Friday, September 14, 2007

It's English, Jim, but not as we know it....

The coming and going of September 13th quietly marked the completion of one month of law school. As expected, August 13th feels a long way in the past. Looking back to the beginning of any adventure always seems to me to be like looking in the wrong end of a telescope; the sheer weight of experiences dilates time. (Of course, it seems to balance out on the other end, as when you look back at college and go holy *crap*, that was four years?) It's calming to be reminded that only a month ago I had basically no idea what learning the law entailed; the tabula rasa from my first day helps me see that yes, I really have learned something. As I said in my last post, we've all seen the elephant now and we're starting to walk the walk (kind of a hunched-over shuffle from the weight of the backpack and obligatory bookbag) and to talk the talk. And what a strange talk it is! I wanted to share a little bit of the language of law school to help illustrate the sort of concepts and thinking that distinguished law school from any other kind of education.

I still consider "legalese" to be a mild pejorative, but it's pretty accurate characterization of the first most important rule that new law students learn: It's English, Jim, But Not As We Know It. There's a temptation to think that law books are written in English. After all, you pick it up and it says "Contracts" on the cover, and if you open it and flip through it most of the words are familiar. This is a LIE! Only a few pages in you realize that not only are many seemingly familiar words invested with new meanings, but those meanings are rigid, highly structured, and are often only definable by reference to other, similarly loaded words. Clearly after brief consideration one could arrive at the expectation that in a Contracts class the word "contract" would be a technical term. But try writing the previous sentence without "consideration" and "expectation", which are also verboten for casual use because they have specific legal meanings. "Consideration", for example, is "that which is sought in exchange for a promise." And in case you were wondering, "promise" and "sought in exchange" are also a technical terms that need defining.

Teasing out sentences and concepts ends up feeling as much like math or logic, at times, than it does either English or even philosophy. Definitions of some key concepts, like "contract" require a sort of prime-factorization to break them down through all the levels of complexity into their component parts. "Contract" breaks down as follows:

a CONTRACT is formed when there is a BARGAIN and a CONSIDERATION.

a BARGAIN is an AGREEMENT in which a PROMISE (or a promise for a performance, or a performance for a performance) is SOUGHT IN EXCHANGE for a return promise.


MANIFESTATION OF MUTUAL ASSENT is when both parties either make a promise or begin to render a performance

a promise or performance is SOUGHT IN EXCHANGE if it is intended to be induced by and is induced by the original promise

a PROMISE is a manifestation of intent to act such that the other party is justified in expecting the first will perform as promised

and finally

CONSIDERATION is that which is bargained for in exchange for a promise

So, if you unpack this thing totally and then put it back together you have (stay with me here)...

A CONTRACT is formed when one party manifests an intention to act or begins to act, and that manifestation seeks and induces the second party to act.

That's a lot of meaning packed into a two-syllable word!

Beyond loading seemingly familiar words with expansive new meanings, however, there's an altogether new lexicon as well: case law. Though none of our professors have put it this way, it's pretty clear that the cases themselves form a sort of "power user's quick-reference" for those who have internalized the cases and the concepts they stand for. If you can read a case, break it down, analyze the logic, and understand the implications (basically, if you can grok it) then you'll naturally use the name to stand in for the whole expansive concept. Some cases have been digested enough by the public consciousness that anyone with a little Law & Order behind them can wield them. Say "Miranda" everyone knows what you're talking about. Heck, it's even entered common English as a verb; cops routinely "Mirandize" a suspect using the sanctioned words that we all know. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law..." (Of course, this is as far as most people can quote because it usually cuts away before they can get any further.)

And yes, there's legal Latin, too, but that's basically just dessert. I'll have to remember to put up a few of the more interesting ones next time.

[Edit: Fixed the literal non sequitor above wherein I left out the factorization of CONTRACT. I had to get my notebook to be sure I did it right. And then I had to get my textbook. And then I still wasn't sure. In fact, I think just trying to lay it out for this post is going to send me back for office hours. I swear; you don't just read contract theory, you debug it.
Also, added photos of CUA campus at night to help break up the block-o'-text (tm).]

Saturday, September 1, 2007

RamblingRovers rides again

This Labor Day weekend is, for CUA Law students, the final deep breath before the plunge. We've been in class for 2 weeks now; we've all seen the elephant and we know what the next 13 weeks hold in store. It's time to clear the decks, screw your courage to the sticking post and, perhaps most importantly, do something fun to refresh your spirit and renew your gumption. I went into this weekend with *nothing* planned. Many of my classmates took this weekend to get out of town, return home and see their families. There were a few "bar reviews" planned by various law school groups but my heart wasn't in it. Socializing at bars is just not my scene. What I really needed was a chance to eat, drink, and be merry my way. But where? And with whom?

It Comes in Quarts?
In keeping with the fortunate serendipity that has been my life of the last 2 months, my old friend Brian called up and proposed the obvious solution: The Maryland Renaissance Festival! A ren faire is the perfect antidote to the deluge of dense reading and overexcited socialization-come-shameless-networking that all law students are prone to. Nothing cleanses the soul like donning a pirate shirt and a swagger for a day of revelry, wench oggling, and hoarse "Huzzah!"'s. The Maryland festival is blessed with a wonderful venue, full of trees and winding hills that give it more the sense of a forest village than a faire. Being finally of age I was able to partake in a cup of ale (Sam Adam's October Fest) with my turkey leg and I found the combination to be greater than the sum of its parts.

We wandered around reveling in the unabashed nerdliness of the faire. It did my heart good to see "cool" fly out the window, or at least become transmuted into something all together different and more joyful. Instead of cool being some sort of aloof reserve that disdains wholehearted abandon, the coolest people were the ones who plunged in and played along. Criers hawked their wares with bawdy slogans and enjoyed a running repartee with quick witted passers-by, fellow faire-goers became other characters in a collaborative play that routed around sticks in the mud and mere observers. Politically correct was suddenly socially unacceptable and I found myself cursing in silent embarrassment to have answered innocently to the shopgirl's offer of "If you boys see anything you like just tell me and I'll pull it out for you..." It's escapism, pure and simple, and if you don't give in and play along you won't receive your full measure from it.

I tried on a leather fencer's jacket at the leathermonger's and watched the fine lads at Badger Blades put their money where their mouth is in proving that they proudly make only the real thing. (If you want to see a show, just begin to doubt, out loud, that anyone can really forge usable blades anymore. You'll get a Cliff's Notes in medieval metallurgy, a magnificent display of functional craftsmanship, and exactly 1/2 of a US Quarter as a souvenir.)

While standing in line for my October Fest I heard a few wandering minstrels begin a casual jam session behind me. While a bodhran laid down a lively beat a bearded singer with a guitar began to sing a tune that sounded awfully familiar...

Come and listen, I'll tell you what happened to me
One day as I went down to Cork by the sea
The day it was hot and the sun it was warm,
So says I a quiet pint wouldn't do me no harm

I went in and I called for a bottle of stout
Says the barman, I'm sorry, all the beer is sold out
Try whiskey or paddy, ten years in the wood
Says I, I'll try cider, I've heard it was good...

That's right; they had launched into Johnny Jump Up! Of course I sprang over to sing along, but had to listen carefully for they were singing different words. I gave myself away on the chorus when they sang "After drinking a quart of the Johnny Jump Up". As the guitar player explained later, the "pint" lyrics are the English version "'Cause they canna stand bu' ah pint o'it!".

We also sat in on the jousts, the only other de rigeur event of a ren faire other than the turkey leg, and watched a performance of "Fight School", something similar to Bold and Stupid Men at the Casa de Fruta Faire in CA, but not quite as well written. Y Musiki presented an appealing fusion of middle eastern gypsy music and rock accented with Celtic inspired fiddling. We left ahead of the crowd because we had to get back to Brian's house to bottle his most recent brew, an October Ale, and get turned around so we could be in Langley Park by nine to accept a mystery invitation.

[Intermission. It's a long post. Sorry! ;-) Go do something else and come back and it will seem like two bite-sized ones.]

When I hear the word culture I reach for my spoon
This mystery invitation was not so much a mystery as to whether we were invited, but rather to what we had been invited. The gist of it was that on my first day at CUA I had met Edmond, an early thirty-something CS PhD student from Cameroon. He was a heck of a nice guy, earnest and really friendly in an English-as-a-second language sort of way. We joked about monolingual Americans and chatted in a rough-around-the-edges combination of French and Enlgish. I was happy to have met someone and so I exchanged numbers with him, suggesting that we go out for a beer sometime and I could learn a little more about Cameroon. Several weeks later he called me, very excited and invited me I honestly couldn't tell what it was, but the basic idea was that it was some sort of gathering of people from his village in Cameroon, to celebrate their culture. There would be food and dancing and revelry and I was invited if I wanted to come. Well, most of my friends know that he had me at "food". I tried to explain it to Brian as we drove to the faire, and to his credit was more than receptive, he was enthusiastic. We both agree that new and novel experiences are, by their nature, good things. They have, if you will, intrinsic positive value, such that even if it's not enjoyable it was still an experience.

We arrived at the Boy's & Girls club of Langley Park still pretty much unsure of what we were getting ourselves into. Following the brightly dressed crowd (what I could only assume to be traditional garb) we were not even sure if we needed a ticket and more than a little nervous that someone would ask us if we were "lost". Entering the bustling gymnasium we were met by Edmond, grinning ear to ear that we came. After handshakes and introductions he led us over to the displays where he explained that this was the first Annual Haut-Nkam [/Ho-Cam/] Culture Festival, a chance for all the ex-patriots of the Haut-Nkam district of Cameroon to join together and celebrate their shared heritage. And Brian and I were, quite simply, invited to help them celebrate! What a treat!

After Edmond, with the help of a wallmap, gave us the basic tour of the country, he introduced us to Beke who told more of the stories. He explained that Cameroon has been the object of many countries but subject of none; during the age of colonialism virtually the entirety of imperialist Europe tramped through Cameroon in their exploration of Africa.
The name "Cameroon" is actually a comedy of errors written into history as a result of this parade of European powers. The Portuguese discovered it first, calling it simply "Rio dos Camarões". When the Germans arrived not long after they misheard it as "Kamero" which the French latinized as "Cameroun" and by the time the English got their hands on it they had no chance of getting anywhere close and just simplified it to "Cameroon." The modern name for the national tribal language is a result of a similar white-man's-folly. Missionaries asking for directions to the area' "big city" were repeatedly told "ef'efe'e" by local villagers. The Missionaries heard it so often that they began refferring to the language itself as Ef'efe'e, which basically means "This way and that."

Beke explained the colorful costumes as well, telling us that tribal affiliation is demonstrated in the traditional garb which varies in style, color, cut, and fabric from tribe to tribe. Tribal garb is worn for formal occasions to the utter exclusion of the European tradition of business suits. Instead of drab black and greys, formal events in Cameroon are a riot of color as invitees show their tribal diversity as well as their national unity. Cameroon has, depending on how you count, nearly 300 different tribes, each with their own traditional costume and language. I reminded Beke of the joke cracked by an exasperated Charles de Gaulle who once lamented "How can you run a country that has 300 kinds of cheese?" Surprisingly, Cameroonian politics take the enormous diversity of tribal and village connections in stride. Apparently there are so many different villages that citizens simply can't be strict partisan for their hometown candidate because then no one would get elected. The end result is that the best man truly does get the job and that leaders don't have the option of merely aiming to please one powerful party. Jean-Paul, the son of a Cameroonian "chef" or king, confirmed this, briefly explaining that western two, three, or even six party politics never sat well with the free-for-all public participation of traditional tribal government.

With our heads spinning from 600 years of Cameroonian history we stumbled over to the buffet table to sample some local flavor. Ignoring the potatoes and the beef we deliberately loaded up the plate with things that neither of us could identify. Edmond was delighted to take us on a culinary tour and saved us from eating the baking leaf that should be shucked off before eating the cassava inside. On the plate, counter-clockwise, we have "yellow soup", "dohle" [/dole-ay/], baked cassava, barbecued pork, and pulverized, roasted, orange...tuber...thing. My brother asked about the large, caterpillar-like thing on the plate. Though I was tempted to tell him it was just that, it's actually even better. That's the leaf-wrapped cassava paste. It had been mashed and tightly wrapped into the leaf, then baked till it was firm. It's like a bush PowerBar, with the taste and texture very reminiscent of incredibly dense sticky rice. If you're feeling manly you can just eat it plain, like a carbo-supercharged banana, but the best way is to break it up and us it to clean your plate of any remaining "dohle" and yellow soup.
The yellow soup is essentially a ninja curry. Delightfully tasty, overall, but not to be trifled with. When you first taste it it seems creamy and almost sweet, if somewhat bland. Then you swallow and it seizes your throat in a flaming deathgrip of eyewatering spiciness. (For best results, have cold Guiness standing by.) The chunks are large, succulent mushrooms and tripe.

We left late in the evening with our ears ringing and our heads spinning, both utterly delighted with our good fortune. We've already promised to bring the beer if Edmond wants to cook sometime, and I rode home thinking that RamblingRovers isn't just the rallying cry of a single trip but a whole state of mind, and one that I'm *more* than happy to maintain.

[Edit: Both Patrick and I had so much fun with the flickr site over the summer that we've continued using it as a clearinghouse for pictures from our adventures even after we diverged. Check out Patrick's Tucson, AZ collection on the RamblingRovers flickr site, or go straight to his magnificent sunset in the high desert photos taken right in his backyard.]