Darth Remainder, Ducks, and Ninjas: A Thank You to Keith Aoki

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This tribute was originally posted on April 28, 2011 on intlawgrrls.  With my apologies, Diane Amann’s tribute to Keith Aoki  from intlawgrrls was accidentally cross-posted on this site on May 4 under my name without my knowledge but with the best of intentions.  That post has been deleted and I am providing my tribute to him below. Hari Osofsky

Over the last few days, I have struggled for words as I have attempted to process losing Keith Aoki from this world. I have been privileged to have him as a close friend and mentor, and he has deeply shaped who I am and how I approach my job as a legal academic. My condolences go out to all who feel this loss, especially his family, and I encourage the many people who his life has touched to give generously to support his daughters.

The night I found out he was dying, though, there were words I needed to say to Keith, most importantly, thank you. Keith was always hard to thank, not because he didn’t richly and repeatedly deserve it, but because he would cut me off rapidly and decisively when I tried. He was profoundly modest and humble, as so many have said, but also exuded an irrepressible energy that demanded looking outward to the next challenge.

Yesterday, at my last property class of the semester, as I looked out at students already stressed in contemplation of their upcoming Con Law exam, I decided that one of the best ways to thank Keith was to continue to pass forward some of what I have learned from him. I reflected to them about two of the qualities that Keith had which really influenced me: embracing creative passion and being there for people (and the world). I do so here again in a somewhat different variation.

Many people have celebrated Keith’s creativity with ideas and his intertwining of art with scholarship, especially in his comics. One of the earliest of those comics, Casual Legal Studies—which he wrote with Luke Cole at Harvard Law School and sent to me with a kind note as we mourned that untimely loss—is displayed on the shelf of my office. I wish I had known Keith when he was a performance artist in New York, especially once he told me about wrapping himself in cellophane in one of the projects. I would love to just once attend a conference of law professors in which people wrap themselves in cellophane (at least figuratively) and direct their seriousness into playful creativity. Imagine the conceptual breakthroughs we could achieve. Keith modeled them.

But the embrace of the creative in the professional extended far beyond Keith’s writing. In my first year at Oregon’s law school, I taught Property for the first time and was terrified. Keith was there to walk me through it, generously giving me his syllabus, teaching notes, and PowerPoints, and suggesting that for future interests, we co-teach; after all, Keith, like any experienced Property professor, had a system for that somewhat daunting section of the course. On the day we taught the Rule Against Perpetuities, Keith showed up with his Darth Vader mask with voice changer and hid in the electronics closet. Here is the script, created by Keith, from my teaching notes:

Hari says: “First there was Darth Maul, then Darth Sidious, then Darth Vader, now there is …. Darth Remainder”
Then Keith steps out of the side room and says,”Obi-wan to Anakin for life, then to Jabba the Hutt if he loses 1000 pounds, if not then to Yoda on the condition that he shave the hair from his ears. Don’t make me destroy you…name the estates and interests.”
Then Hari says, “the chart is with you”

My teaching of future interests has never been as interesting as it was that year. I’ve never felt like I can pull off Darth Remainder without Keith.

That fearless embrace of creativity inspired me and so many others to stretch ourselves in ways that we would not have otherwise. My Ph.D. in Geography came directly from Keith. I was writing my first article on climate change litigation, and he stopped by my office to drop off a reprint of a piece that he humbly suggested might be helpful as I thought about sovereignty. When I went to him and told him that it was the most interesting thing I had ever read about mapping, he reacted by introducing me to the discipline of Geography, first handing me piles of books that our colleague Alec Murphy had given him to read and then talking me through them and how they might relate to law.

What made those stretches possible for those lucky enough to have Keith in their life is that he was always there to help us make them, both through his warmth and through his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of a vast swath of scholarly literature. When I was trying to write about modernism and post-modernism for the first time, I would call Keith and he would rattle off lists of texts that I had to read and digest and then excitedly discuss them with me once I did. Keith made it seem possible to actually be a Renaissance scholar because he moved so seamlessly through ideas and interconnected them.

While it is impossible to tell any story about Keith without that second quality of being there for people and the world coming through, I want to celebrate it explicitly. One of the reasons that the hole that Keith’s loss leaves feels so big is that he always intuitively knew how to provide support in the most important practical ways that people need as they navigate the sometimes lonely world of legal academia. I would sit with or call Keith in those moments when I was unsure and afraid, and he would not just comfort me but give me unfailingly wise advice on how to move forward or how to help someone else who he had never met do so.

What makes this profession so scary, especially early on, isn’t simply the challenge of trying to contribute something worthwhile (and if one is oriented towards social justice as Keith was, having that contribution make the world a little better). The difficulty is also that the legal academy’s interstices and power structures, just like those of the broader world, are not always transparent or fair. Keith explored these issues of power in his work, but he also lived them. He dedicated enormous time to helping people navigate these complexities and to trying to make the academy better in the process.

In remembering these moments, which would fill so many pages, I think of two pieces of advice which Keith gave me in the middle of them. The first was to be a duck (the mascot of Oregon, a place that was such a big part of Keith and which he remained, even after leaving, such a big part of). Keith explained that ducks paddle desperately under water but the surface remains smooth. The second was the importance of ninjas in the legal academy, people who are there to help others quietly navigate the interstices. Keith modeled both of these qualities so well. Even as he produced staggering intellectual contributions and energetically taught his students (jumping on the table during class and shouting “moo ha ha” to explain power dynamics in property), he spent countless hours advising, writing tenure letters, making calls for people, sending emails to celebrate and connect people, and creating a safe space. He never wanted credit or recognition for these things, but did them because he wanted to help and thought they were the right thing to do. As others have said as well, the only times that I ever saw Keith angry were in reaction to injustice.

Since I can’t call Keith, I have been rereading emails from him dating back to when I first met him on the Oregon appointments committee in 2004. The sheer intellectual breadth and creativity is staggering, and reminds me of how much Keith opened my mind. Their generosity to me and others continuously comes through as well. I close with a brief quote from him that expresses the urgency of supporting the values Keith held dear even as his loss devastates us: “Do it ASAP, if you don’t do it, who will?”