Friday, May 29, 2009

A beer can, a stolen gun, and faulty news judgment

New Trier Township High School serves students in some of Chicago's wealthiest suburbs. It is a traditional incubator for the next generation of the Ruling Class, sending more graduates to Ivy League schools than almost any other local school. (Some years it is the unquestioned leader in Ivy League placements.)

So, I will grudgingly concede, something happening at New Trier may arguably be more newsworthy than the same thing happening at another local school.

But yesterday the local media was all a-twitter with "news" that some wisenheimer had slipped an unauthorized picture into the New Trier yearbook. That's a detail of the picture, above. The full picture shows two girls hugging at an off-campus party. One of the girls is holding, as you'll note, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

PBR is a tad downscale for Winnetka... but that's not the story.

As WBBM Newsradio 780 reports this morning, administrators have freaked out at the discovery, sending an email to all parents, reassuring them that this photo was not in the version of the yearbook cleared by the school advisor for publication. Investigations and punishments are promised, possibly even criminal charges. (The Chicago Tribune is also running this "story".)

And -- gasp! -- further examination of the yearbook has revealed that someone slipped another unauthorized photo of a kid giving the 'freeway salute' in a Homecoming montage.

The full beer can photo was shown on one station's TV newscasts last night; another fuzzed out the girls' faces. A number of New Trier students stepped up to proffered news microphones to offer sympathy to the girls whose photo was inserted. Neither girl was actually interviewed in the newscasts I saw (I watch a couple of different channels most nights), but a lingering shot of a retreating backpack and derriere was shown on one newscast, with the reporter advising that this was one of the girls declining comment.

What a perfect world we must live in where these sorts of stupid kid tricks have the power to provoke such shock and outrage. Right?


That ruined Chicago Police SUV was being operated by a veteran Chicago policeman at the time of a collision involving two other cars. Initial reports said the police vehicle was responding to an emergency; an 85-year old man, ticketed in the crash, insisted, in a radio report I heard this morning, that the police vehicle was not using lights or sirens.

Even if the police officer was entirely at fault for the collision -- and that's an "if," not a conclusion -- what happened to the poor man after the collision is inexcusable in any civilized society.

The accident occurred at mid-day, at a busy intersection in a largely middle class area. Still no one intervened as a bystander entered the wrecked police vehicle and stole the officer's gun off his injured body.

The police officer suffered spinal injuries in the accident, injuries that may have been exacerbated by the actions of this predator who stole his gun. He may be paralyzed for life.

Someone did take a video of this outrage with a cellphone camera; there may be useful images captured by nearby surveillance cameras as well. Police are examining the footage now. Here's a link to the story on the WBBM Newsradio 780 website. Raw, uncensored anger from the police officer's comrades may be found at Second City Cop. (Warning: Much of the language used in the comments to the linked post is highly offensive, but consider the circumstances, please.)

The theft of the police officer's gun is getting some play in the media here -- but I believe the New Trier beer can incident is getting more.

What a sad, sad commentary on our society, on so many levels.

Update 5/30/09: The WGN-Tribune Breaking News Center reported last night that an arrest has been made and the injured policeman's gun recovered. I saw a comment on Second City Cop that an arrest had been made, but SCC didn't run it as a post until it had the Tribune link. (Here is a link to the Second City Cop post about the arrest.) Officer Densey Cole II remains hospitalized.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Formals in any color you want... as long as its blue

Older Daughter's wedding is now less than 60 days away (yikes!). And if the proximity of that event were not enough to ratchet up the stress levels, we learned recently that the Mother of the Groom (MOG) had tired of waiting for Long Suffering Spouse to buy a dress.

Long Suffering Spouse and I were in the car when Older Daughter called to announce that the MOG had procured her gown. Thus, the conversation was on speaker and I could hear, and participate if necessary.

Of course Older Daughter supplied considerably more detail than this, but, being male, what I heard and retained was as follows: The dress was blue and it was long.

Even I know that it would not do for the Mother of the Bride to wear a dress too similar to that worn by the MOG, so I offered an immediate suggestion. "Good," I said, "your mother will get a red miniskirt."

Silence on the other end.

"Yes," I continued, "a red miniskirt. Maybe with slits."

Long Suffering Spouse was signaling me at me to shut up but she said nothing. And she was driving.

And Older Daughter still had not responded.

"Really short," I said. "Yeah...." I elongated the words to emphasize that my imagination was in Overdrive. Why is it taking so long to provoke a response? I wondered. Usually Older Daughter rises to the bait immediately. She must really be stressed, I thought.

Finally, though, my efforts were rewarded:

"Eeeeeeeewwwwwwwwww," said Older Daughter.

* * * * * *
Kidding aside, though, Long Suffering Spouse and I knew that we'd have to go shopping.

Younger Daughter was elated at the prospect.

My late mother was a dedicated shopper. She was incapable of passing a "sale" sign. When she died we found that she had more shoes than Imelda Marcos. Many of them had never been worn. (I always figured this had something to do with growing up poor and fatherless in the Depression and worrying about where the next pair of shoes might come from. But this is strictly my speculation.) Anyway, my mother trained for shopping like an Olympic athlete: Practice, practice, practice. Long Suffering Spouse and I hate to shop -- but my mother would have been thrilled with Younger Daughter.

I've taken to calling Younger Daughter the Fashion Police. She invited herself along on the shopping expedition -- and immediately questioned why I would go at all.

"Mom asked me if you've tried to back out yet," Younger Daughter confided to me on Saturday morning. "Of course, I think you're very loyal for trying."


So the three of us set off for the malls. Long Suffering Spouse and I were the intrepid explorers. Younger Daughter was our native guide.

My first surprise was the Old Orchard parking lot: There was no place to park.

For crying out loud, I thought, don't these people know we're in a Recession? Besides... it was a beautiful day. Why would any person spend it in a store unless it was Absolutely Necessary?

I could understand driving around a mall parking lot in a desperate search for a parking spot late on one of the last shopping days before Christmas (that was one of the hurdles we faced in our December quest for earmuffs) -- but I didn't expect it in May.

Eventually, though, we found a spot and hit the stores. Many of them.

Most of the fancy dresses on offer were prom dresses in useful sizes like 0 or 2. Obviously, anything you've heard about Americans getting heavier must be enemy propaganda. Americans-likely-to-buy-fancy-dresses, at least, are all tiny, emaciated waifs.

At one store (it may have been Nordstroms -- but they all run together in my mind) Long Suffering Spouse found two gowns that Younger Daughter persuaded her to try. Younger Daughter then tried to persuade me to come into the dressing area: Apparently, outside the actual changing stalls, a number of couches are set up for kibitzers. I declined. What about the other customers? Even in these modern times, I would have felt like a pervert.

The prospect of sitting appealed to me, though, and, thus inspired, I found a chair not too far away.

I was asleep within seconds.

Long Suffering Spouse was not amused.

Nor did she like either of the dresses. I will try, in my hopeless male way, to explain why she didn't like one of these: It might have been flattering to a person with abundant hips, because it emphasized the waist and bloused (?) out over the hips. My wife, whose hips are not so abundant, felt that the gown made it appear otherwise. I didn't see the other one on her.

There was a young girl hovering about trying to find other dresses for my wife to try. She tried to ingratiate herself with Younger Daughter -- and Younger Daughter saw in her a kindred spirit -- but Long Suffering Spouse was having none of it. When the girl proffered a purplish-blue dress, after she'd been sternly admonished that the MOG's dress was blue, my wife decreed that we would move on.

We moved on and on. Like refugees trudging down endless roads, we staggered from store to store. We learned that most of the remotely acceptable formals were blue -- Aha! So that's why the MOG got a blue dress!. The other popular color this year was dismissed by Long Suffering Spouse as "puke green." I didn't actually see that name on any label -- usually it was called seafoam or celery or, once, khaki -- but my wife's description struck me as being as accurate as any. A few were a darker shade of green... sort of a Civil Service Green... and if you're old enough to know what that is you'll wonder, as I did, why anyone would make a dress for a nice occasion in such an ugly color.

And, of course, there were black dresses. Lord & Taylor even had a separate "Little Black Dress" department. These were immediately excluded, however, as inappropriate for a Mother of the Bride dress. Even if the bridesmaids are wearing black... but that's a story for a different day.

We returned home discouraged.

* * * * * *
I redeemed myself, somewhat, that night as we surfed the Internet, visiting the websites of all the stores we'd visited during the day. It started out as a search for a particular designer because we saw one dress that we all liked (even our little Fashion Police) except that it was in an ugly rust color.

I know I keep saying it... but this Internet thing might really catch on: There was much more variety online than on the rack. We formulated a Plan B: Long Suffering Spouse had already resolved to try a different mall in the morning... but if that failed, we'd order one of the dresses we picked out online. We could always have any necessary alterations made.

Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter made the second trip without me.

They came back (many hours later) with a blue dress -- but a darker blue, we are assured, than that obtained by the MOG. (Oh, I hope so!) And Younger Daughter was absolutely thrilled with my wife's shoes... they were by some designer that our daughter just loves... BCBS... no, wait, that's the abbreviation for Blue Cross and Blue Shield... BCBG... yes, I'm pretty sure that's it.

Somewhere my mother is smiling.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor... activist?

That's what our friends on the Right are shouting this morning: Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor is a (gasp) judicial activist!

Meanwhile, our brothers and sisters on the Left see in Judge Sotomayor a powerful symbol of ethnic empowerment: If confirmed, Sotomayor would become the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court.

The first, that is, except, perhaps, for Benjamin Cardozo, whose Jewish ancestors were probably driven out of Portugal... winding up, via Holland, in America... before the Revolution.

Judge Sotomayor, you will hear repeatedly in the coming weeks and months, grew up poor in the Bronx, raised by her mother after her father died when she was only nine years old. Her personal story is a powerful example of the American Dream, still working. I'll bet even Fox News concedes that point.

Judge Sotomayor graduated from the Bronx to Princeton, and thence to Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Law Review. (In a lot of schools, if a kid 'makes' law review, he or she is automatically an 'editor.' It does not mean that she was necessarily telling the law professors submitting articles how to correct their punctuation. You will be entirely unsurprised to learn that I have no first-hand knowledge of how things work at Yale.)

The good news, I suppose, is that Sotomayor didn't clerk for another Supreme Court Justice before donning judicial robes herself. Instead, after finishing at Yale in 1979, she went to work in the New York County District Attorney's office for roughly five years. Wikipedia says that, while in the D.A.'s office, Sotomayor "prosecuted robberies, assaults, murders, police brutality, and child pornography cases."

Maybe D.A.'s rise faster in New York than in Chicago: Here it might be expected for a talented lawyer in our State's Attorney's Office to make it to a felony courtroom in five years... but not as the first chair. I wonder how much actual trial experience she has....

Sotomayor stayed in the D.A.'s office for five years. She then moved on to the private sector -- again, this is something of an improvement over recent SCOTUS nominees in that she has drawn a private sector salary for at least a brief interval.

Wikipedia tells us that, in 1984, Sotomayor went to Pavia & Harcourt. That's a link to the firm's current website. There, you will find the firm describing itself as "a business law firm, concentrating in commercial and corporate law, banking, media and entertainment, real estate, litigation and arbitration, intellectual property, estate planning and administration, and immigration services." The firm boasts having lawyers fluent in Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish, providing "a full range of legal services to companies, individuals, and Italian and French governmental organizations and agencies."

But Sotomayor stayed there only six years, making partner at some point during this time. In late 1991, Sotomayor was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to a vacancy in the Southern District of New York. At the time, Sotomayor was the youngest federal judge in the district and the first Hispanic federal judge to serve in New York State. (If you insist on bringing up Cardozo again, remember he was a state court judge until he joined the U.S. Supreme Court.) President Clinton nominated Sotomayor to the seat she now holds in 1997.

Judge Sotomayor was married briefly, shortly after finishing college. The marriage ended in 1983 and produced no children.

Let's add this up, shall we? Including the better part of a year that it took to get her confirmed to the District Court, Sotomayor was a practicing lawyer for 12 or 13 years. At best, only 7 or 8 of those years were in the private sector. She's been on the bench for the last 17.

If we're going to put people on the Supreme Court because of their compelling personal stories, Judge Sotomayor's mother, Celina, might have made a better candidate: Widowed at a young age, she not only raised her daughter to become a federal jurist, she got her son through medical school.

President Obama said he wanted his justices of the Supreme Court to have 'empathy.' Empathy is the ability to imagine one's self in the other guy's shoes. It doesn't mean identifying with, or sympathizing with a group or with "The People" in the abstract. An empathetic person who says, "I know how you feel," probably does. Empathy doesn't come from imagination alone; it comes from shared experience.

Judge Sotomayor has been in the federal cloister for nearly two decades. She hasn't had to deal with getting kids off to school. She's not had to deal with a child's bad report card, or with the kid who stays out too late or drinks at a party. She hasn't had to teach a kid to drive. She hasn't had to relate to other moms at a soccer or baseball game. As a long-serving federal judge she's used to receiving deference from those around her. She hasn't gone to a PTA meeting and been ruled out of order by the chair. Who tells her "no"?

Clearly, Judge Sotomayor has faced down some significant challenges in her life: She has Type I diabetes. She lost her father at a young age. But does she have enough experience of the real world? Or is she just another judicial careerist with an Ivy League resume? And haven't we had enough of that?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Getting red in the face while trying to be green

I arrived here at the Undisclosed Location about an hour ago, ready to immerse myself in the muck of my law practice. I had a reasonably good attitude... until....

* flashback alert * flashback alert * flashback alert *

I remember when we computer users were sternly enjoined never to turn off our computers. The hard drive would fail eventually, we were told, and frequent restarting of the machine would only hasten that unhappy day.

Then Windows 98 came along and we were obliged to restart our computers six or seven times a day. Usually when we could least afford it.

Lately we are told that we should turn off our machines every night. Leaving the machine on wastes power and contributes to (*cue scary music*) Global Warming!

Al Gore forgive me... but I don't do this.

The darn thing takes way too long to start up again. A young man who works for one of the other lawyers in our suite cleaned out my start menu... after he stopped laughing at me... and that sped things up... but only a little.

Still, I want to be ecologically responsible. Last Friday afternoon I thought, since a three day weekend was at hand, it would be appropriate to turn everything off.

And I did.

And this morning... I tried to turn it all back on again.

I had an almost immediate message from the most paranoid corporation in America: Mr. Gates was apparently concerned that, over the long weekend, I might have offloaded my legal copy of Windows and installed some bootleg bought in a back alley.

As if the real stuff isn't unreliable enough.

But one messes with Mr. Gates at one's peril... so even though I well knew that the promises of the 'genuine advantages' sure to flow from 'validating' my copy of Windows were pure bovine excrement, I clicked on the option to download and install.

And then I began waiting.

And waiting.

Another program apparently tried to start up before Mr. Gates had finished inspecting all of the nooks and crannies of my hard drive. That program got locked in a fatal duel with Mr. Gates' validation program... and both crashed. My computer was left in start-up limbo, neither up and running nor shut down. And, unfortunately, I depend on this stupid machine to do just about everything... including this.

A couple of reboots later... we're up and hobbling. But my attitude is as bad as ever....

Friday, May 22, 2009

I hate Fridays... and other cheerful observations

It is heresy, I know, to not love Fridays, especially in America where 'nothing matters but the weekend from a Tuesday point of view.'

I used to like Fridays, of course.

A million years ago, when I was in law school, I sometimes opened up a tavern in my neighborhood. I had the jukebox and the pinball machine to myself. Friends would come in; sometimes they'd buy. The bartender would go out to dinner somewhere around 6:00 -- and I'd watch the joint. If the band showed up while he was out, I'd show them where to go.

By the time the band was ready to start... I was ready to keel over. Sometimes I stayed anyway.

I think my problems with Fridays started with the widespread use of the fax machine. Now I realize the fax machine is an ancient, faintly quaint technology to most people these days -- but it still has the power to chill my blood when I hear it go off late on a Friday afternoon.

There is nothing good that comes over a fax on a Friday afternoon.

I recall an interview a few years back with the incoming president of the local bar association in the association's magazine. He worked for a BIG firm. A silk-stocking firm. His minions had minions.

And one of the things he was soooo proud of was how modern lawyers are so hardworking. With modern technology, he said, you can reach out to opposing counsel at 7:30 on a Friday night and find someone working, ready to talk business.

I was revolted. Aren't you?

We are supposed to be members of a learned, contemplative profession. A person needs away-time to process, to mull, to contemplate. Ignoring one's family on a weekend to speak with another damn lawyer strikes me as the height of craziness.

It also explains, I guess, why so many lawyers are divorced. We're coming into the turnover season with all the local bar associations: The new presidents are taking over and lunches, or dinners, are served. Some years back (the deliberate, defensive reason for the imprecise reference will shortly become apparent) I used to attend the annual meetings of the Illinois State Bar Association which, of course, were always held in Wisconsin.

The new officers would be introduced at a gala dinner. There they'd be, up on the dais, looking proud and handsome in their tuxes (even today, there are more male bar presidents than women -- except at the Women's Bar Association, of course), surrounded by their adoring family members. Sometimes the new president's wife looked to be the same age as the daughters... sometimes younger.... I thought this remarkable; eventually, though, someone explained to me that this was not always the first wife.

But today I'm not heaping scorn on the marital habits of lawyers. I'm concerned more about the "scorched earth" tactics that some of my brothers and sisters at the bar practice on a daily basis.

I have a case -- again, vague references are absolutely necessary -- a matter on appeal. I was not trial counsel. My client lost at trial. My client did all sorts of things wrong -- but, I think, opposing counsel did something worse.

The case revolved around ownership of a thing. My client said it owned the thing and the defendants used it improperly. The defendants did not claim to own the thing themselves -- but they did deny that my client owned the thing.

Which, up to a point, is surely their right.

But, now, many other bad things have happened and my client is on the receiving end of a large dollar judgment. In this particular type of case (unlike in most American cases) the loser is presumptively liable for attorney fees.

So now these defendants have a big dollar judgment. And one of these would like to get paid.

Again -- I have no problem, generally, with lawyers looking to get paid. I always hope to get paid myself. Sometimes I am. Sometimes I am not.

But, in this case, to get paid, the lawyer for the defendant -- the one who denied repeatedly that my client owned this thing -- now says 'give that thing to me.' Gosh, apparently he must think my client owns the thing after all, eh?

To me, this is shocking. But, so far, many of the people (well, OK, lawyers) with whom I've discussed this issue are... nonplussed. It's not a big deal.

So... I'm all upset that I've had to broach the topic of sanctions with opposing counsel (something that I find personally distasteful)... and I'm upset that my brothers and sisters don't find this to be a particular problem.

Yes, I served the motion today -- on a Friday -- before a holiday weekend. But this was just as soon as I could get client and co-counsel to sign off on it. And -- because of the nature of the motion -- it is not filed with any court, not yet; it is merely served under the "safe harbor" of Federal Rule 11(c)(2).

Not that you care.

And the phone rang an hour after the email went out: It was opposing counsel demanding that the motion be "withdrawn" or he'll be seeking further sanctions against me and my co-counsel personally in the appeal. As if I had done this on a lark or a whim.

His threat might be more scary, I suppose, if the attorney for the other defendants hadn't already promised as much three weeks ago. And that was just because I had the temerity to appear in the case and, in the course of a court-ordered mediation, convey a settlement demand.

He and his co-counsel should coordinate their threats better. And they probably will: One will probably reach out to the other, you know, like at 7:30 tonight.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gaudeamus igitur

Jeff Danzinger's May 17 cartoon (obtained from Yahoo! Comics) struck me as the funniest graduation/recession cartoon I've seen to date.

OK... so it's more bitter than funny... but... anyway... congratulations graduates. Let's all sing along with Mario Lanza:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Could you pass a written driver's test?

Another reason to hate "pop quizzes": Youngest Son will soon apply for his driver's license; I don't know whether he will place out of either the written or "on road" examination.

But I saw an article on the Chicago Tribune website about a drivers' test offered by GMAC Insurance and it got me to thinking... and clicking. According to Mary Ellen Podmolik's article, Wisconsin and Idaho drivers achieved the highest average scores on this web-test (which you can access by following this link). But drivers in these states averaged only correct answers on only 80.6% of the questions.

Surely, I thought, I could do better.

As it turned out... well... I didn't do as well as I expected. Here are my results:

My 16 out of 20 right answers (80%) was only slightly better than the average achieved by Illinois drivers (76.5%).

On the other hand, I scored better than the average driver in all but six states... and the District of Columbia. (View the test results here.) So, as Bill Murray said in Caddyshack, I've got that working for me....

How would you do on this test? Leave your score (the honor system is in effect) in the comments. We'll therefore call this an...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

When should the law intervene to overrule parental decisions?

Another hard case that may make very bad law: The Daniel Hauser case, in Minnesota, gets sadder and stranger all the time.

AP reporter Amy Forliti writes this evening that Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg issued an arrest warrant today for Daniel's mother after she failed to show up for a scheduled hearing.

She was supposed to come to court today and tell the judge what oncologist she would take her son to. Instead, she's taken her son.

Daniel has Hodgkins lymphoma and, apparently, he has a very good chance to make a complete recovery if he accepts the chemotherapy treatment usually prescribed in these cases. But Daniel and his mother don't want that treatment. Daniel's mother wants the boy treated with "alternative medicines." Fioriti's article says that the family subscribes to the "'do no harm' philosophy of the Nemenhah Band, a Missouri-based religious group that believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians." (The Hausers also claim to be Catholic.)

This is a heart-breaking case, even worse now that Colleen Hauser has apparently fled with her sick child. (However, Fioriti adds, Daniel's father has had a change of heart; he now agrees that the boy needs normal medical treatment.)

If this were my son, you'd bet I'd be moving heaven and earth to get him the best medical treatment available. And American courts have traditionally made special efforts to protect minors. Judge Rodenberg's efforts to get Daniel the help he needs surely seem within this tradition.

And yet.

The court proposes to take this child from its parents in order to save him. (And even though Daniel apparently told Judge Rodenberg that, if anyone tried to force him to accept chemotherapy, "I'd fight it. I'd punch them and I'd kick them.")

What if, instead of refusing to provide cancer treatment, another set of parents allowed their kid to stay up all night whenever he wanted? I'm not talking about the kid being out in the streets or running with gangs -- I'm just talking about him staying up until 3:00 or 4:00 am every morning -- like my college students do all the time.

This would wreak havoc on a kid far younger than college age, especially if those same otherwise-indulgent parents made the child go to school each morning.

The teachers would complain that the kid was falling asleep in school and not learning as he should.

If one of them called the cops, would the courts be justified in taking that kid away?

If a child abuses drugs or alcohol, even under the family roof, the courts can intervene because that activity is illegal wherever it takes place. But what if another set of hypothetical parents allows their child to eat whatever food she wanted? Only legal foods -- mind you -- but lots and lots of food, to the point where the child is so grossly obese that the school authorities call the cops because, they say, the child's health has been jeopardized. Should the court intervene then? Do you want a court taking your child because you allow him or her 'unhealthy' foods like soda pop or chips?

Of course, courts intervene in child-rearing decisions all the time -- when the parents are divorced and don't agree. One wants the child to study the violin; the other wants the child to go wilderness camping. A court may have to decide whether the child engages in either activity. Or both.

But in this terrible, horrible Hauser case, the parents -- until now -- had presented a united front: They were treating their child their way. A stupid way, I believe, and one with potentially fatal consequences for Daniel... but where do we draw the line allowing courts to intervene? (I suspect that Daniel's father's apparent decision to support normal medical treatment probably gives the Minnesota court justification to do what it so desperately wants to do. If Daniel can be found.)

But what if Daniel's parents had maintained their united front?

The problem with freedom is that people must have the right to be wrong. Even dead wrong. When people aren't free to make dumb choices, at least in cases where they only hurt themselves, they aren't really free. The problem here is that the choices Colleen Hauser and, until just recently, Daniel's father were making were hurting their son, too.

If I were in Judge Rodenberg's place, I suppose I might have reached the same decisions as he has. It's impossible to say that for certain, however, based on media accounts alone.

But, I promise you, the decision would not have been easy: Allowing the State to interfere in a family's right to raise their child as the parents see fit should not be easy.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Anniversary:Trekking from baseball to the movies

It was our anniversary last Friday and Long Suffering Spouse and I, as we have on so many prior anniversaries, spent the day watching one of our kids play baseball. You may not think this a particularly good way to commemorate the day... but it beats spending an anniversary in an emergency room. We've done that, too.

This year we were out of town, traveling to Middle Son's college conference tournament. There was some time in between his team's first and second games Friday so Long Suffering Spouse and I decided to go see a movie.

Star Trek.

Now, I know what you're probably thinking: What kind of an anniversary is this? Sports and an action flick? I'm sure that, for many women, this itinerary sounds like a description of a day in Purgatory... at best... and perhaps some place hotter still.

But Long Suffering Spouse likes baseball... and she likes Star Trek, too.

In fact, 30 years ago, a couple of years before we actually met, she came down to the student newspaper office at the university we both attended to complain about the negative review I gave to the first Star Trek movie, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." (We figured this out years later after we'd gone to see another Star Trek movie. She began complaining about the review that had made her so angry years before... and I was obliged to confess that I was the one who had ticked her off. Not, as it happens, for the last time either.)

I had modest expectations about the new movie.

In fact, I expected to hate it.

I am a Star Trek fan. It is not by accident that one of the first blogs I ever linked with was Captain Picard's Journal. Let's put it this way: I take to science fiction like Bee takes to cruising. And Paramount should send me some kind of award: I started watching the original series in first run, OK? Since then, I've watched the cartoon, "TNG" (in my house the kids referred to the show as Star Trek their generation, while "TOS" was Star Trek my generation), and "Deep Space 9." I didn't really keep up with "Voyager" (Youngest Son got too scared, watching as a baby) or "Enterprise" -- I was never home when the show was on -- but if there were 200 Star Trek paperbacks, I must have bought and (guiltily devoured) 150 of them. I used to donate them to the local library when I was done. I even have some Star Trek hardbacks. And videotapes, and now DVD's of several of the movies.

(By now, you are completely creeped out at the unvarnished geekiness of someone who has pretended, in many of the essays here, to gravitas. Ah well.)

It is widely believed that odd-numbered Star Trek movies are inferior to even-numbered ones. The second Star Trek movie, "Wrath of Khan," was light years ahead of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (the whales movie) is by far the best of the series. This new, er, enterprise, would be the 11th movie -- and therefore, according to form, likely to disappoint.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to enjoy the film. The new movie plays with the original characters, and the time lines, and the relationships... but there are explanations that pass muster within the realm of Star Trek fiction. The new movie is faithful to the spirit of the original series without being locked into its canon. I have one major objection to a plot point... but I won't ruin the surprise for anyone who wants to see the movie for themselves.

When the lights came up, after the show, there were three old, scraggly looking guys sitting a few rows ahead of us, vigorously debating various plot points. These had to be three of the guys that William Shatner made fun of in his famous SNL skit, still living in their mothers' basements. Sadly, I could follow the entire discussion.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Twittering away our common humanity?

A new study suggests that our increasing reliance on 'e-communication' is eroding our ability to empathize. Amanda Gardner's April 14 article for HealthDay reports on a study done at the University of Southern California in which "13 volunteers [were asked] to listen to 50 'real-person,' 'real-life' narratives, each 60 to 90 seconds long and including a verbal component as well as pieces from television, the Internet, documentary film and radio."

Some of these narratives were designed to elicit admiration "for virtue or skill" while others were designed to evoke compassion "for social/psychological pain and physical hurt." The volunteers -- who were not apprised of the intended responses -- were asked to describe how they felt after viewing each piece. The volunteers' brains were also subjected to functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The researchers found that "stories of virtue or social pain" provoked responses "in as little as six to eight seconds, but responses to stories of physical pain took less than a second to kick in." On the other hand, "the responses to virtue and social pain last longer." What does that mean?

According to the USC study, it may mean that people are becoming hardened "to the images of pain and suffering that litter modern-day media." This is a de-humanizing... and disturbing trend. How do we get past this? The study suggests "teaching and cultural forms, not to mention adequate pause for reflection, could help counteract this trend and lead people back toward a fuller relationship with their fellow men and women."

In other words, look at people occasionally... not just at their pictures.

Heads or Tails #89 -- a past theme

Barb has apparently noticed how frequently I've missed Heads or Tails in recent weeks and, in a new feature, "edge," invites us to revisit any past theme. I guess I'll go with "Once Upon A Time," which was HoT 87....

Once upon a time, in far off Chicago, lived a rather dumpy, middle-aged lawyer. He was reasonably good at what he did, and even fairly well respected, at least to the extent that lawyers ever command respect. But he was not particularly happy.

The lawyer found that he was often of the least help to people who needed it most. Sometimes it was because they had little or nothing to pay... and he had a family to feed. Many times, though, maybe most times, it was because people waited to see the lawyer until they'd dug themselves into such a deep hole there was simply no way to climb out. He tried, sometimes, despite the odds. Sometimes -- and this was hard for him to do -- sometimes he had to tell people there was no way out.

Some clients were pleasant people. Others were skunks. Many assumed that their lawyer would screw them in the end... and were thus determined to screw the lawyer first. Corporate clients were better than individuals; corporate employees understood that lawyers were sometimes a cost of doing business. A necessary evil. Individual clients often resented every dollar paid to the lawyer; corporate employees knew they'd be paid even though they paid the lawyer, too.

Our dumpy, middle-aged protagonist was a solo practitioner. That meant there was no one to leave business to when he needed a break. But, then, our lawyer had worked in a firm back in the distant past, when he was a dumpy younger lawyer, with more hair, and there were people there who were supposed to pick up the slack when the lawyer needed a break. They seldom did.

Our dumpy, middle-aged Chicago lawyer had a serious case of 'grass is greener' syndrome. He had so many outside interests... family... baseball... music... movies... comedy... politics (these latter two being often indistinguishable... even before Al Franken)... work just seemed to get in the way.

Our dumpy, middle-aged lawyer worked at an Undisclosed Location. But sometimes, during the day, he'd go out for a walk.

One day, he walked into the Blogosphere and never returned.


(With lawyers involved, you expected a happy ending?)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Three down, two to go: Another college graduation

Middle Son was pitching a couple of weeks ago and Long Suffering Spouse and I and our lawn chairs were in attendance watching.

A group of 20-somethings was standing behind us -- recent graduates or current seniors, at least one of whom had, apparently, been associated with the baseball team at one time.

One of these was holding forth at length on the subject of Middle Son. "I knew him freshman year. What a goof-off he was. If you had told me then that he'd graduate in four years and have a job lined up, I'd have told you that you were out your [deleted] mind."

Some of our other children, when we've related that story, asked why we did not interrupt the murmurs of concurrence that followed this declaration by announcing that we were the parents of the one-time goof-off. Long Suffering Spouse answered diplomatically: "I was trying to hear if they'd say any more," she said.

I was not diplomatic in the least: "Why should we embarrass them?" I asked. "We agreed with them."

Yes, Middle Son was a goof-off his freshman year. I also doubted whether graduation day would ever come. In February 2006 I mentioned, in passing, that the school authorities had decided that, for good cause shown, after his first semester in the dorm, Middle Son should spend the next semester at home. Fortunately, we lived within commuting distance of the school.

But this meant that Middle Son was commuting to school during baseball season -- and during practice before the season. I wrote then that Middle Son attends "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."

I wanted him to take the bus to and from school as part of his penance -- but the hours were such and the service was such that it simply would not have worked. So he drove to and from.

We made do.

And he learned.

Saturday morning, he walked across the stage and received his degree. I believe he will have completed 150 undergraduate hours in his four years (report card is still pending) which will qualify him to begin the process of sitting for the CPA exam.

I'm pretty proud of that former goof-off today.

Yesterday, Middle Son's team qualified for the conference tournament... and a chance to keep playing baseball in the Division III NCAA tournament. Middle Son was concerned about when he would have to report for the new job that the kid behind us was so concerned about; if the team made the NCAA's what would he tell his bosses? But maybe it will all work out: During finals week, Middle Son learned that his employer had pushed back his start date to September 1. He was pretty rattled -- and that's a tough thing to happen during finals week -- but I tried to reassure him that, in this economy, if that's the worst that happens to him, he's pretty well off. I don't know if he believes me.

Friday, May 01, 2009

May Day thoughts on revolution

The American Revolution is sometimes referred to as a "conservative" revolution.

Stuff and nonsense.

It was pretty darn radical to even think of sloughing off a King and to take up arms against the mightiest army in the world.

The men who guided our Revolution were steeped in the political theories of the Enlightenment, no less than the French, and, again, no less than the French, our Founding Fathers sought inspiration and examples from classical history, and in particular the history of Republican Rome.

And yet -- though a great many Americans did die at the hands of their own countrymen -- their own neighbors (the Revolution being also a civil war) -- our Revolution never degenerated into the carnage and bloodbath that consumed the French.

Why not?

Because our Founding Fathers had real, practical experience of government. Many -- most -- had meaningful legislative experience. They had already helped run this country for their absentee landlord King.

The French had nothing comparable. They had only theory. Ideology. And reliance on reason alone, unalloyed by experience, led them from the Tennis Court to the Terror.

So... why the history lesson?

Because in our increasingly partisan society, the debate is being framed by ideologues. People with practical experience are shoved aside. Who cares what law enforcement professionals or career military officers think? Some Ivy League law grads think waterboarding is just swell, thanks, and will produce all sorts or reliable information. So bring on the contractors!

Sure, government ownership of industry has led only to sloth and waste everywhere else in the world. But we have professors who've figured out how our government can own things without ruining them. (They probably sat next to the kids who dreamed up credit default swaps in MBA school.) Who cares what experience has shown about government health care in Canada? In Europe? We'll do it right because we have serious academics dreaming up our national health system!

We need reason and experience to be our guides, thank you, and when they point us in different directions... lean a little on the side of experience, please.