Should You Go to Law School?

Bonus points if you can guess who this is

My answer:  probably not.  Here’s the e-mail I just sent to a kid who asked me for advice about whether he should apply to law school.

Dear Young Wanna-Be Lawyer,

Thanks for your note! Teach for America sounds like such a good program — good for you for doing it.  As for law school, here’s my advice: the market is incredibly tough for all kinds of entry-level jobs, from law firm jobs to government positions.  The days of people with English degrees going to law school, doing well, and getting whatever job they wanted, are long gone.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  After all, if it’s THAT hard to get a job, maybe it will make you wonder, as it’s making you wonder, whether this is something you REALLY want.   If I had to do it again, I’d only go to law school if I loved the law, or thought I did — or if I had something I really wanted to accomplish as a lawyer and felt driven to do it and saw the law as the proper instrument for that.

I don’t know if you’re the person whose destiny it is to be a lawyer, but I think it’s worth spending some time really thinking about what kind of work you’d do for free because you love it so much. That’s the kind of work you should pursue. And if what you love doesn’t come in job form at all, because maybe what you love pays nothing, then you might want to consider getting a job that allows you to pursue the thing you love, a job that isn’t going to demand all your time (which is very much what being a lawyer requires, at least in the beginning.)

The truth is that being a lawyer in the wrong job is hell. Being a lawyer doing work you really believe in and enjoy is heaven. The latter is a rare situation, but if you’re that person you WILL find a job — a job that doesn’t pay much, but a job nevertheless. But whatever you do,  stay out of debt, keep your expenses to a minimum and do the thing you’re pretty sure you love.  I wish someone had told me this when I embarked on my own legal career, which is why I tell it to you.

All the best to you,

So, here’s my question, dear readers — are you doing what you love?  If so, how did you get to that point?  What advice did you get that got you on that track?

And if you’re not, how come?  I could write volumes about my own twisting trail to becoming a lawyer and THEN a writer, when maybe I could have skipped the lawyer part altogether and gotten right to the writing part.   But this morning, I’m really interested in what you have to say.

Dear Anonymous Co-Worker,

I’d like to thank you for installing new batteries in the milk frother thing, apparently over the weekend, because I used that frother last Friday and it was its usual slothful self, which is to say the milk had no fear of it, not in the least. This morning, though, I stuck the frother into my milk and everyone in the kitchen jumped back, like they were afraid I might point the frother at them and suck them into its mighty wake. Now that’s how it’s REALLY supposed to be done. It was nice of you to sneak into the building over the weekend and juice up the Monday work experience. You rock, Lily

And that is all I have to say today. I’m busy crafting author interview questions. And making a list of authors to hit up. And considering whether the frother might be used as a hedge trimmer in a pinch. In fact, here are my preliminary author interview questions:

what car would you be, if you could be a car

"auto in disguise" does not mean: what car would you be, if you could be a car (in case you are wondering)

Another Modernist Masterpiece

I love driving across the Bay Bridge under the following conditions:

  • there is so little traffic you suddenly think there’s been a nuclear conflagration further back and so everyone who lives in Orinda has decided to stay home for the day — or better yet, you’ve been transported to 1952 (except of course the problem there is that you’d be staying home for the day too, making tuna mousse in your flowered apron and wondering if it’s too early to start watching television)
  • it’s so clear you can see Japan or, if you’re a less romantic sort, Marin County
  • there’s something good playing on KFOG, a radio station where the people who speak into the microphone in the morning don’t yell things at you
  • you don’t have too much work waiting for you when you arrive and, possibly, there is the hope of a good lunch.

A few days ago, all those things, with the exception of nuclear conflagration and time travel, happened. (Which is good, because Orinda is where my friend Debby’s from, and where Maria and Lisa and Lisa’s lovely daughter in law and nice son with the new baby all can be found!) I took my camera out and pointed it in the general direction of the sky and there was the bridge, a modernist masterpiece if I’ve ever seen one. And no, it won’t sharpen a pencil or dispense tape, like its younger siblings (the ones that have been featured here for the last couple of weeks.) It is a stirring sight — you come out of a tunnel and there they are, these huge, beautiful spans for which the word “soaring” is actually accurate.

But I don’t think I’ll be trying to simulataneously steer my car and aim a camera again. The no- traffic thing is unlikely to be repeated under these same conditions in my lifetime.

I hope for all of you a workday that involves some patch of clear weather, or good music, or a nice lunch, or not too much to do when you sit down to do it.

Mid-Century Pleasures

Generally, the 1950s conjure up images of frozen women dressed in poofy pastel party dresses, lips composed in tight smiles, valium or booze keeping them still and uncomplaining, men with pipes in their mouths, absolutely dominant in the workplace and at home, lots of cardigans and golf on the weekends, and white faces, everywhere you look.

In fact, as Patrick of Anecdotal Evidence recently pointed out, huge things were happening in the 1950s, subversive things, fun things. And so this got me thinking — if I was allowed to import a bit of that time into this one, what would I chose? Well, I’d pick midcentury office supplies — and midcentury work habits.

In my office I’ve got the sleekest, sweetest tape dispenser, one that says something important about that time. Which is that sex can exist beautifully under the surface. It’s there in the curved line of this object, dispensing tape and eroticism at the same time. (There’s something a little scary and weird lurking in that sentence, but I’ll just leave it there, in a 1950s kind of way.) It was certainly a time when sex was not in your face every time you turned around. And yes, I know, repression is bad — but so is the sexualization of everything and everyone under the sun.

And then there’s the fountain pen. It says, I’m not in a huge hurry. I can take my time thinking about what I want to say. In a world where writing tools consisted of fountain pens, sleek ballpoints and really stylish typewriters, and idea distribution was pretty much limited to stamps and envelopes and slow boats to Europe and the occasional very expensive phone call, no one would be able to instantly deliver a hasty ad hominum attack on a work colleague. If someone in Brussells wants to tell me what an idiot I’ve been, that news won’t arrive for weeks and weeks, well after everyone’s forgotten the incident (or maybe after it’s already been fixed) And the sender will most likely have forgotten too, so in all likelihood such messages just wouldn’t be sent. And if the colleague was a bit closer, there was still a code of communication that made ad hominum attacks much rarer than they are now.

And how about working habits? We’d all be heading home at 5, from jobs that are relatively secure. (And because this is the 21st century, we’d all be able to interview for and secure those jobs, never mind our color, or sex or country of origin or religion.) And we would never, ever work on the weekends. Ever. Unless we loved our work so much that we wanted to, which is different from having to.

Thank you for allowing me to indulge in this utopian moment. I’m sure there are as many holes in my argument as there are in Ward Cleaver’s cardigan (the one he’s been wearing since the late 1950s.) The weekend awaits and I hope you’ve got at least one pleasure ahead of you. (And one other thing: A post related to this topic can be found over at What We Said, if you’d like to chat about mid-century sexuality.)

Detritus. Gone.

Here’s evidence. That’s my desk at the far end of the room. I have a chair to sit on now. You’ll notice there’s not a shopping bag in sight. (If you’d like to see how many shopping bags could fit in this room, go here.) The shopping bags are all neatly stowed, inside the largest of the bags, downstairs next to our refrigerator, to be used to take things OUT of our house. You’ll notice a second desk, on the right. That desk is not really under my control, belonging as it does to the other adult in this household. He’s pretty neat though, most of the time.

The most significant gain from this effort? I feel no fear when I walk in this room. I hadn’t really known just how bad it was until the anxiety left the room, along with eight bags of recycling, one bag of things destined for the shredder and a bag of stuff to give away. I’m much happier now, knowing there’s nothing in any of those shopping bags that’s going to start smelling or cause someone to come and bang on our door in the middle of the night making some sort of demand.

Here are some things I learned from this exercise. The list is illustrated, because I found the cord that connects my camera to my computer.

  • I own more colored pencils than any single woman in America. Eighty-one to be exact. That’s a lot of colored pencils, especially for someone who doesn’t color anything. What’s the half life of a colored pencil? Twenty years? Please remind me I own a lot of colored pencils the next time I decide to pick up a pack of them.

  • One of my sons managed to buy six sharp daggers, disguised as “letter knives” on a school outing for which he was apparently given too much pocket money. The daggers were stuffed into a grocery bag by me, his horrified mother. I have fished them out and secured them in a hiding place so secret no child will find them until he becomes an adult and thinks to look in the box where the Christmas cards and wrappings are kept. (To the left of my desk.) Come to think of it, he won’t find them when he’s an adult either. The only person who ever does the Christmas cards or wraps the gifts is the mother. (And sometimes the father, because he is a Nice Man.)

  • I love my pink thermos. And that is one cute child. Enough said.

  • I found a lot of things I bought to give people and then forgot about. A bottle bag (brother in law who is a vineyard manager), a package of purple pencils (pre-teen girl), a pair of candles shaped like sandals (friend who loves Hawaii), colored pencils (amazing, I know), Christmas ornaments (who cannot use a particularly charming Christmas ornament?), socks with Christmas patterns on them (ditto — sister in law gift, in particular), and an already wrapped glass bowl my husband bought for a birthday gift and then did not give because it was in his luggage that was lost and not returned until after the birthday party was over (who knows?). I put them all in a basket, and I plan to give them away this time. For real.

  • We are in less trouble than I thought in terms of getting ready for the boys to go back to school. I was able to find the lists of required school supplies and then, much to my delight, stock everyone’s backpacks with supplies we already own. You’ll note that colored pencils are listed as “optional” on the supply list. That is because the school knows, just from sizing me up at the single parent event I have so far attended, that I am the sort of woman whose son might very well come to school with eighty-one colored pencils in his backback, enough to supply the sixth grade class with colored pencils basically forever.

  • I located each and every one of my sharpie multi-colored pens. And put them in a Moroccan tea glass. This makes me especially happy. I love sharpies, especially the thin kind and the colored kind. They make many marking jobs much easier. Not having them all in one place was the kind of thing that bugged me, and about which I could do absolutely nothing. Until now, that is. And that toast rack I bought in Paris a long time ago? It’s great for holding file folders.

  • Another daunting organizational issue that arose was what to do with the cards we give each other and other people give to us. I have never even been tempted to make those into some kind of craft project, thank you very much, so don’t even think about suggesting it. But we do like to look at the cards. The solution? I discovered that I own TWO one-hole punches. It was the work of an instant to punch holes in the cards and then put them on a binder ring, the kind that costs about .25 at your local stationery store. I did not have to buy one because I already own, like, fifteen of them, knowing they would be handy for something, just not realizing what or how much.

  • In a piece of book-related news, I discovered a $25 gift certificate to a bookstore in our neighborhood. I also realized I really want to read the new Richard Pevear translation of The Three Musketeers. And so, I got rid of that gift certificate and acquired one thing I really want to read and own. Beyond the one gift certificate (and a coupon entitling the bearer to one slice of pizza), I found no negotiable paper, no jewelry, no love letters. Oh well. I did find a place to put my computer. My desk.

And that’s it, organizing fiends. I’m done here.

Writing Fetishes

I’m going to admit right now that I’m unable to resist organizing tools, paper products, and writing utensils. I particularly like notebooks, and binders, especially ones from other countries. And in the last ten years I’ve become quite involved with colorful plastic sleeves, file folders with nice graphics and sheet protectors. I own more cartridges for my fountain pen than one woman can use in a lifetime, especially a woman who writes mostly with a computer. I should mention that these items are completely unused, stored up for a day when I might need a file folder with a really nice graphic of an antique map on it. So far, that day has not come.

Today, rooting around in my office for an envelope, one of the few paper products I’m not obsessive about, I came across a stash of plastic sleeves. Near it were six German pencil sharpeners. Behind them on a shelf were several more boxes of staples than you’d find in my office in the City, where I actually staple things with some regularity.

I felt uneasy. I wanted to hide this stuff, disavow the woman who’d piled up these things. I’ve felt this before. In fact, I feel it almost every time I go into my office which might be why I write either downstairs at our dining room table, or in a cafe. Beyond thinking I just need more time to tackle cleaning this stuff up and putting it to use, I’ve never really tried to understand why it all makes me feel sort of bad.

What I do know, though, is that I’m not the only person who does this. And so, on the chance that others have this issue, I’ve formed a theory about why those writing objects make me unhappy and an Action Plan.

First, the Theory. You will have guessed it already. Unlike me, you have not been avoiding thinking about this. Here it is: Those objects make me uneasy because every one of them represents a failure to write. Empty folders, unused binders, pencils that have never been sharpened: they’re about silence. I’ve replaced words I might have written with their receptacles, with something that cannot ever speak. I suspect I’ve fetishized the tools of writing, particularly the containers for it, because I find the act of writing itself something that can’t be contained, and something I’m a little afraid of. There might be more here, having to do with consumerism and materialism. More can certainly be said. This is a theory, in its beginning stages, after all.

But the way I know I’m on to something is that I didn’t buy a single one of these things to actually put a finished piece of writing in. Or even to begin a new project with. That’s why they’re unused. They’re not for writing. They’re for not writing. They’re un-writing tools. They are not tools I need right now, or ever. Not if I’m going to finish a novel this summer, which is my hope.

My Action Plan? First, rather than organizing my many notebooks, pens and folders (and, possibly, acquiring some system to keep them organized, a system I do not need), I went for a hike this morning up the beautiful Claremont Canyon behind my house. Next, I went to a café without internet access and wrote (well, I made myself available to write) for several hours. I brought the one tool I don’t fetishize, possibly because I can’t afford to. That’s my laptop. The one I have and love (an ibook G4) is going to last me a really long time. In the last year, I’ve used it so much I’ve worn the letters off the keyboard. I pound on it, produce things with it, gossip with my friends over it, look up recipes with it.

My head cleared by steps one and two, I saw that my laptop and a printer are all I need to function as a writer, beyond a community of like-minded people. (I’m talking to all of you, by the way.) Okay, maybe also one three ring binder to put my chapters in. A few pencils and a notebook. But that’s it. Really. The rest can just…. go.

To show you how serious I am about this last part of my action plan, I have an offer for you. Perhaps you, Dear Reader, are in actual need of a snazzy file folder, a notebook, a nice pencil, pencil sharpeners and/or colorful plastic sleeves. If so, email me your address. Any and all of it is yours. When my digital camera comes home tonight (my husband took it today), I’ll even post some pictures. (Note added later:  Husband says taking pictures of stationery items I want to give people steps over some line.  Encourages me to enter ten step program around that.)  I’ll mail the stationery item(s) to you straight away. In return, you simply have to promise to USE these things and report back here that you’ve done that. Pictures would be nice. Deal?

Writing Recovery

I think I’m just about done burying myself in sugar, flour, butter, eggs and fruit. The truth is that, although I love to cook, I also love to write. It’s just that sometimes cooking is easier.

Today, though, I’m getting back to my novel. It’s a mystery, set in Bavaria during the cold war — the summer of 1969 to be exact. The summer of the moon landing.

The protagonist is an American soldier who is a linguist and a security analyst. He’s been to Germany before. Twenty-some years earlier, at the end of the Second World War, when he was quite young, he was among the American soldiers who liberated concentration camp victims. And then he stayed on for the Nuremberg trials. After this shattering experience (one in which he falls in love with a Czech woman he meets at the camp, only to see her die, against the backdrop of translating so many stories of individual evil during the Nuremberg trials), he returns to the states, where he buries himself in his work (at the National Security Agency, as it happens), and keeps himself at a distance from people he might care about.

The novel begins as he is sent back to Germany (as I said, it is now 1969 and he is in his forties), to Bavaria, to look into some trouble on a small military base very much like the one where my father was stationed when I was a child. Like the protagonist, my father also worked at the NSA in the 1960s, and was a Russian linguist. So, it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time. As for the novel, pretty soon, someone is murdered, and off we go. You don’t actually learn much about the hero’s past for quite a while, and then only in small bits. I’m about half to two thirds of the way through, having killed the second person and my hero is finally getting his butt in gear to figure out who the bad guy is.

The novel has a name — The Secret War — which is what the cold war was sometimes called. And, of course, since it’s a mystery, there are a lot of secrets. Because it’s set in Germany, not long after the war’s end (only twenty years) the secrets are often about what people did during the war. One thing I love about the mystery genre is the way, as the central mystery is solved, so many other things are uncovered. I’m particularly interested in secrets — what lies beneath the surface, unsaid, but still present in other ways, in part because when we lived in Germany during my childhood, there seemed to be so many of them. Unfortunately, one of my troubles as a writer is that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been quite mistrustful of language — disturbed and saddened by how it often fails to get to the truth, and also how often it’s used to disguise what’s true. it’s a slippery tool for me. But it’s the one I know the best.

Today, then, I’m heading out to write.