(I'm mostly not here, not because I don't want to be here, but because I'm immersed in this rather stupid exercise of working fairly diligently (for me) on a test I'm bound to fail. But this memory came to me, and I had to write it down because it captures the absurdity of the quest.)
I want to be a lawyer, among other reasons, because I should have done it 30 years ago. I liked my life then, but a time came when I had enough money to choose to not work in an office for a while and to do something else. I decided on a career change, which meant going back to school. Being a lawyer appealed to me. I had taken paralegal courses and my teachers encouraged me to go to law school instead. But I didn’t have enough money for three years of law school. Being a teacher was the other alternative, with its attractive vacation. I could become a teacher without taking on too much student loan debt, so I opted for that. It was not a mistake. But in some parallel universe, my life took another course. I became a lawyer dedicated to appeals work because of my fertile (too fertile?) imagination for novel legal theories.
But I didn’t do it back then in this universe, lacking the financial imagination to manage it. Instead, I followed a meandering course through teaching, which I loved, and later tech. Bored with tech, having proven myself as a teacher (and not willing to go back to that pay scale), I entered law school twenty years later. I figured there was still time enough. I’d be 55 when I graduated, and assuming I stayed youthful like my family tended to, I’d put in 15 years and have a third career.
There are a number of non-classroom tasks you must complete to become a lawyer in California. Some are relatively simple, such as registering as a law student with the California Bar Association. Others are much harder, for example documenting your entire life in great detail in your Application for Determination of Moral Character, which might be easier if you’re 25 or you’re one of those people who kept every receipt, pay stub and electric bill for the last 30 years. (Really, how do I remember the address of the apartment I had when I was 19 or the bank I worked at when I was 30, which is no longer there?)
Then there is passing the bar exam. The bar exam administrative tsunami is itself divided into myriad annoying big and little tasks: keeping track of about fifteen deadlines, correct filing of many forms, paying fees (despite their website completely confusing you on the issue), making sure they have the proper documents on file, creating an online account, acquiring and registering the approved software, reserving a hotel (you’re unlikely to take the test in your home town), and if you’re like me and have physical problems that make three full, consecutive days of testing difficult, the massive (generally futile) task of documenting disabilities in a request for accommodations. Oh, and you can’t download software or reserve a hotel until they make an accommodations decision, because accommodations could change your location and you have know your location for a hotel or even the software. This shit is interwoven, byzantine, detailed.
One of the things you have to do is to verify that the Bar has a record of your passing score in the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, the exam in legal ethics that is administered nationally, one of the hurdles for getting a law license. Unlike the rest of the bar exam, you can take the ethics portion while still in law school, and being ambitious, I did, in November, 2006. The Bar did not have a record of it because of some administrative changes in the time since I graduated from law school, but requesting a transcript was trivially easy compared to many tasks.
In fact, I had no problem with the test itself when I took it back in 2006. However, endless detail confuses me, and while I’m very organized, my increasing ill health, added to the sheer volume of work that is law school, added to my underlying ADD, led to the occasional dropped stitch. Like with so much else when it comes to convoluted administrative stuff involved in my increasingly absurd quest to become a lawyer, I overlooked one detail. The photo.
One thing I needed to physically be allowed into the testing hall for the MPRE was a photo of myself. Not just any photo; it had to be to spec. It had to be a passport-style photo in color of a certain approximate size, showing only my face. The one of me hiking Yosemite Falls Trail or opening presents at Christmas would not cut it. Plus, it had to be against a white background. In my concentration on actually learning legal ethics, I forgot perform this one nitpicky administrative requirement until it was almost too late. When you arrived at the testing center, you were supposed to hand the gatekeeper your admission ticket, along with the passport-type photo, so they knew you were not a ringer. I didn't realize this until the night before the test, when I re-read the instructions.
I’m very, very good at real emergencies. When someone overdoses on drugs, gets hit by a car, has a seizure, or stops breathing; when another car crashes on the freeway and is sent hurtling in our direction, someone starts shooting as they stand in front of our car at an intersection, or we’re on a gravel road in an out-of-control skid heading for the rocks; when it’s life or death, you want me there, ideally at the wheel. Time slows down. I tick off the alternatives and make the right choices as though I’d been practicing that very move for months.
But when you direct me to a website or booklet with a packet of forms to fill out, a list of files get transferred, and a bunch of past requirements to dig up, have approved and file by a deadline, I feel a choking panic. Mundane paperwork brings on one of my spells, as if I were a Victorian hysteric in too-tight stays. A passport photo at 10 p.m. is not as terrifying as a pile of unpaid bills, so I didn’t run screaming from the room, but on the other hand, the chances of actually succeeding at such a task are minuscule. Where do you get a passport-type pic at 10 o'clock at night?
By some miracle, my husband remembered Walgreens. A nearby Walgreens advertised that they took passport photos. Not as strange as it sounds; we live in a neighborhood of immigrants where someone needs a passport photo all the time. So my husband drove me there. I was certainly capable of driving myself, but he has an instinct for when to join forces with me. It keeps my grumpiness within bounds.
At the store, we found the kid in charge of ID photos, about 19 years old and not too familiar with cameras. He took out a viewfinder camera and asked me to step over to a white backdrop. This was not reassuring. I’d never had a professional picture taken with the type of camera that you use to record your kid’s birthday party, and you don’t really mind if it falls in the punch bowl. He showed me the result.
It seemed the low-end snapshot camera was equipped with an extreme fisheye lens. I was dumfounded. This is hardly standard. Even mermaids do not look good in a fisheye lens, which makes you look like you’re staring back at yourself from a spherical mirrored object. I paid for the photo. I did not particularly want to give the State Bar a clown photo of me, but if I had no choice, it was there in reserve.
But given the horrendous quality of the Walgreens photo, we decided to take a photo ourselves. We used my still fairly new digital SLR, which I barely understood back then. However, I had a fair amount of experience with non-digital photography, and though the DSLR was quite a mystery, I still had a tripod and could frame a shot, and Mark could press a shutter button. We took a photo of me in the standing by the ivory bedroom wall. Looked OK on the tiny camera screen.
Next we had to upload it to a computer and print it out. Mark knew how to upload and even owned the then-current smart-card reader. Fortunately, I had bought a cheap inkjet printer for school work, and it also did photo printing. So it was back to Walgreens, now at midnight, to buy photo paper.
Then came hours of grim struggle. The photo had to be of your head against a white background. What we thought was a white background was not a white background. There are no naturally occurring--or even unnaturally occurring--white backgrounds in your house. Even if your walls are “white,” they are not white. They were ivory, egg shell, off white, linen, bone. The room lighting changes the hue, and the flash creates unexpected color shifts. We could not tell from the preview on the camera’s tiny screen how the background turned out. We tried walls, sheets, shower curtains, a white board, paper, everything that looked white to us. We realized that we would have to settle for the pic with the least pink or puke green background.
But the background problems were over-shadowed by the disaster in the foreground. The various prints, which I had only seen as tiny images on the photo screen, began to roll out of the printer. Who was this tragic, age-ravaged horror? It was the first time I noticed I had jowls. Jowls! Where did they come from? Maybe from the 20 pounds I gained in law school? I looked so unhappy in the series of photos, and I’m not at all sure that the various shades of green I turned out were factually incorrect. I hadn’t been sleeping because of arthritis pain. I felt poorly. I need lots of exercise. I'm like one of those working dogs that gets neurotic if you keep it in an apartment. Limited mobility for me was a nightmare. Even my brain quits working.
At that time, early in my third year, I was starting the downward physical slide that would end in Social Security rather than practicing law, but I had no idea yet at the beginning of the term. Later, I managed to drag myself across the finish line of law school, but the physical deterioration continued for another year of fatigue, pain, unrelenting colds, and finally, mysterious cataplexic collapses that made me fear that I would never leave the house again. That all was yet to happen, but I could see from the photos that I wasn’t looking quite myself.
Photo after photo showed a woman who no longer looked young. Well, ok, I know how old I am, that wasn’t the problem. Worse by far, I looked strained, tired, worried. I looked bad. I ran across one of those of those photos recently while going through my law school files to prepare for the bar exam, probably one of the better ones, maybe the one I used. Today, six years later, it doesn't look impossibly hideous to me. It's a picture of a middle aged lady who looks like she could be someone’s mom or grandmother, past it, someone who spends her time dwelling on revised memories.
I've gotten used to the fact that people my age take photos that often clash with their self-image, and in fact, with other people's impressions. I can deal with pics that show the reality of a frozen moment, knowing that in motion, I create a different impression. That night, however, I scurried around with my husband, my indefatigable supporter, dealing with one technical difficulty after another revolving around the color white, while in a state of shock at the deterioration of my appearance, which unfortunately had to be documented on that particular evening.
Today, rested, patched up, pampered, I can often manage to look younger than I did then. The 20 pounds is gone, left behind for future law students. Like my mother before me, who was my greatest influence with respect to my looks, I like my face, and while I sometimes fret, I mostly feel content with it. It’s not a classically beautiful face, but it has its moments of animation. I’ve known all my life I have a 100 watt smile, and a particularly Sirenita mischievous look which was first documented in a series of photos taken when I was three. There have only been a couple of times in my life, this and one other time (the beginning of my mother's illness in 1989, when I was still fairly young) that I looked old from the weight of a life disaster.
I took the most neutral photo, that is, the one with the least haggard, sagging face on the least purple background, out of dozens we tested, printed it out on photo stock and trimmed it. I was terrified that the Bar folks would reject my photo on the grounds of the less than white back ground and I would be kicked out of the exam. There's a ponderous formality in the process of application to practice law, a checking off of exact requirements. Law can't do anything without adding boulders of weight to it.
I needn’t have worried. The proctors at the rented exam hall were some of the mellowest people I’ve ever met. Law school is a mindfuck, the industry of legal training is intended to break you down and mold you, but the actual employees of the Bar are almost universally sweet. My photo was fine. It was in fact one of the more formal ones. Kids brought in pictures taken at parties with their friends’ faces cut out. I handed my ticket to the person at the desk, and she read off “Maria Lake.” The discomfort of the unflattering photo was compounded by the use of my first name, which sounds jarring to me.
In my assigned seat, I listened carefully to the instructions, feeling the tension over the unflattering, lavender-tinted picture leave my body. I can take tests. I relax in them. The hard part--the photo--was over. Then, all the shit about getting old came rushing back. We had to use one of those multiple choice, fill-in-the-dot answer forms. First, we had to spell our names by blackening in a series of circles in vertical rows of alphabets. In the first column, I had to fill in “L”, the next one “a” and so on. Only I couldn't see the print. It was tiny and pink, and the light was dim. I looked around. All the 25-year-olds were busily filling in their circles. Not one was looking helplessly at their pastel-printed sheet. Just me. Having made it this far, having confronted my sudden old age the previous evening, I was better prepared to take this bull by the horns.
I got up out of my chair in the enormous room with its ranks of carefully placed tables of test takers, which in itself felt a bit like a jail-break. I approached the nearest proctor, a woman my age. At least, I hoped she realized that. I said, “I can't make out the form, the light's too dim where I'm sitting.”
She smiled. “I can't see a damn thing in here, either. I've got reading glasses. Can I lend them to you?”
Well, that was encouraging. I accepted gratefully, and, gaining confidence, asked if I could move my seat. I could see an available seat right under a sconce lamp. She said, “Oh, sure.”
Like someone pushing their last, small pile of change into the middle of the table in hopes of winning the pot, I brought up my remaining issue. “My ticket says my name is Maria, but I use my middle name, Sirenita. I would be practicing law as Sirenita. Can I write Sirenita here instead of Maria?”
“Sure. As long as we have your correct ticket number, there's no problem. Make sure the Bar knows your preferred name.”
Just like that, I was Sirenita again. I took the ethics exam and nailed it.
I somehow finished the last year of law school. I got sicker and gimpier for a long time, through that last year and the next. I did not have the physical strength to sit for three full days of testing, and even if I could sit up for three days, my mind would not function for that length of time. After having to withdraw from the bar exam for the second time, I got my sister to half-carry me to the nearest Social Security office, where I collapsed in the social worker’s office. Social Security approved my disability application in an unheard of six weeks, leading me to suspect they knew I was dying but weren't saying
Then eventually, slowly, unexpectedly, miraculously, I got better. Not twenty-years-ago better. Some of the old joints had to go, but the upside is, they are now bullet proof. My spine was turned into a partial cement block, but it doesn’t hurt, isn’t noticeable and doesn't even keep me from dancing. I stopped collapsing and getting stuck on the floor while fully conscious, a mystery condition that was never diagnosed but left, mostly, as unexpectedly as it came.
Some days, I'm actually pretty. I take the bar exam in a couple of weeks, six years after graduating law school. I fully expect to flunk, not having had enough time to study for various reasons. That doesn’t faze me. It’ll be an experience, I can say I did it, and I can lay it to rest. But I hope to Christ they don't want a picture.