Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

I'm on fire

When I was ten or so, the old hotel burned. People stood in their yards, and watched the flames from afar. When I was twelve, the hay barn down the street burned. The heat had a cooking intensity, rather like the "cook your own steaks" place which was the second place I ever saw the woman who became my wife. I remember, once, lighting a match to start a bunsen burner for a chemistry set experiment. The floor in my room had a sort of tile with little brick-like ridges on the floor. The flame jumped from the match, rolled along the floor, and went into my baby sister's (then 5 or 7 or so) pajama leg. It did not "catch flame", but instead made a smoke-black stain on the pajama leg, as I frantically smothered it. She was uninjured.

I wonder, sometimes, what inner flames I experience, and what they burn.



This afternoon during jury selection I had a fiery moment. First, I guess, I should talk about "voir dire". Voir dire (pronounced vwah deer by those who speak Francophonic English, and "vore diiire" by those who speak Texan) is the part of jury selection in which the lawyers ask the prospective jurors questions. This can be very important, because some jurors bring to the table things that make them less than ideal jurors. But in Texas, sadly, instead of just asking questions to uncover facts which might disclose juror bias, voir dire becomes a process in which lawyers "sell" their cases in advance of the oral arguments. I personally do not like "lawyer voir dire", but instead believe that the judge should conduct voir dire, based on questions and topics suggested by counsel. But nobody asks my opinion about Texas courts reform, so I merely note them in this weblog in passing.

Anyway, during voir dire, the prosecutor asked if everyone was cool with the idea that the police on our local central expressway might try to stop people who looked like drug dealers for traffic offenses more than they stopped the rest of the general public. When asked, I told the prosecutor that under her hypothetical, I considered that kind of police conduct wholly inappropriate. While a routine traffic stop which turned up other offenses did not concern me, I could not see how one could "target" people who "looked like" drug dealers without doing what I considered inappropriate profiling.

I tell this story, though, not to take some strong position on a complex issue about which I'm not particularly up to date on my probable cause reading. My off the cuff lawyerism is beside the point. Instead, I mention this to say that this strong emotional feeling about this issue welled up within me like a bunsen burner set on high. I was thinking before the voir dire began that while I am rarely likely to be picked, lawyers being well known to be undesirable jurors in the main, I at least have no real "hot buttons" that make me likely to be disqualified by one side or the other (at least, no more than any professional in a suit might have). I thought I was cool as ice, and suddenly, there I was, in court, my voice going up in volume and up in pitch, on utter fire.

I am not a person who gets angry often. When I get angry, my voice tends to go very quiet. I tend to drop an octave or so, and get a softness in my voice, like some movie serpent. But I have a "less than fully angry" strong emotion in which my voice raises in pitch and increases in intensity, and in which I am almost combative. This is not a "true anger" in the sense of being angry at my deepest core. But it is a form of fiery nature nonetheless.

I remember once in college having a debate with a woman over relative school quality in the different regions of the state. It was one of those silly debates one has in college, pointless but somehow as necessary as hot chocolate at the student union. At one point, though, my opponent, a woman named Joyce, said "Bob just likes to hear himself talk".

Now, in fairness, I think in life there is a fair bit of truth in this. I love debate, and I have to imagine that my voice has a self-soothing quality to it, or I would not enjoy speaking so much in such settings. But when Joyce said that on a winter evening in Yocum Hall dormitory, I suddenly felt an inner flame burning within me. Why would such a silly comment ignite such a flame? But it did!

Perhaps I love closing argument for this reason. I love to make a passionate summary of what a trial teaches the finder of fact. I love that feeling of bringing order to the chaos of evidence, of tying down what I believe I have shown. But I love that sense of measured fever, that urgency, that creation of a universe of truth from the universe of possibility.

I tend to speak rapidly in life generally, never conforming to the "hey y'all" slow-talkin' southerner, but instead being a torrent of words. In closing argument, I have to push myself to slow down, and to clearly explain what it is I am so excited about. I take the blood of the proceedings, dip my finger in it, and place it, Ash Wednesday style, on a spot on my forehead--"this is what I have shown, this is what this means".

When I am giving a closing argument, I am imploring Truth itself to appear, as if by words alone she will form in the ether, before us all. I love that feeling--the adrenaline, the fire, a holy fire, a fire which has burned through the facts of this matter and the facts of a thousand similar matters since the centuries-old first beginnings of a "common law", a sense that right can be done, if it can only be shown to be right.

But my topic now is not lawyering, any more than hay barns. I instead speak of that sense of fire--that sense of passion devoted to an idea or a goal. I remember once in high school, appearing before the local student council, asking them to repeal a rule that forbade people who were not on the student council from running for president of the council. I had no desire to run, though the amendment would benefit me. The change instead merely accorded with my sense of justice, and I was all about making justice happen that day. I gave an impassioned speech, really, a speech not that different than a closing argument might be today. When it was over, and I sat in a class with my friends, I experienced sudden chills, and my teeth chattered. I had that sense that I had set forth "right", and the decision would be against me, and the world was unfair, and yet the cause was so noble it was worth going down in flames over it. In fact, the flames were a literal as non-combustible flames can be. My body had to send me into chills to recover. The decision went against me. I worked to get a new student body president elected, and I believe that the rule was changed.
It made not a lick of difference in the world.

I love that CP Snow book "The Masters". The Masters is set in an Oxford college, when a new head of the college must be elected. The protagonists desperately seek the election of their man, a liberal arts fellow, over the other man, a scientist. They have a world of wonderful reasons, which, to them, make their man preferable. The novel teaches, however, two interesting lessons. One is that the politics at such a personal, small-group level go far beyond positions and theories. The other interesting phenomenon is that, by novel's end, we understand that "our team" is entirely in the wrong. Their fiery passion is all correctly analyzed, but, in fact, they have backed the wrong horse. They not only go down to defeat, but they should do so. Their fire is well-placed, but their choice happens to be the wrong choice.

That's the curious thing about "fire". One is fiery about all sorts of causes. Hindsight proves out some causes, and rebuffs other causes. But I think that the fire still has a place. While I advocate a sense of proportion in life, I also believe that this fire is part of who people are, and something people cannot really live without.

I had a rage recently during a cross examination. I dislike getting angry during cross examination, because my litigation style is highly dependent on articulate delivery and frequent use of satire and intelligent pointing up of contradictions, all of which can suffer under the meat cleaver of "grrrr". At a trial in 2001, I tried to bash into an expert who seemed to me to be contradicting his deposition, and merely pointed up how composed he could be. In closing argument, I used his slickness against him, to good effect, but I could have scored even more points had I not lost my temper at what I considered his perfidy. It's so much more fun to channel that fire into my best performance, an alchemy which turns flame into gold. In some instances, I can do far more in forty minutes with a calm approach which sublimates fiery performance than in twice that amount of time raising my voice and trying to attack.

I don't want to imply that fire is only important in my work, or that "fire" is always misguided. I do want to say, though, that fire seems to me to be something I can sublimate into something really cool, and that this sublimation is far better than smothering one's inner flame. I think that people have immense resources to consciously use their emotions and inner gifts. I love to use mine to consciously achieve goals other than just tearing people's heads off. I think that it's dishonest to pretend that one can control one's inner fire. But I think I can honestly, on a good day, use that fire for something interesting.

But this fire thing is curious. It's not like a gas range. Sometimes the fire appears, from deep within me, and I must watch it burn. Sometimes I don't know it's there. But when it rages, if I can harness it, I can ride sandworms and see Mars, 10,000 miles away, every night for 65,000 years.
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