Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Examined Life: a Guided Tour

Memos from Midlife
by Franklin E. Zimring
(Quid Pro Books, 2015)

Frank Zimring, professor of law at Berkeley, has published a slim, but wonderful new book styled Memos from Midlife. It contains 24 parables inspired by philosophical reflections honed over the better part of an examined life. These reflections about life as an adult in our world are grouped into six sections. They start with the care and feeding of the self in a busy world,  and move to love and family, success and failure in America (with a great chapter on Portnoy's Complaint), coping with intelligence and money, dealing with our origins and influences, and the psychology of visiting landmarks and owning status symbols.  Each chapter stands alone and contains chew-sized musings on issues that are familiar to us all. They are not uniformly successful, but if a well written tour through some life lessons and insights led by an entertaining guide sounds of interest to you, buy this book.

Frank Zimring is a friend. My wife has taught his wife fiddle for a decade and all the while Frank has lovingly and dutifully accompanied her to many of my wife's performances in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's a sport.

We are not peers. He was born in Los Angeles, a year after Pearl Harbor.  When he was ~10 years old his parents built a new house in the hills of Studio City and his mother built a rose garden. It made an impression; read the book. His father was the screenwriter Maurice Zimm.  A big fish. Zimm (a pen name) was the screenwriter for The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

His mother was a 1936 graduate of Southwestern Law School. Formed in 1911, Southwestern is one of the oldest law schools in California and the second oldest in Los Angeles.  It was a non-profit ahead of its time, promoting women and minorities. 

An early class at Southwestern Law School
Sexual preoccupations notwithstanding, Alexander Portnoy, the protagonist in Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint, notes Zimring in his Memos, was really a conformist and super-achiever: "He is at thirty-three, Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity in Mayor Lindsay's then-fashionable New York City government. He has been, in his words, first in every class he's been in, including law school." It's pretty much the story of Frank Zimring, who finished first in his class at the University of Chicago law school, and who was hired to be a law professor there right out of school. 

There is a review of Memos on Amazon by one of Frank's classmates. He looks back at how Frank stood out from the crowd:  
Fifty years ago we had just finished our first year of law school. We'd stand up when called upon and it seemed that no matter what we said the Professor could ask a follow-up question that put everything we'd said into doubt. Almost all of us had always been the smartest kid in the room and yet we floundered. Much later we came to understand that we were being taught to stand on our feet and defend our positions, but that took a while to grasp. The task wasn't made easier by our classmate Frank Zimring. When he stood up, he spoke the language of the Professors. The rest of us were often at a loss to understand either Frank or them. Zimring was head and shoulders the smartest person in a room full of smart people.
Frank Zimring delivered on his promise. Over a distinguished career at the University of Chicago and Berkeley law schools, and the bloom's not off yet, he has become a pre-eminent expert on criminal law, juvenile justice, the death penalty, and efforts to control violent crime. His work is research based, as demonstrated by his books on the death penalty (The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, Oxford University Press, 2003) and the decline of crime in New York City (The City That Became Safe, Oxford University Press, 2012). His CV takes 24 pages to list the books, articles and reports he's published, the boards and commissions he's served on, the lectures he's given and the appointments he's held. He has written numerous articles for the popular press.

So, as I said, Frank is not my peer.  I never was the smartest kid in the room, and I never was the hardest working kid in the room.  Yet, when it comes to life, we are all Frank's peers. I like to think about the democratizing force of life's non-delegable duties; I like to think about life-boat problems--like what do you tell your eight year old son who asks you whether you would save him or his sister if there was only room for one of them in the life-boat? I like to think about what lessons we can glean from an examined life. For these and many other reasons, I like this book.


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