by Justice William W. Bedsworth
If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
—Hamlet, Act V, scene ii
That’s Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote lots of great things. That passage is not one of them.
Quite apart from being absolutely impenetrable upon first hearing—and, keep in mind, Shakespeare was writing for an uneducated audience that had been standing in the cold for about ninety minutes when that line was delivered—it’s simply wrong. Readiness is not all.
We spend a great deal of our lives working on developing readiness. We pour hours down the time sink studying for exams, preparing for interviews, interviewing witnesses, researching the law.
We do that because Mom and Shakespeare and the senior associate tell us to. We prepare and prepare and prepare, our time creeping in its petty pace unto the last syllable of recorded time.1
And then the thing we were preparing for dies in an avalanche or runs off to Venezuela with the pool boy, and our life does a 180.
The homely, underdressed, unappreciated fact is that it’s rarely the big events that change your life. It’s more often the weird, unexpected, quirky little things you couldn’t possibly prepare for.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of readiness. I’ve preached it all my life—to shortstops, to cops, to my children, to my students. It’s just county-fair-level horse sense to put everything you have into preparing for the big events in your life. Readiness is a good thing.
But it is not “all.”
More often, while you’re accumulating readiness, something flies in from left field that changes your life. Sometimes it’s a bluebird and sometimes it’s a tomahawk missile, but it’s rarely something you’re ready for.
My friend Paul reluctantly filled in for his brother on a blind date. He married the girl he met that night. When asked how long they’ve been married, he responds, “Not long enough.” His life spun on a dime that night and took off in a direction he never anticipated. No readiness involved.
My friend Tony showed up for an internship, expecting to get a unit of college credit by carrying an executive’s briefcase for a semester. He sat in the company’s lobby for hours waiting for the exec to show up. Another guy walked in and out all morning, seeing Tony each time and finally asked why he was there. Embarrassed that one of his people had been so rude as to leave Tony hanging, he announced he was going to take him on as his own intern. That’s how Tony met the CEO of the Gillette Safety Razor Company and began a business career that now involves negotiating expansion franchises for professional sports. Readiness, schmediness.
My own unready moment came in 1977. I was trying felonies for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. I was sitting in the calendar court with my friend Dan Brice, waiting for our cases to be sent out for trial, when a lawyer from Los Angeles announced he wanted to set his case for an “oral traverse.” He was referring to an attack on a search warrant, but “traverse” was an archaic term even then, and while I knew what it meant, I had never heard anyone say it out loud.
I turned to Dan, “I thought Oral Traverse was an evangelist in Oklahoma.” I smiled. Without missing a beat, Dan corrected me, “Nah, it’s a dental procedure. I had one and it cost me $400.”
My cases pled out, and I went back to the office and spent the lunch hour on what became my first published legal piece: “The California Screendoor Repairman and Certified Criminal Law Specialist’s Examination.” Six months later, it became the first humor piece ever published by the California State Bar Journal.
The first question:
An oral traverse is
A year later I followed up with another State Bar Journal piece: “A Short History of the California Public Relative’s Office.” And a very nice—though undiscerning—editor of this publication asked me if I would write a monthly humor column.
My first column ran in March of 1981. Today I begin my 36th year here.
Turns out if you do legal humor you are the proverbial one-eyed man in the land of the blind. So few people attempt it that whatever you write is pretty much the only girl at the ball.
So I’ve gotten to vent what my friend Gary Pohlson once called “that attic city you call a mind” in this space for thirty-five years.
And in 1986, when I ran for a judgeship, I got contributions from lawyers I had never met—people who practiced in areas of the law I had never even passed through. The checks came with letters saying, “We’ve never met, but you seem like someone I would like to try a case before.”
In 1999, ACWOS got picked up by The Recorder in San Francisco and American Lawyer Media began syndicating it.
The result was not only a little extra coin, but a public speaking sideline. I got gigs from Seattle to London; from Orange Beach, Alabama to Tulsa, Oklahoma; from Sedona, Arizona to Lincoln, Nebraska. More fun than anybody oughta be allowed to have.
All because of that random moment in calendar court.
Along the way, I’ve found three companies willing to publish books of my rambling essays. Two of them are no longer in business,2 but the third has just published Lawyers, Gubs and Monkeys, so I get the thrill of going to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and seeing that we are fast approaching double digits in sales.
My goal is to pick up as many sales as the Angels get wins this year. Stay tuned.
In short, your goodwill and kindness has enabled me to have one helluva good time. I don’t know if there’s another bar association as good-natured and generous as this one. I don’t know if there’s another place in America where I could have done this for thirty-five years without having people boo and throw tomatoes at me.
But I do know you people have cut me a lot of slack. And I’m grateful.
That said, let me add that I know not everybody looks forward to this space every month. Every time I sit down to write, I picture all the people who must think, “Aw jeez, not this guy again.3 Does he really think he’s funny?”
I am not a universal taste. If Twain is chocolate, I am artichoke hearts. And I’m sure there are many lawyers who can’t figure out why their legal newspaper or bar journal or newsletter keeps trying to get them to eat artichoke hearts.
To those of you who feel that way, I say, “Keep the tomato close by. Work on your throwing motion. You never know when you’ll see me on the street. ‘Readiness is all.’”
To the rest of you, I say, “Thank you. I appreciate your kindness. See you next month: Volume 36, number 2.”
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.