Friday, February 29, 2008

Americans increasingly unchurched; Catholics falling away fastest

Findings from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life about Americans becoming increasingly unchurched were the subject of several news stories in the past week; this link to Margaret Ramirez' February 26 article for the Chicago Tribune is representative.

Ramirez writes that, "More than a quarter of adults, or 28 percent, said they had left the faith in which they were raised. If changes among types of Protestantism are included, 44 percent have switched affiliation."

It used to be the case that a young man, eager to get ahead in the world, would leave the church of his boyhood and join the Presbyterians or some other mainline Protestant denomination as he climbed the corporate ladder. If he climbed high enough, he would become an Episcopalian. A certain amount of church-swapping has been part of American culture for decades.

Ramirez reports, "The three largest religious groups, the study found, are Protestant evangelicals at 26 percent, Catholics at 24 percent and historic mainline Protestants at 18 percent."

Catholics are holding their own in terms of national percentages -- but only because the Church's losses have been "largely offset by Catholic immigrants entering the country, most of them from Latin America." Meanwhile, nearly one in 10 Americans is a former Catholic.

Ramirez' article doesn't explain why the Church is hemorrhaging communicants. If asked, the usual suspects would presumably voice their usual theories. The media would blame the clerical sex abuse scandals and the squishy-soft bishops who tolerated -- and even facilitated -- continued abuse by sheltering abusers and moving them from place to place. Conservative Catholics, like Karen Hall (whom I've only recently begun reading) or Tom Roeser, would blame Vatican II in general and, in particular, squishy-soft, liberal bishops who, in their zeal to embrace social justice issues, have forgotten the Gospels. Liberal Catholics, like Fr. Andrew Greeley, would blame squishy-soft, conservative bishops who, forgetting the Gospels, wage "wafer wars" and flirt openly with conservative Republicans even though (in the liberals' view), except for abortion, the Republicans are "wrong" on every social justice issue.

There is merit in each of these theories. But if the Church could survive the Renaissance Popes, it can survive modern American bishops.

The media's position can be dealt with easiest: Child abusers may be found anywhere there are opportunities to isolate and take advantage of children. Protestant youth ministers, scout leaders and public school teachers have also been caught and brought to judgment, but there is no hierarchy them to rescue them and move them to new fields of opportunity. Now at last the bishops' aiding and abetting has been exposed; they will not be able to get away with it easily in the future, not for a long time anyway, and they have been made painfully aware of the costs of their misdeeds. The bishops who sheltered abusing priests and nuns were obviously neither moral nor courageous, but they and their successors understand the value of a dollar. They don't want to shell out more dollars in civil judgments, not if it means selling their mansions and otherwise curbing their lifestyles. The worst, I hope -- I pray -- is over.

That leaves the theories espoused by liberal and conservative Catholics.

One side sees the American Church becoming indistinguishable from any other fading mainline Protestant church -- conforming the Magisterium to political whims and fads in the name of social justice. The other side sees the American Church blending into the Evangelical Right. What both sides are really sensing, I think, is a loss of Catholic distinctiveness.

Being Catholic has always meant being different, somehow. And we were different because of our schools.

In Chicago, Catholic schools have closed at an alarming rate since my own children have been born. All five of my children graduated from Catholic grade schools. All five will graduate from Catholic high schools (three so far). But where will my (as yet unborn) grandchildren attend school? How can they hope to afford a Catholic education for their children?

The loss of vocations after Vatican II crippled the Catholic schools. The nuns who taught my generation left their orders, or have died off. There have been few new nuns. One by one the religious orders have pulled out of parishes. Lay teachers have tried to take their places -- but they have to be paid something. The nuns received next to nothing.

Full disclosure: My wife is a Catholic school teacher. She could make much more in the public schools but she chose to be in the school our children attended. Before she began to teach there, I was on the parish school board. Easily 90% of the school's operating budget was taken up by teacher salaries and benefits. We couldn't negotiate those costs; they came from the Archdiocese. We could only cut positions. Employee costs and benefits weren't an issue when there were nuns. This is why the cost of Catholic grammar school has gone up from a few hundred dollars a year to several thousand. In the Chicago area, Catholic high schools cost roughly $8,000 to $11,000 per student per year.

At one point the Cardinal suggested that Catholic teachers should be paid equally as their public school peers. Sounds good for me, right?

Wrong. Such an increase, if it had been mandated, would have destroyed the Catholic schools overnight. No one but the very richest could have afforded them.

I've been fortunate to get my children through so far. It would not have been possible without an inheritance (all gone now). And I'm a lawyer -- not a particularly successful one, true... but still a 'white-collar' professional. How much more difficult is it for those less fortunate that I've been to send their kids?

The answer is that it's been too difficult. And a generation of kids has come to adulthood with no practical Catholic education at all. These numbers are growing... as are the ranks of 'former Catholics.' Coincidence? I think not.

CCD is not the answer. Another disclosure: My wife has begun teaching CCD classes at our parish this school year. Classes meet in the parish school for an hour on Wednesday afternoons. The students are the "publics" -- the kids who attend public schools -- and, being normal kids, the last thing they want is another hour of school. Their parents don't attend Mass -- good heavens, too many of our parish school families don't attend Mass regularly -- but Catholic guilt lingers after all other vestiges of the faith have gone. Still, what Catholic identity will these kids have as adults?

Liberals, conservatives, take heed: While you fight amongst yourselves another generation is being lost to the Church. Put your energies to work building school endowments -- and figuring out airtight means for greedy, grasping bishops to keep their squishy-soft hands away from those funds.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Are computers really out to get us?

This week Brewster Rockit is doing a riff on the HAL-9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (click to enlarge).

And look: I found this repository of .wav files from the movie, including this one where HAL announces he's discovered the plan to disconnect him.

Scary stuff.

But I'm not really afraid: I don't think computers can take over the world -- not when they still freeze up when instructed to print envelopes 10 minutes before the last mail pickup of the day. Every single darn time.

Like yesterday, for instance. There was absolutely nothing I'd done wrong: I was plodding along methodically, finishing my typing, printing my letters, leaving just the envelopes. Not clicking randomly. Not fiddling with other programs. Just trying -- trying for once -- to get my work out the door and into the mail on time.

Somehow, though, something always goes wrong. Something crashes. A reset is necessary. Meanwhile, down in the building lobby, the postman comes... and goes.

You know, on reflection, maybe my computer is trying to kill me -- by elevating my blood pressure through the roof.

I asked my computer about that just now... and this is what it said.

Somehow, though, I'm not reassured....

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Privacy in the Internet Age

This article in Sunday's Tribune caught my eye. A quote from Patrick Kampert's article:
Technology is proliferating, to the extent that nationally known private investigator Michael Rambam ( teaches seminars to law-enforcement groups and others called "Privacy Is Dead. Get Over It."
The article goes on to show how people can be traced by cell phone signals and how email is increasingly used in litigation (the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were recently amended to impose requirements on litigants regarding the maintenance and production of emails and text messages and other things that you may not think of as permanent... but which never, ever go away). And then there are the cameras -- security cameras, intersection cameras, police cameras.

Remember Allen Funt and Candid Camera? Smile -- you're on all the time now. (Well, not quite... but it's getting there.)

That discount card you flash at the grocery to get a price break on frozen peas and laundry detergent? Well, it tracks all your purchases. On one level, it helps the store know which items to stock... but on another... will your health insurer find out that you bought cigarettes six times last year and raise your premium? Will your employer learn about the booze you buy about once a month... and require you to attend a wellness program... or even alcohol counseling? And when they find out about the Twinkies on top of everything else....

The problem in all this is not so much that your personal information is out there -- the problem is who is doing what with it.

And it occurs to me that, in order to have privacy, one of two things must happen -- either you don't put your information out there (too late!) or the other guy doesn't look at it.

This latter kind is the privacy that the teenager understands. The teen closes the bedroom door and expects the parents to stay away. And, for the most part, we do... unless compelled to do otherwise. This mindset carries over into the Internet... which is why teenagers are astounded to be disciplined at school or rejected by an employer for posting Facebook pictures showing them drinking or in some other compromising pose: They don't expect anyone to look who's not supposed to.

Although such an attitude is unrealistic, and maybe dangerously so, maybe it shouldn't be: Even in the most crowded tenements in 19th Century America... or in the 20th Century Soviet Union... romances blossomed and babies were conceived. People chose to look the other way... to give the young people their privacy.

Well, now, in the 21st Century, we're all jammed into a cyber-tenement. We are crowded together in an electronic sense, with all our information showing. Maybe, to preserve privacy, we need to develop societal standards about when... and when not to... look.

Before getting too excited about 'universal health'

Consider that government-funded (or government 'subsidized') universal health care will have to meet budgeting necessities... and "priorities" will have to be set.

And who will set them?

Harvard researcher Dr. Susan Mitchell? This AP story, by Carla K. Johnson, that I saw yesterday morning in the Chicago Sun-Times, suggests one lovely cost-cutting measure: Just let senile old folks die. Why bother giving Alzheimer's patients antibiotics, Dr. Mitchell argues in a study cited in the AP article, when they have a fever? After all, their disease is "terminal."

The problem with this logic is that we're all terminal. Some have a better idea of when than others, that's all.

There may be reasons why someone chooses to turn their face to the wall and submit to the Inevitable. There are surely valid, moral reasons why loving families will agree not to pursue heroic measures in exchange for merely delaying death... and prolonging agony. I remember my own mother -- my mother who set something of a record for the length of her hospitalization, so rare in the age of Medicare -- I remember my mother showing off her 'DNR' bracelet. "See my new jewelry?" she said. And she wasn't complaining. She was reconciled to her situation; she maintained her good humor to the last.

I was at a wake last night for a neighbor's mother, a woman who made it to 90, though the last few years were clouded by Alzheimer's, eventually to the point where she had to enter a home to receive needed care. At the end, she wound down like a mechanical clock, whose ticking slows... and slows... before it stops. The night before she went the staff called the son in. They offered hospitalization. But she was so peaceful. She was just winding down. Hospitalization was only going to disturb her.

They decided to let her go.


The family.

Not some snot-nosed bureaucrat a thousand miles away setting priorities. Or some Ivy League, ivy tower doctor who thinks antibiotics are wasted on the old.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Heads or Tails #27 -- Wonder or Wander

Choices! Our Benevolent Leader, Barb, the absolute ruler of the Peoples Republic of Heads or Tails, today offers us a choice: Heads -- Wonder; Tails -- Wander. This confuses me -- make a decision on my own? And my wife doesn't even know about this blog. Who will I ask to make the decision for me?

It's too bad that this Heads or Tails doesn't come closer to Christmas. I could use this carol and cover all bases:

I Wonder as I Wander

I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on'ry people like you and like I...
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

(Complete lyrics here.)

Barb, as is her custom in these Heads or Tails pieces, posts a music video, this one from a "one hit wonder" -- Vanilla Ice.

I get these rappers confused, but a bit of quick research this morning persuaded me that Vanilla Ice is entirely different from Milli Vanilli, a briefly popular duo that were the subject of several lawsuits, including several here in the County of Cook, because, it was alleged, the duo defrauded their fans by lip synching their songs. I remembered that there was a big fight over attorneys fees due after the settlement of the class actions... but I'm wandering again, aren't I?

But this talk of music puts me in mind of several songs....

"Book of Love," by the Monotones (a name not inspired by my singing voice, no matter what you've heard):

I wonder, wonder who, bi du du, who
Who wrote the book of love...

Or Del Shannon -- and "Runaway" --

[And] as I walk along, I wonder
Oh, what went wrong with our love
A love that was so strong

And as I still walk on
I think of the things we've done together
Oh, while our hearts were young

I'm a-walking in the rain, tears are falling and I feel a pain
A wishing you were here by me to end this misery
And I wonder, I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder

Why, why why why why why she ran away
And I wonder, oh where she will stay, yay
My little runaway, a-run-run-run-run-runaway

Or -- and I'll stop now, I promise -- Dion DiMucci and "The Wanderer":

Well I'm the type of guy who will never settle down
Where pretty girls are well you know that I'm around
I kiss'em and I love'em 'cause to me they're all the same
I hug'em and I squeeze'em they don't even know my name
They call me the wanderer -- yeah -- the wanderer
I roam around around around around...

Long Suffering Spouse never much cared for this one, especially when I'd sing along with great enthusiasm. I wonder why....

Monday, February 25, 2008

How will you celebrate this anniversary?

On this date, 95 years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox proclaimed that the 16th Amendment had been adopted by the requisite number of states and was now part and parcel of the U.S. Constitution.

Legislation to levy and collect the income tax followed shortly thereafter.... *Sigh*

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another book meme -- and more questions

Shelby hit me with this book meme two weeks ago or so; now Patti has asked me to do it again.

Here are the rules, lifted this time from Late Bloomer Boomer:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).

2. Open the book to page 123.

3. Find the fifth sentence.

4. Post the next three sentences.

5. Tag five people & post a comment here once you post it to your blog, so I can come see.
I'd prefer not to tag anyone -- but I'm on a different book at the moment, so I can still play along.

At the moment, I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower," a "portrait" of Europe and America between 1890 and 1914. On page 123 Tuchman is writing about Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley. Czolgosz was "troubled by the conduct of the American Army, which, after liberating the Philippines from Spain was now engaged in war upon the Filipinos." The next three sentences:
"It does not harmonize with the teaching in our public school about our flag," said Czolgosz worriedly.

As flags were a matter of no respect to Anarchists, [an anarchist named Emil] Schilling became suspicious of him and published a warning in Free Society that the oddly behaved Polish visitor might be an agent provocateur. This was on September 1, 1901, and was wide of the mark.
Czolgosz shot McKinley five days later.

Anarchists weren't the only ones concerned about America's role in the Philippines: Large sections of what might be termed the American Establishment were adamantly opposed to this foreign adventure. Some of this opposition was grounded in racism. There was considerable opinion, however, that America was selling out its uniqueness, its very soul, to join the European powers in the scramble for imperial possessions.

Forget Vietnam: The Filipino insurrection provides many closer parallels to our current experience in Iraq. The locals welcomed the Americans as liberators -- we deposed their Spanish overlords -- but when the Americans gave every indication of settling in, the insurgents began targeting Americans. The newspapers reported American military atrocities that distressed American readers. And the war dragged on... seemingly forever.

It's funny. I've read a number of Tuchman's books over the years, but not this one -- even though I've had it since undergrad. I must have faked my way through the test on that unit. I found the entire period boring and irrelevant. And Tuchman crammed too many names on every page.

Well, there's still a lot of names... but 30 years down the road, I know a lot more of them. And the era doesn't seem irrelevant at all.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Finishing up the candy hearts: Bring on the jelly beans!

These aren't the candy hearts I'm eating this morning as I try and build up a huge sugar high and buzz through a full day's work by 2:00 p.m.

But they'll illustrate the point.

Candy hearts were the subject of a minor scandal here a couple of weeks ago as area retailers were accused of putting out aged stock.

Unlike whisky or wine, candy hearts age badly: Instead of soft and chewy, they become hard as rock.

I think Long Suffering Spouse got one of these bags by mistake.

She doesn't much care for candy hearts -- she's one of those people who actually likes what is good for her and almost always rejects what is bad -- which is merely another illustration of how opposites attract, I suppose, but I digress.

Anyway, she came home with a bag of large-size hearts for me.

I was suspicious when I opened the bag and looked at some of the messages:

23 Skidoo!

You're the bee's knees

Dial my number

My other clue was that the hearts were in black and white, not color.

Of course, I ate them anyway.

Careful planning pays off... or is about to

Stumbled upon at this site. Click to enlarge.

There. Who says I never post cute animal pictures?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain and pride in America

Michelle Obama is backpedaling now, trying to explain what she really meant when she said -- in reacting to her husband's latest primary victories -- "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."

A lot of folks have jumped on Mrs. Obama for this one, and rightfully so. I don't agree that this indelibly brands Mrs. Obama (and by inference her husband) as a member of the 'Hate America First' crowd -- because I prefer to think that this was a particularly ill-advised instance of Mrs. Obama speaking without notes and without adequate forethought. However, even assuming she did not mean what she said, it was still an incredibly odd, stupid and awkward thing to say. It is the kind of sound bite that will leave marks. In the short term, it will slow, and may derail, Mr. Obama's momentum. And, should Senator Obama be nominated by the Democratic Party, it will be resurrected during the Fall campaign.

Without mentioning Mrs. Obama, Cindy McCain, wife of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain countered, "I have, and always will be, proud of my country." There's a statement that can't be woven into an effective attack ad.

I hope I am as patriotic as any American, and I know I consider myself blessed to have been born and raised here. But am I always proud of America?

We've given the world Paris Hilton... Britney Spears... American Gladiators.

I'm not so proud of that. Are you?

I could make a list... but I won't. I will sigh instead and recall the rule that Winston Churchill said he followed for criticizing his country: "When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home."

In the Internet age, where anything anybody says can go from Peoria to Patagonia in a nanosecond, that's no longer a viable approach. Michelle Obama was waaaaaaaay off base -- but must public figures take Cindy McCain's approach to protect themselves against charges of being anti-American?

Gosh, I hope not.
Photo obtained from this morning's Chicago Sun-Times online.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pitch for new graphic novel

(Which is similar to what we used to call comic books.)

Story outline:
Our hero, Blu-ray, restores the honor of his Sony clan by avenging the defeat of his disgraced ancestor, Betamax.

Now we just need to figure where to fill in the dragons and get some cool anime drawings to go with this and we'll be rollin' in the bucks!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Heads or Tails #26 -- anything that starts with "P"

The High Priestess of Blogdom, Barb, the spiritual director of the Cult of Heads or Tails (long rumored to have been Tom Cruise's second choice), has asked us to meditate today on the letter "P."

So soon after President's Day?

Well, then, we'll have to talk about politics.

It's Primary Day in Wisconsin; Hawaii is holding its caucus today as well.

Coming into today's action, Senators Clinton and Obama are still neck and neck in the hunt for delegates to the Democratic Convention.

Obama may or may not have momentum; he's won a bunch of primaries in a row now, but there is that nagging problem of "super delegates."

Lalo Alcaraz cartoon lifted from Yahoo! Cartoons.

Super delegates were invented in the aftermath of the McGovern debacle of 1972 -- when Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and his elected delegates were ousted from the convention in favor of Ald. William Singer, a very young Jesse Jackson, and their merry band of activists.

Activism was all well and good, the party leaders decided, but votes are still necessary to win general elections. So an olive branch was extended to those people who'd actually attained elected office; they would be allowed to attend as delegates, too, in the hopes that they might pursue the Party's agenda in the Fall.

Since the invention of these "super delegates" they have been supernumeraries -- they arrive officially pledged to no one and they have had no influence on the selection of the nominee -- but this year may be different. This year, the super delegates may hold the balance of power to decide the nomination.

The jockeying has already begun: Obamaniacs say that super delegates should vote according to the views expressed by their states -- and the Clintonistas say, fine, then we get the Massachusetts Kennedys back. And then the Obamaniacs say something about following the national numbers... well, you get the point.

Now, here's the nightmare scenario (if you're an observant Democrat): Neither Clinton nor Obama arrive in Denver for the convention with enough pledged delegates to secure a first round victory.

After the first convention ballot even pledged delegates may switch candidates. Obamaniacs would then be wooing wavering Clintonistas; Clintonistas could pick off panicked Obamaniacs. The deadlock might continue long into the night. The super delegates would retire to their hotel suites -- historically these would have been "smoke filled rooms" but modern Democrats would never allow that -- and impose a compromise candidate on the exhausted convention.

Instead of the first African-American presidential nominee, or the first female presidential nominee, we might get...

...a recycled nominee.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Shhh -- the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is out

A couple of years back, Long Suffering Spouse succumbed to Youngest Son's plaintive entreaties and agreed to subscribe to Sports Illustrated.

"It's fine," she said. "He likes sports and he needs to read. He can read about sports."

"OK," I said at the time, "but that also means he gets the Swimsuit Edition."

Long Suffering Spouse blanched. "Well, I don't want that," she said.

"It comes with the subscription," I said.

Last year I happened to be home the day the magazine came out. I intercepted it and threw it in my briefcase and took it with me to work. Neither Long Suffering Spouse nor Youngest Son ever asked about it.

The 2008 issue came out last week -- I was going to post an illustration with this post, but I figured that would only get me in trouble -- and I had begun to wonder whether the magazine would fall into Youngest Son's clutches this time.

Then the other night, Long Suffering Spouse and I fell asleep in front of the TV, just as we do on almost any night. We woke up somehow, at some indeterminate hour, and staggered up to bed. My job, at this point, is to put out the lights and check the front door lock.

As I got to the front hall on this particular night it dawned on me that I hadn't seen the mail for the day. I don't really want to see the mail -- it usually contains bills, and who wants to see that? -- but I don't want to leave the mail sitting in the mail slot either. In the cold weather, we stuff a towel in there to help keep the cold out. So I pulled out the towel and a number of envelopes fell out -- bills and junk mail, just like usual. But I reached up to see if the slot was clear... and I found an obstruction that proved to be this year's Swimsuit Edition.

I put it in my briefcase and took it to work the next day. So far neither Long Suffering Spouse nor Youngest Son has asked about it. I'm betting Long Suffering Spouse has forgotten about it entirely -- and Youngest Son is probably wondering how his mom managed to get a subscription to the magazine that doesn't include the issue with all the bikinis.

And may I make an observation here?

I know this may sound strange. But I find the issue kind of... boring.

It's not that I don't find the girls beautiful, or the settings exotic. It's just that there's page after page after page after page after page of it. It's too much. It has, well, a numbing effect.

And, of course, the accompanying text is hilarious, although I'm sure that's not the intention: Every picture includes details about the swimsuit depicted, who designed and manufactured it, and its retail cost. And so many of these teeny, tiny wisps of fabric allegedly retail for $200, $300, even $400 and up. I can't believe anyone actually buys these things. Or is this just another example of how far out of touch with popular culture I've become?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Saturday detentions for 2550?

With the Snow Days we've had in Chicago recently, those automated calling systems that all the schools are using seemed to have really proved their worth. They are surely more reliable than the old "phone trees" where Smith would have to call Smythe and Smythe would have to call Tarkanian and Tarkanian would have to call Tarkington and so on. (Eventually, Stanley Zydwycz would have to call the teacher to confirm that the tree had worked; the teacher would have to call the principal to finally close the loop.)

I hated phone trees.

I hate phones generally: I don't like to call people I know during regular business hours. Why in the world would I want to call a total stranger at 5:30 a.m. to tell them there's no school today?

So I welcomed automated phone calling systems -- when used for this limited, specific purpose, mind you, not for selling me stuff.

Do you know how many of those calls I get every single, stinking week?

But even my limited acceptance of automated phone systems was perhaps premature, as this story from USA Today (that I noticed the other night on Yahoo!) makes clear....

Linda Jump's story reports that someone pushed a wrong button at Florida's Palm Bay High. Last Friday, instead of 16 households receiving reminders that their young scholar was required to serve a Saturday detention, all 2,550 school households got the call.

I was looking for a photo of kids in detention to
illustrate the post. This was the best I could do.

Ah, yes, parent-child communication in this modern age (as memorialized in this snippet from Ms. Jump's story):
"One of my friends texted me to ask if I had Saturday detention," said Robert Lenoci, 15, of Valkaria. The sophomore is going to the state science fair finals and hasn't been in trouble before.

"I looked and I had a message from mom. She was asking, 'What did you do?' It was pretty bad," he said.
Apparently the school administration didn't find out about the error until 9:30 Friday night -- too late, they judged, to send out a correcting message.

So, parents: You've received a call from the school telling you that Junior has a Saturday detention. Junior denies everything. (So what else is new?) What do you do? Do you (a) ignore the summons or (b) drag Junior out of bed and over to school on Saturday morning to serve his pennance?

In the event, only 40 kids showed up -- and that number, one hopes, includes the 16 who were supposed to be there. Thus only 24 of 2,550 answered the call.

This does not, however, mean that 99% of the Palm Bay High parents chose to ignore the call. Jump's story makes clear that the grapevine was buzzing, even if the automated phone system was not, and many parents determined for themselves that an error had been made.

Jump reports that one parent who yelled at her child and dragged him to school -- only to then find out about the mistake -- felt so guilty that she took the kid to breakfast.

We chatted about this story in the Curmudgeon house after I found it online. Younger Daughter was certain we would have dragged her over to school. Long Suffering Spouse and I weren't about to disagree.

Nor would we have felt "guilty" when the mistake was discovered: As my mother used to say to me, when I would loudly protest against punishment for some wrongful accusation (it wasn't always my fault, you know): "Offer it up. This is for some time that you didn't get caught."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy 39th, Jack

I found this picture of Jack Benny with another of my comedy heroes, Fred Allen, at the International Jack Benny Fan Club. If you've never heard of Fred Allen... well, in feuding with network VP's, David Letterman was virtually channeling Allen for years. Benny's "feud" with Fred Allen provided radio listeners with some wonderfully funny moments... and you can read some of the scripts in Allen's book, Treadmill to Oblivion.

This wasn't the picture I was searching for initially. I was looking for stills from Jack Benny's "To Be Or Not To Be" -- and from the later Mel Brooks version -- so that I could properly acknowledge Patti, of Late Bloomer Boomer, for her splendid victory in my recent pop quiz. Patti knew immediately that Brooks remade "To Be Or Not To Be" -- this was before he figured out that it was even easier to remake his own material....

So, Patti, consider this your hearty virtual handshake and pat on the back. And, for anyone who happens by, as an extra added bonus, let me direct you to a Jack Benny post by famous blogger, TV writer and director, playwright, ex-baseball announcer and rock 'n' roll DJ, Ken Levine: In this August 2007 post, Mr. Levine recounts how he passed up a Beatles concert in 1965 so he could see Benny perform at the Sahara Hotel in Vegas.

Happy 24th, Older Daughter

Older Daughter doesn't read this, of course.

The family doesn't know about this blog.

So this doesn't substitute for a phone call later. Or something.

But, this morning, as Long Suffering Spouse were getting ready to leave the house, we were reminiscing about this day 24 years ago. We each remember different details, of course. I have my favorites; she has hers... but we agree on what happened when and who was involved. That doesn't always happen when married couples discuss significant events in their lives. (You may now have the song, "I Remember It Well," playing in your head.)

"I remember being 24," Long Suffering Spouse said at one point.

"So do I," I said.

"It doesn't seem that long ago," she said. And paused. "But there's so many people who were here then, and aren't here now."

Another long pause.

Who knows what the next 24 years will bring?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lice -- not nice!

Long Suffering Spouse calls me almost every day on her lunch break at school; when we spoke yesterday at lunch time, she told me one of her usual horror stories about her unruly eighth grade students. We discussed who was picking up whom and what was on the schedule for the evening. In other words, we had a perfectly normal conversation.

So when my caller ID indicated she was calling back an hour or so later, I knew something was wrong. In fact, I answered the phone by asking, "What's wrong?"

"I'm going home," she told me. "I've been sent home. I have lice."

She was not alone: A number of students, older and younger, were being sent home. A nurse, who'd been called in to investigate just how widespread the outbreak was, was nit-picking in the hallway outside my wife's classroom. So my wife asked to be checked out as well... and that's when she found out... she was lousy.

(Gee, a lot of expressions come from this condition, don't they?)

I have always thought the lice infestations happened only in underclass areas, in the poorest neighborhoods. My wife, however, teaches at a school in a very nice neighborhood -- our own neighborhood, in fact -- in a very middle class area. So maybe we weren't as vigilant? Is that why they didn't recognize the problem until it was well established? The outbreak is widespread among all the grades in my wife's PK-8 school, but the most cases seem to be in the younger grades. Long Suffering Spouse's primary responsibilities involve the attempted teaching of Spanish to unwilling middle school pupils. However, once a week, she provides Spanish 'enrichment' to the younger grades....

I don't know how many other teachers were found to be infested. I do know I started itching the moment I hung up the phone... and I haven't stopped yet. I seem to be suffering mostly, however, from the power of suggestion: My prose may be lousy, but I'm not. Not yet, at least.

And, speaking of health issues, it was a year ago today that I found out that I had cancer. I subsequently gave my colon up for Lent and all has been fine and dandy since. (Well, it was a lengthy, and sometimes very awkward recuperation... but I think I've been fully recovered for few months, at least.)

So I shouldn't complain, I know, about this latest lousy health news... but, hey, I'm a curmudgeon... anything else would not be in character.

And I also updated my profile today: Youngest Son turned 15 last week; Older Daughter turns 24 tomorrow. Which brings up another dilemma: How am I going to persuade people that I'm still 23 when I have a 24-year old daughter?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A book meme -- and a question

I swore off memes a while back, except for Heads or Tails, but Shelby asked me to do this one -- a book meme -- that she got from Jeni.

Seems simple enough... and I do always have a book... or two... going. So here are the rules:

* Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more - No cheating.

* Turn to page 123 and find the first five sentences.

* Now post the next three sentences.

* The fun begins - - tag some people to play along.

Well, I won't tag anyone... but I can do the rest of it because it prompts a question that's been much on my mind of late.

I've just been reading Robert Cooley's book (with Hillel Levin), "When Corruption Was King." Cooley was a Chicago lawyer who got involved with the Outfit. He made money, and lots of it, but he finally got disgusted with what he was doing and for whom he was doing it. He got so disgusted that he one day walked into the U.S. Attorney's Office and offered to flip. He wore a wire for years and his testimony was instrumental in putting several gangsters and corrupt politicians and judges behind bars.

From page 123, sentences six, seven and eight: "For the crews, bar fights were just another part of nightlife, like someone else might think of playing pool or seeing a show. The mobsters weren't the only ones in a bar looking for trouble. I got in a lot of beefs myself."

Just before reading Cooley's book, I read "Double Deal: The Inside Story of Murder, Unbridled Corruption, and the Cop Who Was a Mobster," by Michael Corbitt and Sam Giancana. Corbitt was, at one time, the chief of a police department in a Chicago suburb. The other author is a nephew of the guy you're thinking of.

I found these books extremely frightening. The people about whom Corbitt and Cooley were writing are extremely frightening. They had creative ways of expressing their displeasure. And we're not talking TV shows or movies here -- although what happened to the Spilotro brothers, for example, has been used as source material for at least a couple of movies -- we're talking real life... and, frequently, the end thereof.

I read these books because I was curious -- I remember the trials, I remember the murders, I know people who have met either Corbitt or Cooley or both. But I did not read these books because I wanted to be entertained.

I see nothing 'entertaining' about these allegedly real accounts -- nor do I see anything entertaining about the unquestionably fictional accounts of similar persons -- the Godfather movies, for example, or the Sopranos. Which brings me to my question: Why do people find this stuff 'entertaining'?

Heads or Tails #25 (Love)

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Barb, the creative genius who invented Heads or Tails, the sure-fire aphrodisiac that is banned in seventeen Asian countries, asks us to ruminate on the word "love."

A Curmudgeon discourses on love? What next -- Amy Winehouse explains sobriety and self-restraint? Britney Spears on proper deportment? Michael Jackson or Joan Rivers on just being your natural self?

Actually, Curmudgeons -- this Curmudgeon, at least -- feels sorry for the word "love." Seldom has a word been so stretched or pulled or distorted beyond its original meaning... from the best and most comforting of human emotions into Oooooh! I just love chicken sandwiches!

Well, there's also "star" -- as in Cary Grant was a "star" -- distorted now into Paris Hilton is a star!

And there's also "principles" or "ethics" -- whenever these terms are used by a politician.

Come to think of it, there's "is." (That depends on what you're meaning of "is" is. Does it? Does it really?)

It's a wonder we can communicate at all....

Jury duty

That's the reason I didn't post yesterday: I was doing my civic duty as a juror.

In Cook County we have jurors and stand-by jurors. Jurors are summoned and must appear. Stand-by jurors are people who are summoned but maybe don't have to appear: To find out, the would-be stand-by (aren't hyphens wonderful?) calls in for a pre-recorded message (oooh, there's another one!). I was summoned as a stand-by juror.

Well, Monday would ordinarily be a day when extra jurors might be needed: Judges don't seem to like to start trials on Fridays, so both Monday's business and business that might otherwise have been accomplished on Friday are on the typical Monday docket.

But yesterday was not a typical Monday because today is Lincoln's Birthday -- a legal holiday here in the Land of Lincoln. So I figured yesterday would be more like another Friday... and no stand-by jurors would likely be required. I had hopes of discharging my civic duty with a simple phone call on Sunday afternoon.

Alas. Persons with names beginning with certain letters of the alphabet -- including mine -- were in fact expected to appear.

My summons directed me to appear at the Criminal Courthouse -- 26th and California. If Disneyland is the 'happiest place on earth,' 26th & Cal may be the unhappiest. Prospective jurors are quickly herded to a large room in the Administration building and told to stay put. Jurors are given adhesive badges and told to wear them -- but only in the holding pen or the courtroom or while being herded from one place to the other as a group. Jurors leaving the building for lunch are advised to take off their badges and put them back on the sheet from which the badges were initially peeled: Gangbangers may be taking note.

This is the Cook County Criminal Courthouse -- pictured on a day when
the weather was much nicer than it was yesterday. The Criminal Courts
Administration Building is just visible at left.
Cook County Jail is not shown... but it's right there, too.

I appeared at the holding pen as ordered. I filled out my questionnaire -- one of the first questions asks for my occupation -- turned it in and received my panel number. Every prospective juror receives a panel number -- 12 to a panel, I think. Two or three panels are then taken to any courtroom where a jury is required. From this larger group, the actual jurors are chosen by a process called voir dire.

Now I have about as much chance of actually serving on a jury as I have of winning the Lotto. Lawyers are routinely bumped from juries. In fact, at one time, Illinois lawyers were exempt by law from jury service, along with members of their immediate family. As the son of a lawyer and later as a lawyer myself, I was automatically excused from this obligation.

Then, however, some years back, the legislature decided that this was unfair -- and all exemptions were swept away (I think doctors and newspaper reporters were also exempt at one time, but I haven't looked it up this morning). Exempt or not, however, lawyers still are not likely to serve on a jury.

Believe it or not, I wouldn't mind serving.

I've argued to juries -- I'd like to see things from the other side.

But I had no expectation of realizing that ambition yesterday. Even though I had to show up, I still figured on an early dismissal.

I was very surprised, therefore, when my panel number got called.

We were lined up -- badges on -- and herded into elevators down to the first floor. We didn't all fit in one elevator, but we had 'minders' ferrying us in the elevators, shooing any other prospective passengers away.

Deputy sheriffs met us in the first floor lobby, got the panels back together, and walked us across to the courthouse elevators. We were herded into a different set of elevators.

It was here that the system broke down. We no longer had a minder. The deputy did not tell us where we were supposed to go. We got off when the doors opened up again.

Another group joined us -- two of the three elevators full of prospective jurors -- lost in the hallways of the courthouse. The deputy must have been with the third elevator.

And we waited for some considerable period of time before we were found and directed to the actual courtroom where we were expected.

This turned out to be the highlight of my experience yesterday. It's curious: Voir dire seems very suspenseful when you're asking the questions, or listening to the judge or your opponent ask questions, and you're trying to make legible notes and eye contact and evaluate if this person will be more or less likely than the next person to see the case as you see it... but when you're a prospective juror, and you're merely listening to the same darn questions over and over and over again... it's not particularly exciting at all.

I was not chosen to serve; a jury was seated before the court came around to asking me anything.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Mel Brooks and Jack Benny Month -- and, yes, Your Honor, I can tie this up

It was a lazy Saturday morning in the Curmudgeon home. Long Suffering Spouse and I were channel surfing and -- it being too early for most of her contemporaries to be active -- Younger Daughter was sitting in the room with us.

We stopped clicking channels when we found Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood: Men in Tights."

I enjoy Mel Brooks. I find most of his films funny, if a tad... excessive. I think, for the most part, the Robin Hood parody stays more on the funny side than the excessive side. But there are... excesses.

It was the excesses in this film that made Younger Daughter uncomfortable. If you've seen the movie, you may recall the scene in the outlaws' camp where Robin serenades Maid Marian, standing behind a sheet for privacy, but the fortuitous placement of a campfire behind the couple projects their shadows on the sheet as if it were a movie screen... and the outlaws take seats in front of the screen, just as if they were in the theater. They guffaw when the shadow of Robin's sword might be confused with something else.... Younger Daughter wasn't uncomfortable with the sexual references in the film -- despite my active disapproval, or perhaps because of it, she watches MTV whenever she can. The current programming on MTV seems to consist of nothing but sexual references. I'm so old I can remember when MTV had music videos, some of which, a few anyway, could be watched by every member of the household. But I digress.

What made Younger Daughter uncomfortable was watching the sexual references in the same room with her parents. I know about her discomfort because she told us about it.

Now you know how I feel, I told her.

Fast forward now to Saturday afternoon.

I was fiddling with the computer when it came time for Chuck Shaden's "Those Were The Days" program. Locally, the program is broadcast on WDCB-FM, the College of DuPage radio station; the link takes you to the program website where you can listen to last week's program.

February is Jack Benny Month. (Were he alive today, Benny would be turning 39... again... on February 14.)

In the course of a four hour program, Shaden and Company will play four complete Benny episodes. I don't tune in for "Suspense" or "Little Orphan Annie" -- I want to hear Benny.

No one was in the room when I put the program on.

But as soon as Younger Daughter and Long Suffering Spouse heard it, they announced they were leaving. Long Suffering Spouse got angry with me about it. "I had to listen to that stuff at your parents' house," she told me, "and I did for their sake, but you know I can't stand it."

Yes, the audio quality is often poor. That makes it a challenge to listen -- sometimes it makes it painful to listen. The songs are dated. Cigarette commercials are anything but politically correct.

But Benny is still funny. And there are no crude references to embarrass any member of the family.

And it makes me sad to realize that there is nothing like him in the entertainment world today. Even prime-time TV is chock full of sexual and excretory references.

And those are just the commercials.

The folks who tuned in to Benny's radio program -- people of my parents' generation -- are a dwindling remnant. As these people leave us, these programs will be lost.

And we'll all have to watch TV in separate rooms.

Mel Brooks, by the way, agrees with me about Jack Benny. Otherwise he wouldn't have remade the movie generally acclaimed as Benny's best. No, it wasn't "The Horn Blows at Midnight." A hearty virtual handshake and pat on the back to the first person who correctly names the movie that both Brooks and Benny made in the comments.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Current working title of my autobiography

"I Had Hoped to Give Up Shoveling for Lent -- and Other Plans That Didn't Quite Work Out."

Too long?

Actually, I didn't shovel any of this latest batch of partly cloudy that fell on Chicago yesterday. The younger kids were home -- no school -- and they did it. I made it to my meeting in the suburbs during the mid-day yesterday, then came home and collapsed.

I'd tell you I'm fighting a cold, but I'd be lying. I've lost the fight. I'm just hoping the cold doesn't bring his friend Pneumonia over to finish me off.

Bear with me for now. I shall return.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Heads or Tails #24 (first or last)

(*swelling organ music*) (*the following is read in 'the announcer voice' -- starting before the organ fades*) Once again, ladies and gentlemen, its time for another visit to Heads or Tails, the little online community of hopeful hearts and daring dreams. In today's episode, Curmudgeon ruminates on firsts... and lasts. As always, Heads or Tails is brought to you through the courtesy of sports fans, Blogging superstarBarb, the proud maker of Skittles' Place. Be sure to visit Skittles' Place in the blogging aisle of your quality Internet supermarket. And now (*organ music comes up again*) Heads or Tails....

It may be Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but in Chicago, it's "Paczki Day."

I'd 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 happened to be 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.

Whatever you call it, today is the last day before Lent begins, the season of sacrifice and renewal that helps the Christian faithful prepare for Easter, the Feast of Resurrection, and, more generally, renewal and Spring.

For most Christians, Easter will fall this year on the first day possible, March 23 -- and about as far away as possible from the Jewish Passover as is possible. Even though the Last Supper was a Passover seder. On the other hand, for Orthodox Christians, Easter will fall at the end of April, right in sync with Passover. It all has to do with the determination of the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox. If this confuses you, take comfort: You're neither the first, nor the last, to be confused.

It would be nice if an early Easter on the calendar augers an early Spring. But I'm surely not the first to express that thought. As another six to 12 inches of snow are forecast for Chicago tonight and tomorrow. Much as I hope it will be, I'm sure this won't be our last...

Isn't this nice?

It's a Muppet doing yoga, I think.

Thanks, Barb, for giving this to me -- it made me smile.

Monday, February 04, 2008

This was my favorite ad yesterday

Apparently, I'm well out of step with the rest of the world.

So what else is new?

I liked both the Coke ads -- didn't get the highly-hyped Justin Timberlake ad at all -- and was entirely creeped out by the Career Builder "Follow Your Heart" commercial. But then, I looked away when the beating heart was ripped out of a victim's chest in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," too.

The Bridgestone screaming animals commercial was funny, but obnoxious. On the other hand it made a nice set-up for the later commercial with Alice Cooper and Richard Simmons.

I thought Simmons was toast for sure.

Honorable mention for funniest ad -- the Doritos mousetrap ad.

I wonder if these videos will really post....

Oh. About the game. If I had bet, I would have taken the Giants and the points. Honest. I'm happy for the Manning family. Unhappy that New York ever wins anything (that's the Chicagoan in me) and "disappointed" that New England didn't make history. I wasn't rooting for or against anybody... but I still was sort of sad that New England couldn't close out the perfect season.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A snowy day in Chicago

Wes Pope's image of traffic this morning on Chicago's Eisenhower
Expressway captured from the Chicago Tribune's web page.

Gloat all you want, Sunshine Belt readers -- but I was on time for my 9:00 a.m. court appearance this morning.

Of course, we did have to move Heaven and Earth to get it done.

It was supposed to be a complicated Friday in the Curmudgeon household even without the snow. Long Suffering Spouse had been drafted into going along on a school ski trip. She doesn't ski and doesn't want to learn... but she does want to get paid, so of course she assented.

Middle Son called the other night to ask if he could have a car on Friday. He's away at college, but not that far away, and there was a job fair in the western suburbs that he'd been told he should attend.

We are interested in him obtaining gainful employment upon graduation, so we agreed... even though only two of our three cars actually work at the moment and Younger Daughter would have one of them, taking her brother to his school and then proceeding to her school for the 7:00 a.m. Band class.

But, I thought, I could drop Long Suffering Spouse at school -- the kids were going on the ski trip by bus -- go to Middle Son's school and have him drop me off at the Lake Street 'el.' He'd drop me not far from where this photo was taken. With baseball practice and what not, he'd not bring the van back until Saturday sometime, but Younger Daughter would be home in time to pick up Long Suffering Spouse after her ski trip. Even with teenagers we ought to be able to live with one car for one day.

All neatly planned and reasonable.

And then it snowed.

It was supposed to flurry yesterday during the day, with the heavy snow to start late at night. But the weather forecasters forgot to tell Mother Nature. It snowed pretty much all day yesterday, with the pace picking up just in time for the rush hour.

Now we pride ourselves on being made of pretty stern stuff in Chicago. A couple of inches of snow, or even three or four, will not faze us... unless the snow comes down during the rush hour. Commutes that take an hour in rush hour normally, stretched to three or four hours yesterday. The late news was chock full of traffic horror stories. With more forecast... well, my carefully crafted plans were already in jeopardy before the late news was over.

Younger Daughter's school announced it would open late, at 10:00 a.m.

Youngest Son's school announced it would open late, too, but at 9:00 a.m.

I could still take the van to Middle Son, still drop off Long Suffering Spouse for her ski trip, still have an expectation of getting downtown within a reasonable time after boarding the 'el'... but how early would I have to leave to make this happen?

When the alarm went off this morning at 5:00 a.m. I did something unusual: I actually got up.

Long Suffering Spouse chided me about not getting dressed for work first as I pulled on my sweats, but I figured I'd get a pretty fair cardio workout behind the shovel, after which I'd need a shower. Why shower twice?

Long Suffering Spouse reluctantly agreed, but said we should wake up Younger Daughter and Youngest Son too and enlist their aid for shoveling.

I did not argue the point.

That was the kids' job. I could see their point of view. They were hoping for a day off; all they knew about so far was a late start -- and any benefit that might otherwise accrue from getting to leave later was destroyed utterly if they had to get up early anyway. Especially if they had to get up early and shovel.

But shovel they did. And shovel we did. And the snow fell faster as we worked, mocking us, I thought.

After an hour or so of this fun family activity I came in and called Middle Son.

Or tried to.

He's a college kid -- about the one time of day or night that he doesn't take calls is around 6:30 a.m.

But he called back promptly and I was eventually able to talk him out of taking the car today. Obviously, if he doesn't have a job immediately upon graduation, today's incident is likely to be dredged up as an example of how his unemployment is entirely our fault. But I honestly thought that, even if I'd been ready to leave right then, I had no chance of getting to him and then to the train in time to make it to court at 9:00 a.m.

I continued checking the school closing list during this time, as I sipped my coffee and waited for my chest to stop heaving. Sure enough, Youngest Son's school decided to close... then Younger Daughter's school made the same decision.

But Long Suffering Spouse's school wasn't closing. Every neighborhood parochial school was closed... except hers. The school policy is that the school will close if and only if the Chicago Public Schools close. That means almost never -- if for no other reason than so many kids depend on CPS for warm meals during the day. So Long Suffering Spouse was still stuck on the ski trip. And she wasn't happy.

We left for the train and she was still grumbling. It makes sense to go skiing when it's snowing, I told her, but that was not deemed helpful.

I was on the station platform, waiting for the train, watching the traffic on the Kennedy move at a snail's pace, when my cell phone rang. It was Long Suffering Spouse: School would remain open... but the ski trip was canceled. The buses couldn't get through.

But I was on time to court... which was a good thing because the judge was on time, too.

But now? I'm bushed and it's not even lunch time yet.