Friday, April 29, 2011

Santo subito? Not so fast, please

Among the many opinions that no one in the world is clamoring to hear are mine concerning the pending beatification of the late Pope, John Paul II.

At his funeral, crowds in St. Peter's Square unfurled banners and chanted "santo subito," which means (I am told) "sainthood now." And the canonization process, streamlined under John Paul II himself, was really fast-tracked for JPII by his successor, Benedict XVI.

John Paul II is, and I think will continue to be, regarded as one of the heroes of the 20th Century.

I imagine Joseph Stalin, skewered and rotating on a spit over an open flame in one of the hotter regions of the Netherworld. Long before John Paul II's reign, Stalin once famously sneered, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Now, roasting in eternity, Stalin has his answer -- and JPII provided it: Enough. There are others deserving of credit, too, but John Paul II, as much as any other man, is responsible for the destruction of Soviet Communism.

But is John Paul II a saint?

The horrors that some (and far too many) Catholic priests and brothers inflicted on minors were revealed, in nation after nation, during John Paul's papacy. Reforms were adopted in America during his reign -- important reforms, badly needed, and, for the most part (as far as I can tell) sincerely implemented to date -- but the Church has never seemed to completely understand, acknowledge and accept its complicity in so many crimes over so many years.

As long as there are children there will be evil, sick or twisted individuals who will seek to exploit them. The Catholic Church was never alone in this. The Boy Scouts, protestant churches, even public schools -- there have been abusers in all of these, too. And in far too many cases, abusers in all of these settings were allowed to resign quietly, and even given carefully neutral references. But in none of these other settings were abusers systematically protected and moved to other fields of opportunity. To protect the Church. To protect the Church! To descend, for a moment, into kid-speak, but only because it seems particularly appropriate: OMG. But it wasn't just evil or venal or incredibly short-sighted bishops. There were well-meaning people involved there, too. Ironically, and tragically, an institution built on faith too many of these put their faith in science, hoping and relying on doctors and psychiatrists to "cure" errant clergy. It didn't work. We know better now. We hope.

The stain of clergy abuse clings to John Paul II, and not just because it was revealed on his watch. He appears to have defended or supported Marcial Maciel, the Mexican priest who founded the Legion of Christ and who also, according to Wikipedia, "was found guilty of raping underaged males and... also fathered at least one child."

Now the Pope -- any Pope -- sits atop a very steep pyramid. Not everything that goes on in the Church is or could be known by the Pope. In many ways the Pope -- any Pope -- is a figurehead, a prisoner of the Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia. The Curia is practically a living creature and, as such, is certainly far older than the Catholic Church. It is the bureaucracy of Rome -- Republican Rome, Imperial Rome -- still living on, adapting, growing. Like any living creature, the Curia responds to stimulation. And Maciel sent a lot of it to Rome during his heyday -- money, favors, money. When rumors swirled, they could be put down. Buried. Ignored. Dismissed as the mutterings of jealous rivals. What the Pope knew, therefore, and what the Pope should have known, on this issue or on many others, is not necessarily obvious.

But with these uncertainties I can not get too excited about John Paul II's coming beatification, unlike so many of my fellow Catholics here in Chicago. Cardinal George is heading up a large Chicago delegation to the ceremony this weekend. Part of it is ethnic pride: Chicago is the largest Polish city in the world after Warsaw (and home to more Poles than Warsaw at one time).

I take solace in this: Beatification is not sainthood. The media don't quite understand all this Catholic mumbo-jumbo and don't trouble themselves to learn, either. A man or woman who is beatified may be venerated by the faithful, but the Church does not declare, by beatification, that this man or woman is worthy of veneration as a friend and true servant of God.

I'd love to have met John Paul II. I was at his Mass in Chicago's Grant Park in 1979 -- me and a million or so of my closest friends. As I've already said, he is surely a hero for his role in bringing down the Soviet bloc. But there's no hurry, so far as I'm concerned, to declare the man a saint. Time will tell.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Easter dinner involves more than chow at Curmudgeon home

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Most of us were gathered here at the Curmudgeon Manse for Easter Dinner this past Sunday. Only Older Daughter and her husband Hank were absent. (When one's a nurse and the other gets paid to sing in church and they live 185 miles away, they'll miss their share of holiday dinners. It's OK.)

We don't sit down together as a family for dinner that often. We never did. Long Suffering Spouse ate with the kids when they were little; I would generally come home long after they'd eaten, sometimes even after they'd gone to bed. Long Suffering Spouse didn't mind so much, not really, because without me there to set a bad example, she could get most of the kids to eat exotic things like fruits or vegetables. Only Oldest Son's picky palate proved that bad eating habits are not just learned behavior.

But we generally sit down together for dinner at the holidays. Dinner conversation on those occasions is pretty much a contact sport. I think it's all good-natured. I'd better think it's all good natured -- I give at least as good as I get even though I'm picking on people who are going to pick out my nursing home some day.

Sunday the focus of the table talk was on Middle Son. I discovered late last week that he'd gone "Facebook official," confirming that he is actually dating a girl.

It is important to pause here and consider the magnitude of my achievement. Younger Daughter is one of the all-time great Facebook snoops -- but I was the one to make this discovery.

I noted, too, that the girl in question hails from Michigan. So I asked Middle Son whether the girl was going to be in Chicago over the holiday weekend. If she wasn't going to be going home to her family, she could always have dinner with us, I told him.

"We'll see," said Middle Son. In this context, "we'll see" means "absolutely no freaking way in the world." So I was not terribly surprised that Middle Son showed up to dinner alone.

If he thought, though, that he would evade discussion of what may or may not be a budding relationship by this omission, he was sadly mistaken.

I mentioned to my daughter-in-law, Abby, how much this situation reminded me of a similar situation just three years ago. I told Abby how we'd been so worried about her on that occasion, a thousand miles from her family, alone in her studio apartment, eating beans out of a tin can... and, now, it seemed, some other poor girl was in the same predicament. This little speech made Abby, Oldest Son and Middle Son all uncomfortable at the same time.

Middle Son tried to change the subject. It seems that he'd had a party at his place to celebrate the end of tax season (it's an accounting thing) and Younger Daughter had invited herself over. In fact, she'd gotten there a couple of hours before Middle Son arrived. He'd had to go to a client dinner in the south suburbs that night -- he wasn't planning on that -- so he was the last to arrive at his own party. He wanted to talk about how freely Younger Daughter had partaken of the spirits on offer at the apartment prior to his arrival -- but Younger Daughter turned the tables on him. Yes, she'd overindulged, Younger Daughter admitted -- and Long Suffering Spouse was not amused -- but, when Middle Son finally arrived, who was he with but the girl with whom he is now linked on Facebook?

I don't know if anything will come of this, of course. This is Middle Son's problem, not mine.

But the consensus among the women-folk in the Curmudgeon family (and, believe me, Older Daughter has since weighed in on this topic as well) is that acknowledging a relationship on Facebook is an Important Step.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Chicago's #1 -- Our gas price leads the nation

The Chicago Tribune reports today that the average gasoline price in Chicago is $4.27 a gallon. That's what I paid yesterday morning; I guess this news that makes me feel a little better. At least, according to the article, I didn't overpay.

One of the gas stations closest to my house is at $4.45. I haven't been by the BP a little further north on Harlem, at Devon. That's usually the most expensive anywhere around. For obvious reasons, I'm not driving anywhere I don't have to these days.

Now the question comes up: Is there gouging going on here? This is a question on the order of 'is the sky blue'?

I did a post whining about gasoline prices in late June 2008, when the national price was $4.08 a gallon (it's $3.88 currently, according to the linked Tribune article). At the time of that June 26, 2008 post, crude oil prices were fluctuating from a high of $139.89 to around $134 when the post appeared. Today, oil prices are dropping from around $113 to $111.75 a barrel.

Yet, prices at the pump are higher. At least in Chicago. It's over $4 a gallon in California, too.

I hope I'm as fond of capitalism as anyone. But thievery is thievery. And someone should be going to jail.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Curmudgeon gets conspiracy-minded about 1918 Cubs World Series loss

This morning's Sun-Times carries a story about the possibility that the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox (the "Black Sox") were not the first Chicago baseball team to throw a World Series.

Indeed, if a sworn statement by Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte is to be believed, Cicotte and the other "Eight Men Out" may have been inspired to throw the 1919 Series to the Cincinnati Reds by a rumor that the Cubs had purposely tanked in the 1918 Series, against the Boston Red Sox.

That's the series in which Babe Ruth pitched for the BoSox. His contract was sold to the Yankees soon thereafter, the start of the pervasive New England myth -- "the Curse of the Bambino."

The Chicago History Museum has posted part of Cicotte's statement online, in an article by Peter Alter entitled, "Did the Cubs lose the the 1918 WS on purpose?"

Even casual baseball fans know what happened to the Eight Men Out. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a man with a hard face and a shock of white hair that made him look like an Old Testament prophet with a sour stomach, disregarded the 1921 court verdict in which the Black Sox were acquitted (despite confessions from Cicotte and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson) and banned all eight implicated players from baseball for life. You may even recall his famous quote on that occasion: "Regardless of the outcome of the juries, no player that throws a ball game, no man that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball."

But was Judge Landis so tough on the Black Sox because he so hated gambling... or was his antipathy to the White Sox generally also involved?

Judge Landis was appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. He had a talent for grabbing headlines by his rulings, but these did not always stand up to the test of appellate review. From Wikipedia:
In 1907, [Landis] presided over a Standard Oil antitrust trial fining them $29 million for accepting rail freight rebates, although the verdict was later set aside.

In 1918, he presided over the trial of over 100 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (including Big Bill Haywood) on the charge of violating (by hindering the draft) the Espionage Act of 1917. He also presided over the December 1918 trial of 5 prominent Socialist Party of America leaders, including Victor Berger, SPA Executive Secretary Adolph Germer, youth section leader William Kruse, and editor of the party's national newspaper J. Louis Engdahl. While Landis oversaw the convictions of many in these trials, imposing draconian verdicts, many of the verdicts were reversed on appeal or nullified by presidential pardon. The convictions were overturned because Landis had demonstrated his lack of impartiality; notably, Landis said during the trial that "If anybody has said anything worse about the Germans than I have, I would like to know it so I can use it." 255 U.S. 22 at 28.

Landis was also instrumental in getting African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson banned from the sport by charging him with transporting a white woman over state lines for prostitution.
And Landis was an open and notorious Cub fan. I remember reading once that Judge Landis was frequently AWOL from his courtroom, taking in Cub games at the West Side Grounds or, later, at Wrigley Field.

This morning, I looked online to see what corroboration, if any, existed for this recollection. says that Landis "often found time to attend games at both Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago," but an unofficial Cub history website,, asserts, "Landis was... a regular at West Side Grounds, home of the Chicago Cubs. He openly rooted for the Cubs against the White Sox in the 1906 World Series, something White Sox fans never forgot. When the Cubs moved to what is now Wrigley Field, he was a regular there as well."

Now... I don't pretend that this is anything close to authoritative proof... but isn't it interesting that the man who thundered so angrily against ballplayers who consorted with gamblers -- threatening to ban for life even a player who "sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it" -- seems not to have investigated the rumors swirling around his beloved Cubs? Jury verdicts may not have been the only thing disregarded by Judge Landis in his handling of baseball's gambling crisis.

Joe Jackson, it is widely believed, knew about the fix and took the gamblers' money (it may have been thrown on the floor of his hotel room after he refused it); there is some evidence to support the claim that he tried to tell Charles Comiskey about the fix, but the Old Roman wouldn't see him. Jackson's so-called "confession" may have been procured following the liberal administration of whiskey by a White Sox team attorney, Alfred Austrian. Even so, Jackson arguably sat "in conference" with crooked players, but he did hit .375 in the 1919 Series, going 12 for 32 -- including three doubles and a homer -- going 5 for 12 with runners in scoring position. He scored five times, driving in six runs and committed no errors. (See, linked Wikipedia article; see also, Shoeless Joe Jackson's Virtual Hall of Fame.)

Would Judge Landis have been as stern and unyielding toward Jackson if he had worn Cubbie blue?

Monday, April 18, 2011

There's snow on the ground in Chicago this morning

According to the Chicago Tribune (from which this image is also obtained), the .6 inches recorded at O'Hare this morning beats a record that has stood here since 1910.

More proof, if more were required, that anyone who predicts the weather according to the calendar is a fool, especially in Chicago.

Today's snow accumulation is mostly on cars and lawns, not on (the slightly warmer) streets and sidewalks. In other words, today's snow comes pre-shoveled. If only December snow were that considerate.

With the snow and the cold and the gloom, and with the White Sox on a four game losing streak, I needed a laugh this morning. This comic (which is reprinted from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but which I saw today in the Chicago Sun-Times) filled the bill for me. Allow me to share (click to enlarge or clarify):

Friday, April 15, 2011

All dressed up and going nowhere: Curmudgeon tries to tie it all toghether

My late father-in-law approached nearly every day of his long life wearing a tie. He was a professional man, a doctor, and a tie was part of who he was. I can't remember him ever wearing blue jeans. He may not have ever owned any; I don't know for certain because I never saw him tending to his lawn and garden. (He'd not married until he was past 40; he was just two months short of 70 when I married his daughter.)

By the end of his life, a service was cutting the grass and his horticultural exploits were limited to a couple of rose bushes and a tomato plant or two that my wife would start for him, and plant for him. It's possible he may have worn blue jeans in his grass-cutting days. I suspect, though, he may have only loosened his tie.

My father, on the other hand, wore a tie only because it was required of him -- and only when it was required of him. Also a professional man, a lawyer, my father preferred jumpsuits, better suited to a garage mechanic than a lawyer. Then again, in his private time, my father liked working in his garage -- working on this car or that one, working on his lawn tractor, or one of the fleet of smaller, gasoline-powered hand mowers that he maintained. He built a canoe once, from a kit, using thin wood strips and canvas. He built a grandfather clock. He built a Bugatti kit car on a Volkswagen chassis.

I've often read (and I read more and more of these things as the years go by) that one must keep busy in retirement or the human machinery will simply... wind down... and... stop. If scheduled projects were themselves a guarantee of longevity, however, my father would still be alive today.

When he was working, though, my father would never appear without a tie. I don't think he would have been particularly receptive to "Casual Fridays." Of course, the ties he'd wear might be a tad colorful. Colorful? They'd be loud -- garish -- frequently populated by characters from Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons. We buried him in a Mickey Mouse tie. It was a solid color tie, covered with tiny, raised Mickey Mouse faces. You really couldn't tell if you didn't look closely... but I do remember the arched eyebrow of the funeral director. Little did he know my father would probably have thought the tie far too subdued for the occasion. My sister and I made the choice, as I recall, as something of a compromise -- my father might have wanted a louder tie, perhaps, but he probably wouldn't have wanted to shock the guests at his wake.

I wear ties, of course, because I too am a professional man. I fall somewhere between my father and my father-in-law, however. I don't favor loud clothes on any occasion (on one occasion, I seem to recall, at a family picnic, my father critiqued my casual attire as "boring" -- which it certainly was, at least by comparison to the fire engine red, short-sleeve jumpsuit he was wearing).

I wear blue jeans again at home these day -- after a couple of decades of doing without, mostly because, as I wrote in 2008, of an overdeveloped sense of gravitas. I never wear a tie at home, except for the annual Christmas picture. In the modern age, I can sometimes get away with not wearing a tie to the office as well. "Business casual" is a confusing, but wonderful thing. Unfortunately, on several days where I've gone business casual, a colleague has asked me to cover something up in court. On one occasion I came to work in a flannel shirt, prepared to spend the day moving stacks of paper in the comfort and privacy of my office, when I realized I had a status hearing in a Chancery case.

The judge in that case was someone against whom I'd had cases when she was in private practice. We were adversaries, but never enemies. (In other words, we got along quite civilly, the way lawyers are supposed to get along.) I well remembered running into her at the Daley Center, not too long after she went on the bench. We were chatting for a few moments, catching up, when she saw someone entering the building in cutoffs and a t-shirt. "Can you imagine someone coming to court like that?" she said. "How can she expect to be taken seriously?" She proceeded, then, to tell me a number of short anecdotes about oddly dressed persons who had appeared before her.

That conversation sprang to my active memory buffer that morning as I sat in my office, in my flannel shirt.

This happened a few years back, before I moved to this Undisclosed Location. I was a tenant in a bigger office then and I begged a colleague to borrow his suit jacket.

I stepped up on the case with the borrowed blue jacket covering as much of the flannel shirt as possible. It wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough. My colleague was at least as tall as I am, but I was a little wider. I seem to recall the sleeves only coming halfway down my arm. I hope my memory exaggerates. But the flannel shirt was still very visible.

I began with an apology, admitting (truthfully) that I'd misdiaried the court date and hadn't dressed for court.

"Yes, I see," said the judge. "But flannel? Really?"

Yesterday I didn't have court. I didn't wear a tie. But I otherwise dressed for work: Dressy dockers, sensible brown shoes, a tweed jacket, a button-down shirt. And that was to work from home.

I had two projects home with me. I had visions of finishing one before lunch, then running downtown for a CLE presentation that was right in my price range (free), then returning home to do the second project.

I started in diligently on the first project as soon as I dropped my wife off at school. Lunchtime came and went with the first project still undone. It remains undone. How often have I set two tasks for myself -- and finished only half of one?

I will wonder about this later -- but, now, I turn my attention to yesterday's unfinished projects. I think I will begin by loosening my tie.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What's wanting in public debate

The Chicago Sun-Times has a story this morning about a proposal to put pictures on Link cards, the ATM-like cards that have replaced paper food stamps for welfare recipients. The Sun-Times article, by Dave McKinney and Stephen Di Benedetto, quotes Ken Dunkin, a Democratic legislator from Chicago, asking the bill's sponsor, "Are you picking on poor people, representative?"

That's when the light bulb went on.

The recent federal budget compromise was attacked as mere 'accounting tricks' on the one hand and 'an assault on poor people' on the other.

Do you see the pattern?

No one, on either side of our increasingly wide political divide, can publicly admit that anyone on the other side might be motivated by good faith or good intentions.

Thus, the Democrats see any proposed reform of any government program as a Republican attempt to mug the poor and the Republicans see any revision of our Byzantine federal tax structure (the U.S. Tax Code is now 72,000 pages long according to a column today by Jacob Sullum) as an incitement to class warfare.

In the words of Rodney King, can't we all get along here?

Granted, if every dollar spent by government were wisely used, poverty might not be eradicated, every roadway might not be as smooth as a pool table -- but does this mean that no investigation can be made into the efficacy of our considerable expenditures? Can no program, once enacted, ever be abandoned? Why must any economy move be seen as an assault on the less fortunate?

On the other hand, while I hate paying taxes as much as anybody (and more than most since, as a self-employed person, I must withhold money from my own wages and personally send it off to Washington and Springfield), can no revision of the tax code be permitted? Deficits, like credit card balances, add up quickly. Rich people pay willingly for luxury cars and premium service; wouldn't most of us be willing to pay a little more in taxes for streamlined, more efficient government services? The two cents on the dollar Illinois income tax increase has supposedly resulted in a 71% increase in state revenues in March 2011 (when compared to revenues in March 2010). The pain involved in forking over the extra money would be greatly soothed by some assurance that it wasn't going to be entirely wasted.

Democrats are going to have to acknowledge that their Republican brothers and sisters are not heartless monsters bent on starving the unfortunate. Republicans are going to have to admit that their Democratic brothers and sisters are not communists bent on imposing a dictatorship of the proletariat on the Land of the Free. And, if they won't, we have got to get us some new Democrats and Republicans.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Shut up, old man"

Today, I found out, is International Be Kind to Lawyers Day.

Yesterday was not.

I was in court yesterday morning on a case I should have won three years ago, but did not.

Success, it is said, has many fathers; failure is an orphan. That's not entirely true.

The first part -- success has many fathers -- is true. Brilliant as we all sometimes think ourselves to be, none of us succeeds in this life entirely on our own. The best athlete has had lots of coaches. And trainers. And at least one parent or parent-figure who drove the budding superstar to practices and games when he or she was just starting out. The doctor who discovers a miracle cure has had lots of teachers, lots of colleagues who listened attentively, an insight provided (maybe by pure chance) by a spouse or another relative. Yes, the movie goddess is beautiful, but there were others who had to give her the chance to succeed or recognize her talent.

But failure is not an orphan.

Oh, failure is the last kid to be chosen for pick-up basketball. Failure is the nerdy guy no one wants to be around. But the buck has to stop somewhere. And in this case I appeared on yesterday, it stops with me. The trial judge made the wrong decision, yes, but I must have been insufficiently persuasive. I should have worried less about the bill and more about winning in the Appellate Court. I didn't win there either.

And now my client is suffering for it. I don't think it any consolation for my client that I am suffering too.

And while you sometimes lose a close case to a respected opponent, the ones that really hurt are when you lose to a real jerk. In this case -- without getting into any identifying details -- it is the opposing client who is the real jerk.

I've represented real jerks before. Unless a lawyer is so financially independent that he or she can discriminate freely, every lawyer has had this experience. There are a couple of tricks for dealing with rotten clients. One trick, which I've more or less mastered, is to retain control of the case. The bum of a client isn't going to approve of anything you do anyway, so you might as well do what is right and appropriate and not get tainted by your association with the rat. The other trick, which I've not mastered at all, is get as much of your money as possible up front. Because the scummy client is never going to pay you in full.

The attorney currently representing the rotten client in this case (he's run through several so far) hasn't mastered even the first rule. He's letting his client tell him how to handle the case. It will get him in trouble, eventually; at least I sincerely hope so. Of course, I may stroke out before that happens. It was outrageous what counsel said in the written submission he gave to the judge before yesterday and what he said in defense of it in the courtroom yesterday morning was equally so. But the judge, having only read what my opponent provided, regarded me with a jaundiced eye.

But I get ahead of my story.

Before the case was called -- before the judge came out -- opposing counsel introduced himself to me. He was sitting in front of me. He turned around in the swivel chair at counsel table to face me (I'd been sitting behind him) pretending to be friendly. I can pretend lots of things -- what blogger doesn't? -- but I couldn't pretend to return the pretend bonhomie. Indeed, I was radiating hostility. I had, as the saying goes, my "war face" on.

Nevertheless, counsel tried to engage me in conversation about the case. Eventually, I obliged him. I began to tell him what I thought. This lasted about 30 seconds or so.

Abruptly, though, counsel said, "Shut up, old man. I am not afraid of you." He turned around in his swivel chair facing the front of the courtroom.

Yesterday was definitely not Be Kind to Lawyers Day. Tomorrow won't be either.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Curmudgeon conducts an Unscientific Survey about the Royal Wedding

On the Friday after Easter, a balding relic of an age gone by will marry a very pretty English girl at Westminster Abbey.

It is a sign of how little royalty counts any more -- even in England -- that the young couple couldn't even book the church on a Saturday.

Now, mind you, I'm happy for the kids and I wish them a long and happy marriage. But my republican (small-r) instincts are entirely on edge with all this "news" coverage of the forthcoming nuptials.

Yes, I understand that the news-gathering services are pleased to focus on a happy story for a change. It must be a relief for the chattering class to put aside the endless wars and famines and plagues and earthquakes and tsunamis and insane dictators for this event. But wall to wall coverage by every cable and broadcast outlet? I don't see how Balding Billy's marriage to Bonnie Kate rates more than a passing mention on the evening news in America.

See, I could have sworn we had a Revolution in this country to rid ourselves of kings and queens and "aristocrats" who think that they've got something over on the rest of us because one of their ancestors stole off to the no-tell motel with the reigning monarch. (Oh sure, many of England's hereditary titles were conferred for valor in battle, especially in more recent times, but an awful lot of titles seem to have been initially bestowed on the offspring of royal mistresses....)

I learned in school that the British Crown provides an apolitical symbol of national unity -- something that pretty much all Brits can rally round, whatever their political persuasion. The advantage of having a head of state separate from the head of government is frequently illustrated by comparison of the Crown to the President of the United States: Because the President is both head of state and head and government, no matter who occupies the Oval Office, the blood pressure of somewhere close to half the population rises every time he speaks -- even when he is trying to apply a healing balm to the body politic. And, besides, the English Crown is a big boost to tourism: People like to see the funny costumes and the carriages.

I can therefore understand that some folks in England might want to take time off to watch the pageantry. But in America?

And yet I've heard and read about people -- American people -- planning to take the day off of work to watch the wedding and attendant festivities on TV.


So I throw open the floor to you, Dear Readers. How much, if any, of the Royal Wedding festivities are you planning to watch... and why?

Friday, April 08, 2011

Friday introspection

In other words, not a lot of laughs here. At least, not intentional ones....

We generally fall asleep in front of the TV in the Curmudgeon home. I usually nod off first, sometimes despite Long Suffering Spouse's loud efforts to keep me awake. My wife is generally correcting student papers when she drops off. As near as I can tell, though, she has never made a long red line down the face of a page as consciousness fled. This is surely a gift.

Tuesday was a typical evening in our home, then, at least in that sense, as we both fell asleep waiting for the news to come on. I wanted to catch news of the election results. I did not.

When I awoke, around midnight, I fired up the computer to see what I had missed. I went right to the Chicago Board of Elections site so I could get the vote totals in the ward races that interested me -- including, of course, the race in the ward where I live.

The news disappointed. It's not that I dislike the candidate who won; it's just that I consider the candidate who lost to be a friend. So does Long Suffering Spouse. "I was almost tempted to vote for her opponent," she told me Wednesday, "because no one I vote for ever wins."

Still, I was all riled up about the election. All elections rile me up; I have an interest in elections and politics that borders, according to my friend Steve, on the unhealthy. Someday, he says at every opportunity, science will prove that all politicians are mentally ill -- the very thirst for office being the most telling symptom. Steve frequently cites Rod Blagojevich as Exhibit A for his theory.

I used to remind Steve that I have run for public office and would, therefore, according to his definition, be mentally ill. "Yours seems to be a mild case," he told me. I believe he was trying to be reassuring. I try to change the subject now whenever he brings it up.

So -- as I say -- I get riled up on every election day. I can feel the sap rising, as Adlai Stevenson III once said (to his eternal chagrin). But I must have been particularly riled up on Tuesday night because, having woken up enough to check the election results, I found it difficult to fall back asleep.

It's probably because I'm currently reading Martin Gilbert's biography of Winston Churchill (the one volume condensed version, not the full eight volume work).

Churchill was a man who was apparently fearless, and I do not refer just to his youthful military exploits. He seemed utterly unafraid to say, and write, what he pleased, knowing all the time that he would be, and was, making enemies in the process. He was unafraid to work with those whom he had alienated, converting some, in time, from enemies to admirers. Maybe the subject is covered in more depth in Gilbert's unabridged biography, but Churchill's recurring depression (his 'black dog') is merely hinted at. I suppose it may be because, when Churchill wasn't depressed, when his eyes burned with intensity and purpose, he churned out such a staggering pile of papers, memoranda, letters, articles, even books. Gilbert, and other Churchill biographers too, suggest that Churchill was so afraid of dying young (as his father had) that he lived his life on overdrive. By the time he realized he would (and had) long outlived his father, the habit was formed.

I, on the other hand, am a profile in timidity. If I've made few enemies, I also have few friends -- and no admirers. I can churn out sentences as pompous and grandiose as anything Churchill ever wrote... but mine sound pretentious, even to me. I think this comes from my unwillingness to come out, in the open, and take the risks that anyone takes in public life: The risks of defeat, humiliation, even ridicule. Steve would say that my attitude demonstrates reasonable mental health; Churchill's, on the other hand, shows that depression was not the only mental illness with which he coped. And, of course, at the end of the day, Churchill was the descendant of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, the grandson of the 7th Duke, nephew of the 8th, cousin of the 9th... and related by blood or marriage to most of the rest of the English peerage. His mother was a 'confidante' of the future King Edward VII. (Churchill, I've learned, received a walking stick from King Edward as a wedding present. Churchill used this for the rest of his life -- even if Edward and his successors occasionally wished that Edward had knocked him over the head with the stick instead of making it a present.) Churchill's place in society was assured regardless of his successes or failures in politics. I, on the other hand, am merely one of 50,000 Cook County lawyers, as proud of my heritage as Churchill was of his -- but altogether conscious that my bloodlines confer upon me no social standing whatsoever.

In the end, I'll finish Gilbert's biography and move on to the next book. Perhaps then the urge to do something will pass or the regret subside.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Don't criticize President Obama for starting campaign early

There are some who have criticized the President's decision to formally announce his candidacy this week for reelection in 2012. To these critics, November 2012 seems so far away.

But, of course, it isn't, not if you're from Chicago.

Indeed, Mr. Obama is following the time-honored Cook County political calendar: The next election cycle begins as the last one ends. We had a municipal election in Chicago yesterday (Mr. Emmanuel avoided the runoff, but there were runoff elections in 14 of Chicago's 50 wards).

The 2012 primary campaign officially started in Cook County last night when the polls closed. If Mr. Obama jumped the gun in any sense, it was by no more than a day or so.

You may complain that this is a terrible way to do things; you may believe that the public should have some respite from perpetual campaigns; you may even think that elected officials should spend some time at the jobs they were elected to perform instead of always campaigning to keep those jobs -- or eying the next rung on the cursus honorum. I may even sympathize with these complaints, if you have them. But that is not how things work in politics in 2011 -- or, should I say, 2012.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Check engine light means sanity check imminent

I had to drop Youngest Son off at school a week ago. His baseball team was gathering there for a Spring Break trip to California to test itself against high-powered West Coast competition.

I started the car that the kid usually drives -- and lost my mind.

A sickly yellow light remained glowing on the dashboard as the engine engaged. Taking off my glasses so I could attempt to interpret this glyph, I realized it was the "check engine" light.

We live in a post-literate age. Sometimes I don't know why I bothered to learn to read at all, given the way 'glyphs' or 'icons' are used instead of words these days.

Of course, in the case of the evil omen on the dashboard, I am obliged to concede that providing accurate words would have taken up too much space. The "check engine" light does not necessarily mean that the engine is not working -- in my case the car was on -- but, rather, serves as a warning that one's credit is in for a major hit. A light that read, "Prepare your wallet for a major hit because something -- and we haven't the foggiest idea what -- isn't working but if you don't pay immediate heed to this warning you will be stranded in the middle of nowhere," would not leave room on the dashboard for the speedometer. Even in an SUV.

I dropped Youngest Son off at school and continued straightaway to the nearest Ford dealer. (The car in question happens to be a Ford Focus, a smallish, utilitarian vehicle, quite the opposite of an SUV. I do not indict this brand in particular. I have had similar problems to those related here while in possession of vehicles manufactured by others.)

I had not anticipated this problem, but I did (thankfully) anticipate that there might be some unforeseen complication in getting the boy off on his journey. I therefore had scheduled nothing in court for that morning.

Incidentally, for the record, the young man denied ever seeing the "check engine" light on the dash. It must have gone on, he insisted, for the first time that very morning. I almost believe him.

I waited nearly two full hours at the Ford dealer waiting for some word on the car's condition. There was one problem I expected: The brakes were allegedly on the point of failure. I had noticed no troubles with the brakes on this vehicle, and my son had not reported any, but it seems almost impossible to go to a dealer these days without receiving a recommendation along these lines. It is my belief that a new car can be secured from the showroom floor, driven around the block, and into the service bay -- at which point, at least as long as the new car sales sticker has been removed, a very sober-faced man will insist that at least two brakes must be replaced.

So the bad news about the brakes was hardly unexpected. This would not, however, explain the check engine light.

Well, the sober-faced man in my case said, your four tires are very worn and in need of replacement.

I have someone that I will take the car to for that work, I told him, but what about the check engine light?

Oh, that's the good news, the sober-faced man said -- without, of course, actually smiling. It seems there is a failure of pollution control whatchamacallit-fizzbin, but that's covered by the extended warranty. (I may not have heard him exactly, but that's the gist of what he said.) Of course, he added gravely, it may take some time to get this part. That's alright, I reassured him, and he gave me a loaner car and I made my way home.

We picked up the car Wednesday. With Youngest Son out of town, we didn't need to drive it again until Saturday, when we took it to get new tires.

We had no difficulty getting to or from.

Now we get to last night. Lightning was flashing in the clouds and the temperature was unseasonably warm. The wind was whipping leaves and papers and dust, but there could have been ghosts or evil spirits abroad in the land as well. I took the family van to pick up Youngest Son (he had just returned from his trip). In the meantime, Long Suffering Spouse decided to use the newly-repaired car to take the recycling to her mother's house.

(I'm sure I've mentioned before how we smuggle our recycling into a nearby suburb each week, the City of Chicago's recycling program ranging from dubious to non-existent.)

As Youngest Son and I pulled up to the house, we saw Long Suffering Spouse getting out of the other vehicle. She yelled something at us, but we couldn't hear her over the wind. I walked over to where she was. The recycling bag was still in the car.

That's when I found out:

The car -- with the new brakes and the new tires and the new pollution control whatchamacallit-fizzbin -- that car would not start. All the dashboard lights lit up in mockery when the key was turned, but no engine noise of any kind resulted.

One of the hardest thing to teach children or politicians is cause and effect. It is not always easy to distinguish between consequence and coincidence.

My mother-in-law stopped having her furnace cleaned annually because, over a period of several years, without exception, some four to six weeks after this annual service, her heat would fail. She began to suspect that there was a causal connection between these events. She field-tested this hypothesis the following year by not scheduling her furnace for its annual cleaning. That winter, she enjoyed uninterrupted heat.

I have on numerous occasions, with several cars, serviced at several different dealerships, noted that one service visit seems to lead, shortly thereafter, to another. Cause? Or coincidence?

I suspect that this dealer, like others before, jiggled something, loosened a wire, or unplugged some cable, thereby guaranteeing that an additional service call would be required. Unlike my mother-in-law's furnace, though, I can not field test this suspicion by doing nothing: The car is too big to be a paperweight and, at the moment, it is capable of no other function.

So I will go home soon, hoping to work on an appellate brief while I wait for AAA to show up and see if it can get the car started. If AAA fails, I will have the car towed to the dealer where, with a straight face, a sober-faced man will explain to me that the reason that my car will not start is that I bought the tires somewhere else.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Today may not be the best day to search Wikipedia

I'm pretty sure that the on-line Encyclopedia Britannica never changed its front page like Wikipedia has done this morning. If you happen upon this post today, April 1, you really should click over and check that out. If not, never mind.

Junior high school students, be warned: Today may not be the best of days to do your research entirely on line.

I did see a quote attributed to Mark Twain that strikes me as appropriate to the occasion: "April 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four." Self-awareness is a blessing and a curse.