Friday, October 30, 2009

Of dinosaur costumes and running from the police

Before junior high kids started egging our house as a Halloween tradition, Long Suffering Spouse actually liked the holiday.

Not the gross-out, blood and guts and gore stuff -- but the cartoon witches and Casper-type friendly ghosts and dressing up for fun and fantasy part.

Many years ago, my wife found a dinosaur pattern in a sewing store. She made two dinosaur costumes for the only two trick-or-treaters we had then. Those costumes were worn for years... handed down successfully as new trick-or-treaters came along. I don't think Youngest Son ever got to wear one; the costumes may finally have given up the ghost before that.

At some point, you see, the costumes were relegated to the toy chest, with other costumes (including Star Fleet uniforms, Jean-Luc, and Star Wars light sabers, cowboy hats and a plastic Conquistador helmet, that last being a relic of someone's sixth grade project). Once something got into the toy chest... well it could be used whenever and however... and eventually all these were used up.

As the kids grew older, they grew increasingly reluctant to go out with their parents for trick-or-treating. It's hard to be cool or dangerous or scary when Mom or Dad is right there. By junior high, the kids were off on their own, with their friends.

They usually came home covered in shaving cream. I don't know where the custom of shaving cream fighting began, but it is, at least in local practice, a mass action, not a single combat fought according to any code duello. In fact, there may have been no rules at all, though occasionally violent objections were raised when someone got some of the stuff in their eyes.

Oldest Son was out with a gang of his junior high pals one Halloween night when the group was stopped by a couple of Chicago cops. Some of the kids ran away, but not all escaped. The policemen lined up each kid in turn and patted them down -- and fairly hard, too. Not hard enough to bruise, mind you... but hard enough to break any eggs the kids might have concealed on their persons.

I heard this breathless account from a winded Oldest Son. After this encounter he and his fellows took off like dry leaves in a gale whenever a police car was sighted. "Did anyone have any eggs?" I asked. "No!" said Oldest Son, perhaps offended.

"Well they sure wouldn't have had any eggs on them after," I said. "Not any ones suitable for throwing anyway."

Oldest Son laughed.

The ACLU was not called.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thoughts of failure on a gray morning

Not a lot of chuckles in this one, probably.

The current ABA Journal came in the other day with a cover story about an overachieving appellate lawyer, a classmate and friend of both Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Hillary Clinton (how's that for variety?) who worked for one silk stocking firm after another in Chicago and Washington, D.C., interspersed with important government service. He argued 16 times before the United States Supreme Court.

However his latest firm decided that he was more of an expensive ornament than a rainmaker; it was decided to lay him off. After receiving the news, this man came to work one final time, checked his email, reset his away messages... and shot himself in the head.

I'm not quite that desperate myself... but I think I can identify with this man's ultimate plight.

Pope John Paul II said that work was made for man, not man for work. Yet, too often, we identify ourselves with our jobs. We are our jobs. Perhaps it is only because I am one also, but I think this is especially true of middle-aged male professionals such as the man in the ABA Journal story: When business is good (when the money is coming in) we are good, too. When business is slow -- or when the cash flow dries up -- the demons get loose.

As a solo practitioner I do and I don't have to worry about rainmaking. I won't get laid off because I'm not an effective salesman -- I'll just starve to death. Was this man in the ABA Journal any less of a skilled lawyer because he wasn't a powerhouse salesman? It has been my observation that some of the most highly regarded rainmakers couldn't be trusted to enter an agreed order in court. And I do not say this with scorn: These are different skill sets, I think. At least when I try and "sell," I have to gear myself up so high that I can't concentrate on work afterward. Particularly on a long project, I have to "gear down" to get focused and capable of doing the work. Have you ever heard professional athletes talk about how the game 'slows down' when they begin to achieve? I imagine that a similar mental attitude adjustment is involved.

Professionally, I see myself as a worker bee. I'd bet that the unfortunate man in the ABA Journal might have had a similar self-image. But the legal profession doesn't particularly value worker bees.

My own demons are out in force this week, with the end of the month upon me and extraordinary bills coming due on the 1st -- bills I have no hope of paying in full. I'll muddle through, of course, because muddling is what I do.

Long Suffering Spouse acknowledged this morning that she may be 'burning out' at school. Some of her teaching colleagues are... searching for a polite word here... difficult. My wife holds kids to standards -- some of her colleagues just pass their charges through, not challenging or disciplining them. And this is at a private school. In the long run, my wife's approach will pay off for her students -- as many tell her when they come back from high school to visit. But, for parents, it can be confusing: Why does my child have no problems with these teachers -- but struggles so with Mrs. Curmudgeon? Does she have something personal against my child? Parents sometimes balk at paying $5,000 a year for the privilege of having someone single out their child for harsh treatment.

This is much on my wife's mind this week -- which began with a special, parent-initiated meeting and will end with regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences.

But the school pays for our health insurance. And I can't -- not with all the other muddling (our own tuitions to pay, the mortgage, unexpected car repairs...) that I must do. Thus I contribute directly to my wife's unhappiness. I wish it were otherwise.

The funny thing is, though, I'm having a good year this year. *Sigh*

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A couple of minor thoughts about sports -- puffed up with big pictures

Bee, every now and again I just have to do sports. It's a guy thing.

Bengals 45, Bears 10. If NFL football were trial by combat, the Bears would be guilty, guilty, guilty of everything Cedric Benson ever charged, or dreamed of charging.

Now that the Yankees are safely back in the World Series, can the umpires go back to being impartial?

I mean, seriously, if this were the NBA playoffs the conspiracy theorists would be having a field day.

Although I'll be rooting for the Phillies, the Yankees will probably win the Series -- and I won't feel guilty anymore for hating them.

Friday, October 23, 2009

No Prize Contest: Enhance the Halloween playlist

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, time once again for the Curmudgeon's patent-pending, no-holds-barred No Prize Contest in which you, the lucky winner, should one ever actually be chosen, would win a hearty virtual handshake and an imaginary pat on the back.

At least you won't have to declare that on your taxes.

Today's contest concerns Halloween music.

Many of you will be going to or hosting Halloween parties this weekend and next and, you'll be wondering... what music should we play?

Don't be misled by the music you're hearing at the local mall these October days: "Jingle Bells" and "Sleigh Ride" are not recognized Halloween anthems.

And you just can't play Michael Jackson's "Thriller" all night -- no matter how much you like the Vincent Price rap.

Your party will be a "graveyard smash" the first time you bring out Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash."

And maybe even the second time, too.

But it will be a short party if all you have are two tunes on the playlist.

Ray Parker, Jr.'s theme for the movie Ghostbusters will, you should pardon the expression, spark some life into your party.

But then what?

What other creepy, kooky, scary songs for Halloween are there?

And, now, you have the premise of today's little exercise.

Scary, scary witches are appropriate for Halloween... though perhaps not the soundtrack of either Wicked or The Wizard of Oz.

How about Redbone's "Witch Queen of New Orleans?" Or Donovan's "Season of the Witch?" I would include the Chairman of the Board, Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra singing "Witchcraft." (I don't think that this should be "strictly taboo" -- c'mon, admit it, you're starting to hum along now, aren't you?)

But that's still not enough music for your party no matter how strong the punch, right?

So... how about "Midnight Stroll" by the Revels?

Just got off from work, it was awful late
I had to pass the cemetery gate
The sky was dark and the moon was bright
It was a very, very, cold, cold night
I never thought I could see such a sight
A poor soul doing the dead mans stroll...

Wikipedia confirms, believe it or not, that this charted in 1959.

There are the "Teenage Tragedy" songs... like Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her."

Cruising the Internet this morning, I found this video of Jumpin' Gene Simmons 1964 classic, "Haunted House." Now for all of us old enough to remember 45 RPM records this is, possibly, the most boring video ever:

Yes, we merely see the record playing.

Of course, the young people may be fascinated to see an actual demonstration of an ancient and rapidly vanishing technology. And, if one of your kids or grandkids has the nerve to actually say something like that to you, I hope you'll smack 'em one for me, too.

Anyway... now it's your turn. Who can come up with the best additions to this playlist?

Please note: I am not asking for songs that are scary because they're awful. This immediately excludes the catalogs of both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Put that out of your mind entirely.

And please remember, the decision of the judges (well, judge, since I'll decide this contest, if at all, entirely on my own) will be final and may be arbitrary and capricious.

Trick or treat.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"I can't stand working in a messy office. My office was starting to look like... yours."

That's what my colleague told me the other day as he diligently packed boxes and filed papers away.

Then he realized what that must have sounded like... and he apologized.

But there was no need. I couldn't take offense.

My office looks just about as bad as one my kid's bedrooms.

Yes, that bad.

Today, I vowed, as I left the house, I would clean my office -- file away papers, rearrange files, try and find the surface of my desk... all of that.

Of course, I might as well have vowed to cure the common cold.

Still, it's nice to have a goal... even if it's one that is wholly unattainable. Now, if you'll excuse me....

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Security a laughing matter. Sort of.

From the web comic xkcd. Owing to my own technical limitations, you will have to visit to the original source (linked) to read the comment that the comic's creator, Randall Munroe, embedded in the original -- explaining the potential explosive power of laptop batteries.

I suppose this is only funny if you understand and accept that real security does not come from bureaucracies. After 9/11 we replaced airport rent-a-cops and ushers with TSA agents, the vast majority of whom are honest, diligent and well-meaning and all of whom probably need the paycheck. But they are there to enforce rules that often make little or no sense.

My favorite illustration of this comes from the early 2000s, only a year or two after 9/11, overheard on an elevator in the Daley Center. A young lawyer was explaining how TSA confiscated the nail clipper from his carry-on... but left him in possession of his Razor scooter:

Which do you suppose might have caused more problems for the cabin crew in the hands of someone interested in causing trouble?


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Curmudgeon crowned -- but not a king

I may not be old by several objective standards -- though my kids consider me ancient -- but I have gotten 'long in the tooth' -- a boon, as it turned out, to the local periodontist, whom I still see.

And I am old enough, at least, that my cavities are starting to get cavities.

Thus I was sentenced to the general dentist's chair Saturday morning, for an hour and a half of drilling, shaping, pulling and tugging. I was being measured for a crown... but I would have no kingdom.

The dentist's assistant came in first. "You'll need to give a couple of impressions first," she said.

"I didn't know," I said, embarrassed. "I haven't rehearsed anything.... Let's see.... Judy, Judy, Judy...."

I thought it was at least a passable Cary Grant, particularly on such short notice, but the dentist's assistant was not impressed. In fact, she seemed a little confused, standing there with a handful of something that looked all too much like Play-Doh.

"Well," I said, "how about this?.... Zuzu's petals?! Well, whaddaya know about that?!" You may find it hard to tell on the computer screen, but that's a fair Jimmy Stewart.

Nevertheless the dentist's assistant shoved the Play-Doh in my mouth. It was the dentist who later suggested I might have fared better with a Rodney Dangerfield (I don't get no respect!) -- but I wasn't wearing a tie on a Saturday.

The dentist fired up the sander that he was going to use to shave down my tooth for the crown. The machine made a much more deep-throated rumble than the traditional dentist's drill. "This won't hurt me a bit," he said. And he was right.

Heads or Tails #111 -- "Stop"

In today's Heads or Tails we can either do anything about "Stop" or something specific (tails) about "Go." Barb, since I don't know anything about the Oriental strategy game, I guess I'll have to go with "stop"....

I would like to know when the above sign became a suggestion instead of a command.

Now there isn't a German corpuscle in my entire bloodstream; I am not culturally or genetically programmed to obey orders. In fact, I'm from the '60s -- and therefore somewhat resistant to, and resentful of, authority (except, perhaps, for my own).

Nevertheless, I stop at stop signs. And I want you to stop at stop signs too, gosh darn it. It's not unreasonable; it's truly for our collective benefit.

Just last night, when Middle Son picked me up from the train, we were making our way back home through the side streets and we came upon a stop sign. A large white pickup truck, appointed like an SUV, was approaching the intersection from the right as we came to a complete stop. He, too, had a stop sign. According to the Rules of the Road, he was supposed to stop and we, having already stopped, could safely proceed.

Middle Son -- now 22 and more experienced in the ways of other drivers than he used to be -- knew, as I did, that this jerk was not going to stop.

And, in fact, he didn't even slow down -- turning right in front of us.

Did I mention this was a side street? A residential side street? On the first nice day here in about three weeks, at twilight, so there were kids out and about?

I complimented Middle Son on his perspicacity. "Well, I could see he wasn't going to stop, if that's what you mean," he replied. "And he would have creamed us."

"True dat," I said. I can use the vernacular if circumstances require.

I don't know which Middle Son likes less.

But please stop at stop signs, OK?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Unscientific Survey: Do you read or scan online?

It wasn't the first time I'd read this, but I saw again over the weekend (this time in the Wilson Quarterly... in print) another reference to research which has determined that people tend not to read online -- not in the same sense that they would read a book or other printed material -- rather, they tend more to "scan" -- picking out words here and there, hand always on the mouse, ready to click away when the next 'ding' sounds, announcing the arrival of new email.

I know I prefer to read on the printed page. The screen is harder on my eyes. And... well... I do flit a bit, sometimes, while on line. I have to set aside time and make an effort to read longer pieces.

(And I wonder why I have only a handful of regular readers?)

Anyway... today... the floor is yours: Do you notice any difference between reading online and off?

Assuming, I guess, that you do still read offline.

Explain your answer.

(Quickly! Before the next 'ding' sounds....)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Killer algae... and other things that occur to me in my relciner

Not that there's killer algae in my recliner.

No, I watched a program on the Science Channel from the safety of my recliner entitled Killer Algae -- about a very real problem in the Mediterranean Sea.

Skip ahead if you don't want me to spoil the ending for you, but it seems that a species of marine algae first developed in a German zoo and used in private home aquariums throughout the world has gotten loose into the Mediterranean where it threatens to overwhelm all indigenous species. The first outbreaks were off the coast of France and Monaco. Fish populations in the affected areas have plummeted because the algae, while not lethal, is so darn toxic that native species would rather die than eat it. (This post on the "Planted Tank Forum" takes a serious look at the program -- if you're interested -- while I'm about to careen wildly away.)

Many of these programs are quite interesting... but paced so ponderously that one can doze off for several minutes at a time and not miss a thing. This is exactly what I was doing the other night while watching... and strange things started happening in my head.

It was probably triggered in part because most of the interviews were in French, with a translation layered over. Of course the fish will starve rather than eat this algae -- they're snobby French fish! I began expecting a younger, long-haired Eric Idle to push his way into the screen and take the program off in (*ahem*) a completely different direction. Maybe to talk about other German laboratory experiments to make other angry algae or military mosses that will conquer the world!.

Then I was starting to remember the Python sketch on mollusks... with door-to-door documentarian John Cleese hoking up his narration on the sex life of gastropods in order to hold the interest of his customers... and what should I notice when I next awoke but the discovery of a natural predator for caulerpa taxifolia, to wit, elysia subornata (per Wikipedia), as "a species of small sea slug, a marine opisthobranch gastropod mollusk in the family Placobranchidae. This sea slug resembles a nudibranch, but it is not closely related to that order of gastropods, instead it is a sacoglossan."

Tell me you're not hearing this in John Cleese's voice now, with a particularly sneering reference to "nudibranch."

Long Suffering Spouse was half-watching the program, too, grading papers all the while. She must have dozed too, though, because the program was being rerun and we were just at the part where the sea urchins exposed to the caulerpa taxifolia in a lab and turned upside down by French scientists wouldn't turn back over for 15, 20, even 30 minutes, willing to starve to death rather than eat inferior non-French algae....

Oh, sorry, now I'm starting to write in Eric Idle.

Anyway, Long Suffering Spouse made me turn off the TV and go to bed. Which was almost certainly just as well.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Global Climate Change: Don't just act -- THINK!

Today is Blog Action Day 2009 and I registered for the event this time because this year's topic is near and dear to my heart... Global Climate Change.

Note we don't call it "global warming" any more because, whatever may the case in some localities, and particularly at the poles, the Earth isn't warming uniformly. Today marks the 18th day in a row of below average temperatures in Chicago -- following one of the coolest summers on record.

Now, don't get excited: I'm not one of those skeptics come to scoff. Climate change has been happening on Earth for billions of years. Climate change will continue on Earth for billions of years more, regardless of the fate of our own species, until Sol swells to a red giant and Earth is either swallowed whole or the last remnants of our atmosphere are scattered to the cosmos and only a floating cinder remains.

At least at one point, according to some scientists, Earth was frozen almost solid (the "Snowball Earth" hypothesis). At other points, scientists believe, Earth has apparently had tropical climates at its poles. Now that's climate change.

But how like humans, having finally figured out that Earth's climate is not static, to forget about the rhythms of Nature and believe instead that they -- we! -- are the cause of Earth's changing. Industry is to be blamed! Carbon dioxide!

Yet, livestock were grazed in Greenland -- never as verdant a land as the Vikings' sales brochures suggested, but far more hospitable then than of late. Then the ice returned... and the European colony died out. Climate change.

The Sahara Desert was -- not long ago on a planetary time scale -- a lush green paradise, with exotic animals. Australia, now entering a dry cycle, was also once far more lush. Climate change. Nobody believed the Aborigines when the Aborigines said so -- but their cultural memory, going back tens of thousands of years, is being confirmed with each new scientific discovery. Climate change again.

And in none of these incidents were humans to blame.

The Mayas of Mexico and Central America may have lost their empire due to climate change. Or to political upheaval caused by climate change, which is much the same thing. The Cahokia Mound Builders, here in the American Midwest, were masters of water and wood and nature... until they were wiped out. Was it climate change there too? Or ecological disaster directly attributable to human construction? Was it some combination of factors? The American Southwest may be entering an entirely predictable dry cycle. Climate change, surely -- but has it been prompted or retarded by our building up of Las Vegas and Phoenix, or by our draining of the Colorado? Or is all of our activity irrelevant to Nature's pattern?

In my lifetime, the science of meteorology has grown by leaps and bounds. Satellites getting a truly global picture of weather patterns have enabled scientists to see dust clouds crossing from the Americas to Africa... and give us a better than even chance of knowing whether it will rain at this weekend's picnic.

But the science is young, and the predictive models are incomplete. If we can't tell, on Thursday, whether it will be sunny by kickoff on Sunday, how can we accept, as gospel, dire predictions that all coastal cities will be inundated in 50 years' time? Ocean levels have risen and fallen before -- climate change -- and they will rise and fall again. But when? Why?

All the greenhouse gases produced in mankind's industrial present can be dwarfed in an instant by the release of carbon dioxide buried in Siberia... or released in the next (and largely unpredictable) volcanic eruption.

Does all this sound too much like resignation? That I advocate sitting idly by and drowning, if that be our fate?

No. That's not what I think.

I think that the climatologists and meteorologists should join hands with paleontologists and archeologists and anthropologists and historians and start to figure things out together... using all the evidence... and not just that unique to their disciplines. We must keep studying... and learning... and evaluating the evidence with open minds.

Let's seriously explore alternatives to fossil fuels -- but not because this will Save The World. Eliminating the need for gasoline may not -- when all the evidence is in -- have any measurable effect on climate change. It is, however, the right thing to do from the standpoint of responsible stewardship of the planet -- and it will enhance western security by taking the Petrodollars from the Wahhabis' pockets, thereby stifling the growth of Islamic extremism.

In the meantime, don't talk to me about carbon credits. Recycle your paper. Recycle aluminum. Use CFL's instead of incandescent bulbs. If you live in a water-poor area, redouble your conservation efforts. Stop using so many plastic bottles. These small actions, multiplied over a multitude, will make a positive difference. Just maybe not to climate change.

And that's OK.

All this for only $25? Curmudgeon at Big Blue Bank

It all started because Younger Daughter was out of money.


Younger Daughter thinks that, because she has a debit card, and because she doesn't like the food served in the dorm, she can dine out as she pleases.

Long Suffering Spouse and I try to tell her that the dorm food is actually paid for. (Well, not this month. Not yet. But soon, I think. Anyway, the tuition, room and board payment must be paid regardless of whether Younger Daughter eats dorm food or not. So she'd better darn well eat it.)

But remember what I said recently about teenagers not knowing the difference between cause and effect? OK, Younger Daughter just turned 20 -- but she still hasn't grasped the concept. She refrains from using the debit card for awhile... but then the Mystery Meat Surprise in the dorm sends her out into the wide world waving her plastic.

This week, Younger Daughter texted me in a panic because she had to write a $15 check for a field trip... and when she texted Big Blue Bank she learned that she had but $10 left in her checking account.

Careful readers will have noted the reference, supra, to Younger Daughter's recent 20th birthday. Her grandmother was generous on that occasion and Long Suffering Spouse and I had hopes that this bounty would tide Younger Daughter over until she began receiving paychecks from her campus job.

That's what we thought.

I called Younger Daughter immediately (my texting skills being inadequate to sustained conversation).

"What happened to the money you got a couple of weeks ago?" I asked.

"Well, I went to get a potato and a Coke and I thought I had enough left over to write this check," she said. "But I didn't."

Please understand that Younger Daughter's Abuela gave her far more than enough for a single potato and a Coke. But that's the way it is with Younger Daughter. She hardly ever lies, not straight out -- but she seldom tells the entire story, at least not the first time through. On this occasion I chose not to press for details.

"Your tuition isn't even paid this month," I told her. Installment payments would be a wonderful thing if the emphasis on the word could only be put on the second syllable. Think about it. But, alas.

"It isn't?" she said.

"I'll talk to your mother," I said. And I did and it was thereupon agreed that I would deposit $20 into Younger Daughter's checking account at the Big Blue Bank. Younger Daughter would just have to eat exclusively at the dorm (and, of course, stay out of the taverns... which, I presume, probably claimed a goodly portion of that birthday money.)

When the time came, I wrote the check for $25. Yes, I know, I'm an old softie at heart.

This deposit was the last of my afternoon errands yesterday. I strode into the downtown office of the Big Blue Bank (that used to be the flagship of a Chicago banking institution before it was taken over by a New York colossus that just posted big earnings yesterday, if I heard correctly). I looked for and found a counter where I could fill in the deposit ticket.

"Can I help you, sir?" asked a tall, dark-haired young woman attired, as are all employees of the Big Blue Bank, in a blue shirt and slacks.

"Thank you, no," I said, "I just need to make a small deposit."

"I can take you at my desk," she said.

"This transaction really isn't desk-worthy," I protested.

"That's alright, sir, it's my job," she said, and I followed, as ordered, back to her little cubicle in the middle of what used to be an enormous open floor.

I explained my mission -- embarrassed that I was taking up someone's time like this for a mere $25 transaction -- and filled in the deposit ticket as quickly as I could.

She took my check and the deposit ticket and said she'd present it for me and told me to remain where I was. So I did.

She came back promptly, but without the transaction receipt. "They'll have that for you in a moment," she said, resuming her seat on the other side of the desk. "This seems awfully labor-intense for something so small," I said. "It's OK," she said, "this is what I'm supposed to do. I have five bosses. Three of them are watching right now."

With nothing else to do while we waited for my receipt, we chatted. She asked questions about what I did and where I banked -- all entirely appropriate -- and, while she was telling me about products and services available at the Big Blue Bank, I drew out from her that she was a recent Marquette history graduate, newly arrived from Wisconsin, and born a Packers fan. She wasn't a classic beauty in the fashion model sense, but she was eminently presentable, wholesome-looking, and very pleasant to talk with. I thought she might do nicely with Middle Son.

See, that's how I get out of feeling like a Dirty Old Man: When I am obliged to chat up a young, pretty girl, as I was yesterday afternoon, I try and imagine her matched with an eligible son. Oldest Son's engagement robbed me of one of my options. I don't know what I'm going to do when they're all married off.

Anyway, the conversation dragged on far too long for my comfort (I can only imagine what the poor girl must have felt!) and, finally, I broached the topic of my receipt. "I don't know what's taking them," she said, rising to leave. "I'll find out."

She stepped out, but came right back in, this time with a blond in tow. "This is Ms. Smithers," she said (only, of course, she didn't say Smithers -- I always make up names), "she handles all our attorney accounts. She'll entertain you while I go get your receipt."


Smithers was shorter than her colleague, but nearly as young, blond, very pretty, rail thin, and a more intimidating presence all together. She was sporting a collar-like silver necklace with sparkly stones (a choker?) which highlighted just where her inevitable blue shirt was open. More awkward conversation ensued, but I didn't drag out this young lady's life story.

The first young lady returned, receipt in hand, and I was obliged to take cards from both women before I could depart. I thanked them both for their pains, apologized again for the insignificance of the transaction, and beat a hasty retreat into the cold, gray afternoon.

If I'd had a hundred dollars to deposit, I wonder, would I have been introduced to the regional vice president?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Homecoming toilet paper caper

It was a quiet Saturday evening in the Curmudgeon household, quiet, that is, except for my occasional snores.

We were all in the den, at the back of the house. I was in my recliner, watching sports on TV from behind closed eyelids. Youngest Son was passed out on the couch: He'd played football Saturday afternoon (most high school games around here are on Friday nights, but the school where his team played today had no lights). Long Suffering Spouse was in her chair across the room from mine. She may have been grading papers; she may have been dozing, too.

The doorbell woke me up with a startle.

"That's the doorbell," said Long Suffering Spouse. This statement was not simply redundant; it was, rather, a much nicer way of telling me to get up and investigate than giving an express order.

I got up and walked through the house to the front door. We weren't expecting anyone. In our part of the world, people don't just 'drop in' at night to visit.

I opened the door and looked around. I stepped out onto the front stoop to look and listen. It was a group of little kids -- sixth graders perhaps? -- and they were hiding behind the tall hedge west of the house. They apparently did not realize, however, that the hedge, no matter how tall and thick, would only prevent their being seen -- they could still be heard.

"He's coming!" said one in a stage whisper that would have been plainly audible in the second balcony of a very large theater.

"Quiet, will you?" his confederate responded -- equally loudly.

I started walking down the driveway and so could begin to see past the hedge. There was a silver SUV parked in the middle of the street in front of the neighbor's house.

The closer I came to the edge of the hedge, the more alarmed the kids became. "He's going to get us!" screamed one -- and, with that, four of them ran from behind the hedge into the waiting SUV -- and the SUV disappeared into the night.

I went back inside.

"Ding dong ditchers," I reported to my wife. "Little ones." She harrumphed a response. "It's Homecoming tomorrow," she said. "They should be out t-p-ing players' houses; I don't know why they're ringing teachers' doorbells."

Ding dong ditching is mostly harmless mischief, I suppose, trying to provoke a response from the house and giving the kids involved a chance to pretend they are brave when someone appears. Because my wife is a junior high teacher, we've gotten more than our share of ding dong ditchers over the years.

Last year, if I recall correctly, some of Youngest Son's ex-grammar school classmates got bored and ding dong ditched us. Youngest Son went out the side door and waited for them to try again. They did. He grabbed the biggest of the three and punched him out -- while his fellow ditchers ran away.

I didn't see any of this because I went to the front door when I heard the bell and the action took place west of the house, screened by the aforementioned tall hedge. I did hear noise, though. So I called out, "Is everything all right?" The odd part is that it was the kid who'd just taken the smack in the puss who responded, "Yes, everything's fine." I still don't understand that one. I guess that it was OK because getting punched out is a risk one assumes when one engages in the sport of ding dong ditching at the high school level.

But Long Suffering Spouse was right about ding dong ditching not being a usual part of Homecoming festivities. Every football program has a Homecoming game -- hopefully against a lesser opponent -- allegedly a chance for the old grads to come back a relive 'glory days' -- but, more usually, just an excuse to make one game into a big deal for the kids.

In our parish, on the night before Homecoming, the cheerleaders usually go out and throw toilet paper into the trees in front of each player's house (t-p-ing). It's only a problem if it rains. At that point the tp becomes a sodden mess... and a pain to clean up. But, usually, that's not a problem. With three boys who played football in their time for the parish school, I've become used to fishing tp from the tree. Sometimes this happens in high school, too.

I may have reflected on these things on Saturday night, as I returned to my recliner. An indeterminate interval of time passed -- I was asleep again in nanoseconds -- when, again, I was awakened by the doorbell.

Now, I was angry.

I'd already given the kids their thrill -- grumpy old man comes stumbling out of the house, etc. -- and still they have presumed to interrupt my slumber a second time.

I moved with considerably more alacrity to the front door this time. Now there was a silver SUV parked across the street heading east -- and a bunch of little kids ran for it like frightened birds. I was about to make a bull run at the SUV when I noticed that our front tree was festooned with tp.

"Oh, bother," I said, though I didn't actually use the word 'bother.'

See, it's one thing to tp a player's house on the night before the Big Game -- but doing this to a teacher's house was clearly inappropriate.

At this point a group of about five or six older kids -- high school age, I thought -- came ambling down the street heading west.

I think there was something going on at the local high school Saturday night. I'd seen a huge parade of cars coming from that direction earlier. Maybe it was their Homecoming too.

"Sorry about your house, mister," said one of these new arrivals.

"But it wasn't us," added another, quickly.

"Say," said a third, "can we take it with us?"

"Sure," I said, "help yourselves."

They did. They pulled down most of the tp in a matter of a minute or so. "This is great," said one, "now we can put this on someone else's house."

"I can't recommend that," I said, but the group was already resuming it's westbound course.

"You know," said one of the retreating voices, "we should put in for like 10 service hours at school for this."

"Yes," I said -- not that they would listen to me -- "that's something you should do. First thing Tuesday." (Monday being a school holiday.)

The group was gone and Long Suffering Spouse came out to survey the damage.

She was ticked off. We found another roll of the stuff on the roof over the front door. Later, I found a can of shaving cream on the neighbor's lawn.

I told my wife about the kids jumping into a car on both occasions. "Probably someone's big brother or sister," I suggested.

But Long Suffering Spouse came home from school yesterday with a different story. One of the moms whose son plays on the school varsity came up to my wife and asked, "Did you know your house got t-p-ed Saturday?"

"Yes, I did," Long Suffering Spouse replied, and probably frostily, too.

"I'm so sorry," said the mom. "They should only have done players' houses." My wife agreed.

And then the mom dropped the punch line: The kids were driven around the neighborhood by a school mom.

Can you imagine?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Heads or Tails #110 -- "Cause"

I almost missed today's Heads or Tails 'cause it's Monday for me, yesterday having been a court holiday. I hope Barb will forgive me.

Anyway, today's task is to write something about "cause." Arguably, I just did... go back and read the preceding paragraph... but let's not get technical....

Teenagers have no sense of cause and effect.

That's the entire reason why teenage boys make the best soldiers: They have unchanneled, testosterone-fueled aggression and they don't understand cause and effect.

But it's not just matters of life and death that teenagers don't understand. All week long, increasingly frustrated parents warn that Sam or Sally will not get the car on Saturday night unless the kid's bedroom is picked up. Saturday night arrives, the room still looks like an unlicensed landfill, and the teenager can't understand why he or she can't have the car keys.

(I used to doubt this. I thought they knew perfectly well but were just stubborn. But I've changed my views from long, bitter, and frequent observation....)

Kids don't understand that laundry doesn't do itself. Or that money isn't always available.

I deny this, of course, but some might claim that I once suffered from this deficiency. Perhaps you did as well.

Thankfully, most of us outgrow this.

Those that don't go into politics.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fear lurks behind closed doors

When I was practicing with a firm the thing that scared me most were closed doors.

Not all closed doors, of course. I would not have been alarmed by a closed bathroom door.

My phobia was really directed at the doors of the managing partners' offices.

I don't really know how well the two managing partners of my old firm got along. They got along well enough for many years to make a lot of money together. That doesn't mean they were truly friends. But when they got together behind closed doors, somehow, they negotiated a united front... and usually brought that front down upon someone else. Sometimes that someone was me; sometimes it was someone else.

By the time they hauled someone in they had decided exactly what to do, and how to do it, and even what to say. They had anticipated every possible defense, or excuse, and, what's more, having spent (literally) four or five hours in conference, they were undoubtedly sick and tired of talking about it. Thus, the person called in could never discuss anything with them. He (or she) could only receive the blows.

Was my time (i.e., hours billed) off last month? Perhaps it was because I had to cut my time to accommodate the (entirely imaginary) supervisory time that one of the managing partners (and it was always the same one) had written up. He would have to approve the bill... and, let me tell you, he was very sensitive about allowing his own time to be cut. He'd write up time for evaluating discovery requests... but no discovery had been served. I used to call him on this, from time to time, suggesting (nicely, I thought) that he might have written his time to the wrong file number? But this was never received well. So I learned. His fake hour to review discovery that never existed would be rewritten to replace my real hour reviewing the investigators' report. Thus, my hours suffered -- but the client was not cheated and our business was protected.

Of course, in all their extensive deliberations leading up to the moment when I would be called in, the one partner's penchant for writing up imaginary time was never discussed.

Only now, many years later, do I realize that the other managing partner knew, or at least suspected what was going on. Indeed, I have some satisfaction in the fact that, a couple of years after I left, the managing partner who specialized in creative billing was forced out. It seems no one after me took the same pains to fix his entries -- and a client audit eventually caught him out. He had to be tossed overboard to preserve the business.

But, at the time, knowing that the two of them were in there -- it really didn't matter which of their offices was used -- for two hours, three hours, four hours -- working each other up, was nearly impossible to take. I dreaded the moment that someone would be called in -- because I never knew if it was going to be me -- and if it was me, I never could anticipate what the angle of attack would be.

Misdirection was routine. I might be summoned in -- but not (at least ostensibly) about something that I had done, or failed to do, but rather to "talk" about the new associate. By the time I would be summoned, it had been agreed between them that the new associate was the personification of sloth and stupidity. Any attempted defense would be interpreted as an endorsement of sloth and stupidity both. But if I agreed? Well, clearly, then, I had defaulted in my supervisory role, in either failing to train the new person properly, failing to call this loathsome situation to their attention, or in failing to take prompt corrective action myself. I learned it was best to be silent; if I made little or no response they would soon run out of pre-agreed things to say.

And I also learned to hate closed doors.

Even now, today, here at the Undisclosed Location, where I work on my own, closed doors make me uncomfortable. I share this space with other solos but we seldom share any business. And, often, just to be polite, one of them will close his door while on the phone, for example.

And even though the situation is entirely different, and not in the least threatening, it still creeps me out.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Welcome new readers?

I received a nice comment to a recent post from someone calling himself Maximus Doom -- exactly the sort of reader I'd expect given the kinds of posts I'm throwing up lately.

* Sigh. *

But it was a nice comment, so I thought I'd look the fellow up and see what he was selling. Maximus Doom, it turns out, is the proprietor of three websites, The Odd Normal, A Life's Pursuit, and Cranium Ink. And he is selling something... there was a t-shirt ad on each page with a link promising to show even more products by "maximusdoom." I don't have the time or energy or disposable income to follow up from there, but I can muster the energy to say, "Welcome, Max."

And I also recently received an old-fashioned "link exchange" request in my email from Jian Ping. She has a site called Smeared Type.

(I almost always go look when I get requests like this -- don't you?)

It turns out that Ms. Ping lives in Chicago and is the author of a memoir, Mulberry Child, about growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. It is available on Amazon -- and at the Chicago Public Library. So, welcome, Ms. Ping; I have added your book to my reading list. (I must be going upscale....)

This would all be pretty heady stuff for me... if the mortgage and Younger Daughter's tuition payment weren't both overdue. So I will have to put my literary pretensions on hold yet again... and start working on timesheets.

* Sigh. *

The trilogy is complete

I've mentioned that I had to write three appellate briefs in the past month. Two of these were reply briefs, which diminishes the enormity of the task considerably. But it was a good amount of work for me... especially because there were other matters to attend to as well (these made all the more urgent by the fact that I'm getting stiffed on the bill for first of these three briefs). And, of course, all this activity cut significantly into my blogging time.

The good news for me is that I sent the last of these briefs off to my co-counsel late last night.

The good news for you, my dwindling handful of readers, is that you were spared my incredibly bad, almost-certainly-wrong, until-this-year-annual, fearless MLB playoff predictions. Because the games started yesterday... while I was working on my last brief.

I worked from home yesterday, diligently and without interruption between 8:00 and about 3:00. That's when Middle Son came back from a job interview. I was far enough along in my task that I didn't mind that he wanted to turn on the ballgame.

I thought of Cliff yesterday, an occasional visitor to this blog and a die-hard Cleveland Indians fan... as Cliff Lee pitched a gem for the Phillies and C.C. Sabathia was effective against the tired Twinkies. I thought it had somehow been declared Cleveland Day in the MLB Playoffs until Middle Son reminded me that Victor Martinez doesn't play until tonight.

Mind you, I didn't actually watch these games, though they were on in the room where I was. I kept working until late in the Dodgers game, when I finally finished. I moved from the computer chair to my recliner in anticipation of watching the last couple of innings, at least... and promptly fell asleep.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Heads or Tails #109 -- "Build"

For today's Heads or Tails, our Fearless Leader, Barb has asked us to build a post on "build." "Re-build" might be more apt in my case, at least as it relates to this weekly meme, since I've not been able to participate these past several weeks.

Actually "building" is very much on my mind these days, not as in the assembly of structures, although my house is falling apart around my ears, but, rather, "building" in the sense of building a practice.

Just now, as I walked into the Undisclosed Location, I picked up a fax from someone seeking part-time employment as a secretary (in the modern dialect, "assistant"). I deposited the fax in the recycling bin. The problem with employees is that they have an annoying tendency to demand a check every week or two -- whether I have sufficient funds to cover it or not.

Thus, I have no assistant, no associate, no underlings of any kind. I have colleagues with whom I associate on given pieces of business -- thus the "& Associates" in the name of my firm is not a complete lie or mere wishful thinking. But I just completed a large project (one of the reasons why I was not posting for awhile) and I am going to get stiffed on the bill.

And it was a large bill. Not enough to pay off all my credit card debt, of course, but enough to bring me current on present bills, home and office, and keep up my self-directed debt repayment plan.

I keep thinking I can do better. And presumably I might do more if I didn't blog -- but this is cheaper than therapy, surely. Last night I dreamt of forming a law partnership; I had a formula for income sharing worked out in my head when I awoke. I'd stumbled on how to share firm expenses. But I'm thinking of how I can build the business and, I suppose, I should start by closing this rambling essay and starting in on the other tasks of the day.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Everything comes from somewhere

There are books in my house, books everywhere, and I've actually read many of them.

Yes, I really am old-fashioned.

There is a display bookcase in my living room, five shelves with glass doors that raise up. One shelf is devoted to books about Chicago. Some of these are inherited, some were gifts, some I purchased myself. I went on a real Chicago reading binge a few years back, reading all sorts of books about scandals and mobsters and corruption -- and I was struck by the frequent citation, in all these various works, to a book by Finis Farr, Chicago: A Personal History of America's Most American City. And then I noticed it, sitting on that living room shelf, a legacy from my father. And then, of course, I read it.

Another shelf is devoted to Church books. There is a multi-volume history of the Chicago Archdiocese, parish by parish, and of the institutions of the Archdiocese that I gave to my father many years ago. And there's a history of the Archdiocese that dates to the 1920s, I believe; I haven't looked at it much lately since I consulted it to help write our own parish's 100th anniversary commemorative booklet. This ancient book was the property of my granduncle, the priest. On that shelf too are my late granduncle's Bible and his (pre-Vatican II) Missal. These last two need new bindings. Someday I will provide these.

There is still another shelf where all the bindings are in excellent shape. These books were saved from my father's collection when so many worthy books were discarded -- some by the ravages of time, or unhappy floods, and some by my father himself, in a consolidating mood. But these books are all of a set: Sturdy maroon bindings with gold letters; elegant green covers; thick, buff or cream-colored pages with densely packed type. These were sold to thousands of newly-educated men of the Greatest Generation as a repository of the essential works of Western Civilization. In digest form, of course.

I don't know why these would have appealed to my father. Perhaps he hoped to plow through these all in his old age and see if he'd missed anything in the course of his own reading. Letters of Cicero are followed by selections from a Frenchman's biography of some other damned Frenchman, neither of which I'd ever heard of, followed by essays penned by some Englishman who got on Cromwell's bad side. And so on.

Maybe my father admired them for their bindings. He worked once for a book-binder.

In many houses, I imagine, these might have been the entire library: And always elegant and stiff from lack of use. These books seem designed to be admired from a distance, not read, and I have, for the most part, done as their makers intended.

But recently, between magazines and library books, and without funds to bring a new armload home from the bookstore, I have delved into these books.

Well, "delved" is too large a word for what I have done. I have sampled. I have nibbled.

And I found, after going through dozens of excerpts and letters and "lives" in one of these neglected volumes a reference to an author of whom I had heard and intended to read, but never had.

Even in my school days, "Dead White Guys" were coming into a bad odor among English teachers: You know, "Dead White Guys" like Milton or Shakespeare.

I agree that we miss a lot when we ignore the entire world in favor of the literary output of two small islands in the North Atlantic -- but I see no reason why British and Irish authors must now be punished with abandonment.

Anyway, I saw an essay or a letter by Oliver Goldsmith in the volume I was sampling and it was noted there that he was the author of The Vicar of Wakefield. Somewhere, dimly, I'd heard of that -- and I remembered one day recently when I was in the library.

I found a volume of Goldsmith's collected works small enough to carry with me on the train -- where some of my best reading is done -- and I read, and enjoyed, the novel.

Now I must digress, but only for a moment.

One of my favorite TV series is a British-Irish import, The Irish R.M., a series based on the books of Somerville and Ross. Though ostensibly about the misadventures of the retired English Major Yeates, called to be a resident magistrate (the lowest order of judge) in a small Irish coastal town, the true hero of the work (at least when he's not the villain) is Yeates' landlord and friend, Flurry Knox. We taped the series when it ran on public television here in the 80s and we watched the episodes at least once a year, sometime around the Feast of St. Patrick.

In a couple of the episodes we meet Flurry's grandmother, the matriarch of the whole area, Mrs. Knox. She disguises her affection for her grandson with expressions of contempt. She often refers to Flurry as "Tony Lumpkin."

We return now to the original narrative thread.

Having finished The Vicar of Wakefield this weekend, I paged through the volume to see if there was anything else that I recognized. She Stoops to Conquer is a play I'd heard about somewhere, and there it was in the book. I read it yesterday.

And who is in the center of all misunderstandings in that plot but Mr. Hardcastle's ignorant, spoiled, mischievous stepson... Tony Lumpkin?

It's a minor point, and those of you who've happened by today hoping for something larger must be now thoroughly disappointed. I'll probably forget the connection myself by lunchtime... dinnertime certainly.

But everything comes from somewhere. All the things in movies or books that we like, that we hold dear, were imagined by someone else and were based on things that they, the authors, liked. And if only we could understand better what influenced and inspired our favorite writers -- or directors -- the better we can appreciate what they've left for us.

And -- if you must insist on finding a larger point -- how do you hope to understand the American Constitution unless you can understand the language in which it is written and the culture of the men who created it?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Of all sad words of tounge and pen...

... the saddest are 'it might have been.'

In an hour or two you won't know Chicago ever bid for the 2016 Olympics. This was the scene an hour or so ago as I went to court to file something. Picasso still has on his wreath and his medal...

But the workmen are out in force tearing down the bandstand and the TV screens...

And everything else, besides.

There wasn't a single banner left when I walked through City Hall just now. Not one. This morning you couldn't see the ceiling for the banners. Everyone was wearing a Chicago Olympics t-shirt. They were giving out t-shirts in the Daley Center Plaza. Office workers were lining up to get them.

"Now I'm glad I didn't wait," one woman said to me in the elevator at the courthouse. "Who wants a loser t-shirt?"

That seemed rather harsh to me. But, in Chicago, we're all about elections. And election losers... are losers. Trust me, I know firsthand.

I've been, at best, lukewarm about the Olympics and -- if I'd put money on the outcome -- I would have bet on Rio.


And now the satellite trucks are packing up as fast as they can. There were more than these on Clark Street this morning.

I am surprised that the U.S. got eliminated so quickly.

To me, it seems a slap in the face. Even if you were against the Olympics from the start, doesn't the seemingly curt rejection by the IOC rub you just the teeniest bit raw?

"Jon & Kate," Christopher Robin, and "mommy blogging": An Unscientific Survey

During my recent blogging hiatus, I may have stopped posting but I never stopped reading.

One article that I read, in Newsweek, was by Julia Baird, entitled Stealing Neverland, and subtitled "Parents, children and the wages of betrayal." The article appeared in the September 21 issue of the magazine (where I saw it).

I encourage you to read it.

Ms. Baird writes about a controversial British author, Julie Myerson. Myerson used to write a column for the Guardian called "Living With Teenagers." The columns were written under a pseudonym but someone figured it all out and her children paid the price in teasing.

Were that all, perhaps, it might have been alright: Look, she might have said, you were ostracized in school, but it put you through college. Although even that might not have been sufficient for the son who was dubbed "Mr. Three Hairs" from a column "about her kids sprouting pubic hairs."

But the end of the column was not the end of Myerson's revelations about her family. One of her children has had some serious troubles in his life and Myerson has written about that, too. An excerpt from Ms. Baird's column:

Undeterred, Myerson went on to write a darker, more dramatic and awful book about her teenage son's drug use, Lost Child, just released in the U.S. In it she claims that her son Jake became addicted to skunk, a particularly potent form of marijuana. She was forced to kick him out of the family home when he was only 17, she writes, after he lied, stole, got a girl pregnant (his parents paid for the abortion), and hit his mother so hard that he perforated her eardrum. The subtitle is A Mother's Story.

For this, Myerson has become one of the most vilified women in Britain. Her son says he feels betrayed, and told one reporter he wants to change his last name to Karna, after a Hindu warrior who was rejected by his mother.

Baird's column begins with the sad example of the real Christopher Robin, Christopher Robin Milne, son of A.A. Milne, who came to hate and loathe Winnie the Pooh and all the other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood that your kids, and mine, so loved. Milne fils felt as if his father had robbed him of his good name and left him with the empty fame of being his father's son.

And in the last couple of days, of course, we have had a fresh eruption of the Greek Tragedy of Jon & Kate Plus 8 and Assorted Lovers on the Side. (Is that the current title of the show or am I misinformed?)

Of course, I've never seen even one minute of that show, nor will I ever, unless tied down and forced -- but it is impossible to not see articles about it in the press.

You have to wonder how those kids can hope to grow up normally -- to even survive relatively uninjured.

But all this makes me stop and think: Are we "mommy bloggers" hurting our kids by writing about them?

I include myself as a "mommy blogger" because I think the term has come to mean anyone who chronicles their family life -- although usually the chroniclers are women.

I have the cover of anonymity -- which I've said from the start was assumed to protect my kids from embarrassment.

Not that I can hope to do this completely.

As those of you with teenagers, or now ex-teenagers, know, teens are embarrassed merely by their parents' continuing existence. Publishing virtually anything about them in print or on line, where one of their own might see it, would presumably be mortifying. At the very least.

(And this even with the abuse they heap on one another daily with Facebook -- or even with their own cell phones -- injuring others and often themselves worst of all.)

Baird's column and the ongoing Jon & Kate debacle are both good starting points, though, for discussion: Mommy bloggers are doing on line what moms have done for decades -- centuries, surely -- over the back fences, at the grocery store -- after church on Sunday -- talking about their kids. Sharing the kids' struggles and foibles as well as their triumphs.

But now it's in writing.

And anyone can read it.

And it may be around forever.

So the question: How much online revelation is too much?

I'd like to hear from you -- and anyone else you can prompt to comment -- on this.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

All Olympic coverage, all the time

I'm sure there must be other things going on in the world right now but for anyone watching the "news" in Chicago this week it's all-Olympics, all the time.

Maybe you haven't heard (and if you haven't, can I come live where you do?) the International Olympic Committee will announce tomorrow morning whether Chicago, Rio, Tokyo or Madrid will have the opportunity to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

Every TV and radio station in Chicago is announcing that it will carry the IOC's decision live. No one has promised to show any money changing hands.

Oprah is in Copenhagen pitching the Chicago bid (that's a link to the Chicago Tribune photo gallery from whence I snagged the image above). Oprah! President Obama will swoop in and make a last-minute appeal as well.

Because of the saturation of local media in town for the announcement, anyone who has a vote with the IOC -- or who says they do -- has been interviewed 10 times. I've seen far too many of these interviews while watching and waiting to see if nuclear war had broken out anywhere. (Aren't there negotiations underway with Iran about their secret plant that we recently revealed? You'd never know it in Chicago.)

Anyway, each of the IOC interviewees, each with a distinctly charming accent, says pretty much the same thing: He or she is waiting until the final presentation to make a decision.

To Chicago ears, this sounds like holding out for the highest bidder.

But I may be cynical.

My consolation: Tomorrow this may all be over.

But it might just be the beginning, too.....