Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Singing along with the Curmudgeon

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, my iPod has gone all-Christmas music, all-the-time.

There's a lot of Christmas music to play; I may not get through my Christmas playlist before the Big Day. I surely won't get through it twice.

Variety may or may not be the spice of life; it is surely the spice of Christmas music. There can't be more than two dozen traditional carols -- but the variety of performers and styles makes it so pleasant.

As the iPod shuffles along, Bing Crosby yields to U2. Ray Charles is followed by Mannheim Steam Roller. Yogi Yorgesson sings about playing Santa Claus at the PTA, Vince Guaraldi plays "Christmastime is Here," and some English church choir weighs in. My son-in-law, Hank, actually can tell which choir is which. "That's Canterbury," he might say. Or, "that's York. I've sung there." (He's gone on tour with his choir.) A couple of times, when he's made these assertions, I've checked. He's been right. I'm impressed -- I certainly can't tell one from another -- but I know which are the Beach Boys and which are the Chipmunks. Then the Boston Pops takes me for a "Sleigh Ride." And the Sackville All Stars and Doc Severinsen and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass....

I don't think I could sit all the way through the Caribbean Christmas disc I bought a couple of years back -- most of the tunes aren't recognizable, to my Gringo-from-Chicago ears at least, as Christmas music. And my album of Medieval Christmas carols doesn't sound much like Christmas music either. One album is in Spanish; the other is mostly in Latin. But when one of these tracks gets shuffled in between songs by Julie Andrews and the Muppets, it's just wonderful.

What will be next? Pearl Bailey asking for that five pound box of money? Louis Armstrong asking "'Zat You Santa Claus?" No, it's the Philadelphia Orchestra doing the "March of the Toys."

I don't look forward to putting up a tree. But I look forward to playing Christmas music on the iPod. What song will you request?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Conversation in a courthouse hallway

Not all attorneys are jerks.

The old joke is that attorneys are always wonderful in the first person (my attorney, our attorney) -- lawyers are rat-bastards only in the second or third person (your attorney, their attorney).

And, of course, when the bill comes in.

My opponent in the case heard yesterday morning is not a rat-bastard. It's a thankless dispute among unit owners in a condominium association that hate each other so cordially that they are willing to spend themselves into bankruptcy in order to punish their opponents. My client is an insurance company which is (a) contractually obligated to pour gasoline on the fire (by funding one side's defense) and (b) desperately hoping I can find a way to get them out of this obligation.

Anyway, another attempt is being made to mediate the underlying dispute. Mediations can take whatever form the parties agree to -- but the form that is most likely to work here would be a cage match to the death. There would be too much paperwork involved in that. Because of this pending mediation, however, my opponent wanted to put the brakes on my coverage suit. The court obliged him and we stepped outside in the hallway to hash out the wording of the order.

We also had a poormouth conversation.

A lawyer seldom admits that he or she is doing well to another lawyer. I don't know why this is so; it merely is. Smith gets out of his Rolls at the country club and sees Jones alighting from his Maybach. He asks Jones how things are going.

"Terribly," Jones says, lighting a stogie about the size of a nightstick with a $100 bill. "I don't know how much longer we can keep going with the economy the way it is."

"I know what you mean," says Smith, with all the sympathy of a lion addressing a sickly wildebeest. "We are struggling to stay afloat."

These sorts of conversations can go on for quite awhile. One must have a strong stomach to eavesdrop on such a conversation.

But my conversation yesterday with my opponent was different. He is struggling. So am I. He went to a virtual office setup in hopes of saving money. It hasn't worked out as well as he hoped. I'm four months behind to Westlaw and just put my rent money in the bank yesterday. My November rent money.

My opponent began talking of looking for a new career. He's a few years older than me -- somewhere around 60 -- but too young to retire. Especially since he has kids younger than mine. And he's a good attorney. I know; this is not our first case together. And we've worked together in bar activities too. He says I'm a good attorney. I think he means it. But it doesn't help pay the light bill.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgivings 2011, Curmudgeon style

When the kids were little, getting together as a family was simple: I had only to come home.

I always came home. Sometimes -- rarely -- I came home later than expected, having stopped longer than anticipated at a local watering hole. If I came home very late, my wife would turn off the lights, lock the door, and salt the stairs going up to our bedroom with a number of the kids' toys.

She would suppress her evil chuckles while I tried (often unsuccessfully) to suppress my curses as I lurched and lumbered up the stairs.

But the point is, when I came home, the family was together.

Time passed. When the kids began entering their teens, Long Suffering Spouse and I would have to wait, often long into the night, to get the family together. Now, as the youngest is almost done with his teens, the kids still at home are still going out. But I'm not necessarily waiting up. In fact, the kids tend to go out about the time I fall asleep. I snooze in my chair, watching TV through my eyelids, until they return. But the point is, as time went on, getting the family together took a little more effort.

Now we come to the present. Older Daughter and Oldest Son are married. Older Daughter lives in Indianapolis. Middle Son also lives away from home. Younger Daughter and Youngest Son are away at college. Now getting the family together involves serious coordination -- and panic clean-ups.

I took the day off Wednesday, in fact, to get my stuff together. It was a scheduled day off for Long Suffering Spouse.

Long Suffering Spouse is far more organized than I am. Because she has to create a lot of the materials she uses in teaching, and because she has so many different classes, from pre-school through 8th grade, my wife has stuff in several places around the house. The dining room table is her main home office, but she ordinarily has piles of binders by her rocking chair in the living room, bags of papers by her chair in the den, and stacks of folders on what (in other houses) might be the kitchen table. My pile is concentrated around the computer desk in the Curmudgeon family den. But if I were to allow someone else to sweep up all my stuff so as to dog-proof the area, I wouldn't even know what I had lost, much less where to look for it.

Ah, yes -- dog-proofing. Over the course of the Thanksgiving weekend, we were scheduled to play host to both Rodent the shih tzu (the pocket dog owned by Oldest Son and his wife Abby) (see, Christmas with Rodent & The Curmudgeon Clan, Parts I and II) and Cork (don't call him Corky), the much larger golden retriever puppy recently acquired by Older Daughter and her husband Hank.

We weren't supposed to have both dogs at once. As you may recall, we didn't expect to get the family together at all this Thanksgiving. We were reconciled to having Thanksgiving 1 and Thanksgiving 2.

But when Older Daughter got moved to the day shift on Thanksgiving instead of the overnight shift, she became determined to get to get to Chicago before the end of Thanksgiving Day. She almost made it.

She worked her 12 hour shift at the hospital. Then she joined her husband Hank at their church choir director's Thanksgiving party, already in progress. This was controversial: She called us from the party, ripping mad. The choir director was originally supposed to serve dinner around mid-afternoon. Somewhere along the line, however, he pushed the start of dinner back to 6:00.

Six o'clock? On Thanksgiving? There are only three acceptable times for serving dinner on Thanksgiving Day: Halftime of the Detroit game, in between the Detroit and Dallas games, or (if you're feeling positively continental) halftime of the Dallas game. Anything later creates the risk of family tragedy. One too many egg nogs gets consumed and all manner of family skeletons can be unearthed.

Anyway, with the late start time, Older Daughter was in time for dessert at the choir director's party. She wasn't happy about it; she was insisting on leaving for Chicago right away. She managed to get Hank out of the party but they still couldn't get on the road. They had to go home first and bundle up Cork.

Cork travels with a giant cage. I wish I'd had something similar for my children when they were small.

Anyway, by the time Older Daughter et al. got on I-65, the killer Scrabble game that followed our Thanksgiving 1 meal (served between the Detroit and Dallas games) was already almost burnt out. Abby won again, as usual. The kids all play "Words With Friends" (as close to Scrabble as the copyright laws allow) on their smart phones. They compete against each other -- and Abby usually wins those games, too.

I don't participate. I have no smart phone. Also, I have no friends.

By the time Older Daughter called to confirm that she was beginning the long northward trek (and, in turn, almost all of us tried to talk her into waiting until morning) Abby was looking at her husband, and at her watch, and making it clear that it was time to leave.

That's what good wives do -- they pull their spouses out of situations, even while they're having a good time... lest they have have too good a time and make donkeys of themselves.

Oldest Son was beginning to bray. He had knocked back several Sam Adamses during the Baltimore-San Francisco game (he managed to keep a watchful eye on those proceedings while still playing Scrabble) and, while he was still reasonably presentable, he was becoming boisterous. And he needed some non-beer time before he could drive home.

And then, somehow, Oldest Son decided that they would wait for his sister and Hank -- and Cork. The canine cousins needed to be introduced, he said. Abby was not amused. That Cork might swallow Rodent whole in a single gulp did not seem to enter into Oldest Son's calculations. Middle Son proposed a game of Risk.

There's nothing like a board game devoted to taking over the world to hold Oldest Son's interest. And so the game began.

I'd had a few scotches myself, but these were the least of my problems. I was tired. It had been a long day Wednesday preparing for the kids' arrival. (After a day of cleaning, Long Suffering Spouse had made an apple pie, two pumpkin pies, pumpkin bread, a tray of brownies and a double batch of sugar cookies. I was bushed after organizing and dog-proofing my corner of the den. But I cleaned an occasional tray and kept Christmas carols playing on the Bose machine. And I did stay loyally awake.) And Thursday had been a long day, too, even before the kids came, because I had to do errands as required while Long Suffering Spouse got the first of the turkeys in the oven (and the potatoes and sweet potatoes and corn and beans and dinner rolls and, of course, her homemade cornmeal stuffing and gravy).

In other words, it was past my bedtime when the Scrabble game ended. I entered into the Risk game (holding South America against all challengers) while eating Ritz crackers, Wheat Thins, Triscuits -- anything to stay awake. Abby played, too, her continuing efforts to induce Oldest Son to leave being studiously ignored. At one point Abby said she would take the keys and drive home with the dog. "I'll come get you when you crash the car," said Oldest Son. "You might make it to the end of the block." Abby has a driver's license -- but apparently has not driven a car since high school.

I have only a vague idea what time it was when Older Daughter arrived. I think it was somewhere around 2:00am Friday morning. There must have been some warning -- a text or something that was not directed to me -- because Abby had hold of Rodent before the front door opened.

My clue that new visitors had arrived came when the little dog began shaking and barking and barking and shaking and growling, all at a very excited, high pitch. Moments later, I heard deeper growling and barking: Cork had come into the house. When I saw him standing in the living room he was shaking, too. I'm not certain whether this shaking was meant to convey hostility or fear or merely curiosity. What it conveyed to me was this: Older Daughter is here. Now maybe I can go to bed.

Younger Daughter was all over the new canine arrival. "Aren't you the cutest thing? Oh, yes, you are?" She'd become acquainted with Cork on a recent trip to Indianapolis.

Oldest Son laughed. "No wonder Rodent is barking. You're being unfaithful to her." Younger Daughter glowered.

"I am not!" she protested. "But Abby has hold of her."

"I don't know," said Abby, playing along, "I think Rodent is shocked at how fickle you are."

Long Suffering Spouse had, by this time, been asleep for at least an hour, maybe two. She'd sat in my recliner in the corner of the den farthest from the noisy Risk game in the dining room and, at some point, passed out. Who could blame her? I merely envied her.

The new dog noise roused Long Suffering Spouse somewhat. She got up and stumbled toward the front of the house, heading for the stairs to our bedroom, passing the dog, passing her son-in-law, passing her newly arrived daughter. Along the way she said something like, "Oh, I'm so glad you're here. Happy Thanksgiving. Good night."

I followed close behind. I was less articulate. "You're here. Good night."

Abby needed only one hand to hold Rodent. With her other hand, she dragged Oldest Son toward the front door. "So nice to see you. What a lovely dog. Good night."

I gather Middle Son stayed a moment or two, but he had a wedding to attend on Friday and needed to be home hours before. Younger Daughter apparently stayed up awhile to get her sister and brother-in-law settled. And to play with the dog of course. But you can't prove it by me.

Long Suffering Spouse and I were out of bed a few hours later to start the second turkey. (You can't have Thanksgiving 2 with leftovers, can you?) I ate. I fell asleep. My mother-in-law came by for a few hours after dinner. I stayed asleep throughout. She told my wife she was worried that I was so tired. I'm not worried. I was exhausted.

I'd like to tell you we spent the rest of the weekend recuperating, but it would not be true. We got Cork and Hank and Older Daughter back on the road to Indianapolis Saturday night. We got back from dropping Youngest Son back at South Janesville College and then from dropping Younger Daughter at her dorm on Sunday afternoon just before dark. It was then time to start looking for all the things we'd squirreled away in order to dog-proof the house. Then we could start the weekend chores. Much of the conversation in the car between Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter concerned how little Older Daughter realized all that we had to do to prepare for her visit.

Don't get me wrong: I really was happy to have the whole family at home this weekend. But, these days, it's a lot of work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Commercial air travel a real turkey

I don't think that, given a choice, anyone would really choose a week in prison over commercial air travel in the United States during the coming holiday weekend -- but with each passing year, determining the better choice is increasingly difficult.

Not that air travel was ever truly glamorous -- not in my limited experience, anyway.

But before 9/11 air travel wasn't the miserable, bleak, soul-destroying punishment it has since become.

I recall having a deposition in Columbus, Ohio in 2001 -- before 9/11. I booked a flight on Southwest, which I hated to do because Southwest does not fly to O'Hare. Still (we Chicagoans are very lucky in this, at least) I was able to take the Blue Line downtown and change for Orange Line. The Orange Line runs right into Chicago's Midway Airport, a Southwest hub.

But I had an early flight -- I think the dep was at 10:00am local time and we're an hour behind that in Chicago -- and I had to be gone before sunrise in order to make the flight comfortably. Unfortunately for me, the horizon was already pretty bright when I started from the Harlem stop on the Blue Line. Then I had to wait an inordinate amount of time for the Orange Line train at Clark and Lake. The upshot was that I was running through the parking garage at Midway (there were lines on the floor to direct train passengers in those days -- I haven't been there recently) toward my gate just a few minutes before the scheduled flight time.

I ran through the airport like O.J. Simpson used to do in the old Hertz commercials (I'll bet Hertz hates it when its former corporate spokesman is remembered) and got to the gate just as the door was being closed.

I think I went to the check-in counter and not the closing door to the jet bridge; I can't say for sure. Wherever I went, I remember being told that if I had tried the alternative, I would never have made the flight. It doesn't matter now anyway: If I tried that today, I'd be shot seventeen times before getting anywhere near the gate. If I somehow made it through, the entire airport would be closed down until I was hunted down.

But, in the summer of 2001, I made that flight to Columbus, on time for my deposition. It wasn't glamorous, but it was reasonably efficient.

Then came 9/11 and, soon after that, Richard Reid, the would-be "shoe bomber."

The next time I flew was after those world-changing events. Once again, I was flying Southwest, from Midway. I was going to join the rest of the family in Louisville, there for a baseball tournament with Middle Son. (I had to be in court that day and couldn't drive down with the rest of them.) Leaving from Chicago's downtown, Midway or O'Hare are equally convenient to the air traveler. (That should qualify me for a Chamber of Commerce award -- don't you think?)

It had been a busy day. I don't remember exactly what I was doing, but it was hot, I was wearing a suit, and I'd been walking all over the Loop on one errand or another. The last thing I wanted to do was take off my shoes -- and any sane person should have respected my wishes in this regard. The olfactory consequences were entirely predictable -- but, as I learned when I gave fair warning, the TSA were already, in 2002, a humorless bunch. Fortunately, the TSA agent with whom I was dealing on this occasion chose to tell me about the rubber gloves, as opposed to showing me.

Air travel has only gotten worse since. I've had occasion to watch conditions deteriorate because I have traveled a handful of times in the intervening years -- but not so often that I can't see the decline. The Curmudgeon family traveled as a group to Oldest Son's wedding in San Antonio in May 2010 (well, Oldest Son was down there already). Long Suffering Spouse hadn't flown for many years by that point; I think that was Youngest Son's first flight. I tried to warn them about what to expect, how to cope with the oppressive "security" and so forth, but nothing can prepare the uninitiated for the actual events. Sometimes I think the ultimate goal of the TSA is to discourage all law-abiding citizens from air travel. On that day (which surely will be soon) the government can simply arrest, on grounds of suspected terrorism, anyone who wants to fly.

And now we near Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. I give thanks I don't have to travel anywhere, particularly by air.

Update on the spamming front

(Today's installment of Pearls Before Swine is grabbed from
because my usual online source for the Pearls strip,
Yahoo! Comics, is running a day behind for some reason.
I saw today's Pearls
in print in the Chicago Sun-Times.)

I deleted 14 spam "comments" this morning -- Blogger had flagged nine of them; the others were awaiting comment moderation.

We're in the grips of the pre-Thanksgiving blogging slowdown here in America and traffic is down. There's too much to be done in the real world. And I don't get a lot of comments when traffic is high.

So I hated to cut out comments, even obvious spam ones. But I did. And I'll continue to do so, too. I just will continue to have mixed feelings about it -- deep inside, there's that nagging fear that Second Effort may suffer from the same problem that Rat says is afflicting Goat's blog in today's Pearls Before Swine.

By the way, Mr. Pastis' recent comics about blogging have prompted me to go looking for his blog. I found this one and added it today to my sidebar.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Everything I need to know I get from the comics, part 4,791

(From the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weiner.)

This strikes me as indisputable.

Anyone care to dispute?

Meanwhile, in Memphis, Tea Partiers invited a couple of the local Occupy protesters to a meeting to look for common ground. Writing for the AP, in a post appearing today on Yahoo! News, Adrienne Sainz reports:
By the end, the Occupy Memphis members and their audience — made up mostly of whites over 40 years old — reached common ground on some issues, such as their perception that the government and politicians no longer listen to and serve the people they represent.

They also found some agreement in their stances against taxpayer-sponsored government bailouts and "crony capitalism," the idea that close ties between lobbyists, businesses, and other self-serving interests can influence government officials and the exercise of capitalism.
(snark)Some of the Occupy kids also got their Moms and Dads to increase their allowances.(/snark)

And if the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers ever get together on their disdain for banks too big to fail, we may yet have some reform in this country. Or at least a lot of really nervous politicians....

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Long Suffering Spouse doesn't think this is funny

(Today's installment of Pardon My Planet, by Vic Lee, which
appears locally in the Chicago Sun-Times -- although this image
was obtained from the Chicago Tribune "Comics Kingdom.")

I showed this to my wife first thing this morning, when she asked me why I had just guffawed.

Note to those who still use the expression "LOL": When people really do laugh out loud, and the cause of their amusement is not immediately apparent to those in the vicinity, people in the vicinity are apt to become concerned. Or scared.

Long Suffering Spouse doesn't think this is funny because she believes some teachers actually think like the gentleman in the cartoon above. On the other hand, I think the cartoon is funny... because I also believe that far too many teachers actually think like the the gentleman in the cartoon above.

Note, too, that the cartoon is set inside a teachers' lounge.

The cartoon reminded me of a passage I'd seen in an article in the current Wilson Quarterly ("Teach to the Test?" by Richard P. Phelps, Autumn 2011, pp. 38-42). From Phelps' article (p. 40):
... John J. Cannell, a medical resident working in rural Flat Top, West Virginia, read about the claims of local school officials that their children scored above the average on standardized tests. Skeptical, he investigated further and ultimately discovered that every state that administered nationally normed tests made the same claim, a statistical impossibility.
In other words, administrators claimed that, out of all the children who took the tests, more than half were above average. This was dubbed, for reasons obvious to those familiar with Garrison Kellior's work, the "Lake Wobegon Effect." In other words, as Mark Twain apparently did not say, "Figures do not lie, but liars figure."

But, now, I'm starting to explain why I think something is funny. Bitterly funny. Laugh-so-I-don't-get-red-in-the-face-angry funny.

And the surest way to kill a joke is to explain it. So I'll stop now. I'll save the education reform lecture for another day.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving 1 and Thanksgiving 2

When Older Daughter was a baby she would not crawl. Other babies crawled, but Older Daughter apparently considered crawling to be beneath her dignity. In an effort to get Older Daughter to conform, my wife would sit the child in one corner of the playpen and her favorite objects in the corner farthest from her. Older Daughter looked at the toys. She wanted the toys. But crawling was out of the question. Eventually, she figured out that, by pulling the blanket on the floor of the playpen, she could draw the objects she wanted to within reach. She remade the world according to her needs.

I suppose that sounds critical. I don't mean to be critical. I am amused at Older Daughter's consistent view that the Universe is something she can manipulate and control according to her whim. No amount of evidence to the contrary seems able to shake this certitude.

For example, when Older Daughter studied in Spain for a semester, back in her undergraduate days (several years ago), she assumed that all costs and expenses would be expressed to her in dollars. After all, she was an American and Americans use dollars. She was shocked -- shocked -- to find out that Spaniards would use euros even when dealing with her. At the exchange rate then prevailing, Older Daughter's budget was shreds and tatters in a fortnight.

The latest blow to Older Daughter's worldview came in connection with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Older Daughter is, you will recall, a nurse. I don't think she thought that sick people would actually take a 24 hour timeout from their various illnesses so as to permit her to come to Chicago for dinner. On the other hand, while she might have understood, in the abstract, that sometimes nurses (and doctors, and policemen, and firemen, and so forth) have to work on holidays -- even Thanksgiving -- she did not think that she might be required to work on a holiday against her wishes. Her managers, however, for reasons entirely their own, this year thought differently.

When Older Daughter stopped fulminating about the unfairness of it all, and agreed not to quit her job in protest, she suggested we move Thanksgiving instead.

Grateful that she was not insisting on an Act of Congress, we initiated negotiations with the rest of the family to see if it might be possible to have our Thanksgiving dinner on Black Friday.

That won't be possible this year. Middle Son has a wedding on Friday and so will certainly not be able to come. So we decided to organize Thanksgiving 1 and Thanksgiving 2 instead. Whoever can come to both, comes to both. Younger Daughter and Youngest Son, who will both be home from school, and are therefore available generally, wholeheartedly endorsed this plan. Older Daughter and her husband Hank have agreed in principle (mainly because Long Suffering Spouse relented and said they could bring their giant dog here too). Oldest Son has committed to Thursday; he is still casting about for an excuse to keep him from having to come back on Friday. He likes us well enough, you understand -- but he prefers us in small doses. And he and his wife are notoriously picky eaters; judging by the contents of their refrigerator (empty) they are particularly averse to home-cooked meals.

However, grateful as I am for having found this solution, I know another problem looms just over the horizon: I don't know how we can do a family Christmas portrait this year.

But I'll just bask in the triumph of this moment for as long as I can.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This is a test... this is only a test

You couldn't watch the news earlier this month without hearing all about the nationwide emergency alert scheduled for November 9.

I suppose I never knew that these frequent tests weren't national in scope before this month.

The tests were initiated during the Cold War. In case the Reds pushed THE BUTTON, serious-looking announcers were supposed to "interrupt this broadcast" to provide the bad news -- and offer helpful tips about what to do and where to go to shelter against the coming nuclear winter. Somehow, I doubt that would have happened. More likely, the serious-looking announcers would have headed for the hills as soon as the teletype message became clear. I can see the last two guys in the studio -- one with his hat and coat on -- trying to persuade the other to make the announcement. "You've always wanted to go on camera," he'd say. "This is your big chance."

And maybe the soap opera would have been interrupted, finally, by a scared, pimply young man, hair uncombed and tie askew, saying, "Are we on?" There there would have been that impossibly bright flash... and the Stone Age would have restarted.

Fortunately, the Reds these days aren't likely to push THE BUTTON (although, some day, they may CALL THEIR LOANS -- which would be just as fatal, if slower). Yet we still have the Emergency Broadcast System. But why? In case the government needs to warn us that someone or something has come looking for what didn't crash at Roswell in 1947?

No, come to think of it, I doubt the government would want to tell us that flying saucers were coming, even if someone in authority were persuaded it was real. Think of the panic in the streets -- the probable riots. And, besides, it would probably depress the heck out of the stock market.

No, we continue to have this national Emergency Broadcast System because... because... because... because we have it, OK? And it had never been tested nationally, and so, all other national problems having been fully and fairly resolved, the government decided to test it on November 9. And everybody needed to be warned because every TV channel and radio station was going to carry the same warning and people might be scared. (Where did Judge Judy go? Did Kim Kardashian get remarried?)

Long Suffering Spouse and I were quite sick of the repeated warnings about the forthcoming test as last Wednesday neared. How much repetition is necessary? Who could possibly misunderstand that they'd miss 90 or 120 seconds of Maury or a soap opera on Wednesday and that it meant absolutely nothing except that the government was just trying to see if the system worked? We'd just seen still another warning on the news Tuesday evening when the phone rang.

It was my mother-in-law.

"Did you know there's going to be a blackout tomorrow?" she asked, breathlessly. "Should I turn off my computer? Do I have to unplug my refrigerator?" Not satisfied with the saturation news coverage, the police department in Abuela's nearby Chicago suburb decided to call all the seniors in town with a prerecorded message. I don't know exactly what was said -- but it was the call from the police that prompted her call to us.

Long Suffering Spouse talked her in off the ledge. "Mom, it's just the test on the TV and radio tomorrow."

"The test?"

"The Emergency Broadcasting System. You know -- 'this is a test, this is only a test?'"

"A test like that? Like they do all the time?"

"Yes, Mom."

"Why are they making such a big deal of that?"

"I don't know, Mom."

"The power will stay on?"

"Yes, Mom."

And the best part of the test? Go back to the linked article at the top of the page. From a civil libertarian's perspective, the most comforting thing about the government's attempt to control all broadcast communication in the nation didn't work particularly well. According to the linked story on Yahoo! News (by Mark Clayton, originally for the Christian Science Monitor), "In some cases the disclaimer was broadcast. In other cases the message was missing altogether or did not include the audio caveat. * * * It has also been reported that a Lady Gaga song played through the test period for some viewers." Clayton also quoted this Tweet: "Did not see it on Comcast in Northern Virginia. Instead, saw about 30 seconds of QVC (was watching MSNBC at test time)." And people watching kitten videos on YouTube or blowing up dragons on World of Warcraft never knew about it either.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Christmas season not too long... just too early

Long Suffering Spouse is not amused that every program, on every channel, is punctuated now by Christmas commercials.

Did you know Wal-Mart has brought layaway back in time for the holidays? No? Seriously? Have you been in a coma?

Chicago's WLIT-FM (Lite FM -- presumably to distinguish itself from all the other, heavier stations on the FM dial) became the "Holiday Lite" this week -- all Christmas music, all the time. The other night the 10:00 news ended with a time lapse presentation of the erection and lighting of the giant Christmas tree at the State Street Macy's (what we diehards continue to call Marshall Fields).

"It's not even Thanksgiving," groused Long Suffering Spouse. "We go from Halloween to Christmas and Thanksgiving is ignored. Why?"

I could answer that: Except for grocery stores, Thanksgiving has no real retail component, thus making it inevitable that it would be overwhelmed and overshadowed by Christmas, Inc. But I know a rhetorical question when I hear one, and I wisely keep my mouth shut.

(For once!)

"Thanksgiving is a nice holiday. It's a family holiday. It's an important holiday," continued Long Suffering Spouse. "Persons of all faiths and traditions can celebrate it. It's one thing that binds America together."

The phone rang at that point and the speech had to be put aside in order to deal with that.

But Long Suffering Spouse is right, of course.

On the other hand, merchants are not going to shorten the most profitable season of the retail year.

Therefore, allow me to make this modest suggestion: Instead of squeezing Thanksgiving off the calendar, why not extend the retail Christmas season past Christmas Eve? Why should we go back to Lady Goo Goo on the radio and Viagra commercials on TV on December the 25th?

Yes, in America gifts are given, and opened, and (in the case of toys) demolished, as soon as possible after sunset on Christmas Eve. But in Latin American tradition gifts aren't exchanged until Epiphany -- the Feast of the Three Kings -- in early January.

Why not let the Christmas music and Christmas commercials continue until the BCS National Championship Bowl on January 9, 2012? That would take in all 12 Days of Christmas and Three Kings and a couple of days beyond. And there a lot of parties in that time... retail opportunities abound. And maybe the retail Christmas season might imbibe a particle or two of the actual Christmas season... wouldn't that be nice?

Extending the Christmas season into January would give Thanksgiving a little breathing room and calm Long Suffering Spouse. I see this as a win-win-win for all concerned. And memo to Christmas, Inc.? Feel free to leave a small gratuity in my stocking this year.

Thank you.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A kind word about Thomson-West -- and another opportunity to bash the phone company

It wasn't my first choice to become a deadbeat. I'm still fairly new at this. Yes, I've joked that prioritizing my bills is a little like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic -- but, until recently, icy water was not sloshing across the decks.

I've complained about collection calls since I started this blog -- but, I've always managed (until now) to see a clear path out of the financial thicket. I used to get impatient about impatient creditors: Didn't they know I was going to make good ASAP? Today, the path is overgrown with weeds. Or past due bills. And I've had so many collection calls lately I feel I've become something of a connoisseur.

Thomson-West provides my Westlaw subscription. It also supplies a number of books I use in my practice. Until a year or two ago it also provided me online CLE. (That is, I used it until I figured out I could satisfy my obligations for free or by doing stuff I would have/ should have done anyway -- without shelling out an additional $80 a month.)

Westlaw is very useful in my practice -- but it is staggeringly expensive. It is particularly expensive for me because I need Federal court cases and out of state cases for my (lately imaginary) insurance practice. In round figures, it costs something like $600 a month.

Lately, West's competitor, Lexis, made a pitch for my business. They could provide me with the same stuff (without the proprietary West 'key numbering,' of course) for $350 a month. For this amount I'd also have access to all sorts of databases that I don't use because I don't have them on Westlaw... but which might be interesting.

I can add and subtract. Taking $250 a month out of overhead would be a big deal for me at any time. But, even several months back, I could see that this was shaping up into a terrible year -- and I was therefore particularly anxious to avoid getting in over my head. If possible. But I wasn't sure when my indentured servitude to West expired. I looked at my records -- and, as near as I could tell, I was already out of subscription.

What? A lawyer whose own records are incomplete? Don't be so shocked. Haven't you ever heard the expression, "the shoemaker's children are always poorly shod?" We mind other peoples' business so well, we sometimes neglect our own.

I sent West a goodbye letter -- and West responded by sending me a copy of the contract I apparently failed to keep -- one that keeps me in fetters until next summer. We expect you to honor your contract, West said. For its part, Lexis said it would charge me only $50 a month until my West contract expired -- and then start the clock running on my three year deal with that company.

Let's recap, shall we? I tried to save myself $250 a month -- and wound up costing myself an extra $50.

What a businessman I am, eh?

When the hard choices came between between Westlaw and rent or Westlaw and mortgage, Westlaw kept losing out. I just recently paid the Westlaw bill that was due at the end of July. Just to show good faith.

Faith, I've got.

Westlaw calls now, every couple of weeks. They've outsourced the collection work to India, and the callers are unfailingly polite. I tell them there is no way I can make a payment now but -- if someone pays me -- I will gladly pay them. They've been good with that so far. They appear to understand that I need the service to continue operating and, hopefully, dig out of this hole. And I appreciate this. Not enough to pay them $600 a month one nanosecond longer than necessary -- but I do appreciate it.

I'm hoping for a check this week that will get my rent current and take care of my October mortgage. There should be something left over for West. And so the bill for the end of August should be paid soon.

Why did they insist on keeping me again?

On the other hand, there is the phone company. I wrote in early February of getting a dreaded red notice from the phone company. (I had to go to the Illinois Commerce Commission to clear up a mysterious charge on my bill.) I got the red notice when I fell more than two months in arrears on my office phone bill.

It happened again this fall. I didn't really have the money to pay these latest overdue phone bills -- but I went down to near zero in my office account to get the phone company off my back when I realized that disconnection only works one way: I can't do business by calling out. People can't do business with me by calling in. But the evil phone company can still call. After making these payments, my next bill was due October 27 -- but, remember, I was, except for that bill, current.

I was therefore not too worried when I had no money to pay the phone company on October 27. (The phone bill used to be due on the last day of the month, but the due date has been creeping up for some reason.) I had to harbor my meager resources to put a downpayment on next year's malpractice insurance.

But the phone company has had just about enough of me: Even though I was only about a week late, the phone company sent me a disconnect notice.

I will probably have to move from this Undisclosed Location early next year; the lease is coming up for renewal. I don't think we can or will renew.

Of the four of us who moved here in 2006, one died; another abandoned us for Florida. That left two of us to share costs that four were supposed to divide. We carried two extra offices until earlier this year when we finally got a tenant who is very nice -- but who is paying substantially less than a quarter of our current expenses. Clearly we are paying more than market. The landlord will probably offer a reduction in the rent -- but I think my remaining colleague is already committed to moving out. I certainly can't carry the space by myself, so I will have to go, too.

I will probably abandon my land lines when I do. This is another $180 a month headache I do not need. And you had better believe that I will abandon Ma Bell to her fate when I do establish alternative service.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Ken Levine explains what a curmudgeon is

Small "c" intended. Mr. Levine defines what a curmudgeon is in the course of eulogizing Andy Rooney:
There’s an art to being a curmudgeon. It’s not enough to just complain about things, you have to be entertaining while doing it. Otherwise you’re just a crank or running for office. A good curmudgeon can say the things we wish we could say if we weren’t worried about losing our jobs or friends.

Andy Rooney was the best. You could watch him every week for 30 years and rarely say to the screen, “Oh shut up!” I’m sure Andy would consider that the ultimate compliment.

He was also one of the last curmudgeons. Yes, we still have Lewis Black, Fran Lieborwitz (when she's not just freeloading in the Hamptons), and a few other notable malcontents, but it’s not like the old days. Back in the ‘40s to the ‘60s, when Andy Rooney was just middle aged, the airwaves and publications were filled with these golden arch voices. George S. Kaufman, Oscar Levant, Henry Morgan, Fred Allen, and Dorothy Parker were just a few. (The ones I missed would probably say, "Typical!") They would showcase their razor-sharp wits on game show panels, radio shows, talk shows, newspaper columns, and celebrity funerals. It was certainly their heyday. There were way more forums and way fewer anti-depressant drugs.
I'd like to think that there is still one other curmudgeon out there -- namely here. You'd think that, if a true curmudgeon is really such a rara avis, there'd be opportunities for somebody like me.

But go back and read Mr. Levine's post again: "It’s not enough to just complain about things, you have to be entertaining while doing it."

We may have just identified the problem with Second Effort.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Yet another illustration of why the Federal Government is in trouble: student loan edition

And, no, this is not a political post; it is a sad, but true, family story.

My sister (I call her Betty on this blog because that is not her real name) has had some tough times, none of which are immediately relevant to this discussion. It will suffice to say that she has emerged from bankruptcy and divorce with a responsible job (she is a high school teacher). Her oldest child, a daughter, is now in college.

My niece is a bright girl and could have been an engineer. Engineers, particularly female engineers, are in great demand in America, but engineering jobs, though well-paying, come and go according to the state of the the economy and opportunities are not evenly distributed over the landscape. My niece has been shaped by her environment and her childhood experience; she is therefore cautious about reaching too far and has decided to be a nurse instead. Nurses, she is sure, will always find work wherever they are. I think she's right. But I still wish she'd tried engineering.

Anyway, my sister has had to apply for a loan to finance her daughter's tuition.

The U.S. government, you may know, has taken over the student loan business. Student loans should be the safest loans for taxpayers to make; they must be repaid in almost all circumstances. Student loans can not even be discharged in bankruptcy. But loans to students are insufficient to cover the costs of college.

Parents of college students know too well that when we fill out our FAFSA forms, the government calculates an amount, based on all the financial data supplied, that a parent should be able to contribute. I have found, in general, that this amount is always about three times more than I think I can contribute.

Betty's experience, apparently, has been similar. But the government, having grossly overestimated what Betty is capable of "contributing," is willing to give her a loan for the amount that she can't pony up on her own. Isn't that nice? And isn't that insane? If you have to take out a loan, then you really couldn't "contribute" the calculated amount, could you? (I take the time to spell out the obvious in case someone from the federal government should chance upon this post and attempt to read it.)

I don't know if Betty's credit history figures into it -- for reasons I will come to in a moment, I doubt it -- but the government, in its impenetrable bureaucratic majesty, was unwilling to give Betty a loan (over and above the grants and loans it will give to my niece) unless she could get someone to "endorse" her loan.

You've already guessed who she asked.

I've skimmed through all the verbal sludge on the site and it appears that, basically, Betty had asked me to be a guarantor of the loan; that is, were Betty to stop paying, the government could come after me. (Why the government chooses to call that an "endorsement" instead using the perfectly understandable, traditional word "guarantee" is beyond me.)

I warned my sister that I didn't think I could possibly qualify. I co-signed a loan for Older Daughter's car some years ago without too much trouble -- but I wasn't two months behind in my home mortgage or a month behind in my office rent or carrying $30,000 in credit card debt then.

I am now. (Those parental "contributions" really add up over time.)

I wouldn't loan me 75 cents to buy a newspaper.

I explained all this to Betty. With family, you have to level. But she asked me to please try anyway.

So I did.

This morning.

The site expressly warns that it will run a credit check. This is done during that ominous pause after you've approved said check while the government computer queries all the computers on Wall Street to see how your finances really are. I was sure that any rational computer would have a hearty electronic belly laugh as it spit my proposed "endorsement" back on my screen. Though humiliated, I would have thereby discharged my familial duty without further jeopardizing my (increasingly dim) future.

But a computer is only as rational as its programming. And this was a government computer, programmed (I guess) by government employees.

The darn thing accepted my endorsement.

Thinking my credit is any good is absolutely crazy. I emailed my sister this morning after this experience advising that the computer could only have accepted my endorsement because it is so sure that Betty will be able to pay back the loan. Because, obviously, I could never. If the government really thinks otherwise, it is no wonder the government is in such trouble.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Curmudgeon's latest theory on social networking

Younger Daughter is scheduled to graduate from college in the Spring. She has begun to think, finally, about what she might do after she leaves school. In other words, she's begun to look for work.

I'm useless as a source of advice or practical assistance: My own experiences in interviewing have been awful -- and have never led to an actual job offer. (See, for example, Oldest Son's interview brings back memories -- really, really bad ones.) I've been self-employed, now, for 13 years. And I still hate my boss.

So I'm doing more listening than talking when Younger Daughter tells me of her job search strategy. One thing she said her school development office was quite keen on is LinkedIn. I've written about that, too (see, LinkedIn IPO finds Curmudgeon left behind -- I've never let my ignorance of a subject keep me from forming definite opinions about it) but I'd never accepted anyone's invitation to join. However, when Younger Daughter said she'd joined and asked me to join I really had no choice, did I? After several weeks, I'm connected (at last count) to six people. None of them appears to be connected to Kevin Bacon. None of my connections have offered me a job. Or a book contract. Younger Daughter is still looking for work, too.

But this experience has helped me crystallize my thinking about the various social networks. Here's my current working hypothesis:
  • LinkedIn is a combination of job board and trophy case. Those who are looking for work are desperately trying to make connections. Those who are already successful use LinkedIn to showcase all their many achievements. Either way, there is no humility on LinkedIn.

  • Facebook is an office Christmas party that runs all day, every day, 24/7. Holiday parties are a time when everyone gets together to retell the old, familiar stories, like when the guy who used to sit three cubicles over got sloppy drunk and groped the gorgeous new accountant. And how the accountant turned out to have a husband who was as muscular as she was gorgeous. Everyone will laugh, nervously, and hope they won't become the object of next year's holiday party story. In other words, holiday parties are fraught with peril. So is Facebook. On Facebook you have to act like you're having a good time -- even though your boss might sneak up behind you at any moment. And Facebook is even more dangerous than a never-ending office holiday party in this sense: Your friends and neighbors aren't at the office party; they wouldn't be invited. On Facebook, though, your real-life friends or family can embarrass you (and fatally damage your career prospects) in front of your boss at any moment. Such fun!

  • Twitter is just a handy means for athletes and actors to get into trouble. Journalists sometimes get into trouble by prematurely Tweeting something entirely unfounded, but it's athletes and actors who get caught in public with the wrong companion or who tweet out something incredibly stupid. (See, for example, the collected works of Rashard Mendenhall.) If there is a practical use for Twitter (beyond what could be accomplished just as well in a group email at least), I've yet to figure it out.
Do you agree or disagree?

Arguably Related: Avoiding disasters at office Christmas parties

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Best line of the night award

From Jay Leno's monolog: He says a kid comes to his door trick-or-treating. "Gimme candy," the kid says. Leno forks over a couple of Butterfingers. "And five bucks, too," the kid says. "Who do you think you are?" asks Leno, indignantly. "I'm the Bank of America," says the kid.