Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The resiliency of nature -- expressway edition

The three dead pigeons, lying close together on the shoulder of the expressway, didn't faze me, but I was curious. Were they poisoned? They were lying near a railroad overpass. Were they part of a group that was sitting on the tracks? Were these three too slow to move out of the way of an oncoming train?

I had to drive to work this morning and I couldn't help but notice Nature in the least natural of places, to wit, the inbound Kennedy Expressway.

It was the small patch of green in the pavement, no more than a couple of feet long and a few inches wide, erupting through the joint that separates the roadway from the shoulder, that got me thinking along these lines. It wasn't grass, but it was a ground cover of some sort and it was green. Really green.

From then on, I was looking. There were all sorts of spots were plants had taken root -- one plant here or there -- mostly scraggly looking, but alive. I'm no gardener, but these looked like weeds to me. A foot tall or more, some of them, with thin leaves and cone-shaped, purplish flowers on several. Most of these had sprouted underneath the concrete medians, concrete blocks four roughly feet tall that strongly discourage traffic moving one way from drifting into a lane moving in the opposite direction. So there is massive concrete sitting atop a concrete floor -- O wondrous the mighty works of Man -- and, yet, every 100 feet or so, sometimes less, sometimes more, there was another plant pushing through.

Thus, the dead possum on the Ohio feeder ramp, just entering the downtown area, came as no surprise. Why shouldn't there be wild animals (not just rats) anywhere at all? Nature bides her time with us, our human infestation. So many of us think we control her: So many of us believe we can plant mighty cities anywhere we choose, in swamps (like my Chicago) or deserts (Phoenix, Las Vegas). We believe Nature will conform meekly to our desires. Al Gore's disciples are more afraid of Nature, but still they think they -- we humans -- can control her. They think Nature will do our bidding if only we curb CO2 emissions.

But a trip into the City, through one of the least natural landscapes possible, shows that it's more complicated than that. Nature will do what she wants, when she wants, whether we like it or not. Whether we can survive it or not. We can fight, of course, but -- for the foreseeable future -- we must lose. Nature is far too strong. It's too bad we don't have a space program anymore. By our inaction, we have placed all our hopes, all our futures, at the mercy of an oft-capricious Nature. But anyone who has studied history and geology and paleontology, even casually, knows that Mother Nature can be one tough mother at times.

Of her own choosing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why people hate lawyers: Part 5,237

It's a busier than usual week here at the Undisclosed Location as I try and craft an appellate brief from a huge volume record in far less time than I should. It will be done. Or I will be done. One or the other. Posting will probably be sparse in the meantime, unless I have a piece to speak, as I do this morning.

See, busy as I am, I'm going to court three times this week, on three different cases, and not one of these trips is necessary. In my opinion, anyway.

Case #1, this morning: I lost the SJ motion. The other side won. The case should be over. But the other side brought their motion on only one of the three counts of their complaint. Because they are closely related, judgment in the other side's favor should be entered on Count I as well as on Count II, the count on which the motion was brought. But the other side never did anything with Count III of their pleading -- which alleged an alternate theory on why my side should lose -- and my thought was that it should just be withdrawn. A couple of weeks ago, the court ordered us to agree on a proposed final order.

I prepared my proposed judgment order accordingly, granting judgment against me on the various counterclaims my predecessors brought as well. Since the District Court has already said it will not make the current order appealable under FRCP 54(b) (which allows appeals from judgments on fewer than all claims or involving all parties in certain circumstances), the goal has to be to get a final, appealable order. But the other side doesn't like my proposal. They worry that they may be giving up a viable claim that would be unavailable to them in the event I win on appeal -- a contingency that they insist, in the same breath, can never come to pass. So I had to bring a motion to ask the judge to enter the order cutting my own throat.

The judge listened to us wander around in the wilderness for a couple of minutes, then finally asked, "Well, what do you want me to do about this?" I'd made my record that we don't yet have a final order, and the judge did not disagree, and she'd reiterated that there would be no 54(b). So I said, with that understood, give opposing counsel a little more time to go back to his client and, hopefully, reach agreement among themselves that they've beaten me enough. Want to bet that we'll need that next hearing date? I've got the I'll-bet-we-do side of the wager.

Case #2, tomorrow: I settled a case in late August for chump change. I need a release in order for my client to pay even this little amount of money. But the other side is balking. My real opponent in this case is a lawyer who is also the party defendant -- a lethal combination. First he refused to sign any release. Yesterday, after a long conference with me and the lawyer for the other defendant (who organized the settlement and did a pretty good job of it), he retreated to the position that my release was too broad. I changed some language and sent it out again last night. Want to bet it won't be signed by the previously scheduled status hearing tomorrow? I've got the I'll-bet-it's-not side of the wager.

Case #3, Friday: This is a case I settled in early August -- after years of litigation and after a court ordered mediation failed -- and after the mediator persisted in trying to get the matter resolved even after. (Yes, even in my own blog, I can't pretend to be the hero of every anecdote. In this case I was just a happy and relieved beneficiary of the mediator's diligence.) Anyway, the party that did everything possible to delay the settlement insisted on taking the laboring oar on the settlement documents. Five weeks ago. I filed a motion last Friday asking the court's help in enforcing the settlement. Last night I got a draft settlement agreement. A screwy, over-the-top in many ways draft -- but something. But I won't even put this one out for wager, because only a rube would think this will be done before the motion is presented Friday. That party wants to play for more time.

Three cases. Three unnecessary court appearances. But before all you prospective clients and current victims of the legal system jump up and down and shout how this confirms your worst impressions of my brothers and sisters, know this: Not every lawyer is a co-conspirator in a plot to inflate your legal bills. Frankly, stuff like this cranks most of us totally out of shape as well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Apparently I missed "Talk Like a Pirate Day"

Turns out, it was yesterday. Aaaaarrrrrgggggh, that's frustrating, matey.

However, webcomic Luke Surl did not forget. And this is funnier than anything I would have come up with anyway:

Friday, September 17, 2010

The last Homecoming toilet paper caper

I got it wrong in a recent post.

Homecoming is this weekend, not last weekend.

I was still getting dressed this morning when my wife called up the stairs. "Have you looked out the window?"

I had not. I don't generally gaze out of the windows. If rain or snow is predicted, I might take a peek to see whether the forecast appears accurate, but generally I only look outside when I go out the front door. I therefore responded in the time-honored tradition of cautious husbands everywhere. "No. Why?"

"We got TP'd last night!"

While there are of course other occasions on which a house may be TP'd, it is a lock-cinch certainty that, in these parts, on the evening prior to a school's homecoming game, the cheerleaders will go out and TP all the players' houses. I really don't know how the kids can toss rolls of toilet paper in the air, high into trees, and create a virtual two-ply fairyland of streamers. I particularly don't know how they can do it without making enough noise to wake me, especially during this change of seasons when my windows are open to take advantage of the outside air.

But the important aspect of my wife's announcement, as I thought it through, was not the fact it communicated but the tone in which it was rendered: She wasn't upset.

This has not always been the case. If you read the linked post you'll see that we got TP'd last year prior to the homecoming football game at the parish grammar school. Our three boys all played for the grammar school team in their day, but by last year, those days were long past. So, on that occasion, my wife was most definitely not amused.

But -- this morning -- Long Suffering Spouse went out and took pictures -- as a memento, not as evidence of a crime. She had to clear a path so we could get to the car and she found some more or less complete rolls that had been discarded by our midnight marauders. "I've got stuff to wrap the Christmas ornaments again," she told me.

When the house is TP'd for a proper purpose -- when an occupant of said residence is on the roster for the Homecoming football game, that is -- family tradition (firmly grounded in superstition) requires that the paper (or as much as possible) remain in the trees until after the game.

Older Daughter and her husband are coming up this weekend for a wedding in the western suburbs somewhere and they plan to stay with us tonight. Although they're supposedly going straight to the rehearsal dinner from Indianapolis, they may get to our house before we return from Youngest Son's game. They will no doubt ooh and aah a bit when they see the trees.

After tonight (unless the team makes the state playoffs and obtains a home game in that) there are only two more home games left in Youngest Son's football career. He's not the only one who'll be a little nostalgic about it. I'm a mess already.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Apple TV vs. Google TV? Still more I don't get

Being a dinosaur is getting harder and harder.

I read an article on Yahoo! today concerning the anticipated differences between "Apple TV" and "Google TV." The differences are "anticipated" at this point because neither of these wondrous devices has yet been placed before an expectant public.

But both, apparently, will be in the stores soon, there to taunt me.

There's one thing I understand though: The linked article refers to "set-top" boxes. Obviously, then, both devices are doomed to failure: You can't put anything on top of these razor thin TV screens these days.

Right now, in the Curmudgeon house, we're having a crisis because none of our remotes feel like changing the channels on the cable box. Not, at least, without extraordinary difficulty. The cable box lets you change one channel at a time (I found where -- I was so proud) but that makes it hard to change between Turner Classic Movies (Channel 501) and Comcast SportsNet (Channel 200). If those are the only two channels I want to watch, the "last" button on the remotes still work -- but I sometimes want to know what's on History International or the Science Channel or Retroplex. Youngest Son wants to browse the entire family of ESPN networks. And what about when it's time for the local news?

And don't tell me to change batteries. I thought of that one, too... eventually. And it didn't work. I've tried looking for schmeres on the cable box, something that's partially blocking the infrared (if that's what it is) receptor -- but I found nothing.

It's something wrong with the cable box. It's a new box, too, because after a recent storm downed wires in the area and our "On Demand" stopped working, the cable guy swapped out our old box (with hours and hours of saved Jack Benny programs that no one in my family will watch with me) and put in this now-flawed device. And Comcast charged me another $30-something for the privilege, too, even though it was their equipment that failed to work. Cable costs too darn much as it is without letting these robber barons add spurious charges on the bill.

When Long Suffering Spouse called to complain, she was told, in no uncertain terms by a very imperious customer disservice representative, that her computer screen insisted that it was our wires that were at fault. What wires? We have no wires that aren't from the cable company. I was going to write a nut letter to Comcast -- only to find out that there is apparently no way to determine who is the president of the subsidiary company responsible for our area. There are a million and one Comcast entities... and the number, apparently, is growing... to Xfinity. (Sorry. I couldn't resist that one.)

Anyway, anything that puts a crimp in Comcast's monopoly sounds like a good thing to me, even if I don't understand any of it. Except for the part about "set-top" boxes. Apple and Google are definitely going to have to rethink that if they want to succeed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Today's essay was to be about typewriters...

and how I miss them.

Thirty years ago (OK, 35 and counting) I had an already old portable on which I did all my school papers and, in order to keep supplied with funds for beer and pinball, other peoples' papers as well. I may have charged 50¢ a page; my memory is fuzzy on the point. Possibly as a direct and proximate result of the beer consumed with my earnings.

On the day before a paper was due, I would begin thinking about what I might write. When I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, I'd begin typing. Inevitably, about the middle of the first page, I'd reach a spot where I'd need to cite, and quote extensively, from some authority supporting my position. At this point I would go to the campus library.

It is a bald-faced lie that I had to ask for directions. Despite what you may have heard.

It is true that I did not go to the library very often. The campus library was a very depressing place. Actually, it was a nice-looking building, with modern wings surrounding a more elegant, older core. Somewhere in there, if I recall correctly, there was a nice lake view.

But it was depressing nevertheless because one could not avoid, upon entering the place, feeling the tension. All these pre-meds gathered together, cramming for some life-changing chapter quiz in Bio 124 or -- if they'd made it past that first, drastic cull -- Organic Chemistry, tended to contribute to an overall atmosphere of near-despair. They weren't studying together, these pre-meds. No, mostly, when they looked up from their notes or their books at all, they'd eye each other warily, searching for some confirmation, in the faces of their fellow pre-meds, that the others were equally baffled. Naturally, they all became practiced at not letting anyone read their emotions. Eventually, the ones who made it into American medical schools learned to suppress their emotions entirely.

I exclude from this number the ones who became osteopaths. At least some of these were normal. Well, collegiate normal....

Anyway, the campus library was no place for a sensitive soul to linger. And I, with as sensitive a soul as anyone, in my own opinion at least, had no intent to loiter. I would head for the most promising shelves (after all, I did know what the paper was supposed to be about) and grab an armload of books. Then I would return to my room and my waiting typewriter.

I'd pick a book at random from my stack and begin paging through. With luck, I'd quickly find some paragraph that arguably supported my opinion. The length of time to find just the right passage varied, unfortunately. Whenever the elusive words were found, however, I'd copy them into the paper -- giving, of course, due attribution and proper citation. Then I'd bang out a few more paragraphs and reach for another book. I would repeat this process until the paper was long enough to meet the requirements of the assignment.

There was no "rough draft." What I typed, I turned in. I did use Wite-out strips (I believe that was the brand name) and I used them liberally. But I seldom tore a page out of the platen and crumpled it. There was ordinarily not enough time for that kind of artistic flourish.

Despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- I usually did fairly well on my college papers. True, some professors hated my writing style. On a scale of Hemingway to Faulkner, I was very much a Hemingway. (And I mean this strictly in terms of sentence length and complexity, please!) Some professors, those who'd strolled too long in the grove of Academe, again in my opinion, liked sentences that wandered around the block and got lost looking at the clouds. Others, though, really liked my style -- even going so far as to praise its organization. Obviously, I did not share my writing secrets with these fans.

Readers of this blog will also note that I seem to have lost any penchant for for short, pithy sentences that I might have once possessed. That's what the law will do to you, friends.

But I was reading on the train last night and I got to thinking about those far off days and my battered portable and what I called 'combat writing.' By this I meant writing at the very last minute and pushing myself to physical extremes to accomplish the task at hand.

This part of my style has very much survived into my law practice.

Indeed, I have an appellate brief due in a medical malpractice case in (as of today) 15 days. The common law record stretches to 45 volumes -- and then there are many, many more volumes of transcripts. And I've only begun to scratch the surface of this assignment. The panic is beginning to surge within me -- not enough to keep me from writing this post, you'll notice, but still.... And there's an amended pleading due today that I truly intended to do last Friday... but I didn't have what I needed from the client to get it done until this week. And there are two new notices of appeal to get out. And I'm waxing nostalgic over some crumby, beat-up, old typewriter?

In the storage room-cum-closet of my Undisclosed Location there sits an IBM Selectric. My office mate uses it from time to time to fill in forms. I used to be a Selectric virtuoso, a master of squeezing a six letter word into a four letter space in order to avoid retyping a page. But for all my pretended affinity for the good old days of Wite-out and banging out pages, I almost never touch that typewriter.

So why the wistful reminiscence of days long gone by disguised as an ode to a portable typewriter? It's just that, in those increasingly far-off days, my body was equal to the tasks I made it perform. My tasks are bigger now, and my body weaker. I wish it were otherwise.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Second Effort post now on BoomSpeak

Thanks to Jay Harrison for taking my August 27 post about Facebook and putting a (slightly edited version of) it in on the Essays page of his blog/magazine (blogazine?) BoomSpeak!

Explanation for Ms. Sainz's discomfort?

The headline on the Chicago Tribune website is "TV reporter says she was 'uncomfortable' at Jets practice; NFL, team investigating."

The reference is to the alleged discomfort sustained by Mexican TV reporter Ines Sainz while attending a practice session of the New York football Jets. Here is a picture of said television reporter. While this photograph was apparently taken on a different occasion, no less an authority than Ms. Sainz herself says (if my rudimentary Spanish translation is correct) says she was dressed just like this for Jets practice:

Carefully viewing this photograph (making the kind of sacrifice that you've no doubt come to expect as routine here at Second Effort), a thought occurs to me: Ms. Sainz's discomfort may have been caused by constricted bloodflow.

Of course, some of the Jets players and coaches may also have acted like goofs.

This could be one of those chicken-and-egg problems, wouldn't it?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The vultures closing in?

We start this week with a deposition, later this afternoon, and I will have to spend more time preparing for it than I can bill. My memory buffers should be working better than they are, especially the short-term ones, but there it is. A great deal of studying must be undertaken here.

If the depositions weren't so spaced out -- if they were conducted in a couple of weeks' time, as I'd proposed, for example, as opposed to one every couple of weeks -- things might be different. But they aren't.

One of the reasons why the memory buffer is so stuffed is I am trying to cram an appeal into the next two weeks. It is a lengthy record, bordering on huge: Two trials (so far) and I am expected to persuade the Appellate Court that there must be a third. If one imagines that the learned justices of the aforementioned Appellate Court may view this suggestion with some skepticism, one would probably be entirely on point. Still, we have our orders, and the promise of a significant hourly fee that will probably be paid before the end of the year.

Probably. I have had a serious run of significant fees that remain receivables -- promises that are never redeemed -- wishes that are never fulfilled. This creates rather a crimp in my cash flow. The credit card companies are not interested in my flush receivables. These are populated by shallow creatures. They are interested solely in my anemic checking account. If they employed more well-balanced individuals, they might appreciate the larger picture. But, alas.

If the bill is paid, I hope I'm still here to receive it: The weekend mail brought two new bills -- and no checks. As we are at the height of the tuition season just now, this ratio must be reversed... and soon.

Somehow, in the past, as those of you who have endured my regular bouts of self-pity in these essays, I have always managed to scrape by. But it seems that I must become more creative each and every month: This month I paid my rent with money withheld for taxes. Those of you who know about such things will likely recognize the defect in this strategy.

Though I'd rather be blogging, it appears I'd better get to work.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Older Daughter nursing a grudge against manager

Older Daughter, you'll remember, became a nurse recently.

And she's employed, in a hospital, in Indianapolis, working three 12 hour shifts a week. The days vary from week to week -- but she does work days.

But things haven't been all rosy for Older Daughter. She bent down to pick up her purse a few months back and fell awkwardly. She wound up looking for work on crutches. She got an offer anyway and was scheduled to start... and then her doctor told her she'd have to have surgery on the knee. From bending down wrong.

The hospital pushed back her start date to give her time to recover because, as it turns out, one-legged nurses are notoriously ineffective. Also, it's hard to carry meds and crutches.

Eventually, she started work -- but the knee was not responding as hoped to therapy. Her doctor said a little more scoping and scraping would be in order. They found a five day window between scheduled shifts and did the work. Nevertheless, she still had some restrictions when she went back to work. Her doctor wanted her to sit 15 minutes every hour.

Her manager wants her to stay on her feet for the entire 12 hour shift.

It's not just Older Daughter who is allegedly required to stay wholly vertical for so long; every nurse on the floor is under the same directive.

Now, certainly, one can't have nurses lounging in a patient's room. But there are no chairs at the nursing station. Computer terminals have no chairs. There is a meal break, when work permits, and sitting is allowed then -- but it seems extraordinary (to me at least) to impose this requirement even on people with healthy knees.

Long Suffering Spouse stands during most of the school day, but that works out to about half the length of Older Daughter's shift. And when Long Suffering Spouse returns home... she needs to sit down.

It has occurred to me, in fact, that standing for virtually an entire 12 hour shift must violate some health and safety code -- but Older Daughter says this is not so. Not in Indiana, anyway.

The standing order re: standing has damaged the relationship between Older Daughter and her manager. But this is not the only issue that Older Daughter has with her.

It seems that Older Daughter's training is incomplete -- and yet she has been dumped into situations where she has minimal training or none at all.

The unit where Older Daughter works is supposed to be for persons with difficulty breathing. In practice, it has become the dumping ground for psych patients and drug addicts. Last week Older Daughter had to care for a person dying of AIDS who showered her with bodily fluids -- I let her mother discuss the specifics with her. I am too delicate. Almost everyone on the floor is on Medicaid or some other government program. And Medicaid pays less than private insurance, and Medicaid patients are pronounced fit for discharge far sooner, and in a far more fragile state of health, than their privately insured fellow patients. It has occurred to me that the hospital may figure that these are the people least likely to sue. And it certainly gives me warm and fuzzy feelings about the days to come when we are all dependent on government payments for our health care.

For some reason, Older Daughter chafes against being plunged into situations without adequate training. She worries that someone may die because she doesn't know what to do. This is another source of friction with Older Daughter's manager -- who tells my daughter that she will be trained before getting put into these situations, but schedules her into them anyway. Other nurses on the floor have expressed similar concerns: There is 100% turnover of the nurses on the unit every six months.

One hundred per cent! If my daughter is not exaggerating, that surely says something (and not something nice) about the management of the floor.

Older Daughter talks about quitting after every shift. I'm encouraging her to stick it out for at least six months -- that seems to be the minimum quantum of experience necessary to get a better job.

But I still can't help but think that things might be better for Older Daughter if she was allowed to sit down, at least occasionally, at the nursing station or in the hallway while (for example) making entries on a patient's chart. I don't think that's crazy; do you?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

And they're off! Wannabe Daley successors begin jostling for advantage

As I forked over my six bits for the Sun-Times yesterday morning, the newspaper guy asked me, "So, are you running?"

Even in this anonymous blog -- wherein I suppose I could indulge my fantasies of self-importance without immediate fear of ridicule -- I can not pretend that the newspaper guy was making any suggestion about my actual political charisma. Rather, said newspaper guy was making a very valid point on the heels of Richard M. Daley's decision not to seek a seventh term as Mayor of Chicago, namely, that everyone and his brother are eyeing Daley's soon to be vacated chair.

I responded in kind. "Sure, I'm running," I said, "if I can talk my wife out of running against me." He laughed and I went to work. (Come to think of it, Jesse Jackson, Jr. may be saying the same thing for real....)

It is a time of celebration in many parts of Chicago. While Mayor Daley has unquestionably employed some extraordinarily good people in key positions, many of Daley's political operatives have been convicted of corruption charges. Daley has raised fees and costs, imposed crazy fencing requirements (either history or the U.S. Attorney will eventually reveal, I am certain, some Daley relative in the wrought iron business), lost the Olympics, starved the police department, forced unpaid furloughs on municipal employees, and -- worst of all -- apparently managed somehow to spend the windfalls acquired from the sale of Chicago's parking meters and the long-term lease of the Chicago Skyway.

The City is broke and breaking down.

Still, if Daley had chosen to run again, whatever the numbers suggested before his announcement, I believe he would have been reelected. The Daleys have always managed to quash or co-opt any potentially credible opposition before they can become a real threat. In other words, there was no viable alternative.

Scott Waguespack, alderman of the 32nd Ward, and one of the few brave souls willing to talk about seeking the crown before Mayor Daley's announcement, said the first thing he'd order, were he elected, is a comprehensive forensic audit of the City's finances. Where has the parking meter money gone? Where did the Skyway money go? What is laying around in all those TIFF accounts?

This is something on which all voters should insist. The next mayor is going to be told by his or her staff that property taxes must go up. But why?

Daley's legacy is not all tarnish and tyranny. This is a beautiful city, and more beautiful now than ever. Daley deserves credit for this transformation of the Hog Butcher of the World into an international tourist destination. Unless we can keep our police force intact, however, we will rapidly decline. Tourists will not come here. Unless we can save our tax base, we will rapidly decline. Beautiful skyscrapers lose something of their charm (for businessowners at least) as taxes increase.

Mr. Daley has been a strongman. When Richard I (a strongman if ever there was one) passed from the scene in 1976, chaos reigned. We had the Bilandic interregnum, smothered by the Blizzard of 1979. We had Jane Byrne for a time and The Blues Brothers. But we fell into "Council Wars." We became "Beirut-by-the-Lake."

Will the passage of Richard II unleash similar forces of chaos? What happened when Tito was no longer on the scene in Yugoslavia? What happened when Saddam Hussein was removed in Iraq?

I doubt that any new mayor will have anywhere near the control that Daley has had. Some are pleased with this. I understand. But I am also worried....

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

I can't top this post on Popehat re: Florida lunatic

It is entitled "Why I Will Not Write About This Latest Outrage By A Sick, Twisted Individual And his Followers Against A Target Group, Even Though I Am A Person Of Good Will."

And I won't mention the name of the Sick, Twisted Individual either. Too bad the networks and other media outlets do. If you don't know what we're talking about, read this.

There's no reason to give this goof coverage. There appears to be very good reason to offer him therapy.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

First day of school? It had better be

It's the day after Labor Day in America and it is the traditional first day of school. Cartoonists are making the usual jokes:

F Minus cartoon from Yahoo! Comics

A recent Jeff Danzinger cartoon makes the point that the traditional American school year is shorter than several others around the globe:
Danzinger cartoon from Yahoo! Comics

And today is the first day of school for most Chicago Public School students (a handful of schools follow a year-round schedule).

My wife's school has been in session for two weeks already. Youngest Son is entering the fourth week of his senior year. The local Catholic schools start sooner -- but finish sooner than their public counterparts, too.

But back to the Chicago Public Schools: Since young people have an alarming tendency to get shot by other young people in certain areas of the City, officials and community groups are urging fathers to walk their kids to school today. WBBM Newsradio 780 reports that as many as 500 "community watchers" will be posted around 38 Chicago high schools to provide additional security. The Chicago Sun-Times focuses this morning on the 20 "community watchers" to be posted around Corliss High School. Rosalind Rossi's Sun-Times article notes that this is not a wholly altruistic venture on the part of participating community groups:
Dozens of community groups vied for the chance to produce and train community watchers. At Corliss, the Nehemiah Coalition joined forces with Roseland Ceasefire to produce 20 community watchers who were given three days of training, including briefings on gang symbols and colors.

* * * * * * * * *

The program also is providing jobs -- at the rate of $8.50 to $10 an hour -- to adults waylaid by tough economic times. It gave Troy McDaniels a job after he was laid off as an online university admissions adviser -- as well as a new way to reach kids and help the community.
And for the kids who successfully run the gauntlet and make it school unshot?

There are prizes just for showing up: For the fourth year in a row, the Museum of Science and Industry will be giving passes good for three admissions to the museum. The linked Sun-Times article and this story from the local ABC affiliate point out that, last year, the museum gave out 380,000 family passes under this program.


Not to denigrate the laudable intentions and good will of the persons involved in these various programs, isn't it a sin and a shame that there is a need for these programs at all?

I didn't have to be exhorted to take my kids to school on the first day of class when they were little. It was something I wanted to do. School is not merely important, it is vital.

And these gangbangers who shoot each other up on the way to and from school? (And who shoot anyone or anything that happens to be in the way?) Where are their parents? These gangbangers did not spontaneously generate, springing up from the pavement, pants already sagging.

Don't tell me about poverty and lack of opportunity and jobs. Gangs are no alternative: Kids don't join gangs and become rich. Kids join gangs and a lot of them become dead. Where are their moms and dads teaching them that gangs are criminals bound for jail and damnation? The only people that get rich from gangs are gang "leaders," those that survive for long enough -- rich from the drugs and prostitution and, ultimately, the deaths of their peers and their younger siblings and, eventually, their own children. And, perhaps, some of the the record producers and "artists" that celebrate this "gangsta" lifestyle in in rap "music" and videos.

Oh, we are so smug in liberal, liberated America. People actually believe that we don't need stable, two-parent families to raise kids. Here's a news flash for you: Sandra Bullock can probably raise a kid without a husband. It's a heck of a lot harder for single mothers on Chicago's West and South Sides. Maybe we as a society need to remember that the family is the foundation of society -- and that marriage is the foundation of the family.

Yes, we all need to go back to school and learn -- or re-learn -- some basic lessons.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Youngest Son takes a trip; parents follow

It's high school football season again in the Curmudgeon home. I've mentioned this in passing in prior essays. It is not just any old football season, either. It is Youngest Son's senior year -- and his last football season ever.

"I love college football," Youngest Son said last night as he flipped channels between any of about 63 college games then in progress.

"If you love it so much," I said, "why don't you try and play in college?" He's looking at small schools for baseball as it is. If one could play both sports in college -- and if one is not Bo Jackson -- it would probably have to be at a smaller school. (Yes, Cub fans, I know all about Jeff Samardzija. Be quiet now.)

Youngest Son is still nursing bruised ribs from Sunday night's game. He swiveled to look at me to gauge whether I was being serious or merely obtuse. "Dad, I'd be dead." He turned back to watch Pitt-Utah or maybe it was South Carolina-Southern Mississippi. Maybe he switched channels again. Time passed. "I love to watch college football," he amended.

Youngest Son was watching TV while allegedly washing clothes in anticipation of his trip today.

Ordinarily, Illinois high schools play other high schools in the same general vicinity. The term "general" is relative. My son's school belongs to a conference that has teams in the far south suburbs, close to the Indiana state line; in the southwest suburbs; in the western suburbs; on the northwest side of the City and in the northwest suburbs; and pretty darn far up in Lake County, closer to Wisconsin than to our house. When Oldest Son was in high school there was a temporary conference realignment. That year, we also had a road game in Kankakee.

But -- still -- none of these destinations is more than an hour and a half away. Except at rush hour on Friday, when one needs to get to most of the football games.

(In the Midwest, we measure distance by estimated travel time, not by distance. I gather this is a regional thing.)

Anyway, we are in the non-conference portion of this year's football schedule. Schools get to schedule a couple of games against teams that aren't in one's own conference. It is a way for some schools to pick up 'quality' games that may help in playoff seedings. Some schools like to schedule East Cupcake or North Marshmallow so that everyone on the squad gets some game experience. My sons' high school has generally tried for one of each. Thus, last week's tussle was against a school from the Catholic League Blue Division. (For the uninitiated, the Chicago Catholic League is about as tough a high school football league as there is anywhere -- including, I say with a hint of parochial pride, anywhere in Texas or Florida. Donovan McNabb went to Mount Carmel, for example.)

This week's game was supposed to be against a Chicago public school. Some of the Chicago public high schools have great football programs -- Morgan Park is a current power. Dick Butkus came from Chicago Vocational. But the level of competition is pretty uneven. The football coach (who doubles as AD) isn't saying which school he had the contract with for the second game of this season, only that the school canceled out at the last minute, leaving him to scramble for a replacement. He thought he found someone in Wisconsin, he said, but that did not pan out. Eventually, he found one other school in the state with an open date.

It was the one and only school available -- and it's five hours away (300 miles, if you must).

Later this morning, Youngest Son and his teammates will board a highway bus and head out for far southern Illinois. Although it's still in the same state, for us in Chicago, southern Illinois might as well be a different country. You don't have to get much south of I-80 before folks start speaking with a twang. Youngest Son's destination this weekend is a lot further south of that. I remember taking the kids to Springfield years ago. We made a day trip from Springfield south to Vandalia, Illinois' second capital (after Kaskaskia). Abraham Lincoln was in the legislature when the capital was in Vandalia; it was there that he helped broker a deal that moved the capital to his adopted hometown of Springfield. The old capital building became the Fayette County Courthouse.

We couldn't help but notice all the prisons -- and the signs warning against picking up hitchhikers -- on the blacktop around Vandalia. Someone once told me that the best farmland in Illinois is all north of Springfield. South of Springfield, I was told, the only industry is prisons. (I can only apologize to the good citizens of southern Illinois for the preceding two sentences -- I assure you, it is not an opinion that I hold personally. It is merely something I've been told.)

Youngest Son's destination this weekend is south of Springfield. South of Vandalia, too.

Naturally, Long Suffering Spouse wants to go see the game. I do, too, really. I'm just not looking forward to 10 hours of driving. "What if he gets hurt?" asked Long Suffering Spouse. "We have to be there." (Moms are always worried about the kid getting hurt; dads are always concerned about the kid doing well. OK, fine, dads are always concerned about the kid not screwing up.)

Sometime tonight, after the rush hour subsides, if it ever does, Long Suffering Spouse and I will venture out. We'll find some place to stay along the Interstate when we can drive no further. Hopefully that will prove to be close to our intended destination. The game is tomorrow afternoon. (I'll be looking out for prisons, too.)

But, in the meantime, Youngest Son left us this morning. All the football players were presented with giant bags in which to lug their football gear. Youngest Son also had a backpack for his books and small bag for his non-football clothes. On his last trip to the car, Long Suffering Spouse produced a $20 bill. "Would you like this?" she asked.

The kid is clearly in good shape, with very sharp reflexes, at least judging by the way he snatched the proffered bill from his mother's hand.

"They are going to feed him, you know," I protested, but already too late to save the $20 bill.

"But what if he needs something extra?" Long Suffering Spouse asked.

Youngest Son kept moving toward the front door.

"He's just going to use it to play cards," I said.

The lightbulb went on over Long Suffering Spouse's head. She wheeled toward Youngest Son, who by this time had almost made good his escape. "Don't you dare gamble with my money!"

"Why would I gamble with your money?" Youngest Son called back, affecting an attitude of wounded innocence.

I followed Youngest Son out the door, if only to answer his question. "Because you don't have any money of your own to gamble with," I said quietly.

"Well, there is that," he said, quieter still, and he stowed the last load of gear in the car.

"I hope you win enough to pay for Homecoming," I said. Homecoming is next weekend.

"So do I," he said, closing the car door.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Enforcing respect for the law

The United States is a nation of laws:
badly written and randomly enforced.

-- Frank Zappa

Yesterday I complained about the hyperinflation of our statute books: We have too many laws -- and the laws we have are often too complex to be comprehensible. This diminishes respect for the law.

So, too, does uneven enforcement.

For example, a lot of you would probably agree that texting or even talking on the phone while driving is -- in general -- usually -- wrong. When one texts, looking at the itty-bitty keyboard instead of at the street ahead, horrible consequences may ensue. And who hasn't seen someone engaged in an extremely animated conversation while supposedly driving? How can such a person be paying adequate attention to the road? Answer: They can not.

The response to this consensus is that, in most states, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal.

But there are stipulations, provisos, exceptions, fine print....

For example, "hands-free" devices are typically permitted for cell phone use. How many times have you seen a driver, waving his or her arms and screaming at someone who's not there, drifting over the center line or into your lane -- but with something sticking out of his or her ear like Lt. Uhura? No violation of the cell phone ban there....

One may also be allowed, in some jurisdictions, to dial 911.

I believe there may be jurisdictions where members of some professions are exempt from the ban.

A lot of people have cell phones these days that have GPS apps. In Chicago, where I live, however, the dashboard-mounted Tom-Tom is permitted, but using one's hand-held iPhone, to get the same information, is a violation.

And, now, let's face the truth: Haven't all of you, at some point, read a text at a stop light or answered (or even made) a quick call while in transit? (Honey? It's me. Traffic is terrible -- I'll be about 15 minutes late. *beep*)

Is that really so terrible? But you could get a ticket while the guy in the next car, screaming at his ex-wife about never paying a single bleeping dime of child support if that kid gets a tattoo -- skates by.

And -- fine -- even if you are the one driver who locks your cell phone in your trunk before getting behind the wheel, have you ever gotten distracted by the kids arguing in the backseat? By a politician's commercial on the radio that sets your blood boiling? By your cigarettes (or breath mints) rolling out of your purse?

And even if you have never, ever been distracted from your driving in any way, won't you at least admit that the cell phone bans are unevenly enforced?

Walking downtown everyday I see lots of people in cars. Most of them -- not some of them, not just a lot them -- most of them are on the phone. Some have got thingamabobs on their ear -- but most of 'em don't. I've seen police officers driving and using cell phones. In my neighborhood there are fewer cars on the road -- but it sure seems like a high percentage are on a phone there, too. And most of these aren't using hands-free devices either.

It's harder, when one is driving, to observe just how many of one's fellow travelers are gabbing on the phone -- but it sure seems like an awful lot. And, if someone is going too slow or changing lanes randomly, it's a safe bet that he or she is doing something on a phone.

And yet we know very, very, very few of these persons will ever be ticketed for the offense. When persons do get tickets it's because cops are told to go out and write them in some specially selected enforcement area. So there's selective, random enforcement at best.

Uneven, uncertain, haphazard or selective enforcement undermines respect for the law -- even a law that most people would agree is probably a pretty good idea.

But I would submit that the laws banning cell phone use are not a pretty good idea. The real problem of using a cell phone in a vehicle isn't addressed by an outright ban.

The problem is not cell phones per se; the problem is distracted driving.

And it was ever thus: Back in the early 1970s, when Dick Nixon was still in the White House, when I got my driver's license, we were warned by our driver's ed instructors that it was an automatic fail if we turned on the radio during the driving test.

Distraction is the problem; a cell phone may be one of who-knows-how-many causes of distraction. We don't need separate laws against cell phones, against texting, against computer use, against too many kids in a car (in Illinois, as in some other states, the amount of passengers a driver may legally transport is dependent on the age of the driver and the kinship of his or her passengers)... we need just one law. Distracted driving should be illegal. Distracted driving should be determined by the arresting officer. ("I saw the defendant change lanes erratically, and he appeared to have his head down. As I approached I could see he appeared to be typing. After I stopped him I saw a Blackberry on the seat beside him.") Such a law can be enforced wherever a cop sees the hazard -- and without jeopardizing the license of a soccer mom calling Junior for 30 seconds to say that Sis's game ran late and he should warm up the meatloaf for dinner.

Erratic drivers -- distracted drivers -- are the menace. These are the ones who should get tickets -- even if they have Bluetooth. Or if they were just putting on makeup -- even if their cell phone was locked in the trunk.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Getting laws that work means getting laws that can be understood -- even by non-lawyers

There was a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, back in the late 70s and early 80s, who was one of the superstars of the Illinois bar review course. No -- not Professor Conviser, who merely ran the company -- but Professor Spak.

Professor Spak had a distinctive viewpoint when it came to legislation: All new legislation, he said, means more work for lawyers.

If so, between Obamacare and Dodd-Frank alone, we should end the Great Recession by the prosperous employment of an army of new lawyers.

But the pendulum has swung too far.

The local NBC affiliate had a story on the late news yesterday about a Carpentersville family hounded by a zombie debt collector.

Also known as scavenger or junk debt collectors, these bottom-feeders buy debt that others could not collect. Let's say you fail to pay Mr. Visa this month. Mr. Visa will unleash his battalion of debt collectors on you -- but, for some reason, you still fail to pay. The matter will be referred to "collection" -- someone outside -- who will try and collect the debt charging a fee of up to 50% of the amount collected. If these efforts fail, suit may be filed.

But people move. Sometimes, when people owe a lot of money, they move quickly, under cover of darkness. Process servers can't find them. The suit languishes and is ultimately withdrawn.

The collector can still make money off these uncollected accounts, though, if it sells to someone lower on the food chain. The entity that buys the debt pays pennies on the dollar because these debts have already proved resistant to collection. But the new collector can seek 100% of the original amount owed (and all the interest and late fees and other junk larded on initially). So the new collector only has to 'hit' on a few of these debts to make the investment pay off. If it gets a default judgment against some debtor, it can garnish wages and levy property and do all sorts of things that really can squeeze blood from a turnip. Legally. And the residuals -- the ones that couldn't be found, now twice filtered, are sold again, now for pennies of what the second buyer paid. And the process can be repeated indefinitely -- at least until the statute of limitation on the debt expires.

That can be a long time. In Illinois, suits on a written contract can be filed up to 10 years after breach.

Thus -- zombie debt.

The family in the linked story didn't owe any money. Someone put the wife's maiden name together with someone else's address (someone with a similar name, probably) and thought it might get somewhere. Someone added 2 and 2 and got 17.

The story mentions how the family had to change its phone number to get away from the harassing collection calls. Only at the very end does it mention that consumers have weapons with which to fight back. The story mentioned only the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C.A. §1692 et seq. But there may be state law remedies as well. And remedies under both state and federal law may provide for penalties and attorney's fees -- requiring fees to be paid to the lawyer for the successful prosecution of a claim against the creditor -- fees that must be paid by the creditor.

Don't ask me to explain all the remedies, though. I saw the story last night on TV and remembered some research I'd done recently and I pulled my notes this morning -- and could not make heads or tails of them. I don't regularly engage in consumer law issues.

And that, finally, brings me back to where I wanted to take this morning's essay.

When the law is so complicated that a lawyer has to spend huge amounts of time to figure it out -- unless he or she practices in that area on a regular basis -- something is wrong with the law.

In my 30 year career, I've watched that statute books bloat and swell. I'm not talking annotations here; I'm merely talking about the text of one state's laws. The slim volume of statutes that our forebears chucked into the covered wagons along with the King James Bible is a distant memory. Now the big federal statutes -- Obamacare, for example -- are five or ten or 15 times as big as those ancient lawbooks. For each individual statute.

Look: Moses started out with ten laws (15 if you subscribe to the Mel Brooks version). That was perhaps too few. Too general.

But we need to simplify our legal codes. We need to prune relentlessly. We can't expect people to respect -- and follow -- laws they can't read and couldn't find in a warehouse of volumes.

And you can't expect a society of laws to endure for long if the laws are neither accepted nor understood.