Tuesday, September 27, 2005

LSAT at Midnight, with apologies to Coleridge

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I've spent the past month frantically studying for the LSAT. The LSAT has become a personal affront to me, a challenge to my pride, a tiny, strange, meaningless yet momentous element that invites discipline and eludes mastery. In my uncertain world, the LSAT offers focus, a goal, an elusive promise that everything can be a meritocracy, hard work can pay off, and wanting something badly enough means you have the chance of getting it. How else to explain why a sane person with a prior career could spend hours trying to diagram logic games with a stopwatch as the last summer days sink into their reddish embers? They tell you on the law school sites that the LSAT is only one indicator among many of how a prospective student might perform, and that they take many factors into consideration when screening applicants at the most prestigious law schools. Don't believe it. The LSAT is everything. A PhD, an academic career, a book, fabulous letters of recommendation, and an earnest but sensible application essay are nothing if the LSAT isn't cracking 160-plus. I know. The best I could do last year with all of the above and a thoroughly mediocre 157 was get into NEXT year's part-time night program at a school --a decent school, to be sure-- ranked about 65th. It takes more than accomplishment, focus, discipline, age, or a political commitment to LGBT issues. As the lady who interviewed me last year sternly warned me, you gotta respect the test.

So how to crack 160? Well, there are 4 sections: reading comprehension (yay!), 2 sections of logical reasoning (sigh), and logic games (oh lord). There are 24-28 questions per section, and you have 35 minutes. Assuming you'll get 3 questions wrong out of 28 or so on the reading comp because of time pressures, and 5 or 6 wrong on each logical reasoning section because of mental exhaustion and time running out, that leaves a do-or-die logic games section where you need 13 or more right to crack 162. That means you've got to diagram three out of the four problems and answer most of the questions correctly, then guess at the rest and pick up a point or two from that. You will get only one question wrong on each problem if you do well. That leaves 5 or 6 right, maybe. In order to get 4 problems done, you need to spend 8 minutes on each. It takes me twice that long. Decide to do 3 and you've got 12 minutes to diagram the thing and answer all the questions.

Why do this? you ask. The joblist is out, with at least 10 jobs out there to go for, all of them far away from here. You are planning to apply for them. So why do this crazy LSAT? Why spend hours arranging people at a table, or placing dog show contestants, or figuring out the kinds of birds in a forest, or determining the exact order of colored Christmas lights on parallel streets?

You have taken it twice before. This is it for you. It is a taunt you must throw back, unbowed. It structures your days, every morning and afternoon. Getting things right makes the day worth while; failing is a personal shortcoming, a failure of attention, diligence, care. You can control your life, on your terms. There will be a second act. Going back to school, you'll be becoming something again, instead of ending everything you hoped for.

It is an illusion, of course, this dream of a simple road to happiness, but it is YOUR illusion, for now. You sit up late in bed, reading diagrams. Your cats stir and shift at your feet. Your lover sighs in her sleep beside you. This is where you live. Do you want to leave this for a job alone in Boston, Kentucky, California? The room is quiet, filled only with the sounds of creatures breathing. You click your mechanical pencil, clear your timer, and study on.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Happy 100th Birthday Greta Garbo

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It's time to remember one of the most beautiful Virgos of all time--and one of the most beautiful lesbians EVER. Greta Garbo was born exactly one hundred years ago today, and I have to say, the world is a brighter place for her having appeared in it. I don't swoon over many movie icons, past or present, but Garbo caught my imagination when I was still a teenager, and when I finally saw her in Queen Christina, I thought my heart would break. Watching her cool beauty melt makes it hard to breathe. Once you've seen that magnificent face, how can you admire any other actress half so much? Happy Birthday, Greta wherever you are. Your beauty is timeless.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Virgo rising

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A beautiful post by Camicao prompted me to write about September, the season of Virgos. September evokes my mother, whose birthday, like mine and my brother's, falls this month. September is always melancholy because it is the end of summer, but it is also the most beautiful month, the month when tourists have left but the weather is still summery, when school has started with its bustling promise of springtime achievement: degrees earned, papers or books written, classes done. When I was growing up it was the end of haying season, when fields everywhere were dotted with second or third cuttings drying in the sun, or baled in neat blocks that stretched on over the horizon. I learned to stack a truck so it would hold four or five layers of bales lifted right from the fields by the browned boys who hoisted them up to me in a smooth, swinging motion, bemused looks on their faces at my freakish strength. I loved haying. I loved the smell and the sunlight and the scratchiness and how afterwards my mother would let me and my sister have a beer, just one, in celebration.

The last birthday I spent with her, my sister and I flew to North Carolina, where my parents retired. We flew from different directions. Normally we might not have seen Mom on her birthday, especially after I moved to the midwest, but that year was different. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in June, and the doctors told us that no matter how often they operated, the tumor would come back. They wouldn't tell us how much time she had, only that there wasn't much.

When I saw her the first thing I noticed was that she had started walking with a cane. The second thing I noticed was how bloated she was from the medicine. The third thing I noticed was how cheerful she was.

Now, my mother could be very dark. She could make you feel like you had really let her down, or that you had behaved badly in some way that might take her years to forgive. She was witchy, too. Years as a nurse had made her a sharp judge of physical and mental health; she could tell within seconds of seeing most of the people she cared about whether they were happy or sad, healthy or sick, optimistic or depressed. She was moody and narcissistic, and loved nothing more than to chatter for hours about the lives of people I had never met or hadn't seen in years. When she felt as if she had money she gave it away; when she felt broke she brooded and obsessed about making ends meet.

The tumor had made remembering words difficult, and so my mother's greatest joy, which was talking a LOT, was reduced to monosyllabic commentary. Still, she crowed like a happy bird when she met us at the airport, and she crowed all weekend long simply because my sister and I were both there. We went to lunch at an inn on top of a mountain, and we ate at her favorite fried food shack. We bought a basket of crackling fresh apples from a farm on the way home. We talked about experimental treatments, about my other brother and sister, who were coming to visit another weekend. Mom had given up smoking and wine, her other two great joys, because they reacted badly with her medicine. She laughed about this, and laughed, too, about having worried about smoking and cholesterol and fitness in the last couple of years. You worry about these things for ages, she said in her halting words, and then you get a brain tumor. You might as well just live and enjoy yourself.

She kept a journal of her treatments in a little notebook, and wrote down words she was having trouble saying. She kept her words--as many as she could think of--on little bits of lined paper, as if keeping them there would insure against their loss. She said "monkey monkey" when she wanted a banana. She laughed about her growing aphasia. One afternoon the neighbor from down the road stopped in, and my mother got on a ripper about how all she wanted was for my father to weed wack the front path, and he wouldn't because his weed wacker had broken and he was too cheap to spent forty dollars for another one. She got angrier and angrier, and it was clear that she was having other issues with my father as well, as sick people often do with their primary caregivers. "Forty bucks!" she kept trying to say. "I just want a man with forty bucks!" Instead what came out was "Forty dicks! I just want a man with forty dicks!"

The neighbor lady defused the situation in a flash of sudden brilliance. "Oh honey, that's what we all want!" she said in her soft drawl. Mom looked bewildered, then cracked up laughing.

My sister's plane left first on Sunday; mine was delayed for several hours. I remember telling them to go and how they insisted on waiting with me until my flight boarded. I remember sitting in my seat and trying to wave at them as they stood, craning their necks to try to see. My father leaned against the glass, shielding his eyes. My mother stood beside him, leaning on her cane. I felt my throat swell. They looked so old and small and full of longing.

Or maybe the longing was mine. The Towers fell in New York a week later, and my mother was gone by Christmas. I think of her at this time of year, though, when the sun slants its yellow light in the shorter afternoons of autumn. September afternoons, when she celebrated hers and my and my brother's birthdays, she seems so near, when the days balance once more between summer and winter, and what we are losing every day seems somehow, impossibly, to also hold what we as yet are unable even to imagine.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Babs: Now underprivileged can eat cake

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Remember when Bush senior stood flabbergasted at the price of milk in a grocery checkout line? Because he had no clue what milk costs? Because he had never, ever stood in a checkout line to buy milk? Well, wifey has shown once more how stupid the face of privilege can be. Babs thinks the refugees are better off sleeping on someone else's floors than they would have been in their own homes, because they are underprivileged. And wouldn't you rather be in the great state of Texas than a godforsaken Gomorrah like New Orleans?

Kudos to Christine Francis, a New Orleans woman displaced by Katrina with her family to Austin, interviewed on NPR news today. Francis corrected Robert Siegel when he joked that her family practically needed MBAs to understand the bureaucracy of filing for FEMA aid, politely informing him that in fact, her sister already had her MBA and that she herself was three classes away from finishing the degree. When he mumbled something about how her neighbors probably didn't have MBAs even if her family did, she corrected him again, telling him that her neighbors were all professional people, and that the 9th ward, where she lived, was mostly black homeowners, the highest percentage of African American homeowners in the city. She bemoaned the misrepresentation of her neighbors as poor slum-dwellers and rightly blamed the news media for ignoring the black middle class. Siegel thanked her for the interview, but was reduced to near-speechlessness, and quickly ended the conversation.

This reminded me of a story I read a few days ago in the New York Times about the architecture of New Orleans as a terrible casualty of Katrina. While the writer mentioned the 9th ward, talked about the house he owned there, and praised the community spirit of an area where back folks and white folks lived happily side by side, the article made it seem as if whites were moving in to gentrify the place. He mentioned that his neighbor, Miss Marie, had been born in the house he now owned, but then he went on to characterize her own house nearby in the most condescending terms, as little more than a shotgun shack.

But I guess he and Barbara Bush would see Miss Marie as better off now, anyway.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Unemployment Line

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The Illinois Department of Employment Security, inaptly named, looks kind of like the Alamo. When I mention this to my gf as she drops me off there at 2pm one afternoon last week, she says, "I hope you have better luck in there than they did." It is hot and bright outside; inside the building is cool, gray, colorless. My eyes adjust to the dimness and I see two people sitting talking amidst three or four long rows of empty tables and chairs. I walk to the front desk and sign the clipboard. It is 2:05. The two figures are a woman and a man; he is clearly some kind of security guard and she is talking with him to pass time while she waits for someone to attend to her. I get my paperwork and begin to fill it out.

I am faced with the problem of academic jobs before I even choose which tray to take paper from. There are three trays. One is labeled "Quit," one "Fired," and one, "Laid Off." I know I didn't quit my job, but what does it mean to deny someone tenure? Was I fired, or was I laid off?

The desk guy, a thin graying white man, hesitant to the point of apology, resembles the eighth-grade teacher who lets himself slide into a disastrous affair with a student for lack of anything better to do. When I explain my situation to him, he tells me in a furtive voice that I was probably laid off. I take my paperwork and go back to my seat.

What is your education? How long did you work for your employer? What was your job title? What were your reasons for leaving? Do you belong to a union, and if so, are you in good standing? Do you believe you lost your job as a result of discrimination?

Each question seems like an essay topic, a basis for philosophical reflection, an accusation. How could I be so educated and not have a job? How could I work for someone so long, be so qualified, and be treated so shabbily? Why don't I belong to a union, and have a union rep standing up for me? Why did I fail to attribute a miserable workplace climate to the institution's disregard for the happiness and wellbeing of skilled employees? What did I think would happen? How, how could I be so stupid for so long? These questions swirl in my head. Every memory of compromise flits through my brain: the years of paying for professional clothes, airplane tickets, and conference fees on a TA salary, in the era before Graduate Travel Assistance funds (what there are of them). Years of paying for MLA, gambling on a vanity career that ran up my credit cards, ensuring I wouldn't be able to make it on a starting salary even when I got one. What are your reasons for leaving?

At 2:30 I'm still mulling these questions over, so I don't mind that no one seems to care to wait on either me or the woman talking to the security guard. At one point a woman blows in the door, storms up to the desk, and demands payment for a check that seems to have bounced somewhere and cost her money. Her voice rises with every sentence. Heads begin pop out of cubicles, more and more with every minute of this arresting drama. At one point angry woman begins to yell, and it looks as if there might be an ugly standoff between her and the pink-blazered middle manager trying to calm her down. Angry woman storms out, transforming the cubicle inhabitants behind the "help" desk into a swirl of clucking, arm-waving chickens who gather in various piles behind Pink Manager. Pink Manager tells her side of events to chickens, who disappear and reconvene in small animated groups behind the desk/gate. At some point we learn that angry woman has tried to cash an illegal unemployment check at a currency exchange, which bounces the check and charges her a fee. Chickens everywhere shake their heads.

Three o'clock passes. Neither of us has been waited on in the interim. The other woman turns to me and says, "This is the worst fucking unemployment office in the whole damn city." I nod cautiously and smile, trying not to look prim but unsure of what my exact response should be to a stranger saying "fuck" to me in a loud voice. I realize I have screwed up one of my sheets, and I go get another paper from the desk. When I come back, I say, "It's a good thing I DON'T have a job, 'cause I'd lose it waiting around here all day," and she throws back her head and laughs loudly. I feel happy about not being too uptight to communicate with strangers, but inside of course I am ready to cry with the grimness and stupidity of this place. I call my gf to tell her they still haven't seen me, and she tells me to stay and get it over with, since I've already lost the whole afternoon to it. Pink manager comes back and calls to my laughing friend, who explains her situation, which seems to involve someone else using her social security number to file a claim. "Sir?" Pink Manager calls to me. "Sir?"

When I realize she is talking to me I tell her I'm a Ma'am and that I simply want to file. Pink Manager says someone is on break but will be back, and disappears. AT 3:25 I call my friend in Texas and tell him as loudly as I can that I've been waiting an hour and a half in an empty office. Someone from the cubicles is speaking to us again, and I hear my new friend telling him that we are both women and that no one has helped us. They call her and she gets up and goes back to the cubicles. A Latin guy with a goatee harrumphs his way to the "help" desk, flings himself on the chair, and "Honey"s me over to him. "I am telling you, these PEOPLE!" he announces to me. He hates his colleagues. I realize happily he is sooo gay.

"Paperwork!" he demands. He looks at my information and tells me I'm at the maximum rate, which is--get this--$336 dollars a week. Three thirty-six! I quickly calculate that this is what I would bring home if I worked full time for ten dollars an hour. I realize another thing about other professional jobs in so-called dreadful corporate America, which is that they usually give you severance pay when they fire you. Forget the bonuses you put in the bank for moments like these. And I get $336 a week.

"I need to leave this office and get me some drinks," Latino Queen hisses at me. "I need me a bunch of drinks right NOW." He hands me a red, white, and blue booklet and tells me that all the information I need to report every two weeks for my check is in there. "When you call in your report, the phone prompt will ask you these questions," he explains impatiently. "When they ask if you've been looking for work, I don't care if you've been in bed all day with the newspaper, you say YES. And here they'll ask you, here, oh, just give it to me!" He rips the booklet out of my hands and starts furiously circling YES after every question.

"Now Girlfriend, you are OUT of here!" he exclaims triumphantly. "Go get yourself some drinks! I know that's what I'm going to do!" I laugh and he waves me out of his presence. I gather my things and leave the Alamo. I am thinking about how I couldn't not apply for jobs even if I wanted to sit around, since living for long on $336 a week is out of the question. I'm thinking about all the people in this country working minimum wage jobs for whom ten dollars an hour would be great pay, and I'm thinking how lucky I am not to have kids, or a mortgage, or car payments. I'm thinking about jobs I'll apply for, and wondering if I can manage to convince myself anymore that academic jobs are possible, or happy, or desireable, or wise. I think about using September to study for the LSAT and maybe get a better score. I think about all the lawyers who hate being lawyers, and wonder whether anybody likes their job, really.

Most of all, Girlfriend, I'm thinking about where I can get me some drinks.