Two years ago today, I went to a surprise 50th birthday party for the boyfriend of one of my favorite human friends. I had met the boyfriend many years before at a mutual friend's party, before he and my girlfriend began dating, and then one other time while they were dating. Needless to say, I was definitely not someone he would expect to see at this somewhat intimate surprise celebration on a party bus headed to a boardwalk bar at the NJ Shore.
My girlfriend and I had reconnected recently over shared life experiences and she invited me to her beloved's celebration because a) based on our conversations, it sounded like I needed to get out, let loose and have fun, and b) she had a couple cancellations and needed to fill the bus to be able to foot the bill. So I said "yes" not knowing it was going to be the greatest "yes" I had ever uttered (or one of the best...and I don't mean that in a pervy, sexy way...). This "yes" with surprisingly little hesitation given the fact that I knew maybe two other people going to this party (because we are related) has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made to date (going from blonde to brunette, notwithstanding) and it almost didn't happen.
The anxiety cocktail kicked in a few days before the event. My inner voices were explaining why this party was going to be a bad idea: 1) I don't know anyone; 2) the birthday boy probably won't even remember meeting me; 3) what if the people suck? I'm trapped on a bus for 2.5 hours each way; 4) I'm not going to have fun - I don't even like the shore 5) it's going to be super hot and humid, my hair will be out of control and nobody needs to see that...I needed to tell my girlfriend I wasn't going to make it after all. This party thing was a dumb idea.
But first, I asked my sister how I should approach the subject. My sister and brother in law were also going to the party, and both of them mocked me until I relented. "Fine! I'll go, but you jerks better hang out with me at this thing." (Spoiler alert: They didn't.) The morning of the surprise, I was still wrestling with the idea of sending the "I'm so sorry, something came up. Have fun" text ten minutes before bus boarding time.
So I show up and step onto the bus. I sat down and started chatting with a woman who I recognized from the women's club tennis team I had been occasionally playing with that spring and summer. The bus began filling with a lot of people who seemed to know each other. I could feel myself sweating already. This was going to be a long ride.
Three guys got on the bus together. I made eye contact with one of them and internally chastised myself. Meeting guys and talking to them were really not on my agenda. I had been separated for quite a while, my ex already seriously dating someone else, and I had just very emotionally ended a dead-end relationship of my own. Flirting or having conversations with men were not part of my plan to remain heartbroken and miserable. But I wasn't going to be rude.
One of the guys asked if the seat next to me was taken. I probably stuttered something stupid, because I am so smooth. And he began to chat me up, but first offered to get me a beer. I liked him already. He asked me some stuff as the noise level on the bus began to rise. I explained that I had just returned from LA a few days before having spoken at a national lawyers' convention and I was also there to meet with my writing partner. He didn't seem all that impressed with that information, nor did he ask any follow up questions. Instead, he excused himself and went to talk to another woman directly across from us. "Nice talking to you, too, buddy!"
My brother in law took pity on me and led me to where he and my sister were seated. I was introduced to a bunch of very nice people, most of whom were members of the trail running club to which I now belong. When we finally reached our destination, I felt comfortable enough having met these nice people, to continue conversing. It looked as though I might actually enjoy myself, which was something I had found impossible at social events, by myself. Perhaps today was the exception. (Also: I had a few IPAs in me from the bus ride. Feeling pretty, pretty, pretty good.)
I headed to the bar and the guy from the bus offered to buy me a Summer Shandy. That was nice. I went off and danced with my girlfriend, my sister and some of my new acquaintances and noticed the guy seemed to be watching me. I asked my sister "what's his deal?" Her response was "not your type." Sounded like a challenge. Unfortunately, I was not up for challenges. It didn't fit with my current "miserable and heartbroken" self.
At one point in the afternoon, I needed some fresh Jersey Shore, Boardwalk air. Outside I went. "Bus boy" found me there and asked to join me. We picked up on the small talk sitting on a boardwalk bench.
I learned that he was my younger sister's age; he learned and was surprised I was not 25 (marry me?), had a kid and was dealing with a divorce. He suggested we get a giant slice of pizza (again, marry me?) and the conversation continued. He lived in my old hometown, owned his own home, had a dog, was very close with his family, had a Masters degree...then one of the women I had been dancing with earlier came up to us and reported there was another band and dancing on the roof and we should go do that. Of course we should. He tells me "I don't really dance." I tell him, "I most seriously do." He danced.
In fact, we danced until it was time to leave. Back on the bus, I hoped the night never would end, and by some strange magic, it hasn't. Since that day, two years ago, there hasn't been a day we have not been in contact. We started seeing each other as friends and then started dating a month later. Another month later it was just him and me.
Looking back now on what we count as our anniversary day, I realize just how one tiny decision to not be an anti-social loser has led to a whole new and amazing life experience. I wasn't expecting that getting on a party bus with a bunch of strangers would now be one of the best choices I have ever made. I was looking for "Benjamin" and I found him. I also found 40 + new friends and running buddies.
I'm a risk taker, as we all know - primarily in non-life threatening situations - and when it came to relenting and getting on that bus, the juice was worth the squeeze. The internal struggle- "what if this is terrible vs. what if this is wonderful " played out in my mind the days before the party.
Once we have a positive experience from taking a chance, even as seemingly innocuous as just saying yes to a party invitation (and actually showing up), taking other risks becomes easier. The risk of starting my own law firm, for example, although continuously terrifying and challenging, became an easier "yes" because the internal "what if this sucks vs. what if it's awesome" conflict became easier to resolve. Most things are difficult- work, relationships, living an authentic life, running up a mountain - so the fear of something being terrible can be overcome with the possibility of it being the best thing ever. Little chances we take can sometimes result in big, rewards.
Like anybody in a relationship, we aren't perfect, but we have had some truly perfect moments. We make a great team. I am grateful and incredibly proud to have this wonderful man on my side and at my side.
Benjamin hates when I make public proclamations of love and get all mushy-gushy, but it's our special day so I think he'll give me a pass this time.
I'm just so glad you were on that bus. xoxoxo
This week marks fifteen years since I sat for that most dreaded and traumatic test - the NJ Bar Exam. I recall leaving the testing site, a large convention center in Somerset, NJ at the end of the first day, bypassing all of the "what did you put for that question about riparian rights...?" conversations, lighting a cigarette (because I was still affected and bad ass back then. Couldn't breathe, but I looked cool I guess), getting into my car and melting down. Like, hard-core, ugly cry meltdown.
I left law school in early June with one piece of paper that certified my graduation from the Seton Hall School of Law and another piece of paper informing me I owed nearly a gazillion-dollars in student loan debt. Not passing the bar exam this round was not a viable option, yet it felt like a distinct possibility in that moment.
Of course, I passed the test, although the almost four months between taking the test and receiving the results were some of the most stressful of my life (back then, anyway). I am still traumatized by the overwhelming feeling that I had failed. It was not as though I hadn't bombed a test before, after all Chemistry 2 in college was the reason I was led away from Science toward the Liberal Arts. But this test meant everything and believing I had not prepared well enough was a difficult pill to swallow after I sacrificed my summer and my relationship at the time. I was grateful to have passed. The experience gave me the drive to go back to my overachieving roots and work harder than the guy next to me as I pursued my career. That's exactly what I did.
Completing my clerkship and being told by my judge that I was probably her best law clerk in twenty some years on the bench was an amazing way to begin my career path at a very prestigious local law firm. I worked very hard for her during my short year and took my position very seriously, clearing her backlogged docket before I ended my term.
As a law clerk, I was able to watch lawyers - some very seasoned, bright and professional and others not so much - appear before judge and jury in the courtroom. What I found somewhat odd was that from September 2003-August 2004, I saw no positive verdicts for injured people. None.
When I asked my judge if that was "normal" she informed me that it was. "People around here just don't want to give money to people hurt in car accidents," she told me. So I knew what area of law I wanted to avoid if I was to pay back my exorbitant law school debt.
Of course, as I entered the first weeks of my law firm job, I was assigned to the attorney who worked in Personal Injury. I could already tell that my time at this firm would be short given the modest starting salary and the clear way I was being set up to fail. Thanks for the opportunity, old white guys. But it proved to be an incredible opportunity to use my knowledge and skills as a newly minted lady lawyer.
At the time I began in private practice, in order for an auto crash case to even make it before a judge and jury, it had to get passed a two-prong test - the plaintiff had to prove a permanent injury causally related to the crash and that the injury had a substantial and serious impact upon the life of the plaintiff. It was an objective and subjective test that was a matter of law, and a judge, not the jury, would decide these issues before a plaintiff was permitted his/her day in court. And this standard applied to an injured person if he/she happened to select the "Verbal Threshold" or "Limitation on Lawsuit Option" when signing up for mandatory car insurance. This "option," we were all told, made our premiums much lower. What we were never told by our insurance sales people and brokers was that this option also limited our ability to seek compensation for injuries caused by someone else.
Much of my work as a law clerk had been writing statements of reasons and opinions for my judge on these issues when insurance defense lawyers would file motions for summary judgment to help dismiss a case before trial. I recall debating my judge on what "substantial impact" on a plaintiff's life truly meant, based on other courts' opinions and dicta.
The decisions often were boiling down to whether or not the plaintiff sufficiently described her life at her deposition to the judge's satisfaction. Something did not sit well with me as I argued with my judge that a person who used to play golf at least once a week and now could only play once in a while because of his injury was substantially impacted. Her response was, "but he can still play golf."
We battled over whether to dismiss a case or not based on the law and the facts. I lost a lot of those battles to my judge, but I took the experience of knowing how she ruled on these issues to my new law firm job. I was able to successfully argue against any motion for summary judgment by a defense lawyer in a car crash case and win my client the opportunity to have his/her day in court leading to some of the highest verdicts and settlements for those types of cases my firm had ever obtained. Yay, me!
The good news was, this nearly impossible standard, obviously drafted by legislators in the back pocket of the auto insurance industry was eliminated only a few years into my new attorney associate position. But the task of overcoming juror bias against people who bring lawsuits and overcoming the insurance industry's propaganda campaign, that anyone involved in a car crash is either not injured or attempting to commit fraud, still proved to be challenging.
This challenge of bringing justice to people who's lives have been thrown off balance by the bad choices of someone else became my professional crusade. What made the "good fight" an even better fight for me was that I help injured people in my own community.
In grammar school, high school, college and even in law school, I was involved in student government. Now as a seasoned professional, I am technically re-involved in "student council" with my involvement with the New Jersey State Bar Association, the NJ Association for Justice and the American Association for Justice. These groups are dedicated to helping to provide access to justice for everyone. The vast majority of professionals I have met from these groups from across the country have been incredibly generous with their time and experience, offering advice and counsel on handling cases for injured people.
I still pay my law school student loans every month, but I'm happy to do it to be involved with such great professionals and grateful clients as we whittle away at the billion dollar insurance industry's strong hold on justice and fairness. It's definitely the good fight.