Hope Springs Eternal

Hope Springs Eternal

It’s springtime in the small college town. Campus is verdant and alive.

I hate spring. Spring is when I get all my rejection letters.

The academic rejection letter grows differently from other flora.  It is planted in the fall, even as the frost starts to creep in.  It grows quickly through the winter, sustained by equal parts hope and angst.  It does not require any sunlight because it grows in the darkness.  It blooms suddenly and violently in the spring.  By the summer, it is completely dead, engulfed in a pillar of flames.

As I was walking home, one of my students emerged from the crowd of people.  She had been accepted to medical school.  My advice on her personal statement had been so helpful.  I felt a sense of pride and resentment.  Everyone was swimming across an ocean of time—except for me. I was treading water.

I felt so detached from everything that I forgot that I wasn’t opening the mailbox.  I saw a large envelope in the huge stack of mail.  It was for me.  I checked twice to make sure.  There was no address.  Maybe this was my big break.

“Dear Mr. Kirven,

On behalf of Honda, we’d like to inform you that the 10-year powertrain warranty on your 2002 CR-V is due to expire…”

In the moment I read that letter I died a hundred times.  But in the end, I was alive.

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The Walk

I was walking across campus between classes.  In a veritable sea of people, they stopped me.  It must have been my briefcase.  People who carry briefcases exude a silent authority that nobody respects until they face it, like when the taxman comes calling.  “Excuse me, sir” a middle-aged man said.  He was wearing an alumni hat, School of Law Class of ’85.  “I’m here with my daughter on a campus tour.  We’re looking for Foster Quad.  Do you know where it is?”

“You’re looking for Foster Quad? And you want me to show you where it is?”

“Well, yes. Don’t you work here?”

“I used to think I did.”  I could see the unease start to show on his face.  “Look” I said, reassuringly, “It’s too late for us.  But she doesn’t have to make the same mistakes we did.  You should go home.  Now if you’ll excuse me…”

He stood there, staring at me.  She was typing something on her phone.  I turned and walked away, like a man who knew where he was going.

The Classroom

I stood in front of a group of 18-year-olds in a wrinkled sport coat.  My pants had a patch underneath the back pocket, so you couldn’t see the holes time had made.  I was 28 years old.

I looked at them.  I saw them.  They looked back at me.  But they couldn’t see me.  “So, would anyone like to get us started on John Maynard Keynes?” I said.  I heard a flurry of typing.  “God damn it,” I thought.  “I should have banned laptops on the first day.”

All of a sudden they looked right me.  The typing stop.  “My God…They’ve developed telepathy.”  I couldn’t control my fear.

“Professor Kirven.”

“They can talk!?”  I didn’t even bother to correct them.  My mind raced.  I said the first thing that came to mind.  “Yes. What is it?”

“Will this be on the final?”

I heard the sound a MacBook makes when it sends an email.  Vroosh.  I imagined it was my soul escaping out of the window.  For a second, I was free.

A Job? I’ve Heard of Those Before

It’s after winter break and you’ve gotten your first semester grades back.  You’re shocked, elated, disappointed, stoic, or any combination of the above.  But your real challenge begins now.  You have to start thinking about getting a legal job for the summer.  A legal job?  But I barely made it through first semester.  My contracts outline was equal parts angst, unintelligible gibberish, and stains from take-out Chinese.  What sane person would even let me review contracts or do any legal work for that matter?  Don’t worry.  Somebody will.

I’ll confess that my job search was unorthodox and that in no way do I believe that my experience should serve as a model.  Also, as a nontraditional law student I had more experiences to offer than someone right out of college.  That being said, I want to offer my advice (and reflections) on my experience trying to find a first-year job that I hope will lay the foundation for the rest of my career.

I don’t think I’m all that unique in saying that I came to law school having no real idea what I wanted to do.  I thought that speaking Russian would help me in immigration law or maybe oil and gas, so when I arrived to law school I thought I might focus on these areas.  Then I heard that there were some attorneys in the resort towns who specialized in real estate transactions for wealthy Russians, so I considered real estate law.  That’s the beauty of being a first-year student: you don’t have a specialization in a particular field.  You can tell any lawyer in any field that you’re interested in (insert area of law) without sounding disingenuous.  It’s liberating.  I highly recommended that every first-year student try it.

Given my initial interests, it might seem strange that I have two positions in labor/employment law: a summer fellowship with a labor union and a fall externship with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  How could this be?  Whatever happened to helping Roman Abramovich buy his dream mansion in Aspen and a controlling stake in the Colorado Rockies?  It all started with a simple email.  I was sitting at home over winter break, wondering what I was going to do with my summer.  I made my daily email check and found an email from one of our career advisors.  She’d looked at my credentials and wanted to tell me about a fellowship in labor law.  At first I did not give it much thought.  After all, I hadn’t even taken labor law.  What could I possibly have to offer a union?

After giving it a lot of thought, I decided that, even though I knew nothing about labor law itself, I still had something to offer.  I had taught history classes that involved industrialization and labor activism.  My grandfather had been in a union.  When I was a graduate student, I wish I had been in one.  Maybe this was enough.  So I applied.

The first step in any application is making a résumé.  For a legal job, your résumé needs to be one page.  If you’re coming from academia (my CV was well over five pages) this can be quite a shock.  After a lot of help (and readjusting the margins in Word) I was able to fit the most important things about me onto one page.  It was terrifying.  In academia, you are trying to bombard potential employers with information on your qualifications: it’s as if every line of every page is an attempt to browbeat someone into accepting you.  You also operate under the illusion, at least I did, that your scholarly interests are unique and that someone will take the time to read everything about you.  They care about you and your accomplishments.  You are special.

This will not fly if you’re a first-year on the job hunt.  Nobody really cares about your accomplishments.  But they do care about two things: can you do the job and what are your reasons for applying?  You have to highlight your strengths in these areas at all three stages: résumé, cover letter, and interview.  The résumé is pretty straightforward.  In addition to your educational background and work experience, list anything that is related to the job you’re seeking.  Are you applying to work for a Public Defender?  Then list any volunteer activities you have, especially if you worked with disadvantaged or underrepresented groups.  In my case, I listed that I’d studied labor history and taught it in the classroom.  Whatever it is, make sure it gets on that résumé.

The second area you have to excel in is your cover letter.  A cover letter is two things in one page: it’s your chance to show you can write concisely and clearly, and it’s another opportunity for you to tell the world why you’d be great at the job to which you’re applying.  The first one is the most important because if you can write well, everything else will follow.  But if your cover letter has punctuation or typographical errors or is unclear, then the person reading it is going to think two things: if you really cared about saving the environment or reviewing corporate transactions, then you would have taken the time to proofread your one page cover later.  Or, even worse, that you cannot write well.  And let’s face it, as a first-year summer intern or employee, you’re the equivalent of the baseball utility player.  You’re going to be flying all over the field, having no idea what you’re doing, but you’re wearing the uniform and everyone is going to expect to you look the part.

Even if you write well, you still need to convince the reader that you’re the best person for the job.  How do you this?  My advice is that you adopt a narrative structure that keeps in mind an ending: I’m the best person for this job.  Everything in your cover letter should build towards this conclusion; it’s as if everything in your life was leading to this moment, to this job.  Keeping this in mind helped me to always remember that every section of my cover letter should reinforce why I wanted the job and why I would be good at it.  It also helped me to add a personal touch to my cover letter and avoid a big mistake: making my cover letter just a bland restatement of my résumé.

The final stage of your job search is the interview.  The interview can be really be intimidating, so the best thing to do is practice.  A lot of law schools offer mock job interviews and I highly encourage everyone from the recent graduate to the non-traditional student to take advantage of the opportunity to practice.  Even though you’ll always be nervous during an interview, you can overcome it with your enthusiasm.  If you really do want the job, then show it.  Try to speak with a sense of purpose and excitement.  The practice interview is a great opportunity for this because you have nothing to lose.  And even though it may be difficult to fathom, you should have this attitude during your real interview.  If you’re enthusiastic for the opportunity, it will be infectious.  The people interviewing you will be less concerned with your qualifications and more interested in you as a person.  This is a great sign because so much of working with someone isn’t his or her qualifications, but whether or not you like the person.  In my successful summer interview we spent a lot of time talking about Trotsky, and in my successful interview for my fall externship we talked about fantasy baseball for the last 5-8 minutes.  Looking back it seems so strange, but then again so did the whole process.  Embrace it.  And don’t forget that no matter what, you are the best person for a job, you just might not realize it yet.

“If you’re so uptight about work, why don’t you just quit? You don’t have to work.”

“Because,” I say, staring directly at her, “I…want…to…fit…in.”

American Psycho

We Are All Insane At Exam Time

After another long hiatus, I felt it necessary to channel all my existential angst into a blog post. Don’t worry though, my intentions are good. The topic is one with which some of my readers are all too familiar: law school exams. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, there is still the opportunity to live vicariously.

If you offered me the chance to be thrown out of a plate glass window (defenestration, anyone?) five stories up or take my exams, I’d probably take the exams. (Just kidding. Hurl me out of the window, please). My exams were around three hours long, but even that didn’t seem long enough. What is most staggering is that your entire performance in a class is measured in a three hour exam that you take at 8:00am. Sometimes you can bring an outline, but in some ways this is false sense of security. If you take too much time to look at your outline, then you won’t have enough time to write your answers. I’d offer more test-taking advice, but there are plenty of websites that do that and frankly I despise in-class exams (I researched pedagogy in my past life as a historian). What I can do is offer some advice (and humor) on dealing with the anxiety of waiting for your course grades to come in, which we all deal with regardless of our final grade.

First, stay off of the Internet. Any comfort you could get from streaming movies or social media will be far outweighed by the desire to Google things like “I think I missed an issue on my Civ Pro Exam” and “Getting a Job with a Bad Law School GPA.”  If you’re off of the Internet, you also won’t be tempted to constantly check the registrar’s website to see if your grades are there. You got the grade you got and nothing online will change that, trust me.

Second, do something to keep your mind off anything related to law school for a while. Go skiing, hiking, hang out with friends, read fiction, whatever it takes.  I was most relaxed when I was playing basketball.  I didn’t think about law school at all for those few hours. It was awesome.

Third, try to get some sleep. Who writes a blog and kept waking up at 4:00am during the break? (This guy!) Even on the days when I felt I hadn’t stressed out too much, I still found myself waking up in the middle of the night. I tried to go to bed earlier and that seemed to help. But if you are losing sleep over your grades, try to do something about it. Not sleeping will only make it worse.

Fourth, you are not GPA. I haven’t met all the members of my law school class yet, but I’ve been very impressed with everyone I’ve met so far. I really think that they will all be great attorneys. Unfortunately, most law schools grade on a strict curve, meaning that a lot of people won’t have the GPA they thought they would have when they started law school. I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t care at all about your GPA, but just remember that is only one factor in showing what you can do in life. If you were smart or achieved great things before law school (or any school), I have every confidence that you will continue to do so. Also, remember that just because you did well in a class doesn’t mean you will remember it forever or that someday you will be an expert. You always have to work at maintaining knowledge. Take me for example. If you look at my transcript from college you’d see a C+ in one of my Italian classes and an A in Phenomenology. I still try to read Italian when I can and have remembered a lot of it, but for the life of me I’m clueless on Phenomenology (I thought it would look bad ass on my transcript, I’ll admit it).

Ok. That it’s, for now.

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.

Vera Lynn

Notes from the End of the World

The speeding train that is my Movember blog continues. I don’t really know where it’s going, but I’m happy you’re along for the ride.

I recently read an article on how my home state of Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. It was such a powerful article because it was so true. Even though Wyoming has so few people, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know of a friend or relative who has committed suicide. The same is true for my second “home” of Russia.

Growing up in Wyoming could be very beautiful, but it could also be very isolating. When I was a kid I’d always walk in the pasture behind my house. If you walked to the right spots you could look out and see nothing but prairie with a smattering of houses. I never remember seeing any people on my walks; I was truly alone. In many ways it was liberating. On days when it was really cold and the wind was blowing, I’d go back to that pasture and pretend that I was Han Solo looking for Luke Skywalker on the ice world of Hoth. (I was always on foot because my tauntaun never made it past the first marker). I didn’t have to worry what anyone thought of me, or that maybe that it was a little weird that even into high school I used to read and reread Star Wars books.

There were other days when the world around me wasn’t like a blank canvas, but a gigantic straight jacket. For every day that I couldn’t wait to get back to that pasture, there were so many others when it seemed like the end of the Earth. It was easy to despair. Life in Wyoming seemed so straightforward and simple. Everyone had a place, except me. I’ve come to realize that there is just a part of me that doesn’t want an easy life. I have no idea why, but I just have to complicate everything. I tried to be happy with what was around me, but I never could. I always was dreaming of a world I’d never seen. It takes a special person to live in Wyoming. I still love it so much, but as I got older I had to admit that I just wasn’t that type of person. But when it’s all you know, it’s scary to think that maybe you don’t belong. It’s also frightening to think that you have to start over. I was lucky. Even though I’ve never asked them, I’m pretty sure that my parents knew I wanted to go somewhere else. And they always supported me, even when I told them I wanted to go to Russia.

I always get asked why I chose Russian history and to be honest I don’t really have a good answer. A part of it was reading Dostoyevsky and feeling like he was writing just for me. Another part of it was that I felt some sort of kinship with Russians. Maybe it was being from a place that nobody knew anything about, or that feeling that you’ll always be misunderstood. Regardless, I told myself that I was going to St. Petersburg no matter what.

In some weird ways, I felt at home in St. Petersburg. Everywhere I went seemed to be alive. This was the canal that Dostoyevsky used to walk along; this was where Lenin spoke; this was where I lived. There was also a dark side to Peter than I became enamored with: there was Maxim, a.k.a. “Mad Max,” the gangster (his words) who bought me a beer because he wanted to know what Don Corleone was saying in English and not Russian. There was Evgenii, the former KGB man (again, his words) who told me what it was like to live during the Cold War. And there was Valerii, the unapologetic, Adidas track suit-wearing Communist who loved to talk about how Russia had lost her way.

Russia could be isolating too. When it’s dark and cold, you can almost feel your strength leaving you with every step. Everything becomes harder: that short trip to the store seems to take forever. A trip across the city to see friends doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore. There are also things in Russia that just defy all belief, even for Russians. That’s where the Russian sense of humor comes from. As one of my Russian friends said, “Life isn’t supposed to make sense. You just do the best you can and try to laugh at how absurd it all is along the way.”

For many Russians, it’s hard to follow my friend’s advice. Especially in rural Russia, there are not a lot of opportunities at all. When I was on a bus to Novgorod, I talked to an old man going back to his village. “There are no people your age,” he said. “And I don’t blame them for going. What’s there for them anyway? The world I knew is gone; that’s ok though, I’m old. My time’s almost over. But I’m afraid the young people don’t even know what their world is anymore.” It’s strange to think now, but that man’s statement sums up the way almost everyone with a mental illness can feel. When you don’t feel like you’re a part of the world around you, what do you have left?

Thanks for reading along. I’d write more, but I’m neglecting a legal writing memo about common law marriage under Colorado law. Stay tuned for more.

I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear it or not, why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect. But I was not equal even to that. I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness–a real thorough-going illness. For man’s everyday needs, it would have been quite enough to have the ordinary human consciousness, that is, half or a quarter of the amount which falls to the lot of a cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century, especially one who has the fatal ill-luck to inhabit Petersburg, the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe.

Feodor Dostoyevsky

Phase I: Awkward Looks from Strangers

Someone told me it had been nearly a month since I’d written anything. My first year of law school has made it difficult to write frequently, but I’m going to try and change that this month. If you read any of my posts, please make it this one.

I don’t really remember the first time I saw a bunch of dudes growing mustaches during November, but to be honest I never gave it much thought. That attitude changes today. What started as an excuse for me to join some law school friends in growing a mustache has evolved into a desire to try and embrace the spirit of this month. Mental health is one of the issues Movember brings attention to, an illness very real to me. Some of you know this, but most people don’t: I have General Anxiety Disorder and mild to severe depression. I want to everyone to know that in the grand scheme of things I’m all right. In many ways I’m one of the lucky ones: I have access to and can afford my medication and a counselor; I’m in an environment that I feel is understanding and supportive; with time, I’ve gotten a lot better at managing my symptoms and knowing their triggers; and, most importantly, my family has always supported and loved me, no matter what. But there are a lot of people out there who aren’t as fortunate as me because they live in poverty or areas with poor access to mental health care, or they live in an environment that stigmatizes mental health, or are discriminated against because of gender, sexual orientation, or race. Keep them in mind during this whole month. So, without further ado, I bring you phase one of the mustache journey: awkward looks from strangers.

I’ve known for about a week that I was going to write this post and I kept trying to recall the first time I knew that maybe there was something not right with me. I honestly cannot remember. I just know that I’ve always felt awkward around people and that there were times where I could be extremely withdrawn. I also remember always being a perfectionist: missing an answer on an exam would cause me to lose sleep, knowing I could be better at something would cause me to obsess over it. Don’t even get me started on all the times I’ve run home in the middle of the day because I thought I left the oven on or didn’t switch off the iron, even though I was 99.9% sure I did. Oh, and I suck at taking compliments because I don’t think I deserve them.

Some of you may be thinking, “This doesn’t seem like Alex at all.” You aren’t wrong at all to think that. The truth is, I do my best to mask my problems. My go-to tactics are sarcasm, speaking with a loud voice, and a lot of self-deprecation. And I think that’s where so many of the misconceptions about mental health come from. Me, like so many others, are so good at building walls around our problems that nobody could even consider that we have them. In some ways, it’s our own downfall. We create a public persona that we wish was how we actually were. Sometimes that difference between how we seem and who we actually are can only make matters worse; we deny ourselves self-affirmation, so we look to the very people we are so awkward around for it.

For me, the biggest challenge about having a mental illness is the knowledge that I’ll be fighting it for the rest of my life. I usually know I’ll have a “day” when I first wake up. I feel like there is a huge weight around my chest and I don’t even want to get out of bed. On those days, I try to avoid other people as much as I can. Even then, I’m prone to bouts of thinking everyone is judging me or assuming the worst in everything. Fortunately, these days don’t happen nearly as frequently as they used to. Time has taught me how I can best handle my own struggles and it’s shown me through all the people I’ve hurt the cost of not doing so. Some of the strategies are common: I try to exercise at least three times a week, I go see my counselor, and I take my “crazy pills,” as I’ve fondly come to call them. A lot of my anxiety stems from being in situations that I feel I can’t control, so I try to avoid them. In all honesty, it was for my mental health that I left academia. I couldn’t take being at the mercy of a cruel job market and potentially winding up somewhere I didn’t want to live. So, I made a choice: I’d always wanted to move back to the mountains, so I chose to come to CU Law. I chose law because I knew that no matter what happened to me, I could always set up my own practice. I might be poor and saddled with student-loan debt, but at least I’d be in a place I wanted to be. And for the first time in a long time, I felt in control. Finally, I tried to embrace what I considered to be the positive aspects of having a mental illness—compassion for others. I know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless, and I’ve always tried to make sure that nobody feels that way.

I’ll try to write something every week this month. Please follow along if you’d like. Please donate to my campaign too. It doesn’t even have to be money; it can just be having a greater appreciation that mental health is an issue for so many people and that just by knowing more about it, you’re doing something to help.

Who cares if I’m made of bronze, if my heart is lined with iron?

Mayakovsky