Laboring in the obscurity he so richly deserves for over a decade now, your crusty correspondent sporadically offers his views on family, law, politics and money. Nothing herein should be taken too seriously: If you look closely, you can almost see the twinkle in Curmudgeon's eye. Or is that a cataract?
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
It's "Fat Tuesday"
For the Curmudgeon, every day is fat... as sadly illustrated by this morning's vignette.
I was 10 minutes late for a dentist's appointment. I'm only about a mile away from the dentist's office, but a traffic accident on the outbound Kennedy filled all of the adjacent streets with cars looking for the mythical "alternate route" -- as I did not find out until I attempted to drive over.
I'd been to see the dentist just a couple of weeks ago, to replace an old cavity that had failed after many years of diligent service. (You need not observe a moment of silence.) At that time we had discussed this morning's adventure, another cavity filling, but one so minor, the dentist said, that anesthetic might be unnecessary.
My tardiness this morning decided the matter: There was no time for Novocaine.
"Let me know if this hurts you," said the dentist.
"Don't worry," I answered, "if it hurts I'll scream like a banshee."
The dentist turned to his assistant: "Close the door," he said. "We don't want to lose the morning patients."
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the cavity filling proceeded without incident. The dentist may have revved the drill a bit more than necessary. With a tad too much enthusiasm. And the dentist's chuckle may have been a half-tone too dark, more an evil cackle than a kindly chuckle. But I endured, and the worst was soon over. Or so I thought.
But then came the most unkindest cut of all: "You're all set," he said, "but don't eat anything for about 40 minutes."
Sizing me up (and the pun is intended), he must have felt this would be a challenge for me.
It may be Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but in Chicago, it's "Paczki Day."
I probably heard vague references to "poonchki" (the standard pronunciation of "paczki") for years, but I never realized what a big deal it is in the Polish community until I was running for judge the first time.
I was up early every morning during that futile effort, passing out my propaganda on any street corner or bus stop or train station that I could. On Fat Tuesday I was near a Polish bakery -- and I was duly impressed by the long lines of pastry aficionados. I may be slow on the uptake on many things, but when it comes to baked goods, I make it my business to become well informed.
Are my 40 minutes up yet?
Monday, February 27, 2006
It's FAFSA time again
In the FAFSA you tell the government how much you earn and how much you've saved and the government tells you how much you are expected to "contribute" to your child's college education. It is also used to determine eligibility for student loans and work study. Even "academic" scholarships typically require parents to submit FAFSA's.
Somehow the government always thinks I can pay more than I think I can pay.
There was a time when middle class parents would be mortified at making such a comprehensive disclosure of their assets -- but there was also a time when an ambitious kid, working during the summer and part-time during the school year, could put a sizeable dent in his or her own tuition. That time is called the "distant past."
Each FAFSA is "signed" electronically by the student -- as if the student actually fills this monster out. I can't get my kids to pick up their own laundry or turn off the lights, much less prepare their own tax forms. I'd have no chance getting them even to look at a FAFSA.
The trepidation I feel at the outset of this task this year is compounded by the fact that, last year was, at least on paper, a good year. In fact, despite the wailing and lamentations that I have previously recorded in this blog, I made more money last year than I did in either of the two previous years. One of the problems with being self-employed is that income tends to fluctuate, both within the year (as past posts have discussed) and from year to year.
And success, in this case, is counterproductive: By making more last year, I will surely qualify for less aid this year -- even though I have no idea, at this point, how I'm going to replace three cases that generated nearly all of my income last year but are now concluded, or largely concluded.
My income will almost certainly fall this year, and so will the available student aid. On the plus side, I will only have two college tuitions to pay next year. (I'm really, really hoping Older Daughter can find a job after graduation.) And I still have two kidneys at this point -- but I also have two kids who have yet to start college.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
On the wrong end of the trend... again!
Sorry all you "Blogs of Note."
It's all over for blogs and bloggers, at least according to this editorial in yesterday's Chicago Tribune:
Bloggy, we hardly knew ye
No sooner had Al Gore invented the Internet than early adopters discovered a liberating opportunity: Anybody with a modem and an ego could share his or her thoughts with the world.
Remember what happened next? By the mid-1990s, a few self-publishers were sharing with tiny audiences links to Web sites they found interesting. In time, these hardy pioneers began adding commentaries--often insightful, usually irreverent--to their lists of links. In short, smart people were posting virtual logs of their interests and thoughts. In December 1997, the term "Web log" surfaced. In short order, we had the inevitable contraction: "blog."
After that, the deluge. Today there are 20 million blogs worldwide, a number that grows by thousands daily. The ones that matter most, of course, have gobs of readers--with enough eyeballs to attract investors and advertisers.
But will everyone live happily ever after?
You're forgiven if you cling to the conventional wisdom that blogging, like half-pipe snowboarding, enjoys an unrelievedly rich future. Forgiven, but maybe behind the curve. A new report from Gallup pollsters, "Blog Readership Bogged Down," cautions that "the growth in the number of U.S. blog readers was somewhere between nil and negative in the past year."
* * *
The pixels hadn't faded on Gallup's downbeat report when Slate.com columnist Daniel Grossman chimed in with another requiem, "Twilight of the Blogs." Grossman says: "There are troubling signs--akin to the 1999 warnings about the Internet bubble--that suggest blogs have just hit their top." Among those signs: too much corporate money trying to buy into what could be a fad (including Time Warner paying a reported $25 million for Weblogs Inc.). Is too much money chasing not enough revenue? As Grossman aptly notes: "In the end stages of any investment mania, the clueless and the greedy flood in."
* * *
The clueless and the greedy, eh?
At least they didn't call me by name.
Anyway, it's all my fault and I'm very sorry. I've killed trends before: The aforementioned Internet bubble burst right around the time I was offered an equity stake in a can't-miss dot.com start-up. Fortunately for me I was just as impecunious then as I am now -- or I'd be even worse off today. (With a tip of the logic cap to Gracie Allen on that one... but you get the point.) At least this time I got in before the bubble burst.
So, lock the doors, bloggers. Kill the lights. Strike the sets. I may stand out here on the boards declaiming to the empty balconies a while longer yet, but I know, now, that it's all over. Still, it might be good practice for me to continue... just in case a book editor who's just as clueless and greedy as I am happens by.
And, actually, even the Tribune editorial suggested that blogs may persist among "that segment of inordinately dialed-in Americans who are enthralled with, or at least entertained by, one another's opinions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.... So blogging has a future, however indefinite. At least till Al Gore invents the Next Big Thing."
And I'll probably kill that, too. Maybe, though, I'll get in earlier next time....
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
I've met the cleaning lady. . .
I know what deadlines are supposed to be, and I try to observe them. But for many lawyers, a "deadline" is more of a "starting line" -- the date on which the file is taken down and looked at and something thrown together at the last minute. Just as soon as the motion to extend time is filed.
I don't think that was the case with this particular brief -- and not just because I was working on it, or at least the responses to the seemingly interminable 'statements of facts,' before the motion to extend time was filed. I've been working on it, in my mind, for what seems like forever. I can't bill for my ruminations, though, nor can I bill for the time spent carrying copies of the briefs to which I was responding back and forth, to and from home, for a couple of weeks now.
The problem is time. What I needed was a block of uninterrupted time where I could focus exclusively on this project -- no interruptions, no emergencies, no questions from people in the office. That just didn't happen until Monday.
My wife is a teacher and she works all the time. Any downtime -- waiting to pick up a kid -- watching the news -- whenever a spare moment presents itself, she reaches into her ever-present red bag, pulls out a folder, and starts grading papers. She can start and stop as many times as necessary -- but every time she starts, she makes irrevocable progress. Each test or worksheet takes a minute, or two, to grade. Once done, it's done forever. She moves on to the next one on the stack. When a stack is done she has to put the grades in her book and on her computer. She has to be in school only for this last part of the task.
It just doesn't work this way when writing briefs. There is the matter of researching your issues, reviewing and analyzing the documents on which you rely (or which may undermine your position), perhaps reading the other side's papers, figuring out an approach and then -- only then -- starting in. Starting a project like this without the prospect of a significant block of time stretching before you is not a waste of time -- you learn something, you gain some insight, you put some more mulch on the pile -- but you lose a lot by stopping at almost any point along the way.
Research you can do in a piecemeal fashion, if necessary -- but you need the time, after the research is done, and the cases are printed or copied or downloaded, to read them, to see how they fulfill the promise you thought they had when you first came across them on line or in the library -- or how they don't. This often leads to more research. Which may look, on the timesheets, like piecework. But it's not. Not if you're serious about getting the project done.
I used to work for a firm that was scared to send a client a bill for 12 or 14 hours on a single day for a single project -- even though that was legitimately the time I spent. Break that time up over a couple of days at least, they'd tell me, or better yet, three or four. So we'd condition clients to think that this work could be done -- like grading papers -- when a spare moment presents itself. And I can't break entirely with how I was taught: The people I worked for were successful doing it their way, so even now I find it hard to write down more than 10 hours a day on a time sheet for a single project, no matter how long I actually spent.
But some tasks do not lend themselves to a piecework approach -- even for my wife. Sometimes (and always to her regret, it seems) she assigns essays. She must find uninterrupted time in which to read them all -- all together -- to see which are average in quality, or above and below. Only then can she assign grades to any of them.
She hasn't tried the method that some of my professors used for grading essays in law school: Step 1: Stand at the top of the stairs with the stack of papers (blue books, back in the day). Step 2: Throw the papers down the stairs. Step 3: The papers that go farthest are the A's -- the ones that go the least distance are the failures. Most will wind up somewhere in between -- the C's. (She'd never go for the other rumored but never proved law school method -- the bottle method -- wherein the lowest grades came earliest in the process of draining the bottle. But once again I digress.)
The bottom line is that I've accomplished something sitting here at this desk. The new undisclosed location is now, finally, a place of business.
Friday, February 17, 2006
Typical weekend complications
And, oh yeah, about that carpet... Not this week, apparently. Maybe on the weekend beginning March 3. That's the Friday before Casimir Pulaski Day -- or, as a friend of mine who works for the government calls it, "the end of the Holiday Season." The Pulaski Day holiday resulted from a close gubernatorial race between Big Jim Thompson and Michael J. Bakalis -- the incumbent, Thompson, was fishing for votes in the Chicago Bungalow Belt. But that's a different story.
This weekend we're off to South Bend to visit Oldest Son on the occasion of "Junior Parents Weekend." I've not spoken much of Oldest Son since I mentioned his trip to the Fiesta Bowl and thereafter to the vicinity of the Rose Bowl.
We don't know what Junior Parent Weekend entails. Oldest Son was going to find out before Christmas, then after Christmas, then last week -- but he never did. He did tell us recently that everyone else's parents were coming and taking their kids to the bars, but he's not 21 and my wife did not see that as a good plan. We didn't sign up for any of the "official" events because Oldest Son wasn't sure that we should or that any of his friends and their parents were going.
Apparently they are now. And it's no longer possible to sign up. I suggested we go to dinner anyway -- but my wife wasn't wild about that plan either. She pointed out, reasonably enough, that the kid doesn't eat food and never has. We were convinced for the longest time that he survived by absorbing nourishment from air molecules. I now believe he subsists on Coca-Cola products and chips of various dimensions. And pizza.
My impression was that Oldest Son was feeling kind of blue; that he didn't want to be around while his friends were off with their parents, nor did he want to sponge off them in the event he was invited to accompany them. He didn't want to be looked at as the "Orphan Boy," which he certainly is not. At one point he suggested coming home for the weekend. I understood that he was going to tell people at school that he was going to visit friends at the University of Illinois, a cover story that they'd readily accept since Older Daughter attends school there. But he didn't mean it as a cover story. He told us this week that his plan was to come into Chicago on the train Friday afternoon, pick up a car, and continue on to Champaign.
By 'picking up a car' Oldest Son was not referring to Hertz or Avis; rather he was referring to one of the family vehicles. There are three. But two of the three are really not up to the long trip; the other is the van that we need for the usual weekend activities which, this week, include:
- Picking up Younger Daughter from soccer practice during Friday rush hour;
- Baseball camp for Youngest Son on Friday night;
- A Niles-league basketball game for Youngest Son on Saturday morning;
- A dentist's appointment for Younger Daughter on Saturday morning;
- A Niles-league basketball game for Youngest Son on Sunday afternoon (the Niles Park District leagues being a rather competitive recreational program, a step up from intramurals but a step down from inter-school competition);
- Mass (Youngest Son was was supposed to serve as some sort of a junior usher at the anticipatory Mass on Saturday evening, but, as our plans developed, we're hoping he can switch that to Noon Mass on Sunday); and, of course,
If Oldest Son had really taken a car, we'd have to add returning him to school on Saturday night or Sunday morning to this list.
But Middle Son has dibs on one of the cars for baseball practice. He's a freshman at a local college and he should be living in the dorm at school -- but, for reasons not relevant to this discussion, he was invited to move back home for this semester.
This is tough for all of us, particularly now because his practice schedule is so brutal: It's a small school -- one gym, no separate indoor practice facilities for the baseball team. Right now it's basketball season -- so that team understandably gets dibs on the gym for practice. They finish about 9:00 p.m. That's when baseball practice starts, usually ending around 1:00 a.m. Maybe this would not be so bad for college students on campus -- college kids are nocturnal creatures -- but it's brutal for any kid who has to live at home. And it's not so great for that kid's parents, I'm here to tell you.
Anyway, when we learned of his difficulties at school, we thought that we would force him to take public transportation to and from school. That would be part of the penance he would pay for his transgression.
But that proved impractical -- though the school is rather close by, public transportation to and from is not very good. And his current schedule makes it impossible.
So we bent -- but he's still being punished. After all, we're getting him up in the morning for his 9:00 a.m. classes and pushing him out the door. I don't know that his attendance would be quite so good if he were still in the dorm.
But that ties up the other functioning car on almost a full-time basis. Oldest Son was not happy to hear this, but I'm already hearing about it on a regular basis from Younger Daughter who's 16 and has imagined that car as "hers" now. I'm still having trouble imagining this car as desirable: It has over 100,000 miles on it.
And Younger Daughter doesn't yet have her license. We're still doing the mandatory parent-driving hours. Which is how I wound up as a passenger in that car being driven east into westbound traffic last Sunday morning. But I digress yet again.
Bottom line is this: After a great deal of discussion, Oldest Son is not coming home today. Instead, I'll take the rest of the family -- maybe even Middle Son depending on his schedule -- Saturday night to sit around a hotel, watch Oldest Son not eat and maybe take in Mass at the Basilica at Notre Dame. This last may mollify my wife somewhat. There may also be a party that he wants us to attend. If it's not in a saloon I think my wife will go along. We'll leave after groceries and basketball Saturday and return before Noon Mass Sunday.
Oh, I guess I haven't mentioned why I didn't think the third car was up to the trip. I drove that car to court in Waukegan last week and was scared to death. Something is wrong with the steering. On the other hand, the car is 22 years old.
Anyway, it's cheaper to take the family to South Bend in the van and stay overnight than it would be to let Oldest Son take this car and have some breakdown on the road along I-57. This is without even considering the obvious safety issues. And, funny thing, I still think this is what the kid wants us to do. But who knows with kids?
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Almost unpacked at the undisclosed location
On the very day of our move, while we were packing frantically at our old office, a painter stopped by at the new one, just to touch up a door frame or two.
It is customary for the landlord to agree to repaint the walls and so forth when attempting to entice new tenants to sign a lease. In our case the landlord agreed to provide new carpet as well. We also had to reconfigure a number of interior walls, adding interior windows, called clerestories, that allowed us to turn a dead-end hallway into a miniature conference room and a storage closet and adjacent equipment room into what is now my office. The costs of these improvements, no matter how loudly the leasing agent protests to the contrary, are in some way figured into the rent ultimately charged.
In any event this work had progressed satisfactorily by the date of our move, with only minor clean-up and touch-up (such as the aforementioned door frame work) left to be done.
I don't know whether the painter was in an extreme hurry or whether he simply felt that the setting out of a dropcloth for such minor work was somehow beneath his professional dignity. In either event, the painter eschewed a dropcloth on this occasion.
Nor can I reconstruct exactly how events unfolded. I can only surmise that some sort of twisting motion was involved as the can of black oil paint fell from the ladder. My conclusion in this regard is based on the Jackson Pollock-like spill and drip patterns which resulted... in my office... in the hallway outside... in our receptionist space....
Such an artistic spill pattern might have provided an interesting conversation-starter for visitors to our new quarters but, alas, the painter, or someone from the building, decided instead that the spill might be blotted up before we noticed. Turpentine or some other solvent was brought in for the attempt -- which resulted in huge, ugly smears on the new carpet and eye-watering fumes in the air which did not even begin to dissipate until I brought a fan from home to move the air around.
On the other hand, I am assured that there will be no extra charge for the plastic sheeting and masking tape overlay which the landlord thoughtfully provided.
The carpet will be replaced this weekend, I'm told.
The landlord wants to try and cut out the stained portions and insert patches and I hope that this proves an adequate fix -- because the alternative would be to re-carpet my entire office and that would effectively require me to move yet again. The landlord is not optimistic -- there has been some initial difficulty getting carpet from the same mill run and, even if this has been accomplished, there is no guarantee that an exact color match may be made. And even if an exact color match can be made, there may still be very visible seams.
So I'm worried about that.
But I have checks again, as of yesterday. I'd ordered new checks sooner, of course, to arrive more in conjunction with the date of the actual move -- but I got fancy when I ordered the replacements. I thought I'd add in my new phone number -- and the printer obligingly attempted to comply with this request, the phone number appearing on the initial delivery and the actual phone number differing by only one digit.
And I'm still having phone problems.
But I'll write about that later, perhaps, after I calm down. If I don't have to move again....
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
You know, of course, that Benny Kubelsky later became Jack Benny.
For many years I've listened to Chuck Schaden's Those Were the Days February broadcasts -- during "Jack Benny Month."
I guess I've always made a big deal out of it.
Part of this is because my oldest child, my Older Daughter, was also born on Benny's birthday, 22 years ago. Even before that blessed event, I had taken the position that it would be inappropriate to buy expensive presents on Benny's birthday -- but I've never sold anyone on that idea. Especially since Older Daughter was born.
Anyway, when Older Daughter was in first grade, the teacher asked the class if they knew which American Presidents were born in February.
Older Daughter was one of many who raised their hands, and the teacher called on her.
"George Washington," Older Daughter said.
"Very good," the teacher said. "Now can anyone name another one?"
Now fewer hands were raised, and those kids that left their hands up seemed kind of half-hearted. All, that is, except for Older Daughter, who was practically leaping out of her seat.
So the teacher called on her again.
"Abraham Lincoln --" said Older Daughter --
"Very good," the teacher started to say, but Older Daughter wasn't quite finished: "-- and Jack Benny."
Older Daughter has never forgiven me.
But Benny Kubelsky would have loved the story.
Happy Birthday, Jack.
(And Happy Birthday, Older Daughter.)
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Life after death, maybe, but credit cards are forever
I don't vouch for the verbatim accuracy of this exchange and I've admitted to a couple of edits. But the dialog rings true to me because of my own experience: Even though she passed away nearly six years ago, my late mother still receives new credit cards in the mail. One arrived just a few months back. Last year she received a $20 credit from one card issuer because it noticed that there'd been a lack of activity on her card. The card company was hoping that this little credit would supply an incentive for her to resume shopping.
A lady died this past January, and her bank billed her for February and March for their annual service charges on her credit card, and then added late fees and interest on the monthly charge. The balance had been $0.00, but now is somewhere around $60.00. A family member placed a call to the bank, eventually reaching someone who denied being a machine:
Family Member: "I am calling to tell you that she died in January."
Bank: "The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply."
Family Member: "Maybe you should turn it over to collections."
Bank: "Since it is two months past due, it already has been."
Family Member: So, what will they do when they find out she is dead?"
Bank: "Either report her account to the frauds division or report her to the credit bureau, maybe both!"
Family Member: "Do you think God will be mad at her?"
Bank: "Excuse me?"
Family Member: "Did you just get what I was telling you -- the part about her being dead?"
Bank: "Sir, you'll have to speak to my supervisor."
So the supervisor gets on the phone.
Family Member: "I'm calling to tell you, she died in January."
Supervisor: "The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply."
Family Member: "You mean you want to collect from her estate?"
Supervisor (stammering now): "Are you her lawyer?"
Family Member: "No, I'm her great nephew. But I'm also a lawyer." (He proceeds to give his professional information.)
Supervisor: "Could you fax us a certificate of death?"
Family Member: "Sure."
The fax number was provided and a death certificate followed in due course. After the death certificate was sent the colloquy resumed:
Supervisor: "Our system just isn't set-up for death. I don't know what more I can do to help."
Family Member: "Well, if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing her. I don't think she will care."
Supervisor: "Well, the late fees and charges do still apply."
Family Member: "Would you like her new billing address?"
Supervisor: "That might help."
Family Member: "Village Memorial Cemetery, Highway 119, Plot Number 75." [Name and address changed from original e-mail just in case it might have been an actual address.]
Supervisor: "Sir, that's a cemetery!"
Family Member: "What do you do with dead people on your planet?"
It didn't work.
My late mother has even had her credit limits increased on a couple of cards (presumably, again, to spur her to greater shopping heights). Now you know that if a dog bites you for no good reason, it's the dog's fault. On the other hand, if you stick your hand in the dog's mouth, or pull the dog's tail, and then the dog bites you, it's your fault, not the dog's. You provoked it.
If I steal a credit card, and use it, surely that would be my fault. But if idiot computers keep sending me credit cards in my late mother's name, at some point, when I go off on a spree, can I claim that I was provoked? I leave you to chew on that one.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
Islamic Jihad won't join Hamas in Palestine government
A wire service report confirmed the obvious this morning.
Hamas had offered to share power with Fatah earlier, despite its landslide victory.
Don't you get it? These guys don't want the responsibility of governing. If they accept this responsibility they might have to deliver something: Services. Jobs. The destruction of Israel -- or, gulp, peace.
Too bad for them. They swaggered through the streets. They shot their rifles in the air. They boasted. And now they must suffer the consequences: They must undertake the responsibility of the welfare of their people.
And there's only one way for them to deliver anything: They must make peace with Israel. They must live in harmony with their fellow People of the Book.
Hamas may not learn this lesson. They probably won't.
But their successors may.
We can only watch and pray.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
With friends like these....
At one time Laski, a former alderman, viewed the City Clerk's post as the next rung on the cursus honorum and he clearly harbored hopes of ascending still further.
True goo-goos (irreverent Chicago slang for devotees of 'good government') would protest strenuously, but one can imagine a politician exerting influence in order to obtain work or contracts on behalf of a friend. (Goo-goo's can afford to posture this way, since they are seldom in a position to dispense or withhold favors to anyone, friends or not.) Depending on how this influence was exerted, such conduct might be legal or illegal.
And one can also imagine a venal, cynical pol demanding a quid pro quo for assisting a supplicant. The criminality of this conduct would not be open to debate: A public employee has no right to ask for anything other than the posted salary for discharging the people's business.
But Laski is accused of something particularly low: Laski is accused of demanding -- and getting -- monthly payoffs from long-time friends in exchange for getting them business in the city's Hired Truck program. This is friendship? What the heck happened to this guy?
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Moving unpacks memories
As I took down these family pictures and packed them away for the move to the new office, I couldn't help but think of a photo in my father's office.
I was out of school already, working, living on my own, but for some reason I needed to stop by my father's office. I can't remember why. I was probably dropping something off for return to the family homestead, or else picking something up. I didn't go to my father's office often; it may have been the very first time I had gone to this particular office: By this time my father had already 'retired' once, which in this case meant moving from one company where he'd worked for 25 years to a competitor, just down the street.
My father wasn't in when I got there, but his assistant, Phyllis, said she recognized me. From my picture.
I went in the office to drop off or pick up whatever it was that I was there for, and I saw the picture in question: It was a picture of me, my sister and brother, circa 1966 or '67, in our Easter finery. For my brother and myself, that meant hideously loud, maroon and red plaid sport jackets and red ties. The photograph had faded somewhat with age, but the sportcoats were still lurid. I could not have been more than 10.
I guess I had aged well.
Or at least predictably.
I've since noticed that a lot of people have, shall we say, less than contemporary family photographs in their offices. Is that because we're clinging to our youth?