The Things At Which I Have Failed

Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming

Mom wanted me to be piano player. Got me lessons and everything. Failed miserably. (No talent/no coordination was a big issue.) Not having any of her children take to the piano (something she has loved and played her entire life – Chopin, Grieg, Mendelssohn, etc.) probably broke my mom’s heart a little bit. I’m sorry, Mom, but I sucked at piano. Wouldn’t have been any good if my life had depended on it.

Guitar, in my day, was something every 14 year old wanted to learn — the Beatles and all that — but I flamed out there as well (that pesky no talent thing again).

Then it was acting. Caught the acting bug big time in high school. Appeared in a few plays, auditioned, memorized lines, the works. Took the infection with me to college and quickly insinuated myself into the theatre department. Good looks and a big voice couldn’t compensate for other insecurities (and the nagging feeling I was destined to be the fifth most talented actor in any cast), so dreams of a career on stage were quickly dashed.

Before there was piano, guitar, and acting, though, there was baseball.

Baseball broke my heart. Big time. I loved baseball with an unbridled joy that only a little boy can have. Poured over box scores like an Ebbets Field bleacher bum. Bought book (books!?) on how to play, throw, hit, and run the bases. Played Little League insofar as I could throw the ball over the plate with reasonable consistency and once struck out Nelson Burchfield and Grady Cooksey (the Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris of Floridian fifth-graders) in the same inning. (That I can still remember this tells you something.)

I’ve never been a guy’s guy, but the closest I ever got was probably springtime in the early 1960s on a weedy, shitty, sand-spur-plagued ball field field in Central Florida shagging fly balls with a bunch of smelly ten-year olds pretending to be Willie Mays, or, in my case, Roberto Clemente.

But I was terrible at it — small, slow, stiff, afraid of ground balls and barely better on fly ones. Turned out that throwing was the only thing I could do.

Disappointing, right? But you grow up and get over it. Compared to marriage, my failings at baseball look like I went 1-for-4 against Sandy Koufax.

With baseball, at least I got in the game; with marriage, I always had one foot out the door. That is, until recently. At this point in my life I am too old to have one foot out the door. Sucking at marriage is a young man’s game. At this point, I am too old to suck at marriage.

I failed French three times in school. Tried to learn it three more over as many decades. I’m awful at French even though I love the country, the people, the wine and the food. Thankfully, the French have caught up to my sucking at their language and now many of them speak English. Thank you, French.

I tried out for the swimming team in Ninth Grade. They made me the manager so I wouldn’t get in the water.

Didn’t you hear? I was supposed to be a big television star on the Travel Channel eight years ago. That’s okay, no one else did either.

To excel at drug addiction, you have to practice, practice, practice. Drugs are great (after all, they make you feel better right now), but you have to fully commit.

I tried (mostly after my various marriages imploded), but I kept wimping out. Monday morning would roll around after some lost weekend and there I would be: brushing my teeth, shaving and choosing a necktie — a real pansy-ass who didn’t have the right stuff. Ruining your life is a full-time job — shoulder-to-the wheel-stuff and all that — and as with baseball, French, and music, I didn’t have what it takes.

But at least I gave it my best shot.

I’m not ashamed of being a failed lawyer: in fact, I’m pretty proud of it. The law is bullshit codified. Arcana for arcana’s sake in service of a racket — a racket, BTW I was knee-deep in for 33 years.

I got into law thinking it was a noble profession. Four decades later I see it as a system manipulated by the privileged few, far removed from the lofty profession seductively portrayed to me by Benjamin Cardozo and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Had I remained a criminal lawyer (where I cut my teeth for ten years), I might not have such a jaundiced view. But instead I entered the realm of civil law (thinking it was an upgrade), where you spend your days in the service of one group of rich assholes trying to take advantage of another group of rich anal fissures. As a result, you become a money-obsessed hemorrhoid yourself. Good times.

That’s what I am today: a failed asshole lawyer….because I was never devoted enough to become the worst person I could be.

Finally, there’s politics — something I dipped my toe into after being shown the door by one of those civil law firms I misfit into. My foray was brief (only a five-month campaign for judge), but instructive. You learn a lot about yourself and your community when you run for any office, but mostly you learn how to be polite to idiots. This is a lesson I quickly forgot the second I lost the election.

Head Over Heels GIF by The Go-Go's

The inspiration for writing this came from a documentary I was watching the other night, of all things, the Go-Go’s. (Go-Go figure.)

In speaking about the ups and downs of being a rock star, Jane Wiedlin said she took absolutely nothing from all her successes, but the lessons she did learn, and the person she is today, came about because of her failures.

Failure sucks, but it makes you tough. Picking yourself off the mat so many times teaches one thing: how to get up.

Defeat teaches you tolerance, resilience, and compassion. Victory teaches you nothing. No lessons were ever learned from a cheering crowd. The getting of wisdom does not come from exaltation, but from the struggles (internal and communal) we all endure…just like Scott Fitzgerald said.

In the end, that is all life is: an endurance contest. A game we are destined to lose, no matter how many youthful victories we have.

Once you’ve felt the sting of humiliation — from childish avocations to mature failings of character — an insult hurled your way means nothing. Scar tissue is a fine shield from the vicissitudes of fate and a certain perverse pride comes from having it in abundance.

Who would the person be typing these words if he actually had developed his theatrical chops? How different would he be if he could prattle on en Français, and had been talented at anything?

The best answer is: He wouldn’t be typing these words, and he would be a far cry from the person who functions in the world these days and lives inside my head — far more boring with a hide far less thick.

Failure isn’t the opposite of success, the saying goes, it is part of success. I had the wrong stuff, and still, here I am, taking mighty cuts at curve-balls and looking forward to my next at bat — a failure at being a failure, because I never let myself think that I was.


My Legal Life in Las Vegas – Part II – Lessons Learned

Image result for Oliver Wendell Douglas(Oliver Wendell Douglas: the patron saint of burned-out lawyers)

(Ed note: The following was written for the Clark County Bar Journal — a magazine for Las Vegas attorneys. Whether you’re a lawyer or not, you might find some of its life lessons interesting.)

Every day it seems, my respect for my chosen profession sinks a little lower.

I picked up the State Bar Journal yesterday and was disheartened to find, yet again, another three seasoned attorneys getting either disbarred or suspended from the practice of law. This is no longer a surprise to me, as it seems every month I see a familiar name of a practitioner being disciplined by the State Bar of Nevada.

These aren’t rogue lawyers or “bad boys” who got in over their heads (e.g., Nancy Quon, Rob Graham, et al), but experienced attorneys, with decades of practice under their belt — folks who get caught siphoning funds and taking advantage of clients. They aren’t wet-behind-the-ears newbies, but long standing members of good firms, or practitioners of (formerly) high repute who get caught up with either a difficult client, personal issues, or tough financial circumstances (usually a surf and turf platter of all three).  Then, they start dipping into money that doesn’t belong to them, and their downward spiral becomes uncontrollable.

For these practitioners (and those who might learn from them), I offer a few words of wisdom.

1) Never, ever get sideways with a client. And when you do (it’s inevitable) cut your losses and run. So many bar complaints happen when a practitioner is owed money from a difficult client, pushes to get paid, and then gets a bar complaint thrown at him by a jerk who will say anything to get out of the debt. Many times their complaints are groundless, or perhaps there was something you should have done, but either way, the last thing you want is a team of lawyers dissecting every move you made to see if you breached some ethical tenet, or forgot some legal maneuver. The money isn’t worth it – either negotiate with the client and deeply compromise the bill, or walk away and say good riddance.

2) Quit trying to be rich. Lawyers are one of only three classical professions — the clergy and doctors are the other — and the point of all three is that we are granted a privileged license and are supposed to serve a higher power other than just making money. As with the ministry and doctors, our livelihood is supposed to be secondary, even tertiary, to the protection of the interests of our clients. Doctors and lawyers and ministers are supposed to be comfortable (so they are free to attend to the needs of those who need them), but we were never intended, as a profession, to be rich. So many attorneys lose sight of this as they scramble up the practice ladder — seeking ever bigger salaries and payouts — all the while ignoring the fundamental calling of our job. Show me a lawyer who got disbarred for money mismanagement (or worse), and I’ll show you someone who wanted to be wealthy.

3) Get help. Whether it’s with your personal life or being in over your head with cases and clients, every bar association in America has a myriad of ways to help a struggling practitioner. This is the hardest one of all, because lawyers, by temperament, don’t like being told what to do. And most of our egos are so big, we always think we can figure it out, and work our way out. Many of us can (I know I did, but it took years of struggle and a little luck), but the problem just gets worse as you get older — making an admission of weakness all the harder. When you combine a big ego with substance abuse, large debt, and sloppy business practices, you have a recipe for disaster…especially if you think you have to make $300,000 a year.

4) Don’t be shy. Pay attention. Be a friend to your fellow attorneys. Look for signs of distress and don’t be shy about intervening if you think someone needs help. Many times you will be rebuffed, sometimes you may even lose a friend, but make the offer. I’ve personally known eleven lawyers who have committed suicide (including the man who gave me my first job as a public defender, and one of my former partners), and there was probably nothing I could’ve done to prevent any of them. But for a few, I kept my distance (out of respect, embarrassment, timidity, who knows?), and I deeply regret it to this day. Lawyers are also very good at hiding things like drug abuse and financial troubles, so the signs are often not there until it’s too late. But if you see something, or sense something, speak up….either to the person themselves or someone close to them.

5) Get a mentor.  I never really had a mentor. I think my personality makes me mentor-averse. Wise old mentor types probably looked at me through the years and thought I was too much trouble, or not pliable enough for their wisdom. Or maybe I just didn’t fully appreciate what others had to teach me until it was too late. Either way, most of what I’ve learned as an attorney I picked up with my own wits, not because any senior attorney took me by the hand and showed me how to do something. I am both proud of this fact and wistful for what might’ve been had someone taken the time to show me the ropes. By not having the safety net of a more seasoned attorney around, I was pretty much on needles and pins every day of my life for three straight decades. “Is this the right way to do this?” “Is there a better one?” “Am I missing something” “Making a fool of myself?” These were nagging at me almost daily…and at times drove me to drink, drug, or womanize myself into oblivion. (Two divorces in the 90s didn’t help matters.) What I needed was a steadying influence; what I got was a lot of cheap thrills that kept me on my back foot for most of my career. I don’t care if you’re twenty-five or fifty, find someone you can talk to, about your cases, clients, and yourself.

6) Calm the fuck down. Easy to say, hard to do….especially if you’re a trial lawyer. (Please note: I’m not talking about “litigators.” Litigators are a dime a dozen. Litigators move a lot of paper and take a lot of depositions, and make a lot of money, and don’t know shit about trying cases in front of judges and juries. I’m talking about real trial lawyers who have stresses litigators couldn’t handle if their lives depended on it.) I don’t try many cases anymore (I stopped counting my jury trials after doing 125 of them, 20 years ago), but I know my way around a courtroom as well as anyone. Back in the day, I approached every case like a gladiatorial fight to the death, and my insides roiled with the stresses and nervous energy needed to engage in such combat. If I were to do a jury trial now, I think I would be much more effective. I’d still want to win, but calm reflection — on my case, my opponent’s case, the witnesses, etc. — would replace me being a strutting peacock who had something to prove every minute. Once you remove your ego from any situation, you deal with it much more effectively. This is true whether you’re trying a case, making love, or frying a steak. It is really true when you’re knee-deep in acrimony with another human being in the midst of a trial. Calm the fuck down. You’ll be a much better lawyer. And if you can’t calm the fuck down, go buy a fucking farm. You’ll be much happier.

After 40 years of legal practice (33 in private practice), I feel like the ultimate, battle-scarred veteran. The profession has changed greatly since 1977, and like our politics, it’s become cruder, more polarized, and money grubbing. Civility and nuance no longer count for much. In the civil arena where I practice, it’s all about the process these days (endless rules and procedures and fighting over minutiae), and all of the incessant pettiness seems to exist for its own sake. I used to give a speech in seminars that began with “You are not in the litigation business, you’re in the problem solving business,” but that statement is belied by everything I now see, in and out of court. I talked my youngest son out of going to law school six years ago, and I don’t regret it one bit. There really are too many lawyers, and too many of us are paying the price.

John A. Curtas is a former President of the Clark County Bar Association, and has been practicing law in Nevada since 1981. He is currently a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Las Vegas.

My Legal Life in Las Vegas

Image may contain: house and outdoor
Ed. note: Nothing chaps my ass more than having some nimrod tell me to “stick to food” whenever I offer an opinion on something other than restaurants. Many people only know me as a food writer, since restaurant writing has defined my public persona for more than two decades. In fact, though, I have been a practicing attorney for much longer than that. Below is the first of two short essays to give you an idea about my other personal odyssey.
28 years ago last month, I moved back to Las Vegas from Danbury, Connecticut.
For 6 years I practiced law in this building with some very fine people.
I left that practice and those fine people for a larger firm which, I thought at the time, was more in line with my ambitions as a lawyer.
For almost 5 years, my new position was beneficial for all involved, but the relationship ended badly (along with my third marriage).
After I was shown the door, I ran unsuccessfully for judge, then started a solo law practice in January, 2003.

That solo practice was challenging, anxiety-provoking, and nerve-racking, but after another 5 years it was starting to gain traction and bear some fruit.

I was lured away from my one-man operation by another large firm, but almost to the day I started (January, 2008), the Great Recession blew into town with gale force winds, dooming whatever was left of my legal practice, and my prospects for a comfortable life with a big firm.

By late 2010, I was back at ground zero – just like I had been in 2003 — only this time there was no traction to be gained, and I spent the next 4 years hanging on by my fingernails. (As I told the Food Gal® at the time: “It’s like having a nervous breakdown once a month.”)

In the summer of 2014, the clouds parted and I became a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Las Vegas — a job full of challenges, but also something I can be proud of, without the pressures private practice.

If I’ve learned one thing from my 40 years of being a lawyer it’s that the only thing you can depend upon is change. Even if you stay in the same place your whole life, you are not the person (or the attorney) you were 10 years ago. Sometimes you progress, and sometimes you regress, but the entire journey makes you a better counselor in late middle age than you ever were when you considered yourself a hot shot litigator.

I’ve also learned that the key to life is continually having something to look forward to. Whether it’s this day, this week, or this year, there should always be a goal, or an activity, or a simple pleasure that motivates you to move ahead — to never be wholly content with where you are, to always be excited about what’s coming up.

By the same token, I’ve learned never to plan too far ahead, because curve balls come at you from all angles in life, and sometimes you throw them at yourself.