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Selected Topics in Magical Thinking

January 10, 2011

More “day job” work these days, friends visiting this week from afar, and school starting next week, so I don’t anticipate being able to post as much or as often for a while, at least for the next few weeks.  A dearth of “arty” content to write about lately, it seems, probably due to the overall holiday lull, though I’m thinking (hoping, expecting, given that I’m forking out nearly $750 w/books for it) that my art history class will give me plenty of food for thought.  Being totally selfly-edumacated, I have no idea what the rules are at School– are you plagiarizing yourself if you write notes towards a paper on your blog?  Are you “cheating” somehow if you convert your class notes into blog posts; are you breaking some rule or providing cribbing material for others?  I guess I’ll find out the hard way.  But the nice thing is that, as an employed adult student, I’m not under the dark shadow of GPAzilla – I want to earn a good grade to prove to myself that I “get it” and can function at this level, but it’s not the End of Days if I don’t get an A.

An unintentionally funny article in the Times yesterday, about the value of a law school degree.  The schools themselves game the system to make their degrees look more valuable:

In 1997, when U.S. News first published a statistic called “graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation,” law schools reported an average employment rate of 84 percent. In the most recent U.S. News rankings, 93 percent of grads were working — nearly a 10-point jump…It is an open secret, Professor Henderson and others say, that schools finesse survey information in dozens of ways. And the survey’s guidelines, which are established not by U.S. News but by the American Bar Association, in conjunction with an organization called the National Association for Law Placement, all but invite trimming. A law grad, for instance, counts as “employed after nine months” even if he or she has a job that doesn’t require a law degree. Waiting tables at Applebee’s? You’re employed. Stocking aisles at Home Depot? You’re working, too.

I wonder if the “case study” in the article, Michael Wallerstein, has any idea how absurd he sounds.  Young Master Wallerstein took on $250,000 in debt to obtain his law degree from a (second tier? third tier?) school, and has gotten some temp/piecework but no F/T job, but radiates a “surfer-dude serenity” when thinking about his debt.

“And I don’t open the e-mail alerts with my credit score,” he adds. “I can’t look at my credit score any more.”

…Mr. Wallerstein…was drawn by the prestige of the degree. He has no regrets, at least for now, even though he seems doomed to a type of indentured servitude at least through his 30s…

WHEN he start in 2006, Michael Wallerstein knew little about the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, other than that it was in San Diego, which seemed like a fine place to spend three years.

“I looked at schools in Pennsylvania and Long Island,” he says, “but I thought, why not go somewhere I’ll enjoy?”

…Mr Wallerstein, for his part, is not complaining. Once you throw in the intangibles of having a J.D., he says, he is one of law schools’ satisfied customers.
“It’s a prestige thing,” he says. “I’m an attorney. All of my friends see me as a person they look up to. They understand I’m in a lot of debt, but I’ve done something they feel they could never do and the respect and admiration is important.”

…And he’s a quarter-million dollars in the hole.  Unless, somehow, the debt just goes away. Another of Mr. Wallerstein’s techniques for remaining cool in a serious financial pickle: believe that the pickle might somehow disappear.

“Bank bailouts, company bailouts — I don’t know, we’re the generation of bailouts,” he says in a hallway during a break from his Peak Discovery job. “And like, this debt of mine is just sort of, it’s a little illusory. I feel like at some point, I’ll negotiate it away, or they won’t collect it.”

Right, and the MacArthur Foundation is reading my blog every day, trying to decide how many brazillions of dollars to give me for being such a genius.  I guess law school is now better at teaching magical thinking than critical thinking.  My question is, how can I get a quarter million in loans to pursue my dreams?  In my own magical thinking, I’ve already got my genius grant/lottery winnings/secret inheritance all spent.  Get out of debt, hie thee hither to NYC, get an art history degree (or at least take all the classes towards it if not all the undergrad whatnot), travel widely and deeply in Italy and France, start learning guitar again…and oh yeah, spend some of all that time I don’t have to spend earning a living writing a novel, something for which you need a lot of time and energy.

I got a lot of reading done this weekend, including William Gibson’s Zero History.  I like the way he writes about “stuff” – the fetishization of sneakers or “secret brands,” how people you’ve just met nod wisely as if they know all about you based on your fucking shoes.  His tone is just right; you can’t hear the satire unless you’re really listening, you can allow yourself to be lost in the “coolness” of everybody and every object in the book and wish you, too, could be so awesomely cutting-edge in your acquisitions, could have been born into the aristocracy of blue-blooded genetic traits that allow your tiny assless hips to fit into skinny jeans. 

Underneath all that surface, though, Gibson’s moved beyond some of that satire (not to give too much away for those who haven’t read the “trilogy” that concludes, I think, with this book, but the “brand allergy” trope from previous novels re-emerges here), and he talks about how hard it is to produce, well, a work of craftsmanship, especially in the realm of clothing, without it either devolving into mass-produced crap or pricing itself out of the market.  Create something wonderful, and the corporate leviathans want to consume you, not to make more of your product at the same level of quality, but to take the cachet of your “brand” and gut the content, to sell the grooviness to the masses without the quality that made your stuff “cool” in the first place.  And if you don’t “sell out,” they’ll just copy the look and feel and price you out of the market.

I’m always amazed at acknowledgement pages – how many people it takes to write a novel.  I suppose I was one of the last generations to be raised with the idea (or illusion) of the Great Man Toiling Alone, the Great Work bursting forth “fully formed” like Athena from the brow of Zeus.  It never really happened that way, I see now – that was all just marketing, too, the self-promotion of “geniuses” who wanted to appear godlike.  It always “took a village” to write a book, not just in the cynical sense of needing the connections to get published, but in the human resources required for input, feedback, expertise, support.  The most interesting thing about Gibson’s acknowledgements is how transparent he is about having “outsourced” his conceptual needs to various qualified entities.  I wonder if what’s blocking me isn’t just time or energy, but working in a vacuum – with any luck, “School” will be an entrée into a village where I’ll be welcome, and at home at last.

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