“There Is Absolutely Nothing Wrong With Law School” (For Some People)

tiny beautiful thingsAs the “Dear Sugar” columnist for The Rumpus, Cheryl Strayed doled out encouragement and guidance to souls who described themselves as “stuck,” “suffocated,” and “crushed” (among other similarly unfortunate states). Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (2012) is a collection of these requests for advice and Sugar’s responses.

Strayed provides nuggets of wisdom, but they’re buried within what sometimes seems—at least to me—like a mountain of gibberish. I’m not a poetic or philosophical person. I like writing that gets to the point efficiently, and so I cringed every time Strayed went on a tangent about events in her own life that were, at best, only marginally related to the request. Still, some of Strayed’s letters are beautiful and resonated with me, particularly when she answers a question similar to one I’ve had to answer myself.

For example, in The Future Has an Ancient Heart, a creative writing professor asks Sugar to “deliver a graduation speech for [a] class of writers,” many of whom “are tired of the ‘being an English major prepares you for law school’ comments being made by friends and family alike.” To this class, Sugar says:

“You’re going to be all right. And [] not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way. […]

You have to do what you have to do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.”

As a public interest attorney who regularly interacts with undergraduate interns, many of whom are studying English and contemplating law school, I have often said something along the lines of “There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.”

I was an undergraduate history major, which is about as marketable as an English degree. With my stereotypically South Asian mother to appease, I couldn’t have a gap or temporary job on my resumé. It was already bad enough that I wasn’t pre-med. So, law school it was, and it turned out to be the perfect choice for me. But, obviously, it isn’t a good choice for everyone with an undergraduate degree as useless as mine.

Sugar is right about law school—don’t go unless you want to be lawyer—except that few undergrads really know what it means to be a lawyer. No two lawyers are alike. The only thing a law degree does is give us is the ability to sit for a 2-3 day-long bar exam in the state(s) of our choice. Then, if we pass, we can say we’re lawyers, members of a profession that is so diverse that the term is almost meaningless, like if every oncologist, dentist, immunologist, and veterinarian was called “doctor” without any further delineation.

A few years ago, a preschool teacher asked Mr. A.M.B, who is also a lawyer, to explain what he does to a bunch of four-year-olds. He said, “I fix problems.” My practice is different from his, but I also fix problems. We give advice, kind of like Sugar does, but of the legal variety. Our knowledge of statutes, case law, and systems—the nuts and bolts of our society—allow us to advise clients on matters in court or in negotiations that directly affect their lives. Other lawyers, though, don’t represent clients at all, working instead in policy, academia, or other fields where insider knowledge of how laws work helps them.

So, I recommend law school to those who want to understand how our society functions, particularly if they’ve made an effort to see what “being a lawyer” looks like in real life and not just on TV (as elucidating as entertainment like My Cousin Vinny may actually be!). But they should do it as cheaply as possible, because one thing a law degree won’t guarantee is a job. Far too many JDs have found their degree about as marketable as the one they received in the humanities.

I say this as one of the lucky ones. I had a great law school experience that helped me secure the job of my dreams, but I’ll be paying off those loans until I’m 45.*


*My law school has a loan forgiveness program for public interest attorneys, but I don’t qualify because I got married to someone who earns more money than I do. The decision to get married can have downsides, but that’s a topic better suited for an advice column like “Dear Sugar.” ;)

**Mr. A.M.B. recently reviewed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m skeptical of the premise, but my husband liked the book.

***Thanks to Katie from Words for Worms for choosing Tiny Beautiful Things for the Fellowship of the Worms read-along. Please check out her blog to see what everyone is saying about it.

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Sideways Stories: Still Fun (Mostly)

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

I read Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School for the first time in the early 1990s, towards the end of my elementary school years. Two decades later, I remembered the humorous collection of short stories about a school built with one classroom on top of the other well enough to recommend it to my daughters. We were on a road trip, during which one child moaned about boredom and another suffered from car sickness, while all three complained about how long it was taking us to get to our destination.

With several hours left until we could say “YES” to the universally irritating question, “Are we there yet?,” Mr. A.M.B. downloaded the audiobook version of Sideways Stories from Wayside School. The humorous stories have a dark element to them, like many fairy tales do, but my children loved it. They listened to each story quietly, interrupting the peace only with their laughter.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School was originally published in 1978, a time when we were far less politically correct than we are today. Listening to the audiobook with my children, I joined in the laughter, but I also cringed on occasion, such as when a little girl threatens to kiss another child against his will, when a child physically assaults a teacher, and, most problematically, when robbers bring guns into the school. They don’t end up hurting anyone, but even a brief reference to guns in school just isn’t funny in our post-Columbine educational environment.

Columbine (1999) certainly wasn’t the first school shooting in the United States, but that tragic event reduced our sense of safety and resulted in a slew of security measures that made schools feel more like prisons. In just a few days, we will observe the two-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Massacre, in which twenty children (who were the same age as my twins are now) and six adults were killed. As Mother Jones investigated recently, finding that “fatal gun attacks at schools and on college campuses remain a fixture of American life,” there has been a school shooting in the United States every five weeks, on average, since Sandy Hook.

The world is a different place now than it was in 1978, for better and for worse, making some small parts of Sachar’s book feel inappropriate today. That said, I would never stop my children from reading/listening to it again. Rather, it’s become part of a gentle discussion we’re having with them about safety at school. I learned that the mention of guns in the book reminded one of my daughters about a safety drill that she described as “very scary.”

Still, Sideways Stories from Wayside School and its sequel, Wayside School Is Falling Down (1989), are actually now among my twins’ favorite books.** While I continue to cringe at parts, there is also so much to love about these stories. Even the chapter with the robbers ends with one of them declaring, “Maybe I’ll give up being a criminal and become a scientist,” after a child teaches him an important lesson: that knowledge is worth more than money. It’s too bad there’s a reference to guns in the school. It isn’t necessary.

*There is also a third book, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger (1995). We own a paperback copy of it, but haven’t read it yet.


m-and-s-birthday-2014**My twins are 7-years-old today. I wanted to blog about one of their favorite books to commemorate their birthday, but this post took a darker turn than I had originally intended. See also, They Aren’t Babies Anymore (And I Wish They Still Were).

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Two Lovely Berries: Thank Yous & An Apology

Two Lovely Berries_Cover August 2014I usually have no trouble blogging about a variety of topics, from sloth mating to dinosaurs, but I’ve had “bloggers’ block” when it comes to discussing my creative writing. As some of you have noticed (I’m looking at you, Miss Alexandrina), I don’t blog much about Two Lovely Berries, my New Adult novel, or my current WIP, which is progressing steadily. I just find it easier to talk about other people’s books.

Still, I wanted to take a moment to say THANK YOU to the readers who have given Two Lovely Berries a chance, including those who have mentioned it on their own blogs:

(1) Monika from A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall:

(2) Roy from Back on the Rock:

(3) Katie from Words for Worms:

  • Two Lovely Berries by A.M. Blair (Aug. 28, 2014): “I found the story engrossing from the start. Books that focus on interpersonal relationships sometimes turn a corner into a weird introspective place, but I thought Two Lovely Berries stayed grounded firmly in reality. Everything was realistically portrayed, and even the dramatic bits avoided abject melodrama. Tales of infidelity, workaholics, family violence, and sibling rivalry all blend together with refreshing glimmers of humanity that make the whole thing just work.”
  • Double Vision (An Idiosyncratic Lit List) (Aug. 29, 2014): “[A]fter reading Two Lovely Berries last week, I’m inspired to talk about twins in literature… (1) Nora and Aubrey Daley from Two Lovely Berries by AM Blair: Oh these girls! They knew they’d never be the dress-alike-and-live-together-forever kind of twins, but they didn’t see all the crazy that was coming their way. Sharing identical genetic codes doesn’t guarantee a strife-free existence!”

Finally, I wanted to apologize to those who have asked me when the paperback will be available. While self-publishing saved me time up front—I never wasted a minute on writing a query letter, for example—it’s challenging to be the only one responsible for publishing the book. With such little time to devote to creative endeavors lately, I haven’t been able to finalize the paperback yet. It doesn’t help that my perfectionism gets in the way of approving the proofs. Honestly, I don’t know how any of the self-published authors I’ve come to know and love manage to do it all.

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Wild: So I Read An Oprah Book Club Pick

Wild Title

The “I” in the title to this post refers to my husband, Mr. A.M.B, who recently finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I have to be honest that nothing about the premise of this book interests me — it sounds like a cliché adventure and self-discovery story to me — but I love how much my husband loved it. He’s convinced me to add it to my TBR list.

Here’s his review:

When I think of Oprah’s Book of the Month club, I mostly recall, with distaste, the James Frey fiasco (including the frustrating way they made up afterwards), and, with amusement, the beef she had with Jonathan Franzen (which was also quashed, more understandably so). I personally think her club is a positive force in our society — anyone who encourages millions of television viewers to turn off the TV and read John Steinbeck  is fine by me — but it’s not where I’d look for book recommendations.

And yet, I just finished and enjoyed another* recently-published book from her club (or, rather, from her new “2.0” club), Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, about her rather ill-conceived idea to hike the “PCT” in the wake of her mother’s death, the breakup of her marriage, and her addiction to heroin.

I didn’t know it was in Oprah’s club. I found it by way of the blog Farnam Street, which briefly mentioned it while actually discussing the release of Strayed’s new book, Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of the advice columns she wrote as “Dear Sugar.” Farnam Street recalled reading Wild “cover-to-cover on a flight,” so that “[w]hen the pilot announced that we’d be circling Heathrow for 20 minutes, I was the only one happy. I only had a few pages left.” The column he excerpted was then so whimsical and heartfelt that I felt obliged to get at least one of the books. I went for Wild, as I was about to get on a plane myself for a business trip.

Given the considerable attention devoted to the book — it’s now a movie, too — there’s little use in me reciting that it is, like Amazon’s own review says, “a story that inhabits a unique riparian zone between wilderness tale and personal-redemption memoir.” It is as good as the reviews say; if it sounds like something you might like, then odds are you’ll like it.

As nature writing, Wild makes no claim to the inquisitiveness and erudition of, say, John McPhee. As memoir, Strayed’s life even before 30 is so senselessly tragic — half the result of fate, half the result of her own mistakes — that it’s easy to block it out entirely. But what makes this book is how it cannot be pigeonholed as a travel memoir or a grief observed. It is rather a careful, thorough, honest telling of Strayed’s journey, emotional and physical. Much of the charm comes from her naïveté about the natural world and, in turn, about her own nature:

Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore , but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed.

Importantly, Strayed is not “wild,” nor is her writing “raw,” as several of the reviews called it. Wild is not, say, a recollection of reckless times by a person who remains just as unhinged today (e.g., Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) nor an effort to understand the foolish choices of another (e.g., Into the Wild). Rather, with the benefit of time and reflection and maturation, Strayed can explore and explicate the whirlwind of emotions she went through on her trip, sometimes prompted by coincidences (like being on the trail on what would have been her mother’s birthday), sometimes prompted by nothing at all — making it deeply personal while also universally relatable.

Here’s the part that particularly hit close to home for me: At the end of her journey, which happens to be at an ice cream stand, the only other customer there strikes up a conversation, in which Strayed explains her journey. This conversation ensued:

“That’s incredible. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. A big journey.”

“You could. You should. Believe me, if I can do this, anyone can.”

“I can’t get the time off of work— I’m an attorney,” he said.

Ouch. Perhaps it’s time to get out of the office more.

* The other book that I read and enjoyed, and which happens to be on Oprah’s list, was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I read both of the Franzen books and liked neither. Speaking of so-called “men’s literature,” like McCarthy and Franzen, I noticed at the end of the book that Strayed thanks her “stellar writers group,” which included none other than Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.

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When Schools Allow Parents to Shelter Their Kids (But Not Mine)

Ask PermissionParents are rarely happy about the education their children receive, or so it seems.

Some complaints are legitimate, particularly in our current climate of education funding cuts. Others, however, are based on nothing more than the parent’s rosy memory about the education he or she received (that faulty assumption that everything was better in the past!) or, in the worst cases, the parent’s bizarre desire to force his or her views on everyone else’s children.

It’s usually the latter type of person who challenges the books included in the curriculum or on the library shelves. I sympathize with the teachers and school administrators who have to deal with those complaints—that is, until they cave in to the pressure. From a public relations perspective, what may seem like a reasonable policy of appeasing parents can backfire if the school’s decision to ban books makes the news.

Remember when the Alamogordo Public School District in New Mexico withdrew Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the 10th grade curriculum? The district restored the book, but not in time to save itself from widespread public scrutiny.

When I wrote about that fiasco, I noted how a distict’s decision to remove a book from the curriculum differs from its decision to remove it from the school library:

A curriculum forces students to read certain material, whether they or their parents want such exposure, while the library merely provides students with access to materials they could choose to borrow. Thus, it makes sense that there would be wider latitude given to districts to remove books from school curricula than to remove books from library shelves.

As a result, courts rarely disturb a school district’s decisions about curricula. See, e.g., Ward v. Polite, 667 F.3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.”).

So, considering how hard it is for parents to challenge the inclusion or exclusion of a supposedly controversial book, how should districts handle parental complaints? Just about every book — even something as seemingly innocuous as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree — is “controversial” to someone.

Well, my preferred response is for the district to consider whether the book furthers a legitimate, age-appropriate educational goal. If so, then ignore the complaint. If the district still wants to appease the parent, though, another option is to provide an exemption that gives parents an opportunity to force their children to “opt out” of reading certain books.

Recently, the Highland Park Independent School District in Texas, another district with self-imposed book banning woes has decided to offer exemptions to parents who disagree with the content in six books: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Well, the exemption option is certainly a less restrictive alternative to removing the book from the curriculum altogether. I hope parents will actually read those books themselves (as unlikely as that may be) and consider what exactly it is about those books that scares them before they require their child “opt out.” As I discussed in Please Stop Parenting my Children, if what they fear is that new ideas in those books will “brainwash” their children, all I can say is this:

[E]xposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

In the end, though, I suspect that many of the students whose parents force them to “opt out” will read those books as soon as they can on their own. For teenagers, is there a better indicator of what they should be doing than what their stodgy, traditionalist parents say is wrong?

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You Have a Bird and… What is That?

Cholera is Cuddly_Apparently (2)Last week, my three-year-old daughter took to school two recent favorites from her toy collection. Her teacher said, “oh, you have a bird and… what is that?”

My husband answered matter-of-factly: “Cholera.”

To which the teacher replied: “Cholera. Well, it’s lovely.”

Our daughter refers to it as “Collie,” the cuddly cholera microbe she picked up at the Mütter Museum.

Yes, that Mütter Museum, the one discussed in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s book, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine.* The Museum began with a donation from Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter in the mid-19th Century, and has grown since then to be one of the world’s greatest collections of anatomical specimens, antiquated surgical tools, and other medical curios.

It is my daughter’s favorite museum, which she visits frequently now that her Spanish class is one block away. Her favorite exhibits include the “soap lady,” whose remains are encased with a fatty substance called adipocere, and the Hyrtl skull collection, which includes brief comments on how each of the 139 people lived and died. (See here for more information on these exhibits).

It’s a quiet place, where people walk slowly from case to case, until my daughter asks in her high-pitched voice, “How did that person die? Why does that skeleton look sad?” Then everyone turns to look at the crazy parents who brought their small child to such a morbid museum.** They wonder why we would do such a thing. Well, the answer is that we take her there because the Mütter Museum provides a fascinating and important look at the human body and various medical conditions, and we don’t want our children to be afraid of or squeamish about those topics.

Right now, I’m pretty sure my youngest child will be a medical provider, a horror writer, or both. Remember her ghost stories?


*For my thoughts on Aptowicz’s book, see Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale?

**Admission is free for children under six.

***For more information about the cuddly cholera, see here.

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HarperCollins’ Win Is a Big Loss (And Not Only For Readers)

Kindle Julie of the Wolves (2)

Have you tried to download the e-book version of Jean Craighead George’s Newbery Award-winning Julie of the Wolves recently?

Well, it hasn’t been available in the U.S. since last April, when I was lucky enough to download it to my Kindle.

Between October 2011 and April 2014, Open Road Integrated Media sold the e-book version after offering George a 50% royalty that HarperCollins, the publisher of the paper versions, refused to match. Instead of paying George a fair royalty for her work, HarperCollins decided to pay its lawyers a very large sum of money to fight for the right to control the e-book version of Julie of Wolves on its own terms.

In a dubious opinion last March, which I discussed in The HarperCollins Lawsuit: Keeping Authors Aboard as Traditional Publishing Sinks, the Southern District of New York proclaimed HarperCollins the winner. As I summarized in Julie of the Wolves: An E-Book My Children Won’t Read Until They’re Older:

I disagree with the district court’s analysis of the 1971 George–HarperCollins contract because the terms of the contract (1) gave HarperCollins the right to publish the novel in book form (as defined in 1971); and (2) reserved to George all other publishing rights. Plus, even if the 1971 contract included e-books (back when there was no such thing as even a household computer), HarperCollins breached the contract by insisting on a meager 25% royalty instead the 50% royalty referenced in the very same sentence of the 1971 contract they claim gives them the e-book rights.

Eight months later, on November 6, 2014, the Court gave HarperCollins injunctive relief that prohibits Open Road from publishing Julie of the Wolves, in addition to $30,000 in damages and a little over $7,000 in costs.

What the Court did not give HarperCollins, though, was even one dime of the more than $1 million it requested in attorneys fees (which was only 70% of the fees that outside counsel charged to HarperCollins in connection with this case!) because Open Road’s position, while unsuccessful, wasn’t “objectively unreasonable.”

As the Court explained:

[T]he mere fact that the Court was able to interpret the contract as a matter of law does not mean that the contrary argument was clearly unmeritorious or patently devoid of support. Our reticence to characterize the losing position as objectively unreasonable is informed by the fact that this dispute arose in the context of a developing, and still somewhat uncharted, area of copyright law.

I’d certainly say that Open Road’s position wasn’t “objectively unreasonable” because, as I’ve previously explained, I would’ve decided the case in their favor!

So, who are the winners and losers here?

Well, the losers include readers and traditionally-published authors, because the Court has allowed a publishing corporation to hold an e-book for ransom by refusing to honor the terms of its own agreement with the author and leaving the author powerless to take the work to other publishers. However, that control comes at a hefty price for the company: well over a million dollars in outside counsel fees.

In the end, it seems that the only real winners here are the lawyers who have everything to gain from litigious corporations willing to pay high attorney fees to ensure their “right” to nickle and dime authors.

Congratulations, HarperCollins, for spending a million dollars to throw one of your own authors to the wolves.* You suck.


*So to speak. This analogy might not hold up for those who have actually read Julie of the Wolves!

**For the Nov. 6, 2014 Memorandum and Order, see here (PDF).

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