Monday, November 30, 2009

Oh Christmas tree! Curmudgeon tries -- and fails -- mostly -- to simplify his life

There's a Christmas tree lot that sets up every year on a vacant parcel near the el station that I use most mornings and I love the scent of the fresh pines -- but I can't see killing a perfectly good tree just to have that smell in the house for a month or so. We've always had an artificial Christmas tree at the Curmudgeon house.

We'd used the same tree now for a dozen years or more and it was getting to look more real with each passing year: The tree was shedding needles like crazy and its bald spots were getting bigger and more in need of tinsel and garland disguises.

Putting it up has been a big pain. I usually got stuck with putting on the lights. Putting on the lights does not mean just wrapping the strings around the tree boughs; it means untangling the strings, finding out which ones have decided to stop working in whole or in part, figuring out whether bulb replacement will resuscitate said string.... The process takes hours each year and usually results in my completely losing it at least once. Merry #$%*@!! Christmas, indeed.

And as much as I hate putting up the tree, Long Suffering Spouse hates taking it down more. Because she usually does it alone, despite pleas and entreaties to any of her children still in residence on or shortly after the Feast of the Epiphany.

Oh, yes, the kids: Our teenage and 20-something kids want the tree up and they want to tell stories about the ornaments (several of which they made as pre-schoolers), and they want to watch the annual ritual of old Dad losing it over yet another $%*!!@ string of lights that won't work -- or, better, that stops working when it is halfway on the %&@!!# tree. But the kids don't actually want to do things.

So Long Suffering Spouse and I have talked for a couple of years now about simplifying. Maybe we wouldn't put up a tree at all.

The center of our bay window in the Curmudgeon home is usually taken up by a large ficus tree in a pretty large basket. Last year I suggested that we decorate that instead of putting up our usual tree. I even found some red bows to put on the branches. My suggestion was overwhelmingly vetoed by the kids. The bows, however, are still on the branches.

A couple of weeks ago Long Suffering Spouse and I stopped by the neighborhood Walgreens to pick up our prescriptions. It was there that I saw the potential solution to our Christmas tree dilemma:

A Charlie Brown Christmas tree! Just like the tree in the photo, it came with a single, pathetic-looking red ornament and a wood base. And for $10 it seemed like a real bargain.

"You'll never get away with it," Long Suffering Spouse told me.

"I can try," I said.

We took the little tree home and hid it in the garage rafters where the 'regular' Christmas tree also resides in the offseason.

Fast forward now to Black Friday. Long Suffering Spouse and I did not attempt to join the mad throngs of post-midnight shoppers. We even waited a discreet interval before coming downstairs and making the coffee, so as to allow Older Daughter and her husband some more snooze time on the new futon. Everyone stayed up much too late on Thanksgiving night.

By late morning, even Middle Son and Youngest Son had roused themselves from slumber. (Middle Son had to wake up -- he's working retail this Christmas and was due at the mall at noon.) With nearly the whole family assembled (Oldest Son excepted) I announced that it was as good a time as any to take down the tree and start decorating. I got up to head out to the garage.

Of course, no one volunteered to help.

But the protests began as soon as I walked in the door with my little box. I set the tree up in about a minute and a half, and announced that we were ready for the season. Oh no, we're not! cried the kids. You can't be serious!

You don't know how serious I am, I told them.

They didn't believe me.

They were starting to believe me when morning became evening and no moves were made to add to the decor.

It's not a bad little tree, I told them. Maybe it just needs a little love.

But the little tree was getting no love at all from the kids. And, indeed, neither was I. I wasn't really afraid of being murdered in my sleep... but I may have slept more warily than usual Friday night.

The next morning Long Suffering Spouse and I went out. The kids demanded to know where we were going, but we refused to say.

We went to a swimming pool place that sells artificial Christmas trees every season... and we got a new tree. But this one has the lights already installed.

So I didn't simply my life as much as I hoped... but I didn't fail entirely.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Curmudgeon acquires a futon to solve a family dilemma

Regular visitors will remember that Older Daughter got married this summer. I started recounting our wedding adventures here and here. I apparently decided to save the anecdote about the topless biker chicks for the book.

Prior to their marriage, when Older Daughter and her now-husband visited, the young man had to stay on the couch in the den. I complained about the shortcomings of this arrangement -- but the family exchequer is such that the construction of a proper guest wing on the Curmudgeon manse is entirely out of the question.

Now Older Daughter and Son-In-Law are coming for Thanksgiving -- and some weeks back Older Daughter began lobbying for a change in the sleeping arrangements. "We are married, you know," she pointed out. "Well, yes, I know," I replied, "I was there. I wound up with the wedding certificate for safe keeping."

But the problem remains the same. If I had a proper English country home with a Blue Room and a Green Room and perhaps a hall safe like something out of Wodehouse (my wife would certainly appreciate the assistance of an Anatole... though I don't know that he'd permit her in his kitchen)I could install Older Daughter and her husband in accommodations more in keeping with their new station in life. But I'm still stuck in my old station.

Older Daughter suggested that perhaps she and Son-In-Law could stay in her old room, upstairs. Bunk beds for the newlyweds? "And where would Younger Daughter stay?" I asked, inasmuch as one of those bunks was technically hers.

That stumped Older Daughter temporarily, but did not solve the problem.

Naturally, Long Suffering Spouse had to tell me the solution. "We could get a futon," she said -- although she didn't say "futon." Sometimes English and Spanish get jumbled together in her cranium and altogether new words result. So it was in this case. Indeed I will have to save this word for the book as well, as a Google search on the term used by a family member might immediately destroy my anonymous status.

But if the word was mangled, the solution was sound. Even I could see that much. And we quickly realized there was an area where the couple could have some semblance of privacy and access to a bathroom -- and the rest of us could use the couch and the TV and the computer in the den.

And "futon" sounds so much cheaper than "sleeper sofa."

Which is undoubtedly why the family conspired to use that word when persuading me of the necessity of this acquisition.

Middle Son even knew where we should go for a futon; he'd bought one for his dorm room at this very store.

So it was that Long Suffering Spouse and I found ourselves in a mall among the futons last Saturday. We made our selection and inquired about delivery.

Delivery was $80 extra.

In that case, I quickly said, how can we pick this up?

Our van would be equal to the task, I figured, if the seats were put down. And the saleslady assured us that we could pick the thing up on Tuesday next (that would be yesterday) and she gave me a receipt which had the pick-up date of November 24 prominently bolded.

I left the Undisclosed Location early yesterday to assist my wife in getting the futon home. Receipt in hand I strode confidently to the Customer Service window, complimenting the young lady behind the counter on her festive Santa hat, and presented my receipt. She keyed a few things into the computer and began frowning at the screen. "It says Friday, not today," she told me. Long Suffering Spouse slumped visibly. "The receipt says today," I told the young lady. "I know," she said. She keyed in something else. The result was the same. "I'll get my manager," she said.

The manager wore a suit and had no Santa hat. He tried his luck with the keyboard, too. "It says Friday, not today," he said.

"It's spoken for tomorrow," I said.

"I figured as much," said the manager. After trying and failing to reverse the final verdict of the computer screen a couple of more times he suggested that we take the floor sample that we'd looked at over the weekend. Then, when our futon arrived, he'd have it delivered and floor sample taken back. This struck me as the best possible solution in the circumstances and I readily agreed.

Long Suffering Spouse and I could have carried the floor sample out the store's front door and popped it straight in the van in five minutes. We would have gotten some curious looks from any store employees not aware of our circumstances, and perhaps a challenge from the bolder among them, but it would have been efficient. Nevertheless, my suggestion along these lines was promptly rebuffed. We'd have to pull over to the loading dock on the other side of the mall. Store employees would pull the futon off the floor and bring it to the warehouse and thence to our vehicle.

Of course, this is all the fault of those darned lawyers, right?

I will not bore you with how this five minute task (if we'd done it) turned into a 50 minute wait. It was boring enough for us. Nor will I regale you with the curse words Youngest Son and I used as we struggled to get the futon through the front door and around the various obstacles necessary to get the #%&*!@ thing into the house. And I certainly won't tell you how Long Suffering Spouse, her patience with me exhausted, grabbed one end of the futon while I was still trying to stand upright again and, with Youngest Son's help, guided the infernal thing to its final resting place. (She was originally trying to move it herself until Youngest Son and I noticed what she was doing.)

The point is -- tomorrow -- I can have my coffee and watch the parades and the football games from my couch. In my den. I will be thankful (at least until the bill comes). And Older Daughter and her husband may just find this solution acceptable, too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sorry, Charlie.

Yes, Bee, this is a sports post. You think of turkeys at Thanksgiving; I can't help but think of football.

When I was a little kid in the Catholic school on Chicago's South Side, the nuns told us about college. College was where you could go if you got good grades and turned in your homework.

There was only one college in the entire country. At least that's what the nuns made it sound like.

I speak of course of Notre Dame.

I've had a love-hate relationship with Notre Dame ever since.

My father used to joke that it was a good thing having two pro football teams in town -- meaning (after the Cardinals left) the Bears and Notre Dame. But the Notre Dame subway alumni take their ND football very seriously. I remember years ago, raking leaves at my parents' house. This was in the Dan Devine years -- before the National Championship. Notre Dame played Air Force (I believe) and won by some incredibly lopsided score. I listened to the game on the radio as I piled the leaves up. I was still raking when the call-in show started after the game. The fans were unhappy. Notre Dame should have scored 50 points, 100 points, 200 points. I was disgusted.

Still, I watched ND football... not religiously, but regularly. The college I attended had no football team so there was no competing loyalty.

And Oldest Son attended Notre Dame and I finally got to see a real live college football game in person. It was a wonderful experience. And I have tremendous respect, now, for Notre Dame as a school. The school was a great fit for Oldest Son. ND is almost as good as it thinks it is -- almost as good as the nuns thought it was, all those years ago. (It was an all-male school in those far-off days, but it provided teacher training for nuns in the summers. If the football didn't hook the good sisters, the summers generally did.)

Charlie Weis, the current ND football coach, was probably an undergraduate cheering in the student section as Air Force was destroyed on that long ago Fall day when I was raking leaves. Hopes were high when he returned to South Bend a few years back, flashing his Super Bowl rings.

But the results haven't been there. Notre Dame is 6-5 this year, despite a soft schedule, and likely to finish 6-6 after ex-Bears QB Jim Harbaugh and his Stanford Cardinal team gets through with the Irish this weekend. Northern Illinois University is being touted as a possible bowl opponent. I like and admire NIU and I'm glad their program is continuing at a high level -- but it's not supposed to be on a par with Notre Dame.

It's like when the Yankees missed the playoffs. We Yankee haters were happy about it, but we knew that it was wrong somehow. When the Pinstripes are World Champions, as they are this year, we are free to hate them again without guilt or shame. It is a matter of restoring order to the cosmos. So it is also with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are supposed to be in the discussion every year for the National Championship. They are not supposed to be in the discussion with NIU for a minor bowl bid.

It would have been a grand story, truly, if alumnus Weis could have truly woken up the echoes. But, alas, it was not to be. He should take his millions and move on, back to the NFL where he has excelled as an offensive coordinator. Youngest Son wants him to come to the Bears. I wouldn't mind. Maybe he could commute from South Bend. But he can't stay at ND. Sorry, Charlie.

Photo obtained here.

Heads or Tails #115 -- "soft"

In today's Heads or Tails, our stern taskmistress Barb, asks that we write about "soft." I am paranoid about this, but unsure: I don't know if she's making a reference to my midsection or my intellect. (The description fits either way.) But I'll pretend it doesn't... and go off in a different direction....

When I was first coaching baseball at Bluejay Park (not its real name) I was the envy of all the other coaches in my very young age group (the kids' ages... not mine). I could toss batting practice to the kids so slow... so soft... that the kids could whack it all over the park, giving themselves confidence and their comrades fielding practice all at the same time. The entire time -- except when I was jumping for my life away from a screamer hit back up the middle -- I provided a steady patter of nonsense, about 'feeling the burn' and 'I won't be able to lift my arm tomorrow.' The other parents -- the other coaches especially -- thought this was very funny. No one who tossed as soft as I did could possibly ever strain my arm.

A lot they knew.

If only I could have retired then.

But, sadly, I kept coaching and the kids kept growing and, in the fullness of time, they needed someone who could throw the ball harder than I could. The other coaches thought I should continue throwing BP. But it was impossible: Soft as I threw, I was nevertheless throwing as hard as I could.

Timing is everything in this life.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The blog as a searchable attic: An Unscientific Survey

Our VCR broke last week. I guess it's a DVD/VCR, or it was, and I know these things don't last forever, but (to my increasingly unreliable memory) this particular machine seemed a rather new addition to the Curmudgeon household.

Talking it over with Long Suffering Spouse we agreed that I bought it and she wasn't with me when I did. That was as much as we did agree on. I thought Youngest Son and I bought it at Costco; Long Suffering Spouse was pretty sure it was at Best Buy, though it might have been at Target.

Youngest Son, as teenagers are wont to do, was sleeping while Long Suffering Spouse and I had this conversation, it being morning (when teenagers are usually dormant).

So we tried to figure out when the machine might have been purchased in relation to the TV. We were pretty sure the TV had come first. I refer to the TV that Oldest Son gave us as a gift... but was that last Christmas... or the Christmas before?

When Long Suffering Spouse left the room for a moment, I surreptitiously checked this blog: A ha! I'd written about that: It was just last Christmas. But, after searching, I noted I'd failed to mark the purchase of the VCR. Or DVD/VCR. Or whatever.

Eventually Youngest Son stirred (the college football games came on) and we were able to get his attention for long enough to answer the question of when the VCR... or whatever... had been acquired. "Easter break," he said, without taking his eyes off the TV screen, "this year." The tumblers clicked for Long Suffering Spouse. Oh yes, she said, that was when Younger Daughter had her wisdom teeth pulled. Long Suffering Spouse remembers everybody's medical procedures. (I checked this morning. My wife was right, of course -- although I'd written about the wisdom teeth being pulled I was apparently negligent for failing to anticipate the future import of the VCR purchase -- er, DVD/VCR purchase -- in my recitation of the events of the weekend.)

It's dawned on me that this wasn't the first time I've used this blog that way, checking to see when something happened, verifying the sequence of events, refreshing my memory.

Have you ever done anything similar?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Oprah quitting TV show! Run for your lives!

I don't know how this story has played in other markets but, here in Chicago, the outbreak of nuclear war would have been treated with no more angst than Oprah Winfrey's decision, announced last night, to discontinue her Chicago-based talk show.

By the time the cover of this morning's Chicago Sun-Times was laid out, people had survived the initial shock. Thus it was only necessary to use END OF THE WORLD type in the headline.

I don't believe I've ever watched more than five minutes of an Oprah show -- but, like everyone else, I appreciate and admire the contribution she's made to Chicago and, in particular, to the redevelopment of the Near West Side where her Harpo Studios are located.

Oprah is going to discontinue her current talk show when her contract expires and then she is going to focus on her own cable network (OWN cable network... Oprah Winfrey Network... get it?). If you haven't already done so, you can read more about her plans in this AP story, posted this morning on Yahoo! News.

It is as yet unclear whether Oprah will relocate to Los Angeles (where she already owns a palatial home) as part of this transformation.

If she does, though, she will be just the latest to prove a sad truth about my home town: Chicago is the largest city on Earth to be from. In other words, when you really, truly make it... you still gotta go elsewhere.

We could start a list of familiar names... Harrison Ford... the Cusacks, John and Joan... all the Steppenwolf Theatre alumni (Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney, et al.)... Dennis Farina... Tom Dreesen... all the Second City alumni, such as (speaking of talk shows) Bonnie Hunt... or Bill Murray... or the Belushis, John and Jim... Shelley Long... Dan Castellaneta....

I hope Oprah surprises us again, by maintaining a Chicago presence and keeping her studio here humming.

But I'm not making book on it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Curmudgeon hung up on clothesline controversy

At left we see a Pennsylvania lady, Carin Froehlich, hanging her clothes out to dry.

The local authorities in Froelich's hometown of Perkasie, PA would rather she didn't. There's no law against hanging up the laundry in Perkasie -- yet -- but, according to this Reuters story, by Jon Hurdle, that I saw today on Yahoo! News, "a town official called Froehlich to ask her to stop drying clothes in the sun. And she received two anonymous notes from neighbors saying they did not want to see her underwear flapping about."

(For the record, Froelich says she dries her bloomers indoors.)

You'd think that, particularly in this environmentally-conscious age, people would be encouraged to use wind and solar energy to dry the laundry. But, apparently, such is not the case. I guess folks riding by in their SUVs, heading to Blockbuster to return their copy of "An Inconvenient Truth," find it offensive to see the neighbors' flannels flapping in the breeze.

And it isn't just in this one Pennsylvania hamlet that frowns on drying one's socks in the sunshine: According to Hurdle's article, local bluenoses have gotten into such a snit about possibly seeing their neighbors' frillies al fresco that "Florida, Utah, Maine, Vermont, Colorado, and Hawaii" have been moved to pass "laws restricting the rights of local authorities to stop residents using clotheslines."

According to Hurdle's article, one of the persons trying to move legislators toward this common sense (and energy-saving) position is Alexander Lee, 35, a recovering lawyer who now serves as the executive director of Project Laundry List. The front page of the Project Laundry List website claims that clothes dryers "use 10 to 15% of domestic energy in the United States." I'm not entirely certain what "domestic energy" is but I do know that clothes smell better when they're hung out to dry and they don't wear out as quickly. Yes, in season, the Curmudgeon family laundry is hung out for public viewing. If you don't like it... look elsewhere.

Caveat: Folks who move into condo or townhome developments with homeowner association prohibitions against hanging out their clothes must and should abide by these restrictions. Or work to change them. (I can't help putting stuff like that in. Unlike Lee, I'm not a recovering lawyer.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Defending Obama's first 7th Circuit nominee... sort of

Judge David Hamilton will be coming to Chicago. Currently the Chief Judge of the Southern District of Indiana, Hamilton was nominated by President Obama to a Seventh Circuit vacancy on St. Patrick's Day -- and it's only yesterday that the Senate voted not to maintain a filibuster against the nomination. Confirmation will almost certainly follow, perhaps as early as today.

I was alerted to this development upon receipt of a scathing email from some conservative outfit that accuses Hamilton of most of the Seven Deadly Sins. I don't know why I get these emails; I didn't sign up for them. But that's a story for a different day.

What caught my attention was an assertion that Hamilton's initial nomination to the District Court, by President Clinton in 1994, was opposed by the American Bar Association. The ABA is anything but a conservative organization and would be expected to fawn over, not oppose, a judicial nominee put forward by a Democratic President. Perhaps, I thought, the conservative emailing group (and, no, I won't name it) got the facts mixed up?

These things do happen... even to liberals.

So I looked. And, what do you know, the ABA did oppose Hamilton's nomination to the District Court. That's a link to the ABA website; the report was still there as of lunchtime today.

But Hamilton was not rejected as some sort of radical ideologue. Rather, according to the ABA, Hamilton had only "limited experience" as an attorney, without the "scope and depth to qualify him for appointment as a federal judge" at the time of his nomination. According to the 1994 ABA statement, the ABA had (and perhaps still has) a 12 year rule; that is, it expects District Court nominees to have at least 12 years' experience at the time of nomination. The idea is that a nominee should "have had an opportunity because of actual trial experience in a number of cases to become very knowledgeable, if not expert, in the functioning of the court room over which he or she would preside. The judicial system, the public, the trial bar and the candidate are not well served by placing on the bench one with only a minimum of experience."

The ABA's real objection? Hamilton had been a lawyer for only about nine years when he was nominated to the District Court. Two and half of those years were spent as counsel to the Governor of Indiana -- which the ABA was reluctant to even count as practicing law. Quoth the ABA, "Mr. Hamilton's experience to date has a very substantial gap, namely the extent of his trial experience.... He has never tried a jury case. He has never tried a criminal case. And in the area of civil law, he reports that he has tried only three civil cases. His legal practice to date, even including his service as Governor's Counsel, do not constitute the kind of distinguished accomplishments in the law that would compensate for the nominee's lack of substantial trial experience." (Emphasis mine.)

Now, understand, the Red-Meat Right doesn't give a feather or a fig about whether Hamilton could comport himself adequately in front of a jury. A lot of them don't understand why juries are important anyway. No, the Red-Meat Right notes that Hamilton, as a District Court Judge, invalidated an Indiana law that would have imposed a waiting period for an abortion. This ruling was overturned by the court that Hamilton will soon join. Hamilton also ordered the Indiana legislature to use nondenominational prayers when opening its sessions. I don't know what became of this ruling or even if it was appealed. Having served as a judge for 15 years, he's made his share of rulings in criminal cases, too, and some these -- surprise, surprise! -- are also controversial. Some have been reversed. (Again -- no surprise. A judge who's afraid to be reversed shouldn't be on the bench in the first place.)

You or I may have reached different results than Hamilton in some of the controversial cases, if we were honestly trying to follow the law in all its tangled precedential majesty. And, almost certainly, Judge Hamilton's on-the-job experience has made up, at least in some sense, for much of what he could and should have learned in the practice -- certainly, he's learned a lot about federal law and procedure working with it on a daily basis. I thought the warm remarks in favor of Hamilton's current nomination by Indiana's Republican Senator Lugar were reassuring. My bottom line is that I think it is wrong and unfair to condemn a nominee just because he's been nominated by this President -- as opposed to that one. And that, I think, is the real nub of the Red Meat Right's opposition.

So I defend Judge Hamilton's nomination and hope he'll do a good job.

But, as the title of this essay indicates, I, too, have reservations.

I'm not thrilled with on-the-job training. In much of Europe, as I understand it, judging and lawyering are seen as separate professions. Here, though, judges are supposed to come from the ranks of lawyers (thus the ABA's experience requirements). In theory, upon ascending to the bench, an experienced lawyer will be more sympathetic to the stresses and strains of his or her ex-colleagues. A career jurist doesn't really understand what lawyers go through.

But our Judge Hamilton is the nephew of former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton. Judge Hamilton may live in Indiana -- but, according to Wikipedia, Hamilton is another Yale Law graduate. After graduate work as a Fulbright Scholar, Hamilton began his legal career as a clerk to another 7th Circuit judge. Before joining the Indiana governor's office, Hamilton was an associate in the largest law firm in Indianapolis.

You know, one of the reasons we Americans rebelled against the English was their annoying tendency to put a fuzzy-cheeked youth in charge of the colony or the regiment or something else important simply because his father or uncle was a duke or earl or marquess or something. Not all of these were necessarily abominations; some of them served ably -- it's the idea that someone can be born to high position that sticks in the American craw. In Hamilton we have yet another career jurist, plucked from the upper class. He's never really practiced law -- he's never worried about making payroll, never had to decide whether to pay his insurance or the mortgage, or the mortgage or the office rent. He's never agonized about trying to call a client to collect a bill; he's been cushioned and pampered by support staff for his entire professional career. How sympathetic will he be to the plight of a solo practitioner whose printer goes on the fritz or whose computer fries the night before a brief is due? I'm not saying we can't have Ivy Leaguers sit on the bench... but do they all have to be?

Mr. President, how about some real judicial diversity?

Curmudgeon turns down a case

The fax came in late yesterday afternoon. There was a printout of a brief email exchange, a copy of a Summons and a Complaint.

I read the papers and called the attorney who sent them.

This is the worst kind of case, I told her. It's a blood feud disguised as a legal proceeding: A continuation of a custody battle moved to the Law Division in the guise of a tort suit.

Without going into too many details (for obvious reasons) the suit is about the affections of a 10-year old boy. The boy's parents divorced. His mother obtained sole custody of the child and has since remarried. The suit is brought by the boy's father against the stepfather. Essentially, in the first count of his two count pleading, the father accuses the stepfather of intentional infliction of emotional distress in turning the boy against his father. In the second count the father asks for an injunction -- a court order -- requiring the stepfather to stop doing what he's doing.

The father doesn't realize that his son is soon going to turn against somebody anyway. We call this phenomenon "adolescence." If the stepfather were really trying to supplant the father in the boy's affections, and if he were in fact successful, the boy would turn against the stepfather -- in two to four years, tops.

But these considerations are too abstract for the people in this dispute. I told the attorney who asked me to look at the case that the first thing our prospective client (the stepfather) should do is to tender the case to his homeowners insurance carrier. (By "tender" I mean photocopy the complaint and send it, with a letter requesting a defense, to the insurance company and to the agent who sold the policy.) The conduct alleged in the suit would probably not be covered, I told my colleague, because allegedly intentional conduct is typically excluded from coverage -- but stranger things have happened.

More than once, when I was a young lawyer working in an insurance defense firm, my boss gave me a new file and said, "Here, file an appearance." When I looked at the complaint, though, it was obvious to me that there was no coverage. I would go back to the boss and suggest he call the insurance company and confirm that it wanted to assume the responsibility to defend the case even though there was no coverage.

Sometimes, the insurance company had made a cold-blooded decision that it was cheaper to defend than to assert a coverage defense. Sometimes, though, nobody had thought about coverage.

You'd think insurance people would think about coverage... but that's the point.

And what if I'd been a good soldier and did as I was told? You can't unring a bell: Coverage would have been provided whether it was owed or not. A reservation of rights letter might be crafted (by the insurer or another law firm) after the fact -- but, in the meantime, the insured would have his defense paid for.

And getting the defense paid for is important.

Lawyers cost money.

So I explained all this to my colleague. I said that the parties in this suit were bitter to begin with and their attitudes toward each other would only harden over the course of the litigation. It would be a very expensive suit to defend -- especially if I (or whoever picked up the defense) was unable to persuade the trial court to throw the case out on a motion to dismiss.

I said I'd get involved in the case only if I received written assurances that the insurer had refused to defend and, even then, only if the prospective client ponied up a substantial retainer (I had $10,000 to $15,000 in mind) that would have to be maintained at that level throughout the course of the case.

My colleague said she would pass the word along. In our discussion, she mentioned that a prominent suburban lawyer had turned down the case, supposedly because of scheduling problems. Tender the defense, I said.

An hour later, my colleague called again. The prominent suburban lawyer had given the prospective client the same advice I had, she told me, and the prospective client had refused. He didn't want the insurance company telling him what to do, he supposedly said. (A homeowners insurance company typically has a right to control the defense of a suit when it accepts coverage. It can decide whether to settle a case, even if the insured doesn't want to, or whether to proceed to trial, even if the insured would rather settle.)

"Then we don't want this case," I told my colleague.

"But he supposedly has a lot of money," she told me. "He can afford to handle his own case."

"There isn't enough money in the world for us to take this case," I told my colleague. I explained: If he wouldn't listen to the prominent suburban lawyer, if he feared being told what to do by the insurance company, what are the odds that he would take our considered legal advice?

My colleague acknowledged that he probably wouldn't listen to us.

My analysis? Every one of this man's decisions (made in ignorance and anger) would wind up costing him more and more in fees. Eventually, he'd come to align us, his advocates, with his enemies. We'd immerse ourselves in a swamp of pain, misery and bitterness -- we'd lose sleep and stomach lining over the horrible facts of the case -- and, in the end, we'd be largely uncompensated for the services we provided.

I'd rather starve.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Curmudgeon returns to the eye doctor

I was back at the eye doctor this morning for a follow-up visual field test. That's an example of what the test printouts looks like -- not my results, you understand, just one grabbed for illustrative purposes from the swirling vortex of the Internet.

The last time I took my visual field test, I flunked.

I wrote about it here in late August in "The eyes have [had] it -- Or -- Sleeping through a test is a bad idea even long after graduation."

Yes, I've watched a lot of Rocky and Bullwinkle in my time. Although the alternate title of that post is a little long for the high velocity William Conrad narration. (Yes, that William Conrad, from "Jake and the Fat Man." Seriously. You could look it up.)

I was determined to improve my test results this time. I was motivated by the glint in my doctor's eye last time as he started talking about the different surgical options. There sure were a lot of them.

We were supposed to do the test in late September or early October, but my schedule and the technician's and the doctor's did not coincide until this morning.

I was worried about something other than just passing the test, too: I've had this stubborn virus for about 10 days now. It's finally begun to subside -- but that means all sorts of things are coming out of my nose on a random basis and I'm hacking and wheezing like an end-stage consumptive. Nearly all of yesterday I sounded like I was trying out for the part of an invalid in the dramatization of a Dickens novel. And have I gone through tissues. I pity the fool who tries to pick my pocket.

I didn't want to ooze and leak all over the good eye doctor's equipment this morning. Fortunately I was able, by means of disgusting everyone in my house this morning by my imitation of an off-key elephant frightened by mice, to divest myself of a pound or two of various secretions. That gave me a window of reasonably appropriate social behavior.

Gosh -- it just occurred to me -- I sure hope you're not reading this on your lunch hour. Perhaps I should dial back on the vivid descriptions.

Summarize it then, thus: I stayed awake. I passed. My results today are not significantly worse than they were when I started treating, 15 years ago.

My glaucoma is stable. The doctor was devastated.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Truly funny post -- I wish I'd written it

I saw this at this site last week and I was going to post about it... but between a stubborn virus and the press of work I didn't get back to it right away.

When I did finally get back, the link was broken. Well, it's working this morning... but I can't promise the link will continue to work... so I've violated a cardinal rule and grabbed the entire essay and posted it.

It's not my work. I wish it were. It's also not credited to anyone. Does anyone know where this came from originally?

The Truth About College:

College is a bunch of rooms where you sit for 2,000 hours or so and try to memorize things. The 2,000 hours are spread out over four years. You spend the rest of the time sleeping, partying, and trying to get dates.

Basically, you learn two kinds of things in college:

1. Things you will need to know in later life (two hours). 2. Things you will not need to know in later life (1,998 hours).

The latter are the things you learn in classes whose names end in -ology, -osophy, -istry, -ics, and so on. The idea is you memorize these things, then write them down in little exam books, then forget them. If you fail to forget them, you become a professor and have to stay in college for the rest of your life.

After you've been in college for a year or so, you're supposed to choose a major, which is the subject you intend to memorize and forget the most things about. Here is a very important piece of advice: Be sure to choose a major that does not involve Known Facts and Right Answers. This means you must not major in mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, or geology because these subjects involve actual facts.

If, for example, you major in mathematics, you're going to wander into class one day and the professor will say: "Define the cosine integer of the quadrant of a rhomboid binary axis, and extrapolate your result to five significant vertices." If you don't come up with exactly the answer the professor has in mind, you fail.

The same is true of chemistry: If you write in your exam book that carbon and hydrogen combine to form oak, your professor will flunk you. He wants you to come up with the same answer he and all the other chemists have agreed on. Scientists are extremely snotty about this.

So you should major in subjects like English, philosophy, psychology, and sociology - subjects in which nobody really understands what anybody else is talking about, and which involve virtually no actual facts.

I attended classes in all these subjects, so I'll give you a quick overview of each:

ENGLISH: This involves writing papers about long books you have read little snippets of just before class. Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say Moby Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly 11,000 times. So in your paper, you say Moby Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative. If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English.

PHILOSOPHY: Basically, this involves sitting in a room and deciding there is no such thing as reality and then going to lunch. You should major in philosophy if you plan to take a lot of drugs.

PSYCHOLOGY: This involves talking about rats and dreams. Psychologists are obsessed with rats and dreams. I once spent an entire semester training a rat to punch little buttons in a certain sequence, then training my roommate to do the same thing. The rat learned much faster. My roommate is now a doctor. If you like rats or dreams, and above all if you dream about rats, you should major in psychology.

SOCIOLOGY: For sheer lack of intelligibility, sociology is far and away the number one subject. I sat through hundreds of hours of sociology courses, and read gobs of sociology writing, and I never once heard or read a coherent statement. This is because sociologists want to be considered scientists, so they spend most of their time translating simple, obvious observations into scientific-sounding code. If you plan to major in sociology, you'll have to learn to do the same thing. For example, suppose you have observed that children cry when they fall down. You should write: "Methodological observation of the sociometrical behavior tendencies of prematurated isolates indicates that a causal relationship exists between groundward tropism and lachrimatory behavior forms." If you can keep this up for 50 or 60 pages, you will get a large government grant.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Veterans Day salute, with gratitude

(Click to enlarge.) Arlo and Janis by Jimmy Johnson.
This image obtained from Yahoo! Comics, but I regularly
read it --
in print -- in the Chicago Sun-Times.

We watched It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown this year at our house, as we do every year around Halloween. You'll surely recall the sequence where Snoopy imagines himself as the Great World War I Flying Ace, in aerial combat with the Red Baron. In 1966, when this special first aired, there were a lot of World War I vets around. They were the granddads explaining what that Snoopy bit was all about as they watched the show with their grandkids.

Today, though, as the Arlo and Janis cartoon points out, there's only one WWI vet left in America. And the World War II vets are rapidly fading from the scene. The veterans of Vietnam are gray now -- which I find astonishing since these guys are only a few years older than me. My draft card is still around in a drawer somewhere. I was never called.

I would have made a lousy soldier anyway: I've never been good with authority. I'm grateful, especially today, that there are others who could serve well. And who did.

And who do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A fortuitous trip to the library, light reading... and heavy questions

I had a library book to return last week and Friday was the first of what was to be three nice days in a row. So it happened that, after I thought I had tended to the Typical Friday Crisis, I decided to take a walk to the other end of the Loop, to the Harold Washington Library, the flagship of the Chicago Public Library system -- and one of the ugliest public buildings in the world.

That's not just my opinion, either. Forbes Magazine agrees with me (quoting from the slideshow that can be accessed from the preceding link):
At the time of its opening, it was billed as the "world's largest public library." It could be one of the most expensive public libraries as well. When it was finished in September 1991, local press raved that the building was finished on time and within its mighty budget of $144 million. But even when the design was first proposed, critics weren't sure of its aesthetic appeal. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp called architect Thomas Beeby's design "a heavy, lackluster statement." Said one Manhattan-based architect of the library, "It's truly, truly horrific."
On the other hand, if barbarian invaders ever storm the City -- assuming that those invaders are not toting the most advanced weaponry -- the Harold Washington Library Building would be a good place to stage a last stand. The masonry walls are literally several feet thick... necessary to hold the weight of all the books stacked within.

There were, however, no more barbarians than usual on Friday afternoon, and I went to the library after finishing my other chores.

Yes, chores.

Chief among these was the need to buy a new office diary over at the Chicago Bar Association, also isolated in the southeast corner of the Loop. Judges are starting to give out 2010 dates and I need to calendar them.

Yes, on paper.

I like to hit the 7th floor of the Washington library every time I visit. That's the "language and literature" section. In other words, fiction. And a couple of stacks are devoted to newly published books. I never know what I'll find intriguing. Friday, I found five books.

I had to buy a book bag to tote them back to the Undisclosed Location and my wife eyed me curiously when she saw the bag.

As it turned out, though, it was a good thing I'd laid in supplies.

Saturday morning, out with Long Suffering Spouse at the local Costco, I began to feel "puny" (as Bee might put it) -- lightheaded, faint -- and this was before we got to the cash register.

I took to my chair when we got home and stayed there pretty much straight through the rest of Saturday... then Sunday... then yesterday.

Today, I'm back at work.

Whether the virus has been thoroughly routed is really beside the point: When you're self-employed you can't afford to be away from the office for long. And I worked the phone and the email yesterday even though I had no head for it.

About all I could do was read.

So I read three of the five novels I checked out on Friday. All told, these came to a lot less than 1990 pages -- and, what with plots and characters and all -- they were far more interesting than the national health bill that passed the House of Representatives on Saturday night. That bill ran to 1990 pages, too.

It was filed on October 29 -- just about 10 days before the vote was taken. One has to wonder -- given the tight timeframe -- how many of those congresspersons making impassioned speeches on C-Span (to largely empty galleries as you may have seen) had actually read the bill... much less studied it. And I'm being bipartisan here: I wonder how many of those for and against it have any idea what they actually voted on.

I'll stop now before I suffer a relapse.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

More on why Thanksgiving seems to be dropping off the calendar

"Cul de Sac" by Richard Thompson. (Click to enlarge.)
I obtained the image from UCLICK
but I read it
in print -- in this morning's Chicago Sun-Times.

My little complaint the other morning about how our culture seems to be moving directly from Halloween to Christmas, without even a passing nod to Thanksgiving, drew a fair amount of comments. And we're not the only ones thinking about this: Youngest Son announced the other night that he'd given out a "citizen's jug" to a freshman who had the temerity to hum a Christmas carol within Youngest Son's hearing. "It's not even Thanksgiving yet!" Youngest Son says he roared at the frightened frosh. Thereafter, Youngest Son put up a wallpaper collage on the home computer -- a football field with a helmeted turkey in the middle, triumphantly trampling a Christmas tree. On the screen is printed something like, "Thanksgiving first -- then Christmas."

For many years I've harbored the suspicion that Thanksgiving gets no retail respect because -- aside from grocers -- retailers can't figure out a way to make a buck off the holiday. But the above cartoon offers a new insight into a possible different explanation.

I really am looking forward, though, to playing Christmas carols all day on my iPod. But it's anticipation that makes Christmas special, for young and old alike. The kids have Santa Claus to look forward too; Catholics have Advent to focus their anticipation. My iPod will wait a little longer.

Males obsolete? It's apparently natural...

'Natural,' that is, as in 'occurring in nature.'

And occurring, to be specific, in a species of fungus farming ants, Mycocepurus smithii that is widely distributed from Mexico south through all of South America. (The link is to Wikipedia, the legitimacy of which, according to some fearful high school teachers, is always suspect due to the past -- and possible future -- interference of Stephen Colbert, but I read about these asexual ants -- in print -- in the November issue of the Smithsonian Magazine.)

Speaking as a male, I can only hope that this trend, if it is a trend and not an evolutionary aberration, will remain confined to the kingdom of insects.

But the news put me in mind of a cartoon I'd seen on the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal some months ago:

Talk about finding a silver lining in a dark cloud... I just don't think it would work out, though, as the cartoonist fantasizes, er, imagines.

Dona Nobis Pacem

Nehru's comment, of course, was directed at the Cold War struggle between the West, led by the United States, and the Communist East, led by the old Soviet Union.

That does not mean his remark is irrelevant today. Indeed, we are today engaged in a great struggle for the future with the forces of militant and ignorant Islamic extremism.

It is a one-sided struggle. Though bin Laden and his ilk want us in the West to proclaim Crusade against a religion that claims a billion or more adherents, most -- nearly all of us, I believe -- want nothing more than for the Al-Queda fanatics in the world to discover the true tenets of their own religion and return to them.

We want to coexist. Nehru's either-or option is very relevant today indeed.

And so we pray: Dona nobis pacem.

To learn more about the Peace Globe phenomenon, visit Mimi.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Hip checks on the subway

I catch the 'el' (which, on my particular line, is elevated only over a small portion of its run) fairly near O'Hare Airport; the trains are usually pretty empty when they pull into my station and I can almost always get a window seat.

That means, as the train fills up, someone must choose to sit next to me.

This frequently results in a territorial struggle.

Now, granted, I am not a small person. I do not spill over, however, into the adjoining seat; I fit within, if snugly so, the 'footprint' of the contoured seat. Except it's not a 'footprint,' of course; it's a 'buttprint,' I suppose, if it's anything -- but that sounds rude.

Anyway, when someone sits next to me on the train, he or she almost always hip checks me: We sit cheek to cheek, as it were.

When the new arrival is a large person, man or woman, such intimacy is understandable... and, of course, unintended. And when the new arrival is a comely young lady, the contact, I will concede, is not entirely unwelcome.

But it always happens: Old or young, large or small, each new arrival shoves me into the wall. I scrunch up and over, thinking thin thoughts, and often reestablish a millimeter or two of personal space -- but a significant percentage of new occupants insist on continuing to press. Why is this?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Let me be the first non-retailer to wish you...

...a very Happy Holidays. (Or, if you're feeling traditional, Merry Christmas.)

Because, as you surely know if you've set foot into almost any kind of a store at any time since Saturday, we are now squarely in the Holiday Season.

The entire month of November has been sucked into some sort of temporal vortex, whooshed right out of the calendar: After Halloween comes Christmas.

Now, for years, I have decried the early advent of the Christmas season -- weeks before Advent even starts. (Catholics, at least, will catch the reference; just groan along with them at the feeble play on words.)

But I give up, er, I grow and change. I don't think there's a choice: They're running Christmas commercials during the World Series. The Boys of Summer are morphing into Christmas elves right in my den. And I'm not drinking anything stronger than water.

Remember the old cliche... I wish every day could be like Christmas?

Well... if retailers get their way... it will. It will at least be the Christmas season.

Ho ho ho! Pass the eggnog!

Monday, November 02, 2009

In praise of 25 hour days... and other calendrical improvements

We went from daylight savings time to standard time here this weekend....

It's a gloomy Monday morning in Chicago, only a little brighter this morning when I left for work than it was on Friday. I thus had no difficulty in accepting that I'd arrived here at the Undisclosed Location around 8:20am, well within the range of my usual arrival times. Neither the evidence offered by the clock by the receptionist's work station nor the battery powered clock on my desk could dissuade me from my acceptance of the time. I quickly reset those lying clocks anyway -- although the desk clock is still 14 or 15 minutes fast. The button to reset the minutes long ago became inoperable.

It's not that I'm rested or refreshed. It's still Monday. I'm still tired. I am still overwhelmed by the prospect of the week to come.

But I really like 25 hour days.

In fact, I'd like it better if we could string a bunch of these 25 hour days together. On Mars every day is about 24 hours and 39 minutes long (how's that for a reason to colonize?) but here the effects would be noticeable right away: There'd be some days here where the Sun would not rise before noon... or even before dinnertime if we could keep the streak going long enough... but, in November, in Chicago, who'd really notice the difference? And the benefits! An extra hour of sleep a day -- or, for the ambitious, an extra hour to read and learn. Perhaps, some days, an extra hour to blog?

And even this could be improved: If we could add a few extra days to the end of each month -- an extra week or so might do nicely. Earth would still continue in its orbit, so the dates of the solstices would change -- hard for the neo-pagans, I suppose, and the Stonehenge Tourist Bureau -- but think of the advantages for the rest of us: We'd have an extra week to prepare for those bills due on the first of the month! I might even have my timesheets for the first 30 days of the month done as the first of the month begins. Of course, I'd still be missing a week... but no system is perfect.

But don't you think it's time to experiment? Here, surely, is positive change!