Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I say everything is connected

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
I say everything is connected. For instance, several weeks ago , we were having dinner with our friend and her husband whom we had not met for months and half way through dinner, our friend had to take a call. Our friend is a surgeon who often has to answer phone calls from the hospital during dinner but this time it was not about her patients. The phone call was about one of her classmates who served as  a medical doctor for many years in UK recently died in a road accident involving a bus she was travelling in from Kuala Lumpur to Penang .
After living abroad as a specialist  for almost four decades, our friend's classmate decided to move back home to take care of her aging mother. A few days before the tragic misadventure, a fellow lawyer had called me and asked if the French Honorary Consul in Penang was still ill because one of his clients required legalisation  of some documents for usage in France.  As the Honorary Consul was not available, it was therefore necessary for his client to get her Power of Attorney authenticated at the French Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. I subsequently heard from my colleague that his client was killed in a road accident on her way back from Kuala Lumpur after her visit to the French Embassy. It was rather unusual that she decided to take a bus back to Penang from Kuala Lumpur. I was indeed taken aback when I realised  that my colleague was making enquiries for the  woman on the fateful bus ride.

John Irving wrote in Avenue of Mysteries.
As for fate, and how you can’t escape yours, there was Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Michael Henchard, drunk, sells his wife and daughter to a sailor in the first chapter. Henchard can never atone for what he does; in his will, Henchard requests ‘that no man remember me.’(Not exactly a redemption story. Clark French hated Hardy.)’

I have enjoyed books by John Irving but I have not enjoyed reading Avenue of Mysteries as much as I have anticipated. It could be that I was too anxious to get through the book that runs to more than 750 pages.  The story is told in meandering style alternating between the protagonist’s present life as a writer and teacher and his past of  colourful and eccentric characters set against exotic landscape in Oaxaca, Mexico and also the Philippines. Juan Diego, a successful American writer cannot run away from his past, and how his past will collide with his present. He is a kid from Mexico and a grown man in Iowa. He keeps dreaming about his past when he sleeps. 

What Juan Diego said was that he’d had two lives- two separate and distinctly different lives. The Mercian experience was his first life, his childhood and early adolescence. After he left Mexico – he’d never gone back – he had a second life, the American or Midwestern experience. ( Or was he also saying that , relatively speaking , not  a whole lot had happened to him in his second life?

What Juan Diego always maintained was that , in his mind – in his memories , certainly, but also in his dreams –he lived and relived his two lives on ‘parallel tracks.’

Juan Diego, fourteen years old and his thirteen year old sister, Lupe  were  dump kids  ( un nino de la basura) who lived in a shack in Guerrero where families worked in the dump ( el basurero) . The dump kids did most of the picking and sorting through stuff at the basurero and their job was to separate the glass, aluminium and copper. Juan Diego was a reader, he taught himself to read. When the Jesuits, who put such a high priority on education heard about the boy from Guerrro , they wanted to bring the dump  reader books. They decided to send  Brother Pepe who put reading on the pedestal. 

‘At forty- five, he was too fat – a ‘cherubic- looking figure, if not a celestial being,’ was how Brother Pepe described himself.
Pepe was the epitome of goodness. He embodied that mantra from Saint Teresa of Avila : ‘ From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us’ He made her holy utterance foremost among his daily prayers. No wonder children loved him.’

Juan Diego’s clairvoyant sister, Lupe described him as “ The Jesuit is nice- he’s just a little overweight.’ Lupe had listened to a lot of grown – up stories read aloud by Juan Diego. Her speech was incomprehensible to everyone but Juan Diego, her exposure to language was to an educated vocabulary beyond her years and experience and she is a mind reader and Juan Diego struggles to keep anything secret as Lupe knows all the worst things that go through his head.

While Juan Diego had at first become a dump reader for the purpose of teaching himself to read, Lupe had listened and learned-from the start ,she’d been focused.

John Irving writes beautifully.
There were some very good books in the backseat of the little Volkswagen; good books were the best protection from evil that Pepe had actually held in his hands-you could not hold faith in Jesus in your hands, not in quite the same way you could hold good books.

The Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
When Brother Pepe first visited Juan Diego with a bunch of books, the latter was reading a book on local history about the churches. Juan Diego explained to Pepe that both the Augustinians and the Dominicans came to Oaxaca before the Jesuits. It was one of the books that Juan Diego managed to salvage from the burning. The book might have been written by an Augustinian or a Dominican thus condemned to the hellfires of the basurero. John Irving writes in brackets :  The Jesuits did indeed put a priority on education, but no one ever said they weren’t competitive .

As a very young teenager in Oaxaca, Juan Diego had met an American draft dodger who had run away from the United States to evade the draft for the Vietnam War. The draft dodger had wanted to visit the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial – to pay his respects to his dad who  had died in the Philippines during World War II. But the draft dodger died in Oaxaca and before he died, Juan Diego had pledged to take the trip and make the journey for the dead dodger. When Juan Diego was fifty-four, he embarks on a journey to fulfil the promise he made to the dodger in his youth.

Undeniably John Irving is a prolific writer and his novels are centred around themes such as abortion, religious faiths and sexual orientations and fatherless children. His characters are vividly fascinating and mythical. John Irving’s tale telling is interjected with humour and poignant scenes. Predetermination and coincidence play a significant role in Irving's writing. 

In Avenue of Mysteries, the phrase  fundamental interrelatedness of all beings” strikes a chord with me.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Law and Fiction

 University of Sydney
If you think that lawyers are autonomous and will tell their clients what they must  do, you are mistaken because in actual fact, lawyers act on clients’ instructions and they basically have to execute the wishes of a client legally. Law is a service-oriented profession where clients instruct and lawyers execute clients’ instructions. If lawyers are too afraid of losing clients and bent on making ends meet, they will always be  at the mercy of their clients. When a lawyer is engaged by a client, the latter’s interest is  paramount and the lawyer has to ensure that he or she will do his or her very best to safeguard the client’s interest.

In BIGLAW , the novel written by Lindsay Cameron, a corporate lawyer turned writer, Mackenzie Corbett had been fixated with success ever since she saw her sister, Margaret, draped in four first place medals at the regional swim competition when she was ten years old.

Mom had signed Margaret and me up for the swim team at the community center that summer after reading an article on the importance of sports in building girls’ self –esteem. Margaret had groaned, but I was excited – I loved swimming. When the season started, it didn’t take a stopwatch to tell me that Margaret was easily the fastest swimmer on the team, often finishing races a full length ahead of everyone else. And I would know , being that I was usually the one bringing up the rear. “I think you just need to practice more,” Mom would gently instruct when I complained to her about being last. “ You can achieve anything with hard work.” So I spent the summer in the pool, with Dad dropping off early on his way to work while Margaret was still in bed, and stayed long past when Margaret skipped out to head to the beach with her friends. I didn’t mind, though,because I couldn’t wait to show my parents how good I’d become in the final match of the summer –the All East swim competition. But things didn’t go exactly as my optimistic ten-year old mind  had planned. Margaret won four first place medals, and all I walked away with was a cruddy participation ribbon. Watching my sister draped around her neck, nodding humbly at the rousing applause, somewhere deep inside I was filled with a burning, pulsing need to be up there. But so long as I embodied the athletic ability of Charlie Brown, it wasn’t going to happen.

Mackenzie was worried that  Margaret was going to be the only winner in the family until she found her niche. She learned that if she studied hard enough and had a 4.0 GPA, she would earn awards, scholarships, and if she steered clear of sports or sororities in college and instead filled her time with lawyer-friendly extracurricular activities like the debate club and civil liberties club, she could earn a spot at Georgetown Law School. And then when she was in law school, the students were told by their career resources counselor that a corporate associate position at a Biglaw firm was the most difficult spot to obtain. Only a handful of summer associates would be asked to join the corporate department so aiming to join the corporate department in a Biglaw firm ‘was the epitome of success for the eternal striver in her’. 

After graduating in law, Mackenzie secured her place as an associate at a premier law firm in Manhattan and for two years she lived the fantasy of big salary, high profile deals, cute boyfriend and designer bag on her arm. The overachiever in Mackenzie drove Mackenzie to work her butt out hoping to secure a prestigious secondment on the line. She was the able associate who was assigned by the top partners to work on high profile deals  that deprived her of her sleep due to the timeline and high  volumn  of due diligence work she had to carry out . She had little time for her boyfriend and had to cancel out on outings with Kim, her good friend since college days at Princeton. 

Mackenzie was driven to succeed so she put up with partners like Saul Sever who was described to be sadistic and “actually derived real pleasure from the torture he inflicted. Rumour had it that the only time Saul could be seen with a smile on his face was after he yelled at someone. Particularly if he brought them to tears. It was well -established firm lore that he once threw a stapler at the cleaning lady for moving his beloved ficus plant while vacuuming. It hit her in the back fo the head and drew blood. Apparently after the settlement the partnership requested that he be put on medication . Whatever medication he was taking didn’t seem to stifle  his ongoing atrocities against associates , though. “They can’t make a medication strong enough to give that monster an empathy gene,” I remembered an associate slurring after one too many margaritas at a Cinco-de Mayo party. Despite Saul’s abusive behaviour and  his “F” words, the firm ignored all the ways in which he was severe liability because he had a client list that rivaled those of the top partners in the city.'

Mackenzie seemed to thrive in the corporate department where the partners all used intimidation and public humiliation as teaching tools. Each of these partners was crazy and appeared to be dysfunctional in his own way. There were a couple of cheery characters in the firm, her secretary Rita and Alex a colleague who managed to survive working for Saul as ‘everything rolls off his back.”

Mackenzie was living a life where she was attached to her BlackBerry. Half way through spending  Christmas day with her family, she received an email from her senior partner requesting her to Fedex the latest agreement to him in Mexico ASAP. She had to contend with the poor internet service at her parents’ home and her hope of getting the document services department in her Biglaw firm to  Fedex was dashed as it was Christmas Day . She ended up having to print the document on her dad’s old printer and had to drive to the nearest FedEx office branch only to find that it was closed.   Her phone buzzed again and she was told to fax the document, all 234 pages. She missed the dessert and she could not tell her parents what it was she was doing. She had a rude awakening when she had to face investigation officers from the Securities and Exchange Enforcement division questioning her on insider trading after a high profile sale of the company deal that she worked on for Saul did not materialize as she was privy to all the confidential information. She also realised that she had become an impatient and nasty person when she needed things done by her junior associates in her team.

BIGLAW may be fictitious but it does give us an insight of life at a big law firm.  I have a small size legal practice where the three partners have to put up with our existing banking clients who take their time to pay us and individual clients only care about shopping for the best fees in town, so I can only conclude that unless you love the law and believe in the good things that can come out of fighting for justice, there are plenty of other vocations to go for.

I hope that BIGLAW will be made into a movie soon. click I can imagine Jennifer Lawrence acting as Mackenzie.