Archive for August, 2012


This is my first week of law school. I have now been living in New York city (The City) for five days.

I live in D’Agostino hall, in an apartment that is both far smaller than my last residence and less unpleasant than I had imagined. I have acquired a foam pad for my tragically thin and obscenely uncomfortable mattress*. I have learned to shut my blinds so the law students studying in Vanderbilt Hall (directly across the street) don’t have to see me when I’m changing. In the purple “NYU Law Alumni Welcome You!” bag I received on Wednesday, as the first part of the orientation “festivities”, I found some chocolates, a soft-and-squeezable gavel (for when I feel the need to crush something law-related in my fist, I guess), and a set of earplugs which has already come in handy multiple times, thanks to the (quite talented) saxophonist who nightly performs outside my window.

We 450 “1Ls” (we few, we happy few!) haven’t yet begun any of our actual classes. Those begin next Wednesday, and will all be taught by legends in their fields. Just to give you an idea of the great brains that will be lecturing me (in an anonymous crowd of fifty or so, of course–it’s not like I’m special here), my schedule includes:

-Civil Procedure with Samuel Issacharoff,

-Criminal Law with Erin Murphy, and

-Contracts with Richard Epstein**

So, you know, that’s something to get excited about.

For the moment, though, my days begin with morning lectures in the grand auditorium on the subject of “what is a law class like?” and “how do I study for finals?” and “please please don’t do anything stupid or illegal because all of your prospective future employers will find out and, in law school, we don’t report your behavior to your parents but we do report you to the ABA.”

Also, we 1Ls have started a class called Lawyering: a stress- free pass/fail class of only about thirty people, devoted to teaching the rudiments of legal analysis and note-taking and maybe representing a client in a law-type situation. Most of class is taken up with role playing. On the first day of class, on Thursday, we divided into groups acting as plaintiff, defendant, and judge, and responded in character to the following scenario:

Town X has a lovely park. In response to a recent tragic accident, the town passed a law that no vehicles are to be allowed in the park, subject to a $200 fine. Now, on a recent summer afternoon, Angelina Jolie was spending a day with her family near the park, when an angry Jennifer Aniston leapt from the nearby bushes and rushed toward them with unknown intent. The whole Pitt-Jolie clan mounted a set of motorized bicycles, which they had on hand, and fled in all directions. Jolie motored into the park, where she was cited by the park ranger. Jolie now contests the fine.

Astute readers will recognize this scenario from the standard law-prep book Getting to Maybe, which pretty much every new law student has read months before arriving at school◊. The celebrity appearances are, I think, entirely attributable to professorial ingenuity.

The question, of course, hinges on how the court will define the term “vehicle” from the statute. And, as in so many instances of linguistic interpretation, attempts to answer always lead into confusion. Subsequent exercises go on to elaborate this point, ie. what if Jolie is instead a crippled woman riding a motorized wheelchair? What if she’s a fireperson in a firetruck, rushing to extinguish a flaming tree? What if she’s an artist who wants a license to erect a public work of art commemorating the town’s great love of Nascar, in the form of an old (and locked) Indy-500 car mounted on a pedestal?

This is not what law teachers are referring to when they describe the “Socratic Method”, but it is socratic-style teaching in the truest sense. Speaking of ordinary language philosophy, Stanley Cavell says in “Must We Mean What We Say”: “Socrates gets his antagonists to withdraw their definitions not because they do not know what their words mean, but because they do know what they (their words) mean and therefore know that Socrates has led them into paradox” (MWMWWS, 39).

These paradoxes are, apparently, the stuff that litigation is made of, and NYU’s class of 2015 will be prepared to answer them. Or, at least, to make strong arguments for either side in exchange for a percentage of any damages awarded to the victor.

*said mattress, I should note, is an extra-long twin: a size I swore I’d never again occupy after I left the dorms of my undergraduate university. I feel less adult.

**Maybe it’s not saying much, but this is the first time I’ll have ever had a professor with their own wikipedia page. Clearly, we’re dealing with big shots here.

◊The course textbook tells me this scenario was actually originated by H.L.A. Hart in 1958, so apparently it’s been around for a while now.


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This post brought to you by clean water. From the mountains.

As a more practical addendum to my most recent post, I feel like I should send a shout-out to a pretty much revolutionary device which I used for the first time on this summer’s backpacking trip. Consider this a ScholarAdventurer first: we’re doing product reviews.

Grandpa has recently gone on an exciting quest to eliminate all excess weight from his backpack. On this recent week-long trip, he carried food, tent, stove, fuel, and all necessaries on his back, and yet the pack weighed just over twenty pounds. For comparison, I consider myself fortunate if I can get below thirty.

In the process of cutting weight, he’s acquired the latest in ultralight hiking technology. We slept in a tent that was made of some Rivendell-style gossamer mesh. We ate food that had been dehydrated and then double-dehydrated, for maximum dehydration. However, maybe the most exciting thing Grandpa has discovered is the SteriPen.

See, the thing is that water in the mountains isn’t really drinkable. Sure, you might be able to safely drink the water in certain very remote brooks in like Alaska or the Himalayas, but for the most part water in the Sierra Nevada is contaminated by malevolent parasites, and has been ever since woolly mammoths sought refreshment from crystalline alpine springs.

Or, probably, since the 1970s. Grandpa has fond memories of a time when he would go to the mountains without even a water bottle, and would just dip a tin cup in any passing stream. He blames the change on the hippies, and pack mules, both of which are known for their poor hygiene. For as long as I have been alive, in any case, it has been a really really bad idea to drink from even the highest and most secluded water source without taking protective measures. To do otherwise risks having to deal with this gentleman:

Sorry. I probably should have warned you that some really horrifying imagery was coming there, so the sensitive-of-stomach could avert their eyes. The microscopic world is both wondrous and terrible. This is giardia, which wikipedia informs me is an anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasite. I don’t think I’ve ever met a backpacker who didn’t a least know somebody who had contracted it.

What happens is some infected person or animal (in the mountains, I’m told, it’s often pack mules*) voids its bowels in the water of some high place, or near the water so that the rain will wash it down, and the parasite then lurks there until it gets the opportunity to infest an unsuspecting human. Then, once it’s in your intestines, it waits a few days or even a few weeks, multiplying, biding its time… until it strikes! Deadly diarrhea, pain and suffering, blood and (occasionally, I think) spontaneous combustion. These symptoms can last for weeks and, get this, sometimes they never entirely go away. You get this bug, you could spend the rest of your life in its company.

Anyway, the point is that ever since I started hiking there have been only three really viable ways to make sure your drinking water is as pure and clear as it looks and tastes. You can boil it–which is time consuming, and requires heavy fuel**, you can kill the bugs with iodine (which tastes vile), or you can pump your water through a charcoal filter, which is also time consuming, and labor intensive, but was always my preferred method. There was even something satisfyingly rustic in using the labor of my arms to obtain my water, like some primitive mountain man (with an eighty dollar filtration system) drawing his drink from a well he bored into the hillside.

That is all changed now, though, because modern technology has learned that, actually, weirdly, giardia can also be killed by ultraviolet light.

This is very strange to me. Ultraviolet light, I’m pretty sure, is generated by normal sunlight, which hits lakes in the mountains all the time without killing their bacteria. I suspect that lots of the things that grow in lakes actually probably like sunlight. Nonetheless, we live in interesting times. I spent a full week doing nothing to treat my water except swizzling a little blue light in it before I drank, and I felt a constant nagging fear that I was signing my own death sentence.

Now that over a month has passed, however, and I can say with reasonable confidence that I am not suffering explosive pooping, I can confirm that mountain water can actually be made potable by exposure to ultraviolet light. And if you thought it was satisfying to work your ass off for a bottle of water, wait until you turn on this thing that looks like a miniature lightsaber–this thing which requires no expensive replacement filters, doesn’t change the water’s taste, and weighs practically nothing–and zap the parasites to hell like a goddamn space man.

*About which I could rant a great deal. Sure, they make the mountains accessible for the infirm, the elderly, and the obese, but at what cost?! Their hooves pound the hell out of the trails, leading to erosion and dust. Their feces infect the streams. Now, if you want a good mountain animal–one that actually evolved to climb around in the heights, you need to look somewhere else.

**Because we DO NOT light campfires in the high sierra.

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On the flight to Hawaii, and in Hawaii, I read Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and I loved it and so now I’m reading Blood Meridian, and it makes me want to write a blog post about my trip to the mountains, made more visceral with straightforward, masculine descriptions of the smell of  the sun setting over the knife-sharp peaks and high blue alpine lakes rimmed with steep granite walls polished to glassy smoothness by a hundred thousand pounds of glacial ice over the course of a hundred thousand silent cold years. Something about the fresh glitter of sap on young sugar-pines and the drone of mosquitoes in the still air of old ponderosas, and the twisted fluid patterns in the wood of the occasional ancient bristlecone pine and, at the lake where my grandfather and I made our camp on this particular hiking trip, the smell of fresh rot in dozens of trees uprooted or cracked apart in some tremendous recent winter avalanche, each treetop horizontal pointing northward and no trace of the heavy winter snows that felled them.

The scenery of the Sierra Nevada as you drive up into the shadow of the mountains from the bright sun of the Owens Valley is terrifying like the ocean or like God; it is beautiful in the way that only enormous things with no regard for human life can be beautiful. It overwhelms you And after a few days of fair weather, of shaded hikes and calm warm nights,  you can just start to forget the scale of it all, temporarily, until you come around the bend to some new babbling cascade, or the sun hits the gray rock just so, and the whole thing crashes back upon you all at once like a wave.

On certain hikes, the mountain itself can be an adversary, pummeling you with rockslides, or strong wind and hail, or the risk of lightning, or temperatures better suited to the arctic. If this were a McCarthy novel, I’d probably have something to report of that nature — painful encounters with weather, or with bears, or with the drug cartels which are said to grow assorted plantations of marijuana in the less traveled corners of even some national parks: small but well-irrigated fields patrolled by casual-appearing hikers with discreetly concealed firearms.  As it turns out, however, the danger and wildness are all at home. While I was away hiking in the woods, some bold criminal propped a ladder to the back of my Boston apartment, climbed fifteen feet to a half-open bathroom window, and sauntered out the front door a few moments later with a television and a few other valuable trinkets. For the hike, I was blessed with temperate weather, with only the lightest of afternoon thunderstorms, and a surprising dearth of mosquitoes.

Every summer, for the past fourteen years, I’ve spent a week or two walking the high sierra with my grandfather. At this point, he’s been returning to the mountains for more than twice as long as I’ve been alive, and I suspect he knows his way around the hills as well as John Muir himself did. On this particular trip, we returned to a little travelled lake below Lamarck Col*, making our camp at the second (and later, the third) in a chain aptly named the Wonder Lakes (you’ll find them on the top right of the linked map).

These lakes, like the nearby Lamarck Lakes, are deep and cold, fed by a shocking series of waterfalls that appear suddenly and with little warning as you walk around the hills. They are ill suited for long-trips and ambitious hikers — once you get up into the Wonder Lakes, there is no pass to climb over, unless you want to climb two thousand feet of crumbling granite, and descend through the same to wind up in Bishop Creek (which is far more easily accessible by other means). The valley is better suited for those like us, going hiking for four or five days, with no goal other than to enjoy the scenery, and relax a bit, and read some Auden in a place that rewards slow meditation. My one regret is that we did not bring fishing poles; the golden trout were leaping out of the water at dawn and dusk, in great numbers, and a line and lure would have helped the time pass more pleasantly (and, with some cornmeal, would have furnished us a fine meal).

On my first trip to the Wonder Lakes, maybe five years ago, an old man (though not so old as my old man — you see very few men of over seventy years making the effort to carry twenty five pounds of weight in that thin air) pulled me aside on the trail, and when I told him where I was going he said, with proprietary vehemence, you take care of those lakes. He was probably concerned that a young buck like me would be careless, and would befoul the streams and leave the remnants of my campfire and toilet strewn about as the young and careless too-often do in the mountains. I was raised better than that, and now I think I can also empathize with that old man. I keep coming back to these high lakes, and it is more and more apparent how very fragile they actually are, and how much their pristine condition owes to the fact that there is no trail leading to them, and no trail leading away, so that even though they are within seven miles of the trailhead, only a few travelers at a time are ever there to visit.

When you are there, it is possible to forget how close you are to civilization (and when you hike in California, to be fair, you’re never that far from the civilized world). The silence alone is incredible. The high stone walls close you in, and sun sets early over the near western peaks, leaving you with the surprisingly cold bite of the wind blowing off the higher ridges, and the surprisingly deep blue of the sky sinking to deeper purple and then black, and all the thousands of stars that don’t exist when you’re in the city, reminding you that there actually is a whole universe out there (which is surprisingly easy to forget, when you’re at home in your apartment).

These secluded lakes and valleys are something special. May they remain, as they are, untouched.

The Old Man, in the mountains

*Owing to my partner’s advanced age, and our own time constraints, we did not attempt to pass the Col into Darwin Canyon and Evolution Valley — an area of the mountains in which, if rumor is correct, the vistas are as gorgeous as the Yosemite, but without the crowd, and cheerful silver trout leap nibble readily at every wanderer’s baited line and, for all I know, dinosaurs still walk the earth in all their prehistoric splendor. We’ll save that lost world for a different hike.

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