Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cocktails in cyberspace

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The hardest part of law school is not the reading, or the sleep deprivation, or the Socratic method, or even living 150 miles from GF and cats in the middle of the cornfields. No, the hardest part of law school is socializing.

Socializing? you say? I know--how lame is that? I have always been proud to think of myself as one of the lesser misfits of academe. To me, at least, I was the girl who could make conversation flow in a standing group of painfully awkward cup-clutchers. I vowed never to be one of those professors whose every social interaction was defined by their role as a teacher or mentor. You know who they are. They date graduate students because they like their intimacy peppered with some kind of professional security. Call it emotional tenure, if you will. In social situations, they lecture people because they are used to it. A friend of mine calls this "talking in paragraphs."

As I write this, I remember that lately I have become aware of my own tendency to talk in paragraphs, or not talk at all. I think maybe I am not so cool as I once thought. At a certain point, I fear, we all become a little teacherly in our lives. These days I find myself frighteningly out of my element. In law school, you are supposed to bond with your classmates. The school tells you that this will get you through, that your study groups will help you excel, that your law school friendships will last the rest of your life. But few of my classmates are older than 25. In fact, a large number of them have come straight from undergrad, despite encouragement on the part of the law school that everyone do something else for a year or two. I don't know what to talk to them about. I worry about seeming lonely, which I am, or tolerated, which would be worse.

I went to a social gathering at a bar during orientation week and anthropologically observed gender behaviors I hadn't seen since high school. Girls in skimpy, singles-bar wear. Boys acting gruff around the girls and each other, trying to be cool. Eventually I found the nerds and married people, but the nerds didn't really want to talk, and the married people sat stoically try to make their husbands or wives not feel excluded. I drank too much and tried desperately to make conversation. I asked people about themselves. People kept asking me about books. The best conversation I had all night was about Joyce, but I think it was more of a lecture than a conversation, though that is of course what I had been invited to deliver. I defended him passionately, then felt sick inside. I had talked too much, and in paragraphs. What if being a teacher meant that the only thing interesting about me was what I could tell people about books?

So right now I want to meet people but I don't really like softball. Beer darts? Do I really have to play beer darts? Lately I have taken to sitting in the atrium and reading, hoping that casual conversations might happen. When one does, I try to pitch in, or laugh, or just remain good-naturedly on the fringes, if that seems right. Today a couple of us passed around a crossword puzzle, and it felt like a major intimacy victory.

The other day I realized I am old enough to be their mother. That my mother was my age when I was one of them.

I try to strike up conversation with a former philosophy grad student. He is 24, but always seems older to me. I feel encouraged when I pass him in the hallway and he stops to talk.

"I'm not sure what the right thing to do is when I see people I just talked to a half an hour ago," he said. ""In these small sections we all keep running into each other. Should I stop and talk or not?"

I laugh, warming to this one. "I know!" I say. "I'm actually wondering how to communicate with people when I feel like everyone's idea of what socializing is is so different. Like, is socializing different for 40-year olds than it is for 23-year olds? Or are we all just eager to talk about the same things?"

"Well, he says, "I guess talking about talking is what you and I talk about."

"Oh, but that's very meta, so I don't know if it counts," I say. Then I add, because I like talking, "Well, I guess if you have already talked to somebody just a few minutes ago, then you can just nod if you are busy and on your way to do something." I know I sound stupid but I'm trying here, ok?

He laughs. "So since we talked here, next time I see you I'll just nod, ok?"

I nod back, but now I feel a little dizzy. So I just had a conversation about NOT having conversations?

It's all too much. I duck into the library and open my laptop. The screen lights up, and rooms telescope out from the back of my computer like a long, familiar corridor. Are those your names on the doors, you bloggers? Are you typing away or reading in your offices, studies, bedrooms? If I think about you all I hear voices, like the voices that echo in a house at a party, and the tinkle of glasses.

I think I hear your voices, familiar voices talking about books and crushes and jobs and graffiti and how much families can drive you up the wall, and children and how much you love seeing them grow up, and how sad it makes you. You talk about your pets. You trade music and poems and favorite movies. You worry and drink too much and work and laugh at yourselves.

I am still in the library, but I am somewhere else now. I know you all are out there, talking to each other and to me, humming, living your lives but touching other people you've never even seen in important and sustaining ways.

I feel lucky to know you. In the rooms you have made, all of you are conversational, strong, and graceful. None of you are clutching your cups.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

First week

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"Property Owner" by Andy Dixon

My first week of school was one of the longest weeks of my life. It began with Contracts at 9am in a big auditorium. The teacher is an older guy who looks like the "kindly drill sergeant" character in a war film--stern, unapproachable, ready to take you down for the good of the unit, but all about your growth in the end. He wants us to know words like "demur." We spend an hour on the idea of consideration, or the grounds for evidence that a contract was made. Consideration might include a promise for a promise, a performance, or a bargain. Gifts are not consideration. We look at examples of people caring for their neighbor's escaped bulls, of secretaries' pensions bestowed by grateful CEOs and rescinded by skinflint grandsons, of grandmothers who promise money to grandchildren on the condition they refrain from drinking and using tobacco. Professor Contracts interrogates several of us during the class, but his questions are fair, and if someone clearly does not know the answer, he moves on. He does not, thank heaven, call on me.

The next class is Property. It is taught by a woman who looks to be in her late thirties, a slightly hard femme, very corporate, skin evened out by the best cosmetics. Looking at her you do not have to be told that she worked for a major law firm, that she did the partner track, that she has handled important accounts and made bundles of cash. Professor Property did not make partner for some reason, though she seems like someone a law firm would find very useful. Like many lawyers who leave high-pressure firms for better lives, she is trying her hand at teaching.

From the start of the class it is clear that Professor Property believes in property. Although she passes out short readings (Bentham, Blackstone) reminding us that property cannot exist without the law standing behind it, property is for her far more than a legal fiction. Her eyes flash at the mention of encroachment, her voice loud and strong when she speakes of ownership.

I begin to realize that I actually think deep down in my heart that owning things is wrong. Especially land. Who in the world imagines that they actually own the earth? We are all caretakers, or should be. Pillagers, too often. But owners?

Yes, I believe I feel the gentle stirrings of rebellion in my heart. Still, once you have the system in place, you have to think about its rules. We discuss a case where somebody builds a wall on his property line, and his surveyor messes up, and the foundation stones of his wall jut one inch into his neighbor's yard. The neighbor sues and the court says either the wall has to come down, the one inch of land be sold to the wallbuilder, or the offending stones chipped down. The neighbor won't sell the inch and won't allow the builder to come over and chip away the stones, so the only thing left to do is tear down the wall. The judge, in disgust, splits the court costs even though the builder lost, largely just to penalize the cranky neighbor for being so difficult.

Professor Contracts asks who among us think such a small encroachment is still significant. I raise my hand. After all, an inch is an inch.

Then she asks who thinks it's no big deal, and a number of hands go up. She seems surprised. "Really?" she asks. Then after a moment,she says to the people still holding their hands up, "I'm just curious. How many of you are Democrats?"

I can't believe I heard that one right. I watch as a guy with his hand up who I know is a Mormon snatches his hand out of the air like he'd been burned. I don't think anyone has ever called him a Democrat in his whole life. Later I overhear him talking to another Mormon guy about starting a Republican Law Students club.

Professor Property laughs, pleased with herself. "I just like to test my theories sometimes," she says. I think about how her theories are wrong. After all, I'm practically a socialist, but I think encroachment is encroachment. Mormon guy is obviously a right-winger, but he thinks small encroachments can be handled reasonably between neighbors. You can't make generalizations about people's politics, and you really shouldn't make snide comments about people's religious or political beliefs in a classroom. But what do I know? I'm back to being a student myself, and my job consists of trying to tell professors what they want to hear on exam questions.

A friend of mine who went to an elite law school told me that there were things he liked about being surrounded by conservatives. He said it helped him define for himself what he really believed in.

I think I'm beginning to know what he means.

Friday, August 25, 2006

bedtime blessings on a friday after my first week in law school

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Ah children, such sweet greetings. Sfrajett is very tired. She has spent all week determining contract consideration and property lines and tortfeasors and whether or no you can arrest child molestors for sexual fantasies. GF is passed out on couch. I am home for 2 days. I will tell you stories tomorrow. Thanks more than you know for the beautiful trumpet carillon of welcome, and welcome back, and welcome to the new year to come. Tomorrow, stories. Sleep on, my fellow-journeying friends. I am so glad to have each of you out there, no matter which patch of territory this mission has parachuted you towards.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

the perils of orientation

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Late summer has come and gone, and many of us can no longer pretend that the beginning of a new semester isn't here. The difference for me this year is that I am not going back to school to teach it. The old sfrajett has finally left the building. Last week, she bought a new computer, took a carload of stuff downstate, and re-entered the front door as a student. Take Rodney Dangerfield, reimagine him as Phyllis Diller with spiky hair and a nose ring, and you have me, middle-aged and paunchy, trundling through a sea of young, thin, glamorous, incredibly normal twentysomethings at the beginning of their professional lives. Ye gods.

The trip down was itself an excercise in the dangers of being different. Trying to avoid construction in the city, I took an alternate route and ended up lost for an hour and a half in the strange sprawl that bleeds south of the city into the cornfields. Why oh why couldn't I just stick to the script, obediently following the line of cars moving slowly through the dusty sheep pens of changed lanes and orange cones, patiently waiting my turn? Lost, on strange roads with numbers I didn't recognize, I called gf, who patiently helped me navigate with help from google maps. I finally arrived at my new house at 8pm, met the roommate who owns the place, decided he was incredibly sweet, and proceeded to miserably unpack my room. I put flannel sheets on my bed because they seemed soft and comforting. I put a few lamps around the room to get some low-level illumination ambiance going on.

The next day was the first of two packed orientation days for 1Ls. From 830 to 5 we were welcomed, exhorted, flattered, warned, and celebrated. They fed us sandwiches. They reminded us of the next day's mock class. They invited us out to bowling and miniature golf that night.

I returned exhausted to my new house, where I live with three other students, all of them boys. But more on that later. I sat down in the livingroom to watch the finale of So You Think You Can Dance, knowing that my gf and friends in Chicago were all sitting down to watch it together at the same time. I pretended I was with them. I decided to stay in and reread the case we had been given for the mock class, the landmark 1974 New Hampshire labor case Olga Monge v. Beebe Rubber Company. Turns out Olga gets fired because she won't go out with her boss, so she sues NOT for sexual harassment, because such a thing didn't really exist yet, but for breach of employment contract. The NH Supreme Court upholds her lower-court victory, but takes some of her damages away, reasoning that she should only be entitled to lost wages under a contract dispute, not compensation for mental suffering. The decision changes labor law because it argues that an employer cannot terminate an employment contract for bad faith, malice, or retaliation, and that the public has an interest in the fair balance of employer and employee rights.

Next day I nearly oversleep, spring out of bed, slug down some coffee, and dash to day two. There is some anticipation about the mock class because the professor leading it is known as a tough and entertaning interlocutor who chooses his victims according to whimsical categories that appeal to him at any given moment. So for example he may choose students with the same surnames as baseball players or movie actors. Today he has chosen students with common last names, such as Jones. One duplicate name strikes him because, unlike Smith or Jones, it seems unlikely to turn up twice in one class, yet has. This name is Chamberlain. I sigh in relief. My last name, while English, is rare.

Having chosen a Jones and a Chamberlain, he proceeds with his interrogation. What are the facts? How do we know? What is at stake? What is the new rule of law fashioned here? How would this new rule apply to different situations? "Can an employer fire someone because he doesn't like them?" he asks. He decides to muddy the waters. "Can he fire someone because they are stupid?" There is some discussion about whather or not "stupid" constitutes a category of incompetence that could justify termination without malice.

Then he decides to get outrageous. "Ok, so what if Olga is a lesbian?" he asks. "What is the difference between firing someone because they are a lesbian and firing someone because they are stupid?"

I sit there, the only recognizably out lesbian or gay man in a sea of 188 faces, and think about why this example is still ok to bring up as a marketably entertaining example of minority status. If he had asked about Olga's race, he certainly would have been more circumspect about the proximity of color and stupidity. If he had said "gay" instead of "lesbian," it wouldn't have gotten laughs. He says "lesbian" with a big round "L," the way some people say "ho-mo-sexual" with emphasis on every syllable. Pronunciation makes the word strange, unpracticed. Pronunciation can imply that the speaker is unused to this word, and by association, the idea it conveys. At least he didn't say "one-legged" or "one-armed," the way so many people using the lesbian example often do, collapsing disability and sexual variation into one steaming, hilarious package.

The students he calls on are a little upset by the juxtaposition of his examples. One boy stutters that you can't discriminate against a lesbian because sexual orientation is something that a person can't help. "What about stupidity?" the professor asks. More laughs. The boy clarifies his argument, pointing out that lesbianism doesn't affect job performance, whereas stupidity might. He is indignant. I feel that the heart of the class is with him. I love him very much at this moment, and think that this generation of young people is lovely.

But there is that little matter of his argument about what you can and can't help. I ponder it as I sit in my seat towards the back of the auditorium. It is much easier to defend a quality that someone can't help having than a quality they choose. This certainly explains why the gay rights movement has jumped on the biological determination bandwagon in the last few years. But is it fair to defend people's right to be different only if they can't help it? What if Olga chooses to be a lesbian? What if I do? Do I still get protected from hate speech, employment discrimination, violence?

And why is the best and "funniest" example of true minority status still the one-armed lesbian?