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Monday, November 29, 2010

Train A Comin'

When it’s 4:37 a.m. and and you're staring down a barrel at law-school finals and the caffeine is pulsing in the bloodstream and the downstairs neighbor with the speaker that goes to eleven is finally in bed and you no longer know your res judicata from your res ipsa loquitur, it pays to pause and reflect on that for which you’re thankful.

There is, for instance, my disparate yet oddly cohesive circle of old friends, most of whom have refrained from writing me off in spite of my absence from their lives. There is my equally disparate cluster of new ones, unified in some cases by nothing more than common experience, shambling around in an unkempt finals-week stupor. There are other things – shoes on my feet, blankets on my bed, Jell-o pudding cups in my refrigerator – but I can’t think anymore. I’m in law school, my default excuse for everything I both do and neglect to do these days, and I endured my first exam today.

The term “final” in the law-school context is misemployed. The word implies there was something prior to it, some militating factor aside from your performance on a three-hour smackdown that might tip the scales in your favor. That isn’t the case, though. A syllabus might make noise about class participation, but it’s really all about the exam.

Here at Brandeis, the Academic Success office does a marvelous job of preparing first-year students for this stress-inducing battery of tests. So diligent is it at drawing your attention to distant whistles and flashing yellow lights that, at some point, you just want the train to go ahead and roll. And then it does and you stagger to your feet emboldened and brace your chin for the next one. I met the first with guarded optimism, secure in the belief that I knew just about all I was going to know for the time being about subleases versus assignments, regulatory takings as compared to exactions. There are points I know I captured and others I suspect I lost, but there’s no time for second-guessing. There is smoke on the horizon. Another train approaches and her name is Civil Procedure, the Emily Post of the American judicial system.

For big-picture thinkers, the Federal Rules are bothersome details, traffic signs impeding our otherwise free-spirited peel across the judicial landscape. But navigate them we must, and I am under the tutelage of a brilliant legal scholar who traverses them with the ease of a figure-skater, executing bored triple axels while the rest of us wobble on our blades and cling to the rails. He’s an artist, you might say, and Civil Procedure is his medium, a street magician fanning out cards, goading tourists to pick a rule, any rule. The best always make it look easy. But I submit to you, brethren, that this man is toying with us, him with his eloquent speech and his unthreatening demeanor and his hypothetical bequeathments to our newly christened Paris Hilton School of, Like, Law. I tell you we are lulled into false confidence by his policy allowing students to use “anything nonliving” as an aid in completing the exam. Google, hornbooks, Ouija boards, as long as it isn’t breathing, it’s all fair play. I say it’s professor-speak for “Scream as loud you want. No one’s going to hear.”

Then again, this could all be the sleep deprivation talking. So, back to that list of things I’m thankful for. Green tea. November sunshine on my face. Oh, and my Ipod. Especially my Ipod. In its honor, I’m assembling an official 1L playlist to usher my classmates and me through the remaining three finals. Should you have recommendations, they’ll be given all due consideration.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lisa Marie and the Half-Bat Boy

I’m standing in the supermarket checkout line, idly considering the Erie Doctrine the way people shopping for groceries generally do, when I spot a tabloid headline, something to the effect that Lisa Marie’s pals are predicting she’ll end up as fat as Elvis. It was just the kind of lowbrow literary heroin I used to blame for spoiling the public appetite for real news. But standing there months removed from the last time I read something just because I wanted to read it, from anything that didn’t contain passages like “the lower court’s reasoning is not wholly inconsistent with the conclusion with which we now decline to concur,” I am overcome with the need to know. Precisely what is Lisa Marie Presley eating and in what quantity is she eating it? Moreover, what do inside sources close to the couple make of the Ashton Kutcher cheating scandal? And what of that half-boy, half-bat born in Brazil? I want, no, need, to know, and yet I am precluded from knowing, which makes me need to know all the more. I can’t explain it, except to say that law school is all vegetable and no dessert and a girl craves a sugar fix now and again.

Back at the law school, we turned in our 3,000-word open memos, (2,933, to be precise), a project that accounts for 20 percent of one’s final grade in Basic Legal Skills and which occupied roughly 92 percent of my time in the days leading up to the deadline. In the meantime, we received the first scores of our law-school careers, returned along with mercilessly defaced copies of the closed memos we turned in last month. Talk of grades is generally discouraged in law school, and for good reason. It’s a form of locker-room preening that tends to pit the haves against the have-nots in a psychologically destructive way. Still, at a time when you have so few hooks on which to hang your self-worth, it’s tempting to compare one’s socks and underwear to another’s shiny new bike. That being said, we have, by and large, done a yeoman’s job of keeping that in perspective. In other words, we’ve moved from stoop-shouldered therapy sessions into a post-memo malaise. We can’t afford to linger here, though. Reading assignments are letting up. Professors are scheduling review sessions. We’re on the brink of a full-bore lurch toward final exams. We must collect ourselves, must reflect and review. We must grapple with half-absorbed concepts from three months ago.

A few of us are already showing the strain. One of my colleagues published a Facebook obituary for a destroyed pair of sunglasses. A second-year student with whom I have little more than a nodding acquaintance stopped me in the hallway to recount a dream in which I personally tried to poison him. It has happened to me as well. I have thought fleetingly that, were I to resort to slitting my own wrists, I would try to maintain consciousness long enough to smear the words “Erie Doctrine” in my own blood on the linoleum. Yes, these are trying times, my friends, but soldier on we must. Lisa Marie and the half-bat boy can wait until Christmas break.