Elements of Stale, with Luke Mazur: Extreme Bar Exam Makeover

So late last week, I learned that I failed the bar exam. I don’t remember a ton from those two days in July. Which isn’t too surprising, because apparently (we now know) I wasn’t remembering much during those days either. I do remember, however, that at lunchtime thousands of future lawyers poured out of the Buffalo Convention Center and onto Niagara Square. There were more people outside in downtown Buffalo those two days than I could ever before remember. And they were from downstate too, and they were eating outside in the summertime just like they do in New York City. Even though I was failing a bar exam at the time, I do remember thinking that it was kind of neat that we were all gathered this way.

I can be proud this week too, and for similar hometown-aggrandizing reasons. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition selected a home in Buffalo to remodel, and last Saturday-that is, two days after I found out that I failed the bar exam-television crews knocked on the lucky family’s door. Ty Pennington and his crew ascended onto the West Side, a neighborhood here that is currently gentrifying insofar as Buffalo can gentrify. That is, if gentrification is-generally speaking-white people moving back into where other white people spent the last century leaving/fleeing the moment they became middle class, then the “moving back” part fucks up Buffalo. The city has lost population every year since Mad Men was really happening-it’s less than half what it was in 1960. So no one is really moving “back” anywhere. Still, the West Side is kind of funky, and kind of hipster adjacent (so long as you broadly define hipster), and a good place to film this program.

More to the point: reality television being in Buffalo this week is lucky, because it distracts me from my exam fate. Already this week, I’ve read all about the Jamaican family whose house is being made over. I’ve done a slow drive-by near the construction site and watched the coverage on the news. I’ve learned that ABC or whoever is also re-modeling the other homes on the block and that so many volunteers have given their time and their advice and their eccentricities to the project. I’ve heard that the family may have trouble paying their taxes after they move back in, but also that the weather here has been fine, and when America watches next spring, there won’t be snow on the ground. I’ve watched, like I did those two days in July, a city beat to life.

As a participant but also as an onlooker, the whole experience is so meta that I am tempted to go back to grad school and study it all. Reality television is the prism through which I am understanding even the reality of my own city? So kooky, right? I once read David Denby’s book where he goes back to Columbia and sits through an entire school year of the Great Books curriculum there. He grapples with a bunch of political correctness because it was the 1990s, but his big idea is how reading these giants of the canon can help the reader to create himself. It’s really emotional and his mom is sick and he reviews, I think, the Tim Burton Batman along the way, but I was convinced. Just like I am convinced now that unless there is something in these texts that so differs from what’s on TV every night, my analogy is OK. Texts and reality TV teach us how to become more ourselves, how to become protagonists of own stories.


By that I mean: watching people’s dreams come true-even if you’ve never met the people-has a certain power to it. And I think the power derives itself from you imagining yourself there on TV, with the camera rolling in front of you. By watching them be the protagonists, in split voyeuristic seconds, you too become a protagonist. When Simon tells Carrie Underwood that winning American Idol “is about being an original,” he is talking to you. And his call to action is not really unlike, say, the way reading The Odyssey could inspire you to go on a trip. Or how reading Virginia Woolf could make you not want to read Virginia Woolf anymore. (Besides, the contest Ryan Seacrest posted to his Twitter yesterday to win $10,000… well I’ve entered to win, and let’s just say that that’s the only job I’ve applied to this week. Let’s also say that Jane Austen never hired me to do anything.)

Reality TV contains multitudes. Like the bar exam. So many multitudes that they don’t teach in law school, I swear!

On the other hand, law school did teach me that getting called on in class can be both horrific and a rite of passage. And while this makes it sound like law school is a three-year-long circumcision, minus the fact that we’re all old enough now to know and to know better, I discovered that it pretty much is. I also learned about-observed really-a subculture of people, many of them with Asperger’s Syndrome, and how they live and, at least by Western standards, how they thrive. I discovered early on that though society at large may disfavor awkwardness, the law is blind in more than the way conservative jurists let on.

But most of all, law school provided me with a vocabulary. Straw man. Tort. Thurgood Marshall. False dichotomy. A concept which I’m still not sure I quite understand but, I think, means that sometimes when you believe you have only two alternatives, you really have more. So, for instance, I once told myself that I could either pass or fail the bar exam last July. And that’s false.

If I’ve learned something in this media-saturated era of ours-the hours of consuming American Idol and Road Rules and Top Chef and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-it is that, after a snip here and a cut here, we’re all real housewives of somewhere. That is, if we are to be protagonists of our own life stories, framing is the name of that game. When you watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (Buffalo), you won’t see the blight just blocks away: that’s edited out. And you’ll never know whether that plucky family will be able to pay their taxes a year from now. But you will see people going bananas about their new Wii in their new kitchen and their new hot tub in their new hallway. And there won’t be snow on the ground and you will be happy.

And so, yes, I failed the NY State bar exam. But so did JFK Jr. In fact, he failed it, like, twice. Right? Anyhow, a really nice place to eat lunch, if you’re ever in Buffalo, is Niagara Square. It’s actually a circle, but you know.

Luke Mazur is allegedly our grammar columnist!