Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The resiliency of nature -- expressway edition

Things are very busy for me at the moment. I expect to explain later but -- for now -- it being Earth Day and all, I thought I might recycle this post from September 2010 about humanity's relationship with Nature. It seems sort of appropriate, at least to me.

The three dead pigeons, lying close together on the shoulder of the expressway, didn't faze me, but I was curious. Were they poisoned? They were lying near a railroad overpass. Were they part of a group that was sitting on the tracks? Were these three too slow to move out of the way of an oncoming train?

I had to drive to work this morning and I couldn't help but notice Nature in the least natural of places, to wit, the inbound Kennedy Expressway.

It was the small patch of green in the pavement, no more than a couple of feet long and a few inches wide, erupting through the joint that separates the roadway from the shoulder, that got me thinking along these lines. It wasn't grass, but it was a ground cover of some sort and it was green. Really green.

From then on, I was looking. There were all sorts of spots were plants had taken root -- one plant here or there -- mostly scraggly looking, but alive. I'm no gardener, but these looked like weeds to me. A foot tall or more, some of them, with thin leaves and cone-shaped, purplish flowers on several. Most of these had sprouted underneath the concrete medians, concrete blocks four roughly feet tall that strongly discourage traffic moving one way from drifting into a lane moving in the opposite direction. So there is massive concrete sitting atop a concrete floor -- O wondrous the mighty works of Man -- and, yet, every 100 feet or so, sometimes less, sometimes more, there was another plant pushing through.

Thus, the dead possum on the Ohio feeder ramp, just entering the downtown area, came as no surprise. Why shouldn't there be wild animals (not just rats) anywhere at all? Nature bides her time with us, our human infestation. So many of us think we control her: So many of us believe we can plant mighty cities anywhere we choose, in swamps (like my Chicago) or deserts (Phoenix, Las Vegas). We believe Nature will conform meekly to our desires. Al Gore's disciples are more afraid of Nature, but still they think they -- we humans -- can control her. They think Nature will do our bidding if only we curb CO2 emissions.

But a trip into the City, through one of the least natural landscapes possible, shows that it's more complicated than that. Nature will do what she wants, when she wants, whether we like it or not. Whether we can survive it or not. We can fight, of course, but -- for the foreseeable future -- we must lose. Nature is far too strong. It's too bad we don't have a space program anymore. By our inaction, we have placed all our hopes, all our futures, at the mercy of an oft-capricious Nature. But anyone who has studied history and geology and paleontology, even casually, knows that Mother Nature can be one tough mother at times.

Of her own choosing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Solving public pension woes: Unleash the trial lawyers!

Illinois faces an enormous public pension problem. Pensions for firefighters, police officers, teachers, and government employees of all ranks and titles, state and local, are "underfunded" by billions of dollars. Our recent "temporary" state income tax hike will almost certainly become permanent (repeat after me: there is no such thing as a 'temporary' tax hike) but that won't solve the problem by itself. In Chicago, property taxes are almost certain to go up, possibly way up, to bring the local pension deficits into balance.

You already know that, right?

Now... let's think about this for a moment. How does something like this happen?

Every two weeks, when a public employee is paid, a certain amount is taken from his or her check for the pension fund. That money can add up, all by itself, to a significant sum.

In our many public corruption cases here in Illinois, for example, it has (finally) become fashionable to deny a public pension to a politician who has been convicted of impropriety in office. But the disgraced politician is eligible to have his or her pension contributions refunded. Years after former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was convicted on corruption charges, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled he was ineligible to keep even a portion of his public pension (the argument had been that Ryan was entitled to a pension for government service in positions where he wasn't charged with corruption). Ray Long and Michelle Manchir reported the story for the Chicago Tribune in February 2010:
[Ryan received pension payments of] $635,000 from Illinois taxpayers in the three-plus years between his retirement and his major political corruption conviction, a top pension official said. Ryan also got a refund of $235,500 when his pension was taken away -- the amount of personal contributions he made during his more than 30 years in public office.
Anyway, one part of the pension contribution comes from the public employee who hopes to some day receive the pension. When you hear teachers and firefighters and cops say, hey, we did what we were supposed to do, believe them. They contributed. They had no choice.

But there are two other components to the pension equation.

The public body is also supposed to make contributions to the appropriate pension fund and the rest of the money is supposed to come from the income earned by investments of these sums.

Public pension funds took a beating around the country when the banks torpedoed the economy and caused the Great Recession in 2007. Growth forecasts and investment projections proved just as overly optimistic in public pension funds as they did in your 401(k) at home.

In Illinois, however, the problem was greatly exacerbated by the fact that our dedicated public servants did not make the pension contributions required by law. To the extent that some of them may have thought about it at all, they bet that the bull market and the never-ending appreciation of real estate values would cover up their malfeasance and nonfeasance forever; meanwhile, they took the money that they were supposed to have invested for the future of public employees and put it into programs, grants, jobs for idiot relatives -- all the usual stuff that governments do. But this was money that should have been unavailable for any purpose but pension investment.

Worse, our public pension funds, unlike your 401(k) at home, were managed by the politicians, or more precisely by their friends and relations, and they invested liberally in other friends and relations with little regard to the safety or security of the bets they were making.

In a lengthy article for the November 18, 2010 Chicago Tribune, headlined "Pension bets not paying off; Public funds fall further behind after making risky investments," Jason Grotto wrote:
Trustees of Chicago's failing public pension funds have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into highly speculative investments that have not only failed to realize outsize returns but also saddled them with underperforming, long-term assets that can't be sold off, a Tribune investigation has found.

The investments, which involved buying equity stakes in businesses ranging from fast-food franchises in Mississippi to a Los Angeles grocery chain, were supposed to plug huge holes in pension fund coffers by yielding gains of up to 20 percent a year.

But a Tribune analysis of nearly 130 private equity and real estate investments made by four pension funds since 2000 found that nearly half have lost value so far. Of the $1.3 billion invested to date, the pension funds have seen just $60 million in added value on their balance sheets.

Had the funds used an equal amount to buy and hold a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond offered in 2000, they would have received $893 million in interest payments to date -- and their principal investments would be secure.

Trustees of the city's pension funds made these risky calls because they were hoping to make more than the modest returns offered by government bonds. For years, they have been under tremendous pressure to make up for city agencies' inadequate contributions to the funds, which promise retirement security to the city's public employees.
Among the beneficiaries of these investments was a real estate firm, co-founded by a nephew of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, Robert Vanecko, a brother of R.J. Vanecko, who recently pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter on charges arising from a late-night altercation on Rush Street. According to Grotto's article, City pension funds put $60 million in Vanecko's firm -- and lost $11 million. (The other co-founder of DV Urban Realty was lawyer and real estate developer Allison Davis, the man who gave a very young Barack Obama his first job after law school. In Chicago, everything is connected somehow.)

The politicians themselves are probably immune from suit for failing to do their legislative and executive duties, allocating public pension money for public pension funds.

That's a shame, although if I were an ambitious prosecutor, I'd be thinking about how I could make a criminal case of this astounding dereliction of duty.

But the losses accumulated by the pension funds may be another matter. You can't sue the fund that ruined your 401(k) because it made bad business decisions. In the Great Recession, thanks to the megabanks -- the "too big to fail" banks that We the People bailed out, for reasons I'll never understand -- there were a lot of bad decisions made. But the fund that tanked your 401(k) probably wasn't speculating in investments touted by the offspring of fund managers. A lot of public pensions apparently were. There can be liability for making unsound investments with inadequate disclosures of risks and conflicts.

If I were running the SEIU or another public union whose members are about to be shafted by this pension mess, I wouldn't limit my lawyering up to only those who will challenge the constitutionality of the bills we've passed here purporting to trim increases for current pensioners and cut benefits going forward for employees still on the public payroll. I'd be looking at suing the funds that invested the money, the recipients of those investments, and anybody else I could find who might help defray the costs of this debacle besides taxpayers like thee and me.

The unions might be a tad suspicious of the deep-pocketed, silk-stocking lawyers they'd need for this purpose, because these are usually deployed as management tools, trying (and generally succeeding, at least in the private sector) to minimize the union footprint on the American economy. But, if I were a public employee union executive today, I'd be shopping.

Actively. Unleash the trial lawyers!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Curmudgeon is reminded that he lives in the city

The ride to work is usually uneventful. I take the CTA Blue Line from O'Hare to the Loop. Granted, the outbound trip has been more exciting, particularly on one recent occasion....

But that's the exception, not the rule.

The Blue Line is generally pretty tame. There are occasional homeless people camping out in the train cars; there probably have been more than usual this winter, given the terrible weather we had. But even the bums on the Blue Line are generally a cut above the bums on other CTA lines. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I had to change to a Red Line train to get somewhere, probably a doctor's appointment. I notice that the car that stopped right in front om me seemed rather empty and I had just begun to congratulate myself on my good fortune when I stepped into the train and into a cloud of the most terrible stench I can recall ever smelling. There were three or four recumbent forms in the car, at various locations throughout. I couldn't tell which was the prime offender. There were a few ordinary commuters, like myself, sitting in the car, stony-faced, glassy-eyed, breathing as little as possible. I made it one stop before I bailed out, gulping lung-fulls of subway platform air as if I were suddenly transported to a springtime orchard in full bloom.

So, yes, some of our bums on the Blue Line may be a tad pungent, but never, ever anything to match that.

There was a sleeping bum on the train when I got on the other morning. I took my seat across the aisle and busied myself in the morning Sun-Times. The train filled up in the usual course. As is ordinarily the case, even when the train car was full and people began standing in the aisles, no one had sat next to the sleeping man.

Here's a tip for you travelers out there: If you want to get your own seat on the train, don't bathe or shave for at least a week. Make sure your clothes are filthy and that you are carrying a plastic bag or something similar that all and sundry will assume is the sum total of all your possessions on this earth. Make the occasional random noise, preferably in a low sing-song voice, and you should be able to keep a seat entirely to yourself all through the rush hour, no matter how crowded the train may get otherwise.

The operative word in the preceding sentence, however, is "should."

The other morning, a younger man, with tattoos covering all his visible skin (his face excepted), with long, greasy black hair and wearing an orange T-shirt, boarded the train and decided that he would sit next to our sleeping bum. The newcomer took the bum's plastic bag off the seat next to the seemingly sleeping bum and put it on the floor.

That woke the bum up.

He did not wake up in a cheerful mood. Indeed, he took offense that this younger man had moved his bag and he said so. Loudly.

The bum was older than the newcomer, but I wouldn't want to guess whether he was 30 or 40 or 50. Nobody looks their best when they've been drinking for a long time, and my guess would be that he'd been drinking as often as possible for a loooooong time. Still, he was bigger than the newcomer and, by waking up like that, he did have the element of surprise working for him.

The younger man was not fazed by the sudden revival of the bum. In fact, it soon became clear that he would not likely be fazed by much short of a shotgun blast, and only then at close range. I would be guessing were I to suggest what drugs he was taking, but his drug of choice was not alcohol; of that much I can be certain.

He therefore responded to the challenge from the bum in a belligerent manner, unapologetic about moving the bag. A lively debate thereafter ensued. An increasingly loud and lively debate.

I looked up from my newspaper and watched my fellow passengers carefully sneak peeks at the two disputants. They were calculating, as I was, just how likely this argument was to end badly. I would dare say that most people, even most persons impaired by drink or drugs, would have responded to the bum's challenge by mumbling an insincere apology and getting the hell out of there. But not our tattooed gentleman. Retreat was not in his vocabulary.

As the dispute escalated ("You got no right to move a man's stuff!" "You got no right to leave your stuff on the seat so people can't sit down!" I don't want you sitting down by me!), I found I could no longer pretend to read the newspaper. My fellow passengers had put away their screens as well. One young woman, deciding it might be more prudent to go stand over at the other end of the car, offered Mr. Tattoo her seat on her way out. A lot of the passengers immediately adjacent to these two began to move out of their seats. I followed. I didn't know whether either of these two had a weapon of some sort. I did know that I did not want to be collateral damage.

The train moved from the elevated Milwaukee tracks into the subway, approaching the Division Street station. The doors opened; the disputants stood up.


I don't know who swung first. I do know that almost all the passengers surged out the doors at this point, onto the platform. I was looking for the button to alert the motorman; there's one by one set of doors in every car, but it must have been the one closer to them than it was to safety. I wasn't going there. I got off the train with everybody else. Almost everybody else. The two combatants now had more room to flail at one another.

I found a button on a column on the station platform that is supposed to summon a station agent at the same time a young lady did.

And then I realized that not everyone had left the train besides the two guys fighting.

There's a Cook County Deputy Sheriff that gets on the train at my stop; I've seen him around for years. He's assigned to the Daley Center. Going on 10 years ago now, he used to be the courtroom deputy in a room that I was in every week without fail. Naturally, we've struck up a nodding acquaintance. I've never learned his name; he doesn't know mine either. I say, "Hey, how ya doin'?" and he says, "Hey, counsel."

He's not a young guy, and he's not tall or particularly muscular. If anything, he's a little pear-shaped. There is, or has been, a deputy on the 22nd floor at the Daley Center who has as many tattoos as the guy on the train, and this particular deputy has massive muscles. He's also a little mean, I think. (Steroids? Who knows?) When he shushes you in the hallway, you get the distinct impression he'd prefer that you didn't shush as requested so he could wail on you. Maybe even use his service revolver on you. Either as a club or according to manufacturer's directions depending on how much lip you wanted to give. But scary muscular deputy wasn't there. Deputy Howyadoin was. I don't want to guess how old he is. I'd say he's my age, but I'm terrible at guessing ages. Anyone from 40 to 70 seems to be my age these days. I'm pretty sure he's not 70, or even 60. But he's no kid.

Still, he was trained to intervene and he did. He waded in between the two of them, grabbing Tattoo Man from behind and pushing him away from the bum, all the while telling the bum to back off.

I'm still on the platform at this point. I know this because I remember seeing the CTA station agent running up, a slender young man armed only with a walkie-talkie, stopping right next to me. Oh, good, I thought, that'll be a big help. He was talking into the radio. "...two men fighting... African-American and Hispanic males... there's a Cook County Deputy Sheriff trying to break it up...."

I marveled a little at that. Chicago police and Cook County Sheriff's deputies may travel in uniform, but they generally wear baseball jerseys over them. So, unless you already know, you really can't tell. The young man on the walkie-talkie was more perceptive than I at first thought. Still, I wished he was two or three rather burly cops, in uniform, with billy clubs. But, alas.

Deputy Howyadoin seemed to be having some success in getting the two separated. He got Tattoo Man to sit down, a couple of rows away. The bum, meanwhile, was still on his feet, rockin' and ready for more, and making no secret of his desire in this regard. A couple of younger African-American men tried -- very gingerly -- to walk the bum back from the situation, but it didn't look or feel resolved.

I got back on the train. I had no idea of what I was going to do, or how. It's just -- well, I know this guy, sort of, and if things reignited, I felt I should try to do something.

It happened quickly. Tattoo Man was back on his feet facing the bum, barking at him. The bum had never left his feet and he was barking right back. The deputy was trying to move Tattoo Man back again; the Good Samaritans were trying to move back the bum.

Now, again, the way it works in all the best movies is that the two combatants, or one of them at least, lets himself get pushed away, barking all the while so it doesn't look like he's backing down, but allowing himself to be maneuvered to a safe distance. Bob Hope used to do this to great comic effect. But that wasn't happening here. Both guys were being pushed, but both were resisting. And, just like that --


The bum got off a good one almost right away, pushing Tattoo Man into a window -- and breaking it (it's safety glass, so it did not shatter but merely spidered, but still, these guys were not playing) and I was still ineffectually trying to figure out what I could or should do that might help and -- suddenly -- it was all over.

The bum took off.

Maybe honor had somehow been satisfied when he nearly pushed the punk Tattoo Man through the window. Maybe the bum thought that, now that there was significant property damage, he did not want to face the police. Maybe he'd been doing a silent countdown in his head right along, calculating the time he had before the police might arrive. Whatever, he suddenly departed for greener pastures. Deputy Howyadoin got Tattoo Man (who to all appearances was entirely uninjured despite the collision with the window) to sit down again. The passengers got back on the train and we resumed our trip to the Loop.

Now it was Tattoo Man who had a seat to himself. And the seat in front of him and behind him, too. No one wanted to set him off again.

Tattoo Man decided to get off at Clark and Lake. I thought he might barrel through the people in front of him when the doors opened. I think they thought so to; they moved with some alacrity just as soon as the doors parted.

Deputy Howyadoin and I got off at Washington, at the Daley Center. I made it a point to engage him a little in conversation as we trudged with the rest of the commuting hoard down the platform. "Heck of a morning," I offered lamely. "Not the best way to start the day," he acknowledged. "Thank you," I said. I probably said some other stuff, too, and so did he. But "thank you" was the important bit, I think.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The perils of having an opinion: No one may disagree with today's orthodoxy -- even yesterday

I use Firefox as a browser but, frankly, I'd never heard of Brendan Eich, until recently the CEO of Mozilla, the company that created Firefox.

And I was actually doing some legal work last week (it comes in fits and starts) so I hadn't really been closely following the news. But I noticed a lot of churning and angst in my Facebook news feed, from generally serious persons, many of them lawyers, about boycotting Mozilla and Firefox because of an opinion expressed by Brendan Eich.

Then Mr. Eich fell on his sword, or pulled the rip-chord on his golden parachute, resigning as Mozilla CEO, and peace and harmony were restored in my Facebook newsfeed soon thereafter. I guess I can use Firefox again, wrote one lawyer.

I wondered what unspeakable opinion had led to Mr. Eich's downfall. Had he expressed a fondness for Adolf Hitler? Had he come out foursquare in favor of legalizing child pornography? Well, he was a CEO -- maybe, I thought, he wanted to eliminate all taxes on successful people, something to give those of us rooting about in the gutters some 'incentive' to succeed. Maybe he was promoting cannibalism as a solution to world hunger.

I figured it had to be something truly awful for him to lose his job and stir up such a hornets' nest that it even reached my isolated corner of the social media world.

It turns out, however, that Mr. Eich's fatal offense was contributing $1,000 in 2008 to support California's Proposition 8 -- which would have banned gay marriage.

This was a ballot initiative that was so outrageous, so extreme, so radical that, of course, it actually succeeded at the polls.

Wait. What?

Yes, a majority of California voters agreed with Mr. Eich -- in 2008 -- that gay marriage wasn't marriage. The courts invalidated the election results, as you know, and now the social media has pushed Mr. Eich out of his job, with a company that he helped to found, because of a perfectly acceptable position that he then held.

There is, according to some polls today, a majority coalescing around the idea that gay marriage is marriage after all. Since 2008 gay marriage has been legalized in several states, including my own state of Illinois.

But in 2008, that was definitely not the case, in California or elsewhere around the United States. Mr. Eich and Barack Obama were on the exact same side of the issue -- in 2008. I was on their side then, too.

I still don't think that marriage should be redefined as many courts and the legislatures of several states are redefining it. I also recognize that I am losing the argument.

I see the problem as linguistic. I don't have a problem with the law recognizing a union between same-sex couples that is accorded the exact same dignities and privileges as what we used to call marriage. I continue to believe, as I have for a decade or so (as far as I can recall it was around 10 years ago that I first had occasion to think about the issue), that the state would be better off getting out of the "marriage" business entirely, leaving the question of what is, or is not, a marriage to the churches, but requiring the separate civil registration of all unions between consenting adults, whether recognized by churches as marriages or not. The civil registration would be determinative for all tax, inheritance, pension and other benefits questions.

I don't mean to trivialize what some have characterized as the great civil rights issue of our time, but I see the issue as this: Civil Marriage and Religious Marriage are getting a divorce and are having a very public custody battle over the right to the use of the name Marriage.

I have no problem with gay couples living together and raising families and being accorded full legal rights as domestic partners, just as I and my Long Suffering Spouse have been domestic partners now for almost 32 years. I'm not threatened, I'm not worried, I'm not scared. I wish all couples, gay and straight, joy and happiness and long lives together. I do not, however, see why my objection to calling the arrangement between gay partners a "marriage" makes me a hater.

Which means, of course, that I can never be the CEO of Mozilla. It also means that no one is ever safe expressing an opinion, even a popular one, lest it become unpopular with the passage of time. Isn't that sad?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Time to reset the sidebar again -- baseball edition

Well, I've always been a recycling enthusiast. When you have a long running blog, why not collect and recycle some pieces that may be of interest to persons who have not been following me for since I started this blog in December 2005?

Chances are, the way people drift in and out of my blogging world, most of you who happen on this post will not have read most, if any, these baseball-themed posts, which are now added to the blog sidebar as well. Submitted for your approval:

A travel baseball parent defends his -- and his kids' -- experiences

Bee will be mad at me for doing a number of sports-themed posts in a row, but I was inspired this morning by Lenore Skenazy's post on Free Range Kids, Your Child is NOT Going to Play in the Pros. She provides an excerpt from a longer piece by an Indianapolis ER doctor, Louis M. Profeta, that appeared Monday on DGIWire.

If you just read the Free Range Kids post, you'd think that Dr. Profeta was hostile to all organized sports, especially travel teams. It's really not the case; Ms. Skenazy let her own biases come through in her editing. She has a distinct point of view and -- for any younger parents that might be happening by -- if you're not looking in on her occasionally, you should. She's a breath of fresh air and common sense in an increasingly fearful world.

On the issue of travel teams being generally bad (her apparent view, not necessarily Dr. Profeta's), however, I must respectfully dissent. Links in this introduction will take you to both Ms. Skenazy's post and Dr. Profeta's original article. What follows started as a comment I left on Skenazy's post this morning.

The good doctor is right on one thing: Injuries will probably prevent most kids, even talented ones, from ever being pro athletes. The people who make it to the pros have a special combination of talent, determination and durability that most kids don't.

Lenore, two of my three boys played travel baseball. We didn't know it existed before my oldest boy tried out for his high school team. He made the team, but he came home from tryouts insistent that his brother find a travel squad. My oldest son played baseball through high school. His younger brothers pitched in college (the youngest is still in school). They both played Division III ball. It was not the big time. My middle son didn't get any interest from the pros (though he was the ace of his staff, and a lefty, his back gave out in the course of his senior season and he was ready to retire). My youngest boy probably will never see a pro contract at any level either, but he wants to teach and coach. His experience will help him get a job in his chosen field. My middle son got a job from baseball, too -- as an accountant -- because one of the players on his college team had a father who worked for an accounting firm and got both my son and his into jobs there. My son would never have had this connection without sports.

Along the way we've seen one kid from our park league make the majors (well, sort of, he's a Cub) -- and that kid left the house league early for travel ball. My middle son played with a kid who got drafted by the Nationals but never made it out of A ball because of, you guessed it, injury. My son also struck out a kid (twice) in high school who's now the starting second baseman for the Cleveland Indians.

You know what? We didn't do it from fear; we did it because we liked baseball (still do) and because the kids wanted to do it.

I coached in the park league when my youngest was little (before we thought it was time to find a travel squad -- although there are some travel teams for toddlers out there). I was the worst coach in the history of what I call Bluejay Park. But six kids on my last team made their freshman teams at various area high schools, including my son -- and baseball is a cut sport. So they didn't burn out. They had enough fun to want to keep playing.

The park, or house, leagues are supposed to be recreational -- less competitive. But every parent thinks their kid is a surefire Hall of Famer when they start playing T-ball -- and then they get discouraged quickly when the kids don't know where to run, how to catch or how to hit. By the time the kids can actually play something resembling baseball, a lot of the parents aren't coming out any more. It's a shame, too, because those games can be a lot of fun to watch.

Of course, sometimes the joy of watching is tempered by the fact that some of those in attendance are entirely crazy, and some of the coaches are the worst. I remember one game when my oldest son was playing -- he still played in the park during summers during high school because he never got on a travel team -- and the coach from the Colt team from the next park over was threatening to kill the umpire and anyone who tried to stop him. I live in a part of Chicago where many of my neighbors are policemen. I watched a few of them checking their service weapons in case things got really ugly. Someone eventually walked the belligerent coach back to his car (the coach was an off-duty cop, too) talking to him about his pension and how this game wasn't worth risking it.

I never saw anything comparable at a travel game. Ever. The parents were generally nice, often knowledgeable (OK, Youngest Son played on a team where the parents were still learning), and I think most of the kids -- not just mine -- did it for fun. For the love of the game.

I think my kids are better for the experience; they deal with authority better, they are less afraid in social settings than I'll ever be. And I include my girls in this, too, at least to an extent -- even though neither played baseball for more than a few years.

Monday, April 07, 2014

A toddler, a cracker, a lawn chair and an unexpected encounter at a baseball game

OK, so last week you got Curmudgeon the outraged father, demanding that all schools of education be closed, railing not just against schools of education generally, but in particular railing against the poor, benighted education department at South Janesville College, the fake name I made up for the very real school that Youngest Son attends.

I got very little work done Thursday or Friday as I talked frequently to my son, wrote carefully worded letters to his coach and to the financial aid department, and generally tried to keep Long Suffering Spouse from going up there and raising holy heck with Youngest Son's professors.

We had to go up there on Saturday anyway.

Youngest Son was pitching.

Given the weather we've been having, Saturday wasn't entirely terrible: Crisp but sunny, easily 55 degrees. There was a breeze that wasn't quite a wind chill. In full sunlight it felt almost not-cold. Almost.

I wore my down coat, of course, over a wool sweater and a flannel shirt, with scarf and gloves and a hat with ear flaps. Long Suffering Spouse wore the lighter of her two winter coats (but we brought the heavier one just in case) with scarf and stocking hat. She brought blankets, too. And we always bring lawn chairs.

At South Janesville college there are a set of bleachers on the home side of the dugout; we've never sat there. We set up our chairs on the other side of the dugout, past the adjacent bullpen. If I actually sat in the chair, I'd not be able to see the players from the shoulders on up; there's a big found yellow guard that runs atop the chain-link fence. This prevents a clear view of the field, but it's great for leaning on, if you pace to the fence, and away from it, and back and forth as the game situation and pitch count dictates. The kid may be doing all the work out on the mound, but I'm fretting enough for both of us.

For you younger parents, or those who never had a kid in sports, trust me when I tell you, it was ever thus. I can go with you to a park of your own choosing, anywhere in the United States where a baseball game is being played, and I can spot the pitchers' parents. They're the ones who are writhing in pain or pacing fitfully or wringing their hands. As parents, we want our kid to do well -- but there's not one darned thing we can do to help when he's out on the mound. So we worry.

That's one reason why we don't sit in the bleachers with the other parents and girlfriends and other fans.

Another reason is that the stands are too close to the umpires.

Now -- again for you younger parents -- you will never help your kid by screaming at the umpire, even when his strike zone is consistently inconsistent.

And coaches will bench a kid sometimes just because the kid's parents get on the umpire's case. It can hurt the team to get the ump mad.

So I never, ever yell at the ump. But sometimes I can't help an involuntary sharp intake of air, or a sigh, or even a moan when a good pitch isn't called for a strike. Umpires have rabbit ears; they can hear stuff like that if you're too close to the plate. And they won't like it. So I like being down the line a bit.

If you could promise me that the kid would do well, maybe I could sit with the others. But if he struggled and if, heaven forbid, someone should get on him a bit, I might have difficulty in not responding. I would never yell at another kid on our team -- but if someone made a bonehead play or dropped an easy fly ball or uncorked a wild throw in the infield I might have that sharp intake of breath, or sigh, or moan -- all involuntarily -- and that kid's parents wouldn't like that either. And I don't blame them.

So that's why Long Suffering Spouse and I keep to ourselves at the games.

Actually, Youngest Son has had a very good spring. He came into Saturday's game with an ERA under 2.0 and a winning record. He's established himself as the number two starting pitcher on the staff. That's pretty good for a junior.

But Youngest Son also had a horrible week. His graduation plans were dashed, the education department pulled a surprise evaluation on him, and he's running a class of pledges at his fraternity and the initiation is almost upon him. The kid had to keep his cool with his professors and keep his outraged parents under control.

I was a little concerned about how he might fare. Could he shut out all these distractions and focus on his game?

He got into some trouble in the first, giving up three runs -- more in that inning than he'd given up all year so far. When he came out for the second I mentioned to Long Suffering Spouse that, if he didn't have a shutdown inning, he was going to have a tough afternoon. Long Suffering Spouse was talking by then with Youngest Son's girlfriend. She came over from the bleachers to say hello. That's pretty brave, don't you think?

If Youngest Son was in any way concerned about his girlfriend socializing with his parents he did not show it. He had his shutdown inning. He had righted the ship. He'd pushed the stress of the week outside the lines.

People wander around at these games. Parents, kids, students, neighborhood people. The women's softball game was going on the next field over and there'd been a lacrosse game over on the football field earlier. So I don't mean to say that Long Suffering Spouse and I were entirely alone. There was another man in a folding chair a little further down the left field line. He looked pretty young for a player's dad, but I think he was.

So, anyway, it was no surprise that, at some point, a toddler wandered over, clutching a cracker, now dropping it, now picking it up and sticking it right back in her mouth.

Her anxious father was close behind. He was a young man, bearded, perhaps the age of Older Daughter. My grandfather instincts kicked right in. As the little girl picked up the cracker I called over to the father, "It probably tastes better that way."

"It's an organic cracker," the father responded. "Now it's a little more so."

The little girl reminded Long Suffering Spouse and me of our own granddaughter -- she was a little thinner, perhaps, but nearly as a tall. She was a month or two older than our granddaughter and so had a couple of actual words down pat. "No," for example.

Somehow that's just about the first real word kids learn. Mama, perhaps Dada, and then "no!"

The toddler thought our lawn chairs were the most interesting things she'd ever seen. One was a table for her cracker first. Then she decided she'd like to sit in it. The father was apologetic, but we egged the kid on. Made a fuss. Cooed at her. Made faces. She was interested in our sunglasses; her father wasn't wearing any.

Both benches were lively during the game. When the other pitcher was having trouble finding the strike zone (even the umpire didn't know where it was for most of the afternoon, truth be told) our bench whooped an hollered. Their bench whooped and hollered right back when Youngest Son went back on the hill. "You see?" the father told his daughter. "Boys are crazy. Stay away from them."

Well, of course Long Suffering Spouse and I played along with that, too.

But I had to watch the game, too, and occasionally have those sharp intakes of breath, or sighs, or moans. The father asked which one of the boys was ours. The pitcher, I told him. "Oh," said the toddler's father, "he's one of my students." He stuck out his hand to introduce himself more formally.

Yes, you guessed it. This nice young man with the cute toddler was one of the education professors who turned down my son's petition to student teach in the fall.

I took his hand, of course, and tried not to blanch visibly. My wife and I had one of those moments of telepathic contact that sometimes occur with long-married couples: We somehow both resolved not to bring up our son's issues right then and there. I wanted to -- I wanted to haul off and belt the guy once I knew who he was -- but I just couldn't justify that after the amiable manner in which we'd been conversing to that point.

Our conversation continued, but we were wary now. He realized that my wife was grading papers (she's always grading papers) and asked if she also taught high school. "Elementary," my wife said, after just the briefest pause. She didn't want to say that she taught at a Catholic school in case this professor was anti-Catholic as so many at the very secular South Janesville College seem to be. And she didn't want to say junior high either, lest it trigger a discussion of the education department's sua sponte consideration -- and rejection -- of a proposal to let Youngest Son student teach in junior high next fall instead of high school.

Youngest Son looked over at us at some point and saw with whom we were speaking. "I almost lost it right there," he told us later. I promise, I told him, we did not talk business. This professor must still grade Youngest Son; Youngest Son was concerned that we might say something sufficient to goad the professor into dropping his grade. But we stayed mum. Honest.

In the end, it was the toddler that brought us together; it was the toddler who decided it was time to part. She had tired of the chair. She wanted new excitement elsewhere. Her father had no choice but to comply. We were relieved to see him go.

Seriously, though. What else could we have done? Should we have raised our issues? I could have tried to be polite -- I can be, at least for short spurts when it's really, really important. Or were we wise to not inject those issues into what had been a relaxed social encounter?

The good news is that South Janesville came back to win the game; Youngest Son went eight innings and got the win. But, for now at least, he still must expect to do his student teaching in his ninth college semester.


Thursday, April 03, 2014

All "schools" of education should be closed -- immediately and permanently

My wife is a Spanish teacher, and a good one. Her students go on to success in high school, which surely is the only true measure of success for a junior high teacher, isn't it? Many of her students place out of Spanish I in high school; the ones who don't routinely report that they cruise through the introductory high school Spanish course, almost all getting A's. In other words, they were well-prepared.

Youngest Son wants to be a teacher. He's playing baseball at South Janesville College (the name I made up for his actual school) and majoring in history and education. He is one course shy of completing his history major. He wants to student teach in the fall of his senior year.

After he started school -- after he took C's in a couple of introductory education courses -- the education department at SJC decided to impose a 3.0 GPA requirement for student teaching. Youngest Son is a few tenths of a point short, although he has better than a B average in his history major. He was not grandfathered in. Yesterday, the education department allegedly considered his petition to student teach next fall -- as a senior. They turned him down. On the most bogus pretext, too: He "has a ways to go" he was told "in disciplinary content." Really? He's already passed the certification content exam for history and (remember?) he has exactly one course left to complete his history degree. And the kid is still a junior.

Now I will grant you that Youngest Son is no Einstein. He's a kid, like most kids, meaning that, when he's interested and engaged he does fine and when things are dull and boring he tunes out. He was apparently indifferent (that's a polite word, isn't it?) in several of his classes freshman year. He passed everything -- that much I know, since he was invited back. But, of course, thanks to Federal privacy laws I haven't seen one of his report cards -- ever. He's the fifth of our brood to go to college; I've never seen one report card from any of them. I got tired of asking the kids -- they'd tell me this grade was posted, or that one, but nothing beyond that. Somehow, though, privacy laws do not extend to tuition bills. Colleges send those to me.

Among the courses in which Younger Son floundered as a freshman were his introductory education courses. He was very discouraged. "Education classes are terrible," my wife -- the good teacher -- agreed. "They're pointless. But you have to get through them to get to the methods classes. That's when you find out whether you're cut out for teaching."

For those who may not know, "methods" classes involve getting up in front of a class and presenting lessons. Some folks have a knack for it -- my wife does, for example, and, judging by the glowing responses he's gotten so far, Youngest Son may have the knack as well.

And Youngest Son has grown up some in college, just like he's supposed to. He has his eyes on the future now, and he wants to graduate on time.

But "education" departments don't let kids graduate on time.

I'm not talking just about South Janesville College. Middle Son and Younger Daughter went to different schools in the Chicago area, both of these traditional teachers' colleges. Neither of them is a teacher -- Younger Daughter flirted with the idea for a semester until she took an introductory education course and was so repulsed she abandoned the notion -- but both of them have many friends who did pursue teaching degrees.

And they all got saddled with an extra semester. A ninth semester. Education majors 'walk' with their classmates at graduation -- but a lot of them don't get their diplomas until they return to student teach. Because education departments don't let many of their majors student teach until after they are supposed to have graduated.

And, of course, student teachers aren't really on campus -- and certainly not frequently. They teach in schools and their colleges get extra tuition.

This is a scam, a sin, a crime and a shame.

And -- pardon me -- but there are too many lazy, incompetent, stupid teachers out there for any education department at any school to claim that it is doing a good job.

Think of your own education. How many truly good, memorable teachers did you have? One? Two? I was lucky -- I can think of a half dozen without stretching -- including one teacher who saw promise in a tall, skinny kid who absolutely deserved the D he received in his introductory high school science class. That teacher decided I was bored, not stupid, and recommended me for the honors course in Chemistry and Physics (yes, I was the D student). Wonder of wonders, the teacher's recommendation was accepted and I started getting A's and B's. In the honors courses.

How about your kids? How many really good teachers have they had? How many times have your kids come back to you and said something like, "Thank goodness for Mrs. Smith! Without the foundation she provided, I never would have passed Trigonometry!"

We spend boatloads of money on public schools -- many of which are terrible, so terrible that responsible parents sacrifice their futures to send their kids to private schools. That are somewhat better. Sort of. Sometimes. (The 'best' schools in Chicago right now are probably a handful of public high schools -- e.g., North Side College Prep, Walter Payton College Prep, Jones College Prep, Whitney Young Magnet School -- but it's easier to bring explosives into the White House than it is to gain admission to one of these schools. They are that competitive.) But, on average, for normal people, people without über-clout, private schools are better in the City of Chicago -- and many Chicago suburbs -- than the publicly funded ones.

There are societal reasons that explain why so many schools fail, of course: Hunger, poverty, drugs, crime. But the poverty-stricken drug addicts of today were yesterday's public school students. Parents, or the lack thereof, may be the single most important factor in shaping the next generation (I think so, certainly) but teachers contribute to the success and failure of our offspring as well.

Meanwhile, American test scores are in free fall (professional educators' "solution"? eliminate testing!). American kids place well down the lists of achievement in math and science. In Europe, kids speak two and three languages without working up a sweat. But our kids are getting dumber here at home.

Years ago, my parents gave me a reprinted set of McGuffey Readers -- stuff they used to use to teach little kids. Compare these to the watered-down pap given to our little kids today. It's embarrassing.

No -- the problem with schools is not money. Money is being spent, but not wisely.

Let's get smart.

To begin with, let's close all the education departments and schools of education.

If someone wants to teach math, let him or her first become a mathematician. Then let him or her apprentice to a math teacher for a term -- a semester, perhaps. If he or she likes teaching, and if the kids prosper, and the senior teacher agrees -- voila! he or she is a math teacher. Oh sure, there will be many slugs and parasites that will have to age out of the school system; we can't fire them all. But even observing slugs and parasites has value: One learns what not to do. Maybe we'd need two or three terms, apprenticed to different senior teachers, to fairly evaluate a candidate's potential. But these apprentices should be paid -- not at a full teacher's pay, perhaps, but maybe half-pay. Because teaching is a knack, a skill -- a talent -- not a set of equations or theorems that can be reduced to writing and taught to any stiff off the street.

Long Suffering Spouse is encouraging Youngest Son to stick it out and suck it up and get certified. His baseball coach gave him the same advice. Get past these parasites and get the credential so you can get a job. I hope he will. I think he will. But no thanks at all to the 'education' department.

Tear it down.

Tear them all down.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How Warren Buffett proved that time travel will not exist for the foreseeable future

Mr. Buffett
Even those who don't follow sports will recall that Warren Buffett teamed with Quicken Loans to offer a billion dollars (that's billion with a "b") to anyone who could accurately predict the outcome of each and every game in this year's NCAA tournament.

Oh, sure, most people have office pools -- and the winners there may have two or three of the Final Four pegged accurately -- but this contest required entrants to correctly forecast the outcome of every game -- predict every upset -- and identify all the winners. Mathematicians calculated odds of anywhere from 1 in a billion to something like 9.2 quintillion to 1 against -- and you had better believe all those smarty-pants mathematicians heaved a sigh of relief when the last perfect bracket was eliminated just days after the tournament began (Mercer's upset of Duke wiped out most entries).

But what does this have to do with time travel?

Think about it. Here's this immensely rich guy who made arrangements to have a billion dollars available (no, he wasn't really going to write a personal check -- you don't get to be the Oracle of Omaha by doing stupid stuff). Actually, Buffett was going to use one of his insurance companies to insure the billion and he probably had Quicken Loans, his co-sponsor, pay the premium, estimated by some at $15 million. You can probably guarantee Buffett made a profit on this deal. That's how you get to be an Oracle. Or Wizard. I hear tell he's been called both.

Anyway, Buffett's announcement makes huge news -- the Intertubes are ablaze with the billion dollar bet -- it's a PR stunt that will long be remembered... you know, well into the future?

And yet, not one of my great-great-great grandkids showed up with a cheat sheet for me to use as an entry.

In fact, nobody's did. Because if somebody's great-great-great grandson or daughter showed up with the perfect bracket, Buffett and his fellow investors would, at this point, be getting just a wee bit concerned about having to make good on the bet.

And you can imagine our little time traveler passing out investment advice after the billion is paid out, too, feathering his or her nest for a very comfortable future.

Now, this doesn't prove that time travel is impossible any more than travel into outer space proves there's no Heaven. Warren Buffett, for all his wealth and fame now, will presumably be largely forgotten in time -- it may take centuries before he is unfamiliar to historians specializing in 21st Century America, but it probably will will happen. Therefore, what this proves is that time travel will not be invented while this March Madness bet is still remembered. Time travel might be invented after Warren Buffett has faded from the footnotes of history so that no one knows what a golden opportunity the inventors of the time machine missed by not looking up their old ancestors.

Alternatively, I suppose, it could indicate that, in the future, our descendants won't care so much about money.

But that seems about as likely as correctly predicting the outcome of each and every NCAA tournament game.

Monday, March 31, 2014

I wonder if serfdom got started in sort of the same way

Younger Daughter and her husband Olaf are still living with us, but they just took another step toward what we now think of as "independence" this weekend.

They bought a car.

Olaf has been driving a car that belonged to his father, a Japanese car that wound up with something like 170,000 miles on it in the end. You could always tell when he was leaving for work. Somewhere around 5:45 a.m. there would be this enormous noise -- not a rocket taking off exactly, or a jet plane coming in for a landing, but some sort of an engine whine. A loud engine whine.

Now I'm generally not outside to see Olaf leave in the pre-dawn darkness, but I have been round the car when he's returned, or when the kids have gone out on weekends. The air around the car would be heavily perfumed with gasoline smells. Pungent. Heavy. Unmistakeable.

And the car died several times during this terrible winter, a winter which may now, finally, be loosening its grip on our collective throats.

So it was time for the car to be retired.

The kids bought another Japanese car, a Subaru, one allegedly made in Indiana.

I'm old and I don't understand these things. But my kids assure me that Japanese cars are often more American-made than cars with American name-plates. "My Ford Fusion was built in Mexico," Middle Son assured me, when I raised the apparently quaint and outmoded notion that buying foreign cars puts Americans out of work.

Younger Daughter and her husband were able to put down a fair down payment on the car (as opposed to Middle Son who bought his car on a smile and a promise that he was about to start a long-delayed job). As a result, Younger Daughter and Olaf have fairly favorable finance terms, at very low interest.

But there will be payments. Hefty payments.

In our confused world, this is apparently a good thing. Indeed, Olaf -- with his good job and decent income -- is deemed to have worse credit than my daughter who has picked up a couple of freelance projects here and there but mostly stays at home with my granddaughter. But she has large debt -- college loans, in particular -- and a high FICO score while Olaf, who got scholarships to pay for nearly all of his college tuition, has no significant debt and a lower FICO score.


Ladies and gentlemen, I think we can now explain how the Great Recession happened: Bankers are out of their ever-loving minds if they think that my essentially unemployed daughter is a better credit risk than her salaried husband.

The really good news from this weekend's car purchase is that Olaf and my daughter did not have to raid their savings account in order to come up with the down payment on the car. So they are still able to save for their own house -- which will, of course, come with an enormous mortgage and huge monthly obligations.

It occurred to me, thinking about this, that each milestone of maturity and adulthood these days seems to carry with it a greater and greater voluntary assumption of financial peril.

No one goes out and buys a car. They put down something -- and take on debt. No one goes out and buys a house either -- there's a down payment, and a mortgage, and a Sword of Damocles that is suspended over the new homeowners' heads. You say it was ever thus -- but I'm not so sure. Incomes were considerably lower 50 or 100 years ago, but houses and farms and vehicles and education were cheaper, too -- and the costs of these necessities have risen far faster than our incomes.

Now there are a few people -- bankers, presumably -- who can pay cash. Maybe drug dealers. Some professional athletes or entertainers. Are we seeing a new 'nobility' coalescing before us? Are the rest of us doomed to continually lower our expectations, staggered over by an increased debt burden? Are we seeing the rise of a modern serfdom here -- with most of us totally dependent on a wealthy few who dole out chattels and services for which the rest of us can never fully pay?

I tried to congratulate Olaf on his new purchase. I did. It looks like a nice car. But independence? It's starting to look like we're becoming increasingly resigned to permanent dependence.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hello, neglected blog

Yes, I know it's been awhile since I visited. I'm sorry.

I haven't abandoned the online world. Actually, I've posted at least 100 posts since anything last appeared here -- but these were on my real-world blogs, under my own name.

I'd explain, but the explanation would give away my secret identity and, of course, we can't have that now, can we?

I miss this blog, but the world intervenes.

Indeed, I've just finished printing up a bunch of cases for me to read on the train tonight -- if I can find a seat (by no means certain) -- so I can work on an appellate brief I've promised... and abandoned... and promised again... while I was busy working on the real life blogs.

It's a funny thing. I don't get paid to blog, but there's some psychic satisfaction in the act of writing. I'm supposed to make my living from the practice of law -- but I too seldom get paid. And almost never without a struggle. Meanwhile, people -- some of them Important People -- tell me they like my real-life blog. I can't buy groceries with compliments, of course, but it provides satisfaction in a way that a check doesn't. Especially when I've had to beg and scrape and whimper and plead and yell and scream and beg some more to finally, eventually, at long last get that check.

Thank goodness for family to keep one's priorities in order. Not only do they spend the money I bring home much faster than I can bring it home -- thereby reminding me to keep begging and whining, etc. -- they resolutely refuse to see any value or utility in my real-life blog, even when I showed them a recent email from one of the aforementioned Important People thanking me for my efforts. "That's nice," Younger Daughter said, handing it back to me, "but where is the remote for the TV?" "That's nice," said Long Suffering Spouse, "but can he get you a job that pays money?"

Cassandra, I say. A prophet is always without honor in his own country, I say. They are unimpressed.

But I should be able to visit more often soon.

That way, you can soon be unimpressed again, too.

Monday, February 03, 2014

A guest post from the Baby to Named Later: Getting down to really basic stuff

I found another note from my granddaughter, this one tucked in the pocket of my winter coat. My granddaughter's printing remains a challenge, but I have endeavored to faithfully transcribe what she wrote.

Well, Grampy, this is the first note I've been able to leave you in quite a while. It's not because I have writer's block. I'm just trying not to bust your secret blog wide open. Ever since I learned to walk reliably I am almost always being followed. I sure can't leave anything beneath the high chair anymore; Mom would smoke that out in a second. (She got wise to my storing food under the chair for later consumption, too.)

I'm 16 months old now and, I have to tell you, getting old is tough.

When does this teething stuff end?

The other day Mom asked you that very question. I wasn't thrilled with your answer. "In her case," you said, indicating me, "it may never end. After all her regular teeth come in, she may start on a second row."

You were kidding, Grampy. Right?

I'm not always sure.

I am becoming increasingly sure that you're going to get saddled with 'Grampy' as your new name. It's kind of a contraction of Grandpa and Grumpy. Somehow, it seems to fit.

But you're right not to blame me for this handle.

Oh, Mom and Grandma (Grammy?) are promoting the idea that I started it because, sometimes, when you come home, I say g-g-g-g-g-g. (My ability to express myself vocally has a ways to go to catch up with my writing ability.)

They told you that I was trying to say Grampy but you said it might be that I'm just imitating the noise you make when you down your first vodka in the evening. Your explanation certainly fits the facts.

One of the problems of constant teething is that, sometimes, the pain gets to me. I get, shall we say, a little irritable. [A little irritable? She gets rigid like a board and screams like a banshee -- Ed.] Sometimes ice chips help. Sometimes I just need to bite things. Spoons. Keys. But, when all else fails, Mom has to give me medicine. That stops the pain, or at least numbs it, but it also stops other, er, processes that Mom seems to think are really important.

As a result, Mom has given me enough prune juice to flood a small city. It gets tiresome after a while.

And then, when things finally do get moving again, and I go wandering off for a little private time, one of you is always following me.

Just because I get into things you say I shouldn't. The pantry, for instance. Mom -- that traitor -- took a picture of me after I pulled down the Rice Krispies box out of the pantry and dumped it all over the floor. Then she sent you the picture. Look, I was hungry, OK? And I know you don't want me messing with your computer, but I've figured out how to take it out of 'sleep mode' and I've pretty much puzzled out how a mouse works. Soon I'll be able to get my own Elmo videos and not have to wait for you grownups to figure out what I require. Of course, Mom had to take a picture of me fiddling with the computer, too. Busted again.

But we were talking about something else. Eventually, whoever's following me -- you, Daddy, Mom, Grammy -- figures out that I need a little time alone -- but, by that time, too often, the opportunity has passed. And nothing else. (Who wants an audience for that sort of thing?)

I've tried dragging a book with me when I head into the living room for a little alone time. You always seem to have a book or magazine with you when you do you-know-what. I frankly don't see why. It doesn't make anything happen faster. I thought you might do it so everyone else knows not to follow you. But they don't follow you around the house the same way they follow me, do they?

Sometimes I like to be followed. Chased, even. I run around a loop through the old den and the new den and the kitchen and the dining room and I want someone to follow me. (And you'd better, because I'll empty the recycling if you don't hide it, or look for food in the garbage if you don't put the can behind the gate going to the basement, or empty one of the cabinets of pots and pans if you don't.)

Of course, you've got this game all figured out. You catch me -- you block me with one hand when I try and run past your recliner and you pull and tug and I laugh and giggle until I start to get aggravated and then you let me go. "Oh!" you say, "She got away again!" But I know you let me go on purpose. And then Mom or Dad chases me. You stay in your chair, watching TV, until I come around again. "Not this time," you say -- but you know, and I know, that you'll let me go again in a few seconds. And off Mom or Dad will go again. I think that's pretty sneaky, Grampy. Were you always like that?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Paper still has a place in the world

I like my tablet and I've reached a rapprochement with my smart phone. I've been blogging, off and on, for almost a decade (this is, after all, my Second Effort). So I'm not totally tech-averse. I'm not a doctrinaire Luddite, whatever my kids may tell you.

Still, my desk at the Undisclosed Location is choked with paper. Stacked high. I still find I read better on paper than I do on the screen. I read newspapers. I read books. No one steals a newspaper or book from you on the el going home; iPhone users have to be aware of "Apple pickers."

Perhaps that explains why I really laughed out loud when I saw this commercial online this morning. Perhaps no explanation is really needed.

Irrational exuberance in getting from Point A to Point B

A major problem with a real winter like this one -- over and above survival, I mean -- is that we who are experiencing it first-hand are taking pride in accomplishing the things we'd do every single day regardless of the weather. Like showing up to work, I mean.

Take this morning, for example. We had a half foot of lake effect snow that slammed us last night, just as Polar Vortex II was settling over the Chicago area. (The sequels are never as good as the originals, are they? This morning it was a comparatively balmy 2̊ F, not the nearly -20̊ like we had on January 6.)

And we had a full foot of snow on the night of January 4-5, to go along with the foot we picked up for New Year's, so six inches of partly cloudy looks like nothing at all.

The difference is that, on the 5th, before the real cold set in, we had pretty much all day to shovel. This morning, we were shoveling in the cold.

But, anyway, here I am at the Undisclosed Location; the proof is before you on your screen.

And I feel like I've done my day's work already.

I don't think I'm the only one who feels like this.

Indeed, I've seen a number of reports from people who are lamenting the harshness of this winter and pining for spring. In my mind, I want to shout at all of them, Get a grip! It's still January, people! (The Blizzard of '67 was at the end of January, you'll recall. And Snowpocalypse hit on Groundhog's Day 2011.) But the rest of me kind of agrees with my whiny neighbors.

Scientists, of course, are blaming all this on global warming.

And -- my documented skepticism about the degree to which humans impact climate change except on a local level notwithstanding -- I'm inclined to agree with them.

We've had well over 40" of snow in Chicago this year so far. That's already above our normal average of 38" for the entire Fall, Winter and Spring season from October to May. Yes, it can snow in Chicago in May; a trace of snow has been recorded here as late as June. (That was in 1910, however. It's only 'recent' if you figure it as an event occurring after the Cubs last won the World Series....)

Last year at this time, according to the news last night, we'd had less than an inch and a half of snow officially (February and March did their best to pick up the slack, as I recall). On the other hand, although a trace fell in October 2012, there was no snow of an inch or more in Chicago for over 319 days last year.

A body could get used to that. I did get used to that and, judging by the wailing and gnashing of teeth hereabouts, a lot of folks did, too.

Our weather this winter is not unprecedented; it's well within the range of normal in my lifetime. But because it hasn't happened recently, for many people it's as if this is all new.

It isn't.

Global warming?


I don't mean that global warming is causing it to snow or not snow. I can't prove that one way or the other. But all this talk of global warming has made wimps of us all. I can prove that, just by my smug satisfaction at merely making it into the office....

Monday, January 13, 2014

Updated for your convenience

The good news about my blogging for over eight years now is that, no matter how long you've been reading Second Effort, you probably haven't seen everything I've put on offer. (While that may actually be a good thing, we'll defer taking up that question to a different day.) Anyway, if click over here and there's nothing new, there's no reason to go away mad or stop your subscription or delete your bookmark. Pick a month and a year in the archives and, hopefully, you'll soon find something not entirely stale which you'd not read previously and which you might actually enjoy.

For the last couple of years, I've always kept a list of posts up in the Sidebar that visitors might find interesting. (I'm ever hopeful.) Until this morning, I had a list of Christmas-themed posts.

It is, of course, time to take down the Christmas decorations. It's really too soon to put up my list of baseball posts. I could put my football posts back up, I suppose (it is NFL playoff season), but instead I made this list -- a potpourri, as it were -- of essays on work and family and some larger topics. I hope one or more of these may be to your liking. Meanwhile, I have to get some actual work done today.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Three Kings have come and gone and we still haven't sent out any Christmas cards

The 12 Days of Christmas are over. It was Greek Christmas this past Tuesday. By any standard you can articulate, the Christmas season has come and gone.

Not only did we not take a family Christmas picture this year, we didn't even send out one card. I didn't open anyone else's Christmas card myself either; a couple were opened by others and called to my attention, but I don't like to look at other people's Christmas cards until I've sent my own. So this year I just didn't look.

*Sigh* We'll just have to do better next year.

Part of it, I suppose, is that with the baby in the house, we spend a more of our evenings defending our territory than in any productive pursuit.

That grandbaby is a one-toddler engine of destruction. Of course, Long Suffering Spouse and I didn't move to our present house until Youngest Son was already three. We never child-proofed the "new" house (Youngest Son will turn 21 next month) because we didn't have to. And in those days we didn't have cords for charging phones and tablets either. We had a desktop computer, but that was just one thing to defend.

One of our five kids took pinking shears to a bedspread at some point, and another liked to raid the bathroom cabinet and make mountains out of bath powder. In the hallway. But these things took place at the old house.

The Baby to Be Named Later has discovered bathrooms herself and, in particular, toilet paper. Unrolling toilet paper is one of her favorite things in the whole world. And she's figured out that no one can hear her when she does it. Except when she squeals with unrestrained delight at her achievement, of course.

By then it's too late.

And the baby knows that smartphones and tablets show Elmo and Big Bird videos. All she has to do is ask (she thinks) and, whenever she sees a smartphone or tablet, she does ask. Loudly. Insistently.

This has caused some modifications in our usual behavior.

In other houses it might seem strange to see a 20-year old wrapped in a blanket and surreptitiously glancing down and fingering something within. (It might seem a little creepy, too, come to think of it.) But at our house the other night, for example, Youngest Son was just trying to text constantly like any other self-respecting college student -- without his niece realizing that he was on a phone.

I have DVDs on one shelf in the den and CDs on another. The baby thinks these are great for rearranging. She has liberated us from the stifling concept of storing things in mere alphabetical order.

Well, sure, you say, put things up. Put them out of the baby's reach.

But this is a big baby and she's got a big reach. And you can't put everything up. We have blocked some shelves. We've blocked some cabinets and locked others -- but some are left unlocked because the baby has to play with something, right?

I mean, if we closed off all the kitchen cabinets -- denying her access to the pots and pans and plastic storage containers -- she might be stuck playing with her million and one toys. Why, that would be barbarous!

So, unless your foot is no longer than about five inches, walking anywhere in the house can be interesting. I've had five kids; I've been pretty good at negotiating the minefield. Of course I was more agile when I was younger.

And then there's eating.

We've never been a sit-at-the-dining-room table sort of family, or even a sit-at-the-kitchen-table sort of family (at least, we haven't since our own kids were little). Even way back then, I generally did not eat with the family because I got home so late from work. (The kids grew up never knowing that their father was a picky eater. Long Suffering Spouse was -- and is -- a genius. And Oldest Son's finicky palate? That's conclusive proof of nature over nurture. My wife should win the Nobel Prize for that one alone.)

Anyway, as school and jobs and outside interests took over, the kids ate at odd hours, too.

So, in these later days, we are accustomed to eating whenever, and generally in front of the TV in the den.

This has provided a goldmine of opportunity for the Baby to Be Named Later. She's noticed, when we babysit her aunt and uncle's dogs, that the animals beg for table scraps. She's now the most insistent beggar there is. I can be eating tuna fish casserole and minding my own business when all of a sudden someone is demanding my peas, please. I always ask Younger Daughter whether I should comply with these demands, and to what extent, and I do pretty much as she says. She's the mom, after all. But, when she says no, you'd think I had a tablet in my lap and was refusing to watch The Elmo Song for the nine millionth time.

Once I made the mistake of trying to eat dinner while reading on a tablet.

Never, ever again.

I suppose this sounds like a litany of complaints. In print, on your screen, it may seem like a grouchy old guy carping and not affectionate at all.

But that's not my intent.

Last night Younger Daughter and Olaf had to make an emergency grocery run. Younger Daughter was apologetic about it -- indeed, she could have gone and returned in the time she spent apologizing. But there was nothing to apologize for.

Younger Daughter and Olaf had attended to the Level 1 Hazmat cleanup of the baby, and changed her clothes (she's still teething, you know) and, although she was worried that Vesuvius might erupt again, it really wasn't going to make any difference... even if the there was another toxic spill I was pretty sure we could contain the damage until the baby's parents returned. Just as long as they finally got going.

Eventually, Younger Daughter corralled the kid and brought her into the den. I was in my recliner. I'd just finished eating (I can wolf it down when I have to). Younger Daughter plopped the kid on my lap and the baby simply snuggled in for the whole 45 minutes or so that her parents were gone. She didn't try to escape more than a couple of times, and then only half-heartedly. Long Suffering Spouse, nodding off in her chair, tossed me one of the baby's blankets and the child was content. As Long Suffering Spouse faded out, the baby settled in.

"She's very comfortable with us," Long Suffering Spouse observed.

"She is," I agreed as I started Play With Me Sesame on the TV's On-Demand menu. (Sure it's cheating, but, hey, we're grandparents. We need that little extra edge.)

"Maybe there's something to be said for multi-generational households," my wife said sleepily.

"I would never have guessed it a few years ago," I said.

Cookie Monster sang C is for Cookie, That's Good Enough for Me.

The baby squealed with happiness.

But this post was about how we didn't send out Christmas cards this year. Well, things have been kind of busy. With a 15-month old toddler in the house, even if I'm only the grandpa, how could it be otherwise?

Thursday, January 09, 2014

No self-esteem problems here

This is the English language business card of Chinese multimillionaire Chen Guangbiao, who recently tried (and failed) to buy the New York Times.

Chen is not a man afflicted with the sin of false modesty, not where his business card touts him as China's most influential person and most prominent philanthropist -- and a moral leader besides. And so forth and so on....

The Yahoo! News article, by Mike Krumboltz, from which I grabbed the accompanying image, cites a Business Insider report estimating Chen's wealth at $740 million.

With that kind of money, Krumboltz writes, Chen can print any kind of business card he likes. Actually, the last time I printed up business cards (black and white, no picture), it cost about $70. I suppose cards like these would cost a little more -- but not millions. Therefore, you too can probably afford a business card just as loud and proud as Chen Guangbiao's.

But could you ever imagine giving it to anyone?

Me neither.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Curmudgeon swirling in the Polar Vortex with mixed opinions

The Chicago Public Schools are closed again today, for a second day in a row, because of the killer cold snap that's gripping the Midwest and much of the rest of the country besides.

All the Archdiocesan grammar schools were closed in Cook and Lake Counties yesterday, and most of the high schools as well. Local colleges and universities canceled classes. Most local museums were closed. The Lincoln Park Zoo was open, but planned to close early; Brookfield Zoo was closed entirely. (The polar bears and American bison can stand these temperatures, a zoo official explained, but most of the rest of the animals could not.) Most local officials were encouraging people to stay home yesterday. Except for those angling for face time on the local newscasts, many public servants stayed home yesterday, too.

Long Suffering Spouse was supposed to start school yesterday -- but, as noted, school was closed. No 8th grader was more giddy than my bride at the prospect of extending Christmas break another day.

"It's a mistake," I harrumphed.

"Why?" my wife asked.

"They're all closing down for the wrong reason," I said. We haven't had this kind of really cold weather here in Chicago for a long time -- but it is not unprecedented. As I told the kids, Long Suffering Spouse and I had been out at the bar on January 10, 1982, when the temperature sank to -26̊ F. The radio was on at the bar, as I recall, and when the announcer recited the temperature all of us stupid enough to be out started cheering like we'd accomplished some great feat. Of course, I was 32 years younger then. I continued explaining things to my wife. "If they're going to close everything just because it's too cold, they'll have to do it again tomorrow."

"Why? The temperature is supposed to get above zero on Tuesday."

"But it won't start there. It'll be ten below again, at least, when the kids are supposed to be going to school. If it's too cold for them to venture out today, why will tomorrow morning be different?"

Sure enough, darn near everything that was closed yesterday is closed again this morning. They'd kind of painted themselves into a corner on this.

And it's not the dumbest idea to close down in these extreme conditions, especially in the modern world when we can do (or allegedly do) so much from home. Road salt doesn't work so well when the temperature gets down below 10̊ F. Brave, but ignorant souls who started to drive to work this morning spun out in sufficient numbers on bridges and ramps to thoroughly clog our expressway system despite the reduced volume of cars.

But not everything was closed, even yesterday. I had court yesterday morning. Courts were open. (The Cook County Sheriff decided it was too cold to bring prisoners to court, but that wouldn't affect the operation of the civil courts where I practice.)

I was supposed to be out in the suburbs yesterday so I had to drive. I gave the family van a long time to warm up before forcing it into action. It still wasn't very pleased with me. The thermometer inside the car said the temperature outside was as cold as -18̊ -- and never warmer than -14̊ F. Still, the Tollway was passable. Even with the strong breezes yesterday there were at least ruts of pavement showing in every lane. Of course, one did have to get to the Tollway. The ramps were treacherous. And every stop sign, every stop light on the way to and from the Tollway was an adventure: The van wanted to fishtail every time I started or stopped, but I kept it largely under control.

Perhaps surprisingly, everyone who was supposed to be at court on my matters yesterday was present and accounted for. Like the much younger Curmudgeon in the bar in 1982, I felt like I'd accomplished something, just by getting there too.

The reason that driving was (and remains) so challenging (and, in particular, the reason that I am so concerned about the melting properties of road salt) was that, in addition to the cold, we were still digging out from two feet of snow that fell in the Chicago area since Tuesday afternoon. The first foot fell Tuesday and Wednesday; the other foot dropped Saturday evening and Sunday.

If I'd been made philosopher king for the day, I might have canceled everything on Monday -- but Monday only -- because of the snow clean-up. A foot of snow, particularly if it comes at rush hour, can shut Chicago down. The clean-up of this latest snowfall, even though it fell on the weekend, would understandably take longer because of the extreme cold that followed the snow, and it has, as the drivers spinning out this morning can attest.

But this business of shutting down schools and some businesses and government offices but not the courts and a lot of other businesses is just plain aggravating. I finished my business in court yesterday and went home for lunch; I didn't bother trying to go downtown after that. I figured I could work from home. I retrieved my phone calls and even connected -- eventually -- with most of the people who'd called and emailed me during the day.

But I missed the one call I really needed to get. He called around 4:00 p.m. I probably last checked my office voice mail about five minutes before he called. I was still working my cell phone, though, returning the calls I'd already retrieved. At 5:00 p.m., I was, I thought, the good man, at rest at last from his labors. It was around this time, also, that the call finally came for my wife advising (as I knew would have to be the case, given the pretext offered Monday) that school would not be open tomorrow either. Again, she was giddy. I'm happy for her -- but the courts are open again today, too.

I was not a happy camper weighed down by my Zero King this morning. But I made it to court on time this morning and, thereafter, to the Undisclosed Location. I spoke -- too late! -- with the man who called at 4:00 p.m. I'll be screwing around the rest of the day trying to straighten that out. But the Holidaze, two feet of snow and temperatures of nearly 20 below can undermine even well-formed plans.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

You may not be what you eat, but you think what you drink!

Reid Wilson reports, in the December 31 Washington Post, that what you like to drink says a lot about who you'll vote for, and how regularly you'll go to the polls. The article, entitled What your favorite drink says about your politics, in one chart," provides a fascinating graphic which I have borrowed for the occasion and reproduce above. (Reid's article credits the graphic to Jennifer Dube, National Media Research Planning and Placement LLC.)

Both Democratic and Republican wine drinkers are more likely to turn out at the polls than consumers of stronger spirits (perhaps because it's easier to get out of bed on Election Day if you've had nothing stronger than a glass of wine the night before).

What caught my attention, though, was that the brands I favor fall on both sides of the Great Divide, and bunch up right in the middle besides: I really do have a thirst for bipartisanism. How about you?

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aren't we doing New Year's all wrong?

Despite Fred and Ginger gracing this post, I'm not lamenting the decline of white tie and tails as evening wear and the very elegant and sophisticated nightclub scene that exists now only in Fred and Ginger's old movies.

I've probably groused about that before.

Today, however, it occurs to me that we're doing this New Year's thing all wrong: For a country allegedly founded upon (and infatuated with) the Protestant work ethic (even American Catholics, Muslims, Jews and atheists are expected to have a good PWE) why is it that we have tomorrow off?

I mean... shouldn't we start the new year hitting the ground running at full speed ahead? Isn't taking New Year's Day off sort of setting a bad example for the rest of the year?

I'll be thinking about this tomorrow. But I still won't come into the office.

Then again, I probably have a bad attitude....

Friday, December 20, 2013

Duck Dynasty: Why is anyone surprised that a weird character on a "reality" TV show has politically incorrect opinions?

I've never watched Duck Dynasty and nothing I've seen or heard or read in the last day or two suggests that I would ever want to.

But let me ask this: Why is anyone surprised? Why is anyone outraged? A&E (which used to provide actually watchable TV programming, several years ago) found a weird-looking family that makes duck calls in the swampy backwoods of Louisiana and created a "reality" TV show about their weird lives, hunting, fishing and making duck calls. Phil Robertson, the gentleman pictured here, is the 67-year old "patriarch" of the clan. Have I gotten anything wrong so far?

Now take just one more glance at Mr. Robertson. Why would anyone think that Mr. Robertson's views would be compatible with those of the persons employed by the New York ad agencies who buy time on reality TV shows?

Each can hardly believe the other is a citizen of the same country.

Now another question: What would GQ, a magazine that purports to cater to men interested in style and fashion, want from an interview with the Duck Dynasty clan?

Isn't that one an easy one to answer? Drew Magery's article for the January issue of GQ, titled (at least online), "What the Duck?," may not have been intended as a hatchet job, but it was at least intended to give the smart, well-dressed metrosexual readers of GQ something to laugh at and people to make fun of. Men who buy a magazine that features articles like "Women are Judging Your Nails" are not interested in duck hunting or backwoods philosophy per se.

Mr. Magery addressed the controversy in a Wednesday post on Deadspin. He wrote, in part, "[W]henever I go deep into the heart of 'MERICA * * * I'm always careful not to be the sneering LIBRUL who ventures into red-state territory just to rip on all the people there. That would be unfair, predictable, and dickish." No, sir. Mr. Magery just writes what he sees -- and his audience does the ripping for him.

Mind you, I'm not defending Mr. Robertson. Granted, he has a right to his views, even though I may disagree with some or all of them. However, I completely understand and agree that the folks who run A&E have a right to "suspend" Mr. Robertson for offending the New Yorkers who buy ad time -- it's their network and they are privileged to do with it as they wish. Even if they daily make TV a far worse, far more vast wasteland than Newton Minow's worst nightmare prediction. I'm not even criticizing GQ. They came up with a scheme to get some free publicity and sell some magazines. That's the American way, right? And Mr. Magery got paid to write a story. Good for him.


The only one I think is open to criticism here is the the PR genius who told the Robertson family that doing this GQ story would be a good idea. He or she would best be advised to get out of town quickly: Don't those Robertsons all have guns and crossbows and such?