A Weekend In Wyoming

I am sad enough to weep tonight, and I may do so. As night falls in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I am holed up in a hotel awaiting an early flight back to Connecticut tomorrow. For the past two days, I've been back at the ranch, visiting with friends at the Trial Lawyers College. I went there to honor a good man on the occasion of his 8oth birthday and the fifteenth anniversary of the college he founded.

The festivities continue tonight, but I did not plan a long stay. Gerry Spence and I have a history, and we've both written it in lines that I sometimes do not care to read: It seemed better to come and to go quickly. Besides, the ranch attracts an unusually passionate and exhausting crowd. I'd not set foot on the grounds since 2000, so this past weekend I milled around with scores of others who have come there and staked their own claim to magic. I was an old-timer, and found comfort with others whose roots go back to the 1990s: Mike Strain, David Goldenberg, Paul Dumas. They took me in as I am, warts and all.

To prepare for the weekend I re-read Lord of the Flies. Strip away the veneer of civilization and what beasts emerge? I know my ghosts loom ever-present and haunting; it was the ghosts stirring in others that I dreaded. When I was last involved in the ranch I watched some students hustle the crowd and the faculty to earn invitations back as staff; I got hustled, and resented it. A few students got their wish, and, to use the words of another family, became made men. The grapevine reports that some of them want my scalp for turning on the tribe. It wearied me to consider tense confrontations.

Odd things occurred this weekend. One woman thanked me for work I did with her two years running at a seminar at Mount Palomar in the late 1990s. I was flattered, of course, but, frankly, I do not recall much of the trips to Southern California as part of the college faculty; I don't recall the young woman's case at all. I tried to be gracious and sought the shelter of anonymity as quickly as my feet could carry me.

Another soul was kind enough to tell me how much she enjoys my blog. "You don't look at all like what I expected you to look like," she said. I mumbled something about not knowing whether that was a compliment or an insult, and beat a hasty retreat to some silent place.

On Saturday, Gerry passed the baton to a new lord of the flies, Jude Basile. This was not unexpected but had the subtle feel of a palace coup or smoke pouring from the chimney at St. Peter's. Basile is now the new president of the college. Spence has, in a sense, stepped down. The board decided this, Spence said. So now the college has a new president for life. It is not that simple.

This is a tricky move and it is an open question whether the college can survive. It is a charismatic institution; the main draw is Spence. Like him or not, he has published a dozen or so books and is a towering populist. He rants, he roars, he cajoles in a way that mesmerizes. He has become an icon to many by shunning convention.

Basile, by contrast, is a former college athlete, recruited to play quarterback at Notre Dame. When it was apparent that he would not play in South Bend, Basile transferred to a small college, where he was a star. He now practices law in California in a small one-man firm, handling a case or two at a time with stellar results. But Basile lacks Spence's master passion; when he speaks spines don't tingle, rather one waits in vain for the pregnant pauses piling one upon another to yield something other than the conviction that Basile is simply a good and decent man. Basile is an effective lawyer and a good behind the scene's man. But a visionary?

Begone charisma, and welcome something akin to the bureaucratic ethos. Rumor has it that there will be a renewed emphasis on staff training. Psychodrama will remain integral. Perhaps trial skills will be given greater emphasis. But from where I sat this weekend, it all took on a dreadful, homogenized tone. Gone are the heady days when eccentric souls could gather in the cool summer nights around a campfire to find inspiration in the wee hours of the night. "Talent," Goethe once said, "does what it can; genius does what it must." One senses the ranch is no longer safe for genius; is mere talent enough?

The college now plans, raises funds, organizes. Basile's hand may be too steady to nurture the creative genius. We don't need another National Institute of Trial Advocacy.

And as for Spence? I made no effort to find myself alone with him; nor did he with me. This was a time to celebrate and luxuriate. Spence and a dozen of us spent a few hours outside the cookhouse this morning sharing jokes and funny stories. I swear Paul Dumas of Mexico, Maine, ought to record his stories. He's as good a storyteller as Spence.

While we were sitting together, Spence pointed at Dumas, Goldenberg, Strain and me. He thanked us for being thorns in his side. Thanks to us, he said, he has learned to grow calluses, even in old age. He pointed a spindly finger at me and told the others I was still a source of challenge to him.

"Things are complicated between us, " I said.

"No, they are not," he replied. And he told me he read the last blog entry I had written about the magic mirror, intimating that if I could not draw close to him as I had in times past it was because of issues I brought to the surface.

I did not disagree with him at the time. But on the drive to Jackson this afternoon, I realized he was wrong. In this instance, I am holding the mirror, not Spence. He confided in me once that my departure from the ranch and public betrayal of him was one the most painful things he had experienced as an adult, rating with a sorrow too deep to be revealed here.

I was stunned by that. Clearly, the man became important to me, a sort of substitute father figure. But why, I asked him, had I become so important to him? What about my actions could conceivably be so important to him? I asked him about it one day, and the only response I got was: "That's a good question." The question remains unanswered, and, I suspect, unexamined.

I suspect I will never get an answer. So I have a choice. I can hold the mirror up to this niggling response to a serious question, and return evasion for evasion. Or I can do something larger and let the mirror fall to the ground, hoping it shatters.

Today, I watched a man I love walk alone across a sun-baked field. It may be the last time I see him. We've laughed together and we've each shed tears over things held in common and apart. I keep seeing him walking under an overcast Wyoming sky, tall grass licking his legs as he lumbered forward. I wanted then to thank him for all he has done for me. But I didn't.

Spence has been a better friend and mentor than I deserved. None of us master the currents life sets before us; we are all undone in the end. But I respect the shape he gave to the storms raging within him. He taught me something about grace, and, more importantly, he taught me to accept the sorrows that time yields. I am filled with sorrow tonight, but I know this sorrow is strength, not weakness. Do not go easy into the night, Gerry, but go knowing that there is a modest shelter of sorts here for you; it is not uncritical, but it is, perhaps, for that very reason real. It is a gift I can give.

Comments: (12)

  • Norm, your sense of what a gift is
    reflects some ...
    Norm, your sense of what a gift is
    reflects some flaws
    I suppose you believe you have a deep
    grasp of Spence's blog, on rejection being
    a gift.
    You then fuse that into your carping
    on TLC finances.
    I got news for you Norm,
    you are not God's only gift to
    the world.
    The people who Spence claims rejected him,
    really meant nothing to him.
    I could explain this to you in detail,
    but I am not sure you would get it.
    Don't ever forget Norm, Spence learned
    more from his dog, than all your
    barking here, or carping to the
    TLC grads.
    But, you took a tax deduction based
    on your educational TLC trips, didn't
    you. ?
    Posted on October 16, 2009 at 12:42 pm by Anonymous
  • One commentor above suggests Spence has been silen...
    One commentor above suggests Spence has been silent on his father.
    That is not true at all, he has written a lot on his father. And, his abiding and deep love for his father. Don't some of you so called
    know it all's, Esquires de Bar, even know what you are professing.
    So, looks like Norm on his trip to Jackson Hole, never stayed over at Gerry's plush pad.
    Is this all some psycho-drama created for the Internet, to give King Lear updates, on the lost soul from Conn, who never found his roots on the dusty Wyo plains ?
    At the heart of Norm's angst, is Gerry calling himself the best attorney in America--trial that is.
    One man's opinion, of course.
    And, when Spence bestowed his grace on Joe Low,(the ex Marine from CA, who is an adoration spot for Gerry, that further drove Norm, up some wall, like it was the type of behavior one sees in dogs competing for affection from their owner / master of the pet.
    I know, I have some dogs, and see that kind of behavior, on the lower end of food chains.
    Is Norm taking this psycho- WWW-drama to extremes seeking to milk some renowned out of it like competing mirrors, which are like Alice in Wonderland's, "Through the Looking Glass".
    The man in the mirror, and who holds the mirrors, is a rather relative posture, given, the situation.
    In any event, Spence has written on his father, his great love for his father, why are some who post here so utterly ignorant of that, as they profess to be some great guru status on these questions of human dynamics.
    Spences father was not a lawyer, he was a chemist by training, and he traveled to work for a big mine company in S. America, and when they( the elder Spences) returned to Colorado, there were some problems.
    Spence's mon was depressed, and ended it all, she had a hard time making adjustments at that phase of her life.
    Suicide takes many, I know of a lwayer who committed suicide, he was the best lawyer I knew, bright engaging, it is still a mystery to me today, I can't fathom even: why !
    Norm this great attorney has some need for approval, love from Gerry, he carries scares from his childhood, so he projects back some defenses.
    That is seen on how he blew a cork when Spence spread his love to Joe Low, and it peeled away the layers of Norms facade, which is so apparent to all but, Norm, himself.
    Such is the status of the Bar, and the spin offs from Thunderhead.
    I know all about the RIMS, and the Tetonites, and I am not charging a cent for my insights on things that mimmick the herds, the lone wolves, the Mustangs, the lines of fences, and the drawings near the caves.
    Bar, # dated near the time of the Nixon reelections, @
    Posted on October 16, 2009 at 9:36 am by Anonymous
  • Reunions are like old newspapers blowing down Blee...
    Reunions are like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker St.
    Love what you wrote, captured a lot of feeling. It reminded me of John Johnson, he had that kind introspection going on. For better or worse Spence is one of a kind. Won't be another like him for a long, long, time. As for the school, it belongs to the future, not to the past. And Jude is the one he chose. And sometimes an honest man is what the job calls for.
    Remember Black Mountain College??? Well, you got to go to it when it was cool.
    Posted on September 6, 2009 at 1:41 pm by David
  • Some of us post anonymously because when you are h...
    Some of us post anonymously because when you are honest at TLC or about TLC, or simply share a different opinion or ask a question of Gerry and the board, you are ostracized, punished, demonized, bannished, forced out or removed. Just ask Charlie Abourezk and John Nolte. Both were thrown off the board by Gerry. Why? Because they dared challenge him and dared to speak out against something Gerry wanted. Charlie asked questions and disagreed with Gerry. And so, Gerry got rid of him. The message was clear - if you speak up, speak against Gerry, or don't go along with what he wants, you are gone! So, anonymity is the only way to protect yourself.
    Posted on September 1, 2009 at 10:31 am by Anonymous
  • There are reasons why organizations have interm le...
    There are reasons why organizations have interm leaders, pastors, and organizers. When the founder is one of a kind and so unique those who follow will always be compared and no matter what will never measure up to all. Jude has a tough road to travel. I try not to compare Jude to Gerry. Each are special to TLC and each will contribute in their own wonderful way. I hope to contribute. I hope we all will. Gerry has shared his all. The ranch is just the setting. I do not think Gerry likes rules. I do like rules or authority. I have trouble with authority and always wil. I have learned from those who have learned from Gerry. Joey has shared a lot with me so I could constructively channel my anger. I hate to lose so bad that it paralizes me sometimes. I have read the comments of all above. Before TLC I could not of shared my feelings. I keep looking in the mirror- I need to look and see and not just look. I am becoming a good listener. I am listening to all. Gerry has always listened to me. I thank him for his help and for sharing his pain. I wish I was there to toast to Gerry for his 80 years. Also, to toast to TLC- In law and in life.
    Posted on September 1, 2009 at 7:42 am by tim blake TLC 02 (A great Class)
  • What's up with all the anonymous postings? I woul...
    What's up with all the anonymous postings? I would think that anyone who holds opinions so strongly should likewise be willing to share them in an open and honest way.
    If the topic is important, and it is, let's all discuss it as truthfully as we would approach talking with a jury.
    Posted on September 1, 2009 at 4:43 am by Max Mitchell
  • I am so sad to see Lynne, whom I respect, devolve ...
    I am so sad to see Lynne, whom I respect, devolve into someone who simply supports the current administration despite the lack of transperancy and openness and has adopted whole clothe the propaganda being spewed by Gerry Spence. I guess being on the board results in blindness to the truth.
    Posted on August 31, 2009 at 2:23 pm by Anonymous
  • I read your post and am chagrined by some of your ...
    I read your post and am chagrined by some of your conclusions arrived at with little or no information. Gerry's successor was voted on by the members of the Board of Directors. Overwhelmingly, with no input from Spence, we voted for Jude.
    I have known Jude since 1994, when we were students in the first TLC class together. Jude is not loud and bombastic. He has his own personality. He acts in accordance with it and does not try to be Gerry nor anyone else. Jude is strong, a leader, devoted, and passionate about helping those less fortunate obtain justice. He takes his responsibilities seriously and does not flit from one opinion to another merely for the sake of argument or to try to convince others of his brilliance. He, unlike some others, did not appear to "need" Spence as a father figure and does not hold out a fickle reconciling hand to Spence and as quickly draw back that hand as some do when mere whim controls their moods.
    Part of the qualities of being a leader in a new developing, revolutionary, training program for trial lawyers, must include responsibility and reliability, not instability and father-envy.
    Jude is innovative and helped develop the discovering the story method we use. As I said, he is not bombastic, yet he does not suffer fools, or self-important, self-styled "geniuses" well.
    Although I am the alumni liaison to the Board of Directors, my comments reflect my opinions alone and are not attributable to TLC. I don't like seeing people take cheap shots without adequate information.
    Posted on August 30, 2009 at 7:11 pm by Lynne Bratcher
  • I have never seen anything visionary about Jude Ba...
    I have never seen anything visionary about Jude Basile. He has hardly been involved in TLC the last few years. I have been to at least 6 regionals, attended TLC and the grad courses for the last two years and the new president was in attendance for maybe a total of one week. Carl Bettinger and Rafe Foreman on the other hand, have been at most of the events I have attended. You would think the person chosen as president would care more about the college to be more involved. And if you read Jude's web site, he uses TLC and Gerry Spence to market himself.
    When Jude Basile came to the alumni meeting last year in Dallas (only for a day, and in my opinion, just to hear the sound of his own voice) I had to ask the person sitting next to me who he was. The reply was "Jude Basile." I responded "Who the hell is he?"
    TLC is dead or dying and Jude Basile is not the person who can save it. If you read his emails, he can't spell, can't write and is more arrogant than articulate. Gerry's choice evidences his senility.
    It amazes me that people continue to pay good money to drink the cool aid of Spence's cult. If Spence asked the alumni to drink cyanide laced cool aid like Jim Jones asked his followers, it wouldn't surprise me if 90% of them did it.
    Posted on August 27, 2009 at 7:48 pm by Anonymous
  • I was very sad to hear Jude Basile has been select...
    I was very sad to hear Jude Basile has been selected as president. I seriously doubt this was the work of the board but rather, that he was chosen by Gerry and thrust upon the board. From what I have observed, TLC is certainly not a democracy. If Gerry doesn't want something to happen, it doesn't. And conversely, what Gerry wants Gerry gets. There are plenty of others at TLC with more talent, genius, charisma and presence than Basile. He is nothing more than a wannabe.
    Sadly, as Gerry pulls back, TLC is loosing its magic, the special something it had that made it special and unique. Other than being on a ranch in Wyoming, it is becoming nothing different than AAJ or NITA.
    Posted on August 27, 2009 at 6:28 pm by Anonymous
  • Spence has had an amazing effect on my life. It w...
    Spence has had an amazing effect on my life. It was his book, and particularly the way he read it himself and told his own stories, that pushed me to apply to law school at age 30. He answered my letters when I was in law school, and created a college that provided me with access to friends that profoundly changed my life.
    But I still feel that the best way to honor the man is to do what you've done and not be afraid to speak for yourself, even when that means speaking out against him. As he says, give from what's contained in your cup but don't surrender it in the process.
    Thanks for describing what it was like at the ranch last weekend and for being so real about what it was like for you.
    Posted on August 26, 2009 at 3:21 pm by David Tarrell
  • Thank you for writing about this. I didn't go but...
    Thank you for writing about this. I didn't go but was vaguely uneasy over the weekend wondering what was happening and then becoming annoyed with myself for that. It was the feeling of not being invited to a party--but I'd been invited.
    It is presumptuous of me to suggest that you may remind him of himself, but I will throw the idea out there. He writes/speaks of his mother and the great impact she, her disappointment, and her suicide had on his life. But what has he ever said of significance about his father? The man seems to be a cipher.
    Posted on August 26, 2009 at 12:43 am by Anonymous

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