Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Curmudgeon has a grand time getting the family van repaired

Even with gasoline over $4 a gallon, I sometimes need a car. This distinguishes me from my teenage Youngest Son and 21-year old Younger Daughter who always need a car.

Monday afternoon, I had a meeting in the western suburbs. Tuesday morning, I had court in Wheaton. After only modest wailing and gnashing of teeth, I successfully negotiated the use of the family van. Youngest Son and Younger Daughter had to double up Monday morning; this deprivation will someday enrich one or both of their therapists.

But it gets worse. The van was running rough Monday afternoon. The engine never died, and it never backfired, but it rocked and rolled at every stoplight; there was even some ominous shaking at cruising speed. Still, I made it home without incident.

The "check engine" light came on when I went to pick Youngest Son up at school.

Regular visitors will know that I am not mechanically inclined. I have changed the oil and even changed the spark plugs on cars, mostly on my parents' cars, though I recently came across a tool for setting the 'gap' on spark plugs in my basement. But I last worked on cars a generation ago. Cars changed.

About the only thing I can analogize this to is the difference between DOS and Windows. I could do things to computers, once upon a time, when DOS was the operating system. I could fix things, troubleshoot, diagnose. I was no expert, but I could even write simple programs in Basic and run them. Windows, in that sense, was inaptly named. It was more like an iron door slamming shut on the amateur.

So it was with cars: Electronic ignition, I believe, is the term that was used when it became literally impossible to change one's own spark plugs. I guess you might still change the oil on most cars, but you can't responsibly dispose of it anywhere, so it has become virtually mandatory to take the car in for almost any issue.

And so, when the check engine light clicked on, I was obliged to go to the dealer.

You'll notice that it was I who was obliged to make this trip, not Long Suffering Spouse. Long Suffering Spouse, you may recall, is a teacher. I am self-employed. That means, whenever something must be done during the business day, I have to do it. No one has to procure a substitute to take my place when these frolics and detours come up. Of course I broached the topic with her anyway; I have a million things to do just now and really could ill afford to be out of the office all day. But my protest was feeble -- only half-hearted.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I figured the van needed whatever the modern equivalent of a tune-up is. The place where I recently bought tires and had the brakes re-done could not provide this service.

Now the dealer that I went to is not the dealer from whom I bought the van. When the American auto industry collapsed, huge numbers of dealers were closed down by the shrinking car companies. The place where I bought the van did not survive the winnowing. I could have walked there. The dealer to whom service issues must be taken is in Skokie. I could walk there, too, I suppose, but it's about 14 miles away. I'm really not in shape for that, and wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase would only complicate the matter further.

Anyway, this 'new' dealer has no particular loyalty to me. I have not bought anything from it except service. It's not that the other dealer would have been any more loyal to me, or protective of my interests, merely that this 'new' dealer has less reason to pretend.

You've heard it said, I'm sure, that dogs can 'smell' fear. There are dogs being trained right now to 'smell' cancer; some research suggests that this will someday soon be an invaluable detection tool.

In general, people are not gifted with nearly so sophisticated an olfactory apparatus as our canine companions. But some rare people can smell automotive ignorance. These persons thrive as automobile service representatives. And it is in this sense, and I hope in no other, that I came into the service area at the dealership reeking like a wagon-load of Limburger early Monday afternoon.

I explained the problem as best I could to the service representative, thereby confirming his initial impression of my ignorance. He had me sign a consent to allow his mechanics to diagnose the trouble and directed me to a waiting room where I could sit on uncomfortable chairs and read old magazines while they figured out how to proceed.

You would probably like to believe that a mechanic thereafter hooked the car up to a diagnostic computer and otherwise investigated the problem. And, though I think that may also have happened, here is what else the dealer might have done:

First they looked up my FICO scores; they checked my Dun & Bradstreet. They looked at detailed credit reports on Equifax -- and maybe Trans Union or Experian besides. They looked up how many children I have, and who's still living at home; they checked the phase of the Moon and whether Sagittarius is rising. Their staff psychologist watched my anxious fidgeting in the waiting room. All this data and more was then considered by an algorithm in a sophisticated computer program -- credit scores here (oh my!), patience level there (oh dear!) -- and two numbers flashed on the screen. The first was the maximum amount the dealership could charge me without my immediately bursting a blood vessel; the second was the number of hours, days or minutes that I would tolerate waiting for the car to be returned.

After an hour and half, the service representative came and told me what it would take to get me back into the family van.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Monday night, after my request to have my wife go to the dealer in my stead was heard and summarily denied, I told her, "You realize that this is going to cost us a thousand dollars?"

"Why?" she asked. "What makes you so sure that you know what's wrong and know how much it will cost to fix it?"

"You know I don't have the faintest idea what's wrong," I whined. "I won't even be able to repeat half of what they eventually tell me is wrong. But it will cost a thousand dollars."

"You're imagining things," she said.

"Fine," I said. "You'll see. They take one look at me and figure the job will cost a thousand dollars."

"You're crazy."

"You'll see."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The good news was that the work was done by late afternoon. (My patience score must have been very low.) From the time I drove in the service entrance until the call came to pick up the car was barely 3½ hours. That includes 1½ hours I spent waiting for them to decide what they would tell me the trouble was.

I'd gotten Youngest Son to pick me up in the meantime. I needed to vamoose after getting the estimate, so I set off walking. Youngest Son, who'd already picked up his sister from summer school, met me en route.

And the other positive note is that the van seems to be running fine now.

But you're wondering -- I hope -- what the job cost.

Well, of course, Long Suffering Spouse was right, as she always is. The repairs did not cost a thousand bucks.

They cost $1,010.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Left behind today's headlines -- Curmudgeon reviews the news

NEWS: The world did not end this weekend; atheists amused
Views:You'd think a preacher would know his Scripture better.

The Gospel of Matthew warns (at the end of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, ch. 25:13) that you do not know either the day or the hour of the Master's return. Luke 12:40 says, "You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come."

However, there is some good that can come out of this failure -- if Harold Camping's erroneous prophecy reminds us to curb our wretched excesses, to behave better, and to live our lives as if the end may come at any time. Even the atheists, chortling about how silly these True Believers look after having not been assumed bodily into Heaven, should recognize the wisdom of this.

As for Camping's followers, they should go back and review Luke 21:8 and Matthew 24:5. There, Jesus warns that many will come in His name and warn of the end times. But, He says, don't fall for it.

(For the record, I stuck close to Long Suffering Spouse all weekend. If she started levitating, I told her, I was grabbing onto her ankles for dear life.)

NEWS: Gas prices allegedly falling in the United States
Views: Nationally, gasoline prices are supposedly below $4 a gallon, at $3.9074 per gallon. But Chicago continues to lead the nation, averaging $4.38 per gallon for self-serve unleaded gas. It's running around $4.45-4.49 in my neck of the woods; there are lower pump prices in the more distant suburbs.

In other news, oil company executives remain at large.

Does anyone ever listen to those Democratic and Republican broadcasts on the weekend? You can watch Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's address at this link; it was on the radio when I was getting dressed Saturday.

Her statement provides a good example of why I can never belong to either party. Sen. Hutchison makes sense when she says domestic energy production has to be increased to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. She may even have a point when she says that the Obama administration is hostile to increased energy production at home because of arguably overstated environmental concerns. We pay the price at the pump for the Obama administration's ideological purity.

However... the BP oil spill did happen. We can't turn the corporates loose on the land and sea unwatched -- as we seem to have done prior to that oil spill. (Disaster plans to protect walruses in the Gulf of Mexico didn't exactly impress me.) Maybe the Obama administration has overcorrected; maybe more permits for deepwater drilling should be issued.

But Sen. Hutchison did not call for repeal of the billions in tax breaks we give the oil companies. Instead, she warned "the Obama administration is seeking to impose more regulations and taxes on oil and gas companies." Repeal of subsidies would not be a tax increase for the oil companies; it would be an end of unwarranted special treatment. And given the billions in profits that the oil companies are reaping, it seems the very least we should do.

NEWS: President Obama visits "ancestral home" in Moneygall, Ireland
Mr. O'Bama (as he will be called more than once in the next day or two, even in respectable news sources) is a politician from the South Side of Chicago. Of course he has some Irish roots.

Friday, May 20, 2011

LinkedIn IPO finds Curmudgeon left behind

I don't know whether the Rapture will take place tomorrow as promised by Harold Camping, but I was definitely Left Behind by yesterday's LinkedIn IPO.

The fellow on the left is Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn; the fellow on the right is Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn's CEO. Mr. Weiner will presumably now be able to afford a decent shave, because, as I read in today's Chicago Sun-Times (from which the image is also taken), LinkedIn stock debuted yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange at $45 a share, soaring to $122.70 on frantic trading before closing at $94.25.

What is LinkedIn, you ask? Me too.

The linked article says that LinkedIn is a "trailblazer in the online networking craze." I haven't the foggiest notion as to what that might mean.

I've received invitations from people, from time to time, some of whom I actually have met, asking me to join -- or, as the gender neutral, automated email puts it -- "to become part of his or her professional network at LinkedIn." I don't know any of these individuals well enough, however, to ask just exactly what the heck LinkedIn is or is supposed to do.

Welcome to 21st Century America. We make "networks" that "link" people or businesses or sandwiches or coupons. These entities have weird names that trample accepted rules of spelling or punctuation. But, beyond that, exactly how do they innovate? For anything tangible, we still have to buy from the Chinese.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Prom and the pursuit of "perfection"

One of my wife's colleagues at school has a daughter who is the same age as Youngest Son. She went to Youngest Son's prom this past weekend (and not with Youngest Son).

So my wife and her colleague had something to talk about over lunch yesterday.

"We saw your daughter and her boyfriend at Mass on Sunday," Long Suffering Spouse reported. "They looked pretty tired."

"Well, I'm not surprised. They were at a 'sleepover' at the Abbots' house." She made air quotes as she said "sleepover." (The Abbots are another family in the parish; they also have a son who is shortly to graduate from Youngest Son's high school.)

Long Suffering Spouse and her colleague compared notes: The "sleepovers" attended by the other teacher's daughter and by Youngest Son had about the same numbers of boys and girls. My wife's colleague was not thrilled about the arrangements, though she holds Mr. and Mrs. Abbot in high regard and was confident that they were properly vigilant. "I don't know why the kids were so insistent about turning this into such a big deal," my wife's colleague said. "After all --"

"It's just a dance!" Long Suffering Spouse chimed in simultaneously and they both laughed.

"And they're never satisfied," continued my wife's colleague. "The dress, the limo, the nails, the hair. Something. My daughter was complaining this morning that she hated her hair."

The discussion turned to the prom this Friday night. This one is for the girls' school that the daughter of Long Suffering Spouse's colleague attends. The other teacher reported that some of the her daughter's friends are taking two days off from school, one before and one after, one to prepare and one to accommodate a trip to the Wisconsin Dells after the event. "And they still won't be happy," my wife's colleague concluded.

"The problem," my wife said, "is expectations. No matter how nice things are, nothing can meet their unrealistic expectations. They want it all to be perfect."

"There will always be something to ruin everything!" said my wife's colleague, intentionally lapsing into teen-speak. They both laughed again.

The best times are usually had when least expected. Put another way, it's hard to plan to have a good time. Eventually, we learn that one can make plans for something pleasant, but we can't summon a good time any more than we can command that the skies clear and the sun shine. Meanwhile, until we learn that hard truth, human nature tends to freight all our plans with impossible hopes. The least important flaws -- the pimple that erupts on prom morning, the bangs that won't stay down -- are magnified wholly out of proportion.

Long Suffering Spouse wisely refrained from mentioning that the expectations problem gets even worse when planning a wedding. My wife's colleague's daughter is her oldest child; she'll find this out in her own good time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Living in New Chicago... Day One

Richard J. Daley was Mayor of the City of Chicago when I was born. Dat's Da Mare, on the left, or, if you must, over by dere. Saying "Da Mare" or "Da Late Mare" can only refer to Chicago's Richard I.

I was at a prayer breakfast with Da Mare in December 1976, shortly before he died. (He died, you may recall, in his doctor's office. He dropped dead, the story goes, moments after being pronounced perfectly fit. Who would tell Himself different?)

But, anyway, as I was sayin', I was at this prayer breakfast with Da Mare -- me and about 2,500 other people -- and, the next thing you knew, he was gone.

But many people also knew, then, that there would be another Daley on the throne soon enough. "Little Richie," as he was then known, was safely installed in the State Senate at the time. While some people thought that Little Richie would be neutralized by the loss of his famous father, others saw the appointment of another Bridgeport native, Michael Bilandic, as more or less a regency.

And then it snowed.

When the Blizzard of 1979 melted, Jane Byrne was mayor and Michael Bilandic had to go over to the Appellate Court (and later the Supreme Court) to support his family. (He'd married late in life.)

Meanwhile, Little Richie settled for becoming State's Attorney.

Jane Byrne let The Blues Brothers be filmed in Chicago and gave us Chicagofest at Navy Pier... which has led to Taste of Chicago, all sorts of other various fests, and the renovation of Navy Pier. Our tourist industry owes a lot to Janie.

But she was... erratic... and she lasted only one term. Little Richie thought it was time for him to take the reins in 1983; that probably would have been the plan had Bilandic been reelected. But Janie didn't go quietly and she and Richie were both defeated in the primary by a Congressman from Chicago's South Side.

I refer to Harold Washington. Harold (he seemed to prefer being called by his first name) did a stretch in jail once for failing to file federal tax returns. His birthday was April 15.

Harold presided over a contentious City Council. The media called it "Council Wars." Chicago was called "Beirut on the Lake" in those days. But Harold did something Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne couldn't do: He got reelected.

Then he, too, dropped dead.

David Orr -- now Cook County Clerk, but then the Alderman of the 49th Ward -- became acting mayor for six days before giving way to Alderman Eugene Sawyer. In 1989, Sawyer faced the voters -- and Richie Daley -- in the primary. You know the rest. Richard II would rule Chicago for the next 22 years.

Rahm Emanuel was sworn in yesterday as Mayor of the City of Chicago. There's talk, of course, that he's just a creature of the same Machine that spawned the Daleys; that he is indeed the Daleys' instrument; that he will serve only so long as it takes for Nora Daley Conroy, a daughter of Richard II, to be ready to take over the family business. On the other hand, there's also talk that Rahm's a real reformer and people who figured he was kidding will be pleasantly... or quite unpleasantly... surprised. Some believe Rahm knows the ways of power so well that he can root out entrenched, systemic corruption and install an efficient, cost-effective municipal government.

I am no prophet. I know that there's been a Daley on the fifth floor at City Hall for over three quarters of my life. If there really is another Daley waiting in the wings, he or she has not been publicly groomed for the office. So I think the day of the Daleys may be done here.

I know the City is in a bad way financially. All local governments have been hurting in this interminable recession, but Chicago is hurting more than most. I don't know why any honest person would want to be mayor at this time. Still, if Rahm's really on the level, I wish him only the best.

But, even though I'm from Chicago, not from Missouri, he's still going to have to show me.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Promming around in the Curmudgeon family

There are things I will miss when Youngest Son (our youngest of all) graduates from high school in a couple of weeks. I'm going to miss those glorious Fall Friday nights, under the lights, when football was the most important thing in the universe. Of course, this being Chicago, we were only good for one such night a season, on average. The rest would be too hot, too cold, raining or snowing.

I'll miss the occasional instance where I can be helpful with homework, suggesting an essay topic, remembering some historical event. I remember I was even the first resource for computer questions, once upon a time. Even Oldest Son used to ask me computer questions -- until about his sophomore year in college, when he picked computer engineering as a major. Now I ask him questions.

But I won't miss proms. This is not a new opinion. I quote from my essay of March 7, 2008:
My kids have all attended Catholic high schools. Single gender Catholic high schools. Even so, they have not been entirely sheltered from the excesses of modern culture. (I have, on occasion, listened to the CD's Younger Daughter has made for the car that she forgets to remove on those rare days when I actually get to drive the vehicle.) My consolation is that my children may have been more sheltered from the common culture than would have been true had they attended a co-ed public high school.

Bad as the "dance" may be, it is the before and after prom activities that really turn prom into a festival of wretched excess. Somewhere, in a more innocent time, someone suggested that the gang all get together the day after the dance for a picnic.

Now, many parents book hotel rooms for their little darlings to do whatever they please after the prom. (No, we won't.) Limos -- or even buses -- are hired so the kids can drink without fear of a DUI arrest. The kids don't go home and then rendezvous the next day for the picnic -- they crash at the hotel and go out for breakfast. Maybe they make it home for dinner the following night.

Fortunately, my two older sons had baseball games on the day after their senior proms. I'm not even certain that Oldest Son went at all. Younger Daughter insists that we let Middle Son stay out all night after another prom that he attended -- and under the inflexible principles of stare decisis we must now agree, supposedly, to let Younger Daughter stay out all night also.

Older Daughter went to her prom. On a blind date. With some peculiar-looking boy whose first name was that of a cartoon character. I never learned his last name, or whether he in fact had one. Long Suffering Spouse thinks I was dispatched to pick them up from a post-prom restaurant after the promised limo failed to arrive. If this is true, I have suppressed the event entirely.
Somehow we got through Younger Daughter's many proms. In the peculiar etiquette of Chicago Catholic high schools, a boy will ask a girl to his prom; she will then invite him to hers. Middle Son and Younger Daughter had too many admirers to adhere to that rule. Older Daughter and Oldest Son had no one special to ask. Only Youngest Son is playing this hand according to Hoyle.

His prom was Saturday; hers is this coming Friday.

The hotel room idea was floated again this year -- hey, the argument goes, the dance is at the hotel anyway; we'll just get a room there. The notion was just as quickly vetoed this year as in prior years. I am ready to be a grandparent; I just want my grandchild to be born to one of my married children.

"It's a big group!" Youngest Son protested. "What can happen?"

"An orgy," I thought to myself. I used to have HBO. But all I said aloud was, "No."

This year I didn't even have a baseball practice early in the morning to rescue me from hard decisions. (If Middle Son did stay out all night for one of his proms, it was with baseball teammates because he had practice early the next morning. If anyone else was involved, I didn't know about it.)

Youngest Son was busy for a couple of weeks before his prom with plans and counter-plans and trial balloons. We shot every trial balloon down. "Are you just going to say 'no' to everything?" he asked at one point. "If you are, tell me."

Long Suffering Spouse and I insisted we would approve reasonable plans.

In the event, I'm not sure that we did.

Not knowing for certain that baseball practice would be cancelled on Sunday until Saturday afternoon, but knowing that three of the five boys in Youngest Son's group are on the baseball team, and after having Middle Son's precedent cited for the 1000th time, we somewhere along the way agreed in theory to the boys staying at someone's house overnight after the dance.

Our house was proposed as the venue, and we were prepared to agree, until we started asking questions about how the girls would get home.

I'm not certain that Youngest Son was in the vanguard of the stay out all night brigade. The real mover and shaker behind the let's-rent-a-hotel-suite movement was the girlfriend of one of Youngest Son's teammates. We'll call her Tess (because, of course, that is not her name). Tess and her boyfriend (let's call him Tim) have been going out for four years. In high school years, this is the equivalent of reaching one's Golden Anniversary, although without the arthritis.

Youngest Son explained, at one point, that even Tim was not that committed to Tess's hotel idea, but he more or less had to go along. "Why?" I asked. "Well, she is pretty good-looking," said Youngest Son, as if that explained everything. And, I guess, to an over-hormoned 18-year old, maybe it did.

Eventually, Tim's mother supplied a solution: Youngest Son said the boys would sleep over at her house.

Fast forward now to Saturday afternoon. Youngest Son returned home after shivering through a doubleheader (the temperature probably never got above 50 Saturday and it was windy and damp). He was excited to advise that there'd be no practice Sunday. "So now we can go to Brian's house in Wisconsin Sunday," suggested Youngest Son. Brian's summer home was one of the Saturday night destinations we'd previously vetoed. Even with no alcohol involved, driving in the wee small hours of the morning, across state lines, sounded to me like a recipe for disaster.

"We'd have to return the suits Sunday anyway," said Youngest Son. "So we'd go up after that."

"What's so great about Brian's place?"


"Oh, come on now. Fishing?"

"Yeah. The house is on a lake."

"Don't you have school Monday?"

"Didn't I tell you?"

"Do you ever?"

"Oh. Well, school's cancelled for the seniors Monday. It's tradition. We'll have a game, but that won't be until later." He disappeared upstairs to shower and shave and don his tux.

Long Suffering Spouse and I discussed the matter while he was preparing. After some hand-wringing, we agreed, between ourselves, that we would approve this trip, under the stated circumstances.

We might have told Youngest Son this, too, only he came flying down the stairs just as Younger Daughter came bursting through the front door. She'd been working, but she hurried home because she didn't want to miss the picture-taking. A big sister has an important role to play in embarrassing her brother by taking all sorts of pictures on prom night.

Somewhere, in finding out that the pictures would be taken at Donny's house, and finding out where Donny's house was, we never did actually tell Youngest Son that he could go on the trip Sunday. Somehow he had managed, despite the chaos, to lighten my wallet, however.

Some of you will recall the recent Royal Wedding in England. The pageantry, the paparazzi, the horse-drawn phaeton between the church and the country club or wherever it was that they held the reception for Balding Billy and Bonnie Kate.

Well, except for the horses (usually), the picture-taking on prom night is much like this. Youngest Son led the way and Long Suffering Spouse, Younger Daughter and I followed behind in the family van. Long Suffering Spouse and Younger Daughter were both brandishing cameras.

Donny's house was a showplace. It didn't look that large from the street, but there was an enormous front hall inside, complete with a formal staircase on which all five couples could pose. There was a kitchen and great room beyond. In the kitchen was an enormous spread of sandwiches and chicken wings. "I got the chicken wings just for you," Donny's mom told Youngest Son as he dived into the spread with gusto. He certainly seemed at home there. Of course, Youngest Son spends far more time at his friends' houses these days than he does at our house -- at least time awake.

I was a little apprehensive about barbecue sauce staining the pink vest or tie (yes, his otherwise traditional black tux had pink accoutrements to match his date's gown) but Youngest Son had no difficulties. In this, at least, I have to hand it to the boy: If you can stay looking sharp and eat chicken wings, you've really got poise.

There were pictures in the great room. There were pictures of the boys. There were pictures of the girls. There were pictures of the girls pinning boutonnieres on the boys' lapels. There were pictures of each couple. Then there were pictures in the front hall, especially on the stairway. Tess seemed to be directing several of the photographers. I was trying to blend into any corner that would contain me.

Eventually, though, it looked like there might soon be an opportunity to escape this madness. So I grabbed Youngest Son and Long Suffering Spouse and I dragged him to a corner of the kitchen for final instructions. His date and her parents tagged along.

There was the usual: You can call for a ride if you need it. If you need to come home, at any point, the door will be unlocked. No booze. Text me when you get downtown.

"OK," I said, moving from the general to the specific, "you're staying at Tim's tonight, right?" The boy nodded. "Fine. Now, how is your date getting home?"

The boy's eyes widened. His date looked at her parents in confusion. "I'm coming home?"

Here is where I found out that Tim's parents had agreed to take in both the boys and the girls. Apparently, Tess insisted.

I have learned, finally, not to impose myself into others' parenting arrangements. I mean, what could I say? "Yes, you're going home, young lady. What would your parents think?" Not when her parents were standing right there clearly thinking that their daughter was staying the night at Tim's.

A few more questions revealed that the "fishing" trip Sunday would likewise be co-ed. Not all of the girls could stay Sunday night; the mother of my son's date was planning to pick up those who were coming home that night. I'll bet any sum you care to wager that Tess stayed up in Wisconsin last night.

Sometimes I think I must be hopelessly old-fashioned. Sometimes, like Saturday, I prove it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The past intrudes on the present

Her husband and her sons loved her longer and they loved her more. They will bury her this weekend.

We were very young when I knew her. She was just starting college and I was finishing up, but we were only a few months distant in age. (I'd been double promoted early in my school days, and I was finishing college in three years.) She was beautiful. Short blond hair. Petite. Whip smart. I was 19 -- and I was smitten.

It had taken me nearly all 19 of those years to find the courage to talk to girls. I was a bit backward, I know, especially during the 1970s when the Sexual Revolution was supposedly in full flower. But I found the courage to talk to her. She thought I was funny. Sometimes I was trying to be.

We were a couple most of my senior year and into the summer after. I almost died driving home on the Tollway one night from her home. (I was living with my folks during the summer, a good 50 miles away.) I must have dozed behind the wheel. As I remember it, though, it was the guardrail that jumped in front of the car and tried to surround me.

I would have married her. I was ready (at least I thought I was).

She was not.

And, of course, she was right not to be rushed. She was just starting college; she had ambitions to become a doctor. Marriage -- even a really serious relationship -- would have been an impediment to those ambitions, perhaps an insurmountable one. She was right -- but it didn't stop me from trying to drown myself in alcohol during my entire first year of law school. I darn near succeeded a couple of times.

But, eventually, I moved on. I finished law school. I met Long Suffering Spouse.

A few years after we broke up, she was ready to settle down too. She married a doctor. She didn't get into medical school, but she became a dentist. We didn't see each other. In fact, I think the first time I saw her in 20 years was also the last time -- a few years back, at a party given by mutual friends on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary.

She was still beautiful. We had a nice chat. Long Suffering Spouse knew her husband from undergrad. They chatted with us. I bragged on my kids. She bragged on hers. We didn't pretend we were going to stay in touch. There was no reason to stay in touch.

Then, yesterday morning, I saw a posting on Facebook: My friend -- the one who'd had that 25th anniversary party -- wrote, "I really, really hate cancer."

This friend (Peg, we'll call her, because I'm afraid of getting lost among all the pronouns) is very social. Though her post had only been up a few hours there were all sorts of comments -- a lot of inquiries, mostly. And Peg answered that she and her husband were about to fly to Chicago (they live out East these days) to bury "a dear friend from college."

I thought about asking who died. I know a lot of Peg's college friends. And then I thought, I probably don't want to know. I signed off and went to work.

My friend Steve called mid-day. I've mentioned Steve before, but I may not have previously mentioned his daily habit of reading the obituaries. He did this on a daily basis even before he retired. Steve and I had other things to talk about. His son just graduated from college and Steve wanted to tell me about that. But then he told me what he'd read in the obituaries. And then I found out I definitely didn't want to know.

Peg's filled me in on the details since. It sounds like she had a horrible ordeal.

I'm so sorry for her husband and her children. But I'm feeling a little sorry for myself, too. I know that makes me sound selfish. Does that also make me sound unfaithful to my wife and family? I hope not. It's just -- well, she was very special to me... a long time ago. I moved on. She moved on. I think she did OK for herself. I know I've been fortunate. But we all hold memories locked away. Today some of my memories have been unlocked.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Grannies launch crime wave -- haven't we seen this somewhere before?

Oh, yes, now I remember... Monty Python had this bit somewhere around 40 years ago... but then it was ridiculous... absurd... even silly....

Is this really progress?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tearing up today's headlines -- Curmudgeon reviews the news

NEWS: Northwestern cancels human sexuality class for the fall term.
Views: Now rich suburban kids will never learn all the deviant sex acts they could have performed with only minor modifications to power tools commonly found in their parents' homes.

NEWS: Illinois congressman does beefcake photo shoot for Men's Health magazine

Views: Peoria Republican Aaron Schock obviously thinks that posing shirtless for a magazine is a better career move than posing shirtless for Craigslist.

Or has Chris Lee already been forgotten?

I think that legislation is urgently needed to stem this tide of shirtless Republicans.

NEWS: Crude oil prices rise -- gasoline prices rise also. Crude oil prices fall -- gasoline prices rise anyway
Views: Instead of running around shirtless, perhaps our legislators could look into this? Gasoline in my neighborhood has been retailing at $4.65 a gallon for several days now.

NEWS: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announces presidential bid
Views: Barack Obama still running for reelection unopposed.

NEWS: Oprah's final show coming May 25.
Views: The world may not make it all the way to December 2012.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Curmudgeon notes how wedding showers have changed

Long Suffering Spouse and I went to a wedding shower Saturday evening; the groom is the son of friends we've known since college.

It's a typical May in the Curmudgeon household: We didn't know we'd be able to go until the last minute; our niece's Communion, originally scheduled for the 7th, was mysteriously moved to the 21st at the last moment. Embracing the new plan, however, we printed out the greed lists Saturday afternoon before deciding which store we'd hit to buy a present.

I've called wedding registries "greed lists" since before I was a blushing bridegroom, but these have certainly changed.

Computers, and the ability to get the lists at home instead of only in the store, are part of it, but only part. The real change seems to be what's included.

We decided which store to hit and went over there forthwith. We found a set of casserole dishes that was on the list right away, but I wanted to add a little something else to the gift bag. "How about a corkscrew?" I suggested.

"They have one on their list, but that's not the right model number," Long Suffering Spouse responded, and looked again at the sheaf of papers in her hand. "And, besides, it's been 'fulfilled.'"


"They got it already."

"Oh." I looked around a little more. "Here's something no married couple should be without -- a rolling pin."

"It's not maple."

"Maple?" I asked.

"Yes," Long Suffering Spouse answered, consulting the list, "and it's not the right brand."

Now I can see that one can not have guests picking out china or flatware randomly. The bride and the groom have to select a pattern that they like. I can even understand that the bride and groom would be less than thrilled with appliances in assorted colors. But does a balloon whisk really have to be made by Kitchen Wiz? Does it really matter that the egg slicer be stock no. 23541 -- even when it bears an uncanny resemblance to the egg slicer listed as stock no. 23542?

Computers have made it too easy to list all sorts of nitpicky things. The happy couple might not really care if the Acme brand rubber spatula is substituted for the Uberkitchen brand. But who wants to take the risk?

The reason young men put up with wedding showers in the first place is that these are heaven-sent opportunities to acquire a lot of the "stuff" that the youngsters took for granted in their parents' homes. When a kid takes a shower at home, there's a towel. When a kid goes to sleep at night (even twenty-somethings sleep eventually) there are sheets on the bed. When someone needs a dish to put the leftovers in, there's one in the cabinet.

Though wedding showers are heaven-sent opportunities for the kids, the groom often has to go through the Other Place to achieve it. My wife's family had a "traditional" wedding shower when I was the groom. This was the cucumber sandwich, women-only, lots-of-ribbons-and-don't-you-dare-cut-one sort. The groom is trundled out at the end of these proceedings, ostensibly to rescue his bride from the hen party, but really to be inspected and patted and judged by the assembled womenfolk, some of whom are seeing him for the first time. Older female relatives pinch cheeks.

Long Suffering Spouse didn't much care for these types of gatherings either. When Older Daughter and Oldest Son married, we sponsored 'couples' showers. There was pizza and wine and beer and not a crustless bread triangle with an orange, gooey filling in sight. Our college friends chose to have a couples shower for their son, too, which was why I was along for the ride Saturday.

There wasn't any pizza Saturday -- this close to Cinco de Mayo, there was plenty of Corona and a pretty tasty buffet from a local Mexican restaurant. The party was in our hosts' backyard -- it being May, most people would not worry about frostbite. Life-long Chicagoans know better, however, and our hosts had thoughtfully procured a large tent and heaters. Long Suffering Spouse and I gravitated to the heaters forthwith.

The gift table was in our corner of the tent, too, and we were making book at our table about whether any of the tissue paper in the gift bags in front of the blowers might catch fire before the gifts could be opened (fortunately, this did not happen).

The gifts were in bags from Macy's and Target and Crate and Barrel -- all the places where the happy couple had established greed lists -- and it looks like they did very well indeed.

But not all of their requests were "fulfilled." And it's no wonder: At least, I can't imagine anyone buying a Playstation 3 as a shower or wedding gift -- and, yet, there it was on one of the greed lists. These kinds of devices certainly weren't on greed lists when I got married. (And not just because these kinds of devices hadn't been invented. I mean... there were TVs when I got married, but I don't remember anyone ever putting a TV on a wedding registry.)

I've been mulling this over all weekend now. Clearly, a Playstation 3 is not something essential to setting up housekeeping. But, then, neither are 12 place-settings of fine china. Yet, china would have been a perfectly acceptable gift.

Obviously, one or both of the happy couple enjoys games on Playstation. But whatever machine they have access to now must belong to someone else -- a parent, a roommate, a sibling. It would probably be used more than the fancy china.

So... having initially decided it was ridiculous and inappropriate, I now find myself torn. Is it appropriate for the bride and groom to request a Playstation 3 (or Wii or Xbox or whatever) or not? Readers, what say ye?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama dead -- but his death raises troubling questions

It is a cliche in Western movies. Someone, the grizzled old prospector perhaps, or the comely schoolmarm, must absolve the hero for shooting the bad guy down like a dog.

"If ever a man needed killin', that one did," the character would intone, and, as the end credits roll, the hero would begin to come to grips with the idea that, if what he'd done was evil, it was a necessary one.

"If ever a man needed killin', that one did" is as fitting an epitaph as any for Osama bin Laden. But I think President Obama overstated the case last night when he said that "justice" has been done.

As a lawyer, I can never agree that "justice" can be done with helicopters and Navy SEALs and firefights. But I'm not unhappy that bin Laden is dead.

Osama bin Laden -- architect of, or at least the inspiration for, 9/11 -- and one-time friend and ally of the United States -- is dead.

Or had you forgotten about bin Laden's past as our pal? Remember how the Soviets invaded Afghanistan? The United States couldn't do much about it at the time. Jimmy Carter forbade the U.S. Olympics Team from going to the Moscow Games in 1980. And we also backed "freedom fighters," like young Osama, who swarmed into Afghanistan via Peshawar, Pakistan to make jihad on those godless communists.

We Americans are too friendly. We want everyone to like us, even young Osama. But he didn't really like us; he just liked our money and weapons. First chance he got, he turned on us. When his native Saudi Arabia allowed American troops to assemble in that country in preparation for the liberation of Kuwait, the die was cast. The first bombing of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Cole, the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Al Qaeda, 9/11 all followed thereafter.

The circumstances of the weekend raid on Osama's secret fortress could make a thrilling adventure movie (though it probably will never be made because it is unlikely to do well overseas) but the raid itself carries serious implications for America's future.

Osama's secret hideaway was not in some remote mountain cave, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) or Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It was, we learn, only about 60 miles away from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, in
Abbottabad, a city of about 500,000, in a large and highly secured compound that, a resident of the city said, sits virtually adjacent to the grounds of a military academy. In an ironic twist, the academy was visited just last month by the Pakistani military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, where he proclaimed that Pakistan had “cracked” the forces of terrorism, an assessment that was greeted with skepticism in Washington.

In addition, the city hosts numerous Pakistani forces — three different regiments, and a unit of the Army Medical Corps. According to some reports, the compound and its elaborate walls and security gates may have been built specifically for the Qaeda leader in 2005, hardly an obscure undertaking in a part of the city that the resident described as highly secure.
Jane Perlez's article in the New York Times, from which the preceding snippet is taken, adds that it is "too soon to say whether Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad reflected Pakistani complicity or incompetence."

NPR posts an AP article this morning in which Pakistan's High Commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, insists that the country's authorities were not aware of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad:
"Had we known it we would have done it ourselves," Hasan told the BBC. "The fact is that the Americans knew it and they carried out the operation themselves and they killed Osama bin Laden and then later our president of Pakistan was informed that the operation was successful, and that's it."
Stop right there.

The United States launched a military operation on the sovereign territory of a nation which is a supposed friend and ally of the United States without prior permission?

Another AP article, by Kimberly Dozier and David Espo, posted this morning on Yahoo! News, stresses that, in his statement last night, President Obama said that "it was 'important to note that our counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.'" But, here again, Dozier and Espo note that President Obama called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari after the raid.

This is troubling on at least two levels. First, friends don't invade friends. Sending military units into another country without the permission of that country's government is called an invasion. Maybe even a sneak attack.

Second, and also obviously, we must not think Pakistan is much of a friend. Clearly we didn't seek Pakistan's permission for the raid because we must have believed that someone high up in the Pakistani government would have warned Osama. Our dear friend would have told our most hated enemy that the heat was on.

On that level, it doesn't matter whether Pakistan was protecting Osama as a specific government policy or whether the Pakistani government is so impotent that it can't ferret out people high up in government circles who were shielding Osama: If we asked for permission, Osama would not have been there when we arrived.

Of course, on another level, it matters a lot whether the Pakistani government is duplicitous or merely weak: They have nuclear weapons.

I tried to explain all this to Youngest Son this morning. He's 18. There's a reason why every nation taps its 18-year olds to fight its wars: Everything is so black and white.

Youngest Son had no doubts about Osama's demise whatsoever. After I explained, he said, "What are you? Afraid that Al Qaeda will retaliate?"

"No," I said, sadly. "Although that will happen anyway." Our enemies will not be deterred by Osama's death, even if a few of the more self-aware ones will look over their shoulders nervously just a bit more today than yesterday. But what about everyone else?