Friday, March 30, 2007

Memoir Week at Slate

It's memoir week at Slate. Check out the very interesting list of offerings. I particularly like the "Publish And then Flee: How to Tell Your Parents You're Writing About Them."

I don't generally like memoirs (too...Oprah-esque and pseudo-inspirational), but I like first-person journalism. I like Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Jack Hitt, and Lawrence Weschler (can you tell I'm a This American Life fan?). I like the better-than-reality exaggerations of David Sedaris. I like using the personal pronoun.

I can't explain my inconsistent dislike of the typical memoir (I especially avoid political memoirs, those by former princesses, and anything by a celebrity with the exception of Johnny Cash and Alan Alda) and my love of first-person writing. I guess I don't like people talking about themselves unless it serves some kind of broader purpose: growing up gay in North Carolina (Sedaris); actively being an American citizen (Vowell); or remarking on American excess (Rakoff). I use the personal pronoun all the time here, but I really do try to avoid writing about myself in a useless way. Well, you can make your judgments.

It's an interesting genre, the memoir. It is at once excruciatingly intimate, but also detached: you write about yourself and you send your words into the world to be claimed by others to attach personal relevance and meaning. In that way, it's no different from any work of fiction--but the memoir is supposed to be "real." It's supposed to say "this is what happened to me, and learn from my triumphs and failures." Or something like that.

What then, does a personal blog do? Memoirs are often written at the end of one's life or some serious trial, and is thus a product of deep reflection (and savvy packaging). Blogs are instantaneous reactions, often with very little thought put into them. Yet they have the same general tone and goal as the memoir. But should we trust blogs less or more? Because of the "real-time" aspect of blogs, there seems to be that instant-replay verisimilitude: these are my present feelings, and you can trust them because I haven't had time to change my mind or spin the story. But is that really the case?

I find that when I write, I start off with a very vague idea and meander, unfolding the narrative laconically. I used to pre-write posts in my head, or do drafts--but I found that too forced, except in the case of academic posting (which I can't do anymore, sadly, since I write in my own name). So I just start writing and see where it goes. Perhaps that's one difference between a memoir and a blog: a memoir reflects on that which has ended, a blog reacts to that which is present and forward-going.

So let's see where we go.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Further Cursory Thoughts on Pseudonymity

I'm too busy writing and vacationing (it is possible to do both) to write a few labor-intensive emails or write the metabloggiest post on pseudonymity. But I have been thinking about it all week, in the context of the Auto Admit/XOXOth controversy, and Ann Bartow's posts on blogging and misogyny here and here. And so here are a few cursory but verbose thoughts.

Although I'm a pseudonymous blogger, I'm by no means entirely anonymous. I have come out here and there to several bloggers, blawggers, and blog-readers. Only once did I self-initiate contact with a blogger, and that was only because he was a friend of a friend. Mostly, I write in a vacuum, and get a few friendly (or unfriendly, if I blog on feminism) emails a month. Most of the people who write me are graduate students, lawyers, aspiring academics, or fully established academics. They write me out of sympathy, to offer mentoring and support, or to remark on a post. I really enjoy these exchanges. I usually correspond for a few weeks or months pseudonymously, and then when I think I've gotten a feel for them, and if I want to continue writing further and more openly under my own name, I initiate the honor-code agreement that my correspondent not reveal my not-so-secret identity. I don't fear much beyond googability, and I'd like to preserve the idiosyncratic, personal voice with which I write this blog. And I think I've largely succeeded.

I've made some good real life friends through this blog, some surprisingly useful professional contacts (inadvertant, trust me, I'm terrible at schmoozing), and I've really enjoyed my epistolary friendships. Moreover, I've enjoyed meeting these blog buddies and epistolary friends during my travels. It's gone as far as me being a houseguest and to the point of exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts. Blogs form imaginary communities (almost Walter Benjamin-like), but sometimes they can crossover into the real world.

This week I met three law professors (and tomorrow a lawyer)--two were early fans and sponsors of the blog from when it was only a few months old, yet our brief exchanges were entirely blog related and not very personal--and so I only recently revealed my real-life identity to them, in order to make the personal meet up not awkward (can you imagine going around calling yourself "Belle" if that is not really your name?). One professor I only recently got into touch with, but for whatever reason our email exchanges were not merely about the law--they were about fiction, music, life--etc. etc. And I'd like to think that we are friends, and our 8 hour meeting did attest to the fact that one can build friendships from nothing. I don't pretend that this blog thing is very much rooted in interpersonal reality--I write down my thoughts with attempts at wit and flavor, people read, sometimes they respond, and sometimes there's a continuing off-blog exchange. It's not exactly coup de foudre. There is no immediate personal connection. More like coup de...drizzle, a clinging wetness that eventually permeates your skin, breaking through that fourth wall that is the computer screen that exists between the blogger and her reader.

So if the blog world can intersect the real world, if writing and reading can lead to meeting and talking, and if this all has been mostly to good effect, why do I still hide behind the veil of pseudonymity?

For all the reasons I expressed here and here. The greater my readership, the more I'm worried about "googability." I want a big readership, and I want to write these weird, meditative posts that have garnered me my readership, but I don't want to be evaluated professionally for it. It's the typical having my cake and eating it too conundrum. At this stage in my career, I'd like the freedom to explore and express my ideas on various topics, and to write that insider's account of the academy--but I don't think I would so freely under my own name. Moreover, I am very well aware of the misogynist troll and hate mail problem, and I'd rather not deal with that. And because I have more readers (whom I love, and thank you) and the potential for trolls, I now fiercely guard the real-life mundane and private details--and this way, I can write abstractly about the weird stuff.

I don't mind writing about my weird and strict Asian upbringing. I think that's a useful account to disabuse people of the myth that all law academic aspirants are white, upper-class, and Ivy League credentialed, born to be tenure-track. I fought tooth and nail to get here, and I'm proud that I'm here in spite of so many adverse circumstances. I don't mind writing very obliquely about my past personal life--I was once in love, I was once engaged, and I offer no details about the gentleman or what our relationship was like. To do so would breach not only his privacy, but mine. But I will meditate on what it felt like to be in love so young, that you let someone you love borrow books you can't remember the titles of except five years later, randomly, at Barnes and Noble, and you want to cry all over again that you were so young and in love and foolish enough to let him borrow "All The King's Men." That to me, is fine and harms no one.

What I won't do, under the cover of pseudonymity, is the following:

1. Ad hominem attacks.

I don't do character assassination. I will remark critically on what someone is blogging if I think it is in poor taste or offensive, but in a way that is reasonably critical of the message, but not personally the author. Such posts tend to discuss the matter in general and in the larger scope of the genre of blogging, but I try to avoid using pejorative epithets.

2. Write about my current personal life.

I use cumbersome-but-not-very-opaque pseudonyms for everything, but I won't blog about who I'm dating, or even whether I'm dating, or about people in my life in ways that are negative.

French Dandy Dude was a bit of a character in my travelogue of Big Metropolis, but I actually regret that now. While it is tempting, as a solo personal blogger, to use this forum as a demon airing mechanism, it shouldn't be. French Dandy Dude knows my feelings about this, as we've talked about it and our friendship has recovered in strength ten-fold. I think I needed to blog about it in order to articulate how I felt about the trip and then express to him what I needed to change in our friendship. We did talk about it, for hours. And our friendship did change, for the better. Probably the first true "just friends" male friend I have ever had, and that's a great achievement. And so thus I haven't blogged about him recently except in positive ways, and he really is one of my best friends. In fact, I will mention now that I'm looking forward to having his paella and shortbread for lunch upon my return. This is good, because thesis hell supresses my appetite and I hardly eat.

I bring this up because I want to make it clear that I intend to write generally and not specifically. I blogged a bit about law school drama (that it existed, but not the salacious details of the hellish drama it was), and my feelings about my law school's class campaign and very generally about the fundraising efforts of certain colleagues. But I've never named names, and I never revealed intimate details. These were my feelings and impressions, and certainly they are skewed. They are, after all, mine. The objective reality of the law school drama (and certainly I had a role in that, which is why I have no role in that now) and the class campaign might be different, and all of the participants have their own takes on it. These other impressions, or the objective reality (if such exists) don't negate the existence and don't suppress the expression of mine. I will continue to write such impressions (vaguely worded and avoiding individual ad hominem) if so I choose, but I shall certainly be careful to ensure that they don't divulge too much or give the impression of absolute objective truth (I highly doubt anything I write gives such an impression) to those few blog friends to whom I have revealed the personal details of my life. And I am sure the people I have reveale my identity and academic information to don't think that my take on academia or my home institutions is authoritative.

I think my readers are sophisticated and astute enough to realize that on a personal blog, my impressions and reflections are my own, and are not official statements about my school or the people there. And even if they leave with the same impression that I have (positive or negative)--well, that is is the nature of an impression. You have them, you communicate them, people take them and do with them what they will. If there is a contrary impression, then it should be articulated, but my impression should not be silenced as if it did not exist and could not be true. Here, I will go with that Holmesian "marketplace of ideas": counter speech with more speech. My comment threads are open, and though I reserve the right to edit my comments if they offend, I generally don't take down contrary posts. I am, in the end, intellectually honest enough to admit there are many sides to the same story. That is the nature of disagreement, and I hope it can be cordial. I generally go with "reasonable minds may disagree" if such is the case. However, I do ask that those who know personal details about me do not reveal them--that would be petty, and I would indeed edit those posts.

3. Use real names.

It is getting to the point of ridiculous, but I don't like to reveal where I am traveling or with whom I am meeting. It seems unfair to the people I meet to use their names, without revealing my name. And I generally don't like to reveal my geographic location, institutionally or while traveling. It just makes it too easy for people to guess, and I fear some random troll commenting and revealing my personal details.

4. Put up a picture.

I just don't think it's relevant. I have described myself enough (a short, petite, Asian woman) that I don't think much more is necessary. If you plumb the archives I mentioned various chic purchases and getting haircuts, but I don't do that anymore. I just can't be bothered, and I hate sounding trivial--communicating such things in real life sounds like small talk, but over the blog it just sounds stupid. I don't mind showing my epistolary friends (if they are potentially real friends) what I look like, and it's always fun asking those you meet if you look like what they thought you would look like. But it just doesn't seem pertinent here. I like the picture of the fake Belle. It's the spirit of the epistolary, romantic, olde school part of the Real Life Alter Ego. I just wish that there was another picture in a power suit for the other side.

5. Stop being my weird, quirky, idiosyncratic, off-beat voiced self.

Hey, it's a personal blog. Where else can you do this in the academy and still have people read you and write you and want to talk to you?


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Blogging Across America

All my life I've attended public schools and universities, and yet, more recently, I've been caught in the bubble of private schools--with a few very notable exceptions, the best law schools are private. I can't say I'm happy about that, but I guess it makes sense in a certain way that defeats the myth of meritocracy. They are great schools, and I'm happy to visit them for both personal and professional reasons. Vacation-wise, they doesn't seem like intuitive spots to hit on spring break, but I'm not your typical beach bunny. I like checking out school architecture and landscapes, and see how the vibe is different from school to school and city to city. So in addition to my home institutions and various conferences, whenever I travel to a new city for pleasure, I check out some of the local campuses--I really am a "lifer." Plus, this way you get to meet bloggers and blawggers. A few months ago, I visited WASPy Privilege Law School and Metropolitan Law School, and yesterday it was Preppy Patrician Law School.

It is a beautiful school with great architecture and verve. Hipster Law Prof Dude showed me around, though it was a kind of useless tour since he didn't know all that many buildings outside of the law school. And I loved that. He is a kind and delightful man, and very funny and quirky--it's odd to meet epistolary friends, especially when they exceed your expectations. No offense to any of the people I've met, but you tend to always expect academics to be slightly socially awkward. Also, it's a dicey proposition in my case--I'm a personal blogger, and if you plumb the archives I've revealed some pretty personal details about my strict Asian upbringing and have made oblique references to my personal life (very little re the present, a little more about the past). And my epistolary friendships go even further--people write Belle, and then Belle's Real Life Alter Ego all sorts of things, and reveal all sorts of personal details you wouldn't reveal to a stranger you met on the street or at a conference. And I share in kind.

I'm a classic over-sharer, and one of my favorite hobbies is writing weird emails late at night when I shouldn't. Life on the page is entirely different, and though there are four corners to the page or computer screen, these are very permeable boundaries that don't seem quite real. But then, I meet these people in real life. So people tend to know a lot about me before even meeting me. And then they ask me about it all. That can be weird, slightly discomfiting, and very fun. It allows for quick (perhaps too quick) intimacy and almost instantaneous friendship--and the ice is so far beyond broken. So once you stop freaking out over how much you both have accidentally-on-purpose shared with one another, you can relax, and just be friends in real life as well as on the page or on the blog.

Apparently, in real life I'm unexpectedly (?!) talkative and prone to rapid changes of topic, but I do match the tone and tenor of my weird emails. I have been told that I "look" like what people expect me to look like from my very vague descriptions here, and that my voice sounds "clipped" (I think it sounds like a child-woman, but thanks). It's interesting, meeting people you've known for months. I always find people to be either taller or shorter than I expected, and often with younger voices. I am delighted to find people to be just as funny, if not funnier, in real life, and how easy it is to laugh with such new friends. It's a great experience.

The Best Friend went with me, and she was a delightful buffer for steering the conversation in new and surprising directions. And I somehow organized two other local profs into meeting us all for a happy hour later in the day, which is a very law prof thing to do, even if one only nurses a pinot grigio while munching happily on french fries and burgers.

This sounds very "networky," and I suppose that it is a network-building get-together. I am not fooling myself, since I write on social network theory and employment law I know the benefits of such casual interactions with people of higher positions--which, in my case, is everyone I meet in the legal academy. Though I have a JD, I don't have much else until I finish this LLM--and I'm acutely aware of my lowly status, and very much aware of how far away I am from my goal. I'm very blessed to have a motley crue of mentors and professors both at my home institutions and variously spread across the country. It's a wonderful help I never had growing up or in the process of acquiring my many degrees. And it's mostly because of this blog that I've been able to make such contacts and get such notice, and hopefully when I finally publish the articles I've been writing, such help won't be for naught. That said, they give you all sorts of conflicting advice! "Go on the market now!" vs. "Do your SJD!" vs. "Go get a Ph.D!" --till my head is spun, and upon falling back onto my chaise lounge (inherited from Charlotte Perkins Gilman) I remember that it's still up to me in the end. So I'm going to keep doing my thing, whatever that is, but take their advice into consideration.

Still, it's the personal aspect that I most enjoy, although the professional advice and contacts are an admittedly useful. In fact, the discussions about the latter are slightly awkward, and where I least flourish. I've always been awful at networking and selling myself. I'm better at making acquaintences and friends. I'm learning how to be professional, but I'm better at being personal. I relate well to intelligence, but find the dry and mundane titular and academic markers boring to talk about. I think I ask "so, what do you do?" just to get to the next step of substantively discussing the moral/legal/newsworthy aspects of whatever subject that happens to be. I learn that people went to the University of Chicago, and ask them what they think of Chicago hot dogs vs. Dodger dogs. Things like that. That said, the personal topics of conversation that came up yesterday (initiated by both HLPD and me) made me wonder if I go too far in one direction and don't work enough on being detached, aloof, "professional."

Still, I'm learning, the more I meet academics and professionals, how to talk about work in ways that are both appropriate and interesting. I'm learning how to be personal in person as well as on the page. So thank you, Hipster Law Prof Dude, for being my tour guide and life guide, and for reminding me that words on the page are created by people, who are even better in person.

Finally, tips on meeting people who are strangers (especially if you are a pseudonymous female blogger):

1. Write a relatively thorough introductory biography to get that stuff out of the way. This saves time and cuts past the boring stuff so that you can talk about other things, like music, movies, kung fu.

2. Meet in public places, preferably with people who have been vetted by their state bar moral character committees or who are not themselves pseudonymous. Avoid axe murderers by asking them if they have ever killed anyone with an axe. By that, I mean whether they have ever killed anyone carrying an axe, you know, that vulnerable lumberjack population.

3. If possible, have a friend in tow. That's rarely possible, and if it wasn't The Best Friend, could possibly hamper the conversation. Still, I let people know where I'm going, when, and who I'm meeting with and when I expect to return. (Not kidding.)

4. Drink something: caffeine makes me even more cheerful and perky (if that is possible), and a very moderate amount of wine relaxes me, and I've done both to interesting and opposite effects. Both inspire me to talk even more than I normally do. I should try milk and see if that's neutral, but ordering milk in this day and age is weird--and maybe, something I should go for.

5. Bring mix CDs. At the very least, that is a conversational ice-breaker, a token of friendship, and pretty damn cool.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Saturday Poet: Anne Bradstreet

Brief blogging, because I am having a wonderful time with The Best Friend and her fiancee, mother, and friend. Wedding showers are fun! And being the best bridesmaid ever (I believe it is called "Maid of Honor") is a glorious task.

So for The Best Friend and Her Best Man, a poem by today's poet, Anne Bradstreet:

To My Dear and Loving Husband

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Working Vacation for a Library Maven

As you all know, I'm officially in Thesis Hell. I was floating around, Paolo and Francesca-like (no direction) in purgatory before, but I'm for sure in the bowels of hell now (I got direction, and it's pointing downwards).

As such, I'm not taking a "real" spring break, unlike this guy. I'm going to take what I call a "working vacation" to stay with my best friend in Wheeler-Dealer City and work at The Gigantic Neoclassical Library of Everything.

The last "real" spring break in which I didn't bring work along (doing nothing is much easier to accomplish, but I always bring stuff) was back in college. My last spring breaks in Mountainous National Park and Ex-Hippie Hiking Haven were all "working vacations" in the sense that I always brought stuff and did a little bit of work.

This time it's a full blown working vacation--no sightseeing (been there, glimpsed that), just one day allocated to a wedding shower and another day for touring Preppy Patrician Law School with Hipster Law Prof. Other than that, I'll be working from 9 am till 7 pm, and taking breaks at night. It is pretty much the opposite of the archetypal spring breaks in Daytona or South Beach or wherever those young aspiring alcoholics go. Not that I ever wanted to do that, anyway. I am the least grateful Sunny Stater--I hate sunbathing, I can't swim very well, and I only go to the beach in the winter when no one is there to mess up my misanthropic view of the grey horizons. Yeah, I don't think a "typical," "real" spring break is really my style.

Is it that past a certain age, "spring breaks" aren't really an option anymore? When you have work that is always there despite the hour of the day or the day of the week or the week of the year, outside the family holidays can you really afford to take a vacation? Every time I go on vacation I feel anxious about the work I left behind and the accumulation of work I'll return to. Is it a very American (or Asian-American) or Type A lawyer attitude I have about vacations that I just don't seem to be able to relax for longer than one day out of ten? Okay, maybe I can do two. I'm working on it.

Still, it's a strange realization, that at this point I'm already acting like a professor, working through the breaks while more typical students actually take them off to have fun. Without someone making an explicit demand of me, I'm self-regulating, rather than taking my youthful license to go on vacation from reality, work, and responsibility. It's a sad thing to realize, that you are not so much "growing up" as you are becoming more fully the working stiff you always were, so maybe you were never really young and impetuous. That is, I have the occasion and license to be young, have fun, take off and be carefree--but that was never my personality, and so I never did. And now I'm growing older and these occasions will arise less and less, until it's no longer a choice, but a default. I was born into a suit, it seems, with my nose in a book or to a grindstone.

How Gradgrindian. But it's me, for better or worse.

Needless to say, I won't be blogging for a couple of days, but I'll try to get something in for Saturday Afternoon Poet series and I'll blog in hopefully non-obvious ways about the my time in Wheeler-Dealer City, and working while others are playing.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Seventeen Syllables for Seven Stages of Hell

Some law Thesis Hell Haiku for you:

Thesis hell: dull pain
Caused by dull, bad writing.
Hope I graduate.

My insomnia,
arrhythmia, reflux: Ow.
Stress, then early death.

Ten hours, only
Two pages. Don't press "delete."
It is good enough.

I have writer's block
The size of a damn mack truck.
Kill me now, won't you?

Life as a movie,
Mine: They shoot writers, don't they?
I wish that they did.

Sometimes I misread
"Thesis Hell" as "This is Hell"
No difference, right?

The Bluebook makes me
Hate the color blue, and books.
But I hate me more.

Fuck footnotes, and fuck
Those law review editors.
I'm going to bed.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saturday Night Poet: W.S. Merwin

I am blogging from the mountain again, staying with dear friends (parents of one of my best friend, to be precise), in what I like to call my "Little Cabin in the Woods." You know, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but like, not on the prarie. And just like last time, I have a few observations.

Nature is relaxing, and brings out the best in you. French Dandy Dude and I resolved our problems six weeks ago, and are now very good friend to each other, and getting along splendidly. He was put on probation for a while after ditching me in Big Metropolis for some girl who he thought could be the love of his life (but they are ALL potentially that girl, so this is why I plan our vacations now and always have a backup $20 and won't consent to go out to big group events and refuse to hang out with his pretentious friends). But he's passed the period of probation by being uber-nice to me, cooking for me in my thesis hell, being super considerate, and much less sarcastic, and more openly affectionate. When you are platonic friends, there is only one rule, and so there should be no reservations with love or kindness. There's a geriatric level of comfort with each other, a kind of sexless marriage. So he's passed his period of probation, for the most part. Well, to the point where I let him meet my cool friends and come with me on my working holidays. He behaves himself, doesn't (can't) ditch me for anything or anyone, and generally goes along with whatever is mutually decided. We both compromise. We are better. We are the best of friends, finally.

That said, the ultimate test is whether I ever again go on a vacation in which he organizes, and in which I depend on him, and in which I know no one but him and must try to get along with his friends. That'll be the day. I'm going to have to be a bitch and say "we'll see."

But today and yesterday were very nice: hiking, sight-seeing, state park exploring, and a bit of reading. Nothing else much to do in the mountains. It is great. There are so many natural wonders that I never before saw, I feel quite relaxed and refreshed, ready to type until my fingertips are raw and read until I cry.

That said, I will still take poetry breaks. So before this Saturday ends, here is the Saturday Poet: W.S. Merwin.

For The Anniversary Of My Death

Every year without knowing it
I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Unknown Bird

Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

It Is March

It is March and black dust falls out of the books
Soon I will be gone
The tall spirit who lodged here has
Left already
On the avenues the colorless thread lies under
Old prices

When you look back there is always the past
Even when it has vanished
But when you look forward
With your dirty knuckles and the wingless
Bird on your shoulder
What can you write

The bitterness is still rising in the old mines
The fist is coming out of the egg
The thermometers out of the mouths of the corpses

At a certain height
The tails of the kites for a moment are
Covered with footsteps

Whatever I have to do has not yet begun


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This Used To Be A Personal Blog

I want to blog like Joseph Kugelmass, like this:

I’ve been thinking about the first period of my life when I really started blowing my allowance on new pop records, which was my junior year of high school. It happens that during that year, two of my friends died in car crashes. This is something that happens in Northern California: there are a lot of twisty, dangerous roads, the weather can get nasty, and you have to drive twenty minutes or more just to see friends. As far as I can tell, most teenagers go through a phase where they buy what other people deem “cool,” so that’s nothing unusual. But it happens that I went through this phase at a moment when I felt particularly scared and isolated by those deaths, and culture seemed to offer itself up as a universal and legitimate source of contact with other people.

I don’t know what other people experience when they open up one of those dusty black CD binders, and the plastic pages flop open to The Cranberries. For me, the sensation is very odd and melancholy. When I bought The Cranberries’s debut album, I thought that was it. I thought, in some important sense, that we’d always be able to gather together and mutually appreciate “Dreams.” I thought the same thing about ska bands and swing bands: I would shell out for albums by the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Reel Big Fish with some notion that these albums would remain relevant to everybody.

So, the necessary condition for making peace with the past is the forgetting of the past, and that forgetting takes the form of turning the past into a story that combines fondness with resignation. The moment when Dickie takes up the drums, he necessarily has to forget having had the same moment before with the saxophone. I was learning about this at the same moment as my school, which was organized around Wiccan and pagan beliefs, was putting together pagan ceremonies where we would learn to say farewell to the dead students by addressing prayers North, South, East, and West. We did this out on a beach, where the directions were marked out with fresh green boughs.
My ideal relation to the past has nothing to do with making peace.
As much as I’m concerned with celebrating and re-considering pop culture, that project only makes sense in terms of its opposite: I am interested in talking about good pop culture because my impulse is to reject it entirely, on the grounds that it recycles itself so quickly that A Devil Wears Prada can re-tread a not-very-good film like Coyote Ugly and hardly one head turns. As a test case, the planned obsolescence of pop culture fetishes is a remarkable example of sentimentality at its most revealed.

I used to blog like this. Well, not as good, but I did use a lot more first person pronouns. Heck, not too long ago I had a post on applying canons of statutory interpretation to mix-tapes, and that's not so far off. But I was luxuriously nerding out, and it is not as poignant as the above post. I read this and nearly cried, because I too bought those albums when they came out, and I too thought that swing craze would last. I too loved The Cranberries, for their pleasing pop melodies and later, sturm und drang references to William Butler Yeats. I read this post and realize how much time has passed, how I measure out my life not in coffee spoons, but in CDs that are gone and forgotten.

If I allowed it, every moment of my life would be filled with regret and loss. Fortunately I'm pretty cheerful, except in the late hours of the night when I become ruminative. Being pseudonymous, I could write more about my personal life. I sometimes obliquely refer to it, but only to the past. Writing in the first person means that you add a personal voice and dimension to the subject at hand, but that doesn't make it "personal" per se. I don't use this blog as a diary. If my experiences as a minority female aspiring legal academic growing up in a strict Asian household in Sunny Suburb and attending Top 10 law schools can add something to a discussion of the academy, the law, or literature, then by all means I interject my personal perspective. But I dont' write about my life unless there's some quasi-pedagogical purpose. Why not?

I really enjoyed Joe's post, and his unfolding, laconic way of writing an essay that starts off with Freud and pop culture operates as a sociohistoric tie, and then goes on to say much, much more, beautifully and movingly. I read this and think, "damn, why can't I write like this?!" (Often a thought I have when I burst out in laughter at 2 am when I read this guy.)

My readership has gone from mostly disgruntled grad student to mainly lawyers, aspiring law academics, and law professors. It's great, really--I have formed so many contacts in my field, and it's really helped me personally and professionally. But somewhere in that, I lost my confidence in my weirdness. The more bloggers I came out to and met, the more real-life friendships I've made, the less I want to say on this venue. I am charmingly weird and quirky and classically oversharing in my epistolary friendships--but only when I feel welcome to be. So the more my readership changed, the more I self-censored, knowing that once I post onto SSRN, my cover will be blown, my future colleagues will be weirded out, and thus the less personal nature of the blog.

But in reading Joe and his brilliant, brave, beautiful (anything else alliterative?) narrative, I feel reassured. I don't like talking about my current personal life, but I would like to go back into the past and try to figure out how it got me to my present. How on earth is it that I arrive here, researching often very depressing cases (happens if you research the federal regulation of child pornography, guns, drugs; employment discrimination against minorities and women), when once I dreamed of studying literature and critical theory? How is it that I arrive here, often lonely and sometimes love-lorn, when once I was engaged to be married? I don't want to use this forum as a shrink's couch. But it does seem like one could use the learned tools of critical analysis and academic writing to flesh out the sea changes of life.

Sometimes I wonder about my writing. I look at the pages and ridiculously long law review footnotes and think I'm writing crap, when once I wrote well. I used to have all sorts of exciting ideas and turn out great papers on Flannery O'Connor. Now I struggle, per day, to write 2 pages on why the government can regulate fungible criminal commodities for which there is an interstate market. I know that had I gone to grad school, it'd be the same problem on a different subject.

But would I have my own voice if I wrote about different things? Have I lost my own voice here?

Can I get it back?

Let's see.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Peer Pressure, Social Networks, and Law School Isomorphism

This may too quickly identify my generation, but I remember watching Cipher in the Snow in elementary school as a part of my school's efforts to bring After School Special messages into the school, I guess maybe to tell us that you don't have to wait till 3:00 pm to learn that it's bad to do drugs, man and that you should just say no. This particular after school special message was communicated to my 7-year old self in the form of a 21 minute short film. And after a couple of decades, I still remember it (and my memory is refreshed by IMDB). In the film, a pre-teen named Cliff asks to get off the bus early, and then a few feet later, collapses and dies. His "favorite" teacher, e.g. the only teacher who had any interaction with him, is asked to notify Cliff's parents and write an obituary.

The problem is, no one really knows Cliff, not even his favorite teacher. The movie then goes back in time to show how Cliff arrived at his fate in the snow, and reveals that Cliff was a lonely, ostracized, and reclusive boy whom everyone ignored actively or failed to notice negligently. Cliff was a cipher, or a zero. Message: this is bad. Don't let this happen to your students and peers. Don't exclude, don't fail to notice or ignore the quiet kid, and make sure that each individual is a part of a group.

It's funny that this movie stuck with me, because I'm at once torn between wanting to feel more attached to my current institution and really wanting to be left alone. It's the plight of the academic, to want collegiality and community in the ivory tower (usually reserved for princesses and lepers, right?) or just being left alone to research and write. More recently, I've been feeling more attached to my institution, as I've been taking classes in a curricular concentration (say, "law and public policy") with the same set of instructors and classmates, in addition to representing my school at academic conferences. That's a neat way to feel like you are more than an ad hoc member or free agent in the school--social ties are great binding agents between individuals and their institutions.

Having a good relationship with your academic advisor and acquiring a few mentors (vertical ties), and forming social relationships among your peers (horizontal ties) go a long way to establishing your tie to the people in your organization and to the organization itself. Everything is dependent on the strength of the ties, but even weak ties (acquaintences, single-term relationships with professors) are important for the Rolodex--but strong ties (mentoring, friendship) prove to be most valuable for academic and career enhancing psychosocial support. A little bit of psychosocial support goes a long way to making your time in the organization feel valuable and valued--without a social network of colleagues, peers, mentors, you would feel like a zero--a cipher. And as I learned back in elementary school, that's bad man, not cool.

That said, sometimes I really wish I wasn't a part of certain social networks. I very much like the ones I have cultivated and created on my own very recently--my mentors are great, I like my new drama-free friends, and my adopted curricular program is pretty great in helping me churn out publishable papers and shaping my dissertation. However, the program I'm actually in sometimes operates as a classic example of the bad effects of social networks: exclusion from such networks, or social closure, is what happened to Cliff. However, pressure to join such networks or engage in conformist behavior to remain within the network sounds just as bad. Wasn't there another After School Special movie about peer pressure? Wait, weren't they all about peer pressure?

To draw from a real-life example, there is something at my school called "The Class Campaign." I don't recall my last law school having such a campaign--I'm sure they did, but there was not such aggressive fundraising as at my current school. Strangely, both are highly ranked public institutions with good-sized endowments in a state that underfunds public education, so it's not a function of public vs. private schools. In any case, my current institution has this horrible Class Campaign run by 3Ls that somehow recruited 5-7 of my resume-padding colleagues in the LLM program to use their connections to extort money from their own group. Each class here is divided into sections, and for some reason, there is an LLM section (but no SJD!). There is a public website showing a bar graph representing the percentage of each section's donation (goal: 100% per section), and a list of all the students who have and have not donated. Just as in elementary school there is a star by your name if you have donated, whether it is $5 or $500. To its credit, the amount is not listed. That is one very small concession I make.

I hate the idea of public shaming. I hate the idea of public outing and ostracization. If I choose not to donate, I hate that I get 5 emails telling me to donate, often starting off as a friendly, "look I'm your peer in your social network" message and then going on to cajole me into making a donation to "pay back" what I "owe" the school (in addition to the $36,000?!) and to fulfill the bizarrely empty goal of "getting to 100%." 100% for what? I really wanted to be a cipher. I wanted to just say no. As a testament to my low tolerance for annoying emails inviting me to lunch to "discuss this further" (I would pay to avoid that, so I might as well pay the blood money) and apparent lack of integrity, I caved and donated when I found out I could redirect my donation from the class fund to a particular curricular program. I hate that the Class Campaign officers used the facade of friendship to basically extort money. It did feel like I was being accosted at the lockers to go to that pharm party or smoke a joint because we're friends, man. Altogether distasteful, but I suppose no different than that coworker of yours who makes you buy candy or cookies from her kid or urges you to sponsor a Sally Struthers kid. And I suppose I wouldn't have such a problem with using channels of social networks and the veiled threat of social closure to induce member conformity and compliance if I could see this serving some valuable social goal like building solidarity or fostering mentoring and social relationships. I really just think they wanted my money, and thereafter, the friendly emails asking me to lunch stopped.

Law schools are interesting to study from an organzational theory perspective, mainly because in addition to being the breeding ground of peer-to-peer (and peer-to-mentor) human relationships, law schools are their own institutional beasts with its own isomorphic tendencies. Law schools purposely create small sections, or smaller social networks within the larger institution, to foster peer-to-peer interaction, group-building, and thus coercive social practices. Section/Mod/Unit 1/A, you'd better "represent" at the next Bar Review, Keg in teh Courtyard, or law school musical! That means YOU, Student #987654! Codes of collegiality and conduct are created by the schools, but they're really enforced and enacted by the students and their peers. Goals (both laudable and banal) are set by the institution, but it is the students who figure out how to achieve them and do the work. Apparently, getting 100% of a graduating a class to donate before the end of the year is a goal. Apparently, any means subtle or distasteful may be used to achieve this goal. Apparently, I did my part, and I'm not a cipher, I'm a part of a group or, I kid you not, "honor roll of donors."

This human-level isomorphism, going from coercive isomorphism (you must do this because there is a rule) to mimetic isomorphism (you should want to do this because everyone is, 100%!) to normative isomorphism (you ought to do this because it serves this goal) can be seen in how law schools act as institutions. See, e.g., DiMaggio and Powell, "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields." Law schools must follow the dictates of the AALS, and do what is necessary to attract and comply with donors wishes and graduate students who pass their state bars and go on to do Great Things so that they can donate later. Law schools also want to tend to do as and look like schools within their cluster rank and aspire to become like schools above their rank. That means lots of recruiting of top students, aggressive fundraising, lots of new named wings and chairs. Law schools also want to service their pedagogical goals and overarching vision, whatever they are. I do understand the push for individual and institutional compliance, conformity, and isomorphism.

However, in this actor and organizational level analysis of why people and why institutions act they way they do, I feel like the original goal is lost. I don't just want to know how or why people act, but rather the ex ante question of why there is this personal goal or institutional value in the first place? Why is it that nearly 100% of people in my LLM section are donating, what was the original point? Also, in examining the mechanics of social networks (Campaign Officer 1 knows Non-Donor A so 1 contacts A to...), I forget to think about why this is a social network in the first place, and whether it functions well. It may indeed be the case that we have each other's contact information, but are the ties weak or strong? What links us in the first place, other than our mere presence in the program? Are we heterophilous or homophilous?

I can't, or I'd rather not, answer that with respect to my specific program at my institution. But they are questions you might ask yourselves as you go about your day hiding in your office and writing or gamely going to that colloquium or committee meeting or student-sponosored school event: why are you there? What kind of ties do you feel to the people in the room, and to the school writ large? Are you there because you have to be, or because other people you know are there, or because you think you should be? Are you there for the reason you never think to contemplate--because you want to be there? Do you feel compliant, conformist, and isomorphic? Or do you just feel pretty good to be there?

Are you a cipher or are you 100%?


Thursday, March 08, 2007


25,000+ Hits!! AWESOME!!!

I forgot to celebrate this blog's birthday back in January, but I usually remember to note the Sitemeter milestones. I know I will be a much better mother in real life, but this is akin to forgetting your child's birthday but noting his spelling bee score.

Still, while I am proud of my blog's very existence and that it's survived this long and through so many blog blocks and breakdowns, I am even more excited that people are reading it.

So thanks for reading.

This random moment of positivity is to be your respite from the previous post and future posts on love in the ivory tower, the coercive pyschosocial peer pressure endemic to academic organizational environments, organizational theory as applied to law, and whatever else is about the blawgosphere that's of note.

Good times gonna come.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

This is Not Junior High.

No, not another post in reference to grad school drama and hysterically dramatic grad school people.

Rather, a personal message by my Real Life Alter-Ego, to Anonymous Bastard:

Stop prank-calling my home phone in the early hours of the morning, in the random hours of the day, and after midnight. Actually, just stop calling.

It is not amusing, it is not really even terrifying, and you are so not demonstrating any power over me. You annoy me. But you can't make me fear you. Why? Because I am smarter than you. And there can be no fear where there is pity. And I pity you, you sorry, sad sack of failed hopes and frustrated testosterone.

Yes, it is freakin' obvious the minute I pick up my phone, because of either your pseudo-sexual heavy breathing (please, you sound like you have asthma, a legitimate medical affliction suffered by many noble people whose conditions you demean with your attempts at imagining what post-coital breathing or the triumphant breaths of the victor of a marathon must sound like--in any case you just sound like a loser) or your strange, halting attempts to obtain my name and whether or not you called the right extension. Dude, please. I'm not telling you my name, address, or what shoes I am wearing. I don't think I went through three years of law school to get a degree in idiocy.

I know that there are logistical things I can do like blocking your number from my line, which may make you creative and just call me from different phone numbers or else escalate. Seriously, don't start with me.

So, for the sake of all interested parties, namely, me, my friends to whom I bitch about and imitate your sad, sorry pulmonary convulvsions and pathetic freak-out attempts, and the entire blogosphere, stop calling.

We're not in junior high school anymore, and I'm sorry you still think you are.

Actually, I just think you're sorry.

End of message.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Saturday Afternoon Poet: W.H. Auden

Slate is running a wonderful book club on the Complete Works of W.H. Auden.

So, to similarly honor one of my favorite poets, I submit these for your afternoon delight.

Special hat tip to my friend Will Baude, as these are his favorites.


Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although,
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away?
Will time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.


Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough; Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

You Can't Go Home Again

And sometimes, that's a good thing.

I went back to my alma mater--and maybe it's the peculiarity of leaving that makes the return sweeter--or rather, bittersweet. I don't think my school ever looked more beautiful or the campus pretty--all those days in all those three years that I trudged to school, slump-shouldered with the weight of my backpack and looking obtusely at my feet, I never really looked at my surroundings. Or maybe I just needed a clean pair of eyes.

The more schools I travel to for academic or personal reasons, the more contextual my surroundings become. Everything looks the same and yet different--all schools strive for that august brick-and-marble look, and the resounding hollow sound my heels make on the floor remind me of the diminutive position I have within the academy. A small voice within the cavernous space. Then again, one could say I announce myself boldly before I am seen, and seen I shall be.

My school was beautiful, and for the first time since my very first heady, first flush days of that 1L Fall semester, I saw it for its beauty and appreciated how the elevated setting made the very enterprise of learning noble. I ran into old professors and chatted amicably about my career. I even ran into 1Ls (now 3Ls) I had met my last year of law school. I stopped by the Records Office to say hello. The entire experience left me a little misty-eyed.

Oftentimes, you have to leave in order to want to return. And the return is lovelier than could be expected, throwing into high relief all that was good and sublimating all that was bad. I vaguely remember hating law school the first year and a half, and how the brick and marble once felt cold, and how the large space made me feel not just small, but insignificant. It's the common complaint of all law students. No one can really love law school if you stay there till midnight studying everynight and eat heated-up leftovers in the student lounge. No one loves being at law school, no matter how pretty, on a Sunday afternoon.

So what I realized in "coming home" again is that Thomas Wolfe had it half-right. You can't go home again, and sometimes that's a good thing. The home I returned to was different, better. It wasn't changed in a bad way. I'm in a far better position now than as a law student, and happier with my career path and very much assured that this is what I want to do (I kept dreaming of dropping out of law school while I was in law school). It's a bittersweet return, to be sure, to ruminate on the good memories and bemoan the good times passed up (why didn't I go to more movies at the Film School, or more student-priced performances at the Performance Hall? Why didn't I explore this lovely campus more or have lunch outside on the grass under a tree? Why didn't I head Downtown more often to the Worldclass Concert Hall?). But I think everyone should return to their old schools and see whether the feelings about it change.

It certainly makes me want to spend my time here at Liberal College Law differently---I want to make time to go to the school museum, have lunch on the grass, and head into the Awesome City more often. Going back and enjoying the company of the friends I left behind and the city I never fully explored or properly enjoyed makes me want to re-live the experiences I'm living now. I know I could live and work here better. I don't want to regret being blind to the beauty here the way I was at my old school and city. I don't want to let grad school drama or the hysterics of my cohort affect my sight and perceptions. I want to see my current situation the way one does after one leaves: with open appreciation.

I am home now, and I want to see this home with a clean pair of eyes.

He loved this old house on Twelfth Street, its red brick walls, its rooms of noble height and spaciousness, its old dark woods and floors that creaked; and in the magic of the moment it seemed to be enriched and given a profound and lonely dignity by all the human beings it had sheltered in its ninety years. The house became like a living presence. Every object seemed to have an animate vitality of its own--walls, rooms, chairs, tables, even a half-wet bath towel hanging from a shower ring above the tub, a coat thrown down upon a chair, and his papers, manuscripts, and books scattered about the room in wild confusion.

The simple joy he felt at being once more a part of such familiar things also contained an element of strangeness and unreality. With a sharp stab of wonder he reminded himself, as he had done a hundred times in the last few weeks, that he had really come home again--home to America, home to Manhattan's swarming rock, and home again to love; and his happiness was faintly edged with guilt when he remembered that less than a year before he had gone abroad in anger and despair, seeking to escape what now he had returned to.

~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~

As he stood upon the hill and looked out on the scene that spread below him in the gathering darkness, with its pattern of lights to mark the streets nad hte creeping pin-pricks of the thronging traffic, he remembered the barren nighttime streets of the town he had known so well in his boyhood. Their dreary and unpeopled desolation had burned its acid print upon his memory. Bare and deserted by ten o'clock at night, those streets had been an aching monotony, a weariness of hard lights and empty pavements, a frozen torpor broken only occasionally by the footfalls of some prowler--some desperate, famished, lonely man who hoped past hope and past belief for some haven of comfort, warmth, and love there in the wilderness, for the sudden opening of a magic door into some secret, rich, and more abundant life. There had been many such, but htey had never found what they were searching for. They had been dying in the darkness--without a goal, or a certain purpose, or a door.

And that, it seemed to George, was the way the thing had come. That was the way it had happened. Yes, it was there--on many a night long past and wearily accomplished, in ten thousand little towns and in ten million barren streets were all the passion, hope, and hunger of the famished men beat like a great pulse through the fields of darkness--it was there and nowhere else that all this madness had been brewed.

~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ .

What was it he had said on the train: "Do you think you can go home again?" And: "Don't forget I tried to warn you." Was this, then, what he had meant? If so, George understood them now. Around them in the cemetery as George throught these things and spoke of them, the air brooded with a lazy, drowsy warmth.

There was the last evening cry of brins, and the thrumming bullet noises in undergrowth and leafe, and broken sounds from far away--a voice in the wind, a boy's shout, the barking of a dog, the tinkle of a cow bell. There was the fragarance of intoxicating odors--the resinous smell of pine, and the semlls of grass and warm sweet clover. All this was just as it had always been. But the town of his childhood, with its quiet streets and the old houses which had been almost obscured below the leafy spread of trees, was changed past recognition, scarred now with hard patches of bright concrete and raw clumps of new construction. It looked like a battlefield, cratered and shell-torn with savage explosions of brick, cement, and harsh new stucco. And in the interspeaces only the embowered remannts of the old and pleasant town remained--timid, retreating, overwhelmed--to remind one of the liquid leather shuffle in the quiet streets at noon when men came home to lunch, and of laughter and lwo voices in the leafy rustle of the night. For this was lost!

--- Thomas Wolfe, "You Can't Go Home Again"