior to those who cheer for the losers.  Wait…who am I kidding?  We’re VASTLY superior to those losers! We’ll post scathing insults on social media about opposing teams and their fans.  If our team loses, we’ll even insult our own team. Their losing has diminished our lives.  We are lesser human beings as a result.  I am as guilty as anyone with this.  I will be crestfallen because a bunch of men (or children) I’ve never met lose a game to a bunch of other strangers.  They’ve let me down, even though they don’t know I exist.  It all makes perfect sense to me.

Of course, there is the flip side of the sports fan coin is the sports-hater.  This person is the one who bemoans how seriously we fans take it.  Ironically, these folks take it just as seriously, but their seriousness is their hate of sports.  Usually, they are pseudo-intellectuals who are “above it all” and unable to understand knuckle-dragging sports nuts.  Here in Kentucky, they denigrate our state university for emphasizing sports, primarily basketball.  In their world, Kentucky–an impoverished state–would be an academic titan if only it would play intramural basketball.  I’ve never understood that argument and don’t care to.

My teams win and lose.  They aren’t my teams, of course.  It just seems that way.  When I feel the veins in my neck throbbing, I take a deep breath and say to myself:  “I have no influence over this.  Relax.”  Someday, that might just work.

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.
It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  Thomas Jefferson

I think we can all agree that this Jefferson was some kind of nut.  Nothing is more serious than religion.  We’ve turned much of the world into a graveyard fighting over it.  We will revise history to make religion more important than it ever was.  I know people who will sternly lecture others that our country was founded by a group of Christians, based on Christianity and that the U.S. is a Christian nation.  No amount of historical fact will change that view.

Consider the following:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries

What is your reaction to that?  Who said such craziness?  The Congress of the United States. In a treaty with Tripoli adopted without debate.  In 1799.  Just reading that language will make some people go nuts.  Can you imagine Romney or Obama starting a speech with  “The United States is not–in any sense–founded on the Christian religion….”  Goodbye White House.  Hello, Kevlar jumpsuit.

People believe what they believe.  So do I.  If you’re a missionary, go ahead work on changing minds.  Otherwise, chill.  Life goes on.

My point, if I have one, is that religion is serious business.  Our own nation has been attacked by religious fanatics.  History has had crusades, ethnic cleansing and genocide all in the name of religion.  It’s serious stuff.  Don’t joke about it–unless you have a sense of humor.  Look at around at His creation. God has a sense of humor, too.

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
Bertrand Russell
As lawyer, I belong to serious crowd. In fact, there may be no group which takes itself more seriously. Why? Lawyers aren’t the coolest crowd in town. Many–most?–of us reached a level of newfound coolness when we became lawyers. No more having your lunch money stolen or being stuffed in lockers.  It’s Revenge of the Nerds, devoid of all humor.

Typical future lawyers enjoying their undergraduate days.

This isn’t to say that our jobs aren’t important.  Our clients face jail, monetary loss (or gain) and other issues which are of great importance to them.  For those of us who are litigators, any case we have might be the most important legal problem our client will ever have.

Even though the issues we handle are important, we too often translate that to mean that we are important.  Each case is referendum on our skills and worth as humans.  Lawyers also pride themselves on working long, thankless hours.  Ask a lawyer if he or she is busy, and you’ll get a diatribe about it–whether it’s true or not.  It is little wonder that lawyers have high suicide rates.

Sometimes, I want to do this in court. I usually don’t do it. Usually.

We’re not all that important, of course.  If I quit my job today, someone else will represent my clients.  Life will go on.  The same is true of all jobs.  So, lighten up.

I conclude this, as is my wont, without making any particular point.  Life is not, as folks my age would have you believe, a grim trudge to the grave.  Life is good, as they say.  They know more than I do.  The only thing that really matters is what’s going on at the moment.  The rest of it either already happened or may not happen at all.

So, take it easy.  Seriously.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012

Richard Kent Williams (March 16, 1967 – September 26, 1987)

August 11, 1987. Richard (left) and our parents help me celebrate my 25th birthday. Six weeks later, Richard would be dead.

Richard Kent Williams was five years younger than me.   He was my brother, and he’s been dead for over 25 years now–more than half my life.  “Been dead” isn’t exactly right.  He is dead.  It took me a long time to say that.   Passed, passed away, gone or lost were much gentler terms.  Eventually, I could say that “he died.”  Something about the past tense took the edge off it, as though one could die and that be the end of it.  This ignores the obvious:  those who die remain dead.  They are dead.  That’s the case with my brother.  He would be middle-aged now, but he isn’t.  He was 20 when he died, and 20 he remains.

Richard died in the early morning hours of September 26, 1987, but I’ve always thought of the 25th as the right date.  That was his last day.  He was a student at the University of Kentucky.  He came home to Harlan County for the weekend.  He had a rented tux in the back of his car.  He was going to be in wedding.  His last day.  He didn’t know it, but that was it.

My phone rang at 4:47 a.m. on the 26th.  It was my older brother, Tom:  “There has been a terrible tragedy….”  The rest is now just white noise.  Richard was dead.  He died in the parking lot of a movie theater in Harlan, Kentucky.  It was a handgun accident.  The details have long since become insignificant if, in fact, they were ever significant.  I called my parents.  As I expected, my mother couldn’t speak.  My dad spoke in an eerie, flat tone, almost devoid of emotion.  He said to hurry home but take it easy.  My dad was a tough guy.  I had never seen him upset.  Angry maybe but never emotional.  He just sounded tired.  Very tired.

I left Lexington with my girl friend (now my wife of over 25 years).  I’m sure I was in a form of shock.  Bursts of emotion were followed by almost a catatonia.  I just kept driving.  I didn’t know what to expect at home, but I knew it would be bad.  After our 3 hour drive, we got to my parents’ house.   I recall that there were a bunch of people at the house.  The first person I saw was my Dad.  He was standing in the kitchen, hands on the countertop staring straight down.  He turned and looked at me, his eyes glazed over and red.  “I can’t take this.”  That’s all he said.  This was worse than I expected, because if he couldn’t take it there was no chance for me.  Honestly, I don’t know what happened those few days until the funeral.  I know that Dad and I got Richard’s car from that parking lot.  We picked up his clothes from the funeral home.  There was a visitation and a funeral.  Lots of relatives came from near and far.  That’s about all I remember.

In my favorite film, Apocalypse Now, Col. Kurtz describes a massacre and says:  “I cried like some grandmother.  I wanted to tear my teeth out.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”  That perfectly describes those days.  None of us thought we’d survive it, but we did. We all did.  The world didn’t stop.  The mail ran.  Banks were open.  People went to work, to school.  Our world had stopped spinning, but the rest of it was humming along.  At some point, the inertia of that world carried us forward.  Dad said that going to Harlan was like “running the gauntlet.”  He was so weary of people telling him how sorry they were.    Mom stayed home, which was pretty much what she always did anyway.  One day, Dad told me that “there’s no such thing as not taking it.”  I knew he would move on.  For Mom, it always seemed to shadow her but she, too, continued on.  It got worse before it got better, but it got better.

We moved on.  A month after Richard died, I was sworn in as an attorney.  Four months after that, I got married.  Tom’s son, who was 8 at the time, is now a grown man in his 30’s with 2 kids of his own.  I have 3 sons, the oldest of whom (whose middle name is Richard)  is now older than Richard was when the clock stopped on him.  Mom died in 2003.  Dad in 2008.  Our grandfather died in 1998. Our Uncle Jack, who provided us with so many laughs as kids, died In 2013. We’ve also lost other aunts and uncles in that time.  Life did go on.  Cell phones, satellite TV, HD TV, the Internet, email, texting, another space shuttle explosion, 9-11, three wars, UK won three NCAA titles, and many, many other things happened.  The world is a much different place than it was in 1987.

Those who die young become tragic figures, often mentioned in hushed tones.  Sometimes, they are cautionary tales.  Sometimes, they are examples of the unfairness of it all.  My mother had two uncles who fell into this group.  Uncle Ollie was 18 when died on the USS Houston in the Battle of the Tonkin Sea in 1942.  Uncle George died when he was 8 of liver failure.  He died in the car while his parents were driving him to a specialist somewhere up North.  “Poor little George” was how he was described.  I hated hearing about him.  It was just too sad.

Richard became “Poor Richard,” part cautionary tale, part unfairness.  In hindsight, I came to view his death as a sign of the ultimate fairness.  No one is immune from pain.  We’ll all get a dose of it.  It isn’t my intent to offer anyone grieving advice.  I have no magic pill.  We all grieve, and  I suspect that it’s different for each person.  I don’t know how  other folks feel, and they don’t know how I feel.  We all soldier through the best we can.  I lack the abiding faith that some have that the dead “go to a better place.”  Perhaps that’s because I’ve never heard anyone say:  “Well, Grandpa just went straight to Hell.” Seems like everyone goes to a better place.   Some days I think of “a better place.”  Other days, I just think dead means dead.

Other times, the dead become saints.  Now, this is usually reserved for older people, but let’s be serious.  Not everyone was a great person who will be missed by all.  As my Dad said of a friend of his:  “His headstone should read:  He will not be missed.”  Yet, we canonize our loved ones.  It understandable.  But, c’mon, someone has to go to Hell, right?  Just not anyone I know.

You may be asking:  What is this blog about?  Here’s the deal:  Richard isn’t a tragic figure nor was he a saint.  He was a 20 year old young man who died.  But, before he died–and stained his memory–he was just a person.  I forget that sometimes.  I’ve made a point with my kids to never treat him as a shadowy figure, although to them that is surely what he is.   Here’s what he was:

  • He was born on March 16, 1967.
  • He was a small guy 5′ 5″ 130 pounds.
  • He looked like my Dad.
  • He was funny.
  • He could be short-tempered and profane.
  • He could fight.  I mean REALLY fight.  You’d need to be twice his size to have a chance.  He had lightning quick hands and could throw punches like a boxer.
  • He was one of those guys who never got injured.  My middle son is like that.
  • He was probably the strongest person in the United States for his size and age.  Seriously.  He was the national high school powerlifting championing and collegiate powerlifting champion at 114 pounds.  He could bench 260 pounds and deadlift 400.

Sports Illustrated, July 1985

  • He once put a block of wood in one hand and drove a two inch nail into a 2×4 with two  hits.  Try that.
  • He kept his teddy bear in his bedroom until the day he died.  Teddy stayed in my parents house until Dad died.
  • He was a huge fan of every 1980’s hair band
  • He liked guns
  • He liked cats
  • He was fiercely loyal to his friends.  He fought with them and for them.

Those are just a few things.  Frankly, my memory fades over time, but I can still hear his voice.  I can see his smile and hear him laugh.  He was just a regular guy.  Sometimes, I wonder what he would be like now.  Of course, that’s a futile exercise.  I might as well wonder what I would be like if I had been born in the 1920’s.   I wasn’t, and he won’t ever be 40 or 45 or 50. He’s 20.

August 11, 1978. Richard (and Teddy) and Tom celebrate my 16th birthday. Teddy would “live” in that house for another 30 years.

Like most folks my age, I’ve had my share of grief.  My parents died.  A close friend died unexpectedly.  Nothing ever hit me like Richard’s death.  It still resonates but doesn’t really hurt.  It’s  like getting hit with a hammer.  It would always hurt, but if you got hit with it everyday, you’d get used to it.  I got used to it over time.

Tom and I serenade Richard on his first birthday. March 16, 1968

I would like to say that his death seems like yesterday.  It doesn’t.  It seems long ago, enveloped in the fog of a bad dream.  His life, though–that’s still fresh. He were kids together.  I was his big brother, and I always will be.  I wonder some time if he’d recognize this old man.  He’d probably give me grief about all this gray hair.

When Dad died in 2008, the jacket Richard was wearing when he died was still hanging in the hall closet.  My brother and I just stared at it.  Then, one of us decided to just toss it in the casket with Dad’s body.  Oh, the teddy bear was still there, too.  Teddy got a ride in the casket, too.  After that, some 20 years after Richard’s death, it seemed over.  After all, we wouldn’t bury Teddy for nothing.  Richard is dead, but that’s okay.  It happens to all of us.  It just happened to him too soon.

©thetrivialtroll.com.wordpress.com 2012