A month or so ago I stated my intention to alter the way I blog and one thing I wanted to get back into that I did for a brief time last year was podcasting. I planned to make that a personal storytime.
And I fully intended to make this post into a podcast, but I'm rusty on the technical parts. I'll get back up to speed for next week, but without further ado . . .
During a brief
moment of insanity after the death of my pet kitty Brady in 1991 (at the age of 17), I attended Vermont Law School
to study Environmental Law. I had the idealistic notion that I would work for
Greenpeace or maybe Ralph Nader when I graduated, and fight the good fight
against The Man. It took me two months to decide that law school wasn’t for me,
and neither was the $100,000 I would owe in student loans and the $20,000
annual income I could expect fighting that good fight I blathered about. In
short order I would return to New York to pursue a doctorate in Applied
Linguistics at New York University, where at least I would be able to obtain a
fellowship and rack up only $40,000 of debt. But before my return, I would
spend nearly $25,000 on one semester of law school, and learn a frightfully
basic lesson that passed me by during childhood.
South Royalton, Vermont is a picturesque New England town that in 1991
didn’t even have a stoplight. The campus of Vermont Law School (no connection
to the University of Vermont) was composed of a handful of new buildings
sprinkled among turn-of-the-century buildings, setting a tone of contrast. Like
Vermonters, the contrast was noticeable and firm in its conviction: neither
dramatic and pretentious, nor meek and apologetic. City folk and suburban folk
apply to VLS not just for its world-renown environmental law program, but also
for its rural atmosphere. It’s the kind of place that helps you get past the
human notion that we’re outside of nature—that there’s this divine, glorious
thing called nature, and then there’s us, you know, way above it all and in
I mistakenly believed that geography would solve any problems I had: that
once positioned where all of nature is respected, and people are working toward
the common goal of protecting the environment, I would be in that elusive place
we spend our lives searching for—home. But once again I was out of place, just
like when I was a child and Brady was the only one who seemed to understand me.
Except this time there was no Brady to comfort me.
I had developed the arrogant attitude that my existential plight was unique
among humans. I felt the pain of the earth and all of its inhabitants, and if I
couldn’t find kin in an environmental law program, I probably didn’t have any
kin to speak of. I had to admit that my attempt to find my place had failed.
There was also the tiny matter of the financial situation I had created for
myself, namely, that my one-semester stint would cost more money than I would
make in a year when I graduated.
At VLS, the financial aid people sit you down
during your first semester, I think to assess your grip on the reality of your
fiscal present and future. Such meetings probably separate the diehards from
the weak of conviction, or at least the weak of bank balance. Clearly, I wasn’t
a diehard, as not only did I almost plotz when I heard the facts, but said facts
made my decision to leave law school a no-brainer. If I had been enjoying law school and its infamous Socratic method, I might
have conjured up some passion to remain. But for the first time, I was
indifferent to my education, and life’s too short for apathy.
On a brisk November morning, I decided to leave law school. I felt like a
failure and a fake and I had to admit that I wasn’t doing well academically for
the first time. And I didn’t properly research the ramifications of going to
VLS, because if I had, I wouldn’t have been so shocked when I heard about my
inevitable debt and low-paying job prospects. I had no one to blame but myself,
and was wallowing in lakes of self-hatred. How could I have been so wrong? How
could I have made such a colossal blunder?
Enter Black Bear
schlepped my sorry self from my minuscule apartment, across the Village Green
toward the coffee shop. No, it wasn’t a Starbucks; it was an old-fashioned,
apple-pie under the glass, only one kind of coffee, coffee shop. I believe it
was even run by a woman named Madge, who had spent almost two decades watching
law students come and go. As is often the case with rural areas that academic institutions have chosen
as their homes, the town’s service establishments are run mostly by locals, who
coexist somewhat tensely with academic folk. No other moment was as
illustrative of that tension than this particular morning.
When I stepped onto the narrow parking strip between the Village Green and
the coffee shop, I stopped in my tracks to avoid being leveled by a
speeding, mud-caked, vintage Saab with a Grateful Dead dancing bears sticker on
it. In a stroke of the surreal, my heart beat frantically as my eye was yanked
from the cheery, colorful bears on the sticker, to a mammoth black bear,
tethered to the back of a white pickup truck, and held down with chicken wire.
He was bleeding from several bullet wounds, and visibly in excruciating pain.
He was groaning and whimpering, and his eyes spoke of grave injustice. I was instantly
nauseated when the driver of the truck and his accomplice emerged from the
truck to greet a half dozen locals who had gathered to admire—not the bear—but
the fact that the men had shot and caught him. They chuckled and smiled as the
magnificent creature wailed and showed his teeth.
A group of law school
students walked far out of their way to avoid the sight. And then the whole lot
of backslapping, ecstatic locals entered the coffee shop, as the once-mighty
bear lie writhing in pain.
I recall deciding not to vomit, as the moment wasn’t about me. If I could
have shot the poor bear on the spot, I would have. Or at least I say I would
have. But all I had was, well, nothing but my energy and my intention that the
bear forgive us all and make the most peaceful transition possible to wherever
he was going. Even to nothingness, as that would have been an improvement over his current situation.
I walked around the truck to get a good look at the bear and I approached his face. I hadn’t yet perfected
the art of not getting hysterical when I saw an injured animal, so I was quite
a sight, I’m sure. Heaving and sobbing, I spoke to him. With my usual flair for
nomenclature, I called him Black Bear. I begged for his forgiveness and I tried
to explain that men are so fearful that they might not be as significant as
they have deluded themselves into thinking, that they will do all kinds of
irrational things and call those things proof that they are indeed king of the
hill. Like sneaking up on unsuspecting creatures and shooting them from behind,
for instance. Somehow men have convinced themselves that that is a worthy
activity, and they even have the gall to call it sport, as if it’s a fair game
played on equal footing. Or as if the other team is even aware the game is
being played and has agreed to participate. That’s not sport. That’s cowardice.
And these fearful men say they’re helping the population, and that many animals
would die from starvation if it weren’t for their valiant efforts. Meanwhile,
their targets aren’t starving or ill creatures at all; they aim for the big,
healthy creatures who might breed a new generation of hardy animals.
I really did say all of this. And then, in a whisper and continuously
disrupted by blubbering, I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the majestic
Black Bear. I stared into his eyes while envisioning him breaking free from the
prison the men made of the truck, and the prison the men made of his now
mortally-wounded body. I then thanked
Black Bear for giving me the gift of perspective. I was having a self-indulgent
day, and I discovered that there’s no better cure for that kind of depression
than being with someone else whose agony makes yours look insignificant, if not
I transformed my pain into pure love and gratitude
and showered Black Bear with it. And I’m not sure when it happened, but at some
point he died, eyes wide open and pointed in my direction. I closed them and
lay a hand on his face and then on his gigantic paw, and felt him with me as I
wandered into the woods, imagining I was escorting him back to his home.