Friday, August 5, 2011

Commencing, Part Two

I can't help but think some self-congratulation is in order. Not only did I survive sitting the Texas bar exam last week, but I think I've taken excellent advantage of the eight days since then to relax and have fun. But I guess that's only admirable if you can understand how much it had started to feel like I might never relax or have fun again. So let's start at the beginning.
When Russell and I got back from Cambridge, we had to settle into a mostly empty house for about two weeks while our moving pods were on their way. All we had were some basics I'd needed to live here those three weeks I came home before commencement (dishes, towels, a mattress) plus a few pieces of furniture I'd bought to help fill the bigger space (barstools, a small china cabinet, an armchair). No couch, dining table, TV, desks, nada. This wore on Russell and me somewhat, but our housemate and study buddy for the summer, Robert (the same one with the crazy trek to commencement I mentioned last post) seemed to have the hardest time with it. I kept finding him contorted in odd positions trying to read, which I felt bad about.

Especially since there wasn't much fun going on to distract us. Bar review classes were already underway when we got back from commencement, so we had no time to ease in. Each day we headed to a private conference center in north-central Austin for a lecture lasting from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or so, and sometimes another from 1:30 to about 4 p.m. Each lecture covered a different topic due to be tested on the bar exam, from Constitutional Law to Wills and Estate Administration.

Of the nine books of study materials we received in advance, many as thick and floppy as phone books, one was a big black book full of worksheets for these lectures. Basically these were outlines of the topics with blanks every so often for us to fill in, which several lecturers admitted were only there to keep us awake. Really advanced, well-proven teaching techniques, don't you think? This lasted four or six days a week (for some reason they alternated between giving us one-day and three-day weekends) for eight weeks. As Russell would put it, BARF.

And of course, that was only the in-class part. Outside of class, the bar review company's website fed us reading and practice assignments daily. Each night we were supposed to re-read the worksheet from that day's lecture, then practice answering multiple-choice or essay questions on it, then review the next day's topic in advance. I did a lot of this stuff - always the reading for the next day, often the practice questions - but it was literally not possible to do it all and have anything resembling a life. Eating dinner with friends, seeing a movie once in a while, or most importantly meeting my mom for her daily radiation treatments all happened at the cost of some bar review task or other. Robert had fewer of these kinds of things going on, and he was a lot more willing to turn down social invitations than me, so he got through a lot more. But I just couldn't bring myself to sacrifice that much for a pass-fail test.

Meanwhile, our moving pods also arrived at long last, and Russell and his dad managed to unload them completely in one morning while we had class. But unpacking everything was left to us, and I was determined to live out of boxes for as short a time as possible, knowing what the clutter and disorder would do to my test-prep focus in the long run. After a few days balancing the minimum necessary studying with a frenzy of unpacking, organizing, furniture-arranging, picture-framing, curtain-hanging, and cleaning, the house was more or less to my satisfaction. I left a few things for later, things I still need to do, but I think it looks pretty great. I'll try to post pictures sometime soon.

So then it was back to the bar review grind, but at least with enough furniture to make us all comfortable this time. I got my balance of (fairly) heavy studying and (some) social life back, even managing three days in Las Vegas with Russell's family in late June and a fantastic housewarming/cookout with about 20 people on July 4th. The next day, just like one of our bar lecturers predicted, I kicked into high gear. We had one week of classes left; they ended two weeks before the exam began on July 26. I made a schedule with the aim of finishing all the work the bar review people had recommended, plus a little more on my weaker subjects, in time for the exam. This would require about 4-5 practice essays or multiple choice sets per day, plus the necessary reading to review for them.

Amazingly, I got it done. Besides about 2/3 of a day to see the final Harry Potter movie with a big group I'd organized and one day to float the Comal River on inner tubes with some friends soon to move out of state, I took virtually no breaks for three weeks. My scores on the practice multiple choice sets fluctuated, but mostly stayed above passing, and the essays I submitted for grading online were getting high enough scores to bolster the rest if need be. Exhausted, I took the bar lecturers' advice and did virtually no studying the last day before the exam. I saw Harry Potter again at the Alamo Drafthouse with my mom, wandered the aisles at Target, had a couple of good arguments with Robert (a Republican, which if it isn't glaringly obvious yet is not my persuasion) and bought enough breakfast tacos to eat on the way out the door each day of the test.

Which went fine. Seriously. So fine, and so much as expected, that I actually had moments of doubt wondering what I was missing. It was held in a big, bare convention space in the city's Palmer Events Center, just across the river from downtown and a little over ten minutes from our house. My assigned seat was at the end (very much my preference) of one of several hundred long, metal tables covered in white paper, with power strips running underneath for the parts of the exam where we could use laptops. I got surprisingly comfortable there over the three days.

The 26th was only a half-day of testing, with the 90-minute Multistate Performance Test (a kind of closed-universe problem-solving thing where you use a made-up case file to write a legal document, in this case a memo persuading members of a state committee that something would be unethical) and the 45-minute Criminal Procedure & Evidence and Civil Procedure & Evidence short-answer tests that day. I was more time-pressured than I had been in practice, so I got to proofread less than usual, but afterward everyone else said the same thing. I was also happy to have remembered (vaguely, but enough to cobble together an answer) an obscure bit of vocabulary that seemed to stump a lot of people on one question. I know because, however much we were told not to, Robert and I and the group we sat with at bar review couldn't resist going over our general impressions afterward.

The 27th was the Multistate Bar Exam, the multiple-choice part I had been a tad more nervous about. In the three-hour morning session, I got hung up on a Contracts question I felt like I should know but didn't, and that shook my confidence for a while. But overall, it felt like most of my practice runs: several questions I was certain about, a few where I had no clue, and a lot I could narrow down to two answer choices but then had to guess. Since a passing score often involves only half to two-thirds correct answers, this seemed all right. After sandwiches at nearby café for lunch, the second half felt different - fewer questions I was certain about, but a lot more where I was more than half sure - but equally fine. Driving home afterward, Robert and I both said we felt like we did what we needed to do: in his case, get a score high enough to balance out a weaker essay section the next day, and in my case, get a score that could be balanced out by better essays.

The 28th was my best day by far; not only were the essays bound to be my strong suit anyway, but I also felt like the examiners didn't throw many of the curve balls they could have. On two different questions, I couldn't remember an important part of the topic being tested, and then the question turned out to skirt that part completely, so I could give a super complete answer without it. On others, I couldn't remember ever learning a particular legal test and had to make one up based on the facts that seemed to be important in the question. But we'd been told this would be necessary on a regular basis and that the examiners would weigh our reasoning and organization much more heavily than our memory for actual law, so that was no cause for concern.

Leaving the exam site that day, shaky with relief, I was so happy to be ending on that high note. After a few hours decompressing at home, Russell took Robert and I to a pub downtown for fried pickles, burgers, and (in my case) too many prickly pear margaritas. We shouted a lot of things about having shown the bar examiners who was boss. It was excellent.

So then the exam was over, and with it my time as a student, the most important role I have played every day of my life so far. Russell and I knew this deserved some commemoration, even though we lacked the budget (and I frankly knew I would lack the energy) for anything so exotic as the trips to Asia, Turkey, Peru, and who knows where else my classmates had planned. So we booked five days at the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, which is just outside Bastrop State Park, about an hour drive from Austin. We just got back, and oh my god, the time we had!

The first night we watched the resort's excellent choice of family movie, Mulan, outdoors on the grass with free popcorn. The first full day we went rock climbing and zip lining at the neighboring McKinney Roughs Nature Park, then lounged by the gorgeous pool and floated the "crooked river" tube ride to our hearts' content. The second day, we took advantage of the free bicycle checkout to explore the grounds, including meeting some adolescent alpaca and miniature donkeys in the pasture (too cute to be true.) We threw horseshoes, spent more time by the pool, and then watched another outdoor movie, this time Finding Nemo. The next day was probably the best: after riding bikes again, we took a 3.5-mile kayak trip on the Colorado River, beginning upstream from the resort and winding up on our own doorstep. It was the most beautiful combination of sun, water, trees, and wildlife I'd seen in a long time. And after a little recovery time back in our room, I headed - you guessed it - back to the pool. Followed by a foot treatment at the nearby spa. Followed by room service and a movie with Russell. Followed by our last night of blissful sleep without our feline alarm clock going off every few hours.

It was hard coming home from all that, and I can't recommend the place enough to anyone wanting a vacation in Central Texas. Combining just enough relaxation with just enough adventure, it was the perfect way to celebrate our return to this beautiful state and kick off this next phase in my life. I'll miss so many things about the last phase (not the most recent few months, obviously), but mostly can't wait to get going on the new one.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Commencing, Part One

The insanity continues! I'm sure my total disappearance has made that obvious, but it bears repeating. If bar review isn't the absolute least pleasant thing I've ever done in my life, it at least gives the full decade of heavy-duty orthodontia I once endured a run for its money.

But I want to look back on commencement a little bit, while some memory of it isn't totally crowded out by oil and gas law or corporate director indemnification, and only then work my way up to where I am now, running this miserable gauntlet that supposedly marks the start of my career and adult life.

I flew back to Cambridge several days before commencement and spent all of them boxing up books, clothes, office supplies, decorations, and all the other odds and ends Russell couldn't get to while still working full time at Harvard. When I looked up and it was suddenly Class Day, the day prior to commencement marked by several law-school-specific festivities, and I needed to meet my mother and her fiancée for brunch, not nearly enough was done. For all my hard work, I looked around our place and still pretty much saw our place, not the mostly empty shell I had pictured us easily transferring into our moving pods the weekend after commencement.

So that caused some panic, but I had to set it aside and soak up the celebration that was coming whether I was ready or not. Class day was fantastic, with a few relatives trickling in throughout the day to hear Alec Baldwin's memorable address to our class - he said if he could go back and take our career path over his, he would do it - and see perhaps my all-time favorite professor accept the teaching award from my graduating class with such humor and poignancy it made me cry. Dinner was pub fare at Cambridge Common, such a beloved law student haunt that I was shocked the family could find a table, but happy to show them where I had spent so many good times over the years.

My dad arrived late that evening, after a tremendous snafu by his airline that he only managed to salvage through a huge expense of time and money that I still feel awful about. (My aunt and uncle, originally set to fly with him, arrived even later because he literally took the last seat on the less delayed of the two remaining flights that day. Just think what that would probably cost, and double it, and you may be in the ballpark.)

Still, when we had to get up before dawn the next day to stop for coffee and pastries (a bit of a father-daughter graduation tradition) before I went to line up at the law school and he went to meet my mom to claim their two seats at the enormous university-wide ceremony, he was positively cheerful. It was hard to leave him and know I would have no contact with them through all the pomp and circumstance that morning.

But it was also great to join my friends in the big march from the law school grounds to the Old Yard, where the graduate students all wait to process to their seats. We joked around, took tons of pictures, and listened to one particular friend, Robert, relate his incredible ordeal getting to Cambridge to walk with us. Like my dad, aunt, and uncle, his flight out of Dallas was cancelled, but only after he had reached Dallas and thus ruled out any other possible routes. After almost a day in both that city's airports, he wound up on a plane to Baltimore, where some nearby relatives picked him up and drove him through the night to meet us literally halfway through our march to the Yard. It was like something out of Home Alone, but there he was, smiling for photos with the rest of us, while the Dean of Students scrambled to find him a gavel to carry and a safety pin to keep the hood on his commencement gown in place.

On reaching our seats, we settled in for over three hours of ceremony, including one address in Latin (mercifully translated in the program) and separate certifications of the graduates from each school. Things got warm as the sun crept over the buildings around the Yard, people were coming and going frequently for water or the restroom by the end, and most of us seated in the sun eventually wriggled out of our heavy gowns as discreetly as possible. After much shouting and tears when we were pronounced "ready to aid in the shaping and application of those wise restraints that make men free," and after the honorary degrees were awarded (including to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and to Placido Domingo, who spontaneously sang for the Justice after hearing she was a big opera fan), we had to rush to get our robes back on to leave. After meeting my enormous family at the tables they'd claimed on Holmes Field, I stripped right back out again. So there are a lot of pictures of me from that day in just a black dress.

The law school ceremony was excellent, much briefer, and surprisingly informal with all the graduates and their families eating lunch at round tables packed onto the field. I, for one, completely chowed down and chatted quietly with my family through most of it. I was so happy to see them, a dozen or so having flown in the night before and not seen me yet, that their faces and kind words are what I remember most from the afternoon. Of course, Justice Ginsburg deciding to drop by and give an impromptu pep talk was also pretty spectacular. The graduates were called by first-year section to line up to receive diplomas, and my section was last, so I got a solid block of time to relax beforehand. Then there was a brief moment of panic when a problem with my robes made me the last person in the section to line up. I arrived with plenty of time, it turned out, but I regret not having longer with my classmates before we each walked across the stage and into our new lives.

That was definitely a surreal experience, up in front of the library with the trees rustling and cameras flashing all around. I don't know if it was appropriate, but I threw my arms around our section's faculty leader as he reached to shake my hand before I stepped off the stage. Other people had said they were going to do it, so I figured why not. On a broad set of steps near where we all picked up our actual diplomas (the thing they hand you on stage is just a cover to put it in), somebody suggested that all the section-mates hang out and take a picture together. We waited for every last person to walk, squeezed in tight, and smiled out at a hundred or so parents and spouses with cameras. In every shot I've seen so far, I'm making some funny face or other. I sure hope to find a good one someday.

So that was it, I had graduated, and the ceremony wound down quickly while I posed for a million more pictures with each family member of mine who had come. I knew that was important, but I was glad when it was over and I could take the robes off again and lead the group on a tour of the campus I love so much. We saw the gorgeous library reading room, one of the classrooms in Austin Hall (where everyone, very understandably, had to play at length with the microphones), and the Ames Courtroom, among other places. Then we ventured into my neighborhood, partly to show my Nana (who is the best cook anyone who meets her has ever met) the house where Julia Child lived and her favorite gourmet grocer where she signed "Bon Appetit!" in the sidewalk outside. Then we stopped for some refreshing sangria at Dali before heading through the Yard to catch the subway to dinner. We had a party space arranged at Tavern in Porter Square, where everyone loved the risotto fritters I hadn't shut up about for three years.

It was perfect.

Three fantastic days touring Boston with the family followed. We hit up the Freedom Trail, the North End, the Samuel Adams Brewery, the Kennedy Library, and who knows what else - my head spins just thinking about it. My feet have never hurt so badly in my life, and I used to dance ballet. But I could not have ended law school (not to mention three years in the dreary Northeast, which of course mustered such gorgeous weather for my relatives' entire visit that none of them believed me about the miserable climate) with a bigger bang.

And then Russell and I, with the help of some friends, neighbors, and one fabulous aunt who stayed for the duration, had to wrangle the rest of our belongings into boxes and load them into two moving pods and board a flight home to Texas.

What has happened since we got there, I think I'd better leave for another day.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Utter insanity

There's no other way to describe the experience of graduating from Harvard Law School, rushing home to start three-to-eight-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week bar review classes (and reading assignments, practice essays, and multiple choice drills), AND getting three people and a cat moved into a house WHILE two of your friends get married, another is in town from Hawaii, and your mom undergoes radiation therapy.
I've had scarcely enough time to sleep, eat, and shower, much less post updates on graduation and life afterward (to the extent that I get to have one!) But I thought some photos might satiate you for now. Enjoy:

Monday, May 30, 2011

Favorite Thing #8

I graduated on Thursday, and the grandeur and finality of that experience has still barely sunk in at all. The days in between have been a big blur of entertaining family around Boston, packing our belongings, and saying goodbye to some of the most extraordinary people I'll ever have the good fortune to know. I'm in total awe of the accomplishments of all my friends here and desperately sad to have to leave them tomorrow afternoon.

Anyhow, by Saturday morning when I took off for breakfast with my cousins, things had mostly quieted down on my path from the apartment to the Harvard Square subway stop. Reminders were everywhere of how much I have loved making that walk in the mornings, when the crowds of tourists haven't yet formed and there are glimpses of scenery so quiet and stately that I would hardly be surprised if a horse-drawn buggy appeared from around a corner somewhere.

As I walked, I started taking these pictures with my phone, using Hipstamatic settings on random. I think they capture it pretty well:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Favorite Things #5, 6, and 7

As the content of every travel guide I've ever read seems to prove, a major part of the experience of any place is the food. I'm moving home to a place with such outstanding, diverse, and crave-worthy food that I've missed that aspect of it almost as much as all the others combined. But there is also food in Cambridge, which isn't even particularly renowned for its dining, that my heart absolutely aches to think of leaving behind. So I want to dedicate a couple of Favorite Things to that.
1. The Veggie Bill Clinton at Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage, the tiny greasy-spoon establishment on Massachusetts Ave. just east of Harvard Square. I'm really struggling to get used to the idea that I may never have a veggie burger this satisfying again in my life. The Bill Clinton, named in gentle mockery of a public figure like all the other "gourmet" menu items at Bartley's, is smothered in barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese. And like every other burger there, you can order it with a veggie patty instead of meat. I'm sure some Bartley's acolytes think this is total sacrilege, but at a place whose offerings are so clearly about the delicious and creative toppings anyway, and for a dish that tastes so meaty and traditional and un-vegetarian without actually violating my chosen diet, I'm happy to tell them all to bite me. At least until I one this great in Austin, and then I can just shut up about my beloved "Veggie Bill," as the waiters call it.

2. The breakfast sandwiches on homemade English muffins at Crema Cafe. This wonderful coffee shop and bakery had just opened when my mother and I made our inaugural visit to Harvard back in May 2008, when I had just been admitted and realized I needed to find an apartment pronto. Because it was the first place we ever ate on that trip, and because we discovered it all by ourselves, we've had some sense of ownership or investment in its success ever since, and we shamelessly plug it to anyone with any opportunity to go. Happily, it is always jam-packed with people today - undoubtably due in part to the english muffins, ridiculous as that sounds. These things are like nothing you've ever tasted, totally incomparable to the store-bought variety. Tangy like a buttermilk biscuit, but more buttery (yes, that's possible) and less dense, they combine with the gooey cheese and peppery, always searing-hot eggs in such a simple yet wonderful way that it's difficult not to go back and order seconds. Maybe the staff will give me the recipe if I explain that I'm leaving forever and may wake up in tears on some future Sunday morning otherwise.

3. Everything on the menu at Dali, the eclectic and always absurdly crowded tapas place three blocks from our apartment. Every time I've been, whether for a friend's birthday, a date on some special occasion, or an end-of-week happy hour courtesy of Russell's boss, I haven't been able to shut up about a single thing on my plate. From the powerful sangria to the spicy potatoes with tart aioli on top, the rich tortilla espanola, the broccoli-cauliflower fritters, and most of all the creamy, sweet fried goat cheese we almost always order twice, I have never had a meal there not worth the high price and long wait (nor has anyone else, I think, based on the unsolicited effusive praise most people offer when they find out I live so close to the place.) I'm so glad we have plans to eat there one more time before moving!

Well, wow - can you tell I've been eating a lot of my own lower-calorie cooking lately in hopes of looking a little slimmer in all the pictures I'll be taking around graduation? I guess I should be careful not to undo all my efforts by scarfing everything in sight from the moment I land at Logan Airport! Maybe a post about the fantastic eating in Austin, just to remind myself not to seize too frantically on all my last opportunities to enjoy these foods, is in order. (:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Favorite Thing #4

My apologies for the long gap in posts as I wrapped up my final papers and got settled in a new house with no Internet yet! At the moment I'm sitting in the sunshine and 88-degree warmth on the beautiful lakeside patio at Mozart's Coffee Roasters in Austin, taking advantage of the free wireless and trying to get a little tan on my arms and legs so people at graduation will believe I spent three weeks away from Cambridge, where it's 49 degrees today.
Weather aside, though, as graduation grows nearer and nearer, I definitely find myself thinking of my favorite parts of living and studying there. A big one came to mind recently when the Dean of Students Office sent its weekly e-mail about graduation logistics. And fortunately, it's one thing about Harvard that I will NOT have to miss: my law school e-mail address.

It may sound minor, but I have to say how much I love that student e-mail addresses at HLS are assigned for life, so I will never have to surrender mine the way I did after finishing my bachelor's at Texas. There is something so great about the fact that, as long as I live, people can contact me by typing in my first initial, last name, and the domain "" And that I can contact my classmates the same way for as long as they live, too.

Harvard will quit storing e-mails sent to this address and instead forward them to another one we provide, so I finally had to set up that Gmail account I'd been avoiding, enjoying the simplicity of having just one e-mail address. But this was obviously for the best, and I know it's the only way Harvard could feasibly allow their alumni to keep their e-mail addresses forever. It still adds to the sense that by going here, I have joined a community with which I'll want to stay connected my whole life. Cheesy, like so much of what I've written here the past three years, but true.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Favorite Thing #3

I'm in Austin now, finishing papers away from the stressful law school atmosphere and getting settled for the summer and bar review before flying back to Cambridge to graduate and pack up the apartment. I think it's going to be fun doing these Favorite Things from here, where they take on a little extra nostalgia.

This is my favorite building on the law campus, the library, Langdell Hall.
It's so different from most of the other law buildings, and so much the epitome of what I think a law library should be, that it about stopped my heart the first time I rounded a corner on campus and saw the exterior and again when I hit the top of the stairs from the dim lower floors into the gorgeous Reading Room.

A huge portion of the things I'll miss most from Harvard are located in this building. For one thing, there's a table where I know a few members of my 1L section will always be sitting if I need some moral support while studying. Also, a funny assortment of milestones have happened around the printers on the ground floor, because ours at home isn't quite reliable enough for the really important stuff. So my applications to TAP, various "by permission of the professor" courses, and the Texas Bar issued from this building. And the lease for my house in Austin, which begins May 5.

I'm going to miss having access to insanely rare historical documents on demand. A scanner that nobody ever seems to be using when I need it. Reference librarians who work unbelievable hours and will always hand me a spare Bluebook when I leave mine at home. Big containers of staples, paper clips, and binder clips for anybody to take. The DVD library where I got seasons of The West Wing to show Russell. Having somewhere beautiful and nearly silent to work, sleep, or just stare outside whenever I want.

I told you these posts were going to be extra nostalgic.