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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When you see the word “heartbreak”—and you will see it a lot here—do not worry. This is not about Lloyd. Lloyd is, as he was and ever shall be, still awesome.

Here is what happens when you take the California bar exam. Let’s assume that you graduate from law school in May. Unless you feel like you won’t be ready for the bar in two months, and would prefer to wait until February (like my friend Lea, who, from my vantage point, is a genius for doing this), you have already registered to take the bar at the end of July. If you have signed up for a fancy-pants bar prep course, you will be living this course for the next two months. With any luck, you’ll have some means of support, like a bar loan, so that you will not have to work during your bar review period. Finally, the day arrives. You show up at the testing center with your laptop, admission ticket, i.d., and any back support you might need. You spend the next three days, six hours per day, taking the test. When day three ends, you may feel triumphant, or you may just feel lucky to have not exploded in the middle of the test. Hopefully you’re feeling good, because you won’t know your results for four months. California releases July bar exam results on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

Most of us, if we have not already secured a job, spend the next four months job-hunting, which is not fun during the best of times, but is brutal in a down economy. I was lucky enough to have to report for jury duty the week after the bar. I sat through four days of voir dire, at the end of which I was sent on my merry way. I secured a few days of freelance work, took a few more days to recover from the test, and the joined the chain of hopefuls, looking for a job, a fellowship, anything that would allow me to pay rent and not default on my student loans, whose deferral period would end on the same weekend that bar results came out.

No surprises, the job search was dispiriting. But Fate took a little pity on me, by way of a fellowship at my now-alma mater, Santa Clara University School of Law, where I am working as a graduate fellow for one of my favorite professors. Unfortunately, the pay would not keep me in rent or pay my loan, never mind both, but hey, it’s money! And the work experience is terrific! I become more employable with every completed assignment. Then last month, Fate threw me a little more love, in the form of the lawyer for whom I freelance. He has a trial coming up. Big trial. Lots of discovery to do. A few months’ worth, at very least.  So, for now, at least, I’m earning a living wage, even if I’m earning it in fits and starts.

But I digress. Here is what happens when bar results are released. In the good old days of the 20th century, you pretty much had to wait until you got your letter from the State Bar, sending congratulations or regrets. Here on the other side of the bridge to the 21st century (thanks, Mom, for the metaphor!), you still get the letter, but the letters are mailed out on the same day that the Bar makes the pass list available to the people who took it. You go to the website, follow the links to the exam results, post your bar file number and your test i.d. number, and wait.  If you have passed the bar, you get a message saying, more or less, “the information entered matches a name on the pass list,” and displays your name. If you have not passed, you get a message saying “the information entered does not match any name on the pass list.” The next day, your letter arrives.

Remember that word “heartbreak,” back in the first sentence? Dear friends, you can probably ascertain what that means for my bar results.

Much to my surprise, I did not burst into tears. That came later—and in fact, I never burst into tears, not for the whole miserable weekend. Instead I leaked into tears. I called my parents, maintaining a tone that, if not cheerful, was at least chatty. I decided to rip the (Adhesive Medical Strips!) off by posting my non-passing status to Facebook. Not everybody loves the open-bookness of Facebook, but my feeling was that I wanted to get it out there, acknowledge it, and then feel free to congratulate or commiserate with my classmates. (I also did not want to be swanked by anyone who *did* pass the bar, asking me pointedly what my results were.) And I did. Even through the fog of bad news, I genuinely celebrated each “I passed the Bar!” status that filled my feed. My friends spent the past four months in the same fog of anxiety and uncertainty that I did. I loved them. I wanted them to succeed. And I knew that every passage was good for the law school. It was good for all of us.

It is a weird, thing, though, to have the same piece of news bring you so much happiness and so much misery at the same time. Every time I saw a new status, my heart lifted, and then crashed again. When the congratulations started rolling in—yes, even *my* congratulations—my heart crashed yet again. And when those same friends returned to my Wall to commiserate, and to offer soothing and encouragement, and to generally be as kind and supportive post-bar as they were in school, my heart pretty much shattered into a thousand pieces, and I thought I would never feel better again. I loved them so much. I was so happy for them. I was miserable for myself, and for the friends who didn’t pass, all scarily-bright, well-prepared people, the kind you can easily envision in court, or running nonprofits, because they give off an air of Being a Damn Good Lawyer.  I couldn’t wait to celebrate, except for when I just wanted to die.

This was my weekend. I received some of the best letters in the world, from people acknowledging that yes, this is heartbreak, and it’s the real thing. That made me feel a bit better, although the tears still leaked out as congratulations continued to roll in. One of my friends said that if she could give her pass to me, she would.  Several people reminded me of all of the great lawyers and scholars and leaders who didn’t pass the California Bar on their first crack at it. Hell, Kathleen Sullivan, the former dean of Stanford Law School, the “Sullivan” in Sullivan & Gunther, who wrote the Constitutional Law casebook that practically every law professor uses! Kathleen Sullivan failed the California Bar on her first try, too! And this was *after* she was the dean at Stanford Law!  They were right, of course, and that should have helped me be more philosophical. It didn’t.

I have heard lots of advice on the best way to cure a broken heart, from vigorous exercise (which, truthfully, is going to kick me in the ass thanks to about two months of working-from-home-based sluggatry) to buying a new outfit to reading a good book to indulging in the Great Country & Western Music Catharsis. All of these have their place, of course, but for this particular brand of heartbreak, the way out is—or will be, since I’m not out of it yet—a combination of finding the exact source of the heartbreak, and engaging in activity at which one is really, really good. I will not bore you with details of the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy; suffice to say, it worked a treat here.  There was a reason that the commiseration and the anecdotes about smart people failing the bar didn’t get through to me, but the heartbreak did. Specifically, I felt like I had lost my community. I could celebrate for my friends, but I could not celebrate with them. We had all traveled together, more or less at the same pace, to get to this place; now, they were moving on, and I was staying put. At some point, a lightbulb went on over my head, and I found the simile for my state of mind, which I proceeded to share with about eleven million people.  I felt like we were all at the After-Bar Party, at a really fabulous club—say, the Peppermint Lounge circa 1983. The room is happy, the music is outstanding, the food has been catered by outside caterers, the drinks are reasonably priced. And then the passage list comes up, and everyone who passes shuffles off to the VIP Room, and I’m stuck on the other side of the velvet rope. But nobody closes the doors to the VIP Room, so we can all still see each other.

It was like flicking a switch. It didn’t make me feel better, but it took some of the sting out of feeling worse. It gave the madness a little bit of method: I didn’t wish that my friends were on the other side of the rope with me. I just wanted to be in the VIP Room with them. I gave myself a few days to wallow, during which I listened to Nick Lowe sing “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill” for hours at a time, and laughed a little at how good I was at wallowing. I knitted like a fiend. I went to the library and picked up the Terry Pratchett books I’d had on hold (Going Postal, which I’m halfway through now, and Making Money). It all helped, even though I still felt like a bag of dirt, only not as pretty.

Yesterday I went to visit a friend at work, another scarily-bright woman who, to the shock of all of us, did not pass the July bar, either. “How are you feeling?”, she asked. “Like a bag of dirt, only not as pretty,” I answered. We then proceeded to decompress and debrief, and to discuss our study strategies for February. At one point I mentioned my Bar After-Party simile to her, and she smiled. “You know what that is?,” she said. “That’s ego. That’s your ego talking.” I had a brief second of “no, wait, it’s not my ego! It’s my community! I’m mourning the loss of my community, dammit!”, and then realized—she was right. My community hadn’t gone anywhere. They were still there, still supportive, still ready and waiting to celebrate with us when we *do* pass the bar. The heartbreak I was feeling came from not being able to celebrate my moment at the exact same time that my friends were celebrating theirs. That is Ego talking.  That went a long way toward reducing the sting: there’s a big difference between a bruised ego and the true loss of community. It doesn’t fix everything, of course. I’m still a little sore at the Santa Clara County Bar Association sending me a flyer with the dates, times and locations for the swearing-in ceremony for new admittees to the bar. But that’s the way heartbreak works.  It’s really, really awful, until one day it isn’t.

Luckily, the bad news about the bar doesn’t seem to have wiped my skill sets completely clean. I will be forever thankful that one of the things I did to keep myself busy in the countdown to the posting of the pass list on Friday was to start soaking beans for black bean soup. (I used Midnight Beans from Rancho Gordo, whose bitch I have now become thanks to their Good Mother Stallard beans, which are so delicious that they deserve an entire post, if not an entire encyclopedia, on how great they are.) By Saturday, easily the hardest day of the weekend for me, they were ready to cook. 

Black bean soup is one of the best things you can make, because unless you keep the heat too high and burn the beans, it really is foolproof. You can use homemade stock, broth in a can, or water. You can spike it with yogurt, buttermilk, smetana, or miso. You can eat it as is, or you can puree it all, or you can puree some of it and pour it back into the pot; the broth will be creamier, but you’ll still get a nice variety of textures. You can eat it hot or chilled. You can add other vegetables, although I would hold off on tomatoes until the beans cook through. Remember the advice to never salt beans at the start of cooking, because salt toughens beans? It turns out—and years of kitchen-wrangling has confirmed this for me—that it’s not salt that toughens beans. It’s acid. So be sure to leave out your tomatoes, your vinegar, your sugar, your vinegar-based pepper sauce, what have you, until your beans are tender but not mushy. Keep your acids waiting and your heat low, and, I guarantee, you’ll have something that makes you feel better for both eating it and making it. If you like it enough, you can eat it all winter long, and come May or June, when your name is on the pass list for the February bar, you can think back to those bleak, low-light winter days, when black bean soup, and your competence at making it, carried you through.

Black Bean Soup to Carry You Through
Serves six at a dinner party, or one for a week of lunches

This is less of a recipe than a methodology. It is cobbled from several sources, particularly Barbara’s Black Bean Soup in New York Cookbook by Molly O’Neill and Laurie Colwin’s black bean soup in More Home Cooking. Like most bean dishes and all soups, it’s better the day after you make it, although it’s no slouch on the day of.

1 1/2 cups (12 oz.) dried black beans, soaked overnight in water to cover
1/4 - 1/3 cup olive oil
1 large yellow or white onion, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, peeled and chopped, along with a few leaves
6 cups (48 oz.) stock, broth or water (Barbara Scott-Goodman uses chicken stock and Laurie Colwin uses canned beef broth, but I’m a fan of roast vegetable stock in this soup)
salt and pepper to taste
juice of 1 lime or 1 lemon (whatever you have, or prefer)
Optional: 1 can peeled plum tomatoes, diced, along with the juice from the tomatoes; celery seed; dry sherry; yogurt or buttermilk; thinly-sliced lemons for garnish

Drain the black beans. In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat the olive oil, add the onion and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the beans, give a quick stir, and add the stock, salt and pepper. Bring the beans to a boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer and let them cook for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours. You want a simmer that’s faster than an occasional “gloop,” but not a rolling boil.  When the liquid is reduced and the beans are tender, add the lime or lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning. You can stop here and put the soup pot in the fridge overnight, if fiddling with a blender is not in your immediate plans. Otherwise, decide what kind of texture you would like for your soup, and puree accordingly. (If your soup is still hot, be careful to not overfill your blender. 8 ounces of liquid, max. Trust me on this.  The boredom of pureeing a cup of soup at a time is nothing compared to a steam burn.) I usually puree it all, put it back in the pot, reheat it, and spike it with a little dry sherry; dry sherry is great in black bean soup. Lemon slices are not necessary, but I like them. smile

Posted by Bakerina at 05:06 PM in • (3) Comments

Oh, honey, what a pleasure it is to read your writing again. While I’m sad for the reason, and I hear you on the heartbreak (have I told you that I didn’t pass the final part of the architectural registration exam until the THIRD try?), I’m glad it moved you to write, and at length, and to tie in, as you do so beautifully, with what you’re cooking. I look forward to reading about what you’re cooking when you pass the damn thing next year. xox

p.s. Rancho Gordo beans? Best. beans. ever. Have you tried their Christmas limas?

Kimberly on 11/23/11 at 09:11 PM  

So, so sorry to hear about your bar exam experience.  Just remember that passing the bar has absolutely nothing to do with how good a lawyer you will be.  I took my second bar exam twenty four years after the first one - and I quickly realized that I really had to forget (or more accurately, not use) all of the knowledge I had painfully accumulated during those years, because the bar exam doesn’t test legal skill.

You will pass the second time.  You are a great writer, so you don’t have that particular hurdle to overcome.  Put in the time studying, which you surely will, take lots of practice multistate bar tests, and just take it day by day.  You will pass.

Plus - of course - cook!  Always good for the soul!

Caroline Edwards on 11/29/11 at 12:48 PM  

Aw, Bakey, so sorry to hear that.

I spent my own time licking my own wounded ego over the last 18 months or so, and I know there’s nothing I can say to make you feel better. But you will feel better, and in 10 years this will be an encouraging story you’ll tell your own legal intern when she’s panicking herself.

Ganbatte!

David Adam Edelstein on 11/30/11 at 03:44 PM  
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