A LEGAL APOCALYPSE

By THOMAS M. DOYLE

An Ex-Lawyer Looks For Meaning As The Calendar Flips

our most apocalyptically-minded decade. So it was no fluke that even then, I wanted to do something special for the dawn of the third millennium. (Before any of you date wonks start with me, read Stephen J. Gould's Questioning the Millennium.)

The blasé Reagan Eighties only increased my appetite for apocalyptic lore. Nostradamus and The Day After, nuclear winter and Ragnarok, Ram Raj and Kalki, the Maitreya and even the Aquarian Conspiracy -- anything that spoke to a coming cataclysmic conflict and the end of the world as we know it would perk up my day. And while few putative prophets made the mistake of setting firm dates, it was implicit among apocalypse buffs that the year 2000 was probably going to be pretty close to the Big Events, be they religious, secular or some combination thereof.

Unfortunately, as the Nineties skidded by, it became increasingly clear that our post-cold war, IT booming globe was not about to blow itself up anytime soon. But I still wanted to do something special for the pre-millennial year -- a personal apocalypse (though all apocalypses are, in the end, personal). I gave my corporate law firm a year and a half of advance notice, and at the beginning of 1999, I left to make a "millennial pilgrimage" that would culminate with a New Year's trip to Jerusalem.

My first step was almost antithetical to the usual idea of pilgrimage, but appropriate for removing myself as far as possible from the law firm experience. I went to Brazil for three weeks that encompassed Carnaval in Rio de Janiero. I was hoping for complete carnality at Carnaval. But things did not quite proceed as expected. My host was a Brazilian friend from my law school days, and while he was pretty wild back then, he had since married, moved to the Rio burbs and co-produced a lovely two-year-old girl. Instead of the pounding beat of the samba, my nights were punctuated by feverish cries in baby Portuguese. The vacation was otherwise relaxing, but decidedly rated PG.

Post-Brazil, it was time for something more spiritual. I attended a month-long meditation program at an American Zen monastery. Again, it was not quite what I expected. My impressions of Zen had been drawn from personal meditation practice and reading. I thought Zen was anti-dogmatic and full of humor, but you could fit a fat Buddha in the gap between theory and experience. When I got terribly sick and was hacking up my lungs, the extent of monastic compassion was to instruct me to cover my mouth in the meditation hall. In short, the particular monastery I attended was too close to my Catholic school education to suit my adult taste. I fled after a mere two weeks. I was a Zen wuss.

After my mystical letdown, I was ready for something more intellectual. I became a summer intern at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University (CMS), an academic center for the contemporary and historical study of apocalyptic and millennial groups and themes. This was the mental fulfillment of my lifetime of interest. I was speaking every day with people who shared my obsession with The End. Unfortunately, I wasn't speaking much with anybody else. I've never had so much difficulty meeting people as in that hot summer of frosty folks in Boston. I couldn't imagine staying there for anything more permanent, so again I fled back to DC.

But it was not yet the end of the End. I continued my scholarly summer research project at home (a two-part paper on apocalyptic novels such as the Left Behind series and anti-apocalyptic fiction such as Good Omens and Dogma). And I found my true millennial salvation.

It was, of course, rock and roll.

My friends and I had long been harangued for our passive consumption of entertainment (which accompanied our copious consumption of beer). Why didn't we actually DO something? So I proposed forming a rock and roll band that would cover the songs of their (not my) favorite yet obscure group, Guided by Voices (go to www.allmusic.com and type in the name if you want a bit of background). And miraculously, it came to pass.

I bought drums and learned how to beat them with some regularity. Friend Jay (an environmental public interest lawyer) bought a guitar and figured out some chords. Friend Tom Z. was already proficient at bass, and two other guitar-playing friends (one an antitrust lawyer) brought more experience to the group. We practiced for several months, performed a live gig at DC's Velvet Lounge on Leap Day and recorded some studio tracks. We put out the studio tracks and live highlights on a vanity CD. Friends and family commented favorably on the packaging. Not bad for a 3/5ths lawyers (or ex-lawyers) band.

It anticipates the mid-life crisis and is much cheaper than a sports car or trophy spouse. It also gave me a sense of closure on my millennial madness, since I was able to interpolate a Book of Revelation quote into my apocalyptic vocals for one of the songs. So everything came together in The End.

The band project has since lost steam, as the various members left the country to pursue their own millennial dreams. I'll be presenting the apocalyptic papers at a conference in the fall, and I'm writing some fiction in the meantime. I don't see myself ever going back to the practice of law, though I'm grateful that it gave me the wherewithal to engage in my apocalyptic pursuits.

And what happened in Jerusalem? Not much. As anybody will tell you, Friday night isn't a good time to party there, even on a millennial New Year's Eve. But I managed to have a hoot of a time anyway.

In closing (some lawyer habits are hard to break), it seems that taking a year off for travel, reflection, adventure, etc., etc., etc. has become almost a yuppie ritual, perhaps marking when the "y" in yuppie ceases to apply. To those contemplating such a sabbatical, I note only that you should expect disappointment in your expectations, and fulfillment where you least expect it. I should also note that I already knew this bit of pabulum heading into my pilgrimage, and it wasn't helpful in the least.

But we have some openings in the band, if you're interested.

Thomas M. Doyle spent eight years as an associate with Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, Japan.

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